Fascism is so often used as an insult that any real analysis of its specific meaning is often obscured.
There are those who use it to describe any authoritarian action, or any extreme racism or anti-Semitism. There is the opportunistic labelling of Saddam Hussein as a fascist to justify the war on Iraq. There is also a more serious argument on the left put forward by John Pilger that George Bush and the US are in a pre-fascist situation.
While it is true that racism, anti-Semitism, authoritarianism and the destruction of civil liberties, as well as dictatorship and genocide, have all been crucial elements of fascist states, it is a more specific, class analysis of fascism that gives us the best hope of defeating it. Marxists do not describe fascism in terms of the psychology of its proponents. Leon Trotsky explained: "German fascism... raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organisations of the working class and the institutions of democracy."
When people look at today's fascist parties such as the BNP, they tend to think it is made up of lumpen workers. In fact, a breakdown of its candidates shows they are mostly professionals or self-employed. When Trotsky spoke of the German petty bourgeoisie, he meant shopkeepers, small business people and so on. Fascism brings "to their feet those classes that are immediately above the working class and that are ever in dread of being forced down into its ranks; it organises and militarises them... and it directs them to the extirpation of proletarian organisations, from the most revolutionary to the most conservative."
The middle classes necessarily occupy a contradictory position in society. Whereas workers are linked into organisations that organise collectively, the middle classes are individualised and isolated.
When working class struggle is winning, the middle classes identify with progressive aims. But in periods of crisis, unable to turn to the collective struggle of the workplace, they are drawn to organisations with a radical rhetoric against the system whose focus of organisation is the street. Hitler said, "Mass demonstrations must burn into the little man's soul the conviction that, though a little worm, he is part of a great dragon."
Marxists are familiar with the idea of the two contending classes in society. This emphasis reflects the real power that exists in society.
Fascists could build a mass movement based on the middle class, but they could not take power without the political and financial support of the ruling class. Hitler's Nazis were bankrolled by business leader Fritz Thyssen, and Mussolini's fascists by the Pirelli brothers and other industrialists. For all their radicalism they are still a tool of capitalist rule. The bosses were loath to support the Nazis, but for them the alternative was worse. In the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the subsequent revolutionary upheaval across Europe, the ruling classes quaked in their boots. The fascist parties offered a solution in the form of a mass movement of counter-revolution.
The final piece of the jigsaw was the crisis of social democracy and the poor leadership of the Communist parties under Stalin.
For had the social democrats and the Communists united in action they could have prevented Hitler's rise to power - together they received more votes than the Nazis. Instead the Communists swung from accusing social democrats of being the same as the fascists ("social fascists") to joining forces with the right in a "popular front".
In Spain, where a revolution had defeated Franco's fascists, the Communist Party supported the nationalist government in working with the British and French Tory governments in their alliance with Russia. This disarmed the working class movement and led ultimately to Franco's victory.
The Nazis had a twin-track strategy - mobilising on the streets, but also in elections. Hitler didn't seize power in a coup: he was elected. The Nazis used the democratic system to destroy democracy. This is key to the reason we argue for "no platform" for fascists. They use that platform to remove liberties from other people. Since the BNP has been elected in Barking & Dagenham, racist attacks have risen by 30 percent.
Modern fascists in Europe have inverted Hitler's strategy. They are looking for electoral victory before they turn to the streets. This has been forced on them for two reasons.
Firstly, the legacy of the Holocaust has associated fascist ideas with the mass murder of millions.
Secondly, the opposition they have faced in the streets has made it more difficult. Le Pen, the most successful European Nazi, cites the destruction of the National Front in Britain by the Anti Nazi League in the 1970s as a stark warning to Nazis who think they can simply repeat what Hitler and Mussolini did in the 1930s.
The Eurofascists' strategy is to exploit bitterness against neoliberal policies, and the failure of social democratic governments to produce reforms, to make electoral gains. They use the scapegoating of immigrants, Muslims and black people to this end. But if there is a big enough economic crisis they can return to the streets once more. The Eurofascists are positioning themselves for that crisis. But they can be defeated.
Mass united action to confront the fascists is the way to ensure they cannot rise again. This takes three forms. Firstly, we prevent them from organising by having protests wherever they try to meet. This isolates the hardcore from those who might be pulled by their ideas. Secondly, we confront them politically by building a united front of trade unionists, socialists, the Labour Party and oppressed groups - as Unite Against Fascism and Love Music Hate Racism do today.
Finally, we need to launch a wider struggle against the conditions in which Nazis thrive by fighting over issues such as poverty, war and exploitation.
Weyman Bennett is joint secretary of Unite Against Fascism
See also the Love Music Hate Racism website.
Further reading: Fascism by Leon Trotsky
Next month, G is for Gay liberation