Fascism is not just another form of capitalist authoritarian rule, nor can it be reduced to a tool of big business or finance capital.
Any such analysis can have disastrous consequences. If fascism is just another form of reaction then it is possible to think that it will come and go like other repressive regimes.
That was the position essentially taken by Communists in Italy in 1922 when Benito Mussolini came to power, and in Germany 11 years later when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor.
During the Spanish Civil War the Communists argued fascism represented the most reactionary section of the ruling class, implying that an alliance could be built with “progressive” capitalists.
Few of these existed. But the search for such an alliance required putting a brake on the self-activity of the working class, even though it was their uprisings which inflicted the only serious defeats on fascist forces at the very outset of the war.
Fascism is about the construction of a mass movement which is independent of the ruling class and its state and can be unleashed at times of acute social tension.
The Nazis did not receive major funding or support from big business until shortly before coming to power.
Italian fascism had greater direct support from the capitalists and the landlords, emerging as it did after a revolutionary crisis in 1920. But the great industrialists of Milan and Turin were cool towards Mussolini.
Neither the Italian or German ruling classes were keen to bring adventurers like Mussolini and Hitler to power. But their fear of the working class and their inability to construct stable, conventional authoritarian regimes drove them to that.
In both countries fascism had created a mass movement whose main theatre was the street. Yet this movement united disparate groups.
Some were disaffected conservatives and liberals who shared a common anti-communism, nationalism and racism and who liked the promise of future imperial grandeur.
They looked down at the Nazi street fighters they rubbed shoulders with.
In the process of constructing a mass movement both Hitler and Mussolini employed anti-capitalist rhetoric reflecting the anger of supporters such as small farmers, small shopkeepers or unemployed workers.
The fact that fascism seeks to construct a mass movement, within which there are diverse groups and interests, is both its strength and a potential weakness.
It was because fascism had a mass paramilitary movement which could be used against the left and working class that it appealed to a ruling class fearful of possible revolution.
The ruling class was concerned that the police and army were not sufficient to meet that challenge.
Mussolini and Hitler’s deal with the established ruling class was the same. They took power but they had to guarantee big business free rein.
The fascists’ “anti-capitalist” message was always aimed at particular individuals rather than the capitalist class as whole – Jewish financiers, international or Anglo-Saxon capital and parasitical loan sharks.
There is a continuity here with today’s fascists like the British National Party. It promises a “national community”, with no non-whites as some future idyll, free of class division. Its attacks on capitalism target errant individuals.
There was a tension between the “national” revolution fascism promised and the strong conservative message which became more dominant as fascism neared power.
Both Hitler and Mussolini could change from a uniform into a suit to deliver a different message at a meeting with potential business backers.
Once installed, fascism did not act as a revolutionary force. The concentration of capital into fewer hands gathered pace.
Rural depopulation continued, workers’ wages were driven down, hours increased and work conditions made worse. Any organisation independent of the state was banned.
Mussolini and Hitler did not aim to overthrow the ruling elite but to shore them up by destroying working class resistance.
In Germany the Third Reich was a clumsy system in which the Nazi Party, increasingly the SS, big business and the military command all contested for power. Hitler acted as the broker between them.
The storm troopers who felt they had brought Hitler to power felt sidelined.
The one way Hitler could keep them satisfied was by unleashing genocidal racism against the Jews and the Slav populations of Eastern Europe.