“In general, ideology or political movement that mobilizes the population (often, but not always, the lower classes) against an institution or government, usually in the defense of the underdog or the wronged. Whether of left, right, or middle political persuasion, it seeks to unite the uncorrupt and the unsophisticated (the 'little man') against the corrupt dominant elites (usually the orthodox politicians) and their camp followers (usually the rich and the intellectuals). It is guided by the belief that political and social goals are best achieved by the direct actions of the masses. Although it comes into being where mainstream political institutions fail to deliver, there is no identifiable economic or social set of conditions that give rise to it, and it is not confined to any particular social class.
This definition certainly would embrace Donald Trump. But what’s left out is the comparison between what Trump, the candidate and media personality, says, and what Trump, the President, does. Robert O. Paxton disapproves of relying on what fascists say and insists on examining the record of what they do. This is a refreshing discussion.
Instead of trying to define fascism by the programs of its parties and the speeches of its leaders, or the actions of its adherents at various stages, “Let us instead watch fascism in action, from its beginnings to its final cataclysm, within the complex web of interaction it forms with society. Ordinary citizens and the holders of political, social, cultural, and economic power who assisted, or failed to resist, fascism belong to the story. When we are done, we may be better able to give fascism an appropriate definition.”
“The Anatomy of Fascism” is a page turner. It cannot be read except in the looming shadow of the 2016 election and the initial performance of Donald Trump as President. For anyone wanting to understand fascism and its relation to Trump and Trumpism this is a book that can’t be put down until finished. Its 200 pages of exhaustive and thorough tracing of fascist movements and governments through the 20th Century, conclude with a definition.
Paxton delineates five stages of fascism:
1. The creation of movements based on the unifying and mobilizing passions outlined below – especially nationalism and racism.
2. The rooting of fascist movements in the political system through collaboration with conservative and political and corporate leaders by confronting them with a stark choice of between the fascist path or concessions to Labor and the Left and ultimately, socialist revolution.
3. The fascist seizure of power, in which they replace or subsume through coercion all the departments of government through the creation of parallel police and military structures that compete for influence and power.
4. The exercise of power, where the manifestation of absolute rule is established and enforced through terror and without regard for law or human rights.
5. And, finally, the long duration, during which the fascist regime chooses either radicalization - extreme steps toward the elimination of internal and external enemies - or stagnation and dissipation.
The history of every fascist dictatorship demonstrates this evolutionary process, which ultimately moves toward stage 5: ethnic cleansing and/or genocide, and war. The only alternative for fascism is entropy.
Trump and Trumpism has passed stage two of this process and is rapidly working on stage 3. Its weakness has been that its apparatus is heavily dependent on the structure of the Republican Party and its Tea Party wing, which lacks armed organizational strength. It is working to change this and create a structure of violence and terror by unleashing and giving blessings to elements like the KKK, neo-Nazi white nationalist groups, and homophobic attacks on gay, lesbian and transgender people. While lacking a mass base there groups are now formally entrenched in the White House in the persons of Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon and Steven Miller, the protégé of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Michelle Bachman and John Shadegg.
For Bannon and Miller, Michael T. Lynch and Michael Ledeen - the theoretical fathers of modern U. S. fascism - the United States is faced by an intractable enemy – Islam – which must be defeated and extirpated from the Earth or risk conquest and destruction of Western Civilization at its hands.
Fascism does not have an ideology, or philosophy, that can be ascertained from the writings, programs and speeches of fascists and fascist movements. Instead, fascism has what Paxton calls common “mobilizing passions” across national particularities. One can hear the voice of Donald Trump in the background as one reads these “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 leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s 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.
Paxton outlines several preconditions for fascism historically. Some ring a bell with the recent phenomenon of Trump. Others may just indicate the potential direction of events.
Mass politics, and the extension of the franchise to white male citizens.
The split in the Left, which was required before fascism could become possible.
The loss by the Left of its position as the automatic recourse for all the partisans of change;
Fascists can find space only after socialism has become powerful enough to have had some share in governing, and thus to have disillusioned part of its traditional working-class and intellectual clientele.
The fright given the entire middle and upper classes by [the Communists’] victory in Russia, and the possible success of [Communists] was crucial to the panicky search by the bourgeoisie for some new kind of response to Communism. (Substitute Third World and Muslim for Communists.)
Fascists use nationalist and racist prejudices to mobilize parts of the working class against other parts of it,
Fascists appeal especially to youth.
The relative scarcity of working-class fascists historically was not due to some proletarian immunity to appeals of nationalism and ethnic cleansing. It is better explained by “immunization" and “confessionalism": those already deeply engaged, from generation to generation, in the rich subculture of socialism, with its clubs, newspapers, unions, and rallies, were simply not available for another loyalty. The Cold War repression of the U. S. Left has weakened this immunity.
The unemployed were more likely to join the communists than the fascists, unless they were first-time voters or from the middle class. In post-Cold War U. S. with a weakened Labor and Left movements, this is not as true.
What united fascists was values rather than a social profile: scorn for tired bourgeois politics, opposition to the Left, fervent nationalism, a tolerance for violence when needed.
How does fascism come to power? Historical experience suggests that fascists cannot easily break into a political system that is functioning tolerably well. Only when the state and existing institutions fail badly do they open opportunities for newcomers. For example, the gridlock the Republicans used to try to strangle the Obama Administration and Congress opened the doors to Trump.
The role of intellectuals was crucial at three points: (1.) discrediting previous liberal regimes; (2.) creating new poles outside the Left around which anger and protest (until recently a monopoly of the Left) could be mobilized; and (3.) making fascist violence respectable. For example, the modern use of rumor and falsehoods spread via social media today and the winking at racist police and vigilante violence against Black and Latino people, Muslims, immigrants, and gay, lesbian and transgender people.
Fascisms grew from back rooms to the public arena most easily where the existing government functioned badly, or not at all.
The legitimation of violence against a demonized internal enemy is close to the heart of fascism. Here we have seen only beginnings among hysterical participants at Trump rallies, and the more open terrorism of the KKK, Christian Identity, neo-Nazi, and other white nationalist groups that have enthusiastically attached themselves to Trump and been given license by his cabinet appointments, especially to the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and the National Security Council.
After achieving power fascism creates parallel structures, or “dual power.” such parallel fascist structures live in tension with the state. This contrasts with revolutionary (communist) parallel structures which totally replace the state. This has been especially true for the military and police, historically. The Trumpists are currently lagging in this area.
Fascism depends on at least the passive support of existing authority. Republican silence in the face of Trump assaults on reality, his xenophobia, racism and misogyny is enabling.
Although conservatives might accept violence against socialists and trade unionists, they will not tolerate it against the state. Most fascist leaders have recognized that a seizure of power in the teeth of conservative and military opposition would be possible only with the help of the street, under conditions of social disorder likely to lead to wildcat assaults on private property, social hierarchy, and the state’s monopoly of armed force. This is a stage that Trump has not reached, yet.
Since the fascist route to power has always passed through cooperation with conservative elites, the strength of a fascist movement in itself is only one of the determining variables in the achievement (or not) of power, though it is surely a vital one. Fascists did have numbers and muscle to offer to conservatives caught in crisis in Italy and Germany. Equally important, however, was the conservative elites’ willingness to work with fascism; a reciprocal flexibility on the fascist leaders’ part; and the urgency of the crisis that induced them to cooperate with each other.
A central ingredient in the conservatives’ calculation in Germany and Italy was that Hitler and Mussolini would not have the faintest idea what to do with high office. They would be incapable of governing without the cultivated and experienced conservative leaders’ savoir faire. Sound familiar?
In sum, fascists offered a new recipe for governing with popular support but without any sharing of power with the Left, and without any threat to conservative social and economic privileges and political dominance. The conservatives, for their part, hold the keys to the doors of power.
“However we interpret the deadlock of democratic government, no fascist movement is likely to reach office without it. At the stage of attaining power, when the elites chose to co-opt fascism, the functions of mature fascism became even clearer: in immediate terms, its role was to break a logjam in national politics by a solution that excluded the Left. In a longer term, it was to enlist mass support behind national, social defense, to unify, regenerate and rejuvenate, ‘moralize,’ and purify the nation that many saw as weak, decadent, and unclean.”
There is much to be learned from Paxton’s detailed and deep probe of the history of fascism. To sum it up, Paxton comes to this conclusion.
“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.”
Or, as the 7th Congress of the Communist International put it in 1935,
“Fascism is the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital."
Paxton characterizes this definition as “doctrinaire,” and adds, “Though many more interpretations and definitions were to be proposed over the years, even now, more than eighty years after the San Sepolcro meeting [where Mussolini launched of the principles of Fasci Italiani di Combattimento in 1919], none of them has obtained universal assent as a completely satisfactory account of a phenomenon that seemed to come from nowhere, took on multiple and varied forms, exalted hatred and violence in the name of national prowess, and yet managed to appeal to prestigious and well-educated statesmen, entrepreneurs, professionals, artists, and intellectuals.”
Yet Paxton’s work in this very valuable book points back to the basic definition offered by Communists in 1935. There is nothing here that contradicts it and much that can help us come to grips with it.
“[B]efore the establishment of a fascist dictatorship, (capitalist) governments usually pass through a number of preliminary stages and adopt a number of reactionary measures which directly facilitate the accession to power of fascism. Whoever does not fight the reactionary measures of the (capitalists) and the growth of fascism at these preparatory stages is not in a position to prevent the victory of fascism, but, on the contrary, facilitates that victory.”
- Georgi Dimitrov, Main Report delivered at the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International, August 2, 1935.