The strong electoral showing of Le Pen in France and the party of Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands has led to talk in the media of the danger of fascism returning to Europe. “Not since the 1930s has the threat of racism and fascism been so great” wrote a commentator in the Guardian (9/5/02). The Socialist Workers Party has been saying we’re living through the “1930s in slow motion” for some time. With the increased prominence of political parties that explicitly base themselves on intolerance, xenophobia, and opposition to immigration, while posing as ‘new’ alternatives to the tired old parties of the centre, we’re being asked to believe that fascism is on the agenda again in Europe.
Fascism between the wars
The usual explanation for the appearance of fascist governments in Europe in the 1920s and 30s is as historic aberrations, alien forces of obscurantism, exceptions to the normal ‘civilised’ functioning of capitalism. According to this story fascism came to power against the wishes of the bourgeoisie. This version allows the ruling class to deny any connection with what happened, while at the same time hiding the real historic conditions in which they resorted to this sort of regime as the best suited for the needs of the capitalist state.
In reality the appearance of the fascist regimes corresponded to the needs of capitalism faced with the force of its economic crisis. Following the First World War, in the countries that had been defeated or left impoverished, the only alternative facing the ruling class was to try and gain more of the imperialist cake, to mobilise for a new world war. To do this required the concentration of all powers in the state, to accelerate the development of the war economy and the militarisation of labour, and put an end to conflicts within the bourgeoisie. The fascist regimes were constituted in a direct response to the demands of the national capital. In this they were, like stalinism, only one of the most brutal expressions of the general tendency toward state capitalism which is characteristic of the domination of capital in its historic period of decadence since 1914. Far from the expression of the dispossessed petit-bourgeoisie, fascism was the policy favoured by the big industrial bourgeoisie, in Germany as it had been in Italy.
But if the economic crisis and the necessity for state capitalism are the fundamental conditions for fascism, they are not the only ones. The other major, essential, precondition for fascism is the defeat of the working class. The bourgeoisie has never tried to impose fascism faced with the working class mobilised on its own terrain. In Germany and Italy, the countries where the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 had its widest expression outside Russia, fascism was not imposed until the democratic forces, above all those of the left posing as the friends of the workers, had crushed the revolutionary outburst physically and politically. It was not the Nazis who massacred the revolution in Germany, it was the socialists Noske and Scheidemann, who, in the name of the social-democratic government, bloodily repressed the mobilisation of the working class and murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, using the Freicorps, the embryo of the future Nazi militia. In Italy in 1919-20 the first wave of repression came from the democratic government of Nitti, repressing strikes with hundreds of workers dying. But, even more than the direct repression, what broke the workers’ spirit was being trapped by the unions and the Italian Socialist Party in the factory occupations with widespread illusions in the possibilities of workers’ control of production. The occupation of the factories was doomed to failure, and it was only after the defeat of autumn 1920 that massive repression was unleashed against the working class by the joint forces of the democratic state and the fascist gangs. It was only after the defeat of the working class that Mussolini’s movement was able to develop, with the help of the bosses who financed him and the state that encouraged him. Ultimately it was the defeat of the international revolutionary wave that allowed fascism to take power.
The extreme right today
It is true that the current plunge of capitalist society into decomposition has encouraged the development of all sorts of ideologies searching for scapegoats for the general collapse of society, compensating for the absence of any perspective with ideas that are openly xenophobic and racist. At this level Le Pen, the BNP or neo-nazis elsewhere in Europe are as much a manifestation of social decomposition as are the flight into drugs or religious sects, expressions of a capitalist society that has no future, that is rotting on its feet.
But the bourgeoisie does not need to bring the extreme right to power in Europe because the governmental teams in power are implementing the policies that are needed by the various national capitals, in particular the attacks on workers’ living and working conditions demanded by the state of the economy. Capitalism today needs to deploy its democratic forces to deal with the working class. We are not in the 1930s where workers paid a terrible price for the defeat of the revolutionary wave. Whatever the difficulties facing the working class today it has not experienced a historic defeat and its capacity to resist the attacks of capital is still intact. Figures such as Le Pen in France or Griffin of the BNP would not be capable of controlling the social situation, whereas the democratic mode of capitalist domination, with its various unions, its parliament, its game of government-and-opposition and the ‘diversity’ of its media has a terrible effectiveness in insuring the maintenance of social control and in deploying its ideological manipulations. And the only reason that the bourgeoisie has any need for the extreme right is to give a spurious validity to the democratic state.
To say that fascism is not on the agenda and that the bourgeoisie today prefers the methods of democracy should not give the impression that the democratic state is not capable, when necessary, of bringing repression to bear against workers struggles or communist minorities, nor that it won’t use extreme-right-wing gangs should the need arise. History shows that’s eminently possible, starting with the example of January 1919 in Germany.
For the working class there can be no choosing the ‘anti-fascist’ forces of the bourgeoisie as they have shown that they are every bit as anti-working class as the forces of the right. You need only look at the policies of Blair in this country, or Schroder in Germany, to see that at home the bourgeoisie continues to worsen the conditions in which workers live and work, while abroad pursuing its imperialist interests.
Bourgeois ideology makes the struggle between ‘democracy’ and ‘fascism’, or between ‘freedom’ and ‘totalitarianism’ the keystone of 20th century history. This is pure lies, as it is the same bourgeoisie, the same capitalist state, which turns to one or other of these flags according to its needs and the historic possibilities.
This supposed conflict served as the lying justification for the barbarity of the Second World War, which was presented as a ‘just’ war between the ‘good’ democrats and the ‘bad’ fascists and not for what it really was: the deadly and barbaric confrontation between imperialist sharks. According to the dominant ideology, fascism was the cause of the Second World War, when, in fact, the opposite was the truth: it was the drive to war, the veritable mode of existence for decadent capitalism, that created fascism. Fascism, the ‘absolute evil’, was supposed to have the unique responsibility, with stalinism, for all the horrors that have taken place across the face of the planet during the last century, when, in reality, the ‘other side’, democracy has nothing to learn about massacres and butchery, from Dresden to Hiroshima, from the Vietnam war to the wars in the Gulf and against Afghanistan.
For the working class there is no ‘lesser evil’ in the democratic bourgeoisie. The future of humanity is in the hands of the working class, and one of the biggest obstacles it faces are the ideological campaigns by the ruling class to defend the democratic state with anti-fascist mobilisations. It is the consciousness and the revolutionary perspective of the working class that the bourgeoisie is trying to attack with its proposed false responses to the open failure of its system. Today the myths of ‘peace’ and prosperity are long gone; so the ruling class tries to rally workers with illusions about democracy being the last rampart against barbarism.
Today the greatest danger facing the working class and its capacity to destroy capitalism is not ‘fascism’, real or imagined, but the democratic traps of the ruling class.
PE (adapted from RI 323), 18/05/02