[Marxism] The Anatomy of Fascism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 3 06:58:49 MDT 2004

New Statesman, May 3, 2004
The Anatomy of Fascism
Robert O Paxton Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, 336pp, £20
ISBN 0713997206

Reviewed by Terry Eagleton

Nobody knows on which day of the week the Renaissance started, or in 
what month the Dark Ages came to a halt. The origins of fascism, 
however, are surprisingly well documented. As Robert Paxton informs us 
in this lucid, engagingly readable study, the movement began on Sunday 
morning, 23 March 1919, at a meeting called by Benito Mussolini's 
supporters in Milan "to declare war against socialism". That, at least, 
was when fascism acquired its name. Its murky political roots run 
further back in time; but, as Paxton points out, it remains a much 
younger phenomenon than liberalism, socialism and conservatism. It was, 
he claims, the major political innovation of the 20th century, which 
does not say much for the inventive powers of our recent forebears. 
Between the two world wars, almost every nation, from Iceland to 
Australia, generated some kind of fascist-like movement. The only good 
to be plucked from this dismal fact is that it discredits those 
conservatives who believe sociology to be a bogus science.

Exactly what fascism consists of, however, is far less clear. In some 
leftist circles, the word is lobbed loosely around to vilify anyone in 
the cramped space to the right of Conrad Black. Yet fascists are 
radicals, unlike right-wing conservatives. Conservatives believe in God, 
tradition, the monarchy, civilisation and the individual, whereas 
fascists are pagan, primitivist, collectivist state-worshippers who 
prefer jackboots to crowns. Fascists admire productive workers 
(including productive capitalists) and denounce effete aristocrats and 
the idle rich; conservatives tend to champion both groups, among whose 
ranks they themselves can frequently be found. Ezra Pound was a fascist, 
but T S Eliot was a conservative. Fascists strut, while conservatives 
lounge. From a right-wing viewpoint, there is not much to distinguish 
fascists from Marxists, except that fascists are marginally more tolerable.

Conservatives disdain the popular masses, while fascists mobilise and 
manipulate them. Some conservatives believe in ideas, but fascists have 
a marked preference for myths. If they think at all, they think through 
their blood, not their brain. Fascists regard themselves as a youthful, 
revolutionary avant-garde out to erase the botched past and create an 
unimaginably new future. This includes ditching conventional 
distinctions between political left and right, a point that ought to 
worry partisans of the Third Way rather more than it seems to.

Fascism is an anti-political kind of politics, which elevates national 
unity over class distinctions, gut prejudice over ideological debate, 
and race over reason. Its leaders tend to be grubby lower-middle-class 
yobbos with unstable mentalities and criminal records. They are the kind 
of uncouth bruisers whom cultivated patricians allow into their drawing 
rooms only with reluctance, and only when they need to use them to smash 
the socialists. Sir Oswald Mosley was one of the rare exceptions to this 

Paxton wisely renounces the attempt to isolate an "essence" of fascism. 
For instance, it does not seem to be anti-Semitism, which even Mussolini 
fully embraced only after 16 years in power. But he is equally sceptical 
of the nominalist case that there are as many definitions of fascism as 
there are political examples of the beast. For all their vital 
differences, Gabriele d'Annunzio, Joseph Goebbels and Eoin O'Duffy (the 
bone-headed leader of the Mickey-Mouse Irish Blueshirts) have clear 

What are they, though? Fascism means military dictatorship, but not all 
military dictatorships are fascist. There is more to fascism than brute 
authoritarianism, which is one reason why Paxton rules Vichy France, 
Franco's Spain and Salazar's Portugal out of his definition. Instead, he 
sees fascism as a mass-based form of militant nationalism, one working 
in uneasy alliance with the usual elites, which pursues policies of 
internal cleansing and external expansion so as to unify and regenerate 
what it regards as a victimised, humiliated nation. It springs from a 
major crisis of the liberal capitalist order, and elevates cultural 
particularism over democracy, individualism and universal rights.

Like all workable definitions, this one claims neither too much nor too 
little. Paxton arrives at it by investigating a series of fascist states 
and distilling this theoretical definition from what he finds. The 
method is mildly disingenuous, given that historical investigations can 
give rise to theoretical conclusions only if they are already secretly 
impregnated with theoretical assumptions. More seriously for Paxton, it 
is a definition which is compatible with a case that he largely rejects: 
the leftist contention that fascism emerges chiefly as a reaction to the 
threat of socialist revolution from a capitalism plunged into dire crisis.

Against the simple-minded notion that fascism is merely a capitalist 
ploy, Paxton shows how reluctant capitalist classes have been forced to 
resort to it. Yet it is scarcely surprising that the system is loath to 
betray its own liberal roots quite so brazenly, and will do so only 
under extreme pressure. Anyway, Paxton admits that "fascism is 
inconceivable in the absence of a mature and expanding socialist left". 
Bankers and manufacturers may have baulked at shaking hands with a 
ranting, off-the-wall runt like Adolf Hitler, but this book concedes 
that the two social forces co-operated fairly well once they had struck 
their Faustian pact.

If fascism claimed to be radical, it was a bogus revolution that never 
once put its anti-capitalist rhetoric into practice. Instead, it set 
about efficiently exterminating the political left. For all their crafty 
appeals to lower-middle-class grouses, fascist regimes left existing 
patterns of property and social class largely intact. The disgruntled 
petite bourgeoisie were taken for the longest ride in their unenviable 
history. With breathtaking insolence, the fascists used aspects of their 
ideology to prop up the very state that they found so oppressive.

The book could have said more about the curious time-warping involved in 
fascism - the way in which it is archaic and avant-garde, mythological 
and technological, at the same time. In this, it resembles the cultural 
modernism with which it had intimate (if ambiguous) relations. The 
Holocaust was both barbarism and the triumph of a "scientific", 
full-bloodedly modern rationality. If it was a revolt against 
Enlightenment reason for some thinkers, it was the consummation of it 
for others. Old-fashioned pogroms, Paxton points out, would have taken 
200 years to complete what the Nazis' more advanced technology achieved 
in three years.

Given that fascism is among other things a carnival of unreason, it 
would be odd to expect from it a coherent theoretical case. As Paxton 
recognises, its approach to ideas is shamelessly pragmatist: truth is 
whatever works to inspire the Volk and unite the nation. At the same 
time, however, fascist movements ascribe an extraordinary priority to 
ideology - far more so than with conventional modern politics. The 
Nazis' genocidal project, for example, tied up precious military and 
economic resources, and also disposed of men and women whose skills 
could have contributed to their war effort. Stalin slaughtered Ukrainian 
peasants because they were Jews. If recent scholarship is to be 
credited, both did so without much popular disapproval, as with the 
crimes of other fascist states. "Most citizens of fascist regimes," 
Paxton comments, "accepted things as they were."

It remains to be seen whether the world will revert to fascism. But 
there are certainly signs that a planet well stocked with authoritarian 
capitalist regimes is on the cards. Liberal capitalist nations are 
becoming more authoritarian under the threat of terrorist attacks, while 
societies which were already authoritarian, such as China, are turning 
capitalist. The two systems are meeting each other, so to speak, coming 
the other way. Meanwhile, the globe is well furnished with capitalist 
set-ups that were never liberal in the first place, as well as with 
regimes whose former colonial proprietors exported market forces to 
their shores while forgetting to include democratic institutions in the 
cargo. The assumption that the free market and political democracy go 
naturally together was always pretty dubious, and fascism is one 
dramatic refutation of it. But we might now be moving deeper into a 
world where the two go together like a horse and cabbage.


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