Two Ways of Looking at Fascism
The 2002 book Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement is concerned with fascism today as much as “classical” fascism -– its points of reference are not just Hitler and Mussolini but also the World Church of the Creator and Alexander Dugin, Israeli West Bank settlers and the Taliban. As outlined in the Introduction by Xtn (then of Chicago Anti-Racist Action), the book grew out of discussions among anti-fascist and revolutionary leftists (both anarchist and Marxist) about the relationship between fighting fascism and fighting the capitalist state. It was published in the wake of the September 11th attacks, which sparked a new wave of state repression and racist attacks while highlighting the fact that some of the U.S. power structure’s most militant opponents were on the far right.22
Confronting Fascism centers on an essay by Don Hamerquist, formerly of the Sojourner Truth Organization, and an extended reply by J. Sakai, a Maoist best known for his book Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat. Hamerquist and Sakai are both independent Marxists who have worked with anarchist anti-fascists and been influenced by anti-authoritarian critiques of dogmatic Marxism. Like Thalheimer, Mason, and Vajda, they emphasize that fascism is an independent political force, not a capitalist puppet or policy. But Hamerquist and Sakai go much further than this, presenting fascism as a right-wing revolutionary force. In Sakai’s words, “Fascism is a revolutionary movement of the right against both the bourgeoisie and the left, of middle class and declassed men, that arises in zones of protracted crisis.” It is not revolutionary in the socialist or anarchist sense: “Fascism is revolutionary in a simpler use of the word. It intends to seize State power for itself… in order to violently reorder society in a new class rule.”23
Hamerquist and Sakai argue that most leftists seriously underestimate fascism’s potential to attract mass support within the United States and worldwide. Capitalism’s developing contradictions, they argue, create growing opportunities for a resurgence of fascist movements. Far from being a frozen relic of the past, fascism is a dynamic political force that includes a range of factions and tendencies and is evolving in response to changing conditions. Fascist groups feed on popular hostility to big business and the capitalist state, and some of them present an oppositional militance that looks more serious and committed than that of most leftist groups today. (Hamerquist particularly cites “third position” fascists, who claim to reject both the left and the right, but the argument is not limited to these groups.) The main danger of fascism today, Hamerquist argues, is not that it will seize power, but that it “might gain a mass following among potentially insurgent workers and declassed strata through an historic default of the left” causing “massive damage to the potential for a liberatory anti-capitalist insurgency.”24
A related danger that Hamerquist raises is a convergence between fascists and sections of the radical left. He points to leftward overtures from sections of the far right, and tendencies within much of the left that mesh dangerously with fascism, such as male supremacy, glorification of violence, leader cultism, hostility to open debate and discussion, and elitism. Hamerquist notes that German Communists in the early 1930s sometimes made tactical alliances with the Nazis against the Social Democrats because they considered Social Democrats the bigger threat.
Hamerquist warns that U.S. fascist groups are actively organizing around a number of issues that leftists often consider to be “ours,” such as labor struggles, environmentalism, opposition to police repression, U.S. imperialism, and corporate globalization. This kind of fascist popular appeal is nothing new. As Sakai points out, both Mussolini and Hitler galvanized people largely by attacking established elites and promoting an anti-bourgeois militance that seemed much more exciting and dynamic than conventional left politics. “Many youth in 1930s Germany viewed the Nazis as liberatory. As opposed to the German social-democrats, for example, who preached the dutiful authority of parents over children, the Hitler Youth gave rebellious children the power to keep their own hours, have an active sex and political life, smoke, drink and have groups of their own.”25
In different ways, both Hamerquist and Sakai argue that fascism’s radical approach shapes its relationship with capitalism. Of the two writers, Sakai’s position is closer to a Bonapartist model. He describes fascism as “anti-bourgeois but not anti-capitalist.” Under fascist regimes, “capitalism is restabilized but the bourgeoisie pays the price of temporarily no longer ruling the capitalist State.” But for Sakai this conflict is much starker than it is for Bonapartism theorists. Today’s fascism “is opposed to the big imperialist bourgeoisie… to the transnational corporations and banks, and their world-spanning ‘multicultural’ bourgeois culture. Fascism really wants to bring down the World Bank, WTO and NATO, and even America the Superpower. As in destroy.”26
Sakai argues that fascism radically reshapes the capitalist social order to create an economy of “heightened parasitism”: “a lumpen-capitalist economy more focused on criminality, war, looting and enslavement.” He describes how Hitler’s regime elevated millions of German workers into a new parasitic class of soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats and replaced them with a new proletariat of foreign and slave laborers, retirees, and women. This process “created an Aryan society that had never existed before” -– giving Nazi racial categories a concrete, social reality that was qualitatively new (but which paralleled the color-line divisions of U.S. society).27
Sakai’s discussion belies claims that Hitler’s regime had little or no impact on the socioeconomic order. We should remember, however, that this discussion does not apply to Italian Fascism, which lacked Nazism’s overarching racialist imperative and never consolidated the same degree of control over the state. Its effect on the socioeconomic order was far more limited.
Hamerquist takes fascist anti-capitalism more seriously than Sakai does. He notes that current-day fascist movements encompass various positions on how to relate to the capitalist class, from opportunists who want to cut a deal, to pro-capitalist revolutionaries who want to pressure big business into accepting fascist rule, to some third positionists who want to overthrow the economic ruling class entirely. It is unclear how serious a challenge to capitalist economic power any fascists would mount in practice. Where it has been tested, fascist anti-capitalism has meant opposition to “bourgeois values,” specific policies, or a “parasitic” wing of capital (such as Jewish bankers) -– not the capitalist system. On the other hand, as Hamerquist warns, it would be dangerous for leftists to dismiss the prospect of a militantly anti-capitalist fascism simply because it doesn’t fit our preconceptions.
Hamerquist’s concept of fascist anti-capitalism rests partly on his analysis (following German left communist Alfred Sohn-Rethel) that German Nazism foreshadowed “a new ‘transcapitalist’ exploitative social order.” In particular, Hamerquist argues, German fascism’s genocidal labor policy broke with capitalist principles. Not just labor power, but workers themselves were “consumed in the process of production just like raw materials and fixed capital,” thus obliterating “the distinctively capitalist difference between labor and other factors of production.” True, “normal” capitalist development involves genocide “against pre-capitalist populations and against the social formations that obstruct the creation of a modern working class.” But by contrast, “the German policy was the genocidal obliteration of already developed sections of the European working classes” –- i.e., the importation of colonial-style mass killing into Europe’s industrial heartland.28
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Nazism was in the process of overthrowing the capitalist system. The labor policies Hamerquist describes did not call into question the economic power of big business, and arguably could not be sustained for more than a brief period. But the very fact that they were not sustainable may be part of the point. As Hamerquist reminds us, Marx warned that the contradictions of capitalism might end, not in socialist revolution, but in “barbarism,” “the common ruin of the contending classes.” Fascist revolution could be one version of this scenario.29
Here we should remember Thalheimer’s and Caplan’s point that the fascist state’s contradictory relationship with the business class -– defending its economic power but pursuing policies that eventually conflict with capitalist economic rationality -– is inherently unstable. In theory, this conflict could be resolved in various ways: (1) the collapse or overthrow of the fascist regime (as happened in Italy and Germany), (2) the conversion of fascist rule into a more conventional pro-capitalist regime, or (3) some kind of fascist overthrow of capitalist economic power. The last of these alternatives is the hardest to imagine, but cannot simply be dismissed as impossible or nonsensical. It would not abolish economic exploitation but would reshape it in fundamental ways, as Hamerquist suggests in his discussion of Nazi labor policy.
Sakai and Hamerquist also differ on the question of fascism’s class base. Like many others before him, Sakai links fascism to middle-class and declassed strata threatened or uprooted by rapid social and economic change -– historical losers who hate the big capitalists and want to get back the privilege they used to have. Sakai sees this dynamic in the Germans who rallied to Hitler during the Depression, the Timothy McVeigh figures who turn to neonazism as the old U.S. system of white privilege crumbles, and the Muslim world’s shopkeepers and unemployed college graduates hit by globalization, who are at the core of the pan-Islamic right. “To the increasing mass of rootless men fallen or ripped out of productive classes -– whether it be the peasantry or the salariat –- [fascism] offers not mere working class jobs but the vision of payback. Of a land for real men, where they and not the bourgeois will be the one’s [sic] giving orders at gunpoint and living off of others.”30
This discussion is helpful but oversimplified. The dynamics Sakai describes represent part of fascism’s appeal, and there is evidence that the middle classes and sections of the unemployed disproportionately supported fascism in the interwar period. But it would be a serious distortion to pigeonhole fascism as a movement of historical losers. Pre-World War II fascism didn’t just attract declining and uprooted middle classes such as small merchants, but also groups at the core of the new corporate economy, such as white-collar workers and professionals. The fascist vision criticizes modern decadence but also embraces many aspects of modernity. For example, as David Robert argues, Italian Fascism appealed to petty bourgeois activists as a vehicle for national integration, political reform, and large-scale industrial development.31
Furthermore, as Goeff Eley has pointed out about German Nazism, the movement’s dependence on a particular social class is less striking than its ability “to broaden its social base in several different directions” –- to construct “a broadly based coalition of the subordinate classes,” “without precedent in the German political system.” In contrast to the Social Democrats and Communists, who remained focused on the industrial working class, the Nazis (and to a lesser extent Italian Fascists) unified “an otherwise disjointed ensemble of discontents within a totalizing populist framework.”32
Hamerquist does not directly expand on his warning that militant fascism could build a mass base among insurgent workers (a possibility that Sakai questions). Although definitions of “working class” are subject to debate, several fascist movements in the 1930s seem to have attracted substantial numbers of workers, such as the Arrow Cross in Hungary and Father Coughlin’s Social Justice movement in the United States. In 1930-1933, workers made up about 30 percent of German Nazi Party members and a majority within the SA (Stormtroopers), the Nazis’ paramilitary wing.33
While they disagree about fascism’s class base, Hamerquist and Sakai agree that we need to rethink old leftist assumptions about fascism’s racial politics. As Hamerquist puts it, “there is no reason to view fascism as necessarily white just because there are white supremacist fascists. To the contrary there is every reason to believe that fascist potentials exist throughout the global capitalist system. African, Asian, and Latin American fascist organizations can develop that are independent of, and to some extent competitive with Euro-American ‘white’ fascism.”34 Coupled with this, some white fascists support Third World anti-imperialism or even disavow racial supremacy, and some have started to build links with socially conservative Black organizations such as the Nation of Islam.
Sakai notes that the mass displacement of Black workers over the past generation, coupled with the defeat of 1960s left Black nationalism, has fueled an unprecedented growth of authoritarian rightist organizations in the Black community. Sakai also argues that fascism’s key growth area now is in the Third World, where “pan-Islamic fascism” and related movements have largely replaced the left as the major anti-imperialist opposition force.
Unfortunately, Sakai and Hamerquist have little to say about what fascism means for women, as Xtn notes in the Introduction to Confronting Fascism. Sakai asserts that fascism is basically a male movement both in composition and outlook. In reality, as Xtn points out, fascist movements intensify patriarchy but often rely on mass support from both women and men. As I have argued elsewhere, all fascist movements are male supremacist, but they have embodied a range of doctrines on women and gender issues, both traditionalist and anti-traditionalist, and even including twisted versions of feminism. Fascism has sometimes recruited large numbers of women as active participants, largely by offering them specific benefits and opportunities -– in education, youth groups, athletics, volunteer work, and certain paid jobs -– even as it sharpened and centralized male dominance.35