Fascism is sometimes considered an enigma, due to its heterogeneity and mutability, but it is really rather simple. In its "movement" form (as opposed to its state form), its essence is just populist conservatism, or mass commitment to a cause that, whatever its followers might think of it, is “objectively” anti-egalitarian, anti-liberal, anti-democratic. If one wants to limit the concept to its classical European examples, one has to invoke ultra-nationalism, faith in a Leader, exaltation of violence, disgust with modern “decadence,” and other features; the more general definition just given, however—not a full definition but only a description of the core—accounts for the intuition that, say, popular enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan was reminiscent of fascism, or that the Ku Klux Klan was somewhat fascist, or that groups like the contemporary Tea Party or Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority are vaguely fascist. Whatever the rhetoric associated with them, these phenomena have been essentially anti-egalitarian. In his book The Anatomy of Fascism (2004), Robert Paxton, too, pays at least as much attention to classical fascists’ acts as to their words. Specifically, he charts a middle path between the extreme “intellectualism” of Zeev Sternhell (who is interested mostly in the intellectual progenitors of fascism) and the extreme Marxism of someone like Daniel Guérin, who considers fascism mostly from the perspective of its usefulness to big business. Paxton also sensibly rejects the Sternhellian contention that the “essence” of fascism is genuinely revolutionary and has as much intellectual content and coherence as liberalism and socialism. Rather, it is more like a “mood”—popular anti-democracy—than a fixed ideology with a set program. --In short, The Anatomy of Fascism is a lucid, thought-provoking work.
For example, the survey from pages 77 to 81 of common explanations of fascism’s “taking root” when and where it did is tantalizing (partly due to its brevity). The virus originated in the “crisis of the liberal order,” and it grew most virulent in countries of weak or failed liberalism, such as Germany and Italy (as opposed to France and Britain). But what caused this crisis? It was most severe in countries that had industrialized late and so suffered from more social tensions than Britain, for example. “For one thing, the pace [of industrialization] was much faster for the latecomers; for another, labor was by then much more powerfully organized” (p. 79). Marxists have accordingly argued that in many nations the economic system could “no longer function without reinforced discipline of the working class and/or a forceful conquest of external resources and markets” (ibid.). Whether or not this is true, Paxton is surely right that fascism presented conservative elites in late-industrializing countries with new methods of social control, methods harnessing the power of public-relations techniques that had become essential in an age of mass politics.
According to another interpretation that similarly focuses on the pitfalls of transition to an industrial modern society, certain countries had a social structure that was too heterogeneous, “divided between pre-industrial groups that had not yet disappeared—artisans, great landowners, rentiers, and peasants—alongside new industrial managerial and working classes. Where the pre-industrial middle class was particularly powerful, according to this reading of the crisis of the liberal state, it could block peaceful settlement of industrial issues, and could provide manpower to fascism in order to save the privileges and prestige of the old social order” (ibid.). In the context of this interpretation, one is reminded that support from the peasantry was key to fascists’ success, since they reached out to peasants and farmers who often considered their economic interests opposed to those of industrial workers and felt ignored or even harmed by workers’ parties (with their demand for cheap food, etc.). Societies that became fascist were thus stuck between the legacies of feudalism and a not-fully-realized industrial capitalism.
One might also consider fascism an early phase in the mature statist period of European history. There is a logic to the sequence: as big business and industry increased in size and power from the late nineteenth century on, the state had to grow in order to regulate and stabilize a society that was ever more plagued with social tensions. As the state’s power grew, nationalist ideologies would naturally spread, especially because they legitimized power-structures and diverted attention from class conflict. They helped keep the masses under control. If in times of social or economic crisis certain states became deadlocked or ceased to function properly due to extreme polarization between radicals and conservatives (or between workers, peasants, landowners, petty bourgeois, big capitalists, and the “new” middle class), ultra-nationalism would probably conquer unprecedented political terrain, since it has the advantage of not being a priori committed to any particular set of social and economic doctrines but rather allowing anyone to fill it in with whatever social content he desires. It could mean one thing to landowners, another to peasants, another to big industrialists, and another to the petty bourgeois, such that it would attract more widespread support than, say, Communism, an ideology catering only to one class. Whether an ultra-nationalist party came to power in a given country would depend on circumstances and personalities, but there would be strong pressures for it to do so if the existing government was no longer functioning. In any case, the continent-wide environment of vicious nationalism would eventually impel many governments, especially the weaker or non-functioning ones, towards nationalist extremism, i.e., some version of fascism. Said differently, in order to solve the social crisis, a strong state would have to come about sooner or later. And in an atmosphere of ultra-nationalism, such a state might very well have affinities with a fascist regime.
We can continue the thought-experiment: what would happen next? There are many possibilities, but the one certainty is that a continent could not remain forever boiling with nationalism and having a few fascist or semi-fascist states. The situation would have to end eventually, either in a whimper, with the ultra-nationalism and fascism just dying out somehow, or, more probably, in a bang, with a cataclysmic war. In either case, the result would be a more benign, (relatively) stable form of statism. States would find, would have to find (in order to prevent societal destruction), a way to keep the extreme social and economic regulation while shedding the virulent nationalism. This, of course, is what happened after World War II. A new phase of European statism began, a more “technocratic,” less “ideological” (nationalist) phase.
Anyway, the fact that these speculations have been inspired by Paxton’s book shows its fruitfulness. It is perhaps a bit too cursory in parts, such as in its survey of the many interpretations that have been offered of fascism’s origins, but that is probably an unavoidable fault in a work that aims to be a brief and readable overview of an immense subject.