Fascism, Zetkin warned, arises when capitalism enters a period of crisis and breakdown of the democratic institutions that once offered the possibility of reform and protection from an uninhibited assault by the capitalist class. The unchecked capitalist assault pushes the middle class, the bulwark of a capitalist democracy, into the working class and often poverty. It strips workers of all protection and depresses wages. The longer the economic and social stagnation persists, the more attractive fascism becomes. Zetkin would have warned us that Donald Trump is not the danger; the danger is the growing social and economic inequality that concentrates wealth in the hands of an oligarchic elite and degrades the lives of citizens.
A bankrupt liberal class, which formerly made incremental and piecemeal reform possible, ameliorating the worst excesses of capitalism, mouths empty slogans about social justice and the rights of workers while selling them out to capitalist elites. The hypocrisy of the liberal class evokes not only a disdain for it but a hatred for the liberal, democratic values it supposedly espouses. The “virtues” of democracy become distasteful. The crude taunts, threats and insults hurled by fascists at the liberal establishment express a legitimate anger among a betrayed working class.
The discredited ideals of democracy are replaced by a hypernationalism that divides the population not by class but between the patriotic and the unpatriotic. National and religious symbols such as the Christian cross and the American flag are fused under fascism. Fascism offers the dispossessed a tangible enemy and a right to physically strike back. Those demonized for a nation’s decline—Jews and communists in Nazi Germany, the kulaks in the Soviet Union and the undocumented, African-Americans and Muslims in the United States—become social pariahs. The stigmatized, along with intellectuals, liberals, gays, feminists and dissidents, are attacked as the embodiment of the disease that has destroyed the nation and will be exorcised by the fascists. This fascist rhetoric is always couched in the language of renewal and moral purity.
The divisions created within the working class by fascism, coupled with fascism’s attack on unions, intellectuals, dissidents and the press, foster an uneasy alliance with the capitalist elites, who often view the fascists as imbeciles and buffoons. In essence, much as Trump has done, the capitalists are bought off by fascists with tax cuts, deregulation, the breaking of unions and the dismantling of institutions that carry out oversight and the protection of workers. The expansion of the military, which provides capitalists with increased profit, coupled with the expanded powers of the organs of internal security, binds the capitalist elites to the fascists. Their marriage is one of mutual convenience. This is why the capitalist elites tolerate Trump and endure the international embarrassment he has become.
“There is a blatant contradiction between what fascism promised and what it delivered to the masses,” Zetkin wrote. “All the talk about how the fascist state will place the interests of the nation above everything, once exposed to the wind of reality, burst like a soap bubble. The ‘nation’ revealed itself to be the bourgeoisie; the ideal fascist state revealed itself to be the vulgar, unscrupulous bourgeois class state. … Class contradictions are mightier than all the ideologies that deny their existence.”