Fascism and ISIS

Issue: 148

Anne Alexander and Haytham Cero

Ghayath Naisse’s article “The ‘Islamic State’ and the Counter-revolution” is an extremely valuable contribution to the discussion about the nature of ISIS. In particular, Naisse’s emphasis on the devastating impact of war on Iraqi and Syrian societies—in the Iraqi case over the course of decades, in the Syrian case over a much shorter timescale—is crucial to our understanding of the political and military struggles playing out across both countries. The article is uncompromising in its rejection of an external “solution” to the problem of ISIS in the form of further imperialist intervention. As Ghayath rightly notes, “The US occupation of Iraq destroyed what remained of the country’s infrastructure and social fabric, and created conditions for the development of such movements. What is more, the ‘War on ISIS’, with the US at the helm of an imperialist coalition, will not defeat ISIS but will give it anti-imperialist credentials that it will use to attract popular sympathies”.1

In the context of the drive by the Tory government and sections of the media to whip up fear of ISIS in order to justify yet more military intervention, the clarity of this analysis, and the fact that it is proposed by a Syrian revolutionary socialist is enormously important.

We are in agreement with the majority of Ghayath’s thoughtful and succinctly argued article. However, there is one specific point where we feel that his analysis requires a rejoinder and further debate, namely the proposal to consider ISIS “through the experience of fascism”.2 Again we want to stress that Ghayath’s contribution to the debate over this question is very welcome in helping to clarify and refine the overall analysis of ISIS. Yet, as we will outline below, we believe that there are a number of problems in analysing ISIS with reference to fascism, and that the differences between ISIS and fascist movements are more important than the similarities. We note that Ghayath explicitly argues that his approach does not “refer to the details of fascism within Europe”, but suggests that ISIS should be considered “in relation to the new fascist movements, within a specific and limited context”.3 Despite this, the framework he proposes for analysing both fascist movements and ISIS references only Leon Trotsky’s classic theory of fascism, developed in response to the crisis of the left in Germany in the context of the rise of Nazism.

We will outline here a number of reasons why we believe that a comparison with fascist movements is of limited use in analysing ISIS, and may open the door to confusion about the nature of both. Finally we argue that other lines of inquiry, and comparison with other kinds of armed political and religious groups, are likely to be more fruitful in understanding the rise and probable future development of this brutal organisation.

First, the context in which ISIS has arisen in Iraq and Syria differs significantly from both the historic context in which European fascist movements arose and the context in which their successor movements operate today. Secondly, the role played by fascist movements in confronting and ultimately defeating the organised working class is absent in ISIS’s case (although this is because the working class is practically absent as an organised actor in Syria and Iraq and not because ISIS is ideologically or practically less hostile to working class self-organisation). Thirdly, ISIS is not organised in a similar social movement form to fascist movements. In its heartlands it operates principally as an army that claims state authority, rather than as a political movement with an armed wing. It is certainly not a mass movement, but rather an elitist vanguard of fighters whose political impact is predicated on their military capabilities, not the other way around.

Ghayath proposes a number of characteristics of ISIS which invite comparison with fascist movements. Firstly, ISIS is explicitly counter-revolutionary: “It has crushed all manifestations of the revolution within its territories”.4 Secondly, he points to its authoritarianism and elitism, expressed in its imposition of “an ideological and social way of life” on the ­inhabitants of territories under its control.5 This links to a third point: that ISIS espouses a particular form of reactionary ideology, characterised by its militarism and glorification of violence, which harks back to a mythical past while proposing to create an “aristocracy of new men” who will purge the existing corrupt state and build their own in its place.6 Ghayath does not specifically make this point, but we could add here that the misogynistic and patriarchal aspects of this ideology might be a relevant point of comparison between classic fascist movements and ISIS. The genocidal impulse of classical fascism and the vicious sectarianism of ISIS would be another.

The critical point in Ghayath’s analysis, however, is his argument that ISIS shares with classic fascist movements its social base in what Trotsky called “human dust”: “town artisans and traders, civil servants, clerks, technical personnel and the intelligentsia, bankrupt peasants, to which we may add the unemployed”.7 Moreover, the mobilisation of this “human dust”, in the form of a “party-militia to fight the current state and establish a fascist state,” Ghayath contends, is the key to understanding both the formation of ISIS and fascist movements.8

Ghayath is absolutely right to insist, as Trotsky also did, on what Jim Wolfreys calls “the strength of fascism as an autonomous movement”, rather than portraying it crudely as “an instrument of big capital”.9 However, fascism did not come to power in Germany by “fighting the current state”, but rather (as Ghayath rightly notes elsewhere) through a complex process involving physical confrontations with working class organisations, deploying anti-Semitism and anti-Communism to mobilise its core social base, and convincing sections of the existing ruling class to bring the movement into power. Crucially, it was at the invitation of President Hindenburg, representing conservative circles that believed they could use Adolf Hitler for their own purposes, that Hitler became chancellor, and not simply as the outcome of the party-militia’s street battles. While part of the Nazi movement’s appeal rested on mobilising the fury of the petty-bourgeoisie “against all the old parties that had bamboozled it”,10 the target of that movement was not the state or its agents but others who might present organised ­resistance to it, or convenient scapegoats such as the Jews.11

The context for the emergence of fascist movements in inter-war Europe was the pulverisation of the social layers which were to form Trotsky’s “human dust”—“small proprietors never out of bankruptcy, of their university sons without posts and clients, of their daughters without dowries and suitors”—by multiple crises: “war, defeat, reparations, inflation, occupation of the Ruhr, crisis, need, and despair”.12 Unlike workers, who had organised powerful mass organisations which not only expressed their interests as a class, but also proposed a socialist alternative to the existing state and society, these people were unable to achieve or even articulate their own route out of the crisis.

The betrayal and defeat of workers’ revolution paved the way for the rise of fascism, and in the paramilitary gangs that hunted down and murdered revolutionary activists like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the first fascist organisations began to germinate.

As Trotsky noted in 1933, “as Social Democracy saved the bourgeoisie from the proletarian revolution, fascism came in its turn to liberate the bourgeoisie from Social Democracy”.13 Fascism’s historical role is ­materially to destroy any and all existing forms of working class organisation, be they trade unions, mass reformist or revolutionary parties. It does so on behalf of the bourgeois capitalist class, albeit without necessarily being explicitly mandated by it. For Chris Harman, this is the key factor distinguishing fascist movements from others with a similar social base which appear at different moments in history. He argues:

Petty bourgeois movements only become fascist when they arise at a specific point in the class struggle and play a particular role. This role is not just to mobilise the petty bourgeoisie, but to exploit the bitterness they feel at what an acute crisis of the system has done to them and so turn them into organised thugs prepared to work for capital to tear workers’ organisations apart.14

Other aspects of fascist movements (such as their social composition), their reactionary ideology (including their leader-fascination, violent, militaristic elitism and genocidal racism), the forms of movement organisation that they assumed out of power and their practices while in power, are not unique to fascism.

Moreover, there are difficulties if we attempt to apply a version of this analysis to the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. As Ghayath rightly points out in his article, it was the Bashar al-Assad regime’s brutal repression and ­systematic policy of mass killings and destruction that broke the back of the popular movement and created the conditions of socioeconomic devastation that ISIS has been exploiting since its seemingly unstoppable expansion of summer 2014. Of course, ISIS suppresses any attempt at popular or democratic activism in the regions it controls, but the retreat or annihilation of the popular movement was a precondition for ISIS’s expansion, not a result of it.

As Ghayath describes in his article, in the regions it controls, ISIS attempts to restore public order by means of fierce repression, but also by offering a minimum level of public services, utilities, food and fuel subsidies. By this combination of terror and welfare, it appears in some cases to have won at least the passive consent of large sections of the local population, who have been through years of harsh deprivation and insecurity. Are these supporting layers of the population an inherent and active part of ISIS as a political, let alone military force?

In an attempt to answer this question we can look at the dynamics of ISIS’s expansion, the way it has conquered territory in Syria and imposed its hegemony over what it calls the “Caliphate”. ISIS has expanded spectacularly by a mixture of military victories and securing the allegiance of other, smaller jihadist groups.

The most astounding military victories took place in Iraq, against the Iraqi army. The rapid conquest of Mosul in June 2014 is a testament not only to the disastrous state of the Iraqi army, but also of ISIS’s ­military capabilities. No other Jihadist faction had been able to inflict such a catastrophic defeat on the US-trained army. As Ghayath points out, the presence of many former Ba’athist officers in ISIS’s ruling body could be one of the factors lying behind its superiority in terms of organisation and military tactics when compared to other groups.

The conquest of Mosul meant that ISIS found itself in control of a substantial amount of military equipment which it then used to conquer and police vast depleted territories in Iraq and Syria. The quantitative and qualitative military superiority of ISIS over other Jihadist groups is undeniable. Moreover, as recent testimony to the US Congress by Linda Robinson of the Rand Corporation notes, ISIS’s success in seizing Mosul has left the group better equipped with Humvees and heavy arms than the Iraqi army.15 This, in combination with its terror-inducing propaganda, means that many groups have pledged allegiance to the so-called Caliphate without fighting. Others have been defeated in battle and annihilated. Of course, ISIS is not immune to setbacks, most notably during the battle of Kobanê: the zealous resistance of the Kurdish fighters led ISIS to impose a siege on the town which made its static troops very vulnerable to US-led aerial bombardment.

What is notably absent from the quick sketch above is anything resembling attempts by ISIS and its supporters to build a political movement which attempts to win mass support in areas before their military conquest. ISIS’s media channels portray life under its rule as prosperous, safe and pious, suggesting that the organisation understands the importance of balancing coercion with consent. However, we have found no evidence that, in territories not under its military control, ISIS attempts to organise in social movement form. Rather its members appear largely to play the role of undercover fighters—demanding protection money from frightened shopkeepers and restaurant owners or threatening pharmacies with closure if they are found to be selling counterfeit medicines.

ISIS’s seizure and loss of the city of Derna in Libya is instructive in this respect. ISIS declared a province “wilaya” in Derna in November 2014, after the local dominant jihadi faction, the Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam, declared allegiance to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi. Over the course of the next six months ISIS carried out government activities ranging from street repairs and running law courts to public executions. It was forced out of the city in June 2015 after a violent feud erupted with another armed faction, the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, who were apparently supported by local residents.16

Given the ultra-violent and sectarian character of ISIS’s propaganda, we might expect to see the organisation agitating for its civilian supporters to carry out pogroms against religious and ethnic minorities. By contrast ISIS’s own propaganda glorifies the role of its fighters in carrying out sectarian massacres: potential supporters are encouraged to enlist as soldiers under ISIS’s command, not to carry out sectarian attacks themselves.

All of this points to the fact that ISIS is in essence an armed faction, which has emerged in the context of insurgency and civil war, rather than a social movement. This does not mean it is irrelevant to ask questions about the organisation’s social base—its soldiers and commanders may well be drawn largely from specific social backgrounds. But it is another crucial point of difference with fascist movements, which historically proved able to deploy paramilitaries along with civilian organisers in a single coherent movement. What makes the spectacular political success of an organisation like ISIS possible is precisely the conditions which Ghayath describes so well in his article: the decades of war, sanctions and occupation in Iraq and the utter destruction of large parts of Syrian society.

Finally, there are other contexts and other kinds of movement which may provide more useful comparisons than with fascism. If we take as our starting point not the character and ideology of ISIS as a movement, but the conditions in the area where it arose, it is not difficult to find other potential comparators. Central Africa, for example, has been ravaged by years of war between and within the states of the region. It has suffered mass population displacements, genocides and ethnic cleansing. In this context, groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, which emerged in the Acholiland area of Uganda in the late 1980s, emerged and grew.

The LRA claims to be creating a new social order based on the Bible’s Ten Commandments. It is responsible for massacres, systematic campaigns of rape and mutilation. The group is infamous for its abduction of children who are enlisted as soldiers, and is reported also to have abused and raped thousands of women and girls.17 Although the LRA is much weaker today than at the height of its campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s, it is estimated to have killed 100,000 people in Uganda alone and caused the displacement of 1.6 million.18 The organisation’s initial impetus came, however, from an insurrection in the Acholiland area in response to massacres carried out by the National Resistance Army of Yoweri Museveni who seized power in Uganda in 1986 from Tito Okello, a general of Acholi origin.19

ISIS’s transnational connections, including its developing role as an alternate centre of gravity to Al Qaeda in international jihadi networks are an obvious contrast to this narrative. It is also vitally important to set the rise of ISIS in the context of the defeat of the Arab revolutions, and to see the crisis of mass Islamist reformist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, in the face of counter-revolution, as a critical factor in explaining how ISIS has come to have such a resonance beyond the core areas of its territory.20 Nevertheless, it seems to us that ISIS has more in common with armed factions such as the LRA, which have emerged in contexts of war and sustained ethnic and religious conflict fuelled by the rivalries of local states and imperialist intervention, than it does with fascist movements.

Fascism, at its core, is a mobilisation of large layers of the petty bourgeoisie in a violent mass movement that aims to destroy the working class’s capacity to wage struggle. This analysis is key to understanding the historical role of fascism. From this viewpoint, we have argued that ISIS cannot be considered fascist, because, although ultra-violent and ultra-reactionary, there is no evidence of it building or attempting to build any mass movement, and it has arisen at a different moment in the class struggle in Iraq and Syria. It was the Assad regime’s brutal repression that destroyed the Syrian popular movement and the people’s revolution, thus creating conditions in which ISIS, an elitist military group, subsequently thrived. In the case of Iraq, there was no revolution in the first place so that ISIS could emerge as a counter-revolutionary force.

Ghayath is absolutely right, however, to insist on the primacy of the fight against the Assad regime, noting that “bringing down the regime is the prerequisite to crushing the fascist and reactionary forces”.21 And as he stresses earlier, imperialist intervention will only feed into ISIS’s anti-Western rhetoric and help the rehabilitation of the Ba’athist dictatorship. The vitality of the Syrian Revolution lay in the mass mobilisation from below which sparked the revolutionary crisis in 2011. As Ghayath notes, even in areas controlled by reactionary Islamist groups or the Assad regime, activists continue to organise protests and campaigns inspired by the demands and hopes of that popular movement. The best hope for the future of the Syrian revolutionary movement surely lies in keeping those courageous traditions alive for a new generation.


1: Naisse, 2015, p86.

2: Naisse, 2015, p86.

3: Naisse, 2015, p86

4: Naisse, 2015, p86.

5: Naisse, 2015, p86.

6: Naisse, 2015, p88.

7: Naisse, 2015, p87.

8: Naisse, 2015, p88.

9: Wolfreys, 2006.

10: Trotsky, 1971, p400.

11: Trotsky, 1971, p400.

12: Trotsky, 1971, p400.

13: Trotsky, 1971, p402.

14: Harman, 1994, p20.

15: Robinson, 2015, p2.

16: Gambhir, 2015, pp4-5; Fowler, 2014; Institute for the Study of War, 2015.

17: Pells, 2014.

18: Gatten, 2015.

19: International Crisis Group, 2004.

20: See Alexander, 2015, and Alexander, 2016 (forthcoming), for more on this point.

21: Naisse, 2015, p89.


Alexander, Anne, 2015, “ISIS and Counter-revolution: Towards a Marxist Analysis”, International Socialism 145 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/isis-and-counter-revolution-towards-a-marxist-analysis

Alexander, Anne, 2016 (forthcoming), “ISIS after Mosul”, Critical Muslim, issue 17 (January).

Fowler, Evan, 2014, “From Raqqa to Derna: Exceptionalism in Expansionism”, Jadaliyya (4 December), http://tinyurl.com/qawczqd

Gambhir, Harleen, 2015, “ISIS Global Intelligence Summary”, Institute for the Study of War (May), www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISIS%20INTSUM_Final.pdf

Gatten, Emma, 2015, “LRA War Crimes Trial: Joseph Kony General Abducted into Lord’s Resistance Army as a Child is Charged with Crimes against Humanity”, Independent (26 January), http://tinyurl.com/o898qoe

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Pells, Rachel, 2014, “Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo: ‘I Went to Speak about Human Rights…People Believed they had none’”, Independent (24 November), http://tinyurl.com/q56gkrd

Robinson, Linda, 2015, “An Assessment of the Counter-ISIL Campaign”, RAND Corporation, (24 June), www.rand.org/pubs/testimonies/CT435.html

Trotsky, Leon, 1971 [1933], The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Pathfinder), www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1933/330610.htm

Wolfreys, Jim, 2006, “What is Fascism?”, International Socialism 112 (autumn) http://isj.org.uk/what-is-fascism