The Ruling Class, Fascism and the State

Posted: May 19, 2012 in Uncategorized
Mussolini and Hitler: two of a kind

by  Neil Harris

IT IS nearly a century since fascism first appeared in Italy, and yet it is as misunderstood now as it was then. That the story of Hitler and the Nazis’ rise to power are such a major part of the history taught in our schools makes this a concern, because the confusion is no accident. It is a version of history that is acceptable to the ruling class and follows a simple but flawed narrative of the 20th century, namely that the great depression of the 1930’s produced two challenges to bourgeois democracy and capitalism: from the left, Communism and from the right, Fascism.

The capitalists regard both as different varieties of the same system, “totalitarianism”. The story even has a “happy”ending with the triumph of bourgeois democracy over fascism at the end of the war and over communism after the long cold war. When the leading bourgeois historian, Francis Fukuyama described the end of the Cold War as “the end of history”, what he meant was the end of the class struggle itself. This was wishful thinking; today the class war still continues just as history does.
The importance the ruling class places on history should tell us that the struggle over what happened in history is just as important as any other battle we fight: it is the battle for ideas. So, to set the record straight: throughout the 1930’s it was the ruling classes of the West who hailed fascism as a weapon against the revolutionary working class at home and abroad and both bank-rolled its rise and then financed it after it seized power in Italy, Germany and Spain. Montague Norman’s Bank of England was lending money to Germany even in the summer of 1939, just months before the declaration of war.
It was communists and socialists who were the leading opponents of fascism and without the Red Army the Axis powers would have won the war in Europe. Afterwards, unable to reverse the advances made by the working class throughout the world, the imperialists were forced into an uneasy stalemate until the end of the cold war. So, what is fascism? Can it come back and if so when is it a threat?
At this point we have to be clear that fascism is, of course, always a threat: to racial minorities, working class organisations and progressive individuals. This is because racism is an essential element of imperialism and will always be promoted by the ruling class as part of its ideology. Fascism takes its lead from this racism and is ever present in the form of small, violent gangs of right-wing racists. These embittered groups are always available for those in the ruling class who want to make use of small scale political violence outside of state power. It is our task to oppose them on a daily basis, on the streets. However, the seizure of state power itself is another matter and is the subject of this article.
Why does this happen in one country and not another? Why did Mosley fail and Mussolini succeed?
The nature of the state
The state only appears after private property and classes have themselves appeared; primitive societies have no need of a state. It is the antagonism between classes (the class struggle), over the ownership of private property (the means of production) that brings about the creation of a state. All states exist to preserve the position of a ruling class and do so through a variety of methods.  In the last resort this means the use of violence. Marx put it very succinctly when he said that the state is nothing but the “organising committee of the bourgeoisie” and by this he meant that the state exists to mediate between the different factions, individuals and organisations of the capitalist ruling class itself, not between the ruling class and the working class.
While some states are quick to resort to violence and others are slower, it is the use of force on behalf of the ruling class which is the ultimate function of a state. In order to do this all states make sure that they have a monopoly of the use of violence in the form of police or armed forces, being quick to stamp out “vigilantes” or “mob rule”which may threaten their control. Even when auxiliaries or “death squads” are used in times of civil emergency it is always under the direction of or with the secret agreement of the security forces.
The nature of fascism
In the 1930’s there were as many theories regarding the nature of what was then a new and novel development as there were commentators, but always reflecting the prejudices of the writer. For the bourgeoisie, fascism was at first a positive response to the arrival of communism. They saw it as an ally. Therefore when bourgeois writers first considered it, they highlighted the comradeship of fascist ex-servicemen, their noble nationalism, the sacrifice of patriots, all of which was shorthand for anti-communism. Much was made of the rise of the Nietzschean leader, the rise of the “superman”. The emphasis was always on “modernity”, because the appearance and methods of Mussolini and Hitler, which now seem so comical, were in their time seen as both cutting edge and efficient. The intention was to create fear amongst the people of their respective countries.
Later when German imperialism was seen as a threat to rival imperialisms, the tone changed. Nationalists blamed the stereotypical national characteristics of the Italians or the Germans to explain what had happened. The “Chicago school” of bourgeois sociologists saw fascism and communism as “deviancy”, that is a deviation from the “normal” system of capitalism and bourgeois democracy. Freudians saw the rise of Hitler and Mussolini in terms of sex and the sub-conscious. All imperialists claimed that both communism and fascism were the same system because to an imperialist both were a threat to their rule. German fascism was now a rival and increasingly dangerous imperialist power while communism was a threat to the very existence of imperialism itself.
           What all bourgeois writers had in common was to ignore the class basis of the state and with very good reason.  The result of a communist revolution was the seizure of the property of the capitalist class, the replacement of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with the dictatorship of the proletariat. The fascist dictatorship, on the other hand, in banning parties of the working class, seizing unions and co-operatives only reinforced the dictatorship of the ruling class. This was obvious to people from all backgrounds at the time, in a way it is not today, after 80 years of bourgeois“history”.
Georgi Dimitrov’s classic definition, first set out at the 7th Congress of the Communist International in 1935 is a helpful start in understanding what really happened; “Fascism is the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital”. As a description of what happened in Germany and Italy it is accurate and helpful, but it fails to explain the reason “why” fascism appeared.
Rajani Palme Dutt went further;“Fascism arose as a special form of counter revolution in the period of the general crisis of capitalism and following the opening of the world socialist revolution in 1917”, he added: “Fascism is thus a form of counter revolution, but not every counter revolution is fascism”, and it is with that last addition that he raised the questions that we need to answer.
It is first helpful to understand what fascism isn’t. For example, it is not simply capitalism’s response in times of depression. If it were so, we would have had fascism in Britain or America, where both countries suffered greatly in the 1930’s and both had vociferous fascist parties.
Fascism is not a coup d’état, that is, a seizure of power by the military. When the military take power, as a component of the state, they are doing so as the state itself, on behalf of the ruling class.
Fascism, on the other hand, has a mass base outside of the state and while it may have supporters in the military, it is not just a military action. In Spain, Franco acted more like the typical Latin American coup leader where coup d’état is frequently used by the ruling class in general and feudal landowners in particular, to preserve their power. Franco represented the reactionary section of the Spanish military, acting on behalf of the landowners, monarchists, the church and some of the capitalists. While he took power in an alliance with the fascist parties, he always kept the military separate from them. Fascist parties may aspire to take power by force, but do not do so from within the state apparatus itself.
Fascism does not “seize” control of the state, even though fascist parties always talk of a revolutionary seizure of power. Following Mussolini’s “march on Rome”,he appeared before the king saying “I beg your majesty to forgive me for appearing in your presence in uniform – I come from the field of battle”. In fact, Mussolini had arrived in Rome by sleeper train in a first class compartment.
Some days before, on October 24th 1922 a secret conference had taken place in Florence; attending were Blackshirt leaders, army chiefs, nationalists, business leaders and the representative of the Duke of Aosta. Together, those present were a cross-section of the ruling class of the time and all were agreed it was time to take over the Government. The first choice of leader was Gabriele D’Annunzio the poet and nationalist adventurer who refused. The second choice, General Peppino Garibaldi also refused before Mussolini was picked as third choice. Two days later the ultimatum was put to the prime minister, who promptly resigned without a struggle, and the “march” began. In effect the ruling class and the state invited him to take power.
It was no different in Germany. On September 12th 1919, Hitler attended a meeting of a tiny nationalist movement, boasting fewer than 10 members. He did so in his post-war role as a political agent working on behalf of the German Army. Impressed by what he saw he joined and recommended to his commanding officer that the group was worthy of an army subsidy, which it received for many years. In 1920 when the “National Socialist German Workers Party” launched its first newspaper it was financed by an industrialist from Bavaria, an officer of the Hansa bank and the army in equal amounts. The army funds came from the secret “Freikorps” fund raised to organise nationalist death squads outside the 100,000 limit on troop numbers imposed by the treaty of Versailles. In 1933 Hitler was invited to take power by the President.
It is also not a “revolution”, as fascists claim, nor can it be described as a revolt of the oppressed.  Nowhere has any fascist party enacted any progressive measures or seized any property except that belonging to racial minorities or working class organisations.
Fascism is not “anti-capitalist”as it claims, nowhere has any fascist ever threatened the ruling class of their own country, on the contrary it is the working class and their organisations that are its target. This is clear from a study of those who financed Hitler during his rise to power.  Hitler’s financial backers varied quite dramatically over the years but none could be described as anti-capitalist, ranging from exiled White Russians, the Nobel organisation (manufacturers of weapons), Thyssen steel, German Naval Intelligence, Swiss bankers, Henry Ford the US car maker and anti-communist, Lord Rothermere owner of the Daily Mail, Mussolini’s Italy and the German Army.
There are many examples of such ruling class support; in 1927 the Westphalian coal syndicate agreed amongst its members to raise a levy for the Nazi party of 50 pfennigs on every ton of coal sold by its members.
On 9th January 1928 12 influential men met, including representatives of Krupp the arms manufacturers, I G Farben the chemical conglomerate, together with the coal and lignite industries in order to create the “Ruhrlade”, a massive political fund. Over the next few years a series of follow up meetings were to take place, notably in January 1931 at Herman Goering’s house where Hitler charmed Thyssen Steel, Ernest Tengleman the director of the Ruhr mining company and Dr Schacht the former President of the Reichsbank, with the result that later that year the Ruhrlade fund switched over to the Nazi party.
In 1932 Hitler attended a meeting with the banker Schacht, Schroder the Cologne banker, Meyer of Dresdner bank, Bismarck’s grandson (a leading landowner), representatives of Comerz and Privat bank, Siemens, the Hamburg-America shipping line, Flick steel, United steel and a fertiliser magnate.
So we can see that as Palme Dutt stated, fascism is counter revolution and as Dimitrov understood, it is a counter revolution carried out on behalf of the most reactionary elements of the ruling class. But why in some countries and not others? The usual answer to this question is that the rise of fascism was a response to the threat of revolution and communism.
As communists, we could be excused for believing that the purpose of fascism was to destroy communism and communists. Indeed, that has always been a central part of fascist ideology and communists have always been the first victims of fascism.
Facts however are troublesome things. In the Italian elections of 1921, just after the Italian Socialist Party had expelled the faction that was to become the Communist Party, the communists won 18 seats out of just over 500. In the German election of 1932, the communists won 10 per cent of the vote. This is not to belittle our comrades’ efforts. These votes were won in the teeth of vicious physical attacks from the fascists and the state, biased media and with very limited funds to run campaigns. More importantly, these were parties committed to revolution rather than elections and whose influence amongst the working class was more important to them than their membership or the number of votes cast. True communists always measure their support amongst the working class at the point of production rather than their vote in bourgeois elections.
The point is that these parties had limited support, and at the time of the fascist takeovers did not represent an immediate threat to capitalist system. It is certainly true that at that time, communists believed that they were the coming force and that was also a view shared by the capitalists, however fear of the future does not provide an adequate explanation of what happened. If it were, the American measures of 1919 would have provided a ready model for the German and Italian ruling classes.
Following the First World War, America saw a huge rise in labour movement activity, strikes and political action. The communist and anarchist movements were forces for revolutionary change in a country where revolutionary syndicalist ideas had been strong for many years amongst the working class. The ruling class response was harsh; the “Palmer raids”, the rise of J Edgar Hoover and the creation of the FBI, specifically to deal with the “red menace”. Thousands were arrested and imprisoned simply for being suspected communists or militants, and any who were not American citizens were immediately deported back to Europe. It would take many years for the left to recover, and in some respects it never did.


They did not pass. Mosley’s Blackshirts defeated in Cable St, 1936
It is a commonly held view that fascism appeared because of the imminent threat of revolution, this is also not the case. Certainly, the Italy of 1919 gave every appearance of a country on the brink of revolution; on August 30th 1919 some 500,000 workers were occupying their factories and demanding workers control. During this wave of unrest over a million would become involved, including peasants demanding land reform, some of whom would actually seize the land they had worked for generations, but did not own.
The ruling class did not sit idly by, Mussolini’s blackshirts, paid for by the ruling class, armed by the military and transported by the state began a reign of terror, attacking the labour movement throughout the country from October 1920 on, following the end of the factory occupations.
From November onwards and starting in red Bologna a large scale para-military action was launched against the working class, driving out socialist town councils, destroying trades union and co-operative organisation. From January to May 1921 120 Trade union headquarters and 243 socialist centres were destroyed, leaving 220 dead and 1,144 wounded. Between 1921 and 1922 500 labour centres and co-operatives were burnt while 900 socialist municipalities were dissolved by force.
To quote Mussolini on 2nd June 1921: “The Italy of 1921 is fundamentally different today from that of 1919, to say that the Bolshevik danger still exists in Italy is equivalent to trying to exchange for reasons of self-interest, fear against the truth. Bolshevism is conquered, more than that, it has been disowned by the leaders and the people.”
In Germany it is a similar story, the First World War ended in 1918 as the monarchy collapsed as a result of soldiers’ uprisings and workers’ revolts. Unfortunately this produced not a soviet republic but a bourgeois democratic republic and with right wing social democrats in control in many state governments.
The Army, limited in size and activity by the terms of the armistice and later the Versailles treaty, created the “Freikorps”, armed irregulars made up mainly of the officer class and elite squadrons. The workers’ councils which had sprung up were viciously put down.
January 1919 saw the murders of communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg and started a period of great violence until 1923. Uprisings, general strikes and soviets organised by left social democrats and communists were put down with some 20 to 30,000 dead. In addition to ruling class support, the freikorps acted with the support of right social democrats where they were in power or elected as police chiefs and which poisoned the relationship between social democracy and communists for many years.
Clearly revolution was a real possibility at any time from 1918 to 1923, and the reasons why it failed could be the subject matter for a book in itself. What is equally clear is that in 1933, when Hitler “took” power, revolution was not a threat, at least not in the short term. All the same, the ruling class invited Hitler into government and gave him extraordinary powers. Within days of the Reichstag fire providing a pretext, the Communist Party was destroyed and its members imprisoned or on the run. From that point on, as Alan Merson showed in his book on the German underground, the average period a newly elected full timer would serve before his or her arrest was a mere three months, such was the brutality of the dictatorship.
However the real destruction had hardly begun. By June 1933 the social democratic party had been banned and destroyed and the trade union leaders arrested. When asked why this was necessary, Hitler said“better in jail”. Co-operatives of all types, Catholic or social democratic were seized.  So too were the Catholic workers’ associations, whose role had been to deny that the class struggle existed and to promote the belief that workers and capitalists had interests in common. What is striking is that a revolution, while always a possibility in the future was not an imminent prospect in 1933.
To understand what happened we need to understand the nature of revolutionary situations: circumstances when revolutions are possible and likely to succeed. In between April and May 1920, Lenin wrote Left-wing communism, an infantile disorder, at a time when much of Europe had been ripe for revolution for the previous two years.
           “Wrote”, is probably not right. Passages leap out of the pamphlet with an urgency revealed in such erratic grammar that they can only have been dictated at great speed to a secretary, Lenin abandoned the precise scholastic style of his pre-revolutionary life. One such dramatic passage, reprinted below sets out what he called “the fundamental law of revolution”:
“The fundamental law of revolution, which has been confirmed by all revolutions and especially by all three Russian revolutions in the 20th century, is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes: for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way.
“It is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph. This truth can be expressed in other words: revolution is impossible without a nation-wide crisis (affecting both the exploited and the exploiters). It follows that, for a revolution to take place, it is essential, first, that a majority of the workers (or at least a majority of the class-conscious, thinking, and politically active workers) should fully realise that revolution is necessary, and that they should be prepared to die for it; second, that the ruling class should be going through a governmental crisis, which draws even the most backward masses into politics (symptomatic of any genuine revolution is a rapid, tenfold and even hundredfold increase in the size of the working and oppressed masses – hitherto apathetic –who are capable of waging the political struggle), weakens the government, and makes it possible for the revolutionaries to rapidly overthrow it.”
Put very simply, for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the working class to feel unable to carry on living in the old way, it is also necessary for the ruling class to be going through a crisis of its own – it too cannot continue living in the old way. The importance of this passage is that we can see the reason why revolutions fail, and in particular why the risings failed in Germany and Italy, while that of Russia in 1917 succeeded. The strength of social democracy (that is the belief that a non-revolutionary road was a way to reform capitalist exploitation) was such that an insufficient section of the working class was prepared to use force to overthrow its oppressors.
The failure of those revolutions, as with the failure of the British working class to develop 1926 into a serious revolutionary situation were due to workers not having reached the point where they could no longer go on living in the old way. They retained the hope that there was an alternative. At the same time, whatever crisis the ruling class of their respective countries were in, they had not reached the point where they were unable to go on living on the old way.
So what had happened to bring about fascist regimes? Why was it necessary to have a counter revolution when a revolution was not imminent?
It is quite clear that the ruling classes in both Italy in 1922 and Germany in 1933 were in severe crisis and one which was far worse than that at the end of the First World War. From the armistice onwards, defeated Germany had lurched form one crisis to another and by the 1930’s this had reached finance capital itself with a series of bank failures and extravagant frauds. Italy, thinking it had come out of the war on the side of the victors found instead that it was unable to share in the spoils with the major imperialists and instead its landlords feared the loss of their land and the factory owners the loss of their factories.
In both cases the ruling classes, or significant sections of them, had reached the conclusion that they could not continue to rule in the old way. Quite simply, they knew that at the next crisis it was likely that they would be overthrown. At the same time the revolutionary tide had subsided, the workers had not yet reached the point where they had decided that they could not go on in the old way. The scene was set, not for revolution but for counter revolution.
It is then that the ruling classes looking to the state, with its officials, employees and elected posts staffed by people who might be anything from Catholics, liberals, social democrats, monarchists to conservatives, saw it as unreliable and unlikely to carry out its new role as a ruthless dictator. It is no coincidence that apart from the oppression of workers and the left, after taking power there is a systematic upheaval of the whole state apparatus and even its lowliest employees. Judges, civil servants, police officers, lecturers, librarians, teachers, even postmen were required to show complete loyalty to the fascist state, facing dismissal or far worse if they showed any opposition. While a minority left or hid, the majority took the hint and stayed on, accepting the new regime and doing its dirty work.
For that is what it was, a new state apparatus brought about by the ruling classes dissatisfaction with the old, a state which it felt was simply not up to the job.
The destruction of every form of workers organisation (including the Catholic associations) and their replacement with fascist unions, was to ensure not the resurgence of communism, important though that was, but to prevent any form of class consciousness and class struggle. The effect was to allow capitalism to increase the rate of exploitation as a means of maintaining the level of surplus value and to ensure its survival as a system, for the time being at least. For imperialism, it allowed the whole of the economy to become concentrated into a massive increase in arms production, expansion of the armed services and ultimately preparation for imperialist expansion, intended to give it new markets, natural resources and a new workforce. It was not for nothing that a left slogan of the time was “fascism means war”.
Daniel Guerin’s study from the 1940’s is interesting; contrasting Hitler’s consistent support from heavy, capital-intensive industries such as coal, iron, steel, chemicals, and arms with more lukewarm support from the makers of consumer goods such as beer and clothing, reliant as they were on sales to working class consumers. The makers of arms, explosives, iron, steel and fuel were, of course, those most likely to gain from re-armament and war. Also interesting is the analysis he makes of the organic link between finance capital and the Nazi’s rise to power.
The last word must go to Clara Zetkin, veteran militant and communist addressing the executive committee of the communist international in July 1923 “Historically, fascism is the punishment of the proletariat in western and central Europe for failing to carry on the revolution begun in Russia.”
Does a fascist seizure of the state, change the nature of the state?
Here we must spell out the difference between “the state”and a government, a parliament or an assembly. An elected government may win an election but that does not mean that it controls the state apparatus itself. This is only a problem, of course, when that elected government fails to represent the views of the ruling class as it would in normal circumstances, for it is the ruling class that controls the apparatus of the state and not the government.
A recent example would be the British Labour Governments of  the 1970’s, which were elected on rather mild “centre left” manifesto pledges, but faced determined opposition from the civil service, army and police who were echoing demands from the ruling class for renewed attacks on the working class and living standards. Harold Wilson had no doubts that he was the victim of a smear campaign from elements within the security services.
All states are a dictatorship of one class over another and all ultimately rely on violence to carry out that function. However it is clear that the German state of 1933 was different to that of, say, 1927 just as the Italian state of the mid 1920’s was different to that of 1919, before Mussolini took power. The difference, however, is one of degree only. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie takes many forms ranging from“liberal democracies” to naked, open fascist dictatorship. For left social democrats and communists, murdered in their thousands in Germany from 1919 to 1923, it can have been of little comfort that they were living in a liberal democracy rather than a fascist dictatorship.
Fascism, in a form that Hitler or Mussolini would recognise, is unlikely to return. The process that gave rise to it, however, is only too likely to happen again and a good example of such a situation would be the events during the anti-communist hysteria in America following World War Two.
In 1945 America was the close ally and friend of the Soviet Union. President Roosevelt, no communist himself, was a liberal “new dealer”, who had fought against the ignorance and poverty of the depression years and limited the role of capitalism during the war. Many in his administration and the US state shared his views, although only a handful could be described as left-wing. By the late 1940’s, the American ruling class chose confrontation rather than friendship with the Soviets and at home an end to the class compromises of the new deal and the war.
When they looked at the state apparatus they saw employees who did not share their view of the world and on whom they could not rely. They began an anti-communist crusade, led by Joseph McCarthy and others, representing the vocal demands of big business, or what Eisenhower was to describe as the “military-industrial complex”. The professed aim was to clear all the “communists” out of government.
A witch hunt was launched where every other person was a suspected communist unless they could prove otherwise or redeem themselves by implicating others. While it lasted every school teacher, civil servant and even postman was in fear of a knock on the door from the FBI or losing their job and facing a lifelong blacklist.
  Communists were cleared out of leadership of all but a handful of trade unions and workers on the shop floor were in fear of expressing any contrary views. Sponsors threatened to withdraw finance from movies and radio programmes unless supposed communists were fired. However, the number of communists was actually quite small, as was the threat they posed to the capitalist system. Its effect was to intimidate all who worked for the state and by its end it had put the American state on a worldwide war footing, its personnel purged of dissenting views.
In the era in which we live, where imperialism can operate temporarily without restraint from proletarian revolutions, the words of Berthold Brecht in his satire on the Nazis The resistible rise of Arturo Ui, ends the play with the words : “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

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