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 2.
4. What are thus the main features of 20th-century fascism and its emergent patterns in the last 30 years (1990-present)?
Based on our review of the history of fascism in the context of modern imperialism, we can summarize below its main features, most of which have been carried over to the 21st century—although we should also be aware of added features that have emerged in recent decades.
Big-bourgeois class character. At first glance, a fascist group appears supra-class, i.e., it insists to be always for the “whole nation” or “one race”, or for “the people” without any clear class distinctions. At times, its initially petty-bourgeois or national-bourgeois leaders can superficially mimic revolutionary forms and assume a fake and narrow anti-capitalist position, to attract the discontented masses and further prove its “populist” credentials. But the fascists’ biggest effort—at first low-profile, then sooner or later all-consuming—is to cultivate ties with the big bourgeoisie, enlisting its full support and eventually being absorbed into its class ranks.
In the extreme case, fascism advocates a high degree of bureaucrat capitalism under some notion of “corporatism” or signboard of fake socialism. The goal is actually to merge state-bureaucrat and private-capitalist ownership and control of industries, so that the highly concentrated will of the ruling classes’ bureaucratic and private-corporate interests are forcibly imposed on the toiling masses.
This is particularly the case when monopoly capitalism develops into bureaucrat monopoly capitalism—as when formerly socialist states revert to the capitalist road—or when the military-industrial complex is so cancerous it converts top civilian, military, financial/corporate officials into a veritable Deep State. But there are also similar cases of ultra-bureaucrat capitalism in the semi-colonies ruled by comprador big bourgeoisies, such as in China under Chiang Kaishek’s Guomindang and Big Four families, Iran under its last Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), and to a large extent the Philippines and its crony capitalism under Marcos.
Anti-communist ideology and politics. Throughout much of the 20th century until now, fascist movements, parties and regimes served mainly as counterpoint against proletarian-led revolutionary movements, and against socialist and people’s democratic states from 1917 onward to the 1970s.
They treat the “spectre of communism” (whether real or conjured) as the worst enemy of society, place their anti-communist positions consistently in the forefront, and push the entire big-bourgeois state to adopt their rabid counter-revolutionary agenda. They use anti-communist witch-hunts and Red-tagging to spew hate-filled propaganda and direct violent attacks against the socialist and democratic forces, and against the broader anti-fascist opposition. They can also stage false-flag operations (“black ops”) then blame the communists, and thus justify their power grab and fascist measures.
In the years between 1990 and 2015, anti-communism may have given way to other themes and schemes such as anti-Islamic fundamentalism, anti-terrorism, and neo-conservatism. But with inter-imperialist rivalries heating up anew in recent years, Western imperialist powers are once more whipping up “anti-communist” hysteria to turn public opinion not just against genuine revolutionary movements and anti-imperialist states, but also against their main rivals Russia and China, and also to distract people’s attention away from their own imperialist and fascist crimes. In turn, Russia and China have also become imperialist powers with their own distinct fascist crimes and tendencies.
Fascist-maintained mass base. Fascist groups use the superficial forms and slogans of a mass movement to smokescreen their ultra-reactionary character. When the original fascist groups started in the 1920s, they were at first small and tightly knit, often clandestine and conspiratorial. But sooner or later, they use their pseudo-socialist (actually, bourgeois populist) doctrines, and ultra-nationalist or racial-supremacist slogans, symbolisms and rituals, to build a mass following among the backward sections of the people, redirect the people’s grievances to energize fascist goals, and thus preempt or compete with the revolutionaries and progressives.
Reformists and revisionists also do these tricks. But what is distinctive to fascist parties and groups is that they provide the big bourgeoisie with the coercive mercenary muscle of a mass base that absolutely hates revolution and rejects democratic processes. Thus they enjoy big-bourgeois support and, in times of crisis, could get a hefty share of political power and even monopolize it.
In power, they become ultra-centralist bureaucrats, who are divorced from the masses but may maintain fake “mass movements” with finance, resources, and state protection. Such a “mass base” continues to serve as special fascist machinery for dirty tricks against their political rivals and progressives. In backward neocolonies where the national state may be weak, big feudal landlords and paramount tribal chieftains with their own armed following may develop into warlords, serving as provincial base of fascist overlords at the national level.
Militarism and militarized bureaucracy. The most successful fascist groups, even before their rise to power, already project their counter-revolutionary potential by developing their own blindly loyal armed force—often as paramilitaries—into which they attract disgruntled people (especially young jobless men) by means of guns, funds, flashy uniforms, and parades. They maximize the methods of mercenary armies to instill blind loyalty and feudal discipline in the fascist ranks.
When fascist groups rise to power, their first priority is to build their loyalist base (often an elite and highly equipped force) within the army, police and intelligence services, and to militarize the bureaucracy. They infuse the entire state machinery with military and police methods of governance, and erode the liberal-democratic principle and legal guarantees of civilian supremacy.
Absolutism. Even before their rise to power, fascist groups already carry absolutist notions of leadership, pushing the cult of a “perfect leader,” or the myth of “a man on a white horse” who will become the nation’s savior. The strongest fascist parties, despite their populist pretenses, are ultra-centralized and violently opposed to organizational democracy as well as political democracy. They harp on the weaknesses and unpopularity of a corrupt civilian government and indecisive parliament, in order to put themselves up as the only alternative.
Backed by the big bourgeoisie at a time of extreme crisis, a fascist cabal may successfully seize power through political paralysis, rigged elections, or barefaced military coup, and thus establish a fascist dictatorship. At the top of such a dictatorial regime is a small ruling clique composed of the autocrat or military junta, their closest advisors and officials, probably including the autocrat’s family or close relatives.
From this small but powerful clique would emanate a constant flow of orders, decrees, and other policy (or even judicial) decisions to be enforced as laws of the land. Typically, the regime would try to maintain a democratic facade via rigged elections, a rubber-stamp parliament, military tribunals, and tightly controlled mass media. However, neither effective parliamentary or judicial oversight nor genuine electoral exercises will be offered to undo the fascist regime’s measures—unless the people rise up to force the issue.
Open terrorist rule to suppress democratic rights and opposition. Fascists are openly, actively, and violently anti-democratic from the get-go—with their paramilitaries and thugs attacking mass protests, workers’ strikes, peasant struggles, and individuals and groups linked to the democratic opposition. They demonize their targets through incessant propaganda, and assist state security forces in other ways such as intelligence and black ops.
Upon seizing absolute power as a dictatorship, the fascist ruling clique’s very first steps are to institute an open rule of terror to suppress any criticism or opposition. It will issue orders and decrees that declare and implement martial law or state of emergency; suspend the bill of rights and other constitutional guarantees, especially the democratic rights to assembly, free speech, self-organization, and strike; and shut down or tightly control parliament, regular courts, and the mass media.
In line with its suppression campaigns, the fascist regime will launch relentless waves of mass arrests and raids; throw into jail or torture in safehouses (with no charges or on the flimsiest suspicion) oppositionist leaders and activists, including their families and staff; secretly murder or “disappear” those it deems most troublesome; arbitrarily close offices and seize properties; implement wholesale massacres, bombing, arson, lockdowns or “strategic hamlets,” food blockades, and other types of mass reprisals on top of regular combat operations, especially in localities where there is armed or mass resistance.
Other backward and reactionary social trends. Fascism, in both its doctrines and social behaviors, is closely allied and tends to merge with other trends representing the most backward and reactionary sections of society. These include (1) ultra-nationalism and chauvinism, which counterpose one’s nation or ethnic group as having superior interests and rights against other nations or ethnic groups; (2) xenophobia, which automatically treats with suspicion and hostility other people who don’t belong to one’s nation or ethnic group; (3) racism, which grossly bloats up minor physical traits (such as skin color or type of hair) that don’t signify real or relevant distinctions of ancestry, and turns them instead into false measures of superiority and inferiority; (4) patriarchalism based on notions of “male superiority” and inferiority of non-male genders; and (5) religious persecution that often accompanies ultra-nationalism, chauvinism, xenophobia, and racism.
Ethnic (nationality, indigenous, cultural, religious, and “racial”) minorities, women and non-binary genders, and children are the most vulnerable targets of such backward and reactionary trends—especially because there are material incentives for monopoly capitalists to super-exploit these minorities, women and children.
Fascist tyrants further encourage and ride on these trends to privilege certain sections of the population deemed “superior”, to dehumanize and demonize other sections deemed “inferior,” whip up a non-class smokescreen to hide its real class character, and thus deflect mass outrage. They are able to create scapegoats, making it acceptable to additionally oppress certain sections of the people through hate speech, discriminatory practices, armed attacks or pogroms, plunder of resources and further marginalization amounting to genocide or ethnocide.
All-out propaganda. Regimes with fascist mindets also exert the utmost effort to maximize all the repulsive tricks in the propaganda playbook as practiced in Nazi Germany and updated in the Cold War and post-Cold War programs of the CIA, Pentagon, FBI, and the KGB as well. These include a vast diversity of disinformation tactics, including censorship, outright lies, blackmail, false-flag operations, and other tricks popularized as “Cointelpro.”
In the field of culture, they tirelessly justify fascist ideology and politics through distorted theories of ethics and morality, mythologized “history,” and falsified science. In earlier generations, the clerico-fascists used their own propaganda playbook, as epitomized by the Opus Dei and methods dating back to the Inquisition. Today, the phenomenal expansion and monopoly-capitalist control over digital mass media, the Internet, and technologies for artificial intelligence, virtual reality and deep-fakes, have multiplied a thousand-fold the extent and impacts of imperialist-fascist propaganda. # [Back to Part 1] [Continue to Part 3]