The Anatomy of Fascism

Robert O. Paxton

Penguin 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
In The Anatomy of Fascism Paxton proceeds empirically, analysing the history of fascism and only then attempting generalisations. He also downplays the role of doctrines and ideologies, giving more weight to what fascists and fascist movements did than to their claimed motivations and explanations. The focus is on the two archetypal fascist examples, Mussolini's Italy and Nazi Germany, but there is good coverage of less successful movements across Europe and around the world.

Five core chapters cover different stages in the development of a fascist movement or state. "Creating Fascist Movements" describes the background to fascist movements, in WWI and its aftermath, and their intellectual and cultural roots, preconditions and precursors, and sources of recruits.

"The map of fascist intellectual creativity does not coincide with the map of fascist success."

"Taking Root" presents case studies of the Po Valley in 1920-1922, Schleswig-Holstein in 1928-1933 and, as an unsuccessful example, France from 1924 to 1940 (and more briefly, Hungary and Britain).

"A typology of crises that could give fascism an opening is not enough. An equally important consideration is the capacity of liberal and democratic regimes to respond to these crises."

"Getting Power" demonstrates that fascist myths of seizure are not historical: Mussolini and Hitler were placed in power by conservative elites who hoped to use and control them, rather than being elected or seizing power. In other cases, conservatives suppressed fascists instead of allying with them.

"We are not required to believe that fascist movements can only come to power in an exact replay of the scenario of Mussolini and Hitler. All that is required to fit our model is polarization, deadlock, mass mobilization against internal and external enemies, and complicity by existing elites."

"Exercising Power" explores the dualities and diffuse power sources of fascist states and the stresses and tensions they brought, between fascists and conservatives, leader and party, and party and state. It also touches on public opinion and intellectuals.

"The Long Term: Radicalization or Entropy" considers the longer-term dynamics of fascist regimes and their waves of radicalization and normalization. Here Paxton pays particular attention to the drive to war and the Holocaust.

"Nazi Germany in its final paroxysm is the only authentic example so far of the ultimate stage of fascist radicalization."

These chapters focus on Europe down to 1945, but an additional chapter looks at fascism in other times and places: in Western Europe after 1945, in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, and in Latin America and around the world.

In fifteen pages right at the end Paxton turns to theory, surveying different interpretations of fascism and considering the differences between it and tyranny, military dictatorship or authoritarianism, before offering a definition of his own.

"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 with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal constraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."

Some of Paxton's generalisations are problematic. In the quote about Nazi Germany above, for example, how useful is it to label a single case "the only authentic example"? And one can only speculate about the possible long-term evolution of fascist states. But mostly he stays well grounded in the actual history.

The Anatomy of Fascism is fully documented, with over fifty pages of endnotes supplemented by a thirty page bibliographical essay which is readable as well as informative. Paxton will be essential reading for political theorists concerned with the first half of the twentieth century, but should also appeal to a broader audience.

October 2008

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%T The Anatomy of Fascism
%A Paxton, Robert O.
%I Penguin
%D 2004
%O hardcover, notes, index
%G ISBN 0713997206
%P 321pp