The bibliographic essay at the end of Robert O Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism is some 27 pages long.  At about 20 titles per page that is over 500 books which, as a fine gift to us, he has read and assimilated, adding his own thoughts and given us this slim, accessible book to help make sense of what the world is re-confronting today – a resurgence of fascist-like themes, emotions, organizing and reaching for power.

Primary among his motives for such extensive research was to winnow from the multiple ideas and definitions and epithets about fascism something that might serve as a useful understanding for similar sets of behaviors.  A major obstacle, as he sees it,  is that fascism is not the same when it begins to rise as when it is in power.  In fact, he sees five stages of fascism:

  1.  the creation of movements;
  2. their rooting in the political system;
  3. their seizure of power;
  4. the exercise of power;
  5. the long duration, either radicalization or entropy.

And it is by these stages that the book is organized.  Rather than give us a definition at the beginning and then defend it through the book, he takes the opposite, and welcome, approach.  By going through the history, not only of proclamations and propaganda but the actual activities of fascist movements and regimes, both successful and failed,  and comparing one to another, he arrives at a definition.  It’s not a punchy bumper sticker phrase but an array of visible behaviors which have marked fascism as distinct from authoritarianism or dictatorships of other sorts.

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints.

Above all fascism is a mass movement.  Many millions of ordinary citizens participate in it.  Unlike a dictatorship, where order is imposed on the populace by a small centralized army or police force, fascism enlists many in its ranks and especially the young.

“No regime was authentically fascist without a popular movement that helped it achieve power, monopolized political activity and played a major role in public life after power with its parallel organization.”

And in fact, Franco’s Spain lost its early fascist trappings to become an authoritarian dictatorship dominated by the army, business men, landowners and the Church.”

Unlike Left populism, which also seeks or organize the masses, fascism moves continuously away from individual liberties, using the deep human desire to be something bigger to forge an all-for-the-nation, the-nation-is-one, sensibility.  It’s not even an idea-ology as much as a sense-ology, emote-ology.

Nor does fascism have an ideology as do its communist and socialism rivals. Though propositions are advanced in its name,

“… the rightness of fascism does not depend on the truth of any of these. … Fascism is “true” insofar as it help fulfill the destiny of a chosen race or people or blood, locked with other peoples in a Darwinian struggle, and not in the light of some abstract and universal reason.”

Linked with this is the peculiarly fascist sacralization of violence.  While the violence with which the American nation was created was enormous and catastrophic for its victims, as was that of Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China, that of fascism had an added disturbing element:  it was idealized in a distinctive way, as a virtue proper to a master race.”

Even so, it takes more than the movement, and street violence, to take power.  In the two best known fascist regimes, Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, alliances with conservative parties, politicians, large agriculture and industrial interests were foundational.  Both men began “their rooting in the political system” by “offering a new political style that would attract voters who had concluded that ‘politics’ had become dirty and futile.” Both men were invited to join the governments they soon dominated.  Both used a mix of legal means and directed violence to consolidate their rule.

Though there is a written and seeming ideology coming from the top, the essential unifying theme is the redemptive power of violence to purge the soft, compromising center and build a new man.

“The legitimization of violence against a demonized internal enemy brings us close to the heart of fascism.”

It is this creation of an internal enemy for which Nazism is best known, a process which Paxton shows to have come about incrementally. Popular provocations and attacks in the streets acted in tandem with murderous orders from the top to ratchet up violence against communists, socialists, homosexuals and Jews, to the far reaches of the Final Solution –still being pursued in the final days of the war.

Violence against external enemies was necessary as well.  War was “essential to the cohesion, discipline, and explosive energy of the fascist regimes.”  Both Mussolini and Hitler “wanted to use war to harden internal society as well as to conquer vital space.”  Indeed, it was the putative Italian victory in Ethiopia in 1936, celebrated by almost everyone, that gave fascism its credentials of competence and power leading to is ascendancy to power.

Radicalization through war is what gives us fascism at its most familiar.

In the penultimate chapter Paxton looks at fascism outside those of Italy and Germany in the 30s and 40s.  Particularly useful his his survey of Western Europe as various tendencies and movements are entering Stage Two – electing adherents to existing political institutions.  France with its National Front (FN) is perhaps the best known. The Netherlands’ Party for Freedom (PVV  — which picked up a few more seats in the March 15, 2017 elections,)  England’s United Kingdom Independence Party  (UKIP)  have had electoral success.  Unseen to many is that in Italy during Berlusconi’s years in or near power, from 1994 to 2011,  elements of the disreputable past attended him.  All are of course “normalizing,” stripping their rhetoric of the scandalous and speaking in more acceptable, measured terms of the challenges facing their supporters today; the old themes are still there however: fear of decadence, of impurity, that some will never assimilate, that more authority must be granted, and used.

For those who fear a return to the bad old days, Paxton  thinks “that no significant opening exists for parties overtly affiliated with classical fascism.”

While I agree, that much of the alarm about today’s resurgent right is misplaced, getting ready to fight, as do armies, the last war, there is nevertheless ample reason to be on alert.  Circumstances are, as he says, very different in Europe after fifty years of peace, than they were after an enormously destructive war.  Super-charged nationalism, victim-hood and ecstatic violence are powerful shapers of human behavior, whatever name is finally in place.