What is fascism?

Submitted by AWL on 23 March, 2006 - 3:57

In order to beat the fascists we need to understand what they are — what fascism has been, and what it is now. Daniel Murphy outlines the arguments.

The first fascist regime came to power in Italy in October 1922 under Benito Mussolini.

A more virulent form followed in Germany — Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists (Nazis for short). Hitler ruled from 1933 until the defeat of Germany at the end of the World War Two.

The Nazis were extreme nationalists, racists and anti-semites. They were to be responsible for the murder of many millions of Jews, gypsies and socialists who were gassed in the death camps.

How could such people come to power in one of the most advanced countries of Europe? And what distinguishes fascism from other right-wing regimes? Take the example of the German Nazis.

1. By 1932 the Nazis polled nearly 14 million votes, somewhat more than the combined total for the two German workers’ parties — the Social Democrats (reformist, right-wing socialists similar to the pre-Blair British Labour Party) and the Stalinist Communist Party.

The Nazis were not just vote-gatherers. There were also 400,000 members of the Nazis’ paramilitary wing, the SA. This is what distinguishes fascism from, for example, a right-wing military government.

A fascist movement is a mass movement of people who accept its ideas and are willing to fight for them.

2. Hitler came to power in 1933 with the backing of the big German capitalists. But the bosses had thought long and hard before giving the Nazis their full backing.

In 1930 only a small handful of industrialists actively supported Hitler. The base of the Nazi party rested on the middle classes and sections of the unemployed — people who were being ruined by the onset of the third major economic crisis since the end of World War One.

3. The German workers’ movement was powerful but the politics of the Social Democrats, the real leaders of the mass of the workers, were not up to the job of solving the crisis in the interests of the working class. They dithered and provided no answers.

The middle classes — the petty official, the small shop owner or trader — and the unemployed would have followed the lead of the workers if they had been able to believe that the Social Democrats could solve inflation and unemployment. Instead they looked elsewhere — to the Nazis.

Nazi anti-semitism and hatred of foreigners became popular because the reformist “socialism” simply had no programme for dealing with the economic crisis. They too stood for the existing capitalist system, reformed a little bit here and there. Because the socialist alternative to capitalism, to slump and to poverty had no place in the politics of the main working-class party, the nationalist, fascist, racist “alternative” attracted the support of desperate people.

4. Like Mussolini before him, Hitler mixed anti-socialism with demagogy about the corruption of big business. He appealed to the anxiety of the middle class who feared socialist confiscation of their property even as they were being bankrupted by the banks and pushed out of business by the big firms.

But Hitler’s actual role was to smash the labour movement to bits, and so solve the crisis in the interests of capitalism. The bosses backed Hitler because they concluded that it was necessary to use the most violent measures to defeat the working class.

5. Why did the capitalists hesitate? Fascism is an extreme solution to the capitalists’ problems and it is one over which the capitalists have not got direct control. Once Hitler’s police state had control he also controlled the capitalists.

Hitler smashed the German workers at the price of driving Germany headlong towards a world war which was an eventual disaster for many of the capitalists.

What lessons can we draw from Germany?

1. The workers’ movement must provide answers to the crisis. The New Labour Government is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Our anti-fascism must include campaigning for a workers’ government — that is, for a general socialist solution to the problem which the fascists demagogically exploit.

2. Germany shows that you cannot trust right-wing “democratic” politicians to help fight fascism. From 1930 to 1932 the Social-Democrats gave active support to a right-wing government under Bruning, but Bruning simply prepared the way for the Nazis.

Organisations like the Anti-Nazi League are wrong to put Tory politicians on their platforms. The presence of Tories limits what anti-fascists can say about how to fight fascism.

3. At different times the German Communists tried to compete against the Nazis by using anti-semitism and by appeals to nationalism. Leaders made speeches against “Jewish bankers”. In the early 30s, they made concessions to Nazi politics by talking of the need for a “people’s national revolution” against foreign oppression. By doing so they merely fertilised the ground for the mass growth of fascism.

The nationalism (and sometimes anti-immigrant racism) of the French Communist Party in the 1970s and 80s had exactly the same consequence. It fertilised the ground for the growth of Le Pen’s Front National.

In a similar way the little-Britain, anti-Europe nationalism of the British labour movement helped the growth of the National Front during the 1970s. We need internationalism! We need a movement which will, for instance, campaign against all immigration laws, thus challenging the root racism of British society — institutional racism.

4. We must rely on the strength of the labour movement, our own strength. The German Social Democrats looked to the police to stop the Nazis, and for the state to ban them. The police were eventually merged with the fascist paramilitary organisations, and our movement went down to defeat without a shot being fired by the workers’ organisations!

A state ban against the fascists for a short period in 1932 allowed the Nazis to present themselves as the persecuted and did little to damage them. After the ban was lifted they rioted against the workers’ movement, killing dozens.

We must be prepared to defend ourselves.

5. The crazy politics of the Communist Party helped the Social Democrats to keep their hold over the workers’ movement. They had a ‘theory’ which labelled the Social Democrats as “social fascists” — a type of Nazi. What this meant was that they were unable to distinguish between the reformist socialists and the fascists!

In conclusion

History never repeats itself exactly. Yet we are in the middle of a mass growth of European fascism — in Germany, in Belgium, in Austria, in Italy and in France and eastern Europe. It is likely that fascism will grow in Britain too. Many of the conditions exist: easily scapegoated minority groups in society; an inadequate labour movement; a weak, often sectarian revolutionary left, who make much noise, but who offer young people no perspective of changing the wretched leaders of the labour movement and therefore offer them no prospect of a real solution.

British fascism is still weak, but it can grow very fast if we let it. Hitler got only two-and-a-half of every hundred votes in the 1928 election...

If we do not learn the lessons of the past, we may well find ourselves reliving the nightmares of the past.

Time is short!

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