A carnival of unreason: The Anatomy of Fascism

3rd May 2004 | The New Statesman

by Terry Eagleton, Reviewer

Under review: The Anatomy of Fascism, by Robert O Paxton Allen Lane (the Penguin Press, 336pp, ISBN 0713997206)

Nobody knows on which day of the week the Renaissance started, or in what month the Dark Ages came to a halt. The origins of fascism, however, are surprisingly well documented. As Robert Paxton informs us in this lucid, engagingly readable study, the movement began on Sunday morning, 23 March 1919, at a meeting called by Benito Mussolini’s supporters in Milan “to declare war against socialism”. That, at least, was when fascism acquired its name. Its murky political roots run further back in time; but, as Paxton points out, it remains a much younger phenomenon than liberalism, socialism and conservatism. It was, he claims, the major political innovation of the 20th century, which does not say much for the inventive powers of our recent forebears. Between the two world wars, almost every nation, from Iceland to Australia, generated some kind of fascist-like movement. The only good to be plucked from this dismal fact is that it discredits those conservatives who believe sociology to be a bogus science.

Exactly what fascism consists of, however, is far less clear. In some leftist circles, the word is lobbed loosely around to vilify anyone in the cramped space to the right of Conrad Black. Yet fascists are radicals, unlike right-wing conservatives. Conservatives believe in God, tradition, the monarchy, civilisation and the individual, whereas fascists are pagan, primitivist, collectivist state-worshippers who prefer jackboots to crowns. Fascists admire productive workers (including productive capitalists) and denounce effete aristocrats and the idle rich; conservatives tend to champion both groups, among whose ranks they themselves can frequently be found. Ezra Pound was a fascist, but T S Eliot was a conservative. Fascists strut, while conservatives lounge. From a right-wing viewpoint, there is not much to distinguish fascists from Marxists, except that fascists are marginally more tolerable.

Conservatives disdain the popular masses, while fascists mobilise and manipulate them. Some conservatives believe in ideas, but fascists have a marked preference for myths. If they think at all, they think through their blood, not their brain. Fascists regard themselves as a youthful, revolutionary avant-garde out to erase the botched past and create an unimaginably new future. This includes ditching conventional distinctions between political left and right, a point that ought to worry partisans of the Third Way rather more than it seems to.

Fascism is an anti-political kind of politics, which elevates national unity over class distinctions, gut prejudice over ideological debate, and race over reason. Its leaders tend to be grubby lower-middle-class yobbos with unstable mentalities and criminal records. They are the kind of uncouth bruisers whom cultivated patricians allow into their drawing rooms only with reluctance, and only when they need to use them to smash the socialists. Sir Oswald Mosley was one of the rare exceptions to this rule.

Paxton wisely renounces the attempt to isolate an “essence” of fascism. For instance, it does not seem to be anti-Semitism, which even Mussolini fully embraced only after 16 years in power. But he is equally sceptical of the nominalist case that there are as many definitions of fascism as there are political examples of the beast. For all their vital differences, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Joseph Goebbels and Eoin O’Duffy (the bone-headed leader of the Mickey-Mouse Irish Blueshirts) have clear affinities.

What are they, though? Fascism means military dictatorship, but not all military dictatorships are fascist. There is more to fascism than brute authoritarianism, which is one reason why Paxton rules Vichy France, Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal out of his definition. Instead, he sees fascism as a mass-based form of militant nationalism, one working in uneasy alliance with the usual elites, which pursues policies of internal cleansing and external expansion so as to unify and regenerate what it regards as a victimised, humiliated nation. It springs from a major crisis of the liberal capitalist order, and elevates cultural particularism over democracy, individualism and universal rights.

Like all workable definitions, this one claims neither too much nor too little. Paxton arrives at it by investigating a series of fascist states and distilling this theoretical definition from what he finds. The method is mildly disingenuous, given that historical investigations can give rise to theoretical conclusions only if they are already secretly impregnated with theoretical assumptions. More seriously for Paxton, it is a definition which is compatible with a case that he largely rejects: the leftist contention that fascism emerges chiefly as a reaction to the threat of socialist revolution from a capitalism plunged into dire crisis.

Against the simple-minded notion that fascism is merely a capitalist ploy, Paxton shows how reluctant capitalist classes have been forced to resort to it. Yet it is scarcely surprising that the system is loath to betray its own liberal roots quite so brazenly, and will do so only under extreme pressure. Anyway, Paxton admits that “fascism is inconceivable in the absence of a mature and expanding socialist left”. Bankers and manufacturers may have baulked at shaking hands with a ranting, off-the-wall runt like Adolf Hitler, but this book concedes that the two social forces co-operated fairly well once they had struck their Faustian pact.

If fascism claimed to be radical, it was a bogus revolution that never once put its anti-capitalist rhetoric into practice. Instead, it set about efficiently exterminating the political left. For all their crafty appeals to lower-middle-class grouses, fascist regimes left existing patterns of property and social class largely intact. The disgruntled petite bourgeoisie were taken for the longest ride in their unenviable history. With breathtaking insolence, the fascists used aspects of their ideology to prop up the very state that they found so oppressive.

The book could have said more about the curious time-warping involved in fascism – the way in which it is archaic and avant-garde, mythological and technological, at the same time. In this, it resembles the cultural modernism with which it had intimate (if ambiguous) relations. The Holocaust was both barbarism and the triumph of a “scientific”, full-bloodedly modern rationality. If it was a revolt against Enlightenment reason for some thinkers, it was the consummation of it for others. Old-fashioned pogroms, Paxton points out, would have taken 200 years to complete what the Nazis’ more advanced technology achieved in three years.

Given that fascism is among other things a carnival of unreason, it would be odd to expect from it a coherent theoretical case. As Paxton recognises, its approach to ideas is shamelessly pragmatist: truth is whatever works to inspire the Volk and unite the nation. At the same time, however, fascist movements ascribe an extraordinary priority to ideology – far more so than with conventional modern politics. The Nazis’ genocidal project, for example, tied up precious military and economic resources, and also disposed of men and women whose skills could have contributed to their war effort. Stalin slaughtered Ukrainian peasants because they were Jews. If recent scholarship is to be credited, both did so without much popular disapproval, as with the crimes of other fascist states. “Most citizens of fascist regimes,” Paxton comments, “accepted things as they were.”

It remains to be seen whether the world will revert to fascism. But there are certainly signs that a planet well stocked with authoritarian capitalist regimes is on the cards. Liberal capitalist nations are becoming more authoritarian under the threat of terrorist attacks, while societies which were already authoritarian, such as China, are turning capitalist. The two systems are meeting each other, so to speak, coming the other way. Meanwhile, the globe is well furnished with capitalist set-ups that were never liberal in the first place, as well as with regimes whose former colonial proprietors exported market forces to their shores while forgetting to include democratic institutions in the cargo. The assumption that the free market and political democracy go naturally together was always pretty dubious, and fascism is one dramatic refutation of it. But we might now be moving deeper into a world where the two go together like a horse and cabbage.

Terry Eagleton’s most recent book is After Theory (Allen Lane).

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