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Fascism has traditionally been characterized as irrational and anti-intellectual, finding expression exclusively as a cluster of myths, emotions, instincts, and hatreds. This intellectual history of Italian Fascism--the product of four decades of work by one of the leading experts on the subject in the English-speaking world--provides an alternative account. A. James Gregor argues that Italian Fascism may have been a flawed system of belief, but it was neither more nor less irrational than other revolutionary ...
Fascism has traditionally been characterized as irrational and anti-intellectual, finding expression exclusively as a cluster of myths, emotions, instincts, and hatreds. This intellectual history of Italian Fascism--the product of four decades of work by one of the leading experts on the subject in the English-speaking world--provides an alternative account. A. James Gregor argues that Italian Fascism may have been a flawed system of belief, but it was neither more nor less irrational than other revolutionary ideologies of the twentieth century. Gregor makes this case by presenting for the first time a chronological account of the major intellectual figures of Italian Fascism, tracing how the movement's ideas evolved in response to social and political developments inside and outside of Italy.
Gregor follows Fascist thought from its beginnings in socialist ideology about the time of the First World War--when Mussolini himself was a leader of revolutionary socialism--through its evolution into a separate body of thought and to its destruction in the Second World War. Along the way, Gregor offers extended accounts of some of Italian Fascism's major thinkers, including Sergio Panunzio and Ugo Spirito, Alfredo Rocco (Mussolini's Minister of Justice), and Julius Evola, a bizarre and sinister figure who has inspired much contemporary "neofascism."
Gregor's account reveals the flaws and tensions that dogged Fascist thought from the beginning, but shows that if we want to come to grips with one of the most important political movements of the twentieth century, we nevertheless need to understand that Fascism had serious intellectual as well as visceral roots.
"The book succeeds admirably in convincing the reader that, far from being a doctrine based on irrationalism and violence, fascism's foundations are very sophisticated intellectual constructs."—Paul Petzschmann, Political Theory
FOR ABOUT three-quarters of a century, almost all academic discussion concerning Mussolini's Fascism has tended to imagine the movement it animated, and the regime it informed, as entirely lacking a reasoned rationale. It early became commonplace to attribute to Fascism a unique irrationality, accompanied by a ready recourse to violence. Fascism, it has been argued, was full of emotion, but entirely empty of cognitive content. Fascists were, and are, understood to have renounced all rational discourse, in order to "glorify the non-rational." Their ideology, movement, revolution, and behavior were made distinctive by the appeal to two, and only two, "absolutes": "violence and war."
Before the advent of the Second World War, some analysts had gone so far as to insist that "fascism" was the product of "orgasm anxiety," a sexual dysfunction that found release only in "mystic intoxication," homicidal hostility, and the complete suppression of rational thought. Marxists and fellow travelers argued that since Fascism was "the violent attempt of decaying capitalism to defeat the proletarian revolution and forcibly arrest the growing contradictions of its whole development," itcould not support itself with a sustained rationale. Its conceptions were "empty and hollow," finding expession in "deceitful terminology" consciously designed to conceal the "realities of class-rule and class-exploitation."
For many, "Fascism [was] essentially a political weapon adopted by the ruling class ... that takes root in the minds of millions ... [appealing] to certain uncritical and infantile impulses which, in a people debarred from a rational, healthy existence ... tend to dominate their mental lives." Fascism, in general, constituted a "flight from reason," advancing "the claims of mysticism and intuition in opposition ... to reason ... and glorifying the irrational."
While there were some serious treatments of Fascist thought that made their appearance between the two world wars, all objectivity dissolved in the alembic of the Second. By the time of the Second World War, Fascism had simply merged into Hitler's National Socialism-and discussants spoke of "nazi-fascism" as though the two were indissolubly one.
Generic fascism was the enemy of "Western ideals," of the "Enlightenment tradition," as well as of the sociopolitical and philosophical aspirations of the French Revolution. It was the unregenerate agent of evil, driven by an irrational mysticism, and committed to mayhem and gross inhumanity. By the end of the 1990s, there were those who could insist that "fascism shuffles together every myth and lie that the rotten history of capitalism has ever produced like a pack of greasy cards and then deals them out." As with Angelo Tasca, such a notion is advanced in support of a contention that the only use Fascism, like Mussolini, had "of ideas was to dispense with ideas."
By the end of the twentieth century, there was a conviction that a generic fascism existed that included a curious collection of radically diverse political phenomena that ranged from General Augusto Pinochet's coup in Chile, the French Front National, Jorg Haider's Austrian Freedom Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Russian Liberal Democratic Party, Italy's Alleanza nazionale, to the terroristic lunacy of Timothy McVeigh and Muslim fundamentalists. "Fascism" had become, largely, a meaningless term of abuse.
What remained constant over seven decades was the incorrigible conviction that "paradigmatic Fascism," the Fascism of Mussolini, was "based on myths, intuition, instinct ... and the irrational, rather than on a closely argued system based on a detailed analysis of historical, political and economic trends." Given such a characterization, Italian Fascism has been considered the anti-intellectual source for all the "right wing" political movements of the past century. In fact, some commentators have held that all contemporary right-wing movements find their origin in a single "Ur-fascism"-an identifiable fons et origo malorum. While Fascism, in and of itself, apparently possessed no identifiable ideological substance-being little more than a collage of contradictory ideas -it has been argued that whatever ideas are to be found, they are shared by every right-wing political impulse. Given that Fascism had no content, it seems that what is shared is the tendency to irrationality and violence. It is not clear how helpful such a classificatory strategy might be in any effort to undertake a responsible history of ideas.
Generic fascism, it would seem, shares a common, if irrational, substance with the entire political right wing. That substance, devoid of meaning, finds its origin in the nonthought of Mussolini's apologists. It is argued that the nonideology of fascism is linearly related to all the "extremist" thought of contemporary Europe and North America. We are told that if we would discuss contemporary extremist thought, we must "denotatively define" the range of our inquiry-and definition be made in terms of its "ideology"-and, finally, that "the extreme right's ideology is provided by fascism."
Fascist studies, it would seem, as an intellectual, historic, and social science discipline, has collapsed into a clinical study of an omnibus, psychopathic "right-wing extremism." "By extreme right" is meant "that political/ideological space where fascism is the key reference"-with fascism being little more than a "pathological form of social and political energy." As a consequence, the study of Italian Fascism is treated as the antechamber to the scrutiny of contemporary right-wing political psycho-pathology-to include any and all groups, movements or regimes that have been identified by anyone as "fascist," any time during the twentieth, and now the twenty-first, centuries-as well as any that might somehow be associated with one or another form of irrationalism and criminal violence. Under such circumstances, fascism studies, as a discipline, expanded into a circle of inquiries that now includes soccer thugs, skinhead fanatics, graveyard vandals, anti-Semites, racists, and terrorists of all and whatever sort. Some have suggested that "in the West," one might profitably study Ronald Reagan Republicans as well.
The "extreme right" is essentially and irremediably irrational and criminal-because Fascism was uniquely irrational and criminal. The connection advanced is an empirical one. To be convincing, it would have to be shown that Fascists in general, and Fascist intellectuals in particular, were possessed of nothing that might pass as right reason or moral purpose-and that somehow the contemporary "right-wing extremists" share that unfortunate disability.
Given the prevailing clutch of opinions, one might easily anticipate the outcome. With the absence of any discriminating list of traits-other than irrationality and bestiality-one might well have predicted that it would be impossible for research to distinguish fascists from simple lunatics and ordinary footpads. Today, in common usage, the word "fascist" does little more than "conjure up visions of nihilistic violence, war and Götterdämmerung," together with a "world of ... uniforms and discipline, of bondage and sadomasochism."
The term hardly has any cognitive reference at all. By and large, the term "fascism" has only pejorative uses. It is employed to disparage and defame.
None of that should puzzle laypersons. It is a heritage of usage made commonplace during the Second World War. In the course of that war, the term "fascist" was employed to refer indiscriminately to both Mussolini's Fascism and Hitler's National Socialism-irrespective of the fact that serious National Socialist theoreticians rarely, if ever, referred to their belief system, their movement, or their regime as "fascist." Similarly, Fascist intellectuals never identified their ideology or their political system as "National Socialist." The notion of a generic fascism that encompassed Italian Fascism, German National Socialism, Spanish Falangism, Portugese National Syndicalism, the Hungarian Arrow Cross, and the Romanian Legion of the Archangel Michael, among an indeterminate number of others, was largely an artifact of the war. Rarely, if ever, was a serious comparative study undertaken that might provide the grounds for identification. As a result, membership of all or any of those political movements in the class of "fascisms" has been a matter of contention ever since.
In our own time, any individual or group of individuals that might in some sense, or some measure, be identified as "extremely irrational," "antidemocratic," "racist," or "nationalist," is identified as "neofascist," "parafascist," "quasi-fascist," or "cryptofascist." "Fascism" has devolved into a conceptual term whose grasp far exceeds its reach-almost entirely devoid of any ability to offer empirical distinctions that might serve any cognitive purpose. Entirely devoid of meaning, the term is used arbitrarily, generally with little empirical reference to any historical, social, or political reality.
Because the notion that Fascism might have had ideological convictions, or a rational program for its revolution and the regime it fostered and sustained, is dismissed, explanations for its rise and success are sought in individual and collective psychopathology or "historic circumstances." A variety of these efforts have been made. None have been notably successful. One of the more common has been to associate fascism with "an ideology generated by modern industrial capitalism."
It is not at all clear what that can be taken to mean. Fascism would appear to have an ideology-however internally contradictory and meaningless. It is confidently asserted that fascist ideology, however meaningless, is apparently the specific product of "modern industrial capitalism." The putative causal association is difficult to interpret. It could not possibly mean that Italian Fascism arose in an environment of modern industrial capitalism. Informed Marxists have long since recognized that Fascism arose and prevailed on the Italian peninsula in what was, without question, a transitional and only marginalized industrial environment. There was very little that was modern about the Italian economy at the time of the First World War. In 1924, Antonio Gramsci-usually identified as among the more astute of analysts-spoke of the political successes of Fascism as following, in part, from the fact that "capitalism [in Italy] was only weakly developed."
Perhaps the reference to "modern capitalism" can be taken to mean any capitalism at all. Since capitalism is a modern product, the insistence that fascist ideology is the product of modern capitalism may simply mean that the ideology of fascism appears only in a capitalist environment. If that is what is intended, it is not very helpful. Some forms of "fascism" (however conceived) have evidently appeared in noncapitalist environments.
More than that, for some commentators, any ideology, doctrine, or intellectual rationale for fascism would have to be, on its face, irrational and contradictory. For Marxist intellectuals, any individual or movement that failed to anticipate the imminent collapse of capitalism and the advent of the proletarian revolution was deemed irrational, incapable of the most elementary rationality. For a Marxist like Gramsci, any ideology other than Marxism could only be contradictory and irrational. Italian Fascism, as a non-Marxism, simply could not have a coherent ideology. Any intellectuals who sought to provide its vindication could only be bereft of reason and morality.
Whether the product of senescent, established, or emergent capitalism, Fascism was apparently not capable of formulating a consistent belief system-because, for Gramsci (as was the case for all Marxists), Fascism itself was a "contradictory" movement representing a middle-class attempt to avoid "proletarianization" in a capitalist environment. Marx had always contended that industrial capitalism would inevitably generate concentrations of enterprise at the cost of small and medium industry. As a predictable consequence, more and more members of the "middle class" would be jettisoned into the proletariat.
According to Gramsci, however weakly developed capitalism may have been in post-World War One Italy, Mussolini was nonetheless "fatally driven to assist in [its] historic development." In Gramsci's judgment, it seemed transparent that Fascism could not represent the efforts of the middle class to resist proletarianization and at the same time assist capitalism in its historic development. Fascism could not do both without "contradiction."
Why such a course should inescapeably prove "contradictory" is explicable only if one assumes that the development of capitalism must necessarily "proletarianize" the middle classes. One could not pursue a course of industrialization without sacrificing the middle classes. Marx, after all, had insisted that industrialization would inevitably reduce the class inventory of modern society to but two: the proletariat and grand capital. As capitalist plant became increasingly large, complex, and costly, the larger, more complex, and costly would swallow the smaller, simpler, and less capital intensive. Fewer and fewer middle-class capitalists would survive the winnowing. Over time and with greater and greater frequency, members of the lesser bourgeoisie would become proletarians. According to Marx, the petite bourgeoisie was a class destined for extinction in a social environment analogous to the biological struggle for survival-in which the "weaker" were destined for extinction as the "fittest" survive.
According to the thesis, Fascism was driven to support capitalist industrial development-even though that development would destroy the middle classes, the very recruitment base of the movement. Given those convictions, Marxists could only imagine that Fascist normative and doctrinal appeals would have to be "contradictory"-devoid of real significance. That conviction could only be predicated on the "scientific" truth that as industrial capitalism advances, the petite bourgeoisie would necessarily suffer gradual extinction. And yet, petite bourgeois elements persist in all, including the most advanced, capitalist societies. Those elements may assume different functions, and take on different properties, but they survive and prosper, no matter what the stage of industrialization. The notion that one could not consistently represent the middle classes and at the same time advocate rapid industrial development seems to be empirically disconfirmed.
It would seem that, in an informal discipline like intellectual history, rather than accepting the postulate that a given "theory of history" is true, thereby rendering it "necessary" that Fascist ideology must be contradictory and empty of substance, one might first apply oneself to a detailed inspection of that ideology, to judge it on its own merit. The alternative would appear to be nothing other than a dedicated search for self-serving "contradictions." As will be suggested, it is not at all self-evident that Mussolini's pursuit of industrialization inescapably involved contradictions-or that such contradictions surfaced in Fascist doctrine.
All that notwithstanding, some contemporary analysts insist that Mussolini's Fascism, like all fascism, was and is a product of industrial capitalism, whether emergent, mature, or senescent. As such, according to such appraisals, it will always be irrational and contradictory because it casts itself athwart the tide of history-the imminent and inevitable anticapitalist proletarian revolution. Again, in order to defend such notions, one would have to defend all its associated, but interred, premises. One would have to assume that history had one and only one course-culminating in the "ineluctable" revolution of the proletariat. There is little objective evidence to support any of that.
Excerpted from Mussolini's Intellectuals by A. James Gregor Excerpted by permission.
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