The term fascism has become used as a form of emotionally charged description for actions and attitudes which are seen as authoritarian and damaging to ordinary people. Fascist police, fascist ticket wardens, fascistic employers, fascist pig are expletives, among many others, that have been bandied about over a number of decades. It has also been applied as a descriptive term to politicians such as George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher etc. Now Trump, Farage and others. However, as right-wing, prejudiced and self-serving as these politicians were, (and are) are any of these instances (and many countless others) really an accurate use of the term ‘fascism’? And if not, is not its misuse becoming part of a wider form of social-democratic inspired distraction from the underlying economic crisis now facing working people?
For in 2016 and 2017, it became obvious that what remains of the liberal and neo-liberal establishment started throwing their toys out of the pram and foaming at the mouth as the more radical left and the radical right gain the political ground that they think is theirs by hereditary succession. They only see dull-witted racists and fascism whenever they encounter serious challenges to their hegemony. Using one-sided manipulations and distortions of reality (amplified by the media) they try to frighten people into supporting their failed agenda and threatened careers. Jeremy Corbin in the UK was smeared as an anti-semite and closet communist, Donald Trump in the US as a fascist. Do such emotionally charged uses really help us understand what fascism is, why it came into being and how it came to dominate certain countries in the 20th century? I suggest it doesn’t. And do we not need a more sober analysis of fascism in order to really judge whether it is likely to succeed in the 21st century? I suggest we do.
There is an extensive literature on the topic of ‘fascism’ from a historical, sociological and even psychological perspective, so to deal adequately with all that material would require far more space than an article such as this. Instead I shall use what is perhaps one of the most clear descriptions of what fascism is and what it stands for from one of its most fervent and original exponants. I refer to Benito Mussolini, who actually gained control of a European nation state – Italy – and published a document in his name entitled ‘The Doctrine of Fascism’. I propose that this one source will not only provide a concise and coherent definition but it will also provide us with more than this. It will allow us to form a conceptual template with which to judge to what extent other authoritarian forms of governance can be classed as fascist.
What is fascism really?
“Fascism, in short, is not only a law-giver and a founder of institutions, but an educator and promoter of spiritual life. It aims at refashioning not only the forms of life but their content – man, his character,and his faith. To achieve this purpose it enforces discipline and uses authority, entering into the soul and ruling with undisputed sway.” (‘The Doctrine of Fascism’. Mussolini.)
This extract makes it clear that Fascists desire a form of totalitarian governance. They seek to inform and rule societies over the full range of human activites, economic, political, and social. This full spectrum domination includes, education, leisure, and even spiritual beliefs. Because a total control of what people do and what they think is difficult to achieve by persuasion, the Fascist mindset recognises that they will need to use force. They aim to achieve an undisputed authoritarian sway over nations and govern by using force and disciplinary measures to achieve this extreme state of socio-economic unity. Another important platform of the Fascist programme is the abolition of any trace of democratic forms which would undoubtedly interfere with their plans. For example;
“Fascism denies that numbers, as such, can be the determining factor in human society: it denies the right of numbers to govern by means of periodical consultations.”(ibid ‘The Doctrine of Fascism’.)
This proposal to abolish parliamentary and other forms of democratic consultations is not as scary a proposal for many (perhaps even a majority of) working class citizens as it is for the middle-class and the capitalist class. The reason is simple. The bourgeois forms of representative democracy are little more than a series of tightly controlled oligarchies dedicated to responding to the requirements of capital in its need to exploit labour. The bulk of the working class are far removed from economic and political power and rarely see it wielded for their own benefit. The pyramidal division of labour within the economic sphere of life; capitalists – managers – workers is also the model for the capitalist state; Prime Ministers (or Presidents) – Parliamentarians (or Congressmen) and state bureaucrats – citizens. Itĺis a similar hierarchical pattern which arises in political parties.
Even the left and so-called revolutionary parties conform to this hierarchical pattern of – leaders – executive committees – members. Here too party leaders are invariably chosen by an inner circle (formal or informal), presented to the broader party membership for acceptance or rejection before being presented to the electorate in the best possible light. The masses are the last to be consulted in terms of who is to govern them and have little or no say in the policies they pursue. In other words democracy everywhere under the capitalist mode of production is already but a few steps away from a full – blown authoritarian oligarchy in both party political forms and in state forms. It only requires the elimination of internal party or civilian rights for bourgeois democractic forms to become so. That, however, is a difficult and dangerous step to take, yet as we shall see, Fascism once managed to bring this about. Meanwhile;
“The Fascist state lays claim to rule in the economic field no less than in others; it makes its action felt throughout the length and breadth of the country by means of its corporate, social and educational institutions, and all the political, economic, and spiritual forces of the nation, organised in their respective associations, circulate within the state.” (ibid ‘The Doctrine of Fascism’.)
Fascists, no less than any other political trend, recognise the necessity of economic production both for feeding, clothing and housing the nation they seek to govern – including themselves – but they also recognise more. There is a clear realisation within Fascist thinking that the owners of the means of production and the means of exchange cannot be allowed to make their own decisions of how, where and what to produce. This is because such decisions may not conform to the Fascist visions of how a nation should function. Logic, from this fascist perspective requires a form of state-dictated capitalism. Hence;
“The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value.” (ibid ‘The Doctrine of Fascism’.)
It is obvious that as yet no sizable political party or movement subscribes to any of the above four core values of fascism or any of the other similar totalitarian principles in other fascist documents.
How did Fascism win power?
If we consider the last time fascism became a serious totalitarian political form (1920’s to 1930’s) it was also during a period of extreme and sustained economic, social and political crisis. And part of its attraction was the promise of jobs;
“Into this desperate situation, the Nazis appeared under the guise of the National Socialist German Workers Party with a promise of jobs for the unemployed and relief for the impoverished.” (Life in the Third Reich: Paul Roland. Chapter 1.)
Despite the much publicised horrors of Italian, German and Spanish Fascism in the early 20th century, there are still a minority who admire it and would undoubtedly like to replicate it in the 21st. However, there is no automatic guarantee that a group of fascist minded individuals will become a sufficiently large force to create a fascist political party or eventually threaten humanity with yet another world war. Indeed, there was no such guarantee of success before the full horrors became widely known in the 1940’s. The success of a totalitarian party in gaining sufficient power over a nation to inflict it’s fascistic programme on suffering humanity was dependent upon three broad areas of socio-political developments.
First it has to be diligently and persistently worked for by an organised group wedded to the Fascist ideology and practice. Second, it requires a significant section of the ruling capitalist and pro-capitalist elite to begin to support and fund such a party or movement. This they do when they think that this is the only way to save the privileged economic and social system they administer. Thirdly, it is necessary that those who oppose such a development, the vast majority, through faulty analysis and divisive tactics are sufficiently weakened to effectively oppose it. Let us consider these three areas of potential concern in turn.
Organised Fascist groups.
There are many right-wing groups which are racist and nationalist, but as yet there are few, if any, which advocate the spectrum of fascist beliefs and principles noted above. Whilst it is true that the 20th century European brands of Fascism, did not start off with the full fascist programme, there are also many differences between then and now. For a start, before the 1920’s there hadn’t been, within recent history, a popular movement which perpetrated such genocidal crimes as those perpetrated by Franco, Hitler and Mussolini brands of Fascism. Most of the world now knows what full spectrum Fascist dominance can lead to and this should hinder if not prevent the development of a new fascist movement. Secondly, in the cases of the Germany and Italy in the 20th century, the prime movers of the movement had been former socialists and large numbers of former socialists had joined their ranks. Of these two examples, the German example, as we have seen, embodied this concept into its party title – National Socialists. There is no such massive development of so-called ‘national socialist’ thinking in the 21st century.
The capitalist and pro-capitalist elite.
Whilst it is also undoubtedly true that if their system was sufficiently threatened, many among the 21st century capitalist and pro-capitalist elite would be happy to turn to a strong authoritarian leader, it is unlikely that the 1930’s system of Fascism would be resurrected or replicated. The bourgeois elite too know the dangers of Fascism to their own welfare and that of their children and partners. As in the past, the loose cannon of a Fascist fanatic who gained power, would not hesitate to loose the most up to date weapons of mass destruction upon his enemies. Tellingly, these now include nuclear and biological weapons, which would threaten the existence of more than just their enemies. The more likely outcome to any future hightened socio-economic crisis would be an authoritarian form of government and the deliberate provocation of an internal civil war.
One only need reflect upon the almost total war conducted against oppositional civilians in the middle-east countries of Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lybia and Egypt supported by the pro-capitalist elites of the west, to understand what could happen without the need for a fascist resurgence. News footage of cities in Syria in particular bear a remarkable resemblance to the street after street of bombed out houses and buildings in German cities such as Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin at the end of the Second World War. This indicates, the length which modern elites will go to protect themselves and system which sustains them. Of course this outcome too has been made possible by the errors and mistakes of the oppressed and exploited, splitting their ranks and weakening their opposition. Which brings us to the third important factor.
Faulty analysis and divisive tactics.
In fact this is the most important element in any descent to authoritarian regulation and any possible rebirth of Fascism. The primary fault in not seeing what is coming and preventing it arises from a failure to analyse what is really going on within any serious socio-economic crisis. The easiest thing for commentators to do is focus on the surface events to the exclusion of deeper problems. Taking rhetoric for reality within politics, and blaming the victims who may have mixed but not yet fixed motives, for what is happening, is another. Deliberate distortions and exagerations also contribute to the problem. It follows from faulty and impressionistic analysis that faulty and reactionary tactics are likely to be and proposed and adopted. The prime example of this latter in 1930’s Germany was the Stalinist sectarian designation of Social Democratic voters as Social Fascists and as as bad – or almost as bad – as the Fascists themselves. This led to a dilution of an anti – fascist mood and a bifurcation of anti fascist activity, within Germany. More of such divisions later. Meanwhile, as one historian of the period commented;
“No class or group or party in Germany could escape it’s share of responsibility for the abandonment of the democratic Republic and the advent of Adolf Hitler. The cardinal error of the Germans who opposed Nazism was their failure to unite against it. (‘The rise and fall of the Third Reich.’ William Shirer.)
And not just in Germany. The left sectarian problem of faulty analysis and divisive tactics was also replicated in Spain among the forces opposed to Franco’s military and civilian forces – if to a lesser extent than those opposed to Mussolini in Italy. Some left sectarians in Spain, also spent almost as much time torturing and killing each other as they did combating Franco’s forces. However, faulty and partial actions and analysis was not (and is not) just a symptom of left sectarian groups, it is part and parcel of the bourgeois way of viewing the world. For this reason, the bourgeoisie and petite-bourgeoisie also often misread the coming together of a strong man and moods of deep desperation among the working classes not all of whom are able to see where things we’re heading.
In Italy and Germany, instead of patiently explaining the possibilities and probabilities to easily influenced workers, these were quickly labelled as Fascists and written off by the so-called ‘left’. Just voting for Hitler and Mussolini on the basis of their promises of jobs and social welfare, was sufficient for the radical left (predominantly the Communist Party then) to classify ordinary workers as Fascists or Fascistic supporters and have nothing but contempt and derision for them. With no recognition of contradiction, everything was pitched by the left in the formula ‘you are either for us or against us’. Those not convinced by the radical sectarian left became cast as the enemy to be combated even though many such voters considered themselves socialists and we’re simply hoodwinked by the official title of the National Socialists and the promises of jobs and curbs on capitalist employers. Confused and simplistic as many Italian, German and Spanish workers may have been, they were not born racists and fascists and not all became so. However, large numbers were repulsed by left sectarianism. And there were good reasons for workers being confused;
“Hitler’s critics accused him of being a crude, ill – educated rabble – rouser, but he articulated the people’s anger and sense of injustice more effectively than the professional politicians and it was evident he had touched a raw nerve.” (‘Life in the Third Reich. Chapter 1.)
Does that ring any contemporary bells? In any structural and deep seated crisis there will be splits among the ruling elite on how to manage or solve the problems facing themselves and the system they uphold. Since all ruling elites are numerically weak, they need to recruit the masses to assist their struggle for dominance within ruling circles. To do so both sides will exploit the power and advantages they enjoy and at the same time exploit the weaknesses and confusion of the population at large. This strategy and tactic is as old as civilisation itself. It occured regularly in ancient Greece and during the days of the Roman Empire, where the demos or the plebs were invited to join one side or another of the disputing Greek oligarchs or the later Roman tyrants, with disastrous effects upon the masses when they did so. As already noted in the 20th century it happened in Italy, Germany and Spain, with equally devastating results for the working classes. Sift through the mess in most of the middle east in the 21st century and essentially the same symptom will emerge in one form or another – workers siding with one section of an oppressive elite or another and then fighting and killing each other for this dubious and counterproductive privilege.
Splits in the ruling class.
In Europe and the west these splits are also happening again. In the advanced capitalist countries there is now a serious rift within the contemporary ruling circles governing or seeking to govern these nations. On the one side, there is the existing and severely weakened social-democratic and neo-liberal establishment and on the other side, the emerging right-wing authoritarian nationalists. Working people are being invited to join each bourgeois side as the better (or least-bad side) in the elites internicine struggle for power. Each side is deliberately utilising popular media to distort and denegrate the other side and misguide the majority when in actual fact, both sides are promoters of fake news, witholders and distorters of facts as well as being the architects of exploitation, oppression and unemployment. This is a role they will continue to play whichever side wins.
One of the main weaknesses and mistakes of the bulk of the population is again to fail to understand this, to believe the fabrications and distortions of one side and reject the fabrications and distortions of the other and then be drawn into bourgeois ideological and practical battles in which they will continue to be the main victims. Opposing Donald Trump in favour of Clinton, or opposing Teresa May in favour of Jeremy Corbin, (or one of the other global political analogues) is to fail to recognise that both sides in these political ‘theatres of the absurd’ are committed to the existing capitalist system of economic exploitation, ecological devastation and political domination. Both sides, the globalists and the nationalists are incapable of providing a positive future for humanity. Both political tendencies have had repeated chances and failed miserably, it makes no sense to give either of them even more chances to continue to ruin the world in which we live.
It is important to recognise, that under capitalism the social-democratic, liberal and conservative political tendencies (and of course their Democratic and Republican analogues) are not the diametrically opposites to Fascism as these tendencies like to make out. Their current antics and concerns amount to a distraction from the real economic forces at work in the background and represent a deviation from the real needs of the bulk of humanity. As a recent contribution in the Black Agenda Report noted;
“The truth is that if Hillary was being sworn in Friday instead of Big Cheeto we’d still be spending half the nation’s wealth yearly on a murderous global military empire with over a thousand overseas bases. We’d still be bombing seven countries and operating networks of global torture, kidnapping and secret prisons. If Hillary was president the US would still have the two biggest air forces on the planet, the first being the USAF, the second being the US Navy.” (‘Mocking, Marching, etc., are not enough’. Bruce A. Dixon. Black Agenda Report. 14/1/17.)
Mocking, marching, against the ‘right’ along with distorting and blaming the victims are certainly not enough and although they are attractive because they are relatively easy to fulfil, on their own they represent in fact a considerable distraction from what is really needed. Humanity, urgently needs a new revolutionary movement which understands the necessity to go beyond the capitalist mode of production and recognises that this cannot be achieved on the basis of liberal social democratic politics or past sectarian anti-capitalist dogma. It is a much harder intellectual and practical task to help found and nurture a new revolutionary-humanist movement which has learned from past mistakes and points to a future in which gender, class, religious and ethnic divisions are recognised as distortions of our common humanity. It takes much more effort to initiate and sustain a movement which understands that the kind of distortions which have served a very definate historical purpose – the subjection of the many by the few. Can it be that difficulty and lack of motivation is the real barrier to such a much needed revolutionary transition in thinking and practice?
Roy Ratcliffe (February 2017.)