The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton

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I picked up this audiobook on a whim after I heard it mentioned on a podcast. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into at first, but the narration and subject quickly drew me in.

Paxton asks a simple question with a complicated answer: What is fascism?

Many authoritarians of the last century have been referred to as fascist, but according to Paxton few of these dictators fit the mold. This is because fascism is not merely defined by it’s tools and imagery but also by its origins. Fascism is fascism because of how it takes root and how it behaves once in power. Fascism is a mutable beast capable of changing its appearance to match its surroundings and for that reason it is also hard to identify until it is too late.

Paxton explains that this is because fascism adopts new images and icons in each iteration. This differentiates it from isms that emerged in the nineteenth century; capitalism, liberalism, and socialism. Fascism is a rejection of democratic ideas and even education in favor of action and emotion. It fees on perceived victimhood, intense nationalism, fear of the other, and the glorification of violence. In order to take advantage of these feelings, fascists must adopt local symbols and customs for their own use.

He argues that fascism develops in stages. In the early stages a nascent fascist party is composed of what are essentially hooligans, street fighters, and outcasts. Taking advantage of their followers’ willingness to participate in mass demonstrations and do violence, they begin to assert themselves in democratic elections. Finally, once allowed into government they work to dismantle the same democratic structures that got them into power in the first place.1

For most of the book, Paxton focuses on Nazi Germany2 and Fascist Italy.3 He explores what makes them similar and different. Part of this examination explores the differences between what fascists said and what they did. Once in power, fascists stray from their previous ideological purity in order to satisfy the corporate and conservative interests that help them attain power.

In my view, based on the information Paxton presents, there is little pressure for the actions and words of fascists to have anything in common. Once a personality cult has been constructed it doesn’t really matter what the fascists do as long as their leader maintains their image.

Finally, Paxton looks at whether fascism could happen again in other places, and there are some who have argued that fascism was limited to the particular circumstances of its time. Paxton argues that the characteristics of the leader are less important than the perceptions the public attaches to them and that early-stage fascists are relatively common. Successful fascists, if they arise, will learn to moderate what they say and do and how they present themselves in order to make themselves palatable to a wider audience. For example, an American fascist movement would more likely clothe itself in religious imagery rather than swastikas.

The book’s prescience and the clear parallels between the past and present make for a fascinating and terrifying combination. The book was written in 2004, and Paxton remarked that there were dangerous trends in the years after 9/11. He predicted that an American fascist movement would involve a great deal of religious imagery, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Islamic sentiment, and probably a lot of imagery focusing on the flag or the confederate battle flag. We’ve seen many of these things rise to prominence in the Republican Party.

It is not hard to see similarities in Trump’s presidency, QAnon followers, and the Proud Boys. What is more frightening is the GOP’s general acceptance of them in order to garner more votes. Hinting that our new American fascist movement may have already progressed through its initial stages.

Perhaps most importantly, we see today the same toleration of civil violence that was seen in Nazi Germany. Many people are fine with violence as long as it is not directed at them. Excuses made for attacks on protesters by police and proud boys this past year come to mind. I try to remain optimistic about the future, but it is hard not to see the warning signs around us today.

Overall, I can’t find any faults with the book. It’s a fascinating look at one of the most important and destructive political forces of the 20th century and one that forces the reader to reconsider what the word fascist really means. If you can, I also recommend listening to the audiobook. It helped me get through the book quickly by listening to it during my commute and the narration was perfectly suited to the book’s topic and tone.

If this topic interests you, you may want to consider listening to It Could Happen Here by Robert Evans. Evans is the host of the podcast Behind the Bastards (the podcast where I heard about this book) and wrote several op-eds after the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Notes

  1. Trump’s efforts to discredit the recent election results come to mind.
  2. Recently, many conservatives have claimed that the Nazi’s were actually socialist. This is not true. Modern conservatives do this to draw attention away from their more radical allies. The words “socialist” and “workers” were added to broaden the party’s appeal and have little to do Nazi ideology. Timeghost has a great writeup about this and also about the myth of Nazi economic success.
  3. Fascism first emerged in Italy after WWI. Which is funny, because Mussolini was the original fascist and Hitler came later, yet Hitler became the “star” of the Axis Powers. The word fascist derives from the the word “fascio” which means ” a bundle of sticks.” Use of this symbol, which dates back to ancient Rome, was meant to convey an image of strength through unity.