The Anatomy of Fascism

The cover of Robert. O. Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism

In the introduction The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton notes that most scholarship on fascism remains narrowly focused on individual fascist movements. But where these studies offer excellent insight into Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany, they don’t offer a better understanding of fascism as a particularly 20th century political phenomenon. This book, he says, is an attempt to bring those insights together in one comprehensive examination of fascism — the movements headed by Mussolini and Hitler, yes, since those were the two most successful examples, but also those in Hungary, Spain, and, yes, the United States.

So what is fascism? Paxton organizes the book roughly following the life-cycle of a fascist movement from how they begin and take root to exercising power and collapsing, but defers a succinct definition until the final chapter.

It is not the particular themes of Nazism or Italian Fascism that define the nature of the fascist phenomenon, but their function. Fascisms seek out in each national culture those themes that are best capable of mobilizing a mass movement of regeneration, unification, and purity, direct against liberal individualism and constitutionalism and against Leftist class struggle.

“Fascism” has its roots in Italian “fascio” (bundle or sheaf) and can be traced to the latin “fasces,” an axe bound by a bundle of rods carried by Roman lictors (guards who accompanied magistrates) that represented both the violence and restrained violence of the Roman republic. In fact, Paxton notes, the republicanism was so important to the symbolism that leftists movements who wanted to restrain the oppression of the aristocracy and the church, in which context “fascio” was used to refer to militant bands. However, in 1919, a new movement in Milan led (at least in part) by a journalist and former soldier named Benito Mussolini adopted the name “Fasci di Combattimento” and declared war on socialists on whom they blamed the problems of the country. Thus was born first named fascist movement in the modern sense.

Paxton frequently reminds his readers that each fascist movement conforms to its native conditions, but there are nevertheless repeated characteristics and preconditions. In each case, fascist organizations were right-wing movements born at times when the country was (or was a thought to be) in decline. These movements, like the two most famous in Germany and Italy, took advantage of the apparent crisis to stoke popular outrage with appeals to nationalism and former glory, thereby further destabilizing the country and presenting themselves as the only path to stability and prosperity.

Where they succeeded, it was because mainstream conservative elites bestowed political legitimacy on them in the name of thwarting their socialist and leftist opponents during times of economic crisis. Thus, Mussolini’s fabled march on Rome might have been a fatal mistake except that the King Victor Emmanuel III refused to empower the Prime Minister to stop him. (Victor Emmanuel would ultimately also depose Mussolini toward the end of World War 2.) The German example is somewhat more commonly known, where Hitler won just enough political support that he had leverage in his negotiations with the Weimar elite, ultimately getting appointed Chancellor with Franz von Papen, a prominent Weimar politician, as vice-Chancellor—only for the combination of President Paul von Hindenburg’s death and the crisis of the Reichstag Fire removing the restrictors from Hitler’s authority.

Although fascist states often get a reputation for being efficient systems — Mussolini made the trains run on time; Thomas the Tank Engine is a fascist utopia, etc — Paxton shows that this is a mirage. In fact, fascist states amounted to an amalgam of power struggles, between the leader whose personal charisma was essential for the party’s rise to power and the rest of the party, between the party and the civil service (which they largely defused by giving civil services autonomy to continue their work), and between the goals of their non-fascist allies.

Other than the varied origins of the fascist movements, the most interesting part of The Anatomy of Fascism to me was its end-point. Paxton identifies two possible outcomes for a fascist movement: radicalization or dissolution into generic authoritarianism. The extreme promises made during the rise to power preclude “comfortable enjoyment of power.” In one scenario, the fascist movement runs out of steam, but members of the party are able to keep hold of the levers of power as run of the mill authoritarians, the difference being that the fascist movement specifically appeals to the emotions of a broad segment of the population in order to fuel its rise to power. On the other extreme, the movement becomes ever more extreme in pursuit of its promises until the situation dramatically changes, as in the Holocaust and World War 2.

Reading The Anatomy of Fascism in the United States 2021, the obvious question is what it might say about modern political developments and, in particular, the presidency of Donald Trump. Paxton is absolutely clear that the United States has had fascist movements in the past, and not just America First and the other Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s. However, he confidently states that, as of 2004, the United States had resisted making them mainstream:

Much more dangerous are movements that employ authentically American themes in ways that resemble fascism functionally…Of course the United states would have to suffer catastrophic setbacks and polarization for these fringe groups to find powerful allies and enter the mainstream. I half expected to see emerge after 1968 a movement of national reunification, regeneration, and purification directed against hirsute antiwar protesters, black radicals, and “degenerate” artists…Fortunately I was wrong (so far).

I am still mulling over a lot of these questions in light of what Paxton wrote, but I have four broad thoughts at this point:

1. I was not wholly convinced by Paxton’s treatment of Fascist and pseudo-Fascist movements in the United States. He gestures to a long tradition of nativist agitation, including the 1850s Know-Nothing Party and iterations of the KKK as evidence for its presence, but concludes that these groups never truly went mainstream. Setting aside that the KKK went through several discrete iterations, Paxton doesn’t account for the fact that these ideas did go mainstream, even without direct fascist agitation. Perhaps the widespread support of these ideas in the form of Jim Crow legislation and immigration controls disarmed them as fascist talking points, but that’s worse.

2. The idea that the United States can succumb to a fascist dictatorship has been the premise of novels since at least 1935 when Sinclair Lewis published It Can’t Happen Here. More recently, Philip Roth wrote The Plot Against America, which David Simon turned into an HBO series, which I wrote about favorably here. Though my current thinking about The Plot Against America isn’t as positive now as it was in that write-up, I do think Lewis and Roth are correct about one thing in particular. My fear is that the American two-party system makes it, if anything, more vulnerable to Fascism than a decentralized European parliamentary system. In the latter, it required various alliances to bring fascists into the mainstream while the former offers one of the two parties not merely as an ally, but a vehicle.

3. When talking about fascism and American politics there is a problem with labels. Calling an opponent a fascist is a way to discredit them and shut down debate, and rarely has anything to do with historical debate. Paxton several times invokes Orwell’s dictum that American fascism is not going to look like Hitler because it is going to wear authentically American clothes. This gets at the root of the issue. Knowingly or not, Trump’s campaigns ran plays from the fascist playbook: the rallies, the obsession with national decline, the appeals to family values, the framing of the world entirely in terms of allies and enemies. Historical reductivism is not a useful exercise and a lot of those traits have deep roots in American society without the presence of self-identified fascists, though we certainly have those, too. The Republican Party also reoriented itself to accommodate Trump who became their charismatic leader, but too narrow a focus on Trump also misses the evolution of the Republican party that has sought to sow mistrust in government since the 1970s. Was Reagan a fascist, then? Most people would say no. Was Trump a fascist? That’s a question without a productive answer.

4. For as much as I believe there is coordination in talking points between Republican party leaders and at least some of the right-wing media in the United States, it is striking the extent to which driving force of nationalist rhetoric in this country comes from media personalities rather than from the party. Trump was a little bit different before his ban from social media, but even in that case there was a feedback loop between the two. While Paxton might point out that the party unity in the fascist movements was mostly a creation of propaganda, they were nevertheless able to control that message. In the United States context, much of the nationalist fervor has been stoked by…television executives funded by billionaires? …talking heads? …agitators whose primary business is selling supplements? This is not to say that Republican politicians don’t make these statements, but, other than Trump, they seem better able to capitalize on the effects of the rhetoric than to actually fan the flames themselves. Offloading the rhetoric onto a third party also makes it easier to manipulate the system behind closed doors through voter restrictions and stacking the judiciary.

In sum, The Anatomy of Fascism is a good book to think with. Paxton might not be able to offer answers to every question, but this book provides exactly what he promises: a wealth of historical context that transcends a narrow focus on Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

ΔΔΔ

I recently reread Kitchen Confidential in advance of seeing the new documentary about Anthony Bourdain. I love this book, even if it isn’t quite as magical as on my first read. I also finished Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I picked up because I have read how her books are beloved of critics. This book, told from the point of view of a bisexual college girl Frances who is close friends with her ex Bonni and strikes up an affair with Nick, the husband of the writer Melissa who profiles Frances and Bonni for their poetry performances, traces the intimate web of relationships between these four individuals. It is an intimate and revealing portrait written in a way that makes me understand why Rooney appeals to critics, but I thought that it was a little too assured that its close examination of banal details could lead to profound observations about human relationships.

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