Robert Owen Paxton
June 15, 1932
|Alma mater||Harvard University|
|Known for||Political scientist and historian|
|Notable students||Sharon Traweek|
|Influences||James Joll and John Roberts|
Paxton was born on June 15, 1932 in Lexington, Virginia. After attending secondary school in New England, he received a B.A. from Washington and Lee University in 1954. Later, he won a Rhodes Scholarship and spent two years earning an M.A. at Merton College, Oxford, where he studied under historians including James Joll and John Roberts. He earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1963.
Paxton taught at the University of California, Berkeley and the State University of New York at Stony Brook before joining the faculty of Columbia University in 1969. He served there for the remainder of his career, retiring in 1997. He remains a professor emeritus. He has contributed more than twenty reviews to The New York Review of Books, beginning in 1978 and continuing through 2017.
Paxton is best known for his 1972 book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944. In opposition to the traditional view pioneered by Robert Aron, he argued that the Vichy government was eager to collaborate with Nazi Germany and did not practice "passive resistance" to German rule. Unlike Aron and Henri Michel, Paxton did not play down Vichy's achievements in his explanation of its domestic agenda. He argued that the reforms undertaken by the Vichy government prefigured the reforms of the 1950s and 1960s and derived from Vichy's aim to transform French society.
Upon the book's publication in French translation in 1973, Paxton became the subject of intense vitriol from French historians and commentators. During a televised debate with Paxton in 1976, the Vichy naval leader Gabriel Auphan called him a liar. However, the translation sold thousands of copies, particularly to the young generation shaped by the civil unrest of May 1968 and who were uninterested in the "cozy mythologies" of Vichy apologists.
Marc Ferro wrote that Vichy France would make the left feel uneasy by its contradiction of their belief that only the élite had betrayed France in 1940, "whereas in reality heroic resistance to the last man from Bayonne to Africa made no sense for anyone". He also noted that the Gaullists would object to Paxton's portrayal of them as "heirs of the regime they fought against" and that it would disturb all those who believed that Pétain had played a "double game" between the Axis and the Allies. Communists welcomed the book for apparently confirming their belief that Vichy had been the product of "state monopoly capitalism" and it was also applauded by Jewish groups. The reaction among Resistance groups was mixed due to Paxton's claim that there was no serious Resistance until well into 1941.
In the preface to the 1982 edition of Vichy France, Paxton disagreed with the assertion of his opponents that he had written in "easy moral superiority" from the perspective of a "victor": "In fact [it] was written in the shadow of the war in Vietnam, which sharpened my animosity against nationalist conformism of all kinds. Writing in the late 1960s, what concerned me was not the comparison with defeated France but the confident swagger of the Germans in the summer of 1940".
Today, the book is considered a historical classic and one of the best studies on France in the Vichy era. It was published at a time when French historians and filmmakers were also exploring history under the Vichy regime, as in Marcel Ophüls' influential two-part documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969).
Paxton has focused his work on exploring models and definition of fascism.
In his 1998 paper "The Five Stages of Fascism," he suggests that fascism cannot be defined solely by its ideology, since fascism is a complex political phenomenon rather than a relatively coherent body of doctrine like communism or socialism. Instead, he focuses on fascism's political context and functional development. The article identifies five paradigmatic stages of a fascist movement, although he notes that only Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy progressed through all five:
In his 2004 book The Anatomy of Fascism, Paxton refines his five-stage model and puts forward the following definition for fascism:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood 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.