Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Book Review: The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton

When I purchased The Anatomy of Fascism was purely out of intellectual curiosity. I studied history in university and have long been fascinated by politics and totalitarian governments. Fascism has often been an ambiguous ideology, especially when contrasted with communism/Stalinism. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were very different animals despite being the models for the ideology. I wanted to read to understand this steam of thought.

Then the world changed, or at least it seems it has come unmoored.

Paxton in eight chapters does tremendous work untying the Gordian knot of defining and understanding fascism. He begins by reviewing the current thinking, discussing the origins of fascist thinking and the movements that achieved power and how they did so. Paxton examines how fascists governed (poorly) and how they changed in power, which often shifted far from initial roots and platforms and radicalized in extreme ways. Finally, before his summary, the author looks at the state of fascism in the post-1945 world. The book was published in 2004 and reflects the rise of the skinheads, the decomposition of Yugoslavia and the new right across Europe.

For curious readers, at least for myself, the most valuable part of the book is the discussion of the causes or breeding grounds for fascism. According to Paxton the entire world saw some fascist activity in the wake of the First World War. The trauma and violence of the war, the discrediting of liberal governments and parties, and the unleashing of mass politics worked together with fears of social/economic change and crisis to foster fascist parties. Major parties did not know how to connect with the electorate, or, how to be more popular than radical left alternatives. As the workers and peasants of Europe flocked to the red banners panic set in and a reaction gained momentum. However, as Paxton makes clear, it should be remembered that fascist parties came to power only when conservative, establishment leaders invited them into the halls of power, or when imposed by outsiders through military force/invasion. Neither Hitler nor Mussolini were swept into power by a majority their electorates. In the case of some other countries, fascism only came to power, such as in Norway, Belgium and Hungary, with intervention of the Germans. 

In political science and history there is a great debate over fascism. Paxton says that fascist parties will adapt to the local soils. German fascism would not look like Russian fascism, nor would 2018 fascism be identical to 1930s/40s precursors. That said, Paxton argues some regimes are better understood as authoritarian than fascist. Franco's regime in Spain or Peron's in Argentina don't quite fit for Paxton. He counters though that some exclude movements that rely on religion because the first examples of fascism developed secularly. He says future movements may embrace and cling to religion.

Paxton defines fascism (abbreviated by me) as follows: a sense of overwhelming crisis without traditional solutions; primacy of one group; victimization of the primary group justifying responses; fear of decline, individualism, liberalism, class conflict, and foreign influence; single, destined leader and other male leader figures; faith in the leader overrides reason; glorification of violence; the right of the primary group to dominate others.

Despite the subject matter, Robert Paxton writes in an easy, accessible language. The book is very short and comprehensive. For those more interested in learning about this topic form a more theoretical side this book is very useful. I'd recommend it to those with interest in history and politics in general.

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