Neofascism in the semiperiphery of the imperialist system



Why characterize Bolsonarism as neo-fascism

Where is fascism in Brazil

I have characterized the Bolsonaro support movement as well as his government as neo-fascists (Boito, 2019). In this text, I intend to resume this thesis, present it with perhaps more refined arguments and indicate my differences with the bibliography that refuses such a characterization.

Please note that I am talking about a dominant neo-fascist movement and government and not a fascist dictatorship. Some observers and analysts of Brazilian politics have argued that it is not appropriate to characterize Bolsonarism as fascism in general or as one of the variants of this political phenomenon because in Brazil there are still elections and also other components that characterize democracy. Yes, in Brazil we still find ourselves in a bourgeois democracy, but it is evident that it is possible to form a fascist social movement in a democratic regime and, perhaps less evident, it is possible to form a fascist government without the transition to a fascist dictatorship. .

Hitler began the process of transition to dictatorship in less than a month after assuming the leadership of the government, but in the case of the Mussolini Government, which, in its early years, remained within the limits of the bourgeois democratic regime. Palmiro Togliatti (2010) goes further in his assessment of the trajectory of this government. He maintains that the National Fascist Party did not even have a defined “dictatorship project” when it came to power. For Togliatti, the implementation of the fascist dictatorship became an objective and became viable as a result of the evolution of the economic situation and the class struggle in the early and mid-1920s.[1]

In Brazil, today, we have a predominantly neo-fascist government, based on a neo-fascist movement, but so far what we still have in terms of the political regime is a bourgeois democracy, albeit a deteriorated one. Why bourgeois democracy? Because the representatives were elected and the National Congress continues to function and has effective influence in the decision-making process – an influence limited by Brazilian hyper-presidentialism, but this limitation is nothing new in this context. Why deteriorated? Fundamentally, for two reasons. Because, since the beginning of Operation Lava Jato and thanks to the so-called Clean Record Law, a political filter was created by the judiciary to challenge leftist or center-left candidates with chances of winning and because political institutions, including the Supreme Court (STF), are under the tutelage of the Armed Forces, particularly the Army.

As examples, it is enough to remember the public framing of the STF in April 2018 by General Eduardo Villas Bôas, then commander of the Army, determining the rejection of the habeas corpus requested by the defense of former President Lula da Silva and also the prohibition that weighs on the Legislative to legislate, itself, on the retirement of the military – the project in process was elaborated by the Armed Forces themselves. This deterioration in the form of democratic organization of State institutions corresponds to changes in the current political regime, a level in which we can observe threats and attacks on political freedoms – censorship, attacks on the right to assemble, arbitrary arrests, etc.

For a general and theoretical concept of fascism

It is, then, a neo-fascist movement and a predominantly neo-fascist government, but not, at least so far, a fascist dictatorship. The general question now arises: why can we speak of fascism or neo-fascism in the XNUMXst century and in a country located on the periphery of international capitalism? Is fascism not a typical political phenomenon of the XNUMXth century and of imperialist countries? In this matter, there are some answers that, in our view, are wrong and that must be criticized before presenting our own definition.

The first mistake comes from the proposal to confine the fascist phenomenon to Italy from 1919 to 1945 or, at best, also to Germany in that same period. A prestigious historian of fascism, Emilio Gentile, recently published a book to defend this restrictive thesis (Gentile, 2019). It is a radical historicist position: the concept of fascism, and we must understand that concepts in general would only serve to designate phenomena of the period in which and/or for which they were created. Gentile sums up his thesis with the following statement: the concept of fascism is the history of fascism itself and this had no predecessors in the 2019th century and will not have successors in the 126st century (Gentile, XNUMX, p. XNUMX). An in-depth critique of this type of focus would require space that we do not have in this text.

What is worth arguing is that, in the same way that we generalize when we elaborate and use the concept of democracy, dictatorship, monarchy, republic and other concepts of political science, we must also generalize when we elaborate and use the concept of fascism, which is a political movement reactionary from the intermediate strata of capitalist society and a specific type of bourgeois dictatorship.

Gentile is not a Marxist, but historicism is also present in some Marxist traditions, starting with Italian Marxism. Recently, a Marxist author, Atilio Boron, wrote about Bolsonaro using the same general idea: fascism is an unrepeatable historical phenomenon (Boron, 2019). Boron's specific argument is that the hegemonic bourgeois fraction in the fascist dictatorship was the national bourgeoisie, a political entity that would have disappeared as a result of the new wave of internationalization of the capitalist economy. I made a developed critique of this thesis in the article “O neofascismo no Brasil” (Boito Jr, 2019). I did not go into the merits – and I will not go into the present text either – of the question of whether the bourgeoisies of the different capitalist countries merged or not into a single world bourgeoisie.

I just want to point out the following. As far as the political regime is concerned, fascism is a type of dictatorship and, like other political regimes, it comprises, within certain limits, different compositions of the power bloc with different hegemonic bourgeois fractions. The same political regime comprises several hegemonic forces and, which is not necessarily a mere reverse of the coin, the same bourgeois fraction can exercise its hegemony in different regimes. On the one hand, bourgeois democracy served to organize the hegemony of medium capital at the time of competitive capitalism and to organize the hegemony of big monopoly capital from the XNUMXth century onwards. On the other hand, while in Italy and Germany, big capital established its hegemony through fascism, this same bourgeois fraction reached the hegemonic position in England and the United States through bourgeois democracy. The relationship between power bloc and political regime, although not random, is not univocal.

The second mistake we intend to criticize concerns authors who, like us, work with a general concept of fascism, but with a concept of fascism that we consider descriptive. We will refer to two authors who published works that had repercussions. We are thinking of Umberto Eco, with his little book the eternal fascism, which is in the thirtieth edition, and Robert Paxton, with his important work Anatomy of fascism. In these cases, we say that fascism is descriptively defined because such authors, following what is perhaps the largely dominant tendency in studies on fascism, define it by constructing a list, greater or lesser, of those that would be the attributes of fascism as political and ideological phenomenon.

Umberto Eco lists fourteen characteristics of fascism (Eco, pp. 34-48); at the conclusion of his book, Paxton defines fascist political behavior using no less than twenty attributes (Paxton, 2004, pp. 218-220). This type of definition must be called descriptive because its authors do not make explicit the theoretical criteria from which they select the attributes of fascism; they believe, in a radical empiricist approach, to start exclusively and directly from the empirical facts to create the concept; we are not told what is primary and what is secondary; they do not qualify the existing relations between one attribute and another, that is, whether or not they form an organized whole, nor do they tell us how to proceed in the face of a certain historical phenomenon that, eventually, presents only a part of the list of characteristics listed to characterize the concept .

A reactionary mass movement and dictatorial regime

We understand that the concept of fascism is a general concept. We also understand that the definition of this concept must be theoretical and not descriptive, that is, it must, starting simultaneously both from historical facts and from a general theory of politics and the State, locate what is essential to the phenomenon, offering a direction for the analyzes historical. In the same way that when we define capital as the value that is valued; the State as a specific institution that organizes class domination and social classes as collectives defined by the position they occupy in social production, in the same way that by launching such definitions we only indicate a direction for the development of the analysis, and do not present an exhaustive list of the characteristics of each of these phenomena – capital, State and social classes –, as well as presenting a theoretical definition of fascism, what we obtain is a guide for historical analysis.

All historical types of State of exploiting ruling classes – slaveholding, feudal, capitalist – are historically presented in a dictatorial or democratic form. Fascism, as a form of organization of the State apparatus and power, is a variant of the dictatorial form of the capitalist State, that is, it is a type of dictatorship distinct from, for example, the military dictatorship. However, fascism is also and as we have already indicated the ideology that justifies this dictatorship and the movement that, cohesive by this ideology, can fight to implement this type of dictatorship or to maintain it. The texts we can rely on are Marxist analyzes of fascism. We think of contemporary authors of the phenomenon and more recent ones such as: Palmiro Togliatti and the Corso sulli avversari: Le lezioni sul fascism, a work that brings together the content of lectures given by the Italian communist leader in 1935; Daniel Guerrin, fascism et grand capital of 1936, and Nicos Poulantzas, fascism et dictature of 1970.

We define the fascist movement as a reactionary mass movement and, following Togliatti, the fascist dictatorship as a reactionary mass regime. This element distinguishes the fascist dictatorship from the military dictatorship – an issue much discussed by the Brazilian left in the 1960s and 1970s. different from the genus to which they both belong. Each of the two species mentioned performs the qualities of the genus in a particular way. We have tried to indicate this general similarity and specific differences in the table below.

Gender and species: original fascism, neo-fascism

The fact that this is a movement from an intermediate layer of capitalist society is important. Fascism is not a bourgeois movement, although it arrived at government co-opted by the bourgeoisie and although it was, from its beginnings, ideologically dependent on the bourgeoisie. It is a middle-tier mass movement and therefore has ideological elements and short-term economic interests that may be at odds with the ideology and immediate economic interests of the bourgeoisie. With its conservative critique of capitalism, of a petty-bourgeois type, the original fascist movement came, in several respects, to confuse socialists and communists – Poulantzas (1970) speaks of an “anti-capitalist status quo” ideology.

In Brazil, the reactionary mass movement was formed in 2015 in the campaign for the overthrow of Dilma Rousseff. From there, after depuration, the specifically neo-fascist movement emerged – Bolsonarism. Criticism of this movement and its surroundings, also of the middle class, of corruption and the so-called “take-for-take policy” came to confuse left-wing and far-left parties. The hegemonic wing of the PT and even the government team of the Dilma government, lulled by the ideology according to which the institutions of the bourgeois State are socially neutral – the so-called “republicanism” –, believed that Operation Lava Jato really aimed to fight corruption, and not instrumentalizing the fight against corruption on behalf of the interests of international capital and meeting the ideological expectations of the upper middle class (Boito Jr., 2018). In turn, the PSTU and one of the PSOL wings were attracted by Lava Jato, in this case even moved by the political error of electing the PT's reformism as the main enemy to be fought. To a greater or lesser extent, part of the left and center-left did not even realize that the criticism of the old politics was and is the criticism of parliamentary politics, that is, of bourgeois democracy itself. The neo-fascist group aspires to rule by decree.

The mass base of the fascist movement creates a complex situation when such a movement takes over the government, which occurs thanks to its co-option by the bourgeoisie and particularly by one of the bourgeois fractions that dispute hegemony in the power bloc. Hitler and Mussolini had to disentangle themselves, in order to fulfill the function of organizing the hegemony of big monopoly capital, of the so-called plebeian wing of fascism, arriving, as is well known, to physically eliminate the leadership of this wing and had to change – in the case of Mussolini – or make a dead letter – in the case of Hitler – the original program of the movement (Guerrin, 1965; Poulantzas, 1970; Togliatti, 2010; Shirer, 2017). On a smaller scale, Bolsonaro is led, in order to serve primarily, but not exclusively, the interests of international capital and the associated bourgeoisie, to come into conflict with segments of the middle class that aspire to the end of what they call “old politics” and with the truck drivers movement, its supporters who feel betrayed by the fuel price policy that serves the interests of international investors.

The political crisis that generated original fascism is more serious than the Brazilian political crisis that generated neo-fascism. Both have common general elements: they are linked to an economic crisis of capitalism; they present a crisis of hegemony within the power bloc – a dispute between big and medium capital, in one case, and a dispute between the domestic big bourgeoisie and the big bourgeoisie associated with international capital, in the other –; they involve an aspiration of the bourgeoisie to withdraw conquests from the working class; they are compounded by the abrupt formation of a disruptive middle-class or petty-bourgeois political movement; they involve a crisis of party representation of the bourgeoisie; are marked by the inability of the workers' and popular parties to present their own solution to the political crisis - the socialists and communists were defeated before the rise of fascism to power (Poulantzas, 1970) and the democratic and popular movement in Brazil has suffered a series of defeats since impeachment and revealing an inability to react (Boito, 2018 and 2019). This similarity between the two crises is very strong and is of major importance to characterize fascism and explain its origin in capitalist societies (Poulatazas, 1970). There is, however, a fundamental component that differentiates the political crisis in which original fascism was born from the political crisis in which neo-fascism was born. And this difference brings us back to the question of fascism's mass base.

The “left” that original fascism faced was a mass labor movement, organized into socialist and communist parties, and it endeavored, as required by the political struggle at the time, to replicate this type of organization, creating, as a substitute for the cells and sessions, the militias. Your enemy is more threatening and powerful. Neo-fascism, on the other hand, faces a “left” that is represented by a bourgeois reformism – the neo-developmentalism of the PT governments – which is based on a disorganized popular base. Your enemy threatens less and is politically more fragile. In this situation, neo-fascism was fundamentally organized through social networks. In the first case, the actions of fascist gangs multiplied, promoting physical aggression, political assassinations, burning the headquarters of workers' organizations, against Jews, gypsies, communists and always counting on the condescension of the judiciary (Shirer, 2017). In the second case, we had verbal aggressions and threats in public places or through social networks, ostensive manifestations of prejudice against the population of the Northeast Region, black people, and low-income population and counting on the collaboration of the judicial and police apparatus to threatening meetings of democratic and popular movements and arresting their leaders.

Today, neo-fascism shows signs of organizational incompetence. The two demonstrations called to defend the government were weak. The government itself hesitated in the call and ended up withdrawing. The ideologue of this movement, Olavo de Carvalho, realized this weakness and is calling on the people to organize themselves in order to defend the government. The hypothesis of this movement declining and its leading group being absorbed by the deteriorated democracy that they contributed to create in Brazil is not ruled out. It is necessary to keep in mind the wise observation of Palmiro Togliatti: one may or may not reach a fascist dictatorship as a result of the economic situation and the class struggle and not only, and not even mainly, as a result of the existence of authoritarian ambitions of the fascists. And, we add, the neo-fascist movement can, at the limit, dissolve or moderate its program, in the same way that, by changing what needs to be changed, a leftist party can moderate its program and mischaracterize itself with the aim of maintaining itself in governmental power. What needs to be changed here is the following: the neo-fascist movement has the form of a bourgeois democratic state as an obstacle, while a socialist movement has the bourgeois state itself as an obstacle.

*Armando Boito is professor of political science at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of State, politics and social classes (Unesp).

Originally published in the magazine Marxist Criticism no 50.


BOITO JR., Armando. “Neofascism in Brazil”. LIERI Bulletin, UFRRJ, number 1, May 1919. Accessible at:

BOITO JR., Armando. Reform and political crisis in Brazil – class conflicts in PT governments. São Paulo and Campinas: Publishers Unesp and Unicamp. 2018.

BORON, Atilio. “Characterizing the Bolsonaro government as fascist is a serious mistake.” Portal Brazil of Fact. Link: https://www.

ECHO, U.S. the eternal fascism. Milan: La nave di Teseo, 2017.

GENTLE, E. chi is fascist. Rome-Bari: Editori Laterza, 2019.

GERRIN, D. fascism et grand capital. 2nd ed. Paris: François Maspero, 1965 [1936].

PAXTON, RO The anatomy of fascism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

POULANTZAS, N. fascism et dictature. Paris: Francois Maspero, 1970.

Shirer, W. Rise and fall of the Third Reich. 2a. Ed. Rio de Janeiro: New Frontier, 2017.

TOGLIATTI, P. Corso sugli avversari: le lezioni south fascism. Turin: Einaudi, 2010.


[1] “It is a serious mistake il credere Che il fascism sia partito dal 1920, oppure dalla Marcia su Roma, con un piano prestabilito, fissato in precedenzia, di regime di dittatura quale questo regime si è poi organizzato nel corso di dieci anni e quale poi oggi lo vediamo. Sarebbe, that is, a grave errore. (Togliatti, 2010, p. 20-21). (…) (Togliatti, 2010, p. 21) Tra il 23 e il 26 (…) Totalitarianism is born. Fascism is not born totalitarian, it is fun” (Togliatti, Corso sugli avversari, P. 32).

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