The term “fascism” gets tossed around much too casually. I am not speaking here of right-wing political illiterates who call a centrist like Barack Obama a “socialist” one day and a “fascist” the next. I am referring to people on the Left who ought to know better.
If we call anybody on the Right a “fascist” or use the word as an all-purpose pejorative, we fail to understand the real thing, and that is to our collective peril. Yes, economic conditions in the present era of global neoliberalism, of the corporate race to the bottom abetted at every turn by the world’s governments, of wars actual and threatened necessary to maintain the global capitalist system, are harsh. But a sham “formal democracy” and an outright fascist state are two very different things.
At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements.
Despite national differences that result in major differences in the appearances of fascism, the class nature is consistent. Big business is invariably the supporter of fascism, no matter what a fascist movement’s rhetoric contains, and is invariably the beneficiary.
Mural paintings in honor of Jecar Neghme of Chile’s MIR in the place where he was killed by the Pinochet government. (Credit: Ciberprofe)
Instituting a fascist dictatorship is no easy decision even for the biggest industrialists, bankers and landowners who might salivate over the potential profits. For even if it is intended to benefit them, these big businessmen are giving up some of their own freedom since they will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them. A few of this class will oppose the institution of a fascist dictatorship, some will be ambivalent and perhaps a few were squeamish about the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism.
It is only under certain conditions that business elites resort to fascism — some form of democratic government, under which citizens “consent” to the ruling structure, is the preferred form and much easier to maintain. Working people beginning to withdraw their consent — beginning to seriously challenge the economic status quo — is one “crisis” that can bring on fascism. An inability to maintain or expand profits, as can occur during a steep decline in the “business cycle,” or a structural crisis, is another such “crisis.”
Massive corporate subsidies and the funding of gigantic projects, such as military buildups and monumental buildings, are used to combat stagnating or declining profits. If the crisis is severe enough, the level of subsidies and projects required can be achieved only against the will of working people, for it is from them that the necessary money will come, in the form of reduced wages and benefits, increased working hours and the speeding-up and intensification of their work. Fascism overcomes resistance through force.
Exploiting middle class anxieties
But, no matter how powerful they are, numerically these big capitalists are a minuscule portion of the population. How to create popular support for a movement that would ban unions, turn working people into helpless cattle, regiment all spheres of life, destroy all freedom, mercilessly destroy several groups of society, reduce the standard of living of those who still had jobs and inevitably lead to war? This is not an appealing program.
The Nazis, for example, skillfully appealed to German middle class fears of economic dislocation, the increasing numbers of unemployed blue-collar workers, the threat of being swallowed by big business and political instability (although the Nazis were the most responsible for the last of those four), creating the social base needed by the economic elite to bring its movement to power. A movement that was as anathema to the middle class as it was to the lower economic ranks, although its middle class supporters were blind to that reality as the Nazis simultaneously appealed to its grudges against societal elites.
Leon Trotsky, the sharpest observer and analyst of fascism of his time, exposed at the time the false facade of the Nazis. The party’s full name was the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, a name intentionally chosen to fool the middle and lower classes. Capitalism was discredited in Germany, so the Nazi leadership let a populist socialist-sounding program be put forth, and Hitler himself thundered against bankers, albeit generally as part of his anti-Semitic rants.
Many storm troopers believed the party’s rhetoric, even as Hitler was saying very different things to his corporate benefactors and the storm troopers were being used to burn union offices and beat and kill the workers who presumably were the victims of the bankers the storm troopers’ leaders were fulminating against. In a vivid 1932 essay, Trotsky wrote:
“In National Socialism, everything is as contradictory and as chaotic as in a nightmare. Hitler’s party calls itself socialist, yet it leads a terroristic struggle against all socialist organizations. It calls itself a worker’s party, yet its ranks include all classes except the proletariat. It hurls lightning bolts at the heads of capitalists, yet is supported by them. … The whole world has collapsed inside the heads of the petit bourgeoisie, which has completely lost its equilibrium. This class is screaming so clamorously out of despair, fear and bitterness that it is itself deafened and loses sense of its words and gestures.”
A fascist régime can not take root without a social base. Although we are accustomed to seeing storm troopers or their equivalent as coming from the depths of society, the middle class largely supplies that base, as was the case in countries as different as 1930s Germany and 1970s Chile. The historian Isaac Deutscher, in the third volume of his Trotsky biography, The Prophet Outcast, captured the mood of German shopkeepers and other middle class people who came to ruin during the Weimar Republic:
“The Kleinbürger normally resented his social position: he looked up with envy and hatred at big business, to which he so often hopelessly succumbed in competition; and he looked down upon the workers, jealous of their capacity for political and trade union organization and for collective self-defense. … At big business the small man shook his fists as if he were a socialist; against the worker he shrilled his bourgeois respectability, his horror of class struggle, his rabid nationalist pride, and his detestation of Marxist internationalism. This political neurosis of impoverished millions gave [Nazism] its force and impetus.”
Great for profits, awful for workers
It is important to remember, however, that fascist dictators like Hitler and Mussolini were appointed to power, not elected. It is true that the Nazis came in first place in Germany’s July 1931 vote, although with just 37 percent of the vote. The Nazis’ showing in another vote three months later declined to 33 percent and totaled two million less than the combined vote for the Social Democrats and Communists. The traditional nationalist conservative parties decided to “use” Hitler in the belief that they could control him; that the Nazis were in such a position was due to the massive money they received from Germany’s bankers, industrialists and large landowners. A representative of those landowners, Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, was president and appointed Hitler chancellor. It took Hitler only three months to consolidate his power.
Mussolini, too, was appointed prime minister by King Vittorio Emmanuel and received heavy support from Italy’s capitalists. What did they — and capitalists in Spain, Chile and Argentina — receive for their investment in fascist movements?
- In Germany, corporate profits more than doubled in five years, while from Hitler’s ascension to power on January 30, 1933, to the summer of 1935, wages dropped 25 to 40 percent. In 1935, a “labor passport” was instituted in which the employer wrote reports on the holder. The employer could confiscate the passport at will, without which employment could not be taken, effectively making it impossible to change jobs. In 1938, it was formally made illegal for a worker to change jobs.
- In Italy, from 1926 to 1934, industrial wages were reduced at least 40 to 50 percent, while agricultural wages were reduced 50 to 70 percent. Unemployment meant the specter of starvation, and as a further whip to keep wages down, children were regularly used in agricultural and factory work as substitutes for fired adults. From 1935, many factory employees were placed under direct military discipline; missing more than five days of work was a penalty subject to nine years’ imprisonment. All workers had to carry a “labor passport.”
- In Francisco Franco’s Spain, real wages in 1949 were 50 percent of those in 1936. Rationing lasted until 1952; the rations alone were insufficient to maintain human existence. The historian Paul Preston, author of two books that closely examine Franco and his regime, quoted Hitler aide Heinrich Himmler as calling the Franco regime “more brutal in its treatment of the Spanish working class than was the Third Reich in its dealings with German workers.”
- In Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, the majority of workers earned less in 1989 than in 1973 (after adjusting for inflation). Labor’s share of the national income declined from 52 percent in 1970 to 31 percent in 1989. The minimum wage dropped almost by half during the 1980s, and by the end of that decade, Chile’s poverty rate reached 41 percent and the percentage of Chileans without adequate housing was 40 percent, up from 27 percent in 1972. One-third of the country’s workforce was unemployed by 1983.
- In Argentina, the main union federation was abolished, strikes outlawed, prices raised, wages tightly controlled and social programs cut. As a result, real wages fell by 50 percent within a year. Tariffs were reduced deeply, leaving the country wide open to imports and foreign speculation, causing considerable local industry to shut. For the period 1978 to 1983, Argentina’s foreign debt increased to $43 billion from $8 billion, while the share of wages in national income fell to 22 percent from 43 percent.
It was not inevitable then, it is not inevitable today
Although there were differences among these régimes due to national characteristics, and the ratio of armed street gangs and storm troopers versus direct repression by the military varied considerably, organized extreme violence, up to and including massacres, is the common thread. This mass violence is what the world’s capitalists are prepared to do if their rule is threatened, or even if their profits are in serious jeopardy.
Violence is certainly not absent from the conduct of formally democratic capitalist governments but there is a large difference between that and what is meted out by fascist régimes, at least internally. We lose our understanding of what fascism would mean in everyday life, and erode our ability to combat the tendencies from which it derives, if we obliterate these differences.
The German Communist Party pretended not to know the difference in the early 1930s, preferring to concentrate its attacks on the Social Democrats rather than the Nazis under the inane idea that the Social Democratic-run Weimar Republic was already “objectively fascist” and that the Nazis would not make much difference. The Communists very swiftly found out otherwise, becoming the first to be rounded up. In the years after World War I, the Social Democrats helped the German military and traditional right-wing parties suppress not only Communists but workers’ revolts in general — not excepting their own social base — thereby paving the road for Hitler.
On top of those blunders, the Communists and Social Democrats had their own militias, which could have countered the Nazi storm troopers, but were never put into action. It was not ordained that Hitler would come to power, or that other fascist régimes would do so. Chile’s Left was highly organized, for example.
History does not repeat itself neatly, but the wide differences among the five examples cited underscore that the threat of fascism exists in any and all capitalist countries. That does not mean that fascism is inevitable, although if capitalist economies continue in a generally downward spiral, some capitalists will undoubtedly begin thinking of it as a last-ditch effort to maintain profits despite the bad ending such régimes invariably meet. It can’t be denied that some of the pieces of fascism are in existence — including militarized police forces and ubiquitous spying agencies.
A better world, one designed to fulfill human need rather than private profits, not only is necessary for human salvation, it is the only way to put an end to the risk of turns to the authoritarian Right, in nationalist, fascist or other forms. That can only arise from organized social movements, confident in themselves and linking hands across borders. May the new year accelerate the process.