The functions of Fascism

Michael Parenti - Real History, Part 3

This is Michael Parenti and welcome to RealHistory, a series of talks by me on different historical subjects that are relevant for understanding today's realities.

This particular segment is entitled, The functions of Fascism.

Fascism is a name that was given to the political movement that arose in Italy, under the leadership of Benito Mussolini, who ruled that country from 1922 to 1943.

Nazism, a similar movement led by Adolph Hitler, [who] was Germany's dictator from 1933 to 1945. It's considered by most observers to be a variant of fascism as, to a lessor degree, is the militaristic government that controlled Japan from 1940 to 1945. And the Falangist movement led by Francisco Franco in Spain, when the fascists there - with the military aid, by the way, of the Italian and NAZI fascists - took over after a protracted civil war.

There are similar fascist, or self-avowed fascist movements, but less succesful ones [which] arose in eastern Europe, and in Great Britain, the United States, France, and other Western industrial nation's movements. Some of them also came to power. We might recall, today, when the press is full of news about how Bulgaria, or Romania, or Hungary, or Lithuania, or Poland are returning to their democratic roots - by overthrowing communism - we might recall that they weren't democratic before communism came in, they were fascist. In fact, several of those countries, with the exception of Poland, were open allies of the NAZIs. They were NAZI fascist allies.

Now, like with a lot of terms - like liberalism, democracy, socialism, communism - no single definiton of fascism maybe will satisfy everybody. And with fascism there's a really special problem because it's a beguiling mix of revolutionary-sounding mass appeals and reactionary class-politics. And the reactionary class-politics are the part of fascism that our establishment historians almost never talk about.

Hitler's party, for instance, was called the National Socialist German Workers' Party, the NSDAP or the NAZIs. It's a very 'left-sounding' name, National Socialist German Workers' ... and it was designed to win broad support among working people. Even while the NAZIs were destroying working-class organizations.

In other words fascism - the original Italian and German variations of fascism - was a political phenomenon that made a revolutionary appeal without making a revolution. It promised to solve the ills of the many while in fact protecting the special interests of the few with violence and terror. And it propagated a new political consciousness, a new order, a new nation, to serve the same old capitalist system.

Let me run down a couple of the major characteristics of the fascist ideology :

First, there's a glorification of the leadership cult, the commitment to an absolutist and supreme leader, all-knowing, all-guiding.

Second, there's a glorification of the nation-state as an end in itself, as an entity unto itself, an absolute component to which the individual is subsumed.

Third, there was a glorification of military conquest and jingoism.

Fourth, there was the propagation of a folk-mysticism, a xenophobia, and a racism. The NAZI slogan was Eine Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer. Also, the other-side of the folk mysticism in this blood-cult, this special blood, this special legacy, the atavistic wonders of our particular people, was, as I say, a xenophobia, a hatred, a racism, a hatred of other peoples' nationalities. With the NAZIs and with most other east European fascists it was anti-Semitism.

Fifth, there was an oppostion - both in Italian Fascism and in German NAZIsm - an opposition to socialism, to communism, to anarchism, and to all left, egalitarian class movements and doctrines, along with oppositon to trade unions, opposition to labor parties, opposition to other working class political organizations.

Of these various characteristics of NAZIsm, 1,2,3,4 are often talked about by established historians, and mainstream historians. That last one, though - opposition to labor unions, oppostion to working class parties, opposition to socialism, and such - that one is never talked about by Western writers, especially by American writers.

The historians, and the political scientists, and the journalists who treat the subject of fascism usually write from a centrist ideological perspective. Which means they usually ignore the link betwen fascism and capitalism. Just as they tend to ignore the entire subject of capitalism itself when there's something unfavorable to say about it. Instead they dwell on the more phantasmic components of fascist ideology.

After World War I, Italy had a parliamentary government that seemed really incapable of solving the country's economic crisis. Profits were declining, banks were failiing, unemployment was rising - so to ensure profits, the big industrial giants and the big landowners would have to slash wages and raise prices.

The state, in turn, would have to provide the big owners with tariff protections along with massive subsidies and tax exemptions. To finance this the population would have to be taxed more heavily, their wages rolled back, and social welfare expenditures drastically cut.

It sounds like Reaganism? Well it is. Even more extremely so.

But the government wasn't totally free to apply these harsh measures. First of all, Italian workers and peasants had their own unions, they had political organizations, they had co-operatives, they had their own publications, and through the use of demonstrations and strikes, boycotts, factory takeovers, occupying farmland - the forcible occupation of farmland - they often won some very real concessions in wages and work conditions, unemployment benefits, and they won the right to organize. So the only solution, really, was to smash the worker and peasant organizations, in effect destroying all political and civil liberties, including the right to organize, agitate, and propagandize. The state would have to be more authoritarian and more firmly subservient to the interests of capital.

Mussolini and his blackshirts were around right after World War I and for about three or four years the big landowners and industrialists used their fascist goon squads - gave them money and gave them arms - and used them as kind of strike breakers, anti-labor militias. They styled themselves the united front against Bolshevism.

In 1922 the big capital interests in Italy decided to go for the whole thing.

Representatives of the federation of industry and the federation of agriculture - which was a agribusiness firm - and representatives of the national banking association - they all met together and they met with Mussolini and they planned the fascist March on Rome.

Mussolini sat there and planned that with the leading capitalists of Italy. By the way, this is almost never mentioned in the accounts about the march on Rome. These big capitalists contributed 20 million lira toward that undertaking. In the words of senator Ettore Conti, himself a very loyal representative of the monied interests

“Mussolini was the candidate of the plutocracy ...

that is of the wealthy

and the businss associations.”

A very similar pattern, by the way, of co-ordination and compliance existed in Germany, also, less than a decade later.

The nearly total collapse of the German economy, in 1929-30, presented the owning class with a momentous crisis. They had very big capital investments, and these left them with very high fixed costs, that had to be met, even as their plants lay idle. Only massive state aid could revive their profits. Wages and social welfare, human services expenditures, had to be cut. Union contracts had to be abrogated. In fact human contracts had to be abrogated too. Business would need new subsidies and tax exemptions. The crisis in agriculture was equally severe, and the large landed proprietors, the junker class demanded even higher subsidies, heavier duties on foreign agricultural imports, and an end to farm unions. These unions were holding wages up, and when wages were being sustained you cut into profits.

So, by 1930 most of the influential landowners, and big industrialists, and bankers - especially the industrialists in steel, coal, and mining - had concluded that the Weimar Republic no longer served their interests and no longer could protect their class. That it was too accomodating to the working class, and to certain secors of light industry. So they greatly increased their subsidies to Hitler, and they propelled the NAZI Party onto the national stage.

By 1930 most of the great industrialists and bankers were underwriting the NAZI Party. And what happened in 1930 with this injection of hundreds of millions of marks is that Hitler was able to catapault his party onto the national scene. It went from a cult of brownshirt thugs to a national party. Mobilized in the election of 1930 the NAZI Party gained 107 seats in the Reichstag. And in 1931 and '32 the subsidies from the big industrialists continued to rain in, evermore abundantly. So the NAZIs were projected onto the national stage and they gained an ever larger presence in the Reichstag.

So the threat wasn't really from the left. The bourgeosie resorted to fascism less in response to the disturbances in the street and more in response to the disturbances in their own economic system. The threat wasn't from the left, the threat was from their own economic system and its contradictions, and the fact that democratic forces had developed enough democratic strength to resist the austerity and the rollback that the capitalist tried to impose to maintain their levels of profit. The sickness that these capitalists tried to banish was from within, not from without.


The Italian and German monopolists, the big cartels, also had a direct interest in an expansionist military regime. They wanted a big rebuilding of the military. One that would first of all compensate for the deciline in investment opportunities with huge armament contracts and related public works. In other words, this industrial and financial class wanted a large defense budget - as we would call it - because it was a source of captial investment and enormous capital profits.

Does that sound familiar?

Two, they wanted to embark on an aggressive foreign policy to open new markets for export and investment, thereby gaining a more equal footing with French and English competitors.

Now, I don't mean to say that all the big industrialists and financiers supported fascism with equal fervor. Some, like Thyssen, were early and enthusiastic backers of Hitler. The aged Emil Kirdof thanked god that he lived long enough to see the Führer emerge as the savior of Germany. They backed Hitler only when he promised to be the best hope for their interests. Light industry, which had lower fixed costs and more stable profits than heavy industry ... they may not have been close to the fascists ... but they weren't about to ally themselves with the proletariat against the business class, of which they were a part.

There was another element in these two societies that not only tolerated the rise of fascism but supported it. And I'm talking about the parliamentary capitalist state itself, not the government or the parliaments as such, but the instruments of the state. The instruments that have the legal monopoly on force and violence. The police, the army, the courts, and the like - the secret intelligence agencies and such. In both Italy and Germany, years before Mussolini and Hitler emerged victorious, these elements - courts, police, the army - showed a real leniency and an open collaboration with fascism, while harshly repressing the left. Mussolini and Hitler could not have come to power without the help of the state machinery, and that state machinery was never really against them.

In Italy the police collaborated with the fascists in attacking labor and peasant organizations. They recruited criminals for the fascist action squads, these squadristi, they promised a n immunity from prosecution for past crimes, when applications for gun permits were regularly denied to workers and peasants, police guns and police cars were made available to Mussolini's goons. In Germany the same kind of thing went on. immediately after the War, the military police and the judiciary sided with the rightists to suppress the left, a pattern of collaboration that continued until Hitler took power.

In other words these supposed democracies which were equally opposed to totalitarianism of the left and the right - were not equally opposed. They were opposed to the left and they were very close and comfy with the right. Because the right - while it was out to destroy that democracy - the right was protecting the interests of property and the existing class structure. And that's the difference between the left and the right and that's why a capitalist state tends to treat the right so much more leniently, and the left so much more harshly.

But there's something else, besides talking about who supported fascism ... who did fascism support? When fascism came into power. Who did the fascists support?

Well, in Italy and Germany, when they came into power they began implementing the sternest measures that were needed to rescue the capitalist economy.

Labor unions were dissolved. Strikes were outlawed. Union contracts were nullified. Prominent union leaders and other labor activists were imprisoned or murdered. Union property was confiscated. Worker publications were banned. Opposition political parties were outlawed, their leaders jailed. Civil liberties were suspended. Fascist sponsored “unions” were setup, and their function was to speed up production, prevent wildcat strikes, and apply punitive regulations, inclucing fines, dismissals, and imprisonments against workers who agitated or complained of shop conditions. And even a NAZI labor front newspaper had to admit

“Some shop regulations are reminiscent of penal codes.”

Workers no longer had the right to change jobs. They could be shifted from one employment to another regardless of their wishes. They could be conscripted for any work deemed useful to the nation's economy without guarantee of wages equal to previous earnings. In both Italy and Germany the government exercised compulsory arbitration of both occupation and wages.

By the way, any worker who contested that would be contesting the laws of the state and therefore would be declared an enemy of the state, not just in conflict with management, but an enemy of the state.

And so, in effect, what you got was a perfect wedding of the interests of the state and the interests of the capitalist class, in each particular capitalist state.

And these measures had their effect. According to figures supplied by the Italian press itself. The already meager wages - you know the wages weren't that good to begin with - for Italian workers in 1927 were cut in half by 1932. By 1939 the cost of living had risen 30%, and this constituted an additional decrease in real wages. Taxes on wages were introduced. Regulations were instated against minimum wages - the minimum wage law was abolished, in other words. There was no more increased pay for overtime. In some regions sanitary and safety regulations were dropped, occupational safety regulations were eliminated in factories. In many areas child labor was reintroduced.

In other words all the old abuses and old evils that the Italians thought were dead - that belonged to a generation ago - had returned under fascism.

In Germany, the same story. Between 1933 and 1935 wages were lowered anywhere from 25 to 40%. That's a tremendous cut, if you're an ordinary worker, just trying to make ends meet. Wage taxes were instituted. Municipal poll taxes were doubled. Payroll deductions helped finance the NAZI-controlled labor front - and the NAZI labor front controlled party organizations, and the health and unemployment insurances. All of which, by the way, lowered wages between another 20 and 30%, that is the things that were taken out of your pay for that. And the non-profit mutual assistance and insurance associations that had existed before the NAZIs came to power in the free labor unions were abolished. Their funds were taken over by private insurance companies that charged more while paying out smaller benefits. In Germany, just like in Italy, inflation substantially added to the German workers' hardship.

There's something else both of these fascist leaders did in both Italy and Germany : the process of privatization.

Does that sound familiar?

State-owned enterprises such as power plants, steel mills, banks, railways, insurance firms, steamship companies, and shipyards were handed over to private ownership, for a song, like gifts.

Corporate taxes were reduced by half in both Italy and Germany.

Does that sound familiar?

Taxes on luxury items for the rich were cut. And inheritance taxes were either drastically lowered or abolished, just as they have been in the last ten years in America.

In Germany between 1934 and 1940 the average net income of corporate businessmen rose by 46%. Enterprises that were floundering were refloated with state bonds - they were recapitalized out of the state treasury. And they were returned to private control when solvent.

So you see, these are people who say socialism doesn't work - but when capitalists' businesses start to fail they go socialist - they take the money out of the public treasure and refloat these businesses.

Does that sound familiar, to you people who are worrying about the S&L bailout?

With numerous enterprises the state guaranteed the return on the capital invested. They guaranteed a return! And assumed all the risk of investment losses. So the investor, the rich investor, didn't have to worry about any losses, and if the business didn't do well he'd get the money from the state treasury anyway. This is why the capitalists did like fascism.

This however, did not really bring a final solution. What the fascist state did was attempt a final solution to the problem of class conflict. It obliterates the demands of the working class and the democratic forms that allow workers some room for an organized defense of their interests. But this final solution proved very far from final. In fascist Italy and Germany industrial sabotage and sporadic wildcat strikes continued, inflation increased, whole sectors of the economy remained stagnant, there was widespread corruption, mismanagement, underemployment, vital social services deteriorated ... but profits climbed! The profits went up. Yes, sir.

The gestures made on behalf of the needy were pitiful. What the NAZIs used to do was go around in the working class areas and collect alms. So they taxed the poor to give money to the still poorer.

So even under the Weimar Republic, for all its troubles, the levels of food, textile and other areas of production and concumption were much better than ever achieved under NAZI Germany.

Now my references, on a couple of occasions here I made references to Reagan and Reaganism, I didn't mean to imply that Reagan was a fascist - in fact quite the opposite. I meant to point out that, in the American context, Reaganism accomlished the same things within the existing framework of the political system.

He broke unions - but he didn't use death squads and terror squads. He broke them using consulatations - with advisor corporations spending hundreds of millions of dollars showing companies how to break unions. They broke unions by instituting one of the most restrictive, and prohibitive, and difficult laws - the Taft-Hartley law - that goes back to the 1940s, which make union organizing in America so very difficult.

They've tried a number of times to limit our constitutional rights - the right to free speech, the right of government accountability, they've cut inheritance taxes, they've cut the capital gains tax, they've cut corporate taxes, they've abolished the progressive income tax - these are the accomplishmnets of the Ronald Reagan administration.

While everyone talked about what a nitwit, and a dingbat, and a fool he was - Ronald Reagan did some very successful and brilliant things for his class. He rolled back the social democracy that had been developing in the late '60s and through the '70s. He cut back, undermined human services. He staffed agencies and courts in government with people who do not believe in government, and do not even carry out the programs that the congress voted in.

So, within the American context, he's done quite a few things short of - of course - short of what Hitler and Mussolini did as a final solution.

And today I would also point out that in capitalist democracies in western Europe and in the United States, the security forces have that same double standard that we discovered in Italy and in the Weimar Republic in Germany, namely, they look the other way toward violence from the right, or seem to do very little, or seem seldom able to capture the perpetrators - unless the perpetrators are so crazy as to attack and kill the police themselves, then they'll go after them.

But on the left there's a constant surveillance, harassment, and in fact - sometimes outright murder. One can think of the systematic murder of the Black Panther Party - something like 30 of them killed in co-ordinated police attacks in cities throughout America. Or one can think of what's going on with Germany, Italy, Belgium, Portugal today where people on the left are being thrown in jail for astronomical sentences while terrorists on the right seem to get by and get away with murder.

Well, this is what we have to look at and have to understand, that fascism is not just another -ism out there, it's not just an aberration, it has a very rational side to it, and it's proclivities can exist even in the democratic state. That is, within that state those police powers and those state powers can mainifest some of the very same symptoms and all the worst attributes that you might find in a NAZI Germany or a Fascist Italy.

Don't take my word for it - just ask the CIA. Thank you.

This is Michael Parenti with some Real History