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The Lessons We Need to Learn From Europe’s Struggle Against Fascism

The catastrophic descent of interwar Europe into fascist rule may not be repeatable in today’s world. But a different form of reactionary politics could still take shape and prove to be just as harmful.

Benito Mussolini saluting during a public address. (Keystone / Getty Images)

There are countless examples in history of subversive parties being tamed once they were in government. But fascists became more radical in office. Whether you were a worker, a socialist, or one of their racial enemies, life was unmistakably different and worse in 1939 than it had been before the fascists took power in Italy in 1922 or Germany in 1933. How did fascism continue to radicalize?

Those interwar writers who accurately predicted the cruelty of fascism were overwhelmingly located on the far left of politics, among the oldest and most irreconcilable adversaries of fascism, the Italian and German Marxists. From their pamphlets, speeches, and newspaper articles, a coherent theory of fascism emerges.

Fascism, these writers argued, was not a set of ideas but a certain kind of organization and rule. Fascism should be understood not as an ideology, but as a specific form of reactionary mass movement.

The Anti-Fascist Wager

The argument of the interwar Marxists was that, because fascism (unlike traditional right-wing politics) sought to build a mass base, it had a capacity to win recruits at a time of crisis and among social layers that the Left liked to think of as its own, including workers, the unemployed, and the young. As a result, even when fascists were relatively few in number to begin with, they were able to grow quickly.

The Marxists insisted that there was a tension between the goals of fascist ideology and the aspirations of its members. That contradiction could play out in various ways: in the collapse of fascist parties through conflict with a non-fascist rival, or in the radicalization of fascist parties in power. But the one possibility that could be excluded was the gradual taming of fascism once its leaders were in office.

When fascism started out, hardly anyone else in politics agreed with it. The set of people who were potentially anti-fascist included liberals, conservatives, Christians, anarchists, feminists, and countless others. None of these traditions grasped the potential of fascism for violence as quickly as the Marxists.

The interwar Marxists were the first to formulate what can be called the anti-fascist wager. This is the belief that fascism is an especially violent and destructive form of right-wing politics, with the capacity to grow rapidly in times of social crisis; if ignored, it will destroy the capacity of the Left to organize and set back by decades the demands of workers and other dispossessed groups for change.

A Unique Danger

If the wager is correct, it must be a priority for the opponents of fascism to confront it, even at times when other forms of discrimination are endemic, and even when other varieties of right-wing politics have more support than fascism. Fascism is capable of extending suffering on an enormous scale. Conversely, where fascism is defeated, the other forms of oppression on which it thrives can also be weakened.

The anti-fascist wager is not a distinctively Marxist position; all sorts of people have held it. But the first time that any significant group came to adopt it was in the mid-1920s, when the Marxists began to campaign against the threat of fascism outside Italy. This approach recognized the potential of Mussolini to inspire imitators in other countries, including Germany.

At the time that these clear-sighted warnings were first made, Adolf Hitler himself was a mere regional politician. Any electoral success he had enjoyed was modest, and he faced a number of competitors in a space between fascism and conservatism, several of whom were better funded, enjoyed easier access to the media, and possessed their own means of paramilitary violence that could be deployed against their rivals.

To say that fascism, in spite of Hitler’s weaknesses, was the most threatening opponent facing the German left, was to make a prediction about how fascism would grow and what it would do once in power. It is worth listening to the people who grasped that risk, at a time when almost everyone else on the right and center of European politics disagreed with them.

Defining Fascism

There are countless examples of journalists and contemporary historians taking a strong and understandable dislike to political figures in the present day, reinterpreting the concept of fascism so that it refers to whatever processes they reject in the present, and then hunting for echoes of them in the past. But the contemporary right is in many ways unlike fascism.

The temptation is to define fascism in terms of some secondary characteristic: emphasizing not so much Mussolini’s actual killing of his opponents, but his willingness to taunt them and threaten them with violence; or Hitler’s support for tariffs and economic protection, as opposed to global institutions of free trade. There is a risk of chasing after some passing feature that we dislike in the present, thereby softening our shared understanding of fascism, making the past fuzzier and less exact.

Once you have a definition of fascism, then the extent of the analogy between different generations of reactionary mass politics legitimately arises. But the analogy must be considered in relation to some kind of fixed and definite meaning, which has been drawn up in order to be as accurate as possible in relation to what happened eighty years ago, rather than to keep up with the changing demands of the present.

There has not been just one Marxist theory of fascism, but at least three. The first is what I describe as the “left” theory of fascism. It has tended to explain fascism as a form of counter-revolution acting in the interests of capital.

The more stridently this interpretation has been advanced, the less concerned its adherents have been to examine what was specific about fascist counter-revolution. The Italian and German Communist Parties described fascism as one form of counter-revolution among many, and in so doing they disarmed their supporters, leading them away from the task of organizing with a single-minded focus against the fascists.

The second or “right” theory of fascism, by contrast, could only see the mass, radical character of the fascist movement. The Marxists who argued for this interpretation treated fascism as something radical, exotic, outside, and threatening to capital. They called for alliances with anyone at all against it — with centrist and even right-wing politicians.

In this way, the Italian and German social-democratic parties in the 1920s and 30s — and subsequently the world’s Communist Parties after 1934 — allowed their anti-fascism to become moderate and irresolute. They disarmed the mass movements around them, both metaphorically and literally, in the face of fascist advance.

There is also a third theory of fascism, which I call the dialectical theory. That theory treated fascism as both a reactionary ideology and also as a mass movement — as a form of politics which could grow incredibly fast and do untold damage, but was also vulnerable when faced with popular challengers which confronted it and could offer its supporters a more persuasive means of effecting transformative change.

Close Cousins of Fascism

The best of the interwar Marxists saw the necessity of distinguishing between fascism and the movements and regimes to which it seemed closely related. The habit of treating all conservative or authoritarian regimes as fascist, irrespective of their form or function, was a characteristic feature of the “left” theory. This approach disarmed the German Communist Party in the face of Hitler’s rise to power.

Yet in the interwar years, there were examples of non-fascist reactionary movements which were relatively close in character to the fascist powers. One was comprised of the military dictatorships formed prior to 1939.

In Europe directly before the war, the poorer countries of eastern and southern Europe were almost without exception ruled by right-wing autocratic regimes. But the relationship between politics and movement was different in the non-fascist dictatorships, with traditional rulers having greater power than they did in the states led by Mussolini or Hitler.

General Franco’s regime in Spain was led by the existing Spanish army, rather than a new political party. It had the support of the Catholic Church. The dictatorship set itself the task of crushing Socialists, Communists, and the trade union movement, but used the established army and state structures to do so.

The difference between Franco’s military dictatorship and the two principal fascist regimes is stark. There was no “movement stage” in Francoism. After securing an unchallenged hold on power at the end of the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s government briefly carried out an extraordinary series of atrocities against the Left and the working class — the “revenge” of the military and the rich inflicted upon those ordinary Spaniards who had risen up in a popular revolution.

This “White Terror” of 1939–40 involved the killing of around fifty thousand people, on a greater scale than anything that had yet been done in Germany or Italy. However, after 1940 the repression was rapidly scaled down. Unlike fascism, the endpoint of Francoism was a relatively stable and conventional military dictatorship, at peace with its neighbors. The regime de-radicalized rapidly.

Franco was hardly alone in this regard. Several other pro-fascist dictatorships had similar dynamics, with their “reactionary” content outweighing any “mass” aspect. The imperial regime in Japan was chiefly a form of royal, authoritarian rule without an independent mass party. It was radicalized through contact with fascism, but was not itself a mass fascist state.

The Fascist Style

The best of the interwar Marxist theories recognized that fascism was a specific form of right-wing politics, with a different kind of support, a different mass character, and a different potential to the other kinds of authoritarianism which surrounded it. Here, for example, is the Italian Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti, writing in 1928:

Whenever the so-called democratic freedoms sanctified by bourgeois constitutions are attacked or violated, one hears the cry: “Fascism is here, fascism has arrived.” It should be realized that this is not just a question of terminology. If someone thinks it is reasonable to use the term “fascism” to designate every form of reaction, so be it. But I do not see the advantage we gain, except perhaps an agitational one. The actuality is something different. Fascism is a particular, specific type of reaction.

Fascism was not simply a set of ideas. The defining feature of fascist parties was rather that they combined reactionary goals with an aspiration to build a mass movement.

If you want to know how to identify a fascist, in other words, the place to look is in what the historian Stanley Payne termed fascism’s style: the emphasis on aesthetic structure, the attempt at mass mobilization, the use of violence, the stress on the masculine principle, the exaltation of youth, the tendency toward authoritarian command, and absolute leadership.

Of all the various components of the fascist style, the easiest to distinguish is fascist violence. To focus on this is to follow Antonio Gramsci’s characterization of fascism as “the attempt to resolve the problems of production and exchange with machine-guns and pistol-shots.”

The violence of fascism can be understood through the insights of Robert Paxton, who argues that fascism went through five distinct stages: first its creation, then its rooting in a political system, next its acquisition of power, then the holding of power, and finally its radicalization in power. Violence was essential at each stage, but its content changed over time.

In their initial stage, when fascist parties were just being formed, the fascists won recruits through mass demonstrations in uniform, through military training and through physical attacks on the enemies — racial, political, and sexual — who were everywhere around them. These confrontations won supporters, who exulted in the violence. They gave the first fascist leaders a sense of their potential strength, and demoralized their opponents.

In the second stage, when fascist parties had been founded and were contending for power, violence played a different role. At this point, the fascists would parade their determination to take on and defeat the existing democratic state.

The fascists needed to challenge the state’s monopoly of violence. The fascist challenger for power was therefore typically a militia party. The private army is in keeping with the mass popular support for fascism.

Yet fascism, at this stage, also typically sought to govern in an alliance with other right-wing parties, the majority of which accepted the existing state and had no desire to see a fascist capture of power. So each of the vanguard fascist parties became “dual” parties, both standing in elections and threatening their rivals with violence. Fascism meant shaved heads and suits, guns and ballot boxes. It refused to allow either the paramilitary or the parliamentary wings to dominate.

On taking power, both Italian and German fascist parties partially relegated their militia structures. Both were invited into power by existing conservative elites. Both, at this stage of their development, made much of their loyalty to the existing national army and its existing hierarchies of command. They relied on the existing structures of the state to punish any remaining left-wing opponents.

As fascism became more radical in office, a much more ambitious kind of violence became available to it: the use of military power in war, to create new forms of colonial rule and to enact genocide against the movement’s racial enemies. In each of these various stages, fascism exulted in violence. It manifested a profound social and political sadism, the glorification of war and death.

Could It Happen Again?

While the interwar Marxists said that fascism was not like ordinary conservatism and therefore required the most urgent opposition, they never argued that fascism was the only form of emergency rule under capitalism. After all, by 1939 there were only two countries in the world which were clearly and unambiguously fascist, but two was enough to bring about the world war and the Holocaust.

Nothing in history would prevent a new and intermediate form of reactionary politics from emerging, in a political space between fascism and conservatism, and cohering in a dozen countries at once, rather than just two of them. Equally, nothing would stop a new form of reactionary mass politics from taking shape, its growth coinciding with ecological devastation, mass migration, and the intensification of border regimes.

Such a regime might lack the mass character of fascism but find itself in a situation of even greater social crisis than interwar Europe. In either of these scenarios, future generations would find themselves facing opponents whose movements and regimes were unlike fascism, and yet every bit as cruel.

The further we get from the Second World War, the more vague the collective memory of fascism becomes, and the harder it is to remember exactly why fascism is so despised, the easier it will be for a renascent right to adopt forms of reactionary politics which follow much more closely in the footsteps of the past.