Arthur Rosenberg on Fascism as a Mass-Movement
Extract from Jairus' introduction to the essay: Fascism as a Mass Movement is an essay about the origins and growth of fascism, not fascism in power. Though much of the humongous bibliography that has grown up around the subject particularly since the late sixties deals overwhelmingly with the latter (with Neumann’s Behemoth as an early and outstanding example of the kind of issues that would dominate subsequent historiography), the essential themes of Rosenberg’s argument stand fully vindicated by recent scholarship. ‘The error of the Italian Communist Party lies mainly in the fact that it sees fascism only as a military-terrorist movement, not as a mass movement with deep social roots’, Clara Zetkin warned in 1923. It is this conception – of the capacity of the Right to mobilise mass-support – that forms the central thread of Rosenberg’s essay, where the key to its interpretation lies both in the political defeat of liberalism and its rapid retreat across most of Europe in the nineteenth century and in the virulent nationalisms that emerged to buttress the rule of traditional élites against the threat of democracy and Marxist socialism.
If the singular brutality of the Nazi genocide remains a watershed in the history of the modern world, one that Rosenberg could scarcely have anticipated in 1933, the racial myth of the Volksgemeinschaft that paved the way for it was far from novel, its roots fĳirmly embedded in the ‘integral nationalism’ of Treitschke and Maurras and the visions of national redemption preached by Schönerer and Lueger (against both Slavs and Jews) to pan-German constituencies in Austria that Weiss has described as ‘one of the most anti-Semitic publics west of Russia’. Thus the argument, cited above, that ‘the ideology which is today called “fascist” was already fairly widespread throughout Europe before the War’ is thoroughly convincing. It is a major insight into why the fascist movements could expand so rapidly, both in Italy and in Germany (in the early and late twenties respectively), against the background of war-hysteria and assaults on the Left (in Italy) and of a powerful nationalist Right in Germany that prepared the ground for the Nazis.
The centrality of racism to Nazism in particular emerges more forcefully in Rosenberg’s essay than any other Marxist writing of the twenties and early thirties. So does the argument that the success of the fascists depended crucially on the connivance or active complicity of the existing state-authorities, many of whom would of course have been active members of the PNF and NSDAP. This was starkly obvious in Italy where the squadristi ‘succeeded because they could always count on the state’, but no less so in Germany where, as Neumann noted, not one of the conspirators in the right-wing Kapp Putsch of 1920 had been punished even 15 months later, ‘the Weimar criminal courts were part and parcel of the anti-democratic camp’, and the ‘courts invariably became sounding-boards for [Nazi] propaganda’; and where, as Rosenberg points out, ‘a whole series of government-officials, especially in the army, . . . maintained close contact with the Freikorps and [other] counter-revolutionaries’.
Finally, a major part of the essay sets out to discredit the so-called ‘middle-class theory’ of fascism. Rosenberg was convinced that fascism was not a petty-bourgeois movement nor was the mass-base of the fascist parties confined to the petty bourgeoisie... Even if fascism today is not and will not be the return of old-style fascism but more eclectic and variegated versions of extreme-Right politics, Rosenberg’s essay loses none of its relevance for us. In particular, the increasing support drawn from the working class by parties of the extreme Right in countries such as France, Austria, Denmark and Norway, or the ability of the Sangh Parivar in India (the RSS/BJP combine) to create mass-mobilisations based on hate-campaigns and strategies of tension should be some of the more pressing reasons why the Left needs to return to the issue of fascism in a central way...
Introduction to Arthur Rosenberg:
Arthur Rosenberg was a major historian and Communist Reichstag deputy best known for his books The Birth of the German Republic, 1871–1918 (1928) and A History of Bolshevism (1932). The three broad phases of his life as a Marxist are the years from 1919 to April 1927, when he played an active part in the KPD Left, the period from May 1927 to March 1933, following his resignation from the KPD (the years that best define him as a ‘Communist without a party’), and the tragic final decade of his life when he fled
Also see: Hannah Arendt: Reflections on Violence (1969)