Printed below are excerpts from Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It, a pamphlet by Leon Trotsky published by Pathfinder Press.
Trotsky was a leader of the Bolshevik party and the October 1917 Russian Revolution. After V.I. Lenin, the central leader of the Bolshevik Party and the Russian Revolution, died in 1924, Trotsky became the principal leader of the fight to defend Lenin’s revolutionary course against the anti-working class policies and actions of the growing petty-bourgeois caste whose most prominent spokesperson was Joseph Stalin. He was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929 and was assassinated in Mexico in 1940 by an agent of Stalin’s secret police.
In the years he wrote the selections in this pamphlet, Trotsky lived first in France and then in Norway, before being deported by the capitalist governments of those countries. Writing in the heat of struggle against the rising fascist movements in Europe in the 1930s, Trotsky examined the origin and nature of fascism and advanced a working-class strategy to combat it. The pamphlet is copyright © 1996 by Pathfinder Press. The following selection is reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.
The former dictatorship in Spain of Primo de Rivera, 1923–30, is called a fascist dictatorship by the Comintern.1 We believe that is incorrect.
The fascist movement in Italy was a spontaneous movement of large masses, with new leaders from the rank and file. It is a plebeian movement in origin, directed and financed by big capitalist powers. It issued forth from the petty bourgeoisie, the slum proletariat, and even to a certain extent from the proletarian masses; Mussolini, a former socialist, is a "self-made" man arising from this movement.
Primo de Rivera was an aristocrat. He occupied a high military and bureaucratic post and was chief governor of Catalonia. He accomplished his overthrow with the aid of state and military forces. The dictatorships of Spain and Italy are two totally different forms of dictatorship. It is necessary to distinguish between them. Mussolini had difficulty in reconciling many old military institutions with the fascist militia. This problem did not exist for Primo de Rivera.
The movement in Germany is analogous mostly to the Italian. It is a mass movement, with its leaders employing a great deal of socialist demagogy. This is necessary for the creation of the mass movement....
How Mussolini triumphed
At the moment that the "normal" police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium the turn of the fascist regime arrives.2 Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.
From fascism the bourgeoisie demands and thorough job; once it has resorted to methods of civil war, it insists on having peace for a period of years. And the fascist agency, by utilizing the petty bourgeoisie as a battering ram, by overwhelming all obstacles in its path, does a thorough job. After fascism is victorious, finance capital directly and immediately gathers into its hands, as in a vise of steel, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty, the executive, administrative, and educational powers of the state: the entire state apparatus together with the army, the municipalities, the universities, the schools, the press, the trade unions, and the cooperatives. When a state turns fascist, it does no mean only that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance with the patterns set by Mussolini the changes in this sphere ultimately play a minor role but it means first of all for the most part that the workers organizations are annihilated; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism....
Italian fascism was the immediate outgrowth of the betrayal by the reformists of the uprising of the Italian proletariat. From the time the [first world] war ended, there was an upward trend in the revolutionary movement in Italy, and in September 1920 it resulted in the seizure of factories and industries by the workers. The dictatorship of the proletariat was an actual fact; all that was lacking was to organize it and to draw from it all the necessary conclusions. The social democracy took fright and sprang back. After its bold and heroic exertions, the proletariat was left facing the void. The disruption of the revolutionary movement became the most important factor in the growth of fascism. In September, the revolutionary advance came to a standstill; and November already witnessed the first major demonstration of the fascists (the seizure of Bologna).3
True, the proletariat, even after the September catastrophe, was capable of waging defensive battles. But the social democracy was concerned with only one thing: to withdraw the workers from combat at the cost of one concession after another. The social democracy hoped that the docile conduct of the workers would restore the "public opinion" of the bourgeoisie against the fascists. Moreover, the reformists even banked strongly upon the help of King Victor Emmanuel. To the last hour, they restrained the workers with might and main from giving battle to Mussolini’s bands. It availed them nothing. The crown, along with the upper crust of the bourgeoisie, swung over to the side of fascism. Convinced at the last moment that fascism was not to be checked by obedience, the social democrats issued a call to the workers for a general strike. But their proclamation suffered a fiasco. The reformists had dampened the powder so long, in their fear lest it should explode, that when they finally with a trembling hand did apply a burning fuse to it, the powder did not catch.
Two years after its inception, fascism was in power....
The perspective in the United States
The backwardness of the United States working class is only a relative term.4 In many very important respects it is the most progressive working class in the world, technically and in its standard of living....
The American workers are very combative as we have seen during the strikes. They have had the most rebellious strikes in the world. What the American workers misses is a spirit of generalization, or analysis, of his class position in society as a whole. This lack of social thinking has its origin in the country’s whole history....
About fascism. In all the countries where fascism became victorious, we had, before the growth of fascism and its victory, a wave of radicalism of the masses of the workers and the poorer peasants and farmers, and of the petty bourgeois class. In Italy, after the war and before 1922, we had a revolutionary wave of tremendous dimensions; the state was paralyzed, the police did not exist, the trade unions could do anything they wanted but there was no party capable of taking power. As a reaction came fascism.
In Germany the same. We had a revolutionary situation in 1918; the bourgeois class did not even ask to participate in the power. The social democrats paralyzed the revolution. Then the workers tried again in 1922–23–24. This was the time of the bankruptcy of the Communist Party.... Then in 1929–30–31 the German workers began again a new revolutionary wave. There was a tremendous power in the Communists and in the trade unions, but then came the famous policy (on the part of the Stalinist movement) of social fascism, a policy invented to paralyze the working class. Only after these three tremendous waves did fascism become a big movement. There are no exceptions to this rule fascism comes only when the working class shows complete incapacity to take action into its own hands the fate of society.
In the United States you will have the same thing. Already there are fascist elements, and they have, of course, the examples of Italy and Germany. They will, therefore, work in a more rapid tempo. But you also have the examples of other countries. The next historic wave in the United States will be a wave of radicalism of the masses, not fascism. Of course the war can hinder the radicalization for some time, but then it will give to the radicalization a more tremendous tempo and swing.
We must not identify war dictatorship, the dictatorship of the military machine, of the staff, of finance capital with a fascist dictatorship. For the latter, there is first necessary a feeling of desperation of large masses of the people. When the revolutionary parties betray them, when the vanguard of workers shows its incapacity to lead the people to victory then the farmers, the small business men, the unemployed, the soldiers, etc., become capable of supporting a fascist movement, but only then....
We may set it down as a historical law: fascism was able to conquer only in those countries where the conservative labor parties prevented the proletariat from utilizing the revolutionary situation and seizing power....
It is quite self-evident that the radicalization of the working class in the United States has passed through only its initial phases, almost exclusively in the sphere of the trade union movement (the CIO).5 The prewar period, and then the war itself, may temporarily interrupt this process of radicalization, especially if a considerable number of workers are absorbed into the war industry. But this interruption of the process of radicalization cannot be of long duration. The second stage of radicalization will assume a more sharply expressive character. The problem of forming an independent labor party will be put on the order of the day. Our transitional demands will gain great popularity. On the other hand, the fascist, reactionary tendencies will withdraw to the background, assuming a defensive position, awaiting a more favorable moment. This is the nearest perspective. No occupation is more completely unworthy than that of speculating whether or not we shall succeed in creating a powerful revolutionary party. Ahead lies a favorable perspective, providing all the justification for revolutionary activism. It is necessary to utilize the opportunities which are opening up to build the revolutionary party.
2 From "What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat," Jan. 27, 1932. The entire article is contained in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany by Leon Trotsky.
3 The fascist campaign of violence began in Bologna, Nov. 21, 1920. When the social democratic councilmen, victorious in the municipal elections, emerged from city hall to present the new mayor, they were fired on by fascists. Ten people were killed and a hundred wounded. The fascists followed up with "punitive expeditions" into the surrounding countryside. Black-shirt "action squadrons," in vehicles supplied by big landowners, took over villages in lightning raids, beating and killing peasant and labor leaders, wrecking the offices of working-class and peasant organizations, and terrorizing the people. Emboldened by their easy successes, the fascists then launched large-scale attacks in the big cities.
4 From "Some Questions on American Problems." For the entire article see Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1939-40 published by Pathfinder Press.
5 A series of explosive labor battles in the early 1930s in the United States forged industry-wide trade unions. Until then, most labor unions had been organized along narrow, craft lines into the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was the federation of industrial unions. The two federations merged in 1955.
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