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First, it must be said that this is a very fine history of fascism and a much-needed attempt to define just what we mean by that elusive term. It is especially timely given the unfortunate tendency, which has accelerated in recent years, of those on the Left to refer to any and every political party and leader they disagree with as fascistic. A political climate in which decent Christian men like George Bush, John Ashcroft, and Tony Blair are routinely compared to Hitler and the Nazis obviously requires a cold harsh dose of reality and Mr. Paxton for the most part serves it up.

He takes an interesting route to his goal, denying that there is a consistent and coherent ideology underlying fascism and refusing initially to offer a comprehensive definition, letting it be defined by how it developed historically instead. But in letting fascism define itself by its actions and allowing for the obvious necessity of treating Nazism as the fundamental instance of fascism to be examined, he narrows the field down to the point where there's practically nothing left but Nazism (and perhaps Vichy France and the rump portion of Italy that Mussolini ruled after Hitler rescued him from the Allies, with maybe Milosevic's Serbia thrown in for good measure). Nazism was just so radical that it rapidly diverged from almost all other variants of fascism. There is clearly almost no similarity between Franco's Spain and Hitler's Germany, so Mr., Paxton ends up by just reading Francoism out of fascism, which may be all for the best.

By all means read the book for the excellent account of what did happen in the various regimes we think of as fascist--most specifically Hitler's and Mussolini's--but if I can cut to the chase, and we need to in order to discuss the weaknesses of the book, he does finally define fascism as follows:
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 elite's, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
It's that last bit about violence, cleansing and expansion that leaves him with only the few genocidal regimes. It is the one vital characteristic that he ultimately drapes around the neck of the true fascist.

What's strange about this final focus on fascism's genocidal nature is that he never draws the link between this all-important facet and the concept that fascism has a consistent ideology. Were he to do so--and one assumes it's why he does not--he would be forced to accept that fascism is really applied Darwinism. He tip toes around this 800 pound gorilla so often that it becomes ever more noticeable by its absence. Thus, at one point he actually says the following:
The major question here is whether fascisms are more disparate than other "isms."

This book takes the position that they are, because they reject any universal value other than the success of chosen peoples in a Darwinian struggle for primacy.
Got that? They share no ideology and are more disparate than other "isms" because all that unites them is Darwinism. It's kind of like saying that all that unites the various Marxist regimes is their Marxism and then denying that Marxism is an ideology. No doubt Darwin has fared better in polite society than Marx has, but it would be strange indeed if he hadn't inspired a political movement just as surely as did his fellow bearded god-killer. (In fact, one of the many things that becomes crystal clear is why Marxist and Fascists hated each other so much and why they both hated the Church: Darwin and Marx are rival gods, and rivals of God.) Why not just grab the bull by the horns and accept that those who still believe in Darwinism will squeal about his being associated with fascism? Is remaining welcome in the halls of academe really worth rendering your own book rather misshapen?

Much else that is left opaque here becomes clearer when we examine it through this lens. For instance:
Many have seen in fascism's ultimate wartime radicalization--the murder of the Jews--a denial of modern rationality and a return to barbarism. But it is plausible to perceive it as fascism's alternate modernity run amok. Nazi "racial cleansing" built upon the purifying impulses of twentieth-century medicine and public health, the eugenicists' eagerness to weed out the unfit and the unclean, an aesthetic of the perfect body, and a scientific rationality that rejected moral criteria as irrelevant.
Look at the convoluted mess he's twisted himself into. Nazism wasn't an alternate modernism and its barbarism does not conflict with rationality or modernity--it is the quintessence of modern rationalism, which in its renunciation of thousands of years of Judeo-Christian tradition is a return to barbarism (or Naturalism as its devotees prefer). We live in an age when our leading public philosopher pronounces the judgment that : "[religious] belief is really not an option for thinking people today." Who then would be bound by its criteria? And Darwin himself suggested that humanity has demonstrated poor biological judgment in not applying his theories:
[S]ome remarks on the action of Natural Selection on civilized nations may be worth adding. This subject has been ably discussed by Mr W.R.Greg, and previously by Mr Wallace and Mr Galton. Most of my remarks are taken from these three authors. With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.
What could be more rational--assuming only that you believe in Darwinism and not in Judeo-Christianity any longer--than to stop the "degeneration" of your race?

Or take these other statements of Mr. Paxton's--and they do pile up quickly so we'll let a few suffice:
* In the Darwinian narrative, the chosen people have been weakened by political parties, social classes, unassimilable minorities, spoiled rentiers, and rationalist thinkers who lack the necessary sense of community.
* The discovery of the role of bacteria in contagion by the French biologist Louis Pasteur and the mechanisms of heredity by the Austrian monk-botanist Gregor Mendel in the 1880s made it possible to imagine whole new categories of internal enemy: carriers of disease, the unclean, and the hereditarily ill, insane, or criminal.
* Fascist regimes could not survive without the active acquisition of new territory for their "race"--Lebensraum, spazio vitale--and they deliberately chose aggressive war to achieve it, clearly intending to wind the spring of their people to still higher tension.
* [Hitler] proclaimed his visions and hatreds in speeches and ceremonies, and allowed his ambitious underlings to search for the most radical way to fulfill them in a Darwinian competition for attention and reward.
Over and over and over again Darwinist beliefs, impulses, and methods inform the narrative but Mr. Paxton sticks to the falsehood that there was no unifying ideology behind fascism.

As revealing as the Fascist dependence on Darwinism is the force that tended to restrain it: Christianity. So Mr. Paxton notes:
Radicalizing impulses were not absent from Mussolini's Italy. Torn between periodic urges to reinvigorate the aging Blackshirts and the normalizing drag of conservative fellow travelers, the Fascist regime followed an irregular trajectory. [...]

He declined [at least in the early years] to challenge the extensive powers held by the monarchy, the Church, and his conservative powers.
Indeed, if we return to Franco's Spain and its stark divergence from Germany and even Italy we can see that a leadership committed to religion was easily able to establish a rather ordinary conservative authoritarianism without devolving into the kind of Darwinian fascism that the Third Reich embodied.

If this basic, and hardly unique insight is correct--that fascism is just applied Darwinism--then we can come up with our own definition of fascism, one that's rich in irony: Fascism is the application of Darwinism to every facet of the life of a nation, except economics (where a command economy is imposed). The irony, of course, is that Darwin derived his ideas from Adam Smith and The Reverend Thomas Malthus. Darwinism is little more than free market economics applied to biology. Unfortunately what was true of economics seems not to be so of Creation. So in fascism we have a political philosophy that is not applied where it works but is where it doesn't. No wonder it proved so disastrously and murderously anti-human.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B-)

  

Websites:

See also:

Philosophy
Robert Paxton Links:

    -ARCHIVES: The New York Review of Books: Robert O. Paxton
    -REVIEW: of Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton (Samantha Power, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Anatomy of Fascism (Terry Eagleton, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of The Anatomy Of Fascism (Iain Macwhirter, Sunday Herald)
    -REVIEW: of Anatomy of Fascism (Philip Gordon, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of Robert O. Paxton. French Peasant Fascism: Henry Dorgeres Greenshirts and the Crises of French Agriculture 1929-1939 (William D. Irvine, H-France)

Book-related and General Links:


FASCISM:
   
-ESSAY: The Mystery of Fascism (David Ramsay Steele, Libertarian Alliance)
    -ESSAY: Who's a fascist?: The ultimate political insult is making a comeback. But does anyone know what it really means? (Laura Miller, April 19, 2004, Salon)

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