What is fascism?

April 2016 FascistsBy JEFF MACKLER

Despite the charged rhetoric of Trump and Co., the U.S. ruling class today has no need or desire to play the fascist card. Absent any significant working-class opposition to its policies and with a broad array of consciously constructed and/or controlled pro-Democratic Party “civil rights, immigrant rights and environmental NGO-type organizations” behind it, coupled with an ever-declining labor movement headed by the most hide-bound pro-capitalist and parasitic union bureaucracy ever, the ruling rich today have little to fear, at least in the short term, from a mass working-class insurgency capable of challenging its rule.

Fascism, historically the most extreme political form of capitalist rule, is called into being only when the question of which class shall rule society—either the working class and its allies or the minority property-owning elite—is sharply posed.

This was the case in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the 1920s and the 1930s, where mass workers’ organizations led by Communists and Socialists, and anarchists in Spain, had the power and mass support to paralyze capitalist society through massive mobilizations and general strikes. Indeed, were it not for the Stalinist and reformist mis-leaders of these and other working-class parties, socialist revolution would have likely been on the immediate order of the day. Only at this point did the divided and frightened capitalist classes employ the fascist option, which began with the physical annihilation of the leadership of the mass workers’ parties and organizations.

Fascism arises only when, in the context of a deep economic crisis, society experiences a deep class polarization characterized by broad struggles of radicalizing and class-conscious workers and their organizations on the one side—potentially capable of seizing power and ending capitalist rule—and a frightened, divided, and largely impotent minority capitalist class on the other.

Under these circumstances, armed fascist gangs, usually consisting of a threatened petty-bourgeois layer (middle class), accompanied by de-classed and alienated workers (the lumpen proletariat) and a small portion of misguided working-class elements, begin to take form under the tutelage of a “strongman” leader, usually trumpeting “left-sounding” populist/nationalist language against the powers that be, while scapegoating the most oppressed layers of society.

Hitler and Mussolini, and Franco in Spain, initially organized and armed these disaffected elements to direct their anger and frustrations against the major organizations of the working class as opposed to the ruling capitalist class. They routinely deployed armed thugs to break up union meetings and workers’ protests.

These fascist-led forces operated outside the formal police and military institutions of the still “democratic” capitalist state, although with its increasing implicit approval. But when the beleaguered capitalist rulers came to realize that the deepening working-class mobilizations had the potential to challenge their rule, and at a time when even the ranks of the working-class-based bourgeois army were considered unreliable instruments to quell workers’ uprisings, they felt compelled to call on or accede to the now sizeable armed fascist forces to assume at least a share of the state power.

Adolph Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party, for example, was never elected as Chancellor of Germany. In January 1933 he was appointed to this post by Germany’s president, Paul Von Hindenburg, ostensibly to keep Hitler’s forces “in check”—that is, to give the Nazi Party a piece of the state power to be wielded against an insurgent workers’ movement without posing a direct threat to Germany’s existing “democratic” capitalist parliamentary institutions. In short order, however, Hitler employed his new “legitimacy” to physically smash, dismember, murder, or imprison the leading ranks of the mass parties of the working class—especially the Stalinist-led Communist Party, the largest in the world outside the Soviet Union, and the reformist Socialist Party.

Tragically, it was the refusal of the Stalinists to join forces with the Socialists in a workers’ united front to challenge Hitler and the capitalist state power itself that led to one of history’s most terrible working-class defeats, and, indeed, the single most important event that opened the road to the Second World War, which cost the lives of 80 million people worldwide.

Photo: Nazi supporters in 1938 cheer Hitler’s campaign to unite Germany and Austria.