On the popular impact of fascism

Carmela Gross, BISON, Bando series, 2016


Commentary on the dimension, nature and reasons why fascism took root in the popular masses

One of the most important problems that the study of fascism poses for us, both because of the real dimensions of the phenomenon and because it served as the basis for an entire mythology, is that of the popular impact of fascism. I will limit myself, in these few lines, to examining the general aspects, contenting myself with referring the reader to my book fascism and dictatorship (Martins Fontes) in which this problem is treated in detail.

As I was saying, the popular impact of fascism is a real phenomenon: among others, it is one of the essential distinguishing characteristics of fascism in relation to other regimes of the capitalist state of exception, of open war against the popular masses (military dictatorships, Bonapartisms, etc.). In fact, fascism managed to subjugate specific State apparatuses for mass mobilization (parties, unions, etc.), a phenomenon that, in general, is not found, at least to the same extent and under the same institutional form (conditioning the very form of State), in the other exception regimes. This implies precisely that fascism had, in the popular masses, an acceptance that I will provisionally designate by the descriptive and neutral term “impact”, because, in fact, it is the very nature of the phenomenon that must be studied.

This leads us to two questions, which are linked: (a) What was the scale and specific nature of the phenomenon? (b) What were your reasons?

Now, there are currently two trends in the study of the phenomenon, both erroneous in relation to the first and second questions. As for the first question, these two trends have something in common: they do not seriously examine either the meaning of this impact or the meaning of its popular character. They accept as a brute and indisputable fact, on the one hand, that fascisms would have gained, throughout their entire existence and to the same degree, active popular support, and, on the other hand, through a totally idealistic use of the terms masses and people, admit that this support would have been uniform for all the atoms of that mass, without any distinction between the classes, class fractions and social categories that constitute the popular masses. As for the second question, they give either completely erroneous explanations of the phenomenon, or only partially: in fact, we ask ourselves if those ideological principles that govern their explanations, lead them to restrict the real phenomenon to a supposed popular, uniform and popular support. undifferentiated, from the "masses" to fascism.

The first trend, which is quite old, but which is currently found, among others, in numerous texts in the journal As is, is the attempt at a falsely psychoanalytical explanation of the phenomenon: the fact that it would be a question of explaining is why the masses wanted fascism. Or rather, the understanding of the phenomenon, under this formulation, is properly tributary of this current ideological verbiage about desire and solidary with a certain conception of the relationship between Marxism and psychoanalysis, that “Freudo-Marxism” – an explosive term due to the very implicated conjunction – already gave us a first test.

This tendency which somehow assumes, with feigned assurance, that the problem of the relation between ideology and the unconscious is resolved, when in fact it is only beginning to be put in its proper place, can only provide an explanation for the false question "why masses wanted fascism”, through the implicit reference to the – absurd – notion of the collective unconscious: a notion that artificially establishes a relationship between the individuals who supposedly wanted fascism – it is not a question of class – and the masses generated by these individuals – masses: Marxism recognises, but classes are always absent – ​​masses who, uniformly and indistinctly, are supposed to have adhered to fascism. Conception of an individual-mass relationship, which by the back and forth that it implies between individual psychology and the collective unconscious (crowd psychology, by Gustave Le Bom [WMF Martins Fontes], not too far away) also completely loses sight of the problem of the relationship between ideology and the unconscious.

The second tendency to explain the phenomenon, always circumscribed in the same way, that is, as the undifferentiated and uniform support of the masses for fascism – classes are always absent – ​​is the one that privileges, if not exclusively refers to, the language used by fascism. in relation to the people. A trend that can be found, among others, in JP Faye in his book Introduction to totalitarian languages: theory and transformation of the report (Perspective), and which I have criticized elsewhere[I]. It is an explanation in which, after all, the old idealist utopia appears, for which it is ideas that make history. Which, by the way, makes it impossible to examine a real problem, that of the precise functioning of fascist ideology in the popular impact of fascism.

In fact, and we will come back to this, this examination presupposes reference to the class functioning (in relation to the different classes and their ideological subsets) of this ideology, whereas, for this tendency, ideas can only make history if, and only if , in place of the class functioning of ideology, there is a verb emitted by one or more subjects indistinctly directed to and perceived by subject-individuals, pure undifferentiated receivers of this verb-idea. It is a conception that, here too, governs the way in which the phenomenon of the popular impact of fascism is demarcated. If, for the first trend, the question would be how and why “the masses wanted fascism”, it would be here how “fascism was told and told to the masses”, this explains why it was disseminated by these masses. pastas considered globally and indistinctly subjugated by the fascist verb – classes always remaining absent.

At first, I will try, on my own, to better delimit this phenomenon from the popular impact of fascisms (German Nazism and Italian Fascism), before saying a few words about its reasons. But I would add that my previous observations must not lead us to an arbitrary simplification of the phenomenon, nor to its reduction to the general phenomenon, well known, of certain reactionary ideologies that find, in specific circumstances, an echo in the popular classes and of which the adhesion particularly enthusiastic of the popular masses in France and Germany to the inter-imperialist war of 1914-1918, in its beginning, offers us the characteristic example. The popular impact of fascism, even if participating in this phenomenon, presents very particular aspects.

And, first of all, concerning the real facts:

It is necessary to distinguish between the social classes that form part of the popular masses

1. In the first place, the “working class” – even if it is necessary to better distinguish its layers – was much less contaminated by fascism than one might suggest, and, in any case, less than the other popular classes. It was always considerably under-represented in the fascist apparatuses (parties, unions) in comparison to its importance in the overall population of Germany and Italy and, even from the electoral point of view, the rigorous and serious studies of the results of the last relatively free elections in these two countries show that the working class remained, in its mass, faithful to its traditional organizations, to the communist and socialist parties.

But, in the case of the working class, there is more: during Nazism and Fascism, there was an important resistance of the working class, which, if it only rarely took the form of open and armed insurrection (the Italian refuges), was no less manifested by the surreptitious forms of spontaneous workers' resistance. Those who decree, for the working class, that it “willed” fascism, are completely ignorant of course: sabotage and the fall of production, massive absenteeism, wildcat strikes, etc., creating considerable problems for fascist leaders, as prove the permanent measures taken to prevent them. Forms of resistance that, taking into account the form of the fascist state, were effectively forms of political opposition to the regime.

2. “The popular classes of the countryside”, because we know that the peasantry itself is divided into layers. If German Nazism in particular managed to achieve a solid popular impact on the popular classes in the countryside in the eastern regions, in East Prussia, where feudal relations marked a notable presence, if, still, fascisms reached at times, but in a very uneven way , an echo in certain sectors of the rural petty bourgeoisie, the famous small-scale peasants, on the other hand, the great mass of the poor peasantry, with the agricultural workers at the head, remained impervious to fascism. The poor peasantry was also under-represented in the fascist apparatuses and never constituted a support base for fascism. Much more: rural fascism, in Germany and Italy, clearly resembles the traditional phenomenon of “white terror”[ii] of the big landowners against the popular rural classes, who, massively, would have been astonished to learn that they “desired” fascism.

3. “The traditional petty bourgeoisie” (small shopkeepers and artisans) and the new one (employees, civil servants, etc.): it is, in fact, massively and openly leaning towards fascism, and is considerably overrepresented in the apparatuses fascists constituting its base of support. In short, the specificity of the phenomenon of the popular impact of fascism, of the fascism/popular masses relationship, is essentially reduced to the problem of the relationship between fascism and the petty bourgeoisie, a relationship marked, however, as we will see, by numerous ambiguities.

It is still necessary to distinguish, and I mention it, although in my view it is a secondary element, due to the current importance of these issues among the different social categories differentiated in the popular classes. It is notably true that fascism manages to achieve a more marked popular impact on youth, but also on the female population. This occurs due, among others, to the dominant institutional forms of the family apparatus and the school apparatus and the ideological subsystems that reigned, at the time, in these apparatuses in Germany and Italy.


It is necessary to periodize, with regard to this popular impact, fascism itself, both the process of fascistization and established fascism.

In fact, if, due to, among others, the complex political-ideological ambiguity of the origins of fascism, its impact was clearly evident throughout the process of fascistization – in view of the observations made earlier –, it can be seen, no less clearly, a process of desertion in relation to fascism since the first stage of established fascism, and to the extent that it openly shows its anti-popular aspect, a shift, moreover, marked by massive and bloody purges in its own ranks – a classic episode of the “night of knives” long” in Germany.

A process of desertion that translates into the intensification of systematic repression, but which, remaining uninterrupted and culminating throughout the Second World War, presents ups and downs. We have notably witnessed an increase in the popularity of Nazism since the Connection (annexation of Austria) and Italian fascism since the war in Libya, due to complex national reasons that are transplanted here. If one does not take this process of desertion into account, one will not understand anything, for example, of the sudden phenomenon of a massively anti-fascist popular Italy during and after the fall of Mussolini, and one will be tempted to attribute it, with the impetus of doubters mockery, versatility or opportunism of the Italian people.

Finally, it follows from the foregoing that it is necessary, in fact, to question the very term “popular impact” that is associated with fascism.

In fact, even when there was “impact”, it encompassed a whole range, ranging from active and almost unconditional adherence to circumstantial support and passive resignation. In order not to say anything about forced neutralization, as repression intensifies in an unbelievable way: although repression is certainly far from explaining everything, it was still necessary to refer to it in these times when the Jews themselves were quite astonished to learn by Liliana Cavani in her film the night porter that they were not far from desiring fascism.

Let's be more serious: we could answer that the existence of this diverse range of the popular impact of fascism has no real political significance, and that a passive resignation does not differ so much from an active adherence in terms of its repercussions on established fascism. This is entirely false, because precisely as a mass phenomenon, that is, for an important mass of the population, this resignation was, in fact, permanently shouldered with a passive resistance, which progressively provoked a certain isolation from the fascism established in the classes and class fractions. where he had gained support. Isolation which, in turn, considerably accentuated the internal contradictions of fascism, translated into a whole series of false maneuvers (false military maneuvers, including) that contributed to precipitate its overthrow.

Nature and scale of the impact of fascism

Let us now come to the second aspect of the problem, that of the reasons for the phenomenon of the popular impact of fascism, which encompasses its nature and its dimension. I will just mention here just a few scattered points, which seem to me particularly important.

1. Economic policy during the first period of established fascism.

If this policy consisted of a considerably increasing exploitation of the popular masses, this exploitation was, on the one hand, for certain classes and fractions of popular classes mainly relative (it aimed at considerable growth in profits) and not absolute (the real purchasing power was, for certain popular classes, maintained for some time), on the other hand, it was conducted according to a diversified strategy, consisting of dividing these classes and fractions and conquering them at the expense of one another.

But the most important reason was the success of fascism (Italian since the 1920s crisis, German since the 1930s crisis) in taking advantage, in a spectacular way, of the unemployment that played an important role in the process of fascistization in these countries. This relative overcoming of these economic crises by fascism was certainly achieved, in this period of transition from competitive capitalism to monopoly capitalism, not only by a policy at the service of monopoly concentration and the aggravation of the exploitation of the popular masses, but also through a political effort of imperialist economic expansion and armaments, which led to the Second World War. This did not prevent, at the time and for some time, this use of unemployment from playing an important role in the popular impact of fascism.

2. The real coordinates, and their exploitation by fascisms, of the national question.

A decisive question, the importance of which was for a long time underestimated by Marxism, and which, in Germany and Italy, took on a particular form, different from that which it took on in other imperialist countries. And this in two respects:

To begin with, the national unity characteristic of capitalism, given the process of bourgeois democratic revolution in these two countries (Revolution from above with Bismarck in Germany, Risorgimento lost, in Italy), was far from effective, at the time of the rise of Nazism and Fascism to power, to the same degree as in other developed capitalist countries. In a sense, Nazism and Fascism completed the process of capitalist national unity in these two countries, which was certainly done with the internal inequalities of development characteristic of any similar process, but which nevertheless allows them to pose as champions of national unity. and to fully play with the ambiguities of this nationalism in certain popular classes (popular classes in the countryside and petty bourgeoisie, especially). It is, therefore, important to note that fascism did not simply play the card of an aggressive and expansionist imperialist nationalism, but also of national unity, more ambiguous and complex (Mussolini, Garibaldi's follower, Bismarck's Hitler), which had a considerable influence on the its popular impact.

Next, it is necessary to point out the real consequences, on the conjuncture of the national question, of the place of Germany and Italy in the imperialist chain after the First World War. In the case of Germany, the occurrence of the Treaty of Versailles, of incalculable repercussions, characterized by Lenin as the most monstrous act of plunder in history. In the case of Italy, the fact that, having arrived late in the process of establishment and reproduction of capitalism, it suffered the real consequences of exploitation by imperialist capital, massively implanted in Italy well before the rise of fascism to power, the which, by the way, earned her being treated like a poor cousin since the feast for the victors of the 1914-1918 war (the socialist Mussolini was, during the war, the representative of the interventionist tendency of the left defending Italy's participation in the war).

Supported by these real facts, fascisms were able to explore in depth the theme of the ideology of proletarian nations, a theme that, in Germany, even took on, in certain sectors of the so-called National Socialist left, with clearly anti-imperialist connotations. Gregor Strasser, executed, by the way, and not by chance, during the “night of the long knives”, wrote: “German industry, the German economy in the hands of international financial capital, is the end of any social liberation, it is the end of all dreams of a socialist Germany… We National Socialist revolutionaries engage in the struggle against capitalism and imperialism, whose incarnation is the Treaty of Versailles… We National Socialist revolutionaries recognize that there is a link between freedom of our people and the economic liberation of the German working class. German socialism will only be possible and durable when Germany is free.”

In summary, here too, the fascists' misrepresented but factually based use of an anti-imperialist nationalism deeply rooted in the popular masses explains, on the one hand, their popular impact much more than their openly imperialist, aggressive and expansionist official nationalism. .

3. The fascist ideology and its institutional materialization in the fascist state apparatuses

To understand this capital question, it is necessary, in fact, to specify the class functioning of this ideology, and to abandon, once and for all, the conception of a fascist discourse or language, unified and uniform, addressed directly to the masses. As Togliatti rightly pointed out at the time, nothing is more false than considering fascist ideology as a unified and univocal “system”: “Ideology contains a series of heterogeneous elements (…) I warn you against the tendency to consider fascist ideology like anything solidly constituted, finished, homogeneous” [iii]. In fact, it is by no means to any repetition of an identical discourse, conveyed by propaganda techniques, before the atomized and undifferentiated masses, that the role of fascist ideology in the popular masses is due, such as, in my view, hints at a recent film, however, anti-fascist and animated by the best intentions, Fascist [iv].

Quite the contrary, this role is due to the fact that these ideologies and discourses present themselves in a considerably differentiated way, such as how they are incorporated into the various fascist political-ideological apparatuses, according to the different classes, class fractions and social categories to which they belong. whom they address, which precisely allowed them to explore the conditions of material existence of these classes and fractions. Fascist ideological discourse is, in fact, considerably different, depending on whether it is addressed to the working class and incorporated into apparatuses specially designed for them (fascist unions), the popular classes in the countryside or the petty bourgeoisie (fascist party).

Nothing is clearer than the functioning of the same theme, that of corporatism which, under the appearance of pure and simple repetition, actually takes on a considerably different meaning, if it is addressed to the working class, the peasantry poor or the petty bourgeoisie.

It is precisely from there that fascism (and this is a particular trait of its ideological functioning) was able to resume in its ideological discourse, distorting them, a series of deep popular aspirations, often specific to each of the classes, fractions of classes and categories. considered social. This was the case of self-management themes and workers' control of production, of socializing formulations against property, monopoly power, imperialist capital, etc., evidenced in the relations between fascism and the working class, notably present in the left national socialist in Germany and the anarcho-syndicalist wing of Italian fascism. This was the case with the themes of peasant unity and soil and blood ties against the exploitation of the countryside by the city, founded on the real industry/agriculture contradiction and on the exploitation, by capital, of the popular classes of the countryside in the development process. of capitalism in agriculture, evidenced in the relations between fascism and popular classes in the countryside. This was equally the case with the numerous examples evidenced in fascist discourse specifically directed at the petty bourgeoisie.

However, in order to better understand the real (class) functioning of this differentiated fascist ideology, it is necessary to pay the greatest attention to the institutional structures in which this ideology materializes, and not to insist on the simple analysis of the fascist discourse, allegedly circulating between the chief emitter and receiver masses. Which, moreover, will make it possible precisely to understand the intense class struggle that permanently crosses the fascist apparatuses, and to specify even more the sense of the popular impact of fascism.

Here too, instead of witnessing a pure and simple univocal uniformity of the various fascist state apparatuses, in fact, parallel to their centralization at the “top”, we witness an effective displacement and decentralization of these, according to classes, fractions of class and social categories to which they refer mainly. From the family to the school, to youth organizations, to cultural apparatuses and the Church, from parties to fascist unions, from administration (bureaucratic apparatus of the State) to the armed forces, from the SA to the SS (Nazism) and the political police (militias), one discovers, in fact, in the unifying shadow of the chief's discourse and "principle", the prodigiously contradictory tangle of various regional ideological subsets: which has the effect of the constant recovery and parallelism of the devices, networks and transmission belts of the power, and gives way to the internal contradictions of fascism.

In short, it is also that specific system of framing and mobilizing the popular masses, within which classes, class fractions and social categories think they can appropriate one or more specific apparatuses, or use them in order to assert themselves. , or impose, their own interests, which explains, on the one hand, the popular impact of fascism.

But this focus on examining the State apparatuses that materialize fascist ideology precisely allows us to understand the class struggle that permanently crosses them, a class struggle that disappears in the conception of a univocal and disembodied discourse directed at the masses. One can thus observe even better all the ambiguity of the popular impact of fascism. In fact, even where there was an impact, and for the classes of fractions considered and actively engaged in the fascist apparatuses, this constantly took place concomitantly with resistance to fascism, even when this resistance did not assume, in this case, an overt form, occurring, however, often because of this differentiation of apparatuses, in the form of demands, by these masses, for true fascism, the ghost in which their popular aspirations were invested (such as the constant demands of the second, anti-capitalist revolution in Germany and Italy).

To take a descriptive example: an anarcho-syndicalist worker, convinced member of the fascist unions, and who wages (several cases can be identified under Italian fascism) a fierce struggle against the party bureaucrats and the militia in the name of his corporatist dream – against the power of capital – and of what he considers pure and authentic fascism: does he adhere to fascism or, on the contrary, resist it, that is, resist its true nature and class function? In any case, fascism itself is not wrong, which can be seen in the constant purges, eliminations and reforms that it operates on its own apparatuses.

In short, I repeat, the popular “impact” of fascism, manifested in the adhesion of popular class fractions to fascist apparatuses, constantly coexisted with an intense class struggle of these same fractions against fascism through these very apparatuses. This was perfectly understood by Dimitrov when, at the VII Congress of the International, he insistently recommended that communists participate in fascist unions in order to wage the struggle against fascism from within.[v]

4. The policy of the Communist International and the Italian and German Communist parties from the advent of fascism until approximately the VII Congress (1935) of the Communist International.

The problem is too important for me to deal with in these few lines. I will limit myself to two words, referring not to the question of the responsibilities of this policy for the advent of fascism, that is, its failure to prevent the rise of fascism to power in these two countries, but to the question of its effects on the popular impact of fascism: which is a relatively different matter.

And I will say, further on, that if this policy had direct consequences for its failure to stop the rise of fascism to power, it had only indirect effects on the popular impact of fascism. I understand, therefore, that this impact did not consist so much in clearly inclining certain popular classes and class fractions towards fascism, because of the fear of communism or Bolshevism, even though this element is inserted, of course, in a part of that impact, and constituted, moreover, an essential element of the ideology of fascist regimes.

What is otherwise more important to note is that, in fact, certain popular classes who leaned over to the side of fascism did so because of the failure of the Italian and German Communist parties to achieve their revolutionary goals. and initiate a process of transition to socialism. These fractions had actually considered, in the face of this deprivation, that fascism would be better able to meet their goals: large groups of these fractions transferred, for a time, their revolutionary aspirations to fascism. This is precisely where the colossal ambiguity of the initial relationship of these masses with fascism resides, and one cannot understand anything of the popular impact of fascism if one assimilates it, purely and simply, at least among the urban masses, to a “white guardismo” of bands capital armies.

This is probably one aspect of Clara Zetkin's penetrating analysis of fascism at the Third Plenum (1923) of the Communist International: “Fascism is very different from the Horthy dictatorship in Hungary… Fascism is absolutely not the revenge of the bourgeoisie. against the insurgent proletariat in a combative way. Considered from a historical and objective point of view, fascism arises more because the proletariat has failed to carry out its revolution.” [vi].

From this point of view, the responsibility for the policy of the Italian Communist Party, contrary, at the time of the establishment of fascism, to the policy of the International, still under the aegis of Lenin, and of the German Communist Party, under the direct instigation of the International, was not both having diverted the masses from revolutionary objectives and provoking reactionary reflexes in them, but, essentially, having left these popular masses disoriented and disarmed in the face of the ideological recovery distorted by fascism of deep popular aspirations, and thus having allowed them to be attracted by a policy at the service of big capital. Which is to say that these parties did not know how, for a long time, to wage an effective political-ideological struggle against fascism. But it is evident that I cannot, in this short exposition, even touch on the complex reasons for this situation, reasons which I have dealt with at length elsewhere.[vii]

* Nicos Poulantzas (1936-1979) was professor of sociology at University of Paris VIII. Author, among other books by fascism and dictatorship (Martins Fontes)

Translated by: Danilo Enrico Martuscelli.

Translation of “A propos de l'impact populaire du fascisme” In: Maria Antonietta Macciocchi. Elements for an analysis of fascism (volume I). Paris, Inedit, 1975, published in CEMARX notebooks no. 12.

Translator's notes

[I]  Poulantzas refers to the article: “Notes à propos du totalitarisme” In: As is, no. 53, 1973.

[ii] It refers to acts of violence committed by reactionary and conservative groups that are part of counterrevolutionary movements.

[iii] These observations can be found in Palmiro Togliatti. Lessons on Fascism. São Paulo, Livraria Editora Ciências Humanas, 1978.

[iv] Poulantzas refers to the film Fascist, by Nico Naldini, exhibited in the cycle of seminars organized by Maria Antonietta Macciocchi at the University of Paris VIII, in the years 1974-1975, which gave rise to the book that contains this text.

[v] See: Jorge Dimitrov. A struggle for the unity of the working class against fascism. Report presented before the VII World Congress of the Communist International, August 2, 1935. Belo Horizonte, Global Village, 1978.

[vi] The aforementioned text by Clara Zetkin is available in Portuguese at: https://www.marxists.org/portugues/zetkin/1923/08/fascismo. htm.

[vii] Poulantzas refers again here to the book fascism and dictatorship.

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