Max Shachtman

Fascism and the World War

Article One

(October 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 28, 21 October 1940, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Fascism is on a triumphant rampage. Almost all of Europe is under Hitler’s dominion. The Mother of Parliaments, last bastion of democracy in the Old World, is being bombed out of the sea. Every new day of the war seems to. be brighter for fascism and blacker for its enemies.

How shall we stop the advance of fascism. What is to be done? Shall we support England with all our strength? Shall we join “with Roosevelt (and Willkie) in the armaments race, in conscription, in preparing for war? The official labor movement has long ago taken its position – for national defense, for the war of democracy against fascism. The social democrats have done the same. The Stalinists wait only for an alliance between Stalin and Washington to join in the same chorus.

The “Radicals” Change Color

Up to recently, only the left-wing and semi-left-wing organizations and individuals resisted the democratic-patriotic wave. In varying degrees, they declared that no important problem of our time, even preserving democratic rights from the assaults of fascism, could be solved except in a socialist way, that is, by the independent class program and action of labor. They held to this position up to the outbreak of the war and even afterward. But starting with the spectacular victories of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, every bomb dropped by Goering’s ships has blown another radical from his position. Some of them are still in mid-air, not certain of their landing place. Others have already landed, howling with pain and with demands for support of the war. In this series of articles, we aim to examine various positions that have been advanced recently in and around the radical labor movement on the struggle against fascism and/the question of the war. The question: Should fascism be fought and crushed? – will not be considered here because we have always taken an affirmative answer for granted. We will deal with such questions as: What is fascism? How can we fight it? What do others propose? and. What do we propose?

In the course of this series we will discuss the recent writings on the subject by Dwight Macdonald, the Cannonites (S.W.P.), Sidney Hook, and the Lovestonites, ending with a presentation of our point of view. The questions of war and fascism and socialist revolution, which are all linked together, are the main questions of our time. Let this fact be borne in mind by the reader if he finds our discussion sharply polemical in places. The fight against fascism and the war is inseparable from the fight against confusion, muddled thinking, and the covert abandonment of socialist principles.


Comrade Dwight. Macdonald is “not at all satisfied with the analysis of the war and of the nature of the totalitarian states held to by the Trotskyists and other ‘orthodox’ Marxists.” Not content with mere discontent, ho proceeds (National Defense: The Case for Socialism, Partisan Review, July–August 1940) to an analysis which he need not claim as his own for the very good reason that nobody would jump such a claim.

We do not have too many examples nowadays of the brilliance and profoundness with which Marxism illuminates political and social problems, and that mainly because so many of its partisans do not fake enough pains to master it. But we do have plenty of examples of the confusion and obscurity introduced into questions by those who either scorn or misunderstand Marxism, or who abandon it. Macdonald’s contribution is such an example, and an excellent one.

What is fascism? Let us read Macdonald’s answer, or more accurately, his several answers.

Fascism is not capitalism. It has introduced “a radical change in the economic system.” As clearly as Napoleon’s military innovations,” it has been “fighting a new kind of war that ... expressed a new kind of society.” The Nazis “have already changed the underlying economic and social structure” of capitalism. “Fascism is qualitatively different from democratic capitalism,” and, to underline what would seem to be emphatic enough, he agrees essentially with the proposition that “German fascism is not a variant of the capitalism we know over here, but is a new kind of social system.” And, in order to escape the accusation of half-heartedness, he adds that “this new form of state power ... so baffling, especially to Marxists” (Ahem!) is “also existing in Russia today.”

Now, just wherein is fascism basically, radically, qualitatively different from capitalism, just what is it that makes it a new kind of society, a new kind of social system? It is right here, where his earlier courage should show itself most boldly, that it forsakes our author. “Is the Nazi bureaucracy a new ruling class, then, and fascism a new form of society, comparable to capitalism?” he asks; and he answers: “This doesn’t seem to be true either.” At one blow, the Marxists lose a friend and acquire a companion to whom “this new form of state power” is just as baffling as it is, says he, to them. In any case, what certainly will baffle the Marxists is the job of following Macdonald’s analysis.

Neither the Old Nor the New?

Fascism is a new social order, basically different from capitalism. Good. Yet “Hitler has left untouched the legal and financial structure of capitalism.” It is not capitalism, “but the old contradictions still exist beneath the surface.” But if the old contradictions still exist, and they are precisely the characteristics of capitalism, wherein is fascism “qualitatively” different? To make matters lucidly plain, Macdonald writes also that “statesmen like Roosevelt and Churchill and Reynaud recognize in their enemy (i.e., fascism) the characteristics of the system of class rule they are defending, only carried out to the terrible ultimate conclusion.” If this means what it says, fascism is only the ultimate conclusion of capitalism, not its negation, not its destruction, but its ultimate conclusion, and has the characteristics of Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s capitalism. Then where is the basic, and qualitative difference in social systems?

But Macdonald is not confused as any mortal would be. He has already said that fascism is fundamentally a new social order, radically different from the old; and at the same time that it is fundamentally the old social order, retaining its characteristics and its contradictions. Whereupon, to make sure that nobody understands his analysis, he writes that in addition it is neither the old nor the new!

“That gravedigger of capitalism which Marx and Engels saw on the horizon has finally appeared, wearing not the overalls of the proletariat but the uniform of the Reichswehr. But, although fascism has destroyed the old social order, it is unable to bring the new society into being. That task is still reserved for the world working class.”

The Reichswehr as the gravedigger of capitalism is a real triumph, and we will return to it later. It is doubly a triumph when we read elsewhere that Hitler’s war is being “carried out against the warnings” of the old Army caste. For the moment, however, it suffices to repeat that (thus far!) according to Macdonald, fascism has the characteristics and contradictions of the social system we know as capitalism, that it is basically and qualitatively different from that social system and represents a new social order (undefined, because very “baffling ... to Marxists), that it is the gravedigger of capitalism (thus doing what the proletariat has not done), without having established the new social order (which, for the time being, the proletariat is still assigned to do).

Production – What For?

Yes, surely, this new ruling class which is not really a ruling class and dominates a social order, which is old and new and neither at the same time – surely it is SOMETHING. It cannot be mere ectoplasm. It is rather more corporeal. And what is it? “German fascism, is a highly specialized social form designed for one quite specific and limited purpose: to win the war which has just been won.” There you have it, and it is positively brutal in its clarity and finality. Not, mind you. that it was easy to define it. Macdonald refuses to conceal this fact.

“The extreme difficulty which one has in classifying this strange monster (after what Macdonald does to it even Hitler would find the monster strange – M.S.) comes from the fact that fascism has destroyed the profit-and-property motor force of the old bourgeois economy, without evolving any general rationale, any new dynamism to replace it.”

All right, all right, It’s a. “highly specialized social form” which has one purpose: to win the war. In the course of effecting its purpose, it has already taken care of one detail, that of destroying the profit-and-property motor force of capitalism. What took its place, as motor force? “The national economy has come to be organized on the basis of production rather than profit.” This monster is strange with a vengeance, and by its side the unicorn and the Cyclops, the pterodactyl and the dinosaur are like ordinary houseflies. National economy is not organized on the basis of profit under fascism, although, you understand, a mite of profit is allowed here and there. It. is organised on the basis. o£ production. That’s it – of production. But production for what? For profit;? Perish the thought. “It is true that the elaborate mechanism of capitalism still persists – loans, credits, interest, dividends, stock exchanges – but, from being the living heart, the raison d’etre of the economy, all this has become, merely the bookkeeping method of the State.” (A trifle, just a trifle.) Production for use, then? Well, hardly. Perhaps production for the sake of producing things? What things and what for?

Here we remember, though it does us little good, that fascism is a “highly specialized social form” with a single, limited purpose: win the war. Good. The economy is organized on the basis of production for war, “Hitler manipulates .the forms of German capitalism not for capitalist profits but to build up a strong national war economy – and to keep his bureaucracy in control of it.” But what brought on this war, what does fascism aim to get out, of it.? Is Hitler fighting merely because – mythological old Norse warrior that he is – he likes a good fight?

It is hardly necessary to, speculate about the answer: we need only to look at the real war going on. Germany wants markets, sources of raw material, spheres of influence, capital and fields of capital investment, sources of cheap labor, control of the highways of commerce, colonies. Benighted as they are, Queen, Wilhelmina, King Carol, Leopold of Belgium, Benes, Churchill, Roosevelt and even Stalin – any or all of them could tell Macdonald that Germany wants what capitalist imperialist powers have always wanted, and for the same reasons. Hitler must, in his own phrase, “expand or die,” and he MUST precisely because “beneath the surface” of his “new” social system all the old contradictions still exist.”

This is just what Macdonald denies. And in so doing, he moves unwittingly closer to the social-patriots. “This war,” he writes, “seems to me to differ from the last in that, it is not a conflict between rival imperialisms of the same general order but rather a social war between different kinds of systems.” (Macdonald’s emphasis) This one sentence is a first-class disaster.

A revolutionist, even if he is not an “orthodox Marxist,” cannot be indifferent to the outcome of’ a war between two different social systems. The feudal aristocracy was more “cultured” and less “rude” than the French peasant and artisan and petty bourgeois. But a revolutionist supported the latter in the war against the former, because the victory of the French Revolution represented the victory of a superior social system.

If Macdonald’s analysis means anything, it means that fascism is the transition between obsolete capitalism and still unborn socialism. The Reichswehr is the gravedigger of capitalism! Then why not pitch in – independently, of course, critically, of course – and help it dig? Why not, indeed!

“Fascism,” says Macdonald, “is qualitatively different from democratic capitalism, in the sense that it is a more advanced and effective form of organizing national production ...” A few paragraphs later, Macdonald speaks of the “great mass of workers, whose interests correspond with those of advancing production.’’ Then why in heaven’s name don’t the interests of these workers correspond, at least in part, with those of fascism? In part – for Macdonald reminds us that a socialist state “would be able to organize production even more efficiently (!!) than fascism.” A happy reminder!


Macdonald does not, of course, propose to support fascism in the war. More significant, he polemizes against support for the imperialist democracies in the war, for support of Willkie or Roosevelt. All this does real credit to his revolutionary spirit, especially at a time when most of the “left-wing” intellectuals of yesterday are speeding to the war camp like express trains.

His analysis of fascism and the war does not, however, do him any credit at all. He calls fascism “ersatz-socialism.” His analysis is ersatz-Marxism. So far as it is meaningful from the standpoint of opposition to fascism, it could serve as a theoretical foundation for Popular Frontism. What better conclusion could one draw from an, analysis which, declares that, fascism crushes the worker, and at the same time destroys the social basis of the bourgeoisie? He wants to “examine again, with a cold and skeptical eye, the most basic premises of Marxism.” He appeals for devotion to the revolutionary fight of the workers, and for “skepticism towards all theories, governments, and social systems.” One cannot but honor his first appeal, especially in these black times. And one cannot but agree with Trotsky’s comment.

Confidence, Not Skepticism, Is Our Need

The radical, intellectuals need precious little urging to become “skeptical.” They are rotten with skepticism and cynicism and defeatism as it is. The skeptic will never inspire anyone to struggle. The best he, can say to the, masses, who need a clarion voice and a clear road, is: I’m not sure; I really don’t believe; it may be and then again it may not. Rather than that, let him, before he speaks to the masses and addresses them as a teacher, learn to acquire some of that confidence in the recuperative powers of the working class, in its revolutionary invincibility – the confidence which is indispensable to the socialist who must swim against the bloody tide of the day.

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Last updated on 21.10.2012