KOREA COLUMN 26
What is fascism?
The worst defeat suffered by the working class in the 20th century – the coming to power of Hitler and the Nazis – led directly to the worst catastrophe for humanity in the century, the Second World War, and the worst single crime against humanity, the Holocaust. This nexus of events, therefore, poses a number of questions of the highest political importance: what was the cause of the Nazi phenomenon? What was the nature of the Nazi movement? What enabled it to take power? Could it have been stopped? Could it happen again? Above all, what lessons can we learn from the past to help ensure that it doesn’t happen again?
Obviously it is not possible to deal properly with all these issues in a single column, but what I will try to do is to set out the main lines of the Marxist analysis of Nazism, which can then serve as a basis for fuller answers to the above questions. This analysis was developed principally by Leon Trotsky in 1929-33, i.e. the years of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and it is best understood in relation, and contrast, to the bourgeois and the orthodox communist, i.e. Stalinist, interpretations of Nazism.
The bourgeois view of Nazism, embodied in thousands of press articles, books, films, TV programmes etc., oscillates between seeing it as an outgrowth of the German national character (its supposed authoritarianism, militarism, cruelty etc.) and as the product of the evil genius of one man, Hitler, who allegedly hypnotised an entire nation with his demonic oratory. These two interpretations, which formally contradict one another, are complementary in that they avoid any connection with social forces or economics, and especially any connection with capitalism.
However, two simple and obvious facts expose the falsity of the bourgeois view in both its versions. The first is that German Nazism was part of an international fascist movement that did not begin or end in Germany, but which existed with varying degrees of strength in almost every country, including supposedly ‘moderate’ Britain, and which first came to power with Mussolini in Italy. The second is that Hitler and his Nazi Party only became a serious political force in Germany in the wake of the international economic crisis that began with the Wall St. Crash in October 1929. Prior to this Hitler’s supposed oratorical powers had little appeal to the German people.
For Trotsky, and for all Marxists, fascism as a whole was a product of, and response to, the international crisis of capitalism that gripped the system following the First World War. It was an attempt to resolve that crisis in the interests of capital by dispensing with parliamentary democracy, establishing a reactionary dictatorship, and crushing the working class.
To this general analysis Trotsky made a crucial addition. He saw that fascism was not just a policy or political trend promoted by the capitalist class as such, or even by a section or wing of big business. Rather fascism began as a real mass movement based in the lower middle class or petty bourgeoisie. This class suffered acutely and in a particular way in the economic crisis: on the one hand crushed from above by the banks and giant monopolies, on the other pressured from below by the trade unions and organised working class. Driven to despair by the economic crisis and feeling ground between the great millstones of the two major classes the petty bourgeoisie ‘went berserk’, and became fertile ground for fascist demagogy.
It is this class basis, which provides the key to the understanding of fascist and Nazi ideology, including its anti-Semitic component. In one direction, ‘anti- capitalist’ rhetoric, but directed against international and finance capital rather than capitalism as such. In the other direction, and much more serious, bitter anti- communism , anti-socialism and anti - trade unionism. Then, uniting both elements, at least in the fascist imagination, anti-Semitism – the Jews as the sinister conspiracy behind both finance capital and communism (after all were not Rothschild and Marx both Jews?).Finally, standing above the classes, the mythical exaltation of the state, the nation, the leader and the race.
The petty bourgeois basis of fascism also shapes its development as a movement. No matter how many supporters it attracts fascism cannot take power by itself, because the lower middle class cannot overthrow the capitalist class proper. Instead it has to be ‘lifted’ into power by big business, as happened in Germany in the autumn of !932. But the ruling class will only take the risk of partially relinquishing control of their state to dangerous outsiders under extreme pressure and it has to be convinced a) that the severity of the crisis is such that it can no longer continue to rule in the old way, and b) that the gamble of unleashing the fascists on the organisations of the working class will succeed. Equally the fascists have to have proved themselves worthy of ruling class backing, by demonstrating in practice their ability to take on the workers’ organisations on the streets.
If the petty bourgeois base of fascism makes it dependant on big business, it nevertheless enables it to offer the ruling class something beyond what is offered by ‘ordinary’ police or military dictatorship. This is a mass cadre at grass roots level which can smash workers’ organisations in the workplaces, on the estates, in the streets, far more thoroughly and effectively than just external operations by the police or army.
This analysis, developed in detail by Trotsky in his brilliant writings on The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, not only captured the essence of fascism but also showed how it could be fought. First, because fascism was such a mortal threat to all workers’ organisations, it was necessary to establish maximum working class unity against fascism by means of the workers’ United Front. (It was precisely this unity that Stalinism sabotaged in 1929-33 with its ultra-left notion that social democrats were social fascists). Second, the petty bourgeoisie could be won over to the side of the working class or at least neutralised, provided the socialist left could convincingly present itself as able to resolve the chronic crisis of the system. In the end this meant proving in practice its ability to overthrow capitalism. ( Again it was just this that was prevented by the later Stalinist policy of alliance with the ‘progressive bourgeoisie’ in the Popular Front.)
The contemporary relevance of these lessons should be clear. The crisis of the system, though less acute than in the 1930s, is still with us and, therefore, so is the threat of fascism, regardless of national character or individual leaders. If the threat is not yet immediate, all the more reason it should be nipped in the bud by strong united working class action. However to eliminate the fascist threat for good, to make the slogan ‘Never Again’ a permanent reality, it is necessary to destroy its breeding ground, the xcapitalist system.
4 July 2007