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Sure, calling people ‘fascist’ is lots of fun. There’s no denying that. Whether you’re a teenager revolting against the ruthless Gestapo comprised of teachers, parents, and Denny’s night shift managers or you’re a fussbudget Berkeley yippie who detects a whiff of the counterrevolutionary even in the most innocuous conventions (‘I will not have a nice day! Fuck you, Big Brother!’), the exaggeration of one’s own paranoid sense of victimization by glibly appropriating the suffering of millions and millions of innocent people during World War II is always good for a larf, right? Well, maybe not. Because when you get right down to it, how many of us really know what we’re talking about when we casually refer to police officers as ‘fascist pigs’? Why fascist? And why pigs? Is it the uniforms—the authority—the right wing implications of issuing a traffic citation? Maybe. But is this really accurate? Or does it further diminish and trivialize the historical sense of fascism?I am not ‘most people,’ but I am going to guess, in a very half-assed way, that when most people refer to fascists or fascism (with respect not to history, but to contemporary events or persons), they generally intend an accusation (exaggerated or not) of the abuse of authority and power, a contempt for individual rights and liberties, and an irrational fealty to a very particular and narrow view of the way the world should be. Sometimes, when we freely toss the word ‘fascist’ around, we are referring to only one of these, but I think this gets us in the proverbial ballpark of the degraded, contemporary meaning of ‘fascism.’Enter Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, a needful corrective to the popular conception of fascism—not merely in the service of historical accuracy, but also as a important reminder that the ghosts of fascism, as a viable electoral current, haunt global politics even to this day. Don’t forget Slobodan Milošević, for example, who in the 1990s embarked upon a bloody policy of national aggrandizement and ethnic cleansing. Although his style differed in some critical ways from that of classical fascism, it is surely strongly indebted both to Mussolini, fascism’s unofficial founder, and to Hitler, whose regime marked its fullest expression.One of the most significant assertions of Paxton’s intellectually fascinating—but occasionally stiff—book on the subject is that fascism lacks a firm ideology. There is no single or authoritative political agenda that best defines fascism. Ideology is entirely changeable to suit the needs of the ‘system.’ Notice that I said ‘system’ rather than the leader or the party—because it is very much a mistake (or at least a gross simplification) to attribute the course of fascism wholly to the will of its leaders.One important distinction between fascism and traditional dictatorships or authoritarian regimes is that fascism is a mass movement. This fact is often neglected in a rush to blame the leader or the fascist party alone for its moral transgressions. Fascism, in both Italy and Germany, was a popular movement; it was not inflicted from above but was empowered from below, initially by legal electoral means. Here lies its true insidiousness: the German and Italian people, empowered democratically, eventually renounced their rights and their free institutions in order to be subsumed by a totalizing government which (supposedly) expressed the true national will. It is this renunciation of a liberal democracy in crisis which problematizes the usual notion of fascism as an expressly extreme-right movement. The populism, the revolution ‘from below,’ and the vilification of bourgeois individualism are borrowed from the repertoire of leftist movements. This is why fascism is sometimes categorized as ‘neither left nor right’—an aberrant ‘other’ that is not easily situated in our neat political spectrum.Although Paxton leaves open some avenues for interpretation, he implies that the only two political regimes sufficiently realized to be considered fascist are Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. This leaves out some other regimes that are often or occasionally considered fascist, such as Franco’s Spain, Vichy France, Imperial Japan, interwar Portugal, and Peron’s Venezuela, to name a few. Paxton describes how these latter regimes all fail to meet some of the criteria of fascism—such as a failing democratic tradition, national humiliation, demonization of the ‘other’ which must be purged in order to purify the nation, mass politics, the excitement of public passions, national aggrandizement, and a commitment to violence and war. Franco, for example, was allied with fascists during the Spanish Civil War, but he ruled ‘from above’—preferring isolationism and a passive, satiated populace to warfare and inflamed crowds.All in all, Paxton’s book is an intriguing analysis because it scrupulously resists the urge to simplify ‘fascism’ or to serve up a tidy definition. His treatment of the dynamics (if not the particulars) of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany are thoroughgoing and compelling, even if his writing isn’t quite as lively as it could be. Also, he is occasionally allusive, to the detriment of readers who might not familiar with all of the historical people and events to which he is referring. But on the whole, it’s an engrossing read for anyone interested in understanding the nuts and bolts of fascism and distinguishing it from its popular, often simplified representation.
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