The PRISM editors have prepared this primer, posted here in three parts, in line with the growing concern and interest of many anti-imperialist groups about the rapid growth of fascist forces in the context of increasingly violent imperialist rule and the socio-political impacts of the current global capitalist crisis. This is Part 1.
PRISM PRIMER ON FASCISM AS A TOOL OF IMPERIALISM
People’s Resource for International Solidarity and Mass Mobilization
5 March 2022
1. What is fascism?
To fully answer this question will require a discussion of all the main points contained in this primer.
But since we have to start somewhere, we can initially define fascism as the doctrine and practice of (a) a small elite of the big bourgeoisie wielding state power (b) through an extremely centralized political and economic authority that (c) relies mainly and openly on the untrammeled use of armed or coercive force while disposing of formal democratic processes to impose its aims, central of which is (d) to suppress and/or exterminate at all costs its clearly identified enemies, namely, certain other social groups that it considers as existential threats to society, (e) in behalf of the superior nation or race, or some overarching mythical entity.
However, fascism did not just emerge out of nowhere, like full-grown and armed Athena from the forehead of Zeus. Its various elements existed much earlier, and evolved and recombined throughout history. Thus, any discussion of fascism must start with an overview of the state as a whole, how it developed through historical stages, and the processes through which certain groups wielded such power while others were oppressed by it.
2. What are the roots of fascism in pre-capitalist and early capitalist states?
Historically and until now, every state relied on its machineries of coercion. But not every state is fascist.
In the long history of humankind, the earliest or primitive classless communities eventually gave way to other types of societies which were divided into social classes. Every societyʼs elite classes systematically plundered the land’s resources, and exploited the labors of the poorer toiling classes which typically comprised the majority. Such an exploitative and oppressive social system could exist for many generations only by maintaining a state at its very core.
The state assumed many diverse forms throughout human history. We see these in the long succession of slave-owning and feudal states in all regions of the world prior to capitalism, in their countless hybrids and transitory forms. But, in essence, each state is an instrument of violence by which one class continually presses down on another, or at times resolves its own internal conflicts.
As typically taught in university courses on political science, the state has various administrative functions such as tax collection, public works, and the like. But, at the core, it is the machinery of armed compulsion and coercion—courts, laws and law-making bodies, armies, police and jails—by which the ruling class ensures that the rest of the subject population keep within their defined roles and follow the laws, and that any internal resistance or external attack threatening the system is suppressed. In the hands of greedy ruling classes, this same state power is also organized to regulate and resolve the inevitable factional feuds among or within them, and to extend its scope beyond its territory, often to subjugate other peoples and maintain vassal states.
Throughout history, state violence may have been brazen or refined, all-out or calibrated, fully militarized or dressed in civilian or priestly garb—depending on many factors. State power may have been the monopoly of one autocrat and his family, and ruling as a dynasty across generations assisted by a religious or civilian officialdom (as in the ancient Near East, much of ancient Asia, the Incas and Aztecs, and in most feudal monarchies), or shared more widely across the various ruling-class strata and factions (as in most pre-imperial city states in the ancient Mediterranean and much of the ancient Americas).
As a whole, however, despotism (exercise of absolute power with minimal legalities), armed force and punitive methods were the most dominating and visible features of state power. Systematic actions of mass violence against slaves, serfs, and subjugated peoples were especially atrocious. In this specific sense, oppressive class rule in the pre-capitalist era was typically “fascist.”
Transition to capitalism. In Western Europe and its American colonies, the Enlightenment and industrial capitalism of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries rejected these old forms of “fascist-like” state power. Through democratic revolutions led by the nascent or rising bourgeoisie, these were replaced with modern concepts and institutions revolving around popular sovereignty, republican and democratic principles and processes, and formally equal rights for all, based on the constitution or rule of law. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, bourgeois-democratic aspirations and practices gradually spread among other modernizing states such as in Eastern Europe, Japan, and elsewhere.
While the many elements of fascism already preexisted in precapitalist states (such as absolutism, militarism, and repressive laws and police methods), these were carried over to the capitalist era. For long periods, under the dominant political doctrine and system of bourgeois democracy, these elements were mere undercurrents—becoming prominent only under certain circumstances such as in times of war, revolutionary crises, and colonial rebellions.
Thus, even in the most democratic republics ruled by the bourgeoisie, there were repeated spasms of horrific state violence and barbaric treatment of people—against slaves and indigenous peoples (such as in the Americas), against subjugated peoples (in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and European peripheries), unassimilated minorities (such as against Jews and Romas), in counter-revolutions masquerading as revolution (e.g. Bonapartism), and in response to the first stirrings of working-class struggle (such as in Europe in 1848 and 1871).
Also, in many empires where capitalism rapidly developed, strong vestiges of the feudal state hindered the full development of democracy. Examples of these were the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires (which later evolved into Germany, its claimed territories and smaller states), Italy with its dream of a “Third Rome”, tsarist Russia, and imperial Japan. There, the feudal states gradually bourgeoisified but did not truly divest themselves of feudal absolutism and militarism.
3. How did fascism emerge and rise to extreme prominence under modern imperialism? (review of 1880s-1980s)
Emergence and rise to power. The rapid and gigantic advances in industry and finance, especially in Europe and North America in the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s, gave way to the dominance of monopolies and modern imperialism (monopoly capitalism). The crises inherent in capitalism became more frequent and destructive, leading to more class conflicts, colonial subjugation, and inter-imperialist wars, as described in Lenin’s works.
Three factors in particular combined to gradually push the undercurrent elements of fascism to the surface and eventually to the forefront during the imperialist era:
- within the imperialist homelands, growth of working-class militance and socialist (especially Marxist) influence among the toiling masses, and worsening ruling-class quarrels, which called for restrictive laws to justify use of violence and denial of civil liberties;
- the imperialist push for more territories, and the adoption of harsher measures to facilitate colonial plunder and to suppress the resistance of subjugated peoples; and
- intensifying inter-imperialist rivalries and growing militarism through the expanded role of modern standing armies, their elite officer corps, and the military-industrial complex.
In other words, the rise of fascism is inseparably tied up with imperialism, inter-imperialist rivalries and militarism, worsening capitalist crises, sharper class struggles, and a powerful working-class movement especially when it wages revolutionary struggles for socialism.
As described by the Third International (Comintern) in 1933, fascism is “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital.” It is a very distinct mode of existence by the modern bourgeois state in the era of imperialism.
Shortly after World War I, and especially in the face of heightened working-class militancy inspired by the Great October Socialist Revolution and the young Soviet state, explicitly fascist organizations arose first in Italy and then in Germany and elsewhere. Mussolini and Hitler, waving their own anti-communist versions of “nationalism and socialism,ˮ built their respective mass followings and armed militias among the demobilized soldiers, lumpen-proletarians, and backward sections of workers and peasants.
Mussoliniʼs Blackshirts quickly became armed thugs of the Italian big bourgeoisie, attacking the postwar mass struggles of workers and peasants. This was soon followed by Hitler, whose own Nazi Party and Brownshirts militia played the same role for the German big bourgeoisie.
The fascists took advantage of post-World War I economic troubles, social unrest, and the “specter of Bolshevism” to take power in behalf of their respective big bourgeoisies—Mussolini becoming “Il Duce” after his March on Rome in 1922, and Hitler becoming “Der Fuehrer” after winning Germany’s chancellorship in 1933. In quick succession, full-blown fascist regimes arose in imperial Japan and in the decrepit colonial powers Spain and Portugal. These inspired more fascist parties to proliferate in other countries.
The struggle vs. global fascism in World War II. Under their respective fascist regimes, the German, Italian, and Japanese imperialists rapidly expanded their military strength; launched crusades to reclaim “lost territories” and acquire more colonies; suppressed Communist, trade-union, and democratic opposition; snarled at the Soviet Union and the forces of the Comintern as their ultimate enemy; used ultra-nationalist and “racial-supremacist” propaganda to deceive and divide the masses; and prepared for aggressive war to achieve their imperialist ambitions.
Germany, Italy and Japan, openly scheming as the Axis Powers to redivide the world, met increasing opposition from the other threatened imperialists—the Allied powers led by Great Britain and the US. On the eve of World War II, the Soviet Union and the Third International (Comintern), its constituent national sections (communist parties), and the vast numbers of worker, peasant, and other mass organizations, likewise built up the global anti-fascist Popular Front to confront the fascist Axis powers.
As World War II spread, the Soviet-led Comintern and Popular Front forces fought against the invading or occupying fascist forces—often side-by-side with US, British, and other Allied forces. The Soviet Union and other communist-led and nationalist-led armies fought the fascists through regular, guerrilla, and urban-partisan warfare, and through all forms of underground mass resistance in occupied areas and open patriotic mass mobilizations in the rear areas. By 1945, the fascist Axis powers were defeated. This signified momentous changes in the global situation.
Fascism and puppet regimes during the Cold War. The next 30 years (1945-1975) saw a much expanded socialist camp, albeit later weakened by revisionism; the dominance followed by gradual decline of US imperialism; the victorious advance of big and small people’s wars, national liberation movements, and independent states in the former colonies; and the Cold War with its waves of anti-communist hysteria. All these became favorable factors for fascism to again rear its ugly head worldwide.
Post-World War II imperialism remained the deep well-spring of fascism. The US, while it could still dress up in the liberal garb of bourgeois democracy, absorbed many elements of fascism in its redoubled anti-communist crusades at home and abroad. Not surprisingly, the CIA and the US military-industrial complex absorbed into their programs an alarming number of ex-Nazi officials and spies. This was on top of McCarthyite witch-hunts and the FBI’s infamous “Cointelpro” playbook. Similarly, revisionism turned the former socialist states of the Soviet bloc into new breeding grounds of fascism. The Cold War, which became a contest between the two imperialist superpowers, sharply honed the taste for fascism on both sides.
US imperialism was mainly instrumental in the global spread of postwar fascism through its many wars of aggression and other forms of militarist intervention. The most prominent and brutal form of US-instigated fascism throughout the Cold War up to the early 1980s were the puppet fascist regimes in its neocolonies, propped up by the CIA, Pentagon, State Department and other US agencies.
These fascist puppet autocracies and military juntas were installed through direct military intervention to stop the march to victory of people’s wars of liberation (as in Korea and Indochina), and through US-instigated power grabs (as in many countries of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, and in Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand). A few were long-standing fascist regimes that enjoyed steady US support for decades (as in Somoza’s Nicaragua and Chiang’s Taiwan).
Throughout the 1950s-1970s, such puppet fascist dictatorships helped US imperialism better protect its big-business interests and military bases, provide cannon fodder for its many interventionist wars, and generally keep its neocolonies under control, especially in periods when liberal-democratic pretensions could no longer stem the tide of armed revolution and national liberation movements.
In the same period, there were also sustained fascist trends or undercurrents in militarist Japan (the US junior partner in Asia), Zionist Israel (the imperialist-backed police-state in the Middle East), brutal British rule in Northern Ireland, and in other countries such as South Africa’s White apartheid regime, the Greek military junta of 1967-74, and the doddering fascist dictatorships in Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal. Clerico-fascism, which was centered in Italy, Spain and Portugal, could extend its tentacles to other Catholic-dominant countries for a time, until radical priests and nuns countered it with their Theology of Liberation.
Other forms of fascism. Meanwhile, another distinct taproot of fascism fast sprouted in the Soviet-bloc countries ruled by revisionist regimes, and later in post-Mao China as well. Fascism, which is most pronounced in imperialist countries, is utterly antagonistic to proletarian-led revolutions and states—which in turn are the fiercest enemies of fascism. Nevertheless, when socialist countries turn revisionist and revert to capitalism, the big bourgeoisie first reemerges atop highly centralized bureaucracies and economies. This becomes fertile ground for “social-fascism”, i.e., fascism masquerading as socialism. This type of fascism—a legacy of Soviet revisionism still seen in today’s Russia—is also being unmasked in China after the Dengist counter-revolution.
Islamic fundamentalism, which has no tradition of liberal democracy, has very different roots from Western fascism (which emerges upon shedding its former liberal-democratic garb). But once Islamic patriarchy merges with bourgeois state power, it also develops some key features of fascism. The crucial factor remains that of imperialism, which encourages the worst feudal-autocratic features of Islamic patriarchy to strengthen the fascist client state (as in Saudi Arabia) and to harness a rabid counter-revolutionary force (as in US-trained and funded jihadists). # [Continue to Part 2]