Robert Paxton grapples with the nature of fascism in Paul Beik Lecture

Robert Paxton, emeritus professor of History at Columbia University, discussed the “protean quality of fascism” last night at the annual Paul Beik Lecture. Paxton argued for an understanding of fascism in five distinct stages, most recognizable in Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany, the two regimes from which he drew many examples. The subject of his recent book, The Anatomy of Fascism, Paxton also acknowledged the criticisms his arguments have drawn and responded to these as well as many questions from the crowd of students and professors.

Paxton began by addressing the difficulties of studying fascism. The familiar and simplified “vivid images” of fascist orators, frenzied crowds and demonized thugs “get in the way of understanding” fascism, Paxton argued. Indeed, “maybe that’s what they were meant to do,” he said, noting the extraordinary skill with which fascists created and disseminated images in a perfect “aestheticization of politics,” as Walter Benjamin termed it.

Fascism requires more than a definition that “makes static something always in motion,” Paxton said, explaining his decision to instead structure his book around five stages of fascism. He delineated the “life-cycle” of fascism through stages of creation, taking root, getting power, exercising power and a final radicalization or entropy. The first stage was characterized by intellectual revolt against the liberal values of the early nineteenth century. The second root-taking stage was facilitated by fascists aggravating crises that existing political parties did not adequately deal with, commonly concentrating on defeating the enemy of socialism or communism.

The progression towards getting power, Paxton said, entailed “inside jobs” and maneuvers by existing leaders to co-opt fascist leaders. Fascists were never popularly elected, as some purport. In the fourth stage, far from a “simple dictatorship” fascist leaders actually ruled through “negotiation” with those allies that had helped them into power, as well as social powers like the church, industrialists and landowners. At the heart of the final stage, Paxton argued, was the question of maintaining public excitement, which clearly required for both Hitler (with Poland and the U.S.S.R.) and Mussolini (in Ethiopia) expansionist wars.

Though “Mussolini sometimes cuts a poor figure” in comparison to Hitler, Paxton asserted that it is important to recognize that he too had his radical phases; more people died in his ascension to power than in Hitler’s, and Mussolini’s racial segregation laws in Ethiopia denote “virtually genocidal intentions.” Citing the wooden bust of Mussolini in Hitler’s office and writings by Hitler of Mussolini as “my teacher,” Paxton established that the two deserve comparison. “Maybe we shouldn’t take Hitler’s word for it,” he said, “but clearly he thought they were allied.”

Paxton also addressed issues of comparison to authoritarian regimes by stressing fascism’s strong and often riled-up constituent party, versus the policy of others like Portugal’s Salazar, who “didn’t want all that excitement,” to brutally repress such elements. So too, though many like to make connections between Stalin and Hitler, Paxton emphasized that they championed very different ideas: Hitler’s “master race” compared to Stalin’s “world-wide egalitarianism.”

Speaking of the United States, he contended that neoconservatives are distinct from the fascists who always advocated subordinating individual rights to national interest. Similarities could be drawn for Paxton between the aestheticized politics of America (“We haven’t had a non-charismatic president since Harry Truman”) and the recent casting aside of civil liberties because of the war in Iraq. “Fascism is less a fixed ideology… than a technique of rule,” he concluded. “Thus, it is certainly not over.”

Paxton’s other work includes the books Vichy France, Europe in the Twentieth Century, and French Peasant Fascism. These, as well as his most recent book, The Anatomy of Fascism, are available through Tripod.

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