The rise of fascism in Italy in the early 1920s represented a new, extremely dangerous threat to the workers’ movement. It provoked urgent debate in the early years of the Communist International – before its policy of workers’ unity to defeat the fascists was overturned by the Stalinists. With right-wing populism making a comeback, the debates of the 1920s resonate today.
“Seldom has there been a word more bandied about, yet less understood, than fascism. For many the fascist label is simply an insult, directed against particularly repellent and reactionary individuals or movements. It’s also customarily used as a political description of right-wing military dictatorships”. So begins John Riddell’s introduction to this reprint of a speech and resolution by German Marxist Clara Zetkin to the June 1923 enlarged executive meeting of the Communist International (Comintern).
Zetkin had been a leading figure in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), and one of the founding members of the Spartacist League which became the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1918. She was a close ally of Vladimir Lenin in the Comintern, siding with him and Leon Trotsky on many of the key issues under debate in this heated period.
To cut across the confusion over fascism, Zetkin introduced a much clearer Marxist definition: of a special form of reactionary mass movement based on dispossessed, de-classed elements of society – including impoverished peasants, small businesspeople, and the most alienated sections of the working class – which aims to smash the workers’ movement. It arose first in Italy, then in Germany, on the back of missed opportunities for the working class to come to power and begin the socialist transformation of society. It was to deal with this threat to their system that the capitalist classes turned in desperation to fascism.
This was far from their preferred option. The rise of capitalism coincided with the rise of parliamentary democracy, but the capitalists’ approach to democracy is pragmatic – using it if it serves their own interests. In capitalism’s early stages it was used to ensure the transfer of state power from the landed aristocracy to the capitalists themselves.
With capitalism, however, came the development of the working class. At first, the capitalists were prepared to mobilise those without property against the old feudal rulers. But they grew afraid of the working class’s growing strength and demands, becoming increasingly prepared to compromise with the old order. This was to the extent that almost every democratic right the capitalists now claim as being synonymous with their system had to be fought for by the working class – including the right to vote, free association, etc.
Although the ruling class has adapted to these reforms, when the chips are down it is not afraid to dispense with them. This occurred after the first world war, a period of revolution and counter-revolution with reactionary forces attempting to hold back the Bolshevik tide following the Russian revolution of 1917. Many of these were based on the military – for example, tsarist generals leading the ‘Whites’ in the Russian civil war, and the regime of Admiral Horthy in Hungary.
Fascism and military/police dictatorships are both similarly repressive, but this shared outward appearance rests on different internal forces. Zetkin distinguished between them: “Even though fascism and the Horthy regime employ the same, bloody terrorist methods, which bear down on the proletariat in the same way, the historical essence of the two phenomena is entirely different”. She described Horthy’s dictatorship as being “based upon a small caste of officers”, while “the base of fascism relies not in a small caste but in broad social layers, broad masses, reaching even into the proletariat”.
This difference has a material effect on the working class. The military/police would arrest, kidnap or kill workers’ leaders – Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered by far-right paramilitary Freikorps in Berlin in 1919, with the complicity of SPD leaders. Fascism’s mass base, however, means it corrodes workers’ organisations from the ground up – breaking up meetings, carrying out physical attacks, etc – as well as from the top when it seizes power. This atomises the working class and its organisations and it can only very slowly recover its ability to organise.
Fascism in Italy
Clara Zetkin’s speech focused primarily on Italy where fascism under Benito Mussolini had come to power in 1922. Key to her analysis was the observation that, prior to the rise of fascism, there had been opportunities for the workers’ movement: “The objectively revolutionary situation led to the rise of a subjectively revolutionary mood in the Italian proletariat. The glorious example of the Russian workers and peasants had a strong influence here. In the summer of 1920, the metalworkers carried out the occupation of the factories. [See: When Workers Seized the Factories, Socialism Today No.141, September 2010] Here and there, reaching into southern Italy, agricultural proletarians, small peasants and tenant farmers occupied estates or rebelled in other ways against the large landowners. But this great historic moment found the workers’ leaders to be feeble in spirit.
“The reformist leaders of the [Italian] Socialist Party [PSI] drew back in fear from the revolutionary perspective of broadening the factory occupations into a struggle for power. They forced the workers’ struggle into the narrow confines of a purely economic movement, whose leadership was the business of the trade unions…
“Leaders of the Socialist Party’s left wing, from which the Communist Party later crystallised, still had too little training and experience to take command of the situation in thought and action and steer events in another direction. Moreover, the proletarian masses proved unable to go beyond their leaders and drive them forward in the direction of revolution. The occupation of the factories ended in a severe defeat of the proletariat, causing discouragement, doubt and timidity in its ranks. Thousands of workers turned their backs on the party and trade unions”.
Zetkin also explained that fascism grew very slowly at first: “In May 1920 there were in all of Italy only about one hundred fascist groups, none of them with more than twenty to thirty members”. Even after the defeat of the factory occupation movement, “in the municipal elections, the socialists won a third of the 8,000 councils”.
With the failure of the workers’ movement to take the struggle forward, however, the fascists began to gain. Zetkin noted their attempts at populist even anti-capitalist rhetoric, calling for a minimum wage, pensions, a reduction in the working week and other demands. Mussolini even said that his aim when founding the fasci Italiani di combattimento (Italian combat leagues) was “securing the revolutionary fruits of the revolutionary war for the heroes of the trenches and the working people”. It became common for groups of 15-20,000 fascists to be mobilised and supplied with transport, uniforms and food by big industrialists to go into towns to physically break strikes. PSI-run city halls were seized, the offices of socialist newspapers burned down.
Many of the raids were carried out with the connivance of the state machine. Yet the reformist leaders of the PSI meekly appealed to King Victor Emmanuel to defend the constitution. Instead, following the fascists’ 50,000-strong march on Rome, and financed by a 20 million lira donation from the Banking Association, he appointed Mussolini prime minister in October 1922, urged on by the heads of the Italian General Federation of Industry.
The united front
This did not go unchallenged. Rank-and-file trade unionists and left-wing socialists set up anti-fascist militias and, where this was well organised, were able to block the fascists, such as in Parma in August 1922. The first key measure proposed by Zetkin was just such a united front of workers’ organisations to defend themselves from attacks on meetings and premises. She had already argued for this tactic at an anti-fascist conference called by German factory committees earlier in 1923 – her conference speech and the resolution are in the book.
The main organisational points put forward in the Comintern resolution drafted by Zetkin dealt mostly with this measure. They contrasted with the disastrous tactics of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). It had adopted an ultra-left approach, organising its own separate ‘action squadrons’.
An appendix in the book on Zetkin’s further trajectory points out that, as Stalin rose to power in the Soviet Union, the Comintern moved away from this analysis. At its fifth congress, just a year after Zetkin’s speech, the resolution on fascism stated: “As bourgeois society continues to decay, all bourgeois parties, particularly social-democracy, take on a more or less fascist character… Fascism and social-democracy are the two sides of the same instrument of capitalist dictatorship”. (Jane Degras, The Communist International 1919-1943 Documents, Vol 2)
However, this false equation of social democracy with fascism as ‘two sides of the same instrument’ did not stop the instinctive drive towards unity by workers in struggle, which even the Comintern leaders recognised as the ‘united front from below’. Even in Prussia’s ‘red referendum’ of 1931, where the KPD ended up campaigning for the dissolution of the SPD-led Landtag (federated state assembly), the Stalinists initially offered a united front to the Social Democrats.
At the time, Trotsky commented: “On 21 July, the [KPD] Central Committee addressed itself to the Prussian government with the demand for democratic and social concessions, threatening otherwise to come out for the referendum. Advancing its demands, the Stalinist bureaucracy actually addressed itself to the upper stratum of the Social Democratic Party with the proposal for a united front against the fascists under certain conditions. When the Social Democracy rejected the proposed conditions, the Stalinists formed a united front with the fascists against the Social Democracy. This means that the policy of the united front is conducted not only ‘from below’ but also ‘from above’. It means that Thälmann is permitted to address himself to Braun and Severing with an ‘open letter’ on the joint defence of democracy and social legislation from Hitler’s bands”. (Against National Communism! 1933)
(Ernst Thälmann was KPD leader from 1925, executed at Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944. Otto Braun and Carl Severing were the Prussian SPD prime minister and interior minister respectively.)
The balance of class forces today
Although the book’s introduction gives a good summary of Zetkin’s main arguments, when it attempts to apply them to the Trump phenomenon it is as if history has almost stood still. Yes, the capitalist classes in various European countries turned to fascism, against the backdrop of the revolutionary threat to their system. However, they got their fingers badly burnt by Hitler’s drive to war and the subsequent loss of central and eastern Europe to Stalinism for nearly half a century.
In addition, the same mass social basis of 1920s and 1930s Germany and Italy – ruined small proprietors and peasants – no longer exists in most advanced capitalist countries. Despite massive deindustrialisation, there is a much larger working class today. There is no recognition of this in the introduction. Instead, there is the exaggerated generalisation that, “it is precisely situations like this that can give rise to fascist movements at a certain stage”.
Neo-fascist groups, while emboldened by Donald Trump, remain small and marginal. This does not mean, of course, that they pose no threat – as shown by the murder of Heather Heyer at the anti-racist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and the attack on RMT members including the union’s assistant general secretary, Steve Hedley, in London this year. They must be stopped – with the organised working class taking the lead.
Fighting the fascist threat requires a realistic appraisal of its strength. Trump is a particularly bigoted representative of capitalism, but he is not the head of a fascist organisation hundreds of thousands strong. Even with the recent alarm in Britain over a Football Lads Alliance protest of 15,000 – with neo-fascist elements present but generally a demonstration of a loose, heterogeneous character – it does not compare to the 50,000 paid-up members of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists at its height in the 1930s.
In contrast, health campaigns and trade unions mobilised over 100,000 on their 4 March national demonstration last year, and the Labour Party following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader has a membership of around 550,000. Given the balance of forces, where capitalist politicians seek to utilise far-right forces, it is much more likely that they would be used as auxiliaries, rather than in a repeat of the inter-war years.
Putting forward a political alternative
In her speech, Zetkin argued for another key measure: the necessity of putting forward a political alternative on class and socialist lines to take up the grievances of those attracted to fascism. “Fascism is a movement of the hungry, the suffering, the disappointed, and those without a future”, she wrote. “We must make efforts to address the social layers that are now lapsing into fascism and either incorporate them in our struggles or at least neutralise them in the struggle. We must employ clarity and force to prevent them from providing troops for the bourgeois counter-revolution”.
Similarly, in response to those who wished to summon conferences of the great and the good to oppose war and fascism after Hitler came to power, Trotsky wrote: “Neither the work against war nor the march against fascism requires a special art which lies beyond the general struggle of the proletariat. The organisation which is incapable of analysing the situation precisely, of leading the daily defensive and offensive battles, of gathering about it the broadest masses, of achieving unity in defensive actions with the reformist workers, freeing them at the same time of their reformist prejudices – such an organisation will inevitably suffer shipwreck in the face of war as well as fascism”. (Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1932-33)
Before the capitalist ruling class would consider throwing all its eggs in the fascist basket, there will be many opportunities for the working class to organise and struggle to change society. The best way to challenge fascism is to take advantage of those opportunities and build mass movements to challenge the capitalist system that gives rise to the misery that can drive people into the arms of the far-right.
Until her death in 1933, Clara Zetkin held firm to her position on anti-fascism, particularly the need for a united front. This is illustrated by excerpts from her speech opening the Reichstag in 1932, as its most senior member, just before the Nazis came to power. However, as a member of the Comintern executive 1921-33, she failed to stand against the expulsion of Trotsky – part of Stalin’s purge of the International and the Soviet state. It was Trotsky, exiled from the Soviet Union, who took on the main responsibility for developing this Marxist analysis of fascism and how to fight it – particularly in his insightful writings on Germany – and defending it from Stalinism’s attempts to dump it.
The first five years of the Comintern, with Lenin and Trotsky (and Zetkin) at its head, was a high point of the international struggle for the socialist transformation of society. And this book is right to point out that many lessons can be drawn from Clara Zetkin’s work on the fight against the far-right and for socialist change.