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Fascism—a movement of despair

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Socialist Worker argues that fascism is about more than racism or authoritarianism—it’s a movement that aims to smash the working class and all democratic rights
Issue 2484
Members of the fascist Jobbik party in Hungary
Members of the fascist Jobbik party in Hungary (Pic: Flickr/Leigh Phillips)

In order to resist fascism today, we need to break through the widespread confusion about what it is.

Our rulers are happy to brand Isis, a reactionary and sectarian outfit, as “Islamofascist” to justify their new war in the Middle East.

In contrast, the mainstream press will describe the likes of the Front National (FN) in France, Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary as “far right” or “extreme nationalist”. But they refuse to call them fascist.

Meanwhile, thousands have taken to social media to denounce the right wing US presidential candidate Donald Trump as fascist.

This partly flows from a confusion about how fascism is different to other right wing or racist organisations. And any kind of dictatorial rule or repression tends to be branded as “fascist”.

But fascism isn’t just a label to describe reactionary or racist politics. As author Robert Paxton argues, to grasp what fascism is we must “start with a strategy rather than a definition”.

Its aim is to build a mass movement that can smash working class organisation and democratic rights.

Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary, was one of the first to understand what made fascism unique. He argued it used a dual strategy of both standing in democratic elections and building a street fighting wing to terrorise its opponents.

Fascism first grew after the First World War out of an intense social crisis and the failure of revolution.

The ruling class has always turned to repression, usually by the police and army, to put down revolts and upheavals. But as capitalism developed so did a mass working class movement that saw ordinary people become politically active.

In normal times liberal democracy can provide capitalists with stability for making profits. It can diffuse workers’ discontent by channelling it into parliament and let the capitalist parties pretend they represented the “national interest”.

But when the ruling class can find no other way out of a crisis, it will abandon democracy.

Karl Marx described how the French ruling class turned to dictatorship after failed revolutions in 1848. Only a dictatorship under Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte that temporarily crushed even capitalist parties could overcome the stalemate in the class struggle.

In the 1840s the working class was still emerging as a social force. But following the First World War a wave of workers’ revolutions swept Europe. Beginning in Russia, they quickly spread to Hungary, Italy, and Germany and beyond.

Workers’ movements in 1920 in Italy and 1930 in Germany had already come close to taking power. It would take more than dictatorship to destroy them.

To smash the working class movement the ruling class had to look to another mass movement that could.

So after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the ruling classes turned to brutal violence to carry through the counter revolution.

Had the Russian Revolution failed in 1917, then the word for fascism might have been a Russian one.

Trotsky wrote that fascism provided just such “a razor in the hands of the class enemy” and Paxton called it a “revolution against the revolution”.

Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) was marginal throughout the 1920s.

In the 1928 election they polled just 2.8 percent. But following the Wall Street Crash they were propelled to the second largest party in 1930 and then topped the poll in the 1932 elections.


But fascists have never seized power purely through elections. The ruling class has always handed them power in times of intense social crisis to deal with the workers’ movement.

Germany had already been ruled by the “cabinet of the barons” since 1930. The ruling class hadn’t formally abandoned democracy, but had appointed right wing politicians and a top general to head the government.

They all failed to deal with the growing crisis—and the ruling class finally relented to the Nazis’ demands and made Hitler chancellor.

This doesn’t mean that fascism is a ruling class movement. Fascist organisations’ social base is rooted among the “petty bourgeoisie”—small time capitalists, shop owners, small famers.

Trotsky described these middle class layers as “human dust”. They lack the wealth of the big capitalists. But neither are they part of the working class, a social force with the power to fight back collectively.

In Hungary in the 2000s the middle class was actively encouraged to take out large mortgages on Swiss francs.But the credit crunch in 2008 pushed the country to the verge of bankruptcy and took a sledge hammer to the middle class.

In Greece too it’s been squeezed by the crash and subsequent bailouts. Now Jobbik and Golden Dawn are on the march.

That doesn’t mean fascism is inevitable. In a social crisis that middle class can be pulled to the left or to the right.

That means revolutionary socialists have to pose social transformation as a way out of the crisis. As Trotsky wrote, “If the Communist Party are the party of revolutionary hope, then fascism is the party of counter revolutionary despair.”

In the early 1920s the middle class in Germany was swinging to the left. Even top civil servants were leaving the employers’ associations and joining the social democratic trade unions.

But that situation swung the other way by 1930s.

The rise of fascism is a political defeat for the working class and the price paid for the failure of revolution.

The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, Roma and LGBT people in the Holocaust. The likes of Jobbik today target Jews and Roma people, while Golden Dawn’s gangs murder migrants.

But the main aim of fascism is not the genocide of one ethnic group— but to smash the rights of all working class people.


Antisemitism featured very little in early Nazi propaganda. It was mainly aimed at the need to smash the German Revolution and the people who’d “stabbed Germany in the back” by surrendering to the Allies.

But fascists will often rely on racist ideology to glue this “human dust” together.

In the case of the Nazis it was Antisemitism—but with fascists in Britain and France it’s Islamophobia.

Fascist organisations’ social base is rooted among the “petty bourgeoisie”—small time capitalists, shop owners, small famers. 

They will opportunistically feed off what the ruling class is targeting.

So until recently Polish fascists didn’t focus on Roma people. Their main target was LGBT people because they were the Polish ruling classes’ main scapegoat.

Fascists have always relied on using brute force on the ground with a respectable political façade.

The Nazis first tried to seize power during the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 in Munich. But only a small number of the ruling class backed them and they were humiliated at the hands of the cops.

They maintained their street fighting wing, but switched to building up a respectable right wing image among the middle class.

Following the Second World War this again became important as the horrors of the Holocaust turned people staunchly against Nazism.

So Marie Le Pen’s FN doesn’t openly worship Hitler or focus on Holocaust denial, instead focusing on the “dangers” of multiculturalism and immigration.

Around the FN is a core of ideologically committed fascists and a violent “security service”. Members vandalise mosques and beat up Muslims, LGBT people and left wingers.

Around it swarm smaller Nazi groups openly devoted to violence against opponents. A close ally is using his mayoral office to form a local militia.

Fascists’ aim is to destroy all of us. That doesn’t mean we should rely on a “lesser” right wing evil.

It means building the broadest possible working class opposition and fighting for an alternative to its politics of despair.

Not so long ago the British National Party and English Defence League were surging.

Wherever they tried to hold rallies or conferences they were kettled by mass protests. Wherever they stood in elections thousands of leaflets calling them Nazis were handed out.

So by mobilising together to confront fascists, we can chip away the outer layers and crush the core that remains.

And we will have to keep nipping fascism in the bud until we uproot the system that keeps producing it.

Fascism: what it is and how to fight it
by Leon Trotsky, £4.50

The Anatomy of Fascism
by Robert Paxton, £9.99

Fascism and Isis
ISJ article by Anne Alexander and Haytham Cero

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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