2022 marks 100 years since fascism first came into power.(1) At the end of October, 1922, King Victor Emmanuel III ceded the Prime Ministership of Italy to Benito Mussolini, the head of the National Fascist Party, effectively passing political power on to the fascists.
Italian fascism began as a motley nationalist movement, with few definitive left or right features, united only in its support for Italy entering the First World War.
In the aftermath of the war, the fascist movement was shaped as a reaction to the development of a revolutionary left. With industrial workers occupying factories, rural workers rebelling against landowners, and revolutionary socialists vying for leadership of the workers’ movement, Italian capitalists and big landowners struck a deal with the fascisti to serve as a paramilitary assault force– squadristi— against the revolutionary left. The Bolshevik Revolution, as a recent historic social cataclysm, loomed over Italian elites, conjuring their worst nightmare.
Without the conjunction of a successful socialist revolution in a major country, a militant working class inspired by the example, and a ruling class desperate to forestall a Bolshevik-like revolution, Italian fascism might have remained a minor cult, dissipating with the restoration of a stable post-war liberal order.
No doubt the rich and powerful of Italy thought that they could use the fascists for their own purposes. But they were willing to deliver political power to the fascists and allow them to restructure the state for the prize of eliminating the revolutionary threat.
It was this desperate fear of both the reordering of property relations and the destruction of class dominance that created the unique moment in 1922 when fascism went from a movement to a political party to a ruling order.
And it was this historically new fusion of capital and other forms of property with a uniquely modern absolutism, nationalism, and populism that defined Italian fascism after 1922.
Of course, there were ultra-right, ultra-nationalist movements before the rise of fascism.
In France, for example, after the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of the Paris Commune, many French elites sought a restoration of France’s “glory.” The burst of nationalism took many forms: revanchism (or revenge on Germany), anti-Semitism (blaming Jews for the tarnished “glory”), Bonapartism (the demand for a strong leader), and monarchism (the restoration of the monarchy).
The movement to restore an imagined glorious France coalesced around a military leader named Georges Ernest Boulanger, noted for his persistent devotion to going to war with Germany and settling accounts. Boulangisme thrived for a few years, adding elements of populism to its nationalist agenda, even attracting many former leftists.
Superficially, Boulangisme resembles later fascist movements, and a few bourgeois historians see it as such. But it lacked the two vital features that are characteristic of fascism and its time. First, there was no imminent anti-capitalist revolutionary threat posed to the existing order demanding a ruling class reaction. And second, the ruling class perceived no existential danger sufficient to discard republicanism– bourgeois democracy.
In January of 1889, Boulanger’s opportunity arose, but his hesitation and the opposition of most of the ruling class and its agency thwarted a coup.
It is instructive that Boulangisme has gone down in history as a footnote to the nineteenth century.
The Bolshevik revolution and the rise of revolutionary Communist and Workers’ Parties created the conditions for an extremist movement like National Fascism in Italy to be adopted by the Italian ruling class, while the Boulangisme movement is lost to historical obscurity. Reaction becomes fascism only when revolutionary socialism mounts an existential threat to capitalism.
The rise of Nazism fully underscores this dynamic that we came to generically call “fascism.” The rise of ultra-nationalist, revanchist sects led by World War I veterans was commonplace in post-war Germany. The Nazi phenomenon competed successfully in rising above others with its audacity and a significant element of populism captured in its name: national socialism.
As in Italy, the rise of Communism inspired some capitalists, including a group of leading industrialists, to sponsor Nazism’s activity as a hedge against an aroused working class and the prospect of revolution. Until the Great Depression struck Germany, its rulers successfully suppressed the Nazi Party (the party was banned and Hitler imprisoned in its effort to copy Italian fascism’s insurrectionary march on Rome) and the party received less than 3% of the vote in the 1928 federal election.
But the economic downturn stressed the German bourgeois parties that had no answer to the economic collapse, to the ensuing unemployment and worker militancy, and to a Communist Party growing in size and influence.
The Nazi Party, drawing greater support from a desperate ruling class and a déclassé petty bourgeoisie, was seen as a bulwark against revolution. As desperation rose, the bourgeois parties threw their support behind an aging ultra-nationalist former general friendly to Hitler, Erich von Hindenburg, electing him president of the republic.
It was only a matter of time before Hindenburg, no friend of republicanism, would hand the chancellorship to Hitler, following the example of the Italian king.
These two European examples of the rise of ultra-nationalist “saviors” of bourgeois rule constitute the template of classical fascism. Throughout Europe in the inter-war period, other responses to the revolutionary left led to other extreme-right regimes defending the ruling elites against an ascendant workers’ movement. Such rightist movements were led by Bonapartist figures like Mannerheim, Pilsudski, Horthy, Salazar, and Franco. While none follow strictly the route to power or the character of rule of classical fascism, they share the essential feature of defending bourgeois rule against the revolutionary left while disposing of bourgeois democracy to ensure their success.
Whether one chooses to call Francoism (1939-1975 in Spain) or Pinochetism (1973-1990 in Chile) “fascist” or “quasi-fascist” is a quibble, since they both share with classical fascism the destruction of bourgeois democracy in response to the perceived threat to the capitalist order.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union and the decline or dissolution of mass Communist Parties in most countries, ruling classes have neither sought nor supported the overthrow of bourgeois democracy because of an existential threat from the left. Nonetheless, a broad spectrum of leaders and commentators from right to left have attached the term “fascist” to other political figures or movements. In the extreme, “fascist” or “fascism” has simply become an epithet to demonize an opponent.
More subtly, “fascism” is said to be a right-wing, nationalist, and/or racist movement resembling some of the features of some of the fascist movements of the twentieth century. This approach is especially common with academics, liberals, center-left politicians, or others who refuse to concede the critical place of anti-Bolshevik, anti-Communist ideology at the core of classical fascist thinking and its operational utility in garnering the sponsorship of the bourgeoisie.
Typically, theoreticians– academic and otherwise– develop a checklist of features distilled from a superficial examination of Nazism ripped from its historical context. Chauvinism, political violence, conservative social values, a cult of personality, etc., are all contingent features of historical fascism; but none alone or taken together were incompatible with or absent from the preceding Weimar Republic or other prior historical eras that witnessed the rise of ultra-nationalist movements. It was the fear of revolution and a compliant bourgeois ruling order that served as the necessary elements to bring fascism to power.
Of course, it is important to recognize as extremely dangerous the nostalgia for historical fascism, as exhibited by the American Nazi Party, the National Socialist White Peoples’ Party, and the many other US “Nazi” organizations that have been spun off. In the same way, the current Ukrainian cult around 20th-century fascist Stepan Bandera is extremely dangerous. With the passage of time distancing the Ukrainian people from the sordid history of the OUN and Nazi collaboration, the promotion of ultra-nationalist groups by opportunist politicians and Western interventionists is not only dangerous, but criminal. They will occupy the same place in hell reserved for the US, NATO, and Israeli imperialists that unleashed fanatical, ultra-conservative jihadists on the world.
Misunderstanding fascism, its origins, and its logic can disable the left. Western leftists have drawn lessons– both good and bad– from the united, anti-fascist front adopted by the Communist International in the mid-1930s.
Communists then understood the nature of fascism, connecting it to the vulnerability of capitalism and its goal: “…to bury Marxism, the revolutionary movement of the working class…”. Led by the veteran anti-fascist Georgi Dimitrov, Communists resolved to put aside differences with other working-class organizations– principally social democracy– to combat the threat from fascism and the growing danger of world war. This became an elastic tactic, expanding to advocate unity with any non-working-class elements who stood staunchly against fascism:
…when the scattered proletarian detachments, at the initiative of the Communists, join hands for the struggle against the common enemy, when the working class, marching as a unit, begins to act together with the peasantry, the lower middle classes and all democratic elements, on the basis of the People’s Front program, then the offensive of the fascist bourgeoisie is confronted with an insurmountable barrier. (Dimitrov, G., Against Fascism and War, p. 103)
It is clear from this excerpt from Dimitrov’s essay People’s Front that a popular front is broad, indeed. But it is also clear that it is defensive and tactical, meant to stave off the fascist threat.
Yet, Dimitrov also intimates in other passages that the United Front tactic may be a transitional form leading to overthrowing capitalism and a corrective to Communist isolation from the masses.
It was this ambiguity that carried over into the post-World War II era and led many Communist and Workers’ Parties to adopt popular frontism as a strategic approach or as a stage in the transition to socialism. Whether it took the form of an anti-monopoly front or party, a broad labor party, or opportunistically, a “historical compromise” or “Common Program” with bourgeois parties, like the strategy of the self-destructed Italian Communist Party or the now nearly spent French Communist Party, popular frontism became a widely accepted strategy, especially with the Western left. The debate over this strategy continues to this day within the Communist movement.
But it was the application of the united-front tactic against fascism that has proven most problematic since the decline of the social democratic left and the rise of a new fundamentalist right after the economic crisis of the 1970s. In the US and the UK, Reagan and Thatcher were the embodiment of the right turn toward ultra-nationalism, chauvinism, vulgar individualism, deregulation and privatization. Given the gains made by the socialist countries, the victory in Indochina, the growing popularity of socialism in emerging countries, and even a revolution in the West (Portugal), some sensed a “whiff of fascism” in this rightward turn, a right reaction to a growing threat from the left.
After the fall of the Soviet Union– the bulwark of socialism– and the accompanying disarray of the Communist Parties, the rightward turn accelerated, realigning the Western bourgeois political parties. New Democrats, New Labor, New Social Democrats moved farther right to accommodate the rightward turn, rather than fight it.
Rather than rebuilding a vital left around the interests of working people, rather than standing apart from the rightward drift, rather than filling the void left by the capitulation of the tradition center-left, many leftists painted the right as fascist, seemingly justifying laying the socialist project aside and joining with the bourgeois parties in defeating the most extreme elements of the right. The historic left project of defeating capitalism and replacing it with a peoples’ economy was to be deferred until the right (the fascist right!) was dead and buried. This was sold as revisiting the 1930s United Front against Fascism.
With the rise of right-wing populist parties and toxic personalities like Orban, Trump, and Johnson, the “fight against fascism” reached its zenith. Much of the twenty-first-century reshuffled left embraced electoral alliances with bourgeois institutions and political parties against right-wing populism under the banner of uniting against the right. In every case, this strategy helped entrench insipid center-right politicians at a moment of political crisis and growing popular anger and alienation.
This analysis and strategy are wrong on many accounts.
Most importantly, it misrepresents fascism, ripping the ideology from its historical roots founded in a desperate life-and-death struggle with the revolutionary left. Today’s left is far remote from posing an existential challenge to the capitalist system and will remain so if it continues to organize against the phantasm of an imminent fascist threat.
Secondly, the current iteration of bourgeois democracy has been corrupted and drained of democratic content to the extent that while it presents a formidable obstacle to any popular revolutionary surge, it is a well-oiled pathway for the dictates of ensconced ruling classes. That is not to deny that all the bourgeois factions engaged in the electoral game “play” the system to retain power with little regard for the procedural “rules” heralded by bourgeois democratic institutions. It is not necessary to discard bourgeois democracy to thwart change in our corrupted political environment.
Thirdly, the populist right has made no serious effort to create the kind of ideologically-bound squadrista typical of historical fascism. As Diana Johnstone wrote recently in response to the charge that Marine Le Pen, the French right-wing populist, would “confiscate power” and never give it up:
And how would she do that? Her party is not very strong and entirely based on electoral politics. There is no militia organized to use force for political purposes (as in the case of real historic fascists). There are plenty of counter-powers in France, including political parties, hostile media, a largely left-leaning magistrature, the armed forces (linked to NATO), big business and finance which have never supported Le Pen, the entertainment industry, etc., etc.
No one could seriously compare the disorganized, fumbling crew that made an unwelcome visit to the Capitol on January 6, 2021 to the organized, disciplined 30,000 Blackshirts who marched on Rome a hundred years ago.
The exaggerated “threat of fascism” reflects a lack of confidence that the people of the advanced capitalist countries will embrace true, qualitative, revolutionary changes, that the anti-capitalist left can compete for the loyalty, votes, and actions of working people. Instead of building a bold movement for socialism, the timid, despairing left chooses an unrequited affair with center forces in a quixotic struggle against a far-off, hazy foe.
This is not to minimize the harm that the unrelenting rightward march of the bourgeois parties in the advanced capitalist countries has brought on working people over many decades. But that rightward push must be met in the battleground of ideas with bold, aggressive proposals that go beyond a rear-guard defense; it must advance the interests of working people; and it must provide a vision beyond the resignation that there is no alternative to the tune-up of a bankrupt capitalist system.
If we win working people to such a vision, a day will undoubtedly come when we will truly encounter the ugly face of fascism.
(1) For an entertaining, but remarkably sophisticated account of the rise of fascism and its logic, there is nothing better than to watch Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, 1900. This 5 ½ hour epic captures the class dynamics from Italian fascism’s roots to its defeat in 1944. Forgive the silly historical compromise ending that Bertolucci undoubtedly developed from the Italian Communist Party’s 1976 program.
This article was republished from Marxism-Leninism Today.