Right-Wing Populism and Modern Fascism
1 April 2022
In the Media, right-wing populism often comes across as a new phenomenon. Even in academia, it is now given much attention, since new right-wing parties and politicians have entered the political stage around the world in the last couple of years. Other people are afraid that this is only history repeating itself. For them, these new movements are only covert fascism. But fascism itself is often misunderstood. Bourgeois historians like to call it a singular, unfortunate concatenation of circumstances. But this is wrong. We want to solve this confusion. First, we will explain what fascism is. Then we will analyze whether right-wing populism does fit this definition, and how both phenomena are related.
What is Fascism?
Fascism is capitalism’s reaction to its approaching demise. It’s supposed to defend the system by all means necessary. Therefore, fascism is not a political idea, but a function.
Capitalism had an important role in history. It brought to humanity material wealth and technological progress – but it didn’t distribute them evenly. We owe capitalism the idea, although not the reality, that all humans are equal. Capitalist democracy, although flawed, was a quantum leap forward compared to feudal society. When its task was done, capitalism itself became an obstacle to further progress. Now it’s creating ever-growing contradictions. For example, the imperialist countries are wasting so much food that would be enough to fill soccer stadiums. At the same time, it was estimated in 2017 that 9 million people die from hunger each year. Technological devices are becoming increasingly efficient, and yet they are being built to break after short time, or are quickly being made obsolete and useless through means such as constant software updates. Economic lobbyists are working against effective environmental protection although at this point, our survival is literally at stake. The solution to these contradictions is of course socialism. Socialism is not a question of opinion that you can simply answer with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It is not an “alternative” to capitalism, but it is its logical consequence.
However, the capitalists are afraid of socialism because it will deprive them of their privileges and hold them accountable for the role they’ve played in the old society. They can’t stop capitalism’s decay because its problems are inherent. They can only try to pacify its contradictions by force. That is what the Nazis did: they simply claimed there were no class distinctions and covered up the antagonistic relationship between exploiters and exploited with hollow phrases like volksgemeinschaft (a community of ethnically homogeneous people). But such measures can only slow down the downfall of capitalism. If one wishes to save capitalism in the long term, they have to take back society to a time in which it still worked. The cruelest example of these measures so far is the Nazis’ lebensraum policy. With this policy, the ruling class tried to solve capitalism’s problems by simply settling part of the German population in Eastern Europe, where they were supposed to live as if they were farmers in the pre-industrial ages. Even the Holocaust was a consequence of this policy. The industrialized mass murder of the European Jews was a measure to make space for German settlers in the occupied territories.
What we see here is that when a crisis hits and wakes up the political consciousness of the people, with the accumulation of wealth reaching its limit, the capitalist class has to use increasingly heinous measures to defend their system. The closer capitalism is to its end, the harder it fights back.
We can illustrate this process by looking at a historical example.
After World War I, Germany was on the verge of a socialist revolution; but the social democrats successfully slowed it down. At the time, social democracy was the main tool of the capitalists to defend against a socialist revolution. When workers were planning riots, the social democrats would tell them, “If you make a revolution, we will share the same fate as the Russians! We have to reform the system instead of destroying everything!” This worked for a little while. But capitalism can’t be reformed; and, thanks to the world economic crisis, the social democrats lost their credibility. The people pushed more and more for revolution. Thus, a new tool was needed: fascism. Instead of preaching the reconciliation of classes like the social democrats, the fascists simply declared classes as non-existent. They constructed a sentiment of “we against them,” so that the anger of the population would not be directed towards the capitalists but against minorities instead, especially towards Jews and political dissidents that “went against the well-being of the volksgemeinschaft.”
The measures of fascism are essentially the same measures that capitalism takes every day to survive. But in fascism, these measures reach their most extreme form. Therefore, it’s not an ideology; it is a tool. In order to get their support, the fascists buttered up the people and told them exactly what they wanted to hear: Mussolini himself admitted that in the first four years after the foundation of the fascist movement, he did not have a certain ideology in mind. Shortly after World War I, his party lacked popular support. It had to follow the revolutionary sentiment of the time and put a lot of left-sounding demands in its program. It was a confusing mixture of chauvinistic and seemingly revolutionary phrases. The Nazis followed the same strategy. The name “Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei” (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) is completely meaningless and only serves to address as many people as possible. Also, historical fascists never managed to come up with a consistent definition of fascism. It is only when fascism has risen to power that the facade begins to crumble and reveal the whole dimension of capitalist repression that defines it.
That’s the answer to why bourgeois academics are unable to comprehend fascism. They don’t realize (or don’t want to realize) that fascism is a natural defense mechanism of capitalism when it is cornered by its own contradictions.
What is Right-Wing Populism?
The Nature of Right-Wing Populism
Admittedly, modern right-wing populists are similar to historical fascists in many aspects. Both don’t have an ideology but simply promise fast solutions to complex problems. They profit from the loss of trust in established parties that are unable to soften the growing contradictions of capitalism. And they come up with bogeymen to obscure the class character of society.
Typical right-wing populists look like this: they are nationalist and criticize supranational institutions like the EU and international, binding agreements. They find themselves scapegoats, such as Muslims or Mexicans, whom they use as strawmen to blame for all sorts of problems. If that doesn’t work, then they simply deny that there are any problems at all, much like climate-change deniers with regards to climate-change. And indeed, their positions often reflect the interests of capitalists. Trump introduced tax reliefs for super-rich. Denying climate change plays into the hands of the energy sector, especially the coal industry. Demands for national self-sufficiency defend the small capitalists from being pushed out of the market by international corporations. And with their racist rhetoric, they generally sweep the system’s crimes under the carpet, because it is a huge difference whether one perceives refugees as “welfare scroungers” or victims of imperialism.
People that are influenced by right-wing populist demagoguery often suffer from ‘historical amnesia,’ as author Francesco Filipi elegantly calls such a phenomenon. As an additional method to distract from the flaws of capitalism, right-wing populists come up with an imaginary, romanticized past. In Italy you can hear people say: “Mussolini gave us pensions!” “We were all richer under Mussolini!” “Mussolini made Italy great and respected by all!” These myths seem to appeal especially to dissatisfied people. Contrary to the corrupt politicians of modern-day Italy, Mussolini allegedly had been a principled, benevolent dictator. Instead of being stopped by lengthy political processes, his government simply got the job done. While today, crime and chaos are a part of everyday life, under Mussolini there had been order. To this day, Italy is still shirking to account for its fascist past. It puts the blame for its crimes on the Nazis alone to dodge responsibility. Even after the war, fascists were often allowed to keep their posts in administration. It was believed that accounting for fascism would divide the Italian people too much.
Similarly in Germany, among Germans there are myths about the Nazi era as well. One famous lie that’s considered a bar-room cliché there goes like: “Hitler invented the Autobahn!” The western allies allowed the Germans, just like the Italians, to come up with an excuse for their mass support for the Nazi regime: They had only been victims of a charismatic demagogue such as Hitler. But the mask came off at the latest when AfD (Alternative for Germany, a right-wing populist party) and Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicisation of the Occident, a far-right political movement) appeared. Nowadays, top politicians sugarcoat the Nazi era, like Alexander Gauland who says: “We have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two World Wars.”
This phenomenon also exists in Eastern Europe. In Poland and Ukraine, for example, you hear people glorifying the pre-Soviet era and at the same time celebrating Nazi collaborators and fascists like Stepan Bandera and Józef Piłsudski.
The Relation Between Right-Wing Populism and Fascism
Although right-wing populists are usually the vanguard of fascism, they are not necessarily fascists. Why?
- They only represent the interests of a certain group of capitalists. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other tech giants generally have no interest in denying climate change. They themselves don’t profit from the coal business, and they know very well that climate change does threaten their existence as well. Parts of the light and service industry profit from as much free trade as possible across borders in order to, for example, open up new markets or to hire cheap labor power from abroad. Furthermore, the violent extremists that hide in the shadow of right-wing populism are a potential threat to liberal democracy. But liberal democracy currently offers the best conditions for the undisturbed circulation of goods for profits. Right-wing populists particularly represent the interests of the national bourgeoisie. But in our globally interconnected world, it is not possible to ignore the big international players because fascism represents the interests of the most important parts of the capitalist class.
- Fascism is a defense mechanism that reacts to an approaching revolution. Such a revolution does not exist in the First World where many of these parties and politicians celebrate successes. It almost seems like some First-Worldists are talking themselves into believing that fascism is approaching in order to prove that there was relevant revolutionary potential in the First World.
But not all populist parties are the same. In some countries, like Germany or France, populists clearly do not necessarily serve the purpose of fascism because a socialist revolution is utopian there. But in countries where capitalism has recently been less successful, such as in Poland with its devastating inflation, right-wing populists are much more successful. In this case, they are getting closer to fascism (although they’re still far away from it).
And just because fascism and right-wing populism both use racism, that doesn’t mean that they have a consistent political program. Rather, racism has historically proven to be useful for dividing the proletariat and distracting it from the problems of capitalism.
Repression in a capitalist state therefore is a continuum. On the one side of this continuum there are liberal democracies that flourish economically (often thanks to imperialism). In the ideal scenario, there is almost no repression: Capitalists can enforce their interests via official means such as lobbying.
When capitalism stops generating wealth for everyone, step-by-step the political consciousness of the people awakens. New measures are needed. On both sides of the political spectrum, parties emerge that address these problems. In the right-wing political camp, they try to redirect the frustration of the people away from capitalism towards an artificial bogeymen. That’s the phase of most countries that have experienced the shift to the right.
If economic problems increase but the political left is weak, these right-wing political parties can make it into the government, like in Poland for example. Now they will begin to enact authoritarian laws to secure their power. However, you don’t actually need new parties to make the shift to authoritarian measures. The established bourgeois parties can very well become increasingly authoritarian and populist themselves.
When the crises intensify, the people turn more and more towards the socialist idea, and the capitalist class can no longer solve the situation by the usual means, we then enter the realm of fascism. The capitalists are now supporting the most reactionary forces of society. These forces want to reverse history, and return to a time when capitalism was not perishing of its own contradictions. In this phase, trade unions will be banned, democratic procedures will be abolished, and political enemies will be mercilessly persecuted. Technological development and science will be suppressed. The destruction of society will eventually peak in wars.
Right-wing populism as well as fascism emerge as a reaction to certain problems. The difference is, right-wing populism addresses some side-effects of an otherwise functioning capitalism. Fascism enters the stage when the existence of capitalism is in danger. But as we are moving along a continuum, right-wing populists may very well develop into fascists. However, established parties could do the same.
Fascism as a Tool of Imperialism
Imperialism is interfering with other countries’ political processes. It is notorious for overthrowing governments that resist its hegemony. If it’s successful and those countries don’t sink into chaos, like Libya, then it will install puppet regimes. This is the function which former Bolivian interim president Jeanine Áñez, a Christian fundamentalist who thinks of indigenous people as “Satanists”, served. After she had taken over the position of Evo Morales, there was violence against indigenous people and supporters of the couped left MAS-government.  She is also being accused of violating the democratic constitution of the country. This pattern isn’t new. The mujahideen played the same role in Afghanistan. These ultra-reactionary forces are used as tool by the capitalist class to eliminate dangers to their hegemony. Some of the imperialist puppet governments do therefore deserve the title fascist.
Fascism and the First World
The First World plays a special role regarding this topic because of its position in the imperialist system and decades of anti-communist indoctrination, and thus it is much more vulnerable to fascism. The imperialist core profits directly from the exploitation of the Third World and its labor power and resources. This exploitation is the basis for these ‘advanced’ countries’ wealth. The First World does not only have a much higher standard of living than the Third World; speaking in absolute terms, it does also consume resources much faster than the planet can reproduce them. When the Third World will eventually liberate itself from the yoke of imperialism and start to march towards socialism, the standard of living of the First World will inevitably decrease. Furthermore, a socialist world will no longer allow a decadent waste of resources at the level it’s currently taking place in the First World because it’s a manifestation of capitalist profit-seeking. Socialism, whether at home or abroad, goes contrary to the short-term material interests of the First World population. The more capitalism’s international crisis intensifies, the stronger right-wing, authoritarian forces will become there.
Finally, we will find out whether future fascism will inevitably be a reprint of Nazi-Germany or Fascist Italy. But we have to keep in mind that fascism is a tool, not an ideology. Anything that gets the job done is fine for the capitalists. It’s quite possible that in a future fascism, we will not be controlled by the fear of a gestapo but by targeted information and propaganda of software companies. The technological means the capitalist class already has at hand should make us cautious. In Socialism, new technology serves to ease the lives of the people and to benefit society as a whole. But in the hands of the capitalist class, technology is a curse for the people. It makes us unemployed, alienates us from our fellow human beings and opens up entirely new ways of repression. We will feel this repression more and more in the future, and in a modern fascism, it could assume dystopian proportions.
The digitization of all aspects of life makes us increasingly vulnerable. Some European states and China are already almost completely cash-free. Many people save important documents exclusively on clouds. A great part of our social life takes place on the Internet nowadays. And we are always carrying with us technology that could be transformed into listening devices. How would a state as evil as Nazi Germany use this situation to its favor?
It would monitor all of our communication, to identify political enemies. It would collect our data and create personality profiles to provide us with personalized propaganda. It would freeze our bank accounts and leave us without resources if we oppose the system. Human imagination is the only limit to which measures could be taken. This scenario is not unrealistic. Digitization is first and foremost a means to increase the capitalists’ profits. They rationalize production processes and offer new services and products. The production costs of software are nearly zero, and therefore, the few monopolists can make huge profits. But already today, the capitalist class uses technology to its advantage in addition to economic gains. Revolutionary-minded people and those who oppose US-imperialism suffer from censorship or quasi-censorship on social media platforms. Often, their Facebook pages, YouTube channels or Twitter accounts are being closed for hypocritical reasons. When that doesn’t happen, then they are at least being disadvantaged in the search results or parts of their content are being taken down. Furthermore, all big software companies work together with western intelligence agencies to help them collect our data. Beyond that, NSA, CIA, and others perpetrate large-scale cyber attacks using altered hardware or software. It’s not unlikely that they are being assisted by the producers themselves.
Fascism and right-wing populism are very similar in nature. Both are a natural reaction of capitalism facing problems. The difference is the severity of these problems. Right-wing populism addresses some sorrows of the opportunistic petite bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie that fear the superiority of international monopoly capital. It also redirects the frustration of alienated people towards innocent scapegoats instead of the true cause which is capitalism. Fascism, on the other hand, is the last resort of the capitalist system as a whole when it’s facing its demise.
We do not want to downplay the very true danger for radical leftists that springs from new right-wing groups and the capitalist state in general. But the opposite mistake of calling the victims of their demagogy “fascists” doesn’t get us anywhere. Neither does it eliminate a potential danger, nor does it win them over to our side. Because reality is, every time a person suffers under capitalism and consequently joins a right-wing movement, we leftists have failed. And just because some of us tell ourselves that fascism was just around the corner, that doesn’t change the fact that the revolutionary potential in the First World is effectively zero.
Neither are we advocating for accepting the transition to fascism as a given fact. The only means against fascism is a strong Marxist movement. To build and spread this consciousness is one of the basic tasks of all radical leftists.
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