What Fascism Is, and Isn’t

Against the Current, No. 194, May/June 2018

Martin Oppenheimer

MANY PEOPLE SEE Donald Trump as the harbinger of a fascist regime and the “alt-right” as proto-Nazis. Real-existing Fascism as practiced in 1930s-’40s Germany and Italy, however, claimed to represent a revolutionary movement to overturn the old order — in contrast to counter-revolutionary movements that seek to restore an earlier regime of landlords and capitalists after a popular government has engaged in reforms threatening that class.

Thus, for example, the Nazis made no effort to restore a Kaiser.

Fascists did come to power in Germany and Italy more or less legally, and maintained the existing parliamentary system for a time. But this was only to prepare for its extinction and replacement by a “New Order.”

Mussolini’s regime was based on worker and employer syndicates or “corporations.” This scheme was at least partially implemented following the suppression of independent unions and the parties of the left.

Crucially, however, neither Italian fascism nor the Nazis in any way altered basic property relations, nor did they halt capitalist “progress.” Cities became larger, the concentration of capital and the inequality of incomes greater, the rural population smaller. In Germany the Junkers still ran big agriculture and the army continued to be led “by generals whose names began with ‘Von.”(1)

Was fascism, instead, a counter-revolutionary movement? What happened to the “revolutionary” element of fascist ideology?

Once the Nazis came to state power they suppressed all potential revolutionary forces (even within their own ranks), keeping their promises to their conservative party allies. But within a few years the Nazi state also eliminated potential threats from conservatives who did not enthusiastically sign up for Hitler’s war mobilization.

The fascist state seemed to have a dynamic all its own. It appeared autonomous, independent of classes, analogous to the Bonapartism described in Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). Individual capitalists prospered only if they were willing to subordinate corporate interests to these regimes’ grandiose schemes of foreign conquest.

The same was true for those “Von” generals, even when this program endangered economic and military efficiency. But neither the German nor the Italian fascist dictatorships in any way restricted the immense profits stemming from war production.

The German Communist Party Opposition in 1930 viewed the rise of fascism as the consequence of the “exhaustion of the bourgeoisie, which searched for a savior to preserve its social power.” The function of the fascist state would be “the political subordination of all masses including the bourgeoisie itself…but with the social dominance of the large bourgeoisie and large landowners…”(2)

More recent Marxist analyses put more emphasis on differentiating among the fractions of capital and assessing more precisely who supported Hitler and when. It was because of its sharpening internal conflicts that no one fraction of capital was able to build a stable parliamentary coalition, so that the government was incapable of dealing with current problems.

“By mid-1932 … the leading figures in the now decisive fraction of industry concluded that Nazi participation in or control of the government would provide the best way out of the political crisis while providing auspicious possibilities for a profitable economic recovery.”(3)

It was widely believed in elite circles that the Nazi movement could be “tamed” by means of financial support and that Hitler would only be a temporary expedient to discipline labor and stabilize the government. This proved to be a tragic delusion.

Fascist rule, however, confronts a fundamental contradiction. Remilitarization plus spending on the social measures necessary to sustain popular support had to be paid for, but without excessively taxing the industrialists and large landowners. This could be done only by plunder, domestically by confiscating Jewish properties and internationally by invading and seizing the wealth, especially the raw materials, of other countries. Hence fascism’s imperialist dynamic.

The Beginnings

The German Freikorps (Free Corps, or volunteer militia) movement began at the end of the First World War, in November 1918.(4) It consisted of large detachments of demobilized but often still armed German soldiers recruited, or sometimes simply reorganized, by some of their former officers. By the end of December, 1918 one former general had enlisted 4,000 men.

These formations, subsidized by elements of German capital, were crucial in suppressing the German Revolution of 1918-19 and later revolutionary and labor militancy following the June 1920 signing of the Treaty of Versailles. At the peak of their strength the various Freikorps units had some 200,000 men under arms.

Following the failure of Hitler’s attempted coup in 1923, the German General Staff disbanded the Freikorps, incorporating a limited number in the now much reduced (due to strictures of the treaty) army. Numerous Freikorps veterans then joined Hitler, forming an important component of his quasi-military Brownshirts, the S.A.

It is essential to understand the historical context in which Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazis) appeared.

Germany was faced with immense problems following its military defeat: the loss of 1.75 million men out of a prewar population of about 60 million, a completely disrupted economy saddled with overwhelming reparations payments, the necessity of absorbing millions of returning soldiers all at once, the influx of displaced Eastern populations with the annexation of German territories by the newly formed Poland, and a shaky parliamentary system with weak leadership confronting a capitalist class of industrialists and large-scale landowners (the Prussian Junkers) determined to thwart every attempt to enact social-democratic reforms.

A hair-raising inflation in the early 1920s was soon followed by the Great Depression, beginning in 1929, with its unprecedented unemployment. The German post-World War I parliamentary state, whose task was to stabilize the economy and avoid a revolutionary upsurge by socialist and communist forces, which were a serious threat, was no longer capable of doing either.

The outcome was the Nazis’ displacement of parliamentary government, creating a state that “solved” the problem of revolution through dictatorship, and stabilized capitalism through an extreme form of military Keynesianism that restored profits and virtually eliminated unemployment.

A Comparison

By contrast, post-Vietnam United States faced no comparable economic crisis. The post-war period was, if not prosperous for everybody, relatively stable. There was no Versailles Treaty to crush the financial system. U.S. casualties — some 58,000 killed — were a terrible waste of life but certainly not heavy as a proportion of the population.

Veterans did not come home to face Communist formations intent on overthrowing the government and setting up a Soviet state. Nor was the government in the kind of disarray that would block a broad consensus among various fractions of capital as to social policy.

The major parallel is the defeat of both countries in a war, and the appearance in segments of the population (far smaller in the United States than in Germany) of some version of a “stab-in-the-back” theory that the defeat was due to betrayal by the home front: in Germany, Jewish Marxists, Jewish slackers and profiteers, cowardly politicians.

In the United States, peaceniks, liberals and cowardly politicians are still today held responsible for an armed force fighting in Vietnam “with one arm tied behind its back.” Conspiracy theories are the inevitable side-effect of the unanticipated loss of a war by a nation accustomed to victory and persuaded through generations of its greatness.

Nevertheless most U.S. veterans were successfully integrated into civilian life and jobs. The highest estimate of the ultra-right “militia movement” in the mid-1990s was between 20,000 and 50,000 in many small units, incapable of mounting a serious armed threat to U.S. armed forces, unlike the mass quasi-armed militias that supported extremist parties in Germany and Italy.

Fascist and Ultra-Right Ideology

The Freikorps and its Nazi successors held to a set of common themes, most of which, translated into the U.S. context, are indeed shared by the ultra-right.

These include: (1) contempt for an ineffectual parliamentary state that they perceived to have betrayed them by refusing to pursue the war and then signing what virtually the entire German population at the time saw as a disgraceful treaty; (2) scapegoating of Jews as responsible for that defeat, that treaty, and virtually every other social ill; (3) correspondingly a concern about protecting the sanctity of the German “race” and people (Volk) against inferior other “races” and peoples; (4) a populist posture in which a conspiracy rooted mainly in the “non-productive” financial sector allegedly led by Jews is responsible for the misery of “the people;” and (5) an extreme nationalism in which the individual is subordinated to “the people,” that would be led by a strong man at the head of an authoritarian state.

[See Christopher Vials’ discussion of The Authoritarian Personality, a post-World War II book written by Theodor Adorno and University of California-Berkeley psychologists Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson and Nevitt Sanford.]

One element that is crucial to understanding the attraction of fascism (and the violence that characterizes ultra-right tactics) is its emotional component, an idea that is fully embraced by fascists themselves.

Here is Alfredo Rocco, theoretician of Italian fascism: “Fascism is above all action and sentiment…only because it is the unconscious reawakening of our profound racial instinct, has it the force to stir up the soul of a people.”(5)

Observers of Nazi rallies noted a “nostalgia for community,…for the sort of powerful sense of group identity that will enable you to hold hands with people and sing along, your lucid individuality submerged in the folly of collective delirium, united in a common cause, which of course implies a common enemy.”

Oh, wait — this is Tim Parks’ description of a Soccer crowd!(6) But Nazi rallies have been described similarly.

The movements of the left, including Communism, are the children of modernity, of the Enlightenment, rooted historically in the American and French “bourgeois revolutions.” They are linked to the ideas of progress, economic development, urbanization, science and rational thought, and in opposition to superstition and fundamentalist religion of whatever stripe.

Fascism instead constitutes a revolt against the Enlightenment and the project of modernity; against intellectualism, rationality and the “progress” that has resulted in the alleged breakdown of traditional communities and such values as the patriarchal family and the virtue of productive work.

For Rocco, political liberalism, that is, the partnership of democratic institutions and progressive thinking, destroys spiritual life. Fascism by contrast, he insisted, stirs the soul. At the same time, ironically, the Nazi state used the methods of science to conquer most of Europe, and with industrial efficiency murder some six million Jews and millions of other “undesirable” elements.

When the themes of national unity, financial conspiracy and anti-modernity are combined, the resulting formula logically makes anti-semitism fundamental to fascist and ultra-right thinking. In their imagination the Jew is “the quintessentially modern man — urban, rootless, rational, immersed in the ‘inauthentic’ realm of commercial exchange.”(7)

Who Are These People?

The term “alt-right” suggests that it is an alternative to the normal conservative right, so that it seems qualitatively different and therefore possibly proto-fascist. This is a misconception.

The alt-right is an extension of the existing right, an “ultra” or extreme wing that does include a minority of true fascists. There is no clear line between the extremist and mainstream right, and people shift in one direction or the other, including in their organizational allegiances.

For example, although there were “Tea Party” adherents who were extremist in denying the legitimacy of any state power above the local level, most Tea Party adherents did not go that far and were oriented to working within the existing political structure of the Republican Party.

The vast majority of Republicans would hardly be comfortable living in Mussolini’s “totalitarianized” state (his expression). Nor are most fixated on the role of a leader or savior, although they join much of the public in favoring personalities who are seen as politically independent and untainted by corporate money.

Ultras who support Donald Trump do so in part because he is viewed as independent of the usual political clap-trap and because Hillary Clinton was seen as a deeply compromised part of that.

Many see Trump and the one percent not as capitalist enemies, but as embodying the laissez-faire spirit, a logical framing by the petty-bourgeois elements that constitute a large sector of the ultra-right. In this way they are not separate from the rest of the Republican Party’s constituency.

Another major difference between the U.S. ultras and both Italian and German fascists is that in the United States virtually the entire spectrum on the “right” is undergirded by fundamentalist religion. Among fascists that kind of fervor takes the form of expansionist or imperialistic nationalism, which is disavowed by sectors of the U.S. right who are isolationist.

It would be a mistake to think of the ultras only as swastika, sieg-heling, torch-bearing hoodlums of the Charlottesville, Virginia type, or camouflage-clad armed defenders of private property in Eastern Oregon.

A number of extremist groups have been studied over the years. One was a Detroit self-styled “Nazi” group, average age 19, school dropouts, unskilled and underemployed, single, with petty criminal records living in an isolated pocket of whites surrounded by African-American and other racial minorities. This was a marginal group similar to skinheads in many countries today.

By contrast, the Idaho “Christian Patriots” are similarly rabidly anti-Semitic and racist, and include former Klansmen. Their average age at the time of the study was 48, they were well-integrated into their communities, married, occupationally skewed towards small business and the self-employed. They supported Patrick J. Buchanan for president (and presumably today Trump).(8)

This group is demographically similar to many “Tea Party” adherents, three-quarters of whom have college degrees and describe their financial situations as good or fairly good.(9)

Who Supported Hitler?

How closely do these profiles resemble Nazi supporters? Contrary to the widespread view that Nazi voters were the uprooted and disinherited of all social classes, “The ideal-typical Nazi voter…was a middle-class self-employed Protestant who lived either on a farm or in a small community…strongly opposed to the power and influence of big business and big labor.”(10)

Nor did the unemployed vote Nazi in especially strong numbers. Their prior class membership was a stronger indicator of voting preference.

In a study of 14 of Germany’s largest cities, Richard Hamilton correlated the class composition of city districts with their party votes. “Support for the National Socialists in most cities varied directly with the class level of the district. The ‘best districts’ gave Hitler and his party the strongest support…”(11) Theirs was undoubtedly a vote for stabilizing capitalism and suppressing the Left.

Yet this was a minority of the Nazi vote. Large numbers of lower middle-class, white collar and blue collar workers also voted for Hitler, the proportion declining in direct correlation to income. Still, more than one-fourth of blue collar workers supported the Nazis in 1932.

It is important to remember that the Nazi party was never supported by a majority of German voters in a free election. Even after Hitler came to power in January, 1933 and had begun the terrorization of opposition elements, the Communist and Social Democratic parties together still received more than 12 million votes against the Nazis’ 17.2 million in the March, 1933 election.

Hitler then had the 81 Communist and numerous Social Democratic members of parliament arrested, and then a rump parliament voted itself effectively out of business to begin the process of the consolidation of the Nazi state.

Nazi party membership did not significantly differ from party voters, except that members were disproportionally young, which seems to be true also for ultra street activists. In 1931 before “Power,” 65.5% of Party members were from 18 to 40, compared to 46.7% for the Social Democratic Party. They were less likely to be married, disproportionally lower middle-class (white collar, especially teachers), and mostly employed.(12)

Is Trump a Fascist?

Under historical circumstances such as after World War I, a fascist party can become a mass movement using the rhetoric of revolution, even socialism.

Fascism, however, cannot thrive in a vacuum. It requires an enemy, a mass movement of popular forces on the left. Its aim is to structure a dictatorship that will end a parliamentary chaos reflecting irreconcilable policy disputes among different fractions of capital. This of course requires subjugating the forces of the left.

The Republican Party’s role, on the other hand, is fundamentally reactionary in that it seeks to restore the country, in effect, to the 1920s. Of course it would also become counter-revolutionary even to the point of supporting a dictatorship, if there were mass movements of the left seriously contending for power.

Its base is among petty bourgeois elements and white Evangelicals, and it has the financial backing of significant fractions of capital. It seeks to “starve the beast” of state spending on the social policies associated with the New Deal and subsequent reforms. But its rhetoric is belied by its support for strengthening the military and the security apparatus and its affinity for pork-barrel spending.

The Republican program of privatization serves both purposes: deconstructing the state (Stephen Bannon’s term), and providing new avenues for profit. But it is backward-looking, while fascism, as it totalitarianized, expanded the apparatus of the state in many dimensions, including in the economy.

Fascism did not privatize state enterprises; to the contrary, it did not hesitate to nationalize, or even create state enterprises (Volkswagen!). Most U.S. Republicans would find such state intervention totally unacceptable.

Donald Trump and his retinue constitute the extreme kleptocratic, nepotistic wing of the Republican regime. His faction lacks even the coherence of a consistent reactionary program, much less is it capable of promoting a fascist vision.

Today’s political chaos reflects not only Trump’s dysfunctional behavior but also disputes among various capitalist interests and fractions. But neither a military putsch, nor a leader with a coherent vision capable of resolving these contradictions by means of a dictatorship, are likely unless there were a very severe decade-long economic crisis or perhaps all-out war. But Trump would be gone by then.

Too many on the left throw the F word at just about any person, movement or government that is authoritarian so long as it does not call itself “socialist.” This lack of historical perspective hampers the development of carefully thought-out strategies for coping with the broad range of reactionary forces (including some real fascists) that we now confront. I hope this essay has helped to clarify just what fascism is, and is not.


  1. David Schoenbaum, Hitler’s Social Revolution. Anchor Books, 1966, 285.
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  2. Derek S. Linton, “Bonapartism, Fascism, and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,” in Dobkowski and Walliman, Radical Perspectives on the Rise of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1945. Monthly Review Press, 1989, 110.
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  3. David Abraham, The Collapse of the Weimar Republic. Princeton U. Press, 1981, 315, 320.
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  4. Robert G.L. Waite, Vanguard of Nazism: The Free Corps Movement in Postwar Germany 1918-1923. W.W. Norton, 1969. Also Theodore Abel, Why Hitler Came To Power. Prentice-Hall, 1938, reprinted as The Nazi Movement. Atherton, 1969.
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  5. The Political Doctrine of Fascism. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1926, 10.
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  6. “Soccer: A Matter of Love and Hate,” New York Review of Books, July 18, 2002. But also see Abel, footnote above.
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  7. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace. Pantheon, 1981, 309. This is a comprehensive study of the history of anti-modernity and its many branches.
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  8. James A. Aho, The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism. Washington U. Press, 1990; also This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy. Washington U. Press, 1994. Ralph Ezekiel, The Racist Mind: Portraits of American Neo-Nazis and Klansmen. Viking, 1995.
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  9. Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party. Paradigm Publishers, 2011; also Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. Oxford U. Press, 2012.
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  10. Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Johns Hopkins Paperbacks, 1981, 148. Also Richard Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler? Princeton U. Press, 1982.
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  11. Hamilton, 421.
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  12. Theodore Abel, op. cit. Also, Hans Gerth, “The Nazi Party: Its Leadership and Composition,” American Journal of Sociology v. XLV (Jan. 1940). Abel and Gerth were both refugees.
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May-June 2018, ATC 194