August Thalheimer

On Fascism

Published: 1930
Source: What’s Next magazine
Transcription\HTML Markup: What’s Next magazine, additional copyediting by Martin Falhgren in 2012
Copyleft: August Thalheimer ( 2012. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0

This piece was originally written in 1928 as a policy document for the Communist International, from which the author was expelled soon afterwards because of his opposition to the Comintern’s then ultra-left policies. It was published in 1930 in Gegen den Strom, theoretical journal of the Communist Party of Germany (Opposition) – KPD(O) – of which Thalheimer was a leader, along with Heinrich Brandler. The translation is a substantially revised version of an original kindly supplied by Mike Jones.


The best starting point for an investigation of fascism is, in my opinion, the analysis of Bonapartism (Louis Bonaparte) by Marx and Engels. It should be taken for granted that I do not equate fascism and Bonapartism. But they are related phenomena, having both common and divergent features, both of which require elaboration.

I begin with a quote from the Preface to the Eighteenth Brumaire by Marx, which reads:

“Lastly, I hope that my work will contribute towards eliminating the school-taught phrase now current, particularly in Germany, of so-called Caesarism.

Marx then points to the fundamental difference between the modern and the ancient proletariat, from which it follows that ancient Caesarism and modern Bonapartism are, in class terms, totally different things.[1]

Marx stresses the need for a specific class analysis.

But not only that. Besides the analysis of the social and historical class roots of Bonapartism, he sees as a result not only the presence of specific classes in a given society, but also a specific relationship between these classes in a specific historical situation, a relationship that is historically created and will therefore be dissolved historically. He investigates extremely precisely Bonapartism’s political manifestations, its ideological roots and expressions, together with its state and party organisation. Marx shows in detail how the French bourgeoisie after 1848-49, faced with the uprising of the working class in the June battle, surrenders its political existence in order to save its social existence and abandons itself to the dictatorship of an adventurer and his gang.

He says:

“Thus, by now stigmatising as ‘socialistic’ what it had previously extolled as ‘liberal’, the bourgeoisie confesses that its own interests dictate that it should be delivered from the danger of its own rule; that, in order to restore tranquility in the country, its bourgeois parliament must, first of all, be laid to rest; that, in order to preserve its social power intact, its political power must be broken; that the individual bourgeois can continue to exploit the other classes and to enjoy undisturbed property, family, religion and order only on condition that their class be condemned along with the other classes to similar political nullity: that, in order to save its purse, it must forfeit the crown, and the sword that is to safeguard it must at the same time be hung over its own head as a sword of Damocles.” .[2]

The bourgeoisie is thus one of the social foundations of Bonapartism, but in order to save its social existence in a specific historical situation it abandons its political power – it subordinates itself to the “executive authority which has made itself an independent power”. .[3] The other deep and broad social root of “the independence of the executive authority” and the dictatorship of Bonaparte and his “gang” is the small-holding peasant (the small and very small farmer), and not the revolutionary but on the contrary the conservative peasant, that is, not the one who rebels against bourgeois property relations, but the one who wants to preserve and defend his rural private property in the face of the threatening proletarian revolution. This defence, this protection, cannot be accomplished by the peasantry itself because of its economic and social diversity, and its lack of economic and social organisation.

“In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating parliament and society to itself.” .[4]

As for the working class, it contributes to the emergence of Bonapartism when it has launched a revolutionary assault on bourgeois society, has driven it into a state of fear and horror, but has proved not yet capable of seizing and holding power itself. A serious defeat for the proletariat in a deep social crisis is thus one of the preconditions of Bonapartism. On the other hand, Bonapartism is split into different sections and parties. The division of the bourgeoisie, the emergence of contradictions between its various strata, is for its part again a result of the defeat of the working class (and consequently that of the petty bourgeoisie). The executive power now appears to the bourgeoisie as the long awaited representative of the common interests of its separate strata, who are incapable of creating this unity themselves.

This viewpoint is stressed particularly by Friedrich Engels, when he says later, in the introduction toThe Civil War in France:

“If the proletariat was not yet able to rule France, the bourgeoisie could no longer do so. At least not at that period, when the greater part of it was still monarchically inclined, and it was divided into three dynastic parties and a fourth, republican party. Its internal dissensions allowed the adventurer, Louis Bonaparte, to take possession of all the commanding points – army, police, administrative machinery – and on December 2, 1851, to explode the last stronghold of the bourgeoisie, the National Assembly.” .[5]


In his posthumously published essay on “Power and Economics in the Establishment of the New German Reich”, Friedrich Engels also expresses himself on the contradiction between the preservation of the bourgeoisie’s social domination, with the help of Louis Bonaparte, and the destruction of its political domination.

“Louis Napoleon”, says Engels here, “was now the idol of the European bourgeoisie. Not only because he had ‘saved society’ on December 2, 1851, when he destroyed the political rule of the bourgeoisie, it is true, but only in order to save its social rule.” .[6]

And the social content of Louis Bonaparte’s rule in relation to the bourgeoisie is characterised by Engels in the following way:

“As Emperor he not only made politics serve the interests of capitalist profits and stock exchange machinations, but also pursued politics entirely according to the rules of the stock exchange and speculated on the ‘nationalities principle’.” .[7]

In the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx provides, moreover, an analysis of the mechanism of Louis Bonaparte’s rule, its organisational support and methods. It is first and foremost Louis Bonaparte’s secret party organisation, the “Society of December 10”. What is its social composition? It is first the “lumpenproletariat of Paris ... organised into secret sections ... with a Bonapartist general at the head”. Then there are declassed bourgeois elements, “decayed roués ... gamblers ... literati” etc. In addition, declassed nobility. Finally, declassed elements from the countryside.

Marx sums up all this under the description “;la bohème”. .[8] Thus it is declassed elements of all classes from whom Louis Bonaparte founds his characteristic party organisation, and whom he gathers around himself as trustees and officials, etc. This, of course, is not by chance, but is in the nature of things. Economically and socially rootless elements, parasites from all classes who are excluded from direct production, are the natural material, the natural tools of the “independent executive authority”. In this social rubbish specific class characteristics are erased. They are free of ideological, etc, ties to the particular class whose rubbish they are, insofar as they can rise above them and manoeuvre between them. On the other hand, they show not the revolutionary, but the counter-revolutionary abolition of these class characteristics, the negation of bourgeois class principles which remains within these principles. For example, the thief carries out the abolition of bourgeois property on the basis of bourgeois property. He abolishes others’ private property by establishing it for himself, that is, individually. The well known phrase of Proudhon, “La propriété c’est le vol”, “Property is theft”, is equally applicable in reverse, “Le vol c’est la propriété”, “Theft is property”. And so these declassed elements from all classes are at the same time flesh of the flesh, bone of the bone of private property and bourgeois society, and thus are capable, while they destroy its political domination, of defending and protecting its social domination against the class or classes that represent the revolutionary abolition of bourgeois society, the social abolition of individual bourgeois property, namely the industrial proletariat and the proletarianised sections of the peasantry.

Economically, these declassed elements, parasites from all classes, have a natural urge to secure for themselves a source of existence in the machinery of government and in the Bonapartist party machine. That is the cause of the huge expansion of the apparatus of the independent executive authority.

From this viewpoint it is also worth looking more closely at the military component of the Bonapartist state apparatus. This also displays its own characteristic social features, and in connection with this military-organisational features too.

Let us once again hear Marx on this:

“Lastly, the culminating point of the ‘ idées napoléoniennes’ is the preponderence of the army. The army was the point d’honneur of the small-holding peasants, it was they themselves transformed into heroes, defending their new possessions against the outer world, glorifying their recently won nationhood, plundering and revolutionising the world. The uniform was their own state dress; war was their poetry; the smallholding, extended and rounded off in imagination, was their fatherland, and patriotism the ideal form of their sense of property. But the enemies against whom the French peasant now has to defend his property are not the Cossacks; they are the huissiers [bailiffs] and the tax collectors. The smallholding lies no longer in the so-called fatherland, but in the register of mortgages. The army itself is no longer the flower of the peasant youth; it is the swamp-flower of the peasant lumpenproletariat. It consists in large measure of remplašants, of substitutes, just as the second Bonaparte is himself only a remplašant, the substitute for Napoleon. It now performs its deeds of valour by hunting down the peasants like chamois, and in organised drives, by doing gendarme duty, and if the internal contradictions of his system chase the chief of the Society of December 10 over the French border, his army, after some acts of brigandage, will reap, not laurels, but thrashings.” .[9]

This Bonapartist army consists of declassed elements from the countryside. For them service in the army is a job, compensation for their lost or unattainable smallholding. They are for the most part professional soldiers with many years’ service, to be employed for whatever counter-revolutionary purpose, but militarily they are an unreliable element, since they do not want to die for their pay, but to live. Detached from their class base they are the natural instrument of power for the “independent executive authority”, which aims to reinforce and deepen their opposition to the mass of the people. Here corruption must eat deeper still. So, at the same time, they are the worst imaginable tool for defending the national existence in a serious foreign war. Marx’s prediction concerning the defeat of the Bonapartist army in 1870-71 was rooted in his profound and incisive class analysis of this army.

Finally, Marx identifies the role of the Bonapartist tradition, of the Napoleonic legend, in Louis Bonaparte’s rule. The strength of the Napoleonic legend is due to a combination of three factors: first, the national: the lustre of glory from the Napoleonic wars; secondly the revolutionary: the struggle against foreign European feudalism, as well as the defence of the revolutionary conquests in agrarian property against the French feudal lords, the emigrants, who in alliance with the feudalists of Europe threatened the peasants’ smallholdings; thirdly the subordination of the bourgeoisie to the revolutionary army and its hero Napoleon: the removal of their political rights and the taming of their exploitative desires.

Finally, Marx shows the inner contradictions of the Bonapartist system, which erode it and must in the end lead to its disintegration:

“As the executive authority which has made itself an independent power, Bonaparte feels it to be his mission to safeguard ‘bourgeois order’. But the strength of this bourgeois order lies in the middle class. He looks on himself, therefore, as the representative of the middle class and issues decrees in this sense. Nevertheless, he is somebody solely due to the fact that he has broken the political power of this middle class and daily breaks it anew. Consequently, he looks on himself as the adversary of the political and literary power of the middle class. But by protecting its material power, he generates its political power anew. The cause must accordingly be kept alive; but the effect, where it manifests itself, must be done away with. But this cannot pass off without slight confusions of cause and effect, since in their interaction both lose their distinguishing features. New decrees that obliterate the border line. As against the bourgeoisie, Bonaparte looks on himself, at the same time, as the representative of the peasants and of the people in general, who wants to make the lower classes of the people happy within the framework of bourgeois society. New decrees that cheat the ‘true Socialists’ of their statecraft in advance. But, above all, Bonaparte looks on himself as the chief of the Society of December 10, as the representative of the lumpen-proletariat, to which he himself, his entourage, his government and his army belong, and whose prime consideration is to benefit itself and draw California lottery prizes from the state treasury. And he vindicates his position as chief of the Society of December 10 with decrees, without decrees and despite decrees.” .[10]


In The Civil War in France, we find summarised the characterisation and view of Bonapartism or “imperialism” (not in its modern sense) as a form of bourgeois state power in a particular situation of bourgeois class society.

Marx says here:

“The empire, with the coup d’état for its certificate of birth, universal suffrage for its sanction, and the sword for its sceptre, professed to rest upon the peasantry, the large mass of producers not directly involved in the struggle of capital and labour. It professed to save the working class by breaking down Parliamentarism, and, with it, the undisguised subserviency of Government to the propertied classes. It professed to save the propertied classes by upholding their economic supremacy over the working class; and, finally, it professed to unite all classes by reviving for all the chimera of national glory. In reality, it was the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation. It was acclaimed throughout the world as the saviour of society. Under its sway, bourgeois society, freed from political cares, attained a development unexpected even by itself. Its industry and commerce expanded to colossal dimensions; financial swindling celebrated cosmopolitan orgies; the misery of the masses was set off by a shameless display of gorgeous, meretricious, and debased luxury. The State power, apparently soaring high above society, was at the same time itself the greatest scandal of that society and the very hotbed of all its corruptions. Its own rottenness, and the rottenness of the society it had saved, were laid bare by the bayonet of Prussia, herself eagerly bent upon transferring the supreme seat of that réégime from Paris to Berlin. Imperialism is, at the same time, the most prostitute and the ultimate form of the State power which nascent middle-class society had commenced to elaborate as a means of its own emancipation from feudalism, and which full-grown bourgeois society had finally transformed into a means for the enslavement of labour by capital.” .[11]

This passage is of the greatest importance, especially for an insight into the essence of fascism.

Here Marx draws out the general, international features of Bonapartism or imperialism. He disregards the specific French features and takes it to be a typical manifestation, a typical form of state power in capitalist society at a particular stage of its development. According to him it is the “ultimate”, that is, the last form of bourgeois state power, that form which the state power assumes in fully developed bourgeois society, the most prostituted, that is, the most degenerate, rotten form. Put another way, this form of state power, with which bourgeois society comes to an end, is its last refuge before the proletarian revolution, and at the same time its downfall, because it is its most extreme form of corruption.

Here the reader stops short. Has not the Marxist analysis reached a dead end here? Is “Bonapartism” or “imperialism” (in its older sense) to be the last form ot bourgeois state power? But, he will immediately reply, was it not in France itself in 1870, following the fall of the Bonapartist system in the aftermath of Sedan, and after the short interval of the Commune, that the Third Republic replaced it? Purely chronologically, he will conclude, Bonapartism is not the “ultimate” or last form of bourgeois state power. In the case of France, anyway, it is the bourgeois parliamentary republic. Besides, he will ask, if Bonapartism is the last and most rotten form of bourgeois state power, what then is fascism? Furthermore, he will ask whether Bonapartism will be the form of state for “fully developed bourgeois domination”? But capitalism in the France of Louis Bonaparte still found itself at the stage of free competition. Since then capitalism has reached a new higher level, that of monopoly, in France as well. Certainly imperialist capitalism can be described as the “most developed” bourgeois domination with much more justification than the pre-capitalist. But where is Bonapartism in this context? Or if we good-naturedly permit ourselves to be persuaded to regard the fascist state form as a modern equivalent of Bonapartism, then the fascist state form does not predominate in the most developed capitalist countries, in the United States, in England, in Germany, in France. The state form here is the bourgeois parliamentary republic, with the crown as an external decoration in the case of England. The fascist state form predominates in precisely those countries which certainly do not stand at the peak of capitalist development. In Italy, which with regard to capitalist development surely lags far behind the above-named countries, with a higher percentage of rural population than the above-mentioned states, and with strong elements of feudalism (above all in Sicily) still remaining in agriculture. In Poland, in Bulgaria, countries with weak industry, a predominantly rural population – in capitalist terms, backward. This applies even more to Spain.

This accumulation of contradictions is, however, precisely suited to show us the profundity and incisiveness of the Marxist analysis, to reveal its innermost kernel, and thereby also to find the key to the essence of fascism.

Looked at superficially or chronologically, it is clear from the facts cited that Bonapartism cannot be regarded as the “ultimate” state form for bourgeois society. Neither is it a simple function of the degree of development of bourgeois society. In that case the Marxist analysis could have been criticised even at the time, for in the years 1850-70, compared with France, England was undoubtedly much further developed capitalistically and with far greater justice could be described as the country of “fully developed bourgeois domination”. It follows that the solution is clear.

The decisive thing is the totality of class relations in a given country, in a given society. Bonapartism, the independence of the executive power, is the “ultimate” and at the same time the most rotten form of bourgeois state power, at the stage when this bourgeois society has come under the greatest threat from the onslaught of the proletarian revolution, and when the bourgeoisie has exhausted its strength in repelling this onslaught, when all classes lie enfeebled and prostrated on the ground, and the bourgeoisie is seeking the strongest fortification for its social domination. Thus, Bonapartism is a form of bourgeois state power in a situation of defence, fortification and reinforcement against the proletarian revolution. It is a form of the open dictatorship of capital. The other form, a closely related form, is the fascistic state form. The common denominator is the open dictatorship of capital. Their form of appearance is the independence of the executive power, destruction of the political domination of the bourgeoisie and the subordination of all the rest of the social classes to the executive. But their social and class content is the complete domination of the bourgeoisie and the owners of private property over the working class and all other classes exploited by capitalism.

Bonapartism is the “ultimate” form of bourgeois state power, in so far as it is a form of open capitalist dictatorship, and in so far as the open capitalist dictatorship arises when bourgeois society, having reached the edge of the grave, is mortally threatened by the proletarian revolution. This is also the essence of fascism: a form of open capitalist dictatorship.

Here one must apply a most important correction. It concerns only one short word. Instead of saying that fascism is the open dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, we must put: it is a form.

In its theses for the second party conference, on the Italian situation and the tasks of the party, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Italy gives the following definition of fascism:

“What is fascism? We have defined fascism as an attempt to stabilise Italian capitalism, that is to say, capitalism in an overwhelmingly agricultural country, endowed with raw materials and foreign markets and a large home market.... The forms of capitalist stabilisation are different from country to country and correspond to the economic structure and size of the wealth of the different countries.... Fascism does not represent a progressive step in Italian capitalism. It has only developed new forms of industrial organisation (trusts, etc) and bank organisation (centralisation of issuing banks), but these new forms still serve the traditional political economy of Italy’s ruling class, and are furthermore a means whereby, under new conditions, these new policies are continued and made more complex.

“Therefore, fascism represents a higher form of capitalist state organisation, a type of organisation through which the state fuses with the leading groups of capitalism, and it involves itself in the process of production, after it has concentrated and consolidated its forces.” .[12]

The shortcoming of this definition is that it gives prominence to the social content of fascism not to its particular political form, its character as a specific form of bourgeois state power. The stabilisation of capitalism in Germany and Italy has essentially the same economic and social content; by contrast, the forms of state power under which the one and the other take place are different. Thus, for a conception of fascism, it is the form of state power that is the specific difference, the distinguishing feature.

The same applies to Bonapartism. Formally, the correction appears insignificant, but in terms of content it is of far-reaching importance.

Let us now apply this solution to the past. That fascism is a species, a type, of the “ultimate form of bourgeois state power” is proved by the Commune. The collapse of Bonapartism was followed by the proletarian revolution. Though it was defeated before long, the French proletariat certainly succeeded in maintaining its rule for a few months, but it could not yet manage to hold onto it. However, Bonapartism was unable to re-establish itself. The catastrophic external defeat of Bonapartism by Germany had razed the Napoleonic legend to the ground. Added to this were the effects of the corruption of the system. Its internal contradictions had resulted in such an outcome, above all in regard to the bourgeoisie. The material strengthening which Bonapartism had to provide the bourgeoisie, while it refused political power, had for its part led to its political strengthening . Once it had become master over the Commune, it now was able and wanted to exercise direct political rule too. The peasantry likewise had been politically strengthened. It wanted its share of power. Louis Bonaparte had brought it war; it wanted peace. But the working class, in the Commune revolt, had just shown its increased power and maturity compared with 1848. It was clear to the bourgeoisie, after many years of efforts by the Bonapartist regime, that the working class could not be suppressed by open dictatorship. Now, after they had been defeated, they could be granted the illusion of bourgeois democracy. And, finally, the defeat of the “substitutes” of the Bonapartist army, the professional soldiers, made it clear to the French bourgeoisie that the army would have to be established on another organisational basis, namely a real implementation of general conscription, and a reduction in the length of service, in order to draw in not only the rural lumpenproletariat but all the popular masses who were liable for military service. But without a Bonapartist army there can be no Bonapartism as a form of state power.

The result was the bourgeois-parliamentary republic, the state form for the materially and politically strengthened bourgeoisie, and at the same time for the strengthened working class as well.

Louis Bonaparte’s most important base within the bourgeoisie was not the old banking and finance aristocracy (which had dominated under the citizen-king Louis Philippe), but the young aspiring industrial bourgeoisie, still weak and without traditions, lacking political education and a solid party formation. They were not yet in a position to rule for themselves. Louis Bonaparte, the parvenu and adventurer, was the natural protector of this parvenue bourgeoisie. The military collapse of Louis Bonaparte, together with their material strengthening in the period 1850-70, created the preconditions for their political independence in the Third Republic. The military thrashing with which Louis Bonaparte’s rule came to an end was a drastic political lesson for them. (With the German bourgeoisie, too, it has proved that military defeats possess some educational value politically. The blows that Bismarck’s Germany dealt to Louis Bonaparte in 1870-71 finished off Bonapartism, but France revenged itself for them in the World War, when the defeat that it inflicted on Hohenzollern Germany in league with the allies brought down the Hohenzollern-Bismarckian regime and placed the Prussian-German big bourgeoisie directly in the saddle. It is not just defeated commanders who learn well; defeated classes do so too.)

Thus, in accordance with their nature, the forms of open dictatorship of the bourgeoisie are not a single phenomenon: they are bound up with a specific overall relationship between the classes, and they periodically recur, whenever this relationship recurs – and it will do so, so long as the collapse of this or that form of capitalist dictatorship does not make the rule of the working class permanent, as a result of which this cycle, at least for the country in question, will be brought to an end.

From what has already been said, it is clear why the open dictatorship of the bourgeoisie was not introduced in England after 1848-49. England was too strong, both socially and politically. The Chartist mobilisation of 1848 was only an insignificant episode, which demonstrated the powerlessness of the British working class to seriously shake bourgeois society. That was also why – to come to the present – Germany in 1923 saw the victory not of of fascism, which collapsed pathetically at the first test, but of the big bourgeoisie, which reinforced its direct political domination in the shape of the bourgeois-parliamentary republic. That is also why there is no fascist form of state power today in the USA, in England, or in France.


We now come to the present-day form of the open dictatorship of the bourgeoisie in Italy, the fascist state. Unmistakeably, it has essential features in common with the Bonapartist form of dictatorship: once again there is “the independence of the executive power”, the political subjugation of all the masses, including the bourgeoisie itself, beneath the fascist state power, along with the social domination of the big bourgeoisie and large landlords. Fascism, like Bonapartism, wants to be the joint benefactor of all classes: thus the constant setting of one class against another, the constant movement of its internal contradictions. The apparatus of power has the same features too. The fascist party is a counterpart to Louis Bonaparte’s “December gang”. Its social composition: the declassed of all classes, the nobility, bourgeoisie, urban petty bourgeoisie, peasantry and workers. As far as the working class is concerned, declassed elements from two opposite poles are brought together: from below, the lumpenproletariat; from “above”, sections of the labour aristocracy and bureaucracy, and of the reformist trades unions and parties. The affinity also applies to the armed forces. The fascist militia is, in social terms, a counterpart to the Bonapartist army. Like the latter, it is the source of existence for declassed elements. In Italy, there exists alongside it an army based on general conscription. It has no counterpart in France. Its existence alongside the fascist militia corresponds to the necessary organisation of the armed forces under conditions of imperialism, where a professional or mercenary army alone is seen to be insufficient and a mass army based on the widest extension of military service is demanded.

Likewise there is an accordance in the state of the class struggle, from which here the Bonapartist, there the fascist form of state power arises. In the case of Italian fascism, as with Bonapartism, there was an unsuccessful revolt of the proletariat, a consequent disappointment among the working class, and an exhausted, confused and prostrated bourgeoisie looking for a saviour who would reinforce their social power. There is an accordance in ideology too. Its main methods are the “national” idea, the pretence of a struggle against parliamentary and bureaucratic corruption, theatrical thundering against capital, etc. Finally, there are related features in the “hero” of the coup d’état.

Friedrich Engels stresses the following features of the hero of the coup d’état which enable him to play that role:

“‘A dyed in the wool’, Carbonari conspirator in Italy, an artillery officer in Switzerland, a debt-burdened tramp of distinction and special constable in England, yet constantly and everywhere a pretender to the throne.” .[13]

The bourgeoisie, he continues, sees in him, the first “great statesman”, the flesh of their flesh – he is, like them, an upstart.14 Mussolini likewise is an upstart, the son of a bricklayer. Corresponding to the changed times, an upstart from the working class is now more suitable than one from the minor nobility, like Bonaparte. Louis Bonaparte’s activity with the Italian Carbonari corresponds to Mussolini’s activity within the Italian social democracy. These days the journey through social democracy is altogether obligatory for the “great statesmen” and saviours of society for the bourgeoisie. Most recently the journey through communism is also appropriate: see China. In Mussolini’s case, as in Bonaparte’s, there were long years of emigration, of poverty. In certain natures this experience sharpens the hunger for power and wealth, gives a keener insight into people, strengthens the will and creates the necessary adaptability. Under certain objective and subjective conditions, this produces staunch and experienced revolutionaries – under other conditions, the ‘dyed in the wool’ cynical counter-revolutionary coup d’étatist.

There are the internal contradictions between the material and social strengthening of the bourgeoisie, and its political suppression. There is the appearance of the material interests of the proletariat being protected, while in reality it is handed over to capital. There is the fascist state as “mediator” between bourgeoisie and working class, which as such must continually involve it in practical contradictions. The same applies in relation to the peasants and petty bourgeois. Fascism and Bonapartism have promised bourgeois society “order and security”. But to prove their indispensability as permanent “saviours of society”, they must depict society as continually under threat, resulting in continual anxiety and insecurity. The material interests of the bourgeoisie and peasantry demand thriftiness as regards state expenditure, an “economical regime”. The material interest of the gangs of parasites, represented by the fascist party organisation, the fascist state and local civil servants, and the fascist militia, demand the opposite: a continual extension and enrichment of the machinery of the fascist state and party. Therefore there are alternating infringements of the two interests. Each reining in of the fascist gang to ensure bourgeois “peace and order” and economic stability, must be promptly compensated for by a new license for terrorist excesses, plundering, etc.

The internal contradictions, together with the national-imperialist ideology, force the dictator into campaigns abroad, and finally to war. But here the Italian counterpart to Louis Bonaparte not only comes up against the old contradiction that due to its internal function and its social composition the military instrument of domestic rule, in this case the national militia, has been rendered unfit as a tool of imperialist conquest against states that so far have not found it necessary to confer on themselves the “most prostituted” of all forms of bourgeois state power, but he also confronts the additional contradiction between the privileged fascist troops and the regular army.

What are the essential differences between Bonapartism and fascism?

They are both locally conditioned – through local differences in class relations, historical traditions, etc. In France and Italy they are rooted partly in changes in the general character of bourgeois society and of the capitalist system.

Conditioned by the local historic tradition it is natural that in France, on the basis of the Napoleonic legend and the role it plays among the peasantry, the dictator appears as “emperor”; in Italy he has to make do with the role of “Duce” and allow the crown to exist alongside him. Instead of the Napoleonic masquerade, we have the ancient Roman, Sullan and Caesarian, which is however more artificial than the first mentioned. These differences are, however, crucial.

More important, however, are the differences which originate in the change of the general character of capitalism. The third Napoleon still operated in the age of free-competition capitalism and of the incompleted bourgeois revolution in Italy and Germany. The revolutionary legal-title, which had been an advantage to Napoleon for a certain period, and which he tried to exploit, now worked against him. During the Italian war he attracted the Italian liberation movement, only to immediately repel it again, as after a short attempt he left it in the lurch to undertake his dynastic conquests. In the German-French war he conflicted directly with German’s revolutionary interest in national unity and was crushed by it. The dynastic wars of conquest he had to wage, driven by the Napoleonic legend and the internal contradictions of the system were then out of step with the times: too late, when he was no longer the champion of any revolutionary principle, too early when, lacking the suitable economic base, he could not yet be a champion of the imperialist principle. By contrast, Mussolini’s foreign policy has from the very start had an imperialist basis and an imperialist orientation – in the modern sense of the word. Thus it “corresponds to the times”, even if it has an ancient mask, but it is openly reactionary from the start. It must wreck itself against the contradiction between the extravagant aims it sets itself and the poor means for carrying them through, on the one hand, and, on the other, against the contradiction between the form and social structure of a military organisation corresponding to the need to subjugate all classes in society and to live at their expense, and the very different requirements of imperialist warfare.

A further difference, which is conditioned by the general development of bourgeois society and the level of the international class struggle, appears in the organisational basis and methods of the fascist state power. Louis Bonaparte’s “December gang” was the counterpart of the small secret revolutionary organisation of the French working class at that time. The fascist party is the counter-revolutionary counterpart of the Communist Party of the Soviet Russia. Thus it is from the start a broad mass organisation, in contrast to Louis Bonaparte’s. This makes it stronger in certain respects, but also increases its internal contradictions, the contradictions between the social interests of these masses and the interests of the ruling classes that it exists to serve.

Let us also briefly deal with fascism in Poland. Here too the basis for Pilsudski’s fascist dictatorship is a defeated revolutionary attack from the side of the proletariat (the Polish-Russian war of 1920), and on the other side the weakness, prostration and disunity of the native bourgeoisie, which was incapable of acting together, even to achieve stabilisation. The counter-revolutionary interest of the bourgeoisie and large landlords is the social basis of the fascist state power in Poland; fascism easily grasped how to take advantage of the disappointment of the peasant masses with the past sabotage of agrarian reform, even though its politics clearly serve the interests of the big landlords and the upper layer of the peasantry.

The “hero” of the coup d’état bases himself ideologically on the tradition of the national-revolutionary liberation struggle, and organisationally on the legionnaires, on their disappointment with the result of the national liberation struggle – bourgeois rottenness – and on their economic need for employment, which cannot be satisfied within the sphere of production. Thus the declassed from all classes serve as material for the fascist army. The party organisation is composed of renegades from all parties, who are led by the marshall’s adjutants, former terrorists and legionnaires.

In Poland, however, another factor plays a role also, which is decisive in Spain and a series of other countries, where the “fascist state power” compares only superficially to Italian fascism and French Bonapartism, while its class nature is fundamentally different.

To illustrate the extreme cases of such regimes I take the form of state power in the South American republics. Here too the army is the bearer of political power, the “independent” executive power. Ordinary changes in political course are effected by military putsches, which in spite of being outwardly violent, are in no way revolutionary, as they change nothing fundamentally in respect of the existing power relations between the classes.

Here the military dictatorship, the independence of the executive power, is not the product of “fully developed bourgeois society”, of its over-ripeness, its accentuation through the proletarian revolution and the necessity for bourgeois society finally to defend itself against this, but exactly the opposite. For it is here that the immaturity of bourgeois development, the numerical and organisational weakness of the bourgeoisie, which still faces feudal landlord elements, does not yet allow the emergence of a strong political organisation of the bourgeoisie. The army, or more correctly its officer corps, is here the most solid and best developed political organisation. In the place of the bourgeoisie it exercises the rule which the bourgeoisie can not yet exercise. In the case of Bonapartism and Italian fascism, in the given situation of the class struggle the bourgeoisie can no longer exercise it.

Thus, behind the same outward appearance of fascism (as in Spain) are concealed totally different class relations, levels of class struggle and levels of development of bourgeois society.

Without a concrete class analysis, one can thus fall both theoretically and practically into the greatest errors here.

Our Italian comrades, if I am informed correctly, have raised the question of whether the fascist form of state power will be immediately followed by the proletarian dictatorship or whether it will be replaced by one or another form of bourgeois state power, for example a bourgeois-democratic parliamentary republic. The answer to this has already been given by Lenin at the Second Congress of the Communist International. To the question as to whether the post-war crisis of capitalism must inevitably lead to the socialist revolution, Lenin replied, as is well known, that this could not be answered theoretically. That would be mere playing with words, scholastics. Only the real struggle could provide the answer. The task of the communist parties consisted in making the best possible preparations for it. The same answer applies to the end of Bonapartism. One or another form of the open dictatorship of capital in a fully developed bourgeois society will be the “final” or last form of bourgeois state power only if the working class of the country is strong enough as a leader of the other labouring classes to take advantage of the crisis of this regime and establish a lasting proletarian dictatorship. That will be decided in struggle. And this will be decided by a combination of objective and the subjective factors: the real power and maturity of the working class, its relationship to the other labouring classes, the state of the international class struggle and not least the strength, maturity and capacity for struggle of the communist party of the country in question.

Another question is whether, after the fall of fascism in Italy, the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship can follow directly, without an intermediate phase. As is well known, in France, after the fall of Bonapartism on 4 September 1870, the republic with Thiers, Favre & Co. followed as the intermediate phase, with Legitimists and Orleanists, the bourgeoisie and the junkers at its head. Only after this had collapsed came the Commune, the 18 March 1871. The interlude of the bourgeois republic, when the bourgeois-democratic elements come to power for a while, is also possible on the same basis in Italy, even probable. It could last for months, weeks, only days even. It could take the form of dual power or other peculiar forms. But, in accordance with historical experience and the relationship of classes in Italy, a certain passage of time and certain mass experiences will be necessary, in order that petty bourgeois democratic illusions and hopes among the great mass of the petty bourgeoisie, peasantry and also sections of the working class may be destroyed. Whether such an intermediate phase occurs or is bypassed will not be at the pleasure of the Communist Party. It is in any case to a high degree dependent on how strong the positions of power held by the working class are at the moment when fascism falls, and how quickly the intermediate stage is completed.

A further conclusion we can draw from previous events is that the open dictatorship of capital in other countries, such as Poland, Italy and Bulgaria, can assume other forms, which are more likely in these countries. Certain features will be the same, others different. To establish them theoretically beforehand is impossible. But the forms of the open dictatorship of the bourgeoisie are not arbitrary, are not possible in any situation in the class struggle and in any structure of class relations. They are tied to quite specific class relations and situations in the class struggle, which have been indicated above.

Today there is a fairly general attempt by the bourgeoisie in the fully developed capitalist countries to dismantle and restrict the parliamentary system, to create stronger political guarantees for the domination of the bourgeoisie. Such tendencies are to be seen above all in such advanced capitalist countries as England, Germany and France, which as a result of the war have been to a greater or lesser extent shaken socially and economically. The movement is in the direction of fascism, and in critical situations it can lead to forms of the open dictatorship of capital. But these need not be identical to those of fascism.

In this connection, it is also necessary to be clear about the following. The undermining of the bourgeois-parliamentary regime takes place step by step. And the bourgeoisie itself is the main agent in this. Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire describes this process precisely in its individual stages. The establishment of the open dictatorship itself can, however, only occur through a leap, a putsch or a coup d’état, in which the bourgeoisie itself is the passive element. It is their task to create the conditions through which they can be “saved” socially and raped politically. But the rape itself is carried out by the hero of the putsch or coup d’état. The individual or the organisation for this purpose can always be found when the need arises. The appropriate organisations are promoted by the bourgeoisie itself either actively or passively.

The Noske regime in Germany was without doubt a regime of openly counter-revolutionary force. But the form of state power was not fascist. The Noske experiment was no “independence of the executive power”. By establishing rule by the sword, it led to an attempt in that direction. But this attempt by the military executive power, the Kapp Putsch, was a failure.

Editorial Notes

1. Marx, Preface to the Second Edition of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in Marx-Engels, Collected Works,Vol.21, 1985, pp.57-8.

2. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Marx-Engels, Collected Works,Vol.11, 1979, pp.142-3.

3. Ibid., p.194.

4. Ibid., pp.187-8.

5. Engels, Introduction to Marx, The Civil War in France, in Marx-Engels, Collected Works,Vol.27, 1990, p.182.

6. Engels, The Role of Force in History, in Marx-Engels, Collected Works,Vol.26, 1990, p.461. Engels’ pamphlet was first published during 1895-6 as a series of articles in the German social democratic journal Neue Zeit under the title “Gewalt und Íkonomie bei der Herstellung des neuen Deutschen Reichs”.

7. Ibid., pp.462.

8. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte , op.cit., p.148-9.

9. Ibid., p.192-3.

10. Ibid, p.194.

11. Marx, The Civil War in France, in Marx-Engels, Collected Works,Vol.22, 1986, p.330.

12. Lo stato operaio, March 1928.

13. Engels, The Role of Force in History, op.cit., pp.461-2.

14. Ibid., p.461.