On Sunday morning, March 23, 1919, Benito Mussolini addressed his political followers in the Italian city of Milan. He referred to his movement as the Fasci di Combattimento (fraternities of combat). “If something begins when it acquires a name,” Robert Paxton argues, fascism began on that date. Paxton notes that both the term “fascism” and the politics connoted by it have much older roots. As implied by the Italian fascio, meaning a bundle or sheaf, or by the earlier Latinfasces, which denoted the rod-encased axe carried in public processions to symbolize the authority and unity of the Roman state, fascism encompasses solidarity. Mussolini, however, meant solidarity of a particular kind when he proclaimed that “the twentieth century will be the century of Fascism.” Emerging from a context that included the carnage of World War I, a rising tide of socialism and communism, and the inability of newly democratic governments to cope with economic unrest, fascism would offer a distinctive nationalistic revival. As it turned out, that rebirth was not only appealing but also violent and massively destructive.
If fascism's development had depended only on Mussolini and on other relatively obscure political figures who make cameo appearances in The Anatomy of Fascism, Paxton's judgment that “fascism was the major political innovation of the twentieth century” would not be credible. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, however, showed how formidable fascism can be. With images of Hitler and Mussolini in view, identifying fascism might seem easy. That is not necessarily true, says Paxton, who finds that political phenomenon perplexing even after spending an academic career focused upon it.
Understanding fascism is more challenging than it first appears. For example, Paxton ends his book with a helpful discussion of the most important scholarship in this field. He mentions the Italian scholar Renzo De Felice, whose bibliography on fascism was published in 1991. It referenced more than twelve thousand books and articles, the vast majority focused on Mussolini's Italy. After adding studies done since that time, including all the work before and after 1991 about the variety of fascism practiced in Hitler's Germany, that number soars.
The movements led by Hitler and Mussolini were related but far from identical. Many others have been called fascist as well, but the question remains: What is fascism? From Paxton's perspective, the problem is not that too much has been written about fascism but that too many of those efforts have been limited, if not misguided. Some seek the essence of fascism, what scholars have called the “fascist minimum.” Usually abstract and generic, these attempts do not deal adequately with the origin and development of particular forms of fascism. Frequently, fascism has been interpreted primarily as an ideology. This perspective emphasizes doctrines, propaganda, and programs but submerges what was actually done by fascist leaders and their regimes. Other accounts concentrate on dictatorial leaders such as Hitler or Mussolini, but they underestimate fascism's social appeal. Still others look at Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or other particular specimens of fascism, but they do not take up the comparative work needed to show how different movements are examples of fascism itself.
Paxton's quarrels with previous interpretations of fascism are more than academic. Although he criticizes those who begin their studies with definitions, he thinks that fascism is “a general phenomenon” that can be clearly defined—but only after careful empirical analysis of historical data has been done. Not only does his view of the twentieth century indicate that fascism was “the source of much of its pain,” but also he shows that the demise of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany did not destroy fascism forever. When Paxton says that fascism lives in the twenty-first century and that it can even be found in “all democratic countries,” including the United States, he is aware that “fascism” and “fascist” have become loosely used smear words. His project includes rescuing those concepts so that they can again refer meaningfully to immensely attractive and enormously destructive ways of life whose temptations remain.
Referring to the anatomy of fascism, Paxton alludes to the ways in which the various parts of a body work—individually and collectively—to make a particular reality function. Thus, he starts with “a strategy instead of a definition.” In response to the criticism that it is impossible to identify a movement as fascist unless one begins with a clear definition of...
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