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Yale historian Timothy Snyder recently warned concerned readers and listeners to refrain from assuming that Ukraine’s ongoing tumult signals the growth of fascism. Notwithstanding the widespread presence of fascist symbols and anti-Semitic violence in the Ukraine, Snyder emphasizes the diversity of Ukraine’s anti-government protestors as well as the fact that other European countries such as France and Austria are currently facing graver ultra-right threats. Conceding that Ukrainian fascists should nonetheless be taken seriously, Snyder asserts that the Ukrainian democratic process needs to be re-legitimized, a conclusion that notably reverses cause and effect as it ignores the fundamental global economic crisis that precipitated the ongoing political one.
This reversal of cause and effect is unsurprising given that Snyder’s discussion, as well as Stephen Cohen’s far more critical account, does little to describe fascism and nothing to explain it. The substitution of description for explanation in fact resembles much of the historical debate on fascism, with predominantly liberal scholars characterizing fascism as a nebulous phenomenon that is best defined negatively. Thus, fascism can be seen as anti-communist, anti-Semitic, anti-clerical (with exceptions depending on whether you consider Franco fascist, etc.), anti-democratic, anti-liberal, and so on. Meanwhile, writers mostly but not only (for instance Hannah Arendt) on the right have eschewed the concept of fascism altogether, instead suggesting that what has been termed fascist is in fact merely totalitarian. Reflecting the Cold War era goal of distancing Nazism from Western capitalism while comparing it to the Soviet Union instead, totalitarianism’s emphasis on an all-intrusive dictatorship, and not economics, struggled to explain the timing, and thereby the causes and implications, of fascism’s rise.
And it is this factor of historical timing that provides the greatest indication of what fascism in fact is. As Karl Polanyi noted in The Great Transformation:
In reality, the part played by fascism was determined by one factor: the condition of the market system. During the period 1917-23 governments occasionally sought fascist help to restore law and order: no more was needed to set the market system going. Fascism remained undeveloped. In the period 1924-29, when the restoration of the market system seemed ensured, fascism faded out as a political force altogether. After 1930 market economy was in a general crisis. Within a few years fascism was a world power.
That is, as Marxist historians of fascism have long argued, fascism at its essence is an outcome of capitalism in crisis. The quintessential counterrevolutionary movement, fascism responds to capitalism’s invariable crises by redirecting potentially revolutionary threats to capitalism to nationalist, (relatedly) racist (or within Europe’s right today, “culturalist”), and militarist violence that preserves the basic material conditions of class society. However, unable or uninterested in merely returning to what existed before, the defense of private property and profit amidst capitalist crisis frequently entails imperialist expansion abroad and the racially (or “culturally”) justified appropriation of wealth at home, as the maintenance of a status quo in crisis perforce requires its own radicalization.
In this regard, the Nazis’ rise is emblematic. Although Weimar Germany experienced recurrent crises throughout much of the 1920s – from the punitive Versailles Treaty to the failed Munich Soviet to the Beer Hall Putsch and hyperinflation – the Nazis did not escape electoral irrelevance until the global economic collapse of 1929.
While Henry Ashby Turner Jr. argues that big business was not responsible for installing Hitler into power, Turner nonetheless notes that Weimar’s system of social programs (Socialpolitik) had “despite employers’ objections, expanded through the 1920s…. (And in) the virtually unanimous opinion of the country’s capitalists, the burgeoning Socialpolitik of the Republic amounted to a burdensome, even, crippling, intrusion of state power into economic affairs that contravened all sound principles and imperiled the country’s recovery.”
Complaining that their profits were being “confiscated” due to the intractable political power of Germany’s unions, big business threatened to stop investing altogether unless the government, increasingly impotent amidst the intensifying crisis, weakened labor’s hand. Indeed, late Weimar was characterized by vicious street-fighting between communists and fascists, united in their shared hatred of the collapsing center but attempting to resolve the crisis in diametrically opposed ways. Notably, only the former were aggressively persecuted by the state, as state leaders, Junkers, and industrialists increasingly understood that only the fascists did not fundamentally threaten the capitalist order but could in fact be used to preserve it (albeit not always on the old guard’s terms) via fascism’s mass appeal. While the Comintern’s description of Hitler as the mere “puppet” of capital has been long rejected as a crude oversimplification, Turner notes that Franz von Papen, the principal politician in orchestrating Hitler’s appointment, indeed “had come to enjoy the virtually unanimous and enthusiastic support of big business.”
And whereas some observers were misled by the inclusion of “Socialist” in the Nazi moniker, this only reflected a cynical device to attract members of the massive German left – that is, those rejecting capitalism and nationalism (whatever sincere anti-capitalist Nazis there were would be eliminated by the 1934 “Night of the Long Knives”). Indeed, the combined Socialist and Communist (SPD/KPD) vote surpassed the Nazi vote in 1932, and as the Nazi vote declined in the November 1932 election it appeared to most observers that Hitler had missed his opening.
It was here, in January 1933, that Hitler was finally appointed chancellor, whereupon he immediately banned independent unions, froze wages, sent socialists and communists to concentration camps, and resolved the ongoing business-labor arbitration crisis to the exclusive benefit of business. Resolving Germany’s domestic capitalist crisis by weakening labor, confiscating wealth, and destroying obstacles to accumulation while replacing class consciousness with national-racial consciousness, the Nazis’ driving geopolitical aim was the destruction of the “Judeobolshevist” Soviet Union. And the Nazis indeed ultimately murdered over 20 million Soviets, including 3.3 million out of 5.7 million POWs, destroyed 70,000 villages, 30,000 factories, and the USSR’s 20 largest cities in what Arno Mayer describes as a “crusade.”
To be sure, Europe is different today from what it had been in the 1930s. Not least, there is no powerful organized opposition to capitalism, let alone a perceived communist alternative governing the biggest country in the world. While counterrevolutionary movements, as Corey Robin hasnoted, often despise the ruling regime – which they decry as decadent and inept – as much as they fear revolution, a ruling regime is unlikely to employ fascism – which has little regard for the rule of law – as a bulwark to revolution if there is no revolution at hand.
Notwithstanding Polanyi’s description of how fascism waited in the wings during periods of market stability, growing fascist movements today will likely wait in the economically depressed wings (Svoboda occupies eight percent of Parliament, while Golden Dawn occupies six percent of Greece’s Parliament, not mentioning the movements in Hungary, Austria, France, and the Netherlands) until they are called upon to destroy a serious political threat from the anti-capitalist left should one arise (which is not to discount the preemptive, radicalizing, and unpredictable character of the opposition to anti-capitalism).
This hardly suggests that we should spend our time fearing a fascist future that is far worse than today (whatever the future will bring, it will be natural and our own, as Raoul Vaneigem has written), but only that we should recognize that the fascism we fear tomorrow is merely the unmasked savagery of the capitalism we know today.
Joshua Sperber lives in New York City and can be reached at email@example.com