Sunday, April 15, 2007

Robert Paxton's "The Anatomy of Fascism"

The Anatomy of Fascism (2004) has gotten quite a bit of attention from political observers concerned over the painfully obvious authoritarianism of today's Republican Party.

But Paxton's book is much stronger on its description of the historical fascist regimes in Germany and Italy than on describing the sort of warning signs of present-day versions that one might expect to find.

As a bit of a skeptic about how much we actually learn from history, that doesn't particularly surprise me. And maybe my own view gets caught up in my mind's poli-sci screens that remind me than even defining fascism is a difficult and controversial task. In fact, probably the only one on which everyone can agree to apply the term is that of Mussolini's Italy, because his party was called Fascist and he described his regime that way.

Most people would use the term for Hitler's Third Reich, as well. But even that is actually a question on which serious historians and political scientists have no consensus. The question there is whether National Socialism (Nazism) actually shared enough fundamental characteristics of the Mussolini regime that they can be meaningfully classified together, or whether it represented something distinct enough that it was qualitatively different. Virtually no one would dispute that in terms of its toll on human life and freedom, that National Socialism was worse than Mussolini's regime.

Paxton ducks the problem of defining fascism until the final chapter by saying its much more informative to compare the fascisms that we know about. It may be a wise approach. But it also brings to mind Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous 1964 definition of pornography: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced ... [b]ut I know it when I see it."

When he finally gets there, on the third page before the end of the book, he comes up with this:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood 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 restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Paxton examines the history of the Third Reich and Italian Fascism in five stages:

I propose to examine fascism in a cycle of five stages: (i) the creation of movements; (2) their rooting in the political system; (3) their seizure of power; (4) the exercise of power; (5) and, finally, the long duration, during which the fascist regime chooses either radicalization or entropy. Though each stage is a prerequisite for the next, nothing requires a fascist movement to complete all of them, or even to move in only one direction. Most fascisms stopped short, some slipped back, and sometimes features of several stages remained operative at once. Whereas most modern societies spawned fascist movements in the twentieth century, only a few had fascist regimes. Only in Nazi Germany did a fascist regime approach the outer horizons of radicalization.
This five-stage approach serves him well in describing those two regime. His account reminds us that these movements and regimes went through a definite evolution. This may sound obvious in the abstract. But in practice, very much of the discussion about those regimes, especially the Hitler regime, takes place with the Second World War and the Holocaust as the main point of reference. Understandably so.

But it's also important to understand that those regimes did not look like what they later came to be in 1935 or 1937. They were clearly dictatorships, and often brutal ones. And there were danger signs about the directions in which they were going. But it was only in war that the Hitler regime especially could become the true horror that we now know it was.

Paxton doesn't adduce new factual discoveries but rather concentrates on analyzing the familiar histories. And his analyses of those two regimes is refreshingly insightful. He doesn't fall into the haze of "totalitarianism", a term originally used by Western conservatives to blur the distinctions between fascist regimes and Soviet Communism. If the notion brought more fog than light to the subject, that was the purpose of the "totalitarian" idea.

His brief description of the changes in European politics that set the stage for fascism is a good one. His observation about their leadership is perceptive:

The fascist leaders were outsiders of a new type. New people had forced their way into national leadership before. There had long been hard-bitten soldiers who fought better than aristocratic officers and became indispensable to kings. A later form of political recruitment came from young men of modest background who made good when electoral politics broadened in the late nineteenth century. One thinks of the aforementioned French politician Leon Gambetta, the grocer's son, or the beer wholesaler's son Gustav Stresemann, who became the preeminent statesman of Weimar Germany. A third kind of successful outsider in modern times has been clever mechanics in new industries (consider those entrepreneurial bicycle makers Henry Ford, William Morris, and the Wrights).

But many of the fascist leaders were marginal in a new way. They did not resemble the interlopers of earlier eras: the soldiers of fortune, the first upwardly mobile parliamentary politicians, or the clever mechanics. Some were bohemians, lumpen-intellectuals, dilettantes, experts in nothing except the manipulation of crowds and the fanning of resentments; Hitler, the failed art student; Mussolini, a schoolteacher by trade but mostly a restless revolutionary, expelled for subversion from Switzerland and the Trentino; Joseph Goebbels, the jobless college graduate with literary ambitions; Hermann Goering, the drifting World War I fighter ace; Heinrich Himmler, the agronomy student who failed at selling fertilizer and raising chickens.
He also emphasizes that for both Hitler and Mussolini, the support of conservatives was important both in coming to power and to consolidating their regimes. But he also reminds us that there was a populist element to those regimes that made them different from simple reactionaries.

Paxton is also right in seeing war as a central factor of fascism:

War provided fascism's clearest radicalizing impulse. It would be more accurate to say that war played a circular role in fascist regimes. Early fascist movements were rooted in an exaltation of violence sharpened by World WarI, and war making proved essential to the cohesion, discipline, and explosive energy of fascist regimes. Once undertaken, war generated both the need for more extreme measures, and popular acceptance of them. It seems a general rule that war is indispensable for the maintenance of fascist muscle tone (and, in the cases we know, the occasion for its demise).

It seems clear that both Hitler and Mussolini deliberately chose war as a necessary step in realizing the full potential of their regimes. They wanted to use war to harden internal society as well as to conquer vital space. Hitler told Goebbels, "the war ... made possible for us the solution of a whole series of problems that could never have been solved in normal times."
War was not an incidental feature of National Socialism and Italian Fascism. It was at the core of the movements and the regimes they formed. That's why it makes no sense to speculate counter-factually about what things would have been like if those regimes hadn't sought war. Even as a speculation, it makes no sense. Had those regimes not sought war, they wouldn't have been the regimes that they were. Some things were accidental features of those regimes. War was the core of them:

Expansionist war lies at the heart of radicalization. Insofar as Fascist Italy radicalized, it did so most fully in conquered East Africa and in the final paroxysm of the Italian campaign. The Nazi regime reached the outer limits of radicalization with its war of extermination against the Soviet Union. In that specially charged situation Nazi officials felt free to take more violent action than they had done in the western campaigns of 1940, first against the enemies of the regime, then against fascism's conservative allies, and eventually against the German people themselves, in an ecstasy of terminal destruction.

Whereas in traditional authoritarian war regimes, the army tends to extend its control, as it did in the German Reich during 1917-18 and in Franco's Spain, the German army lost control of occupation policy in the east after 1941, as we have seen, to the Nazi Party's parallel organizations. Party radicals felt free to express their hatreds and obsessions in ways that were foreign to the traditions of the state services. The issue here is not simply one of moral sensitivity; some officers and civil servants were appalled by SS actions in the conquered territories, while others went along because of group solidarity or because they had become hardened. It was to some degree an issue of turf. It would be unthinkable for a traditional military dictatorship to tolerate the incursions of amateurish party militias into military spheres that Hitler — and even, in Ethiopia, Mussolini—permitted.
Paxton here also makes a distinction between the behavior of the Hitler and Mussolini regimes:

The Nazi and Soviet cases shared a rejection of the state of law and due process; both subordinated them to the imperatives of History [and, he might have added to the Party]. In other respects, however, fascist radicalization was not identical to the Stalinist form. Fascism idealized violence in a distinctive way, as a virtue proper to a master race.
Communism was a radical form of democracy which emerged as the far left wing of the European democratic movements of the 1840s. However much the Soviet practice departed from democratic ones, Communist ideology did emerge from democratic thought and practice originally, and always used the language of democracy. Fascism in both its Nazi and Italian variants explicitly rejected democracy as a decadent ideology. And those differences did manifest themselves in the actual behaviors and self-understandings of the regime. As Paxton writes, fascism idealized violence and war in a way that neither Soviet Communism nor Western democracy did.

When Paxton moves beyond his analyses of the German and Italian movements, though, his observations are not so solidly grounded. And here we stumble again on the problem of defining fascism. Francisco Franco's regime in Spain is often regarded as fascist, but Paxton argues that it was not. Even more surprising, he argues the the Austrian dictatorship of 1933-1938 under Engelbert Dollfuss and later Schuschnigg was not a fascist regime. That government is commonly referred to as "clerical-fascist", and its own self-description as a Standestaat (corporate state) reflected the fact that it was largely modeled on Mussolini's Fascist regime, though Austria's variety had a more distinct Catholic touch. (Hence the "clerical" in "clerical-fascist".) German and Austrian writers are more likely to refer to it as Austrofascism.

Paxton writes about some of the rightwing organizations in the United States in the 1930s that were more directly inspired by the German and Italian models, such as the Silver Shirts led by William Dudley Pelley. He's correct in arguing:

Much more dangerous are movements that employ authentically American themes in ways that resemble fascism functionally. The Klan revived in the 19205, took on virulent anti-Semitism, and spread to cities and the Middle West. In the 19305, Father Charles E. Coughlin gathered a radio audience estimated at forty million around an anticom-munist, anti-Wall Street, pro-soft money, and—after 1938—anti-Semitic message broadcast from his church in the outskirts of Detroit. For a moment in early 1936 it looked as if his Union Party and its presidential candidate, North Dakota congressman William Lemke, might overwhelm Roosevelt. The plutocrat-baiting governor Huey Long of Louisiana had authentic political momentum until his assassination in 1935, but, though frequently labeled fascist at the time, he was more accurately a share-the-wealth demagogue. The fundamentalist preacher Gerald L. K. Smith, who had worked with both Coughlin and Long, turned the message more directly after World War II to the "Judeo-Communist conspiracy" and had a real impact. Today a "politics of resentment" rooted in authentic American piety and nativism sometimes leads to violence against some of the very same "internal enemies" once targeted by the Nazis, such as homosexuals and defenders of abortion rights.(my emphasis)
Whether Huey Long represented an American variety of fascism is still disputed, as we see in Paxton's quote here. But I disagree with him on that point, as well; Long was a down-home American fascist type. If there was an American Hitler during the 1930s, it was Huey Long. Franklin Roosevelt once remarked that Long was one of the two most dangerous men in America. When asked who the other was, he replied, "Douglas MacArthur".

On the whole, Paxton's generalizations about other varieties of fascism or not-fascism are interesting but don't tell us that much about political dynamics. The real value in the book is in its descriptions and analysis of the Third Reich and Italian Fascism.

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