fascism and dictatorship

Jackson Pollock, Untitled (Sheet of Studies), (c. 1939-42)


Preface to the newly edited book by Nicos Poulantzas

Em fascism and dictatorship, a work originally published in 1970, Nicos Poulantzas develops an important theoretical contribution to the studies about the variations of the forms of the capitalist type of State when elaborating a Marxist political theory of fascism.

To this end, the author makes use of the critical analysis of a wide theoretical and historiographical bibliography on the subject and establishes a theoretical demarcation line with a series of theoretical problematics and doctrines, among which we would highlight: historicism, economism, institutionalism and elitism.

In this book, the elaboration of a Marxist political theory of fascism implies removing the analyst from any pretension of constituting a historiography of the concrete cases of Italian fascism and German Nazism. As the author warns, concrete cases are conceived in this work as historical illustrations of the object of investigation.

How are these demarcation lines established with the aforementioned theoretical issues and what does the author present as an analytical alternative?” First, Poulantzas seeks to distance himself from historicism by considering it a mistake to establish an identity relationship between concept and historical fact. For him, fascism is not a dated phenomenon nor a concept valid only for the German and Italian political context of the 1920s to 1940s. decisive conceptual formulation of his analysis according to which fascism is a “form of regime in the form of a capitalist State of exception”.

Poulantzas understands, therefore, that the capitalist type of State admits variations that can be manifested through what he calls forms of democratic or “exception” capitalist State.[1] Each of these forms of state admits, in turn, different forms of regime. The “forms of exceptional capitalist state” can include, for example, the following “forms of exceptional regime”: the Bonapartist dictatorship, the military dictatorship and the fascist dictatorship.

At work Political power and social classes, published in 1968, Poulantzas had presented a systematic theory of the capitalist type of State, characterizing it as a juridical-political structure formed by bourgeois law, which strips the agents of production of their class belonging and establishes them institutionally as subjects of law , thus producing the effect of isolation or individualization, that is, the ideological effect that engenders the recognition of production agents as individual-citizens; and by bureaucratism, which gives unity to the set of atomized individuals and fixes class anonymity in the institutions of the capitalist State, producing the effect of representing unity, so that: the class capitalist State can present itself as a representative of the general interest of the people-nation.

Em fascism and dictatorship, Poulantzas develops a double displacement in relation to this work: on the theoretical level, he distances himself from the concept of the State as a juridical-political structure and starts to give centrality to the concept of State apparatus, understood as being constituted by a repressive apparatus (formed by the civil, military and legal bureaucracies) and a variety of ideological apparatuses (consisting of the family, school, religious, information/communication apparatus, etc.); already, in terms of the object of investigation, Poulantzas moves from the analysis of the type of State to the examination of the forms of the capitalist State, paying special attention to the form of the “exception” State and the form of the fascist regime.

In later works, the debate about the forms of State and regime reappears from the examination: of the crisis of military dictatorships, central theme of the book The crisis of dictatorships: Portugal, Spain and Greece, published in 1975; and “authoritarian statism”, an original concept formulated by the author to refer to a variation of the form of democratic capitalist State that had been constituting capitalism in the 1970s. The phenomenon of “authoritarian statism” is approached in the book The state, power, socialism from 1978, a work in which the concept of the State as a legal-political structure gives way to the ambiguous notion of the State as “material condensation of a relationship of forces between classes and class fractions”.

There are two fundamental elements that characterize the form of the “exception” capitalist State in Pooulantz's analysis: the suspension of the principle of universal suffrage and the exclusive control by the state bureaucracy over fundamental decision-making processes. It is true that the author also makes reference to the recrudescence of the repressive apparatus and the arbitrary character of the law to address the form of the “exception” capitalist State, but, in the development of the analysis, such aspects tend to be addressed more as an effect of the reinforcement of the role of the state bureaucracy in the process of establishing the new form of state than as a cause.

According to Poulantzas, the variation of regime forms from the “exceptional” capitalist State form is linked to the dominant role that a given branch of the State apparatus plays in the decision-making process. Thus, in the fascist dictatorship, the branch that assumes this role is the political police, in the Bonapartist dictatorship, it is the civil bureaucracy, and in the military dictatorship, it is the military bureaucracy.

Contrary to institutionalist analyzes that neglect the relationship between the State and social classes, in general, and the State and dominant classes, in particular, Poulantzas observes the existence of a correspondence between the changes that occurred in the hierarchy of the branches of the State apparatus and the configuration of a new hegemony within the power bloc. Thus, the author points out that the change in the form of the State is associated with the emergence of a fraction of the ruling class as the hegemonic fraction of the bloc in power, which now has priority over the content of state policy. Poulantzas does not approach the State and the economy as separate parts of social reality, as institutionalists tend to do.

In his analysis, the author demonstrates how the intervention of the classic fascist state was fundamental to guarantee and consolidate the transition from competitive capitalism to monopoly capitalism in Germany and Italy. Paraphrasing Horkheimer, for whom those who do not talk about capitalism should remain silent about fascism, Poulantzas asserts that those who do not want to speak about imperialism should remain silent about fascism.

Another fundamental aspect of the work fascism and dictatorship it is the criticism of the economicist interpretation of fascism, advocated at the time mainly by the 3rd. Communist International (CI). In general terms, according to the author, economism tends to manifest itself in several ways when:

(a) conceives that the economic crisis can inevitably result in a revolutionary crisis, as if the deterioration of the economic situation could unilaterally explain the emergence of a revolutionary situation. Such conception led CI to the diagnosis that the advent of fascism in the context of economic crisis would result in the disjunctive “fascism or socialism”;

(b) it characterizes the social classes based on exclusively economic criteria, thus ignoring the political and ideological factors of the constitution of the classes that explain the greater or lesser adhesion, or even the resistance, of certain classes and fractions to fascism;

(c) hides or underestimates the existing differences between democracy and dictatorship, considered as expressions of the interests of big capital – which would have had consequences on the very understanding of the class nature of fascism, as a political movement and as a form of regime, and contributed to keep the communists away from building an anti-fascist mass line (see the case of the thesis of social-fascism, which prevailed as the center of the IC theses from its VI Congress of 1928 until at least the VII Congress in 1935);

(d) treats politics as a mere epiphenomenon of the economy, which leads to ignore the particular dynamics of the political and ideological crisis, linked to the fascistization process and to the institutional and social changes resulting from the implantation of fascism, which correspond, respectively, to the transformation of the internal hierarchy, both of the branches of the State apparatus, and of the class fractions that make up the bloc in power.

What does Poulantzas present as an analytical alternative to the economicist interpretation of fascism? Here, the distinction he makes between the process of fascistization and the fascist regime in operation gains relevance. One of the questions that Poulantzas seeks to answer is the following: what are the historical conditions that allow the emergence of fascism? According to him, the advent of fascism would be marked in general terms:

(a) by the prior strategic defeat of the workers' and people's movement, which means that the fascistization process does not compete with a strong workers' and people's movement organized and situated in the political offensive. In fact, such a movement is on the political defensive, making no sense to think of the conjuncture opened by the fascistization process as a moment marked by the polarization between fascism and socialism. Fascistism only takes root in places where it encounters a weak workers' and popular movement and union and party organizations struggling to represent a broad base of workers;

(b) by the political offensive of the bourgeoisie as a whole against the working and popular masses in the midst of a process of crisis of hegemony within the power bloc, which allows the emergence of the petty bourgeoisie as an organized social force in the fascist party;

(c) by the constitution of the alliance that is established throughout the process between the petty bourgeoisie and big capital, which manages to confiscate and politically direct the mass base of fascism and advance towards the implementation of the fascist dictatorship. The moment of formation of this alliance is characterized by Poulantzas as a “point of no return”, thus indicating the irreversible character of the fascistization process from then on;

(d) by the discrepancy between the roles of “hegemonic fraction”, “reigning fraction” and “state-owning class”. These are concepts originally elaborated by Poulantzas in the work Political power and social classes and which respectively designate the fraction of the bloc in power that has priority over state policy, the class fraction that reigns in the political scene from its political organizations and the class or fraction that occupies the top echelon of the state.

Poulantzas observes that the fascistization process is marked by a crisis of hegemony and that the established regime will allow the constitution of a new hegemony within the power bloc: the hegemony of big capital. With regard to the ruling fraction, the author draws attention to the fact that it is the petty bourgeoisie organized in the fascist party that will constitute itself as the ruling fraction in the process of fascistization. However, once the fascist regime was constituted, the party began to subordinate itself to the state bureaucracy and big capital assumed the function of the ruling fraction. With regard to the class that owns the State, it will be composed mainly of the petty bourgeoisie who will fill the main positions in the state leadership and will be responsible for the execution of state policy.

This type of analysis is interesting because it makes it possible to observe the complex fabric of the different dimensions of the political process and their relationship with the classes and class fractions involved: who holds political power and priority over state policy? Who exerts ideological domination in the political scene? Who carries out state policy?

As already highlighted, Poulantzas distances himself from economistic analyzes that treat politics and ideology as a mere reflection of the economy or social classes as being determined exclusively by economics, as well as from studies influenced by institutionalist problematics, which tend to conceive the functioning of the State as being disconnected from class conflicts and the economy. It should be added that his theoretical study of fascism also lays bare the limits of analyzes guided by the theory of elites, which neglects the distinction between who exercises political power and political hegemony (politically dominant and hegemonic class), on the one hand, and who executes the policy. state (class that owns the state apparatus), on the other. By preferring to confine itself to the morphological examination of the members of the state apparatus, elitism hides the content of state policy and its relationship with the class interests present in a given conjuncture, falling into a formalist analysis of the political process.

From what we have already mentioned here, by distinguishing the functions of hegemonic fraction, ruling fraction and class that owns the state apparatus, Poulantzas formulates not only an analytical alternative to the formalism present in the elitist problematic, but also offers elements to think about the complexity of the fascistization process and consolidation of the fascist dictatorship.

Poulantzas' distancing from the elitist issue is not limited to the aforementioned aspects, it is also manifested in the analysis of the social basis of fascism. If elitism tends to understand societies as being formed by (rational) elites and (irrational) masses and to employ the notions of “average” or “common man” to deal with mass movements such as fascism, Poulantzas seeks to construct an analysis centered on the economic situation and ideological political positioning of classes and class fractions, which can be seen in the very subdivision of the chapters: “Fascism and ruling classes”, “Fascism and the working class”, “Fascism and petty bourgeoisie” and “The fascism and the countryside”, as well as its subchapters that begin with general propositions that unite the phenomenon of classic fascism and end with considerations on the concrete cases of German and Italian fascism.

In such chapters and subchapters, Poulantzas demonstrates all the complexity of the phenomenon of fascism, observing in a rigorous and systematic way: the internal contradictions of classes and fractions; the way in which these classes and fractions find themselves economically in the face of the advent of monopoly capitalism and the economic crisis; the place that these classes and fractions occupy in the political process (offensive and defensive); the way they influence and are impacted by the crisis of hegemony, the crisis in the relationship between representatives and those represented, the ideological crisis and the establishment of the fascist dictatorship, etc.

By seeking to analyze the contradictions between classes and fractions and observe the conditions that allow each of them to adhere more actively or passively to the fascist movement and dictatorship, or even to resist them, Poulantzas completely distances himself from the elitist problematic that is centered on the notion of the “average man” to characterize the social base of fascism. For the author, such a social base is not constituted by an amorphous and indistinct mass that would be transversal to all classes and class fractions. Even though he recognizes that fascism manages to insert itself into different classes and class fractions, the fascist political movement constituted in a party is fundamentally composed of a petty-bourgeois and urban social base. That is the driving force of the fascist movement.


It would be impossible in this short presentation to be able to describe all the theoretical contributions made by Poulantzas to analyze the phenomenon of fascism. The book mobilizes a wide bibliography and its author seeks not only to take them into account, but also to position himself in front of them, building, in an original and rigorous way, a series of theses and subtheses about the object of investigation in question. when he wrote fascism and dictatorship, Poulantzas already warned in the first lines of his introduction that studying fascism at that juncture of 1970 corresponded to a “political necessity”, considering that the worsening of the crisis of imperialism was placing the question of the “state of exception” on the agenda. , which we prefer to call a dictatorial state.

A little over 50 years after the publication of this book, we are witnessing in Brazil and in the world the emergence of a new crisis scenario that combines several economic, political and ideological dimensions and brings as a novelty a health crisis of major proportions. In this multidimensional scenario of crisis, we have seen the emergence of various extreme right movements that more or less openly claim the implementation of a dictatorship as a response to the crisis. In Brazil, the fascist movement began to gain strength since the center-left and left-wing forces suffered a harsh strategic defeat with the 2016 coup and the leadership of Jair Bolsonaro was projected on the national political scene, being soon endorsed as president of the Republic with significant votes in the 2018 presidential elections.

Bolsonaro and his social base never omitted their maximum program, aimed at the establishment of a dictatorial regime. Recently, during a graduation ceremony at the Army Cadet Training School, in Campinas (SP), Bolsonaro even stated bluntly that: “Some think I can do everything. If everything had to depend on me, this would not be the regime we would be living. And despite everything I represent democracy in Brazil”. Although it has repeatedly made an apology for the military regime established in 1964 in the country and the figure of a recognized and abominable torturer, Bolsonarism has shown that it has no predilection for the technocratic way of doing politics adopted by the military in the past, thus preferring to resort whenever possible to the cultural war against the left and democrats in general and the institutions of liberal democracy, and to the permanent agitation and mobilization of its social bases, mainly through social networks and street demonstrations.

Certainly, the work fascism and dictatorship brings rich contributions that help us understand the classic and contemporary expressions of fascism. Unraveling the sphinx of Bolsonarism and similar manifestations is a decisive task for progressive and socialist forces and fundamental for the construction of an anti-fascist mass policy in Brazil and in the world. As Poulantzas warns us at the conclusion of this book: “if history has a meaning, it is that it can serve as a lesson for the present. Making a mistake today, and being unable to detect the reality of an eventual process of fascistization, could not be excusable, if it ever was. Fascism, like other exceptional regimes, are not 'diseases' or 'accidents': they don't just happen to others”.

*Danilo Enrico Martuscelli Professor of the Degree in Social Sciences and the Master's Program in Philosophy at the Chapecó campus and the Interdisciplinary Master's Program in Human Sciences at the Erechim campus of the Federal University of Fronteira Sul (UFFS).


Nicos Poulantzas. Fascism and Dictatorship: The III International against Fascism. Translation: Bethânia Negreiros Barroso with technical review by Danilo Enrico Martuscelli. Curitiba, Enunciation Publications, 2021, 388 pages.


[1] Poulantzas' use of the concept of a form of "State of exception" is the subject of controversy, due to the exceptionality attributed to the phenomenon, which, in principle, would imply the need to define what is meant by norm, or typicality of a certain form of State. Poulantzas does not systematize this difference in this book, nor, unless I am mistaken, in other analyses. In addition, we observe that the form of a democratic State is far from being constituted as a rule in the development of the capitalist State, especially if we take into account the successive dictatorial regimes that marked the history of dependent capitalist social formations. In this sense, we understand that the concept of a dictatorial State form is the one that best fits the very poulantzian theoretical formulation and allows to demarcate the difference with the concept of a democratic State

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