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What Is Fascism?

The violent far-right assault on the Capitol on Wednesday has raised the specter of fascism. But what is meant by that term? Marxism provides the answer.

Scott Cooper

January 9, 2021
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A painting by Alessandro Bruschetti, from 1935, titled "Sintesi Fascista," which means "Fascist Synthesis" in Italian.
Sintesi Fascista (Fascist Synthesis), Alessandro Bruschetti, 1935

For many people, a right-wing campaign that encourages political violence against its opponents, including against the government, brings one word to mind: fascism. Many on the Left side of the political spectrum, guided by little more than impressionism, use the word as an epithet. Over the course of U.S. history, political figures including Senators Joseph McCarthy and Barry Goldwater, President George W. Bush, and many others have been called fascists. The word has been bandied about a lot in the aftermath of Wednesday’s riots at the U.S. Capitol. 

Fascism and fascist, though, cannot be reduced to insults or epithets. The terms have concrete meanings — given to us by leading Marxists, most notably Leon Trotsky. As he wrote in a letter to an English comrade on November 15, 1931:

In order to be capable of foreseeing anything with regard to fascism, it is necessary to have a definition of that idea. What is fascism? What are its base, its form, and its characteristics? How will its development take place? It is necessary to proceed in a scientific and Marxian manner.

Marxism’s Definition of Fascism

Nearly a decade earlier, on June 20, 1923, Clara Zetkin gave a report on the struggle against fascism — which was new to Italy at the time — to the Third Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International. Zetkin was a communist who worked with Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in the far-left wing of the German Marxist movement and helped found the country’s Communist Party. She was a Communist member of the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament) from 1920 to 1933, when Hitler came to power.

“There has been great confusion regarding fascism,” she told her comrades at the plenum, “not only among the broad masses of proletarians but also within their revolutionary vanguard, among Communists … At first, the prevailing view was that fascism was nothing more than violent bourgeois terror …,” but

Fascism is quite different from that. It is not at all the revenge of the bourgeoisie against the militant uprising of the proletariat. In historical terms, viewed objectively, fascism arrives much more as punishment … And the base of fascism lies not in a small caste but in broad social layers, broad masses, reaching even into the proletariat. We must understand these essential differences in order to deal successfully with fascism. Military means alone cannot vanquish it, if I may use that term; we must also wrestle it to the ground politically and ideologically.

Zetkin made another important point, one that became front and center in Trotsky’s later analysis. Fascism, she stated,

… confronts the proletariat as an exceptionally dangerous and frightful enemy. Fascism is the strongest, most concentrated, and classic expression at this time of the world bourgeoisie’s general offensive. It is urgently necessary that it be brought down … It is also a question of survival for every ordinary worker, a question of bread, working conditions, and quality of life for millions and millions of the exploited.

Analysis of Fascism in Real Time

The examination of fascism at its inception was made more powerful by the fact that Trotsky did not describe the phenomenon by looking back at something in history; he analyzed it as it unfolded in Europe at that moment in time. While he, like Zetkin, began addressing the phenomenon as it first arose with Mussolini’s victory in Italy in 1922, he continued to deepen his analysis through to Hitler’s triumph in Germany in 1933. He then turned to analyzing and helping organize how to fight it, until his murder at the hand of a Stalinist agent in 1940.

In explaining how fascism emerges and whose interests it is meant to serve, Trotsky made a clear distinction from those impressionistic uses of the characterization that center on right-wing ideology and authoritarianism. He explained its content and purpose in “How Mussolini Triumphed,” a section of his 1932 What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat:

At the moment that the “normal” police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium — the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat — all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.

In other words, fascism comes after the ruling class, as a class, has exhausted its regular approaches to maintaining its control over the working class. It is not just a worse version of the quotidian functioning of the repressive apparatus of the state — the “normal” police, for instance — but a replacement for what those armed protectors of capital have proven incapable of doing on their own. It is not the passing of more right-wing, pro-bourgeois, repressive laws, but the rejection of the parliamentary approach in favor of a direct, violent assault on the working class and its organizations.

The bourgeoisie is compelled by circumstances, by its need to protect its parasitic control over society when it is challenged at an existential level, that drives it to fascism. Taking that step is in no way the capitalists’ preference; the bourgeoisie would far prefer the relative stability of bourgeois “democracy” — a far better way to maintain hegemony of the working class and even to resolve conflicts within the ruling class. But in times of crisis, these normal mechanisms of capitalist rule are not enough. As Trotsky wrote in 1932

The sober bourgeoisie does not look very favorably even upon the fascist mode of resolving its tasks, for the concussions, although they are brought forth in the interests of bourgeois society, are linked up with dangers to it. Therefore, the opposition between fascism and the bourgeois parties. The big bourgeoisie likes fascism as little as a man with aching molars likes to have his teeth pulled.

In “How Mussolini Triumphed,” Trotsky continued,

From fascism the bourgeoisie demands a thorough job … After fascism is victorious, finance capital directly and immediately gathers into its hands, as in a vise of steel, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty, the executive administrative, and educational powers of the state: the entire state apparatus together with the army, the municipalities, the universities, the schools, the press, the trade unions, and the co-operatives. When a state turns fascist, it does not mean only that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance the patterns set by Mussolini — the changes in this sphere ultimately play a minor role — but it means first of all for the most part that the workers’ organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism …

That is something rather different than what those impressionists have flung the epithet at over the nearly 100 years since fascism first emerged, including in recent days. It is the bourgeoisie — an entire (or significant majority of a) social class, not an individual ideologue — that unleashes the mob on its own behalf, to secure its hegemony in a time of crisis.

Later, in “The Collapse of Bourgeois Democracy” (1934), Trotsky wrote of the crisis in France and the prospects for fascism there. He explained that “the French people for a long time thought that fascism had nothing whatever to do with them” only then to be confronted in early February of that year with “several thousand fascists and royalists, armed with revolvers, clubs, and razors” imposing a “reactionary government … under whose protection the fascist bands continue to grow and arm themselves.” But even that was not yet fascism, because there was a missing element linked directly to the points above — specifically, a qualitative shift in the crisis of capitalism, which is

… condemned to go from crisis to crisis, from need to misery, from bad to worse. In the various countries, the decrepitude and disintegration of capitalism are expressed in diverse forms and at unequal rhythms. But the basic features of the process are the same everywhere. The bourgeoisie is leading its society to complete bankruptcy. It is capable of assuring the people neither bread nor peace. This is precisely why it cannot any longer tolerate the democratic order. It is forced to smash the workers and peasants by the use of physical violence. The discontent of the workers and peasants, however, cannot be brought to an end by the police alone. Moreover, it is often impossible to make the army march against the people. It begins by disintegrating and ends with the passage of a large section of the soldiers over to the people’s side. That is why finance capital is obliged to create special armed bands, trained to fight the workers just as certain breeds of dog are trained to hunt game. 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. … The bourgeois regime can be preserved only by such murderous means as these. For how long? Until it is overthrown by proletarian revolution.

Again, that is something rather different than what we have witnessed in the United States, despite growing far-right terrorism.

The Role of the “Petty Bourgeoisie”

A brief explanation of what Trotsky means by the “petty bourgeoisie” and the “lumpenproletariat” is called for. The petty bourgeoisie (from the French petit, or “small”), as defined in Marxism, is a group within society situated between those that own the means of production (the bourgeoisie) through which they accumulate the overwhelming share of wealth and those who are forced to sell their labor power to the bourgeoisie (the proletariat). The petty bourgeoisie is in between: they work for themselves, owning some small means of production (say, a small machine shop) or a service or retail business of some sort. More broadly, it often includes people in “professional” positions such as managers, technicians, some people who work in the arts, and even some among wage earners who have certain privileges that seem to position them between the two main classes.

From an ideological point of view, a member of the petty bourgeoisie is typically focused on rising up to become part of the bourgeoisie, and fears nothing more than becoming a proletarian. As Trotsky wrote, he prefers 

… order so long as business is going well and so long as he hopes that tomorrow it will go better.

But when this hope is lost, he is easily enraged and is ready to give himself over to the most extreme measures. Otherwise, how could he have overthrown the democratic state and brought fascism to power in Italy and Germany? The despairing petty bourgeois sees in fascism, above all, a fighting force against big capital, and believes that, unlike the working-class parties which deal only in words, fascism will use force to establish more “justice.”

The “lumpenproletariat” (lumpen meaning “ragged” in German) is the bottom layer of capitalist society, its members often thought of as unemployable and incapable of selling their labor power under regular circumstances. They are thus easily exploited by the bourgeoisie to play a reactionary role in exchange for a modicum of sustenance and the prospect of doing something “important.”

It is “the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat,” as Trotsky wrote, that are the foot soldiers who do the bourgeoisie’s bidding at the moment the ruling class puts fascism on the agenda. That does not mean that the entire working class is precluded, but the worker who chooses the side of fascism is fighting against the very class fascism aims to destroy — along with its organizations as well as the institutions of the bourgeois-democratic state.

Fighting Fascism

How does the working class fight fascism? Trotsky articulated a perspective of mass mobilization through the workers’ united front — a joint struggle by the entire working class, through its parties and organizations, to destroy the fascists and even prepare the working class for a direct struggle for power. After all, when fascism is ascending, the question of power is on the table.

Trotsky developed this especially in the context of Hitler’s rise in Germany, which made the united front more urgent than ever. He warned that Hitler’s victory would mean the complete smashing of the workers’ movement, and exhorted the two main parties of the German working class to put aside whatever other differences they may have and unite around the common objective of smashing the fascist menace — spelling this out in “For a Worker’s United Front Against Fascism” in December 1931.

For Trotsky, though, while mass mobilization is required, the workers’ united front may also need to take up arms for mass self-defense, with “combat organizations” and “specialized cadres.” The fight against fascism is not a task to turn over to peaceful protest. It is a war waged by the working class against an enemy whose objective is nothing less than its annihilation.

“Nothing increases the insolence of the fascists so much as ‘flabby pacificism’ on the part of the workers’ organizations,” he wrote in “The Workers’ Militia and Its Opponents” (1934):

To give over the defense against fascism to unorganized and unprepared masses left to themselves would be to play a role incomparably lower than the role of Pontius Pilate. … Without organized combat detachments, the most heroic masses will be smashed bit by bit by the fascist gangs. … The militia is an organ of self-defense.

Trotsky explained that waiting for a “revolutionary situation” is a recipe for disaster, an argument that “means that the workers must permit themselves to be slaughtered until the situation becomes revolutionary.” The fight must be organized by workers’ militias, “the only serious way of reducing to a minimum the civil war that fascism imposes upon the proletariat.”

This is not some sort of ultraleft adventurism. Trotsky was not talking about a secret militia. It would be “naïve to think that a militia could be created unseen and secretly within four walls. Rather, he wrote:

We need tens, and later hundreds, of thousands of fighters. They will come only if millions of men and women workers … understand the necessity for the militia and create around the volunteers an atmosphere of ardent sympathy and active support. Conspiratorial care can and must envelop only the technical aspect of the matter. The political campaign must be openly developed, in meetings, factories, in the streets and on the public squares.

Trotsky envisioned workers “grouped according to their place of work, known to each other and able to protect their combat detachments against the provocations of enemy agents far more easily and more surely than the most elevated bureaucrats.” And where would they get their arms? Ever the revolutionary optimist, Trotsky spelled it out:

The fascists, of course, are richer than we. It is easier for them to buy arms. But the workers are more numerous, more determined, more devoted, when they are conscious of a firm revolutionary leadership. In addition to other sources, the workers can arm themselves at the expense of the fascists by systematically disarming them … When workers’ arsenals will begin to stock up at the expense of the fascist arms depots, the banks and trusts will be more prudent in financing the armament of their murderous guards. It would even be possible in this case — but in this case only – that the alarmed authorities would really begin to prevent the arming of the fascists in order not to provide an additional sources of arms for the workers.

The workers’ militia to fight fascism “requires a will to proletarian action.” In concert with, not counterposed to, the organizing of combat detachments, Trotsky advocated the militant mass action of the working class using the strike. Citing a great strategist of the art of war, he wrote:

Following the splendid phrase of the great military theoretician Clausewitz, war is the continuation of politics by other means. This definition also fully applies to civil war. It is impermissible to oppose one to the other since it is impossible to check at will the political struggle when it transforms itself, by force of inner necessity, into a political struggle …

A revolutionary victory can become possible only as a result of long political agitation, a lengthy period of education and organization of the masses.

Fascism Today or Tomorrow?

Fascism, in summary, is an assault by the bourgeoisie, not against it. It is unleashed by the bourgeoisie to save itself when its existing normal mechanisms of rule fail and only their destruction and replacement can save capital.

There are clearly neo-fascist and proto-fascist forces in the United States today, but there is little or no evidence that the capitalist class has turned to those forces for the purpose of destroying and replacing the institutions of bourgeois-democratic rule and crushing the working class. That time, of course, may come, which is why we must be prepared. Part of that preparation involves being clear, again, about its meaning — what fascism is and what it is not — and part is about knowing what it will take to defeat it when it begins to rise. The wrong understanding, and the wrong preparation, could have potentially deadly results.

The bourgeoisie may not want fascism now, but if and when it becomes necessary, the entire ruling class — including the Democratic Party and the “liberals” in the bourgeoisie — will embrace it. We must have no illusions. History has shown clearly that those “allies” will open the door for fascism when it comes knocking. The only thing that will stop fascism is the independent, organized power of the working class.

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Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.

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