Arthur Rosenberg on Fascism as a Mass-Movement

NB -The issue of fascism has not been given sufficient attention in Indian politics, with the term being used rhetorically rather than in an analytical way. Those of us concerned with the growth of communalism have witnessed the genocidal mania at work in communal violence, and we also know that all talk of the 'spontaneous anger' of the people is a piece of deceit. It's the phenomenon of the controlled mob that is crucial here. And we know from experience that communalism works more via ideological influence and emotional manipulation, than via organisational affiliation. The stamina of anti-democratic ideas in the political arena needs to be taken seriously, and not dismissed as a "tool of the ruling classes" etc. Rosenberg was one of the few Marxist intellectuals in the 1930's who argued that fascism was a mass movement, and needed to be studied as such.. This essay is a valuable text in socialist theory.

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 Germany along with his family, would find himself stripped of German citizenship, and lead an impoverished life as a tutor in Brooklyn College, New York, having failed to find any sort of academic position in England. All of Rosenberg’s major works stem from the last period of his life, except for The Birth of the German Republic, which he published in 1928.

As a member of the left wing of the USPD, Rosenberg found himself joining the German Communist Party in October 1920. The hallmark of the Left-current within the KPD was of course its intransigent opposition to any sort of front with the SPD in the intensely volatile political climate of Weimar, but unlike Fischer and Maslow (more substantial leaders of the ‘Berlin Left’, as  the KPD-Left was called), Rosenberg himself was deeply resentful of excessive Comintern interference in the afffairs of the German party. By 1925 the KPD Left was split wide open, lost control of the party-leadership to Thalmann, and saw a major purge of the Left-elements, including Korsch and Werner Scholem, all denounced as ‘anti-Bolshevik’. Rosenberg seems to have survived this purge
but resigned from the party in April 1927. He remained a Reichstag deputy for about a year, but was doubly ostracised both within the academic establishment and by the orthodox Left in Germany. Thanks to the implacable hostility of Eduard Meyer and Ulrich Wilcken, he was denied a proper appointment in Berlin University

By now, the eve of the massive expansion of Nazism among the electorate, he wrote exclusively for publications run by the SPD. In History of Bolshevism, the last book he published before his exile, he characterised Stalin’s Russia as ‘state-capitalist’ (this in 1932). On 30 January 1933, Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor and the German Communists frantically appealed to the SPD for a ‘united front’ when the terror started in February. By the end of March Rosenberg had fled to Zurich with his family, in September he moved to London where he failed to land a job at the LSE, and then four months later got a one-year fellowship at the University of Liverpool where he wrote Democracy and Socialism. Fascism as a Mass-Movement appeared as a booklet (‘Broschure’) in 1934 under the pseudonym ‘Historikus’ and published by the Karlsbad publisher Graphia, which was run by SPD refugees and German-speaking Social Democrats in Czechoslovakia. Rosenberg
left for the States in late October 1937 and eventually died of cancer in 1943.

The abbreviated version of Rosenberg’s fascism-essay that runs to 65-odd pages in Abendroth’s collection Faschismus und Kapitalismus is the one translated here. It divides into three portions, the first mapping a general vision of the history and politics of Europe in the later-nineteenth century, and the second and third dealing with Italy and Germany respectively. The distinctive feature of the argument is summed up in the title itself, namely, the conception of fascism as a mass-movement. Written in 1933, this contrasted both with the Comintern’s official line that fascism was ‘the power of finance capital itself ’, a sort of political incarnation of capital, and with the contrary theories that saw fascism mediating between capital and labour on the model implied in Marx’s analysis of Bonapartism. Rosenberg seems to have steered  clear of this whole debate, which as a historian he may well have found superficial. 

The crucial point for him was to know where fascism came from, not what it resembled in the past. He rejected the view that fascism was somehow primordially or quintessentially connected with the petty bourgeoisie in particular – either driven by it or largely founded on it – suggesting that it had a much wider social appeal and was more widely based than that view implied. If fascism was a product of its own ideology, then that ideology was already widespread by 1914. Throughout the main countries of Europe, liberalism was either stillborn or successfully contained and defeated. This was as true of the Hapsburgs as it was of Germany or Britain for that matter. The crux of the new
‘authoritarian conservatism’, as he called it, was its ability to win mass-support, popular conservative majorities, by encouraging a new breed of nationalism that was ultra-patriotic, racist and violently opposed to the Left. This took diffferent forms in diffferent parts of Europe but its essential features were the same – a ‘demagogic nationalism’ that targeted minorities (in Europe, mainly Jews) to build a mass-support. The powerful surge of antisemitism that swept through Europe in the last quarter of the nineteenth century was a fundamental part of this radical nationalism. Thus Rosenberg’s key argument here is that ‘the ideology which is today called “fascist” was already fairly widespread throughout Europe before the War, and exerted a strong influence on the masses.’ He goes on to say, ‘However, with one exception, what was missing then was the peculiar tactic of using
stormtroopers which is thoroughly characteristic of modern fascism. The sole exception was formed by the Black Hundreds of Tsarist Russia and their ability to stage pogroms’.

"Legally, the stormtroopers should be tried and sentenced to jail. But in fact nothing of the sort happens to them. Their conviction in the courts is pure show – either they do not serve their sentence, or they are soon pardoned." 

The important insight here is that stormtroopers work with the connivance of the state, a theme he returns to repeatedly. As for the pogrom itself, he claims ‘the rage of the patriotic masses has to be manufactured (ibid.). This is what happened in the Tsarist pogroms of 1905..

Download the full text of Jairus Banaji's Introduction and Rosenberg’s essay below:

Also see: Hannah Arendt: Reflections on Violence (1969)

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