On Togliatti’s “Lectures on Fascism”

BY:Vijay Prashad| January 6, 2020
On Togliatti’s “Lectures on Fascism”


Editor’s note: The following is a foreword to Lectures on Fascism, by Palmiro Togliatti, reprinted with permission from International Publishers.

On October 24, 1922, Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Fascist Party in Italy, told a large crowd in Naples, “Our program is simple: we want to rule Italy.” Less than a week later, King Victor Emmanuel III ushered Mussolini to power. Il Duce del Fascismo, the Leader of Fascism, took over Italy. The industrial magnates and the military, both rattled by the working-class insurrection that took hold in 1920, handed Mussolini the reins of the state. His squadristi, or Blackshirts, had already attacked the workers and the Communists—breaking the back of the young Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the militancy of the trade unions of Milan and Turin, as well as the agricultural unions of the Po Valley. Il Duce put fascism on the national agenda. His movement was to reverberate across Europe, culminating in the invitation by Germany’s President Paul von Hindenburg to the Nazi Party’s Adolf Hitler in 1933 to take power in Berlin.

Upon the ashes of failed Communist uprisings rose the fascist menace. Germany’s Communist Party (KPD) attempted a revolution in 1919, only to be beaten back by the full weight of the German state and the Social Democratic Party’s government. The next year, Mussolini would join the bulwarks of the Italian state in delivering a major blow to the workers’ movement and to the PCI. The KPD survived as a legal party in Germany until Hitler’s ascension in 1933, while the PCI’s leadership went underground in an attempt to rebuild the party. Clara Zetkin, one of the leaders of the KPD, wrote in August 1923, “Fascism is the punishment of the proletariat for failing to carry on the revolution begun in Russia.”

The arrival of fascist movements down the center of Europe—from Germany to Italy, and with a major presence in Austria and France—posed a serious challenge to the early Communist movement. How to understand fascism and what to do about it?

The Communist International, headquartered in Moscow, was the global association encompassing most of the world’s Communist Parties from 1919 to 1943. The Comintern, as it was known colloquially, was a hub for formulating international Communist strategy and tactics. Following the coming to power of Mussolini, its meetings and publications became forums for the discussion of fascism, its meaning, and the political response it required. The first major statement on the fascist movement by the Comintern displayed a general bewilderment about the phenomenon. In 1922, at its Fourth Congress, the organization saw fascism as an enemy of industrial capitalism. “The Fascists are, primarily, a weapon in the hands of the large landowners,” the Comintern stated. “The industrial and commercial bourgeoisie are following with anxiety the experiment in ferocious reaction, which they regard as black bolshevism.”[1] It took note of the fact that Mussolini had been a leader of the Italian Socialist Party and the editor of its newspaper, Avanti. It was certainly true that the fascists had appropriated the language of socialism. This early attempt to understand the fascists, however, failed in its essentials. The fascist movement was neither an instrument of the landlords nor a threat to the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie. Key Communists familiar with the experience of fascism up close—such as Zetkin of the KPD and Antonio Gramsci of the PCI—provided necessary details from Germany and Italy that would enhance the Comintern’s assessment. From 1922 to 1928, the Comintern debated the question of fascism with great enthusiasm and alarm. Clarity slowly emerged.

By 1928, at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, ideas about fascism had become somewhat more nuanced, but major questions remained unresolved. Is fascism merely the instrument of a bourgeoisie that has lost faith in parliamentary democracy? Is the bourgeoisie unified, or is it divided? How is the bourgeoisie able to produce mass support for fascism at a time when the economic condition of the masses is so bleak? Were the masses duped into supporting the fascist regimes, or did they somehow actually believe in the fascist project? Such questions had many answers. The Comintern summarized its rich discussion with the following assessment:

The characteristic feature of fascism is this, that the bourgeoisie faced by the breakdown of the capitalist economy and by particular subjective and objective circumstances, exploit the discontent of small and medium urban and rural bourgeoisie, and even of certain strata of declassed proletarians, to form a reactionary mass movement to bar the road to revolution.[2]

Zetkin’s point about the failure to expand the communist revolution into Germany and elsewhere suggests that sections of the working class—disillusioned with the failed Communist uprisings—sought their future in the arms of fascism. They—along with sections of the peasantry—provided the mass base for fascism. The other important section at the core of the fascist movement was the “middle class,” the petit-bourgeoisie, who are seen as demoralized by the capitalist crises. Further, it is a section of the population with little preparation for any revolutionary activity and which is open to saturation by the wisdom of the clerics and those who preach an eternal national glory. But behind this mass lingers the big bourgeoisie—the bankers and the industrialists—who nourish the fascist movement and guide it against any program of revolutionary transformation.

By 1933, the Comintern had come to a more precise definition of fascism:

Fascism is the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital. Fascism tries to secure a mass basis for monopolistic capital among the petty bourgeoisie, appealing to the peasantry, artisans, office employees and civil servants who have been thrown out of their normal course of life, and particularly to the declassed elements in the big cities, also trying to penetrate into the working class.[3]

The increasing clarity exhibited here is important. The bourgeoisie is split, with the most reactionary section pushing towards a fascistic solution to the capitalist crisis. But this section of the bourgeoisie is not able to act on its own, given the pressures of a democratic society. Even if it annuls democracy through disregard for the constitution, it will still need a mass base to protect its fascistic project. This is where the question of the mass base is essential, and this is why fascist ideology draws from both the more reactionary corners of national life (namely, the ideology of racial nationalism) and the socialist movement. The word “Nazi,” which defines the German variant of fascism, is a short form of Nationalsoczialismus, or National Socialism, a phrase which perfectly captures the unstable ideological heritage of this movement.


Before the Communists came to an agreement that the bourgeoisie was split in terms of its commitment to fascism and that the socialist movement should not be reluctant to combat fascism, there was great hesitancy in their tactics. Behind the façade of bourgeois democracy, the Communists argued, lingered the arsenal of capitalist dictatorship. Criticism of the order of property and of power was not allowed. Bourgeois democracy had to remain within the lines of the capitalist system. The Communists of the 1910s and 1920s, in the infancy of their movement, faced great threats from not only the capitalists but also the Social Democrats who had decided—by then—to collaborate with the capitalist bloc and not to push for a revolutionary transformation of the social order.

Frustration with the Social Democrats of Germany and the Socialist Party of Italy led the Comintern to suggest that they were unreliable allies in the fight against fascism. It was social democrats, the Communists argued, that paved the way for the fascist seizure of power. Therefore, the Comintern noted in 1928, the conditions for capitalist dictatorship—whether through parliamentary democracy or fascism—had to be overcome. It was in this debate that the term “social fascism” was coined. The new designation enabled the Communists to argue that both social democrats and fascists were committed to capitalist dictatorship, the root of the problem. At this time, fresh from defeats at the hands of both the Fascists and the Social Democrats, the Communists took refuge in a “class-against-class” line—the capitalists and their lackeys and enablers on one side and the proletariat on the other. Broad, cross-class alliances to defeat fascism made no sense to the Communists in this period. In Germany, it was the Social Democratic government of Friedrich Ebert that murdered the leaders of the Communist movement, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, in 1919. To trust the Social Democrats in the fight against fascism, only a decade after those murderous events in Berlin, would have asked a great deal of the Communists.

Many leading Communists, however, felt that this was a debilitating line, since it prevented the creation of the widest possibly unity against the fascists. Fascist violence had disoriented the working-class movement in Italy, where the Communists found their work disrupted. In 1921, fascist bands that had come to rampage in the proletarian neighborhoods of Florence murdered Spartaco Lavagnini, a railroad worker and Communist Party leader. Communist offices faced violence, and trade union cadre came under attack. In 1922, the PCI office in Rome was attacked by Mussolini’s Blackshirts. The fascists’ boldness came at the same time as they flailed about between their “nationalism” and their “socialism,” their commitment to the big bourgeoisie and their ability to attract the disillusioned middle class and some workers.

In that office in Rome that day sat Palmiro Togliatti (1893–1964), the editor of Il Comunista. Togliatti shuttled between Moscow, where he was a rising star in the Comintern, and Rome, where he continued to be a leader of the PCI. Togliatti saw doom on the horizon. This is evident in his 1922 Report on Fascism, written for the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, and in his 1928 A proposito del fascismo. Both of the documents indicated the need for a broad alliance to defeat fascism, although it had to be an alliance, he argued, that would not betray the struggles of the working class and the peasantry. The point of communism, Togliatti suggested, was not to deliver the working class and the peasantry to the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie. Rather, it was to ensure that allies of these two classes would find it necessary to combat fascism in order to produce a genuine democracy, a democracy where the workers would not be shunned aside.

Togliatti’s close comrade, Antonio Gramsci, held a similar view. Fascism, as he wrote in 1926, was not a “pre-democratic regime,” one that would advance inevitably into a more mature and stable liberal democracy. Fascism, he concluded, was “the expression of the most advanced stage of development of capitalist society.”[4] A return to liberal democracy would not be sufficient. The antidote needed against fascism was a new kind of democracy.

At the 1933 Plenum where the Comintern produced its most polished definition of fascism, Togliatti argued that there was a need to study “every concrete situation of every country in which the fascist movement is developing.” There was a different tempo, a different sensibility, to both fascism and to its opposition in different national contexts. A mechanical approach was not going to be productive in developing a response. As early as May 1926, Togliatti had already been critical of the “habit of employing the term fascist in such broad terms that encompassed the most diverse forms of reactionary movements of the bourgeoisie.” Specificity was important, a trait Togliatti emphasized in developing his own theory of fascism. His was not a general theory, as such, but rather a particular theory of Italian fascism in its time.

Togliatti and the Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov argued the case for broad alliances against the fascist menace. In October 1934, Togliatti published his argument in the Comintern’s journal, The Communist International, which carried the broad outline of the themes that he would subsequently expand in the lectures that make up this book. Dimitrov would later make his case at the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern on August 2, 1935. This speech inaugurated the “Popular Front” period, when Communists joined with other social and political forces to defend “democracy” against fascism. It is important to quote at some length from Dimitrov’s December 1935 assessment of what exactly this “People’s Front,” or Popular Front as it became colloquially known, would entail.

But when the scattered proletarian detachments, at the initiative of the Communists, join hands for the struggle against the common enemy, when the working class, marching as a unit, begins to act together with the peasantry, the lower middle classes and all democratic elements, on the basis of the People’s Front program, then the offensive of the fascist bourgeoisie is confronted with an insurmountable barrier. A force arises which can offer determined resistance to fascism, prevent it from coming to power in countries of bourgeois democracy and overthrow its barbarous rule where it is already established. . . . The People’s Front makes it possible for the lower middle classes, the peasantry and the democratic intelligentsia, not only to resist the tutelage and oppression of the clique of finance capital, but also to rise up against it in defense of their vital interests and rights, relying for support on the militant collaboration of the working class nationally and on an international scale. The People’s Front offers a way out of the situation which seemed so hopeless to the sections of the lower middle classes, who considered themselves doomed to submission to fascist domination. The People’s Front helps the working class to avoid the political isolation toward which the bourgeoisie purposely impels it; it creates the most favorable conditions for the working class to accomplish its historic role, to head the struggle of their people against the small clique of financial magnates, big capitalists and landlords, to be in the vanguard in the uncompleted democratic revolution and in all movements for progress and culture. The class struggle between exploited and exploiters thus receives an immeasurably wider base and a mighty scope.[5]

The central theme was that the working class must be united with allied classes to lead a mass struggle against fascism. A People’s Front does not, however, imply the dissolution of independent working-class organizations for the sake of joining a platform dominated by the liberal bourgeoisie and the social democrats. In fact, a united working-class platform would give other classes the possibility to break out of their dismay and fatalism.


Between January and April 1935, Togliatti delivered a series of lectures on fascism and other topics to the Italian cadres studying at the International Lenin School in Moscow. He gave thirteen lectures, of which two are lost and nine are presented here. One of the Italian cadre took notes during the lectures. In 1970, these notes were found by Ernesto Ragionieri, a PCI Central Committee member responsible for editing the first four volumes of Palmiro Togliatti Opere, or Works of Palmiro Togliatti (Rinascita, 1967–1973).


In these lectures, Togliatti provides a rich description of the methods of fascism and argues for the necessity of a working-class-led fightback against fascism. There are lectures on fascist trade unions, on fascist recreational clubs (Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro), and the fascist corporazione—the civil society groups directed by the fascists. Fascist forces did not end activity on the terrain of civil society. Instead, they took charge of the social landscape, creating associations that were controlled by them. Institutions of the masses—such as sports clubs—were hollowed out of any content and guided with brute force by the fascists. Work was tied to membership in this fascist social world, so that everyone had to belong to a group, even as everyone had to accept the dominion of fascist ideology and power. Because the “inner life of the Fascist Party is dead” (41), fascist civil society also possessed a cadaverous quality. There was no vitality here, only repetitious sloganeering and violence. Togliatti, like his comrade Gramsci, understood that fascist power was built not merely by the fist but also through the domination of culture. Fascist culture might be decadent, but fascist control over cultural institutions ensured that it was the only game in town.

Fascism, however, was not able to erase the contradictions of the class struggle. Inside the fascist unions, for instance, the workers continued to fight for their rights. It was impossible to smother their hopes and dreams. Since fascism operated as the political arm of the capitalist system, it left the workers to the whims of capitalists’ fancy. When the economic crises of the late 1920s struck Italy, the workers became restive. Togliatti asserted that the Communists inside Italy should make every effort to develop the confidence of the workers inside these fascist trade unions and other fascist civil society organizations to build their own strength. Straightforward demands had to be articulated—“Out with the Fascist supervisor! Control of the administration by the members. Election to offices” (85). Such political maneuvers, Togliatti told the Italian cadres, would “get the masses moving” (109). Every legal opportunity to struggle had to be utilized in order to build the confidence of the masses. That was the essential tactical opening that Togliatti demanded. It is the centerpiece of these lectures.

At several points, Togliatti suggests that “democracy” is the best weapon against fascism. But what does he mean by democracy? In 1936, Togliatti spoke to a group of Italian Communists who were going to fight in Spain as part of the Garibaldi Brigade to defend the Republic against General Franco, who was backed by Mussolini and Hitler. It is in this lecture that Togliatti is most explicit in his assessment of democracy:

Communists are definitely at the forefront of the struggle for the defense and the achievement of democracy, because the struggle is today, everywhere in the world, between fascism and democracy. This line of defense of democracy must be implemented with the utmost courage and determination, renouncing any political excursions which could weaken the struggle itself.[6]

Fascism could not be reformed. It had to be overthrown and replaced by a new kind of democracy—a democracy achieved through a struggle spearheaded by the working class. There was no possibility, Togliatti argued, that the Italian working class would be satisfied with bourgeois democracy and unemployment. Something much more robust was needed. On November 26, 1943, in the Hall of Columns in Moscow, Togliatti said that Italian democracy after the end of the war would

have to be a consistent anti-fascist democracy, a strong regime, founded on a wide network of mass organizations, trade unions, co-operatives, and anti-fascist political parties. It has to guarantee all popular freedoms: of speech and of the press, of assembly and association, of commercial freedom, of religion and political propaganda, and to intervene forcefully against any reactionary attempt to shrink or annihilate these freedoms.[7]

This would be a socialist democracy, a democracy that allowed working-class power to shape the institutions of society and the state. Anything less than that would merely replicate the morbidity of capitalism and conjure a new fascism to appear in the future.


On April 25, 1945, Communist partisans intercepted a fleeing Benito Mussolini near Lake Como. These were partisans of the Garibaldi Brigade, whose comrades had fought in Spain. Il Duce was then shot by a Communist partisan, Walter Audisio. Fascism had already been defeated by a combination of unrest from below and the Allied invasion of Italy. This was its coup de grâce.

At the end of the war, the PCI emerged with the greatest prestige among Italy’s political parties. In 1937, Togliatti had written about the cultural degeneracy of the fascists: “All that was good and honorable in our people has been disowned, from Dante’s philosophy onwards. The spirit of brutal animal destruction and death is glorified. If we take on the open and courageous defense of these values, our party will acquire great status.”[8] In fact, it was the unrelenting opposition to fascism made manifest in the workers’ struggles, in the partisans’ battles, and in the defense of the decent parts of Italian culture that won the PCI great honor. In Yugoslavia, the partisans fought across the length of the country, winning the hearts and minds of the population and making sure that their uprising would end in a socialist project.[9] No such luck in Italy, where the ruling class—reading the tea leaves correctly—ejected the fascists. “Those who took power,” wrote Lucio Magri, who had been in the PCI, “were an oligarchy with scant interest in freedom.”[10] Togliatti, as leader of the PCI, hesitated to frontally confront this oligarchy. He was eager to ensure that Italian society would recover from the brutalities of fascism and that the Italian state could be built with the maximum span of a new democracy. A combination of the old powerful dominant class and U.S. imperialism denied the PCI the right to near victory in the parliamentary elections of April 1948. General Lucius Clay sent a “war alert” to U.S. President Harry Truman in March 1948. The National Security Council of the U.S. directed the CIA (through NSC 1/3) to begin covert funding for the Christian Democrats and for the Socialist Party in order to block the PCI’s popularity. Covert arms shipments alongside sophisticated propaganda bolstered the campaign against the PCI.[11] This was confirmed by the Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti and President Francesco Cossiga, who gave details of Operation Gladio—a NATO project to leave arms behind with the right-wing partisans to prevent a communist victory in the country.[12] The Christian Democrats came to power and ruled Italy for over four decades. The Catholic Church, after the defeat of the PCI, excommunicated the Communists in 1949. NATO absorbed Italy. The PCI, despite the love it earned from the people, went gradually into the wilderness.

The PCI under Togliatti cleverly built the institutions of socialist democracy within Italy, following his assessment of both fascism and of the need to create a robust society to obliterate the grounds for fascism. A range of cooperatives and mutual aid societies helped the Italian working class ground itself in both society and the state. But all this was to collapse when globalization vanquished the Italian working class, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and when Italian society went the way of consumerism and media illusion. It was in this period that the PCI disbanded, folding itself eventually into a toothless and neoliberal Democratic Party.

Once more the massive inequalities of capitalism combined with the social drought have led us to the threshold of fascism. The bourgeoisie, split on their assessment of social issues, is nonetheless united in terms of its commitment to a neoliberal policy slate. It cannot articulate a vision of a society of dignity and freedom. It is the failure of neoliberalism in an environment of a vanquished left that provides the space for the growth of fascistic political movements. These dynamics speak openly about the crises of capitalism, but rather than acknowledge the implication of their criticisms they turn around and blame the socially powerless for their problems. It is an important moment now to revisit the debates on fascism from the 1920s and 1930s. It is one thing to read the more alarmist texts of the era—Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935) or George Orwell’s 1984 (1948). But these are not close assessments of fascist movements; nor are they guidebooks for how to fight back against fascism. These are books of fear. Togliatti’s lectures, on the other hand, are texts of hope.

[1] “Extracts from a Manifesto to the Italian Workers Passed at the Opening Session of the Fourth Comintern Congress (5 November 1922),” The Communist International, 1919–1943: Documents, ed. Jane Degras, London, 1956, vol. 1, p. 377.

[2] “Extracts from the Theses of the Sixth Comintern Congress on the International Situation and the Tasks of the Communist International (29 August 1928),” The Communist International, vol. II, p. 459.

[3] “Extracts from the Theses of the Thirteenth ECCI Plenum on Fascism, the War Danger and the Tasks of Communist Parties (December 1933),” The Communist International, vol. III, p. 296.

[4] Antonio Gramsci, “The Peasants and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (Notes for Il Mondo,” Selections from Political Writings, 1921–1926, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1978, p. 414.

[5] Georgi Dimitrov, Against Fascism and War, New York: International Publishers, 1986, pp. 103–104.

[6] Aldo Agosti, Palmiro Togliatti, London: I. B. Tauris, 2008, p. 109.

[7] Agosti, Palmiro Togliatti, p. 146.

[8] Agosti, Palmiro Togliatti, p. 141.

[9] Vladimir Dedijer, Tito Speaks, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1953, part 2.

[10] Lucio Magri, The Tailor of Ulm. Communism in the Twentieth Century, London: Verso, 2011, p. 46.

[11] James E. Miller, ‘Taking Off the Gloves: The United States and the Italian Elections of 1948,’ Diplomatic History, vol. 7, issue 1, January 1983 and William Corson, The Armies of Ignorance: The Rise of the American Intelligence Empire, New York: Dial Press, 1977, pp. 298ff.

[12] Gerardo Serravalle, Gladio, Rome: Edizione Associate, 1991.

Image: Palmiro Togliatti, Circolo Palmiro Togliatti, Facebook


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