Sweezy on the rise of fascism Posted Feb 20, 2019 by Fabian Van Onzen
In recent times, fascist movements have emerged around the world. They have mobilized thousands of people around racist, reactionary ideas, and in some cases have directly won political power. The most recent fascist victory was in Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro won the presidential election. Besides Brazil, fascist politics have taken hold in the United States, Britain, Hungary, Poland, and other parts of Europe. To make sense of contemporary fascism, new literature on the subject has proliferated, including John Bellamy Foster’s Trump in the White House, Michael Joseph Roberto’s The Coming of the American Behemoth, and Enzo Traverso’s New Faces of Fascism. Old books on fascism, such as Nicos Poulantzas’ Fascism and Dictatorship, are also being republished and studied. Although all these works should be read, Paul Sweezy’s theory of fascism in The Theory of Capitalist Development remains the best place to begin a study of fascism. In clear and accessible language, Sweezy’s analysis explains what fascism is, how it comes to power, and its class dynamics.
Sweezy wrote the Theory of Capitalist Development in 1943, when fascism was in power in Germany and Italy. The book was designed to explain the basic principles of Marxism in accessible language, while retaining its theoretical complexity. Sweezy was in the United States when he wrote it and its audience was primarily those who had participated in popular front organizations against fascism. This was a mass movement led by communists to defend democratic institutions and prevent fascism from coming to power. Sweezy’s account shares some of the same principles put forward by Georgi Dimitrov and R. Palme Dutt, two major Marxist theorists on fascism. At the same time, Sweezy developed his own unique theory of fascism, which connects the emergence of fascism to the development of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. To demonstrate how Sweezy builds on existing theories of fascism while further elaborating them, I will begin by briefly discussing the main Marxist theories of fascism that existed at the time.
Georgi Dimitrov on Fascism
One of the primary theorists of fascism in the thirties was Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian communist who served as secretary of the World Committee Against War and Fascism. While he was in Berlin in 1933, he was arrested by the Nazis, who falsely claimed he had helped set the Reichstag on fire. Dimitrov had assigned counsel present at the trial but insisted that he would be his own counsel, which German procedure permitted at that time. He was acquitted of the false charges the fascists brought against him. At the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International, Dimitrov gave a speech about the rise of fascism and how the working class can fight it. This speech is important because it contains not just the Comintern’s main theoretical positions on fascism, but also important self-criticism on its previous positions. In this speech, Dimitrov defines fascism as “as the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital.” Fascism is identified by Dimitrov as having its ideological origins in the middle class (that is, the petty bourgeoisie), but only becomes dominant by receiving political support from the capitalist class.
According to Dimitrov, a defining feature of fascism is its large mass base, which actively carries out the reactionary policies of a fascist government and consolidates its power. This mass base is composed primarily of the middle class/petty bourgeoisie, which includes small shop owners, peasants, small-time merchants, and some professionals. During an economic crisis, the middle class is most devastated, often going bankrupt and joining the ranks of the working class.
According to Dimitrov, the middle class are the ideological representatives of fascism in its early stage, blaming the economic crisis on national minorities, trade unionists, and communists. Lacking the class solidarity of the working class, the middle class develops fierce nationalism and racist views, demanding a strong state to resolve the contradictions of capitalism.
Fascism only becomes a real danger in society when the capitalist class actively supports it and provides it with financial assistance. Because fascism generally creates political instability, the capitalist class will only resort to it during an economic and political crisis. Dimitrov identifies three major reasons why the capitalist class would support fascism and bring it to power. First, there must be a strong working-class movement, which significantly challenges the rule of capital over labor. In the thirties, the Communist Party of Germany was a major political force, winning millions of votes and having tremendous influence in German trade unions. To counteract the influence of communists, the capitalist class will support fascists and help make fascism a hegemonic political trend. Second, Dimitrov points out that there must be a serious economic crisis, which makes the continued existence of capitalism itself unlikely. Although fascism has never eliminated the contradictions of capitalism, the bourgeoisie perceives a strong fascist state as a temporary solution to an economic crisis. Third, Dimitrov demonstrates that fascism will generally only receive support from the bourgeoisie when there is a political crisis. Such a crisis involves the inability of the capitalist class to come to any agreement, making democracy itself insufficient for the bourgeoisie to rule.
For Dimitrov, fascism does not arise overnight with the election of a fascist politician. Rather, fascism comes to power in stages, beginning with attacks on the democratic rights of working people, the imprisonment of communists and trade unionists, hostility to national minorities and immigrants, and the gradual erosion of democratic institutions. It relies on its mass supporters, mostly from the middle class but also including workers and intellectuals, to carry out these policies. Once fascism has consolidated power, it begins to build up the fascist state and engages in expansionary imperialist wars. The terrorist dictatorship of finance capital is only fully established when all opposition has been outlawed and a fascist state machinery has been completely developed.
Dimitrov points out that although a fascist like Hitler or Mussolini might get elected, their success is not inevitable. In his speech, he calls upon trade unions, communists, and social democrats to work together to fight every attack on the popular masses. He points out that when fascism receives the support of the bourgeoisie, the progressive forces must defend the basic institutions of bourgeois democracy to prevent fascism from destroying them. This was the theory of the Popular Front, a government of progressive forces that build a mass anti-fascist movement.
Sweezy on Fascism
Dimitrov’s ideas about fascism were held by most communists during Sweezy’s time. The main weakness of Dimitrov’s theory is that most of his writings are in what Louis Althusser calls a “practical state,” but lack theoretical elaboration. This is not Dimitrov’s fault, but is the result of pressure to produce theory for the practical struggle against fascism. In his Theory of Capitalist Development, Sweezy builds on Dimitrov’s theories, but gives them a more theoretically precise form. He makes an important contribution to the theory of fascism and incorporates it into the larger horizon of Marxian economics.
Sweezy adds a layer of historical analysis to the Comintern’s theory of fascism. He does this by defining it as the product of imperialism, which can only develop in the era of monopoly capitalism. Following in Vladimir Lenin’s footsteps, Sweezy views militarism and wars of redistribution as an integral part of imperialism. In the era of monopoly capitalism, the capitalist class must find a profitable outlet for their surplus capital. This capital generally does not yield a high rate of profit in the imperialist metropolises, as the workers have a higher level of trade union organization and higher wages. The solution to this problem is to export capital to the colonies, where the cost of land and labor is cheap and the rate of profit is high. This generally results in wars of redivision, in which imperialists struggle to conquer as many colonies as possible in order to secure an outlet for investment. In their later Monopoly Capital, Sweezy and Paul Baran research and discuss the specific dynamics of imperialism, coming to the conclusion that it cannot resolve the contradictions of capitalism.
Sweezy’s analysis of fascism articulates the emergence of fascism within the context of imperialism and war. After an imperialist war, some countries are economically, politically, and morally devastated. There are extreme food shortages, housing crises, high levels of unemployment, divisions in the military, and serious political crises of the bourgeoisies.
Furthermore, the defeated countries lose a significant amount of their colonial holdings, and are thereby weakened internationally. In Russia, there was a strong revolutionary movement, and a socialist revolution that addressed these contradictions. When these objective conditions do not result in a socialist revolution, Sweezy argues that a fascist movement will emerge to address the contradictions of capitalism. Instead of a new socialist state, some post-war countries in Europe developed a transitional state form that appeared ultra-democratic, with high levels of worker participation. Sweezy points out that these transitional states create a temporary class equilibrium, in which neither the working class nor the bourgeoisie play a dominant role. Although there is a strong workers’ movement that challenges the bourgeoisie, the working class does not hold state power. The trade unions and workers’ parties are able to advance significant progressive legislation, such as expanded welfare, food subsidies, and some forms of social housing. The same officials, however, continue to occupy the major departments of the capitalist state as before and there is no qualitative change in its functioning.
Such a transitional state existed in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom after the First World War. During this time, many social democrats and communists thought that such a transitional state was a necessary stage preceding the seizure of power by the working class. Sweezy argues that this was a mistake, as these transitional states actually contained a heightened level of class struggle that was hidden underneath the surface. The apparent class equilibrium was just the form taken by class contradictions and disequilibrium operative in the postwar conjuncture. Sweezy points out that the gains won by “the greatly strengthened trade unions and the enactment of social legislation under working-class pressure put burdens on capitalist production which it is ill prepared and even less willing to bear.” In the immediate postwar situation, there was temporary employment insofar as it involved massive investments in the production of the means of production.
Workers everywhere were employed to rebuild the factories, machinery, and housing that were destroyed during the war, creating an outlet to absorb the economic surplus. However, Sweezy observes that once the reconstruction was achieved, the absorption of the surplus through the sale of consumption goods became a necessity. There was increased inflation and neither the middle class nor the proletariat could afford high levels of consumption.
The countries that came out of the imperialist war with more colonies, such as France and the United Kingdom, could simply send capital abroad and find outlets for productive investment. However, in countries that lost the war, such as Germany, there was a weakened military, no colonies for capital export, and no immediate solution in the domestic market. To resolve this problem, the capitalist state tried to fund consumption through taxing the middle class—the small shop owners and businesses, independent farmers, and merchants. As postwar impoverishment prevented the middle class from saving their income, they felt attacked by these measures. Sweezy demonstrates that the middle class in the defeated countries felt alienated from the state: they were neither represented by the trade unions, nor were the bourgeois parties able to address their grievances. Furthermore, the inability to absorb the economic surplus resulted in inflation and high levels of unemployment a few years after the war. Whereas the working class could use their trade unions to make demands on the state, the middle class lacked class representation. Hence, Sweezy observes that “it is precisely these groups which are most disastrously affected during the period of class-equilibrium.”
In a similar way to Dimitrov, Dutt, and Togliatti, Sweezy argues that fascist ideology arises in the middle classes that have been devastated by an unsuccessful imperialist war. Ideologically, they lack the class solidarity of the working class and tend to identify with notions of racial superiority and a strong nation. They are extremely hostile to finance capital, the organized working class, and national minorities, which they blame for their economic devastation. The middle class imagines that the contradictions of capitalism can be resolved by a strong nationalist state. They use violence fueled by racism and nationalism to attack communists, social democrats, and trade-union leaders. Although fascism ideologically arises in the middle class, Sweezy points out that they are able to win over unorganized workers, many of whom are unemployed, do not have contact with the trade unions and lack political education. The fascists use anticapitalist language combined with racism and nationalism to explain why the unorganized and unemployed workers are impoverished. They also win over young people, who have few opportunities in the crisis-ridden postwar situation, as well as criminal elements who later form the paramilitary wing of fascist organizations. Sweezy views fascism as a mass movement led by the middle class that receives support from some workers, students, and sectors of the lumpen proletariat.
Sweezy and Dimitrov share the view that fascism becomes a serious danger when the capitalist class embraces it politically. What makes Sweezy unique is that he relates the capitalist response to fascism to the transitional period of apparent class equilibrium. He points out that in the defeated countries, the capitalist class is unable to fully respond to the demands of the workers, nor is it able to start a new imperialist war. At the same time, workers constantly make democratic demands and the capitalists are themselves encircled by hostile imperialist countries. The bourgeoisie is reserved and reluctant to support fascism, mainly because of its attacks on finance capital. However, seeing that fascism is extremely hostile to communists and trade unions, the bourgeoisie provides it with financial subsidies, supporting fascist politicians in the elections and encouraging the growth of the fascist movement. Sweezy says that once the fascists are in power, the bourgeoisie “sets out with ruthless energy to destroy the class equilibrium which underlies the indecision and paralysis of the people’s republic.”(6) It relies on its mass base to carry out its policies, such as murdering communists, arresting trade union leaders, and criminalizing workers’ organizations. According to Sweezy, once a fascist state is thoroughly established and its mass base consolidated, the imperialists use their strengthened position to wage new imperialist wars of redivision. Although a fascist state might restore the class power of the bourgeoisie, Sweezy argues that it cannot resolve the contradictions of capitalism. Capitalism can only be abolished through a socialist revolution, such as the ones that happened in Russia, Cuba, and China.
Sweezy’s Theory of Fascism Today
Both Sweezy and Dimitrov agree that fascism arises in the middle class and becomes a threat when the bourgeoisie embraces it, but Sweezy’s unique contribution is to demonstrate fascism’s relationship to the postwar transitional period of class equilibrium. This is a precise historical moment, characterized by complex class dynamics and structural contradictions specific to monopoly capital. A major question that arises is: Does Sweezy’s analysis of fascism apply only to fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain, or can it be used to make sense of fascism today? I will answer in the affirmative and briefly turn to Samir Amin to demonstrate how.
In his The Law of Worldwide Value, Amin points out that the principal contradiction in today’s capitalism is “the one that counterposes the peoples of the periphery (the proletariat and the exploited peasantry) to imperialist capital.”(7) The way this contradiction operates is through the emergence of fascist movements that are assisted by U.S. imperialism in the developing world, particularly in Latin America. In recent months we have seen the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil, perhaps the most openly fascist politician to take power in contemporary times. In other parts of Latin America, such as Chile, Venezuela, and Argentina, there has been a rise of fascist movements and paramilitary organizations, which have received assistance from the United States. In these countries, a similar situation of apparent “class equilibrium” existed over an extended period of time, articulating similar class dynamics as those described by Sweezy. Here, I would like to use Brazil to briefly demonstrate how these dynamics structure political situations around the world.
In Brazil, the Workers’ Party (PT) held power for over thirteen years and made considerable improvements in the lives of working people. As Alfredo Saad-Filho shows in Brazil: Neoliberalism Versus Democracy, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s (Lula) ascension to power was largely due to the economic devastation caused by twenty years of neoliberalism following the end of military rule. While he was president, Lula created many new institutions in Brazilian society that reduced poverty, improved literacy, increased employment, and strengthened the position of the trade unions. Although not entirely anti-imperialist, Lula helped reduce imperialist domination of the Brazilian economy and helped build many BRICS institutions. Saad-Filho discusses the class dynamics operative in Brazil during PT rule, and they are very similar to those described by Sweezy. First, the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) cogoverned Brazilian society and occupied many important functions in the state. The trade unions, which make up the bulk of PT support, exercised considerable power in Brazilian society. At the same time, some large Brazilian companies, such as Petrobras and Odebrecht, received support from the state, which created some self-sufficiency for the Brazilian domestic bourgeoisie. In order to retain its support from the Brazilian domestic bourgeoisie, neither Lula nor his successor Dilma Rousseff challenged the neoliberal institutions created by previous administrations. In this situation, the Brazilian middle class often was excluded from the state, government ministries, and did not always benefit from Lula’s policies.
Saad-Filho points out that the PT did not abolish the contradictions of capitalism from Brazilian society, which were rather intensified while Lula was in power. In Brazil, only the domestic bourgeoisie, represented by Brazilian companies such as Petrobras, were united with the PT. The other sector of the capitalist class, the comprador bourgeoisie, aligned itself with imperialism and constantly conspired against Lula and the PT. The comprador bourgeoisie used its control over the media to create scandals about corruption, which began in 2005 and resulted in the impeachment of Rousseff in 2015–16. The comprador bourgeoisie sought alignment with the middle class and blamed the PT, trade unions, and other progressive forces for all the problems of Brazilian society.(9) It was this unstable class equilibrium that spurred the fascist movement in Brazil and helped Bolsonaro get elected. In his first month in power, Bolsonaro has set out to destroy this class equilibrium by destroying institutions created by the PT, attacking indigenous people, and reestablishing the class domination of the comprador bourgeoisie. Just as with any fascist movement, he is relying on his mass base to use violence and terror to enforce his policies. Although Bolsonaro is not waging a direct war of redivision, it is engaging in expansionary practices, such as eliminating environmental protection and cutting down trees in the Amazon. He has also aligned himself with the United States in supporting a coup in Venezuela against the democratically elected president, Nicolás Maduro.
Although the historical context today is very different from when Sweezy wrote the Theory of Capitalist Development, the core of his theory of fascism is still relevant. His theory of class equilibrium was formulated in the aftermath of an imperialist war, but this does not mean such a structure only exists in a postwar situation. In the case of Brazil, it existed during the period when Lula was president and it was the result of economic devastation created by imperialist and neoliberal policies. Such an unstable class equilibrium may create improved material conditions, but unless it is fully resolved by the working class, a very dangerous political situation follows. In Brazil, the PT did not succeed in going beyond social democracy and left the basic institutions of neoliberalism intact. As a result, the comprador bourgeoisie aligned with imperialism was able to take advantage of the contradictions and successfully pushed a fascist to power. If one combines Sweezy’s analysis of fascism with his later work in Monopoly Capital, there is great theoretical potential to deepen our knowledge of fascist movements today. It is important to study Sweezy’s work in today’s turbulent times—times in which fascists have become dominant again, both in the imperialist metropolises and the peripheral nations.
John Bellamy Foster, Trump in the White House (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2017); Michael Joseph Roberto, The Coming of the American Behemoth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018); and Enzo Traverso, New Faces of Fascism (London/New York: Verso, 2019). ↩
Georgi Dimitrov, Georgi. The Fascist Offensive and the Tasks of the Communist International in the Struggle of the Working Class Against Fascism, available at http://marxists.org.↩
For discussion on the stages of fascism in the United States, see John Bellamy Foster, “Neofascism in the White House,” Monthly Review 68, no. 11 (April 2017): 1–30.↩
Paul M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1942), 331.↩
Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, 333.↩
Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, 334–35.↩
Samir Amin, Modern Imperialism, Monopoly Finance Capital, and Marx’s Law of Value (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018), 92.↩
Alfredo Saad-Filho, Brazil: Neoliberalism Versus Democracy (London: Pluto, 2017).↩
See Anthony Pahnke, “The Brazilian Crisis,” Monthly Review 68, no. 9 (February 2017): 43–54.↩ Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966).↩
Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966).