Fascism: What is it? And are we in any danger?

For years I've wanted to have a better grasp of fascism-- what it is and what it isn't-- and Robert O. Paxton's new book, The Anatomy of Fascism, is just the ticket.

Let's start with Things You Might Not Have Known About Fascism:

  1. Liberalism, conservativism, and socialism all matured in the 19th century; at its end fascism was still undreamed of. It seemed to come out of the blue.

  2. One reason for its appearance was that traditional liberal and conservative politicians had no idea how to appeal to the masses-- especially in countries where full suffrage came late. (Italy had full manhood suffrage only in 1912; Germany retained a 3-class voting system till the end of WW1.) Traditional politicians knew only how to appeal to the educated elite.

  3. Definitions of fascism are problematic, because fascism was prone to reinvent itself as it went along. Mussolini's first supporters were disgruntled veterans, pro-WW1unionists, and Futurist intellectuals. He and Hitler jettisoned ideas that didn't work, built coalitions, and explicitly aimed at power, not coherent ideology.

  4. Nonetheless, don't be fooled by perennial rightist attempts to depict fascism as left-wing. Fascists played with some socialist ideas early on, but these were some of the baggage tossed out as the parties took power. In both countries the fascists' allies were conservatives, who hoped to use their energy, ballot appeal, and violence for their own ends. Neither Mussolini nor Hitler seized power; both were handed it, quite legally, by conservatives terrified of leftist alternatives.

  5. The conventional wisdom is that Franco was fascist; Paxton disputes this. During the civil war it was hard to tell; but afterward, Franco disdained the mass emotionalism of fascism (and, ironically, its drive toward war), and though he made the Falange the only legal party, he gave it no power.

  6. Paxton pooh-poohs the notion that fascist states were particularly efficient. Hitler maintained parallel traditional and Party hierarchies, for instance; and was himself a notoriously lax ruler, with little interest in day-to-day government. The occupied territories were generally run by Party caudillos; decisionmaking was erratic. The democracies, according to Paxton, succeeded better in mobilizing their societies for total war.

  7. There were a large number of local fascisms in pre-WW2 Europe... none of which really went anywhere. There's no single reason; contributing factors include more effective government (Germany and Italy were singularly ill-equipped here), the strength of alternatives to communism, revulsion for fascist violence, and the degree of suffering due to the depression. In a few cases (e.g. Romania) conservatives created their own dictatorships-- and suppressed the fascists.
One reason I wanted to learn more about fascism was frankly, to know whether Bush is a fascist. Fascism is largely used these days as an epithet; is it a valid one?

The short answer: No, not quite. To see why, let's go over Paxton's handy definition (p. 218).

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood
Check. For the Bushies, it's the supposed decline in morality, fundamentalists' persecution complex, and that amazing right-wing conviction that America is being brutalized by overbearing UN diplomats and Frenchmen.
and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity,
Half-check. Krugman points out that Bushism acts as a revolutionary power: one which grants no legitimacy to the existing system-- which recognizes no Loyal Opposition. All enemies, from terrorists to liberals to officials fleeing the administration itself must be attacked with equal zeal. But it falls far short of totalitarianism.
in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites,
Half-check or less. This could apply loosely to the alliance of fundamentalists and big business; on the other hand the people who actually hold power aren't populist allies of the traditional elites; they are the traditional elites. And the militancy falls short: Bush doesn't want his supporters to march on Washington; he wants their checks and votes.
abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Half-check or more. There are troubling signs: Republican operatives disrupting a Florida vote recount by force; trashing the Constitution (as well as traditional safeguards of military law of the Geneva Convention) to go after an open-ended category of "terrorists"; the adoption of a frank imperial mindset and pre-emptive war; sympathy in some conservative quarters for violence against abortion clinics and ATF agents; a switch to recount-less, receipt-less, Republican-provided electronic voting systems. But most of this-- as well as the quest to give big business everything it wants-- is pursued quietly, without fascist trumpeting.
The key missing element is violence. A typical fascist move: in early 1921, Mussolini sent blackshirted thugs on a rampage. They destroyed 17 newspapers, 59 Socialist Party headquarters, 119 socialist employment centers, 385 other clubs and offices. This was a paradoxical but brilliant move: an attack on civil society, but in the interests of conservative power (largely landowners who felt threatened by socialist election victories). In effect, Mussolini was making Italy ungovernable through terror... unless he was made Prime Minister, which he was, the next year.

(Fascism, though conservative, is obviously not libertarian... but this story blurs the boundary. Private armed vigilantes acting against the state in favor of property owners-- it seems a little too close to some libertarian fantasies for comfort.)

Hitler had a similar trick, played when he was already Chancellor: the Night of the Long Knives (June 30, 1934). He not only murdered his own most uncontrollable followers, but key conservatives. The top two conservative leaders, both former Chancellors and both instrumental in bringing Hitler to power, were both targeted: one was killed, as were several top aides of the other.

Paxton points to the Ku Klux Klan as an American precursor to fascism, and this as well as the above stories shows how Bush falls well short of fascism. It isn't that he's a committed democrat; but he doesn't rule by thuggery. If the Republicans had co-opted and expanded the militia movement of the early '90s-- and unleashed it on liberals and Muslims and gays-- that would be fascism.

Well, that's reassuring! Or is it?

Fascism generally inspires horror, but also a certain comic-opera derision: it seems so crude. Out-and-out totalitarianism requires enormous energy-- squashing dissent, drumming up feigned enthusiasm, building a personality cult, fighting wars with people who can fight back... it's a huge waste of energy.

In a sense the communists learned this: the attempt to control hearts and minds, in Soviet Russia, generated too much opposition, and collapsed. The Chinese are smarter: let a hundred flowers bloom.... just don't let any of them actually take power. So long as living standards keep rising, the CCP is probably safe.

A lesson from Paxton's book is that if conservatives can keep control without fascism, they'll do so. Bush isn't a fascist... but he may well be a Franquista.

And then there's radical Islam, the folks who are trying to remake society for God by blowing up anyone who stands in their way. Arguably these people are today's fascists. Their theological preoccupations are no barrier to this; as Paul Berman points out, fascism is always national, and takes on local characteristics: a fascism in Muslim countries will trumpet its adherance to Islam. (Romanian fascism-- Codreanu's Legion of the Archangel Michael-- was explicitly Orthodox; American fascist movements like the KKK or the Patriot movement are explicitly Christian.)

This is alarming enough; but we also have to worry about the effect on our already unbalanced society. European fascism, after all, was an explicit reaction to another form of totalitarianism-- Soviet communism. Already Bush uses 9/11 as the justification for the erosion of civil liberties, smearing all opposition as unpatriotic, and an unlimited program of war-on-demand. It's always tempting to adopt the tactics of the enemy, whose strength is supposedly derived from ruthlessness. But it was wrong in 1922 and it's wrong today.

This just in: An alert reader sent me a link to journalist David Neiwert's discussion of proto-fascism in America. I suggest skipping the theoretical bits and turning to the lively and alarming account of actual movements. Neiwert has written a book on far-right movements, and his report is that they didn't dissipate or reform after their moment in the sun in the early '90s. They went mainstream.

Neiwert estimates that far-right extremists make up about 4% of the electorate. That's enough to be extremely valuable if they can be persuaded to support a major party-- and the Republicans have invited them inside. They're comforted with coded messages of support, and in return the rightist media helps spread and mainstream their message. A nice dance has been perfected: fascist sentiments (such as calls for physical attacks on liberals, or for interning Muslim Americans, or the equating of welfare recipients with chimpanzees) are spread by conservative pundits, who can claim to be joking if anyone protests; the extremists take it quite seriously.

The constant ratcheting-up of acceptable hate speech is one of the marks of fascism on the rise; indeed, Neiwert considers the far-right venues as a sort of trial laboratory for anti-liberal extremism. The virulence that resulted in the Clinton impeachment circus, for instance, was mooted about years earlier in far-right groups.

Anyone, especially conservatives, who wonder if I'm exaggerating should read Neiwert's pages. I think there's much that will shock reasonable conservatives; and there's a clear moral and historical point: if you want to distinguish yourselves from these people, kick them out of your Party.

Get me outta here!