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Why is fascism different to the usual right wing rule?

As racists and fascists such as Marine Le Pen make huge gains in elections, Isabel Ringrose examines what fascism is and how it spreads
Issue 2803
Marine Le Pen

Fascist Marine Le Pen speaks at a rally in 2012. (Blandine Le Cain)

Across the world there are growing movements described as fascist. To understand the dynamic of Marine Le Pen in France or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, it’s important to look at the nature of fascism.

Capitalist governments of all sorts are capable of viciously authoritarian rule,  harsh laws and widespread attacks on rights. But fascism is not simply extreme racism or state control, or a way to describe detestable people. It obliterates democratic working class organisations of all types. Even the most moderate union leader is banned and potentially murdered. And any independent form of democratic organisation outside fascism’s control faces repression.

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky warned of Adolf Hitler’s seizure of control that, “should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank”. Fascists use elections as a method to spread their message, but this is subordinate to their real aim. They do not seek simply to assemble a majority in parliament but to do away with such methods of rule.   

In “normal” times, the ruling class uses a balance of co-option and concessions to front its rule. There are elections, guaranteed liberties, and space for trade unions and political parties to put forward their views. But in times of extreme crisis, these methods aren’t guaranteed to succeed. 

Important sections of the political ruling class and big business can move to gamble on the use of fascist terror. But fascism isn’t just a weapon plucked from the armoury of the ruling class. It is itself, in its developed state, a mass movement. 

It begins among the “petty bourgeoisie”—small business owners, the self-employed and similar layers. At times of deep crisis, this layer is crushed by economic collapse but doesn’t have either the power of the capitalists or the potential collective strength of workers.

Trotsky wrote in his pamphlet, Fascism—What It Is and How to Fight It—that “fascism unites and arms the scattered masses”. He described the petty bourgeoisie as “human dust”, to whom fascism offers a home and a movement. And, once established, it then draws in the most demoralised and atomised sections of the working class as well as the support of some capitalists.

Fascism then seeks to display its usefulness to big business by combating the left in the streets and assaulting strikers. It also often reaches out to workers by putting forward a fake “revolutionary” critique of the ruling class, who it denounces as unpatriotic and weak.

It builds through tapping into anger by using fake “anti-establishment” rhetoric. It’s not just the failures of the system that sees fascism rise. The Russian Revolution in 1917 saw workers take power during a huge social crisis because there was a strong revolutionary left to carry the movement forwards.

It meant those looking to tear free from rulers in society could go left. Yet without a strong revolutionary party or movement, people can be pulled rightwards, as was the case in Germany.

German revolutionary Clara Zetkin underlined that the success of fascism was a politcal defeat. It was the failure of the left to offer a more powerful alternative.  She wrote in 1923 that “fascism arrives much more as punishment because the proletariat has not carried and driven forward the revolution that began in Russia.”

Social upheaval and the threat of revolution gives rise to fascist forces as the ruling class scramble to cling to power. It’s also the tragic result of the working class’s inability to put forward its own interests. 

  • This is the first in a three-part series on fascism

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