Trotsky and the Struggle Against Fascism

Leon Trotsky spent the last decade of his life in a struggle to keep alive the genuine method of Marxism in all fields. While on all sides Marxism was being distorted and misused both by the Stalinists and the Social Democracy to justify their own betrayal of the working class movement, Trotsky consistently put forward a revolutionary position on all problems facing the workers.

One of the immediate dangers facing the international working class was the rise of fascism and therefore this new phenomenon clearly needed to be understood. Trotsky grappled with this question over a period of many years, starting with the rise of Mussolini in Italy in 1922, then going on to the rise of Hitler in Germany in the early 1930s, followed by an analysis of events in France and then Spain. His writings on this subject are still valid today and should be studied by the new generation of labour and student activists.

Many on the left today use the word Fascist very loosely. It has become more a term of general abuse against reactionaries in general. It is used to describe parties such as Haider’s FPO in Austria, or Fini’s AN in Italy, without taking into consideration the historical circumstances that brought fascism into being. Such an approach can only lead to a lowering of the understanding of what fascism really is, and thus can lead to mistakes in how to fight it.

For a long period after the Second World War the danger of Fascism seemed to have receded. On the basis of the long post-war upswing capitalism was able to stabilise itself for a period, and thus the capitalist class could do without the jackboot. It was able to maintain control over society through the granting of reforms. Thus we had a situation where for decades most of Western Europe was governed by ‘democratic’ conservative parties, like the Tories in Britain or the Christian Democrats in Germany and Italy, and when these failed the “second eleven” could be brought in, such as the Labour Party in Britain or the Social Democrats in Germany. In some countries like Sweden or Austria the Social Democracy actually governed for decades almost unchallenged.

Resurgence of the extreme right

However, in the past period we have seen a resurgence of the more extreme right wing variant of bourgeois party. This in itself is sufficient confirmation of the fact that the period of consensus politics is over. Capitalism can no longer afford the reforms upon which the stability of the post-war period was based. The welfare state has been under attack for more than twenty years. Trade union rights have been wittled away.

What many do not realise is that the period of reforms of the 1950s and 1960s was not the normal state of capitalism. It was an exception. Now capitalism is returning to its more normal, and therefore more brutal, state. With this comes a greater differentiation between the classes. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing. At the same time the welfare guarantees, that softened the blow for the poorer sections of society in the past, have been reduced.

But the phenomenon of the resurgence of extreme right wing parties cannot be explained simply on the basis of the growing poverty at the bottom rung of the ladder. There is also a growing concern for the future among an important layer of the middle classes. These layers feel threatened. And it is a combination of the growing disquiet of the “middle classes” (the “petit bourgeoisie” in Marxist terms) and the alienation of the poorest sections (the “lumpen proletariat”) that is creating the social basis for these parties.

As there has been a constant misunderstanding and confusion on the use of “petit bourgeoisie” and “middle classes” some defining words seem to be necessary (although a thorough analysis of the class relations in society has been worked out elsewhere). Apart from the two opposing classes – the proletariat and bourgeoisie – which represent irreconcilable interests – the first having nothing more than their labour power to sell, the latter owning the means of production – Marx defined a class “hanging” somehow in between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie: the petit bourgeoisie. This includes first of all those who still own their means of production but who are under constant pressure of large-scale production and therefore suffering from self-exploitation and the danger of being put out of business: shopkeepers, artisans, small and middle peasants, etc. Apart from these there the ones who – because of their position in production, in society or in the state – have a vested interest in the preservation of the present system: lawyers, doctors and other professionals, higher rank civil servants, higher technical and administrative staff etc.

The term “middle classes” on the other hand is used – especially by the bourgeoisie media – in very vague way comprising all those with a certain level of income. The point is however that many of these are actually part of the working class and become ever more “proletarianised”. This is especially the case with the formerly “privileged” white collar workers who are now under constant pressure of downsizing, less income and worsening working conditions.

Though extreme right wing parties as the FPO in Austria are not able at all to organise those sections of society actively, they have been able to attract some electoral support from parts of the working class. Yet that doesn’t mean that the working class has become “bourgeoisified”. The reason for this phenomenon has to be sought in the fact that the leadership of the labour movement has nothing to offer them. However as those extreme right wing parties are essentially bourgeois parties they have even less to offer to these layers apart from demagogy and racism.

This is an important element in the equation that has to be considered, the role of the leadership of the labour movement, both in its political expression (the Labour, Socialist, Social Democratic and Communist parties) and in its trade union representation. In the past twenty years we have seen the mass parties of the working class forming governments on their own (as in the case of the British Labour Party) or in a coalition (as in the case of the Italian PDS). All these governments have carried out classical bourgeois policies. They have all carried out cuts in welfare spending.

Added to this has been the discrediting of the classical bourgeois parties who tried to straddle the so-called “centre” ground. For example, the collapse of the Christian Democracy in Italy opened up big possibilities for the workers’ organisations. But because the leadership of these organisations only had one perspective, that of managing capitalism rather than overthrowing it, they have taken part of the blame for the cuts in welfare spending, for the reduction of trade union rights, for the increased taxation, etc. etc.

Faced with no credible alternative on the left the demagogic right has been able to emerge. And racism is a strong element in the propaganda of these extreme right wing parties. They use the influx of sizeable numbers of immigrants to scare the middle classes and the lumpenproletariat. This has led a section of the middle classes, some of the poorer sections of society and even parts of the working class traditionally voting for the reformist parties, to swing over to the right.

The entry of Haider’s party, the FPO, into the Austrian government has sent alarm bells ringing all around Europe. Haider clearly has sympathies for Nazism. He uses the racist card quite blatantly. Similar alarm bells were set off in Italy in 1994 with the election victory of Berlusconi’s Freedom Alliance (Polo della Liberta’). That was because Berlusconi’s electoral partner was Fini’s National Alliance (AN, Alleanza Nazionale). The National Alliance is basically a reformed MSI, (the Italian Social Movement) a party that emanated from the remnants of Mussolini’s old Fascist Party.

What is fascism?

These developments have placed back on the agenda the question ‘What is Fascism?’ Are parties such as the FPO or the AN Fascist parties? Do they represent the beginnings of new fascist movements along the lines of Hitler and Mussolini? The labour movement must come up with answers to these questions, as they determine the very future of the working class itself.

In order to answer these questions clearly we have to look at Trotsky’s analysis of what fascism was. From Trotsky’s writings it is clear that fascism is not a general term used to describe all forms of reactionary regimes. The term has a more scientific meaning. Trotsky clearly distinguished between different forms of reactionary regimes. This was necessary in order to understand what the labour movement was up against in each particular situation. The triumph of fascism is only possible on the basis of certain historical circumstances, of a particular balance of class forces. To mistake a temporary, weak bonapartist regime for Fascism could lead to serious errors on the part of the revolutionary proletariat.

A clear example of this emerges in one of Trotsky’s letters to Max Shachtman, ‘What is Fascism?’ written on November 15, 1932. In it he underlines the difference between the bonapartist dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in Spain between 1923 and 1930, and the Fascist dictatorship in Italy under Mussolini. “Why quibble over such detail?” some may ask, “aren’t they all dictatorships?”

Trotsky asks the question in his letter, “Were all the forms of counter-revolutionary dictatorship fascist or not (that is, prior to the advent of fascism in Italy)?

“The former dictatorship in Spain of Primo de Rivera is called a fascist dictatorship by the Comintern. Is this correct or not? We believe that it is incorrect.

“The fascist movement in Italy was a spontaneous movement of large masses with new leaders from the rank and file. It is a plebeian movement in origin, directed and financed by big capitalist powers. It issued forth from the petty bourgeoisie, the lumpen proletariat,and even to a certain extent from the proletarian masses; Mussolini, a former socialist, is a “self-made” man arising from this movement.

“Primo de Rivera was an aristocrat. He occupied a high military and bureaucratic post and was chief governor of Catalonia. He accomplished his overthrow with the aid of state and military forces. The dictatorships of Spain and Italy are two totally different forms of dictatorship. It is necessary to distinguish between them. Mussolini had difficulty in reconciling many old military institutions with the fascist militia. This problem did not exist for Primo de Rivera.

“The movement in Germany is most analogous to the Italian. It is a mass movement, with its leaders employing a great deal of socialist demagogy. This is necessary for the creation of the mass movement.

“The genuine basis [for fascism] is the petty bourgeoisie. In Italy it has a very large base – the petty bourgeoisie of the towns and cities, and the peasantry. In Germany, likewise, there is a large base for fascism.”

However, the fact that the de Rivera regime was not fascist did not mean that a fascist movement could not develop. In another article, ‘The Spanish Revolution in Danger”, published in November 1930, Trotsky warned the workers of Spain: ” Don’t you think that Spain may go through the same cycle as Italy did, beginning with 1918-1919: ferment, strikes, a general strike, the seizure of the factories, the lack of leadership, the decline of the movement, the growth of fascism, and of a counter-revolutionary dictatorship? The regime of Primo de Rivera was not a fascist dictatorship because it did not base itself upon the reaction of the petty-bourgeois masses. Don’t you think that the conditions for genuine Spanish fascism may be created as a result of the present unquestionable revolutionary upsurge in Spain, if the party of the proletarian vanguard remains passive and inconsistent, as in the past? The most dangerous thing in such a situation is the loss of time.”

A brief look at the history of Italy and Spain is sufficient to provide the answer to why it is important to distinguish clearly between a fascist dictatorship and a bonapartist dictatorship of the De Rivera type.

The working class in Italy could have carried a revolution in the period 1918-20. This culminated in the occupation of the factories in September 1920. The Socialist Party was growing rapidly. In two years the union had increased their membership ten times over. In the south a mass movement was developing among the peasants. Power was there for the taking. But the Socialist Party leadership had a different perspective. They saw the next stage of development of society as bourgeois. Their perspective was that of the bourgeois democratic revolution, along the same lines as the Mensheviks in Russia. Unfortunately in Italy there was no Bolshevik party to lead the workers to power.

The revolutionary upswing was followed by defeat. However the underlying economic crisis that had provoked this movement had not been resolved. The petty bourgeoisie, of the cities and the countryside, was particularly hit and was looking for drastic measures to solve the crisis. It was on this basis that fascism developed as a mass phenomenon. It also fitted in to the needs of the bourgeoisie, which required a battering ram with which to smash the organisations of the working class, to atomise them. Precisely because fascism was a mass phenomenon it was able to gradually root out every form of independent class organisation. The offices of the Trade Unions, of the Communist and Socialist parties, the headquarters of the co-operative movement, the journals of the left, were all attacked, burnt down and destroyed by squads organised by the fascists. The victory of Mussolini represented the total annihilation of the Italian labour movement. The Italian working was to take another twenty years before it recovered from such a disastrous defeat.

The regime of Primo De Rivera did not have the same effect. It lasted for only seven years. Precisely because it was based solely on the forces of state repression it could not sink deep roots into society. And its downfall represented the beginning of a revolutionary movement. The Spanish working class in 1923 had not suffered the same defeat as the Italian working class and therefore still had the forces and the energy to go forward in the 1930s and challenge the Spanish bourgeoisie. This led to the revolutionary movement of 1931-37, which was only defeated after a bloody civil war.

The Stalinist leadership of the Comintern did not understand the difference between fascism and bonapartism and thus made a series of errors. For example, in 1930 their perspective for Italy was one of an imminent revolutionary upsurge of the masses. And on this basis the leadership of the Italian Communist Party was preparing to send many of its cadres back into Italy clandestinely to start rebuilding the party. It was precisely on this question that a minority of the Central Committee of the Italian Communist Party came out in opposition and sided with Trotsky’s International Left Opposition. Thus we can see how an understanding of the type of regime one is facing is of fundamental importance as far as the building of a revolutionary party is concerned.

Crisis of capitalism

Trotsky explained that fascism emerges as a force when capitalism enters a severe crisis, when it can no longer govern on the basis of granting reforms and thus stabilise society. It emerges when the ruling class needs to smash the organisations of the working class. But precisely because the ruling class itself is too small a social base with which to hold down the workers it needs to mobilise the petty bourgeoisie which has been driven crazy by the crisis of capitalism itself. The masses of the petty bourgeoisie (together with the lumpenproletariat and even some of the more backward layers of the workers) thus provide an army of spies and collaborators, present in every street, every block, every factory, with which to control and hold down the working class.

Trotsky explained that it is not possible to hold down the working class for long simply by using the forces of the military police state apparatus. Thus what we saw in Germany and Italy was thebourgeoisie using the fascists to smash the labour movement. But itpaid a price for this, it lost immediate political power in handingit over to demagogues such as Hitler and Mussolini, who based themselves precisely on this frenzied petty bourgeoisie.

Inflation, bankruptcy of small firms and small farmers, mass unemployment among the professional classes, the technicians and the higher salaried employees creates a ferment among those sections of society and the classical petty bourgeoisie, which can either be used to bring these masses closer to the proletariat in the struggle for socialism or, failing that, be welded into a battering ram to be used against the working class.

That explains why these movements combine nationalism and racism together with verbal anti-capitalist demagogy. They contain a socialist rhetoric, because they have to appear to be not only anti-socialist and anti-communist but also anti-capitalist.

However, history shows that these intermediate layers of society have never developed as an independent force. Either they side with the working class or they are tools in the hands of the bourgeoisie. That is why all fascist regimes eventually turn against the very class on the backs of which they came to power. They lose their mass base and from fascist regimes they become purely bonapartist in nature. That is, they rest purely on the military and police apparatus to remain in power.

As Trotsky pointed out, “But fascism in power is least of all, the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital. Mussolini is right: the middle classes are incapable of independent policies.” (from What is National Socialism? 10 June 1933).

From then on it is only the inertia of the working class that allows them to hold on to power. As soon as the working class has recovered from its previous defeat and begins to flex its muscles then the regime is doomed. The middle classes swing once more over to the proletariat and thus the regime comes tumbling down.

The clearest example of this was the demise of Mussolini in 1943. No longer able to mobilise the masses, who he had alienated with his policies, the army stepped in and arrested him as they saw him as a danger, no longer a useful instrument in holding down the masses. His regime, had been transformed over a period of years from a classical fascist dictatorship with a mass base into a bonapartist regime resting solely on state repression.

From this brief analysis it becomes clear why Trotsky stressed the importance of understanding the nature of these regimes, because from this flowed the perspectives for the regime and for a movement of the proletariat.

It flows from the above that the social composition of society also determines whether a classical fascist regime can come to power or not. The development of industry has changed the balance of class forces in society. The old peasantry and the small shopkeepers have almost been completely eliminated. In their place we have an urbanised and proletarianised population. This is not the place to go nto this question (we have dealt with it elsewhere), but it is a fact that now the majority of the working population is made up of wage earners. This means that the social layers upon which fascism was based now hardly exist at all. And Trotsky had the foresight to see that this would determine whether classical fascist regimes could come to power or not.

Again in the above quoted letter to Shachtman, Trotsky writes the following: “In England there is less of that base because the proletariat is the overwhelming majority of the population; the peasant or farming stratum only an insignificant section.

“They may say, and this is true to a certain extent, that the new middle class, the functionaries of the state, the private administrators, etc., etc., can form such a base. But this is a new question that must be analysed. This is a supposition. It is necessary to analyse just what it will be. It is necessary to foresee the fascist movement growing from this or that element. But this is only a perspective, which is controlled by events. I am not affirming that it is impossible for a fascist movement to develop in England, or for a Mosley or someone else to become a dictator. This is a question for the future. It is a far-fetched possibility.

“To speak of it now as an imminent danger is not a prognosis but a mere prophecy. In order to be capable of foreseeing anything with regard to fascism it is necessary to have a definition of that idea. What is fascism? What are its base, its form, and its characteristics? How will its development take place?

“The aim of this is to show the English comrades that the question is not a simple one. It is necessary to proceed in a scientific and Marxist manner.”

Fascism today?

We too must proceed in this manner. The interesting thing about this quote is that it refers to a modern advanced industrialised nation like England, where already by the 1930s the old petty bourgeois layers had been reduced to a small minority. Trotsky points out that this does indeed have an effect on our appraisal of whether or not the basis for a fascist regime exists. The past 50 years of economic development have eliminated these layers, or reduced them to a small minority, in most of Europe. The same is true of North America, Japan and even many former colonial countries.

What this means is that the social layers that rallied round Mussolini and Hitler no longer exist. That explains why, so far, we have not seen mass fascist movements reappear. It is also necessary to understand that the bourgeoisie learns from history and draws it sown conclusions.

The coming to power of Mussolini and Hitler solved the immediate problem of the bourgeoisie, that of smashing the organisations of the working class. But as we said earlier, they paid a price for this. They lost political power. At a certain point these dictators tended to carry out their own agenda in line with their own interests. These dictators tended to want to hold on to power at all costs and in doing so often carried out decisions against the overall interests of the bourgeoisie. The fact that a fascist movement in power tends to alienate the petit bourgeois social base creates it own dynamics. It is forced to divert the attention of the masses by creating mass hysteria against alleged “enemies of the people” by engaging in the most atrocious actions.

A clear example is Hitler. It would have been in the interests of German capitalism to have surrendered earlier to the Western allies during the Second World war. By doing so they may have avoided the Red Army marching into the heart of Germany itself! But Hitler could not surrender. He knew the fate that would await him if he did. So he fought on to the end, leading to a major disaster for the German bourgeoisie.

Another element in the thinking of the strategists of capitalism is that his type of regime inevitably leads to revolutionary movements of the workers. Precisely for that reason we can understand why the bourgeoisie, when it has needed to use the jackboot against the labour movement, has preferred to hand over power to one of its own kind, usually a general that is much more closely linked to the ruling class than some “plebeian” upstart. The ruling class feel that they can control this type of dictator.

Thus a combination of factors (the elimination of the old petty bourgeoisie together with the lessons the ruling class has drawn form history) has led to the present situation, where the bourgeoisie does not promote mass fascist movements.

In general the bourgeoisie prefers to rule by “democratic” means, so long as the development of the economy permits! Does that mean that we can sleep easy with the happy thought that fascist dictatorships are not possible? On the contrary!

For the bourgeoisie, the type of regime they prefer to adopt to guarantee their interests is determined by the nature of the period at any given time. So long as capitalism can develop the means of production, thus making the granting of reforms possible, then they will opt for “democracy”. That was the case before the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. But when the system enters into a serious crisis then conflict between the classes is heightened. The working class awakens and realises it must fight if it is to maintain the conquests of the past. This brings it into a head-on collision with the capitalist class. In the long run this means that either the working class takes power or the bourgeoisie will revert to repressive measures.

Already in the past twenty or so years we have seen an unceasing onslaught against the previous conquests of the working class. The welfare state has been under attack, trade union rights have been reduced, working conditions have worsened, and a whole series of repressive laws have been introduced. But all this has been done mainly within the confines of bourgeois parliamentary democracy.

What will determine a radical shift in the thinking of the bourgeoisie will be a serious downturn in the economy. A crisis like that of the 1930s is inevitable at some stage. This will intensify the class struggle. Workers will begin to draw revolutionary conclusions.

In the 1970s we were beginning to move in such a direction. And in many countries there were rumours of military coups. In Italy there was talk of at least five attempted coups. There was even talk of a royalist coup to oust the Wilson government in Britain in 1974 if it went ahead with the reforms it had announced in its electoral manifesto. In Greece the colonels’ coup in 1967 led to a military dictatorship, not a fascist regime, and because the working class had not been atomised within seven years that regime was overthrown by the mass movement of the workers and youth.

In the end in most countries of Western Europe military coups proved to be unnecessary. In spite of the 1974-75 recession capitalism was still able to use the enormous resources it had accumulated in the previous period of expansion to maintain a certain social, and therefore political, stability. In this it was aided by the reformist leaders of the mass workers’ organisations.


However, in ex-colonial countries, such as Chile and Argentina,where, due to the weakness of capitalism, there were a series of revolutionary movements, the ruling class did resort to the jackboot. The most famous of these was the 1973 coup in Chile led by General Pinochet.

Here we have an experience that Marxists must learn from. There was a fascist type movement in Chile, the Patria y Libertad (Fatherland and Freedom). But the bourgeoisie had no intention of promoting this into a mass movement. The role this type of organisation played was that of auxiliary to the state apparatus, not as an independent movement.

The same was true of the fascists in Italy. They never achieved a mass following. The real fascists limited themselves to acts of terrorism. The idea was to create the conditions for a military coup. That is, the middle classes of the cities, together with the poorer sections of society would be led to believe that the chaos around them could only be stopped by the iron fist of the military. These layers, however, never actually mobilised as a mass force as in the days of Mussolini.

Pinochet’s coup was supported passively by these layers, but they were never transformed into the “battering ram” that Trotsky wrote about. This means that regimes of the Pinochet type are not fascist in the classical sense of the word. They are bonapartist military-police dictatorships, without a mass base. This makes them much weaker and more short-lived.

All this does not mean that they are any less dangerous. They use the methods of fascism, they outlaw the trade unions and workers’ parties, they arrest, torture and murder labour movement activists, and for a period they can remain in power.

Does this invalidate any of the writings of Trotsky on the nature of fascism? Absolutely not. The bourgeoisie has not abandoned the methods of repression. When it feels threatened it will return to these methods. The fact that it prefers not to hand power over to demagogues of the Hitler or Mussolini type does not mean that it has ruled the methods of dictatorship. In the future, on the basis of a serious crisis, military rule is not ruled out. And movements like that around Haider in Austria, Le Pen in France or Fini in Italy, although they are not themselves classical fascist parties, can prepare the ground for bonapartist regimes in the future. The danger is there and it is real.

Trotsky fought valiantly to alert the labour movement to the dangers of fascism. Especially memorable is his struggle to change the policies of the German Communist Party. In Germany, the Trotskyists were the only ones to demand the building of a united front between the Social Democrats and the Communists, but to no avail. The Communist International, under Stalin’s leadership declared the Social Democracy to be “social-fascism”, i.e. they were supposedly fundamentally the same as the fascists, ignoring the fact that millions of fighting trade unionists were organised in the Social Democratic Party. By refusing to build a united front the Stalinists contributed to one of the biggest defeats of the working class in history.

A thorough understanding of Trotsky’s analysis of fascism is necessary if we are to arm theoretically the next generation of workers and student activists in order to avoid a new disaster for the labour movement in the future.

Together with this brief article we recommend to all our readers the writings of Trotsky on fascism:

  • Fascism: what it is and how to fight it is a short pamphlet outlining Trotsky’s ideas on the subject
  • His writings on Germany, which span the period 1930-33 are collected in the volume, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany.
  • His writings on Spain 1931-37.
  • In ‘Whither France’ he also develops a very clear analysis of the way the petit bourgeoisie moves in periods of revolutionary (and counter-revolutionary) upheaval. (this unfortunately is not yet available on line)

And be sure to visit !

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