Paxton was born in Lexington, Virginia in 1932. 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 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. Upon its publication in French translation in 1973, he 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 uninterested in the "cosy mythologies" of Vichy apologists. Today, the book is considered a historical classic and one of the best studies on France in the Vichy era.
Paxton retired from Columbia University in 1997, but remains a emeritus professor. In April 2009, the French government awarded him the Legion d'honneur. He has contributed more than twenty reviews to The New York Review of Books, beginning in 1978 and continuing through 2013.
Much of Paxton's work has focused on 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 have progressed through all five:
- Intellectual exploration, where disillusionment with popular democracy manifests itself in discussions of lost national vigor
- Rooting, where a fascist movement, aided by political deadlock and polarization, becomes a player on the national stage
- Arrival to power, where conservatives seeking to control rising leftist opposition invite the movement to share power
- Exercise of power, where the movement and its charismatic leader control the state in balance with state institutions such as the police and traditional elites such as the clergy and business magnates.
- Radicalization or entropy, where the state either becomes increasingly radical, as did Nazi Germany, or slips into traditional authoritarian rule, as did Fascist Italy.
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.
- Parades and Politics at Vichy (1966), Princeton University Press, ISBN 9780691051420.
- Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 (1972), Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN 9780394473604.
- Vichy France and the Jews (1981), with Michael Marrus.
- "The Nazis and the Jews in Occupied Western Europe, 1940-1944" (1982), with Michael Marrus, The Journal of Modern History vol. 54, no. 4.
- French Peasant Fascism: Henry Dorgere's Greenshirts and the Crises of French Agriculture, 1929-1939 (1997).
- "The Five Stages of Fascism" (1998), The Journal of Modern History vol. 70, no. 1.
- The Anatomy of Fascism (2004).
- "Vichy vs. the Nazis" (2008), The New York Review of Books.
- Evans, Martin (September 2001). "Robert Paxton: The Outsider". History Today 51 (9). Retrieved 25 September 2012.
- Hansen, Andrew (April 10, 2009). "The French-American Foundation Weekly Brief". French Today. Retrieved 18 September 2013.
- "Robert O. Paxton". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 22 January 2014.
- Robert Paxton (1998). "The Five Stages of Fascism". The Journal of Modern History 70 (1). JSTOR 2991418.
- Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, Knopf, 2004, p. 218.
- "Robert O. Paxton - Mellon Professor Emeritus of Social Sciences". Columbia University. Retrieved 25 September 2012.