In 1923 the radical socialist and feminist Clara Zetkin gave a report at the Communist International about the emergence of a political movement called fascism. Fascism, then in its infancy, was written off by many liberals, socialists and communists as little more than mob rule, terror and street violence. But Zetkin, a German revolutionary, understood its virulence, its seduction and its danger. She warned that the longer the stagnation and rot of a dysfunctional democracy went unaddressed, the more attractive fascism would become. And as 21st-century America’s own capitalist democracy disintegrates, replaced by a naked kleptocracy that disdains the rule of law, the struggle of past anti-fascists mirrors our own. History has amply illustrated where political paralysis, economic decline, hypermilitarism and widespread corruption lead.
Zetkin’s analysis, eerily prophetic and reprinted in the book Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, edited by John Riddell and Mike Taber, highlights the principal features of emerging fascist movements. Fascism, Zetkin warned, arises when capitalism enters a period of crisis and breakdown of the democratic institutions that once offered the possibility of reform and protection from an uninhibited assault by the capitalist class. The unchecked capitalist assault pushes the middle class, the bulwark of a capitalist democracy, into the working class and often poverty. It strips workers of all protection and depresses wages. The longer the economic and social stagnation persists, the more attractive fascism becomes. Zetkin would have warned us that Donald Trump is not the danger; the danger is the growing social and economic inequality that concentrates wealth in the hands of an oligarchic elite and degrades the lives of citizens.
The collapse of a capitalist democracy, she wrote, leaves those in the working class disempowered. Their pleas go unheard. Reforms to address their suffering are cosmetic and useless. Their anger is written off as irrational or racist. A bankrupt liberal class, which formerly made incremental and piecemeal reform possible, ameliorating the worst excesses of capitalism, mouths empty slogans about social justice and the rights of workers while selling them out to capitalist elites. The hypocrisy of the liberal class evokes not only a disdain for it but a hatred for the liberal, democratic values it supposedly espouses. The “virtues” of democracy become distasteful. The crude taunts, threats and insults hurled by fascists at the liberal establishment express a legitimate anger among a betrayed working class. Trump’s coarseness, for this reason, resonates with many pushed to the margins of society. Demoralized workers, who also find no defense of their interests by establishment intellectuals, the press and academics, lose faith in the political process. Realizing the liberal elites have lied to them, they are open to bizarre and fantastic conspiracy theories. Fascists direct this rage and yearning for revenge against an array of phantom enemies, most of them scapegoated minorities.
“What weighs on them above all is the lack of security for their basic existence,” Zetkin wrote of the dispossessed working class.
“Masses in their thousands streamed to fascism,” she went on. “It became an asylum for all the politically homeless, the socially uprooted, the destitute and disillusioned. … The petty-bourgeois and intermediate social forces at first vacillate indecisively between the powerful historical camps of the proletariat and bourgeoisie. They are induced to sympathize with the proletariat by their life’s suffering and, in part, by their soul’s noble longings and high ideals, so long as it is revolutionary in its conduct and seems to have prospects for victory. Under the pressure of the masses and their needs, and influenced by this situation, even the fascist leaders are forced to at least flirt with the revolutionary proletariat, even though they may not have any sympathy with it.”
The discredited ideals of democracy are replaced by a hypernationalism that divides the population not by class but between the patriotic and the unpatriotic. National and religious symbols such as the Christian cross and the American flag are fused under fascism. Fascism offers the dispossessed a tangible enemy and a right to physically strike back. Those demonized for a nation’s decline—Jews and communists in Nazi Germany, the kulaks in the Soviet Union and the undocumented, African-Americans and Muslims in the United States—become social pariahs. The stigmatized, along with intellectuals, liberals, gays, feminists and dissidents, are attacked as the embodiment of the disease that has destroyed the nation and will be exorcised by the fascists. This fascist rhetoric is always couched in the language of renewal and moral purity.
“[W]hat [the masses] no longer hoped for from the revolutionary proletarian class and from socialism, they now hoped would be achieved by the most able, strong, determined, and bold elements of every social class,” Zetkin, a close friend of the murdered revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, wrote. “All these forces must come together in a community. And this community, for the fascists, is the nation. … The instrument to achieve fascist ideals is, for them, the state. A strong and authoritarian state that will be their very own creation and their obedient tool. This state will tower high above all differences of party and class.”
Zetkin, a cofounder of the radical Spartacus League, cautioned against demonizing the rank and file of fascist movements. She reminded us that only when the real and profound grievances of those attracted to fascism are addressed can they be pried from its grip.
“The best of them are seeking an escape from deep anguish of the soul,” she wrote of those who joined fascist organizations. “They are longing for new and unshakable ideals and a world outlook that enables them to understand nature, society, and their own life; a world outlook that is not a sterile formula but operates creatively and constructively. Let us not forget that violent fascist gangs are not composed entirely of ruffians of war, mercenaries by choice, and venal lumpens who take pleasure in acts of terror. We also find among them the most energetic forces of these social layers, those most capable of development. We must go to them with conviction and understanding for their condition and their fiery longing, work among them, and show them a solution that does not lead backward but rather forward to communism.”
The highest aesthetic of fascism is war. Its veneration of militarized force and violence, its inability to deal in the world of ideas, nuance and complexity, and its emotional numbness leave it unable to communicate in any language other than threats and coercion. Institutions that pay deference to complexity, that seek to cross cultural barriers to communicate and understand others, are belittled and destroyed by fascists. Diplomacy, scholarship, culture and journalism are an anathema. One obeys, both internally and beyond the nation’s borders, or is crushed. This moral and intellectual vacuum leads fascists to overreach, especially through military adventurism and imperial expansion. They begin long and futile wars that drain the depleted resources of the nation while eradicating civil liberties at home. And in the end, they practice a brutality inside and outside the nation that is genocidal.
Fascism, Zetkin wrote, pits one segment of the working class against another. Last year at the Charlottesville, Va., demonstration that turned deadly, the “antifa” activists and neo-Nazis who clashed came largely from the same dispossessed economic stratum. The divisions created within the working class by fascism, coupled with fascism’s attack on unions, intellectuals, dissidents and the press, foster an uneasy alliance with the capitalist elites, who often view the fascists as imbeciles and buffoons. In essence, much as Trump has done, the capitalists are bought off by fascists with tax cuts, deregulation, the breaking of unions and the dismantling of institutions that carry out oversight and the protection of workers. The expansion of the military, which provides capitalists with increased profit, coupled with the expanded powers of the organs of internal security, binds the capitalist elites to the fascists. Their marriage is one of mutual convenience. This is why the capitalist elites tolerate Trump and endure the international embarrassment he has become.
“There is a blatant contradiction between what fascism promised and what it delivered to the masses,” Zetkin wrote. “All the talk about how the fascist state will place the interests of the nation above everything, once exposed to the wind of reality, burst like a soap bubble. The ‘nation’ revealed itself to be the bourgeoisie; the ideal fascist state revealed itself to be the vulgar, unscrupulous bourgeois class state. … Class contradictions are mightier than all the ideologies that deny their existence.”
“The bourgeoisie needs to use aggressive force to defend itself against the working class,” she wrote. “The old and seemingly ‘apolitical’ repressive apparatus of the bourgeois state no longer provides it with sufficient security. The bourgeoisie moves to create special bands of class struggle against the proletariat. Fascism provides such troops. Although fascism includes revolutionary currents related to its origin and the forces supporting it—currents that could turn against capitalism and its state—it nonetheless develops into a dangerous force for counterrevolution.”
“Fascism clearly will display different features in each country, owing from the given historical circumstances,” she wrote. “But it consists everywhere of an amalgam of brutal, terrorist violence together with deceptive revolutionary phraseology, linking up demagogically with the needs and moods of broad masses of producers.”
In 1932 Zetkin, at 74 the oldest elected member of the Nazi-controlled Reichstag, was by tradition supposed to open the first session of the legislature. She was an object of vitriol in the Nazi press, which attacked her as a “Communist Jew,” a “traitor” and, as Joseph Goebbels called her, a “slut.” The Nazis threatened her with assault if she appeared in the chamber, threats that led her to quip she would be there “dead or alive.” In poor health, she arrived at the Reichstag on a stretcher but at the podium recovered her familiar fire. Her 40-minute speech was one of the last public denunciations of fascism in Nazi Germany. Within a year, the Nazis banned the Communist Party and Zetkin had died in exile in the Soviet Union.
She told the Reichstag:
"Our most urgent task today is to form a united front of all working people in order to turn back fascism. All the differences that divide and shackle us—whether founded on political, trade-union, religious, or ideological outlooks—must give way before this imperious historical necessity.
"All those who are menaced, all those who suffer, all those who desire freedom must join the united front against fascism and its representatives in government. Working people must assert themselves against fascism. That is the urgent and indispensable precondition for a united front against economic crisis, imperialist war and its causes, and the capitalist mode of production.
"The revolt of millions of laboring men and women in Germany against hunger, deprivation, fascist murder, and imperialist war expresses the imperishable destiny of producers the world over. This destiny, shared among us around the world, must find expression through forging an iron-like community of struggle of all working people in every sphere ruled by capitalism."