Socialist Worker

What is fascism?

Fascism is about more than just racism – it is an ideology that aims to destroy all democracy. Today’s British National Party stands in this tradition, writes Anindya Bhattacharyya.

Issue No. 2102

Adolf Hitler with his Brownshirts in the late 1920s

Adolf Hitler with his Brownshirts in the late 1920s

Many people reading the mainstream media coverage of the British National Party (BNP) will have been struck by a curious coyness when it comes to describing the nature of the organisation.

The newspapers and TV news reports are happy to describe the BNP as “far right”, “hard right” or even as “extremist”. But, as a rule, they are reluctant to explicitly call the BNP a fascist organisation.

There are certainly no legal barriers to doing this. The Standards Board for England ruled in 2005 that describing the BNP as Nazi was “within the normal and acceptable limits of political debate”.

Partly this reluctance is due to widespread confusion over what fascism is, how fascist organisations differ from merely racist or right wing ones, and why fascist organisations pose such a unique threat to all forms of democracy at every level of society.

This confusion is compounded by the habit of using “fascist” as a catch-all term for any kind of authoritarian rule.

In fact it is not so difficult to grasp what fascism is, providing one is willing to look outside liberal approaches to history.


Leon Trotsky, the great Russian revolutionary, was one of the first to notice the key difference between fascists and other, more traditional forms of authoritarian reaction.

He saw that the fascists used a dual strategy of participating in democratic politics while also organising terror gangs on the ground against the left.

In the past the ruling class typically relied on the police and army to put down revolts. But with the rise of capitalism came a new mass form of politics where huge numbers of ordinary people played an active political role, whether in elections or directly in the form of mass upheavals or revolutions.

The old forms of counter-revolution became less effective. The police were too easily outnumbered and the army was prone to mutiny.

That is why after the Russian Revolution of 1917 the ruling class turned to a new weapon, an extreme form of counter-revolution – fascism.

Fascism has never taken power in a country simply through elections – fascist parties have always been handed power by ruling classes in crisis.

So, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933 as Germany’s rulers faced an extreme economic crisis that they feared could spark a workers’ revolution.

This does not mean that fascist parties do not win support among people outside the ruling class. Fascist movements build their base among the middle class and what Trotsky called “human dust” – those people who, in times of crisis, are not part of a wider social force with a radical and collective tradition – as workers are – that can fight back.

They use racist ideology to glue their supporters together and create a scapegoat for the discontent that exists – with a devastating impact on those targeted.

The main aim of fascism is not the annihilation of one racial group within society. It is to smash all forms of democracy and take away the rights of the entire working class – black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, Muslim and non-Muslim.

Fascist movements use a dual strategy of building brute force on the ground and creating a “respectable” political facade.

Benito Mussolini’s fascist party in Italy arose out of former veterans of the First World War organising themselves in right wing gangs to beat up socialists and trade union activists.

Mussolini combined these gangs with a “respectable” nationalist political organisation to appeal to the Italian ruling class to hand over power to him. At first Italy’s rulers were suspicious – but by 1922 their fear of the rising workers movement overcame their distrust, and Mussolini was granted power.

Hitler developed a similar strategy in Germany in the 1920s. At first he tried to seize power by force with the “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923. But this ended in humiliation and defeat for his fledgling Nazi party.

It was only after that defeat that Hitler and his allies took off their paramilitary uniforms and donned suits, seeking legitimacy as a “respectable” right wing party.

After the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust, fascism was thrown into crisis. Attempts by fascist activists to revive the Nazi movement were met with scorn and derision by ordinary people across Europe.


It was during this time that French fascists headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen decided they had to change track. They would no longer openly proclaim their dedication to Hitler and genocidal racism.

Instead they would present themselves as nationalists, concerned about immigration and multiculturalism, in order to embed themselves within the political system.

This did not mean dropping fascism, but hiding it. Le Pen’s Front National still has an army of thugs it uses to spread race hatred and terror, as does the BNP in Britain.

Whenever the BNP manages to root itself locally, racist attacks and murders in that area rise.

The strategy for anti-fascists is to unite the broadest possible forces against the Nazis, to expose and confound their attempts to pose as a legitimate democratic party, and to confront them on every front until they are driven out of the political mainstream and back into the gutter where they belong.

Further reading

Fascism – what it is and how to fight it by Leon Trotsky

The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class by Donny Gluckstein

Stopping the Nazi Menace by Chris Bambery

The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert Paxton

All available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop phone 020 7637 1848 »

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