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Review: The Anatomy of Fascism

Updated on January 4, 2017
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J. Schatzel works in agricultural/occupational medicine in rural upstate NY and has a Masters degree in history.

Throughout Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, the author argues that fascism can be best defined through the actions of fascist movements, rather than through the statements of purpose presented by its leaders. Following a five-level model, Paxton provides the reader with a guide to understanding fascism’s origins, progression, historical precedents, and modern possibilities through a central analysis of Italy and Germany.

As asserted by Paxton, fascism was a movement of nationalistic anti-capitalism, voluntarism, and promotion of active violence against bourgeois and socialist enemies. [1] As a temporary result of what Paxton deems to have been “moral decline magnified by the dislocations of World War I,” fascism attacked international finance capitalism, not simply as a “chauvinist demagogue” led people, but as a movement of social ideology embodied in national political shifts. [2] It is defined by Paxton as an ideology or worldview embodied by discontents in an age of “mass politics,” with a focus on aesthetics, “replacement of reasoned debate with immediate sensual experience,” upheaval of liberal individualism for a focus on the importance of the nation as a central value of society, and the promotion of violence for the sake of the nation. [3] Paxton uses an examination of five defined stages of fascism to explicate his thesis, including the creation of movements, their political roots, their rise to power, their exercise of power, and their fall from power and the movement between radicalization and entropy. [4]

Paxton contends that Fascism was a political movement, serving as a declaration of youthful rebellion moreso than any previous political movement. [5] As a means of social control and manipulation of group dynamics through peer pressure to rally popular enthusiasm, the “popularity-terror dichotomy” discussed by Paxton is displayed through Mussolini and Hitler’s use of accommodation, enthusiasm, and terror to gain and maintain their authority. [6] The nation, not the party, was the central focus of fascist propaganda employed in Fascist Germany and Italy, embodied by the “totalitarian impulse” of Hitler and Mussolini’s leadership. [7] As asserted by Paxton, political polarization and eventual “deadlock,” mass mobilization against internal and external enemies of the state and society, and cooperation with existing elites is needed for the rise of fascism to power. [8] As argued by Paxton, Hitler and Mussolini reached office as leaders of a fascist state through their alliances with “powerful traditional elites.” [9]

Fascism, born in Milan Italy as a means of “national socialism” [10] led by Mussolini in 1919, “thus burst into history with an act of violence against both socialism and bourgeois legality in the name of claimed higher good,” [11] heightened by “fear of the collapse of community solidarity,” the impact of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, and the creation of “impersonal modern societies.” [12] Themes of community over individual rights, virtue of violence for nation, fear of “national decline” and pessimism about human nature, and “contempt for compromise” fuelled fascism as an intellectual and cultural phenomenon. [13] “If the nation or ‘volk’ was mankind’s highest attainment, violence in its cause was ennobling” [14] explains Paxton, as a growing sense of crisis, urgency, duty, victimization, the need for authority, the primacy of the group, and belief in the group’s rightful domination overtook interwar Europe during the 1930s. [15]

Fascism, employed by charismatic leaders as a national social revolution, reinforced social hierarchy and left the existing economic hierarchy largely intact. [16] As stated by Paxton, the “fascist mission of national aggrandizement and purification” ignored individual rights for an emphasis on organized state action centered in organic solidarity, focused on the charismatic fascist leader’s goal to “unify, purify, and energize” his community in a shift toward authoritarianism. [17] Recruitment of early fascists centered on young, inexperienced voters, and proponents of “anti-political politics,” stretching among all social classes. [18] Whereas Marxism appealed to blue collar workers, fascism crossed class lines. [19] As shown through Paxton’s analysis, fascism crossed class lines with a primary focus on nationalism, and “offered a new recipe” for government that excluded the left while remaining unthreatening to conservatives. [20] With the economic instability of the 1930s, fascism gained ground as Europeans became disillusioned with their governments, amidst the perceived shallowness of liberal traditions, late industrialization and economic uncertainty, the persistence of pre-democratic elites, the “strength of revolutionary surges”, and the trend of revolt against national humiliation evoked by the Treaty of Versailles. [21] According to Paxton, whereas propaganda would make it perceptible that the leaders of Italian and German fascism were the “pinnacle” of their movements, it was the support of the populations over which they presided who carried the momentum of the movements. [22] Just as the Po Valley Black Shirt’s conflict raised confidence in Mussolini-led fascists from 1920-1922, [23] “the nature of fascist rule” [24] emerged in Germany as fascism “thrived on unemployment and a widespread perception that the traditional parties and the preexisting constitutional system had failed. [25]

Paxton’s monograph addresses the controversial nature of trying to define fascism, and the lack of consensus regarding the definition among historians and sociologists. Waiting until the last chapter of the monograph to provide a definition of fascism, Paxton explains his thesis that it is not what fascists said their goals and intentions were, it was instead the actions of fascist movements that defined their position within his five component description of Fascism. [26] Paxton’s use of a bibliographic essay clarifies his sources and lends further validity to his argument, while providing insight into the historiography of each of the subheadings of his research presented within The Anatomy of Fascism. [27] Placing his monograph within the historiography of fascism, including such works Paxton relies heavily upon as Hanna Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Paxton contends that “expansionist war lies at the heart of radicalization.” [28] According to Paxton, the initial role of fascism in Germany and Italy was to exclude liberals from power in politics and society. In the long term for Germany, fascism was intended to “enlist mass support behind national, social defense, to unify, regenerate, and rejuvenate, moralize, and purify the nation that many saw as weak, decadent and unclean.” [29]

Throughout the monograph, Paxton uses frequent familiar speech, stating that further information can be found in other places throughout the book in various chapters. Often referring to himself in the first person to guide his readership through the monograph with repetitive and unnecessary narration, Paxton contends that fascism developed in the context of World War II and the Bolshevik Revolution. [30] According to Paxton, Nazism as well as Italian fascism came to official title of power by the actions of leaders, not by popular vote of the German people; Fascism did not rise by force or seizure of power by leaders, but instead through being asked to take office by current heads of state as “interwar Europe” era fascists cooperated with conservative political forces. [31]

As asserted by Paxton, long term preconditions of mass politics, European changes in political culture, the increase of the middle class and thus an increase in conservatives, and rising nationalism with the parallel emergence of mass-based populist nationalist movements, enabled fascism to develop and radicalize in Germany. [32] Only in Nazi Germany did a fascist regime approach the “outer horizons of radicalization” [33] as defined by Paxton’s five tiered understanding of fascism. The Nazi rise to power, according to Paxton, occurred out of liberals’ “perceived failure to deal with” the German crisis of the 1920s, such as humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles and the postwar economic collapse of the Weimar Republic. [34] According to Paxton, Nazi “eugenics” ideology was used by fascists to justify violence toward people considered unfit for their society, as the shift from fascism as a grassroots movement to organized political action in Germany by 1938 accompanied the shift from the expulsion of Jews to the extermination of Jews.[35] Paxton contends that the willingness of Nazis to resort to violence was due to a sense of crisis, urgency, and necessity, coupled with being hardened against violence by earlier Einsatzgruppen violence. In Paxton’s description, “not to push forward was to perish,” [36] and both Hitler and Mussolini chose war as a means of furthering their regime’s power. However, Paxton asserts that only Germany fully reached a state of total war embodied by totalitarian aspects of fascism.

Paxton reminds the reader that there is no “sartorial litmus test for fascism,” [37] and that fascist trends in western Europe and the rest of the world since 1945 have not fully embraced all tenets of Fascism such as regulated markets as an attack on individualism. [38] Paxton’s monograph acknowledges that while it is possible for fascist movements to return, such parallel circumstances to former crises that could elicit a fascist response are unlikely. Paxton offers his work as a means of understanding Fascism to enable the reader to foresee when a movement may shift into fascism. [39] “All the eastern European successor states have contained radical rights movements since 1989,” however Paxton asserts that such movements remained “gratifyingly weak” in places also including Latin America, Japan, The United States, and Israel. [40] Paxton contends that fascism is not returning, and that regimes in the modern post-World War II world perceived as fascism have never completely evolved into fascism; such movements were not of fascism but were instead overt acts of nationalism and racism. According to Paxton, fascism would be unlikely to arise after 1945 due to the globalization of the world economy, the resulting “triumph of indivualistic consumerism,” the advent of the nuclear age reducing nations’ abilities to use war as a means of mobilization, and the “diminishing credibility of a revolutionary threat.” [41]

Through the juxtaposition of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, Paxton presents an analysis of fascism, allowing for the allocation of a set definition for fascist movements. In a convincing argument as to the preconditions, formation, mobilization, radicalization, and entropy of fascist movements, Paxton provides historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and other readers with an understanding of fascism; meanwhile the author explains whether other such movements have arisen since World War II, and speculation whether or not modern fascist movements could still develop in the post-war world.

[1] Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism. (N.Y.: Random House, 2004). Pg. 7.

[2] Ibid., 8-10.

[3] Ibid., 16-21.

[4] Ibid., 23.

[5] Ibid.,139.

[6] Ibid., 134-136.

[7] Ibid., 120-122.

[8] Ibid., 116.

[9] Ibid., 115.

[10] Ibid., 4.

[11] Ibid., 7.

[12] Ibid., 35.

[13] Ibid., 39.

[14] Ibid., 35.

[15] Ibid., 41.

[16] Ibid., 141.

[17] Ibid., 148.

[18] Ibid., 44.

[19] Ibid., 85.

[20] Ibid., 103-104.

[21] Ibid., 102.

[22] Ibid., 119.

[23] Ibid., 61.

[24] Ibid., 119.

[25] Ibid., 105.

[26] Ibid., 215.

[27] Ibid., 221.

[28] Ibid., 170.

[29] Ibid., 117.

[30] Ibid., 172.

[31] Ibid., 99.

[32] Ibid., 41-46.

[33] Ibid., 35.

[34] Ibid., 66-67.

[35] Ibid., 159-161.

[36] Ibid., 162-164.

[37] Ibid., 174.

[38] Ibid., 187.

[39] Ibid., 205.

[40] Ibid., 189.

[41] Ibid., 173.


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