Fascism - Clara Zetkin

Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg

Clara Zetkin's 1923 article on fascism from Labour Monthly. She talks about fascism as capital's response to the failure of the international revolution, and the need for the 'organised revolutionary struggle of the proletariat' to defeat both fascism and capital.

Submitted by Mike Harman on September 8, 2017

IN Fascism, the proletariat is confronted by an extraordinarily dangerous enemy. Fascism is the concentrated expression of the general offensive undertaken by the world bourgeoisie against the proletariat. Its overthrow is therefore an absolute necessity, nay, it is even a question of the every-day existence and of the bread and butter of every ordinary worker. On these grounds the whole of the proletariat must concentrate on the fight against Fascism. It will be much easier for us to defeat Fascism if we clearly and distinctly study its nature. Hitherto there have been extremely vague ideas upon this subject not only among the large masses of the workers, but even among the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat and the Communists. Hitherto Fascism has been put on a level with the White Terror of Horthy in Hungary. Although the methods of both are similar, in essence they are different. The Horthy Terror was established after the victorious, although shortlived, revolution of the proletariat had been suppressed, and was the expression of vengeance of the bourgeoisie. The ringleaders of the White Terror were a quite small clique of former officers. Fascism, on the contrary, viewed objectively, is not the revenge of the bourgeoisie in retaliation for proletarian aggression against the bourgeoisie, but it is a punishment of the proletariat for failing to carry on the revolution begun in Russia. The Fascist leaders are not a small and exclusive caste; they extend deeply into wide elements of the population.

We have to overcome Fascism not only militarily, but also politically and ideologically. The reformists even to-day consider Fascism to be nothing else but naked violence, the reaction against the violence begun by the proletariat. To the reformists the Russian Revolution amounts to the same thing as Mother Eve’s biting into the apple in the Garden of Eden. The reformists trace Fascism back to the Russian Revolution and its consequences. Nothing else was meant by Otto Bauer at the Unity Congress at Hamburg, when he declared that a great share of the blame for Fascism rests on the Communists, who had weakened the force of the proletariat by continual splits. In saying this he entirely ignored the fact that the German Independents had made their split long before the demoralising example was given by the Russian Revolution. Contrary to his own views, Bauer, at Hamburg, had to draw the conclusion that the organised violence of Fascism must be met by forming defence organisations of the proletariat, because no appeal to democracy can avail against direct violence. At any rate, he went on to explain that he did not mean such weapons as insurrection or a general strike which did not always lead to success. What he meant was the co-ordination of parliamentary action with mass action. What was to be the nature of these actions Otto Bauer did not say, but this is the very point of the question. The only weapon recommended by Bauer for the fight against Fascism was the establishment of an International Bureau of Information on world reaction. The distinguishing feature of this new-old International is its faith in the power and permanence of bourgeois domination, and its mistrust and cowardice towards the proletariat as the strongest factor of the world revolution. They are of the opinion that against the invulnerable force of the bourgeoisie the proletariat can do nothing else but act with moderation and refrain from teasing the tiger of the bourgeoisie. Fascism, with all its forcefulness in the prosecution of its violent deeds, is indeed nothing else but the expression of the disintegration and decay of capitalist economy, and the symptom of the dissolution of the bourgeois State. This is one of its roots. Symptoms of this decay of capitalism were observed even before the war. The war has shattered capitalist economy to its foundation, resulting not only in the colossal impoverishment of the proletariat, but also in deep misery for the petty bourgeoisie, the small peasantry and the intellectuals. All these elements had been promised that the war would bring about an amelioration of their material conditions. But the very opposite has happened. Large numbers of the former middle classes have become proletarians, having entirely lost their economic security. Their ranks were joined by large masses of ex-officers, who are now unemployed. It was among these elements that Fascism recruited quite a considerable contingent. The manner of its composition is also the reason why Fascism in some countries is of an outspoken, monarchist character. The second root of Fascism lies in the retarding of the world revolution by the treacherous attitude of the reformist leaders. Large numbers of the petty bourgeoisie, including even the middle classes, had discarded their war-time psychology for a certain sympathy with reformist socialism, hoping that the latter would bring about a reformation of society along democratic lines. They were disappointed in their hopes. They can now see that the reformist leaders are in benevolent accord with the bourgeoisie, and the worst of it is that these masses have now lost their faith not only in the reformist leaders, but in socialism as a whole. These masses of disappointed socialist sympathisers are joined by large circles of the proletariat, of workers who have given up their faith not only in socialism, but also in their own class. Fascism has become a sort of refuge for the politically shelterless. In fairness it ought to be said that the Communists, too – except the Russians – bear part of the blame for the desertion of these elements to the Fascist ranks, because our actions at times failed to stir the masses profoundly enough. The obvious aim of the Fascists, when gaining support among the various elements of society, must have been, as a matter of course, to try and bridge over the class antagonism in the ranks of their own adherents, and the so-called authoritative State was to serve as a means to this end. Fascism now embraces such elements which may become very dangerous to the bourgeois order. Nevertheless, thus far these elements have been invariably overcome by the reactionary elements.

The bourgeoisie had seen the situation clearly from the start. The bourgeoisie wants to reconstruct capitalist economy. Under the present circumstances reconstruction of bourgeois class domination can be brought about only at the cost of increased exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie is quite aware that the soft-speaking reformist socialists are fast losing their hold on the proletariat, and that there will be nothing for the bourgeoisie but to resort to violence against the proletariat. But the means of violence of the bourgeois States are beginning to fail. They therefore need a new organisation of violence, and this is offered to them by the hodge-podge conglomeration of Fascism. For this reason the bourgeoisie offers all the force at its command in the service of Fascism. Fascism has diverse characteristics in different countries. Nevertheless it has two distinguishing features in all countries, namely, the pretence of a revolutionary programme, which is cleverly adapted to the interests and demands of the large masses, and, on the other hand, the application of the most brutal violence. The classic instance is Italian Fascism. Industrial capital in Italy was not strong enough to reconstruct the ruined economy. It was not expected that the State would intervene to increase the power and the material possibilities of the industrial capital of Northern Italy. The State was giving all its attention to agrarian capital and to petty financial capital. The heavy industries, which had been artificially boosted during the war, collapsed when the war was over, and a wave of unprecedented unemployment set in. The pledges given to the soldiers could not be redeemed. All these circumstances created an extreme revolutionary situation. This revolutionary situation resulted, in the summer of 1920, in the occupation of the factories. Upon that occasion it was shown that the maturity of the revolution makes its first appearance among a small minority of the proletariat. The occupation of the factories was therefore bound to end in a tremendous defeat instead of becoming the starting point for revolutionary development. The reformist leaders of the trade unions acted the part of ignominious traitors, but at the same time it was shown that the proletariat possessed neither the will nor the power to march on towards revolution. Notwithstanding the reformist influence, there were forces at work among the proletariat which could become inconvenient to the bourgeoisie. The municipal elections, in which the social democrats gained a third of all the councils, were a signal of alarm to the bourgeoisie, who immediately started to seek for a force which could combat the revolutionary proletariat. It was just at that time that Mussolini had gained some importance with Fascismo. After the defeat of the proletariat in the occupation of the factories, the number of the Fascisti was over 1,000 and great masses of the proletariat joined the Mussolini organisation. On the other hand, large masses of the proletariat had fallen into a state of indifference. The cause of the first success of the Fascisti was that it made its start with a revolutionary gesture. Its pretended aim was to fight to retain the revolutionary conquests of the revolutionary war, and for this reason they demanded a strong State which would be able to protect these revolutionary fruits of victory against the hostile interests of the various classes of society represented by the “old State.” Its slogan was directed against all the exploiters, and hence also against the bourgeoisie. Fascism at that time was so radical that it even demanded the execution of Giolitti and the dethronement of the Italian dynasty. But Giolitti carefully refrained from using violence against Fascism, which seemed to him to be the lesser evil. To satisfy these Fascist clamours he dissolved Parliament. At that time Mussolini was still pretending to be a republican, and in an interview he declared that the Fascist faction could not participate at the opening of the Italian parliament because of the monarchist ceremony accompanying it. These utterances provoked a crisis in the Fascist Movement, which had been established as a party by a merger of the Mussolini adherents and the representatives of the monarchist organisation, and the executive of the new party was made up of an even number of members from both factions. The Fascist Party created a double-edged weapon for the corruption and terrorisation of the working class. For the corruption of the working class the Fascist Trade Unions were created, the so-called corporations in which workers and employers were united. To terrorise the working class, the Fascist Party created the militant squads which had grown out of the punitive expeditions. Here it must be emphasised again that the tremendous treason of the Italian reformists during the general strike, which was the cause of the terrible defeat of the Italian proletariat, had given direct encouragement to the Fascists to capture the State. On the other hand, the mistakes of the Communist Party consisted in their regarding Fascism as merely a militarist and terrorist movement without any profound social basis.

Let us now examine what Fascism has done since the conquest of power for the fulfilment of its intended revolutionary programme, for the realisation of its promise to create a State without class. Fascism held out the promise of a new and better electoral law and of equal suffrage for women. The new suffrage law of Mussolini is in reality the worst restriction of the suffrage law to favour the Fascist Movement. According to this law, two-thirds of all the seats must be given to the strongest party, and all the other parties together shall hold only one-third of the seats. Women’s franchise has been nearly entirely eliminated. The right to vote is given only to a small group of propertied women and the so-called “war-distinguished” women. There is no longer any mention made of the promise of the economic parliament and National Assembly, nor of the abolition of the Senate which had been pledged so solemnly by the Fascists.

The same can be said about the pledges made in the social sphere. The Fascists had inscribed on their programme the eight-hour day, but the bill introduced by them provides so many exceptions that there is to be no eight-hour day in Italy. Nothing came also of the promised guarantee of wages. The destruction of the trade unions has enabled the employers to effect wage reductions of 20 to 30 per cent, and in some cases of even 50 to 60 per cent. Fascism had promised old age and invalid insurance. In practice the Fascist Government, for the sake of economy, has struck off the miserable 50,000,000 lire which had been set aside for this purpose in the budget. The workers were promised the right of technical participation in the administration of the factories. To-day there is a law in Italy which proscribes the factory councils completely. The State enterprises are playing into the hands of private capital. The Fascist programme had contained a provision for a progressive income tax on capital, which was to some extent to act as a form of expropriation. In fact the opposite was done. Various taxes on luxuries were abolished, such as the automobile tax, for the pretended reason that it would restrict national production. The indirect taxes were increased for the reason that this would curtail the home consumption and thus improve the possibilities for export. The Fascist Government also abrogated the law for the compulsory registration of transfers of securities, thus reintroducing the system of bearer-bonds and opening the door wide to the tax-evader. The schools were handed over to the clergy. Before capturing the State, Mussolini demanded a commission to inquire into war profits, of which 85 per cent were to be restored to the State. When this commission had become uncomfortable for his financial backers, the heavy industrialists, he ordered that the commission should only submit a report to him, and whoever published any of the things that transpired in that commission would be punished with six months’ imprisonment. Also in military matters Fascism failed to keep its promises. The army was promised to be restricted to territorial defence. In reality, the term of service for the standing army was increased from eight months to eighteen, which meant the increase of the armed forces from 250,000 to 350,000. The Royal Guards were abolished because they were too democratic to suit Mussolini. On the other hand, the carabinieri were increased from 65,000 to 90,000, and all the police troops were doubled. The Fascist organisations were transformed into a kind of national militia, which by latest accounts have now reached the number of 500,000. But the social differences have introduced an element of political contrast in the militia, which must lead to the eventual collapse of Fascism.

When we compare the Fascist programme with its fulfilment we can foresee already to-day the complete ideological collapse of Fascism in Italy. Political bankruptcy must inevitably follow in the wake of this ideological bankruptcy. Fascism is unable to keep together the forces which helped it to get into power. A clash of interests in many forms is already making itself felt. Fascism has not yet succeeded in making the old bureaucracy subservient to it. In the army there is also friction between the old officers and the new Fascist leaders. The differences between the various political parties are growing. Resistance against Fascism is increasing throughout the country. Class antagonism begins to permeate even the ranks of the Fascists. The Fascists are unable to keep the promises which they made to the workers and to the Fascist Trade Unions. Wage reductions and dismissals of workers are the order of the day. Thus it happens that the first protest against the Fascist trade union movement came from the ranks of the Fascists themselves. The workers will very soon come back to their class interest and class duty. We must not look upon Fascism as a .united force capable of repelling our attack. It is rather a formation, which comprises many antagonistic elements, and will be disintegrated from within. But it would be dangerous to assume that the ideological and political disintegration of Fascism in Italy would be immediately followed by military disintegration. On the contrary, we must be prepared for Fascism to endeavour to keep alive by terrorist methods. Therefore, the revolutionary Italian workers must be prepared for further serious struggles. It would be a great calamity if we were satisfied with the role of spectators of this process of disintegration. It is our duty to hasten this process with all the means at our disposal. This is not only the duty of the Italian proletariat, but also the duty of the German proletariat in the face of German Fascism.

After Italy, Fascism is strongest in Germany. As a consequence of the result of the war and of the failure of the revolution, the capitalist economy of Germany is weak, and in no other country is the contrast between the objective ripeness for revolution and the subjective unpreparedness of the working class as great as just now in Germany. In no other country have the reformists so ignominiously failed as in Germany. Their failure is more criminal than the failure of any other party in the old International, because it is they who should have conducted the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat with utterly different means in the country where the working-class organisations are older and better organised than anywhere else.

I am firmly convinced that neither the Peace Treaties nor the occupation of the Ruhr have given such a fillip to Fascism in Germany as the seizure of power by Mussolini. This has encouraged the German Fascists. The collapse of Fascism in Italy would greatly discourage the Fascists in Germany. We must not overlook one thing: the prerequisite for the overthrow of Fascism abroad is the overthrow of Fascism in every single country by the proletariat of these countries. It behoves us to overcome Fascism ideologically and politically. This imposes enormous tasks on us. We must realise that Fascism is a movement of the disappointed and of those whose existence is ruined. Therefore, we must endeavour either to win over or to neutralise those wide masses who are still in the Fascist camp. I wish to emphasise the importance of our realising that we must struggle ideologically for the possession of the soul of these masses. We must realise that they are not only trying to escape from their present tribulations, but that they are longing for a new philosophy. We must come out of the narrow limits of our present activity. The Third International is, in contradistinction to the old International, an International of all races without any distinctions whatever. The Communist Parties must not only be the vanguard of the proletarian manual workers, but also the energetic defenders of the interests of the brain workers. They must be the leaders of all sections of society which are driven into opposition to bourgeois domination because of their interests and their expectations of the future. Therefore, I welcomed the proposal of Comrade Zinoviev (speaking at a session of the Enlarged Executive Committee of the Communist International in June of this year) to take up the struggle for the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government. I was jubilant when I read about it. This new slogan has a great significance for all countries. We cannot dispense with it in the struggle for the overthrow of Fascism. It means that the salvation of the wide masses of the small peasantry will be achieved through Communism. We must not limit ourselves merely to carrying on a struggle for our political and economic programme. We must at the same time familiarise the masses with the ideals of Communism as a philosophy. If we do this, we shall show the way to a new philosophy to all those elements which have lost their bearings during the historical development of recent times. The necessary prerequisite for this is that, as we approach these masses, we also become organisationally, as a Party, a firmly welded unit. If we do not do that, we run the risk of falling into opportunism and of going bankrupt. We must adapt our methods of work to our new tasks. We must speak to the masses in a language which they can understand, without doing prejudice to our ideas. Thus, the struggle against Fascism brings forward a number of new tasks.

It behoves all the parties to carry out this task energetically and in conformity with the situation in their respective countries. However, we must bear in mind that it is not enough to overcome Fascism ideologically and politically. The position of the proletariat as regards Fascism is at present one of self-defence. This self-defence of the proletariat must take the form of a struggle for its existence and its organisation.

The proletariat must have a well organised apparatus of self-defence. Whenever Fascism uses violence, it must be met with proletarian violence. I do not mean by this individual terrorist acts, but the violence of the organised revolutionary class struggle of the proletariat. Germany has made a beginning by organising factory “hundreds.” This struggle can only be successful if there is a proletarian united front. The workers must unite for this struggle regardless of party. The self-defence of the proletariat is one of the greatest incentives for the establishment of the proletarian united front. Only by instilling class-consciousness into the soul of every worker will we succeed in preparing also for the military overthrow of Fascism, which, at this juncture, is absolutely necessary. If we succeed in this, we may be sure that it will be soon all up with the capitalist system and with bourgeois power, regardless of any success of the general offensive of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. The signs of disintegration, which are so palpably before our eyes, give us the conviction that the giant proletariat will again join in the revolutionary fray, and that its call to the bourgeois world will be: I am the strength, I am the will, in me you see the future!

From Labour Monthly, August 1923, pp.69-78.
Thanks to John Partington.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.



6 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Spikymike on April 5, 2018

An interesting review of a book 'Fighting Fascism by Clara Zetkin' here:
contained in a better than average edition of the Socialist Standard.