Defining fascism: some notes on the Marxist interpretation

This post was inspired by a post on Andrew Zammit’s blog on defining right-wing radicalism and subsequent twitter discussions on the term ‘fascism’. Most of this post was written during my PhD days (2004-2007), but I have updated a few things. I still think the definition offered by Renton and Sparks is the most concise, which captures the synthesis in fascism of a reactionary ideology and extra-parliamentary (and predominantly violent) practice. But then again, as Derrida and many others have argued, trying to define something rests upon the definitions of other things and all definitions are ultimately unsatisfactory…

In 1998, the Journal for Contemporary History published two articles on Oswald Mosley and his fascist parties, the inter-war British Union of Fascists and the post-war Union Movement. One of these articles was by Richard C. Thurlow (1998: 253), who argued that ‘despite Mosley’s personally catastrophic political failure, and the often unpleasant implications of his fascist and post-fascist political agenda’, Mosley remained a ‘utopian visionary’ and ‘revolutionary’. However, David Renton wrote several critiques of this interpretation of Mosley and of British fascism in general, disagreeing with Thurlow’s notion that fascism should be primarily seen as an ideology. Renton asserted that fascism should be analysed by how its ideas relate to its behaviour as a political movement. British fascism was an extra-parliamentary movement, possessing a certain ideology, with Renton stating: ‘The ideology was reactionary, the practice violent and racist’ (Renton, 2000a: 74).

Renton (1999: 29) developed his argument further in Fascism: Theory and Practice, where he criticised historians such as Roger Griffin, Roger Eatwell and Zeev Sternhell for their ‘idealist’ interpretations of fascism. He took exception to the ‘new consensus’ that ‘fascism must be seen primarily as a series of ideas’, with one of his main criticisms being that this consensus of fascism overstates the socialist aspect of fascism, especially in the case of Sternhell (Renton, 1999: 22). For Renton (1999: 101), fascism is ‘a specific form of reactionary mass movement’. Renton was influenced by Colin Sparks, a Marxist who wrote for the IS/SWP journal International Socialism, who suggested that ‘fascism is a distinct form of political practice, recognisable by its style of political mobilisation’ and who Renton quoted in his book, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s:

Many ideas of fascism are the commonplaces of all reactionaries, but they are used in a different way. Fascism differs from the traditional right-wing parties like the Conservative Party not so much in its ideas but in that it is an extra-parliamentary mass movement which seeks the road to power through… attacks on its opponents (Renton, 2000b: 50)

Much has been written on the various Marxist theories of fascism and there have been a number of Marxist or Marxist influenced analyses of fascism. There have been several differing Marxist analyses since 1945, but most of these works analyse the fascist regimes in a time-specific manner and have little immediate relevance to a theory of fascism for the present. As Ernesto Laclau (1979: 82) wrote in his analysis of Nicos Poulantzas’ Fascism and Dictatorship, ‘we only have to remember the high degree to which we still depend for the theoretical understanding of fascism on a few great books written before 1945’. This does not mean that Marxist have not attempted to adapt their theories of fascism to the post-war period. As Neocleous (1997: xi) states, ‘Seeing fascism as a historical phenomenon that ended in 1945 or thereabouts… encourages a dangerous forgetting’. For Marxists, fascism is inherently linked to capitalism, as asserted by both Renton (1999: 16)  (‘fascism is a recurrent feature of modern capitalism’) and Neocleous (1997: xi) (‘Fascism is first and foremost an ideology generated by modern industrial capitalism’). In the 1960s, John Cammett (1967: 162) argued that while fascism is the ‘fullest expression’ of capitalism, it is ‘not identical at every stage… with monopoly capitalism’. Therefore for the Marxists, to eliminate the conditions for a revival of fascism, capitalism needs to be abolished. As Renton (1999: 116) concludes Fascism: Theory and Practice: ‘the only decisive way to stop fascism is by fighting for a society where the potential of all humanity is fully realised and all forms of oppression are swept away’. While, as Cammett (1967: 162) interjects, the ‘prime enemy’ for Marxists remains ‘reactionary, imperialist, monopoly capitalism’, immediate action must be taken against fascism at any stage and anti-fascism remains a necessary and important sphere of activism in the present.

Leon Trotsky’s theoretical writings on fascism, most importantly during the year 1930 to 1935, are the basis for probably the most widespread and influential Marxist interpretation of fascism and despite other profound changes in Trotskyist theory since the 1940s, Trotsky’s theory of fascism has remained primarily intact. In Britain especially, the Trotskyist groups, such as the Socialist Workers Party and Red Action, have been at the forefront of the anti-fascist movement since the 1970s and Trotsky’s analysis of fascism and anti-fascist actions are central to this activism. For Trotskyists, his writings on National Socialism are the most accurate and coherent Marxist analysis of fascism, not just a theory, but as a ‘living political phenomenon’, ‘a conscious and wily foe’ (cited in, Wistrich 1976: 158). In the words of Isaac Deutscher (1963: 132), Trotsky’s writings remain ‘the only coherent and realistic analysis of National Socialism (or of fascism at large) that can be found in Marxist literature’. In Fascism: Theory and Practice, Renton (1999: 72) states that ‘the most striking feature of Trotsky’s theory of fascism was his insistence of the dialectical nature of fascism’. This dialectical nature arose from the antagonism between the mass base of its support and the reactionary nature of its goals.

As Ernest Mandel (1971: 10), the Belgian Trotskyist and theoretical ‘leader’ of the Trotskyist Fourth International in the 1960s and 1970s, wrote in the introduction to Trotsky’s The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, ‘theoreticians tried to grasp the essence of fascism… because they acted on the understandable and perfectly reasonable assumption that the better they were to understand the nature of fascism, the more successfully would they be able to fight it’. According to Renton (1999: 54), before the development of Trotsky’s dialectical theory, the attempt by Marxists to establish a working theory of fascism fell into two schools of thought – the ‘left’ theory, often linked with the left faction inside the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the ‘right’ theory, associated with members of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). The ‘left’ theory defined fascism as ‘the rule of monopoly capitalism in its purest, most untrammelled, most invulnerable form’ and cast fascism as just another form of capitalist rule, failing to explain how fascist movements were able to build a base of mass support. The ‘right’ theory broke the link between fascism and capitalism, viewing fascism as an ‘independent and revolutionary third force’, commonly portraying the petty bourgeoisie as a potential for independent action.  However, as Renton noted, the ‘right’ theory cannot explain why fascist regimes have ‘imprisoned and murdered whole swathes of the working class while leaving the ruling class and the capitalist system of private property intact’ (Renton, 1999: 100)

For Trotsky (1971: 127), the mass support for fascism came from the ‘petty bourgeoisie and the new middle class; the small artisans and shopkeepers of the cities, the petty officials, the employees, the technical personnel, the intelligentsia, the impoverished peasantry’. As Daniel Guérin (cited in, Renton, 1999: 103-104) , a French revolutionary socialist influenced by Trotsky, explained, this not because the petty bourgeoisie ‘desire the elimination of the big bourgeoisie as a class’, but rather ‘they would like to become big bourgeois themselves’. However, the petty bourgeoisie is ‘incapable of independent policies’ and although fascism ‘raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie’, Trotsky (1971: 405) insisted that once in power, fascism is ‘the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital’. Wistrich (1976: 162) argued (and commended Trotsky for predicting) that this was why the Fascists in Italy and the National Socialists in Germany discarded the ‘socialistic’ slogans and ‘petty-bourgeois illusions’ of their supporters once the fascists assumed power.

Mandel (1971: 29) has claimed that Trotsky’s theory of fascism is viewed to be superior because of ‘its ability to integrate a multitude of partial aspects into a dialectical unity’. This dialectical theory comprehends that fascism contains a vicious and anti-proletarian ideology, while attracting a mass base of support. Or as defined by Renton (1999: 101) before, ‘fascism is a specific form of reactionary mass movement’. Renton has quoted Sparks’ 1974 article ‘Fascism in Britain’ to further this point: ‘Many of the ideas of fascism are the commonplaces of all reactionaries, but they are used in a different way. Fascism differs from the traditional right-wing… in that it is an extra-parliamentary mass movement’ (cited in, Renton 2000b: 50).

One of the fundamental principles of the Marxist interpretation of fascism is that fascism is not an ideology buried in the historical past, but a living phenomenon that has re-emerged in times of economic and political turmoil. Most countries in Europe, as well as other former settler colonies around the world, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, have experienced the revival of fascist groups at different periods. In the immediate post-war period, these groups were often remnants of the inter-war fascist parties, but the groups of ‘classical fascism’ were replaced with new groups who took inspiration from the groups of the 1930s and 1940s, but with new (and younger) personnel (but often including figureheads from the inter-war period). In his article on post-war British fascism, Richard C. Thurlow (1998: 241) mentions an argument by John Hope that the Union Movement acted as a ‘transmission belt between pre- and postwar British fascism’, but it is probably  more accurate to view the Union Movement as the end of ‘classical fascism’ in Britain, with a more likely ‘transmission belt’ for the post-war fascist movement being the League of Empire Loyalists (LEL), formed in 1954 by former BUF director of propaganda A.K. Chesterton and an organisation through which nearly all the important figures of post-war fascism passed. Although Chesterton was from the BUF, the LEL and its splinter groups were more influenced by the inter-war Imperial Fascist League’s Arnold Leese than Mosley, emphasising anti-Semitism and racism against Britain’s black immigrants. What characterised British fascism between 1951 and the formation of the National Front in 1967 was a series of splits into tiny organisations featuring the same individuals, the result of attempting to adjust fascism to post-war Britain and a succession of personal clashes. From 1957 onwards, the same names – Colin Jordan, John Tyndall, Martin Webster, John Bean, Andrew Fountaine – were involved in various groups, which despite numerous splits and different organisational titles, were only superficially distinguishable from each other, primarily the White Defence League, National Labour Party, British National Party, National Socialist Movement and the Greater Britain Movement. Despite involvement in and brief notoriety from the anti-immigrants agitation of the Notting Hill riots, these fascists achieved little during this period. Nigel Copsey (2000: 102) remarked that, ‘For the most part, the 1950s in Britain were quiescent years for both fascists and anti-fascists’, despite the groups’ attemtps to appeal to populist anti-immigrant racism. In this era, the fascists were no longer what Trotsky (1971: 389) had called during the inter-war period ‘the shock troops of world imperialism’, but a response to the dismantlement of world imperialism and the decolonisation process. In the Cold War polarisation between Washington and Moscow, Britain had lost its significance as a world power and for the fascist organisations of the mid-1950s onwards, black immigrants became the new scapegoat for the fascists’ perceived threat to the ‘remnants of the British Empire and way of life’ (Thurlow, 1987: 239).

A question that is often presented by those examining fascism and the far right in the post-war era is how to describe these groups, with a number of scholars and activists asking whether these post-war groups can be called ‘fascist’ (or ‘Nazi’ or ‘neo-fascist/Nazi’, etc) Often the term ‘neo-fascism’ is used to differentiate between the interwar and post-war fascist movements, but a clear definition of ‘neo-fascism’ has not been made. In his history of fascism, Roger Eatwell (2003) has simply presented that all fascist movements after 1945 are indeed ‘neo-fascist’, while Lucian Cheles, Ronnie Ferguson and Michalina Vaughn (1991) produced a book Neo-Fascism in Europe, despite not giving a clear definition of the difference between ‘fascism’ and ‘neo-fascism’ anywhere in the book. In The Nature of Fascism, Roger Griffin (1991) attempted to differentiate between ‘nostalgic fascism’, ‘neo-fascism’ and ‘neo-Nazism’, but in his edited collection of fascist texts, Griffin simply describes all fascisms after 1945 as ‘post-war fascism’ (Griffin, 1995: 311-316), then at the micro-stage differentiating between ‘veteran fascists’ and other forms of ‘post-war fascism’, including ‘universal Nazism’, ‘Eurofascism’, ‘third positionism’, and ‘the new right’, amongst many other terms. Martin Kitchen (1976: 91) attempted to define ‘neo-fascism’ as those movements that ‘take the essential factors of the fascism of the past’ and ‘see under what socio-economic crisis situations in contemporary advanced capitalism’ fascist ideas are most likely to thrive. Peter Davies and Derek Lynch (2002: 320) have described ‘neo-fascism’ as fascist groups that have links (although what ‘links’ entails is not elaborated upon) to ‘classical fascism’ but ‘set their sights on the democratic road to power’.

I think the term ‘neo-fascist’ or ‘neo-Nazi’ are terms which emphasise an epistemological break between the fascist groups of the 1930-40s and those that have existed in the post-war era, and now in the 21st century. It might be useful to use the term ‘neo-fascist’ to describe the Italian Social Movement or Northern League in Italy, or the term ‘neo-Nazi’ to describe the various groups in Germany and Austria since the Second World War, but overall I think the term ‘fascist’ still works to describe most of these groups. In my own writing, I use the term ‘fascist far right’ to encompass the various post-war fascist groupings in Britain, but also see the worthiness of using the terms ‘the radical right’ or ‘right-wing extremism’, particularly to describe groups which may not fit squarely within the popular usage of the term ‘fascist’ and have other right-wing historical origins. I see there is a new journal published by Brill called Fascism: The Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies, so there is still plenty of debate going on what ‘fascism’ means.

What is the point of defining fascism? It may be academic to many, but practically, it can be an important issue. Anti-fascist activism has often revolved around the notion of ‘no platform’ for fascists, which has been about denying public space for anti-democratic, racist and violent political viewpoints (better described as ‘fascist’). To argue for a policy of ‘no platform’ for fascists, one needs to agree on what ‘fascism’ means. In a practical sense, where does one draw the line? ‘No platform’ is often directed towards groups such as the British National Party and the English Defence League, but what about UKIP (or in the past, the Monday Club?) These are important questions to raise, but that’s for another post.

(On a sidenote, this article by myself has some discussion of how anti-fascists debated the ‘no platform’ strategy in the 1970s against the National Front. But I am interested in looking at how this strategy has evolved since then. For the future pile, Evan!)


Cammett, J (1967) ‘Communist Theories of Fascism 1920-1935’, Science and Society,31/2:  149-163

Cheles, L, Ferguson, R & Vaughn, M (eds) (1991) Neo-Fascism in Europe (Longman Books, London)

Copsey, N (2000) Anti-Fascism in Britain (Macmillan, London)

Davies, P & Lynch, D (2002) The Routledge Companion to Fascism and the Far Right (Routledge, London)

Deutscher, I (1963) The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940 (Oxford University Press, London)

Eatwell, R (2003) Fascism: A History (Pimlico, London)

Griffin, R (1991) The Nature of Fascism (St Martin’s Press, New York)

Griffin, R (ed.) (1995) Fascism: A Reader (Oxford University Press, Oxford)

Kitchen, M (1976) Fascism (Macmillan Press, London)

Laclau, E (1999) Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (New Left Books, London)

Mandel, E (1971) ‘Introduction’, in Trotsky, L The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Pathfinder Press, New York) 9-46

Neocleous, M (1997) Fascism (Open University Press, Buckingham)

Renton, D (1999) Fascism: Theory and Practice (Pluto Press, London)

Renton, D (2000a) ‘Was Fascism an Ideology? British Fascism Reconsidered’, Race & Class, 41/3:72-84

Renton, D (2000b) Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s (Macmillan, London)  

Thurlow, R (1987) Fascism in Britain: A History 1918-1945 (Basil Blackwell, Oxford)

Thurlow, R (1998) ‘The Guardian of the Sacred Flame: The Failed Political Resurrection of Sir Oswald Mosley after 1945’, Journal of Contemporary History, 33/2: 241-254

Trotsky, L (1971) The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Pathfinder Press, New York)

Wistrich, R (1976) ‘Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Fascism’, Journal of Contemporary History,11: 157-184

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