Why is fascism such an elusive object of inquiry? As Robert Paxton notes at the outset of his study, the image of fascism has a deceptive clarity:

Everyone is sure they know what fascism is. The most self-consciously visual of all political forms, fascism presents itself to us in vivid primary images: a chauvinist demagogue haranguing an ecstatic crowd; disciplined ranks of marching youths, colored-shirted militants beating up members of some demonized minority….

But it has proved uncommonly hard to define the nature of fascism, to determine how widely the notion can usefully be applied, or what differentiates it from other political movements and regimes. Historians are mostly in agreement that fascism was a phenomenon of pan-European significance. One of the first important comparative studies of fascism, Ernst Nolte’s Three Faces of Fascism, wrote of interwar Europe as the “epoch of fascism.”1 But attempts to define fascism have led to such confusions, contradictions, and overlooking of obvious differences that some historians have given up the attempt in disgust.2 Even grouping together the two major regimes commonly described as “fascist,” Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, is far from uncontroversial.

The late Renzo De Felice, the author of a monumental biography of Mussolini and the most influential historian of Italian fascism, denied that national socialism could legitimately be classed as a type of fascism.3 Although Hannah Arendt refused to consider Italian fascism as a form of totalitarianism, De Felice pointed out that “the totalitarian state” was a central feature of the Italian regime’s definition of itself. But he was skeptical of any general concept of totalitarianism applied to the Italian case. Mussolini’s “totalitarian state” was sui generis. It is understandable that Italians should wish to distance themselves from the horrors of national socialism, but the amount of killing and terror is not an altogether satisfactory basis for classifying regimes. We can describe Kadar’s Hungary as “communist” without implying that it was similar to Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China.

Paxton argues that in both fascist Italy and Nazi Germany the exercise of power was originally based on a similar coalition consisting of the leader, the party, the bureaucracy, and traditional institutions. But he writes that the results were different:

It was the relative weight among leader, party, and traditional institutions that distinguished one case from the other. In Italy, the traditional state wound up with supremacy over the party, largely because Mussolini feared his own most militant followers….In Nazi Germany, the party came to dominate the state and civil society, especially after war began.4

It is possible that this conclusion underrates the importance of race to Nazi thinking, which had its logical corollary (here Hannah Arendt was right) in the doctrine of the supremacy of the movement and its leader—as the embodiment of racial ideology—over the legal and administrative state. Mussolini’s totalitarianism might appear a very ramshackle and incomplete affair if one compares it to Hitler’s. But it was still decisively different in scope and ambition from ordinary authoritarian dictatorships. “Authoritarians would rather leave the population demobilized and passive, while fascists want to engage and excite the public.” This was certainly true of authoritarians like Salazar of Portugal. By contrast, the fascist regimes acknowledged no theoretical limits to the invasion of private life. Paxton writes that Robert Ley, the leader of the Nazi Labor Front, “said that in the Nazi state the only private individual was someone asleep.” Actually, this judgment may have fallen short of the reality. Nazism invaded even its subjects’ dreams.5

Military dictatorships and authoritarian monarchies were not an invention of the twentieth century. But fascism was something else, something new and disquieting in its ability to mobilize positive enthusiasm and dedication, a form of modern mass politics.

A second problem is etymological. “Fascism” did not exist before 1919; the word referred to a type of organization, the fasci di combattimento (combat groups), which gave its original name to the fascist movement, rather than to any complex of beliefs, like communism or conservatism. This may indeed be significant, but it has made it harder to identify the core beliefs that fascist movements shared. In fact, “national socialism”—which in reality meant nationalist socialism, with the emphasis very strongly on the first term—can be taken as a rough definition of what fascist movements claimed to offer. In the Latin countries—Italy, France, and Spain—fascists preferred to talk about “national syndicalism,” but the family resemblance is evident. And in France, the novelist, journalist, and right-wing politician Maurice Barrès was preaching “national socialism” long before World War I.

A third difficulty is more intrinsic in nature. Fascism, like the nationalism from which it sprang, exalted the primacy of the particular—national or racial—over the universal. So while communist movements could refer to a common body of dogma, however modified in practice by local circumstances, fascism appealed to different national myths, traditions, and prejudices. The myth of ancient Rome and the myth of the uncorrupted German Volk had very different associations and implications. Rome was associated with the hegemony of the state and the city, the Volk with the self-sufficient rural community. Still, the appeal to a primordial source of national being and values, endangered by the disruptive forces of moral individualism, pluralist democracy, and international capitalism, was a common and central feature of all kinds of authentic fascism, although it is not necessarily enough to distinguish it from earlier forms of nationalism.


National movements have typically appealed to a distant or mythical past to provide an uplifting contrast to the depressing present of servitude or decline. However, fascism originated in a perception that the original national project, whether Cavour’s or Bismarck’s, had failed, or was incomplete and insufficient to allow the nation-state to compete successfully in the new age of imperialism. The peculiar virulence of the fascist assault on the “internal enemy” derived from the fear of national disintegration. The Nazis attacked the “November criminals,” their name for the civilian leaders of the new German Republic, who were responsible for signing the armistice that ended World War I, and who had, the Nazis alleged, “stabbed Germany in the back” by inciting revolution. Mussolini similarly put the blame for the humiliating military disaster of Caporetto on the internal opposition of the “defeatist” socialists and Catholics; and he attacked the leaders who had failed to secure Italy’s maximum territorial claims in the Paris peace treaties as rinunciatari (renouncers) responsible for what the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio had christened Italy’s “mutilated peace.”

Robert Paxton, a leading scholar of Vichy France, attempts in his Anatomy of Fascism to bring order out of confusion. Faced with an overcrowded and tangled jungle of interpretations, he tries to hack out a clear path. His approach is distinguished by a certain impatience with the more metaphysical attempts to define the “essence” of fascism, or capture its original mystique. One of the drawbacks of this type of definition is that it is static, and that it tends to ignore the evolution and transformation of fascist movements, as they have interacted with existing states and societies.

Undoubtedly much of the progress in the study of fascism over the last thirty years has come from taking fascist ideology seriously. Early writings on fascism had often given inadequate attention to the sources of fascist beliefs, their primary concern being to explain how social class and psychological tendencies shaped what appeared to be just an irrational set of fears, hatreds, and prejudices. One of the problems with the older approach was that it tended to confuse explanation with definition. So, for example, the distinguished political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset defined fascism as an “extremism of the centre” because it drew its main support from the middle classes.

The interest in ideology has been accompanied by a productive line of inquiry into fascist culture and the fascist “style of life” as expressed, for example, in the cult of sport and physical training, as well as in carefully choreographed rituals, ceremonies, and mass meetings, such as the Nuremberg rallies, or the anniversary celebrations of the fascist March on Rome. Paxton appreciates these studies but utters some timely words of caution. Taking fascist ideology seriously, he says, does not mean taking it literally, without considering its social and political functions. It is high time to return to the study of fascist practice and political action, and to insist that ideology and culture must be related, though not reduced, to these hard realities, before the subject floats off into some kind of postmodern haze. Excessive concentration on ideological origins, Paxton writes, “puts intellectuals at the center of an enterprise whose major decisions were made by power-seeking men of action,” and gives too much emphasis to the movement’s anti-capitalist rhetoric. It also overlooks the difference between successful and unsuccessful fascisms: “The map of fascist intellectual creativity does not coincide with the map of fascist success.”

There are good reasons, Paxton suggests, for believing that the ideas promoted by fascist movements flourished most vigorously in France, not only with the ideologists of the Action Française, Barrès and Charles Maurras, but with the theorist of revolutionary syndicalism, Georges Sorel, author of the enormously influential Reflections on Violence, and the reactionary “crowd psychology” of Gustave Le Bon. But none of the different more or less fascist movements that proliferated in France between the wars won a lasting success or a national popular following. Colonel La Rocque’s Parti Social Français might seem to be an exception, but Paxton argues that it attracted a large number of followers between 1936 and 1940 only by abandoning the paramilitary rallies of its predecessor, the Croix de Feu, and presenting a moderate, pro-republican image. The more closely French fascist movements imitated German or Italian models, the less successful they were.


The French case shows that mature democracies, even when they were as divided as France undoubtedly was in the late 1930s, were not without effective defenses against fascism. In both France and Britain the simple expedient of banning paramilitary parades and rallies in uniform was remarkably successful. In both countries, of course, the identification of fascism with a potential enemy was damaging to the fascists, although both British and French conservatives looked on Mussolini as a natural ally who had been estranged by the ideological hostility of the left.

The same story can be told about what Paxton calls “legacy fascism” in the postwar world. The success of radical right movements such as Jean-Marie Le Pen’s or Jorg Haider’s has been inversely proportional to their identification with the fascist heritage. Prosperity, the solidity of democratic institutions, and the pressures of the cold war all restricted the political space available for fascism down to the end of the 1970s. One might question whether this conclusion applies to the brief revival of neofascism in Italy in the early 1970s under Giorgio Almirante, a “historic” fascist epigone of Mussolini’s Salò Republic. His organization owed its success to a backlash against the threatening combination of the student rebellion of 1968, the great wave of strikes during the “hot autumn” of 1969, and the electoral successes of the Italian Communist Party.


Instead of putting forward broad conclusions early in his book, Paxton lets his interpretations emerge through parallel narratives emphasizing the different outcomes of fascist movements in different nations more than their similarities. As a guideline for comparison, he divides the history of fascism into five stages: the creation of the movements, the process by which they took root in political systems, their seizure of power, their exercise of power, and finally their alternative destinies of “radicalization or entropy.” Very few movements made it through even to the second stage, and only Nazism carried radicalization to its ultimate consequences.

The fascist movements offered a new style of politics, which challenged the practices of existing parties. It was peculiarly suited to expressing the “anti-political” resentments of those who condemned the entire parliamentary system as corrupt and divisive. The aims of fascism remained sufficiently ambiguous to attract a following from very different social groups, whether World War I veterans, teachers, small businessmen, farmers, or the unemployed. Yet, as Paxton makes clear, it was only by tacitly abandoning their initial radical positions and making alliances with conservative politicians, the army, business, and other important interest groups that fascist leaders could become serious political competitors. And it was only in societies where liberalism and democracy seemed incapable of dealing with severe social and political crisis, where confidence in the future of the state itself was shaken, and where the revolutionary left was perceived as a serious threat that the movement could achieve enough momentum to propel its leaders into power. “An essential step in the fascist march to acceptance and power,” as Paxton writes, “was to persuade law-and-order conservatives to tolerate fascist violence as a harsh necessity in the face of Left provocation.”

This enabled the fascists to use their party militias—the Nazi storm troopers or the Italian fascist “action squads”—to challenge the state’s monopoly of legitimate violence; by so doing, they made the crisis of the liberal or democratic state seem irreversible, and presented themselves as the only movement capable of resolving it. In Britain the fascist movement was discredited when the public and press associated the violence of the Blackshirt stewards at the British Union of Fascists’ mass meeting at Olympia in 1934 with Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives.” This provoked both a large exodus of members and the repudiation of the movement by its leading financiers and respectable sympathizers.

By contrast, the complicity of old civil and military elites who had close links to the heads of state allowed fascism to gain power in both Italy and Germany. King Victor Emmanuel III and President Hindenburg were both initially reluctant to allow the fascist leaders to form a government; plebeian agitators like Mussolini or Hitler did not arouse their sympathy. But as support for fascism grew among their entourages and in the wider social world of the aristocracy, and, even more, as politicians and their parties failed to solve the crisis of the state, they overcame their hesitations. Victor Emmanuel, unlike Hindenburg, was not obliging enough to die soon after he brought the fascists to power, and an established royal dynasty posed a formidable obstacle to Mussolini’s achieving absolute power. But Victor Emmanuel, although sensitive to any threats to his dignity, seems on the whole to have been glad to be relieved of political responsibility by the Duce, and acquiesced fairly tamely in his loss of power. Ironically, many Italian conservatives had hoped that fascism might be the instrument for restoring the constitutional independence of the monarchy, which had been eroded by parliamentary democracy.

In Paxton’s view, throughout its exercise of power the collaboration with traditional elites remained essential for fascism. Fascist Italy made so many compromises (notably the Concordat with the Church in 1929) that it might have seemed in the early 1930s to be subsiding into a traditional form of authoritarianism. However, this was not what the Duce wanted, and Italian fascism did not in fact become a stable force. In spite of the Vatican’s toleration of the fascist regime, Mussolini’s attempts to erode the Church’s power in society, particularly over youth, persisted. In 1939, the Jesuit Civiltà Cattolica wrote that “politics is turning into a lay religion, which demands the complete devotion of the whole human being, and prevents him from using his rational faculties.”6

It is also true, however, that the shift toward totalitarianism that Mussolini initiated in 1937–1938 (of which the anti-Semitic Racial Laws were the most notorious expression) was largely ineffective. The fascist movement itself had been too thoroughly domesticated and bureaucratized to be an instrument of dynamic change except in the most superficial ways. Changing the conventional forms of address, banning the handshake in favor of the fascist salute, and encouraging the wider use of uniforms—these were only scratches on the surface of the “bourgeois” culture which Mussolini denounced. The resistance of Italian elites—in business, the army, or the bureaucracy—was formidable if largely passive. Italian society as a whole was peculiarly resistant to militarization, as Mussolini bitterly complained. The increasing intrusion of fascism into private life threatened to undermine the consensus in favor of fascism among the middle classes.

In Germany even radical national socialism could not function without the cooperation of the pre-Nazi elites in the army, the bureaucracy, industry, and the professions. In practice an “ideologically pure fascist regime” seems to have been an impossibility. However, for fascist leaders this unresolved tension at the heart of the fascist regimes was an added motive for external aggression and war. Not only would war further channel the energies of the true believers, but the dictators hoped that it would change the balance of domestic forces in their favor. Certainly in the Nazi case it did so, and during the war the “parallel institutions” of the movement, such as the SS, gained a free hand in inflicting terror, culminating in the implementation of genocide. Individual leaders ran rival administrative empires which acknowledged no legal restraints:

The fragmented Nazi administrative system left the radicals unaccountable, and able to enact their darkest impulses. The Führer, standing above and outside the state, was ready to reward initiative in the jungle of Nazi administration of the eastern occupied territories.

Both Hitler and Mussolini looked forward to the aftermath of a victorious war as the time when they could have a reckoning with the forces that had most significantly constrained their actions; in Hitler’s case, through unleashing the radical anti-Christian campaign demanded by Martin Bormann and other Nazi leaders, and, in Mussolini’s, through the admittedly less ambitious elimination of the monarchy. The rapid movement of the fascist regimes toward self-destruction should not make us forget that they believed that time was on their side. From the beginning, fascism appealed to young people against their elders. The cult of youth was one of fascism’s most successful forms of propaganda; fascist supporters were distinguished from those of other parties more by their age than their class. But the cult of youth was not just useful to the Fascists. It was a logical consequence of fascism’s martial ethic and ideology of permanent struggle. It was by the molding of the new generations through the youth movement that the creation of the “new man,” devoted to the Leader and the Movement and free from all social attachments, was to be finally achieved.

Fascism had, as Paxton puts it, a circular history: it began in war and ended in war. “Early fascist movements were rooted in an exaltation of violence sharpened by World War I, and war making proved essential to the cohesion, discipline, and explosive energy of fascist regimes.” However, fascist regimes were beset by the conflicts between the demands of military and economic power and those of social cohesion. Power required modernization; but the idea of a “natural” social order which should be preserved against the disintegrating effects of capitalism and mass society was closely related to the fascist aim of creating national unanimity, as well as to its struggle against “Marxism.” Against “nineteenth-century” bourgeois values fascism set both the mechanized and militarized twentieth century and the primordial values of the peasant at one with his native landscape. The Futurist images of Italian fascist propaganda show modern airplanes flying over harvesting peasants and Roman monuments.7


For a comparatively brief book, Paxton’s Anatomy is remarkably rich. It is concise without being schematic, and generalizes without being abstract. Perhaps, in his entirely correct determination to concentrate on Germany and Italy, the cases that really mattered, Paxton forgoes some of the advantages of comparison. He is relatively unilluminating about Austria, Romania, Cro- atia, or Hungary, where fascist movements achieved wide social support and a share in power. His general conclusion about these countries is that, with the exception of the vicious Ustashe in Croatia, authoritarian dictatorships, based in varying combinations on the army, the Church, or the monarchy, in the end suppressed genuine fascist movements—whether in Antonescu’s Romania or Horthy’s Hungary.

This is convincing but Paxton may underrate the influence that fascist movements could exert on the climate of politics. In Spain, the Falange was perhaps not wholly domesticated until 1942, when Franco removed his ambitious brother-in-law, Serrano Suner, from his position as party chief. In spite of Franco’s conservative Catholicism, in 1939 and 1940 his sympathy for national socialism and the activities of the Falange led him to quarrel violently with the leading members of the Church hierarchy in Spain, the cardinal archbishops of Toledo and Seville, notwithstanding the decisive support which they had earlier given to his nationalist “crusade.”8

Again, I agree with Paxton’s firm debunking of the practical importance of the official economic and social programs of the fascist movements. As he points out, Hitler and Mussolini were the first to declare that these had little or no permanent value. Indeed, their “radical instrumentalization of truth” was one of the most characteristic features of fascism. However, I think that in his impatience with fascism’s empty and contradictory rhetoric Paxton dismisses fascist economic policies too easily.9 That fascists believed in the primacy of politics and had only an instrumental interest in economics is undoubtedly true. But the rejection of “economic man” was itself a feature of fascist ideology that had an impact, especially after the great depression in the 1930s.

Hitler put it succinctly: economics was there to serve the Volk, not the other way around. Fascist regimes were not afraid to use political methods and propaganda to achieve economic results. They announced clear targets and made their successes highly visible through intensive propaganda, framed in the language of struggle, as in Mussolini’s “battle of wheat,” i.e., his attempt to eliminate imports by raising crop yields and extending the area of cultivation. They undertook spectacular public works, like the draining of the Pontine Marshes south of Rome or the building of the German Autobahns. It is easy to dismiss the presumptuous belief that the economy would respond to the leader’s will; but at a time when orthodox laissez-faire economics seemed to have no solutions to offer, the activism of the fascist regimes had great appeal. It is understandable that a number of the architects of the New Deal were impressed.

Certainly the aim of fascism was not welfare but power. But it was just this emphasis that makes it possible to speak of a distinctive fascist political economy, which can best be summarized as the creation of a wartime economy in peacetime. Many of fascism’s institutions were direct recreations of the ad hoc structures created to manage the economy during World War I, such as the committees or consortia run by businessmen, but sanctioned by the state, which allocated raw materials and foreign exchange. This was the reality behind the pompous facade of Mussolini’s corporate state. The “consortialist state” would be a more accurate name for it. The ideal of autarchy or economic self-sufficiency was distinctively fascist, and plainly linked to the creation of a war economy. But it was also a logical choice for fascist ideology.

Fascist “anti-capitalism” was not just pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric, or a nostalgic vision of a pre-industrial craft and rural economy. Fascism expressed a consistent preference for “national production” over international finance, and for an organized and politically mobilized economy over the free market. “Productivism and an appeal to innovation and managerial engineering,” Charles S. Maier has written, “constituted the modern message that Fascists and Nazis conveyed to the Italian and German economic elites.” In the developed fascist economy, industrialists lost much of their freedom to make decisions, although one can certainly agree with Paxton that they were not too unhappy about this, since they kept their profits and were assured of a docile labor force whose wages stayed low. Only the small businessmen who had been conspicuous among fascism’s early supporters were radically disappointed. The hierarchical organization of cartels and producers’ associations under state supervision tended to favor the larger firms.

The autarchic policies of fascism, though sometimes temporarily successful in both Germany and Italy, led in the end to insuperable difficulties. Ultimately, the closed economy could only be maintained through conquest. Nazi Germany exploited the post-slump difficulties of the Balkan countries during the 1930s with great skill to create a system of bilateral economic agreements which gave some reality to the idea of the Grossraum- wirtschaft—greater economic sphere. However, this could only provide a small part of Germany’s raw material requirements. The British historian Alan Milward has shown how, in different ways, national socialism organized the exploitation of occupied Norway and occupied France during the war. Before the war, Italy aimed to create

a smaller version of the German trading bloc…. But how could such an ambition appear meaningful or realisable in the context of an economy like that of Italy? That it was even tried shows the inherent tendency of fascist economics towards the creation of an isolated economic system and the necessity of such isolation if the precarious balance of domestic economic policy was to be maintained.

Between 1939 and 1941 Italian fascism still had fantasies of creating its own economic sphere in the Mediterranean, although in reality Italy’s place in the “new economic order” was that of a dependent partner of Germany. Even before the forced levies of workers between 1943 and 1945, Italy was supplying labor for the German economy.

Other problems are raised by Paxton’s discussion of fascism outside Europe. Here again, he effectively dispels confusion. Fascism should not be assimilated, as it has sometimes been, to the murderous third-world dictatorships inspired by an anti-imperialist ideology. One should not be deceived, Paxton points out, by the international “anti-plutocratic” rhetoric of fascism any more than by its internal “anti-capitalism.” As latecomers to the imperial banquet, the fascist leaders did not want to end empire but to redistribute it. They believed that the liberal imperialists in France and Britain, as with their domestic policies, lacked the necessary ruthlessness and vigor to govern their vast empires. They had either to make way or to shape up, becoming fascist themselves, and in either case the “young nations” could not be denied their share.


Paxton is perhaps unduly limited in his approach by his thesis that fascism can only flourish where it has a democracy to fight. This leads him to the paradoxical, though not unsupported, conclusion that the only two states outside Europe where fascism is to be feared today are the United States and Israel. But nations need only have temporarily experienced a weak form of parliamentary democracy to qualify as vulnerable to fascist movements. Certainly the degree of freedom and development in a country threatened by fascism has to be such that it permits mass mobilization, without which no true fascism can exist. A degree of secularization would also seem to be a prerequisite for the emergence of fascist movements, which may appeal to religious values but use them in the service of nationalist or racial political goals.

Paxton, for his part, is surely right to question the identification of fundamentalism with “Islamic fascism.” However, in my view this is not so much because fundamentalist movements do not arise in a democratic setting as because, as he himself writes, “fundamentalist Muslims offer little loyalty to the various secular Islamic states.” Islam is a faith, not a nation, and the international modes of operation of al-Qaeda, as we know all too well, reflect this distinction.

It may be more significant than Paxton allows that the pedigrees of the movements that most closely resemble the fascist model can be traced back to admiration for the historic dictatorships of the 1930s. The Hindu fundamentalist movement was deeply influenced by Nazi Germany in its origins, in ideology, and even in its structure. One of its founding fathers, Golwalkar, referred to the German purge of Jews from the state and the professions as an example of “national pride at its highest.” It showed, he said, the impossibility of assimilating different races and cultures into a “united whole,” and was “a good lesson for us in Hinduism to learn and profit by.” Muslims who did not accept the “glorification of the Hindu nation” should, he argued, be denied citizenship rights.10

Whatever one may say about the BJP as a party that is now fully open to parliamentary compromise, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization of Hindu “volunteers” with an originally strong paramilitary emphasis, still embodies this tradition. Since Hindu fundamentalism has no meaning outside Indian culture (though like the historic fascist movements, it attracts strong support from Indians abroad), its affinity with fascism can be much greater than that of Islamic fundamentalism.

As several Indian writers have pointed out, moreover, the circumstances of the BJP’s remarkable growth on its way to achieving government power are quite reminiscent of the situations which gave birth to the historic fascist movements: disillusionment with the parliamentary system and the ruling Congress Party; the attack on the leadership of “cosmopolitan” Anglophone intellectuals by Hindi speakers; the resentment of higher-caste students and professionals against “positive discrimination” in favor of the lower castes; the defense of national territory (Kashmir) against subversion by a foreign state with which the “internal enemy” can be identified.

For the moment, fortunately, Indian democracy seems too strong and, above all, too diverse, to allow a fascist movement to exercise national power without ceasing to be fascist. At the regional level, the conclusions might be less reassuring.

In the Middle East, perhaps because Italy and Germany were seen as natural and influential allies against Britain and France, the dominant imperial powers, sympathy with historic fascism seems to have been particularly widespread. Nor can one put this down exclusively to the influence of European anti-Semitism on Arab Muslims; one can find an interest in the fascist model among both the Christian Lebanese Phalange and the Israeli extreme right. Jabotinsky, the founding father of the Revisionists, certainly admired Mussolini and was interested in the fascist model of corporatism and compulsory labor arbitration; but he stopped short of identifying with fascism. However, a large faction of his followers were not so restrained; bizarrely enough, their enthusiasm for the fascist model was so great that initially some of their leaders found excuses even for Hitler.11

A more sinister long-term significance can be found in the ideological affiliations of the Baath Party of Syria and Iraq. Its founding father, Michel Aflaq, echoed fascist denunciations of “materialism” and soulless democracy.12 Although the Iraqi Baath took power by a military coup, its leaders competed with rival movements to mobilize the masses. The two-front battle which the Baath fought against communism and movements based on the Shia majority is somewhat reminiscent of the situation in which the historic fascist movements found themselves. The Baath party-state was made possible by the partly secular nature of Iraqi society and by the growth of an urban middle class, financed by oil revenues. There seem to be few reasons not to call Saddam Hussein’s regime “fascist.” Before the war of 1991 at least, it also certainly deserved to be called totalitarian; but in a culture where Islam and tribal ties were still both of primary importance, Saddam’s murderous regime obviously differed in many respects from those of Hitler or Mussolini. Still it is one of the chief merits of Paxton’s approach that he insists that fascist regimes will always take on a distinctive local color—more so than communist or other types of regime—because of their loosely formulated and particularist ideology.13

Hunting after instances of fascist revivals or attributing fascist characteristics to right-wing movements which go by another name can be a fruitless and paranoid exercise. The recent growth in movements of the radical right in Europe is more alarming as an index of impatience with conventional party politics and of urban degradation and anti-immigrant feeling than really dangerous, except in particular localities. Robert Paxton’s book should help us to be sane and flexible, but also vigilant, in recognizing threats to democracy.

This Issue

October 21, 2004