Home > political-economy > Like What, Exactly? Part Two: Fascism, or the state as the direct exploiter of labor

Like What, Exactly? Part Two: Fascism, or the state as the direct exploiter of labor

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Part Two: Fascism, or the state as the direct exploiter of labor

One of the recurrent comments to my writing is the statement, in one form or another, that my use of the terms “the fascist state” is off-putting to the average reader — which is to say, the commenter thinks I am engaging in needless hyperbole. However, the question, “Like what, exactly?”, can only be answered if we have a common set of assumptions regarding the social context within which we are acting. One of those assumptions is a common definition of fascism and why the existing state can only be understood as entirely fascistic.

The ‘Wag the Dog’ model of fascism

I have been reading up on various Marxist definitions of fascism in light of Engels argument from Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. One thing stands out: none of the historical essays give any account of Engels’ argument that the state must become increasingly critical to the normal functioning of national capitals. Basically, Marxists in the early 1920s and 1930s (and those who employ these materials today) are trying to account for this movement without grasping why the state becomes necessary to the functioning of capital. Each attempt — Trotsky, the Comintern, etc. — poses the problem in political terms of class conflict, with Trotsky’s argument being an obvious expression of pure and simple parliamentarism:

“The economically powerful big bourgeoisie, in itself, represents an infinitesimal minority of the nation. To enforce its domination, it must ensure a definite mutual relationship with the petty bourgeoisie and, through its mediation, with the proletariat.”

Dimitrov’s 1933 report to the Comintern has much of the same flavor when, quoting Stalin, he argues:

The victory of fascism in Germany, Comrade Stalin said at the Seventeenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [January–February 1934]:

‘must be regarded not only as a symptom of the weakness of the working class and as a result of the betrayal of the working class by social-democracy, which paved the way for fascism; it must also be regarded as a symptom of the weakness of the bourgeoisie, as a symptom of the fact that the bourgeoisie is already unable to rule by the old methods of parliamentarism and bourgeois democracy, and, as a consequence, is compelled in its home policy to resort to terroristic methods of administration —it must be taken as a symptom of the fact that it is no longer able to find a way out of the present situation on the basis of a peaceful foreign policy, as a consequence of which it is compelled to resort to a policy of war.’”

Antonio Gramsci also directs our attention toward the incompatibility of a growing proletarian majority with the economic rule of a tiny minority:

It became clear after the War that it was impossible for the Italian bourgeoisie to go on ruling with a democratic system. Yet before the War, Italian democracy had already been a fairly singular system. It was a system which knew neither economic freedom nor substantial political freedoms; which strove through corruption and violence to prevent any free development of new forces, whether they committed themselves in advance to the existing framework of the State or not; and which restricted the ruling class to a minority incapable of maintaining its position without the active assistance of the policeman and the carabiniere. In the Italian democratic system, before the War, each year several dozen workers fell in the streets; and peasants were sent to pick grapes in some places with muzzles on, for fear they might taste the fruit. Democracy, for the peasants and workers, consisted only in the fact that at the base they had the possibility of creating a network of organizations and developing these, strand by strand, to the point where they included the majority of decisive elements of the working class. Even this very simple fact implied a death-sentence for the democratic system. The post-war crisis made it explicit.

The existence and development of a class organization of the workers create a state of affairs which cannot be remedied, either through the State violence which every democratic order permits itself, or with a systematic use of the method of political corruption of leaders. This could be seen in Italy after the first elections held under universal suffrage and with proportional representation. 117 After these, the democratic bourgeoisie felt impotent to solve the problem of how to prevent power slipping from its grasp. Despite the wishes of the leaders, and notwithstanding the absence of conscious guidance, the workers’ movement could not fail to advance and achieve decisive developments.

Even today, the most interesting feature of the discussion of fascism post-WWII is that fascism is defined politically as before, but not only this: it is defined as an essentially marginal movement of proto-fascist militant organizations. For example, Evan Smith writes,

“In my own writing, I use the term ‘fascist far right’ to encompass the various post-war fascist groupings in Britain, but also see the worthiness of using the terms ‘the radical right’ or ‘right-wing extremism’, particularly to describe groups which may not fit squarely within the popular usage of the term ‘fascist’ and have other right-wing historical origins”

In contemporary Marxist analysis, if before WWII fascism posed a threat because it was a rising political force, after WWII it is a threat only because it is a potential mass movement waiting in the wings — a potential political weapon to be employed by the capitalist class. Interestingly enough, not a single author I have read employs Engels own writings in the 1880s as the basis for analyzing fascism. I think this is one of the biggest theoretical mistakes by Marxists of the 20th century.

The Marxist theory of fascism could be called the “Wag the Dog” theory of fascism: the source of fascism is not to be found in the state itself, but in the possibility a marginal gang of right-wingers may capture state power.

The historical origins of fascism

One of the best arguments on the origins of fascism can be found in Kevin Carson’s, “AUSTRIAN AND MARXIST THEORIES OF MONOPOLY-CAPITAL”. While Carson is not a Marxist, and his intention is not to define fascism, he employs the arguments of the two divergent schools to explain how the fascist state was the necessary consequence of practical needs arising out of capitalism’s own development. Once Engels argument in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, is interpreted in light of Carson’s argument the riddle of fascism is solved. Carson writes:

“Although the state capitalism of the twentieth century… had its roots in the mid-nineteenth century, it received great impetus as an elite ideology during the depression of the 1890s. From that time on, the problems of overproduction and surplus capital, the danger of domestic class warfare, and the need for the state to solve them, figured large in the perception of the corporate elite.”

Compare Carson’s argument with Engels’ own argument in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:

“[The] modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit.”

So let’s do a thought experiment: suppose for a moment Engels and Carson are correct that the state’s increasing involvement in the economy is driven, in the words of Carson, by “the problems of overproduction and surplus capital, the danger of domestic class warfare, and the need for the state to solve them…”

Would this not account for the growth of financial capital, imperialist redivision of the world market, and attacks on the organizations of the working class? The growth of financial capital is simply the growth of capital that Marx describes as “a plethora which places capitals incapable of action on their own at the disposal of the managers of large enterprises in the form of credit.”

Would it not account for what Marx described as capital that is sent abroad “because it can be employed at a higher rate of profit in a foreign country.” Would it not already account for wars of redivision since for these national capitals, “A portion of the old capital has to lie unused under all circumstances; it has to give up its characteristic quality as capital, so far as acting as such and producing value is concerned. The competitive struggle would decide what part of it would be particularly affected.”

In other words, given Engels’ and Carson’s argument, would not these nation states not begin to act more and more like national capitalists, i.e., capitals organized along national lines and every bit as competitive and expansionistic as “normal” capitals? And since each is only a capital organized along national lines, would not this fact already explain the hostility with which these states treated the organizations of the working class?

The Marxist apology for the bourgeois state

So, what does any of these special explanations of fascism offer that is not already accounted for by Engels and Carson?

I’m glad you asked that question.

There is, in fact, something offered by these special explanations of fascism you will not find in Engels or Carson: Neither Engels nor Carson would ever tell you the fascist state can be salvaged in any form or function in the cause of social emancipation. The entire point of these special theories is to explain why, despite the history of the bourgeois state, and the fundamental assumptions of the materialist conception of history, the state can and must be employed by the working class for its emancipation. Marxist theories of fascism are in fact apologies for the bourgeois state — for the fascist state itself.

The recurrent theme of Marxist analyses of fascism is its special emphasis on its reactionary violent and racist character. Renton tells us: “First, fascism is a reactionary ideology.”; the Comintern explains fascism is, “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital”. Marxists also seem to like to emphasize terror, which seems to exaggerate the special significance of fascism. Trotsky is almost ridiculously over the top in this regard:

“The bourgeoisie is leading its society to complete bankruptcy. It is capable of assuring the people neither bread nor peace. This is precisely why it cannot any longer tolerate the democratic order. It is forced to smash the workers and peasants by the use of physical violence. The discontent of the workers and peasants, however, cannot be brought to an end by the police alone. Moreover, if it often impossible to make the army march against the people. It begins by disintegrating and ends with the passage of a large section of the soldiers over to the people’s side. That is why finance capital is obliged to create special armed bands, trained to fight the workers just as certain breeds of dog are trained to hunt game. The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.”

This sort of nonsense was written by the imbecile Trotsky on the eve of World War II, when workers in uniform from every country would not only “march against the people” of every country but would march to their own slaughter by the millions singing patriotic songs. But he is not far ahead of the Comintern:

“The most reactionary variety of fascism is the German type of fascism. It has the effrontery to call itself National-Socialism, though it has nothing in common with socialism. Hitler fascism is not only bourgeois nationalism, it is bestial chauvinism. It is a government system of political gangsterism, a system of provocation and torture practiced upon the working class and the revolutionary elements of the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia. It is mediaeval barbarity and bestiality, it is unbridled aggression in relation to other nations and countries.”

Interestingly enough, despite this emphasis on barbarity, bestial chauvinism and so forth, the US and Britain, and most English speaking countries would not miss even one election during this period, although these nations were dominated by the very same finance capital as dominated Germany and Italy. The emphasis on reaction, on violence and terror, and on the collapse of parliamentary democracy in a handful of nations was generalized to become the definition of fascism, missing Engels’ argument entirely. And this redefinition is key, because Engels clearly had another opinion of what would become fascism. The state would have to take over the total national capital, and this taking over had a significance never addressed by Marxists.

According to Engels:

“I say ‘have to’. For only when the means of production and distribution have actually outgrown the form of management by joint-stock companies, and when, therefore, the taking them over by the State has become economically inevitable, only then — even if it is the State of today that effects this — is there an economic advance, the attainment of another step preliminary to the taking over of all productive forces by society itself.”

For Engels, the rise of fascism was not a reactionary event, but constituted an advance in the capitalist mode of production. And why was this? Why would Engels come to this astonishingly different conclusion than the whole of 20th century Marxism? Because, as he stated:

“This rebellion of the productive forces, as they grow more and more powerful, against their quality as capital, this stronger and stronger command that their social character shall be recognized, forces the capital class itself to treat them more and more as social productive forces, so far as this is possible under capitalist conditions.”

The more capitalism socialized the productive forces of society, the more it was compelled — even over the objections of the members of that class — to treat these productive forces as social. The distinction here is key not just to understanding what happened in Germany, Italy etc. during the inter-war period, but because it also demonstrates the essential nature of the regimes that emerged in the English speaking countries as well — which fucking Marxist continue to describe as some sort of social compromise between classes imposed by the “social state”. The Keynesian “social state” (a term employed by Marxists like David Harvey) differed from the German Nazi state only in the degree of theoretical development of the working class in the latter country exceeded the development of the working classes in the former. The higher theoretical development of German and Italian workers made the state’s emergence as national capitalist more brutal and terroristic than in Britain and the US, but it did not in the least alter the nature of this same process in Britain and the US.

The interest of capital versus the interest of the capitalist

The arguments of the various Marxists writers emphasize the problem of capitalist rule in the context of the democratic state. What they all neglect is that the problem posed by democracy to capital’s rule during this period is “complicated” by the fact that capital itself is increasingly dependent on this very democratic state to “support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists.” This was a conflict laying at the heart of the democratic state — one that had to be resolved as capital encountered absolute overaccumulation and breakdown in the Great Depression.

The question is could this conflict be resolved simply by overthrowing the democratic state or by smashing the organizations of the working class? The experience of Italy, Germany, Japan and a host of lesser states suggests the answer was no. It is important to note that in Engels argument the fascist state emerges not only in direct antagonism to the working class, but also to the capitalist class. The historical materialist argument on class is far subtler than is generally understood and is not identical with a collection of like types. In the German Ideology, for instance, Marx states,

“Individuals have always built on themselves, but naturally on themselves within their given historical conditions and relationships, not on the “pure” individual in the sense of the ideologists. But in the course of historical evolution, and precisely through the inevitable fact that within the division of labour social relationships take on an independent existence, there appears a division within the life of each individual, insofar as it is personal and insofar as it is determined by some branch of labour and the conditions pertaining to it. (We do not mean it to be understood from this that, for example, the rentier, the capitalist, etc. cease to be persons; but their personality is conditioned and determined by quite definite class relationships, and the division appears only in their opposition to another class and, for themselves, only when they go bankrupt.) In the estate (and even more in the tribe) this is as yet concealed: for instance, a nobleman always remains a nobleman, a commoner always a commoner, apart from his other relationships, a quality inseparable from his individuality. The division between the personal and the class individual, the accidental nature of the conditions of life for the individual, appears only with the emergence of the class, which is itself a product of the bourgeoisie.”

The conditions of the capitalist class confront each member of this class no less than it confronts the working class as a whole. It follows from this that the emergence of the fascist state appears in some sense as the emergence of a distinction between the interests of the various individual members of the capitalist class and the interests of the class as a whole. The fascist state is not by any means the collective class organized as the state, but of the “interests” (i.e., the material conditions) of this class confronting the whole of society — including the capitalist class itself — as an independent social force. What appears in the Marxist narrative as the history of a social compromise between classes (the “social” state), is, in reality, the assertion of the interests of the total national capital against society as a whole.

The accelerated historical trajectory of fascism versus “normal” capitalism

I am not sure how to put this idea, but think about this: Trotsky writes:

“The genuine basis (for fascism) is the petty bourgeoisie. In Italy, it has a very large base — the petty bourgeoisie of the towns and cities, and the peasantry. In Germany, likewise, there is a large base for fascism….”

Now think about this. If fascism is a political expression of capitalist mode of production, what classes are least likely to benefits from the rise of the fascist state? And which class was most likely to generally expand and flourish under the “untrammeled” rule of the capitalist class? The answer to the first question is obviously the very petty bourgeois elements that Trotsky argues was the “genuine basis for fascism”. The answer to the second question is the very class that is assumed to be the target of fascism in the Marxist argument: the working class. The class most likely to “benefit” from “untrammeled” capitalist rule was the working class, because it had to increase demographically and in political strength as fascism accelerated the demise of the propertied classes. In fact, the working class must increase while not only the petty property owners are wiped out, but even while the capitalist class is wiped out.

The Marxist argument on fascism is fatally flawed and has always been fatally flawed — from the very beginning: The small producers may have flocked to fascist parties, but historically speaking this only accelerated their conversion into proletarians.

This is a dicey argument to make to Marxists who can think only in political terms, but the class most likely to “benefit” from fascism was not the capitalist nor the petty property owner; it is the working class and always was this class. Think of it this way: Capital is always trying to throw off labor, but can only throw off labor by increasing its numbers and social weight. The tension cited by Trotsky between the class (economic) logic of fascism and its mass base is revealing. The base was in large part drawn from the ranks of the small producers, but the logic of the movement was entirely capitalistic. Essentially, the small producers were being drawn into a movement that only accelerated their conversion to proletarians. They turned to the fascists to save them, but the fascist represented the interests of big capital.

The situation recalls Engels’ previously cited argument in 1894:

“These people belong to the anti-Semites. Let them go to the anti-Semites and obtain from the latter the promise to salvage their small enterprises. Once they learn there what these glittering phrases really amount to, and what melodies are fiddled down from the anti-Semitic heavens, they will realize in ever-increasing measure that we who promise less and look for salvation in entirely different quarters are after all more reliable people.”

Trotsky’s argument was based on election returns in Germany and Italy, not the broad view of the historical process. The logic of fascism was to accelerate process of separating the conditions of production from the small producers to turn them into proletarians and thus increase the mass and power of the working class. Historically speaking, fascism only sped up the demise of capitalism.

What is never acknowledged by Marxist, however, is that Keynesian policies had the same historical results as Nazism, which explains why the much more developed workers of Italy and Germany fought them so relentlessly but — and this is the point — the workers of the US and UK did not fight the same fascist policies and to this day the same policies are seen as a social compromise between classes. Historically speaking fascism only accelerated the process already underway by capitalism, which means support for Keynesianism in the US was the same as support of fascism in Italy. The point doesn’t change how we should view Italian fascism, but it reveals the logic of the American Keynesianism. The question is not why Italian fascism was met by the working class resistance there, but why Keynesian policies were not.

Fascism, or the state as direct exploiter of labor power

People keep on looking for special explanations in Germany and Italy, when the real question is why there was no resistance to fascism in the US and UK to the same fascist policies? My starting point is that we are dealing with the fascist state, a state that now functions as the national capitalist. By this I do not mean a state that functions on behalf of capital, nor do I mean a state that functions in alliance or conspiracy with capital — I mean a state that is itself the national capitalist in the same sense Engels discusses in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific: a state that displaces the existing capitalist class and renders this class entirely superfluous to the mode of production, assuming in the place of this class all the functions of capitalist, i.e., the direct exploiter of labor power on national level and within the world market.

The discussion of fascism is always framed by Marxists in term of the resistance of the working class and the brutal response to this resistance in Germany and Italy and not by the historical process driving the assumption by the state of the functions of the national capitalist. To repeat: Fascism is not the state acting on behalf of the capitalists; it is not the state in partnership with the capitalist class; nor it is not the state “fusing” with the capitalist class. Fascism is the state rendering the capitalist class as a whole entirely superfluous, reducing this class to a superfluous mass. Fascism is the state itself assuming the role of national capitalist, the direct exploiter of labor power on its own behalf.

If this appears historically as the state acting against the capitalist class, as dumb Marxists argue, it is only because the state drives them all out — expropriates them entirely — and replaces them with its own direct exploitation. Fascism as the untrammeled rule of capital is the untrammeled rule of the state, the untrammeled rule of capital in the form of the state. The brutality with which this process was completed in Germany and Italy has always been identified with fascism, but this violent event is no more fascism than the enclosures in England was capitalism.

Only on this basis can Kurz’s argument — that the totality of existing economic and political relations, that labor itself and a society founded on labor must be broken — be understood. Social emancipation requires not just the breaking of the existing state, but the whole of economic relations now bound up with the state.

The problem for Marxists is obvious: They cannot get rid of the existing economic structure of society without getting rid of the state. Rather than recognizing this and undertaking the task they engage in pretzel logic whereby elements of the existing state can be salvaged. For instance, they argue Social Security or some allegedly necessary social program can be salvaged; but never explain how this can happen without also “salvaging” money and wages. However both money and wages presuppose the existence of commodity production and exchange, the division of labor, and the state. The continued existence of the state presuppose the production of surplus value and, therefore, exploitation of labor power. Their argument runs into a dead end and, finally, they must admit, in the words of that idiot Kliman,

“I am painfully aware that these reflections are not yet an answer to the ‘Like what, exactly?’ question.”

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  1. Simon
    January 13, 2013 at 9:00 pm | #1

    Your argument is pure idiotic economic reductionism. Just by identifying similarities between how a fascist state organises its economy and similar interventionist/war economies doesn’t automatically qualify the latter as fascist. It completely misses the key points of how all working class organisations, and bourgeois liberalism in the process, were able to be completely destroyed (or incapacitated) following the rise of a fascist state, especially in the historical context of the revolutionary/prerevolutionary social crisises that the rise of the fascist state resolved. That these crisises were resolved by the total defeat of working class organisations stands in complete contrast to the non-fascist states who managed to secure more or less compromise (Such as the New Deal). By completely ignoring these pivotal political, and consequently economic differences (results of the destruction of social-democracy and trade unions in the fascist states), this article makes a mockery of marxist analysis, seeking to reduce fundamentally different political responses to a severe crisis that had enormous impact on their respective workers’ movements to a general economic trend. By extensively quoting Engels you achieve nothing in analysing a specific political movement, merely taking notes on the trajectory of capitalist/state organisation as the root of a specific political movement that had not even emerged in his time. The fact that fascist states intervened in the economy in particular ways (though not all, least of all concerning trade unions) that were similar to every other interventionist economy, or even the war economies of the first world war, does not warrant at all the intellectually lazy method of blanketing the term ‘fascist’, with all its implications of the destruction of liberal democracy and workers’ organisations, on every one of these countries. This article is consequently useless in helping form a marxist answer to the threat of fascist movements today, and what they would mean for working class organisations were they to come to power.

    • January 14, 2013 at 5:08 pm | #2

      Okay, I guess you don’t like this post on the essential economic identity between Nazi and American forms of the fascist state. I want to be clear about your core argument so let me restate it and address the points you make. You argue:

      “The fact that fascist states intervened in the economy in particular ways (though not all, least of all concerning trade unions) that were similar to every other interventionist economy, or even the war economies of the first world war, does not warrant at all the intellectually lazy method of blanketing the term ‘fascist’, with all its implications of the destruction of liberal democracy and workers’ organisations, on every one of these countries.”

      And you add:

      “This article is consequently useless in helping form a marxist answer to the threat of fascist movements today, and what they would mean for working class organisations were they to come to power.”

      Essentially you seem to be arguing that the increasing state intervention in the operation of the capitalist mode of production should not alter our understanding politics and the state. So, according to you, my post,

      “makes a mockery of marxist analysis, [by] seeking to reduce fundamentally different political responses to a severe crisis…”

      I think you make a good point here, but I am afraid it is not the one you intended. You are absolutely correct that I,

      “reduce fundamentally different political responses to a severe crisis”.

      Which is to say, I abstract from these political responses to focus on the actual changes in the underlying economic processes of society. I completely agree with you that fascism has implications for,

      “the destruction of liberal democracy and workers’ organisations…”

      The fascist state cannot become the national capitalist without immediately transforming the sum of political relations between classes. It is one thing for the working class to contend with the capitalists for control of the state; quite another for the working class to choose every four years who will be the CEO of what is essentially a massive capitalist firm or ganized as a state power. On the other hand, it is not true that fascism “had not even emerged” in Engels time — actually it is traced by scholars to the 1880s.

      If you think I am making this up can consult the references cited by Wikipedia on this issue. Of course, this is the same time as populism — the distinctly American variant of fascism — also arose in the U.S. Marxists, however, want to treat fascism as some that sprung full form from society in the aftermath of the Great War in Germany and Italy.

      Most interesting, however, is your statement that I just identify

      “similarities between how a fascist state organises its economy and similar interventionist/war economies…”

      This, you argue, does not qualify the latter as fascistic, because,

      “It completely misses the key points of how all working class organisations, and bourgeois liberalism in the process, were able to be completely destroyed (or incapacitated) following the rise of a fascist state, especially in the historical context of the revolutionary/prerevolutionary social crisises that the rise of the fascist state resolved.”

      What you are basically saying is that I should focus on the political conflict between classes and privilege this political struggle over how various states began to organize their respective national economy. The problem with this argument is that the political struggle was precisely over how, given this crisis, these various national economies would be organized.

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