This year marks the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s accession to power, it is appropriate therefore to look again at fascism, and to remind ourselves of those salient features of fascist movements and regimes which have become obscured with the passage of time. There is more to fascism than the legacy of war and genocide. That was where fascism ended, but during its rise, and where it took power in the years before the Second World War, many observers, particularly those on the left, noted its anti-working class bias and the nature of the economic system over which it presided.
No little nonsense is written about fascism these days, mostly by historians and commentators trying to explain it without a class perspective. They are therefore prone to being led astray by claims made by fascism about itself, claims which, then as now, were designed to obscure its true nature and to prevent people asking the important questions: under what conditions did fascism grow, how was it elevated to power and who benefitted from its rule?
Fascists presented themselves as idealists, as saviours of race and nation and as the heralds of a new age. They spoke of heroism, glory and redemption. Their movements and regimes cloaked themselves in pageantry, ritual and spectacle. This was a heady mix, and fooled many at the time. Yet it has also filtered into more recent attempts to explain what fascism was, and writers who are not sufficiently critical are at best perpetuating the myths that fascism spun, and at worst obscuring important lessons learned the hard way.
The keenest observers of fascism were on the left. This is unsurprising as fascist movements made it their business to attack socialists, communists and anarchists almost from their inception. Fascism emerges in times of intense economic crisis or social upheaval and draws support from those classes which feel themselves threatened by the resulting working class discontent.
italy: revolution and reaction
In Italy, the birthplace of fascism, the movement had been ignited by nationalist sentiment engendered by the outbreak of the First World War. It took hold among those who believed Italian neutrality to be a mark of shame and who saw in the conflict an opportunity to revive national pride and to seize territory beyond Italy’s borders. Mussolini and others formerly of the left abandoned their socialism and embraced nationalism. Italy entered the war in 1915, but this band of interventionists emerged embittered at the minimal gains the country received in the aftermath.
Their hatred was quickly turned against other Italians when the post-war depression led workers to occupy factories and peasants to seize the estates of the landed gentry. To the fascists, these were Italy’s new enemies, and the industrial and agrarian ruling class, terrified by the threat of revolution, eagerly turned to fascism as a means of crushing these movements and securing their status and profits.
In fact, the industrial strike wave was undermined without overmuch fascist intervention, defeated not least by the moderation of the reformist trade union leaders who, much like the British TUC in the 1926 General Strike, were as scared of revolution as were the ruling class.
Nevertheless, Italian fascism eagerly entered the fray in many areas, beating and murdering workers and peasants, and attacking the premises of the left. In this they were blatantly aided by the state. Police turned a blind eye to fascist “expeditions”, the army provided them with weapons, transport, training and personnel, while political leaders often looked on with glee at the fascist assault on the working class. The wily Italian prime minister, Giovanni Giolitti, was clear that the fascist movement was doing his dirty work for him, going so far as to call Mussolini’s thugs “my Black and Tans”.
But greater rewards awaited Mussolini. Despite having next to no electoral support, the fascists were included on the conservative/nation-alist slate in the 1921 elections and, by means of a behind-the-scenes deal involving the king, the military and much of the political elite, Mussolini was installed at the head of a coalition government the following year. In Italy, as elsewhere, fascism took office at the behest of a ruling class badly shaken by class conflict and fearful of the future.
Once at the helm, Mussolini enacted measures that “democratic” governments could not get away with. Wages were driven down and working conditions rapidly deteriorated. Unions were restricted and then replaced by fascist labour organisations. Sweeping privatisations were carried out and a campaign of violence, arbitrary imprisonment and murder was carried on against all sections of the left. Economic and business policy was given over to financiers and bankers who had had no connections with fascism before 1922.
germany: fascism and racism
A model had been established: in crisis conditions the existing ruling class would back a fascist movement to smash the working class, ceding a measure of political power in order to retain and extend their own economic power. Whether or not they believed they could control their new partners, they nonetheless allowed fascism to pursue its own obsessions, be they imperial, martial or, when it came to Germany, racial.
Like Italian fascism, Nazism arose in the desperate conditions prevailing at the end of the First World War. Fiercely nationalistic, terrified by the threat from the revolutionary left and even of the prospect of moderate socialists participating in government, the Nazis attracted embittered former soldiers, frightened members of the middle class and, from the start, elements of the German military and industrial elite who saw in the party the chance to smash the left and the unions, and to re-impose order and discipline on the working class.
Added to this was a poisonous and paranoid racial hatred, scarcely present in Italian fascism, and directed primarily against German Jews. Yet this does not differentiate Nazism from Italian fascism, but merely shows that fascism could have distinct national characteristics while still sharing the vital defining traits: the desire to crush the working class and to impose an enhanced capitalism in the name of national unity.
Hitler made no secret of his admiration for Mussolini and wanted to replicate his assumption of power. Yet he was premature in his first attempt. He mobilised his forces in Munich in November 1923, believing that significant elements in German society would then support his accession to power at the head of a conservative/nationalist/Nazi coalition. But at this time Hitler’s later backers still had other alternatives and were not ready to throw in their lot with this largely provincial movement. Hitler went to jail for his adventurism, and emerged convinced that he and the party would have to work much harder to inculcate themselves with sections of the German people and, just as importantly, with those potential sympathisers who already held influence in the corridors of power.
This he did over several years, determinedly making contacts with military men, industrialists and conservatives. Though Nazism never made significant inroads into the labour movement, in the streets and at the ballot box the Nazis mobilised a broad coalition of those fearful as to the course of events in Germany: the middle classes who suffered under inflation and the depression; anti-Semites who blamed the Jews for every wrong; some of the unemployed who had lost faith in the potential of their class; nationalists who still resented the outcome of the war; and conservatives who foresaw revolution.
Eventually, the Nazis’ moment came. At a time of acute economic crisis, with unemployment running at six million in Germany and the Communist Party making gains at each successive election, Hitler’s carefully cultivated friends in high places bit the bullet and installed him as Chancellor at the head of a coalition cabinet. The Nazis had never won an election, indeed their vote seemed to have peaked and was in decline, yet Hitler’s promises to smash the left and the labour movement, and to lift restrictions on German business were enough to activate the backstairs alliance which elevated him to power.
Of course, they were wrong in thinking they could contain him in a conservative-dominated cabinet, yet he was still as good as his word. The organisations of the left were assaulted and then proscribed. Germany’s venerable reformist unions were banned in a single day. Workers were forced into pro-boss Nazi labour organisations and it became illegal to strike and dangerous to complain. Wages shrank and profits increased. Militants of all shades disappeared into concentration camps, exile or early graves. The Jews were increasingly dispossessed and their wealth and businesses were redistributed, usually among the German bourgeoisie.
As in Italy, those within fascism who wrongly believed that the nationalist rhetoric meant a measure of equality and a fair shake for the working class were quickly disabused of their illusions. In Italy there were regular purges to remove these deluded souls. In Germany, those with equal faith in both the nationalism and the “socialism” of National Socialism were murdered in the “Night of the Long Knives” in June 1934. Hitler had always set his face against what he saw as dangerous experiments with the economy. When it came to a choice between pre-existing power structures in Germany and the lives of some of his oldest comrades, he did not hesitate.
the question of the state
All sections of the left, from moderate socialists to anarcho-syndicalists, can agree that fascism always arises in conditions of economic turmoil and political conflict, that it is always hoisted into power by elements of the existing ruling class and that, once installed, it acts in the interests of its backers. These elites cede a large portion of their political power to fascism in return for economic security and suppression of threats to their property and profitability.
However, what distinguishes the anarchist critique of fascism from other left wing analyses is the question of the state. We have always opposed the concentration of power that the state represents, whether the state is “democratic” or fascist. But socialists and communists generally believe that the state is a neutral entity, and would be safe in their hands. In fact, fascism always comes to power aided by those within the state structure, then uses and intensifies state power for its own ends and to protect the economic interests of its backers.
The state is not neutral; it is the mechanism by which one group in society maintains control over all others. An anti-fascism which does not aim to dismantle the state is one which leaves intact the very weapon which has been and, in the right circumstances, will be used again to elevate fascism to power and to crush all anti-fascists. Fascism is not just capitalism in extremis, it is the ultimate manifestation of state power, shorn of all restraints. You cannot have fascism without a state, without hierarchy and domination. Fascism is not revolutionary. It does not seize state power. It is given it. And anti-fascists would do well to remember this.