The Anatomy of Fascism

by Robert O. Paxton

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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...

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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 fascism, Paxton studies “a core set of movements and regimes generally accepted as fascist.” With Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany playing the most prominent but not exclusive parts in his analysis, he watches “fascism in action, from its beginnings to its final cataclysm, within the complex web of interaction it forms with society.” The result is a rich description of particular historical circumstances, a well-grounded definition of fascism painstakingly drawn from the empirical detail, and insightful lessons about fascism and the future.

Paxton finds nothing inevitable about fascism. It originated and grew because of choices that people made, but those choices also produced identifiable stages of development. The Anatomy of Fascism emphasizes five. In addition to, first, the creation of fascist movements and, second, their eventual rooting in political systems, Paxton dwells on their seizure of power, their exercise of it, and what ultimately became of the twentieth century's fascist regimes.

Although World War I did not create fascism, Paxton argues that it was “the most decisive precondition.” Those circumstances produced what he calls “the emotional lava that set fascism's foundations.” Twentieth century fascism depended upon, indeed was characterized by, “mobilizing passions” more than by “a consistent and fully articulated philosophy.” Especially in Italy and Germany, but not only there, those feelings emphasized that society was in crisis and that neither traditional nor democratic solutions could meet the challenge. National solidarity was needed to reverse moral decay, eliminate internal and external enemies, and cleanse the body politic under the authority of a national leader who would inspire the people to achieve their rightful dominance in a world of Darwinian struggle for survival.

At first, the fascist movements were marginal initiatives that primarily attracted young men and veterans of World War I who shared “extreme nationalism, Left-baiting, and racism.” Jostling for influence and visibility, they often resorted to violence. Less radical but more practical than many in the turbulent ranks they had to control and lead, both Mussolini and Hitler understood that success could be theirs only if fascism could be a unifying force more than a divisive one. Benefiting from “the inability of centrists and conservatives to keep control of a mass electorate,” Paxton contends, the successful fascist leaders took their movements into the existing political process, where they sooner or later found allies among conservatives who saw fascists as the best available resource to help them check socialism and communism.

Neither Mussolini nor Hitler came to power by a coup d’état or by winning a national election. Instead, they formed political alliances, sometimes through violence-backed intimidation, and were eventually invited by conservative elites to take dominant leadership positions. One irony in these developments was that conservatives who banded together with fascists saw the latter as essential for controlling instability, even though fascist agitation and violence (the latter invariably a key ingredient in fascism's “mobilizing passions”) were among the chief causes of social unrest in Italy and Germany between the two world wars.

Paxton draws a two-dimensional lesson from these developments. First, he argues, fascist movements cannot initially achieve, let alone seize, power on their own. Their postures, policies, and practices are never mainstream enough for that. When influential social and political conservatives become sufficiently anxious about the direction society is taking, however, they may welcome fascist support and give fascists the space they need. Second, those calculations and relationships have serious consequences because, once given authority, the fascist impulse is to take as much power as it can get. In that sense, there is a fascist seizure of power. Hitler, for example, took advantage of the Weimar constitution as he came to power in 1933, but as quickly as possible he dismantled democracy, established a one-party state, and led with dictatorial authority. Even here, one must be cautious in speaking about a seizure of power. Neither Hitler nor Mussolini expanded the power they were given without considerable and sustained popular support.

“No dictator,” writes Paxton, “rules by himself.” Fascist regimes needed established institutions and bureaucracies to work with them, which meant that there had to be give-and-take with industries, churches, schools, professionals in fields such as medicine and law, plus the military, to name only a few. The challenge for a fascist regime was to harness those establishments to advance its agenda, whose goals typically included energizing the people to advance ethnic or racial purity—hence Nazi Germany's obsession with anti-Semitism—and to expand national power through war and conquest. These tasks meant that fascist regimes had to extol and enforce—terror plays a part in all forms of fascism—the superiority of the community over the prerogatives of the individual. “In fascist states,” Paxton reminds his readers, “individual rights had no autonomous existence.”

Fascists and conservatives often worked together, but Paxton makes clear that the two groups are not equivalent. In general, conservatives seek stability; they want unrest to cease and traditional ways to endure. Fascists, on the other hand, are restless and determined to advance their vision of desirable change. If that characteristic is not sustained, Paxton contends, fascism drifts toward entropy and conventional authoritarianism, but the fascist insistence on dynamism has problems of its own because fascism is ultimately destabilizing and arguably self-destructive.

What made twentieth century fascism so striking was the way in which its promises—to unify, save, and advance the nation—kept requiring increasingly extreme action to convince the faithful, let alone the dubious, that such progress was always taking place. These drives took Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to war. Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia fueled fascist energies in Italy for a time, but his attempts to launch a “parallel war” to keep pace with Hitler's in World War II led to fascism's demise in Italy. Especially with its savage warfare in Eastern Europe, whose devastation reached its anti-Semitic climax in genocide against the Jews, Nazi Germany showed where the “logic” of fascist radicalization could go. Paxton thinks that fascisms are likely to destroy themselves, but he warns that no one should take comfort from that conclusion. The costs that fascism's appeal extracts are huge.

Only after detailing how fascism works does Paxton draw his book to a close with a snapshot definition. As he sums it up, fascism is political action preoccupied with reversing national decline through a party dedicated to militant nationalism. In collaboration with conservative elites, fascist parties abandon democracy and pursue “with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” However helpful Paxton's definition may be, the real virtue of The Anatomy of Fascism is its demonstration that the devil is in the details. Perhaps none of Paxton's findings is more important than the judgment that fascism's power is parasitic on weak or failing democracy. Fascist impulses remain widespread, but democracy's health is the best remedy against them. As Paxton's account also demonstrates, that health should never be taken for granted.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 16 (April 15, 2004): 1420.

The Economist 370 (March 13, 2004): 85.

Foreign Affairs 83, no. 2 (March/April, 2004): 166.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 4 (February 15, 2004): 168.

New Statesman 133 (May 3, 2004): 36.

The New York Review of Books 51, no. 16 (October 21, 2004): 33.

The New York Times Book Review 153 (May 2, 2004): 10.

The Spectator 295 (May 22, 2004): 46.