Thursday, 11 November 2010

Robert Paxton: What is Fascism?

From Robert Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism

If we are going to talk about Fascism it would be worth having some idea of what characterises it. Paxton offers a good starting point - Strelnikov

"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."

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


  1. Why do you think this definition is better than Roger Griffin's ("Fascism is a political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism")?

    One of the concerns I have with definitions like Paxton's is that it seems quite clear that fascism can function without a leader or a centralized state: after all, these are the lessons of Third Position and New Right/GRECE (ie the versions of fascism most influential on neo-folk/industrial scenes).

  2. It's a good definition because it depicts the 'family resemblance' characteristics of Fascism, a cluster of features which help identify Fascism without reducing it to a definition. I call it 'family resemblance' because I don't think a Fascist group has to satisfy all of the criteria above to qualify as Fascist. 'Palingenetic ultra-Nationalism' is important but, in it's own way too lose a definition (and it is intended to be definitive, yes?)

  3. I have to agree with "radical archives". I'd even say that Paxton's definition of fascism looks like a mutilated version of Griffin's 1991 definition (Nature of Fascism).

    We need definitions to be efficient. Paxton's definition is not. If we imagine that fascism is somehow inherently linked to "a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants", then we dismiss thousands of small neofascist groups and even cadre parties. If fascism is "working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites", then some neo-Nazi gang is not fascist. And contemporary fascists are not interested in any "external expansion"; rather they would prefer to reduce their own states to build ethnically/racially pure communities.

    And if we use definitions of fascism in our discussion of a presumably fascist group, we have to be sure that it does satisfy all of the criteria stated in a definition. Otherwise, there is just no sense in using definitions.

    As for Roger Griffin's approach to fascism, I know that he redefined it at least twice -

    "Revolutionary form of nationalism bent on mobilizing all ‘healthy’ social and political energies to resist the onslaught of ‘decadence’ so as to achieve the goal of national rebirth, a project that involves the regeneration (palingenesis) of both the political culture and the social and ethical culture underpinning it."

    "Revolutionary species of political modernism originating in the early twentieth century whose mission is to combat the allegedly degenerative forces of contemporary history (decadence) by bringing about an alternative modernity and temporality (a ‘new order’ and a ‘new era’) based on the rebirth, or palingenesis, of the nation."

    I'm usually using the last one.

  4. In what sense do we need definitions to be efficient? I'm wary of any catch-all definition.

  5. Definitions are used to explain the meaning of a word, right? Moreover, definitions must set out the essential attributes of the terms they define. The main problem with Paxton's definition is that a number of his features of fascism simply cannot be attributed to certain contemporary fascist organisations, movements and parties. This is why his definition is inefficient: according to Paxton, some fascists turn out to be non-fascists.

  6. I'm not convinced about his 'external expansion' bit either. But I don't think Paxton's definition excludes calling, eg., members of small groups 'Fascist'. Similarly, the fact that this or that group does not have 'traditional allies' would preclude them either. He seems to be describing Fascism laterally, so to say, rather than looking for a definition that would fit all fascists at all times in the development of a fascist movement.

  7. = would not preclude them...

  8. at least by the Paxton excerpt above, it does not say that fascist groups do not need to fulfill all these criteria..

    i am no expert in the question of fascist taxonomy, although it comes up since many contemporary fascist groups disingenuously try to avoid the label. however i tend to use the Griffin definition PLUS genealogy (proven relationship to pre-existing fascist movement) => so ideas plus background (ie thereby excluding potentially similar but different groups, such as Khmer Rouge, who come out of a different ideologica strain; but including de Benoist & Troy Southgate and ilk)

  9. it does not say that fascist groups do not need to fulfill all these criteria

    True. I'm just assuming that is what he means as otherwise, as Anton has pointed out, it wouldn't work at all as a definition.

  10. This book was too heavy for me..


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