IV: Tracking Fascism
Although Roger Griffin's definitive work brought the scholarly debate over a generic definition of fascism to a new level, the debate did not end there. It gained fresh life, in fact, and has produced some perhaps even more helpful insights.
One of these came from Robert O. Paxton, who is Mellon Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus at Columbia University. His essay "The Five Stages of Fascism," which appeared in the March 1998 edition of The Journal of Modern History, proposed an even more helpful model for understanding the phenomenon.
This was brought to my attention by Orcinus reader Christopher Skinner, who noted:
- 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.
Griffin's insistence that fascism is an ideology -- "palingenetic ultranationalist populism" -- lets us zero in on the core of fascism through its various permutations, from nascent rural fascism to raging, mature fascism in full military regalia. Paxton's model essentially complements this, providing a framework for understanding that process of change (something Griffin himself has explored in recent works). History demonstrates that fascism itself, as Mr. Skinner suggests, has behaved more like a mutagen, shifting shapes constantly while maintaining certain core animating impulses. Paxton's essay is an important contribution to the literature, since it offers a very useful model for moving beyond the swamp of simply defining and identifying fascism toward a practical understanding of how it happens.
Paxton, as Mr. Skinner noted, offers a sort of middle pathway, identifying a central organizing principle -- "each national variant of fascism draws its legitimacy … not from some universal scripture but from what it considers the most authentic elements of its own community identity" -- that is closely akin to Griffin's "palingenetic ultranationalist populism," while at the same time constructing a five-step arc of motion for fascism that recognizes its essentially mutative nature.
Significantly, Paxton agrees with both Griffin and Pierre-André Taguieff in their suggestion that fascism is unlikely to return in an easily recognizable form:
- … [O]ne can not identify a fascist regime by its plumage. George Orwell understood at once that fascism is not defined by its clothing. If, some day, an authentic fascism were to succeed in England, Orwell wrote as early as 1936, it would be more soberly clad than in Germany. The exotic black shirts of Sir Oswald Mosley are one explanation for the failure of the principal fascist movement in England, the British Union of Fascists. What if they had worn bowler hats and carried well-furled umbrellas. The adolescent skinheads who flaunt the swastika today in parts of Europe seem so alien and marginal that they constitute a law-and-order problem (serious though that may be) rather than a recurrence of authentic mass-based fascism, astutely decked out in the patriotic emblems of their own countries. Focusing on external symbols, which are subject to superficial imitation, adds to confusion about what may legitimately be considered fascist.
…[E]ach national variant of fascism draws its legitimacy, as we shall see, not from some universal scripture but from what it considers the most authentic elements of its own community identity. Religion, for example, would certainly play a much larger role in an authentic fascism in the United States than in the first European fascisms, which were pagan for contingent historical reasons.
… The great "isms" of nineteenth-century Europe -- conservatism, liberalism, socialism -- were associated with notable rule, characterized by deference to educated leaders, learned debates, and (even in some forms of socialism) limited popular authority. Fascism is a political practice appropriate to the mass politics of the twentieth century. Moreover, it bears a different relationship to thought than do the nineteenth-century "isms." Unlike them, fascism does not rest on formal philosophical positions with claims to universal validity. There was no "Fascist Manifesto," no founding fascist thinker. Although one can deduce from fascist language implicit Social Darwinist assumptions about human nature, the need for community and authority in human society, and the destiny of nations in history, fascism does not base its claims to validity on their truth. Fascists despise thought and reason, abandon intellectual positions casually, and cast aside many intellectual fellow-travelers. They subordinate thought and reason not to faith, as did the traditional Right, but to the promptings of the blood and the historic destiny of the group. Their only moral yardstick is the prowess of the race, of the nation, of the community. They claim legitimacy by no universal standard except a Darwinian triumph of the strongest community. [Emphasis mine]
We've already seen that a whole panoply of fascist memes are at play in the current political environment, appearing throughout mainstream conservative rhetoric (Rush Limbaugh's particularly) and manifested in the Bush administration's agenda. The last two sentences of Paxton's description ring a particular bell in the current environment.
Nothing could better describe the Bush administration's approach to governance, particularly to waging war, than as one in which "thought and reason are subordinated to the promptings of the historic destiny of the group." And the Bush Doctrine, boiled down, ultimately bases its morality on a belief in the superiority of American values, and argues for waging war essentially as a "triumph of the strongest community."
This is not to argue that the Bush Doctrine is fascist per se -- but rather, that it has enough elements in it to appeal strongly to the right-wing extremists who are increasingly becoming part of the mainstream GOP fold. It plays out in such manifestations as its utter disregard -- indeed, clear contempt -- for the United Nations and multilateralism generally, a stance that resonates deeply with the John Bircher crowd. And an environment in which extremist memes are encouraged by mainstream conservatives suggests that an alliance is taking shape between the sectors.
Likewise, the Bush administration and its supporters, particularly those in the "transmitter" crowd -- Rush Limbaugh and talk radio, Fox News, the Free Republic -- have begun deploying the very same "mobilizing passions" in recent weeks in countering antiwar protesters that Paxton identifies as comprising the animating forces behind fascism. Again, these kinds of appeal clearly resonate with the proto-fascist Patriot element that have been increasingly finding common cause with the Bush regime. As Paxton describes it:
- … Feelings propel fascism more than thought does. We might call them mobilizing passions, since they function in fascist movements to recruit followers in fascist movements to recruit followers and in fascist regimes to "weld" the fascist "tribe" to its leader. The following mobilizing passions are present in fascisms, though they may sometimes be articulated only implicitly:
1. The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual.
2. The belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action against the group's enemies, internal as well as external.
3. Dread of the group's decadence under the corrosive effect of individualistic and cosmopolitan liberalism.
4. Closer integration of the community within a brotherhood (fascio) whose unity and purity are forged by common conviction, if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.
5. An enhanced sense of identity and belonging, in which the grandeur of the group reinforces individual self-esteem.
6. Authority of natural leaders (always male) throughout society, culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny.
7. The beauty of violence and of will, when they are devoted to the group's success in a Darwinian struggle.
Going down Paxton's list, it is fairly easy to identify these "passions" at play today, particularly in the debate over the Iraq war and the attacks on dissenters that occurred during it.
- 1. [Group primacy]: See, again, the Bush Doctrine. An extension of this sentiment is at play among those jingoes who argue that Americans may need to sacrifice some of their civil rights -- say, free speech -- during wartime.
2. [Victim mentality]: This meme is clearly present in all the appeals to the victims of Sept. 11 as justifications for the war. It is present at nearly all levels of the debate: from the White House, from the media, even from the jingoist entertainment industry (see, e.g., the lyric of Darryl Worley's extraordinarily popular country-western hit, "Have You Forgotten?": "Some say this country's just out looking for a fight / Well after 9/11 man I'd have to say that's right.").
3. [Dread of liberal decadence]: This meme has been stock in trade of the talk-radio crowd since at least 1994 -- at one time it focused primarily on the person of Bill Clinton -- and has reached ferocious levels during the runup to the war and after it, during which antiwar leftists have regularly and remorselessly been accused of treason.
4. [Group integration] and 5. [Group identity as personal validation] are, of course, among the primary purposes of the campaign to demonize liberals -- to simultaneously build a cohesive brotherhood of like-minded "conservatives" who might not agree on the details but are united in their loathing of all things liberal. It plays out in such localized manifestations as the KVI Radio 570th On-Air Cavalry, which has made a habit of deliberately invading antiwar protests with the express purpose of disrupting them and breaking them up. Sometimes, as they did recently in Bellingham, this is done with caravans of big trucks blaring their horns; and they are also accompanied by threatening rhetoric and acts of physical intimidation. They haven't yet bonded in violence -- someone did phone in a threat to sniper-shoot protesters -- but they are rapidly headed in that direction.
6. [Authority of leaders]: This needs hardly any further explanation, except to note that George W. Bush is actually surprisingly uncharismatic for someone who inspires as much rabid loyalty as he does. But then, that is part of the purpose of Bush's PR campaign stressing that he receives "divine guidance" -- it assures in his supporters' mind the notion that he is carrying out God's destiny for the nation, and for the conservative movement in particular.
7. [An aesthetic of violence]: One again needs only turn to the voluminous jingoes of Fox News or the jubilant warbloggers to find abundant examples of celebrations of the virtues -- many of them evidently aesthetic -- of the evidently just-completed war.
Again, the purpose of the above exercise is not to demonstrate that mainstream conservatism is necessarily becoming fascist (though that is a possibility), but rather to demonstrate how it is becoming hospitable to fascist motifs, especially as it resorts to strong-arm tactics from its footsoldiers to intimidate the political opposition. This underscores the real danger, which is the increasing empowerment of the extremist bloc, particularly as it has been blending, as we shall see, into the mainstream GOP. The increasing nastiness of the debate over Bush's war-making program seems to be fertile territory for this trend.
More than anything, the exercise underscores just to what extent fascism itself is made of things that are very familiar to us, and in themselves seem relatively innocuous, perhaps even benign. More to the point, this very familiarity is what makes it possible. When they coalesce in such a crucible as wartime or a civil crisis, they become something beyond that simple reckoning.
Can fascism still happen in America? Paxton leaves little doubt that the answer to this must be affirmative:
- … Fascism can appear wherever democracy is sufficiently implanted to have aroused disillusion. That suggests its spatial and temporal limits: no authentic fascism before the emergence of a massively enfranchised and politically active citizenry. In order to give birth to fascism, a society must have known political liberty -- for better or for worse.
Indeed, Paxton identifies perhaps the origins of fascism as having arisen first in America itself:
- … [I]t is further back in American history that one comes upon the earliest phenomenon that seems functionally related to fascism: the Ku Klux Klan. Just after the Civil War, some Confederate officers, fearing the vote given to African Americans by the Radical Reconstructionists in 1867, set up a militia to restore an overturned social order. The Klan constituted an alternate civic authority, parallel to the legal state, which, in its founders' eyes, no longer defended their community's legitimate interests. In its adoption of a uniform (white robe and hood), as well as its techniques of intimidation and its conviction that violence was justified in the cause of the group's destiny, the first version of the Klan in the defeated American South was a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe.
There is strong historical corroboration for Paxton's thesis here. Adolph Hitler reportedly was a great admirer of the Ku Klux Klan, particularly its post-1915 edition, which was obviously modeled on the original as well, in its treatment of the races and glorification of the white race. Indeed, Hitler would mock American critics of his program against the Jews by pointing to this nation's own history of lynching and Klan activities.
The latter Klan was even more pronouncedly fascist in its character than the original, particularly in its claim to represent the true national character: "100 percent Americanism" was the organization's chief catchphrase. Its origins -- its first members were the mob that lynched Leo Frank -- were openly violent. Though this manifestation of the Klan -- which spread to every state, counted membership of up to 4 million, and elected seven governors, three U.S. senators, half the 1924 Indiana state legislature, and at one point controlled the political levers in Oregon as well -- petered out by the early 1930s, its spirit remained alive in such clearly proto-fascist organizations of the 1930s as the Silver Shirts of William Dudley Pelley.
It is this lineage, in fact, that helps us identify the Patriot/militia movement as proto-fascist in nature. Much of the political agenda, as well as the legal/political theories, espoused by the Patriots actually originated with the far-right Posse Comitatus, whose own originators themselves were former participants in both the 1920s Klan and Pelley's Silver Shirts. (The definitive text on this is Daniel Levitas' excellent The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right.)
It is worth remembering that before World War II, there were in fact active fascists openly at work in America, and they were not all German-American Bund members. Indeed, what's striking about groups like the Silver Shirts is just how ordinary-American their character seemed. (The similarities to the Patriot movement of the 1990s is also striking.) Pelley himself was a bit of an eccentric and slightly loopy, but the rank and file of his followers were often the same "100 percent Americanists" who had filled the ranks of the Klan a decade previously. Of course, Rush Limbaugh's predecessor, Father Coughlin, was also a major figure in fascist America as well.
But fascism has always previously failed in America, and Paxton's analysis points with some precision to exactly why. Much of this has to do with the fact that fascism is an essentially mutative impulse for the acquisition of power -- it abandons positions as fresh opportunities for power present themselves. This is particularly true as it moves from its ideological roots into the halls of government. In the end, the resulting political power is often, as Griffin puts it, a "travesty" of its original ideology. Paxton describes it thus:
- In power, what seems to count is less the faithful application of the party's initial ideology than the integrating function that espousing one official ideology performs, to the exclusion of any ideas deemed alien or divisive.
Paxton identifies five stages in fascism's arc of flight:
- -- The initial creation of fascist movements
-- Their rooting as parties in a political system
-- The acquisition of power
-- The exercise of power
-- Radicalization or entropy
In the United States, as in France and elsewhere, fascism typically failed in the second stage, because it failed to become a cohesive political entity, one capable of acquiring power (though as I just noted, there was even some danger of this in the 1920s as the Klan in fact obtained some short-lived political power):
- The second stage -- rooting, in which a fascist movement becomes a party capable of acting decisively on the political scene -- happens relatively rarely. At this stage, comparison becomes rewarding: one can contrast successes with failures. Success depends on certain relatively precise conditions: the weakness of the liberal state, whose inadequacies seem to condemn the nation to disorder, decline, or humiliation; and political deadlock because the Right, the heir to power but unable to continue to wield it alone, refuses to accept a growing Left as a legitimate governing partner. Some fascist leaders, in their turn, are willing to reposition their movements in alliances with these frightened conservatives, a step that pays handsomely in political power, at the cost of disaffection among some of the early antibourgeois militants.
In the 1930s, the ascendant liberalism of FDR effectively squeezed the life out of the nascent fascist elements in the U.S. This was particularly true because FDR openly shared power with the Right, appointing noted Republicans to his Cabinet and maintaining a firm coalition with arch-conservative Southern Democrats. The mainstream right thus had no incentive to form a power-sharing coalition with fascism. At the same time, liberalism gained a significant power base in rural America through the many programs of the New Deal aimed at bolstering the agricultural sector. This too may have been a critical factor in fascism's failure.
Significantly, Paxton points out that fascism in Europe took root in a neglected agricultural sector -- something that did not happen in the United States in the 1930s. Indeed, it gained its second-stage power in the crucible of organized thuggery against liberals:
- …[I]t was in the countryside that German Nazism and Italian Fascism first succeeded in becoming the representatives of an important social and economic interest. The comparison between the success of rural fascism in German and Italy and its relative failure in France seems to me a fruitful one.
… All three of these countries experience massive strikes of agricultural workers: east-Elbian Germany during the postwar crisis in 1919-23; the Po Valley and Apulia in Italy in 1920-21; and the big farms of northern France and the Paris Basin during the two summers of the Popular Front; in 1936 and 1937. The German strikes were broken by vigilantes, armed and abetted by the local army authorities, in cases in which the regular authorities were too conciliatory to suit the landowners. The Italian ones were broken by Mussolini's famous blackshirted squadristi, whose vigilantism filled the void left by the apparent inability of the liberal Italian state to enforce order. It was precisely in this direct action against farm-worker unions that second-stage fascism was born in Italy, and even launched on the path to power, to the dismay of the first Fascists, intellectual dissidents from national syndicalism.
Paxton compares this to France, where fascism likewise failed:
- … It was the gendarmerie, even with Leon Blum in power, who put down the agricultural strikes in France. The French landowners did not need the chemises vertes. The authority of the state and the power of the conservative farmers' organizations left hardly any space in the French countryside for the rooting of fascist power.
Fascism as a political force suffered from the same sort of bad timing in the United States when it arose in the 1920s -- conservatives were in power and had no need of an alliance with fascism, and there was no great social crisis. When it re-arose in the 1930s, the ascendance of power-sharing liberalism that was as popular in rural areas as in urban, again left fascism little breathing room.
And in the 1990s, when proto-fascism re-emerged as popular movement in the form of the Patriots, conservatives once again enjoyed a considerable power base, having control of the Congress, and little incentive to share power. Moreover, the economy was booming -- except in rural America.
Unsurprisingly, that is where the Patriots built their popular base. Importantly, much of that base-building revolved around a motif that created a significant area of common interest with mainstream conservatives: hatred of Bill Clinton. And it was there that the alliance between right-wing extremists and mainstream conservatives first took root and flowered.
Next: Proto-Fascism in America