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The Invention of Fascism
Fascism was the major political innovation of the twentieth century, and the source of much of its pain. The other major currents of modern Western political culture—conservatism, liberalism, socialism—all reached mature form between the late eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century. Fascism, however, was still unimagined as late as the 1890s. Friedrich Engels, writing a preface in 1895 for his new edition of Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, clearly believed that wider suffrage would inexorably deliver more votes to the Left. Both time and numbers, Engels was certain, were on the socialists’ side. “If it [the growing socialist vote] continues in this fashion, by the end of this [nineteenth] century we [socialists] shall conquer the major part of the middle strata of society, petty bourgeois and peasants, and grow into the decisive power in the land.” Conservatives, Engels wrote, had noticed that legality was work- ing against them. By contrast, “we [socialists], under this legality, get firm muscles and rosy cheeks and look like life eternal. There is nothing for them [the conservatives] to do but break through this legality themselves.” While Engels thus expected that the Left’s enemies would launch a preemptive attack, he could not imagine in 1895 that this might win mass approval. Dictatorship against the Left amidst popular enthusiasm—that was the unexpected combination that fascism would manage to put together one short generation later.
There were only a few glimmers of premonition. One came from an inquisitive young French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville. Although Tocqueville found much to admire on his visit to the United States in 1831, he was troubled by the majority’s power in a democracy to impose conformity by social pressure, in the absence of an independent social elite.
The kind of oppression with which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing that had preceded it in the world; our contemporaries would not find its image in their memories. I myself seek in vain an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I form of it for myself and that contains it; the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. The thing is new, therefore I must try to define it, since I can not name it.
Another premonition came at the eleventh hour from a French engineer turned social commentator, Georges Sorel. In 1908 Sorel criticized Marx for failing to notice that “a revolution accomplished in times of decadence” could “take a return to the past or even social conservation as its ideal.”
The word fascism has its root in the Italian fascio, literally a bundle or sheaf. More remotely, the word recalled the Latin fasces, an axe encased in a bundle of rods that was carried before the magistrates in Roman public processions to signify the authority and unity of the state. Before 1914, the symbolism of the Roman fasces was usually appropriated by the Left. Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, was often portrayed in the nineteenth century carrying the fasces to represent the force of Republican solidarity against her aristocratic and clerical enemies. Fasces are prominently displayed on Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theater (1664–69) at Oxford University. They appeared on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington (1922) and on the United States quarter minted in 1932.
Italian revolutionaries used the term fascio in the late nineteenth century to evoke the solidarity of committed militants. The peasants who rose against their landlords in Sicily in 1893–94 called themselves the Fasci Siciliani. When in late 1914 a group of left-wing nationalists, soon joined by the socialist outcast Benito Mussolini,sought to bring Italy into World War I on the Allied side, they chose a name designed to communicate both the fervor and the solidarity of their campaign: the Fascio Rivoluzionario d’Azione Interventista (Revolutionary League for Interventionist Action).At the end of World War I, Mussolini coined the term fascismo to describe the mood of the little band of nationalist ex-soldiers and pro-war syndicalist revolutionaries that he was gathering around himself. Even then, he had no monopoly on the word fascio, which remained in general use for activist groups of various political hues.
Officially, Fascism was born in Milan on Sunday, March 23, 1919. That morning, somewhat more than a hundred persons, including war veterans, syndicalists who had supported the war, and Futurist intellectuals, plus some reporters and the merely curious, gathered in the meeting room of the Milan Industrial and Commercial Alliance, overlooking the Piazza San Sepolcro, to “declare war against socialism . . . because it has opposed nationalism.” Now Mussolini called his movement the Fasci di Combattimento, which means, very approximately, “fraternities of combat.”
The Fascist program, issued two months later, was a curious mixture of veterans’ patriotism and radical social experiment, a kind of “national socialism.” On the national side, it called for fulfilling Italian expansionist aims in the Balkans and around the Mediterranean that had just been frustrated a few months before at the Paris Peace Conference. On the radical side, it proposed women’s suffrage and the vote at eighteen, abolition of the upper house, convocation of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution for Italy (presumably without the monarchy), the eight-hour workday, worker participation in “the technical management of industry,” the “partial expropriation of all kinds of wealth” by a heavy and progressive tax on capital, the seizure of certain Church properties, and the confiscation of 85 percent of war profits.
Mussolini’s movement was not limited to nationalism and assaults on property. It boiled with the readiness for violent action, anti-intellectualism, rejection of compromise, and contempt for established society that marked the three groups who made up the bulk of his first followers—demobilized war veterans, pro-war syndicalists, and Futurist intellectuals.
Mussolini—himself an ex-soldier who boasted of his forty wounds—hoped to make his political comeback as a veterans’ leader. A solid core of his followers came from the Arditi—select commando units hardened by front-line experience who felt entitled to rule the country they had saved.
The pro-war syndicalists had been Mussolini’s closest associates during the struggle to bring Italy into the war in May 1915. Syndicalism was the main working-class rival to parliamentary socialism in Europe before World War I. While most socialists by 1914 were organized in electoral parties that competed for parliamentary seats, syndicalists were rooted in trade unions (“syndicates”). Whereas parliamentary socialists worked for piecemeal reforms while awaiting the historical development that Marxists predicted would make capitalism obsolete, syndicalists, scornful of the compromises required by parliamentary action and of most socialists’ commitment to gradual evolution, believed they could overthrow capitalism by the force of their will. By concentrating on their ultimate revolutionary goal rather than on each trade’s petty workplace concerns, they could form “one big union” and bring down capitalism all at once in one momentous general strike. After capitalism’s collapse, workers organized within their “syndicates” would remain as the sole functioning units of production and exchange in a free collectivist society. By May 1915, while all Italian parliamentary socialists and most Italian syndicalists ada- mantly opposed Italian entry into World War I, a few ardent spirits around Mussolini concluded that warfare would drive Italy further toward social revolution than would remaining neutral. They had become “national syndicalists.”
The third component of Mussolini’s first Fascists were young antibourgeois intellectuals and aesthetes such as the Futurists. The Futurists were a loose association of artists and writers who espoused Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifestos,” the first of which had been published in Paris in 1909. Marinetti’s followers dismissed the cultural legacy of the past collected in museums and libraries and praised the liberating and vitalizing qualities of speed and violence. “A racing automobile . . . is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” They had been eager for the adventure of war in 1914, and they continued to follow Mussolini in 1919.
Another intellectual current that provided recruits for Mussolini consisted of critics of the tawdry compromises of Italian parliamentarism who dreamed of a “second Risorgimento.” The first Risorgimento, in their view, had left Italy in the hands of a narrow oligarchy whose soulless political games were inappropriate for Italian cultural prestige and Great Power ambitions. It was time to complete the “national revolution” and give Italy a “new state” capable of summoning up the energetic leadership, motivated citizenry, and united national community that Italy deserved. Many of these advocates of a “second Risorgimento” wrote for the Florentine cultural review La Voce, to which the young Mussolini subscribed and with whose editor, Giovanni Prezzolini, he corresponded. After the war, their approval gave respectability to the rising Fascist movement and spread acceptance of a radical “national revolution” among middle-class nationalists.
On April 15, 1919, soon after Fascism’s founding meeting at the Piazza San Sepolcro, a band of Mussolini’s friends including Marinetti and the chief of the Arditi, Ferruccio Vecchi, invaded the Milan offices of the socialist daily newspaper Avanti, of which Mussolini himself had been editor from 1912 to 1914. They smashed its presses and equipment. Four people were killed, including one soldier, and thirty-nine were injured. Italian Fascism thus burst into history with an act of violence against both socialism and bourgeois legality, in the name of a claimed higher national good.
Fascism received its name and took its first steps in Italy. Mussolini was no solitary adventurer, however. Similar movements were springing up in postwar Europe independently of Mussolini’s Fascism but expressing the same mixture of nationalism, anti-capitalism, voluntarism, and active violence against both bourgeois and socialist enemies. (I will deal more fully with the wide array of early fascisms in chapter 2.)
A little more than three years after the Piazza San Sepolcro meeting, Mussolini’s Fascist Party was in power in Italy. Eleven years after that, another fascist party took power in Germany. Soon Europe and even other parts of the world were resounding with aspiring dictators and marching squads who thought they were on the same path to power as Mussolini and Hitler. In another six years Hitler had plunged Europe into a war that ultimately engulfed much of the world. Before it was over, mankind had suffered not only the habitual barbarities of war, raised to unprecedented scale by technology and passion, but also an effort to extinguish by industrialized slaughter an entire people, their culture, and their very memory.
Contemplating Mussolini, ex-schoolteacher, bohemian minor novelist, and erstwhile socialist orator and editor, and Hitler, former corporal and failed art student, along with their shirted ruffians, in charge of European Great Powers, many educated and sensitive people supposed simply that “a horde of barbarians . . . have pitched their tents within the nation.” The novelist Thomas Mann noted in his diary on March 27, 1933, two months after Hitler had become German chancellor, that he had witnessed a revolution of a kind never seen before, “without underlying ideas, against ideas, against everything nobler, better, decent, against freedom, truth and justice.” The “common scum” had taken power, “accompanied by vast rejoicing on the part of the masses.”
In internal exile in Naples, the eminent liberal Italian philosopher-historian Benedetto Croce observed disdainfully that Mussolini had added a fourth type of misgovernment—“onagrocracy,” government by braying asses—to Aristotle’s famous three: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. Croce later concluded that Fascism was only a “parenthesis” in Italian history, the temporary result of moral decline magnified by the dislocations of World War I. The liberal German historian Friedrich Meinecke judged, similarly, after Hitler had brought Germany to catastrophe, that Nazism had emerged from a moral degeneration in which ignorant and shallow technicians, Machtmenschen, supported by a mass society thirsty for excitement, had triumphed over balanced and rational humanitarians, Kulturmenschen. The way out, both men thought, was to restore a society where “the best” ruled.
Other observers knew, from the beginning, that something deeper was at stake than the happenstance ascent of thugs, and something more precise than the decay of the old moral order. Marxists, fascism’s first victims, were accustomed to thinking of history as the grand unfolding of deep processes through the clash of economic systems. Even before Mussolini had fully consolidated his power, they were ready with a definition of fascism as “the instrument of the big bourgeoisie for fighting the proletariat when the legal means available to the state proved insufficient to subdue them.” In Stalin’s day, this hardened into an iron-bound formula that became communist orthodoxy for half a century: “Fascism is the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital.”28
Though many more interpretations and definitions were to be proposed over the years, even now, more than eighty years after the San Sepolcro meeting, none of them has obtained universal assent as a completely satisfactory account of a phenomenon that seemed to come from nowhere, took on multiple and varied forms, exalted hatred and violence in the name of national prowess, and yet managed to appeal to prestigious and well-educated statesmen, entrepreneurs, professionals, artists, and intellectuals. I will reconsider those many interpretations in chapter 8, after we have fuller knowledge of our subject.
Fascist movements varied so conspicuously from one national setting to another, moreover, that some even doubt that the term fascism has any meaning other than as a smear word. The epithet has been so loosely used that practically everyone who either holds or shakes authority has been someone’s fascist. Perhaps, the doubters suggest, it would be better just to scrap the term.
It is the purpose of this book to propose a fresh way of looking at fascism that may rescue the concept for meaningful use and account more fully for its attractiveness, its complex historical path, and its ultimate horror.