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 homeles