The Role of Fascism

Anton Pannekoek (as J. Harper)

Published: International Council Correspondence, vol. 2, no. 8. July 1936.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2017.

The chief characteristic of fascism is that of organizing the petty capitalist and middle class with their narrow-minded spirit of private business into a mass organization, strong enough to check and beat the proletarian organizations. This class, squeezed in between the capitalist and the working class, unable to fight capitalism, is always ready to turn against the workers' class struggle. Tho it hates big capital and puts forth anti-capitalistic slogans, it is a tool in the hands of capitalism, which pays and directs its political action towards the subduing of the workers.

Its ideas and theories are directed chiefly against the class struggle, against the workers feeling and acting as a separate class. Against this, it brings forward a strong nationalistic feeling, the idea of the unity of the nation against foreign nations. In this nation workers have their place, not as a separate class, but combined with the employers as industrial and agrarian groups of production. Representatives of these groups form advisory boards for the government. This is called the Corporative State, founded on direct representation of the economic grouping of society, on capitalist labor. It is opposed to the parliamentary system for which fascism has hardly any use and which it denounces as a power of disruption, a mischievous preaching of internal dissension.

Parliamentarianism is the expression of supremacy of the people, the citizens, and of the dependence of the government. Fascism puts the State above the citizens. The State, as organization of the nation, is the superior objective to which the citizens are subordinate. Not democracy, not the people's right, but authority, the people's duties stand first. It places the party chief at the head of the State, as a dictator, to rule with his party companions without interference from parliamentary delegates.

It is clear that this form of government corresponds to the needs of modern capitalism. In a highly developed capitalism economic power is not rooted, as it was in the beginning, in a numerous class of independent producers, but in a small group of big capitalists. Their interests can be served better by influencing a small body of absolute rulers, and their operations seem more safely secured if all opposition of the workers and all public criticism is kept down with an iron fist. Hence a tendency is visible in all countries to increase the power of the central government and of the chieftains of the State. Tho this is also sometimes called fascism, it makes some difference whether parliamentary control is maintained, or an open dictatorial rule is established, founded upon the terrorism of a mighty party organization.

In Germany an analogous development of the national-socialist movement took place somewhat later. The revolution of 1918 had brought socialism into power but this power was made use of to protect capitalism. The socialists in the government let the capitalists operate as they liked. The petty capitalist classes seeing their antagonists on both sides now united and socialist officials involved in foul capitalist affairs considered socialist state concern and capitalist speculation as one common principle of corruption of an international gang of grafters. It opposed to them the honest small business of petty capitalists and the conservative old-time farmers. Young intellectuals of the universities who found their former monopoly of public offices infringed upon by detested socialist leaders, and former officers jobless thru the diminuation [sic] of the army, organized the first groups of national-socialists.

They were eager nationalists because they belonged to the capitalist middle classes and were opposed to the internationalism of the ruling social-democracy. They called themselves socialist, because their petty-capitalistic feeling was hostile to big business and big finance. They were strongly anti-Semitic, too. Firstly, because Jewish capital played an important role in Germany especially in the large stores, which stores caused the ruin of the small shopkeepers. Secondly, because numerous Jewish intellectuals flooded the universities and the learned professions, and by their keener wits often — e.g. as lawyers and physicians — left their German competitors behind them.

Financially these national-socialists were backed by many big capitalist concerns, especially by the armament industry which felt its interests endangered by the increasing disarmament conferences. They formed the illegal fighting groups of capitalism against rising Bolshevism. Then came the world crisis, aggravating the conditions in Germany exhausted as it was by the peace treaty indemnities. The revolt of the desperate middle classes raised the National-Socialist Party to the position of the mightiest party and enabled it to seize the political power and to make its leader the dictator of Germany.

Seemingly this dictatorship of middle class ideas is directed against big capitalism as well as against the working class movement. It is clear, however, that a petty capitalist program of a return to former times of small business cannot be carried out. It soon became evident in Germany that big capitalism and the land-owning aristocracy are still the real masters behind the ruling National-Socialist Party. In reality this party acts as an instrument of capitalism to fight and destroy the workers' organization.

So strong was the power of the new slogans that they drew even a large number of workers with them, who joined the National-Socialist Party. The workers had learned to follow their leaders, but these leaders having disappointed them, were beaten by the stronger leaders. The splendour and the spiritual power of the socialist and communist ideals had waned. National-socialism promised the workers a better socialism, by class-peace instead of by class-war. If offered them their appropriate place in the nation as members of the united people not as a separate class.

Due to the victory of Fascism, or its equivalent, in certain countries, the working classes in these countries have been thrown back in their systematic upward strife for liberation. Their organizations have been wiped out, or in the case of the trade unions, put directly under the command of capitalist state officials. The workers' papers have been suppressed, free speech prohibited, socialist and communist propaganda forbidden and punished with imprisonment, concentration camps or long incarceration. In the enforced uniformity of opinion there is no room for revolutionary teachings. The way of regular progress towards proletarian power in the development of insight and organization by means of propaganda and discussions, the way to revolution and freedom, is blocked by the concrete wall of reaction.

So it appears on the surface. But, looking deeper into the problem, it only means that for the workers the smooth and peaceful way of growing to power is blocked. We said before that the right of free speech, the right of organizing, the right of propaganda and of forming political parties, were necessary for capitalism. It means that they are necessary to ensure a regular working of capitalist production and capitalist development. It means that, once they are gone, the class antagonism must at last explode in heavy uprisings and violent revolutionary movements. The capitalist class has to decide whether it prefers this way.

It has its reasons for taking this way. It strongly feels that the heavy world crisis of today is shaking the capitalist system in the heart. It knows that the diminished production is unable to feed the whole working class and at the same time to leave sufficient profits. It is resolved not to bear the losses itself. So it realizes that the workers, starved by unemployment, must rise and will rise in revolts. And it tries to forestall them by fortifying its own position, by forging the whole capitalist class into one strong unity, by putting the state power in strong armor, by tying the workers to this state by means of strong fetters, by robbing them of their old means of defense, their socialist spokesmen and their organizations. This is the reason why in these last years fascism became powerful.

Capitalism at one time seemed to be on to the best way of fooling the workers by means of sham-democracy and sham-reforms. Now it is turning the other way, to heavy oppression. This must drive the workers to resistence [sic] and to determined class fighting. Why does capitalism do so? Not of its own free will, but compelled by material, economic forces inherent in its innermost nature; by the heavy crisis which endangers its profits and arouses its fears for revolution.

Triumphant fascism boasts that it has blocked the way to communism forever. Its claim for this is because it has crushed the workers' movement. What it really crushed were only the ineffective, primitive forms. It destroyed the illusions, the old socialist beliefs, the socialist and communist parties — all obsolete things hampering progress. It destroyed at the same time the old party divisions which incited workers against workers. It thereby has restored their natural class unity.

Parties are groups of common opinion; organizations are dependent on membership — both of these are secondary accidentals. Class is the primary reality founded in the nature of capitalism itself. By tradition the workers considered political opinion and organization membership as the real distinctions between workers and capitalists. They were thinking and feeling in terms of parties and unions — and by tradition may continue to do so for some time. Now they are constrained to think and feel in terms of class. Without any walls of partition, they stand one beside the other and they see that they are all comrades, subject to the same capitalist exploitation. No party discipline can call them to action; they will have to think out and make their own action when the burden of Fascist capitalism makes itself too heavily felt. The mist of opposing party opinions, of political slogans, of union narrowness, which dimmed the natural class consciousness, has been destroyed. Sharp and relentless the reality of capitalism confronts them, and to fight it they have only themselves, their class unity to rely upon.

The political parties of the working class — we speak of Germany and Italy — have disappeared; only the leaders in exile continue to speak as if they were the parties. This does not mean that they have disappeared forever. If there should come an uprising of the working class, they will come back and present themselves again as leaders. They must he vanquished for the second time, now by the workers, by conscious recognition that they are obsolete.

This does not mean that there will be no more parties in the future, that their role is finished. New parties will arise undoubtedly in revolutionary periods to express in new situations the unavoidable differences of tactical opinions within the working class. Parties in this sense are necessary elements in social development. The working class cannot be given ready-made opinions and platforms from some Dictator Party which claims to do the thinking work for it, and forbids independent opinion. The working class has to think out and to find out the way for itself. Then opinions as to what is and what must be done will differ because their lives — tho in the main rather alike — were different in particulars. Groups of common opinion will be formed to discuss and to propagate their ideas, to fight the scientists of the capitalist class, to wage the spiritual contest with other groups. This is the way of self-education for the working class.

Parties in this sense may be called the scouting groups in the capitalist jungle. They have to investigate the ways, to study science and circumstances, to discuss these in mutual debate, to lay their ideas, their explanations, their advice before their fellow workers. In this way they are the necessary instruments to build up the intellectual power of the working class.

Their task is not to act instead of the workers, to do the real fighting work for the workers and to drag the class behind them. They will not have the power to put themselves in the place of the class. Class unity, class action will be paramount, party opinion subordinate.


There are points of similarity between fascist Italy and Germany, and bolshevist Russia. They are ruled by dictators, the chiefs of dictator parties — the Communist Party in Russia, the Fascist Party in Italy, the National-Socialist Party in Germany. These parties are large, strongly organized groups which by their zeal and enthusiasm, their devotion to the cause, by their discipline and energy are able to dominate state and country, and to enforce upon it the stamp of one hard, big unity.

This is a similarity in form; the contents are different. In Russia state capitalism builds up the productive forces; private capital is not tolerated. In Italy and Germany, the state and the ruling party are intimately connected with private large-scale capitalism. But here also a better economic organization is included in the fascist aims.

Big business always means a certain organization of production, transport and banking in the hands of a small number of directing individuals. And these comparatively few persons have control and power over the mass of lesser capitalists. Political rulers were already connected with these big capitalists before. Now the fascist program proclaims it to be the task of state power to direct and regulate the economic force. The increase of nationalism in all countries, and the preparing for world war, as expressed in the slogan of autarchy, i.e., the complete reliance of each state upon its own resources, imposes upon the political leaders a close cooperation with the leaders of industry. If in the old capitalism the state was a necessary instrument of industry, new industry becomes a necessary instrument of the state, too. Ruling the state and ruling industry is being merged into one. Imposing regulation upon private business now means that by the fascist power the bulk of the lesser capitalists are subjected still more completely to big business.

To be sure, in fascist capitalism the ruling class clings to the principle of private enterprise, if not for others, then at least for themselves. The silent contest of big capitalists, monopolists, bankers, for supremacy and profit goes on behind the scenes. If, however, the economic crisis lasts, then the increasing misery, the rebellions of workers or middle classes will compel the rulers to more efficient regulations of economic life. Already now, capitalist economists look to Russia and study its economics as a possible model, and as a way out. "Planned Economics" is the talk of politicians in many countries. A development of European and American capitalism in the direction of and into some form of state capitalism may offer itself as a means to prevent or to thwart or to turn back a proletarian revolution. This will be called socialism then. If we compare it to the last program, the "Plan" of the Belgian Social-Democratic party for regulating capitalism, the difference is not fundamental. The Belgian plan, indeed, may be called an attempt to compete with fascism in a salvation-action for capitalism.

If now we compare these three parties, the Social-Democratic Party, the Communist Party, the Fascist Party, we find that they have their chief aim in common. They want to dominate and rule the working class. Of course in order to save the worker, to make them happy, to make them free. They all say so.

Their means, their platforms are different; they are competitors, and each abuses the others calling them counter-revolutionaries or criminals.

Social-democracy makes an appeal to democracy; the workers shall choose their masters by vote. The Communist Party resorts to revolution; the workers shall rise at the call of the C.P., overthrow capitalist rule and put the C.P. into office. The fascists make an appeal to national feelings and petty-capitalist instincts. They all aspire to some form of state capitalism or state socialism where the working class is commanded and exploited by the state, by the community of leaders, directors, officials, the managers of production.

Their common basis is the opinion that the working masses are unable to conduct their own affairs. The incapable and stupid many, as they believe, must be led and educated by the capable few.

When the working class fights for its real freedom, in order to take the direction of the production, the rule of society into its own hands, it will find all these parties opposed to it.