FASCISM IN EUROPE: What was it then? What is it now?

Understandably, many who are knowledgeable about the historical reality of Fascism in Europe and concerned about its re-emergence in more recent years, may feel that revisiting the subject under the title chosen for this article is unnecessary. It may be thought that the saturation coverage of European fascist states – Nazi Germany in particular - by historians and political scientists since 1945 leaves little of value to be said that is not already known. Indeed one may go back much further, at least to the early 1930s, to find the first serious attempts to explain fascism and define its meaning. Surely, there is nothing new to be added.

If it were simply a matter of pedantic point-scoring about etymology this would be valid. But the contention of this article is that the discussion of fascism is important for the here and now of capitalist crisis in the early twenty first century. Because there has been so much obfuscation around the subject it has become possible for mainstream intellectual and political elites in the United States and countries of the European Union to accept with equanimity – even to embrace as allies and “freedom fighters” – rabid racist and openly pro-Nazi paramilitary organizations in the Baltic states and in Ukraine, where members of such groups hold office in the government.  Until recently, association with such pariahs would have been unthinkable. Part of the same trend may be seen in the election to government in Hungary, Romania and now in Poland of demagogic ultra-rightist parties promulgating a xenophobic nationalism similar to that of their pre-war openly fascist forebears. Similar parties have emerged as significant forces in Western Europe too, notably in France, Scandinavia, Holland and arguably also in Britain. For reasons to be considered later, such phenomena have not emerged with the same prominence in Spain and Portugal.

This article will attempt to deal with three main aspects of the problem posed by fascism:

(1) Totalitarianism

(2) What was Fascism, 1922 – 1945?

(3) What is Fascism in the twenty first century?


It is of some interest to note that the term “Totalitarian” was first used by Mussolini to refer to the ethos of the fascist regime he claimed to have created. He spoke of “our totalitarian will” and intended it to be understood as the totally laudable driving force of fascism. During the 1930s the term came to be applied pejoratively by critics to both Italian and German fascism.  Interestingly it was rarely used to describe the Soviet Union. However, after the war and the defeat of the two main fascist states and their East European satellites in Hungary, Romania, Croatia and Slovakia, a conceptual conflation was effected. With the onset of the Cold War after 1945, U.S. and West European ideologues began to apply the term to their former Soviet ally. It was claimed that the real struggle against the Axis powers had been one between democracy and totalitarianism, or “totalitarian tyranny.” It was a very convenient invention because if this is what the war had really been about then the Soviet Union could not – and should not – be regarded as a legitimate partner in the noble enterprise, as it was itself a totalitarian tyranny. This played a vital part in one of the most rapid propaganda turns in history; the transformation of a former ally that had played by far the major part and made by far the greatest sacrifice in defeating fascist barbarism, into a rapacious tyranny bent upon world domination. By the late 1940s this had been largely successful in persuading many in Western Europe, the United States and elsewhere that “Communism” was an imminent threat to the “Free World.” It was, as Fascism had been, a threat to “freedom-loving” people everywhere and everything must be done to stop it. As fascism in its main manifestations no longer existed (and soon the remaining fascist states of Spain and Portugal, re-branded, would be enrolled in the anti-communist crusade on the side of NATO and the United States) the Soviet Union and, from 1949, the People’s Republic of China, jointly branded by the U.S. as “Sino-Soviet Imperialism” were depicted as the duopolistic agents of a closely co-ordinated “World Communist Conspiracy.”

It would be inaccurate to regard all the intellectual progenitors of the theory of totalitarianism as crude cold war propagandists. But many of them fell too readily into the lazy mental habit of adopting a generic use of the term to claim that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had far more in common than separated them. This was the approach adopted by Hannah Arendt in the third part of her book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Arendt knew a great deal about German fascism and its origins, but very little about the Soviet Union.  It is by far the weakest part of the book, but this part was seized upon to give a patina of intellectual sophistication to use of the term by cold war propagandists. In more recent years the term has worn rather thin. For serious students of the Soviet Union, the “totalitarian” thesis was dealt a body blow with the publication in 1985 of J. Arch Getty’s Origin of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938. Prior to this historians of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany had already begun to question how accurately the term applied in these cases. It is impossible to read Dennis Mack Smith’s studies of Italian Fascism without questioning how the supposed monolithic state of Mussolini’s imagination could be squared with the tripartite reality - retention of the monarchy, the independence of the Vatican and the supposedly all-powerful “Duce”, to say nothing of the chaotic ineptitude that prevailed at almost every level in the decision-making process. Likewise, the most serious historians of Nazi Germany (to name here only two of the best in the English language, Ian Kershaw and Richard J. Evans) have shown beyond doubt that the monolithic state was a facade behind which chaos and inefficiency were ubiquitous and where Hitler encouraged the proliferation of competing fiefdoms among his underlings. It is important to distinguish between the streamlinned “co-ordinated” or “corporatist” propaganda images projected by the rulers of fascist regimes and the reality that such images disguised.  Unqualified use of the term “totalitarian” should now be confined to the vocabulary of hack journalism where it belongs.

What was Fascism, 1922 – 1945?

It is beyond the scope of this article to comment on a wide range of differing theories of fascism.  Here the intention is to consider a few of those that have been informed by a Marxist methodology. There is no single Marxist theory of fascism; there are several, developed and revised over many years, influenced largely by the circumstances prevailing when they were formulated. While they all agree about certain fundamentals, there are also important differences which cannot easily be reconciled.[1] It should go without saying that simple use of the term “fascist” employed as it frequently is as an epithet generically applied to racists, nationalists, right-wing conservatives, the police, militarists and so forth has no analytic value. Equally invalid is the etymological exactitude that insists that it applies only to the specific political movement and regime so named in Italy between 1922 and 1943.[2]

Fascism came onto the political scene in Europe in the immediate aftermath of the First World War as hitherto powerful empires crashed and, in Russia, the first proletarian revolution came to power. The spectre that Marx and Engels had seen haunting Europe in 1848 had taken on material form and the ruling classes everywhere were seized by fear of bolshevism. Hitherto, for the most part, conservative reaction had remained fairly composed in the traditional garb of absolutism, authoritarian monarchy and capitalist bourgeoisie. Now all this was threatened. The masses were on the march and in those countries that had come off worst in the bloodletting of the imperialist war the working class was preparing for revolution. The old symbols of authority and repression were insufficient to contain the threat to the system itself.  It is no accident that the first two countries to succumb to fascism in Europe, Italy and Germany, were those with strong, politically conscious working classes with a record ofclass struggle under the leadership of socialist/communist parties which had manifested itself in factory occupations, mass strikes even revolutionary bids for power. But, by 1920 in Italy and between 1923 and 1932 in Germany these movements and their bids for revolutionary power had suffered serious setbacks, resulting in confusion, division and weakness.  The revolutionary phase had passed in Italy by 1921; in Germany, the failure of the 1918/19 revolution and the crushing of the later forlorn bid in 1923, had given way to the partial economic recovery of the years 1924 – 1929. The onset of the depression found the working class movement critically divided between a mass-based but opportunistic-legalistic social democratic party (the SPD) which retained the allegiance of the majority of the workers and sections of the middle class, and a militant and courageous but (in the crucial period 1929 1933) deeply sectarian communist party (the KPD). The deep divisions in the German working class movement were to prove a fatal impediment.

Fascism was a response from the extreme right to the revolutionary threat from the working classes in the period following the imperialist war of 1914 – 1918. It is not possible here to do more than touch upon some of the factors accounting for its rise and triumph. First, the fact that in its origins it appealed to large numbers of discontented, disoriented members of the petit bourgeoisie and hard-hit rural population, including a variety of déclassé elements – ex-army officers, ruined small business people, civil servant.  Fascism presented itself as a new “third force”, equally opposed to  capitalism and “bolshevism”, the champion of the “little man”, defender of traditional values. It also extolled the nation’s martial traditions and encouraged pride in paramilitary parades. But also, and of great importance in understanding its appeal as a supposedly left-leaning movement, it shamelessly stole much of the language, symbolism and paraphernalia of the left. In Italy this is most evident in the person of Mussolini himself. A renegade from socialism, as a pre-war leader of the Italian socialist party, he had been widely known as Italy’s Lenin. It is no accident that he was a newspaper editor and a propagandist.  In Mein Kampf Hitler explained how impressed (albeit unfavourably) he had been by the proliferation of red flags he had witnessed during the short-lived Bavarian Soviet republic in 1919. He determined that the banner of his new movement would be predominantly red (to appeal to the workers) while incorporating the imperial colours (red, white, black) in the form of a white circle for German nationalism emblazoned with a black swastika to represent anti-Semitism.  To emphasis the lie that the Nazi party was a workers’ party, its full name was the National Socialist German Workers Part, thus, for good measure, emphasising both the workers and nationalism twice each.

So, what was fascism? It can’t be explained convincingly under the rubric of “Totalitarianism” and certainly not in the terms used by its founders and supporters. Early on, from the late 1920s, Marxists of the Third International and other socialists recognized fascism as a demagogic movement that served the interests of the capitalist class, and fascist regimes as dictatorial forms of capitalist rule. They were clear that this was counter-revolutionary capitalist dictatorship of a new kind, a serious threat to the working class and to all revolutionary movements. But beyond this there was little clarity and the full gravity of the threat posed by fascism in Europe was not recognized until after the Nazis had seized power. However one may apportion blame between the SPD and the KPD leaders for failing to recognize just how dangerous was the threat from the Nazis in Germany between 1930 and 1933, there can be little doubt that the sectarian line of the Comintern in the so-called “Third Period” (1928-1933), which treated social democracy and fascism not as antipodes, but as twins (Stalin, 1928), labelling the SPD leaders as “social fascists”, served only to perpetuate the ultimately fatal division in the working class movement. The leader of the Communist International himself, Dimitroff, openly acknowledged the seriousness of this error with the formulation of a new analysis of fascism that came in 1934 and was adopted in 1935 with the launch of the Comintern’s policy calling for a United Front against Fascism and War. In place of the earlier assessment of the political and class nature of fascism, the thesis first formulated in December 1933 and adopted at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935, defined fascism as The open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital. Fascism tries to secure a mass basis for monopolist capital.”

The policy of the United Front and the call for Popular Front governments based upon the alliance of the working class with other subaltern classes oppressed by capitalism was a dramatic departure from the earlier policy and entailed working for unity with other political and class forces, not only social democrats but liberals and even sections of the capitalist class threatened by fascism. Thus, the refinement in the definition of fascism which narrowed the sections of the ruling class in whose interest the dictatorship operated to the most reactionary, chauvinistic and imperialist representatives of finance capitalism. On the basis of the earlier more generalized definition of fascism, essentially as just another form of capitalist dictatorship, it would have been impossible to call for the broadest alliance of social classes and political forces to resist and defeat it. The Comintern also recognized that the victory of fascism depended on a weak and divided working class and failure to form alliances with other classes. Fascism did not triumph in the face of a strong, united working class in alliance with other anti-fascist forces.

What is Fascism in the twenty first century?

The Comintern definition is not, and was not intended to be a fully-formed analysis of fascism. It did attempt to cut through the confusion created by the miasma of competing and often contradictory attempts to explain it without addressing its class nature or considering the class interests it represented and served. Some, like Harold Laski, concluded that fascism in power was a supra-class dictatorship whose leaders sought and exercised power solely for their own sake: “[The] leaders of the Fascist parties have in each instance used the power of the state to make themselves the masters alike of the working class and of the capitalist class in the interest of perpetuating their own authority.”[3] Trotsky, despite his often trenchant criticisms of the sectarian “social-fascist” thesis of the Comintern’s sectarian “Third period”, often used Marx’s theory of “Bonapartism” (applied to Louis Bonapart’s regime in his The Civil War in France)to suggest that thegovernments of Papen and Schleicher which immediately preceded Hitler in power, were “Bonapartist” and, although most of his writing on German fascism is free from any illusions about its nature, he also often treats it as a form of Bonapartism.[4]

The value of revisiting the period of triumphant fascism in the 1930s and the debates about its nature lies mainly in the basis it provides for considering the significance of what some see as the return of fascism to contemporary capitalism in the twenty first century.[5] It is customary to accuse the left of scaremongering about the threat of fascism. There has indeed been a tendency for many years to use the term too loosely, describing any authoritarian regime or third world dictatorship as fascist. If looked at in terms of the 1930s models of fascist dictatorships discussed above, it would be true to say that with the termination of the Franco and Salazar regimes in Spain and Portugal, fascist states no longer existed in Europe. And, incidentally, some have argued persuasively that these two regimes, despite their undoubted brutal and undemocratic nature, were not authentically fascist in the sense that Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were. But fascism has never completely left the European stage. Successor movements to the earlier fascist parties in Germany and Italy have persisted. More recently, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist ruled countries of Eastern Europe a plethora of extreme right-wing nationalist parties and organizations have appeared in both the East and West of the continent. They have gained momentum in recent years, particularly since the onset of the Great Recession and the associated wars and upheavals in the Middle East and the deepening crisis in the European Union. Most of these organizations in Western Europe disclaim any connection or sympathy with fascism. But their virulent xenophobia, targeting of Muslims and immigrants and emphasis on ethnic nationalism show them to be kindred spirits of their fascist forerunners.

In Western Europe parties that may properly be described as neo-fascist (the French national Front and the Austrian Freedom Party) have both recently won more than 20% of the vote. In Britain, the anti-E.U., anti immigration U.K. Independence Party, which although it is far from being fascist, nevertheless feeds on and encourages the racist prejudices of a wide cross-section of the people, gained four million votes in the last general election. In Scandinavia similar rightist nationalist parties, the Danish People’s Party and the Swedish Democrats have won 21% and 12.9% respectively. But parts of Eastern Europe have seen a greater and more extreme expression of extreme nationalist xenophobia and violent anti-immigrant prejudice. In Greece the openly Nazi Golden Dawn party has been eclipsed by Syriza on the left, but nevertheless still wins upward of 6% of the vote. In Hungary an extreme right-wing nationalist government is outdone in its violent racist rhetoric by Jobbik, an openly anti-Semitic party which has won more than 20% of the vote.

But the face of resurgent fascism is most clearly evident in the Baltic States and Ukraine. And here openly pro-Nazi paramilitary brigades strut proudly in the menacing fashion to which they have always been accustomed. They are not merely tolerated, but encouraged and, in Ukraine welcomed into service in the government and the army. Their presence and their activities are studiously ignored or denied by their allies in the U.S., NATO and the E.U.

Another variant of newly emergent 21st century fascism, rarely referred to as such on the left, has been identified by the veteran Marxist theoretician Samir Amin. He refers in a recent article5 to the aborted popular uprisings in the Middle East since 2011. Lamenting the failure to achieve a democratic, popular outcome, he says that instead there has been a “plunge into a backward-looking illusion that, in this context, takes on the form of an “Islamization” of politics and society.” He says that “the Western powers (the United States and its subaltern allies) have made their choice” in this by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafist organizations of political Islam, because such reactionary forces “accept exercising their power within global neoliberalism...That is the sole objective pursued by the imperialist powers.”  Consequently, Amin argues, “political Islam’s program belongs to the type of fascism found in dependent societies. In fact it shares with all forms of fascism two fundamental characteristics: (1) the absence of a challenge to the essential aspects of the capitalist order (and in this context this amounts to not challenging the world of lumpen development connected to the spread of globalized neoliberal capitalism): and (2) the choice of anti-democratic, police-state forms of political management (such as the prohibition of parties and organizations, and forced Islamization of morals).”

Despite the emergence of many anti-immigrant, right-wing nationalist parties and organizations in Europe, and the very real possibility that with the deepening crisis of global finance monopoly capitalism such parties may be elected to office either alone or in coalitions, it still seems unlikely that we will see the triumph of fascist regimes like those that took power in the 1920s and 1930s. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is that it will not be necessary for the ruling classes to resort to such regimes. The triumph of fascism in its European heartlands occurred in circumstances of acute class struggle in which capitalism faced a challenge from mass working class parties and trade unions. The fascists succeeded in building a mass base, particularly among the petit bourgeoisie and some lumpen sections of the unorganized working class. They were able to take power in circumstances where the workers, for reasons touched upon above, were weakened, divided and to an extent demoralized. But today, in Britain and throughout much (though by no means all) of Europe, the left far, far weaker. The powerful communist parties that existed in France and Italy long ago ceased to exist. The level of class struggle is very low. In such circumstances there will be no need to resort to fascism. This does not mean that the future of capitalism is secure for the indefinite future. The present crisis is deepening and it is not going away. How it will play out and what forms of resistance may emerge, is very difficult to say. But one thing is clear: the intensifying internal contradictions of the system will not be resolved within the system.  Ultimately, either capitalism will destroy the planet or the people will destroy capitalism.

Footnotes on Fascism.

1.     Of note in this respect are: R.P. Dutt Fascism and Social Revolution 1934; Robert A. Brady The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism 1937; Franz Neumann Behemoth 1942; Harold J. Laski Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time 1943. Also of interest are the writings of Trotsky, particularly on German Fascism, as they contain some extraordinary prophetic insights, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany  1971; Indispensible for the development of the Third International (Comintern) theory of fascism are the reports by Georgi Dimitroff contained in The United Front Against Fascism and War 1938 and Palmiro Togliatti’s 1935 lectures to the Lenin School in Moscow Lectures on Fascism 1976. A later study combining a survey of the history of fascism with Marxist analysis informed by the writings of Gramsci and Althusser,  is Nicos Poulantzas Fascism and Dictatorship 1970.

2.     The origin of the term “fascist” is usually traced to (a) the “Fasces” - the bundle of sticks binding an Axe, symbolizing strength through unity in Imperial Rome, and (b) the “Fasci di Combattimento” , Leagues of Combat, the early fascist formations in Italy dating from 1919. Interestingly, these fasci were preceded in the early 1890s by the Sicilian “Fasci Siciliani dei Lavoratori (Sicilian Workers’ Leagues) which were socialist.

3.     Harold J. Laski Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time p. 94.

4.     Martin Kitchen Fascism 1976. For Trotsky’s views see chapter 7, Fascism and Bonapartism. P.77

5.     Samir Amin, Fascism Returns to Contemporary Capitalism, Monthly Review September 2014