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Full Marx What is fascism?

Fascism is a strategy adopted by the ruling class to manage the capitalist state at a time when its continued rule is threatened by the organised working class and its allies, says the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

SINCE the comprehensive military and political defeat of nazi Germany and fascist Italy in the second world war, few individuals or groups have dared to call themselves fascist.  

The word is now generally heard as a pejorative term applied to individuals (or organisations, or governments) on the extreme right.  

Sometimes it’s applied as a term of abuse, an insult to someone who’s perhaps not quite as extreme or to emphasise the misuse of power.  

But however we may (or may not) agree with newsreader Jon Snow’s refusal to wear a red poppy, for example, the pressure on him to wear one is not “poppy fascism.”  

Here we’ll use the terms “fascist” and “fascism” analytically, rather than as an insult.  

Donald Trump is not a fascist (although some of his associates may be). Nor are Theresa May, Boris Johnson or Philip Hammond (although nobody knows how people will behave when it comes to the crunch).

There is no canon of fascism. Ideologically it is a hotch-potch of ideas. Fascism is not a distinct economic and social system, like capitalism or socialism.  

It is a strategy adopted by the ruling class to manage the capitalist state at a time when its continued rule is threatened by the organised working class and its allies.  

This doesn’t mean that some members of the ruling class consciously and deliberately decide to establish fascism.  The first fascist organisations were small and marginal and their supporters widely derided as cranks. But they were there to be used when the ruling class needed a new strategy. 

Without the resources provided by big business, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler would not have been able to establish their dictatorships.  

And once they were in power their actions served the interests of big capital. Fascism as an ideology arose as a response to capitalism in crisis and to the challenge of socialist ideas, particularly after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 first demonstrated the possibility of an alternative.  

It first emerged in Italy with the foundation from 1919 of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party — its name and emblem taken from the Roman “fasces,” a bundle of rods tied around an axe, symbolising strength through unity.  

Other fascist parties adopted similar emblems, such as the five yoked arrows of Franco’s Falange in Spain from 1936.  During the 1930s much of the political discourse on the left and in the labour movement was about what fascism is, and how best to oppose it.

Sadly, there was a deep division in the working class and progressive movement.  

Most social democrats were against confronting the fascists on the streets. Their attitude was to ignore them and hope they’d fade away.  

The refusal of the great German Social Democratic Party to respond to the call from the growing Communist Party for a united front against the nazis facilitated Hitler’s seizure of power.  

And the short period in the early 1930s during which sectarian communists described all social democrats as “social fascists” didn’t help to promote the establishment of a united front against fascism.  

In Britain at the time, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists had the support of sections of the ruling class, including big landowners and industrialists.  

In January 1934 the Daily Mail printed the notorious headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts.” The official Labour Party took a passive line similar to that of its continental counterparts.  

But the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party and leftwingers in the Labour Party were able to organise a Popular Front against fascism, culminating in the heroic Battle of Cable Street in 1936 when the Blackshirts were thrown out of the East End of London.  

Some argue that fascism represents the inevitable “final stage” of monopoly capitalism if it is not replaced by socialism.  

However the prominent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm dismisses the thesis that fascism is the necessary expression of monopoly capitalism.  

He argues: “Really big business […] can come to terms with any regime that does not actually appropriate it. […] Big business in the early 1930s did not particularly want Hitler and would have preferred more orthodox conservatism. It gave him little support until the Great Slump, and even then, support was late and patchy.

“However, when he came to power, business collaborated wholeheartedly, up to the point of using slave labour and extermination camp labour.”  That ultimate function of the state — to maintain political power for the dominant economic class — is why socialists recognise that the state needs to be transformed; it cannot be simply “tweaked.”  

It is when the capitalist state is under threat from socialist ideas and policies — as in in Italy in 1919, Portugal in 1926, Spain in 1936, Argentina from 1946, Greece in 1967, Chile in 1973 or today in Venezuela — that sections of the ruling class are prepared to give up some of their privileges to secure a corporate state which secures their survival, and fascism comes to the fore.  

And, when it does so, it generally attempts to secure working-class support through populist policies or slogans designed to appeal to “the people,” often presenting itself as challenging the power of privileged elites, and often scapegoating particular ethnic or political groups.  

Membership of openly fascist organisations and parties such as the National Front and the British National Party has declined since their heyday.  

But support remains in elements of popular culture, represented by white power bands such as the British rock group Skrewdriver (associated with the short-lived Rock Against Communism) and neonazi artists elsewhere, from the Croatian rock group Thompson to Sweden’s Saga whose Tribute to Skrewdriver includes a cover for The Snow Fell — in praise of nazi troops’ “ideals and dreams” and a tribute to their “sacrifices” in confronting “the beast” at Stalingrad.  

Saga inspired Anders Breivik who massacred 77 people in Norway in 2011. British fascism has been unable so far to emulate France’s National Front, Greece’s Golden Dawn or Hungary’s Jobbik, however significant support for fascist ideas can be found (usually cloaked by a more liberal rhetoric) not just within Ukip.  

Smaller activist groups such as the English Defence League and Britain First, together with underground organisations such as National Action — a violent right-wing group banned under the Terrorism Act but still organising and recruiting members of Britain’s armed services — continue to be active and influence “loners” such as Thomas Mair, the killer of MP Jo Cox in 2016.

The Marx Memorial Library will be holding a May Day open day tomorrow.See mstar.link/MMLcourses for details.

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