“The Anatomy of Fascism” by Robert O. Paxton

Robert Paxton "Anatomy of Fascism"ISBN 9780-141-01432-6. “The Anatomy of Fascism” by Robert O. Paxton was published by Penguin Books in 2004. Paxton hails from Columbia University and has written several books about European history with a specific attention being paid to fascism. We picked this up at a local charity shop (at a time when we were reading Burleigh’s “The Third Reich – A New History”). Paxton’s work promised to supply more background analysis to the fascist phenomena rather than just a focus on the German Third Reich. The author takes the reader for a walk through the foundations of fascism; from its roots in the 19th century through to its contemporary status. His primary objective is a definition of fascism.

Like beauty being in the eye of the beholder the definition of “fascism” is highly elusive yet personal. This book only presents the view of one social scientist and cannot be taken as the last word on the matter. It is opinion, not gospel. Whilst most lay men would judge fascism by its results Paxton takes a more ordered approach preferring to judge based upon its structures and how it came to power. Our final analysis actually found this a little unsettling because it reduced the definition of fascism down to a pure state that really doesn’t exist in the real world. Hence you end up feeling that the author is hinting that fascism has not, and does not, exist. To be clear, that is not his intent. Paxton prefers to define fascism in two stages: a sort of beginner and advanced.

What we learn is that while there have been many places and times where the beginner stage one has been attained, the ultimate stage two is a very rare phenomena indeed. It really does only boil down to Italy and Germany in the 1920s through to the 1940s. Every other attempt has failed. What Paxton manages to do is to synthesise what it was that made fascism successful in those two places at those times. What he finds are quite unique circumstances that, whilst being comforting to the modern reader, also offer a disturbing insight into the role of conservative elites. A lesson about which we should take heed of in modern times.

Novelist Thomas Mann wrote this about the “revolution” of Hitler’s rise to power, it was…:

“…without underlying ideas, against ideas, against everything nobler, better, decent, against freedom, truth and justice.” The “common scum” had taken power, “accompanied by vast rejoicing on the part of the masses.”

Whilst this may be a common view Paxton contends that this often misses a sophistication in the manner in which fascists come to power. They arrive at their destination by selling out on their loftier ideals in order to win the support of the conservative elite. That elite only ends up supporting the “common scum” when all other avenues have been shut down. There were many times in the path to power of Adolf Hitler in which it all could have gone wrong for him. He gambled so many times and was lucky enough to win. This makes his victory a rarity indeed. This is a bitter-sweet conclusion because much else we observe here about the extreme-right are facets alive and well in the extreme-right of modern Europe. Certainly an absence of ideas is the hallmark of the UK Independence Party. They remain defined by what they are NOT rather than what they stand FOR. Even more disturbingly UKIP hang on to a hope of power by bargaining with the British Conservative Party whose voter base they threaten.

Hence the conditions under which fascism comes to power are mechanisms still in play today. Hard bargaining in smoky backrooms may yet influence modern European democracies even if the utter failure of inter-war democracy brought about the original stage two fascist regimes. Our democracies are far more established and mature yet this maturity is largely an illusion as they are still very much in the grips of a conservative elite. This grip waxes and wanes. It diminished after WWII as we witnessed the rise of European social democracy yet became resurgent in neo-liberal economics from the late 1970s onwards. The times is as ripe now as ever for a resurgence of fascism as a form of austerity is enforced in a manner we have not seen since the last great depression.

Paxton offers this precise definition of the appeal of fascism:

Fascism was.. “…a new invention created afresh for the era of mass politics. It sought to appeal mainly to the emotions by the use of ritual, carefully stage-managed ceremonies, and intensely charged rhetoric. The role programs and doctrine play in it is, on closer inspection, fundamentally unlike the role they play in conservatism, liberalism and socialism. Fascism does not rest explicitly upon an elaborated philosophical system, but rather upon popular feelings about master races, their unjust lot, and their rightful predominance over inferior peoples.”

It has no intellectual underpinning, no critical major intelligence. It is the dimmest if philosophies. Yet it is alive an well today even if shrouded in polite civic society code. I hear it regularly every time some TV pundit tells us that “they” (the foreigners) are taking “our” jobs, or those Europeans are unjustly taking “our” money. It ranks “us” and our rights over and above people identical to us in every respect. It withstands no economic scrutiny. It relies upon ignorance. Even when presented with the evidence that immigration creates wealth, the “common scum” refuse even to entertain the idea. It is treated in the way that climate change denial treats scientific evidence. Emotion triumphs over reason. There are no ideas. No evidence-based-policy. Just gut feel, fear and hatred. All the basest animal emotions. This is a basic anger our civilised society is meant to suppress and rationalise away because these feelings are irrational. Fascism is the manifestation of irrational politics. On this definition it is alive and well today in the dogma of the right.

It was liberal economist Pareto who so precisely put his finger on the issue over 100 years ago when he…

“…constructed a political theory about how the superficial rules of electoral and parliamentary democracy were inevitabley subverted in practice by the permanent power of elites and by the irrational ‘residues’ of popular feelings.”

Fascism was seen as an answer to a surplus of democracy. If the common man was to vote rationally it would strip away the power base of the conservative elite. Hence the masses had to be diverted from rational voting towards irrational prejudice. Rather than attack the elites they were diverted to attacking each other. Fascists “advocated a spiritual revolution that would revitalise the nation without altering its social structure“. Revolution was all well and good as long as it didn’t change anything. THAT was the threat of the sort of Internationalism offered by the Bolsheviks. The idea that the common working man in one country has a brother in another country was intolerable. The idea that these brothers shared the same enemy in the conservative elite was a very dangerous one for that elite.

What Nationalism thus offered was the escape route. It gave the common man the idea that he was not brother with a man of similar social status in another place. Instead his brothers and sisters were the people of his colour, his creed, his country, his tribe, his language in HIS nation. All others were a threat.

“Enemies were central to the anxieties that helped inflame the fascist imagination. Fascists saw enemies within the nation as well as outside. Foreign states were familiar enemies, though their danger seemed to intensify with the advance of Bolshevism and with the exacerbated border conflicts and unfulfilled national claims that followed World War 1.”

Paxton suggests that the need to conquer territory is one of the defining marks of fascism. A standard against which so many “fascists” fail to join the club as they do not wish to conquer others. This seems to gloss over modern post war history. From Korea to Vietnam to Iraq and beyond there have been plenty of land conquests by both democracies and dictatorships. Take the example of Argentina when in 1982 they chose to invade the Falkland Islands. This was done to boost the popularity of a flagging Junta at home. Paxton specifically walks us through the history of Peronist military dictatorship in that country yet still manages to suggest that the lack of foreign military adventures marks them down as something less than fascist. By glossing over such episodes as the Falklands does the reader a disservice. Not only did the Junta choose military expansionism it was a reactionary right wing regime in London that chose to raise a military Task Force to retake the islands. It did no harm whatsoever to the election chances of the British Conservative party. Without victory in the Falklands and the subsequent public euphoria they would not have given Margaret Thatcher a second electoral term (seeing as she was in the popularity doldrums before the war). The British economy was at that time in deep recession due to neo-liberal policies.

If we choose to ignore the way the Bush Presidency used 9/11 (to boost its standing), or how Clinton used his cruise missile attacks on alleged foreign chemical-weapon-making factories (to boost his popularity in the middle of his own personal sex scandal), then we are pretending that this element of fascism is not widespread even in our democracies. It is in fact a very poor metric by which to measure whether or not a regime is fascist. These are the characteristics of nationalism that always get whipped up by conservative elites when they wish to rally the nation around some foreign adventure that so conveniently substitutes for domestic policy failings.

Lessons do abound in this book. One gem you might pick up upon is the story of how Oswald Mosely rose to lead the British Union of Fascists through “disillusionment with the feckless Labour party“. Similar comments have been made in Britain today. When the Labour party borrows the clothes of the conservative elite then were do people go? Some leave to the last remaining home for the left: the green party, the rest abandon ship in favour of UKIP. Fascists are not idealists, they will sell their soul to the devil for power. Thus it was that disillusioned Italian fascists left the party when it abandoned its founding ideals. They complained that it had become “the bodyguard of the profiteers”:

“The purists eventually left the party or were pushed out of it. They were replaced by the sons of landowners, younger policemen, army officers and NCOs…”

Rather than attacking capitalism it signed up for capitalism as it main protector. Modern fascism just skips the idealism phase entirely. Paxton would adhere to the historical path-to-power of fascism as his definition of “fascism”. This seems so rigidly academic. Most of us would see this as a cosmetic difference. The end result is what counts. Modern fascism is increasingly an uprising of the conservative elite who fear anything that would challenge their supremacy in society.

“…fascists interlopers cannot easily break into a political system that is functioning tolerably well. Only when state and existing institutions fail badly do they open opportunities for newcomers.”

Are our modern democracies failing? Yes, they no longer offer pluralistic solutions. You have the option of a right-wing regime, a far right junta or a loony-fascist dictatorship. Since the media is almost entirely in the pockets of the far-right the masses are fed a diet of hatred and austerity. This is a ripe recipe, a failure of democracy on a monumental scale. Paxton suggests that such failures only came about in a certain time in history when modern democracy was young and the conservative elites were struggling to maintain power. Many of us would suggest that we have gone full circle. It may not be 1920 anymore but that is semantics. It is the results that count.

Think this is overstated? What about existence for the ordinary citizen under fascism?

“…many ordinary citizens never feared fascist violence against themselves, because they were reassured that it was reserved for national enemies and “terrorists” who deserved it.”

This is all too eerily familiar. Fascism no longer simply offers a lifeline to a faltering elite. It is the elite.

“Some German conservatives were uneasy about the anti-capitalist rhetoric still flaunted by some Nazi intellectuals, as were Italian conservatives by Fascists labour activists like Edmondo Rossoni. But Mussolini had long come around to “productivism” and admiration for the industrial hero, while Hitler made it clear in his famous speech to the Dusseldorf Industrialist Club on January 26, 1932 as well as in private conversation, that he was a social Darwinist in the economic sphere too.”

Modern Fascism has simply skipped straight part the socialism part of its genesis but the result is the same. Fascists governments formed initially as coalitions so it took a dramatic turn of fortune for them to seize power outright. In Nazi Germany it was the burning of the Reichstag, in Italy it was the Fascists march on Rome. US government today has increasingly become to rely on special Presidential powers to over-rule the impasse in Congress. (Sometime to positive effect as in Obama’s interventions of the limitations of greenhouse gasses.) There is little confidence in the idea that fascism couldn’t happen again. Paxton’s reassurances that it would NOT be his definition of “fascism”, because it hasn’t followed the same historical path, ring a little hollow. Hitler had his Enabling Act, Bush had the Patriot Act. What’s the difference? Honestly?

Paxton does make some fair points however. His purist definition of fascism means he does no see it repeated elsewhere because, as he see it, these forces were kept from power by powerful military dictatorships. This begs the question as to how fascism is NOT a powerful military dictatorship? Paxton does answer this but if you, like us, question whether it is the end result that matters might consider this to be utter semantics. Yes there are some discernible differences that might lead us to a technical definition of fascism. This might thwart all the young turks who label anything to the right in politics as “fascism”. Certainly it is a grossly over-used slander that has increasingly become devoid of meaning. Today it has come means any force that denies us our perceived “rights”. As such it has been hurled as an item of abuse by the right against the left as well as the traditional reverse. On one occasion young climate change campaigners heckled a climate change denier only for him to accuse them of being the Hitler Youth. When “fascism” is used in these way it is a playground taunt devoid of meaning. The term “eco-fascist” is hideously oxymoronic since the greens offer one of the few remaining outposts to Internationalism. Fascism is a Nationalistic creed. Surely we can agree on these basics.

Hence Paxton’s attempt at greater vigour is more welcome and he does introduce greater insight. Although his work is useful in the historical setting to define a word it is completely lost in the modern world where he attempts to define the “meaning” of fascism to us today.

“The inoculation of most Europeans against the original fascism by its public shaming in 1945 is inherently temporary.”

In this Paxton essentially misses the point. His definition of fascism may well return at some distant point in the future when we have all forgotten about Hitler. But that is largely academic when fascism is alive and well amongst us today. Fascism will come to the modern world precisely because we will not recognise it against historical precedence. The result will be the same but we will kid ourselves that “this time it will be different”. No it won’t.

Paxton’s modern analysis of contemporary Europe focusses in only upon right wing movement that most resemble the fascists of the 1930s in their path to power. He is not entirely wrong of course. Occasionally he drifts quite close to our own feelings on the matter:

“…the leaders of the most successful extreme Right movements and parties have laboured to distance themselves from the language and images of fascism.”

Modern fascism is fascism-lite when it is close to home. Hark, no death camps. We should not delude ourselves. In Iraq a war for oil killed a million people or more, mostly civilians. And that was an aggressive war fought by people who think of themselves as coming from democracies. This is a travesty. It was not an overt war of extermination but heck, they were only Muslims and we are sure most of them were Al Qaeda so it doesn’t matter. No, we are not the good guys. The people of Nazi Germany felt the same ways about their troops in the Ukraine. We learnt nothing. It is not a perspective you see in this book.

Today’s fascists come in the clothing of “anti-politics”, they are “of-the-people”. Nice blokes propping up bars with a pint of beer in hand. Maybe Milsevic’s Serbia was not a “classic” form of fascism but the result was the same. Would Paxton feel more comfortable if we gave it a more modern name? Maybe he has a point. Maybe “fascism” is a historical icon to be put in a jar of formaldehyde and stuck on a shelf in a museum. Maybe. But if we do that we will not be watchful enough. The lessons of history should be on display for us all and we should always fear that it will happen here. It already is. But no matter how hard we try to prop up some murderous right wing military junta in some South American tin pot military dictatorship Paxton will have none of it:

“These client states, however odious, cannot legitimately be called fascist”

If Paxton is serious then he undermines his own case. The nature of fascism is its odious nature. The wars of extermination in south and central America in the 1980s were extraordinarily bloody. The victims were simply peasants – anyone the Washington-friendly dictatorship were able to label as “Communists” could be killed with impunity. This continues today with drone strikes against anyone the regime can call a “terrorist” most of whom are simply innocent civilians. Does it matter? “Terrorist”, “Communist”, “Jew”? Does it really matter? We think not. For Paxton the only legitimate definition of fascism is it path to power, not what it does afterwards. But then, occasionally, Paxton does put his finger on it exactly:

“The language and symbols of an authentic American fascism would, of course, have little to do with the original European models. They would have to be as familiar and reassuring to loyal Americans as the language and symbols of the original fascisms were familiar and reassuring to many Italians and Germans, as Orwell suggested. Hitler and Mussolini, after all, had not tried to seem exotic to their fellow citizens. NO swastikas in an American fascism, but Starts and Stripes and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the pledge of allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy.”

What exactly is Paxton implying here? This could be written by Noam Chomsky. If he is saying what we think then he has just made the most profound statement of this entire book. One that flatly contradicts the largely academic exercise of attempting to define the word “fascism” from entirely historical paths to power. Yes, Orwell is right. Fascism will simply slip into place without any of the trappings of Nuremburg. That is its strength, we will never recognise it until it is too late. Neo-fascism re-occurs again and again in contemporary times. The Reichstag burns again and again with amazing regularity. Armies march for Lebensraum over and over again. We just call them different things. Yesterday the enemies were the Jews. Today they are Muslims and Terrorists. Nothing really changes.

Indeed Paxton is shortly to turn on the state of Israel with equal candour.

“By 2002, it was possible to hear language within the right wing of the Likud Party and some of the small religious parties that come close to a functional equivalent of fascism. The chosen people begins to sound like a Master Race that claim a unique “mission in the world,” demands its “vital space,” demonises an enemy that obstructs the realisation of the people’s destiny, and accepts the necessity of force to obtain these ends.”

Paxton, you have nailed it.

“Can fascism still exist? [..] We need not look for exact replicas, in which fascist veterans dust off their swastikas. [..] As long as they remain excluded from the alliances with establishment necessary to join the political mainstream or share power however, they remain more a law and order problem than a political threat. Much more likely to exert an influence are extreme Right movements that have learned to moderate their language, abandon classical fascist symbolism, and appear “normal“.””

He goes on…

“Fascists are close to power when conservatives begin to borrow their techniques, appeal to their “mobilising passions,” and try to co-opt the fascist following.”

Tell me, which one of these today does not apply to the relationship between British Conservatives and the Fascist UKIP? Today we have Climate Change Deniers in charge of Environmental Ministries where evidence no longer matters and policy is made up based upon dogma. The “mobilising passions” are run amok in today’s British Government.

Paxton leaves us with the question “what is Fascism?” He offers this:

“Fascism in power is a compound, a powerful amalgam of different but marriageable conservative, national-socialist and radical Right ingredients, bonded together by common enemies and common passions for a regenerated, energised, and purified nation at whatever cost to free institutions and the rule of law.”

It is “like a network of relationships than a fixed essence” concludes Paxton that renders fascism to nothing more than a political internet. This is way off the mark. This book just ends up confusing the reader. It contends that we see nothing like historical fascism in contemporary times yet then concludes (rightly) that this is irrelevant.

Where does this leave us? Paxton well demonstrates that there is plenty of neo-fascism around but this seems to be a different conclusion from the one he reaches about his attempt to define the word “fascism”. We are left to conclude that the academic exercise to define the meaning of a word is not helpful in the modern world. Despite informing us that there are no recognisable remnants of historical fascism in today’s politics Paxton goes on to point out that this is the point: you will NOT recognise fascism until it is too late. If you could recognise it you would be repulsed. However Fascism is always something our enemies are guilty of. It is like the word “terrorist”. It remains a simply slur devoid of real meaning.

We all know what it means and if we look hard we still see it hard at work today undermining our democracies from both top and bottom. Our duty is vigilance. This book is helpful if you read between the lines. Ignore the academic exercise. When Paxton writes from the heart he comes closer to reality. Our world is an open door to fascism. The door just needs kicking… and we can hear the jackboots marching – if we listen carefully.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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