By Lambert Strether of Corrente
The word “fascism” has been much in the news of late. Here is a chart of the year 2019 from Google Trends:
Interestingly, usage is more or less flat until the first spike, when President Trump put tanks on the National Mall for July 4, and then a second, larger spike, when he gave his Greenville, NC speech, and the crowd chanted, of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, “send them back.” Omar reacted as follows:
Rep. Ilhan Omar called President Trump "fascist" and said she fears for people who share her identity, after a crowd at his rally led a "Send her back!" chant about the Somali-American congresswoman https://t.co/zpsZ02qtbS pic.twitter.com/06iZXDT7mY
— CBS News (@CBSNews) July 18, 2019
Omar is a serious person and that’s a serious charge, so it’s worth looking at. Certainly my left/liberal corner of the Twittersphere was consumed by the word “fascism,” to the extent that RussiaRussiaRussia was drowned out. Notably, however, the two spikes, and the resulting moral panic, were caused by symbols: Tanks on the mall, and a speech. (Interestingly, words about the border, like “concentration camps,” and “fascism” do not spike simultaneously, even though one might expect them to. We’ll see more about symbols in the Appendix.) However, although fascist deliverables often have excellent symbolism — graphic treatments especially — fascism is about more than symbols, although you might not know it from the ruminations of our symbol-manipulating poltical class.
So I thought it would be worthwhile to take a deeper look at the work of Columbia historian Robert O. Paxton, who is a scholar of fascism. Basically, this post will be the notes for the class I wish I had taken with him; Paxton writes as lucidly as another great scholar of fascism, Richard J. Evans, author of The Coming of the Third Reich and two wonderful successor volumes. I’m going to quote great slabs mostly from Paxton’s article “The Five Stages of Fascism” (The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 70, No. 1. Mar., 1998, pp. 1-23), but also from his later book, The Anatomy of Fascism (2004). “Five Stages” is only 24 pages, and easy, so do consider reading it in full, because I’m not really doing it justice; I’m leaving out all the historiography, for example.
And so to Paxton. I’m selecting passages partly when they contain useful ideas I just don’t see in today’s discourse, but mostly to give us tools to assess the current “conjuncture,” as we say.
Fascism and Democracy
From the Five Stages of Fascism, page 3:
The fascist phenomenon was poorly understood at the beginning in part because it was unexpected. Until the end of the nineteenth century, most political thinkers believed that widening the vote would inevitably benefit democracy and socialism. Friedrich Engels, noting the rapid rise of the socialist vote in Germany and France, was sure that time and numbers were on his side. Writing the preface for a new edition in 1895 of Karl Marx’s Class Struggles in France, he declared that “if it continues in this fashion, we will conquer the major part of the middle classes and the peasantry and will become the decisive power.” It took two generations before the Left understood that fascism is, after all, an authentic mass popular enthusiasm and not merely  a clever manipulation of populist emotions by the reactionary Right or  by capitalism in crisis.
I think most “hot take” analysis by liberals would fall into the bucket labeled ; by the left, label . I think the idea that democracy is, as it were, the host body for fascism deserves some thought. Certainly there was no fascism as such until democracy was well advanced.
Fascism: Made in America?
From the Five Stages of Fascism, page 12:
But it 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 former 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. It is arguable, at least, that fascism (understood functionally) was born in the late 1860s in the American South.
(As an aside: It’s probably coincidence, but Civil War tactics, especially by the time of the Overland Campaign, were also a “remarkable preview” of World War I. Intuitively, I feel that fascism does not take hold of the body politic without a lot of organic damage, whether in the entrenchments of the Civil War, the trenches of World War I, or — just possibly — the opioid crisis, deaths of despair, and falling life expectancy.) Hitler’s American Model shows that Nazi jurists and lawyers came to America to research Jim Crow, and thought very highly of the legislation; they saw Jim Crow as an example of modernity — how advanced the United States was. Of course, by their lights, Jim Crow was misdirected.
Mutability of Fascism
From the Five Stages of Fascism, page 4:
[Individual cases of fascism] differ in space because each 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 greater role in an authentic fascism in the United States than in the first European fascisms, which were pagan for contingent historical reasons. They differ in time because of the transformations and accommodations demanded of those movements that seek power.
And page 5:
Fascists deny any legitimacy to universal principles to such a point that they even neglect proselytism. Authentic fascism is not for export. Particular national variants of fascism differ far more profoundly one from another in themes and symbols than do the national variants of the true “isms.” The most conspicuous of these variations, one that leads some to deny the validity of the very concept of generic fascism, concerns the nature of the indispensable enemy: within Mediterranean fascisms, socialists and colonized peoples are more salient enemies than is the Jewry. Drawing their slogans and their symbols from the patriotic repertory of one particular community, fascisms are radically unique in their speech and insignia. They fit badly into any system of universal intellectual principles.
One result of the “Lost Cause” propaganda and the historiography of the Dunning School — William Dunning, ironically enough, professed at Columbia as well — is that the notion that there might already have been an American Fascism (see above) is not available to us. Hence, we often see Nazis (and generally Nazis, not even Mussolini) as the quintessential fascists. The argument can be made that globalization has, in fact, created fascism of export — some in my Twitterverse had no problem believing that Trump was simultaneously a Russian puppet and a fascist — but I just don’t see how that helps fascism to root itself (see below) in any given country, which is a requirement for it to grow.
The Stages of Fascism
From the Five Stages of Fascism, page 11:
But one must compare what is comparable. A regime where fascism exercises power is hardly comparable to a sect of dissident intellectuals. We must distinguish the different stages of fascism in time. It has long been standard to point to the difference between movements and regimes. I believe we can usefully distinguish more stages than that, if we look clearly at the very different sociopolitical processes involved in each stage. I propose to isolate five of them: .
And stage 2, the importance of parties, pages 12-13:
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. . 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.
That underlined portion does seem familar, doesn’t it? However, it’s worth noting that there’s no “seem” to American decline; how is a nation with dropping life expectancy not in decline? It’s also worth noting that “frightened conservatives” doesn’t necessarily equal Republicans; it was not, after all, the Republican Party that painted the anti-semitism target on Ilhan Omar’s back. It’s worth asking, then, whether centrist Democrats would seek a bipartisan alliance against the left.
Here is Paxton’s first definition of fascism, from the Five Stages of Fascism pages 22-23:
Where is the “fascism minimum” in all this? Has generic fascism evaporated in this analysis? It is by a functional definition of fascism that we can escape from these quandaries. . Its complex tensions (political revolution versus social restoration, order versus aggressive expansionism, mass enthusiasm versus civic submission) are hard to understand solely by reading its propaganda. One must observe it in daily operation….
And his second, from The Anatomy of Fascism, page 218:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim- hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Speaking as an amateur, I think the two definitions map to each other, and both to the present day (“liberal democracy stands accused” v. “abandons democratic liberties,” but I like the second one much better, because the language is crisper, and is testable. For example, “redemptive violence”: During Reconstruction, the states that came under control of the former Slave Power, a process achieved by great violence, were referred to as “redeemed.”
More from the Five Stages of Fascism, page 23:
Can fascism still exist today, in spite of the humiliating defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, the declining availability of the war option in a nuclear age, the seemingly irreversible globalization of the economy, and the triumph of in- dividualistic consumerism? After ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, the rise of exclusionary nationalisms in postcommunist Eastern Europe, the “skinhead” phenomenon in Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, and Italy, and the election of `
Mirko Tremaglia, a veteran of the Republic of Salo, as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Italian Parliament during the Berlusconi government, it would be hard to answer “no” to that question.
The most interesting cases today, however, are not those that imitate the exotic colored-shirt movements of an earlier generation. New functional equivalents of fascism would probably work best, as George Orwell reminded us, clad in the mainstream patriotic dress of their own place and time. An authentically popular fascism in the United States would be pious and anti-Black; in Western Europe, secular and antisemitic, or more probably, these days, anti-Islamic; in Russia and Eastern Europe, religious, antisemitic, and slavophile.
Rather prescient for 1998, I must say. (And much as I loathe black bloc, it may be that they have their place in making these “functional equivalents” less easy to form.) Nevertheless, we do not have a “mass-based party of committed nationalist ,” Yet. Paxton goes on:
The right questions to ask of today’s neo- or protofascisms are those appropriate for the second and third stages of the fascist cycle. Are they becoming rooted as parties that represent major interests and feelings and wield major influence on the political scene? [TBD] Is the economic or constitutional system in a state of blockage apparently insoluble by existing authorities? [Yes] Is a rapid political mobilization threatening to escape the control of traditional elites, to the point where they would be tempted to look for tough helpers in order to stay in charge? [TBD]
And from Anatomy, page 218:
Fascism exists at the level of Stage One within all democratic countries—not excluding the United States. “Giving up free institutions,” especially the freedoms of unpopular groups, is recurrently attractive to citizens of Western democracies, including some Americans. We know from tracing its path that fascism does not require a spectacular “march” on some capital to take root; seemingly anodyne decisions to tolerate lawless treatment of national “enemies” is enough. Something very close to classical fascism has reached Stage Two in a few deeply troubled societies. Its further progress is not inevitable, however. Further fascist advances toward power depend in part upon the severity of a crisis, but also very largely upon human choices, especially the choices of those holding economic, social, and political power.
Our immune system kills off little cancers all the time; a metastatizing tumor takes a lot of effort to create. Stage One fascisms are little cancers, killed off by a healthy body politic. Stage Two fascisms, without treatment, will metastatize.
I think we’re somewhere in Stage Two: Rooting — or, to be optimistic, Uprooting. I invite the views of readers!
APPENDIX I: “Cosmopolitan”
Stoller tweeted, of a speech by possible Trump 2.0 Josh Hawley:
Liberals are freaking out about these comments, but Hawley is correct. Does anyone doubt Wall Street/Silicon Valley and their weird globalization fetish has harmed the middle class? Beating Hawley is going to require better policy, not better tantrums. https://t.co/yyfbSgBMuK
— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) July 18, 2019
Then ensued the most moralizing and banal Twitter discussion I’ve seen in some time, and that’s saying something. Hawley used the word “cosmopolitican” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry here), which Stoller’s detractors felt proved Hawley was sending an anti-semitic dog whistle, and hence Stoller, in defending him, was an anti-semite too. (Paxton: “not by checking the color of the shirts or seeking traces of the rhetoric….”). To show how useless the entire episode was, I’ll quote The Nation’s Jeet Heer:
All politics is based on a division between friend & foe. A left-wing populist-nationalist can make big business the foe. The right-wing nationalist can't because they accept capitalism & are often financed by wealthy, so their foe is the (cough, cough) cosmopolitan
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) July 20, 2019
Of course, the view that “all politics is based on a division between friend and foe” could be traced right back to Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt, whose doctrine that was, and so Heer could be said to be sending an anti-semitic dog whistle. Of course that’s absurd, because context matters. Our symbol manipulating professional friends in the political class would do far better to look at function instead of checking their Index Expurgatorius of words suitable for censure and calling out. Liberals, and the left, have been calling out “dog whistles” for twenty years, at least. It hasn’t gotten them anywhere. Yet still they do it!