|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
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
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
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
where both countries suffered greatly in the 1930’s and both had vociferous
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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