Paxton’s analysis of fascism was a pretty amazing read. He takes as his central problem the difficulty of precisely defining “fascism,” given the great diversity among the movements bearing that label. Anatomy of Fascism (AoF) is then an extended essay aimed at understanding what fascism is by understanding the diverse ways in which ultra-right wing, popular nationalist movements crystallize, (very) occasionally gain power, and then either moderate (Mussolini) or radicalize (Nazi Germany) while in power.
Paxton’s focus on variability is the key to the present-day value in AoF. If fascism could possibly gain power in a modern democratic state, we should not expect it to look precisely like fascisms of the past, or to resemble the fantasies of marginalized “neo-legacy” fascist groups of the current day. Neither America nor any European country is likely to be overtaken by today’s neo-Nazi fringe, simply because the intervening 60 years have created a strong antipathy to the outward symbols and modalities of 1930’s fascist movements. Paxton’s achievement is to articulate the underlying elements that fascisms of the past have held in common, as a way of understanding the potential pathways that future fascisms — here or elsewhere — could take, and under what circumstances.
If you read one book on fascism this year, I know the temptation will be to read Philip Roth’s Plot Against America, but I’d recommend Paxton instead. It’s that good. More on this subject in the near future, and probably over at Progressive Commons.