YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

November 13, 2014

The Anatomy of Fascism: Robert Paxton’s analysis

Layout 1Columbia University Professor Emeritus Robert Paxton has had a controversial career. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Paxton. Although the Wikipedia profile is accurate in its summation of Paxton’s thesis on generic fascism (Knopf, 2004), I will blog about it anyway, for it serves to correct misconceptions about Italian Fascism and Nazism that I have found in my reading, and in random comments on Facebook. The Wiki summary is a mostly adequate description of Paxton’s book, so I will not repeat its bullet points. But I will fill in the gaps left by the brief Wikipedia summary.

First, it is important to understand what a leap forward Paxton’s work has achieved compared to the initial response in newspapers and other media following the end of World War 2 and through the 1950s. For instance, Hitler was initially portrayed as a madman, often with bulging eyes, whose cult of the Leader led the German masses (especially the lower middle class) astray as they fell for his bizarre propaganda. (On Harvard New Deal social psychologists advancing the cult of the Leader (FDR, ostensibly the opposite of Hitler) see https://clarespark.com/2014/12/29/the-leader-principle/.) By focusing on a political history that takes in economic stressors and the total institutional picture, including continuities with prior regimes, Paxton punctures the Fuehrer myth, but also challenges the primacy of propaganda in contradiction to the “Frankfurt School” critical theorists (including George L. Mosse, specifically mentioned by Paxton) who emphasized the overwhelming influence of the new mass media in creating the fascist hordes, and who are now blamed for spreading communist ideas in America at the expense of Christianity (see https://clarespark.com/2011/10/21/did-frankfurters-kill-the-white-christian-west/).


Second, many pundits on the conservative Right continue to deploy the term “totalitarianism” to describe the policies of their enemies on “the Left,” including liberal anticommunists like Paxton. While citing the importance of Hannah Arendt’s much admired first big book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Paxton takes care to distinguish between fascist movements/regimes and communist ones; i.e., he historicizes the term “totalitarian” and rejects it by demonstrating that fascists were 1. entirely anticommunist, though there was some working class participation in both Nazism and Italian Fascism; and 2. fascists never achieved the total control that they desired, being balked by already existent institutions such as families, churches, and voluntary organizations, not to speak of the conflicting personalities and agencies that fought with each other instead of obeying Hitler’s will. [He falters a bit when he mentions Arendt’s notorious mass media-created “mob society” (a variant of Durkheim’s “anomie”) to explain the radicalization of Nazism and Italian Fascism after their attempts at expansion (Italy in the Ethiopian adventure and Germany in its attack on the Soviet Union and its declaration of war against the US).]

Those conservatives who are confident that fascists in Europe were leftist in orientation will be disappointed. Moreover Paxton makes careful distinctions between fascist dictatorships, military dictatorships, and authoritarian dictatorships, both during the interwar period and after 1945.

Third, he is adamant about identifying the necessity of coalitions with already existent elites as opposed to the “seizure of power” myth disseminated by many other historians. Not all historians and political scientists are so careful to identify the German conservatives who appointed Hitler Chancellor, imagining that the upstart would do their dirty work by destroying communism in Germany and the Soviet Union. (Note that European conservatives bear little resemblance to American conservatives, including the Tea Party and libertarians: European conservatives were not averse to Big Government. See https://clarespark.com/2011/07/16/disraelis-contribution-to-social-democracy/.)

In sum, Paxton lines up with other “functionalists” in history and political science, who have emphasized conflict between powerful persons and institutions that almost inadvertently radicalized their regimes (this applies not to Italy, but to Germany; Italy devolved into an authoritarian dictatorship in his typology, while Hitler’s underlings guessed at what Hitler really wanted, seizing upon his obsession with world Jewry as the agents of both finance capital and communism to perpetrate the Holocaust. For the views of the “intentionalists” see https://clarespark.com/2009/07/29/the-centrality-of-the-holocaust-to-nazi-war-aims/.)

In sum, Paxton’s is the voice of the liberal anticommunist establishment at its revisionist best. But the book also demonstrates the influence of what I have called the Conservative Enlightenment, in its effort to combat “essentialist” definitions of fascism, but still seeking a scientistic approach to defining “fascism.” There is no escape from the double bind, or is there?

Lipschitz, 1927 "Pierrot escaping"

Lipschitz, 1927 “Pierrot escaping”


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