Extreme right and even openly fascist parties with a mass following are on the rise across Europe.
In Greece Golden Dawn thugs target migrants for beatings, while in Hungary the black-uniformed activists of Jobbik organise pogroms against Roma people.
Such parties are also gaining electoral support. Golden Dawn polls 10 percent, making it the third most popular party, while the French Front National (FN) polled 46.2 percent in a recent by-election.
In Britain the threat is less immediate. But relatively small organisations, such as the English Defence League and the British National Party, aim to emulate their European cousins.
Mainstream commentators hesitate to label such organisations as “fascist”. They say it is lazy to compare today’s extreme right to the parties of Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany.
The horrors of Hitler’s regime in the 1930s and 40s leave a long shadow. All independent organisations from the Communist Party to the Boy Scouts were banned.
The Nazis killed millions of people they saw as inferior in the Holocaust—because they were Jewish, LGBT, Roma or disabled.
Partly to avoid association with Hitler, many contemporary movements have to put on a respectable outward appearance. But they maintain a commitment to fascist ideas.
The uncertainty about who to call a fascist reflects a widespread confusion about what fascism is and why it differs from other forms of dictatorship.
Leon Trotsky, the great Russian revolutionary, was the first to describe the key differences between fascism and other forms of authoritarian rule.
When they emerged in the crises of the 1920s fascists were marked out by their use of a dual strategy. They both participated in democratic politics using populist right wing language, and organised terror gangs to attack the left and other opponents.
In earlier eras, Trotsky noted, the ruling class typically relied on the army to put down revolts. But capitalism gave rise to new forms of politics in which huge numbers of people played an active role.
Now old forms of control were less effective. The police were too easily outnumbered and the army was prone to mutiny. That created the need for another way of maintaining order—a mass movement that could counter the mass movements of the workers—fascism.
Trotsky argued that fascist organisation was dominated by the middle classes—managers, shop keepers and the self employed.
In normal times most of this layer supports mainstream parties. But in an economic crisis they can become rabid and search for more extreme solutions.
The ruling class—the bourgeoisie—has vast reserves of wealth which sees it through economic depression. Workers have unions that offer some protection. But the middle classes feel isolated and defenceless. The fascist movement offers them a taste of power.
“Fascism unites and arms the scattered masses. Out of human dust it organises combat detachments,” Trotsky wrote. “It thus gives the petty bourgeoisie the illusion of being an independent force. It turns worms into dragons.”
Fascism promises the middle classes a “third way” of organising society—neither capitalist nor socialist. However, on taking power, fascism always leaves the fundamentals of capitalist society untouched.
There are other ways in which fascism seeks to appeal to middle class prejudices. Racism is key to all contemporary fascist movements, attracting new supporters and binding them together with the old.
Antisemitism was the main form of racism in the 1930s. Today Islamophobia and anti-Roma racism predominate—though the parties remain antisemitic.
There is an important relationship between the racism of fascist parties and that of the state and the main political parties.
The ruling class cultivates prejudice to distract from its own responsibility for crisis. The fascists seek to sharpen prejudice into a political weapon that can drag the whole political establishment to the right.
This process has been at work in France for decades. Mainstream politicians sought to “steal” anti-immigrant policies from the fascist FN in a bid to undercut its electoral support.
The FN was flattered, asking voters whether they prefer “the original or the copy?” Rather than denting the FN’s support, politicians gave the party credibility. And, in the process, they gave confidence to every racist—fascist or not.
By constantly increasing the intensity of their racist rhetoric and action, fascists aim to create an active mass movement behind them.
Only that gives them the means to counter other forces, especially the organised working class which is capable of blocking their plans.
They need more than votes. They need supporters prepared to face up to the risks involved in smashing resistance. Hitler’s storm troopers built in strength through street violence.
The Nazis needed to crush opposition in every street, every housing estate, every factory, every office and every school.
Even Jobbik and Golden Dawn are far from developing any such capability today. But in a political crisis the situation can change rapidly.
To fail in identifying them as fascist and smashing their nucleus before they achieve this is to leave the battle until it is too late.
By showing they can control the streets, the fascists hope to convince the ruling class and the state to swing behind their bid for power.
Both Hitler and Mussolini relied on the bourgeois parties to give them power. The creation of a fascist regime is a last desperate gamble of our rulers trying to cling to power.
For the ruling class to consider such a move, it must believe that it faces a crisis it can’t escape by ordinary means and that the fascists can offer stability.
But the fascists only give the impression of invincibility when the left fails to unite to push them back.