Mon Jan 30, 2023
January 30, 2023

Capitalism in decadence, the petty bourgeois in crisis, and fascism: the relevance of Trotsky’s analysis today

Here, we are republishing a 2018 article that appeared in our theoretical magazine, Trotskyism Today, summarizing Trotsky’s analysis of fascism.

Fabiana Stefanoni

The debate on the nature of fascism is, unfortunately, an extremely topical debate. Throughout Europe and the world, more and more new fascist organizations and groups are spreading and taking root, taking advantage of the economic crisis and misery of the masses to promote xenophobia and racial hatred, even carrying out acts of violence with armed gangs (1). Beyond the press and mass media’s instrumentalization of these phenomena – especially during electoral campaigns, the bourgeois parties often decry the “dangers of fascism” just to win a few votes at the expense of populist parties – it is a fact that the context of the current economic and social crisis has many features in common with that of the twenties and thirties of the 20th century. History never repeats itself: it would be deeply incorrect to create mechanical historical analogies while ignoring the differing contextual specifics. But surely, rereading Trotsky’s characterizations of the previous century’s fascism in Italy and Germany will prove useful for understanding today’s phenomena. It helps us, for example, to avoid abusing the word fascism or confusing it with another type of regime (for example, a Bonapartist dictatorship). Understanding the specificity of a historical phenomenon is the precondition for counteracting its resurgence.

A class analysis

The establishment of the particular form of bourgeois regime known as fascism must first be framed in the context of capitalism in decadence. In the phase of the rise of capitalism, the bourgeoisie privileged revolutionary methods (think of the great revolutions of the Modern Age); then, in the phase of stabilization and consolidation it opted for “orderly, pacific, conservative, democratic” forms of domination. Everything changed when, with the rise of imperialism at the end of the 19th century, the bourgeoisie began to use methods of “civil war” against the proletariat to defend its “right of exploitation” (2). This is what Trotsky calls the phase of capitalist reaction, which is increasingly violent the further productive forces have developed in the preceding historical phase.

It is a dynamic Trotsky analyzes well in several writings, which we unsurprisingly also find in the first pages of the Transitional Program (3). The current panorama is very similar to that of the 1930s, with a general crisis of capitalism that drags large masses of people into a condition of extreme poverty and destitution. If after the Second World War the capitalist economy experienced a phase of a relatively booming economy, today, we find ourselves again propelled into a context of rot and stagnation which, without a socialist revolution, runs the risk of dragging humanity into catastrophe.

Why, in a phase of capitalist decadence, did the bourgeoisie decide to use methods of open warfare against the proletariat, to the point of playing – as we shall see – the card of fascism? We can find the answer by analyzing the relations between classes. The big bourgeoisie is a powerful class because it possesses the means of production. Meanwhile, from the numerical point of view, it represents an insignificant minority of the population. For this reason, in order to stabilize its domination, it needs to rely on the petty bourgeoisie, that is, the entirety – large, heterogenous, and stratified – of all the classes which belong neither to the capitalist class nor to the proletariat. More precisely, thanks to the petty bourgeois sectors at the head of reformist parties and unions, the big bourgeoisie secures control of the broad proletarian masses. The “workers’ bureaucracy” is a sector of the petty bourgeoisie which drags millions of workers behind itself. Meanwhile, during phases in which a social crisis unfolds – which are also, dialectically, as we shall see, the phases in which a pre-revolutionary situation unfolds – as tensions between capitalists and the working class become acute, a part of the big bourgeoisie begins to view the “workers’ bureaucracy” with suspicion because it does not offer sure results (as it fails to control the class struggle and loses consensus) and entails excessive expenses (agreements which imply partial economic concessions to the proletariat). But the big bourgeoisie, from the beginning and for a long time, also looks askance at fascism, precisely because it is the expression of another class – which, ultimately, the bourgeoisie does not trust. When, then, do the capitalists begin to opt for “the surgical intervention of fascism”? (4) We will subsequently answer this question.

The role of the petty bourgeoisie

“Human dust”: such is the scathing expression with which Trotsky characterizes the petty bourgeoisie. And this is the mass base of fascism. It is a very large and heterogeneous class, as we have already said, which includes all the intermediate social strata between the proletariat and the big bourgeoisie: small artisans and merchants, clerks, technicians, intellectuals, and small landowners (5). It is a class that, due to its extremely heterogeneous character, cannot have its own independent politics. In its lower strata, it is confused with the proletariat (and lumpenproletariat); in its richer strata, it approaches finance capital (and actively collaborates with it). Without its own autonomous program, in different historical phases, it oscillates between multiple positions and even contains internal oppositions. It is a class that, because of its consistently large headcount, has an important weight in elections. But elections are always a “distorting mirror” [distorted reflection] and do not represent the true power relations in society: “only the revolutionary struggle reveals true power relations” (6).

Trotsky points out how the petty bourgeoisie, in the 20th century, was simultaneously the mass base of fascism and that of the Russian SRs (Socialist-Revolutionaries, which in fact had great “electoral” strength by virtue of its peasant base). Not all petty bourgeois are always reactionary. On the contrary, it is a class that exercises a decisive role in a revolutionary phase: “For the social crisis to bring about the proletarian revolution, it is necessary that, besides other conditions, a decisive shift of the petty-bourgeois classes occur in the direction of the proletariat” (7). But this, as we shall see, depends largely on the entrenchment in the class and the politics of the revolutionary party. To update Trotsky’s analysis, we can say that the petty bourgeoisie has recently been a determining factor in the electoral feats of very diverse political phenomena: from Podemos in Spain to the National Front in France, from Syriza in Greece to the M5 and the League [today Fratelli d’Italia, ed.], from Trump in the USA to Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Today’s trends clearly lean towards the electoral strengthening of right and far-right populist parties: a phenomenon that has a very precise explanation. The crisis of capitalism means “social and cultural decomposition” (8); its prolongation can only translate to “the pauperization of the petty bourgeoisie and the transformation of ever larger groups of workers into the lumpenproletariat” (9). Under the blows of this seemingly endless crisis, the petty bourgeoisie orients itself not towards the proletarian revolution (which seems a distant and abstract objective) but towards reaction, even “in the direction of the most extreme imperialist reaction, pulling behind it considerable sections of the proletariat” (10).

There is a Trotsky quote that precisely explains the electoral victories of the populist and far-right parties and, above all, the consensus they obtain in broad sectors of the proletariat in the absence of great workers’ struggles: “When revolutionary hope embraces the whole proletarian mass, it inevitably pulls behind it on the road of revolution considerable and growing sections of the petty bourgeoisie. Precisely in this sphere, the election revealed the opposite picture: counterrevolutionary despair embraced the petty-bourgeois mass with such force that it drew behind it many sections of the proletariat” (11). Under certain historical conditions, as we shall see, all this may lead to the victory of fascism. But is it inevitable that an economic and social crisis of capitalism will lead to fascism?

Linear and simplistic readings of historical developments clash with the dialectical materialism we owe to Marx. The more the productive forces within a capitalist country have developed, the more profound its social and political convulsions generated by economic crisis will be. In Germany, by the end of the 1920s, social and political antagonisms had reached explosive levels. One should note that such a situation, given certain conditions, may potentially favor the strengthening of the revolutionary party: the economic, social, and political crisis leads to a pre-revolutionary situation which, if there is a solid revolutionary workers’ party accustomed to struggle, can be rapidly transformed into a revolutionary situation (12). Meanwhile, these same conditions can, on the other hand, lead to the most sordid reaction, to the “undigested regurgitation of capitalist barbarism” which is fascism: the difference is made by the proletariat.

Fascism requires two factors to consolidate: a strong social crisis and a weak revolutionary character of the working class. Beyond the distorting mirror of the elections, in the intense arena of struggle, there is no comparison between the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The social and combative superiority of the proletariat is unquestionable: the workers – “who have the powerful means of production and transportation in their hands, who have been bound together by the conditions of their work into an army of iron, of coal, of railroads, of electrical wires” (13) – are infinitely superior to the “human dust” upon whom the fascists rely. 

The subjective element, that is to say, the situation of the revolutionary party, including its politics and relations with the class, is, as we shall see, the determining factor that can transform a situation into a revolutionary one; if this factor is lacking, the crisis can lead to imperialist reaction, to the point of the establishment of a fascist regime.

The essence of fascism

It is a historically proven fact that the hour of fascism tends to arrive when the bourgeoisie is no longer able to profit from the parliamentary regime. But from a class perspective, a bourgeois-democratic regime and a fascist regime do not present any differences: they are two forms of domination of the same bourgeois class, that is, both regimes are expressions of monopoly capital. Fascism in power does not change the economic and social system: it preserves capitalism, and with it, the multi-million-dollar profits of the big bourgeoisie. Fascism can come to power “at the moment that the ‘normal’ police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium” (14) and to guarantee the profits of the capitalists. What, then, is the specific departure that fascism represents with respect to other (perhaps authoritarian) forms of bourgeois domination?

In the imperialist era, the bourgeoisie, under similar conditions, does not always play the same cards. Above all, fascism is not the favorite political regime of the bourgeoisie. As Trotsky rightly explains with a rather well-known metaphor: “the big bourgeoisie dislikes this method [of fascism], much as a man with a swollen jaw dislikes having his teeth pulled” (15). This is because fascism is a mass movement of the petty bourgeoisie, a class which the big bourgeoisie needs in order to maintain power, but which it would prefer to do without. Fascism, in fact, mobilizes “the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie, and bands of the declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy” (16). Fascism, acting on behalf of the big bourgeoisie, uses these masses as “a battering ram” to destroy the organizations of the workers’ movement. At the same time, as it is not a direct expression of the big bourgeoisie (not a bourgeois party), fascism “politically expropriates” the bourgeoisie (17).

Here, we encounter another peculiar characteristic of fascism: “the essence and function of fascism consist of the complete abolition of workers’ organizations and the prevention of their reconstruction.” The function of fascism is “to counteract the attack of the proletariat – at the moment of its weakening – with the attack of the enraged petty-bourgeois masses” (18). There is no fascism without this specific feature, namely, the “mobilization of the petty bourgeoisie against the proletariat” (19). It is precisely through the exploitation of this army, which is at once dilapidated and very ferocious, that the big bourgeoisie succeeds in maintaining its domination in phases of social and political crisis. And that is why, while it comes to power through reliance on the petty bourgeoisie, the configuration of fascism is far from a government of the petty bourgeoisie: “But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital” (20). This stems, as we have said, from the very character of the petty bourgeoisie, which is too heterogeneous as a class to be able to carry out its own independent policy.

Here we also discover the reason why the bourgeoisie does not willingly resort to the fascist option. The big bourgeoisie has no confidence in the petty bourgeoisie, either in a bourgeois democratic regime (where it is used to maintain control over the proletariat) or, much less in a political regime such as fascism, which relies initially on the mobilization of the petty bourgeois masses. The big bourgeoisie looks upon the petty bourgeoisie with the same distrust with which the French royal court aristocrats looked upon the rampant bourgeoisie seeking noble titles: “The bourgeoisie, […] while utilizing the support of the petty bourgeoisie, distrusts the latter, for it very correctly fears its tendency to break down the barriers set up for it from above” (21). However, the big bourgeoisie knows that in phases of revolutionary crisis, it cannot do without the petty bourgeoisie.

Let us try to explain the concept with an image. Imagine a rich and well-fed [fat] capitalist in his luxurious salon at nightfall, counting his multi-million-dollar profits obtained by day on the backs of thousands of workers. What he enjoys most is the tranquility, the silence, the possibility of continuing to spend his quiet evenings counting money. He despises his workers, whom he exploits to the core, but he despises with equal fervor the impoverished shopkeepers who continually ask him for loans, the gangs of the unemployed who wait for their alms, the ruined small businessmen who regard him with hatred as he passes by – he does not trust these envious people, this “exploited and disinherited” class. But what he fears most is the loss of his profits. If workers’ protests are frequent at his factory and there is a risk that the workers might seize control over production, he will not fail to do whatever is necessary to avoid this prospect, which would be most disastrous for him. While he longs for the peaceful evenings of the past, he will begin to finance gangs of shopkeepers, ruined businessmen, the unemployed, and the dispossessed to crush the workers’ protests in blood. Is the rich bourgeois happy to be forced to finance, mobilize, and arm to the teeth the gangs which he despises so much? Of course not: he does not like riots; he would prefer the serene and peaceful evenings of better times, without noise in the streets. However, to continue honoring the god of profit, he must resort to the methods of fascism, which are methods of civil war.

If it comes to power, fascism may be forgiven of its many unwanted disturbances: “that the workers’ organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat” – such is what the essence of the fascist regime entails (22). Here, then, lies the security of the rich and well-fed bourgeois: his profits are in good hands!

Bonapartism and fascism

The word “fascism” is also often used on the left imprecisely, as a synonym for a “police regime” or a “Bonapartist” one: according to Trotsky, this is an incorrect definition, which can result (and has resulted) in tactical and strategic errors of no small importance. Contrary to the common usage of the word, fascism is not only a system of repression, violent acts, and police terror. The specific characteristics of fascism are the mobilization of the petty-bourgeois masses against the organizations of the workers’ movement (reformist, revolutionary, mutualist, etc.) and, once in power, the elimination of “all institutions of proletarian democracy in bourgeois society” (23). Fascism has the objective of not only destroying (in a physical sense as well) the proletarian vanguard: it also wants to “annihilate all the footholds of the proletariat” (24). The workers’ movement, as an autonomous and independent subject, simply must disappear. To achieve this objective, fascism “mobilizes the classes which are immediately above the proletariat, and which fear falling to its level; it organizes and arms them by means of finance capital, under the protection of the official State, directing them towards the destruction of all proletarian organizations, from the most revolutionary to the most moderate” (25).

It is essential to distinguish a Bonapartist-type military police dictatorial regime and a fascist military police dictatorial regime. The prior is an authoritarian bourgeois government which ostensibly rises above conflicts (as Napoleon III did in the coup d’état in 1851 France, hence the name, “Bonapartism”): the government presents itself as “independent” of society through the domination of the bureaucracy and army. Beyond its façade, the government actually continues to act on behalf of the ruling classes, playing the role of “the clerk of the property owners,” even if “the clerk sits on the back of the boss, rubs his neck raw and does not hesitate at times to dig his boots into his face” (26). For example, in Germany, Trotsky considers the governments immediately preceding Hitler’s victory to be pre-Bonapartist (Brüning) and Bonapartist (Von Papen) governments. In a Bonapartist government, which seeks to control social tensions by force, the space for democracy is considerably reduced, sometimes brutally: under Von Papen, for example, the big industrialists and bankers tried to defend their cause with a ruthless use of the police and army. But the government was short-lived: as a rule, a Bonapartist regime acquires a character of stability only when a revolutionary phase closes (as happened with the regime of Napoleon III, which came after the revolutionary season of 1848), and when the revolutionary energies of the proletarian masses had been exhausted, but the property owners still retained the threat of new uprisings. Vice versa, in a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary phase, characterized by profound social instability, the bourgeoisie can be induced to replace Bonapartism with fascism.

But fascism is, in fact, something different from Bonapartism. Even if fascism ultimately leads to the establishment of a Bonapartist military-police regime, it has specific characteristics which are not found in a simple Bonapartist regime: fascism is based, as we have already said, on the mobilization of the petty-bourgeois masses, opening a period of civil war against the proletariat and its structures, and finally building a regime which systematically destroys every extant element of workers’ democracy in society. Parliamentarism itself is completely abolished after it has been the object of furious hatred of the petty-bourgeois gangs mobilized against the workers. Unlike Bonapartism, which in a phase of social crisis presents itself as a transitional regime, where the working class can respond to repression with revolutionary struggle, fascism inaugurates a phase of long-term reaction, because it annihilates the working class. The headquarters of trade unions and workers’ parties are closed or burned, political and trade union activists, even strikers, are deported to concentration camps in what finally becomes “the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital,” “the worst form of imperialism” (27). While under a Bonapartist regime the working class still has a basis to carry on its struggle, under fascism, after being shot to death, the class is shattered and drowned in the mire of a “regurgitation of undigested barbarism,” consisting of racism, mysticism, machismo, homophobia, irrational beliefs, cults of personality, aggressive nationalism, intolerance, narrow ignorance elevated to State religion. But how is it possible to accomplish all this in a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary phase, that is, when the possibilities of working class victory are the greatest?

Italian fascism’s rise to power

As an ancient philosopher once said, “the penalty and expiation of injustice” are inexorably paid (28). And it is not strange to cite this, when searching for what to hold responsible for the rise of fascism in 1920s Italy and 1930s Germany. Fascism is, metaphorically, a punishment for the sins of the proletariat, which did not know how to fight for power when the conditions of class struggle permitted it. Commenting on a book by Tasca on Italian fascism, Trotsky points out the following [describing the Italian proletariat in 1920-1921]):

It was a powerful organization. They had 160 socialist parliamentary deputies. They had more than one-third of the communities in their hands, the most important sections of Italy were in the hands of the socialists, the center of the power of the workers. No capitalist could hire or fire without union consent and this applied to agricultural workers as well as industrial. It seemed to be 49 percent of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but the reaction of the small bourgeoisie, the demobilized officers was terrible against this situation. (…) [T]hey organized small bands under the guidance of officers and sent them in buses in every direction. In cities of 10,000 in the hands of the Socialists thirty organized men came into the town, burned up the municipality, burned the houses, shot the leaders, imposed on them the conditions of working for capitalists, then they went elsewhere and repeated the same in hundreds and hundreds of towns, one after the other. With terrible terror and these systematic acts, they totally destroyed the trade unions and thus became bosses of Italy. They were a tiny minority (29).

In the end, a few thousand well-organized fascists managed to rupture a powerful proletarian movement that had developed after the war and, by 1920, managed to occupy all major factories in the country, the so-called “Red Biennium” (30). As Trotsky correctly explains, in early 1920s Italy, the dictatorship of the proletariat was a concrete possibility: there only remained the question of its organization and delivery to its final consequences. The bourgeois state was in tatters, the bourgeoisie was groping in the dark, and the workers controlled the factories. But the Socialist Party, which had organized the broad proletarian masses, was frightened and retreated. Here, it is also worth recalling a long quotation from Trotsky:

… in September 1920, we lived through the great movement in Italy. Precisely at that moment in the autumn of 1920, the Italian proletariat reached its highest point of ferment after the war. Mills, plants, railways, mines are seized. The state is disorganized, the bourgeoisie is virtually prostrate, its spine almost broken. It seems that only one more step forward is needed and the Italian working class will conquer power. But at this moment, its party, that same Socialist Party which had emerged from the previous epoch, although formally adhering to the Third International but with its spirit and roots still in the previous epoch, i.e., in the Second International – this party recoils in terror from the seizure of power, from the civil war, leaving the proletariat exposed. An attack is launched upon the proletariat by the most resolute wing of the bourgeoisie in the shape of Fascism, in the shape of whatever still remains strong in the police and the army. The proletariat is smashed (31). 

For this reason, the small and big Mussolini appears when a revolutionary situation opens up (or may open up). The bourgeoisie, terrified by the action of the proletariat, sets fascist bands in motion and unleashes the fury of the petty bourgeoisie against the organizations of the working class. Italian fascism was born directly from the betrayal of the proletarian revolution: if the socialist party – which, let us remember, was then a section of the Third International, although, as Trotsky says, was still imbued with the spirit of the Second International – had translated what it proclaimed only in words, into practice, namely, the dictatorship of the proletariat, we probably would have been spared twenty years of fascism. It was a matter of consistency with the program that the leadership of the Socialist Party claimed to support: to bring the working class to power, to expropriate the big bourgeoisie, to begin the construction of a socialist economy and a socialist State. The preconditions were all there: the immense power of the working class in struggle would certainly not have been intimidated by a band of daredevils. But the socialist leaders preferred to wait and procrastinate: with all their might, they restrained their workers from the fight against the fascists and actually bowed to bourgeois legality. And thus, the fearful reformist leaders served us twenty years of fascist dictatorship on a silver platter!

It was not in vain that the Italian Socialist Party would soon be expelled from the Third International, since it refused to call its own “centrism” into question, that is, its tendency to oscillate between its (proclaimed) revolutionary positions and reformist positions (as it refused to break from the reformist Turati wing, in spite of the International’s request). Fascism was a tragic lesson for the Italian proletariat: they paid dearly for the lack of a Bolshevik-type party. Only in January 1921 would that party, the Communist Party of Italy, be born – although with many limitations, due to the positions of its leader Bordiga. And it was short-lived, as fascism in power led to the dispersion of its cadre, condemning communists to secrecy, seclusion, imprisonment, and deportation.

German fascism

The rise of Hitler and German National Socialism also coincided with a historic defeat of the working class for which its leadership was once again responsible – though in this case, the leadership was Stalinist. Through the trials of the times, the German proletariat demonstrated a “revolutionary weakness” which essentially had two causes: on one hand, German Social Democracy and its historical role, and on the other, the inability of the German Communist Party (led by Stalinists) to unite the workers under the banner of revolution. German Social Democracy and its reformist orientation have always played a counterrevolutionary role: it was the agent of capitalism in the ranks of the workers’ movement. That is why Trotsky defines it as an “objective obstacle” that needs to be eliminated (32). Trotsky is unrelenting in holding German Social Democracy responsible:

“The rottenest portion of putrefying capitalist Europe is the Social Democratic bureaucracy” which “betrayed the revolution in the name of reform,” which has even come to actively support the imperialist war, setting the safeguarding of bourgeois society as an objective. To pay for this, the Social Democrats even agree to renounce all their past conquests: “There is no historical spectacle more tragic and at the same time more repulsive than the fetid disintegration of reformism amid the wreckage of all its conquests and hopes” (33).

When fascism was at the gates, they appealed to the state apparatus, judges, and police… and thus, abandoned struggle.

But the fact that German Social Democracy (that is, reformism) acted in this way is not a surprise: the agents of the bourgeoisie are quite predictable in their operations to liquidate the class. That which was by no means a given was the great responsibility of the (Stalinist) German Communist Party in this tragedy. The German Communist Party was not a small party: it organized tens of thousands of militants and earned high electoral percentages. But thanks to its leadership, under Stalin’s orders, it de facto renounced the fight against fascism. Above all, it refused, out of some sort of bureaucratic sectarianism (alternating with ultra-opportunist policies) to use the tactic of the united front.

The latter is a tactic that results from the objective condition of the proletariat, which is not a homogeneous class: its components acquire consciousness at different intervals, which is why it presents as politically divided into many parties (and unions) in most historical phases. The revolutionary party must always maintain total political and organizational independence from the other parties of the class (for example, the reformist and centrist parties) but, to conquer the majority of the proletariat – an indispensable prerequisite for the revolution – it must never enter into conflict with the workers’ demand to build a unity of action in the struggle against capital. Thus, it must constantly challenge the reformist leadership to build a unitary struggle, which also serves to expose their true intentions to the workers’ eyes. This becomes even clearer in the face of the threat of fascism: to refuse, like the German Communist Party, to carry out common actions with reformist organizations against the fascist danger, means capitulating to fascism. Only a united front policy, based on practical agreements bound to the demands of the actions – thus maintaining total independence at the programmatic level (“march separately, strike together”) – allows for the large-scale mobilization of the class and, therefore, creates the conditions for the defeat of fascism and for the political maturation of the proletariat (as workers’ consciousness develops more readily during struggle). Only thanks to the united front policy will the revolutionary party be able to win the confidence of the working masses who still have reformism as their point of reference:

The Communist party proves to the masses and their organizations its readiness in action to wage battle in common with them, for aims, no matter how modest, so long as they lie on the road of the historical development of the proletariat (34).

Therefore, it is mainly due to the “subjective factor,” that is, the refusal of the German Communist Party to act with a united front policy, that the German proletariat – the era’s most powerful proletariat in Europe – “found itself impotent, disarmed and paralyzed at the moment of its greatest historical test” (35).

While we do not have the opportunity to elaborate upon this topic in this article, it is worth recalling the criminal oscillations of German Stalinism in 1920s and early 1930s Germany: in the most critical moment, they moved from a policy of total opportunism toward social democracy (1926-1928) to the visionary policy of the “Third Period” (from 1928) which theorized “social-fascism” (1930-1932), that is, the presumed identity between fascism and social democracy (on the basis of which they rejected the united front with reformism).

The analyses of fascism developed in this article demonstrate how deeply unfounded the theory of social-fascism is. Unfortunately, history has demonstrated this even more. Once in power, Italian and German fascism annihilated all organizations of the proletariat: this was, undoubtedly, the greatest defeat of the working class in history (36).


As a conclusion to this article, now that we have recognized the true nature of fascism and the historical roles of reformism and centrism in its rise to power in Italy and Germany, the time has come to draw an imaginary line connecting the 1920s and early 1930s to the present. In the meantime, capitalism, after having graced mankind with a new world war and dozens of regional military conflicts, has entered a new general crisis at the beginning of the new century. The economic crisis’s effects have been devastating for the living conditions of the petty-bourgeois and proletarian masses: social tensions are at their peak. This situation fuels the rage of the petty bourgeoisie, which is moving away from the traditional bourgeois parties, lashing out against parliamentary institutions and forging populist parties (such as Fratelli d’Italia and the League) which raise the banners of racism and nationalism, riding on the back of social unrest to electoral success. In such a context, it is likely that, with the opening of a pre-revolutionary situation, favorable conditions will be created for the strengthening of a revolutionary party. However, dialectically, it is also foreseeable that, as it has done in the past, big capital will not hesitate to support Bonapartist scenarios and play the fascist card again, if it cannot do without it.

Therefore, it is essential for the working class to prepare itself for a harsh confrontation: in such an unstable context, the class struggle may turn into civil war. It is not enough, as some proponents of the reformist or intellectual left do, to complain about the dangers of fascism from academic ivy towers or from comfortable living room armchairs. These “complaints” often hide the sole aim of gathering votes in favor of bourgeois parties. When there is a real fascist danger – and the possibility that this may happen soon cannot be ruled out – workers’ self-defense must be organized; it will be necessary, as Trotsky reminds us, to build self-defense militias from the picket lines, from the neighborhoods of poor immigrants who risk their lives every day under attacks by fascist and racist groups. What we must do immediately, however, is build that united front for workers’ struggle that Trotsky considered fundamental to the opposition against bourgeois policies, to lay the foundation for workers’ power and thus prevent fascism from taking root.

There are no better words to conclude an article on fascism than the following from the Transitional Program, the founding manifesto of the Fourth International, which was written at a historical moment (the late 1930s) when fascist regimes seemed destined to last forever:

The petty bourgeois democrats (…) yell louder about the struggle against fascism the more cravenly they capitulate to it in actuality. Only armed workers’ detachments, who feel the support of tens of millions of toilers behind them, can successfully prevail against the fascist bands. The struggle against fascism does not start in the liberal editorial office but in the factory — and ends in the street (37).


[1] In addition, an Alternativa Comunista de Bari comrade was assaulted and seriously injured by a gang of fascists from Casapound. Read more in the article at this link:

[2] TROTSKY, Leon. “La sola via” (1932), in: I problemi della rivoluzione cinese e altri scritti, [“The Only Road” (1932), in: The Problems of the Chinese Revolution and Other Writings], Einaudi, 1970, p. 359. In English, see: “The Only Road,” accessible here:  In some cases, the Italian translations were partially revised by the authors of this article based on comparisons with translations of the same article in other languages.

[3] TROTSKY, Leon. Programma di transizione (1938). Italia:Massari Editore, 2008, pp. 67-71. In English, see “The Transitional Program,” accessible here: 

[4] TROTSKY, Leon. “La svolta dell’Internazionale comunista e la situazione in Germania” (1930), in: I problemi della rivoluzione cinese e altri scritti, cit., p. 304. [“The Turn in the Communist International and the Situation in Germany” (1930), in: The Problems of the Chinese Revolution and Other Writings]. In English, accessible here:

[5] TROTSKY, Leon. “La chiave della situazione è in Germania” (1931), in Scritti 1929-1936. Italia:Einaudi, 1962, p. 289. [“The Key to the Situation is in Germany” (1931), in Writings 1929-1936]. In English, see: Germany, The Key to the International Situation, accessible here:

[6] TROTSKY, Leon. “E ora?” (1932), Ivi, p. 304. [“What Next? – Vital Questions for the German Proletariat,” in: The German Revolution and the Stalinist Bureaucracy. Available here:

[7] TROTSKY, Leon. “La svolta dell’Internazionale comunista e la situazione in Germania”, cit., p. 305. In English, see: idem, op. cit.

[8] TROTSKY, Leon. “E ora?…”, op. cit., 295. In English, see: What Next? – Vital Questions for the German Proletariat,” op. cit.

[9] TROTSKY, Leon. “What Next? …”, op. cit.

[10] TROTSKY, Leon. “La svolta dell’Internazionale comunista e la situazione in Germania”, cit., p. 305. In English, see: idem, op. cit.

[11] Ibidp. 305. In English, see: idem, op. cit.

[12] TROTSKY, Leon. “La questione tedesca” (1934), in La Terza Internazionale dopo Lenin [“The German Question” (1934), in: La Tercera Internacional después de Lenin]. Schwarz Editore, 1957, pp. 264-265: “Lo smarrimento e la divisione delle classi dominanti; l’indignazione della piccola borghesia, la sua sfiducia nell’ordine esistente; la crescente attività militante della classe operaia; infine una politica corretta da parte del partito rivoluzionario: ecco le immediate condizioni pregiudiziali per una rivoluzione”. [“the bewilderment and the division of the ruling classes; the indignation of the petty bourgeoisie and its loss of faith in the existing order; the growing militant activity of the working class; finally, a correct policy of the revolutionary party – such are the immediate prerequisites for a revolution.”]. In English, see “How Long Can Hitler Stay?” (1933), available here:

[13] TROTSKY, Leon. “La chiave della rivoluzione è in Germania”, op. cit., p. 290. In English, see: idem, op. cit.

[14] TROTSKY, Leon. “E ora?…”, op. cit., p. 308. In English, see: idem, op. cit.

[15] TROTSKY, Leon. “La sola via”, op. cit., p. 362. In English, see: idem, op. cit.

[16] TROTSKY, Leon. “E ora?”, op. cit., p. 308. In English, see: idem, op. cit.

[17] “Oggi la borghesia tedesca non governa direttamente; politicamente parlando, essa è completamente sottomessa a Hitler e alle sue squadracce. Tuttavia in Germania la dittatura della borghesia permane inalterata dal momento che tutte le condizioni della sua egemonia sociale sono state mantenute e rafforzate. Espropriando politicamente la borghesia, Hitler l’ha salvata (…) dall’esproprio economico” [“Today, the German bourgeoisie does not rule directly; politically it is placed under complete subjection to Hitler and his bands. Nevertheless, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie remains inviolate in Germany, because all the conditions of its social hegemony have been preserved and strengthened. By expropriating the bourgeoisie politically, Hitler saved it, (…) from economic expropriation”], in: L. Trotsky, “La natura di classe dello Stato soviético” (1933), in Opere scelte, vol. 5 [in: “The Class Nature of the Soviet State” (1933), in Selected Works, vol. 5.]. Italia: Prospettiva Edizioni, p. 398. In English, see:

[18] TROTSKY, Leon. “E ora?…”, op. cit., p. 309. In English, see: idem, op. cit

[19] TROTSKY, Leon. “E ora?…”, op. cit. p. 347. In English, see: idem, op. cit

[20] TROTSKY, Leon. “La questione tedesca”, op. cit. 260. In English, see:

[21] TROTSKY, Leon. “La sola via”, op. cit., p. 360. In English, op. cit.

[22] TROTSKY, Leon. “E ora?…”, op. cit. p. 308. In English, op. cit.

[23] Idemp. 296. In English, op. cit.

[24] Ibid. In English, op. cit.

[25] Ibid. In English, op. cit.

[26] TROTSKY, Leon. “La sola via”, op. cit., p. 355. In English, op. cit.

[27] TROTSKY, Leon. “Che cos’è il nazionalsocialismo?” (1933), in: La rivoluzione cinese e altri scritti, cit., pp. 422-423. [“What is nationalism?” (1933), en: The Chinese Revolution and Other Writings]. In English, see:  

[28] Anaximander.

[29] TROTSKY, Leon. “Completare il programma e metterlo all’opera”, in: appendice al Programma di transizione, op. cit., p.160. [“Completing the Program and Putting it to Work” in the appendix to The Transitional Program]. In English, see “Why Draft Program is Not Complete,” in On the Transitional Program (June 1938), available here:

[30] On this issue, see the article by Ruggero Mantovani, “Biennio rosso: la storia di una rivoluzione mancata” [“Red Biennum: The Story of a Failed Reviolution”], in: Trotskismo oggi, n. 9.

[31] TROTSKY, Leon. “Relazione di bilancio sul quarto congresso dell’Internazionale comunista” (1922), in Scritti sull’Italia. Italia: Massari Editore, 1990, pp. 92-93. In English, “Report on the Fourth World Congress” (1922), quoted from here:

[32] TROTSKY, Leon. “La chiave della rivoluzione è in Germania”, op. cit., p. 281. In English, op. cit.

[33] TROTSKY, Leon. “E ora?…”, op. cit., p. 295. In English, op. cit.

[34] TROTSKY, Leon. “E ora?…”, op. cit., p. 237. In English, op. cit.

[35] TROTSKY, Leon. “La tragedia del proletariato tedesco”, in: La terza internazionale dopo Lenin, op. cit., p.243. [“The Tragedy of the German Proletariat,” in The Third International After Lenin].

[36] It is worth remembering that from there, Stalinism shifted to the total opposite policy in a single leap: that of the “popular front,” i.e. the government alliance with bourgeois parties (VII Congress of the Communist International, 1935). Subsequently, Stalinism would go so far as to sign a military and colonial pact (splitting from Poland) with Hitler: the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (August 1939).

[37] TROTSKY, Leon. Programma di transizione, op. cit., p. 91.

Original article from the theoretical magazine Trotskismo oggi, 2018, republished at, 10/21/2022.

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