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July/August 2003 • Vol 3, No. 7 •

What Is Fascism?

By Nat Weinstein

The essay below was originally written as an introduction to a collection of writings by Leon Trotsky published under the title, Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It?1

One of the least understood phenomena spawned by capitalism in the 20th century is the deadly scourge of fascism. The most common source of confusion is created by those who confound ordinary capitalist politicians with their far more virulent fascist variety. The worst offenders are those labor bureaucrats and reformist socialists who claim to speak for the working class. On those occasions when it’s difficult to distinguish which pro-capitalist candidate for public office is the “lesser-evil,” they may sling the term “fascist” against one to justify supporting the other.

Like the fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” such false alarms ill-prepare working people for recognizing the exceptional virulence of fascism when it appears on the scene as a major threat. It paves the way for the rapid growth of a mass fascist movement when the capitalist class decides to play that card. And capitalists are sure to do so when an economic crisis impels the working class on the road toward revolutionary action.

There are some general characteristics by which one can recognize fascism. These include racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious bigotry. But unlike most rightwing bigoted outfits, many of which are not necessarily fascist, it comes heavily disguised with radical populist rhetoric. However what really sets fascism apart is its orientation toward extra-legal physical assaults on the mass organizations of the working class and scapegoated sectors of the population.

The essence of fascism, as we shall see, lies less in its words, important as they are, than in its deeds. Moreover, an effective fascist movement is not likely to come advertised with swastikas or other exotic symbols of Italian and German fascism. It’s most successful advocates tend to adopt an image compatible with the history and culture of the given country.

The first to make a serious scientific analysis of the phenomenon of fascism was Leon Trotsky. It was one of his many important contributions to Marxist theory. He began his analysis of fascism with Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy and brought it to a high point in the years preceding Adolf Hitler’s triumph in Germany in 1933. He added further insight into this phenomenon by analyzing its subsequent manifestations in France, Spain, Britain and the United States.

Trotsky explains that fascism is not simple capitalist reaction. It is especially virulent because it masks its anti-working class and bigoted message behind radical populist and pseudo-anticapitalist rhetoric. Much of fascist phrase-mongering is designed to divert capitalism’s victims from seeing the actual cause of their misery and direct it, instead, toward a variety of scapegoats. In fact, history’s most notorious fascist demagogues, Mussolini and Hitler, mobilized powerful mass fascist movements by spouting the most radical populism, along with “anti-capitalist”, “anti-imperialist,” and even “socialist” demagoguery.

Trotsky points out that in stable economic periods, capitalism has no need for fascist gangs. It’s too expensive. A fascist dictatorship in state power will defend capitalism but at the price of extorting for its own benefit an exorbitant portion of its profits. The capitalist class, therefore, prefers capitalist democracy in periods of relative capitalist economic equilibrium, since it requires the least use of naked force and is a far cheaper method of rule.

Thus, it’s only when the regular military and police forces of the bourgeois democratic state are not sufficient for repressing an insurgent working class that the dominant capitalists will opt for the fascist solution and provide it with whatever material resources are required for mobilizing a mass extra-legal military force to crush the threat of proletarian revolution.

In his attempts to awaken the Stalinized German Communist Party and the Communist International to the mortal danger, and to rally a united-front struggle against Hitler and his Nazi thugs, Trotsky made a point-by-point analysis of the policies of both the openly reformist Social Democrats and the Stalinized Communist Party. His writings on the subject constitute a compendium of almost all the mistaken, ineffective, and suicidal positions that workers’ organizations can take regarding fascism. He hoped to influence the rank and file of both workers’ parties, many of whom, in those days, still thought of themselves as revolutionary socialists.

In the years before Hitler’s conquest of power, Stalinism was in its “Third Period.” (In 1928 Stalin had declared capitalism to be in its last phase—the third and final period of world capitalist rule—and about to be quickly replaced by proletarian revolutions.) Stalinist tactics over the next six years were marked by ultraleftism, sectarianism and adventurism.

Thus, during the “Third Period,” Stalin declared that all capitalist parties were fascist—thereby reducing Hitler’s gangs of murderous thugs to just another pro-capitalist opponent. This was tantamount to placing a skull-and-crossbones poison label on all sorts of bad-tasting substances along with placing it on fascism, the deadliest poison of them all.

Even more catastrophic was the German Communist Party’s opposition to forming a united front with the Social Democrats against the Nazis on the grounds that the Socialists were just another version of fascism—in Stalin’s words, “not opposite poles, but twins.” Stalinism thus labeled the largest workers party in Germany, numbering in the millions of members and supporters as “social-fascists.”

However, while noting the similarity—as agents of capitalism—between the Social Democracy and Hitler’s fascists, Trotsky also pointed to a qualitative difference between the two. Trotsky wrote:

It is undoubtedly true that the Social Democracy, like fascism, stands to defend the bourgeois regime against the proletarian revolution. But the methods of the two parties are entirely different. The Social Democracy is unthinkable without parliamentary government and mass organizations of the workers in trade unions. The mission of fascism, however, is to destroy both. A defensive union of Communists and the Social Democrats should have been based on this antagonism. But blind leaders refused to take this approach. The workers were left divided, defenseless, without plans or prospects before the attacking enemy. This position demoralized the proletariat and strengthened the self-confidence of fascism....

The German Communists and their supporters also numbered in the hundreds of thousands and at times had the support of millions. Together in a workers’ united front, the two mass workers’ parties were an objectively irresistible force—and with other sensible tactics, more than adequate for defeating the fascist menace.

Trotsky also answered those who argued that the middle class fears revolution and therefore the workers’ movement must not scare them with revolutionary action. He explains that this notion is half-true and therefore false. He sums up the complex social psychology of the middle class in this short paragraph:

Naturally, the petty proprietor 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 peasant and the artisan are in their manner realists. They understand that one cannot forego the use of force....

A crisis throwing millions out of work and causing a qualitative reduction in living standards for all working people and increasing numbers of the petty bourgeoisie, will allow the fascist virus, sidelined in periods of capitalist stability, to grow to epidemic proportions. The middle class, especially its lower layers, will face economic hardship, bankruptcy and pauperization, along with the great majority of the working class. But it has no independent solution to capitalist crises. In such periods it can only choose between the solutions offered by the two main contending classes—workers and capitalists.

The big bourgeoisie can only offer the middle class a “new order” of “peace and justice” based on crushing the insurgent workers’ movement with an iron fist. In contrast, the proletariat must show the middle class that it has a diametrically opposed solution to capitalist crises—a truly new order based on a socialist reorganization of society.

But most importantly, Trotsky points out that the interests of a majority of the middle class closely parallels those of the workers and look first to their natural allies against big business for a solution to their plight. But the proletariat must show the petty bourgeoisie that it means business, otherwise they will turn in desperation to the fascists for an end to their suffering. Trotsky wrote:

It must have a clear program of action and must be ready to struggle for power by all possible means. Tempered by its revolutionary party for a decisive and pitiless struggle, the proletariat says to the peasants and petty bourgeoisie of the cities: “We are struggling for power. Here is our program. We are ready to discuss with you changes in this program. We will employ violence only against big capital and its lackeys, but with you toilers, we desire to conclude an alliance on the basis of a given program.” The peasants will understand such language. Only, they must have faith in the capacity of the proletariat to seize power....

Unfortunately, history shows that workers were unable in those years to construct a mass revolutionary party and leadership that was up to the task set for it by history. The mass parties of the working class, a potentially irresistible powerhouse, were made impotent by their deeply flawed political outlook. Trotsky summed up the tragic consequences in both Italy and Germany in a single sentence. He wrote:

“The victory of the party of despair [fascism] was possible only because socialism, the party of hope, was unable to take power.”

A careful study of Trotsky’s writings on what fascism is and how to fight it, will underscore the indispensability of constructing a mass revolutionary workers party. Only such a party can lead the human race out of the capitalist quagmire and toward a socialist world without war, without hunger, without borders, without social, economic and political injustice.

A Thumbnail Sketch of Leon Trotsky

Trotsky, along with V. I. Lenin was one of the most authoritative leaders of the world’s first successful workers’ revolution in Russia in October 1917.

The October Revolution established the most democratic form of government in history. The new government was a soviet (or workers) democracy. Representatives were elected from their places of work rather than from the districts in which they lived. Thus, workers, farmers and soldiers intimately knew those who they chose to be their elected representatives to the soviet (Russian for “council”) government.

The soviet form of government gave qualitatively greater control over the actions of the Russian people’s elected representatives than is the case in bourgeois democracies.

A further democratic guarantee resulted from two other important provisions. Elected soviet delegates were paid at a rate comparable to that earned by workers. This way there was little incentive for those interested in special privilege to seek election to the soviets. Moreover, workers’ remained at their regular jobs except when serving in their capacity as elected members of the soviets. Furthermorre all soviet delegates were subject to immediate recall at any time by a simple majority vote of their constituents.

Trotsky was also known as the world’s foremost opponent of Joseph Stalin’s bureaucratic dictatorship which began its crushing of workers’ democracy and its climb to power shortly after the death of Lenin in 1924.

Stalin, who ultimately led the bureaucracy to the conquest of political power and the destruction of workers’ democracy—including the murder of millions of his working class opponents by firing squad, torture, starvation, and exposure to abominal conditions in Siberian prison camps—saw Trotsky as his deadliest foe. He exiled Trotsky in 1927, then hounded him from country to country, making many attempts to silence him.

In Mexico, where Trotsky was in his last exile, an assassin sent by Stalin finally succeeded in ridding the bureaucratic dictatorship of its nemesis in August 1940 with a pickaxe to his brain.

1 The first compilation under this title was printed by Pioneer Publishers in August 1944 and reprinted in 1964. A revised compilation was printed in 1969 by Pathfinder Press., New York. A revised edition was published by Walnut, San Francisco, 1996.





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