Tuesday, March 25, 2003

The 'fascist minimum'

Finally, Christopher Skinner writes in:
I'm sure you've read Robert Paxton's article on the definition of fascism ("Five Stages of Fascism," Journal of Modern History, 70:1, (March 1998).) I find this article to be very useful, and a corrective to Griffin's excesses in approaching fascism as a 'doctrine' rather than as a politics.

Paxton's approach allows a certain degree of reconciliation among thinkers, particularly between those who see fascism as an ideology and those who see it as a mélange of uneasy alliances. Paxton admits that he was, until very recently, a firm believer in the notion that fascism was not an ideology. But by suggesting a dynamic model that "begins at the beginning," Paxton reminds us that fascism is not unlike an elementary particle to which we must apply Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. The more thoroughly we study a particular fascist movement at a given moment, the less likely we are to be able to judge the arc of its overall progress, and the more we study the ultimate impact of a movement, the less likely we are to examine its particulars. Many historians, for example, who study the "arc" of movements, have treated Nazi Germany as the touchstone for a "true" fascism. All other movements are seen as not fully "worked out," and therefore, not fully fascist.

Obviously, the debate continues with vigor, but I think this article really gets at something that goes beyond attempts at competing definition and heads towards something very interesting. Combining the "Stages" article with Richard Rorty's discussions of contingency in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge UnivPr (Trd); (March 1989)) quickly leads out of the swamp of definition to a sense of much greater perspective on both fascism as a politics and on language in general. Reading these two works in sequence, and then in parallel, has convinced me that the definition of fascism is a moving target precisely because adherents to far-right ideology are, while speaking to each other, always speaking, in Rortian (and Davidsonian) terms in contingencies. This contingent discussion among rightists may be what led Zeev Sternhel in Ni droite, ni gauche to attempt to find the 'fascist minimum' in movements that had failed to seize power (the planistes in France, e.g.) in that these fringe groups were free to dialog in what they determined to be the 'true language' of fascism, uncluttered by massive contingent conversations and/or speech acts. So in a sense, the thing known as fascism is undergoing continual revision by those who themselves speak of it, and as such is very hard to come to grips with.

Actually, until Christopher sent in this note, I hadn't heard of Paxton's piece. But I'm in the process of obtaining it and will report back. It sounds as though it will be a useful update for my brief survey on fascism in Parts 1, 2 and 3 of the "Rush" series.

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