‘Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism’ by Nicos Poulantzas reviewed by Fabian Van Onzen

Reviewed by Fabian Van Onzen

About the reviewer

Fabian Van Onzen teaches philosophy at Lone Star College in Houston, Texas, and organizes the Alain …

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Around the world, fascism and the extreme right have made significant gains. In Hungary, Viktor Orban has established a fiercely xenophobic, anti-immigrant government, with participation of the fascist Jobbik party. In the United States and Brazil, Trump and Bolsonaro took power with the support a fascist mass movement that openly attacks Muslims, immigrants, anti-communism, and people of colour. This worldwide neofascist phenomenon has resulted in a few new books, which use both Marxist and non-Marxist theory to account for its emergence. One of the most significant of these books is a new edition of the classic work, Fascism and Dictatorship by Nicos Poulantzas. The new edition of Fascism and Dictatorship contains a new introduction by Dylan Riley, a professor at UC Berkeley who recently wrote The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe. Riley argues in the introduction that Poulantzas should be the starting point for any serious study of fascism, both historical and contemporary.

In a way similar to Georgi Dimitrov and Paul Sweezy, Poulantzas argues that fascism has its ideological origins in the petty-bourgeoisie during a capitalist crisis. According to Poulantzas, the petty-bourgeoisie,–shop owners, small farmers, state employees, and some professionals–have three ideological characteristics: status-quo anti-capitalism, a mistaken belief in their social mobility, and power-fetishism. During a political and economic crisis, the petty-bourgeoisie tends to account for the crisis with vaguely defined notions of ‘corruption’, ‘corporate greed’, and ‘the rich’. Poulantzas points out that the petty-bourgeoisie has an interest in defending its autonomy and property, and therefore is anti-capitalist without challenging the status-quo. Their class position makes them believe that corrupted, greedy politicians are preventing them from moving up the social ladder. Hence, their solution to a political crisis is not a socialist revolution, but the removal of corrupt politicians and the creation of a strong state with a powerful leader. These tendencies can be observed very clearly in Brazil, where fascists have succeeded in taking power. In his Brazil: Neoliberalism Versus Democracy, Alfredo Saad-Filho shows how the Brazilian middle class blamed ‘corrupted politicians’ in the Workers Party (PT) for all social problems in Brazil. Through the corporate media, they disseminated the idea that all politicians are corrupt, and that only the removal of the Workers Party could improve Brazilian society. Although these demands resonated primarily with the petty-bourgeoisie, they won over many non-unionised workers, criminal elements, and students. The Brazilian petty-bourgeoisie played a significant role in the fascist mass-movement to impeach Dilma Rousseff, put the former president Lula in prison, and got the fascist Jair Bolsonaro elected. Although this movement was lead by the Brazilian comprador bourgeoisie (capitalists aligned with imperialism), the large sections of the petty-bourgeoisie were its foot soldiers and primary mass base.

One of Poulantzas most important observations for understanding the extreme right today is his four-stage analysis of the rise of fascism. In the first stage, Poulantzas says that fascism exists as a mass movement that has grown and succeeded in establishing itself as a powerful force in society. The fascist movement has grown to such proportions that it becomes a danger and has the potential to seize state-power. In Brazil, this was the period between 2013, in which the right-wing seized control of leftist anti-government protests in Sao Paulo and other parts of the country, until they put Lula in prison in 2018. This mass movement posed a danger because they constituted the popular forces behind Jair Bolsonaro, and could no longer simply be ignored or dismissed as an isolated phenomenon. The second stage of fascism is “the period from the point of no return until fascism comes to power” (Poulantzas 66). One characteristic of this stage is a paralysis of working class organisations, which tend to only make economic demands, but fail to provide political leadership. Poulantzas shows how the German Communist Party (KPD) in the early 1930’s called many demonstrations for higher-wages as a result of the economic devastation of the post-war situation. Because the KPD did not initially think fascism was a real danger–viewing it as a temporary, passing phenomenon–they did not  fight the Nazi’s in the early 30’s, nor did they provide revolutionary leadership to the working class. They spent a lot of time attacking the SPD social democrats, instead of building a united front to defeat Hitler and the Nazi’s before they came to power.

In the second stage, the working class itself is significantly divided and the lack of political leadership drives some sections of them into the hands of the fascists. Here, the petty-bourgeoisie has succeeded in uniting the working class behind it in order to consolidate the forces to take political power. In Brazil, most Leftist parties and organisations had become critical of the Workers Party by 2014, and did not provide the political leadership needed to move the PT to the left. Some of them, such as the Unified Workers Socialist Party (PSTU) put out slogans such as “get rid of them all”, and agitated against both the Workers Party and the Brazilian neoliberal elite. Although they were always opposed to the PT since their founding in 1992, during the 2018 elections they escalated their attacks against the Workers Party. Others, such as the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), tended to tail behind the Workers Party, and while they were critical at times, they did not really challenge their class collaborationist approach to governance. This left many working people confused and as a result of this, many moved to the right and joined the forces to help get Bolsonaro elected in 2018.

In the third and fourth stages, Poulantzas argues that fascism changes as a result of transforming from a mass movement to a fascist state. He points out how in the period of monopoly capitalism, the state plays a more interventionist role by directly intervening into capitalist production. During a crisis, such as the one in Europe and the United States in the 1930’s, the bourgeoisie will utilise interventionist strategies to save capitalism (i.e. Keynesian economic policies, Roosevelt’s New Deal, etc.). When there is a significant threat to its continued domination, fractions of finance capital will be more willing to embrace fascism, which Poulantzas points out is a more extreme form of interventionism.  This is exactly what happens during the third stage, in which the capitalist class provides assistance to the fascist mass movement and helps them get elected to power. The third stage represents the first period in which a fascist takes power and begins building a fascist state. Poulantzas says that during the third stage, the bourgeoisie staffs the fascist state with members of the petty-bourgeoisie who helped fascism come to power. The bourgeoisie will make concessions to the petty-bourgeoisie, such as the imprisonment of politicians perceived to be corrupt, the enactment of racist legislation, and the encouragement of violence against immigrants and national minorities. Also, in the third stage, the working class suffers significant political defeats. The fascist state will criminalise communist and socialist political parties, imprison their leaders, and eliminate legislation that protects the working class. In Brazil, the fascist government of Bolsonaro has removed LGBTQ laws, escalated attempts to prosecute important PT and PCdoB leaders on trumped-up charges, encouraged violence against indigenous people and minorities, and passed pro-gun laws on the pretext of fighting crime. Many middle class Brazilians — lawyers, professionals, some intellectuals — who were excluded from the state during the PT years (2002-2014) have been given high posts in the government, the federal police, and the educational system.

In the final stage of fascism, the fascist state has consolidated power and freed itself of its petty-bourgeois class origins. Poulantzas says that this is the most brutal stage, for it involves violent purges at the state level to remove the petty-bourgeoisie, and terroristic repression over the masses. The fourth stage results when the opposition to fascism does not succeed in removing the fascist government.  One defining feature of this period is the beginning of expansionist imperialist wars. In Germany, this was the beginning of the camps in Auschwitz, and the imperialist war against Europe and the Soviet Union. Brazil has not yet achieved this stage, and the dynamics in which it develops will probably be different than in Nazi Germany. Bolsonaro, Trump, and the right-wing Colombian president Ivan Duque have formed an alliance against the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro. Furthermore, Brazil and Colombia have both given the US access to its military intelligence and allowed them to build military bases. The three of them backed the counter-revolutionary Juan Guaido in an attempted coup against Maduro, and spread anti-Venezuela propaganda in their media. The beginning of the fourth stage of fascism in Brazil will likely be accompanied by a direct military invasion of Venezuela, which will receive assistance from the United States, Colombia, and other right-wing states in Latin America.

The main strength of Poulantzas’ Fascism and Dictatorship is its strong theoretical foundation and class analysis. In recent works on fascism, such as Enzo Traverso’s New Faces of Fascism and Alexander Reid Ross’ Against the Fascist Creep, there is a tendency to provide a descriptive account of contemporary fascism rather than a theoretical one. Traverso provides a good account of how the National Front in France became popular by exploiting a long historical tradition in French culture of anti-semitism and racism. Although his account is illuminating in many respects, his theoretical foundation is weakly grounded in formulations from Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism and contains neither a class analysis, nor an account of the structural dynamics of imperialism that bring fascists to power. Poulantzas work has the strength that it can bring these structural class dynamics to light, which are very significant for understanding fascist movements. One reason why it is important to study Poulantzas today is that it can provide the theoretical formulations that are missing in these recent works. The concepts developed in Fascism and Dictatorship are therefore a good foundation to supplement future research on fascism and fascist movements.

2 May 2019

7 comments

  1. The point that ought to be made here is that, in reality part of the working class in the 1930s quite liked the idea of a strong leader who would broker a national salvation, and therefore voted for the fascists and Nazis. And so, although Trotsky had warned time and again about the fascist threat, as Isaac Deutscher documented, Trotsky’s own social analysis of the fascist movement in terms of “frenzied petty-bourgeois running amok” was partly mistaken.

    Trotsky could not admit, that the fascist movement could be quite appealing to parts of the working class, and that these workers could be really deluded into voting for the fascists. He presumed, that the working class always embodied everything that was healthy and progressive in society, and that the vast majority of them would vote for the Left.

    That is, Trotsky’s analysis failed to distinguish correctly between “healthy” and “unhealthy” tendencies among workingclass people. Why this was so, is a moot point. One could speculate that one factor was might have been, that he was of peasant stock himself, and therefore could not fully understand workingclass ways.

    In actual fact, the “class analyses” of the Bolsheviks were often pretty terrible and paranoid, a sort of theoretical schematism, disconnected from where people were at in real life. It badly damaged the lives of many people, who did not fit into the theoretical schema.

  2. According to Tim Roderick from the British International Socialists, “the mass of the working class remained solidly anti-fascist” in Germany in the 1930s. (Tim Roderick, “Fascism & the Working Class”. International Socialism (1st series), No. 102, October 1977, pp. 7–10). https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj/1977/no102/roderick.htm

    However, the British labour historian Dick Geary pointed out that “Recent research has revised the impression of working-class immunity to Nazism” (Dick Geary, “Who voted for the Nazis?”. History Today, Volume 48, Issue 10, October 1998). https://www.johndclare.net/Weimar6_Geary.htm https://www.historytoday.com/archive/who-voted-nazis ).

    Geary says that around forty percent of the membership of the Nazi party were from the working class, forty percent of votes cast for the Nazis were workingclass votes, and one German worker out of every four (i.e. a quarter of the German working class) voted for Hitler in July 1932.

    In reality, Geary noted, more than half of the Sturmabteilung stormtroopers (the SA brownshirts) were from working-class backgrounds, and the Nazis gained substantial support in working-class communities (e.g. in Saxony). The same could also be said for the Waffen SS (the paramilitary blackshirts). Although officers in the Waffen SS were often from middle-class (or lower middle-class) backgrounds, the majority of the SS footsoldiers were working-class.

    The name of the Nazi Party (“National Socialist German Workers Party”) already signified a concern with the ordinary working man. It is just that the “class analyses” of the Nazi politicians (as Dick Geary suggests) were often just as bad as those of the Bolsheviks in Russia.

    For example, as Dick Geary mentions, the Nazis targeted much of their propaganda at workers in the cities, while in reality the Nazi support base grew much more in small towns or rural areas, not in the cities.

    Today, of course, the approach is very different. Manipulating the voters (and gerrymandering) has become a special psephological science, a special science of oppression, especially in the rotten electoral system of the United States. With the aid of computer technology and telecommunications, it is now possible to build very detailed individual profiles for all voters, and to target political propaganda very precisely.

    Just because Cambridge Analytica folded after a scandal, this does not mean the end of “influencing” and “astro-turfing”. There still exist hundreds of other marketing and “social analytics” companies, who do the same sort of research for wealthy clients. In contrast, leftwing social analytics research or psephology is almost nonexistent. Small wonder then, that the Left is not getting ahead in politics very much. They bark up the wrong tree, and raise the wrong themes at the wrong time and place.

  3. Just a small correction. The Jobbik party does not participate in Viktor Orbán’s government. This government is now situated to the right of the formerly neo-fascist Jobbik which is now, by necessity, slouching towards the centre. A bit.

  4. Cas Mudde, a Dutch academic who specializes in right-wing populism research, argued in The Guardian a year ago that “The only way to break Orbán’s stranglehold on Hungary’s dying liberal democracy is a tactical alliance between liberals and Jobbik”(Cas Mudde, “To save Hungary’s liberal democracy, centrists must work with the far right”. The Guardian, 28 march 2018). https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/28/hungary-liberal-democracy-tactical-alliance-far-right

    The problem with the “stagist” approach to fascism is, that it confuses a retrospective “description” of the turning-points in a developmental sequence, with a “causal” explanation of the chain of events.

    Then it begins to look like, that there is a “universal and inevitable sequence of stages” along the road to a fascist state, so that fascist movements can be graded by Marxist schoolmasters according to “what stage” the fascist movements are at.

    This, however, is obviously a false and unMarxian “theoretical schematism”, which Poulantzas most likely did not endorse.

    Poulantzas aimed to identify what he thought to be the different steps and functional requirements in the path of the Nazi movement to state power, critically examining the policy of the Comintern before, during and after each phase.

    The problem in Poulantzas’s approach though was just that, just like Althusser and many New Leftists, he was still fond of the old Marxist-Leninist ideology, language and rhetorical flavour, and the old Stalinist concept of historical materialism.

    Admittedly Poulantzas was more “liberal” or “New Left” in his own Marxist approach, in the sense, that he was willing to recognize there had been real communist policy mistakes, and that some political interpretations of the past were hardly plausible (even if they contradicted Marxist-Leninist ideology).

    On the whole though, he felt, that the communist response to Nazism was broadly correct, despite important tactical and strategic errors (that ought to be learnt from). The defeat of the German communists by the Nazis was very tragic, but the communists had certainly been right all along to fight the Nazis.

    This approach however confuses the perfectly “good intentions” of the communists, with “what was actually done” and “what actually happened”. After the German communists lost, circa 100,000 of them were murdered by the Nazis. The communists were among the first to be deported to the concentration camps.

    Obviously, it is one thing to recognize that you have an enemy, and that you should not underestimate the enemy. It is another to think out a successful strategy, that can really defeat or disarm the enemy.

    Perhaps the main reason why the Nazis won the battle for state power, was not that they made no mistakes, but rather, that they were politically much more agile, opportunistic and decisive than the communists, and had a more realistic, empirical idea about how power actually works.

    The communists were weighed down by a tonne of useless, stodgy and disorienting doctrinalism, and in addition, they were perpetually on a political leash from Stalin’s central committee in Moscow.

    This got in the way of fruitful political insight, learning efficiently from experience, and tactical agility. It often got in the way of taking action, where action should have been taken.

    The result was, that the communist policy usually did not change, because the new circumstances and situation called out for a change. Instead, policy changed reactively “after the fact”, when it had become apparent that the previous idea had been wrong, or even a disaster. Even when the previous error was recognized, nothing much was learnt from its meaning though.

    This sort of “leadership”, which lurches in zigzags from one approach to its very opposite, was ineffectual. A leader has to be able to show people in a rational way the next steps to success, based on an accurate analysis and prognosis, flexibly responding to new circumstances.

    In reality, the communists of that era were mostly not trained in leadership, but in followership, with a quasi military-style discipline and hierarchical chain of command. They agreed to follow local and foreign leaderships who, in truth, did not have much of a clue themselves, about what the best policy was.

    To give an idea of how things really worked at that time, I can give you an illustration from the history of the NZ Communist Party (CPNZ), which I researched when I lived in New Zealand.

    Like the other communist parties around the world, the CPNZ sent a representative to Moscow, to attend and vote in the 7th Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) held in July-August 1935.

    In the preceding “third period” of the Comintern (1928-1935), all social democrats had been branded as “social-fascists”, and were treated as enemies of the working class, no different from real fascists (similar to the Freikorps, at the time of the post-WW1 German revolution – see: Robert G. L. Waite, Vanguard of Nazism: the Free Corps movement in Post-war Germany 1918-1923 (Norton, 1969)).

    Consistent with this Comintern policy, the CPNZ continued to treat the NZ Labour Party with vociferous hostility.

    The 7th Congress of the Comintern however decided to reverse that policy completely, calling instead for a united people’s front with the social democrats and other anti-fascist forces (e.g. liberals), across the whole world.

    This was of critical importance in New Zealand, where the Labour Party was contesting the December 1935 election, with majority support of the working class.

    Although the depression had started to bottom out, times were still desperate, and called for drastic political intervention. The NZ voter turnout in 1935 was more than 90% of the voting-age population. Labour went to victory for the first time since its foundation in 1916, with 53 out of 80 parliamentary seats, sufficient to form a government. The liberals and conservatives were defeated at last.

    However, the CPNZ delegate sent to Moscow had liked it so much in Russia, that he decided to stay on a bit longer, after the Comintern congress was finished. So the CPNZ leadership received its delegate report about the new Comintern political line only “after” the 1935 election in New Zealand was already over.

    The embarrassing effect of this was, that the NZ communists had advised – completely contrary to the new Moscow line – their own supporters “not” to vote for Labour in the 1935 election, to write “communist” on the ballot paper, or else to screw up the ballot paper – and this, even although the vast majority of workers (and many working farmers) in New Zealand supported Labour in its bid for political power.

    It took quite some time, before NZ communist policy was reversed in favour of a “united front” with Labour, as required by the Comintern, both because the NZ communists were reluctant to adopt the new tactic, but also because, after all the anti-Labour hostility of the past, the NZ Labour Party had become highly sceptical of the politics of the communists.

    The most ludicrous part in this whole wrangle was, that in New Zealand there never existed any noteworthy fascist movement at any time, and the few fascists there were, were dealt with under the sedition law. The Comintern policy never made much sense in New Zealand, it was a schematist error.

    In the 1920s, the NZ-Russia friendship society helped to send NZ engineers to Russia and Siberia, to build e.g. dams and electricity generating plants. Straight after world war 2, the CPNZ achieved a maximum of about 1,000 members, but the party gradually lost most of them, through successive splits. In the early 1960s, the NZ communists were the first communist party in the world to side with Mao Ze Dong’s CCP (though it caused a split). In the 1970s and 1980s, there were about half a dozen small communist groups and parties in NZ. In 1994, remnants of the old CPNZ (from its Hoxhaist phase) fused with the International Socialists, although many IS supporters soon left the new party again. A new, revivalist NZ Communist Party intends to contest the NZ elections in 2020.

  5. On second thoughts, it may be, that in my memory I am mixing up the case of Fred Freeman (a NZ communist leader who overstayed in Moscow quite long, from 1929 to 1933) with Leo Sim (the official NZ Comintern delegate who stayed in Moscow during 1934-35). It was a real challenge to travel from Auckland to Moscow in those days, and it took a lot of time as well.

    It was circa 35 years ago, that I looked at this stuff. Everybody had their own story about the party, and the stories were not always consistent. Nevertheless it is true, that the new anti-fascist popular front policy of the Comintern was never adopted in NZ, until well after the 1935 election, and that the CPNZ voted against Labour in the 1935 election.

    My own searches of CPNZ archival material came about, partly because in 1982-1983 I lived in Christchurch (NZ) next door to Jack Locke and Elsie Locke (née Farrelly), who were both veterans of the CPNZ. Elsie, who – unusually – had graduated in 1933 with a BA in Auckland, was married in 1935-1941 to Fred Freeman, the leader of the CPNZ in the early 1930s, before she remarried to Jack (similarly, the NZ Marxist economist Ronald L. Meek also divorced and remarried). Later in life, Elsie became better known in NZ as peace activist, pioneer feminist, environmentalist and as successful novelist, social historian and writer of children’s books; her son Keith Locke was a founder of the Socialist Action League, and later became an MP for the NZ Green Party.

    A decade after my own searches, the NZ labour historian Prof. Kerry Taylor (at Massey University) began to document the history of NZ communism, in a series of excellent and informative articles (also using information left by Bert Roth – I donated three of Roth’s books to the IISH in Amsterdam, but they “disappeared” from the collection).

    See for example: Kerry Taylor, “The Communist Party of New Zealand and the Third Period”, 1928-1935. p. 270f. In: Matthew Worley (ed.), In search of revolution. International Communist Parties in the Third Period. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. And: Kerry Taylor, “Kiwi comrades: The Social Basis of New Zealand Communism, 1921-48”. In: Kevin Morgan, Gidon Cohen & Andrew Flinn (eds), Agents of the revolution. New biographical approaches to the history of international communism. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005, p. 265f. See also e.g. Donald F. Busky, Communism in history and theory. Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002, pp. 71-73.

  6. Poulantzas’ views are of historiographical interest, but to take them seriously as a lens through which actually to assess the historical character of fascism by contemporary scholars seems at the very least bizarre. No one practicing in the field of fascist studies has taken the Marxist class analysis seriously for decades, and the impulse to apply the term “fascist” has been equally discredited. The flaw in Marxist analysis is that it doesn’t take seriously what political players actually say themselves about their values and motivations, and the fact that today no real movement (unlike the period 1919-1945) embraces the term “fascist” or sees itself, as the interwar fascists did, as revolutionary, should put paid to efforts to brand various movements, parties and regimes of the right, fascist. It is this point, in fact – the narrowness of the Marxist concept of revolution – that hamstrings all Marxist writing on fascism.

    For real insights into fascism and its relationship to the current Right, one is better served reading Griffin, Passmore, Paxton, etc. than in dusting off old Thirties Marxists whose work was suspect even then.

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