Fascism: Its cause and mission

Everyone’s a fascist!

“It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.”

Used carelessly, as George Orwell complained above, fascism risks being stripped of all meaning and reduced to a mere term of abuse.

We’ve witnessed the rise and proliferation of figures and parties, such as Donald Trump in the US, UKIP in the UK, Front National in France and Austria’s Freedom Party. All have made free use of racial caricatures, anti-immigration and nationalist rhetoric.

All of these are accused of being fascist but which, if any, actually compare with the classic form of the fascism of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar of the 1930s?

Which leads us to ask three questions:

  1. What is fascism?
  2. Are the current right wing movements fascist?
  3. What is fascism’s chances of success?

History does show us that fascism poses a lethal danger to political opponents, racial and religious minorities so these questions are not academic, the answers can be the difference between success or a crushing defeat at the hands of fascism.

What is fascism?

Nuremberg Rally
1934 Nuremberg Rally

A frustrated George Orwell also remarked that there were no clear definition of fascism, although unfortunately he made no attempt at it himself:

“But Fascism is also a political and economic system. Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it? Alas! we shall not get one — not yet, anyway. To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make. All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.”

There have been many attempts to define fascism but contemporaries Winston Churchill and Leon Trotsky between them expressed the most coherent and elegant views.

Winston Churchill, in his article ‘The Ebbing Tide of Socialism‘, wrote the importance of democracy for containing and moderating class warfare:

“The massive common sense of the only long-trained democracy – apart from the United States – has established a spacious and predominant middle zone within which the class adjustments of the nation can be fought out, and from which the extremists at both ends are excluded.”

Elsewhere Churchill detailed the circumstances where fascism succeeds by explaining Oswald Mosley Blackshirts failure to reach the same heights as their continental peers:

“…So also have been reduced to impotence and ridicule the Nazi conceptions of Sir Oswald Mosley. He had built his hopes upon the Socialist or Communist menace, and in all probability he would have risen in opposition to it. But at the present time it does not exist. The failure of the red-hot men of the Left has involved a simultaneous failure of the white-hot men of the Right.”

Trotsky in ‘FASCISM What It Is and How To Fight It ‘ succinctly summed up fascism:

“The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.”

In essence, albeit from different class viewpoints, Trotsky and Churchill agreed that fascism’s role was as a weapon against revolution, or as Churchill labelled it, the “Socialist or Communist menace”.

Conditions for 20th century fascism

The interwar years were characterised by social upheavals and civil war. The crisis faced by capitalism was further exacerbated by the 1929 crash which triggered the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Some of the conditions that led to the rise of 20th century fascism in Europe can be summarised as follows.

Germany suffered convulsions in the early 1920s arising from hyper-inflation and the costly conditions of the Treaty of Versailles.

The Great Depression dealt Germany a further body blow. With its reliance on foreign capital and exports, workers suffered mass unemployment and the middle classes were pauperised as bank failures wiped out their savings.

Italian fascism found success earlier than their German counterparts. 1920s Italy began with waves of working class militancy involving factory occupations and general strikes. On occasions the state was rendered powerless as sympathetic workers prevented transport of troops who were drafted in as strike breakers.

Mussolini and Hitler
Mussolini and Hitler

Mussolini’s fascists’ base of support was land owners, small tenant farmers and share croppers threatened by a radical peasantry (braccianti) and fearful of expropriations by a socialist state.

The fascist regimes of Italy and Germany were the first capitalist economies to carry out a major privatisation programme of state assets. This was done as an attempt to win the support of large-scale industrialists.

Spain and Portugal experienced coups and upheavals but in the case of Spain the Fascists won power after victory in the Spanish Civil War.

Both countries were relatively economically backward with still sizeable middle classes made up of civil servants, military and small business owners. In Portugal in the 1960s for instance, they were still 27% of the population.

Social basis of fascist support

Dick Geary, in his work ‘Who voted for the Nazis?[1], points to the vital support from the ruined middle (Mittelstand) classes of small business owners, the self employed and artisans:[2]

“For many years the Nazi movement was seen as a political response of the German Mittelstand (lower middle class) of small businessmen, independent artisans, small shopkeepers and the self-employed, to the threats coming from big business and large retail stores, from the trade unions, the SPD and the KPD, and from increased government interference and taxes to pay for Weimar’s burgeoning welfare state. In many respects it was such a response — in its combination of anti-socialist and anti-big business rhetoric, and in its social support. The lower middle class of Germany’s Protestant[3] towns did constitute the hard-core of Nazi support and were over-represented in the membership of the NSDAP.”

South African born Trotskyist Ted Grant reflecting on this, wrote just after the war:

“To combat the working class it is not possible for the capitalists to rely only on the old forces of repression embodied in the state machine. In modern conditions no state can last very long which does not, at least in its initial stages, possess a mass basis. A military police dictatorship does not serve the purpose. The capitalists find a way out in fascism which finds its mass support in the middle class on the basis of anti-capitalist demagogy. It is important to understand that fascism represents a mass movement: that of the disillusioned middle class.”

The fascist checklist

From our examination of the conditions that drive the rise of fascism we can derive four preconditions.

  1. Sustained periods of social and revolutionary upheaval that have failed to complete its task of overthrowing capitalism.
  2. A ruined middle class rapidly vacillating between left and right desperate for a way out of their predicament.
  3. The ruling class is weakened and unable to continue to rule in the same way. The traditional tools of maintaining the capitalist system, both intellectual and coercive, have become degraded. Intellectually the political classes, the intelligentsia and the media are discredited. Their political parties, usually conservative or liberal, and their ideological allies in other parties are decimated. The coercive forces, the police, courts, army are unreliable or overwhelmed by the revolutionary tide.
  4. A political force that is able to base itself on and in the ruined middle classes and other backward elements of society.

Are the current right wing movements fascist?

Though there are a myriad of right-wing movements espousing the language of fascism, this doesn’t necessarily make them fascist in the classic sense that we’ve outlined so far. They are indeed extremely unpleasant in their vitriol whether it be anti-Semitic, Islamophobia or any other form of hatred.

The common strands in the programmes of fascist organisations are nationalism, racial or cultural homogeneity, anti trades union, anti big business and pro small business.

Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen, Front National

The Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, is an example. The Front National is the most mature and sophisticated fascist party in Europe so it’s worth a look at their programme. Their manifesto reveals a text book exercise in appealing to the middle classes in particular, workers and those on fixed incomes with the language of nationalism, anti big business and conservatism. The 2012 manifesto contains many examples including:

Increased purchasing power funded by import taxes, reductions in energy, fuel and rail charges. Pensions are to be raised. The excesses of finance capital are addressed with a commitment to part nationalise them to clean them up. Reducing regulation and prioritising rural small businesses in planning and small businesses in general to enjoy a favourable tax regime. Nationalism and xenophobia is fed with commitments to expelling all illegal immigrants and demonstrating in their support will be outlawed. There’s a call for French jobs for French workers under an expanded list of ‘sovereignty’ jobs. Conservatism is catered for with the introduction of the death penalty, more prisons, tougher sentences. The socially conservative view of the traditional family unit is reinforced along with opposition to equal marriage rights for gay people.

Right-wing populists, despite the noise, are enthusiastic advocates for big business interests. They support tax cuts for the rich, cuts in welfare programmes, privatised health care and education. UKIP in their 2015 election manifesto committed themselves to the Conservatives economic programme of austerity. The disadvantage of this support for big business is that it results in a narrow social base and provides for fluctuating fortunes. This, combined with a backdrop of heightened crisis, could be a motor for pushing these groups towards a platform of fascism.

Have there been any fascist regimes since Hitler?

To take the examples of Pinochet’s Chile and Sisi’s Egypt, superficially they appear the same in their use of repression and anti-working class measures. Sisi’s regime openly encourages xenophobia as a cover for his failures. But did they succeed in the task of obliterating the working class organisations?

Clearly not, although under severe pressure these organisations survived and continued their opposition. Countries like these are in the main poorly developed and corrupt. The indigenous capitalist class, being at the beck and call of more powerful global and regional capitalist powers, are too weak and lack the necessary social forces to deal a decisive blow against organised labour. Instead we see the interventions of the military usually by coup d’état, but as Ted Grant says above “A military police dictatorship does not serve the purpose”. These regimes balance between the classes acting as arbitrators while ultimately defending capitalism[4].

Can fascism win power?

This question assumes great importance in light of the possibility of Front National doing better than the polls predict for the French Presidential elections in 2017.

Taking the four preconditions developed above and though some elements may be discernible they are in embryonic form and far from maturity. While there is growing polarisation and volatility in the west it is not yet facing a revolutionary challenge or undergoing a process of strength sapping social upheavals as it did in the 1920s and 1930s.

edl fascists
Fascism drawing on support from the ‘lumpenproletariat’

Nearly all western countries have fascist parties, of them the Front National in France and Austria’s Freedom Party which scored over 46% in the recent presidential election, are the most significant. Elsewhere they exist on the fringes, their membership are mostly lumpenproletariat in composition.

Socio-economic changes in the social base

The part played by the ruined middle classes in the success of fascism in the 1930s by providing a mass base of support is a well known and documented phenomena. However, this demographic has been profoundly affected by socio-economic changes since the interwar years. Agricultural populations and employment have declined due to the process of urbanisation leading to a change in the character of the middle classes. There has been a dramatic reduction in the weight of the rural petite bourgeoisie in particular.

There are large numbers of small businesses and small employers in the industrialised world but do these constitute a modern day social base of support for fascism?

Lord Young in his 2015 report on small firms was pleased to report their increased numbers in the UK. But what the report failed to highlight was the number of non-employing businesses. In 2016, of 5.5 million businesses in the UK, 76% were non-employing. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy reported that; “The majority of population growth since 2000 has been due to non-employing businesses, which accounted for 89% of the overall increase.”

In the US the trend is different where there was a period of decline in the numbers of self-employed but they still represent significant numbers of small firms.

Research by John Kitching of Kingston University, “Tracking UK Freelance Workforce Trends 1992-2014”, looked at the trends of freelance/self-employed workers in the UK. He found that the self-employed work force had grown substantially between 1992 and 2014. In a telling analysis he shows how this section of the population has developed as a consequence of industrial and public policy:

“The privatisation programme of the 1980s led to a shift of jobs from the public to the private sector. Reforms in the regulation of public service broadcasting, for instance, generated changes in industrial structure and contractual arrangements, leading to a proliferation of small production and service companies, many of them single-person, freelance operators …Changes in public sector employment practices might also exert an indirect influence on freelancing by encouraging professionals to quit their jobs and take up freelancing …Recent cuts in public expenditure to reduce the national debt have also coincided with the significant expansion of own-account working.”

Many of the non-employing self-employed are integrated into the work forces of larger organisations and as John Kitching observed, there are also those who have been forced into self-employment as a result of government austerity programmes.

Further work is merited in this area, but with similar demographic changes across the advanced economies it is not clear whether there is a sufficient social base for fascism to succeed.

Fascists neutered in power

This raises the possibility of fascist parties coming to power but being neutered in their task by a lack of a mass social base. Of being unable to enact the pro small business part of their programme at the expense of big business and unable to deal a decisive blow against working class organisations. Given this, the fascist party in power would be little more than an ultra-right tool of big business.

Vigilance and clarity

All right-wing populist and fascist parties are primarily and profoundly anti-working class, in particular its representative organisations. However the rise of German fascism was also facilitated in part by the disastrous theory of Social Fascism peddled by the Communist Party, where they claimed social democracy was a variant of fascism. This teaches us the valuable lesson of clarity, of being clear on the nature, the purpose and motivation of fascists and the danger they pose.

The careless use of fascism as a lose term of insult seems harmless enough. But it carries the danger of undermining the understanding of fascism necessary to combat it, and risks repeating the tragedy of 1930s Germany where the working class was divided and crushed by the Nazis.

Just as vicious as their predecessors

Ebensee Concentration Camp
Ebensee concentration camp prisoners 1945

Modern fascists have put a lot of effort into making themselves look respectable and media friendly, but scratch beneath the surface and look at their programmes and listen to their utterances and there is no doubt they are every bit as vicious as their 1930s predecessors.

Gary Hollands – December 15th 2016

Notes and references

1. It’s worth quoting at length this examination of where the Nazis were less successful in drawing support: “There can be no doubt that the NSDAP recruited across a broad social spectrum. However, its support was not random. We have already noted the over-representation of Protestants, rural areas and small provincial towns, as well as of the Mittelstand, in Nazi support and there was a similar structure to the movement’s working-class constituency. The working class, however, was under-represented in the Nazi ranks when compared to the German population as a whole.

The working-class presence among those who voted for Hitler can be made to correlate positively with the proportion of working classes in the electorate as a whole only when foremen, daily helps, workers in domestic industry and, significantly, agricultural labourers are included in the definition of working class. When rural labourers (who inhabited a world quite different to that of the city dweller and factory employee, often paid in kind or subject to landlord pressure) are removed from the equation, a slight negative correlation arises between Nazi support and working-class presence. And if workers in craft (as distinct from factory) sectors are also removed from the equation, the correlation becomes even more negative. It is negative, too, in the large cities where, the closer we look at the factory working class, the lower the percentage support for the NSDAP becomes.

Furthermore, only 13 per cent of the unemployed — who comprised some 30 per cent of the manual working class in the middle of 1932 and who were over whelmingly concentrated in the big cities and in large-scale manufacture — supported the National Socialists. It therefore is clear that, although large numbers of workers did vote Nazi, these were not in the main from the classic socialist or communist milieux, rooted as these were in the large cities and in employees in the secondary sector of the economy. If the number of workers in this sector plus the unemployed is correlated with electoral support for the NSDAP, the result is clearly even more negative.”

2. From Alpha history a description of the impact of hyperinflation on the middle classes: “There were winners and losers from the 1923 hyperinflation. The worst affected were those of the Mittelstand (middle class) who relied on investments, savings or incomes from pensions or rents. In 1921 a family with 100,000 marks in savings would have been considered wealthy – but within two years it would not be enough for a cup of coffee.”

Eric D. Weitz Weimar described the impact of hyperinflation on workers conditions in ‘Germany: Promise and Tragedy’ page 143, “By spring 1924, the pre-war work shift, twelve hours in the factories and eight and a half hours in the mines, had been re-established. Employers also won greater freedom to fire workers at will and to ignore labour representation in the workplace. The crisis of hyperinflation enabled business to destroy – not totally, but to a significant degree – the social measures it had reluctantly conceded in 1918-19.”

3. John O’Loughlin in his work ‘The Electoral Geography of Weimar Germany‘ also observed: “Until 1928, the NSDAP aimed its platform at blue-collar workers, but it had unexpected success in rural areas. Thereafter, the NSDAP targeted farmers, skilled workers, shopkeepers and civil servants, following a lower-middle class strategy that was bolstered by strong support for private property.”

4. This is the ‘Bonapartist‘ state which Marx first observed in Louis Bonaparte’s regime which was established by a coup in December 1851.

Further reading:

“The Creeds of the Devil”: Churchill between the Two Totalitarianisms, 1917-1945 Part one, Part two and Part three

A detailed look at the evolution of three right wing populist and fascist organisations: The Danish People’s Party, the Italian Northern League and the Austrian Freedom Party in a Comparative Perspective: Party Ideology and Electoral Support

Persecution of the Jews by the Nazis, accounts collated by John L. Heineman: Documents on the Jews and the Third Reich: 1933-1938 Chapter VI

The process of German urbanisation: Heights and Living Standards in Germany, 1850-1939: The Case of Wurttemberg – Page 289

A look at the voter demographics: The social bases of political cleavages in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933.

European Union Statistical Factsheet 2016.

UK Small business statistics

Business population estimates 2014, 2015 and 2016.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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