“Should Fascism achieve power it will ride over your skulls and spines like a frightful tank”, wrote Leon Trotksy in a letter to a German communist in December 1931. “Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only unity in struggle with the social democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-communists, you have very little time left.”
To a modern audience aware of the Nazis’ horrific crimes, Trotsky’s words are painfully prescient. But he was something of a lone voice in his own time. Many among the rich and powerful openly collaborated with Hitler. Winston Churchill sang Mussolini’s praises. Liberal capitalist parties across Europe formed coalition governments with fascists, while social democrats reassured themselves that constitutions would protect democracy against a fascist seizure of power. The Stalinist Communist parties argued that the fascists were no worse than the usual rulers of capitalism, and barely lifted a finger to stop their rise to power.
A theory of fascism emerges from Trotsky’s scattered writings on Italy, Germany, France and Spain, published together as the pamphlet Fascism: What it is and How to Fight it.
Fascism represents the counter-revolutionary revenge of the ruling class against workers. It arose as a political phenomenon during the 1920s and 1930s, immediately following the workers’ revolutions that engulfed Europe after the First World War. The ruling classes, terrified of revolution, sought comfort in a reactionary movement that would violently repress the working class. “The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organisations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery”, Trotsky wrote in a 1934 piece, “Whither France?”
But fascism is not just a concoction of the bosses. “The fascists find their human material mainly in the petty bourgeoisie [middle classes]”, Trotsky wrote. Subsequent analyses of fascist voting patterns, including Richard F. Hamilton’s Who Voted for Hitler, confirm Trotsky’s statement. In terms of membership and voting base, the fascist parties drew most of their support from the middle classes, including small shopkeepers, artisans, managers, lawyers, bureaucrats and peasants. Workers, who made up 50 percent of the German population, were only about 25 percent of the Nazis’ membership, and fewer than 5 percent of Nazi members were in trade unions.
Why were the middle classes the social base of fascism? In the 1920s and 1930s, they were “entirely ruined by big capital”, according to Trotsky. They were ruined by the war, which had sent millions to fight and die, and by the Great Depression, which began in 1928. The fascists seemed to offer solutions to these problems, and they diverted the “dissatisfaction, indignation and despair” of the middle classes “away from big capital and against the workers”.
The fascists directly appealed to the middle classes. Nazi leader Adolph Hitler highlighted the social position and grievances of these “self-made men” in Mein Kampf, declaring that “for people of modest situation who have once risen above that social level, it is unendurable to fall back into it, even momentarily”. It was this fear of social regression that drove the middle classes into the arms of the fascists, who promised political stability, social cohesion and economic salvation for small proprietors. In the years before they came to power, the Nazis campaigned against the large businesses that put economic pressure on small shopkeepers, often using anti-Semitic tropes.
Fascists also recruited from the completely destitute: the long-term unemployed, ex-soldiers and those driven to petty crime. Fascism gave these men hot soup, a place to sleep and a gun with which to menace the left and Jews, whom they could blame for all their problems.
It was not inevitable, however, that the middle classes would be drawn into the fascist camp. Much of the petty bourgeoisie had been drawn along by the worker-led revolutions and uprisings at the end of the war; this fusion was the most successful during the 1917 Russian Revolution, which was supported by millions of peasants.
But without sufficient leadership, the revolutions in the rest of Europe didn’t fare as well, and by the early 1920s, the revolutionary wave had ebbed. The various left-wing parties seemed incapable of solving the ongoing capitalist crisis, and so the petty-bourgeois masses turned towards the fascists. Workers largely remained loyal to the socialist parties, but some were dragged towards fascism. As Trotsky put it, “Fascism is a form of despair in the petty-bourgeois masses, who carry away with them over the precipice a part of the working class as well”.
While fascism gained its foot soldiers and numerical strength from the middle classes, it could come to power only at the behest of the real kingmakers of politics: the big capitalists, the military generals and the state bureaucrats.
The ruling class will bring to power a fascist party with a rabid, plebeian base only when three conditions are met. First, when capitalism cannot continue as before—with unstable political regimes and a large and menacing workers’ movement. Second, the usual methods for keeping the workers’ organisations in check (legal repression or cooption) are inadequate to the task. Third, when bringing the fascists to power will not provoke a revolution in response.
After taking power, the fascists acted as the strong arm of the capitalists, including against their own middle-class supporters. “After fascism is victorious, finance capital directly and immediately gathers into its hands, as in a vice of steel, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty”, Trotsky wrote. It was the big capitalists, not the petty bourgeoisie, who enriched themselves under the Nazi regime: between 1933 and 1936, corporate profits rose by 433 percent while workers’ wages fell, and half of small businesses went bankrupt.
The fascists’ rise to power wasn’t inevitable. The political errors of the two main forces on the European left—the reformist Social Democrats and the Communist parties loyal to the USSR—made it possible.
The stance of the reformists amounted to a servile trust in the institutions of the capitalist state and the capitalist class. They thought that the police could be used to disarm the fascist gangs, despite all evidence that the police were extremely sympathetic to the fascists and that, as Trotsky wrote, the “comedy of disarmament by the police” would “only have caused the authority of the fascists to increase as fighters against the capitalist state”.
They also believed that the capitalists’ commitment to democracy would halt the fascist march to power. In Germany, the Social Democrats (SPD) formed an “Iron Front” with the capitalist parties, supposedly to counter the rise of the Nazis. Later, the Socialists in France and Spain insisted on the participation of bourgeois parties in their “Popular Front” coalitions against fascism. In this way, they openly cooperated with the class of exploiters. The strategy failed precisely because the bourgeoisie holds no such commitment to democracy.
There was another fatal flaw in the reformists’ attitude to fascism—they were terrified of unleashing the revolutionary potential of workers’ struggle lest things “go too far”. Trotsky ruthlessly mimicked the SPD leaders begging the government: “Please don’t force us to defend ourselves with the might of workers’ organisations, for this will only arouse the entire working class; and then the movement will rise above the bald pates of our party leadership: beginning as anti-fascist, it will end communist”.
For Trotsky, the reformist leaders were politically irredeemable in their unswerving loyalty to capitalism, but the millions of workers who supported them were key to blocking the fascists’ road to power. Along with Communist workers, they could drive back the armed fascist gangs that were now rampaging through working-class districts. Together, they had the power to overthrow capitalism, thereby resolving the economic and social problems that allowed fascism to fester and grow.
Trotsky held particular contempt for Joseph Stalin’s theory of fascism. “Fascism is the military organisation of the bourgeoisie which leans upon the Social Democracy for active support”, Stalin claimed. “The Social Democracy, objectively speaking, is the moderate wing of fascism.” While it’s true that the capitalist class, in a crisis, leans on both fascism for its violent attacks on the working class, and on Social Democracy for its ability to restrain working-class militancy, it does not follow that Social Democracy is just the “moderate wing of fascism”.
This stupidity formed the basis of the Stalinist theory that fascism is just another face of capitalism, no better or worse than a democratic parliament led by Social Democrats. Therefore, the Communists should not lift a finger to stop the fascists, and would never work with the Social Democrats, whom they branded “social fascists”. Trotsky replied in 1932, just months before Hitler took power in Germany: “The know-alls who boast that they do not recognise any difference between [German Chancellor] Brüning and Hitler are saying in reality: it makes no difference whether our organisations exist, or whether they are already destroyed”.
The actions of the German Communist Party (KPD) during the rise of the Nazis provide an example of Stalin’s theory in practice. It made a series of terrible tactical decisions that did nothing to stop the Nazis’ rise. But its worst crime was passivity. As the Nazis prepared to destroy every vestige of working-class power and democracy, the KPD leaders smugly sat by, claiming that Hitler’s victory would only hasten the crisis that would bring the Communists to power. They had an idiotic slogan for this attitude too: “First Hitler, then our turn”.
Trotsky could only watch in horror from afar as his predictions came true; fascism ran roughshod over the most powerful workers’ movements in Europe, from Italy to Germany and Spain. But he preserved in his writing the lessons of those terrible failures for future generations.
It is worth returning to Trotsky’s arguments as far-right and even fascist organisations continue to gain influence. Contemporary politics is not a mirror image of the 1930s, so Trotsky’s arguments are not a simple blueprint for analysing fascism today. The workers’ movement is comparatively weak, there are no mass socialist organisations, and the crisis of capitalism is not yet on the same scale. Because of this, the capitalists feel less need to totally dispense with democracy.
But Trotsky’s writings on the class base of fascism and the economic and social conditions that allow it to take power should serve as a warning for what the future may hold. His arguments about the need for mass working-class resistance to stop fascism in its tracks are based on an analysis of the same class forces that rule the world today.
And Trotsky’s anger at the criminal negligence of the two dominant wings of the workers’ movement, reformism and Stalinism, should serve as fuel in the fight for revolutionary Marxist politics today.