Prabhat Patnaik’s Theorisation of Fascism and its Defeat:
Some Small Glitches

Sandeep Banerjee

In past two Octobers, Professor Prabhat Patnaik made two important contributions to theorisation of Fascism and ways to defeat it. One was Published on 17.10.17 in The Telegraph[1], “Finding a way out: The current upsurge of fascism” and the other in last year, “The Left and Opposition Unity: How Fascism Can Be Defeated in 2019” published in The Wire on 9.10.2018[2].

Firstly, what seemed most important points are:

  1. In the 2017 article he reminded us an often forgotten or ignored or underestimated point: fascism is also a movement – a point which was elaborated by German Communist leader Clara Zetkin in her 1923 article ‘Fascism’, a point which was later, in 1930-31 period mentioned by, say, Trotsky and few others also; and the import of this point is much profound than what it seems from its simple appearance, which we shall come to in the later in this article.   
  2. Then, “The current fascist upsurge, of course, is not a replication of the 1930s” – as he said in the Oct-2017 article, and also highlighted it more emphatically in Oct-2018 article as “The real obstacle to understanding, or even recognising, contemporary fascism is alas, the memory of the 1930s.” Fascism has changed, evolved over last 100 years and fascism always had and have country-specific particularities.  

But, in the same vein, instead of objecting usage of ‘nationalism’ in this context, for example, “it is also misleading because it does not distinguish between the 'nationalism' of a Gandhi and the 'nationalism' of a Hitler” as he wrote in his Oct-2018 piece, he could explain why and how much nationalism of Bhagat Singh of 1920s differs from nationalism of Nehru of 1940s or nationalism of Mrs Gandhi of 1970s also nationalism of BJP around 2020, or why and how much nationalism of Tom Paine differs from nationalism of Donald Trump or between nationalism of Sun Yet-Sen and that of XI Jinping. Because, like fascism, ‘Nationalism’ also changed over time and place, as the nature of the bourgeoise of some nation at some time changes from anti-imperialist/colonialist position to global-or-regional hegemonist position, or from independence-struggle to peaceful-transition via bargain and then to annexationist-dominating aspiration over time. In a multi-national country ‘nationalism’ becomes even more complex: Indian nationalism during freedom struggle to pan-Indian nationalism with over-centralisation and Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan often with overt anti-Pak and/or anti-Muslim connotations, frequently finding opposition from national aspirations of different nations within the country, although the latter are often labelled as ‘regionalism’ by the central authority, also sometimes accusations of those being ‘secessionists’ are heard; Pakistan too has this problem even after Bangladesh formation (Pakistan’s ‘official language’ is Urdu which is not the language of any nationalities in Pakistan, it is first language of only 8% of the people, many of whom migrated from India after partition). Also it may become problematic for a common Ukrainian or Georgian or Uzbek or Kazak to reconcile to ‘Soviet ‘russian’ patriotism’ enshrining Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible in the long run, even though ‘socialist fatherland’ once seemed to them all right, isn’t it?

Professor Prabhat Patnaik had explained it concisely in his Oct-2017 piece that the present rise of fascism is not due to, as once believed from the experiences of 1920s-1930s, the capitalists becoming afraid of rise of working class struggle and finding no way out of crisis prop up capitalism; rather the present rise of fascism is taking place in the environment of a much weakened working class and declined strength trade union struggle. It is indeed the case.

Though, of course, rise of fascism can never be explained fully by fascism’s getting support from capitalists – as is incorporated in the statement: fascism is also a movement. We shall have to come to this very important point in later part of this article. Let us pass rather to those points of views expressed by Professor Prabhat Patnaik which are really difficult to be accepted.

Suppose, what he said in his Oct-2018 article, “Secondly, inter-power rivalry leading to a war unleashed by fascism, which burns itself out in the process, is also not a realistic scenario… Contemporary fascism therefore can neither proceed headlong into erecting a fascist state (since its social base would still be limited), nor exhaust itself through war.” And before few lines he built up the case like, “The fascism of the 1930s emerged in a world where different nation-based finance capitals were engaged in intense rivalry; today we have globalised or international finance capital under whose hegemony such rivalries do not exist.” Now, it gives rise to grave concern. Point 1, why inter-power rivalry and wars happen in this era of imperialism was established by Lenin – and to say these (inter-power rivalry and war) are not true anymore will need a new theory of imperialism replacing Lenin’s one. Point 2, if we leave aside the theoretical side and look into what is really happening we shall see the logjams often happen inside WTO, EU and other such bodies, we saw Brexit, we are hearing about Frexit (since mid-De-2018 from within the Gilets Jaunes movement) and say, China-US trade imbroglio, even ‘little’ cases like that involving Huawei and US-Canada, and so on. Point 3, after the second world war, in post-WWII world we had a changed balance of power which gave rise to the so-called ‘Cold War’ scenario – but which was not at all ‘cold’ globally – we had liberation wars and saw two superpowers taking side in those wars, which continued till, say, mid-1970s. Perhaps the Iranian ‘revolution’ is a watershed, a ‘national liberation’ movement may not gyrate towards Moscow/Beijing/leftism… any more. We also saw a period of interventions and proxy-wars among superpowers, naturally in third-party places. In the post-Soviet period or the era of ‘globalisation’ (or ‘imperialist globalisation’ to use words of Samir Amin) too we are witnessing intense regional wars. War, continuous upgradation of military machines and post-destruction reconstruction have become so much a good business that even non-warring allies of imperialist powers benefit from it largely (like Indian corporate sector having good business contracts in Iraq). Tremendous activities are going on continuously for pocketing not only various national markets, but also national natural reserves (not only petroleum) – Chinese initiatives in Latin America and Africa, continuing French forces in Africa in one after another cases, US direct or proxy intervention in so many countries, for example in Nicaragua, inter-power rivalry in the bitter war of Balkanisation (particularly between German vs. Russian), US and Russian involvements in the great West-Asia war-laboratories. All these may not be equal to world wars as it happened in the first half of twentieth century. But, what else than inter-imperialist rivalries for division and redivision of area-of-domination in the world are behind all these? If Professor Prabhat Patnaik thinks that the era of imperialism has changed to that extent that it needs a major theoretical change then of course he may suggest one, but without that, only saying ‘globalised or international finance capital under whose hegemony such rivalries do not exist’ will not suffice.

Nonetheless, we must say, one proposition of Professor Prabhat Patnaik seems quite reasonable or more probable in context of immediate future – fascism ‘burning itself out’ by war begotten by may not be a likely scenario in a couple of years or five or ten years, but we cannot sit complacent banking on that idea – we need to fight fascism adequately. But there is another point here not raised by professor Patnaik. We know, in that ‘burning out’ of fascism, the anti-fascist masses including communists also bore the burn – and that is true for not only the Soviet Army and Soviet people; in case of Yugoslavia, Italy etc. the anti-fascist forces there fought a prolonged war with innumerable sacrifices and won. As Marx once wrote, “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force”, without that bloody war fascism could not have been decisively burnt out, at least for decades.

Professor Prabhat Patnaik discussed ‘rise of contemporary fascism’ and as a reason, said (in his Oct-2017 article) – “An obvious reason for this is the weakening of the trade union movement everywhere as a consequence of globalization and the neo-liberal policies associated with it.” And as the next point, “There is a second reason for the weakening of working class politics, which has to do with its not shaking off the ideological hegemony of neo-liberalism.” It is little bit strange: because fascism which ascended remarkably ‘as a consequence of globalization and the neo-liberal policies associated with it’, was already growing before the official advent of the globalisation-liberalisation, i.e., before early nineteen-nineties – as we see in India, or say, in France – and there too the trade union movement and the communist movement were getting more and more weakened already, say, in the nineteen-eighties. (1) In the 1989 election in India we saw some result which to some extent showed how the society was changing during the late-eighties. In West Bengal assembly election of 1987, BJP got 0.5% vote but in the 1989 parliamentary election in West Bengal BJP got 9.5% votes. In 1991 WB Assembly election in BJP secured 11.34% votes. And we know what happened after Babri Mosque demolition (Dec-1992) in WB. Calcutta had days after days under curfew, dozens died in riots. (2) In France, Mme Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s party got a little breakthrough, a somewhat good result in the 1983 local municipal elections. In 1984 Euro Parliament election that party shocked everybody getting 11% votes and 10 seats from France. In 1985 local cantonal elections they got 8.7% support. In 1986 National Assembly elections 9.8% votes and 35 seats. In 1988 presidential election Le Pen scored 14.4% votes. In 1989 Euro Parliament elections their party got 11.7% votes from France and 10 seats. In 1993 legislative elections they scored 12.7%. So, we saw ‘fascist’ rise happened in the nineteen-eighties before that official advent of the globalisation era. Because the ‘new’ turn in ruling class policies were already pronounced in the nineteen-eighties, and also degeneration of the lefts and their trade unions were already there, though might be in different magnitudes.

Why this weakening or degeneration happened? The answer to it cannot be explained only by what Professor Prabhat Patnaik said, “… swelling labour reserves [as he explained: by rural to urban migration due to weakening of petty production and undermining of peasant economy] obviously cripple trade unions, apart from the ever-present fear that union militancy would drive investment to other destinations.” Rather the lefts tried to frighten the workers that ‘industry/factory must be saved’ otherwise those will close down, because ‘why capitalists will run industries if there is no profit’ … and so on so forth all capitalist arguments. Particularly in WB, the trade unions acted as a layer of management, a party-TU-management-government-administration nexus ruled. They forced one after another ‘Black Agreement’ on the workers. The villages too saw a nexus of party-panchayat-government-businessmen, somewhat visible since the late-eighties and was clearly observable in the twenty-first century. And rebellion against these nexuses were visible in this century. It is not that the lefts had not shaken off the ideological hegemony of neo-liberalism, rather the lefts assimilated neo-liberalism themselves. The country’s first Export Promotion Zone or Special Economic Zone came in WB much before it was centrally planned. Professor Prabhat Patnaik correctly said, “Even the Marxist Left, notwithstanding its criticism of neo-liberalism, has not drawn the inevitable conclusion from it, namely the need to put capital controls in place, and hence to delink to an extent from globalization…”  though this statement indeed dilutes the ‘crime’ committed by the lefts – in fact the lefts gave life-support to the minority Congress Ministry which started liberalising Indian economy from 1991 by friendly walkouts and not voting against the proposals inside the parliament till the government got house majority by horse trading. Their ‘criticism’ was a drama staged before the public, the serial yearly Bharat Bandhs started from September 1991 with only bandh-off-period during the ‘friendly ministry’ in H Deve Gowda – IK Gujral period in which CPI even hold the Home ministry portfolio. And during that left-supported and left-dependent Gowda-Gujral ministry the lefts never demanded rescinding the liberalised policies of the previous Congress Government! So, to investigate reasons of degeneration and weakening of lefts and trade unions we should start neither from the advent of liberalisation era or 1990s, nor from 1980s when it was evident too, rather we should try to investigate from some earlier period.  

To show the ‘opposite’ side, the basis of ‘optimism’, in the Oct-2017 essay Professor Prabhat Patnaik showed that, “But where the Left has broken away from neo-liberalism, it has managed to challenge the fascists.” And as examples he cited what could have happened in the USA if Sanders, ‘an avowed socialist’, were the Democrat candidate in presidential election; and he gave examples of UK and France elections where lefts were successful. To quote – “Jeremy Corbyn, who has come out with a new Left agenda, including even nationalization, has revived working class politics in Britain to an extent where the vote share of the fascist United Kingdom Independence Party went down from 11 per cent in the previous general election to just 2 per cent in the latest one. In France, where Jean-Luc Mélenchon's Left Party together with trade unions has been spearheading opposition to the neo-liberal agenda of the president, Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen's fascist party's vote share has gone down from 23 to 13 per cent between the presidential and parliamentary elections, reducing it to just eight seats in Parliament. In fact, its votes are marginally less than those of the Communist Party and Mélenchon's party put together. In spite of their not fighting the parliamentary election together, they got 27 seats, which is way above the fascists. The fascist upsurge in short can be reversed if the Left breaks out of neo-liberal hegemony and offers the people an alternative concrete agenda.” We must try to keep this article short and therefore will not go for elaborate discussion on this point except citing a few factual snags relating to UK and France elections.

  1. France: The 2017 Presidential election happened in 23-Apr and 7-May and 2017 National Assembly election in 11-June and 18-June — not much time was there in between where some anti-liberalisation activity could be undertaken that can make any new swing apart from some factors like difference between choosing a deputy for an area and choosing president of the country, local factors and etc. In the presidential election, in the first round, 23-Apr, Mélenchon of LFI came fourth (supported by communist party PCF) getting 19.58% and we can add Anti-Capitalist party’s 1.09% = total 20.67%. Mme Le Pen came second, she got 21.30% (by the way, she got 17.90% and came third in the 2012 Presidential election, therefore, she improved her position this time by 3.40%). In the first round of Assembly elections on 11-Jun, Mélenchon’s party got 11.03%, PCF 2.72%, totalling 13.75%. And Mme Le-Pen’s party got 13.20%, only 0.5% less than combined lefts. Now consider – combined lefts got more than 20% seven weeks ago in Presidential first round. And Mme Le Pen got more than 21% seven weeks ago. Therefore, both sides got reduced vote % – the lefts lost about 6% and the rights lost about 8% from the first-round presidential votes. Mélenchon’s party was not there in the previous assembly election. In this election it got 17 seats. PCF got 10 seats, increasing seats by 3, but their vote decreased by 1.57% (seats and votes may go opposite directions sometimes we know, depending on density and spread). Le Pen’s party also got 0.4% less votes than previous time, but their seats instead of getting reduced (as professor wrote) got increased by 6: from 2 last time to 8 this time. So, how much ‘success’ the lefts got in fighting fascist forces and where does Professor’s point stand! Rather worrying pictures came from the demographic analysis of second round of presidential elections — 45% of the poorest section voting for Mme Le Pen, and she secured 56% of Blue-Collar workers’ votes and 46% of White-Collar workers votes!!
  2. Now, UK. There a strange thing happened after BREXIT’s referendum ‘success’ (Yes to BREXIT) of 23-June-2016. In 2015 the pro-fascist UKIP got 3,881,099 votes which was 12.6% of total, an increase of 9.5% from previous election. In 2017 they faced a steep fall; got only 594,068 votes which was 1.8% only, so, they lost more than 3 million votes and slipped by 10.8%. Who gained from this fall? Corbyn’s Labour party? Yes, Labour’s vote share increased by 9.6%. But alas! Conservatives also increased their vote share by 5.5%. UKIP’s sole MP seat was lost. But behind the stage so man things happened, for example, UKIP got severe in-fighting, feuds, resignations, splits &c and it is not that UKIP.
  3. Professor Patnaik told us, “Jeremy Corbyn, who has come out with a new Left agenda, including even nationalization…” but, there is another interesting fact: UKIP opposed privatisation of Royal Mail during the Labour ministry of Blair, and most UKIP supported are in favour of renationalisation of Railways, Energy and nationalisation of water companies too, to note a few[3]. Financial Times on 8-Mar-2018 wrote about Mme Le Pen’s policies, “She calls for the collapse of the EU and talks about nationalising banks. She sees the US as a purveyor of dangerous policies and Russia as a more suitable friend.”[4] And why not! When no banks in Europe were ready to give a multi-million Euro loan to Mme Le Pen’s Party RN, a Russian Bank, allegedly close to Putin, came to rescue her with that big loan!
  4. Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour should rather be cautious – Cons are denting in some seats previously taken for granted as working-class based seats, safe Labour seats. “The Fabians report, For the Many?, attempted to build a comprehensive picture of Labour’s base, through analysis of voting data and interviews with supporters. Support in the 63 most working-class seats has dropped noticeably. These have seen a swing to the Conservatives of 3.6 percentage points since 2005. Labour holds 57 of the 63 seats, down from 62 in 1997.”[5]

Anyway, we can perhaps see from the above facts that Professor’s Patnaik’s examples of UK and France were not much befitting and convincing.   

It will rather help us if Professor Patnaik explains to us also cases of Lula’s Brazil, that Brazil ruled for a long time by Workers Party (PT), that country which hosted the World Social Forum, started the slogan ‘Another World Is Possible’, hosted the FIFA Word Cup (crushing the opposition of many), where the fascists recently got victorious; of Greece, where the ‘left’ party SYRIZA is implementing austerity measures with privations and following IMF-Word Bank diktat; and of Germany, where fascist party AfD is becoming an alternative, and where left party De-Linke is enjoying a prime-ministership in one state in a coalition-ministry, Thuringia. And the name Thuringia brings back to memory that Dimitrov lecture which perhaps nobody likes nowadays: “In 1923 Saxony and Thuringia presented a clear picture of a Right opportunist "workers' government" in action. The entry of the Communists into the Workers' Government of Saxony jointly with the Left Social-Democrats (Ziegner group) was no mistake in itself; on the contrary, the revolutionary situation in Germany fully justified this step. But in taking part in the government, the Communists should have used their positions primarily for the purpose of arming the proletariat. This they did not do. They did not even requisition a single apartment of the rich, although the housing shortage among the workers was so great that many of them with their wives and children were still without a roof over their heads. They also did nothing to organize the revolutionary mass movement of the workers. They behaved in general like ordinary parliamentary ministers "within the framework of bourgeois democracy." As you know, this was the result of the opportunist policy of Brandler and his adherents. The result was such bankruptcy that to this day we have to refer to the government of Saxony as the classical example of how revolutionaries should not behave when in office.”

But leave it! ‘Arming of the proletariat’ is nowadays viewed as an ‘impractical’ daydream. But Professor Patnaik, it seems from his Oct-2018 article, has some suggestions which may also sound ‘impractical’ by pragmatic-lefts. (1) In the eleventh paragraph he says, “If this conjuncture is to be changed, if 2019, even if it sees an unseating of the Hindutva forces from power, is not to result merely in putting the clock back so that these forces again come back to power the next time around, then opposition unity must be around a minimum agenda of action. This must include a scrapping of the UAPA (under which innocent Muslim youth are arrested and jailed for years, their lives irreparably damaged), a scrapping of the sedition law, stringent measures against lynch-mobs, enforcing minimum ethical standards on the media, reining in the CBI…”. That is indeed remarkable, perhaps the lefts in general have not pondered over it before. (2) In the twelfth and thirteen paragraph he dealt with a practical reform program and also gave an idea of its feasibility including where from the money may come. He proposed five fundamental citizenship rights and said, “instituting a set of fundamental economic rights, among which I would list at least the following five: right to food, right to employment, right to free publicly-funded quality universal healthcare, right to free universal publicly-funded quality education and right to adequate old-age pension and disability benefits. These measures should not cost more than 10% of the GDP, which a 4% wealth tax (such a tax no longer even exists in India) on the top 1% of households, should be quite adequate to finance.” Then in the concluding two paragraphs he reminded the lefts of their historic duty as far as anti-fascist struggle is concerned. The problem is our lefts, particularly the bigger parties, are in general not that ‘revolutionary’ to think of annulling black acts, because many years in the government has reformed them, they think always of maintain ‘strict law and order’ when in power, and never want to make the state relinquish such laws – they themselves used such laws when in power of state governments, particularly in Bengal. So, scrapping UAPA, ESMA, AFSPA will not at all be important to them – rather they will shelve such suggestions. They would like the second part – the ‘practical’ reform more. But there also they will surely dilute the ‘wealth tax’ idea. In WB panchayati raj acts, in the formative years (early and mid-eighties of last century), wealth tax on house and etc immobile properties was a negligible 0.06%p.a. or something like that (this author could not remember the exact figure).

The lefts would rather love Professor’s suggestion given in his Oct-2017 article. There in the concluding paragraph Professor Patnaik summed up as, “The point is not who is 'touchable' and who is not; the point is to push for an alternative agenda and ally with whoever comes on board. Such an alternative agenda has to be minimal but significant. Even an agenda with just two points, a State-run national health service offering free and quality healthcare to all, and a chain of quality State-run neighbourhood schools providing free education to all children, will go a long way in changing the ethos of this country. …” So here, in that full article, our learned Professor did not embarrass his left friends with such unholy proposals like scraping UAPA – rather made ‘just two practical points’ — 1. a State-run national health service offering free and quality healthcare to all, and 2. a chain of quality State-run neighbourhood schools providing free education to all children. Let us see how Professors favourite Indian lefts design their anti-fascist fight. One thing is certain – riding on peoples’ anti-government sentiments and voicing demands of a few popular reforms (which will slowly become paltry like the ‘famous’ land reform of lefts in WB) and keeping the people dependent on party and govt officialdom. We have already seen that regarding the ‘farmers’ movement in recent times the ‘lefts’ had silently obfuscating some main demands of ‘peasantry’ – land to the peasants, cancellation of usurers’ debts and usury, availability of loans without collaterals complicated official-paraphernalia etc (which compel poorer peasants to go to the usurers, about half or more of the debts of the ‘marginal’ and ‘poor’ farmers are not from govt institutions), direct state purchase of peasants’ products to eliminate distress-sales at throwaway prices &c; and only highlighting such two demands which will be profiting for even village rich farmers and capitalist-farmers (or cultivating landlords – who own land, implements and run production hiring labourers – perhaps this term was used/coined by Professor Utsa Patnaik) – one-time debt-relief and sales price at 150% of cost of production.

But the vital point remained unspoken or hidden. How can you combat and defeat a ‘movement’ that is counter-revolutionary and reactionary with reforms ‘from above’ without any mention of building up the movement against fascism – which should naturally not be “anti-this” or “against-that” something, but rather a revolutionary mass-movement for a radical democratic change in the society, an aspiration for “equality”, and in India’s case particularly, including end of all caste-based inequalities, annihilation of castes, end of gender inequalities, equal treatment to all nations, nationalities, tribes, all languages and so on so forth, real ‘secularism’ or totally delinking public life from any religion (religion can then only remain in private sphere). And such a movement is naturally not designed for this and that elections, for a change in government, ministries, rather for a total change in society. A movement for some ‘reforms’ cannot deal with fascism in the long run. If some change in government happens through parliamentary elections here the patties at least partly had to rely on a revolutionary mass-movement, then only that govt can produce or can be pushed to some major reforms like scrapping UAPA, FSPA, ESMA, initiate wealth tax, etc. (even perhaps, like the Erfurt Program, demand scrapping indirect taxes).

Without a revolutionary movement you cannot defeat a reactionary, counter-revolutionary movement: Fascist movement. From Clara Zetkin[6] we can see one thing that has resemblance to present day scenario: “…These masses of disappointed socialist sympathisers are joined by large circles of the proletariat, of workers who have given up their faith not only in socialism, but also in their own class. Fascism has become a sort of refuge for the politically shelterless. In fairness it ought to be said that the Communists, too … bear part of the blame for the desertion of these elements to the Fascist ranks, because our actions at times failed to stir the masses profoundly enough.” Again, “We must realise that Fascism is a movement of the disappointed and of those whose existence is ruined. Therefore, we must endeavour either to win over or to neutralise those wide masses who are still in the Fascist camp. I wish to emphasise the importance of our realising that we must struggle ideologically for the possession of the soul of these masses. We must realise that they are not only trying to escape from their present tribulations, but that they are longing for a new philosophy. We must come out of the narrow limits of our present activity.” By the way, Indian fascism utilises and relies on age old superstitions and deep rooted so-called Hindu orthodox Brahminical worldview. But even India historically had other philosophical systems. Moreover, the libertarian revolutionary philosophy as expressed through revolutionary movements once drew into fold millions and millions in many states of India. Though internationally the working-class movement is yet to recover from its shocking defeat (mainly from degenerations within and not at all like the inspiring martyrdom like Paris Commune) which is a handicap. But we cannot shrink from the duty towards reawakening of the international movement, development of working class movement and peasant movement in India, and keep us busy with parliamentary manoeuvring and electoral tactics.