Chris Harman


The beast is back

(February 1994)

Thinking It Through, Socialist Review, No.172, February 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Fortunately, it is not just voting figures that matter for fascist parties ... they need an active mass movement behind them capable of penetrating every pore of society.

Russian fascism not yet in uniform

Russian fascism not yet in uniform

Two years ago most of the liberal media and a good chunk of the left internationally dismissed concern about the rise of fascist parties as ‘paranoia’. That’s much less true today. The wave of racist murders in Germany, the 30 percent vote for the neo-fascists in Southern Italy, the victory of the openly Nazi British National Party in the Isle of Dogs council by-election in east London, above all the sudden successes for Zhirinovsky in Russia, have served to bring home to people the real threat of a rerun of the 1930s, although at a slower pace.

Even the French far left organisation Lutte Ouvrière, which continues to insist Le Pen is not a threat and is not fascist, feels compelled to warn against complacency about the rise of the fascist MSI in Italy (as if, somehow, the MSI and Le Pen are completely different animals).

In general, recognition of the threat posed by the rise of fascist parties and groups is a great step forward. It is a precondition for beginning to draw people together to fight back against them. But it is also necessary to understand the fascists’ weaknesses, otherwise panic and paralysis can obstruct the fightback. It is important to note differences as well as similarities between the growth of the fascist organisations today and in the interwar years.

The fascists’ vote today often reaches heights comparable with those they gained shortly before they took power in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1921 general election in Italy Mussolini got 7 percent of the total vote. In the 1932 German presidential elections Hitler got 36.8 percent. Both were in power within a year. The Italian fascists already get more than a third of the vote in the major cities of the South. Zhirinovsky got 24 percent of the Russian vote in December. The Indian BJP got a third of the votes in the major state elections last year. The French and German fascists may not be doing as well as this. Yet with around 14 percent of the vote, Le Pen’s National Front is doing as well as Hitler was in 1930, and the 8 percent of the vote which the far right Republikaner share with smaller fascist parties in Germany puts them well ahead of Hitler in 1928, when he got 2.8 percent.

Fortunately, it is not just voting figures that matter for fascist parties. Their perspective for gaining power rests on two other interconnected things.

First, they need an active mass movement behind them capable of penetrating every pore of society. Only that can give them the means to counter other social forces, especially the organised working class which is capable of blocking their totalitarian schemes. They need more than votes. They need supporters also prepared to face up to the risks involved in smashing resistance in every street, every housing estate, every factory, every office and every school.

That was why Mussolini’s party was built out of armed, blackshirted ‘squads’ which were attacking demonstrations, burning down union halls, breaking strikes and beating up opponents long before he formed his government. That is why Hitler had built up a force of 100,000 stormtroopers by 1930 and 400,000 by 1932.

Second, the fascists need decisive sections of the ruling class and the state machine to swing behind their bid for power. Both Hitler and Mussolini relied on the parliamentary votes of the main bourgeois parties – the Italian Liberal Party, the German National, People’s and Centre parties. More importantly, they relied on the police and army working alongside their party thugs to smash all opposition.

The existence of mass street fighting organisations was a key element in winning ruling class and state machine backing. The fascist leaders effectively said to the ruling class:

‘You face a deep crisis. You require attacks on workers’ living standards which are too much even for the most cowardly leaders of workers’ organisations. We have the mass organisations which can work with the police and army to smash those organisations.’

Today’s fascists face the problem that their mass organisations have only a fraction of the strength of Hitler’s or Mussolini’s. The economic crisis is deep enough to drive large numbers of people to vote for the fascists out of despair, but not to drive them so mad as to risk everything in Nazi activity.

Even for Mussolini and Hitler there was a tension between building up the mass organisations and the strategy of winning the support of the ruling class. The members of the mass organisations demanded continual action, continual confrontation, and a fight for real power. The ruling class, by contrast, wanted to use the fascists to achieve a quick victory in the class struggle which would bring about ‘social peace’ on its own terms, and so demanded assurances from the fascist leaders that they would be able to keep their activists under control.

It was this tension which caused splits in both Italian fascism and German Nazism before taking power and which led both Mussolini and Hitler to turn on some of their own followers once in office – most famously in the ‘night of the long knives’ in 1934 when Hitler murdered the SA leader Roehm and hundreds of his stormtroopers.

The tension is much greater with today’s fascists than it was with their interwar forebears, precisely because their active mass base is so small compared with their voting strength. Their leaders are not yet in a position to make a bid for power, and so are caught between the pressure to seek votes by putting on a ‘respectable’ image and the pressure to keep the activists they do have happy by adventures into street fighting.

How dangerous these tensions can be for the fascist leaders is shown by what has happened to the BJP in India. Just over a year ago the party seemed to be going from strength to strength. It was the second party in the national parliament and controlled several states, including the biggest, Uttar Pradesh. Sections of the ruling class and much respectable upper middle class opinion began to see it as the only force capable of holding India together as they opened its economy to the world market.

Then the party’s leaders chose to lead their activists in a fight for control of the streets by launching an assault on the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya and igniting anti-Muslim riots in half a dozen cities. They seemed able to sweep everything before them, and in the country’s most important commercial and industrial city, Bombay, the BJP’s allies in the Shiv Sena, with some 30,000 active members, got the backing of the police as they burnt and looted whole areas of the city, murdering more than a thousand Muslims.

The strategy backfired completely. Organising huge and horrific pogroms was not the same as showing the ruling class that the BJP could smash all opposition and impose a new, draconian, social peace. Big business was horrified as its trade was interrupted by the rioting and its profits were hit. The upper middle class suddenly feared that rather than imposing law and order the BJP would mean unlimited chaos.

The forward momentum of the party came to halt and, in the months that followed, its political opponents had a chance to mobilise the lower castes against the upper castes, preventing further expansion of the BJP’s base. So although its vote actually rose a little in the recent elections, it was more isolated and much further from power than it had been a year before. It paid a bitter price for bidding for power before its base on the ground was powerful enough to bring a quick victory.

If that could happen to Indian fascism, with its many hundreds of thousands of activists, the problems are even greater for the Euro-Nazis, with a much weaker active base. If the BJP could not win a quick and easy victory, then Zhirinovsky, Le Pen, the Republikaner, the MSI and the BNP certainly can’t.

That provides us with grounds for hoping for a successful anti-fascist struggle. But it should not lull us into complacency.

Electorally-based fascism can provide the framework within which street fighting fascism can grow. There were already examples of this in the interwar years in Austria and Spain. In both countries 1934 saw the rise of what was sometimes called ‘clerico-fascism’: a murderous, repressive right wing politics that was still something less than full blooded Nazism. But this was to conquer within two or three years, as very many passive supporters of the far right become active Nazi cadres.

Today’s Nazis hope to follow the same route. That is why it is so important to organise against them now, exacerbating their internal problems, and not to give them the few years grace they need.

Last updated on 18 December 2009