More on Fascism

February 12, 2018

One of my favorite correspondents — OK, my son Tommy — adds depth and corrective about fascism.  He writes:

On this topic, I find Robert Paxton’s slim (~220p) The Anatomy of Fascism to be extremely helpful. Paxton is a scholar of midcentury European fascism (he has also written the leading book on Vichy as well as lots of great essays in the NYRB on the fascism literature).
Here’s his definition:
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood 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.”
He also finds it important to create conceptual boundaries from related concepts. So, he argues, we must not confuse fascism with classical tyranny, military dictatorship, and authoritarianism (“Authoritarians would rather leave the population demobilized and passive, while fascists want to engage and excite the public.”).
Lastly, he theorizes fascism as proceeding in stages:
  1. The creation of movements;
  2. Their rooting in the political system;
  3. Their seizure of power;
  4. The exercise of power;
  5. The long duration, during which the fascist regime chooses either radicalization or entropy.
Most of the time, in most places, fascism exists only in stage one. The clearest example of traditional fascism in the United States is probably the first (post-bellum) KKK, which was locally rooted in the political system and in some cases seized and exercised localized power. And of course, it challenged the legitimacy of the “liberal” Reconstruction regime. And every subsequent identifiable fascism candidate in the United States (from the second Klan to Father Coughlin to George Wallace) has been similarly rooted in white supremacy.
Usually, when people mislabel things as “fascism,” it’s because they’ve ignored the feature of fascism that it be backed by a mass movement. Such was the case with liberal over-reactions to George W. Bush. But today? I’m not so sure we aren’t closer to realized fascism than since the Jim Crow south.
My objection to Eco’s list of ur-fascistic criteria is that it focuses too much on intellectual tenets, which ignores the role of action, dynamism, and self-contradiction in fascism. “It doesn’t matter if none of this makes sense, at least we’re going to do something, and do it fast and violently.”

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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