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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, September 26th, 2004


The Anatomy of Fascism

by Robert O Paxton

Mussolini's tone

A review by Martin Clark

Robert O. Paxton's new book is firmly in the comparative, analytical tradition of writing about Fascism, a tradition that attempts to explain how Fascist movements and regimes were founded and why they behaved as they did. He writes intelligently and is clearly well informed about a host of differing movements including contemporary ones, although the bulk of The Anatomy of Fascism focuses on the two exemplar regimes in Italy and Germany. Indeed, Paxton recognizes here the essential problem of his enterprise: it is difficult to generalize when there are only two fully realized examples of the subject, especially when these two varied so markedly from each other. Perhaps for this reason it is striking how tortuous definitions of "Fascism" tend to be. Paxton's own definition is not exactly snappy either: "Fascism may be defined as a form of political behaviour 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 restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion".

Paxton regards Fascism as a five-stage process. The first stage is simply one of grievances or threats to established interests or groups, and of normal democratic processes being unable or unwilling to resolve them. Often this is because the old political system or parties have collapsed, leaving a political vacuum or at least much instability. Paxton tends to blame irresponsible intellectuals for this: they undermine liberal regimes with their constant criticism, and they have a nasty habit of apologizing for violence. At any rate, instability is common enough, and hence there have been and still are a large number of "fascist" movements in temporary agitation. We learn, in this book, about the travails of the Greyshirts in Iceland and of the Blueshirts in Ireland. However, most of these agitators progress no further, and are of academic interest at most. The second stage, "taking root", is more serious. The "fascist" movements become not only spokesmen but also organizers for the disaffected, and start tackling the grievances themselves, illegally but effectively, and with some official connivance. Paxton is right to stress the importance of this development. It was not Mussolini, sitting in Milan and sounding off about Italy's rights on the Adriatic, who made Fascism a mass movement in Italy; it was the youthful "squads" of armed vigilantes in the Po Valley, destroying socialist labour unions and throwing out newly elected socialist mayors. They then founded their own unions and ran local government themselves. Much the same happened in Schleswig-Holstein. In these regions, populist vigilantism enjoyed the support of all right-thinking, or Right-thinking men, including policemen and judges. Elsewhere, however, it did not, and Fascism progressed no further. "Taking root" is more difficult than might appear, since the movement is bound to be local, there are always rivalries and splits, and governments can usually buy off the militants or take over the agitation themselves.

The third stage, "getting power", is the most vital of all. Paxton, who made a notable contribution to Franco-American relations in 1972 by pointing out, in Vichy France: Old guard and new order 1940-1944, that the Vichy regime was run not so much by Fascist zealots as by the French Establishment, argues that Fascists do not seize power, they have it thrust upon them. They make a "historic compromise" with existing state authorities, who are anxious to absorb the crude provincials into the official system and who of course assume that they themselves will continue to decide everything. The key to understanding how Fascists came to power in Italy and Germany lies, therefore, not so much with the manoeuvres of Mussolini or Hitler but with those of king or president, top army officers and a handful of others. Paxton's argument here is not novel, nor altogether convincing. Certainly both Mussolini and Hitler were appointed in a more or less constitutional manner, and certainly existing elites thought they would retain most of their power and status; but the two leaders' manoeuvres in the few months before they won office, and indeed their very personalities and their unwillingness to compromise, were vital to the outcome in both cases. They may not have needed to use much force, but they certainly had the threat of it available and they made sure everyone knew it. The existing authorities may have manoeuvred too, but the point is that they were outmanoeuvred. They did not "compromise" so much as surrender.

Paxton's fourth stage is the "exercise of power", but he has to admit that the two leaders behaved very differently once in office. Both of them, of course, got rid of their more obstreperous followers, and both managed to keep the Establishment fairly happy and to provide some rapid economic benefits. Both ended up trying to transform everything. However, Mussolini governed essentially through the state machinery, supplemented by ad hoc "parallel bureaucracies" run by state technocrats. The Party was for propaganda; also to distribute favours and to mobilize the young. Hitler was far more reliant on the Party and its parallel bureaucracies, although he too, of course, used the State. These differences were hugely important. It was not just that Mussolini had to put on a bowler hat and visit the King twice a week; it was that he did not control the armed forces, judiciary, or Senate, and that he might eventually be dismissed like any other Prime Minister when he lost the confidence of the King, that is, of the political and military elite. Hitler had no such worries. Moreover, in his later years Mussolini tried to run everything himself and allowed his colleagues little initiative; Hitler, far more idle, permitted competitive leeway. Paxton does not explain these politico- administrative contrasts, which clearly owed more to personality differences than to anything else. At any rate, generalizations about how the Fascists "exercised power" rather break down when there are only two examples, which differed as wildly as this.

Paxton's final stage is "radicalization or entropy?". He argues that both Mussolini and Hitler had to keep up the Fascist muscle tone (Paxton's phrase) by becoming ever more radical both at home and, particularly, abroad; otherwise their regimes would simply have become flabby. This looks very much like a psychological explanation, hitherto taboo. The fact is that any modern government, Fascist or no, needs to fight campaigns and proclaim resounding victories, or else the citizenry becomes restless. Perhaps Fascist governments are more liable to become extremist, but there is not much evidence: Mussolini had been in office thirteen years before he attacked Ethiopia, and only became noticeably radical at home three years after that -- by which time "entropy" had already set in. Hitler's regime also became more radical as Germany began losing. Radicalization and entropy were not alternatives, they went together.

Paxton also discusses the contemporary European scene. "Post-Fascist" movements share power in Italy and Austria, and of course Jean-Marie Le Pen gave the French political classes a nasty shock at the last Presidential election in 2002. These movements have clearly taken root. Robert Paxton argues that the eventual outcome depends on whether conservatives are willing to ally with these Fascist movements, and this in turn depends on maintaining a stable, democratic party system. This is not a very startling conclusion, although it is worth being reminded that in Italy it was the collapse of the old parties in the early 1990s that let the National Alliance into government. In any case, except in ex- Yugoslavia these movements do not much resemble the nationalist vigilantism of the 1920s, and there is no left-wing threat to frighten anybody into supporting the extreme Right. Fascist movements thrive on insecurity; despite terrorism there is not enough of it about, at least in Europe.

However, it might well be argued that fascist regimes are nowadays unnecessary, since the modern parliamentary system does much the same job itself. Perfectly normal governments now intervene throughout society, seeking Gleichschaltung and control of all social institutions and of the private sphere; they engage in constant short-term campaigns for populist goals; they recognize but ignore, indeed tacitly welcome, the democratic deficit; and they seek control of the media in the spirit of Goebbels and Minculpop. They even wage a series of wars against weak opponents, claiming of course to be bringing liberation. With "democratic" governments like these, who needs Fascism?

Martin Clark's books include The Italian Risorgimento, 1998, and Modern Italy, 1871-1982, 1985.

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