Fascism: What Is It? F A Ridley 1941
The primary question – ‘what is Fascism'? – can only be answered scientifically if we consider successively its originating causes, its political nature, and its economic character; accordingly, we consider these seriatim.
Its originating causes: For Fascism to grip hold of the State machine, it is necessary for several concurrent factors to be present. In particular the old State forms must be discredited by failure; the ruling classes must be thoroughly confused and frightened; the masses must be disgusted to the point of revolt with the old regime, but must be without either a scientific knowledge of its causes or a constructive political alternative. Without these preliminary conditions, there can be no Fascism. For, pace the Liberal – Labour – Popular Front (of yesterday) mythology, a Fascist movement is only indirectly made from above directly – and consciously – it is a mass-movement that springs from below; from the broad masses of the people. It is not a kind of political electric switch that the bourgeoisie can turn on and off as and when they require it.
In the two great Fascist States: Germany and Italy, all these prerequisite phenomena were present. Germany had been decisively beaten, despoiled and humiliated, in the most disastrous defeat of modern times, in 1918. The Weimar regime – 1919-33 – set up by the victorious allies after Versailles represented simply the symbol of defeat and humiliation: Moreover, it was Left enough in theory to alarm the ruling classes, and yet was Right enough in practice to frighten the masses.
Similarly, Italy had attained national unity too late in the nineteenth century to prosecute imperialist designs with any substantial success. As already remarked, she had been swindled at Versailles; though nominally on the side of the winners, she may be ranked, substantially, as a defeated nation, considering her heavy war losses (at Caporetto, etc) and her meagre reward. Moreover, her postwar Liberal governments of Giolitti, Nitti and Facta also aroused both the anger of the Right and the contempt of the Left: we have in mind, particularly, the pusillanimous and facing-both-ways attitude of the Italian government of Giolitti, when faced with the seizure of the factories by the workers in the autumn of 1920, when the Left proved not to be strong enough to seize power, but strong enough to make the Right think that they were going to seize it.
Consequently, despite differences in detail, Mussolini – in October, 1922 – and Hitler – in January, 1933 – both seized power in situations that were fundamentally similar: in a frustrated Imperialist nation, where the Right feared social revolution and the Left was impotent to achieve it. And in both countries Fascism simultaneously appealed to both Left and Right: to the Right as the Saviour from Revolution; to the Left as the champion of the Revolution.
We have already noted the conditions that alone made this possible. Without the previous failure of their respective Imperialisms, neither Mussolini nor Hitler could have come to power, we can, therefore, define Fascism as, in the first instance, the politics of a frustrated Imperialism. It is, for example, obvious that had Germany and Italy succeeded in their struggle for political existence; had they won the First Imperialist war and thus become world empires, the Hohenzollerns would still be reigning in Potsdam, and the Italian Party caucus of Giolitti, Nitti & Co would still rule Italy from the Aventine. It was the blunders of the German General Staff on the Marne and of the Italians at Caporetto, which, in the first instance, made Mussolini and Hitler possible.
The Political Nature of Fascism: Fascism is then in the first instance, the politics of a frustrated Imperialism, of a defeated, and therefore discredited ruling class which has failed in the jungle-struggle for political existence. A Fascist movement has, in its pre-power phase, three essential characteristics: it is financed by the Capitalist class, by ‘Big Business,’ as a shock-absorber against Revolution; it is enthusiastically welcomed by a large strata of workers, peasants and petit-bourgeoisie, who look to it to carry out a national revolution, to achieve on the national field what their own (internationalist) parties have failed to achieve on the international. And it is fanatically nationalistic-objectively Imperialistic, the wrongs of which it exists ultimately to right. Financed by Big Business, backed by the masses, Imperialistic and therefore militarist; who does not recall examples of all these phenomena in the course of the political evolution of the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini?
The political essence of Fascism is the (one) Party Totalitarian State in which the individual is completely subordinated to the State, and (in theory at least) the State to the Party. After what we have stated above as to the causes of Fascism, it is hardly necessary for us to examine in detail this political structure, which is merely the expression in practice of Fascism’s reasons for existence. It is obvious that Fascism can only accomplish its ostensible dual role of protecting Capitalism from the Revolution, and the workers from Capitalism, if it includes both parties in a State against which neither has any rights, and over which Fascism – ‘The Party’ – is permanently all-powerful. As Fascism, in its own estimation embodies both sides of the class war, to exist permanently, Fascism must include, and, by including, suppress both. The ‘Total’ State is not an original creation of Fascism: to be sure, it is the oldest form of the State from the days of the Pharaohs onward. But without it, Fascism could not exist for the proverbial day. The class struggle in a society based on private property must either be decided by revolution from below, or be smothered from above by the State. Since Fascism is objectively counter-revolutionary, it can only adopt the latter method.
Whilst, however, Fascism is, objectively, the most distinctive counter-revolutionary movement of our age, yet in its own estimation, it is neither revolutionary nor counter-revolutionary – or rather it is both. The Fascist State is ‘the rejoicing third’ which both gaols Thälmann and exiles Thyssen,  which suppresses Labour in the interests of privately-owned capital – and privately-owned capital in its own interest – for the greater power and glory of Fascism. ‘Our Programme? It is to rule Italy.’ This inspired bon mot of Mussolini may be taken as the legitimate motto of the whole Fascist movement, North as well as South of the Alps. (It is this purely pragmatic and activist character that explains the complete contempt for anything abstract or theoretical which unvaryingly characterises all forms of Fascism. To be: not to reflect on its own insoluble contradictions! ‘In the beginning was the Act!’ (Faust)
It is obvious that such a conception is entirely remote from the demagogic interpretations of Fascism which have hitherto passed muster to the almost complete exclusion of any scientific analysis. Fascism explains itself as the Revolution in its only practicable shape. But as our next paragraphs will demonstrate, Fascism does not abolish Capitalism – that regime of scarcity economics, of ‘poverty in the midst of plenty’ which now alone bars the forward movement of Humanity from unimagined heights. On the contrary, Fascism saves Capitalism, not only from the Revolution, but, equally effectively, from itself! That is, Fascism saves Capital from the now outmoded control of individual (unorganised) capitalists: it preserved capitalism in the only form in which it can survive in a society that clamours, above all for organisation. That is, State Capitalism. (See next subsection.)
If we cannot accept Fascism’s own account of its ‘revolutionary’ character, neither, equally, can we accept in toto the account given by the philosophers of the Left who explain Fascism simply and solely as the Dictatorship of Big Business operating under a demagogic cloak – we have in mind, particularly, the late Leon Trotsky, and such living writers as Rajani Palme Dutt and Daniel Guérin (see Dutt, Fascism, and Guérin, Fascism and Big Business).
It is, of course, quite true that this description holds broadly of the first phase of Fascism prior to its seizure of power. This preliminary building up of a mass party from very small beginnings into a mass party obviously required lavish expenditure of money. And where else but from Big Business could the requisite cash be obtained in a capitalist society? Certainly not from the Plebeian clientele of an incipient Fascist movement, impoverished peasants and ruined rentiers.
In its totality, however, the theory breaks down. It is always a mistake to judge any movement solely by its first phase. Who, for instance, could adequately judge Christianity as an historical phenomenon merely by reference to the New Testament? Fascism is no exception. It is almost self evident that a complete ‘Total’ Party State – the final stage of a Fascist society – is incompatible by its very nature with the rule of a single class. In a ‘total’ State it is the State that rules: the executive bureaucracy is all-powerful. That this is so in practice is demonstrated by the entire political and increasing economic subordination of Big Business to the State, particularly in Germany, the more thoroughly organised Fascist State. Already it seems quite clear that by the end of this war, if not sooner, the much trumpeted dictatorship of Big Business in Germany will have about as much significance as a dead cat. Already, the little finger of Hitler is thicker than the loins of Thyssen, his erstwhile ‘Mayor of the Palace’ according to the superficial estimate of Ernest Henri (see Hitler Over Europe). 
The theory that Fascism is merely ‘a police dictatorship of Big Business’ (that is, of privately-owned Capital) is still almost universal on the Left, and being entirely false, at least with regard to the present phase of mature Fascism, has been responsible for untold blunders; particularly as regards the relations of Nazi Germany with the Soviet Union. Who does not recall the stupefaction, rising into the regions of hysteria, at the Pact between Soviet Russia and the Nazi regime? To understand this elementary blunder it is now necessary to turn to the economics of Fascism, to discover in what precise sense Fascism is an instrument for the preservation of Capitalism.
The Economics of Fascism: Fascism preserves Capitalism; that is its proper counter-revolutionary mission, to preserve Capital – ‘the economics of scarcity’ – in the age of Power-Production and consequent potential plenty. Fascism embodies itself in the ‘strong state’, organised politically to suppress revolution, its primary role in Italy, organised economically to ‘iron out’, to overcome capitalist economic crises; its primary role in Germany. The essence of Fascism is its character as the counter-revolutionary state organised, first and foremost, to prevent the decline of Capitalism culminating in its proximate fall.
‘The State of declining Capitalism’ what is this, someone may ask us, except the dictatorship of Big Business, of the Capitalists taken as a class. The two are, however, not at all the same thing: Capitalism is not the simple equivalent of the capitalist class, capitalism can exist without Capitalists: there is also, over and above private capitalism, State Capitalism, either partial or complete. It is this form of Capitalism – its last and most developed form internally as Imperialism is its last external form – that Fascism comes to represent more and more completely.
What is the essential nature of a capitalist state? The usual idea, evidently taken virtually for granted by Dutt, Strachey, Guerin & Co, is that a capitalist State exists to protect capitalists, but this is not necessarily the case. Indeed in final analysis, it is quite untrue. Contrarily, the essential feature of a Capitalist State is to supervise the accumulation of Capital, either in the hands of individual capitalists or of its own. The latter alternative is that which increasingly bears sway in a Fascist economy. Having been called to power originally by the capitalist class, Fascism has to expropriate the capitalists gradually, from the Right in order to safeguard more efficiently the accumulation of Capital. It is in this connection that we see most clearly the relationship of Fascism, as and when considered in relation to Stalinism – National Bolshevism – with which it is so often compared. and wrongly identified. Fascism, coming from the Right – created ultimately, with the then indispensable help of the capitalist class – (more or less) gradually expropriates the capitalist in order the better to preserve capital, of which it then undertakes the imperative task of accumulation, necessary to every phase of Capitalism. Whereas Bolshevism coming from the Left as a result of a revolution, has forcibly expropriated the whole (Russian) Capitalist class, has been able to realise State Capitalism at a blow, with the all powerful ‘Stalinist’ State Bureaucracy as the supreme custodian and accumulator of the national capital piled up as a result of the surplus value extracted from the wage-labour of the Russian masses. Two regimes of State Capitalism – ‘National Socialism’ – ‘Socialism in one country’ – arising, respectively, from counter-revolution on the Right and Revolution on the Left! Will they last long enough to meet ultimately in the middle? How far this process has already gone is evident from the opinion recently expressed by a well informed investigator, who calculated that, whilst there are still more rich men (private capitalists, etc) in Germany than in Russia, yet there is already a wider gulf between the living standards of the Soviet bureaucracy and those of the Russian masses than there is between those of the Nazi bureaucracy and the German masses!
(NB: If Fascism can be accurately styled, as above, the politics of a frustrated Imperialism, so Bolshevism à la Stalin can be styled equally accurately as the politics of a frustrated Revolution: that is, though both produce increasingly similar fruits, the roots of Bolshevism and Fascism originated in diverse soil: it is therefore wrong to identify them, as is so often mistakenly done. Their appearances are virtually identical, but here as elsewhere ‘appearances are deceptive’. We may also note that Bonapartism in the nineteenth century also represented the politics of a frustrated revolution – the ‘Stalinism’ of the bourgeois revolution!)
We thus observe that on both the political and economic fields Fascism stands for the maximum concentration of power. Politically, it suppresses every possibility of independent activity: the individual is completely dominated by the State, and the State itself is the simple tool of the Party, which in its turn, is summarised and summed up in the ‘Man of Destiny’, the Duce – Führer. Thus, concentration of Power is the essence of Fascism. A smooth monolith which no hostile hand can grasp, to adopt the excellent metaphor of Daniel Guérin. All within the State, None against the State, None beyond the State. And, on the economic plane the same principle holds good. The Fascist State in its economic capacity as supreme monopolist, as the jealous guardian of Capital from both the revolts of Labour and the excesses of privately owned capital, is as jealous of ‘laisser faire’ on the economic field as of its concurrent Liberalism and Individualism on the field of politics. For, let us repeat again, Fascism is none other than capitalist society in a state of siege and under martial law, to prevent the overthrow of Capitalism either by revolution from below or, equally, by its own internal weaknesses.
It is, of course, precisely this fundamentally concentrated character that gives Fascism its peculiar power as the pre-eminent counter-revolutionary force of our era. For the whole crisis of our times lies of course, in the fundamental proposition that ‘the means of production’ have become organised and collectivist, whilst the means of ownership and exchange concurrently remain tied to the ‘anarchy’ of private ownership and to the chaos of the (unorganised) world market. It is this elementary disharmony that is tearing our civilisation up by the roots; and which not merely may, but must, make another Dark Age of Barbarism inevitable if it continues unchecked.
Fascist Totalitarianism gives a partial solution to this fundamental problem of our age. That is, it ‘solves’ the problem as far as it can be solved within the framework of the Capitalist System. It grafts as much organisation upon an unorganised bourgeois society as such a society can stand without thereby ceasing to be bourgeois. whilst altogether rejecting the ethics and Humanism of Socialism it borrows from it many of the externals of collectivism. If by ‘Socialism’ we mean merely collectivised Capital, then ‘National Socialism’ is not un unjustified term, and the pundits of the Fabian Society should logically regard Hitler and Mussolini as bona fide socialists who have actually done what they have only talked about doing – indeed, to be fair, Bernard Shaw has actually styled Mussolini as a ‘socialist’ – in return for which spiritual membership of the Fabian Society we understand that Italian socialists in Fascist gaols are given the priceless privilege of reading the works of Bernard Shaw. We do not know whether Mussolini has had time to prepare an Amharic version for the benefit of the ‘socialised’ natives of Ethiopia!
In all seriousness, however, Fascism carries off the counter-revolutionary palm in our age by the fundamental fact that it has borrowed from socialism all that is, so to speak, ‘borrowable’ by a regime that still remains within the framework of Capitalism and of class relationships. Again, if socialism be taken to mean simply the State as accumulator and ultimate owner of Capital – le voilà! – Mussolini and Hitler are the authentic heirs of Bakunin and of Marx; the false definition is pressed to its appropriately ridiculous conclusion.
It is, however, this masterly appropriation which stamps Fascism as a counter-revolutionary Creation of genius. For we have not forgotten that a counter-revolution must never be confused with simple reaction. On the contrary, let us repeat, it only defends defensible positions (see section one). In this respect, Fascism walks faithfully in the footsteps of its counter-revolutionary forerunners – mentioned above in our first section – in particular, of the Jesuits, those arch-masters of counter-revolution, who, as I have elsewhere shown, saved the Roman Catholic Church from an otherwise inevitable destruction in the era of the Reformation, by ‘reconciling’ the medieval Church with the rising capitalist economics and with the world-outlook of the bourgeois civilisation that arose at the Renaissance in the sixteenth century (see, ut supra, FA Ridley).
What Jesuitism was to Capitalism, that is Fascism to Socialism: a (Lamarckian) adaptation of a dying system to the irresistible new social forces of the era of power-production, so as, by yielding non-essentials, to preserve the essentials of the old.
Will it succeed in doing so? To form an opinion about its chances in this respect it is necessary to consider the problem of its future. First, however, we can usefully direct a glance at the future of Fascism in Britain.