Disorder, Decline, Deadlock – the variables of success

von macchiato

According to the American historian and political scientist Robert O. Paxton, fascist success depends on certain relatively precise conditions: the weakness of a liberal state, whose inadequacies seems to condemn the nation to disorder, decline, or humiliation; and political deadlock.

Every fascist movement that has rooted itself successfully as a major political contender, thereby approaching power, has betrayed its initial antibourgeois and anticapitalist program.The processses to be examined later include the breakdown of democratic regimes and the success of fascist movements in assembling new, broad catch-all parties that attract a mass following across classes and hence seem attractive allies to conservatives looking for ways to perpetuate their shalen rule…Their political successes come at the cost of the first ideological programs. Demonstrating their contempt for doctrine, successfully rooted fascist parties do not annul or amend their early programs. They simply ignore them…The two apprentices learned …by trial and error. Their adaptations to the available space undermine any effort to portray historical fascism as the consistent expression of one coherent ideology.

Which characteristics distinguished Germany and Italy, where fascism took power, from countries such as France and Britain, where fascist movements were highly visible but remained marginal? We need to recall that fascism has never so far taken power by a coup d’etat, deploying the weight of its militants in the streets. Fascist power by coup is hardly conceivable in a modern state. Fascism cannot appeal to the street without risking a confrontation with future allies -the army and the police- without whom it will not be able to pursue its expansionist goals. Indeed, fascist coup attempts have commonly led to military dictatorship rather than to fascist power (as in Romania in December 1941). The only route to power available to fascists passes through cooperation with conservative elites.

IT:È questa, e non quella del golpe, la strada maestra per arrivare al potere, e per mantenerlo: la cooperazione dei fascisti con le elites conservatrici, che devono ambedue comportarsi da „poteri flessibili“ più che da „poteri forti“…

The most important variables, therefore, are the conservative elites‘ willingness to work with the fascists (along with a reciprocal flexibility) andthe depth of the crisis that induces them to cooperate.

Neither Hitler nor Mussolini took the helm by force, even if they used force earlier to destabilize the liberal regime and later to transform their governments into dictatorships. Each was invited to take office as head of government by a head of state in the legitimate exercise of his official functions, on the advice of his conservative counselors, under quite precise circumstances:

A deadlock of constitutional government (produced in part by the polarization that the fascists abetted); conservative leaders who felt threatened by the loss of their capacity to keep the population under control at a moment of massive popular mobilization; an advancing Left; and conservative leaders who refused to work with that Left and who felt unable to continue to govern against the Left without further reinforcement.

IT: Storicamente, i leader fascisti che arrivano al potere, sono condannati a governare in associazione con le stesse elites conservatrici che hanno loro aperto le porte. Ne consegue una lotta a quattro tra il leader, il suo partito (con le più diverse richieste dei militanti), gli apparati dello Stato e le elites tradizionali (chiese, forze armate, professionisti, imprenditori). Questa quadrupla tensione porta spesso ad uno stile di governo febbrile, diverso da quello dai regimi autoritari (dove il partito unico non c’è più, o conta poco) e dallo Stalinismo (dove le elites tradizionali non ci sono più). L‘autoritarismo preferisce una popolazione smobilitata, mentre il fascismo, superiore nel creare e manipolare entusiasmi, fa breccia nella classe operaia. Mentre i regimi autoritari accettano qualche limite al potere dello Stato e lasciano qualche spazio privato ai singoli ed a certe istituzioni e categorie, i regimi fascisti sono molto più severi (anche se in parte solo a parole).

The exercise of power involved the same elements in Mussolini’s Italy as in Nazi Germany. It is the balance between the party and traditional institutions that distinguishes one case from the other. In Italy, the traditional state wound up with primacy, largely because Mussolini feared his own most militant followers, the local ras and their squadristi. In Nazi Germany, the party came to dominate, especially after the war began.

Focus on processes and discrimination among stages -this article’s principal methodological proposals- casts a clarifying light on many specialized themes in the study of fascism.

Having picked fascism apart, have we escaped from the nominalism of the „bestiary“ only to fall into another nominalism of processes and stages? Where is the „fascist 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.

Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline.

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, using all the social sciences and not only intellectual-cultural history, and, since it is not static one must understand it in motion, through its cycle of potential (though not inevitable) stages.


(All quotes from: Robert O. Paxton, The Five Stages of Fascism, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 70, No. 1. (Mar., 1998), pp. 1-23, The University of Chicago Press: http://w3.salemstate.edu/~cmauriello/pdfEuropean/Paxton_Five%20Stages%20of%20Fascism.pdf = http://links.jstor.org/sicisici=00222801%28199803%2970%3A1%3C1%3ATFSOF%3E2.0.CO%3B2-3)