Max Shachtman

Fascism and the World War

Article V: What Is Fascism and How Can We Defeat It?

(January 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 2, 13 January 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Every thoughtful worker fears and hates Fascism with every fibre of his being. He understands pretty clearly what life under Fascism would mean for him. So do Roosevelt and Churchill and those they represent. That is why they appeal for support in their war against Germany to the class feelings of the workers, just as Hitler appeals to the German worker’s continued hatred of imperialism and yearning for socialism. On both sides, the rulers know that without the support of the masses, of the workers, neither the rulers nor their war would last another day. Labor has the fate of world society today in the palm of its hand.

But Fascism will not be crushed, and the conditions of the workers will go from bad to worse, unless they have a clear understanding of just what Fascism is, just how it is related to capitalism and the capitalists, to democracy, to the war, and to socialism which it pretends to establish. With such an understanding, labor will be able to take its proper place in the war, to destroy Fascism and all its enemies, and to serve its own best interests.

It should not be hard for workers to remember how they were deceived and traduced in the last world war. That grim experience should, at the very least, make them highly suspicious of the theories and arguments advanced in the present world war by all the statesmen and spokesmen of the ruling class. Before deciding on such a life-and-death matter as supporting the war, it is imperative for workers to examine every theory of Fascism and the fight against it under a critical microscope. What is Fascism? The press of the democratic capitalist countries explains:

It is a dictatorship of immoral gangsters, lusting for power, wiping out all democracy, and oppressing and exploiting capitalists and workingmen alike.

The pro-war labor and socialist leaders give the same explanation of Fascism, and declare that Hitler and Mussolini have established a new kind of social order, which is not capitalist and not socialist.

This theory pursues a very deliberate aim, or rather, several aims. If Fascism crushes capitalists and workers alike, then labor should give up its independence, should abandon or at least reduce to a minimum its fight against the capitalist for better conditions, and make a single, united front with him against the common enemy Fascism. That is one, and the principal aim of the democratic politicians and their mimics in the ranks of labor.

Thus they seek to preserve a sick and poisonous capitalist system from the just attacks of labor which is the principal sufferer from the system’s sickness. Don’t strike now for better wages and conditions and for union recognition – say these politicians; this is no time for labor to be “selfish” (that is, to protect itself); this is no time for fighting between capital and labor; the two must unite in face of the common danger of Fascism.

Capitalism Grows Deafer to the Pleas of the Democrats

The democratic politicians pursue another aim – that of self-preservation. They would like to continue ruling the government and serving their financial and industrial overlords. The whole trouble is that capitalism is in a terrible stale of disorganization and decay. Its profits are menaced. The overhead costs of capitalist democracy are becoming an insufferable burden lo it. Despite all the fervent assurances of the servile labor leaders and theoreticians that Fascism would be an awful thing for the capitalists, the latter move closer and closer to putting the Blackshirt gangsters at the head of the government and throwing the democratic politicians and their institutions into the wastebasket. The politicians are worried, and well they may be. Their paymasters want tougher servants who won’t be such a drain on their profits. So the politicians shriek and moan, threaten and plead:

“Dear and ever so beloved capitalists, don’t go over to Fascism. Fascists would cause you no end of annoyance. They really aren’t the friends of your interests you think they are. On our word of honor, we can serve you a thousand times better than they can or will. We’ll get the workers to make you every concession you want. We’ll even take over some of the good features of Fascism, just to please you. We’ll establish a strong regime, we won’t tolerate any nonsense, any subversive activities, any threat to property which – believe us – we worship as fervently as you do. But in the name of all we both hold sacred, don’t send us to blazes, don’t go over to Fascism. We’re pleading with you (or threatening you, as the case may be) for your own good (and for ours!).”

The only trouble with this touching appeal is that the desperate capitalist class grows deafer to it every day. Even after all the terrible things Hitler has done to “both the capitalists and the workers” in Germany, the workers in the democratic countries grow more hostile to Fascism every day, but the capitalists in the same countries become friendlier to home-grown Fascism by the hour. Stupid capitalists! They don’t have sense enough to know their own interests. If only they would read the New Leader ... But we fear even that would not help. The capitalist class knows just what Fascism is.

What, then, is it?

Fascism Grew Out Of “Democracy’s” Bankruptcy

With the outbreak of the first World War, Lenin declared, the world left behind it the relatively peaceful period through which it had lived and entered a period of wars and revolutions. To that we might add, a period of convulsive crises. This period would come to an end only with the victory of the working class and the establishment of a sane, organized, planned and peaceful social order, socialism.

In its relatively peaceful period, capitalism, steadily growing richer with its expansion of the world market and the vast profits tapped from its empires, not only could afford the luxury of democracy, but needed it. So long as the capitalists owned and controlled the factories and mines and banks and railroads – all that is needed to make modern life possible – and controlled the press and pulpit and schools and parliaments, a greater or lesser measure of democratic rights for the masses did capital no great harm. Quite the contrary, it gave people the illusion that they were the real masters (which they weren’t and aren’t).

But with the war of 1914 and all that followed it – including, above all, the revolution of the Russian masses and the revolutionary uprisings in so many other countries, which all but frightened the capitalist class out of its wits – even with the meager and fraudulent democracy enjoyed by the masses under capitalism became an intolerable burden to the ruling class.

Every crisis made it increasingly intolerable. The capitalist profit system was revealing its thorough bankruptcy with every new day. The lasting crisis of 1929, which hipped up every capitalist country, only emphasized this bankruptcy. Industry slowed up and even came to a standstill. The world market – and capitalism cannot exist without a market in which to realize its profits – became narrower than ever. Unemployment assumed proportions never before known in history. The middle classes faced complete economic extinction. The fact that capitalism had collapsed, that it could not even feed, clothe and house millions of people on the most elementary subsistence, that it could not reach the profit levels it yearned for, became evident. to millions.

Elementary decency would have dictated to the capitalists their abdication on the grounds of complete bankruptcy. Alas, capitalism is not based on decency, but on the production of profits. And it is precisely in our time, in the period of capitalism’s disintegration, that democracy – primarily the existence of a militant and independent labor movement – is incompatible with profits.

Anyone who knows what has really been the evolution of Germany in the last decade or two, can understand the rise of Fascism without too much difficulty.

The contradictions and conflicts of capitalism were tearing at the very vitals of Germany. The victors of the first world war had sought to reduce their German rival on the world market to a state of economic and political impotence. Every post-war effort of German capital was directed towards restoring its power at home and in the world. In the way of these efforts stood the German labor movement – best organized in the world – and the victors of Versailles. The crisis of 1929 only accentuated all the difficulties and brought them to the breaking point. These difficulties could be dealt with in one of two ways, and no other: their complete elimination by means of socialist reorganization of society, or their complete suppression by means of a violent dictatorship of capital.

The labor parties, social-democratic and Stalinist, proved incapable of acting as the parties of hope. They offered the masses of the people no way out of the crisis. The social-democrats in particular offered the people the status quo – things as they were. That is precisely what the people could no longer stand, and no longer wanted. They could not be inspired to fight for what had come to mean increased misery and hopelessness. The bourgeois democratic politicians offered no better solution; they only increased the dissatisfaction and irritation of all classes.

The Fascists came forward as the leaders of a vast discontented mob – demobilized officers, university students, slum proletarians, underworld elements, but primarily of demoralized and desperate middle class people whom the labor parties had failed utterly to bring to their support. The Nazis promised the people “socialism” – with which demagogic appeal they showed themselves to be infinitely wiser than all the advocates of the insufferable status quo. They promised that they would smash the Versailles Treaty and Marxism. These promises were made in deadly earnest, and later carried out to the letter. They meant: bring Germany back as active competitor against its rivals on the world imperialist arena, and smash every semblance of an independent labor movement.

What the Bosses Gained Far Outweighed Their Losses

Looking back now on the choice that the big capitalists made in 1933 – Fascism – supercilious and academic observers shake their heads and declare: “The choice was not ideal for the bourgeoisie.” Quite so. But it was the ideal choice for capital under the circumstances. They knew what the choice would cost them, but they knew also what was to be gained by it; and as they look back on the seven years that have passed, there is no doubt that they would do it all over again in the same circumstances.

The cost? The need of maintaining a vast horde of bureaucrats and spies, and even the loss ol a great deal of their political power, which the Nazis monopolize. But that price they gladly paid rather than pay the costs of the only social alternative – the proletarian revolution in Germany which would have deprived the capitalist class of all their power and privilege, which would have wiped them out, root and branch, as a ruling class.

The gains? Enormous, truly enormous! Private property is guaranteed against any serious encroachments by the labor and revolutionary movements which the democratic regime more or less tolerated, but which Fascism has annihilated. No capitalist is now disturbed in his routine of profit-making by the intervention of the shop committees and factory councils and labor unions which existed before Hitler came to power. If you have ever been a capitalist, you know what an indescribable nightmare trade unions and factory committees can be! Like Oliver Twist, they are constantly asking for more. In comparison with them the system of Nazi commissars is a paradise. That this is so is attested by the highly significant fact that no significant section of the German capitalist class (or of the Italian capitalists, who have “suffered” under Fascism for twenty-two years, three times as long as the Germans) has shown the slightest inclination to combine with labor or with the social-democrats to restore the Weimar Republic. Strikes are violently prohibited, and with them have been eliminated those interruptions of production and profits that were so costly to capitalism. Elections, a multiplicity of parties, of newspapers, of parliaments, of agitation, of free speech, press and assembly – all of these onerous expenses of democracy, tolerable for capitalism when profits are flowing but unbearable when they interfere with profits, have been abolished by the Nazis.

There are even greater gains in prospect. The Nazis “abolished” unemployment and the burdens of unemployment insurance in the interests of the bourgeoisie. They established labor camps for the youth and various other forms of forced labor. They inaugurated an unprecedented drive to re-arm Germany, to fit and equip her for a decisive challenge to the dominant imperialist powers. The Nazis greatly expanded the contracting home market of German capitalism by making the state a devouring consumer of commodities – commodities of destruction, cannons and dive bombers, submarines and munitions, uniforms and army provisions. German industry, technologically among the most advanced and most highly rationalized in the world, began to move again at a terrific speed after the Nazis took over. Moreover, the re-armament drive was not undertaken for its own sake. It was the indispensable precondition for a successful expansion of German capitalism on a world scale. “We must export or die,” Hitler has cried – and with the profoundest sincerity! German capitalism, like capitalism everywhere, must expand or strangle to death. Here, too, Hitler is fulfilling faithfully his promise to capital, as the first year of the world war has amply revealed. Is it any wonder that the German capitalists are fairly content, and very grateful?

Fascism Does Not Abolish, It Bolsters Capitalism

There is, of course, another aspect of Fascism which is no less significant. The fact that the German capitalist class literally called upon Hitler to take over (this is not a theoretical deduction; as has been established, it is an actual fact), was equivalent to a declaration of bankruptcy on its part. In effect, it said: “We can no longer organize German society to any important extent. We can no longer hold the blind forces of economic development in check by our traditional methods. We can no longer satisfy the elementary needs of the people, and we cannot hold them back from taking over power and satisfying their needs themselves. We need a Super-Regulator of our social order, a Super-Arbiter, and we are willing to pay for one and pay well.” Like the frogs in the fable, the capitalists thought they needed a king; unlike the frogs, the capitalists really did need one. His name is Fascism.

The king maintains a most expensive court, but he discharges his duties with the highest fidelity. The relief afforded capitalism from “labor troubles” is too well known to require extended comment here. Only the ruthless, totalitarian regimentation of Fascism could do such a thorough job for the bourgeoisie. The organizing, subsidizing and regulation of German exports was never done so systematically as it has been done by the Fascist state. To see in this job an assault on German capitalism, as some observers do, instead of succor of it, is the sheerest absurdity. The organization of a war economy on such a scale as Germany has experienced could be done only by the totalitarian regime. And, it should never be forgotten, the aid of the war economy is the establishment and maintenance of such a military force as makes possible the conquest of increasing sections of the world market, the world’s raw material, colonies, sources of cheap labor – precisely what are needed to keep debilitated capitalism in any country alive a little longer.

Those who put a disproportionate emphasis upon the restrictions and annoyances that Fascism imposes on this or that capitalist or corporation, or who go so far as to deny that capitalism exists in Germany today, simply do not understand what is going on. Many of them imitate the vulgar economists who, unlike Marxists, examine and judge by the individual capitalist instead of capitalism as a whole. Others simply cannot conceive of capitalism except as it used to be, that is, they identify capitalism with that capitalist democracy of old which is everywhere dying out – or being killed. Still others judge by what was once properly called “superficial and temporary phenomena.” And still others fail to understand that while it is precisely Fascism which has so sensationally demonstrated what Marxists have argued, namely, that the capitalist and the capitalist class have become totally superfluous, purely parasitical, and in no way necessary for the management of the state or of industry, of political or economic life – this does not at all mean that the capitalist class or capitalism has already been abolished in Germany!

Quite the contrary. Our brief exposition of Fascism, based on observable realities throughout the world, merely shows that the only way capitalism can maintain itself at all in any country is by installing Fascism in power. That is why capitalism everywhere is moving away from democracy and towards totalitarianism. Capitalism may still be saved, to live a little longer in the throes of agony. But capitalist democracy which is not at all the same thing, is beyond saving. Where it is not already dead, it is dying of an organic disease. Its successor can be either the working class engaged in the socialist reorganization of society, or the Fascist tools of capitalism and assassins of civilization.

With these brief introductory comments on a subject which deserves far more detailed statement, we are, we think, in a better position to answer the question of the day:

What about the world war and the struggle to defeat Fascism?

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Last updated on 21.11.2012