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Fascist Phantasms

D. L. Jacobs

June 22, 2022

One way to tell people you don’t like something is to call it fascist. The logical conclusion of this is that everything one opposes becomes fascism.

That the left tends to see fascism everywhere (and thereby threatens to trivialize the notion, as “racism” has been thus trivialized of late) is a symptom of a deep crisis. All the definitions of fascism that come down to us—monopoly capital, finance capital, racism, ultranationalism, mysticism, irrationality, brutalism—have served at one time as a strategy for evading the left’s own failure.

Wilhelm Reich, in his classic study, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, long ago warned the Left against treating the charge of fascism as a calumny. He wrote,

The word “fascism” is no invective, no more than the word “capitalist.” It is a term which connotes a definite way of leading and influencing the masses: authoritarian, one-party-system, therefore totalitarian, might comes before real interests, political falsification of facts, etc. Consequently, there are “fascist Jews” and “fascist democrats.”[1]

Reich’s commitment to study fascism objectively recalls Marx’s commitment to study capitalists in the same way, “however much [they] may subjectively raise [themselves] above [capitalist relations].”

Marxism demanded an immanent critique of historical phenomena, not to stride up and say, “Here is the truth, kneel down before it!” To do that would mean introducing a standard that was itself without justification, from without. The task for Marxists, according to Reich, was rather to show how fascism blocked its own ends. His reason for thus treating fascism seriously was not some ill-conceived notion of impartiality. Reich began his text by clearly stating that Hitler’s movement was revolutionary. Fascism was the continuation of socialism, as it came to be under the leadership of self-professed Marxists: “The German revolutionary movement before Hitler was based on the economic and social theory of Karl Marx; an understanding of German fascism, therefore, presupposes an understanding of Marxism.”[2] The question of fascism, in short, raised the question of the left’s critique of (the failure of) the left. As Reich observed, after the defeat of the Revolution of 1917–19, “Marxists failed to apply their own method of dialectic materialism, to keep it alive [by using] it to comprehend every new social phenomenon. . . [And] fascism was such a phenomenon.”[3]

In capitalism, for Marxists, there’s an objective demand for mass politics. Socialism expressed that political demand, in order to transcend it. In the absence of revolutionary socialism, capitalist politics will meet the same need. It did so above all in fascism, which filled the void left by the failure of Second International Marxism. As the Marxist Clara Zetkin wrote in 1923,

Communist parties. . . are not without responsibility for the fact that even within the proletariat there are disillusioned people who throw themselves into the arms of fascism. Quite frequently these parties’ actions have been insufficiently vigorous, their initiatives lacking in scope, and their penetration of the masses inadequate. . . [Consequently,] masses in their thousands streamed to fascism. It became an asylum for all the politically homeless, the socially uprooted, the destitute and disillusioned. And what they no longer hoped for from the revolutionary proletarian class and from socialism, they now hoped would be achieved by the most able, strong, determined, and bold elements of every social class.

Hitler founded the National Socialist German Workers Party in February 1920, and, in Italy, Mussolini founded the National Fascist Party in November 1921. Fascism was, in this sense, a response to the Revolution of 1917–19. Fascism grew with the degradation of Marxism into Stalinism and Social Democracy. These vulgarized Marxisms turned Marxism into an advocate for the workers, abandoning the charge to lead the democratic revolution. The conflict between, for instance, German Communism and the SPD was a fight for the workers’ support. Fascism appealed to society as a whole, to “the masses,” when Marxism fails to do so.

Benito Mussolini was not wrong, but only one-sided in his belief that fascism had transcended Marxism both theoretically and historically. While McManus begins his essay by referring to Joseph de Maistre as the first to put monarchy in popular terms, Mussolini did not understand fascism as going backwards. “The Fascist doctrine has not taken De Maistre as its prophet,” writes Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile. “Monarchical absolutism is of the past, and so is ecclesiolatry.” De Maistre’s view was really a reflection from bourgeois society, backwards. In his early critique of Hegel, Marx had noted that democracy was the “truth” of monarchy, that the latter was democracy in contradiction with itself. Once bourgeois society could stand on its own two feet, monarchy no longer adequately expressed the freedom of the moderns: Monarchy meant the freedom of all as the freedom of one exclusive of the rest. The republic was the form in which the battle of democracy would ultimately be won.

Marx wrote his critique of Hegel in 1843, following in the tradition of philosophes of the Enlightenment. But the experience of 1848 was one of history falling back along a “descending line” into the voluntary submission of the people to a pseudo-pretender to a new-fangled throne. The people had won suffrage, and they used it to affirm their own impotence. As Engels wrote to Marx on the day after Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’etat,

Mais le peuple, le peuple! — Le people. . . are happy as children over the franchise accorded to them and which, indeed, they will probably make use of like children. . . What is to come of the whole business? If we adopt the standpoint of world history we are presented with a splendid subject for declamation. . . Universal suffrage is the basis of Louis Napoleon’s power, he cannot attack it, [yet] universal suffrage is now incompatible with a Louis Napoleon. . . But, after what we saw yesterday, there can be no counting on the peuple, and it really seems as though old Hegel, in the guise of the World Spirit, were directing history from the grave and, with the greatest conscientiousness, causing everything to be re-enacted twice over, once as grand tragedy and the second time as rotten farce—Caussidiere for Danton, L. Blanc for Robespierre, Barthélemy for Saint-Just, Flocon for Carnot, and the moon-calf together with the first available dozen debt-encumbered lieutenants for the little corporal and his band of marshals.[4]

At the beginning of the French Revolution, Abbé Sieyès argued for the emancipation of the Third Estate by cautioning his fellow privileged caste:

“Yes,” some might say, “but the [feudal] conquest disrupted all relationships, causing hereditary nobility to be transferred to the descendants of the conquerors.” Well and good! We shall just have to transfer it back again. The Third Estate will become noble again by becoming a conqueror in its turn.

Behind Sieyès stood the Third Estate, the estate of those who worked. They constituted, in Sieyès’s words, the nation and, according to their own development, were finally ready to throw off their conquerors and regulate themselves as a cooperative society. However, this emancipatory process came into contradiction with itself with the completion of the Industrial Revolution after Sieyès’s era. Under the modern revolution, the revolution under conditions of capitalism, the people had instead confessed that they were not yet able to self-organize and in turn, like a farce of Abbé Sieyès’s retort, had to be conquered.

For Marx, then, bonapartism was the result of the modern class struggle, the centripetal disintegration and reconstitution of modern society. It was from the bonapartist-democratic resolution of the Revolution of 1848 that Marx speculatively recognized the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat. As the Marxist Leon Trotsky later wrote a decade after Engels’s death,

in the [case of proletarian revolution], which has never yet occurred in history and which we are considering merely as a possibility, the actual energy necessary for overcoming the dark forces of history is generated within the bourgeoisie nation by means of an “internecine” class war. The severe internal friction, absorbing a great deal of energy and depriving the bourgeoisie of the possibility of playing the chief role, urges its antagonist the proletariat to the forefront, gives the proletariat ten years’ experience in a month, places it at the head of affairs, and hands it the tightly-drawn reins of power.

Those reins were “tightly-drawn” by the capitalist state that reached its fullest development in bonapartist democracy, of which the dictatorship of the proletariat represented the dialectical reverse.

So, Reich followed Marx in his study of fascism. Fascism was “not a problem of Hitler’s person or of National Socialist party politics [but rather] a problem of the masses.”[5] The duty of Marxists would have been to lead, by providing a practical critique of fascism that wasn’t just calling it deplorable. It was not about “revolutionary angels here and reactionary devils there,”[6] but about recognizing that the concrete situation of capitalism promotes authoritarianism in society. The mastery of it is not through individual self-mastery, but through its sublation in a revolutionary movement to transform the world. As Reich put it,

The first and foremost task of revolutionary propaganda should have been to give the contradictions in the workers the most sympathetic consideration, to grasp the fact that it was not a clear revolutionary will that was concealed or befogged, but that the revolutionary impulse in the psychic structure of the proletariat was partially undeveloped and partially interfused with contrary reactionary structural elements. The distillation of the revolutionary sentiments of the broad masses is undoubtedly the basic task in the process of awakening their social responsibility.[7]

And, again,

The practical problem of mass psychology, then, is that of activating the passive majority of the population which always carries political reaction to victory, and the elimination of the inhibitions which counteract the will to freedom as it is generated by the socio-economic position. If the psychic energies of the average mass of people watching a football game or a musical comedy could be diverted into the rational channels of a freedom movement, they would be invincible.[8]

The contradictions of authoritarian mass psychology are expressions of a contradictory historical process. They call forth a critical authoritarian politics, socialist revolution. The impulses that drive fascism are not merely wrong, but rather express the potential to go beyond present capitalist society, albeit in distorted form.

“What’s the reason of unreason?” Fascism takes up the necessity of representing the masses politically. Like bonapartism, fascism allows for representation without the prospect of transformation. It appeals to the desire for freedom even as it contradicts it — recoiling from freedom while expressing the desire for it, rejecting authority in the service of authority. As such, fascism captures (even as it obscures) a core contradiction of socialist revolution, that the working class supports socialism as a means of restoring society. As with Louis Bonaparte (and capitalist politics more generally), the fascist leader stands forth as the savior of society.

Fascism was ideological, and, therefore, expressed a truth. Mussolini, as a former Marxist, followed Marx’s view that liberalism “touched its zenith in 1848 when even Pius IXth was a liberal.” The problem with Marxism, for Mussolini and Gentile, was that, despite this insight into the twilight of liberalism, it was ultimately stuck in the 19th century. The Revisionist Dispute signaled the inability of Marxism to develop and the moribund character of scientific socialism: a “uniform, universally accepted doctrine of Socialism had not existed since 1905,” implying a true revolutionary theory would have to be created to overcome this stalemate. Fascism, for Mussolini and Gentile, was to take “elements which [were] still vital” from “liberalism, socialism, and democratic doctrines,” in the same way that Marx developed scientific socialism out of “the utopian socialism of the Fouriers, the Owens, the Saint-Simons.” In other words, Mussolini and Gentile saw Fascism as the modern revolutionary theory.

The real revolution, for Mussolini and Gentile, the progress in history, was the state; it was Louis Bonaparte and Otto von Bismarck. Marx and Engels, indeed, had called Bismarck and Bonaparte III the “executors” of the 1848 Revolution, but the difference was their conception of history: it was progress, but progress in capitalism. The fascist view was one-sidedly true—the State was a revolution—but, for Marx, it was “still travelling through purgatory,” preparing for its closing act by concentrating all the forces of destruction against itself. Consequently, Mussolini’s view of 1848 makes him much closer to Proudhon[9] or what today is termed “progressivism.”[10]

Thus, Walter Benjamin’s characterization of fascism was not that it was, as McManus puts it, “exciting and entertaining,” but rather that it “seeks to give [the masses] an expression while preserving property.” It expressed the necessity of change, if only to preserve the unstable and contradictory capitalist relations it revolted against. Benjamin’s account of the democraticization of criticism, as a precondition to fascism, derives from Marxism: democracy as the most consistent force for the reestablishment of capitalism.

McManus offers us a definition of fascism as an “ultranationalist political ideology defined by a theory of national decline brought about by external and internal enemies which can only be overcome through the restorative triumph of an authoritarian political party in alliance with—or at least tolerated by—conventional conservative elites.” Reich pointed out just how “theory of national decline” can turn into an immanent critique of capitalism if it was transformed into instead the decline of a “certain civilization” (e.g. capitalism).[11] Revolutions are, of course, authoritarian. But more importantly, fascism grasped the transformation of capitalism better than the Communists, and thus, the fascist movement was paradoxically more internationalist than the communist movements during the early 20th century.[12] Even a successful proletarian socialist revolution would be and could be “tolerated” by conventional conservative elites. As I have written elsewhere, “both a conservative and progressive character will be met by a proletarian socialist revolution,” because the overcoming of capitalism will require taking up capitalism, consciously. Capitalism reinvigorates itself through its own discontents: It is its own self-critique.

McManus likens the rise of fascism in Germany to the concern with “the enduring popularity of the German Social Democratic and Communist parties. But the SPD had already called on the proto-fascist Freikorps in their suppression of the Spartacusbund. The SPD didn’t merely take the “reins of power at various points during the Weimar era” but actively tried to balance the Right against the Left (in putting down the Munich Soviet Republic) and the Left against the Right (the Kapp Putsch).[13] The SPD called the Spartacusbund and Bolsheviks, “Militarism of Loafers,” because they felt the Communists were driving the country into anarchy, instead of negotiating for a peace.[14] Karl Kautsky, who was in the USPD at the time, called the Communists “Spartacides” who were “indiscriminately applying templates drawn from the past” and were confused about the specificity of the German Revolution. Such splits among the German socialist workers' movement (SPD, USPD, and Spartacusbund) was not mere disagreements, but expressed the ripeness of the revolutionary moment.

In failing to follow through on the necessity of revolution, Communists had delegitimized themselves as revolutionary leaders. They had prepared the people, but not followed through on the task once it was at hand. It was in this confusion that Adolph Hitler recognized an opportunity and acted upon it. As he wrote in the aftermath of the failed German Revolution,

The more I then pondered over the necessity for a change in the attitude of the executive government towards Social Democracy, as the incorporation of contemporary Marxism, the more I realized the want of a practical substitute for this doctrine. Supposing Social-Democracy were overthrown, what had one to offer the masses in its stead? Not a single movement existed which promised any success in attracting vast numbers of workers who would be now more or less without leaders, and holding these workers in its train. It is nonsensical to imagine that the international fanatic who has just severed his connection with a class party would forthwith join a bourgeois party, or, in other words, another class organization.

What fascism intuited, however unconsciously, was the need for revolutionary leadership. The kind it provided was degenerated, but it met a real need. “[Fascism] called itself ‘socialist’ and ‘revolutionary’ and thus took over the functions which the socialists had left unfulfilled.”[15] Fascism was a national socialist movement and yet, as Reich points out, its success led to the paradox that it was more revolutionary internationalist than the Communists and Socialists. Not for nothing was Hitler called the “German Lenin.” Fascism “was born of the need of action, and was action.” While Theodore Adorno found that the masses tried to save their dignity by identifying with an “absolutely narcissistic” leader, nonetheless, even this “caricature of a true, conscious solidarity. . . [was] a collective one.”

The impulse to define fascism in opposition to socialism follows from the recognition that “fascism means war” only because it expresses the revolution, unmastered. As such, it is capitalist. It is not enough to say that the fascists merely adopted “left-wing tropes,” because this assumes a reified notion of Left and Right under capitalism. The appropriation of these “tropes” to the Right reflected the real contradiction of history under capitalism. Thus, fascism “contained not only reactionary but also powerful progressive social forces,” because it organized and led a democratic revolution. Fascism was Bizarro Marxism. The missed opportunity was reflected in the lag in practice, in the “zigzags,” in the later support for the “Red Referendum” in Germany.

McManus ends his analysis by asking what distinguishes the present “far right” from past fascism. McManus does not call Trump a fascist, but he does say that modern “far-right populists . . . ape fascist demagogues”; in particular, Trump’s rhetorical style is considered something that “would absolutely be familiar to Mussolini and others.” Ultimately, one feature of “generic fascism” that seems to be missing among today’s “right-wing populists and post-modern conservatives . . . is a commitment to militaristic imperialism,” but even this seems to be merely in terms of quantity of imperialistic expansion, not quality.[16] The ambiguity about whether Trump is a fascist, a conservative or a “post-modern conservative” seems to be a distinction without a difference. After all, McManus ends by wishing for the “far right” to join fascism in the “sewage of history.”

But there is something obvious that should be pointed out: Those who are designated as the “far right,” do not think they are fascists but rather the opposite. The Tea Party, for example, considered the Obama administration to be introducing fascism with Obamacare. In response, they were called fascist.[17] Trump accused Nancy Pelosi of a “fascist statement” after she accused him of criminal coverup. In his remarks on the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, VA, Donald Trump denounced neo-Nazis. Of course, his political opponents interpreted Trump’s comments about law-abiding citizens “on both sides” as a concealed endorsement of white supremacy.[18] But, interestingly, white supremacist David Duke attacked Trump for being compared to “radical leftists.” In fact, if one concludes that Trump saying there were “very fine people on both sides” was an endorsement of white supremacy, one would have to say that Trump also endorsed anti-fa and democratic socialism. Trump’s reaction was just his usual “law-and-order” conservatism, something very different from fascism, which was based on insurrection. The insistence on law and order simply endorses a core value of bourgeois thought, one to which even would-be socialists are committed (and not simply because they require it to organize a left). The trouble with the insistence of “law and order” is that is used to whitewash the lawlessness of the capitalist state. But when the left terms invocations of the rule of law, of equality before the law, fascist, it only obscures the question of fascism.

To be honest, today’s so-called “liberals” calling everything they don’t like “fascism,” or qualifying it as “fascist-lite” or “postfascism” is not clarifying. It only reflects the anxiety of the Democratic Party. Even if the world was somehow confronted with vintage fascism, one would still have to consider how “anti-fascism” is no less complicit in the same system. Leon Trotsky aptly described this long ago, when he wrote,

There are seven keys in the musical scale. The question as to which of these keys is “better” – do, re, or sol – is a nonsensical question. But the musician must know when to strike and what keys to strike. The abstract question of who is the lesser evil – Brüning or Hitler – is just as nonsensical. It is necessary to know which of these keys to strike. Is that clear? For the feeble-minded let us cite another example. When one of my enemies sets before me small daily portions of poison and the second, on the other hand, is about to shoot straight at me, then I will first knock the revolver out of the hand of my second enemy, for this gives me an opportunity to get rid of my first enemy. But that does not at all mean that the poison is a “lesser evil” in comparison with the revolver.

The common refrain, “don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good” (meaning hold your nose and vote for the Democrats to stop “fascism”) obscures just how much the Democrats and Republicans agree when they call each other “socialists” and “fascists.”

Mussolini’s “action-ism” says something more central to the relationship of fascism to capitalism — the failure of the socialist revolution. Capitalism is a category that only made sense to Marx as something “transient,” one tasking the workers to take political power and transform society. If Leftists are going to stick with this idea of Trump as a fascist (or some modern variation), then they must also see the possibility for socialism. A theory adequate to explaining “What is Fascism?” ought to meet the demand of how fascism points beyond itself, towards a missed opportunity. Anything else is apologetic.


[1] Wilhelm Reich. The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Third Edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), 202.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, December 3, 1851, available online at

[5] Reich, Mass Psychology, 92-93.

[6] Ibid., 189.

[7] Ibid., 63.

[8] Ibid., 27.

[9] See Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, “The Social Revolution Demonstrated by the Coup d’Etat of December 2, 1851,” in December 2, 1851: Contemporary Writings on the Coup d'Etat of Louis Napoleon, ed. John B. Halstead (New York City: Anchor Books, January 1, 1972). In his 1869 preface to the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx called Proudhon’s text “a historical apologia for its hero, [Louis Bonaparte].”

[10] To be clear, I am not saying “Progressivism=Nazism,” like something out of the National Review. Rather, the Progressive view recognizes that liberalism has become obsolete, but identifies with the development of capitalism, since then, as progress. See Woodrow Wilson, The New Freedom, (New York: Page and Company 1913).

[11] Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 72.

[12] ibid., 41-42.

[13] See Chapters 11-13 in Sebastian Haffner’s Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918-1919, Trans. George Rapp (Lexington, Massachusetts: Plunkett Lake Press).

[14] John Riddell, The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power: Documents, 1918-1919; Preparing the Founding Congress (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1st edition, January 1, 1999), 300.

[15] Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 200.

[16] “While contemporary right-wing populists haven’t been averse to localized or ongoing military action-whether one thinks of Trump’s perpetuation of the War on Terror or Modi’s border skirmishes with Pakistan-we can be grateful it has nowhere achieved the scale or centrality that it had under fascism.” Matt McManus, “What is Fascism,” June 3, 2022,

[17] See Tim Horras, “Slouching Towards Shutdown: Left Reflections on the Tea Party, Then & Now," March 1, 2021,

[18] “The term “many sides” drew rightful scrutiny from many observers. In a confrontation between racists and anti-racists, in which a racist’s actions resulted in the death and injuries of anti-racists, it’s a strange geometry that identifies multiple equivalent sides. President Trump’s reticence betrays a reactionary bias, which comes as no surprise.” Shuja Haider, “One Has to Take Sides,” August 13, 2017, See also Daniel Politi, “In Appalling Speech on Charlottesville, Trump Condemns Bigotry and Violence “On Many Sides.’” August 12, 2017,; German Lopez. “The false equivalency of Trump blaming “many sides” in Charlottesville,” August 12, 2017,; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “No More Charlottesvilles,” August 14, 2017,

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