The Bourgeois Origins of Fascist Repression: On Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism

Douglas W.

The term “fascism” conjures up images of jackbooted thugs, swastikas, and a perverse love of violence. Politicians constantly denounce opposition policies as fascist or totalitarian. Fascism is a word often uttered but little understood. Robert Paxton’s recent book, The Anatomy of Fascism,1 puts the term back in historical context.

Before going any further, it is necessary to ask if another book on fascism is really needed. After all, fascism has been the subject of such a wide array of books, articles, and analyses that one can get easily lost, overwhelmed, and dulled even. Yet the science of history can only progress through fresh inquiry and debate, which is exactly what Paxton provides. Paxton is known for engaging and thought-provoking scholarship, beginning with his 1972 study of Vichy France. Here he argued that the Vichy regime had domestic or organic roots, that it was not forced against its will into collaboration with the German Nazis. Paxton’s book was groundbreaking as well as controversial upon its release, especially in France.

His present book has not produced the same controversy but rather has been hailed as authoritative, from many sundry quarters. The New York Times described the book as “so thorough and in the end, so convincing that it may well become the most authoritative,” while Terry Eagleton called it a “lucid, engagingly readable study.” Foreign Affairs said the book will be authoritative “for a long time to come.”2

When commentators across the political spectrum praise a book on a particularly contentious subject, it is necessary to ask why. For one, Paxton’s work is not overly long, is well-argued and easy to read, and contains an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary works on fascism. Above all, Paxton traces the historical origins of fascism and offers a good working definition of it:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood 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 (218).

In order to reach this definition, Paxton charts the ideological, political, and historical roots of fascism.

To begin with, Paxton argues, fascism is a rejection of the Western European Enlightenment. As Mussolini himself put it, “Fascism denies that the majority, through the mere fact of being a majority, can rule human societies... [Fascism] affirms the irremediable, fruitful and beneficent inequality of men, who can not be leveled by… universal suffrage.”3 The first fascists rejected the Enlightenment principles of rationality and equality, in particular its democratic theory in support of universal suffrage, and singled out for attack the Enlightenment tradition’s self-avowed successors: all the secular democratic and revolutionary socialist political parties, from Latin Europe to Russia.

As Paxton notes, “The major intellectual development at the end of the 19th century was the discovery of the reality and power of the subconscious in human thought and the irrational in human action” (34). To the interwar fascists, human beings were inherently irrational, and moreover industrialization had deepened human irrationality by bringing the rise of a working class and the increased class conflict accompanying it. In their view, nations such as France, Italy and Germany were being torn apart by rival classes. What was once safe and secure -- so-called “traditional life” -- had been uprooted by the industrial revolution. The “harmony” of traditional society was breaking down and thus needed to be remade. Paxton writes: “Fear of the collapse of community solidarity intensified in Europe toward the end of the 19th century, under the impact of urban sprawl, industrial conflict and immigration” (35). If society was breaking down, there had to be a cause and a solution to it. There had to be someone or something responsible for the spread of Enlightenment ideas and their destruction of the traditional community. Fascists found this culprit in the “Other”: “discovery [in the 19th-century] of the role of bacteria in contagion… made it possible to imagine whole new categories of internal enemy” (36).

This internal enemy corrupting the body politic was identified as those breaking down national unity, such as secular intellectuals. They were bringing in new ideas associated with the Enlightenment. Here industrial capitalists were also included, as they were also found guilty of breaking up traditional society. But of course Marxists and other socialists were seen as by far the most dangerous, fomenting class conflict and thus threatening national unity on a massive scale. Others such as Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies were also seen as outsiders threatening traditional society.

Accordingly, fascists proposed a new corporate state purged of all outside contagion. Corporatism was a way to create a new national harmony. Historian William Ebenstein points out that the fascists based their corporatist ideology on the notion that “It is the state which, transcending the brief limit of individual lives, represents the immanent conscience of the nation… It is the state which educates citizens for civic virtue, makes them conscious of their mission, calls them to unity; harmonizes their interests in justice.”4 Corporatism is where individual rights do not exist, where everyone is absorbed into the state under which the conflicting interests of capital and labor are harmonized. The fascist state will subdue and expel all outsiders in order to create a pure state -- that is, a state without class struggle, in which society will be cleansed through a march backward to national greatness. This ideal of national destiny meant that the nation should expand and gain a vast empire.5

The fascist movement was not alone in rejecting the Enlightenment. Paxton shows that bourgeois reactionaries also “wanted order, calm, and the inherited hierarchies of wealth and birth” (22). Here fascists and certain bourgeois sectors found common cause, each lamenting the collapse of traditional life caused by rapid industrialization. The emergent industrial working class became by necessity locked in class struggle with the bourgeoisie for social supremacy, disturbing the old tranquility of rural life and its supposed natural stability. Revisionist (or reactionary) socialists and syndicalists associated with Georges Sorel also moved in the direction of defending the ancient order of “natural” private property, and a cult of violence.6 “Fascists often cursed faceless cities and materialist secularism, and exalted an agrarian utopia free from the rootlessness, conflict and immorality in urban life” (12). But, as Paxton observes, fascism contained an obvious contradiction: on the one hand modernity was condemned, while on the other fascists once in power were great modernizers. Paxton says that fascists wanted a different type of modernity -- “a technically advanced society in which modernity’s strains and divisions had been smothered by fascism’s powers of integration and control” (13).

Revolutionary Marxists organized against the fascist movement. They attacked the reactionary petty-bourgeois rhetoric of turning the state into an “impartial” agent, and ruthlessly critiqued the notion that the state could ever stand above class struggle. Lenin wrote: “The state is an organ of class domination, an organ of oppression of one class by another; its aim is the creation of ‘order’ which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the collisions between classes.”7 In modern capitalist society one class controls the state, one class is at the helm: the bourgeoisie. In order for the state to serve the laboring classes, it is necessary for the bourgeois class to be overthrown. Paradoxically, Paxton actually sees the state as the fascists did: as a neutral institution and not the result of the radical development of two clashing classes in capitalist society.

Paxton touches on the state in capitalist society, describing the liberal state before 1914 as one with individual freedoms and competing political parties, with all economic matters left to the market (77f). He defines liberals in the classical bourgeois sense: those who “interpreted liberty as individual personal freedom, preferring limited constitutional government and a laissez-faire economy” (22). Conservatives, by contrast, supported hierarchy, authority and discipline, and therefore were opposed to the liberals’ embrace of liberty, equality and fraternity. Yet despite these seemingly irreconcilable ideological differences, both elements of the capitalist elite (liberals and conservatives) would soon make their peace with fascism and reap huge profits from their collaboration with it.

So far Paxton’s exposition has located the root of the fascist movement at the moment of World War I. Following the outbreak of the war, fascism crystallized into a mass movement, and by the time World War I ended in 1918 Western societies were profoundly different. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had created the world’s first socialist state. Crucially, the new Soviet Union provided material support to socialist revolutionaries across Europe as well as in the decolonizing world. It was in Germany during the high period of communist organizing (1918-23) and in the Italian factory occupations of 1920 that revolutionary Marxist political parties achieved their greatest victories.8

In direct response to the Bolshevik triumph were the first fascist parties formed, in Germany and Italy as well as in other European countries. The original cadre of fascist organizers was anything but respectable bourgeois: many had been in the trenches and fought hard during the war. Moreover, the first fascists praised the producers of the nation (i.e. the working class) and used openly anti-capitalist rhetoric to rally workers to their cause (78). Yet, as Paxton points out, “Even at its most radical… fascists’ anti-capitalist rhetoric was selective. While they denounced international finance… they respected the property of national producers, who were to form the social base of the reinvigorated nation” (58). Socialists, from reformists to revolutionaries, have always emphasized that, despite their vehement rhetoric, fascists were never anti-capitalist -- a crucial point underscored in Paxton’s research.

In Germany, the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP or Nazi Party) was formed in Bavaria, and, amid the chaos and strife of 1919-23, it rapidly expanded. But Hitler’s attempted putsch caused the movement to lose steam; it appeared to recede with the onset of temporary stability after 1923. However, the Wall Street crash of 1929 unleashed in Germany a massive storm:

The ruling class was itself divided, with the industrial and financial employers opposed to the landed property owners, the manufacturing industries opposed to heavy industry, and the middle employers (wanting to negotiate a compromise with the working class) opposed to the large employers (anxious to avenge themselves against the workers’ movement and to regain absolute power).9

Before this great capitalist crisis, the bourgeoisies of Western Europe were not willing to consider a fascist alternative. Paxton writes that “most German businessmen hedged their bets, contributing to all the non-socialist electoral formations that showed any signs of success at keeping the Marxists out of power” (66). But after the crash, as the Nazi vote significantly increased and stormtroopers were murdering in the streets communist organizers, striking workers and their supporters, they changed their approach (67).

With the entire capitalist class in crisis and facing mass socialist movements from below, business leaders began to cooperate with the Nazis in return for the bloody repression of the Marxist left and the trade union movement.10 Fascists offered the imperiled capitalist class a mass base of politically organized petty bourgeois, which had been all the time seeking destruction of the emergent proletarian socialist organizations (103). The Nazis offered the bourgeois class a way out of the economic and political crisis -- a return to “law and order.” In exchange, the Nazis had to give up their anti-capitalist rhetoric and purge any leftists in their ranks.

In terms of Italy, Mussolini’s fascists got their start by attacking those they perceived as internal enemies of Italy (58). These enemies consisted in the main of socialists and trade unionists. Fascists demanded control of the ports of Trieste and Fiume, which had been awarded to Yugoslavia in the Versailles Treaty. Mussolini had his followers attack socialists and their followers in the Po Valley. The Blackshirts were often used by landlords to murder small farmers and socialist organizers in the countryside. The fascist squadrons offered jobs and land to the small farmers, a tactic aimed at turning them away from socialist trade unions. But early supporters of fascism dropped out as soon as Mussolini began defending the landlords and watering down the initial populist radicalism of the fascist program. In short, Mussolini retreated from any agenda calling for a social allocation of established wealth. In return, his party received funding from landlords and sectors of big business. When Mussolini took power, it was not through a putsch but by means of a carefully planned bluff. The King refused to disperse the Blackshirts and handed the government over to Mussolini (88-90).

In contrast to the Nazis, who were the largest German political party in 1932, Mussolini’s fascist party was a minority in the Italian parliament, and when Mussolini came to power his base was much smaller than Hitler’s. Thus he was compelled to share power, for a relatively long period, with different sectors of the elite, which also meant tolerating socialists and communists in parliament, at least for a time. Moreover, Mussolini’s fascists had to compete for power with the Catholic Church and its associated satellite organizations, which they had been unable to completely subdue, and also to deal with the disappointment among his radical followers at his making alliances with traditional conservatives. Paxton shows that, once in power, Mussolini put in place a corporate economy in which the corporations “were run by businessmen, while the workers’ sections were set apart from the factory floor” (137). Workers were forced to obey their bourgeois bosses, and any forms of organized resistance to bourgeois rule, such as labor unions and political parties, were summarily abolished. Although Mussolini was able to subject the proletariat to the rule of capital, his regime was never absolute, since he had to recognize a certain level of autonomy of the Catholic Church. Thus his party was divided.

While Mussolini was unable to completely purge his party of radical socialist tendencies, by 1934 Hitler had succeeded entirely in the task. The Röhm SA was wiped out and the Nazi regime was consolidated. Unlike Mussolini, who had opposition parties in parliament for several years, Hitler in 1933 banned the communists and socialists.11 Paxton writes: “Soon, demoralized by the defeat of their unions and parties, workers were atomized, deprived of their usual places of sociability, and afraid to confide in anyone” (137). The Nazis created their own state-controlled union, which legally subordinated the working classes to the class interests of the reconstituted bourgeois regime. Instead of nationalizing the means of production on behalf of workers, Hitler delivered millions of slave-laborers into the hands of the bourgeoisie.12 And in order to keep the proletariat under the jackboot, the Nazis had to remake the state: “Over time the Nazi prerogative state steadily encroached upon the normative state and contaminated its work, so that even within it the perception of national emergency allowed the regime to override individual rights and due process” (121f). This was a change in the form of the state, but not in its social content. The state was still an instrument of the bourgeoisie for the purpose of socially controlling the proletariat.

The bourgeoisie had to tolerate certain changes in Germany in order to maintain their rule. As Ralph Miliband put it, “business under Fascism had to submit to a far greater degree of state intervention and control than it liked, and there was no doubt a good deal about the state’s economic and social policies which it found disagreeable.”13 But Nazi economic policy was very favorable to bourgeois interests. In terms of rearmament, for instance, Paxton says that “economic controls damaged smaller companies and those not involved in rearmament” (146). In fact, capitalist enterprises enjoyed substantial material gains from their temporary loss of political power, for “the resurgence and the policy of state control relied upon and reinforced the powerful industrial and banking groups within German capitalism... [and] the process of cartel formation within German capitalism was strengthened still further.”14 Of course, to achieve the restoration of German capitalism the masses of workers had to be pacified, which required a vast secret police apparatus and the extermination of anyone considered a threat to the new “national harmony.”

Here Paxton avoids an important subject: imperialism. Imperialism is not merely the taking of colonies. According to Lenin, imperialism is the concentration of capital in monopolies, the merging of industrial and finance capital, the export of capital, and the monopolies’ worldwide expansion.15 The development of imperialism occurred largely in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Italy and Germany were among the emerging imperialist powers, attempting to plant their flags across the globe. In both countries, particularly Germany, the development of large monopolies was extensive, but because both powers were latecomers to empire building, they were able to gain only small and marginal colonies. In Lenin’s terms, World War I was about the capitalist re-division of the world among the imperialist powers, both old and new.

When the dust settled in 1918, Germany had lost its overseas empire and was suffering from the humiliation of total defeat by the old empires. Nazism in power was a way for Germany to gain control of foreign territory denied to it by England and France and also the raw materials to serve the needs of German monopoly capital, in particular finance capital. Lenin argued that the concentration of production and the monopoly capital arising from it, such as the merging of banking with industry, “is the history of the rise of finance capital.”16 The concentration of capital leads inevitably to the need on the part of that capital to secure foreign markets and, simultaneously, to close them to competition. According to Rudolf Hilferding, author of the classic Finanzkapital, the agenda of finance capital is threefold: (1) to establish the largest possible economic territory, (2) to close this territory to foreign competition by a wall of protective tariffs, and consequently (3) to reserve it as an area of exploitation for natural monopolistic combinations.17 Germany needed to gain the raw materials and territories required for its industrial expansion, and the only way to accomplish this was by imperialist war. Thus Germany geared up for war in order to gain strategic advantage over the older empires. Crucially, in this project the fascist ideal of a chosen nation ruling the world coincided perfectly with the interests of big business.

In my view, although Paxton rightly foregrounds the imperialist expansionism inherent in fascist ideology, his explanation makes more sense when understood in the light of Lenin’s theory of imperialism. In contrast to Germany, Italy was not economically advanced. Like Germany, Italy was a latecomer to the new imperialism of the 1880s. Italy gained little from the late capitalist colonization drive: Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia; it was frustrated in Ethiopia in 1896. In the 1920s, Gramsci argued persuasively that Italy’s weak form of capitalism meant that “its possibilities for development are limited, both because of its geographical situation and because of the lack of raw materials. It therefore does not succeed in absorbing the majority of the Italian population.”18 Southern Italy was an impoverished backwater ruled by powerful landlords, while the north was home to the industrial capitalist class. The result was that Italy still needed to develop its internal economy before any major export of capital could be attempted. Here is another instance where big business and fascism coincided.

Although Mussolini often boasted of creating a new Roman empire, he actually launched few foreign adventures, most of which were failures. Instead, foreign wars were meant to promote the ideology of the fascist regime (164-67). In fact, Mussolini’s involvement in World War II proved to be his downfall. As soon as the allies landed in Sicily, a coup overthrew the dictator. Mussolini escaped and sought to create a “true” fascist republic in the Salo region, but this effort was cut short as he was caught and executed by partisans in 1945. In addition to an armed guerrilla movement led by Italian communists, Mussolini consistently faced rivals in the state bureaucracy, in his own party, and within the military, which he was never able to subdue.

Paxton’s scholarship proves that German and Italian fascism arose historically from the same configuration of social forces: a discrediting of the liberal bourgeois elite, the rise of the socialist left, and a global economic crisis in which the capitalist classes lost control of the proletariat. The differences between the two regimes are nevertheless striking. Italian fascism was able to subordinate workers to the bourgeoisie but incapable of remaking the state in its own image. The Italian fascists had to compromise with traditional elites and the Church. When war came, major sectors of the elite turned against the Duce. The Nazis, by contrast, were able not only to crush the organized proletariat, but also to repress nearly all opposition.

Having discussed the historical origin of fascist ideology and the fascist parties’ rise to state power, we can clearly see that fascism differs fundamentally from revolutionary proletarian socialism. Yet in the major scholarship following World War II, liberal Cold War theorists and historians attempted to link communism with fascism. Two prominent postwar theorists, Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, saw similarities in Nazism and Soviet communism. According to them, both “were governed by single parties employing official ideology, terroristic police control, and a monopoly of power over all means of communication, armed force, and economic organization” (211). Although the totalitarianism thesis was challenged in the 1960s, it soon came back into vogue at the beginning of the second Cold War.

What, then, is Paxton’s view of the communism-is-fascism thesis? He argues that “Nazi and communist mechanisms of control had many similarities…. In both regimes, law was subordinated to ‘higher’ imperatives of race or class” (212). However, Paxton takes issue with the Cold War thesis by declaring that the Hitler and Stalin regimes differed fundamentally in their social dynamics and their declared aims. In the USSR, “Stalin ruled a civil society that had been radically simplified by the Bolshevik Revolution, and thus he did not have to concern himself with autonomous concentrations of inherited social and economic power” (212). In other words, the bourgeoisie and its state apparatus had in Russia been completely abolished by the Bolsheviks. Declared aims also differed fundamentally. Stalin proclaimed universal equality, while Hitler sought supremacy for the Aryan “master race.” Last, and most important, the two regimes differed in the use of state violence. Paxton says that “Stalin killed in grossly arbitrary fashion whomever his mind decided were class ‘enemies’ (a condition one can change), in a way that struck mostly at adult males.… Hitler by contrast killed ‘race enemies,’ an irremediable condition that condemns even newborns” (213).

What of fascism in the United States? Here Paxton offers some interesting observations from American history, as well as recent events, that show that U.S. society has been hardly immune, has in fact produced fascists that the Europeans later emulated. In discussing the precursors of European fascism, Paxton takes note of the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded after the Civil War and in response to Reconstruction. The old slave system had been overthrown and now radical socialists were often in power. The Klan rose to defend the old southern lifestyle, and showed many features of fascism. It “constituted an alternate civic authority,” based on the belief that violence and intimidation were “justified in the cause of the group’s destiny” (49). Today’s “white backlash” against Affirmative Action and the virulent anti-immigrant militias, such as the Minutemen, can in Paxton’s terms be considered fascist movements. As he notes, “the United States has never been exempt from fascism. Indeed antidemocratic and xenophobic movements have flourished in America” (201). The book briefly touches on movements such as the Know-Nothings, the Silver Shirts, and the American Nazi Party of George Lincoln Rockwell. In Paxton’s view, “Much more dangerous are movements that employ authentic American themes that resembles fascism functionally.… Today a ‘politics of resentment’ rooted in authentic American piety and nativism sometimes leads to violence against some of the very same internal enemies once targeted by the Nazis, such as homosexuals and defenders of abortion rights” (201f).

The Minutemen Project was founded in 2005 to protect “our borders” from “illegal immigrants” coming from Mexico. The Minutemen fear an eroding of national culture by outsiders, and call for the protection of American workers from immigrants who are “taking their jobs.” The Minutemen display many signs of European fascism dressed up in American garb.19 The Christian Right also engages in defense of a “pure” American culture, arguing that America’s Christian heritage is being victimized by an “onslaught of secularists.”

Paxton believes that fascism could come to power in America only in the event of an economic catastrophe in which massive socioeconomic polarization offers fringe groups quick access to state power. An American fascism would rely on reactionary nationalist symbols such as the flag and the cross. This fascism would promote “forcible national regeneration, unification and purification. Its targets would be the First Amendment, separation of Church and State, [and] unassimilated minorities” (202).

Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism has been well received, and for good reason. The work does an admirable job of tracing fascism’s origins, and enables us to gain a clearer picture of what fascism actually is. Fascism is not simply what we dislike or find politically and morally reprehensible. Fascism is, in the final analysis, a reactionary response to the catastrophe of capitalism. When seen in this light a much deeper understanding of it is possible, and, through this understanding, better strategies for fighting it.


1. Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Vintage Books, 2005). References hereafter are given in parentheses.

2. New York Times, 2 May 2004; New Statesman, 3 May 2004; Phillip Gordon, review in Foreign Affairs, March-April 2004.

3. Quoted in William Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1965), 617.

4. William Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers, 620.

5 Fascists believed in “the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle” (Paxton, 41).

6. Paxton touches on this in only a few places (38, 48f). Readers interested in Sorel’s influence on fascism should consult Zeev Sternhell, Neither Left Nor Right: Fascist Ideology in France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), and Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

7. Quoted in Ebenstein, 713.

8. On Germany in this period, see Paxton, 27. The Spartacist League led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebneckht made a bid for power in Berlin in 1919. Later that year would see the creation of the Munich Soviet and the Red Army of the Ruhr. For a brief description of Italy’s two revolutionary years of 1919-20 and the creation of the Communist Party (PCI), see Paxton, 105. He says that the PCI had no idea how to go about making a revolution, but to reach this judgment he has to ignore the political work of Antonio Gramsci.

9. Michel Beaud, A History of Capitalism: 1500-2000 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 202.

10. The Nazi “left” was centered around SA leader Ernst Rohm, who believed in a second “social revolution” after the Nazis gained power. These “leftists” were murdered on June 30, 1934 in what became known as the “Night of Long Knives” (Paxton, 108). In 1932 Hitler revised his economic program, arguing for the elimination of unions and for managerial freedom. Hitler also advocated that business be given the task of directing the economy. See in particular Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 89. For the “benefits” of fascism provided to the proletariat, see Beaud, 206. He discusses the Nazi Party “strength through joy” program, which provided leisure to the working classes. He shows that unemployment among workers also dropped to low levels by 1939, in contrast to nearly one-third unemployment less than a decade before.

11. This was after the infamous Reichstag Fire in February 1933, which Hitler blamed on the German Communist Party, and which he used to declare a state of emergency.

12. Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, 91.

13. Ibid. In this work, Miliband analyzes closely the relations between business and fascism, arguing that state intervention in the economy does not mean socialism, that in fact state intervention can serve as a stabilization measure to blunt a capitalist crisis (e.g. Keynesian reforms, the New Deal). State intervention can lead to socialism only if it supports the rule of the proletariat at the point of production.

14. V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (New York: International Publishers, 1939), 88.

15. Ibid., 47.

16. Ibid.

17. Quoted in Beaud, 157f.

18. Antonio Gramsci, The Antonio Gramsci Reader, ed. David Forgacs (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 143.

19. For an analysis of the Minutemen, see Justin Akers Chacon and Mike Davis, No One Is Illegal (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006). Part four provides a good overview of the socio-economic setting in which the Minutemen are developing.