The Anatomy of Fascism. By Robert Paxton. (New York: Vintage Books, 2004. Pp. xii, 220).
In our post-World War II society the word fascism has come to symbolize the epitome of evil and totalitarianism. Its association with the destructive forces of Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy has caused many in our society to view fascism as the embodiment of malevolence. And while it is both appropriate and correct for the mainstream populace to interpret fascism as a negative force, the actual understanding of what fascism is has been terribly distorted. In his book, The Anatomy of Fascism historian Robert Paxton seeks to uncover the true definition of what fascism truly is, and how it is brought to fruition in world governments. Simply put, Paxton's book attempts to "rescue" fascism "from sloppy usage" in today's often ignorant pop-culture (21).
Instead of seeing fascism from the perspective of a concrete set of core beliefs, Paxton argues that fascism, as a movement, is a fluid "cycle of five stages" (23). These five stages are given a detailed breakdown and analysis in Paxton's book, as he dedicates the bulk of this work to their development. In the first of these five states, Paxton discusses the creation of fascist movements, by arguing that fascism cannot be understood as "a linear projection of any one nineteenth-century political tendency" but should instead be understood as a radical conservative movement. Paxton stresses the fact that we must understand fascism as an intensified form of conservatism as opposed to the more liberal agendas of socialism (44). Paxton also argues that fascism requires the fertile soil of nations immersed in crisis (as was the case with Adolf Hitler's Germany and Benito Mussolini's Italy) in order to grow into a legitimate movement. It is in this first stage (the initial planting/creation) that fascism is at its most vulnerable. As Paxton points out, most fascist movements die at this point, usually failing to gain any sort of momentum in their respective nations. In other words, the overwhelming majority of fascist movements fail to take root and grow, simply because they are extremely hard to plant and nourish in the modern political climate.
In the second of Paxton's five stages of fascism, the instability of nations in crisis causes the downtrodden of society to fully embrace a leader(s) who appears to represent and relate to their afflictions and struggles. At this stage, the fascist leader may not even fully embrace fascist ideas at this point, but upon gaining political power through the support of the masses, the leader "evolves" as do the political structures surrounding him/her. This rooting of fascist ideology into the political system of a nation essentially becomes the "make-or-break" moment for the newly sprouting fascist seedling. It is here that fascism will either quickly wither away or receive the popular backing (delivered to the masses by an effective and charismatic leader who represents their needs) of the people to become a legitimate national movement. According to Paxton, if the fascist movement is able to take root in this fashion, it will flourish by creating parallel structures of organization to that of the state. For the fascist, these new parallel structures will make the case that they can accomplish the same goals of the state governments, but with more efficiency (85). Simply put, the fascist leader is able to paint government as the source of the nation's problems, while at the same time garnering more political power for himself/herself via the newly established parallel government structures. In other words, the stage is set for a legitimate seizure of power under the disguise of popular liberation.
In Paxton's third stage, the "seizure of power," fascist leaders seize power via the traditional channels of their respective nation. Using Hitler and Mussolini as illustrations, Paxton shows how both men never gained power by an overthrow of government but instead used the regular channels of government (87). Paxton reminds the reader of Hitler's failed attempts to seize power, which landed him in prison in 1923. Instead of leading glorious coups, Paxton argues that fascism is only able to infiltrate nations via the established government avenues. It is only by building alliances with key military, business and civic leaders, and by offering alternatives to a demoralized citizenry, that fascism can have a chance at life. Once power is achieved via these means, the newly entrenched fascist government is able to use its political clout as a means of control and persuasion, essentially shutting the door on any would-be opponent. The popularity of the new government becomes the final deterrent to any and all protestation against the fascist leader. Simply put, opposition to the leader becomes opposition to the state, which becomes the unpardonable sin of anti-patriotism.
After effectively seizing power, the newly-created fascist government begins to exercise its authority in a dramatic way (the 4th stage of fascist development). In this stage, the fascist exercise of power involves a coalition of leader, party and the traditional government institutions (147). In essence, the fascist leadership takes the "popular pulse" of its citizenry by pushing its agenda right to the breaking point. Once popular resistance is met, the fascist party backs off by directing all unpopular attention to the traditional government institutions. In so doing, the fascist party is able to avoid the unwanted scrutiny while at the same time continuing to condemn the traditional government as the source of the problem. By consistently "pushing the envelope" and using government as its scapegoat, the fascist party is able to effectively shape popular support for further and more dramatic changes to the nation.
In Paxton's final stage of the fascist cycle, Radicalization v. Entropy, Paxton makes the case that the fascist regime is eventually faced the dilemma of either increasing its radial agenda or simply fading away into oblivion. In other words, the fascist party cannot and will not survive without its natural nourishment: further radicalization. Once denied, the fascist government cannot long survive. Paxton points out that war and genocide were textbook examples of how fascism breeds radicalism in the nation. For Hitler and Mussolini, World War II became the perfect well of radicalization since, "war generated the need for more extreme measures and popular acceptance of them" (155).
To conclude his work, Paxton suggests that the world has not seen the end of fascism. Paxton points out several modern day examples of where fascism met a favorable climate but was never able to fully flourish. Examples such as the Italian MSI of the 70s, Slobodan Milosevic's genocidal rampage, Pinochet's tyrannical rule of Chile, Franco's rule in Spain, and many others are examples of how fascism has reached at least partial growth in the post-Hitler/Mussolini world (205). However, Paxton is also quick to point out that while small examples of fascism have popped up from time-to-time, there has not been an example of a fascist movement reaching all five stages since Hitler's Germany. Even Mussolini didn't achieve all five stages. For Paxton, this is due to the overwhelming difficulty that fascism faces in order to achieve all five levels of development. In addition, this is why Paxton adamantly opposed the lackadaisical usage of the word fascism in today's politics. Fascist regimes are rare anomalies to be sure, but not improbable in today's world. Instead of constantly throwing up the fascist flag at the mere sight of any questionable political event, it is important that we first recognize and understand what fascism, at its core, really is. Anything else is just simple ignorance.