1960s >> 1969 >> no-780-august-1969

What is Fascism?

Fascism is a political re-organisation of capitalism which occurs in special economic and historic circumstances. The fascists take over the functions of the state and run the country by strong, centralised government. When this happens the working class are usually suffering extreme hardship and insecurity, and it is this factor more than any other which enables political figures like Hitler and Mussolini to point to the failure of democracy within capitalism to solve workers’ problems. This possibility is increased when the population does not have a strong background of democracy as was the case in Germany and Italy. Thus the demagogues are able to insist in the ‘national (capitalist) interest’ that no political or economic opposition can be allowed to rock the boat.

Most certainly fascism is not a new social system distinct from capitalism. In both Germany and Italy the profit motive remained the basis of production while the relationship between capital and labour did not change. What did change was that the state intervened in this to a much greater degree.
Basically, this can be taken as typical of fascist dictatorships. Of course different countries throw up different types since each has its own historical starting point. The Italian brand differed from the German in many ways — for example anti-semitism played no part in Mussolini’s march to power and he openly scoffed at Hitler’s racial theories. So racialism is not a necessary part of fascist propaganda as many believe.

A widely accepted view of fascism is that it represents the last stage of capitalism. The system reaches such a state of crisis that the only way it can continue to produce profit is by invoking fascism to smash the trade union movement and democratic parties in order to keep down working-class demands.

This theory was very popular before the war and was advanced by John Strachey in 1938:

      They [the capitalists] counter-attack because the state of capitalism has become so bad that it . . . can tolerate indefinitely neither the.standards of life . . .  which particular sections of the British workers have won, nor the workers’ liberty to organise politically, industrially and co-operatively for the further improvement of that standard. [1]

In 1968 Chris Harman, a prominent member of ‘International Socialism’, wrote:

    First, the ruling class has to decide that it can no longer afford liberal democracy. It begins to see even the marginal reforms that reformist Labour parties and trade unions win for workers as a threat to its profits and to its very existence. It is prepared to utilise any means . . . to destroy these organisations. [2]

Even with the advantage of 30 years’ hindsight, Harman’s view is remarkably similar to Strachey’s and both see fascism just like a spook at a seance, hovering, unseen, only waiting for the summons from the capitalist medium.

What neither realised is what part democracy plays in a modern industrial nation like Britain. The capitalist class well recognise the need for opposing viewpoints in the complicated world of today. To say that two heads are better than one may be a cliche, but it makes the possibility of costly and far-reaching mistakes in the economy less likely. Also, the emergent capitalist class, the world over, fought a whole series of revolutions for the right to control their system themselves. They know that once in control of the state machine a dictatorship is extremely difficult to get rid of.

Nor will the other lesson of the German experience be lost on them: that once installed the fascist gang set about enriching themselves at the expense of the whole owning class. One final point on this: in some of those countries which have fascism today, such as Spain and Portugal, the demand for democratic rights and freedom of expression is coming mainly from those who, according to the left, have most to fear from it.

Is it true that fascism triumphant means the working class can be treated any old way: that once trade unions have been destroyed then wages can be cut down to bare subsistence? Of course it is — if the working class allow it! The facts are that in both Germany and Italy the fascists came to power only through working class support. In the March 1933 elections the Nazis polled 44 per cent of the votes: their allies, the Nationalists, got 8 per cent, giving them a clear majority. The Communists, with 12 per cent, were as much in favour of a dictatorship as the Nazis and both sides swopped tens of thousands of votes in that and preceding elections. Obviously there was no great difference in the level of ideas of German workers and there was no outcry from them when the Nazis abolished the trade unions.

Right through the 30s support for Hitler grew because he appeared to be producing what German workers wanted most of all — work. From six million unemployed in January 1933, the figures fell to 70,000 by May 1939. True, wage rates remained at depression level even in boom conditions but the German workers’ attitude was that this was better than ‘starving in freedom’.

Nor does stamping out trade unions mean that workers cannot make demands if they are determined enough although the task is obviously made more difficult. Despite terrible penalties for violating Nazi Labour Laws some German workers did rebel when the screw was turned too much. Munitions workers in the Rheinland in 1936 threatened to strike over a wage decrease and were speedily compensated by a ‘local allowance’. Significantly, those workers who did not threaten strike action had their wages cut. [3] The story was the same in Italy. When, during the war, the fascists lost their popularity many strikes occurred in the north and concessions had to be made. [4]

Support needed

Another factor in determining working-class conditions under fascism is that, unlike trade unions, capitalism’s economic laws cannot be legislated out of exitsence. As labour grew scarce in Germany employers, although forbidden to do so, had to compete for it. If an employer wants workers when none are available then the only way he can get them is from another employer by offering more money, and this sort of thing went on in Nazi Germany. [5]

But wouldn’t a Nazi occupation of Britain during the last war have produced all sorts of outrageous acts against a helpless population? In one country which the Nazis did occupy, Norway, they attempted to coerce the population and destroy the labour movement. But the people there, with a long history of democracy in their social arrangements, resisted to such an extent that the Nazis had to back down on many occasions. Hostages were taken and sometimes shot, but this only increased hostility and a dead working class is of no use to any ruling group. [6] In the long run, the actions of fascist regimes are largely determined by the level of acceptance of the population.

So fascism is not something which can simply be imposed from above. It must have massive working-class support such as it enjoyed in Germany and Italy. Were the Nazis recruited from the capitalists? Did Mussolini’s Blackshirts have a non-working-class membership? And who comprised the pre-war Mosleyites in Britain? The majority of all these organisations came from the ranks of those who have to sell their physical and mental energies for a wage or salary in order to live. This applies even though many European fascists came from the peasantry and other fast-vanishing social groups. Without ignorance to batten onto, fascism is a dead duck. It is these which opportunist politicians utilise for their own ends: for example it is doubtful whether Enoch Powell is really a racialist.

Having said all this, workers should of course avoid fascism like the plague. Undoubtedly it has caused the greatest suffering and horror and another dose could put back the growth of socialist ideas for decades. How best then to fight it? The extreme left say there is only one way: by emulating the fascists themselves and using physical force to win control of the streets. But this is precisely what the fascists want since it turns working-class attention to strong men with law-and-order solutions. And since most workers probably have some colour prejudice and know little about politics then it is to the side with the simplest-sounding and most backward programme that they will turn. The recent student upheavals have produced a serious working-class backlash in America, West Germany, and Britain. In France the aftermath of May 1968 has seen existing democratic rights threatened at the insistence of the workers themselves. A majority of French workers are now in favour of banning all political discussion from universities.

This is not to say that the streets cannot be used by socialists at all. They can, but in the way the Socialist Party of Great Britain uses them today—to oppose fascism and all other anti-working-class ideas by propagating the case for one world, one people. This may not sound so glamorous as street fighting and breaking up fascist meetings, which despite leftist hysteria remain few and far between, but it is the only effective way. Tactics like those used by the Yellow Star movement during the political punch-ups of 1962 cause a resurgence, not a diminishing, of fascist numbers and activity. [8]

Will fascism come to Britain? At present this seems very unlikely but it is not impossible. Historically, the end of Empire has provided a factor not there before—a wave of coloured immigrants as scapegoats for workers’ social and economic grievances. This, plus the growing disillusion with the democratic process caused by the dismal failure of the major political parties, could lead many to see a fascist political solution as the only answer.

The fascist threat will last as long as capitalism itself. The answer lies not in futile struggling against effects but to establish a society based on production for use and universal brotherhood which is only possible when the world’s workers understand and desire it. As this will require knowledge rather than physical strength we emphasise that the battleground is the minds of men and not the streets.

Vic Vanni

REFERENCES
[1] What Are We To Do? Left Book Club edition P146
[2] Socialist Worker No. 84, June 1968
[3] Big Business in the Third Reich. A. Schweitzer P386
[4] Italian Labour Movement. D. L Horowitz P182
[5] Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. W. L Shirer P263
[6] Unarmed Against Fascism. A. K. Jameson (Peace News pamphlet)
[7] The Guardian, October 2, 1968
[8] Tribune (letter from Councillor W. G. Russell). Also, see Action, October 1, 1962