Reviewed by Lee Gloster
August 2, 2023
Fascism and Social Revolution: A Study of the Economics & Politics of the Extreme Stages of Capitalism in Decay by R. Palme Dutt. (Second edition, November 1934, reprinted by Red Star Publishers, P.O. Box 1641, Manhattanville Station, New York, NY 10027 $11.00.)
Fascism and Social Revolution is an important, eye-opening, genuine classic of Marxism -Leninism. Long forgotten – sometimes deliberately so – it was for its time a most valuable guidepost of the world Communist movement.
Its author, Rajani Palme Dutt, was probably the most prominent theorist of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He was born of an Anglo-Indian father, and a Swedish mother. (the “Palme” in his name denotes that he was first cousin, once removed, to assassinated Swedish premier Olaf Palme.) His first book on India was considered a masterful analysis, even by non-Communists. After being a conscientious objector in World War I, he became one of the founding members of the CPGB. He was a Communist International representative for several years to Sweden and Belgium, and from the signing of the Soviet-German Non-aggression Treaty in 1939, until after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he was the General Secretary of the CPGB, temporarily replacing Harry Pollitt. He founded the British publication, Labour Monthly, and was its editor until he died in 1974.
Fascism and Social Revolution was written more than halfway between the Sixth (1928) and the Seventh (1935) Communist International congresses. A few words on the historical context in which it was written. The general political line of the Communist International had been adopted at its Sixth Congress from July to September of 1928. This line, that of the “Third Period,” was first discussed in a February 1928 plenum of its Executive Committee. In part inspired by the refusal of the Social Democratic Party of Germany to support the renewal of the Treaty of Rapallo between Germany and the Soviet Union, the Communist understanding of the meaning of this refusal, while not mentioned, would be important to Dutt’s interpretation of social democracy throughout the book.
The Sixth Congress proposed the line of “social fascism” to characterize social democracy, and advocated the “united front from below” as a Communist strategy against fascism, although in 1934, when Dutt wrote the book, this was evolving towards acceptance of a united front from above, i.e., a party-to-party agreement. Dutt’s book accurately reflected the views of Communists at that time, including Georgy Dimitrov, hero of the Reichstag Fire trial in Germany, who would become the chief proponent of the Seventh Congress line. Dutt’s book contains prescient hints of the coming changes at the Seventh Congress. Dutt produced a meticulous exposition of social democracy’s abject reformism, and its seemingly willful rejection of basic political realism. This understanding of social democracy continued into the Popular Front period. To Dutt and Dimitrov, in the Popular Front, the Communists must act as a genuinely Marxist spine. They always saw the role of a strong, disciplined Communist party as fundamentally necessary for the Popular Front to work as envisioned.
In this review, I will discuss Dutt’s views on the economic base of the crisis that produced fascism, as well as social democratic and labour party attitudes to business and politicians’ initial attempts to deal with the crisis. I will cover Dutt’s definition of the purpose, class basis, and financing of fascism. I will comment in passing on parallels to contemporary events, but will save any elaboration for the conclusion.
Some of the most amazing aspects of Dutt’s work lay in his trenchant observations on the Great Depression and the political responses to it, and the quotations he musters could almost be a description of our current reality. For example, he comments how capitalism offers “alternative employment” in service, sales, and retail jobs. Shades of McDonalds and WalMart! At the first sign of a downturn these “new middle class” jobs disappear, and the workers are left out in the cold, again. Dutt cited the myriad of contemporary commentators calling for a solution to the crisis by raising the living standards of the workers, and had to continuously reiterate how this was impossible, as attacking the pitifully inadequate existing standards was the only way capitalism could make up its losses from the crisis. Of course, the bosses knew this, and Dutt quoted their replies that if they raised living standards, “markets would be ‘inadequate’, and the crisis would only get worse.”
Dutt quoted US President Herbert Hoover commenting in a letter that the prevention of the Bolshevik revolution spreading to Europe was the basis of postwar stabilization in Europe. He also quotes the British Director of Relief in Central Europe, that Europe was hovering on the brink of Bolshevism, and only the mass import of food and coal allowed “breaking the back of Bolshevism” in Europe, and this was before fascism was a factor outside of Italy.
Combined with the imports, there were two other methods employed to defeat revolution. One was the Euro-American intervention in the Russian civil war, and support for “white” anti-Communist) terror in Poland and Hungary. In Finland alone, between Baron Mannerheim and the German occupiers, one quarter of the Finnish working class, one of the most militant in Europe, was slaughtered. The other method was social democracy. Dutt describes how social democracy supported German capitalism with promises of concessions, nationalization and socialization, wage increases, and shorter hours. Once the runaway inflation began, virtually all these “gains” melted away. One final advantage capitalism enjoyed was a massive inflow of credits and loans from the United States.
Ruling class reactions to the world crisis went through several different phases. Social Democrats and conservatives alike began to talk about “organized capitalism.” Deeply influenced by the half-hearted fumbling of Hoover towards recovery, predictions abounded that America was going to stabilize not just itself, but world capitalism as a whole. Some went so far as to predict that the innovations of the National Recovery Administration in the US were going to converge with socialism, and supersede the “old” capitalism. When this came to nothing, capitalists and their intellectuals began to advocate for a “war economy.” Dutt quoted a statement by Lenin criticizing bourgeois economists who saw the crisis only as a mere unsettling of the economy, and those revolutionaries who expected an automatic collapse of the capitalist system. Lenin warned that the system will last, no matter how irrational it becomes, until the working class overthrows it.
Calls began to increase for actual material destruction of machinery and product, not as a kind of Luddite protest, but as a component of the “solution” to the crisis. Dutt saw this destruction as the “…most direct, elementary, and typical expression of the [then current] stage of capitalist policy.” He saw this destruction of commodities to raise prices as “…inherent not merely in capitalism, but in commodity production from the beginning.” He even cited Adam Smith’s claim that such practices were “offensive” to capitalist production. He cited Social Democrats bemoaning, but not condemning, the practice of slaughtering food animals and burning grain, practices sanctioned by Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration, while working and poor people went hungry in New York. He further cited Labour Party conferences’ praise of the early New Deal as heralding a new future. He discussed new companies formed to buy and shut down productive facilities, one company bragging that it had shut down 140 firms! (Something like the way corporate equity firms act today in their merger practices?). He noted that the Roosevelt administration was paying farmers $7.00-$20.00 per acre not to plant, and the governors of Texas and Oklahoma were using the National Guard to restrict oil production. One interesting quote was from Neville Chamberlain, later of appeasement fame, claiming that any other policy than destruction would be “absolute folly.” Dutt notes how The Economist magazine characterized scrapping productive capacity as “re-adjustment.”
Dutt continued, providing illuminating quotes from US businessmen widely admired both by British business and Labour Party leaders, dismissing political parties, and parliamentary government, calling for government to be run like a business. While the businessmen were using this to call for a “parliamentary holiday,” akin to the “bank holidays” which shut down failing banks, the Social Democratic and Labour Party leaders used it to call for “discipline, and authority” in the factory as this would, in their opinion, help preserve democratic government, and to some, even smuggle “socialist” notions and practices into statecraft! Seeing the government as a firm however, had further purposes. In a discussion of the calls for autarchy, and national self-sufficiency, Dutt deconstructed these as calls to put the whole economy of the country on a war footing, adopting many of the repressive practices of World War I government and military boards.
This in turn led to seeing war as the final solution to the problem of the Great Depression. This was not merely as a boon to the armaments industry, although Dutt showed by statistics how profoundly they prospered. “Imperialism can only function…to organize future wars…” because “War is only the continuation and working out the crisis of capitalism and of the present policies of capitalism.” Dutt saw both fascism and war as an expression of the permanent decay of capitalist society. He repeats this point continually in the book. In fact, Dutt defined fascism as “…as the most complete and consistent working out, in certain conditions of extreme decay, of the most typical tendencies and policies of modern capitalism.” He saw these policies as the “…essence and sum total” of modern capitalism even where it had not gone over to complete fascism. Dutt thought this an important distinction between Communists’ and Social Democrats’ understanding of early state responses to the economic crisis. Unlike Social Democrats, Communists did not regard these measures as fumbling, or misguided, but as initial steps in an inevitable direction. Dutt did not characterize it as an original or distinctive movement or school of thought, as did many bourgeois commentators, but as a movement that developed “…as a counterrevolutionary mass movement, supported by the bourgeoisie, employing weapons of mixed social demagoguery and terrorism to defeat the revolution, and build up a strengthened capitalist state dictatorship.”
Dutt posited a further distinction, claiming fascism could only be understood by its “…class basis, the system of class relations in which it develops and functions, and the class role it performs.” He opposed the Social Democratic view of fascism as a movement of the middle class and the petty bourgeoisie, supposedly opposing both the working class and the big bourgeoisie, much as commentators today characterize Trump’s support. To this, he contrasted the Communist view of fascism as “…a weapon of finance capital, utilizing the support of the middle class, of the slum proletariat and demoralized working-class elements against the organized working class, but throughout, acting as the instrument and effective representative of finance capital.” Dutt did not disagree that fascism often began as a movement of the petty bourgeoisie, and drew most of its mass base, from this sector, was indeed “soaked” in middle class ideology, but in no way was it an independent third force between capital and the working class.
He quotes extensively from Liberal and Social Democratic sources who would go on at great length about how fascism was a middle class “revolution.” He then proceeded to demolish this argument, pointing out the financing of fascism by the big bourgeoisie and highest levels of the military going back to before Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. He noted that Mussolini’s March on Rome was led by Italian army generals. Dutt quoted journalists who exposed foreign support for the Nazis, support that even included auto magnate Henry Ford in the United States. Dutt then went into a discussion of the complexities of the middle class and its politics. He pointed out that the increasing impoverishment of these elements was bound up with the development of monopoly, and actually constituted a real proletarianization of these strata, creating a traumatic response. The mobilization of these elements against the working class, paid for by the highest monopolists of capital, makes the difference between fascism and movements like Poujadism in France or Ross Perot’s campaign.
Along with these developments was a severe fall in the social position of professional strata, reducing engineers, for example, to mere wage-earners. Dutt noted how Social Democratic revisionists exerted great efforts to attract the votes of these strata, regarding them as a stabilizing force in politics, and the subsequent confusion regarding their actual political development. As long as reformists remained in leadership of the working-class movement, middle class elements and demoralized components of the working class will turn to reactionary movements to restore their status. (Reagan Democrats, Trump anybody?) Dutt contrasts this with a strong, Communist-led working class movement, which will sweep middle class and vacillating elements in its wake to victory.
A common view of fascism when Dutt wrote was that it was a response to the strength of the Communist movement of the day. In this view, any rocking of the ‘democratic” boat, risked democracy itself, creating its fascist counterpart. Any challenge, any struggle against the self-serving attempts to deal with the crisis, was bearding the fascist lion in its den. The working class would just have to steel itself until the crisis passed. The German Social Democrats put the anti-Communist “three arrows” symbol on their election posters, equating the Communists with Hitler and the reactionary von Papen.
There were crucial differences, as well as similarities, in how fascism came to power in Germany, Italy and Austria. In Italy, genuine revolutionary workers, who identified with the October Revolution were the main actors and leaders of the working-class movement. A post World War I strike wave turned into factory occupations. The Communist Party was only formally founded in 1921. The Socialist Party of Italy joined the Communist International, but the SPI’s leaders, while sincere in their new commitments, were woefully inadequate to the tasks of the period. They had not been trained and hardened in a new type of party. In fact, they still carried a lot of social democratic baggage. They were unable to turn the factory occupations into a successful revolution, and bourgeois democracy was totally inadequate to the task of preventing counterrevolution. Fascism was necessary to smash the workers’ forces; it was a “species of preventive counter-revolution,” as Dutt put it. “Fascism was not the weapon of defense of the bourgeoisie against the advancing proletarian offensive, but the vengeance of the bourgeoisie against the retreating proletariat after reformism had broken the workers’ ranks…”
In Germany, “The establishment of the fascist dictatorship was only the culminating step of a long process, which began already in 1918 when Ebert and Hindenburg drew up the terms of their treaty of alliance against the proletarian revolution…” from the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, to the final defeat of the original revolutionary forces in 1923. In Germany, the Deutsche Fuehrerbriefe (Executive Letters) exchanged between the highest levels of German industrialists spelled out in explicit detail in a commissioned study entitled The Social Reconsolidation of Capitalism how “The necessary condition for any reconsolidation of bourgeois rule possible in Germany after the war [was] the splitting of the workers’ movement.” Remember, this was the bosses talking! Further, the report continued, “The problem of consolidating the bourgeois regime in postwar Germany [was] generally determined by the fact that the leading bourgeoisie, who have control of the national economy, have become too small in order to uphold their rule alone. They require for this rule, if they do not want to rely on the extremely dangerous weapon of purely military force, an alliance with strata which do not belong to them socially, but which render them the indispensable service of anchoring their rule in the people, and thereby being the actual and final bearers. This last, or ‘outermost bearer’ of bourgeois rule was, in the first period of postwar consolidation, social democracy.”
This report goes on to claim that in this period, the revolutionary energies of the working class were “chained fast” to the bourgeois state. The development of the world crisis upset this arrangement, and the bosses’ study went on to describe how the crisis required all the “gains” of social democracy to be gutted, thus risking the turning of the workers to communism. Thus: “…the only possible means of saving bourgeois rule from this abyss is to effect the splitting of working class and its tying to the state apparatus by other and more direct means. Herein lies the positive possibilities and the tasks of national socialism.” Dutt characterized this report as “…[a] remarkable and clear-headed statement of the real case for fascism, as seen by its paymasters and controllers…” without any of the reactionary ideological garbage with which fascism presented itself to the public. I was familiar with the Bulletin of Executive Letters, and of the financing of national socialism by the highest executives of German monopolies from Robert Brady’s masterful The Rationalization Movement in German Industry, but in three years of studying German history, no textbook, or even liberal professor ever mentioned this specially commissioned study; I think it’s mentioned in passing in David Abraham’s The Collapse of the Weimar Republic, an academic book trashed in the US to the point of driving the author out of the field of history, but well liked in the German Democratic Republic. Dutt concludes: “The opposition to fascism thus rested throughout with the Communist Party alone.” Not strictly true; there were other active ant-fascists, but in general, this was the case in Europe.
Ninety years later, every aspect of our lives continues to be determined by the general crisis of capitalism, relieved only temporarily and partially in the first thirty years after World War II. With globalization, we have what Gus Hall once called the “shattering of production,” outsourced to an increasingly precarious proletariat in what the late Mike Davis called a “planet of slums.” The United States still produces about 22% of manufacturing, both original and endpoint of global assembly. However, the population, remains divided by homelessness, inflation and unaffordability in everyday life. Deteriorating working-class conditions are re-enforced by militarized policing of economically hyper-segregated ghettoes, despite the advances of the civil rights movement. Inequality is more advanced than ever before in human history while the planet suffers through an unprecedented ecological collapse. All of this has been exacerbated by the crisis of 2007-8, and the pandemic.
Yet the political climate, saturated by generations of anti-Communist ideology, is more backward than it was in 1934, when there was a growing Communist Party. When Dutt wrote, despite their revisionist and class collaborationist leadership, there were social democratic parties which officially claimed to be Marxist, with hundreds of thousands of genuinely socialist minded members not to speak of militant Communist Parties with thousands of members.
Today, the social democrats, having officially abandoned Marxism early in the Cold War are out of power in much of Europe; where they still cling to office, it is with the support of slap-dash “leftist” movement-type parties, as in Spain, or conservative, even hawkish Green parties as in Germany. These administrations faithfully do the bidding of their local ruling class, support its imperialist interests, and are often the most enthusiastic cheerleaders of NATO and US hegemony.
There are many good Communist Parties left after the triumph of the counter-revolutions, but they are small, with little influence in day-to-day politics. Other Communist Parties seem to be lost, looking for an electoral angle, or actively collaborating with social democrats. Whatever differences are vigorously argued about “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” China, in its conflicts with the United States, does not play a role comparable to the role that the Soviet Union played in the world movement.
The right of today still incorporates the reactionary, racist and chauvinist views of Dutt’s time, but uses computers, electronic mailing lists and online groups. It is buttressed by a fundamentalist and evangelical religiosity that has long roots in this country’s history, but which modern social media can raise to previously unknown intensities. This is part of the general irrationalism that Dutt portrayed, and that continues today and was described at length by Lukascz in The Destruction of Reason.
The climate of irrationality that pervades everything, with armed fascists parading publicly, the daily mass shootings, the influence of Libertarians and unbalanced cranks like Ayn Rand seems everywhere. Sociologically, today’s right is still mostly ocomprised of petty bourgeois elements in decline, small town businessmen and realtors, police, and the lower tier of workers. Its power is enhanced by the lopsided political power the US Constitution gives to smaller states. It is financed by an outlier network of billionaire financial groups and extractive industries. The main financial centers do not really want to move to a fascist system; why should they when they have the Democratic Party? However, all capitalist groups want the business environment produced by the collapse of liberalism and organized labor, and in this, they resemble the capitalist forces described by Dutt.
Above all, the present period is characterized negatively by the lack of a strong, militant Communist movement. The Communist Party here is in recuperation from almost being destroyed by a former chairman. I’ve already alluded to liberals and contemporary democratic socialists, many of the latter becoming more serious about socialism as the former collapse from their own contradictions. As I said at the beginning of this review, I do not think Dimitrov’s views on the United Front can be fully understood without understanding Dutt’s analysis of social democracy. Rather than a soapbox jeremiad, Dutt’s was a subtle and multilayered analysis, in which he repeatedly claimed that there were good, even revolutionary members of Socialist parties, but they were held back by the backward leadership. He was particularly moving in his depiction of the Austrian workers defending their homes.
This is a dry, barren period for our movement, one in which we must be on the lookout for every spark of understanding and resistance we see. We must remember that in some of our lifetimes -mine, for example – the Vietnamese, working with patriotic Catholics, and crackpot religious groups like the Cao Dai, did a much better job of building a United Front against the Japanese, the French, and the US under more dire circumstances than the European and American left have managed today.
-Lee Gloster is a retired Teamster and a labor activist.