How big a threat is fascism today? For many, even on the left, it belongs to the first half of the 20th century, the “age of the dictators”. It has nothing to do with the era of neoliberalism, globalisation, and the internet.
Fascism certainly was a product of the most severe crisis in the history of capitalism. The impact of the Great Depression on German society brought the Nazis to power under Adolf Hitler in January 1933.
But the economic crisis of the 1930s was merely the sharpest point of a much more protracted social fracture. One right wing historian, Ernst Nolte, called the period between 1914 and 1945 “The European Civil War”.
The cumulative impact of world war and economic crisis shattered the structures of capitalist society, producing a sharp polarisation between left and right. It also broke up the traditional political frameworks that had served to contain social tensions. Finally, the experience of war on an unprecedented scale let loose large numbers of men who were embittered, radicalised, and habituated to extreme violence.
The early fascist movements that emerged at the end of the First World War in 1918 welded some of these men into paramilitary formations. Nolte dubbed their politics “revolutionary reaction”. Although the fascists sought to crush the revolutionary threat posed by the working class, they promised their own “revolution”.
What these movements sought to achieve was utopian- a society in which “national” capital and labour were reconciled and the small producer dominated. This ideology displaced the social discontents of the European Civil War onto outsiders- “Jewish finance capital”.
From the point of view of the ruling class, this ideology could be directed against the organised working class.
So, in Italy in the early 1920s and in Germany a decade later, big capital and the state grudgingly and reluctantly turned to the fascists. Only they had disciplined mass movements capable of systematically smashing and atomising the organised working class.
If we compare the conditions prevailing between 1914 and 1945 with those today, there are plainly big differences. Capitalism, especially in the advanced economies, has experienced in the last generation slow growth punctuated by speculative booms. The result has been stagnating living standards, not the mass deprivation experienced during the world wars and the Great Depression.
Capitalist political structures are also in many ways much stronger today. The German Weimar Republic (1919-33) was permanently destabilised by the existence of powerful “anti-system” parties- the Communists on the extreme left, the Nazis on the extreme right. The French Third Republic was also undermined by almost as powerful pressures.
Nothing comparable is to be found in the contemporary advanced capitalist world. But this is no reason for complacency. It’s clear that global economic structures are coming under increasing pressure thanks to neoliberal deregulation and more intense international competition.
Moreover, the capitalist political system is superficially strong but is being progressively hollowed out. A toxic combination of mass disillusionment with mainstream parties that no longer represent them and the incitement that consumerism gives to individuals to focus on their own lives is eroding the legitimacy of liberal democracy.
What’s happened in Italy in the past 15 years is a warning. The collapse of a party system discredited by scandal has opened the doors of government to a billionaire political adventurer allied to extremely nasty forces from the far right.
Serious Nazi parties like the BNP and the Front National in France are far from taking power. But they are building up the popular support and disciplined activists that they hope can make them contenders in a more serious crisis.
That’s why it’s so important to mobilise against them now, before the threat becomes too great.