The rise in Europe of parties of the xenophobic right, with which this column was concerned last month, has prompted some discussion in sections of the media about the use of the term “Fascism” to describe some of them. The readers’ editor of The Guardian writes, in a piece on how to describe the far right in modern Europe, that “fascist is a word that should be used with pin-point accuracy if the voters throughout Europe are to retain focus in the gloop of far-right rhetoric.” This is sensible advice, but unfortunately there is still so little clarity about the meaning of the term or when it is applicable, that pin-point accuracy about its use is not easily achieved. Clarification is important because the term “fascist” has been misused and abused in common parlance so often as to render it all but meaningless. At another extreme, academic pedants and etymological purists have insisted on restricting the term to a description of the regime set up with that name in Italy by Mussolini in the early 1920s. By the late 1930s, Nazi Germany and later Franco Spain, were described as fascist, first by the left and later more widely by liberals.


“Fascism” had become a generic term designating regimes which were single-party militaristic dictatorships usually dominated by charismatic leaders. Such regimes were ultra-nationalist, often imperialist and expansionist and frequently racist.  They ruled by a ruthless mix of populist demagogy and repression, promoting a spurious “people’s community” and “corporate state” supposedly uniting the whole people in a glorious national enterprise. The ideology of these fascist states promoted various myths about the inherent national or racial superiority of members of their “communities”, and, needless-to-say, the inherent inferiority of the less fortunately blessed who were excluded: Ubermenschen and Untermenschen. In the most extreme cases, such as Nazi Germany, Social Darwinist and eugenicist theories, accepted more widely in the first decades of the 20th Century, were treated as scientific truths and made the basis of state policy.  Later, during World War Two such policies were used as a basis for the unprecedented genocide which was finally to make the term Fascism synonymous with barbarism and the collapse of civilization.

The emergence of fascism after the First World War followed the victory of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Although the revolution survived only in Russia, revolutionary upheavals occurred in many other parts of Europe. Four great imperial dynasties were swept away: the Romanovs, the Hapsburgs, the Hohenzollerns and the Ottomans. The authoritarian and absolutist regimes had gone forever and the reactionary ruling classes they represented could no longer rely upon the old authoritarian conservative parties to hold back the advance of democratic forces and revolutionary working class movements. Reaction, if it was to succeed in stemming the revolutionary tide, needed a reserve force capable of building a mass base amongst the petit bourgeoisie and diverting a considerable section of the working class and peasantry into pseudo-revolutionary nationalism. It is not an accident that Mussolini started his career as a left-wing socialist, regarded as Italy’s Lenin, or that the full name of the Nazi party was the National Socialist German Workers Party – emphasizing “socialism” not once, but twice. Fascism started its forward march in the stolen clothing of the left but wherever it triumphed capitalism remained intact and all independent workers organizations were ruthlessly stamped out.

The first attempts to provide an analysis of fascism came from the communist movement. The analysis made by the Communist International (Comintern) in the early 1920s went through several different stages before what was regarded as a workable Marxist-Leninist definition was reached. Early on, fascism was treated as a dictatorial movement of the petit bourgeoisie. Such was the understandable hostility of the Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries towards the social democrats for their initial support of the imperialist war in 1914 and, in Germany, for their betrayal of the revolutionary movement in 1918/19, that Stalin’s characterization of social democracy in 1924 as “the moderate wing of fascism...These two organizations are not contradictory, they complement one another. They are not antipodes, but twin brothers”, did not seem outlandish. But the full fruits of this characterization were reaped in 1933. The German communists (KPD), loyally following the Comintern line, treated the social democrats (SPD) as “social fascists”, the twin brothers of the Nazis, during the years of Hitler’s rise to power.  Thus they played their part in the suicidal division of the working class movement in Germany which paved the way for Hitler and led to the destruction of both the KPD and SPD within six months.

In 1935, having closed the stable door after the horse had bolted, the Comintern finally came up with a definition of fascism from which the communist movement was never to depart. Fascism was defined as “the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital.” This definition accorded with the new policy of the Comintern and the Soviet government which sought to build a united front against fascism comprising the working class, the middle class and those sections of the bourgeoisie not committed to imperialism and war. Notably, it didn’t blame capitalism per se for the rise and triumph of fascism. While the capitalist system was its breeding ground , some sections of the capitalist class could be won as allies in a united front against fascism. Such were the implications of the new theory. Between 1935 and 1939 Soviet policy was closely linked to the theory . However, ultimately the attempt to build an international united and popular front of different classes and nations to stop the Nazi drive to war, failed due largely to the ingrained anti-communism of the British and French  ruling classes who sought to avoid war by appeasing Hitler and directing him eastwards.  It took six years of war during which the Soviet Union played by far the greatest part, to destroy German fascist imperialism and the Axis. That was then.

How do things stand today? Does it make sense to talk about fascism at all? Amongst the many political parties in Europe to have won support in the recent elections for the EU parliament, none call themselves fascists. But in the 1930s the only ones to embrace the name were the Italians who originally used it, and Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists who imitated them. If one stays with the Comintern definition of fascism there are some glaring anomalies when comparing now with then. Fascism triumphed in Italy (1922) and Germany (1933) in circumstances of intense class struggles which saw in each case the ultimate defeat of numerically strong and well organized workers’ movements. In France, where fascism posed a serious threat in the early 1930s, it suffered a defeat in 1934 by a united front of the left. In Britain, the working class movement in the mid 1920s, particularly the miners, and the railway and transport workers, were a force to be reckoned with. In the 1930s during the Great Depression, the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement regularly mobilized many thousands in effective marches and demonstrations against the means test.  For all the BUF’s noise and bombast, fascism was never a powerful force in Britain and was successfully confronted and beaten by organized, large-scale working class resistance.  In Spain fascism triumphed only after three years of bloody civil war, its victory made possible primarily by the failure of the democracies to give the republican government the military aid to which they were entitled. Generally, the rise of fascism and its triumph where it won power, occurred in circumstances of intense class struggle or civil war. In each case it was confronted by organized resistance by working class and democratic forces.

In Western Europe today the situation is very different. Despite several years of austerity, for the most part there has been far too little organized resistance. Those political forces to the left of right wing social democracy are weak and generally ineffectual. Social democratic parties themselves, most notably the Labour Party in Britain, long ago abandoned their earlier commitment to progressive reform within capitalism in favour of wholehearted support for neo-liberalism. Sporadic opposition groups, despite some imaginative and well-publicised campaigns, have failed so far to achieve their aim of forcing governments to abandon austerity.  However, there is widespread public anger and cynicism about establishment politicians. The dismantling of Britain’s industrial base over the past 30 years has changed the industrial landscape and reduced the once powerful trade union movement to a pale shadow of its former self. In most west European countries there is little on the left worthy of the name socialist. In Britain, the left outside the Labour Party has a largely ineffectual existence on the margin of politics. The trade unions and the disunited radical groups to the left of Labour have not found a way to harness the widespread anger and disenchantment of those sections of the population suffering acutely from the most severe cuts in living standards since the 1930s. In these circumstances, given the weakness of the left throughout most of Europe, it is the demagogic, xenophobic right that has benefitted.

The parties on the extreme nationalist right across Europe may be divided broadly into those that closely resemble the pre-war fascists and make little effort to disguise the fact; those that have previously been regarded as fascist but now choose to distance themselves from their past, and those who cannot be regarded as fascists at all. The first category includes Golden Dawn (Greece), Jobbik (Hungary), Svoboda and Right Sector (Ukraine). The second category includes Front National (France), and the Freedom Party (Austria). Most notable amongst the third category is the UK Independence Party – UKIP.

The first thing that needs to be stressed about the performance of all these parties in the European elections, and the reason why it is important not to exaggerate their success, is that it was achieved on a very lower turn-out. The very real and growing unpopularity of the European Union is reflected in the fact that the great majority of the electorate in most EU countries of Western Europe do not bother to vote at all. In 1979 the turnout was 61.99%; in 2014 it was 43.09%. In Britain it is far lower. In the 2014 election the turnout was 34.19% - the lowest in Western Europe. Thus, in Britain which has about 48 million people eligible to vote, only about 16.3 million bothered to do so. Of these, about 4.56 million (28%) – less than 10% of those eligible to vote - voted for UKIP. And UKIP beat both Labour and Tories, topping the poll. In the present state of widespread cynicism about establishment politicians, such a result can be seriously described as a poll triumph - “Farage’s political earthquake.”

It is true that we are living in dangerous times. The present critical state of the countries of the European Union, involving levels of unemployment unheard of since the 1930s, catastrophic economic collapse and  social breakdown in Greece and conditions of near immiseration elsewhere in southern Europe, testify eloquently to the inability of the dominant elites in the EU to resolve the crisis. The support, such as it is, that has gone to parties of the extreme right is a mark of the failure of the left almost everywhere to take a clear stand and provide effective leadership against the draconian austerity measures that have been imposed on the working classes. As was the case in the 1930s, the forces of reaction have emerged with populist appeals directed against immigrants and ethnic minorities. These forces, whether authentically fascist or not, fulfil similar roles today as they did then. It does not follow that all those who have voted for such parties are xenophobes or racists. But, if their protest against the bankrupt mainstream parties is not to result in a more permanent infatuation with a populist demagogy that will only disarm them in the interests of corporate capitalism, there will have to be an effective challenge from a resurgent left that has broken decisively with the bankrupt ideology of right-wing social democracy. The one really encouraging outcome of the European elections was the victory of the socialist Syriza party in Greece. Perhaps Syriza’s victory may represent the future not only for Greece, but for the whole of Europe.