What is fascism?

An understanding of the class basis of fascism and the economic and political context in which it first arose is essential if the working class today is to defend itself from reaction in all its different forms, argues TOM BALDWIN.

From its earliest days the working-class movement has always had to defend itself from reaction. This has taken different forms, including state repression and attack from violent thugs. In the 1920s and 1930s the movement had to contend with a new threat – that of fascism. With capitalism in severe crisis, and following missed opportunities for revolution, fascist movements were able to take power in Italy, Germany and Spain. This had brutal, chilling consequences for the working class of those countries and internationally, helping drive humanity back into world war.

Today capitalism is again in a period of crisis and the working class is fighting its quarter. The conditions exist for a rise in reaction – a growth of authoritarianism, the far right and potentially even fascist forces. The questions of what fascism is and how to fight it remain important ones for Marxists to understand.

The crisis facing capitalism is protracted and multi-faceted. There are extreme weaknesses in the global economy, rapidly falling living standards, and social and environmental crises. It is almost impossible to build stable capitalist political formations on these unstable foundations. As the status quo fails to offer people any kind of prosperity, the establishment capitalist parties – what have been considered the ‘centre ground’ of politics – are failing to hold.

Since the financial crisis of 2007-9 we’ve seen the emergence of new left parties such as Syriza in Greece and movements around figures like Jeremy Corbyn. But there has also been the rise of new right-wing political forces, especially where the left has failed to offer an effective political alternative.

Many capitalist strategists are aware of the dwindling faith in the institutions of their system, including their political parties. As working-class struggle grows, and in anticipation of greater clashes to come, the capitalist classes in many countries have increased the strength of the state and the authoritarian powers available to them.

With sections of the capitalists looking to the right and to authoritarianism to defend their interests, the workers’ movement needs to consider what forms this reaction is likely to take and how best to fight against it. That includes considering whether fascism could take power and, indeed, whether any of the right-wing governments around the world are themselves fascist.

Fascism and reaction

The word fascism is often used very loosely in politics. Even socialists have been dubbed as fascist by our detractors. More often though it is used as a by-word for any type of right-wing politics, including by those on the left. Sometimes this is intended as exaggeration and insult but at other times it can be an honest but misguided attempt to categorise the enemies of the workers’ movement.

Hyperbole and hysteria are not useful to Marxists and cannot replace proper analysis. Fascism is a specific form of reaction and its exact nature must be understood. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote extensively on the rise of fascism, especially the German Nazi party, while it was happening. He put forward strategies for the workers’ movement to protect itself against this grave threat. A collection of his writings on the subject were published under the title, Fascism – What It Is and How To Fight It. This is indispensable reading for those trying to understand the subject.

In it Trotsky writes: “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”.

Marxists have no interest in splitting hairs or categorisation for its own sake. We strive to understand the nature of different forms of reaction because it informs how those threats must be fought.

Those who attempt to define fascism from outside of a Marxist approach sometimes refer to an essay by the writer Umberto Eco called Ur-Fascism. In it Eco, who grew up in Italy under Mussolini, lists 14 features that are typical of fascism. These include the cult of tradition and rejection of modernism, fear of difference, permanent warfare, and a contempt for parliamentary democracy. He admits to a “fuzziness” of the definition and that not all of the features are present in every case. Others have similarly attempted to define fascism simply by a list of its outward features.

These features are hallmarks of fascism but do not define it as a distinct form of reaction. They would lead to an extremely broad definition, encompassing not just right-wing politicians but also so-called liberals. All shades of capitalist politician can display divisive or authoritarian tendencies when they feel it necessary to secure the interests of capitalism or their place within it.

It is not just the far right that attacks immigration. Mainstream capitalist parties also scapegoat immigrants to redirect blame for their anti-working class policies, to divide workers and to build social support. This includes former social democratic parties. The right-wing Republican US president Donald Trump faced enormous criticism for his inflammatory language about Mexican immigrants but large-scale deportations have taken place under Democratic presidencies too. Similarly, authoritarian laws and state repression have been deployed against workers by forces from across the capitalist political spectrum.

Even capitalist dictatorships do not necessarily equate to fascism. Trotsky criticised describing the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in 1920s Spain as fascist. While fascism was a movement of large masses, which created fascist militia in their ascent to power, Primo de Rivera had instead come from a high position within the existing state machine and had used that machine to take power. Trotsky later warned not to “identify war dictatorship – the dictatorship of the military machine, of the staff, of finance capital – with a fascist dictatorship”.

Another example of a superficial view of fascism is the description of the Stalinist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as fascist. Of course, there are parallels between dictatorships of any nature – the machinery of repression tends to look the same no matter how or why it is applied. But behind these superficial similarities the regime in the Soviet Union was different to any type of capitalist dictatorship. It had a different history and a different class character. Stalinism established itself after capitalism had been overthrown. It usurped the power of the working class which had been won by revolution whereas fascism acted to smash the working class to prevent revolution.

Even more erroneous is the equating of any kind of socialism with fascism. This is usually a deliberate slander, a lazy attempt to discredit socialism by those incapable of offering real arguments against it. The basis for this is often that Hitler dubbed Nazism ‘National Socialism’. Like many far-right movements Nazism employed demagogic attacks on elites and socialistic rhetoric in order to try and win support, alongside their extreme racism. However, this was a ruse. Hitler had no intention of fulfilling the promises he needed to take power and those Nazis who did believe in the anti-capitalist phraseology were rapidly eliminated in the ‘night of the long knives’.

Marxism and fascism are complete opposites. The Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini made this clear, describing fascism as “the resolute negation of the doctrine underlying so-called scientific and Marxian socialism”.

Marxism gives the sharpest expression of the needs of the working class whereas fascism was neither based on the working class nor acted in their interests. On the contrary, it violently suppressed socialists and the workers’ movement in general, in the interests of the capitalists.

Defining fascism – a class analysis

It is this examination of the class nature which is the jumping off point for a Marxist understanding of fascism. No two fascist movements are identical and each has their own features but they share a class composition and aims. Trotsky described its basis as “the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of de-classed and demoralised lumpenproletariat – all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy”. Fascism also found its echoes within the working class but was never able to win a majority of workers, nor did they constitute its base.

The petty bourgeoisie are the small business owners. The term can also be used to describe the highest paid, more professional layers of workers. Colloquially it is referred to as the middle class. This layer is not as big a force in society today as it was during the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. The capitalist trend toward monopolisation predicted by Karl Marx has steadily reduced the number of small businesses. Small shopkeepers have been driven out of business by big chains and online retailers. Small farms have been swallowed by giant agri-businesses. The conditions of white collar and professional workers have also been driven down closer to those of the rest of the working class. University lecturers, doctors and lawyers have all taken strike action in Britain in recent years.

The term ‘lumpenproletariat’ as used by Trotsky refers to the most downtrodden layer of the working class, often those who have been forced into long-term unemployment or into informal work. In general they may be less likely to have the same collective outlook as workers brought together in larger workplaces and may be less likely to be involved in the workers’ movement.

However, neither group is by any means automatically drawn to fascism. In fact both can be won to revolutionary socialism, which represents the only way of securing their futures.

Fascism came to power in Europe at a time of capitalist crisis which threatened much of the middle class with ruin. Trotsky described these conditions, writing that “the chaotic post-war years hit the craftsmen, shopkeepers and office workers no less than the working class. The agricultural crisis devastated the farmers… The pauperisation of the middle layers of society… devoured all belief in parliamentary democracy… the middle-class layers rose up against all old parties which had betrayed them. The deep frustrations of the small property owners… demanded the restoration of order with an iron fist”.

But it also followed a period of revolutionary movements. The Russian revolution of 1917, led by the Bolsheviks, had inspired the exploited and oppressed and terrified ruling classes across the world in equal measure. Unfortunately, though, other opportunities for the working class to take power in European countries were missed, held back by the mis-leadership of the workers’ mass political parties. This was the case in Germany, in 1918, when the revolutionary movement was derailed by the Social Democratic Party, and in 1923, when the German Communist Party failed to take advantage of a favourable revolutionary situation.

In Italy, in the Biennio Rosso (two red years) from 1919 to 1920, workers rose up to occupy the factories but the Italian Socialist Party, which was affiliated to the Communist International, was politically paralysed, unable to give the leadership necessary to guide the movement towards overthrowing capitalism and the seizure of power. It was against this backdrop of failed revolutions that fascism grew.

Petit bourgeois masses

The petty bourgeois is unable to play a fully independent role in society. They are drawn under the influence of one or other of the two main, opposing, classes – the big business owning bourgeoisie and the working-class proletariat. Trotsky outlined the dynamic between these three classes in the article, Bourgeoisie, Petty Bourgeoisie, and Proletariat, which is included in his works on fascism.

In times of relative stability the capitalist class uses the middle class as a social support for its system. However, when it becomes clear that capitalism and its ‘usual’ form of rule, parliamentary democracy, are unable to deliver then the middle classes can come over to the side of the working class and of revolution.

Trotsky wrote that for this to happen “the petty bourgeoisie must acquire faith in the ability of the proletariat to lead society onto a new road”. Conversely though, should the revolutionary movement falter and fail to change society, “then the petty bourgeoisie loses patience and begins to look upon the revolutionary workers as those responsible for its own misery”.

It was in these circumstances that fascism grew in Italy, Germany and Spain. It appeared to offer the middle classes a way of fighting to restore their previous position. It forged a semi-mass movement primarily from these class forces by both demagogically railing against the domination of big business and condemning the threat of ‘Bolshevism’ and the aroused working class.

While the rhetoric of the fascists may have been aimed both ‘up’ and ‘down’, their venom was really directed at the working class. It deployed violence against the workers’ movement, disrupting its ability to organise.

A defining feature of fascist movements has been their paramilitary wings, for example Mussolini’s blackshirts or Hitler’s brownshirts. These thuggish groups of street fighters were organised by the fascist parties, mobilised against political opponents and assisted in their rise to power. They reinforced the divisive nature of fascism by meting out violence against those they considered inferior, especially Jews in the case of the Nazis. However, their primary function was to smash the workers’ movement. They attacked trade unionists, social democrats and communists, breaking up their meetings and destroying the infrastructure of their organisations. In times of revolutionary fervour class divisions become more apparent within the forces of the capitalist state and so the ruling class may not be able to trust the police or army to defend it. Trotsky described how, in these circumstances, it “is obliged to create special armed bands, trained to fight the workers just as certain breeds of dog are trained to hunt game”. Adding that, “the historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organisations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery”.

He also wrote that “fascism is not just a system of repression, acts of violence, police terror. Fascism is a particular form of state system, based on the extermination of the elements of workers’ democracy within capitalist society. The task of fascism is not just to smash the leadership of the workers’ movement, but to atomise the entire working class, and maintain it in this atomised state. To achieve this aim the physical extermination of the revolutionary layers of the working class is not enough. It aims to destroy all independent and voluntary workers’ organisations, to annihilate all its points of support, and to wipe out the political and physical structures”.

While it was not a movement of the capitalist class primarily, fascism ultimately acted in its interests. At a time of acute economic crisis and revolutionary ferment in society, big business can move to support fascism, seeing it as a last throw of the dice in order to defend their system.

By 1922, in Italy, Mussolini’s fascists had won significant support amongst the bourgeois. It was the King, Victor Emmanuel III, who appointed Mussolini as prime minister, following the blackshirts’ march on Rome. Similarly, German industrialists began to donate money to the Nazis from the beginning of the 1930s as a means of keeping the working class down. Conservative capitalist parties lobbied the president, Hindenburg, to make Hitler chancellor in 1933, despite the fact the Nazis lacked a majority in the parliament and had been unable to form a coalition. They then supported the introduction of a law granting Hitler dictatorial powers.

Fascism built a movement, based on the ruined middle classes, which physically smashed the workers’ organisations but also required the support from sections of the big bourgeoisie to be able to come to power. When in power it could not satisfy the demands of its social base, putting it in a perilous position. Trotsky described how “after utilising the onrushing forces of the petty bourgeois, fascism strangled it within the vice of the bourgeois state”. And how, once in power, fascism “approaches very closely to other forms of military and police dictatorship. It no longer possesses its former social support”.

Nonetheless, the coming to power of fascist regimes represented for the capitalists a certain reduction in the direct control that they were able to exert over society. Its capitalist backers may have considered fascism to be a ‘necessary evil’ to save their system. Their support was a recognition of their inability to deal with the working class by their own force alone, devolving the task to the movement of the frenzied middle classes. Trotsky said: “The big bourgeoisie likes fascism as little as a man with aching molars likes to have his teeth pulled”.

Due to the experiences of fascist regimes in the twentieth century the capitalists would be much more hesitant in allowing fascists to come to power today. But understanding fascism is not merely a history lesson. Although not about to take power, fascist organisations remain a threat to the workers’ movement and it is by no means ruled out that the capitalists would seek to utilise them in the future – at least as ‘auxiliary’ forces supplementing their state machine if not in a repeat of the inter-war movements – if they felt it necessary to maintain their system.

Fighting fascism

Today, when capitalism is once again in a deep and intractable crisis, we are seeing the rise of political trends from outside of what has been considered the ‘mainstream’ over the previous period. This includes right-wing, reactionary movements, some of which have come to power in different parts of the world.

Reactionary politicians from the right and far right pose a significant threat to the working class. They can hijack the anger caused by the failings of capitalism and direct it against different sections of the class instead. Divisive rhetoric and policies can be extremely dangerous, especially to religious or ethnic minorities, LGBT+ people and women. Reaction must be taken seriously, understood and countered by the workers’ movement in whatever guise it presents itself.

However, while the right often shares features with fascism, in the language they use and the groups they scapegoat, it does not necessarily mean that they are fascist according to the Marxist definition. In general, the reactionary politicians and parties challenging for and winning power at the moment are not fascist. They may gain significant electoral support but they have not built even semi-mass movements with the same class base as fascism, nor do they have paramilitary wings preparing to physically smash the workers’ movement.

This includes some of those parties which have roots in genuinely fascist organisations, like Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FdI). A party which is not by its overall character fascist may still have members who are committed fascists. Right-wing leaders in power can embolden actual fascists to organise more openly, even when those leaders are not fascists themselves. They may even court them to a degree, as Trump did with his references to groups like the Proud Boys. In Ukraine fascist groups like the Azov Battalion were even brought into the forces of the state, without the overall character of the regime itself being fascist.

Distinguishing between fascism and other forms of reaction is not an academic exercise. Nor does it in any way mean that the workers’ movement can afford to underestimate the danger posed by other right-wing forces which it must organise to counter politically. The point of understanding fascism is to be able to better understand how to combat it. When FdI leader Giorgia Meloni became Italian prime minister in 2022, the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) wrote an article headlined, ‘Call Giorgia Meloni what she really is – a fascist’. In it they wrote: “But while Meloni lacks the fascist gangs, the rest is disturbingly similar to Mussolini”. This is wrong. It is like saying that a horse is really a zebra, it just lacks the stripes.

Fascist organisations threaten physical attack against the organised working-class. This means that the workers’ organisations must be prepared to physically defend themselves from that threat as part of a strategy to defeat the fascists. Fascism does not have to be challenging for power for it to be dangerous; even small groups of fascist thugs can pose a particular threat to socialists and the workers’ movement.

Demonstrations and meetings where there is any anticipated risk of attack from fascists must be well stewarded in order to protect them, particularly those that are specifically countering fascist demonstrations. Stewarding can also be important when facing the threat of police violence. Mobilising sufficiently so that the fascists are outnumbered also helps ensure safety. The trade union movement must take opposing fascism seriously. It can have an important role to play in adding numbers, organisation and discipline to anti-fascist movements.

The size of the threat does of course help inform the level of defence needed. In 1934, when fascism had already conquered Italy and Germany and armed fascist bands were increasingly attacking the working class in France, Trotsky wrote a pamphlet, Whither France?, in which he called for the formation of ‘workers’ militias’, writing that “proletarian combat detachments must exist and be educated, trained, and armed”.

He argued that these must be organised by the democratic organisations of the working class, saying that “conspirative general staffs without an open mobilisation of the masses will at the moment of danger remain impotently suspended in midair”. Summing up the relationship he wrote: “Without the support of the masses, the militia is nothing. But without organised combat detachments, the most heroic masses will be smashed bit by bit by the fascist gangs… The militia is an organ of self-defence”.

Trotsky also explained how this would help prepare the working class for revolution, both in terms of organisation and political confidence. Revolution occurs when the ever present class struggle in society becomes open conflict between the classes. The duty of the revolutionary party is to prepare the working class for this moment and for the conquering of state power. He said: “He who thinks of renouncing ‘physical’ struggle must renounce all struggle, for the spirit does not live without flesh”.

The workers’ movement and anti-fascists cannot rely on appealing to the state to ban fascist organisations or events. Ultimately, both the state and the fascists exist in order to protect capitalism. There are countless examples of incidents where the police have protected fascists and attacked anti-fascist counter-demonstrators. The state may take action against fascists, particularly under pressure, but this can be a double-edged sword as any legislation passed or precedent set in this way is more likely to be used against the left in the future.

Instead the workers’ organisations must rely on their own strength to combat the fascists. In 1936 when Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) were claiming 40,000 members they organised a march in East London of their uniformed blackshirts. This was a deliberate provocation in an area with a large Jewish population. Leaders from the Labour Party, and the Communist Party, which was influential at the time, advised against confronting them, as did Jewish community leaders. However, ordinary members ignored these pleas, preferring to meet them face-to-face in organised opposition. Three hundred thousand turned out to stop the fascists. Jews, Irish Catholic dockers, youth and women – a full cross section of the working class gathered in unity. Barricades were erected and anti-fascists clashed with the police who were attempting to clear the way. In the end the fascists had to cancel their march and beat a humiliating retreat. The ‘Battle of Cable Street’ was a key moment in stopping the rise of the BUF.

The united front

Hitler himself said that Nazism could have been stopped early in its development had its opponents smashed the nucleus of the movement. However, the struggle against fascism is primarily political, and the political basis on which it is organised is key to its success. As Trotsky wrote, “the militia in itself does not settle the question. A correct policy is necessary”.

In the twentieth century, where fascism came to power it was following revolutionary situations in which the working class had failed to take power. The ebbing of the movement saw the middle classes lose their faith in the ability of the working class to change society and become susceptible to the propaganda of the fascists. Strong revolutionary leadership is key, both to defeating fascism and to the successful struggle for socialism.

That leadership was lacking from the two leading trends in the workers’ movement at the time. One of these was Social Democracy, the mass working-class parties whose leaders limited their programme only to improvements, or ‘reforms’, within the capitalist system. The other was the Communist parties which tended to be smaller but with more a radical membership and, in theory, a commitment to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. However, the Communist leaderships were strongly influenced by the Soviet government in Russia which was increasingly acting to defend the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy there and not those of the working class and revolution.

Trotsky aimed most of his writings at the time at the revolutionary Communist workers, warning them of the mistakes of the Stalinist leadership and advising them of a correct course of action. This included how the Communist parties should relate to the mass memberships of the Social Democracies.

Over the 1920s and 1930s the Stalinists took two opposite positions, both incorrect. Firstly, they branded the Social Democrats as ‘Social Fascists’. They claimed they were as bad as the fascists themselves, rejecting any kind of joint approach, even when it came to fighting fascism. It’s true that the Social Democratic leaders acted, in the last analysis, as defenders of capitalism, and that in Germany they had even conspired in the murders of revolutionary leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. However, these reformist leaders were very different from the fascists, let alone the membership of the reformist parties, which included millions of sincere working-class fighters. This approach cut the Communists off from these workers and left the opposition to the actual fascists weaker and more fractured.

The Stalinists then made an abrupt about-face, supporting the idea of the Popular Front. This was a broad coalition against fascism, including not only the working-class parties but also the ‘democratic’ capitalist parties. In reality, this meant subordinating the voice of the working class to that of the capitalists. The question of socialism was to be deferred until the fascists were beaten. This meant that the conditions which had given rise to fascism were allowed to persist. It cut across the ability to win people away from support for fascism. This approach also sowed false illusions in certain capitalist politicians. Even the most liberal capitalists are capitalists first and democrats second and would happily turn against their working-class ‘allies’.

In different circumstances we see this same mistaken approach applied in the fight against the far-right today. Self-proclaimed socialists can create campaigns that sacrifice raising their own politics in order to be ‘broad’. They create platforms where the very capitalist politicians whose policies of cutting jobs and services make fertile ground for the right to sow their ideas of division, go unchallenged.

Trotsky instead put forward the idea of the United Front. This can be summed up in his phrase, ‘March separately, strike together!’ The different mass political organisations of the working class should work together to come to each other’s defence physically and to face down the fascist threat. However, revolutionaries should also maintain their political independence rather than subscribe to a joint programme with the reformists. And while technical collaboration to defend premises, the uncensored press, meetings, etc could be agreed, there should be no common political cause established with the capitalist class enemy. This unity in action would have massively strengthened the fight against fascism and could have blocked it coming to power.

Fundamentally the fight against fascism cannot be divorced from the struggle for socialism, which is the only way of ending the miseries of capitalism. It is the only way to put a permanent end to fascism and the other forms of reaction that the system brings in its wake. It is the only way of guaranteeing the living standards of the working class and of the middle layers in society. Mass workers’ organisations, armed with a Marxist programme, can win people away from the propaganda of both the populist far-right and the fascists, and restrict their ability to recruit.

Trotsky explained that “fascism comes only when the working class shows complete incapacity to take into its own hands the fate of society”. He wrote extensively on the failures of working-class leadership that meant opportunities for revolution were lost.

Revolutionaries must have an understanding of fascism and how to defeat it. This is, however, only one aspect of the biggest task facing humanity – the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a socialist future. Winning the working class to this position and building a revolutionary party capable of leading them to power is the most important work that we must do.