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The Fascism of Our Times

Prabhat Patnaik

Social Scientist, Vol. 21, No. 3/4. (Mar. - Apr., 1993), pp. 69-77.

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Wed Apr 2 10:36:07 2008

The Fascism of Our Times"

1. Many people stop short of describing the Ayodhya outrage and its
sequel in terms of a rise of Fascism in our country, and prefer to restrict
themselves to the use of the word communalism. In my view however
the communal carnage and the pogroms against the minority commu-
nity that occurred in cities like Bombay and Ahmedabad are the out-
ward and horrendous manifestations of a deeper and more sinister
trend, namely the emergence sf Fascism; consequently, one cannot treat
them as episodic or transient, or concerning the minority community
alone. I am not underplaying the communal nature oi the violence, but I
am arguing that communalism is the form which Fascism takes in our
The Hindutva movement as it has emerged is, almost in a classical
sense, Fascist in its ideology, Fascist in its class support, Fascist in its
methods, and Fascist in its programme. All the ingredients of a Fascist
ideology are present in it: the attempt to unify the majority under a
homogenised concept, 'the Hindus'; a sense of grievance against
alleged injustices done to this homogeneous group in the past by an
excluded homogeneous minority; a sense of cultural superiority vis-a-
vis this minority; a reinterpretation of history exclusively in these
terms; a total rejection of contrary evidence, of dispassionate analysis,
of the scientific method, indeed of rational discourse; and above all an
appeal to the so-called homogeneous majority in passionate, blood-
curdling, and essentially male chauvinist terms to 'stand up', 'assert
their manhood', 'show that it is blood not water that flows in their
veins', all of which amount to an incitement to violence, and result in
actual violence, against the minority group. Unlike progressive social
movements which attack institutions, and not individuals, and whose
attack on institutions derives precisely from the desire to attain equal-
ity and 'universal brotherhood', the targets of Fascism are individuals
belonging to a particular group; the attack on institutions, such as it is,
is derivative from this. It seeks not to transcend the current state, but to

*centre for Economic Studies, JawaharlalNehru University, New Delhi.

** 'This article is based on a lecture delivered at Ahmedabad on 25 February 1993, as part

of Anhad Gorjc, a festival organised by Sahmat .

Social Scientist, Vol. 21, Nos. 3 4 , March-April 1993


invert the perceived oppressor-oppressed relationship within the

extant parameters of the social order, the extant property and power
relations. Its appeal is based not on the dreams of a better or more
prosperous or meaningful future, but upon hatred; the only fate it can
offer to its perceived enemy is extermination, or expulsion, or at best a
marginal existence as a subservient group.
All this is as true of Nazism in Germany as it is of the Hindutva
movement, and the fact that the strength of the incitement has waxed
and waned should not blind us to this basic aspect. The homogermisation
of an 'us' versus a 'they' has been sought to be achieved through the
manufacture of what writers have variously called a 'semitised' or a
'syndicated' Hinduism1 which is totally different from the set of
beliefs and practices, grouped together as Hinduism, as they have
actually evolved.
The basic class support of the movement comes from the petty-
bourgeoisie. For a long time the BJP which today is a prominent compo-
nent of the Hindutva movement had its support among the urban petty-
bourgeoisie. Its attempt to extend its support base to the landlords and
the rich peasantry in North India (the upper peasantry constitutes in
many ways the rural counterpart of the urban petty-bourgeoisie), had
been thwarted by the control exercised by Charan Singh and his allies
upon this section. Indeed the BJP's attempt to penetrate the rural sup-
port base of Charan Singh was the basic cause of the conflict that had
brought down the Janata government in 1980. With the collapse of the
Charan Singh-led coalition, the BJP's Hindutva platform has drawn
adherents from within the rich peasantry and landlords as well. Its
overall class-support nonetheless can be characterised as petty-
bourgeois (including its rural counterpart), notably traders, white-
collar workers, shop-keepers, government officials and the salariat,
which is another typical fealure of ~ a s c i s mJan
. ~ Breman has written
about the support for the Hindutva forces among the rural rich in
Cujarat; many witnesses of the Bombay carnage have testified to the
fact that the perpetrators of arson and violence were not so much the
unemployed or the lumpen proletariat, but middle class or lower
middle class youths who had gainful employment of one kind or
another. The bulk of the rural poor are as yet outside this movement,
which is an important factor to keep in mind.
There is not much need to dilate on the Fascist methods used by the
movement. From the use of symbolism, to the spread of rumours in tense
situations, to the adoption of gigantic lies (such as the claim that the
Kalyan Singh government had no inkling that the mosque will be
demolished), to the infiltration of the bureaucracy, to the skilful
manipulation of the media (until strong-arm tactics became 'necessary'
in Ayodhya), to the projection of different 'faces' to confuse opponents
(a 'moderate' Vajpayee versus a 'hard-line' Joshi): we have a whole
array of typically Fascist tactics of manipulation and image-

projection. In addition of course there are the Fascist terror tactics:

physical threats against opponents; the unleashing of burning, looting
and killing mobs; 'action plans' directed against the so-called infiltra-
tors (i.e. in minority-inhabited areas); and open incitement to violence.
Finally, we come to the question of programme. A typical feature of
Fascist movements is the absence of any coherent programme for econo-
mic and social reconstruction. An exception to this perhaps is Italian
Fascism which did have a 'corporativist' plan that misled Italian
Marxist writers like Antonio Gramsci, who only saw Italian Fascism
and that too only in its early years, into believing that Fascism repre-
sented a serious attempt at restructuring capitalism to cope with a
situation of ~ r i s i s The
. ~ only restructuring that Nazi Germany did,
however, after it came to power, was to smash the working class
movement and to embark on war preparations. The Nazi boom between
1933 and 1939 was fuelled entirely by rearmament;4 the smashing of
the trade unions kept real wages down and inflationary pressures at
bay.5 Even this however was after the Nazis had seized power; the
N a z i movement, on the basis of which they came to power, did not
even have a coherent programme of this sort. And even before carrying
this programme through, Hitler had to suppress his own supprters
who had been hooked to 'Nazi idealism' through large-scale massa-
cres of the SA leaders. The programme of the Hindutva movement,
likewise, apart from the single point of attacking the Muslims, repre-
sents all things to all men. The Shiv Sena, a militant votary of
Hindutva, has been a chameleon-like organisation, always Fascistic
but changing its complexion through time. It began as a movement
against 'outsiders' in Maharashtra, then developed into an anticom-
munist terrorist outfit in Bombay's trade union world, and finally
emerged as a champion of Hindutva. To talk of a social and economic
programme of the Shiv Sena is ludicrous. But even the BJP which until
recently had not displayed overtly Fascistic characteristics and had
been considered by many as a serious political party has kept changing
its weltanschauung as well as its programme like one changes one's
shoes. Sometimes its ideology has been something called 'integral
humanism', at other times it has been 'Gandhian socialism', and at
still other times it has once again been 'integral humanism'. Not sur-
prisingly for a party that has kept making such somersaults in its basic
ideological proclamation, its programme too has changed with the
flip of a coin. When the Congress (I) government came out with its new
economic policy, the BJP went along with it: government economists
themselves openly admit that the IMF-dictated stabilisation-cum-
structural adjustment programme was pushed through in the early
stages on the basis of a tacit assurance of BJP support in the
Parliament. Suddenly however it decided to change its slogan to
Swadeshi. What this means is far from clear. Its NRI supporters who
champion Hindutva but love the new economic policy do not appear to
be unduly upset by the slogan of Swadeshi, confident perhaps in their
belief that the BJP's shift on this signifies nothing. Moreover, for a
party that advocates Swadeshi, and therefore should presumably be
opposed to the multinational corporations, the BJP is more than keen to
curry favour with the US government that openly demands free play
for multinational corporations in the Indian economy: after the
Ayodhya outrage it even sent an emissary only to the US to 'explain'
its position to the US administration.

2. Fascistic views, Fascistic sentiments do exist in civil society at any

time, but the emergence of a Fascist movement is characterised by the
fact that these coalesce into an ideology moving large masses of
people. The alchemy of this transformation is something of a mystery.
Traditionally, and based on the European experience, a period of crisis
of capitalism involving mass unemployment has been held to be the
immediate provocation behind such a transformation. In India how-
ever there was no specific phase of crisis preceding the emergence of
Hindutva. The fact that post-independence capitalist development
has not improved the lot of the mass of poor people in the country, the
fact that it has been accompanied by growing unemployment and loss of
hope, are too well-known to need repetition. But this has been so pro-
tracted a phenomenon that to attribute the sudden and startling emer-
gence of Fascism to it appears unconvincing. The implementation of the
Mandal Report may have been the immediate cause for the Hindutva
groups to go on the offensive, but the success of this offensive is what
needs an explanation. And any such explanation can at best be only
In the realm of speculation one can perhaps draw attention to two
factors that have gone into the making of a conjuncture favourable to
Hindutva. One is the collapse of the Soviet Union which influenced
the situation in three distinct ways. First, it meant a collapse of
utopian energies that had hitherto been sustained by the dream of
building a better, socialist, future. Second, there was the related fact
of a tremendous jolt to the Left movement in the country that, with all
its failings, had stood as a bulwark against such forces of reaction.
Third, and perhaps most concretely, the collapse of the Soviet Union
did give a boost to Islamic forces in some of the Central Asian
Republics, where even today there is a struggle between these forces
and the ex-communists. One kind of fundamentalism always derives
sustenance from another kind; and this may underlie the growth of
Hindu fundamentalism.
The second factor has to do with the failure of what has been called
'nation-building' in our country. Communalism, some writers have
held, is the false consciousness of nationalism. The strength of anti-
imperialist nationalism and that of communalism are inversely
related. As the dream of a prosperous, vibrant artd independent India,

independent of the hegemony of advanced capitalist countries, faded,

the quest for an alternative identity, an identity where the 'other'
had shifted from imperialism to the Muslims who had perpetrated
imaginary wrongs, gathered strength. As India's policy, notably in the
sphere of the economy, but elsewhere as well, shifted from a general,
no matter how diluted, stance of anti-imperialism to one of progres-
sively bartering away our sovereignty for the sake of obtaining loans
and enticing MNCs, the assertion of an alternative identity which was
more pragmatic as well, became more appealing. It is not surprising
that the BJP sees no contradiction between its brand of 'mtionalism'
and imperialism. It is not surprising that NRIs who have in fact cho-
sen to migrate out of the country and actually live in the West are
among the strongest votaries of Hindutva.

3. This fact is of considerable importance. It means that the descrip-

tion of the Hindutva movement as Hindu fundamentalism, and the
drawing of parallels between this and Khomeini's Islamic fundamen-
talism is misleading. And this for two reasons. First, the Khomeini
fundamentalism had an anti-imperialist thrust. The fact that its anti-
imperialism by its very nature could not be sustained, as we are seeing
today, is a separate matter: it only shows that no religious fundamen-
talism can provide the basis for a viable anti-imperialism in the mod-
ern world. But the Hindutva movement is far from being anti-
imperialist; on the contrary it seeks to legitimise and accommodate
currying favour with imperialism by asserting an alternative anti-
Muslim identity. Second, the Khomeini fundamentalism was also anti-
consumerist; it was a reaction against the ostentatious life-styles of
the rich during the Shah's regime, an assertion of austerity which had
a populist trait in it. But the Hindutva movement is far from this. It
combines air-conditioned Toyota vans with a version of 'syndicated
Hinduism' in a fantastic kitsch. To say all this is not to underplay the
horrendousness of the fanatical and murderous Khomeini regime, but
simply to underline certain important distinctions.

4. Notwithstanding the fact that the BJP is avowedly procapitalist,

notwithstanding the fact that several capitalists have sought to seek
accommodation with the Hindutva forces, and their numbers are
likely to grow if these forces become stronger, and notwithstanding the
fact that the petty-bourgeois support base of the movement has not
induced in it an iota of anticapitalist rhetoric, objectively the ascen-
dancy of these forces is inimical to capitalist development, and indeed
to any economic development. Capitalist investment requires as a nece-
ssary, though by no means a sufficient, condition an appropriate 'state
of confidence'. When factories remain closed because of communal riots,
when employers are asked to sack Muslim employees, when even busi-
ness executives are asked to pay protection money, and when the lead-

ing industrialist of the country is constrained to demonstrate by march-

ing in the streets against communal carnage, it is idle to pretend that
the ascendancy of these forces is compatible with an appropriate
'state of confidence' for capitalist investment; and unless there is a
struggle within the ranks of the Hindutva forces, as happened within
the Nazi ranks, ending in the suppression of one segment by another
and paving the way for a partnership with big business, such a 'state
of confidence' cannot possibly be created. Even if there is such a strug-
gle, however, the world today being entirely different from the 1930s,
with tremei~dousmobility of capital internationally and especially
from the third world to the first, a Fascist movement of this kind, not
to mention a Fascist regime if it ever comes into being, will be a hin-
drance to capitalist investment. In short, whether they are in power or
out of it and striving for it, if the Hindutva forces are strong, then this
constitutes a hindrance to any kind of development. It is amazing in
this context that the Congress government whose entire new economic
policy is based on a one-point programme, namely creating business con-
fidence in the country, especially for the MNCs, has shown no will
whatsoever to fight these forces whose emergence spells the doom of
its economic policy. To understand this puzzle however we have to
look at the contradictions faced by the Hindutva movement; and for
this a recapitulation of the differing international and internal con-
texts of classical Fascism and contemporary Hindutva is in order.

5. Classical Fascism emerged at a time which was marked by three

distinct and crucial characteristics. First, it was a period of acute
world capitalist crisis with all advanced capitalist countries charac-
tensed by staggering levels of unemployment. Second, it was a period
of acute inter-imperialist rivalry which was both a cause of the crisis
and was in turn strengthened by it; a manifestation of this rivalry was
the fact that the international economic order was in a shambles. The
Gold Standard had collapsed; there was a virtual drying up of inter-
national capital flows; orderly trade in the international economy had
disappeared with each power pursuing a 'beggar-my neighbour'
policy; in short, the intenational economy was totally fragmented.
Third, it was a period when there was a serious socialist challenge. To
be sure, the immediate post-First World War revolutionary upsurge
had been stemmed. But in no capitalist country of the world, whether
mapr or minor, was the bourgeoisie secure in power.
This fragmentation of the world capitalist economy made it both
necessary as well as possible for the bourgeoisie in each major country
to think in terms of purely 'national' solutions to the crisis. And no such
solutions in bourgeois terms could be contemplated without smashing
the strength of the working class. Fascism therefore was up to a point
useful for monopoly capital everywhere. And even where it crossed
this point and actually came to power, the alliance between the

upstart Fascist leaders and the revanchist sections of big capital!

which was cemented by the internal purges within the Fascist move-
ment, managed for awhile to acquire a degree of legitimacy and social
acceptability because of the full employment it brought about.'
The international context today is quite different. No doubt there is
prolonged stagnation and high unemployment in the capitalist world,
but the crisis is not as acute as then, and more importantly, the interna-
tional economy is far from fragmented. Instead of international capital
flows drylng up, we have on the contrary a significant enhancement in
the fluidity of capital across national boundaries. Big capital there-
fore is neither constrained to solve its problems within the national
boundaries, nor, even within these boundaries, is it facing any serious
challenge kom the working class comparable to the thirties. This is as
true of India as it is of other countries including the advanced countries.
No doubt, matters may change, but at present while Fascism still has
its uses for the big bourgeoisie (on which more later), the need for it is
less pressing, both here as well as elsewhere, than in the earlier

6. This brings me to the contradictions faced by the Fascist movement

in India. A pure Hindutva platform, it seems to me, will have insuffi-
cient strategic strength in class terms to bring Fascism to power. For a
bid for power by these forces, Hindutva will have to be combined with
something else. A Hindutvacum-populism platform can expand its
social base in the countryside, but would be looked upon by the bour-
geoisie as well as by imperialism with suspicion. A Hindutvacum-
Swadeshi platform, deriving its inspiration from the East Asian neo-
mercantilist model and advocating a close relationship between the
state and the domestic big bourgeoisie against imperialist economic
penetration, would again have a wider appeal but would bring these
forces into direct conflict with imperialism, a conflict for which they
have as yet shown no stomach. A straightforward pro- imperialist
Hindutva platform, i.e. Hindutva-cum-MNCs, would lose these forces
domestic social support, while at the same time it would be considered
unnecessary by imperialism in view of the relative weakness of the
working class challenge at the moment, so that a bid for power on this
basis too would be unsustainable.

7. To say all this is by no means to underestimate the danger that

these forces pose to our society and polity. On the contrary I wish to
underscore the complexity of the form that this danger might take. I
feel that we are too used to thinking solely in terms of Fascism's bid for
state power and identifying the victory of the democratic forces with
the defeat of that bid. That to be sure is the immediate and svemding
concern, but the concern in my view should extend beyond the defeat of
that bid. In fact the above argument suggests that Fascism faces con-

tradictions which stand in the way of its coming to power in the

present conjuncture. This of course does not mean that its bid for power
would ineuitably fail (that would be an absurd economic determinism).
Much depends upon concrete developments such as the awareness and
the resistance of the bourgeois parties, etc. But there are intrinsic limi-
tations to its bid for power.
More importantly, however, even if that bid fails, Fascism can
Iinger on as a painful, cancerous growth on our body politic for the fol-
lowing reason: while the need for Fascism in power, or close to it, from
the point of view of imperialism or big capital, is not strong at the
moment, there is by the same token an urgent need from their point of
view to have it as a dog on a leash.g This is because the new economic
policy is likely to arouse growing resistance as it places greater burdens
on the working people of the country and progressively barters away
the country's sovereignty, a resistance that is likely to crystallise
around the working class movement. To break the unity of that resist-
ance, imperialism and sections of the big bourgeoisie would endorse the
perennial presence of a 'controlled Fascism' that is periodically
unleashed. When unleashed it would create havoc; and when put back
on leash, through some of its demands and slogans being appropriated
by the ruling bourgeois party itself (the so-called 'pale saffron line'),
it would still end up giving legitimacy to the ruling party and distract-
ing attention from its economic policies, a fact which may explain the
ambivalence of the ruling party towards the Hindutva forces. To be
sure particular calculations in this regard may go awry and tactics can-
not always be fine-tuned. But while this may affect the fortunes of a
particular bourgeois political formation, a strategy of 'controlled
Fascism' implemented through some existing or yet-to-be-formed poli-
tical formations (e.g., through the pining of hands of some Congress
elements with the BJP) is very much on the agenda today. In short,
Fascism would remain a dangerous feature of our society even if its
immediate bid for power fails. We are likely to be exposed to the viru-
lence not just of Fascism but of a Fascism frustrated by the fact of being
kept on a leash.

8. The implications of the foregoing are important. Fighting Fascism

must mean not just frustrating its immediate designs. That of course is
crucial in the short run. But it must encompass in the medium and the
long run, transcending the very conjuncture that requires Fascism being
kept even as a dog on the leash. The anti-Fascist fight, in other words,
is intrinsically linked to the fight for an alternative socio-economic
trajectory of development which is compatible with the strengthening
of democratic structures. I have come across the argument that a vigo-
rous pursuit of the new economic policy which strengthens market
forces and 'modernises' the economy would undermine the basis of

Fascism. For the reasons given above I believe that to be fundamen-

tally erroneous.


1. The term 'Syndicated Hinduism' was coined by Romila Thapar in an essay in

Seminar, No. 313, September 1985.
2. Georgi Dimitrov, The United Front.
3. Even Palmiro Togliatti's Lectuns on Fascism, though written much later when
Togliatti was the Secretary General of the Cornintern, is strongly influenced by
thL1talian experience. Togliatti of course was addressing Italian communists.
4. Michael Kalecki, 'Stimulating Business Upswing in Nazi Germany', in his Last
Stage in the Transformation of GzpitnIism, Monthly Review Press, New York.
5. C.W. Guillebaud, The Economic Rcwnery of Germany: From 1933 to the
Incorporation of Austria in March 1938, Macmillan, London, 1972.
6. Daniel Guerin in his book Fascism, emphasised the distinction within monopoly
capital betwear the old consumption goods based interests and the new producer
goods-cum-armaments based interests, and the fact that Fascism derived its
main support from the latter. This has been a widely prevalent position within
the Mardst tradition. See for example Kalecki,'Fasdsm of Our Time' in op. dt.
'Ihistheme in the Indian context requires much greater research and I shall not
be dwelling on it in the present paper.
7. On the ability of Fasdsm to create full employment see Kalecki, 'Political
Aspects of Full Employment', in Selected Essays on the Dynamics of the &pita-
list Economy, Cambridge, 197l.
8. This term is used by Kalecki in his 'Fascism of Our Time' dted above.