What is Fascism? Robert O. Paxton

The moment has come to give fascism a usable short handle, even though we know that it encompasses its subject no better than a snapshot encompasses a person.

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 restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

To be sure, political behavior requires choices, and choices–as my critics hasten to point out–bring us back to underlying ideas. Hitler and Mussolini, scornful of the “materialism” of socialism and liberalism, insisted on the centrality of ideas to their movements. Not so, retorted many antifascists who refuse to grant them such dignity. “National Socialism’s ideology is constantly shifting”, Franz Neumann observed. “It has certain magical beliefs–leadership adoration, supremacy of the master race–but it is not laid down in a series of categorical and dogmatic pronouncements.” On this point, this book is drawn toward Neumann’s position, and I examined at some length in chapter1 the peculiar relationship of fascism to its ideology–simultaneously proclaimed as central, yet amended or violated as expedient. Nevertheless, fascists knew what they wanted. One cannot banish ideas from the study of fascism, but one can situate them accurately among all the factors that influence this complex phenomenon. One can steer between two extremes: fascism consisted neither of the uncomplicated application of its program, nor of freewheeling opportunism.

I believe that the ideas that underlie fascist actions are best deduced from those actions, for some of them remain unstated and implicit in fascist public language. Many of them belong more to the realm of visceral feeling than to the realm of reasoned propositions. In chapter 2 I called them “mobilizing passions”:

    • a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
    • the primacy of the group toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;
    • the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
    • dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
    • the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
    • the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
    • the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
    • the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
    • the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.

Fascism according to this definition, as well as behavior in keeping with these feelings, is still visible today. Fascism exists at the level of Stage One [‘the creation of movements’] within all democratic countries–not excluding the United States. “Giving up free institutions”, especially the freedoms of unpopular groups, is currently attractive to citizens of Western democracies, including some Americans. We know from tracing its path that fascism does not require a spectacular “march” on some capital to take root; seemingly anodyne decisions to tolerate lawless treatment of national “enemies” is enough. Something very close to classical fascism has reached Stage Two [‘the rooting of fascist movements in the political system’] in a few deeply troubled societies. Its further progress is not inevitable, however. Further fascist advances toward power depend in part upon the severity of a crisis, but also very largely upon human choices, especially the choices of those holding economic, social and political power. Determining the appropriate responses to fascist gains is not easy, since its cycle is not likely to repeat itself blindly. We stand a much better chance of responding wisely, however, if we understand how fascism succeeded in the past.

~ The Anatomy of Fascism, Allen Lane (2004), pp.218–220

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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2 Responses to What is Fascism? Robert O. Paxton

  1. THR says:

    I found Paxton’s book to be pretty good at exploring fascism, both in theory and in practice. Of particular note is Paxton’s claim that if fascism were to come to the US, it would not be goose-stepping and Sieg Heil-ing, but rather, would be draped in the cross and the flag.

  2. @ndy says:

    Yeah, I thought it was useful. On fascist fashion: yeah, true dat. But then, it’s something that fascists themselves (especially the so-called ‘post-fascists’; cf. Alain de Benoist /Nouvelle Droite /New Right) have been advocating for decades. Most contemporary fascists regard the Hollywood Nazis with contempt (if also amusement).

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