R. Palme Dutt's 'Fascism and social revolution'

By Graham Milner

In the present situation in the world, with the intermittent resurgence of fascist and neo-fascist movements in some countries, an avowedly Marxist treatment of the subject of fascism, such as Palme Dutt's Fascism and Social Revolution, deserves the attention of new generations of readers.

Rajani Palme Dutt (1896-1974) was born in England of an Indian father and a Swedish mother.[1] He grew up in a political household, where socialism and Indian independence were familiar subjects of discussion. A brilliant scholar at Oxford University (he took a double first), Dutt was a conscientious objector during the World War I, and was expelled from university in 1917 for disseminating Marxist propaganda.

A founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Dutt became a central leader of the party and worked closely with the leadership of the Communist International, being based from 1924-36 in Brussels. Dutt has been described as "arguably, the most important figure in the Communist Party of Great Britain".[2] In the 1920s, Dutt took the side of Stalin in the struggle within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Comintern, and remained a Stalinist. He was to play a central role in the CPGB's affairs until he retired in the 1960s. Dutt played a particularly important part in building international links between communist movements within the British Commonwealth, and the journal he edited, Labour Monthly, as well as books and pamphlets he wrote, were significant in building the Indian independence struggle.[3]

It is worthwhile looking at the context in which Fascism and Social Revolution was written. The book appeared in the mid-1930s. The 1930s was a decade of crisis. The Great Depression, which began with the collapse of the New York stock market in 1929, had spread to the rest of the industrialised world and brought with it widespread questioning of the capitalist system of economy.[4] The victory of the Nazis in 1933, and the threat of further fascist advance in Europe, challenged the left.

The USSR at this time, as the first workers' state, was a beacon for the left, offering an example of planned, socialist economy which seemed immune from the problems of the crisis-racked capitalist world. The world Communist movement, founded in 1919, had still, by the early 1930s, not succeeded in breaking the hegemony of social democracy over the international labour movement.[5] This situation could be partly explained by the effects of the ultra-left "Third Period" policy foisted onto the Comintern by its Stalinist leadership, a policy which had contributed to the defeat in Germany.[6]

Although it has been claimed by Eric Hobsbawm that the official Communist movement could be described as "the only game in town" for those interested in global revolution in the 1930s,[7] other historians have emphasised the pluralism of Marxism in this period, refusing to identify it exclusively with Stalinist orthodoxy.[8]

Dutt has been identified as one of the prime movers behind the British Communist Party's lurch to the left after 1928, [9] and there is no doubt that in Britain, as in other contexts, the ultra-left politics of the "Third Period", under which the Labour Party, as with other social-democratic parties, was singled out as "social fascist" and as the main enemy of the Communist forces, resulted in the Communist Party's support dwindling.[10]

The first three chapters of Fascism and Social Revolution establish the basis of Dutt's thesis -- his economic analysis of capitalism in the imperialist stage. The notion that the global capitalist economic system had entered into an irreversible stage of decline since the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 runs like a red thread through these early chapters of Dutt's book.[11] This idea is a continuation of Lenin's thesis in Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), a book that marked an important stage in Lenin's intellectual development,[12] and the analysis of which -- describing the stage of monopoly capitalism that ushered in the 20th century as "moribund capitalism"[13] -- formed the basis in outlook for the entire foundation of the world Communist movement, with its stress on the "actuality of revolution" in the imperialist era.[14] In fact, as his biographer John Callaghan notes, Dutt had had "the intention, as he told CPGB co-leader [Harry] Pollitt, of constructing a sort of sequel to Lenin's Imperialism''.[15]

As Dutt wrote:

The world war [i.e. 1914-18] was the beginning of the violent explosion of this conflict, of the conflict between the ever-growing productive forces and the limits of existing property-society. Since 1914 we have entered into a new era, the era of the general crisis of capitalism and of the advance of the world socialist revolution.[16]

Dutt saw fascism as a further stage and episode of the general crisis of capitalism. The only alternative to this "barbarism and spreading decay"[17] was the world socialist revolution which began in Russia in 1917 and which would build the "classless communist society".[18] But this was to be no automatic process. Dutt undermines Nicos Poulantzas' critique of Comintern "economism" (i.e. failure to provide the active intervention via the class struggle to speed what was seen as an automatic process of capitalist collapse) in Poulantzas' Fascism and Dictatorship, by drawing attention to Lenin's strictures that capitalism will "not finally fall until the proletariat overthrows it".[19]

Dutt turns in chapter four to the question "What is fascism?" Initially, he defines it as "the most complete and consistent working out, in certain conditions of extreme decay, of the most typical tendencies and policies of modern capitalism".[21] Furthermore, he sees it "in the conditions of threatening proletarian revolution, as a counter-revolutionary mass movement supported by the bourgeoisie".[22] Turning to the question of the relationship between the middle-class mass base of and finance capitalist support for fascism, Dutt carefully distinguishes his position from those "common in liberal and social-democratic treatment[s]"[23] which overemphasise the independent character of fascism as a middle-class mass movement against the big bourgeoisie. He stresses that the "open and avowed supporters of Fascism in every country are the representatives of big capital, the Thyssens, Krupps, Monds, Deterdings and Owen Youngs".[24] He summarises his definition as follows:

Fascism, in short, is a movement of mixed elements, dominantly petit-bourgeois, but also slum-proletarian and demoralised working-class, financed and directed by finance capital, by the big industrialists, landlords and financiers, to defeat the working-class revolution and smash the working-class organisations.[25]

One criticism of Dutt's analysis that could be levelled is his failure to utilise the theory of Bonapartism -- a Marxist concept employed by other theorists such as Thalheimer and Trotsky -- to define regimes such as the Bruning government in Germany[26] (which Dutt describes simply as "near-Fascist or pre-Fascist"[27]). But Dutt nevertheless has a keener sense of the mass dynamics of fascism than was evident in much previous Comintern literature.[28]

In the next three chapters of Fascism and Social Revolution, Dutt discusses the concrete historical circumstances of fascism's conquest of power in Italy, Germany and Austria respectively. In the Italian case, Dutt emphasises the depth and strength of the post-war revolutionary wave in which the proletariat and oppressed strata of the peasantry challenged the entrenched power of the big capitalists and landowners.[29] Dutt places emphasis on the crisis of leadership in the Italian socialist movement (the Communist Party was not founded until after the revolutionary wave had subsided [30]) and points out that fascism emerged only after the proletariat was in retreat.[31] He defines fascism in this context to be "a species of preventive counter-revolution".[32]

In the German case, Dutt maintains that:

the establishment of the Fascist dictatorship was only the culminating step of a long process, which began already in 1918 when Ebert and Hindenburg drew up the terms of their treaty of alliance against the proletarian revolution.[33]

Dutt places heavy emphasis on the treacherous role of the SPD (Social Democrats) for derailing the 1918 revolution and on the bourgeois character of the Weimar republic, based on restabilised German capitalism.[34] But Dutt, while correctly lambasting the role of the SPD, distorts the part played by the Communist Party (KPD), claiming that this party devoted all its efforts in the years before Hitler's accession to power to building a united working-class front. The evidence suggests otherwise -- in fact the ultra-left, sectarian policies of the KPD precisely prevented such a united front being cemented.[33] Furthermore Dutt, writing only a year or so after Hitler's victory, has the same wildly optimistic assessment as the Comintern leadership of revolutionary possibilities under the Nazi regime, not recognising that a massive defeat had occurred.[34]

Dutt once again concentrates his fire on the treacherous role of social democracy for derailing the socialist revolution in Austria in 1918-19.[35] The fact that the Communist forces in Austria were comparatively tiny is taken by Dutt as evidence contradicting the argument that a split in the working-class movement was responsible for other fascist victories; in Germany for instance.[36] Dutt probably overemphasises the culpability of Austrian socialism in facilitating the consolidation of Dollfuss's clerical-fascist regime in 1934.[37]

Dutt turns, in chapter eight to a fuller analysis of what he sees as the role of social democracy discussed so far; a role "of decisive importance in the development to Fascism".[38] Without mentioning Stalin's name, Dutt refers to the notion developed by Zinoviev and Stalin in the mid-1920s that social democracy and fascism were "twins",[39] an idea that underpinned the ultra-left Third Period positions of the Comintern. Dutt does marshal some strong arguments to develop the thesis that social democracy, by propping up capitalism, does indeed prepare the road for fascism, but he obscures the mistaken view that the Comintern, and the KPD in particular, held -- that "social fascism" was the primary enemy of the revolutionary forces.[40]

In chapter nine of his book, Dutt examines the question of whether there is a "theory" of fascism. More recent writers have developed the theme that fascism does indeed have an ideological complexity that allows it to be placed alongside liberalism, socialism and conservatism. Zeev Sternhell, for example, has argued that fascism's "intellectual baggage enabled it to travel alone, and its theoretical content was neither less homogeneous nor more heterogeneous than that of liberalism or socialism".[41]

Dutt rejects this view outright. He states:

The reality of Fascism is the violent attempt of decaying capitalism to defeat the proletarian revolution and forcibly arrest the growing contradictions of its whole development. All the rest is decoration and stage-play, whether conscious or unconscious, to cover and make presentable or attractive this basic reactionary aim, which cannot be openly stated without defeating its purpose.[42]

Dutt sees nothing creative in fascism, but reduces it to mere demagogy.[43] The corporate state he dismisses as yet another example of "the general line of combination of state control and private enterprise" in post-war "Organised Capitalism",[44] with the major distinction that it is "based on the violent destruction of the workers' independent organisations and the complete abolition of the right to strike".[45] The advance of fascism, he notes, has "enormously accelerated the advance to war on every side".[46]

Interestingly, Dutt includes in chapter nine a discussion of "Fascism and the Woman Question", developing the Marxist thesis that women's emancipation is tied up with the struggle for the socialisation of the functions performed by the family unit under capitalism.[47] He points out that fascist policy is to drive women back into the home and back to economic dependence on marriage, thus overturning what social gains women had made in earlier times.[48]

In chapter eleven of Fascism and Social Revolution, Dutt looks ahead to an examination of fascism's prospects in the Western capitalist democracies of Britain, France and the USA. Dutt finds plenty of evidence to suggest that Britain might go fascist. He points to the violent reality behind the peaceful facade of British parliamentary democracy, emphasising the ruthless repression evident in Britain's colonial possessions.[49] He draws attention to the large proportion of petit-bourgeois elements in the population,[50] and to the class-collaborationist policies of the Labour Party.[51] But Dutt exaggerates his case when he assesses the National Government as an example of "encroaching fascism".[52] In fact the actual fascist movement in the 1930s, Mosley's British Union of Fascists, remained on the fringes of political life, despite garnering some backing from ruling-class circles.[53]

Dutt's assessment of the Roosevelt administration in the USA is surely among the most wildly inaccurate of his prognoses in Fascism and Social Revolution. The New Deal has been variously assessed by historians,[54] but Dutt's opinion that Roosevelt's measures were tending towards fascism[55] seems extreme. Later, the Communist Party of the USA, in line with Comintern thinking after the seventh congress of 1935 launched the "Popular Front", was to have a far different assessment of Roosevelt,[56] and in fact acted as a break on the movement for independent labour politics in the USA in the later 1930s.[57]

The events in France in 1934, in which fascist riots helped to bring down the Daladier government and install the reactionary Doumergue regime, are depicted by Dutt as another example of transition to fascism.[58] And in this case it must be admitted that fascism was a real threat.[59] Learning from its mistakes in Germany, the Communist movement in France negotiated a united front agreement with the Socialist Party, and later in the decade the French proletariat took the offensive with a series of mass strikes and factory occupations,[60] although this movement was headed off to some extent by the policies of the Popular Front government elected in 1936.[61]

What might be said in conclusion concerning Dutt's Fascism and Social Revolution? One critic has commented unfavourably on the Comintern's attempts to gain a theoretical understanding of fascism after the Sixth World Congress in 1928, describing its efforts beyond that time as "less and less concrete and more adapted to mere political exigencies".[62] But the same critic exempts Dutt's book from this assessment.[63] In fact, Dutt's book appeared at the cusp of the Comintern's change in line from the ultra-leftism of the Third Period to the right-opportunism of the Popular Front positions adopted by the Seventh World Congress.[64]. Despite its errors on "social fascism'" and its flawed assessment of the Roosevelt administration, Dutt's book reflects a militant phase of Communist history and politics missing from the "catch-all" policies of the Popular Front era later in the 1930s. Dutt's preface to the 1935 edition of Fascism and Social Revolution still defends the line of working-class revolution, as Brian Pearce has pointed out.[65]

Fascism and Social Revolution, although in some respects a period piece in the history of 20th century Marxism, still has important lessons to offer any student or activist looking for a rigorous and comprehensive socialist analysis of fascism.


1. For details of Dutt's life see John Callaghan, Rajani Palme Dutt: A Study in British Stalinism (London 1993).

2. Ibid., p. 7.

3. See, for example, India Today (London 1940).

4. On the Depression see W.Arthur Lewis, Economic Survey 1919-1939

(London 1949) ch. 4.

5. On the evolution of the Communist International, see Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (London 1985), Fernando Claudin, The Communist Movement: from Comintern to Cominform (Harmondsworth 1975) and Julius Braunthal, History of the International 1914-1943 (London 1967).

6. See Hallas, The Comintern, ch. 6, and also Leon Trotsky, "The Third Period of the Comintern's Errors", in  Writings of Leon Trotsky: 1930 (New York 1975), pp. 27-68.

7. Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (London 1994) p.75.

8. See, for example, David Beetham (ed.), Marxists in Face of Fascism: Writings by Marxists on Fascism from the Inter-War Period (Totawa, N.J. 1984), p. 1. Perry Anderson also deals with non-Stalinist tendencies in Marxism during this period, in Considerations on Western Marxism (London 1976).

9. Brian Pearce, "The Communist Party and the Labour Left 1925-1929", in Michael Woodhouse and Brian Pearce, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain (London 1975) pp. 184-88.

10. Ibid., p. 192. See also Henry Pelling, The British Communist Party: A Historical Profile (London 1958), ch. 4.

11. Fascism and Social Revolution: A Study of the Economics and Politics of the Last Stages of Capitalism in Decay'(London, 2nd rev. ed., 1935).

12. Collected Works (Moscow, 1964), vol. 22, pp. 185-304. On the position of this work in Lenin's overall opus, see Neil Harding, Lenin's Political Thought, vol. 2 "Theory and Practice in the Socialist Revolution (London 1981).

13. Imperialism, p. 302.

14, See Georg Lukacs, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought (London

1970; orig. ed. 1924) ch. 1.

15. Rajani Palme Dutt, p. 136.

16. Fascism and Social Revolution, p. 9.

17. Ibid., p. 24.

18. Ibid., p. 25.

19. Fascism and Social Revolution, p. 42.

21. Ibid., p. 72.

22. Ibid., p. 75.

23. Ibid., p. 77.

24. Ibid., p. 80.

25. Ibid., p. 82.

26. See August Thalheimer, "On Fascism", in Beetham (ed.), Marxists in Face of Fascism, pp.187-95 and Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York 1971), part three.

27. Fascism and Social Revolution, p. 73.

28. For a discussion of the "heteronomic" limitations of much Comintern theorising on fascism, see Martin Kitchen, Fascism (London 1976) ch. 1.

29. Fascism and Social Revolution, pp. 91-3.

30. The strength of the revolutionary movement in post-war Italy is well brought out in Gwyn Williams, Proletarian Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Communism in Italy' (London 1975).

31. Fascism and Social Revolution, pp. 93-100.

32. Ibid., pp. 100-104.

33. Ibid., pp. 120-121

34. Ibid., p. 131; see Trotsky's writings in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany'and Robert Black, Fascism in Germany (Nottingham 1975), vol.2. On the British Communist Party and Comintern opposition to a united front, see Max Schachtman, Appendix to Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (New York 1957), pp. 379-84. The Comintern continued to endorse the suicidal line of the KPD after the Nazi victory. See "Resolution of the ECCI Presidium on the Situation in Germany", April 1, 1933, in Jane Degras (ed.), The Communist International: Documents, vol. 3 "1919-1943" (Oxford 1965), pp. 257-63.

35. Fascism and Social Revolution, p. 137ff.

36. Ibid., p. 134.

37. See Martin Kitchen,The Coming of Austrian Fascism (London 1980) and also Braunthal, The International, vol 2, ch. 18 on the heroic resistance of the Austrian workers.

38. Fascism and Social Revolution, p. 149.

39. Ibid., p. 150. Stalin's position is developed in The Period of Bourgeois-Democratic Pacifism (1924); Beetham (ed.), Marxists in Face of Fascism, p. 154.

40. See Ernst Thalmann, the KPD leader's article The Revolutionary Way Out and the KPD, ibid., p. 163, and also Dutt's earlier article "Fascism, Empire and the Labour Party", Labour Monthly, vol. 12, no. 11 (November 1930), pp. 643-56.

41. The Birth of Fascist Ideology (Princeton N.J. 1994), p. 8. See also the same author's "Fascist Ideology", in Walter Laquer (ed.), Fascism: A Reader's Guide (Harmondsworth 1979), pp. 325-406.

42. Fascism and Social Revolution, p. 178. This position is comparable with George Novack, Democracy and Revolution (New York, 1971), pp. 165-66.

43. Fascism and Social Revolution, p. 184ff.

44. Ibid., p. 203.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid., p. 218.

47. Ibid., pp. 218-19. Compare this view with the fuller Marxist treatment of the subject in the Australian Democratic Socialist Party's document Feminism and Socialism: Putting the Pieces Together (Chippendale, NSW 1992), ch. 2.

48. Fascism and Social Revolution, pp. 220-21. The influence of the fascist counter-revolution on women's rights is discussed by Kate Millett in Sexual Politics (London 1972), ch. 4.

49. Fascism and Social Revolution, p. 238.

50. Ibid., pp. 236-7.

51. Ibid., p. 237.

52. Ibid., p. 247. Compare this assessment with that of Dutt's fellow CPGB member J.T. Murphy, Preparing for Power: A Critical Study of the History of the British Working-Class Movement (London 1972; orig.ed. 1934), who described the National Government's political complexion as "incipient fascism", p. 278.

53. See Robert Benewick, The Fascist Movement in Britain (London, rev. ed. 1972), and Noreen Branson and Margot Heinemann, Britain in the Nineteen Thirties (London 1971), ch. 19.

54. See the collection of views in Edwin C. Rozwenc (ed.), The New Deal: Revolution or Evolution? (Lexington, Mass., rev. ed. 1959).

55. Fascism and Social Revolution, p. 251. Poulantzas comments on Dutt's declaration at the 13th plenum of the Comintern in 1933 that Roosevelt's government was "the most advanced example of the classical type of fascist development to be found among the imperialist countries", Fascism and Dictatorship, pp. 58-9.

56. See Earl Browder, "What Follows After the Roosevelt Victory?", in Rozwenc (ed.), The New Deal, p. 72-5, and also Dutt's comments on Roosevelt's death, Labour Monthly (May 1945), p. 245.

57. On US labour politics in the 1930s see Art Preis, Labor's Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO (New York 1964) part one and also Daniel Guerin, 100 Years of Labor in the USA (London 1979), ch. 2.

58. Fascism and Social Revolution, p. 258.

59. Compare Dutt's views with Trotsky's assessment in "Whither France?", in On France (New York 1979) pp. 29-62. See also W. Knapp, France: Partial Eclipse: From the Stavisky Riots to the Nazi Conquest (London 1972).

60. Ibid., ch. 5. On the PCF/SFIO united front see "Resolution Adopted by the National Conference, July 1934, Communist Party of France (PCF)", in Beetham (ed.), Marxists in Face of Fascism, pp. 171-74.

61. See Trotsky, On France, part three.

62. J. Cammett, "Communist Theories of Fascism 1920-1935", Science and Society, vol. 31 (1967), p.150.

63. Ibid., p. 156.

64. The major document on fascism of the Seventh World Congress was presented by Georgi Dimitrov: Against Fascism and War: Report Before the Seventh World Congress of the Communist international; August 2, 1935' (Sofia, 1975).

65. "From 'Social Fascism' to 'People's Front'", Woodhouse and Pearce, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, p. 212.

R Palme Dutt - now that is a blast from the past! I remember reading some articles by Dutt back in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Sensational article from Milner summarising the contribution that Dutt made to the Marxist understanding of fascism.

Interpretations and explanations for fascism have ranged from the superficial to the bizarre, and since my student days of the 1980s, the Marxist analysis of fascism has come under sustained attack. Understanding the appeal and rise of fascism and neo-fascist groups needs a pluralistic approach; the function of racist ideology, anti-immigrant sentiment and the combination of rising unemployment and right-wing populism need to be examined.

A number of recent studies have reduced Fascism to an 'existential crisis', (I think Michael Burleigh was responsible for that, but I am not entirely sure). Others have pointed to a European 'cultural regress'. Some writers, like Goldhagen, have prioritised the prevailing antisemitism of pre-WWII Germany, and while this factor is important, does not on its own explain the rise of fascism.

There was appalling antisemitism in Tsarist Russia for instance, and while there were the crypto-fascistic and violently antisemitic Black Hundreds, a fascist regime did not arise in that country.

Each of the ideological and cultural factors needs to be set in the broader economic and political context of the ongoing decay and atrophy of capitalism, and the increasing attacks by the bourgeoisie against the gains made by the working class. Explaining this broader context is where Dutt's analysis is extremely valuable. An avowed materialist, he never lost sight of the role of non-material, ideological factors in accounting for fascism's mass appeal, while always remaining solidly on the bedrock of a Marxist understanding of class and social forces. Dutt certainly based himself on Lenin's work "Imperialism the highest stage of capitalism" and developed his own original and perceptive understanding of what he called the 'spreading decay and barbarism' of capitalism.

Yes, Dutt fell in line with the prevailing pro-Moscow positions of the Comintern; that is a limitation, but it is understandable given the political context of most European Communist parties in the 1930s. Most CPs were quick to fall into the Moscow line, but this does not of its own undermine the validity of Dutt's evaluation. We are all the products of our political culture and have the limitations of our times. Dutt was an outstanding Marxist, and we should take on board his exceptional writings while keeping in mind the shortcomings of his Comintern-influenced outlook.

Greatly appreciated the essay!