The specter of fascism

By Sam Marcy (Dec.30, 1993)

The following is adapted from a speech Workers World Party Chairperson Sam Marcy gave at a party meeting in New York Dec. 16.

Today a process is taking shape in Russia that, if it goes to its logical conclusion, is likely to change the character of the international situation and bring in its train many internal developments in countries throughout the world.

The recent elections, and particularly the vote for Vladimir Zhirinovsky's so-called Liberal Democratic Party, have raised an urgent question: What is really going on in what we used to call the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics?

What has alarmed the ruling class and, of course, important sections of the workers, not the least of which are the vanguard communist organizations?

The great socialist October Revolution of 1917 opened up the era of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. That changed the face of the globe. It threatened to overturn capitalist regimes all over the world.

It made it possible to build strong communist parties, including one in the United States. For many years it dominated events throughout the whole world.

For the first time in human history, a proletarian dictatorship of the workers and peasants took power with the fundamental aim of changing the class structure of society. That is what the Russian Revolution stood for.

And the fires of that revolution continue to shake up the capitalist system even today.

Now the process that started in 1917 with the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry — which became such a threat to the ruling classes of the world — seems to be moving in the direction of the full-scale dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

That is what the struggle is about now in Russia.

Threat of fascist dictatorship

The struggle is over whether the process begun 75 years ago is finally and conclusively reaching the stage where that revolution will become completely negated on the basis of establishing a bourgeois dictatorship. And not one that is democratic in form, but an open fascist dictatorship able to complete the process of taking back from the workers, peasants and mass of the population all they had won.

The U.S. ruling class is seemingly very much alarmed by this and wholly opposed to it. But that is a poor reading of the situation. The U.S. is alarmed — but because this is taking place without its consent, without its connivance, and entirely independent of the U.S. capitalist government and ruling class.

The U.S. ruling class was taken by surprise. For the first time there has arisen in Russia a bourgeois grouping that is wholly antagonistic to the U.S. on foreign policy.

The U.S. ruling class is worried not because the Zhirinovsky group is fascist or anti-Semitic, but because it is orienting in the direction of independence from U.S. interests and ruling groups.

We should go over, to the extent that it is possible to do so in a short time, the difference between a fascist dictatorship and a bourgeois democracy — two different forms of bourgeois rule.

Bourgeois democracy exists in the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan — in nearly all the imperialist countries. It also exists in many Third World or oppressed countries, although they are more restricted by the influence of U.S. capital and their governments take the form of a military dictatorship here or there.

Fascism in its ultimate form means the complete negation of bourgeois democracy.

Bourgeois democracy won in struggle

In the eyes of the overwhelming majority of the working class, bourgeois democracy is democracy, period. But even bourgeois democracy is a great advance over what previously existed in this country and everywhere else.

Bourgeois democracy is not a gift from the ruling class. It was won in struggle. A capitalist democracy, whether in Britain or France or other countries, is the result of working-class struggles that have forced the bourgeoisie to grant democratic rights.

For all too long there were no rights for the masses in this country. Only property-owning white men could vote. Native people had no rights. In a great section of the U.S. there was chattel slavery. Even after Abolition, Black people had no rights at all for many years. Women couldn't vote.

It was only in 1971 that every citizen at least 18 years old was legally enfranchised, although registration is still made difficult enough to discourage many.

So this democracy we have was earned in the course of struggle, including a bloody civil war. Bourgeois politicians, however, give the impression that it is part of the "benefits of capitalism."

But capitalism and democracy are not synonymous. Democracy is a form of state, as is fascism. The essence of a capitalist state is the rule of the bourgeoisie. Capitalism as a system can exist without capitalist democracy.

The working-class movement can thrive and advance if it utilizes capitalist democracy to its own advantage in the struggle to bring about a socialist revolution.

This introduction is necessary because the bourgeoisie never refer to the real significance of the struggle between bourgeois democracy and fascism. They always give the impression that they are in the forefront of the struggle against fascism and are the proponents of democracy.

There is nothing the bourgeoisie like so much as to cover themselves with sugary, unctuous phrases about democracy as long as it seems to serve their ends — and as long as the workers don't use that democracy for their own class interests, but only to advance this or that capitalist politician.

Full-scale fascism means the complete abolition of capitalist democracy. That has happened several times in this century. We must refer to them or we won't understand what is happening in Russia. The experiences in some of the countries of Europe give us object lessons in what fascism is.

Lessons of fascism in Europe

The earliest form of fascism took place in Italy. Later, it took over in Germany and then in Spain.

Why did it come first in those countries? It is often explained as due to the development of a dictatorial mentality in certain individual leaders.

It is said that in Italy it was all Mussolini's fault; that in Germany it was Hitler; and that Franco brought about fascism in Spain. The emphasis is always on the individual and not on the social basis for the rise of that individual.

We do not deny the role of the individual in history. But we ask ourselves why it is that in these particular countries, individuals were able to turn a bourgeois democracy into a fascist dictatorship.

Is it because they were unusual and extraordinary people? Why didn't they do something else? Why didn't they bring about a greater democracy — a socialist democracy? As individuals, how did they build a following strong enough to take power?

The individual becomes important, most of all, if he or she is a representative of a class.

Some capitalist historians will say fascism came as a result of deep economic crisis. That is true, but it is not the whole truth. Poverty is deeply embedded in so many countries, but that does not necessarily bring a fascist dictatorship. The worst economic crisis that ever took place was in the United States, and it did not bring about a fascist dictatorship. Some fascist groupings did arise, but on the whole fascism did not take hold here.

But it did in three leading capitalist countries: Germany, Italy, and Spain.

What was their common social and political denominator?

What turns the bourgeoisie into fascists

The first prerequisite of classical fascism is the existence of a revolutionary mood in the working class.

In Italy, Spain and Germany there was a revolutionary situation. The working class was on the edge of a socialist revolution. That is what impelled the bourgeoisie to support a fascist dictatorship in its most brutal and complete form.

In these three capitalist countries, the working class had learned to use capitalist democracy to defend its own interests to some extent. There were entrenched elected representatives of workers' parties. They controlled a number of cities and states, were in the legislatures and sometimes in the federal government.

Wherever you went in Europe, socialists and communists had some part in the capitalist state. The workers' movement was strong and seemed unvanquishable.

Under the democratic form of the capitalist state, the workers' movement had reached a stage in its development where it had become a threat to the very existence of capitalist rule. Even Frederick Engels thought at one point at the end of the 19th century that the workers' movement would take over in Germany. It was the general understanding that as a result of parliamentary means the workers' movement would ultimately rule.

But that turned out to be an illusion.

The ruling class could not easily overcome the great achievements of the working class by mere elections. Even if they could win absolute majorities in a few elections, they could not fundamentally change the class position of the working class. So much had been won that it would take a military struggle to change it. That is where fascism came in.

The bourgeoisie in a number of European countries turned in an utterly different direction. Instead of being the patron saint of bourgeois democracy, they slowly and gradually gravitated toward a violent break with that tradition.

They began to instigate movements for the overthrow of capitalist democracy altogether, as a means to abolish the gains of the workers, and revamp and redesign the form of class rule. Their objective was to develop on a world scale and become the most aggressive group of capitalist countries in order to redivide the colonies in their favor.

Personality of leaders not decisive

The development of fascism didn't have anything to do with the psychological bent of leaders. It didn't have anything to do with an aversion to liberty, free speech and the like.

It had to do with the necessity to sustain the rule of a particular class over another class, to sustain capitalism when it is very much under siege from the workers.

The enormous strength of the workers' organizations on the European arena had frightened the bourgeoisie. The confidence of the workers' movement was such that they were openly speaking not only about the overthrow of the bourgeoisie but also how they would soon govern over society. It was just a matter of time before the ruling class would be out of business.

When a ruling class sees its most substantial interests under siege, it doesn't care much about democracy, freedom, or anything else. It is ready to stake its all on retaining its system, even to the point of the loss of millions of lives. It will think of its class interests above all and will throw overboard everything it has taught about democracy, freedom, god, or whatever — in the interest of retaining its class position.

This is how the fascist movements developed. Not as an automatic, anti-democratic tendency, but because of the ruling class's organic need to save its class interests and system.

What led to Mussolini's takeover

The first to go over was Italy. The working class was strong in Italy. Even the monarchy did not stand in the way of the workers' organizing. When it did, it was soundly trounced. The workers' movement was also reaching out to the peasants.

In the years immediately after the Russian Revolution, the Italian masses tried to take it all. They organized general strikes and tried to take over all of industry by occupying the plants. They wanted to make short shrift of the slow, eventual growth of the working class — particularly in a country that was not the richest and whose colonies did not bring in the kind of super-profits that Britain, for example, enjoyed.

Under those circumstances, the ruling class instigated the development of fascism by sponsoring Mussolini to open a violent struggle against the working class.

Bourgeois historians write a lot about Mussolini. But they will not tell you how the ruling class conducted itself, what the bankers and industrialists did. What were they doing while the workers were making gains?

Even if Mussolini had organized the fascist coup d'etat on his own, his subsequent stay in power shows support by the ruling class in Italy and by the imperialists as a whole. His march on Rome to "rescue Italy from Bolshevism" and his Black Shirts would have been a temporary thing with no importance had big capital not supported him.

So the first characteristic in the development of a fascist regime of the classical type is the existence of a revolutionary situation caused by the rise of a workers' movement. This in turn causes the capitalist ruling class to abandon capitalist democracy and turn to naked force and violence in the struggle to retain its rule.

True, a fascist dictatorship means that even the bourgeoisie has to give up certain of its rights. Nonetheless, the results of fascism everywhere were to strengthen the ruling class as against the working class.

In Italy, this classical form of fascism existed from 1922 all the way up to the end of the Second World War, when the workers overthrew Mussolini as a result of their own independent efforts.

Fascism in Spain

In Spain, fascism took a different route. The revolutionary working class developed very rapidly in the 1930s — threatening not only the monarchy but the capitalist system, which was still tied in with all the ancient feudal institutions.

Spain seemed to be the country par excellence where feudal institutions could exist within the womb of capitalist society. It seemed as if the working class was more removed from Marxism than in Italy, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. But this theory vanished into thin air when the workers' movement went on revolutionary strikes and threatened to topple not only the monarchy but the capitalist institutions.

There is a legend in the U.S. that the whole struggle in Spain was between democracy and fascism. That is not true. It was between the revolutionary working class and the capitalist class. The bourgeoisie masked itself in a democratic form late in the day.

The existence of an armed and revolutionary working class in Spain compelled the ruling class to appeal to the military. Not being able to convince the entire military to stage a counter-revolutionary insurrection, they got one of the leading militarists — Francisco Franco — to lead an open, violent, counter-revolutionary assault on the workers' movement in 1936. He openly denounced bourgeois democracy as responsible for all the evils in Spain. He got the support of the Catholic hierarchy.

Armed to the teeth, Franco began a bloody extermination of the workers' organizations: the communists, socialists and anarchists.

Fascism was brought about in Spain as retaliation against the workers' movement for daring to take destiny in its own hands. Before the workers could succeed, the bourgeoisie intervened militarily, with no resistance from England, France and the U.S.

Why German fascism was so destructive

In Germany it was the same, only more dramatic and more destructive.

The workers' movement in Germany was the strongest and most educated in all the world at that time. So many great Marxists had come from there: Marx and Engels, Mehring, Kautsky, Liebknecht and others.

It was the land where socialism seemed to have originated, where the soil seemed ready for a takeover by the socialists and communists.

But that was not to happen, especially given the existence of a world ruling class with its eye sharply focused on the situation. Germany was the center of Europe. A revolution there would change the basis for capitalist society.

I am not unmindful of the policy of the Communist Parties in these countries; not unmindful of the fear of the Communist Party leadership under Stalin of supporting the German revolution; not unmindful of the politics of the Kremlin at the time and how it dealt with the various situations. That is a history of the struggle between the policy of accommodation and conciliation of the Soviet leadership under Stalin versus the revolutionary program of Trotsky.

In Germany, the bourgeoisie had on its side not only the army and police but outside military organizations that they began to build out of fear that they couldn't rely on the military. The communists and left socialists in the workers' movement began to counter this by building up their own military formations. They all were preparing for what was sure to come: a showdown between the two antagonistic classes.

That is all a matter of documentation. Everyone knew. I remember reading the papers every day at the time to find out about the street struggles in Germany between the communists and the fascists — counting how many the workers won and the Nazis lost, faithfully hoping that the day of reckoning would come.

The Social-Democratic Party was numerically the strongest working-class party. Its electoral strength was enormous. It had not only won seats in the Reichstag (parliament), but had majorities in a number of the smaller cities and strong representation in the larger cities. The Nazis aimed their guns at both socialists and communists.

The workers' parties failed to recognize that the hour of the struggle for power was coming closer and closer, and that electoral gains or losses would not be decisive. The struggle could not be resolved by so-called democratic or constitutional means. Both sides of the barricades were being armed: the workers on the one side and the Nazi goons supported by the ruling class on the other. The question was which side would be ready to strike first.

Trotsky urged the revolutionary workers to be on guard and prepare for insurrection. He also urged the Soviet Union to open up military maneuvers on its Western front and to give courage and support to the communists and the workers' movement.

None of this happened. The Nazis struck first, preparing a frame-up with the Reichstag fire. This demoralized the leadership and paralyzed the working class so that it could not take up arms.

There was a complete failure of leadership by the most developed, most serious, most loved working-class party at the time. It went down to defeat — and that changed the international situation, leading to a bloody war.

This is sad, but it is important to bring out the lessons if we are to understand what is going on in Russia today. The elections are the smallest part of the whole struggle. That's not what is significant. What is going on is a slow, developing contest between the working class and the bourgeoisie.

Effects of Russian Revolution

The great proletarian dictatorship — which in 1917 had brought to the world a living, socialist government where the workers themselves for the first time ruled all phases of society — eroded after a period of time. It did not get the international solidarity necessary to support a great revolution.

By the 1930s, the leadership of the Soviet Union was fearful of intervening in the German struggle. Stalin was known to be apprehensive that the European revolution would upstage the Soviet leadership. Be that as it may, Hitler's rise to power in Germany ended for a long time the era of European revolutions as they had been developing in Italy, Spain and Germany.

But the fires of the Russian Revolution have never been put out. No matter how many changes there have been, there is still a spirit of revolutionary struggle. The working class there has not been overcome. And what is more, the greatest achievement of the workers — the socialized economy — has not been fully destroyed. A great part remains socialized.

The Russian bourgeoisie up until now has been unable to either destroy it or manage it. Therefore, the country is in a severe economic crisis.

The crisis in Russia is not the typical raging capitalist crisis of overproduction. It comes from the partial breakup of the socialist economy and the new bourgeoisie's inability to set itself up as a ruling class with a capitalist economy. Ever since Gorbachev began his perestroika, the bourgeois groupings have had a hand in the Russian state. But they have been unable to manage the economy or destroy the framework of the socialist organization.

The bourgeoisie cannot consolidate its rule without converting the economy into individual, private ownership — even in the form of monopoly. It has not been able to accomplish this.

The new bourgeoisie cannot overcome the remnants of socialist organization utilizing what is apparently still some form of socialist law. So they go from day to day with nothing much happening. And the crisis continues to deteriorate.

It is under these circumstances that a new form of rule is emerging over Russia, a capitalist dictatorship that is fascist in form.

Zhirinovsky and the capitalist economic reforms

Now, why is this fascist leader Zhirinovsky against the so-called reforms aimed at establishing capitalism?

First, is he really against them? He knows the workers are against the bourgeois reforms so he says he is against them. I doubt very much that he is.

Second, the socialized economy as it still exists is not incompatible with a fascist state according to their theory. In fact, that is what Mussolini and Hitler wanted but were unable to get: a corporate state fully integrated with the economy. But whether the state-owned industry can actually be incorporated into a fascist state is something for the future. For the time being, we should take it as demagogy and not something that is a genuine part of his fascist ideology.

Here you have a new bourgeoisie — not fully formed, still existing alongside of socialized industry, trying desperately to bring about a capitalist system along the lines of Western capitalism and unable to do it. And Western imperialism is so avaricious, so aggressive — moving in with money, with agents, in order to be able to control the economy and the politics of the country. All this has raised the character of the crisis from stagnation to incredible severity.

Under these circumstances any individual with significant stature can assert himself as a leader or savior and try to lead the country in a fascist direction. Someone like Zhirinovsky can arise out of the blue because of the economic situation.

The only solution for the Russian bourgeoisie, under these circumstances, is a fascist dictatorship. And a fascist dictatorship is not altogether out of consideration by the U.S. The only problem for the U.S. imperialists is if it is done without their consent and in apparent opposition to them.

All the tears they are shedding about democracy are pure hypocrisy. They fear a challenge by an invigorated capitalist Russia in Europe.

Zhirinovsky does not have a strong organized base in the mass movement the way Hitler did. He is riding on a wave of discontent. Whether he can organize the discontent and turn it into a mass movement is another matter.

An extremely important point to remember is that the Communist Party-Russian Federation, which has a great deal of influence, is not yet oriented in the direction of the seizure of power and a violent struggle with the enemy class organizations. It seems to be adapting itself to the status-quo situation — which may be ephemeral, and can take a sharp turn to the right and overwhelm working-class and progressive organizations altogether. Abiding by the rules of bourgeois democracy may be fine if bourgeois democracy is stable, at least for a time, but this cannot be said of Russia today.

The party has to be oriented not to go along as though there will always be a constitutional democratic regime, and "we got 13 percent of the vote so we need 51 percent to become the ruling party." That is a terrible illusion, even in a capitalist democracy.

It has to be oriented in a militant way — to the seizure of buildings, armed forays into capitalist institutions, fraternization with the military, opening up military skirmishes here and there. The party takes on the character of a great danger to the system and thereby wins the loyalty of the workers. It will of course earn the enmity of the international bourgeoisie.

As it is, all the bourgeois parties say they would rather make a united front with the communists than the fascists. That is because they see the communists as no danger to bourgeois rule. The CP-RF is strictly an opposition party, which is okay in a stable, bourgeois regime — up to a point. A communist party, we have learned on the basis of experience ever since the Russian Revolution, has to orient itself to the seizure of power — not by bourgeois democracy, but by the fact of its power.

The military is like a sociological carbon copy of the rest of society. At the present time it hasn't got a unified policy. It doesn't seem to stand for anything. It seems to be concerned about when they are going to retire, their benefits, etc. However, if a struggle breaks out between the workers and the bourgeoisie, then the military or a section of it will wake up. Unless I am gravely misinformed, however, I don't see it taking any revolutionary initiative on its own.

Which way will Yeltsin go?

Yeltsin is cooperating and collaborating with the U.S. But Russia is a great big country, with a very rich revolutionary tradition that still lives. And while he is accommodating and carrying on with the U.S. like a collaborator, this could change rapidly.

The forces underneath him — even the bourgeois forces — can radically move away from that kind of collaboration, especially if the crisis continues. And Yeltsin could turn out to be the rabble rouser or bully, saying, "Well, I have been betrayed by Wall Street," and so on, and move in another corner.

He is a representative of the Russian bourgeois elements, which are still very meager and ill-formed. But he is not the kind of stooge you would find elsewhere. He is collaborating, but as you see, the fact that Clinton is coming to Russia for a summit meeting in a country that is bankrupt is recognition that it is not just a neocolonial country.

It is inherent in the situation that at any moment Yeltsin, being a demagogue and bourgeois politician, could change colors in order to outdo either the revolutionary left or the fascist threat that he sees now. At the moment, he is not trying to outdo Zhirinovsky. As I see it, he does not consider Zhirinovsky a great threat to his authority. In the meantime, Yeltsin has the reins, and he could play the left demagogue as well as he played the right one.

Crisis of leadership

What about the working class?

It is going through a series of very important crises, including a crisis of leadership capable of dealing with the situation both nationally and internationally. We know of the existence of communist organizations and their valiant efforts. They are growing and gaining experience, and we are all with them. The only criticism would be that some are accommodating themselves, in one way or another, to what appears to be a bourgeois parliamentary regime in Russia. The bourgeois parliamentary regime in Russia is a cover for the development of a fascist dictatorship.

How long it will take and what kind of road it will take we don't know. The issue, as in 1917, is as Lenin posed it: either a fascist dictatorship or a revived proletarian dictatorship.

There are only two fundamental classes in society. A dictatorship of the proletariat can go through various stages of modification and loss of revolutionary momentum. But the means of production are still fundamentally in the hands of the proletariat.

It is necessary for the Russian working class to organize itself as a proletarian movement. Not with the aim of participating in the present stage of capitalist formations and accommodating to their processes — but more in the nature of being a subversive movement against the whole kit and caboodle of the existing organizations, and most of all to point up the danger of fascism.

Certainly a united front is necessary, and it is necessary to cooperate with other groups. But the most important thing is to realize that at the present time in Russia there is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

It may take the present form or go to the extreme, as it would with Zhirinovsky, who may be transitory. But the situation is fluid. There will be many more crises.

It helps enormously for the revolutionary vanguard and workers everywhere to educate themselves in the course of this crisis, to review the entire history of the proletariat in Russia, in Europe and in the United States.

We hope that in going over and examining the events in Russia, we will fortify the movement in the United States and raise the theoretical and practical level of our party.

Last updated: 15 January 2018