Blog post

Weekend Read | General Propositions on Fascism and the Dominant Classes

The global far-right is returning at an alarming rate, with the latest example being that of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (analysed by Perry Anderson in the latest LRB). But, is this fascism? The first thing we need to know before we can answer that is a full definition of fascism as an historical phenomena. In this extract from his republished classic Fascism and DictatorshipNicos Poulantzas explains the relationship between fascism and the dominant classes.

Nicos Poulantzas 3 February 2019

Weekend Read | General Propositions on Fascism and the Dominant Classes

In this section I shall first examine the relation between fascism and the dominant classes or class fractions within the periodization indicated above. I should at once make it clear that fascism is a very complex phenomenon: it can only be explained by elucidating its relation to the various classes in struggle. Nevertheless, it corresponds to a very particular situation of the various dominant classes and class fractions.

General Propositions

I. Contradictions Between Dominant Classes and Dominant Fractions of Classes

The appearance and rise of fascism correspond to the deepening and sharpening of the internal contradictions between the dominant classes and class fractions, which is an important element of the political crisis in question.

This can only be understood on the basis of a correct conception of the alliance of classes and class fractions in relation to political domination. In a social formation composed of many social classes, and in particular in a capitalist social formation, where the bourgeois class is constitutively divided into different class fractions, no single class or class fraction occupies the field of political domination. There is a specific alliance of several classes and fractions, which I have elsewhere described as the “power bloc” (le bloc au pouvoir). Thus, the contradictions between the dominant classes and class fractions often take on sufficient importance to determine the forms of State and of regime.

As for these contradictions in the conjuncture of fascism, it must again be stressed that they are not confined, as is often assumed, to economics alone. In the growth of fascism, the intensification of the “internal” contradictions of the power bloc is characteristically revealed by their extension over the political and ideological planes. This has repercussions in the deep crisis of party representation and in the deep ideological crisis which affect the bloc.

The growth of fascism is, then, characterized by the fact that the political struggle of the power bloc against the masses dominates the economic struggle; i.e. there is a declared politicization of the class struggle by the power bloc. But what specifies it here is that the effects of this politicization extend to the contradictions within the bloc itself. This is a remarkable feature, for all politicization of this kind does not necessarily have the same effect; generally, it in fact “petrifies” the power bloc against its common enemy.

II. The Crisis of Hegemony

In the case of the growth of fascism and of fascism itself, no dominant class or class fraction seems able to impose its “leadership” on the other classes and factions of the power bloc, whether by its own methods of political organization or through the “parliamentary democratic” State.

Basically, the power bloc, like every other alliance, does not generally consist of classes and fractions of “equal importance,” sharing the crumbs of power among themselves. It can only function on a regular basis in so far as a dominant class or fraction of a class imposes its own particular domination on the other members of the alliance in power, in short in so far as it succeeds in imposing its hegemony and cementing them together under its leadership.

The inability of any class or class fraction to impose its hegemony is what characterizes the conjuncture of fascism; that is, ultimately, the inability of the alliance in power to overcome its intensified contradictions of its own accord. This inability to impose hegemony within the power bloc is also, however, related to the crisis of hegemony experienced by it and its members in its political domination of the ensemble of the social formation.

III. Modifications in Hegemony

This being the situation within the power bloc, fascism also corresponds to a complete and specific reorganization of the bloc. This involves: (a) a modification of the relation of forces within this alliance — a redistribution of the respective weight of the forces in it; and (b) the establishment by fascism of the hegemony of a new class fraction within the power bloc: that of finance capital, or big monopoly capital.

At the start of the growth of fascism, hegemony is evidently unstable; during this step, various classes and fractions of classes occupy the hegemonic position. Then comes a step of genuine inability to assume hegemony; and finally fascism in power establishes the hegemony of a fraction which has not previously filled this place.

This shift of political hegemony (as distinct from big capital's clearly well-established dominance in the economic sphere) is a function of fascism which the Comintern tended to fail to recognize, by making a simple identification between economic domination and political hegemony: “Fascist dictatorship is no different... from bourgeois democracy, which also achieves the dictatorship of finance capital.”1

IV. The Breaking of Representation Ties, and the Political Parties

The conjuncture of fascism and the start of the growth of fascism correspond to a crisis of party representation as far as the power bloc is concerned: this is a very remarkable feature of the political crisis in question. In other words, there is a split between the dominant classes and class fractions and their political parties, i.e. a split in the relations both of representation (in the State system) and of organization. The importance of this element was pointed out both by Marx, in his analysis of the situation in France before the accession of Louis Bonaparte, and by Gramsci: "These situations of conflict between 'represented and representatives' reverberate out from the terrain of the parties ... throughout the State organism, reinforcing the relative power of the bureaucracy (civil and military), of high finance, of the Church, and generally of all bodies relatively independent of the fluctuations of public opinion. How are they created in the first place?"2

It is a significant fact that the traditional political parties of the bourgeoisie and its allies at no time adopted fascism completely, but even tried at times, when it was too late, to oppose its accession to power. In cases where these parties agreed to form governments with fascist participation, they did so only with the stated object (which they acted upon) of throttling the fascist parties, that is, of getting rid of them after using them against the masses.

In this, the political parties were not followed by the classes and fractions they were supposed to represent. This by no means implies, as it has often been argued, that the ensemble of the bourgeois class and its allies openly supported the fascist accession to power with unanimity, throughout the growth of fascism. It was rather a question of profound political disorientation of the power bloc, within which the fascist party, with the open support of the big monopoly capital class fraction, came by steps and turns to fill the void left by the breaking of the representational ties of the classic political parties. As a result, the whole of the bourgeoisie and its allies stood by and watched the elimination of these parties by the fascist party.

All this does not mean that nothing was happening within the political parties concerned, or that they still remained faithful (far from it) to their role in a “parliamentary democratic” form of State. In fact, the beginning of the rise of fascism corresponds to a radicalization of the bourgeois parties, in the direction of forms of the exceptional State. However, the solution such parties sought was the hardening of the State in different forms, within a framework in which they would have been able to continue or restore their political leadership; i.e. they would ultimately have accepted the solution of a military dictatorship.

To come back to the question of the breaking of representational ties, it was a progressive break, firstly affecting the relation of “representation. With the beginning of the rise of fascism, while the “parliamentary democratic” form of State apparently remains intact, the relations between the ruling classes and class fractions on the one hand, and the State apparatus on the other, are no longer mainly established through the medium of these political parties, but increasingly directly. This has two effects:

1. The institutional duplication of these parties by a whole series of hidden parallel networks, operating as the channels of real communication of real power and decisions, varying from the emergence of pressure groups and private militia as nuclei of political reorganization, to the setting up of virtual para-state networks.

2. A new growth in the role of the State apparatus itself (i.e. the army, the police, the courts, the administration) to some extent short-circuiting the role of formal government, characteristically reversing the established juridical order, displacing the real power from the forum of the parties, now mere cliques (i.e. from Parliament) to the State machinery proper.

In short, by analogy with the situation of “dual power” which specifies the revolutionary situation, we may call what we see here a characteristic which specifies the distortion between “formal” power and “real” power political crisis.

It is absolutely essential not to reduce this process to a straightforward transformation of legislative-executive relations, i.e. to a simple passage from a “parliamentary State” to a strong State (Etat fort) in which the executive predominates. This transformation, with many variations, is basic to the passage from the form of liberal State of competitive capitalism to the form of interventionist State of monopoly capitalism; but it is not in itself identical with the rise of fascism referred to here, even though there are features common to both, owing to the fact that fascism, of course, has its own precise place in the imperialist stage. The important point here seems to be that there are characteristic distortions between real and formal power, due directly to the breaking of the representational ties. The distortions and breaking do not of course appear in every transformation of the liberal into an interventionist State.

This break between representatives and represented finally affects the organizational relation too. The aims of the extremely bitter struggles among the various political parties of the classes and fractions in power seem to miss the real political contradictions. The parties seem to confine themselves to aims relating only to the “economic” contradictions, even though these struggles are directly transposed into “quarrels” over political personnel; and they seem to lose sight of the concrete means of attaining their general political class interests. The bourgeois political leaders are in a pitiable situation, well described by Marx and Lenin; they are unable to give political organization to, or impose hegemony on, the alliance of classes and class fractions they represent. Cut off from the latter, puppets in the death agonies of parliamentary cretinism, their fear of the working class only sharpens their delirium. It is a situation which, before fascism comes into power, often gives rise to episodes of unprecedented bedlam.

There is one last important point. Throughout the rise of fascism we witness a proliferation of the organizations (including the parties) of the dominant classes and fractions. This proliferation is characteristic of the impotence and the instability of hegemony; while a non-fascist solution to the crisis would, as Gramsci stressed, require the fusion of these organizations into a single party of the bourgeoisie.3

V. The Ideological Crisis

The conjuncture of fascism corresponds to a crisis in the dominant ideology. This aspect of the problem cannot be too strongly emphasized; basically, fascism cannot be explained and understood without a correct position on the decisive role played, in given historical circumstances, by ideology, and without a thorough examination of the ideological crisis experienced by the social formations in which fascism triumphed.

By ideological crisis must be understood chiefly a crisis in the dominant ideology in a social formation, i.e. a crisis in the ideology of the dominant class in that formation. This ideology of the dominant class (the real "cement” of a social formation) is attacked first of all among the mass of the people, i.e. among the oppressed classes, whom it is the main function of this ideology to keep politically subject and subordinate.

This is only one aspect of the question: in determinate conjunctures, it is possible to speak of a crisis going beyond the crisis of the dominant ideology, a generalized ideological crisis distinct from the former alone.

In fact within a social formation there exists not only a dominant ideology (i.e. an ideological discourse which the dominance of the dominant ideology makes relatively systematic), but also real ideological sub-groupings. These sub-groupings exist by virtue of the dominance within them of ideologies belonging to classes other than the dominant class 4 — e.g. working-class, and petty-bourgeois ideology. Of course, the dominant ideology (i.e. the ideology of the dominant class) is effectively dominant within the ensemble of a social formation only in so far as it succeeds by various means in also permeating the ideologies belonging to the ideological sub-groupings. For example, the ideology of the dominant class dominates the ideological sub-groupings of “working-class ideology” in so far as it succeeds in permeating its ideology. Thus, trade unionist ideology, which is not as such the ideology of the bourgeois class, is simply a manifestation of this ideology in the working class; i.e. it is only the form in which bourgeois ideology dominates the sub-grouping “working-class ideology” by permeating it.

It therefore becomes clear that every crisis of the dominant ideology affects the ensemble of the ideological world of a social formation. But it does not always affect it in the same way. For example, it is possible that an acute crisis in the ideology of the dominant social force could allow the ideology of the antagonistic social force to advance or progress in the formation. It is even possible for the one relatively speaking to replace the other before a revolution in the strict sense has actually taken place, the classic case being the surreptitious replacement of feudal by bourgeois ideology before the French Revolution.

But it is also possible for a situation of generalized ideological crisis to arise. In other words, a situation where there is both a crisis in the dominant ideology and a crisis in the ideology of the main dominated social force, occurring for different reasons but running parallel to each other. This was precisely the case with fascism: a deep crisis in the dominant bourgeois ideology and, simultaneously, a deep crisis among the masses. This was not a crisis in the working-class ideology dominated by bourgeois ideology (that is of reformist, revisionist ideology), which would have given room for the advance of Marxist-Leninist ideology; it was a crisis of Marxist-Leninist ideology itself.

The important thing to consider for the moment, however, is the crisis in the dominant ideology, and one aspect in particular of this crisis: the fact that in the case of fascism, it affects not only the impact of this ideology on the dominated classes, but also the relation of the bourgeoisie (and its allies) to its own ideology. The ideological crisis in fact penetrates to the very heart of the power alliance itself: the dominant classes and fractions no longer seem able to “live out” their relation to their conditions of existence in the same way. In other words, the function of the dominant ideology is at an end for the dominant classes themselves.

One of the effects of this situation (and not the least important), was in fact the breaking of the representational ties between these classes and fractions and their political parties, and the organizational weakness of these parties. Another was the characteristic, spectacular turn of the power bloc's “watchdogs” (its caste of approved “ideological spokesmen”) towards fascist ideology, and the systematic attack they launched on traditional bourgeois ideology. This conversion of the bourgeoisie's “ideological spokesmen,” together with the ideological crisis within the dominant classes themselves was an important factor in the bourgeoisie's open and decisive passage to fascism.

This ideological crisis, in the forms it took within the dominant class itself, could be said to be at the roots of a factor which contributed further to the political crisis: the break between the political representatives of the bourgeoisie (the parties and politicians) and its ideological representatives (the “watchdogs” and “ideological spokesmen”). The latter seemed to adopt and advocate fascism more radically, directly and openly than the former, and often, because of their attacks on “parties” and “politicians,” came into sharp conflict with them. And it was not accidental that the bourgeoisie's ties with its “ideological spokesmen” proved the stronger.

VI. The Offensive by Big Capital and the Power Bloc

There is finally another element in the conjuncture of fascism, which cannot be overemphasized: contrary to the prevailing view in the Comintern, the rise of fascism corresponds to a decisive turn in the relation between the forces present; it corresponds to an offensive step and an offensive strategy on the part of the bourgeoisie, and a defensive step by the working class.

a. On attack and defence

As a start, it will be useful to clarify the notions of offensive and defensive steps, as well as the idea of offensive and defensive strategy. Is it, first of all, legitimate to have recourse to this distinction between attack and defence in analysing the concrete situation of the relation between forces? 5

It should be noted in the first place that both Lenin and Mao base their political and military analyses on the irreconcilable difference between attack and defence: all their strategic calculations are based on this difference. As Mao emphasizes: “In the Chinese civil war, as in all other wars, ancient and modern, in China or abroad, there are only two basic forms of fighting, attack and defence.”6 Mao's concept of “protracted war” in no way negates this concept.

The difference involves firstly the objective steps of the struggle,which depend on a whole series of objective factors of the relation between forces. In this sense, any protagonist in the field of the class struggle goes through an offensive step and a defensive step: between these two lies that of a relative stabilization of the forces present, which Lenin defines as a relative equilibrium of forces, Mao as a step of “consolidation” in the relation between forces.

Correct diagnosis of these steps lays the real basis for a correct strategy for the working classes, the masses and their leadership. Correct strategy does not fall from the sky; nor is it made by decree.

The second side to the question is therefore that strategy, in the real sense, is articulated on the basis of these steps. Such strategy has its own rules, and is itself based on the distinction between attack and defence. For Mao, there are three distinct moments involved: “strategic defence,” “strategic consolidation” and “strategic counter-offensive,” corresponding to different steps in the relation between forces. Strategy says how the working class and the masses must act in each step, to reach final victory — through “protracted war.” Now although strategy is based on the diagnosis of steps, it also intervenes as an element in the step itself — in the relation between forces: for example, a defensive step for the working class, requiring a “strategic defence,” is marked out among other things by the strategy of the enemy, by his strategic attack.

There is therefore a double problem in the rise of fascism: (i) the real nature of the step and the diagnosis the Comintern made of it; (ii) the strategy which was then applied.

b. The steps in the process

We can only get to grips with this problem in the section (Part Four below) on fascism and the working class: the nature of a step depends on the relation between forces. But let it be clear that fascism by no means represents the only “weakness” of the bourgeoisie, as the Comintern believed; nor does the rise of fascism represent a defensive strategy (counter-revolution) on its part, thereby indicating a step in the working class offensive. On the contrary, the general outline of the model before and during the rise of fascism, is as follows:

1. Defeat of the offensive by the working class and the masses after a prolonged and serious confrontation.

2. A step of relative stabilization between the forces present, marked by “upsurges.” It is not a situation of calm, as it is still located in the context of sharpening class struggles. But these upsurges do not go so far as to modify the unequal but fixed relation between forces. In short, it is a positional war. But one must beware of taking a step of “stabilization” to be an “equilibrium between equal” forces present. The bourgeoisie still maintains its advantage, pressing and dividing its adversary, and preparing to take the offensive. It is weak, mainly in not yet being strong enough to go in to the attack; it is not as if it is weakened still further in this period. During this same period, the strategy of the working class not only fails to weaken the bourgeoisie, but on the contrary increases its strength.

Only the Third Comintern Congress (1921) seems to have identified this stage of relative stabilization successfully. The Fourth Congress (1922-3), with its slogans of “workers' governments” (i.e. bourgeois governments with communist participation) identified this step of stabilization as a defensive step by the labour movement, and an offensive by the bourgeoisie; whereas in fact the bourgeoisie's offensive step, and the working class's defensive step began only with the start of the rise of fascism, following on from the period of stabilization.8 As for the Fifth Congress (1924), it too disregarded the stabilization step, but in the opposite sense, in that it diagnosed a step of working-class offensive.

Trotsky's position is also significant for this question.9 While correctly criticizing the positions of the Fifth Comintern Congress, which skipped the stabilization step and diagnosed a step of proletarian offensive, he in his turn repeated the error of the Fourth Congress, identifying the stabilization step as a step in the working-class defensive. While in characterizing the period which followed, which saw the start of the rise of fascism, and for which the previous diagnosis would have been quite correct, Trotsky made the same mistakes as the Comintern: the end of the period of “stabilization plus working-class defensive (or downturn)” would mean a reversal of the situation, and therefore a working-class offensive. For Trotsky, as for the Comintern, fascism “is a response of the bourgeoisie to an immediate danger threatening the foundations of its regime. . . . Fascism is a state of civil war against the insurrection of the proletariat.”

This agreement between Trotsky and the Comintern is due, as I have suggested, to their shared economism.10 The economistic view is evident in the omission by both of the stabilization step as the period before the rise of fascism begins. But they draw different conclusions: “economic disintegration = proletarian offensive” for the Fifth Comintern Congress, and “economic stabilization = proletarian defensive” for Trotsky, following in the tradition of the Fourth Congress, at which economism had already come to the fore. What seems to have re-united them in the same error is the equation “economic crisis (1929) = proletarian offensive.”12

3. Start of the rise of fascism corresponding to the bourgeoisie's move to the offensive: this period is characterized by a new sharpness in the class struggle, a sharpness due to this offensive strategy, but giving the Comintern the illusion, especially after the Sixth Congress, of a repetition of the conditions of a revolutionary period.

In the end, the success of fascism was not a proof of the bourgeoisie's weakness, but confirmed its strength for a long time.

What basically happened in the rise of fascism, was that a political crisis of the bourgeoisie corresponded to an offensive strategy. This means, of course, that things are not going too well for the dominant classes. But to describe this political crisis as a “weakness” of the bourgeoisie is to say something about its relation of force with the working class, and that is precisely where the Comintern was wrong in its interpretation (making the equation “weakness of the bourgeoisie = power + offensive of the proletariat”).

It was not until the Seventh Congress of the Comintern that Dimitrov dared to suggest, in veiled terms, that the rise of fascism represented a defensive step for the working class. The suggestion came in his criticism of the Fourth Congress conception of “workers' governments,” in that it adopted this slogan, and recommended the participation of communists in such governments. But, said Dimitrov, what the Fourth Congress did not do was to point out that such governments “were quite definitely confined to the existence of political crisis”: they could only be “governments of struggle against fascism and reaction.” Reading between the lines, though Dimitrov was very careful not to say it explicitly, one finds the conception that a rise of fascism corresponds to a defensive step by the working class.

Let us note in passing that Dimitrov was right to criticize the Fourth Congress, but the error of the Congress did not lie where he placed it. The slogan of “workers' governments” was adopted by the Fourth Congress because of its conception of “stabilization.” It already denoted a reduction of the class struggle to the economic sphere, implying, in fact, the equation “economic stabilization = working-class defensive,” just as the Sixth Congress, in the opposite sense, believed in the equation “end of stabilization = catastrophic economic crisis = working-class offensive.” This explains the Fourth Congress “workers' governments” slogan; whereas Lenin, at the Third Congress, made no identification between stabilization and working-class defensive. He was referring to class struggle, and, moreover, only used the expression of “relative equilibrium of forces”; and he put forward the slogan “to the masses,” a very different one from “workers' governments.”

So it was not that the Fourth Congress was wrong, as Dimitrov said, in failing to relate workers' governments to a defensive step, but rather in its understanding of the real nature of the step, interpreting this step of stabilization of the class struggle as defensive.13

VII. The Fascist Parties, Fascism and the Dominant Classes and Class Fractions; Domination, Hegemony and the Ruling Class: The Relative Autonomy of Fascism

The final important question concerns the relation between (i) the dominant classes and class fractions and (ii) fascism — firstly with the fascist party, then with the fascist State.

The three main conceptions of this seem equally mistaken to me:

(a) The conception, increasingly dominant in the Comintern, according to which, by contrast with the “parliamentary democratic” State in the framework of which other dominant classes and fractions of classes play a decisive political role, the fascist State represents a total grip on the State by the big monopoly capital fraction alone. According to this conception, the capitalist State has thus reached a stage of total subordination to the narrow interests of this fraction, the fascist State being simply the “agent” (in the strong sense) of this fraction, a “tool” which it can manipulate at will, to the exclusion of the other dominant classes and class fractions. Clearly this view allows the fascist State no relative autonomy from the power bloc and its hegemonic fraction.

This deep-rooted illusion in the Third International went back to a whole “instrumentalist” conception of the State, closely combined with economism, and still governs the analysis present-day communist parties give of the State in the age of “State monopoly capitalism.” In this respect, the analyses of the fascist State and the present-day State are absolutely identical. This was the view which became dominant with Dimitrov and the Seventh Congress.

For now it should be observed that this conception is often accompanied by the apparently contradictory conception of the “internal contradictions” of fascism. Although it is often stressed that fascism represents the contradictory interests of various classes, these contradictions are nevertheless deemed to disappear miraculously at the institutional level of the fascist party and State.

This conception of the relation between the fascist State and big capital after fascism comes into power determines the major mistake, which we shall return to, about the relations between big capital and the fascist party throughout the rise of fascism. The fascist party is mainly seen as the “paid agent” in the service of big capital. The fascist party, the “military weapon in big capital's fight” is often identified as a “pack of white guards,” a mere “armed militia” in the pay of big capital, a tool it can manipulate at will.

So on the one hand the question which attracts most attention is the financing of fascist organizations, whereas the organizational relation between the fascist party and the bourgeoisie is much more complex. On the other hand, the military aspect is not only seen as the main aspect of the rise of fascism throughout, but even as being detached from the political aspect of the phenomenon; whereas in fact, firstly, the military aspect is constantly determined by the political aspect of the process and, secondly, the political aspect holds the dominant role, except in the very final step. This latter feature is peculiar to the rise of fascism. In this respect, Clara Zetkin's warning to the executive committee of the Comintern on 23 June 1923, is still correct: “The error of the Italian Communist Party lies mainly in the fact that it has seen fascism only as a military-terrorist movement, not as a mass movement with deep social roots. It must be stressed that before fascism wins militarily, it has already won the ideological and political victory over the working class…”15

(b) The series of conceptions which construct fascism according to the schema of Bonapartism, i.e. a schema of a relation of “equilibrium between equals,” between the two main forces. This view was set out above all by Thalheimer, but was also strongly held by many Marxist theoreticians of fascism. It leads them to attribute to the fascist State a type and degree of relative autonomy which it does not in fact possess, and in the end makes them unable to define correctly the relations between fascism and big capital. It leads them, for example, to speak of a distortion between economic domination, the monopoly of a totally ”'independent” fascist State, misinterpreting Marx's famous formulations in the Eighteenth Brumaire on the “opposition of State and Society” and the “independence” of the State in relation to civil society.16 This relative autonomy of the State, taken to the limit, would even mean breaking the tie between the State and the hegemonic fraction; hence completely false descriptions of fascism using the war economy — openly and for a long period — against the interests of big capital and in declared opposition to it.17

(c) The conception, current in social democratic circles and correctly opposed by the International, that fascism was the “political dictatorship of the petty-bourgeoisie.” There is, in fact, a very close and complex connection between fascism and the petty bourgeoisie, which was underestimated by the International. But this conception, which attempts to establish the relative autonomy of the fascist State, assumes, just like the previous one, that it can be done by separating political from economic domination, with the difference that the State is not here seen as somehow independent vis-a-vis two forces in equilibrium, but as expressing the political domination of the petty bourgeoisie (the “third force”) faced with the economic domination of big capital.18

The correct position should be put here too. Throughout the rise of fascism and after the conquest of power, fascism (the fascist party and the fascist State) characteristically has a relative autonomy from both the power bloc and the fraction of big monopoly capital, whose hegemony it has established. This relative autonomy stems from two sets of factors:

(a) from the internal contradictions among the classes and fractions of classes in the power alliance, i.e. from its internal political crisis: the relative autonomy necessary to reorganize this bloc and establish within it the hegemony of the fraction of big monopoly capital;

(b) from the contradictions between the dominant classes and fractions and the dominated classes, i.e. from the political crisis of the ensemble of the social formation, and from the complex relation between fascism and the dominated classes. This relation is precisely what makes fascism indispensable to mediate a re-establishment of political domination and hegemony.

But this relative autonomy is not of the same type or extent as that of a State in the framework of an equilibrium (of force) between the two main social forces. Not that in this last case the State becomes a neutral mediator in the class struggle: it never ceases to organize political domination. But in this case it possesses a margin for manoeuvre, imposed by the conjuncture, which the fascist State, located within the framework of a different political crisis has never possessed. In short, although the fascist State has a characteristic relative autonomy which, despite appearances, distinguishes it from the “normal” forms of the capitalist State, it cannot be considered as a particular case of the relative autonomy peculiar to the Bonapartist forms of State.19

For the moment I shall confine myself to examining the first set of factors in this relative autonomy, and to indicating the steps it goes through, which are the same as those of the rise of fascism:

(a) From the start of the process to the point of no return. The fascist party, existing previously only in the embryonic form of armed bands, maintained by dominant fractions during the step of offensive by the proletariat, but abandoned by them during the phase of stabilization, now increasingly takes on the character of a mass party. It is openly maintained by big capitalist circles, but it is far from being the “representative” party of this fraction, let alone of the ensemble of the alliance in power.

At the point of no return, the fascist party gains the support of the big capital fraction, in return for some guarantees. It attempts to consolidate its relations with certain of the classes and fractions in power, and to neutralize the reservations of others. In short, it establishes organizational, party ties with a power alliance which has gone onto the offensive, and lacks its own representative political organizations. (This distinguishes fascism from Bonapartism, which in general does not form a party proper.) But its political ties to the masses remain very strong.

(b) The period from the point of no return until fascism comes to power. This completes the preceding period by the successful neutralization of the contradictions between the fractions of big monopoly capital and the other dominant classes and fractions, by means of compromises made by fascism to the latter. But at the same time, this is quite a sudden change of direction for the masses, disturbed by the ever clearer relation between the fascist party and the power bloc. This period sees the establishment of an effective alliance between the monopolistic fraction and the petty bourgeoisie, such as I previously outlined, by means of the fascist party. But this alliance is highly ambiguous, and carries within it the seeds of an explosion.

(c) The first period of fascism in power. This is the moment of truth — but the truth is still only relative. Fascism consolidates its policy of establishing the hegemony of big money capital, but treads cautiously with regard to the other classes and class fractions in power. At the same time, it finds itself obliged to make certain concessions to the masses against the will of the power bloc. This does not prevent the elimination of their vanguards and their organizations — quite the contrary.

In addition, changes take place on the political scene. Through the fascist party, which is still strongly influenced by its class origins, and through the reorganization of the State system and apparatuses, the petty bourgeoisie, without ever becoming a politically dominant class, in this period becomes the ruling class and makes its debut as the class in charge of the State.

This explosive situation is completed by a massive purge of the “left wing” of the fascist party itself, and by the end of the era of compromise (such a policy of compromise being, in contrast, typical of Bonapartism throughout).

(d) The period of the stabilization of fascism. The monopoly capital fraction establishes its hegemony and also achieves the status of ruling class (the identity of the hegemonic and ruling fractions also distinguishing fascism from Bonapartism), dislodging the petty-bourgeoisie. But the latter continues to be in charge of the State — its position is even reinforced by a complete reorganization of political personnel in general.

The era of compromises, as a typical period, is now over. But “stabilized” fascism often finds itself obliged to impose on the power bloc certain concessions to the masses (underestimated by the Comintern) so that its links with them should never be entirely broken. At the same time, the establishment of the hegemony of big capital revives the contradictions within the power alliance. Fascism is obliged to be evasive in this respect, sometimes putting a distance between itself and the hegemonic fraction. Although it does conduct a policy which is, in the last analysis, overwhelmingly in the long term interests of this fraction, it is not an agent under its orders.

Finally, the situation on the political scene (the petty bourgeoisie as class in charge) and on the ideological scene (fascist ideology) also have their effects, together with the factors previously mentioned; and fascist policy in the end comes to antagonize big capital.


1. May 1931 resolution of Central Committee of KPD.

2. Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, London, 1971, p. 210.

3. Gramsci emphasizes this element, but relates it to his conception of “catastrophic equilibrium,” which is not valid for fascism: “The passage of troops of many different parties under the banner of a single party, which better represents and resumes the needs of the entire class, is an organic and normal phenomenon, even if its rhythm is very swift — indeed almost like lightning in comparison with periods of calm. It represents the fusion of an entire social class under a single leadership, which alone is held to be capable of solving an over-riding problem of its existence and offending off a mortal danger. When the crisis does not find this organic solution, but that of the charismatic leader, it means that a static equilibrium exists. . .; it means that no group, neither the conservatives nor the progressives, has the strength for victory, and that even the conservative group needs a master.” (op. cit, p. 211).

4. See Political Power and Social Classes, pp. 21 ff.

5. This is not at all evident from what the PCI said in 1922, in the middle of the “ultra-left” period, against the red Arditi del Popolo: “... they show the pernicious, defeatist nature of the distinction between attack and defence.” This position was attacked by Lenin, with his accustomed irony, as the “philosophy of attack.”

6. Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung, Peking, 1963, pp. 98 ff.

7. “On Protracted War,” ibid., pp. 21 ff.

8. As far as fascism is concerned, the Comintern's definitions (and their practical effect) of the step in fact apply in practice only to Germany, as fascism came to power in Italy just before the Fourth Congress. The Fourth Congress analyses of the step apply “in practice” to Germany, France and England, where there was still a step of stabilization. The Fourth Congress analysis would have been correct only for Italy . . . if only it had been made a few months earlier! Uneven development no longer made much sense to the Comintern.

9. The Third International after Lenin, New York, 1936.

10. This is a suggestion, not a proof: the subject is too important for thorough analysis to be possible here. The fact that Trotsky basically shared the Comintern's economism does not mean that there was no difference between them. The Comintern's development was typified by both economism and the progressive abandonment of proletarian internationalism, while Trotsky stood firm on internationalism, But it was not accidental that Trotsky's internationalism was expressed in the form of “permanent revolution” (which is an entirely different thing from “uninterrupted revolution”).

11. The very notion of permanent revolution, together with Trotsky's economist catastrophism (he always defended the theory of the halt in the development of the productive forces under imperialism), seems to make it impossible for him to recognize the real steps of class struggle. For Trotsky, permanent revolution seems to mean the continual imminence of revolution, which leads to quite paradoxical results: even when he defines a step as defensive, he at the same time expects the almost metaphysical resurgence of a revolutionary situation and a revolutionary offensive at any moment within this step. Trotsky's characterization of the “age of revolution” as the age of “permanent revolution” seems to abolish time for him, because he can never periodize it. To give just one example: after 1930, he often spoke of a defensive step and of an ebb in Germany, but when he predicted fascism, he could still describe it as a response to the offensive by the working class, i.e. as a revolutionary situation.

12. Dimitrov, Selected Works, op. cit.

13. The equation “economic stabilization = working-class defensive” does not appear in the Fourth Congress resolutions. But it is apparent in Radek's report to the Congress, The Capitalists' Offensive: “What defines the period we are in is the fact that... the mass of the proletariat . . . has fallen back to a defensive position.” (Protokoll, pp. 296 ff.) Lenin, racked by illness, made his penultimate public appearance at the Congress, and only made a brief report on NEP.

14. The Fifth Congress's definition was: “Fascism is one of the classic forms of counter-revolution in the era of the decay of capitalist society, the era of proletarian revolution... Fascism is the weapon of capital…” (Inprekorr, German edition, no. 119, September 1924.)

15. See Radek: “Fascism does not represent a clique of officers, but a broad, if contradictory, mass movement.” (Die Rote Fahne, 16 August 1923) Note too the contemporary analyses of Gramsci and Togliatti, which were opposed to the official view of Bordiga and the PCI (below p. 244).

16. See Togliatti's correct critique of Thalheimer in a 1935 lecture series, Lezioni sul fascismo, 1970 edition, pp. 6 ff, and in the article by Griepenburg and Tjaden “Faschismus und Bonapartismus. Zur Kritik der Faschismus-theorie A. Thalheimer,” in Das Argument, December 1966.

17. This is the conclusion reached, for example, by Tim Mason on the basis of Thalheimer’s views, in his article “Der Primat der Politik – Politik und Wirtschaft im Nationalsozialismus,” Das Argument, December 1966, pp.473 ff. In its misinterpretation of Marx, this conception is similar to the fashionable “elitist” view that there is a basic and radical distinction under fascism between the “three realms” of power: the economy, where the “industrial magnates” have power, politics and the State, dominated by the fascist party and bureaucracy, and the army, dominated by the upper layers of the Wehrmacht: one example is A. Schweitzer, Big Business in the Third Reich, London, 1964, pp. 227 ff. The concept of the “autonomy of politics” is also shared by F. Neumann, Demokratischer und Autoritärer Staat, 1967, pp. 93 ff.

18. For this social-democratic position on the petty bourgeoisie as the “third force,” see, amongst others, G. D. H. Cole, A History of Socialist Thought, vol. V, Socialism and Fascism, pp. 5 ff.

19. R. Miliband's errors on this subject should also be noted. But I single him out as one author who appears to be aware of the risk involved in this view: “It is in this perspective that must be understood the notion of the independence of the State power from all forces in civil society, to which Marx and Engels occasionally referred as possible in “exceptional circumstances” (18th Brumaire, etc.), and of which fascism, in the context of advanced capitalism, may be said to provide the furthest example. In that context, however, the concept is ambiguous in that it suggests a certain neutrality on the part of the State power... which actual experience bellies…” (The State in Capitalist Society, London, 1969, p. 93.)

[book-strip index="1" style="display"]

Fascism and Dictatorship
The resurgence of the far right across Europe and the emergence of the “alt-right” in the US have put the question of fascism urgently back on the agenda. For those trying to understand these forms...
The New Faces of Fascism
What does Fascism mean at the beginning of the twenty-first century? When we pronounce this word, our memory goes back to the years between the two world wars and envisions a dark landscape of viol...
The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe
Drawing on a Gramscian theoretical perspective and developing a systematic comparative approach, The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe challenges the received Tocquevillian consensus on author...

Filed under: fascism, weekend-read