Across Europe fascist forces are trying to grow from the crisis in capitalism.
It’s not the first time that socialists have had to grapple with what fascism is—and how to fight it. A book of revolutionary socialist Clara Zetkin’s writings on fascism from the 1920s, edited by John Riddell and Mike Taber, offers important insights for anti-fascists today.
Following the First World War socialists were faced with a host of reactionary forces. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had inspired a revolutionary wave across Europe, but the old order wasn’t about to give up its wealth and power without a fight.
In Russia the Whites, forces loyal to the old Tsarist dictatorship, waged a bloody civil war against the new workers’ government. In Germany the Frei Korps, right wing bands of former army officers, were used to put down the left and workers.
Similarly in Hungary, Admiral Miklos Horthy’s troops drowned the Hungarian workers’ revolution in blood.
In Italy the workers’ movement faced a deadly threat—Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fasci of Combat.
Many on the left didn’t differentiate between fascism and other forms of reaction. Zetkin wrote that the “characteristic outlook of many reformist social democrats” is that “fascism is merely a form of bourgeois terror”.
Fascism’s “character and effects were thought to be similar to those of the Horthy regime”, which murdered 5,000 and jailed 75,000 after the revolution.
Zetkin argued that the fascists in Italy represented a unique threat compared to other right wing reactionary forces. “Even though the Horthy regime employs the same bloody, terrorist methods, the historical essence of the two is entirely different,” she wrote.
For Zetkin, fascism emerged as a failure of socialist revolution to break through.
The petty bourgeoisie—shop keepers, farmers, small time capitalists—fell in behind the rising workers’ movement. When revolution didn’t break through, many swung rightwards in demoralisation.
They were squeezed by the social crisis and lacking both the wealth of the capitalists and the collective organisation of workers to defend themselves. Zetkin argued that capitalist crisis had brought about the “proletarianisation of very broad petty bourgeois and middle bourgeois masses”.
“What weighs on them above all is the lack of security for their basic existence.”
So unlike Horthy’s terror, which was carried out by a “small caste of feudal officers”, fascism had a mass social base. And in times of acute social crisis, such as 1930s Germany, the ruling class could look to fascism to crush the working class movement.
For Zetkin this meant fighting in a united front of all workers, revolutionary and reformist.
“Fascism does not ask if the worker in the factory has a soul painted in the white and gold colours of Bavaria; the black, red, and gold colours of the bourgeois republic; or the red banner with the hammer and sickle.”
And, ultimately, the solution was uprooting the society that gave rise to fascism.
Zetkin’s important insight was that fascism is a dynamic movement riven with contradictions. It was built on the petty bourgeoisie, but capitalists would support it in times of crisis to crush the workers’ movement.
“There is a blatant contradiction between what fascism promised and what it delivered to the masses,” she wrote.
And Zetkin understood that fascism had “different characterises in different countries”.
Zetkin saw what made fascism unique, and how it could grow out of broader reactionary forces. We can learn from and develop those insights to combat the threat today.