Fascism is a far right ideology characterised by extreme nationalism, social conservatism and a drive to completely crush and repress the working class. The term “fascism” comes originally from Italy, where Benito Mussolini expounded on, and popularised, the ideology. He ruled over a fascist dictatorship there for two decades, between the 1920s and his eventual defeat during WW2. There was also a fascist dictatorship in Spain between 1939–1975, and Nazi Germany was a fascist regime, too. There’d be a number of other regimes, past and present, throughout the world that could easily be analysed as fascist, as well.

Fascism emerged at a time when the working class was strong and full of revolutionary fighting spirit. In the Russian Revolution, workers had seized control of their workplaces away from the ruling class who owned them, and were running their country by means of democratic workers’ councils known as soviets. (This is before the Russian Civil War killed off nearly all the revolutionary workers,1 and the Stalinist counter-revolution that followed that.) Workers in Germany and Italy had also seized control of their workplaces in the late 1910s and 1920s, but fortunately for the German and Italian ruling classes, they lacked the political leadership that would have pushed them to take democratic control of their societies more broadly. Once the initial crisis had been averted, with the workers’ factory occupations defeated and the regular capitalist order restored, the ruling class realised they needed a way to completely destroy the working class as a coherent, politically-aware entity in order to ensure their interests would never be threatened again; as such, they formed an alliance with the far-right movement of fascism, and supported the fascists to unleash severe violence and repression on the workers. In 1934’s “Whither France?”, Trotsky wrote:

The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organisations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.

The cradle of fascism, however, was not the ruling class, but the petit bourgeois middle classes. The middle class is disproportionately drawn to fascism as an expression of their own class interests. That is, the petit bourgeoisie in particular feels itself squeezed between the ruling class, which can out-compete them with their superior scale and efficiency, and the working class, whose labour they depend upon exploiting to make profits, and therefore whose “laziness” (their failure to not generate enough profit for the petit bourgeoisie’s liking) becomes like a mortal sin. Fascists seek to legitimise their petit bourgeois sense of eternal victimhood, and generally characterise the “unfair, monopolising” ruling class and the “lazy” working class as made up of minorities (particularly, historically, ethnic and religious minorities, but also gender and sexual minorities). They seek to contrast the “good people” of the middle class, who are “hard-working”, socially conservative, religious members of the nation’s ethnoreligious majority, to the Other. They ask why the prosperous, “hard-working” middle class should be expected to pay taxes for the benefit of supposedly “useless” people, including the disabled and the poor. To this day, it is the middle class that provides the bulk of ideological and material support for fascism. For example, the middle classes were vastly overrepresented in membership of the German Nazi party. While workers made up 50% of Germany’s population, they made up only 25% of Nazis, and workers who belonged to trade unions were less than 5% of Nazis. The Nazis’ rhetoric was quite reflective of its middle-class base: for example, to explain the “squeezing” of middle-class businesses by the capitalist class, they blamed this on a Jewish conspiracy (whence the anti-Semitic myth that “Jews run the world”). Communism, too, which threatened business owners’ property rights and motivated workers to demand a better deal, was supposedly a Jewish conspiracy.

That said, the footsoldiers of Nazism were largely not the petit bourgeoisie themselves. For that, they recruited from the destitute class Marx and Engels described as the lumpenproletariat: the long-term unemployed, petty criminals, and ex-soldiers who’d never managed to readjust to civilian life. To quote Red Flag: “Fascism gave these men hot soup, a place to sleep and a gun with which to menace the left and Jews, whom they could blame for all their problems.” So long as they were ethnic Germans, they could find a new sense of purpose and an explanation (however inaccurate) for their immiseration with the Nazis. This dynamic – where the ideologues of fascism come from the petit bourgeoisie, while the “grunts” who carry out most of the end violence come from the lumpenproletariat, continues to characterise fascist movements to this day, including the US white nationalist movement. I’d go so far as to say that the misidentification of this movement with the “white working class” is yet another expression of the same middle-class hostility to the working class (albeit from a different segment of the middle class) that motivates fascism itself.

Fascist movements come to power when the ruling class determines that their interests are sufficiently threatened by a robust working class movement that they have to bring in a violent fascist regime to crush them. Fascists need the assent of ruling class figures – media barons, military generals, senior state bureaucrats – to be able to seize power. This is more or less exactly what happened in Germany: although they never commanded more than 33% of the vote, and had only won 32% in 1933, Germany’s chancellor invited the Nazis to form government after that year’s elections, because he didn’t want to extend the offer to the parties that had actually collectively scored a majority of votes in the election, the Socialists and the Communists.

The socialist publication Red Flag writes that there are three conditions that have to be met before the ruling class of a given country will allow a “fascist party with a rabid, plebeian base” to come to power:

First, when capitalism cannot continue as before—with unstable political regimes and a large and menacing workers’ movement. Second, the usual methods for keeping the workers’ organisations in check (legal repression or cooption) are inadequate to the task. Third, when bringing the fascists to power will not provoke a revolution in response.

Once in power, however, the fascists act as enforcers of the interests of big business, including where those conflict with the interests of fascism’s own middle-class supporter base. Again according to Red Flag, between 1933 and 1936 in Nazi Germany, corporate profits rose 433% while workers’ wages fell, and half of all small businesses went bankrupt.

See Also / References

  1. On the theme of that civil war, the White Army was also made up of an unholy alliance of the “big bourgeoisie” and fascists, to the point that Trotsky quipped that if the White Army had won, ‘fascism’ would’ve been a Russian word, rather than an Italian one. ↩︎