How did socialists respond to fascism in Europe?

German communist Clara Zetkin, who helped formulate the concept of the 'united front' to combat fascism.

The rise of the far right around the world, with fascist candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil close to joining the growing ranks of authoritarian far right leaders, many on the left are wondering how to respond.

The parallels with the rise of fascism in Europe in the early 20th century are clear.

In July, Canadian Marxist academic and activist John Riddell gave a speech, abridged below, at a York University seminar entitled “Historical perspectives on united fronts against fascism and the far right”.

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The framework for our panel this morning is “Unity against the Right: A historical approach”.

There are in fact many histories of such united resistance, each with its own lineage.  My topic, however, relates to the origin of fascism. It was born in Europe as an expression of the ideology of European supremacy. My focus will thus necessarily be European as well.

I’m going to speak of events in Italy a century ago, not simply because of their objective importance but because they carry great weight in our political memory and imagination.

Italy ranked as an imperialist power, although a weak and unstable one, the product of an incomplete bourgeois revolution in which owners of large estates and the Catholic Church held great power. The majority of Italy’s immense peasantry were landless.

A sizable industrial working class was largely socialist in conviction. The Italian Socialist Party governed more than 2000 municipalities.

Crisis and reaction

Formally a winner in World War I, the Italian ruling class had been weakened by the impact of great human and material destruction in this conflict. The war’s end brought economic crisis, the ruin of middle layers, a mass of discharged soldiers with no visible future, and a militant workers’ upsurge that for a moment seemed about to sweep all before it.

In September 1920, a great wave of factory occupations brought the country to the brink of revolution. However, the Socialists gave no leadership and the movement foundered. This opened the gates to counterrevolution.

A wave of reaction was sweeping across much of Europe. It brought many rightist dictatorial regimes to power, as in Hungary, where the regime executed 5000 supposed Reds.

The Hungarian regime was aristocratic in nature, a military dictatorship based on upper-class cadres. Italy was different: the reactionary movement seemed to emerge from among the masses themselves.

In Italy, after the war ended, the spearhead of reaction emerged: the Arditi, or “commandos”. This was a network of anti-labour mercenaries led mainly by former army officers.

But the most successful such force, the Fascists, was plebeian. Its leader, Benito Mussolini, had been a left-wing Socialist. The group, founded in 1919, posed as supporters of strikes and workers’ management, and of land to the peasants.

Yet their ideology was pro-capitalist, rooted in worship of the state and the nation. They acted as a murderous anti-labour militia, financed by elements of the ruling class, and tolerated or supported by the police and army.

The Fascists backed up violence with a forceful ideology rejecting reason and fact, while appealing to mysticism and religious-like idolatry of the state and the “man from destiny”.

Responses

By mid-1921, Fascism was a menacing mass movement. How did its opponents respond?

The Socialist Party relied on the state to rein in the Fascists. Rejecting organised self-defence, it pressed the regime to take action against lawless Fascist gangs, while rejecting entry into the capitalist-led government.

At one point, it signed a “truce” with the Fascists, which the latter quickly cast aside.

The democratic parliamentary parties did in fact pass laws and regulations aimed against the Fascists. For example, guns were to be reregistered and seized if due cause for ownership was not produced. Barricades were to be erected on highways to block Fascist flying squads.

However, implementation depended on police and judges mostly sympathetic to the far right. As a result, little was done to enforce such measures.

Meanwhile, the Italian Communist Party, which broke away from the Socialists early in 1921, did not perceive the distinction between fascism and the democratic forms of capitalist rule.

The Communists were for self-defence against fascists, to be sure, but without alliances and only when attacked. In practice, the Communist Party as an organisation largely stood aside from the struggle.

Meanwhile, a spontaneous rank-and-file self-defence organisation, the Arditi del populo (People’s commandos), sprang up and won wide support. Both the communists and socialists were hostile to the new organisation, ordering their members to leave its ranks.

Alone, the Arditi del populo could not win against a fascist movement financed and supported by the ruling class, and aided by the regular army. Even so, the Arditi led and won pitched battles against the Fascists on several occasions, indicating a road by which a united working class may have gotten the upper hand.

At the end of 1922, the Fascists consummated their one-sided civil war with a parliamentary deal. They were appointed to government by the king and mainstream capitalist parties.

During the half-decade that followed, the Fascist regime hardened into a totalitarian dictatorship that lasted until 1943.

Two conclusions jump out from this depressing story:

  • First, the Socialists were wrong to believe the capitalist democratic state could provide effective protection from fascism.
  • Second, the Communists were wrong to believe they could deal with fascism on their own.

Shifting policy

During the years of Mussolini’s rise, however, the policy of the Communist International on alliances evolved greatly in a direction that, if applied in Italy, might well have changed the outcome. Five stages in this process should be noted.

First, in 1920, far-right generals in Germany carried out a coup against the republican government. Social-democratic trade union leaders called a general strike that swept the country, while workers in many areas took up arms and gained effective control.

The coup lasted only four days. This outcome proved the power of united workers’ resistance to the far right.

Second, after the coup collapsed, workers refused to end their strike and demanded effective protection against the far-right conspirators. The social-democratic trade union leaders then came up with a novel proposal: a workers’ government including all workers’ parties and based on the unions.

Although that government did not come to be, the idea behind it gained support and the Communist movement took note.

Third, the next year, the Communist International (Comintern) adopted the policy that had found expression in resistance to the German putsch, calling on workers’ parties to unite in struggle against the far right and for basic demands they had in common.

This policy was known as the “united front.” Internationally, it met with resistance from Social Democratic leaders.

It was not applied in Italy. Why was this policy not applied by the Italian Communists? Their failure to conform indicates that descriptions of the Comintern’s supposedly excessive “centralism” in that period are often exaggerated.

Fourth, another year passed, and the Comintern adopted the workers’ government approach broached during the great German general strike of 1920. Such a government would be sustained by the workers’ movement, not the state, and could serve as a transitional stage to revolution.

A workers’ and peasants’ government of this type was actually established by the October 1917 Russian revolution.

United front

Finally, in 1923, the Comintern adopted a strategy for resisting fascism. Elaborated by German communist Clara Zetkin and drawing on the experience especially of the German workers’ movement, her plan consisted of four major points:

    1. Workers self-defence against fascist violence — not through individual terror, but through “the power of the revolutionary organised proletarian class struggle”.
       
    2. United front action against fascism “involving all working-class organisations and currents regardless of political differences.”

By endorsing the Arditi del Populo, the Comintern indicated willingness to join in anti-fascist struggle with non-working-class forces. They rejected, however, the perspective of a bloc with capitalist parties for government.

    1. An ideological campaign to reach the best of the young people influenced by fascism who, in Zetkin’s words, “are seeking an escape from deep anguish of the soul. We must show them a solution that does not lead backward but rather forward to communism.”
       
    2. Demonstration of “absolute determination to fight to take power out of the hands of the bourgeoisie in order to resolve capitalism’s social crisis”, including by “cementing the alliances necessary to do so”. Zetkin insisted that the perspective of a workers’ and peasants’ government “is virtually a requirement for the struggle to defeat fascism”.

There’s something missing here: an analysis of the racist and xenophobic essence of fascist doctrine. It was the reverse side of the fascists’ worship of an aggressive nationalism, which rested on plans for conquest of south Slavs, Greeks, Turks, Africans — all viewed as inferior peoples.

In German fascism, such racial stereotyping became more explicit, maturing into a project of genocide against Jews, Poles, Russians, Roma and other peoples.

Despite this weakness, Zetkin’s report and resolution, adopted by the Comintern in June 1923, stand as the outstanding exposition of a Marxist response to fascism during its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s. It theorised the lesson of the Italian Arditi del Populo experience while fusing it with a perspective for workers’ power.

Alternatively, this position can be seen, as Leon Trotsky later insisted, as an application of the Bolsheviks’ united front policies in the run-up to the Russian October Revolution in 1917.

Given the strategic force of this position, it may seem surprising it was applied during only two brief periods. Comintern anti-fascist policy proved unstable, going through no less than six reversals up to the body’s dissolution in 1943.

Two of these turnabouts were particularly significant:

  • In 1928, the Comintern reverted to the sectarian stance of Italian Communists during Mussolini’s rise, refusing to seek alliances with non-Communist workers’ organisations. The Social Democrats, for their part, refused united action with the Communists. The absence of workers’ unity in action opened the door to Hitler’s victory.
     
  • In 1935 the Comintern switched to a policy of unity with Social Democrats while adding two significant innovations: first, unity was now to embrace progressive forces in the imperialist ruling class and, second, the project was now basically parliamentary in nature — to form a progressive coalition encompassing capitalist forces.

In my opinion, the 1935 policy, known as “popular frontism”, brought the Comintern into broad alignment with Social Democracy as regards the strategic alternative to fascism. The goal of socialist revolution was set aside in favour of a project for defence of democratic capitalism and alliance with forces within the imperialist ruling class.

This occurred at the height of Joseph Stalin’s murderous repression of Bolshevik cadres in the Soviet Union. This witch-hunt also infected the Comintern and its “people’s front”.

To conclude, the responses of socialists to the first 15 years of fascism fall into three categories: sectarian isolation, an alliance for progressive reform, or a united front to bring working people to power.

Despite the immense transformation in social structure and global geopolitics, these divergent impulses continue to find expression today as we feel our way toward an effective defence against new fascist dangers.