Chris Nineham suggests some key reads on how fascism arises, what makes it so dangerous, and how it can be defeated  

The word fascist has been cheapened by overuse. It is now often simply a term of abuse meaning right wing, authoritarian or racist. 

Fascism is all those things, but the term describes a particular type of capitalist class rule. The economic system of capitalism assumes different political forms. Many countries have some level of democracy, always very limited but making it easier for opponents of the system to organise. Other countries have no democracy and are run as dictatorships, military, civilian, sometimes religious. Others still are unstable combinations of the two. 

Fascism itself is something different from all of these. To call all dictatorships fascist is to miss how common authoritarian regimes are under capitalism. It is also to underestimate the special horrors that fascist re-ordering brings.  

The indiscriminate use of the term fascism is bound to lead to strategic confusion. For socialists the importance of analysing different forms of capitalist rule is to work out how to take them on effectively. 

Robert O. Paxton’s 2004 study The Anatomy of Fascism (Penguin) aims to clarify what is unique about it. Paxton argues that fascism cannot be defined by the ideas involved, because fascist ideology is based on appealing to anger and alienation rather than coherent argument. Fascisms’ myths and targets vary over time and place. What matters is what fascists do. 

Crucially fascism is distinct from other forms of dictatorship or political reaction because it a form of capitalist rule that emerges out of a mass movement. 

Fascist movements are a response to a society in crisis, in which the political system cannot or will not allow major questions to be resolved. Growing numbers of people are looking for solutions, and fascist agitators can emerge as offering a way to anti-systemic anger, by lashing out at groups and institutions that seem to be part of the problem. 

Critically, there must develop amongst a section of the population a contradictory belief that their community is simultaneously superior to, but also oppressed by, other groups, and that ‘justice’ must be restored by elevating their group amongst the others.

Paxton describes various phases in the development of fascist movements, phases which culminated in Italy and Germany between the wars with the movement being welcomed into power by the ruling classes to deal with deep social crisis and mass opposition to their rule. 

Leon Trotsky’s The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Pathfinder) is probably the greatest concrete analysis of fascism and how it should be fought. 

Trotsky saw the fascist movement in Germany as an expression of ‘counter revolutionary despair’ particularly amongst the petty bourgeoisie, at a time when working class organisation was weakened by defeats and poor leadership. 

As early as 1930, Trotsky was arguing that fascism was a real danger in Germany because these conditions were combined with deep crisis in the ruling class itself. Fascism was:

‘An acute expression of the helpless position of the bourgeois regime, the conservative role of the Social Democracy within this regime, and the accumulated powerlessness of the Communist Party to abolish it’ 

Trotsky’s central strategic conclusion was that revolutionaries must organise the broadest possible united front, including with the Social Democrats, to isolate and where necessary confront the fascists. His argument was directed against both the complacent Social Democrats and the Stalinised Communist Party which refused to block with them on the grounds that they were ‘social fascists.’ 

In railing against this stupidity, Trotsky again and again makes the point that fascism will destroy all forms of opposition, and that joint action with social democrats is in the interests of all workers, whatever their politics: 

‘It is necessary, without any delay, finally to elaborate a practical system of measures – not with the aim of merely “exposing” the social democracy but with the aim of actual struggle against fascism’. 

Tragically, for all the brilliance and urgency of his polemics, Trotsky didn’t have the political forces to carry his arguments in the movement.

Tom Behan’s The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini (Bookmarks) is a short but very sharp account of how the fascists came to power in Italy in the 1920s. It places the rise of the fascist movement in the context of the left’s failure to make the most of the revolutionary upsurge in Italy in the ‘two red years’ of 1919 and 1920

Behan makes a very strong case that even after this defeat, fascism could have been stopped. To prove this he charts the sudden upsurge of the Arditi del Popolo (ADP), ‘the first ever anti-fascist movement in the world’.

The movement brought together people from all sections of the left and inflicted important defeats on the fascist squads. It caused widespread disquiet in the ranks of the fascists, almost leading to a split and forcing fascist leader Benito Mussolini to take a turn towards more respectable, parliamentary politics. 

The problem was the Socialist Party and the trade unions responded by making a truce with the fascists and denouncing the ADP. The newly founded Communists took an appallingly sectarian attitude to the ADP, insisting their members took no part in its activities. The result was the sabotage of a promising mass movement.  

As Behan explains, Lenin, Trotsky and the Russian Bolsheviks insisted on the need for united front tactics to defeat fascism. Lenin convinced the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci of the need for this approach in 1922. Unfortunately for the Italian movement of those years, this proved to be too late. 

Our Flag Stays Red (Lawrence and Wishart) is a first hand account of the activities of the Communist Party in the East End of London in the 1930s and 1940s. Author Phil Piratin was a Communist activist at the time who was elected as a Communist MP in 1945. This is a fascinating piece of working-class history with a lot that is of value for activists today, including a very useful account of how the Communists marginalised the fascists and built a base in working class communities. 

One of the highlights of the book is the brilliant account of the crushing defeat of Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts at Cable Street in 1936 when a planned march was blocked by the mass mobilisation of over 100,000 working people. Mosley’s British Union of Fascists never fully recovered from this defeat. Piratin makes clear that both pre-existing Communist Party organisation and a broad, open approach to organising was vital. 

The book also reveals some of the political complexities of the situation, including the fact that the Communist Party leadership was initially opposed to the protest as it was pushing the popular front policy at the time that downplayed class struggle in favour of close relations with ‘progressive elements of the bourgeoisie.’ 

Caroline Moorhead’s A House in the Mountains (Penguin) is the extraordinary story of the courageous women who spearheaded Italian resistance to fascism during the Second World War.

It starts in the late summer of 1943, when Italy changed sides in the war and the Germans – now their enemies – occupied the north of the country, and the Italian Resistance was born.

Women played a key role in this underground movement because they were less likely to be suspected of being partisans than men. The book is an amazing account of the total commitment of hundreds of women over two or three years as they hide out in the mountains and regularly risk death as messengers, gun runners and organisers. 

It shows that the working-class movement was central to the defeat of fascism in Italy. When the allied commanders finally made it into Turin in 1945, they entered a city already liberated by the people.

The other thing that Caroline Moorhead’s riveting book shows is that the main priority of the allied forces was to disarm the partisans and try and restore ‘normality’ as quickly as possible, fearful as they were that the antifascist struggle could grow over into social revolution. 

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.