Towards a Marxist Theory of Fascism
Dave Renton, 1997
The idea of this paper is to outline a materialist way of looking at fascism, which is concerned as much with what fascism did as with what it said. This theory will be developed through an analysis of what Marxists have actually said about fascism. At the end of the paper, I will try to draw together the threads: and offer some ideas as to where the theory could go next.
Marxists in Face of Fascism: to the 1920s
The Marxist theory of fascism has its roots in a number of Marxist theories which predated the rise of fascism. These include the idea, present in The Communist Manifesto, that ideologies should be seen as class ideologies. Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire offered a picture of a regime in which the bourgeoisie continued its economic rule, while relinquishing its administration of political power. Lenin's Imperialism has also been an important influence: it suggested that as capitalism reached its senescence, so it has become more centralised, and more reactionary. Outside the tradition of classical Marxism, Jack London's novel, The Iron Heel, offered a picture of a successful counter-revolution, in which the bourgeoisie now ruled simply by its violent force. This last book was tremendously influential in the 1930s, although it did have a remarkably crude image of how any reactionary movement might actually work. In Jack London's book, the capitalists, numerically, a tiny class, are able to build a massive reactionary movement, which destroys the lives and position of millions. What London is unable to answer, is the problem of real life: if a reactionary movement does not even express the grievances of those layers of society that make up the bulk of the population, then how is it able to form a majority that is prepared to fight a class war which is so obviously against its own interests?
Faced with the rise of actual fascism in the 1920s, Marxists were compelled to adopt new analyses. At first, many seem to have presumed that fascism could not provide any lasting danger: the fascists could attack buildings and trade unions, but they could hardly seize power. Writing in May 1920, Antonio Gramsci argued against complacency: 'The present phase of the class struggle in Italy is the phase that precedes either the conquest of power by the revolutionary proletariat...or a tremendous reaction by the capitalists and the governing caste. Every kind of violence will be used to subjugate the agricultural and industrial working class.' Marxists searched; they hunted for real evidence; and replaced theory as soon as real life made it appear redundant. This can be seen, for example, in the speed with which Gramsci first adopted and then rejected, new and contradictory explanations of fascism. One collection of Marxist writings on fascism contains three articles Gramsci wrote in 1921. In the first, he describes fascism as an international problem, 'the attempt to resolve the problems of production and exchange with machine-guns and pistol-shots.' In the second article, Gramsci portrays fascism as an Italian phenomenon, rooted in the specific 'immaturity' of Italian production. It is a broad social movement without a base in one particular class, 'a movement of political forces,' that is not 'conscious of a real aim.' In the final article , Gramsci presents fascism 'as a white guard of capitalism' based at one and the same time on large-scale industrialists, an urban petty bourgeoisie and the feudal rural landowners.
Over time, Marxists did generate systematic analyses of Italian fascism. Indeed, it is possible to speak of three separate and enduring schools of thought. One was a 'left' theory of fascism, which is often linked to the left faction within the Italian Communist party. It was especially associated with Amadeo Bordiga. Another was a 'right' theory of fascism, which can be linked to the Italian Socialist party, and probably received its highest expression in the writings of Giovanni Zibordi. The third theory of fascism was a more sophisticated and dialectical theory, which saw the contradictions between the two Marxist theories as being linked to a number of contradictions at the heart of fascism itself. It combined the insights of the other two analyses, and thus reached a more accurate description of what fascism itself was about.
The left theory saw fascism as a trick in the hands of the capitalist ruling class. It was described as 'a function of bourgeois society,' or as a 'violent action by the set of the bourgeoisie.' This equation, fascism = reaction = bourgeoisie, represents a continuation of the analysis first presented in The Iron Heel. The left theory was often linked to a 'left' (or, more accurately, ultra-left) explanation of parliamentary Social Democracy. Capital sought stability. This could be achieved, less violently, by an alliance with Reformist politicians. Or it could be achieved, more violently, by an alliance with the fascist combat brigades. The resulting theory of fascism was espoused by Bordiga, for example, at the Fifth Congress of the Communist International in 1924: 'Fascism, fundamentally, merely repeats the old game of the bourgeois left parties, i.e. it appeals to the proletariat for civil peace. It attempts to achieve this aim by forming trade unions of industrial and agricultural workers, which it then leads into practical collaboration with the employers' organisations.'
The right theory portrayed fascism as a much more complicated and diffuse movement. Zibordi's Critica socialista del fascismo (1922), for example, accused the lefts of 'dangerous simplification... fascism would not have achieved its vitality and strength if it had not been nourished by many other contributory sources of support.' Fascism was a mass movement that acted independent of capitalist support. Zibordi described the petty bourgeoisie as it 'eyed the workers with envy and hatred.' For him, the aggressive demands of communism terrified this layer, which produced the bulk of the membership of the fascist parties. This theory was often linked to an analysis of capitalism which stressed a growing stability and security at the heart of the system. Inside stable capitalist society, fascism was seen as exceptional or pathological. This resulted in a new idea which seems alien to the revolutionary content of Marxism: that capitalism was reforming its abuses out of existence, and that the working-class should present itself as the 'friend' of all non-fascist layers, including the capitalist ruling class.
The earliest expression of the 'Third' Marxist theory of fascism probably originated outside Italy, in the discussions of the Communist International (Comintern). At first, the Comintern failed to take fascism sufficiently seriously: at the third Congress of the Communist International, in June and July 1921, the discussion on Italy was limited to calls for the formation of a united Italian Communist Party. The Russian delegation's paper 'On Tactics', failed to discuss fascism at all. At the 4th Congress, which was held between November and December 1922, the discussion seems to have been far more urgent. There were four sessions in which fascism was discussed, and the consensus of analysis combined the left stress on fascism as anti-proletarian reaction with the 'right' emphasis on fascism as a mass movement with a logic of its own. In the words of the Thesis On Comintern Tactics, for example, 'The characteristic feature of 'classical' Italian fascism... is that the fascists not only form counter-revolutionary fighting organisations, armed to the teeth, but also attempt to use social demagogy to gain a base among the masses.'
Two sources from 1923 reveal a similar approach: Klara Zetkin's speech to the Executive of the Comintern and Gyula Sas's Der Fascismus in Italien. Zetkin explained the rise of fascism within a context of shifting class forces, using a language of dynamism and change, similar to that used by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire. She described fascism as the product of a period, itself shaped by 'the decay and the disintegration of the capitalist economy;' which combined with 'the standstill in the world revolution;' to enable a capitalist offensive. Inside this context, fascism could grow. Fascism was an ally of the bourgeoisie, not its instrument. Zetkin criticised both left and right analyses of fascism. She stressed that fascism was 'a mass movement with deep social roots;' but re-iterated the point, also, that fascism was a product of capitalist society, which could only be destroyed by a workers revolution.
Sas, a Hungarian Communist living in Italy, followed Zetkin. He synthesised the left and right analyses of fascism, and in the process he went beyond them. He blamed their mutual over-simplifications on the Italian Marxists' inability to look beyond the immediate situation. 'The Italian workers were in too close contact,' he argued, 'to have a clear perspective'. Like Zetkin, he linked the rise of fascism to a period of capitalist offensive. Like Zetkin, again, he stressed that this 'explanation' was insufficient. Sas married the theories of the left and the right Marxists: fascism was both a new form of capitalist dictatorship, which aimed to crush working-class organisations; and, at the same time, a political movement which employed a language that combined socialist and nationalist terms and which appeared revolutionary, and which had a mass support. What follows from this analysis is the notion that fascism was contradictory. Fascism as a specific historical force was shaped by the conflict between the reactionary goals of the movement, and the mass base of support that the movement received.
The 1930's The history of Marxist theories of fascism has been dominated by the need to explain the failure of the German left to stop Hitler. The important point is that the KPD and the SPD came to repeat the errors of the Italian left in the 1920s. The politics of the KPD were shaped by the degeneration of the Communist International, and the need to hold faithfully to the idea of 'Social Fascism': the argument that Social Democracy was just a facade for capitalism, and hence that fascism and reformist socialism were 'not antipode, but twins'. While the theorists of the KPD repeated the arguments of Bordiga and the Italian lefts; inside the Social-Democratic Party, the stress was on the mass aspect of the German Nazi Party (NSDAP). Following the Italian right theory, the SPD emphasised the support that the Nazi party received from the petty-bourgeoisie and the (presumed) hostility of the capitalist elites. There was no idea that fascism could seize power on its own account. These theories shared two things. First, they shared a symmetry of antagonism: the SPD was as worried about the rise of the German Communist Party (KPD), as it was about the rise of the Nazi Party; the KPD was as antagonistic towards Social Fascism, as it wad to 'real' fascism. Second, in both cases, inadequate theory led to inadequate practice. The SPD argued that Hitler could be resisted by a combination of Hindenburg and Papen. As Hilferding wrote, after Hindenburg first refused Hitler the Chancellorship, 'Were the Prussian Junkers, so long accustomed to power, and the higher echelons of the bureaucracy and military to abandon the field voluntarily to a plebeian mass movement ?' The KPD argued that Hitler could be resisted by the KPD alone: the policy of 'revolutionary united front from below', implied that the only alternative to Hitler was a workers revolution. Marching under the opposing banners of 'legality will kill him' and 'after Hitler us' the official German Marxists were unable to prevent Hitler's seizure of power.
This story is well known. What is more interesting, for this paper, is the fact that several Marxists offered an alternative theory of fascism, linked to the dialectical insights of the third theory of fascism, and leading to the idea that united action by the working class parties could stop fascism. The most interesting analyses of fascism came from those thinkers that were either already outside both of the two Internationals, or that were generating new Marxist concepts and new traditions, beyond the influence of either the official left or the official right. A list of such oppositional figures would have to include August Thalheimer, Ignazio Silone, Antonio Gramsci, and Leon Trotsky.
August Thalheimer was a right-wing member of the KPD, who opposed the left line of the Third Period. He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1928 and formed a different, and 'right' Communist Party, the Communist Party Opposition (KPO). Thalheimer's best-known work was an article, 'Über den Faschismus' (On Fascism) written in 1928 and published in 1930. The basic approach here was borrowed from Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire. Thalheimer saw the cornerstone of Marx's analysis as being the insight that Bonapartism was a product of a 'totality of class relations'. Following both Marx's method, and the specific arguments Marx used to explain the rise of Bonapartism, Thalheimer identified fascism and Bonapartism as 'related phenomena'. Both were 'a form of the open capitalist dictatorship'. Both also saw an enormous extension of the power of the state: 'the political subordination of the masses, including the bourgeoisie itself, to the fascist state power'. In both, there was a dominant role given to a political party. Crucially, in both cases, the seizure of power was preceded by a failed proletarian onslaught, which demoralised the working class, and led the terrified ruling class to seek a saviour.
Ignazio Silone was a leading member of the Italian Communist Party. He played an important role in the formation of the PCI at Livorno, in 1921. However, he left the Communist Party, and was then briefly close to Leon Trotsky. He made two contributions to the debate: a novel, Fontamara, written in 1930, shortly after Silone left the PCI; and a theoretical work, Der Fascismus: Seine Enstehung und Seine Entwicklung (1934). Here Silone offered a three-part definition. First, he defined fascism 'chronologically': as a movement that arises in capitalist societies, at time of economic crisis, typically when the crisis is prolonged, and when both capitalist and workers' parties are themselves incapable of filling the vacuum.' Second, Silone described fascism 'morphologically' (that is by its shape, or phenomenologically): as 'a broad political movement of the masses,' typically with a nationalist ideology and petty bourgeois support. Third, Silone defined fascism 'dialectically': as a movement that develops and changes. In particular, he contrasted fascism as a movement with fascism as a regime: "Even fascism, the strongest movement that has ever emerged from the petty bourgeoisie, results in the open dictatorship of high finance and in an unprecedented repression of the petty bourgeoisie as a class".
Antonio Gramsci, like Ignazio Silone, was a member of the PCI: elected onto the Central Committee at Livorno, he led the party from 1924. In 1926, he was imprisoned, until his death in 1937. In so far as it is possible to reconstruct Gramsci's theory of fascism, it is probably necessary to divide his work in two, around the break provided by his imprisonment in 1926. In the second period, and in his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci's model of fascism was close to the dialectical conception. Gramsci described fascism using the category 'Caesarism', a term was used to describe both fascism and Bonapartism. Like Thalheimer, Gramsci saw the practical causes of the ascent of Napoleon III and Mussolini as being identical. Following Thalheimer following Marx, he listed such factors as a crisis of the ruling class, the reciprocal failure of the proletariat, the atomisation of a large peasantry, and the presence of an adventurist layer, including both petty bourgeoisie and lumpenproletariat which is organised into a party.
There are, however, at least three levels of explanation at which Gramsci's theory differs from Thalheimer. First, Gramsci has a specific notion of the crisis of capitalism that precedes the rise of fascism. It is 'a crisis of hegemony'. What Gramsci was referring to was his notion that the bourgeoisie rules primarily through consent rather than coercion. A crisis of hegemony is a crisis of the dominant ideology. Second, Gramsci had a strong sense of the link between fascism and the class psychology of given layers: including the morti di fame, and also the urban petty bourgeoisie, the layer from which the junior officers are drawn. Third, Gramsci had a notion of fascism as an ideology. It answers the crisis of hegemony. It expresses the anger of the fascist layers. And yet fascism as rule does not resolve the grievances of the masses. As with Bonapartism, fascism's 'exceptionalism' declines, as it fails to meet the grievances of those that put it there. This perspective meant that Gramsci was able to draw the optimistic practical conclusions that mark the dialectical theory of fascism: he asks, 'can a rift between the popular masses and ruling ideologies...be 'cured' by the simple exercise of force?' The implied answer, even by 1930, was no.
Leon Trotsky's best-known writing on fascism dated from the period 1930 to 1935. His most important works were sharp polemics directed against the German KPD and SPD. While other oppositional figures were writing in prison and without an audience (Gramsci), before the period of Hitler's rise to power (Thalheimer), or after it (Silone); Trotsky was writing at exactly the time when Hitler could have been stopped. More stridently than anyone, Trotsky was arguing for immediate working class action to stop the rise of Hitler. The common apathy of the German socialists in the face of fascism, Trotsky blamed on the paucity of their rival analyses. Using the most urgent and compelling language, he argued for an analysis rooted in the dialectical theory of fascism. Trotsky insisted that the victory of fascism would represent the most horrific defeat for the German working class movement: "Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society... [it plans] to smash all independent and voluntary organisations, to demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever has been achieved during three-quarters of a century by the Social Democracy and the trade unions".
He was especially critical of those that saw fascism as just another form of capitalist reaction. Fascism was an exceptional form of reaction: 'the wiseacres who claim that they see no difference between Brüning and Hitler are in fact saying: it makes no difference whether our organisations exist or whether they are already destroyed'. The most striking feature of Trotsky's theory of fascism was his insistence of the dialectical nature of fascism. Fascism is a product of contradictory circumstances: of the tension between the crisis of the elites, and the failure of the socialist parties. The fascist movement is a contradiction: between the mass base of its support, and the reactionary nature of its goals. The social base of fascism is itself in contradiction: the petty bourgeoisie asserts its anger against capitalism by crushing the only social class that can defeat capitalism. These contradictions are represented dialectically in the sense that they are not stable. At the level of politics there will be a synthesis, a solution: either the working class will crush fascism or fascism will crush the working class. And even these victories will themselves be temporary. If the working class wins, it will have to move from the defensive to the offensive: it can only defeat fascism finally, if it goes on to defeat capitalism. If fascism wins, it cannot crush the working class: it will not have changed the capitalist nature of production. There will still be a need for workers.
Trotsky is often contrasted to Thalheimer, and it is argued that Thalheimer is superior: because he has a stronger sense of the identity between Bonapartism and fascism. It is true that Trotsky develops a large number of explanatory categories: including preventative Bonapartism, fascism, and Bonapartism of fascist origin. And it is also true that these categories are not necessarily valuable as generic categories: there is no reason why, for example, the seizure of fascist power must necessarily be preceded by a period of Bonapartism. To argue that would be to fall in to the same trap as those Marxists who argued that fascism must be preceded by a period of 'fascisation;' and hence that the New Deal was only the prelude to a necessary period of fascist rule in America. Trotsky himself tended to be quite dismissive towards Thalheimer. And there can be no doubt that his antagonism was largely motivated by the KPO's support for Bukharin. His criticism of Thalheimer's theory of fascism was, however, this: 'It is not enough to understand only the 'essence' of fascism. One must be capable of appraising it as a living political phenomenon, as a conscious and wily foe.' Trotsky's argument was that Thalheimer, 'our schoolteacher', had no sense of fascism as a dialectical and changing phenomenon. The idea that fascism was equivalent to Bonapartism was fair enough; and brought its insights. But Trotsky's idea of fascism as unlike Bonapartism was more accurate; and for two reasons. The first sense in which Trotsky's explanation was superior was Trotsky's greater awareness of the specificity of fascism. Bonapartism in Thalheimer's work is portrayed as the key concept. It is explained with reference to a chronology of crisis, but without any reference to the nature of fascism itself. In Trotsky's work, however, the contradiction at the heart of Bonapartism (bourgeois rule without the bourgeoisie) is related to the contradiction at the heart of fascism (a reactionary movement with a mass base).
Ultimately, Trotsky portrays fascism as the key factor; and hence he is able to describe fascism both as a regime, and as a movement. The second sense in which Trotsky's explanation was superior was his sense of the dynamic that follows from the contradiction at the heart of fascism. In the same way that Silone represented the shift from fascism as a movement to fascism as a regime as being a change of quality as well as quantity; so Trotsky saw fascism and German society as being in a state of flux, in which new combinations of forces were constantly being created and then destroyed. In Thalheimer's Bonapartism there is no sense of change: the category emerges and triumphs, and that is that. In Trotsky's more complicated periodisation, there is a sense of the dynamic of history. Linked to a correct practice, there is always the possibility that fascism can be defeated. There is, however, one aspect of Trotsky's theory which does need modification. Trotsky clearly believed that there was no possibility of a durable fascism. Once fascism had come to power, it would turn on its supporters. The result would be that fascism would lose its independent support, and become increasingly vulnerable. Fascism would become like Bonapartism. And Bonapartism, as Marx had argued, was prey to the same class tensions as any other capitalist society. W
hat this argument missed was something which Trotsky was usually the quickest to see: that the accession to power of German fascism marked a historic defeat for the world Socialist movement. Trotsky, himself, had argued that 'When a state turns fascist, it doesn't only mean that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance with the patterns set by Mussolini...but it means, primarily and above all, that the workers' organisations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created with penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallisation of the proletariat.' This defeat meant that the working class did not have the confidence or the organisation to rise on a mass scale. The actual experience of fascist government had the effect of stabilising capitalism and removed the possibility of that equilibrium which Trotsky (rightly) saw as being the basis of Bonapartism. It was the scale of the defeat that the working class experienced in 1933, that ensured that German fascism could survive, free from significant domestic opposition, for far longer than Trotsky had envisaged. 1933-1945 This terrible defeat had the effect of discrediting both of the rival official theories. Inside, the Comintern, the left theory was junked. What replaced it was the idea that fascism was 'the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist, and most imperialist elements of finance capital.' In practice, the function of this definition was to narrow the 'real' base of fascism to an absolute minimum, and to suggest that any social layer could be anti-fascist. The effect of the new Comintern theory of fascism, therefore, was to revive the old right notion of fascism: if only a tiny layer of ultra-capitalists were truly 'fascist', then there was no need to see any real link between capitalism and fascism at all.
While the Comintern flipped from a left theory straight over to a right theory of fascism; many German or Austrian Social Democrats moved from a right theory of fascism towards the dialectical theory. A number of Social Democrats, including Rudolf Hilferding, and Alexander Schifrin now saw the need for a struggle against fascism that would also be a revolutionary struggle against capitalism. Karl Korsch came to similar conclusions via a different route. There was the most tremendous flowering of interest in the nature of the organic links between fascism and the state or between fascism and capitalism. Richard Löwenthal analysed the growing link between monopoly capital and the state; and saw in the statification of capital two tendencies: one towards democratic control, or socialism; the other towards 'stagnating, autarkic, bureaucratic nation states,' including fascism. Otto Bauer had a similar analysis, which linked fascism to the emergence of what he called 'the managed economy' or 'étatisme'. From this analysis, he predicted (as Trotsky had) that fascism would and must lead to war. The highest point of this school probably came in the writings of Hilferding, who described fascism as one form of statified capitalism, or 'totalitarian economy': the most extreme example of a general trend inside capitalism in the period. In 1934, Silone used an analysis similar to Hilferding's to categorise the fascist economy: 'a new type of state has thus emerged, the corporatist state, constructed on the economic relations of state capitalism.'
At the same time, there was a revival of interest in the other half of the dialectical theory: the creation of the fascist mass movement. A number of Marxists sought to use the insights of psychology to analyse a perceived fascist personality. The most important of these Freudian Marxists were the members of the Frankfurt School, including Erich Fromm and Theodor Adorno. For Fromm, fascism was a product of capitalism. Fromm argued that capitalism marked the most extreme distance from the natural economy. In response to alienation, humanity could choose only socialism or fascism; 'man must either unite himself with the world in the spontaneity of love and productive work, or else seek a kind of security, by such ties with the world as destroy his freedom'. Taken alone, such theories seem dubious, often unhistorical, and usually closer to Freud or Jung than to Marx. Indeed many of the members of the Frankfurt School, and even those that were not originally social psychologists, soon found themselves moving away from any recognisable Marxist definition. Horkheimer, for example, is famous for his argument, 'Whoever does not want to speak of capitalism should be equally silent on fascism.' After 1940, however, he moved towards the idea that fascism was able to separate itself from the economic laws of capitalism. He defined fascist Germany and the USSR as authoritarian states run by a managerial ruling class. And he argued that socialism, in the sense that Marx and Engels had meant the word, was now an impossible day-dream. Such arguments can be interpreted in many ways; but they can hardly be seen as Marxist.
To The Present Day
After 1945, it is hard to discern any single direction in the Marxist analysis. If anything, the shift has been towards a plethora of rival and competing Marxist analyses. Some writers, including David Lewis, have argued for a reconstituted notion of fascism as the socialism of the petty bourgeoisie: 'fascism represents the authoritarian centre'. Other writers, such as Christopher Dandeker and Ralph Miliband have sought to rebuild the Marxist conception of a link between the state, capital, and fascism: 'the fascist conquest of power entailed an immediate and dramatic increase in the power of capital over labour.' One school of Marxism has explained fascism in terms of its sexism and anti-feminism, and its reactionary attitude towards sexuality. Ernest Laclau has stressed the importance of ideas to fascism as an ideology. Mark Neocleous has copied Sternhell and Griffin, in stressing the importance to fascism of philosophy. Some writers, including Ted Grant and Ernest Mandel, have maintained that the only compelling Marxist theory of fascism is Trotsky's. Howard Simson has linked Trotsky's insights to a new set of Marxist categories, influenced by Maoism. Nicos Poulantzas has explained fascism using Trotsky's theory, and linking it to notions of the state derived from Gramsci and Althusser. Herbert Marcuse has described fascism as the culmination of idealism in philosophy. Wolfgang Abendroth, and a series of Marxists around the journal, Das Argument, have argued for a return to Thalheimer's analysis, and for the superiority of his Bonapartist model of fascism, over Trotsky's.
In Britain in the 1970s, the threat of the National Front led to the emergence of a school of Marxism, around the journal International Socialism. Members of this school would include Colin Sparks, Steve Wright, Chris Bambery and Alex Callinicos. As a collective, they produced analyses of German fascism and the petty bourgeoisie; the National Front and its class base; the tactic of the United Front; the writings of Trotsky; the causes of the Holocaust; and of the nature of fascism itself. What has distinguished their writing, is the way in which these authors have stressed at one and the same time that Trotsky produced the sharpest Marxist theory of fascism, and that Trotsky should be read critically. These Marxists have argued that there is a catastrophism in Trotsky's writings, especially in what he wrote about French or Spanish fascism, which should not be allowed to detract from the otherwise-compelling nature of what he wrote. From their broad analysis, these Marxists called for the most urgent action to stop fascism. They linked their theoretical analysis to practice: the formation of the Anti-Nazi League.
If there is one area where Marxists have developed genuinely new theories, it is in the study of the Holocaust. The most important figure is Tim Mason, who has argued that the Holocaust represented the antithesis of capitalist interests. Nazi Germany wasted money, people, resources and skills on the Holocaust, which could have been spent on the war effort. The Holocaust can only be understood, he argues, in terms of Nazi ideology: it represents 'the primacy of politics'. Arguably, this interpretation comes close to de-linking the connection between capital and fascism, which represents one of the key themes in the Marxist theory of fascism. Other Marxists have gone further. They have described the Holocaust as an unintelligible mystery: something so horrible that it cannot be explained. Not just breaking the link between fascism and capital, they have cut the tie between the Holocaust and history. Isaac Deutscher, here, is typical of a generation: "To a historian trying to comprehend the Jewish holocaust the greatest obstacle will be the absolute uniqueness of the catastrophe. This will be not just a matter of time and historical perspective. I doubt if even in a thousand years people will understand Hitler, Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka better than we do now. Will they have a better historical perspective? On the contrary, posterity may understand it even less than we do... We are confronted here by a huge and ominous mystery of the degradation of the human character that will forever baffle and terrify mankind". Other Marxists have attempted to explain the Holocaust in exactly the opposite way: by insisting that the Holocaust is something which can be interpreted and understood. Arno Mayer has linked the Holocaust to the 'absolute' character of the second world war: 'the radicalisation of the war against the Jews was correlated with the radicalisation of the war against the Soviet Union'. As the German armies began to lose in Russia, so the German elites looked to the murder of the Jews as their solution to what the Nazis saw as one enemy: 'Judeobolshevism'. Given the nature of Nazi logic, Mayer argues, the Holocaust was a rational act: an attempt to win the war. Auschwitz, in short, was a product both of the Nazi ideology, and of the German crisis in the east: "Hitler and the Nazi ideology, including radical anti-semitism, were a necessary precondition for the Judeocide. But in and of themselves they would not have been sufficient to bring it about. Without the spiralling and unsuccessful absolute war, which was in essence a crusade, the inconceivable could not have become conceivable, let alone possible and practicable".
One tradition has boldly restated the connection between capitalism and the Holocaust. In the immediate aftermath of 1945, this is how Ernest Mandel explained the murders, 'The barbarous treatment of the Jews by Hitlerite imperialism has only pushed to paroxysm the barbarism of the habitual methods of imperialism in our epoch'. Recently, Norman Geras has isolated what he sees as the three areas of controversy. He offers three pairs of alternatives: the destruction of the Jews of Europe: "is comparable to other crimes/ is singular or unique; is rationally explicable/ is beyond comprehension; is the product of capitalism and imperialism/ is due to some other combination of factors". From this, he continues: 'I do not believe that any adequate assessment can be made by just embracing either one pole or the other of each of these three oppositions. A certain (particular) intermediate standpoint is called for in relation to each.' It is interesting that Geras sees his position as 'intermediate': elsewhere the tradition of classical Marxism has been to reject ambiguity in favour of unity and synthesis. Surely the Holocaust was: "both comparable to other crimes AND singular or unique; both rationally explicable AND beyond comprehension; both the product of capitalism and imperialism AND due to some other combination of factors". The crucial point is that the Holocaust was both comparable and also unique. The story of the Holocaust forms part of the story of capitalism. As Zygmunt Bauman argues, 'the Holocaust was born and executed in our modern rational society, at the high stage of our civilisation and at the peak of human achievement'. So the Holocaust is comparable, but it is also different. Nazi Germany used the techniques of industrial production, the machines, the productive techniques, the bureaucracy, in order to create a truly modern, late capitalist, killing machine. There is something extraordinary, something different, about the systematic way in which the fascist state set out to kill the Jews. As Raul Hilberg has suggested, it is the success of Nazi the mass murders that is extraordinary, 'the German annihilation of the European Jews was the world's first completed destruction process'. To say this does not undermine the horror of other mass killing. It is only to recognise the fascist 'achievement' as the most horrible crime yet committed by human beings.
Conclusion: the Hostile Theory expanded
Following on from all this, it should be possible to construct a composite, or typical, Marxist theory of fascism: a description of fascism which tells us more than the simple statement that Marxist theories of fascism are those theories of fascism that were written by Marxists. Such a model can only be constructed around the third, or dialectical, theory of fascism. The reason for this is simply that neither the left nor the right theory can stand on their own. Alone, each provides a partial insight. Together, they provide a model of fascism which seems to be far closer to the truth.
First, fascism is a reactionary ideology. 'Reactionary' here is not used here to mean that fascism sought to turn back the clock of history. In one sense fascism did, but only in one specific sense. Fascism is reactionary in the sense that it has a defining ambition to crush the organised working class, and to eradicate the reforms won by decades of peaceful struggle. Fascism was not about restoring a mythical rural idyll: it was about 'solving' the problem of working class hostility to capitalism. So, for Otto Bauer, fascism was 'the dictatorship of armed gangs'. Gramsci argued that 'the crowning glory of all propaganda and all the political and economic work of fascism is its tendency towards imperialism'. For Max Horkheimer, 'the totalitarian order differs from its bourgeois predecessors only in that it has lost all inhibitions'. As August Thalheimer argued, the fascist goal was 'the complete elimination...of the democratic rights of the workers'.
Second: fascism built itself as an independent force, capable of making the most revolutionary promises. On the one hand, fascism articulated the mood of a distinct layer. It put forward ideas and arguments that seemed to fit the real experiences of some layers, but not others. As Trotsky put it: fascism expressed 'the sharp grievances of small proprietors, never far from bankruptcy, of their university sons without posts and clients, of their daughters without dowries and suitors, demanded order and an iron hand'. On the other hand, fascism was shaped by the inability of this layer to form itself into a new ruling class. Fascism expressed the ideas of certain layers, and as these layers came into the fascist movements, so they shaped the fascist parties in their own image.
Third, if fascism is a movement shaped at one and the same time by mass support and by reactionary goals; then there is an antagonism at the heart of the movement. This contradiction explains the 'Bonapartist' aspect of fascism. In so far as fascism is a mass movement, it promises to rule against the interests of capitalism. In so far as fascism is a reactionary movement, it does rule against the interests of the class that provided the bulk of the fascist party's members.
Indeed, if there is one insight which is crucial to the Marxist theory of fascism, and which needs to be considered by non-Marxist scholars as well, it is this idea that the link between the reactionary goals of fascism and the plebeian fascist mass movement implies a constant tension. There is an antagonism inside fascism between the goals of the ideology and the interests of the mass movement. This three-point definition is tentative. The test of any theoretical explanation of any political movement lies in its ability to relate a general model to the actual history of the movement: to ascend, as Marx suggested, from the 'abstract' to the 'concrete'. This point explains the quality in Leon Trotsky's theory of fascism. Trotsky's always stressed the specific and historical nature of fascism: 'the most important law of the dialectic [is that] the truth is always concrete'. Part of the future of the Marxist theory of fascism lies in the relating of definitional terms to specific movements.
There has been a great deal of empirical work, done by Marxists, in studying German fascism. We do need a broader range of factual investigation, into fascist movements as well as fascist regimes, and into the failed movements, as well as the more successful. We cannot yet say to what extent the fascism of the 1920s and 1930s was shaped by the economic history of the period: to what extent it was formed, say, by the emergence of state capitalism. Nor can we say whether contemporary fascisms are more affected by a need to hold on to fascist traditions that developed in an earlier period; or by the need to adapt to the different aspirations of a different middle class, or to the different problems of an older capitalism. As more empirical work is completed, it is likely that Marxists will have a sharper theoretical understanding of these important questions. And our understanding of broader problems will be improved as well. In studying fascism, and in opposing it, Marxists still have important lessons to learn.