Thursday, October 18, 2018

Griffin and Paxton: The Best We Can Do?

The 2016 US presidential election brought into sharp relief the state of fascist studies in the early 21st century. Coming to the fore were British scholars Roger Griffin and Robert O. Paxton. The former's 1991 The Nature of Fascism sets forth a definition of fascism based on ideology. The latter's 2004 The Anatomy of Fascism seeks to jettison ideology, which fascists lie about anyway, and opts for an approach highlighting the actions of fascist movements. Thus, Griffin was able to diagnose Trump as a fascist while Paxton was not. I find both of these definitions of fascism wanting for their own reasons, and I see emerging a new direction built upon their work.

The Griffin Thesis

Griffin's work came during a period of great nihilism toward the possibility of a definition of fascism that was large enough to encompass its diversity but precise enough to omit movements which may have shared its features. Definitions of fascism going into this period (about two decades starting in the 1970's) were premised on the mid-sixties work of Ernst Nolte, who offered a six-point definition, as well as a more cryptic definition: "The resistance to transcendence." His original six features of fascism were:

  • Anti-Liberalism
  • Anti-Marxism
  • Anti-Conservatism
  • The Führerprinzip (Leadership principle)
  • The party army
  • Aim of totalitarianism
(Note, I take this from Payne's 1980 Fascism: Comparison and Definition who in turn takes it from Nolte's 1968 Die Krise des liberalen Systems und die faschistischen Bewegungen. Payne himself builds upon Nolte's definition to arrive at a 23-point (!) definition of fascism which he admits may need to be somewhat forgiving if actually applied. I make this note to emphasize that this definition does not appear in Nolte's 1965 Three Faces of Fascism, which is the more popular title in English, where the "resistance to transcendence" definition appears. As far as I'm aware, Die Krise hasn't been translated into English.)

Such definitions soon became unweildy bordering on the absurd, with some scholars proposing score cards by which to rate a movement or individual or regime's fascistness. By the mid-80's scholars had all but abandoned definitions of fascism, with scholars preferring thick descriptions of a self-contained subject, usually a party or regime, without regard for extraneous homogenizing definitions. What Griffin offered to fascist studies was parsimony. His simple definition of generic fascism as consisting of "palingenetic ultranationalism" gave a consistent criteria that could be used across time and geographies that would allow the simple definition of fascism of any tendency based on two simple criteria: is it palingenetic? (aiming at rebirth), is it ultranationalist? (aiming beyond liberal institutions for pure national chauvinism).

The perhaps minor shortcomings of Griffins approach have already been identified. It technically does not assign the fascist label to the vicious Croatian Ustaša because there was no historical Croatian nation at the time of its activity. More pressingly, it is also doubtful whether Griffin's definition would apply to what is perhaps the most popular form of fascism in the Global North, white nationalism. White nationalism proposes a federation of white Euro-American ethnostates which has no historic precedent. It would require a lot of massaging to make Griffin's definition fit the white nationalist phenomenon.

The Paxton Thesis

As previously mentioned, Paxton centers his work around the thesis that fascism grows in particular ways as it occupies what Juan Linz calls "political space," a concept Paxton cites numerous times throughout his book. As such, he sets out to move beyond approaches seeking to draw commonalities in what fascists thought to what they did. In doing so, Paxton takes a harsh tone with the existing literature, particularly that of Griffin and Zeev Sternhell, whose 1989 The Birth of Fascist Ideology argued that fascism's defining feature was merging anti-Enlightenment conservatism with anti-Marxist socialism. Most reviews of Paxton's book chastise him for the tone he takes with the broad literature.

For Paxton, fascism passes through five stages which he first outlined in a 1998 article "The Five Stages of Fascism." They are:

  1. Creation
  2. Rooting
  3. Obtaining power
  4. Exercising power
  5. Radicalization/entropy
Even if this definition accurately described fascism (it doesn't), one has to wonder about its utility. As it turns out, Paxton himself doesn't find very much use in it, citing Action Français, Arrow Cross, and the Legion of the Archangel Michael as examples of fascist formations despite the former not making it past stage one and the latter two coming to power under very different circumstances as highlighted by Rebecca Ann Haynes in her review of the book. More pressingly to me, as an anti-fascist, is whether such a definition would be useful at all. Even if it had descriptive merit, it would still not help us identify fascism except at the point where it is at its most dangerous.

The Ross Synthesis

In 2017, geographer Alexander Reid Ross released his Against the Fascist Creep with AK Press - a curious choice for a clearly academic text. What made Ross's book unique, besides its sweeping history of fascism in the Global North over the span of nearly a century and a half, is its synthesis of Griffin and Paxton into a sort of working scientific lens. Ross used Griffin as a guide to identify fascist formations while using Paxton as a means of charting their progress towards gaining power.

Ross's approach, which draws from his training in human geography, resembles the journalistic literature on fascism more than the academic literature. Books like Angelo Del Boca and Mario Giovana's 1965 Fascism Today or Shane Burley's book of the same title come to mind here. Ross goes to great pains to demonstrate the transhistorical connection between various formations of fascists globally right up to the present day. This method has gotten him into a little trouble, particularly with egoists and tankies, for embellishing the connection of institutions and individuals to fascist formations, since he works with no quantum of connectedness to fascism.

To remedy this, I believe the way forward is with data. Social scientists studying fascism need to come up with ways to quantify its influence so they can conclusively affirm or reject their hypotheses about its growth and spread. With the advent of social media and the data for sale from it, I expect we will see much more research in this direction (including, hopefully, my own).