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The political economy of fascism

When historians write about fascism, we do so for one reason. The 'classical' fascist regimes of Italy and Germany unleashed a war against democracy. Socialists, Communists, trade unionists and other radicals were jailed. The workers who had prospered from the rise of socialism in the first decades of the twentieth century, now experienced a catastrophic decline in their living standards. Millions suffered. Both regimes were aggressively racist. In Italy, this ideology was expressed in colonial wars. Anti-Jewish racism came later, under German influence. The civil war between fascists and anti-fascists became a conflict between states. Tens of millions of people died. By 1945, a consensus had been established; fascism possessed a unique potential for militarism, racism and barbarism. This potential was innate. It belonged to the very constitution of fascism. Never again should such movements be allowed to grow, unchallenged. Democracy and fascism could not co-exist.

Given the distinctive history of fascism, it is only right that historians and activists should look for a definition of the movement. Yet this process is harder than we might think. Even the two original regimes were not identical. Italian fascism emerged before the German party. Adolf Hitler's movement was more radical, because its supporters were driven wild by recession in the 1930s. The leader of the German National Socialist Party was initially in awe of Benito Mussolini, organising his attempted Beer Hall putsch in emulation of Mussolini's March on Rome. As late as 1930 or 1933, the Italian movement was the senior party. Yet by 1936, the balance of power had been reversed. Patterns of rule that had been latent in Italian fascism, including extreme racism, only became obvious as the war approached.

Meanwhile, the success of fascist parties in Italy and Germany encouraged a number of other groups to emulate these first two. The imitators included parties of ideological racists; cynical advocates of a pro-German world-politics; rural and urban nationalist movements; as well as fervent religious sects. In an age of fascism, these diverse movements copied features of the two classical movements. Yet each was different from the model. One contrast was between the pure fascist regimes of Italy and Germany, and the 'fascistic' Portuguese and Spanish states. These latter systems drew support from privileged groups, including priests and generals. They emerged within the state, not as radical movements challenging it form outside.

When liberal historians have tried to explain what constituted fascism, they have concentrated on the ideas of the movement. Fascist leaders told their supporters that they would achieve the re-birth of the nation. One means to achieve this end was the banning of all rival parties. If this happened, and the people were not allowed to express their disagreements openly, there would be no difference of interests. If it could not be expressed publicly, then class would cease to exist. The right to govern belonged to a small number of leaders. These natural-born rulers were entitled to be active. The bulk of the people could only be passive. Through the conduct of these leaders, the condition of most of the people would supposedly rise. Werner Daitz argued that under fascism 'the people' would share their wealth, like soldiers in a trench. Yet this mirage of equality always excluded certain groups, such as racial minorities and 'unpatriotic' or 'selfish' classes (the workers).

The points of the fascist programme were not distinctive. Many traditions called for the rebirth of the nation. Anti-communism has not been the sole preserve of the far right. Fascism was an eclectic, deceitful ideology, capable of promising all things to any person, at any time. Any account that concentrates only on the language of a few leaders takes the risk of misunderstanding the movement. If you want to fascism, you cannot do so simply by recording its language. You must also engage with the history of the movement, and with the destruction it wreaked. Historians must relate fascist ideas to the events of the war and the Holocaust.

Some historians have therefore identified other defining features of fascism, factors that operated at the level of material or historical reality rather than purely as ideas. When we look at the fascist movements, in this way, then certain patterns do emerge. Fascism always showed a taste for violence. Mussolini boasted that he would not take power 'by the tradesman's entrance'. While other conservatives limited themselves to the democratic processes, fascist leaders promised a transformation after which their party would capture and purge the state.

In the 1930s and since, liberal writers have tended to repeat the accounts in which the fascists portrayed themselves as revolutionaries. Liberals argued that fascism was just another form of 'mob rule'. We would do better to understand fascist propaganda more sceptically, looking for the coded meanings that lay behind the speeches. When the fascists sounded 'radical', their solution was indeed different from the status quo, but it was no better. Adolf Hitler once boasted that he had resolved to be 'the destroyer' of Marxism. What he meant by this was the complete annihilation of the gains won by the mass socialist parties and the trade unions. Under the pressure of mass protest, from the 1890s onwards, capitalism had allowed elements of social democracy to exist. Such institutions as welfare services, parliaments, trade unions allowed ordinary people some control over their lives. Faced with a situation of economic crisis, fascism promised to strip away the parliaments, to destroy the unions, to purge the nation of all 'untrustworthy' minorities.

We can distinguish between the different stages of fascism. At each moment in their history, the parties recruited different sorts of members, and emphasised different parts of their programmes. In their first stage, both the Italian and the German parties began small. They operated within a milieu of angry former-soldiers. They also won the backing of middle-class adventurers and of a small number of workers. At the first gathering of his fascists, Mussolini pledged to support the overthrow of the monarchy. In 1920, Hitler claimed to stand for 'the abolition of income unearned by labour'. Ten years later, neither would have said the same.

As the fascist parties grew, they approached their second stage, that of a mass movement. Their membership rose. They received greater attention in the liberal press. At this point, fascism often did best among the middle classes or the propertied. The evidence of the voting figures suggests that the National Socialists were most successful in the richest constituencies. Even in the middle-class areas, of course, most people were not 'rich'. It was instead the hangers-on of the ruling class who identified most with fascism. The parties toned down their previously radical language, while continuing to retain the support of members who joined at the previous, more radical stage. Rival factions emerged within Hitler and Mussolini's parties, emphasising different elements of the programme. As late as 1932, Gregor Strasser was willing to lead a Nazi-party coup against Hitler, after which he would have become the 'moderate' Nazi representative in a pro- business government. Strasser was fated to lose, for he lacked Hitler's wide backing within the party. He then compounded his errors by leaving Germany on holiday, as the crisis raged.

At the third stage, the fascist party took state power. Both in Italy and Germany, this success was achieved in alliance with business and army leaders. The fascist party tacked first towards the rich, and then towards its own followers. Several times, Mussolini purged his party of people who took the fascist promises of redistribution seriously. Hitler did the same in 1934. The longer that the regimes remained in place, the more pressure they came under from a fascist rank and file. The average supporter of fascism believed that a fascist state would act in their material interests, not the rich. Yet the fascist leaders had no intention of redistributing wealth towards the poor. The fascist leaders called themselves revolutionaries, yet they made no revolution. The only way to cover up this gap was to pick on 'symbolic' targets. The energy of the fascist party required some expression. This period culminated in the war and the murder of six million Jews.

The moment when fascist parties have been at their most vulnerable was at the start of the second stage, just as they became mass movements. They were then most dependent on popular support. They made then the most dramatic promises to their followers, with the least expectation of fulfilling them. At this point, we may speak of a 'fascist contradiction'. For although the fascist programme offered nothing to anyone but the existing rulers, the fascist party was an organisation of plebeians. Fascism could not be simply a capitalist movement. There were not enough rich businessmen to wage a successful war against the workers, alone.
The national and local leadership of both fascist of the classical parties was composed of shopkeepers, civil servants, the owners of small businessmen, merchants and traders, the 'petty bourgeoisie'. While these men dominated the local branches, the mass membership of the party included large numbers of unemployed workers. Indeed, it was the mass base of fascism, its popular support, which provided the movement with its destructive energy. Fascism took the anger of ordinary people, not the rich, and turned this force against democracy itself.

The leading fascist politicians knew that they had to choose between the interests of their supporters, and those of the wealthy. Once they had taken power, would the conditions of the workers rise, or fall? Would public services improve, and if so, who would pay? Understanding the logic of these questions, the leaders of the fascist party recognised in advance that they would have to rule in alliance with the generals, the businessmen, and the leading civil servants. Long before fascist movements took power, they began to make contacts with the ruling class. Hitler's January 1932 speech to the Düsseldorf industry club belongs to this period.

Both in Italy and Germany, the members of the capitalist class were faced with the choice of accepting fascism, or confronting it. Different fractions of capital chose different options. In Germany, for example, there were many prominent businessmen who supported Hitler's party from the early days. As early as 1922, Hitler's backers included publishers, steel magnates and the industrialist Fritz Thyssen. One major factor behind Hitler's breakthrough in the 1930 elections was a pact with the leading German media magnate, Alfred Hugenburg. Other blocs of capital preferred a quieter solution to the crisis. When the economy was at its strongest, the fascist methods often appeared barbaric. Yet as recession took hold, many bosses concluded that they had no other option but to crush the workers.

This last point raises the question of which classes benefited from fascist rule? It was clearly not the workers, who suffered from falling wages, rising prices, the dissolution of the trade unions, and an increase in the working week. In many factories the rate of work intensified. Indeed, when people complained, they were liable to be taken away by the secret police. Rural groups also suffered, as even did small employers, whose numbers fell sharply under both regimes. How about the bosses? In early 1920s Italy and in early 1930s Germany, there are few signs of tension between capitalists and the government. Quite the reverse, businessmen were happy to witness the fascists destroying the institutions of the organised working class. Yet fascism did not simply obey the laws of capitalist rationality. Let us take the Holocaust, as an example. What was the point in killing skilled Jewish metal workers, who might otherwise have built the arms for the German war effort? The 1939-45 war was equally a catastrophe for both Italian and German businesses. Tim Mason tells the story of one German firm caught in the bombing raids:

'In March 1945 the deputy head of one of the largest heavy industrial combines in the Ruhr reported to the head of the firm that the factories and offices had been destroyed; production had ceased, and he was writing from the cellars of the old administration building, where the board's grand piano and some of the wine had been saved; the workers no longer clocked on to clear the debris, but tried to save what they could of their own homes; in the preceding quarter, however, profits had remained satisfactory at five per cent.'

This individual accountant may have thrived in the chaos, but the majority of businesses would surely have noticed that fascism was bringing them to ruin. The Italian Confederation for Industry backed Mussolini only after his seizure of power. Long before 1939, the main representatives of the European capitalist class treated fascism with much sympathy and respect, and a little disdain.

Two important insights were developed by anti-fascists at the time. One was the argument that capitalist goes through different periods of growth. In the nineteenth century, for example, when the system was thriving and the economy growing rapidly in almost every country, the most characteristic face of politics was liberalism. By contrast, in the slump of the 1930s, politics was dominated by fascism and war. The other insight gained was that all around Europe, both fascist and non-fascist states responded to the depression in much the same way. Schemes of forced labour were introduced, to set the unemployed back at work. Tariffs were employed, in France and Britain, as well as Italy and Germany. The relationship between private capital and the state shifted in favour of the state. Indeed, this was the state at its most aggressive: military state capital, not welfare state provision.

The success of the fascists depended in part on the defeat of previous moments of working-class revolt. In neither case were anti-fascists confident, clear in their tactics, or well enough led to force the fascists back. How, then, could fascism have been stopped? Part of the answer lies in the nature of the fascist parties. The fascist alliance of bosses, small producers and unemployed workers was unstable. There was equally a contradiction between the reactionary character of the fascist programmes, and the popular nature of their mass support. The fascist parties showed a constant potential to break down, under the pressure of their own internal contradictions. Bitter rivalries flared up. Fascist critics of Hitler and Mussolini emerged under the pressure of different economic interests, before dying down again. The challenge facing anti-fascists was to keep the maximum pressure on their opponents. The best strategy to confront fascism would have been one of working-class unity. If a confident, cohesive working class had confronted fascism, then the leaders of the fascist party would have been unable to hold their supporters together.

Many inter-war Marxists defended the strategy of the united front, including Antonio Gramsci, Ignazio Silone and Victor Serge. They argued for a combination of all left-wing forces. It should lead to the maximum anti-fascist activity. A genuine alliance could not simply be achieved by 'front', with just one party repackaging itself under another name. Nor could it be a pact with any right-wing elements. The Russian dissident Leon Trotsky told the German Communists, 'We must force Social Democracy into a bloc against the fascists'. He wrote:

'March separately, but strike together! Agree only how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike! Such an agreement can be concluded even with the devil himself, with his grandmother, and even with Noske and Grezesinsky. On one condition, not to bind one's hands ... It is necessary, without any delay, to elaborate a practical system of measures ... Every factory must become an antifascist bulwark, with its own commandants and its own battalions. It is necessary to have a map of the fascist barracks and all other fascist strongholds, in every city and in every district. The fascists are attempting to encircle the revolutionary strongholds. The encirclers must be encircled. On this basis, an agreement with the Social Democratic and trade-union organizations is not only permissible, but a duty.'

These and similar arguments did not go unnoticed. In Italy, anti-fascist former soldiers and trade unionists joined together to confront Mussolini, but they were isolated and defeated. The Socialists and Communists had no time to grasp the threat ahead of them, before Mussolini had taken power. In Germany, by contrast, the left was aware of the threat. Copies of pamphlets calling for unity sold in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Breakaway parties were formed to the left of the Socialists or to the right of the Communists, calling for both to adopt united front politics. Independent journalists and artists took up the call. Yet the socialists and Communists failed to grasp their chance. On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler took power. Within four months, the left-wing parties and the trade unions were banned. The decks had been cleared for the war and the Holocaust to come.

The lessons of the 1930s should not be lost. Fascism did not emerge by itself, but grew up in a world shaped by the history of previous traditions, including parliamentary socialism. Faced with economic crisis, fascism offered a very specific solution. It sought to strip out even the little residue of democracy that people were allowed under a market system. Yet fascism was a risky strategy for the greatest capitalists to adopt, and one that was only chosen in full, when many other solutions had been rejected. Only with a deep downturn in the economy, did the conditions exist which gave rise to the full and unrestrained violence of inter-war fascism. In response to the threat posed by the right, the united front was a strategy for the most effective anti-fascist unity. The tragedy was that it was never properly tried.