The essay argues that the emergence of dictatorial rule in capitalist societies once organized by parliamentary institutions can best be interpreted as a response to an intensifying crisis of representation within parliamentary democracy. These crises come as changing material conditions disrupt systems of patronage and support that had previously integrated or embedded populations into a deceptively stable capitalist growth process. The additional social trauma associated with capital accumulation disruptions and associated political crises can spark a search for magical solutions orchestrated by a “great” leader who promises national rejuvenation while drawing on tribalist tropes that obscure class divisions and heighten ethnic, racial, and nationalist conflict.

This analysis draws on Marx’s original analysis in The Eighteenth Brumaire, the interwar writings of Gramsci and Trotsky, and Poulantzas’ work on the exceptional state from the early 1970s.  The paper does not find the state monopoly capitalist tradition to be useful for understanding present (or past) periods of capitalist authoritarianism. On the other hand, the paper does argue that Nicos Poulantzas’ Leninist attempt to link the rise of exceptional states to the evolution of global imperialism remains a fruitful analytic framework when used in combination with a Gramscian crisis of representation approach.

“The Eighteenth Brumaire” argues that parliament can be a location that facilitates relatively peaceful conflict resolution so that different factions or interests of capital can maintain those political conditions which facilitate capitalist exploitation.   However, Marx recognizes that the entry of non-propertied classes and interests into bourgeois democratic institutions can lead to reformist challenges to capitalist property rights.  This can intensify the search for a “great leader” who can suppress or coopt subordinated classes directly.  At the same time, Marx suggests that as capitalism matures, state power intensifies. This gives government officials the ability to assert power over property and non-property holders alike. This is especially true of the professional military, which is staffed and supported the peasantry and other subordinated classes.  Marx further argues that the establishment of dictatorial authority gives the leader and his acolytes access to finance in order to facilitate the intensified parasitic extraction of surplus.

The dominant strand of Marxism in the early twentieth century does not utilize this flexible framework. Instead, explanations are constructed to anticipate the inevitable rise of an authoritarian, imperialist capitalist state. Paradoxically, this approach is more Marxist than Marx in the sense that the analysis rests heavily on hypothesized economic trends which creates an ever more polarized and hierarchical capitalist social order. The identification of the capitalism of the early twentieth century with a specific form of imperialism and accumulation dynamics introduces an unproductive rigidity in the state monopoly capitalist analytical framework which, left some Marxists unable to respond creatively and productively to the challenge of fascism.

If we are to look for inspiration from this period within the Marxist tradition, we must go to the political fringes where prophets outcast or imprisoned reside.  Trotsky, for example, believes it is imperative to identify which classes were prone to adopting fascist ideology so that effective political anti-fascist alliances could be forged. In his analysis, the petty bourgeoisie plays the role in his analysis that the peasantry did in The Eighteenth Brumaire.  Trotsky’s definition of the petty bourgeoisie is not rigorous. He includes small urban property holders, the peasantry, and the new middle class that works within the state. On the other hand, Trotsky is too careful an observer to be content with a singular focus on the petty bourgeoisie—however amorphously defined – as the sole supporter of fascism.  He notes that early twentieth century fascism in Italy and Germany attracted significant numbers of the proletariat and that the lack of clear political direction from a revolutionary party left the populace open to irrational frenzy. Trotsky is one of the few Marxist theorists of the era who tries to address the social psychology which undergirds authoritarian rule.

Antonio Gramsci most directly follows the crisis of representation approach first articulated by Marx.  He argues that parliamentary politics imposes its own trajectory on its participants, which lead politicians to lose their connection to popular constituents.  This is because of the distance imposed on representatives by parliamentary constitutional structures, changes in the structural conditions of economic life which disrupt the political party’s relationship with the citizenry, and political trauma such as, in the case of 1920s Italy, the ability of the workers’ movements to destabilize society, but not seize state power. Gramsci’s conceptualization of the state as an independent social force takes him beyond Marx, who tends to view the governing elites within the Bonapartist state as both servants and beneficiaries of finance capital. Gramsci instead suggests that the elites within a new authoritarian state do not simply become craven agents of finance. They demand a certain share of resources from the capitalist order, and thus the tension between the state and capital takes on new forms within the dictatorial order. If authoritarian states are to be stable, then some form of tribute must flow to its “sponsors” even if the bulk of surplus is captured by financial oligarchs.

Nicos Poulantzas was the foremost early postwar Marxist thinker who studied fascism, dictatorship, and the capitalist state. His general approach is to analyze how representational connections between state institutions (or apparatuses) and class interests evolve in response to the evolution of state monopoly capitalism and the structure of capitalist imperialism. Thus, Poulantzas’ work can be seen as an innovative synthesis of Gramscian and Leninist Marxist traditions.  The first contribution concerns Poulantzas’ attempt to lodge our understanding of fascism and military dictatorship within the context of an evolving global capitalist order.  The second contribution of Poulantzas is his careful attention to tensions within the nation-state. Poulantzas’ focus on different apparatuses of the state allows us to render more precise analytic descriptions of state–society interactions. Poulantzas argues that we should expect heterogeneity within state formations. Authoritarian impulses might play out differently in different spatial and institutional locations of the state.

To deepen the argument of Trotsky, Gramsci, and Poulantzas, it is useful to recall Marx’s historical materialist framework developed in his Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. A modified understanding of Marx’s forces of production/relations of production argument would be the following. The underlying system of material reproduction, production, and distribution is supported by a political and cultural order in which members of society create meaning and attempt to maintain and/or restructure the institutions which organize their material lives. This mechanism of containment and adaptation to an evolving economic and cultural order is imperfect, and over time, discordances or contradictions in the political economic system intensify and generate crises of representation or legitimacy. To use another Gramscian framework—the hegemonic understanding of what needs to be preserved in our social system begins to dissolve. It is in this context that authoritarian political movements and potential dictatorial leaders emerge.

John Willoughby is a professor of economics at American University.

This article summarizes John Willoughby, “Understanding the Emergence of Authoritarian Capitalist States: Looking Backward to See Forward,” Review of Radical Political Economics, 2019.