Fascism, more than any other idea from the 20th century, carries a negative connotation that has few rivals. Pundits and activists of the right and left are quick to smear their opponents as little-Hitlers in waiting, hell-bent on crushing dissent and democracy under their authoritarian hooves. Americans may not agree on much, but they seem to have developed a consensus that fascism is absolutely undesirable.
While fascism has been used as a pejorative slur routinely since the end of WWII, it has taken on a timely importance with the rise of right wing parties in Europe and some of the forces constructed around Donald Trump. By this point, innumerable essays exist deliberating whether Trump is a fascist or not (I wrote my own some months ago, and likely needs revision with recent variables to consider), but few have addressed genuine fascist texts as their analytical foundation. While more revealing works exist to understand the philosophical roots of fascism as an ideology and movement1 there is no greater primer to the idea than Benito Mussolini’s pamphlet The Doctrine of Fascism.
What’s striking about the work is how contrarian it is. Many on the right have flirted with totalitarian positions, but the stated goal of fascism present in Mussolini’s text provides a formidable rejection of conservatism and traditionalism. That is not to say the document is left wing in nature. While fascism developed in disaffected socialist circles after the First World War, Mussolini is clear to position his new movement as one divorced from liberal and socialist traditions working adjacently. He writes:
Reformism, revolutionism, centrism, the very echo of that terminology is dead, while in the great river of Fascism one can trace currents which had their source in Sorel, Peguy, Lagardelle of the Movement Socialists, and in the cohort of Italian syndicalist who from 1904 to 1914 brought a new note into the Italian socialist environment…
When the war ended in 1919 Socialism, as a doctrine, was already dead; it continued to exist only as a grudge, especially in Italy where its only chance lay in inciting to reprisals against the men who had willed the war and who were to be made to pay for it.
Mussolini envisioned fascism as the culmination of all previous political philosophies: a complete ideology. It is telling that the entirety of the text related to tradition is as such:
In the Fascist conception of history, man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process to which he contributes as a member of the family, the social group, the nation, and in function of history to which all nations bring their contribution. Hence the great value of tradition in records, in language, in customs, in the rules of social life. Outside history man is a nonentity.
Little to nothing is said of specific ethnic or culture traditions that provide a foundation for this new movement, only vague allusions to hierarchy and the primacy of the nation. The word “conserve” is only featured once in the text, and even then, followed by the term “renewal.”
The last line in the section on tradition regarding history is imperative. Dictators and strongmen have existed since the beginnings of society, and outside observers of fascism almost always fixate on its totalitarian underpinnings. Casual analysis of the movement often leaves out its roots in modernity. Much like socialism, capitalism, and other ideologies to come out of the enlightenment, fascism sees itself as the culmination of history; the movement that finally captures the highest values and ideas of all preceding eras. It crafts a romantic vision of the past in which to inspire its members, but it is undoubtedly forward thinking in its metaphysical and societal objectives. As Mussolini argues:
The Fascist negation of socialism, democracy, liberalism, should not, however, be interpreted as implying a desire to drive the world backwards to positions occupied prior to 1789, a year commonly referred to as that which opened the demo-liberal century. History does not travel backwards.
The State is Everything
A large swath of the text is a rhetorical condemnation of liberalism, Marxism and individualism. To Mussolini, only the state has the power to change man; all other social elements are but subordinate pieces of this entity. He writes:
A nation, as expressed in the State, is a living, ethical entity only in so far as it is active. Inactivity is death. Therefore the State is not only Authority which governs and confers legal form and spiritual value on individual wills, but it is also Power which makes its will felt and respected beyond its own frontiers, thus affording practical proof of the universal character of the decisions necessary to ensure its development. This implies organization and expansion, potential if not actual. Thus the State equates itself to the will of man, whose development cannot he checked by obstacles and which, by achieving self-expression, demonstrates its infinity.
I can imagine no vision more conflicting to the collective American understanding of the state. For many citizens (liberal and conservative alike), the state is but a necessary entity to hold back what Thomas Hobbes referred to as the “State of Nature.” To Hobbes, individuals must embrace the state, with all its individual restrictions, to avoid the sheer violence and chaos of a world without authority and order. Americans have generally embraced John Locke’s belief that the state exists to protect ones life, liberty, and property. The center left and right may argue over what defines “life” and “liberty,” but even the most steadfast acolytes of FDR would stand in stern hostility to Mussolini’s conception of the state.
That Mussolini refers to the state as “a living, ethical entity only is so far as it is active” provides additional insight into the philosophical vision of fascism. The state, and thus the people that constitute it, requires constant transformation and alteration to be organic and viable. The state is thus enabled to continuously shape its people to meet its ideological aims, or as Mussolini put it, the state “creates the nation, conferring volition and therefore real life on a people made aware of their moral unity.”
Revolutionary, Even Now
The fact that fascism offers such a radically dissimilar vision for the world makes it revolutionary and subversive, even after states purporting to implement its principles were roundly crushed 70 years ago.
Activists on the right lament that followers of radical left-wing groups are given a pass in polite society for supporting odious ideas related to communism and left-wing totalitarian states and movements. Living in the Bay Area, no one bats an eye at a communist organization appearing at an event or protest. They are viewed as an oddity and political relic by most, but great effort is not made to stomp these groups out of existence. Activists proclaiming an eminent Maoist inspired revolution produce more eye rolling from their liberal counterparts than revulsion, but not because the larger left finds agreement with their totalitarian brethren. Marxist-Leninism, as an ideology, is but a ghost of itself. There is no feasible scenario that sees a rise of these fringe groups to taking the reigns of political power in America and the west.
Fascism is a different story. While it is highly unlikely to see overt Nazis make social progress outside their small internet realms, the animating principles laid out by Mussolini may very well see another upsurge. Fascism, like its 20th century counterparts, is a relic of its time. Yet, the animating principles laid out in this text still have vibrancy in our society today. Liberal constitutionalism, regardless of its longevity in America, is always fragile. It accepts that the state is the culmination of the wishes of all its citizens and limits the authority of any government to implement change, even when popular with a majority of its citizens. Activists on the alt-right, while disavowing fascism as a remnant of a bygone era, are now actively advancing core foundations of Mussolini’s work and ethic. While their numbers may be minute, they are budding and beginning to have influence on the social and political fabric of the nation. Liberals and conservatives are fools to think defeating Trump at the ballot box will push these forces back into their box, nor should the political mainstream underestimate the power and influence a dedicated vanguard may have over society at large.
When the pamphlet was published in 1932, Mussolini argued, “Never before have the peoples thirsted for authority, direction, order, as they do now.” Perhaps he was right; liberal democracy seemed in ruins and parties of the totalitarian left and right were surging throughout the world. With communism and fascism dead as political movements, the question for us is this: does the desire for order and authority still beat in the hearts of the masses, and might Mussolini’s ghost rise again?Notes:
- I recommend Georges Sorel’s “Reflections on Violence” and the essays of Enrico Corradini as interesting proto-fascist texts. [↩]