A Marxist Explanation: Historical Fascism vs. Right Populism

Opinion by Colin Mangan, HM Summer Political Journalism Intern
Photo: The Reichstag fire

This is the first installment of Colin’s column “A Marxist Explanation,” in which he illustrates modern political concepts through a lens of Marxist theory.

Today, fascism is remembered as one of the most atrocious historical developments in recent memory. The all-prevailing fear of fascism within American political life has hardly translated to significant critical examination of the essence of fascism, even by those in the political establishment who warn of an imminent fascist threat in the form of right-populist leaders such as Donald Trump (e.g. Albright 2019). Generally speaking, “right-populism” refers to a nationalist, conservative response to the increasingly visible political and socio-economic discontent of the 21st century. To be sure, right-populism (in the U.S. embodied by the base of the Republican Party) constitutes reactionary politics, and right-populists present themselves in opposition to the political class. But to consider right-populism as a political economy on par with fascism, especially in terms of their respective destructive capabilities, is a misguided comparison at best. 

Superficially, one can almost be forgiven for making such a comparison. If historical events really do appear to us as tragedy and farce, as Marx once claimed, then the rise of right-populism ought to be considered as much a farce as twentieth-century fascism was a tragedy. Right-populists (both American and European) and fascists “[cultivate] the appearance of popular politics and a revolutionary aura…while serving the same old moneyed interests,” embodied by a political language appealing to the ‘silent majority’ and the scapegoating of others for the supposed decline of the nation (Parenti 1997). In doing so, fascists work to cultivate a base among the petty bourgeoisie through exploiting that base’s fear of the prospect of being proletarianized, thus presenting themselves as being subversive to ruling class interests. In reality, the rise of fascist movements represents the growing anxiety of the power base in the face of accumulation and stagnation crises, which themselves open up possibilities for authentic popular and/or counter-hegemonic action.

Likewise, both historical fascism and right-populism developed as reactions to capitalist crises in distinctive and substantial ways. In Europe, fascism was born out of “the inability of German and Italian national capital to outcompete the national capitals of other European powers in the imperialist conquests at the turn of the 19th century” (Robinson 2018). The political development of fascist movements in the twentieth century was thus intimately bound to the historical development of the world market as it existed at the time, in which nations like Germany, Italy, Japan, and so on, risked being marginalized.

In contrast to twentieth-century fascism as the reaction of national capital, right-populism is the reaction of transnational capital in the face of neoliberalism’s political and economic discontents. It’s no secret that capitalism is prone to periodic crises, or “boom and bust” cycles, as economists call them. As Robinson discusses, these crises necessitate structural fixes in order to restabilize and reproduce the system. Of course, these “fixes” eventually pave the way for new contradictions to emerge within the system, and so the booms and busts of historical capitalism continue on. 

The most recent of these structural adjustments came in the 1970s, with the advent of neoliberalism—the near total “dismantling [of] state intervention in the market and the liberation of capital from state controls” whilst state apparatuses are mobilized in order to repress political discontent and ensure new opportunities for accumulation, either in the form of deregulation and regressive taxation domestically or through imperial expansion (notably in the Middle East). Structurally, neoliberalism’s array of strategies for accumulation includes deregulation, privatization, austerity, financial speculation, militarism, and the criminalization of marginalized communities (Robinson 2018). Neoliberalism has allowed for the upper 1% to grow fat off the profits of plunder, resulting in a historic transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top. 

In practice, right-populism provides two mechanisms in which the ruling class works to reassert its hegemonic authority in the political sphere. The first, as we have previously mentioned, is that right-populists seek to win over petty bourgeois and even semi/proletarian voters by appealing to their sense of political alienation whilst supporting the very status quo behind their alienation. The second, and more cynical, is that (at least, in the context of American politics), the vulgarities of right-populist politics allow for the existing neoliberal power bloc (in our case, the Democratic Party) to assert themselves as the only alternative to the right-populist reaction, when in fact, the opposition (i.e. the Democrats) are every bit as reactionary as right-populists.

It is within the context of neoliberalism’s nascent discontents that right-populism has emerged, exploiting the fears of America’s racialized petty bourgeoisie, who fear being next in the race to the bottom. But it would be a serious mistake to think that right-populism presents any real subversion of the neoliberal order. Rather, right-populists are every bit as loyal to the status quo as their supposed counterparts in the “political class.” If there is any distinction to be made between the two is that right-populists work to capitalize on political discontent whereas the so-called “political class” ignores such discontent entirely.

But there is an even more important contradistinction to be made between fascism and right-populism. Namely, that fascism represents “a substitution for one State form of class domination of the bourgeoisie” for another i.e. the abandonment of any pretense of democratic governance in favor of “open terrorist dictatorship” (Dimitrov 1935). 

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to define “fascism-as-such” since the development of fascist movements assumes different structural characteristics according to the conditions within a given nation at a particular juncture. Historically, fascist movements may develop either from above or below. In Japan and Spain for example, the fascist movement was nursed by reactionary factions of military officers and state bureaucrats; whereas, in Germany and Italy, fascist parties worked to build a base among the petty bourgeoisie and project the façade of mass politics. But regardless of these political specificities, the class character and political function of fascism remain the same.

In practice, historical fascism represents “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital” (Dimitrov 1935), and in the socioeconomic realm, is characterized by the suppression of the working class and those “undesirable” groups whom fascists scapegoat for the nation’s misfortunes; and imperial annexationism as means of resolving the crisis of capital production and accumulation within the nation’s borders. 

It would be a mistake to consider fascism synonymous with corporatist autocracy, as fascism refers to a specific historical form of political economy. Specifically, historical fascism emerged in the imperial core (with the exception of Japan), and once in power, fascists pursued a foreign policy of territorial conquest with the purpose of capital penetration and surplus extraction of conquered nations. It therefore becomes necessary to draw some distinction between fascist nations like Germany (1933-45) and Japan (c. 1926-45), and the autocratic regimes which existed in countries such as Greece (1967-74), Chile (1973-90), and South Korea (c. 1948-87). Although all of these regimes openly worked to maintain the interests of capital, and suppress countervailing forces, the distinction to be made is that the latter regimes all existed in the semi/periphery of the world market, and thus lacked the resources to serve as imperialists in their own right (instead the aforementioned regimes, and others like them, served as foot soldiers for Western imperial interests). Nonetheless, the politico-economic similarities these regimes share with fascist ones are worth remembering.

When scholars refer to fascism as the “dictatorship of finance capital,” they do not mean to denote anything conspiratorial. It is not as if the bankers and captains of industry conspire together in a dark room and declare among themselves “democracy no longer serves our interests, let us now initiate a fascist takeover!” Rather, historical fascism was made possible by the historical conditions it developed in, and was characterized by a degree of political spontaneity in the face of hegemonic decline. 

In Germany, for example, the fascist movement originated from below as the Nazi Party recruited from disaffected and reactionary subsections of the lumpenproletariat, petty bourgeoisie, and peasantry, and, at first used elections to legitimize themselves and build a political base (or at least project the façade of one). In the wake of the Great Depression, “most of the [German] tycoons had concluded that the Weimar Republic [i.e. the German government 1918-33]  no longer served their needs and was too accommodating to the working class” and substantially increased their donations to the Nazis. Likewise, the Nazi Sturmabteilung (aka the SA, brownshirts, and stormtroopers) was “used mostly as an antilabor paramilitary force whose function was to terrorize workers and farm laborers” (Parenti 1997). 

In socialist circles, there’s an old adage; in the face of capitalist crisis, the masses and ruling class alike face the choice between socialism or barbarism. The German bourgeoisie of the 1930s had little difficulty in this decision. During the December 1932 German election, the conservatives and social democrats alike stood behind the incumbent President Paul von Hindenburg, despite Hindenburg’s passivity towards the Nazis and his willingness to cooperate with them as means of containing the German Communist Party and maintaining conservative influence on the government. The tragedy of the twentieth century shows that the ruling class, in any given nation, will always choose barbarism so long as it suits their interests. The fascist ascendancy to power was thus ultimately made possible by the passivity of the ruling body politik. 

Historically, the passivity and fecklessness of the ruling class are mediated through a crisis, which either real or manufactured, is exploited by the fascists as a pretense for the takeover of state power. In 1933 for example, a fire broke out in the Reichstag (German parliament) building, and the Nazi leadership immediately exploited the incident for political gain (claiming the attack as part of a larger communist conspiracy). Following the fire, Hitler convinced President Hindenberg to suspend most civil liberties, and the Nazis used further coercive measures to pass the Enabling Acts, giving the German Cabinet (and by extension Hitler himself) dictatorial powers. 

It seems fitting to conclude with the classic rhetorical question posed by Sinclair Lewis: can it happen here? Of course, the question itself is somewhat misleading, as it seeks to transpose a 20th century phenomenon (made possible by very specific developments within the world market) into the 21st century, in a time where the power of national capital has been usurped by that of transnational capital. It seems unlikely that a band of armed blackshirts will be taking the reins of state power anytime soon. Nonetheless, late capitalism’s increasingly visible tendency towards militarized accumulation, and the complicity of both neoliberal technocrats and right-populists in enforcing said tendency, makes the possibility of an increasingly autocratic and repressive politics all too real. Capitalist stagnation in the 21st century may well provide opportunities for such hypothetical regimes to emerge, and if they do, the world must again choose between socialism or barbarism, whatever form either may take.

Colin Mangan is a senior sociology and philosophy major and is currently enrolled in the philosophy 4+1 program, on track to graduate in Spring 2023 with a BA and an MA. He is currently the host of Straight Talk on WHRW Binghamton on Thursdays at 5:30. His wide array of interests includes the study of capitalism as a world-ecology, and he is also a passionate student of Marxist, Leninist, and anti-imperialist theory. After his master’s degree, Colin aspires to pursue a PhD in sociology, focused around historical capitalism and the world-ecology conversation. Colin also has dual Irish citizenship.


Albright, Madeleine. 2019. Fascism: A Warning. London, UK: HarperCollins UK.

Dimitrov, Georgi. 1935. Working Class Unity-Bulwark against Fascism: The Fascist Offensive and the Tasks of the Communist International in the Fight for the Unity of the Working Class against Fascism. New York, NY: Workers Library Publishers.

Parenti, Michael. 1997. Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books.

Robinson, William I. 2019. “Global Capitalist Crisis and Twenty-First Century Fascism: Beyond the Trump Hype.” Science & Society, 83(2), 155–183. doi.org/10.1521/siso.2019.83.2.155