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September 18, 2007

Fascist? Moi? Lincoln Allison on Giovanni Gentile's Origins and Doctrine of Fascism

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Origins and Doctrine of Fascism, with selections from other works
by Giovanni Gentile
translated, edited and annotated by A. James Gregor
Transaction Publishers, fourth printing, 2007
Paperback, 19.95

Origins and Doctrine of Fascism
first published 1928

Lincoln Allison - Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick - re-reads one of the founding tracts of Fascism, Giovanni Gentile's Origins and Doctrine of Fascism, and wonders what licenses the utter nonsense of throwing the epithet "fascist" at a libertarian hedonist like himself.

I've often been called a Fascist. I would modestly offer some perfectly sensible opinion on the university campuses of the 1960s and 1970s and girls would coo, "Ooh, you're such a Fascist". I would reply loftily, "So you've read Gentile's La Dottrina del Fascismo, have you?"

Actually, La Dottrina is nominally by Mussolini. Origini e Dottrina del Fascismo is by Gentile as is the earlier Que Cosa e il Fascismo? Not that anybody ever pointed this out since even educated people in England know absolutely nothing about Fascism (as opposed to Nazism). I didn't mind being called a Fascist; it seemed to carry considerably more erotic charge than, "Ooh, you're such a Tory!" Which was what mattered at the time.

The obvious and superficial reason why I am not a Fascist is that I am not an Italian. Re-reading the Origini is a reminder that Fascism as conceived by its inventors was entirely an Italian solution to Italian problems and was chiefly concerned with the nature and identity of Italy. Its inventors are sometimes referred to as Gentile-Mussolini since Il Duce was happy to put his name to writings which were by Gentile and the latter, for his part, saw Mussolini as the individual embodiment of the transcending collective will of which he (Gentile) was a leading and enthusiastic component (p. 32):

That Leader advances, secure, surrounded in an aura of myth, almost a person chosen by the Deity, tireless and infallible, an instrument employed by Providence to create a new civilization.
The origins of Fascism on this account lie in the frustrated Italian aspiration to greatness. This aspiration has been enhanced by two events.

The first is the Risorgimento, though of the triumvirate of founding fathers it is always and only Giuseppe Mazzini, the loser in the struggle to define united Italy, who is revered. The second is Italy's victory in the Great War, which Gentile describes in the most sentimental terms (p. 16):

[The half million men killed in the war] sought to kindle in the hearts of Italians, and in Italian history, the glory of a victory consecrated by the sacrifice. Among them were those magnificent men who had been mutilated, who had seen death up close and who, more than any other survivors, felt possessed of the right conferred on them by those many, many thousands, who had made the supreme sacrifice, to watch and judge the living. They, the mutilated and the dead, awaited that Italy for which they had been called upon to sacrifice and for which they had given their limbs and lives. They were Mazzinians, in effect . . .
The problem is that in the return to democracy their sacrifice has been betrayed by the Liberals, socialists, internationalists and backsliders generally who are symbolised by the figure of Giovanni Giolitti, five times Prime Minister of Italy.

There is a third historical phenomenon which must be considered, something which arouses the most profound ambivalence for it has a superficial attraction which can mask its underlying meaning as a source of degradation. It is, of course, the Renaissance (p. 44):
In the Renaissance there is much light, yes, and there is much in it with which Italians may share national pride. But there is much darkness. For the Renaissance is also the age of individualism, that through the splendid visions of poetry and art brought the Italian nation to the indifference, scepticism and distracted cynicism of those who have nothing to defend . . . The Italians of the period had nothing to defend because they did not believe in anything beyond the free and pleasurable play of their own creative fantasy. From thence came the frivolity of a pattern of behaviour both decadent and corrupt.
There are, thus, two versions of Italy. The first is hedonistic and individualistic, cynical about big ideas and self-sacrifice, strong on local tradition and family loyalty, obsessed with superficial beauty and style . . . Yes, I know that's the Italy that English people have adored for five centuries, but it's not Gentile's Italy, which is a place of iron will and battlefield sacrifice. He resents that Italy is seen as a nation of museum curators, ice cream manufacturers and fashion designers. He does not go so far as Filippo Marinetti in calling for the burning of every canvas in Italy and the dumping at sea of every sculpture, but at times he sounds just like the author of the Futurist Manifesto.

Gentile was a serious and well regarded philosopher - his Opere run to nearly thirty volumes - and his nationalism is not merely a political programme but also an ontology and an ethical philosophy. That is to say his conception of what a person is implies that their membership of the collective, the nation, is a higher reality than their individual characteristics and desires. And the nation, to exist properly, must be embodied by a state (p. 31):
The human being, who in the profundity of his will, is the will of the State with its synthesis of the two terms of authority and liberty - each acting on the other to determine its development - is the human being who, through that will, slowly solves moral and religious problems.
There could be no more perfect example of Berlin's category of a "positive" concept of liberty and no more complete rejection of the idea of liberty as mere absence of restraint to the achievement of one's contingent desires (p. 31):
The merit of Fascism is that it courageously and vigorously opposed itself to the prejudices of contemporary liberalism - to affirm that the liberty proposed by liberalism serves neither the people nor the individual. Moreover, since the corporative State tends to realize, in the most coherent and substantial manner, the unity and comprehensiveness of authority and liberty through a system of representation more genuine and more in correspondence with reality, the new State is more liberal than the old.
There's no pretence that having your profound will liberated by Fascism is going to be any fun (p. 57):
Thus is revealed that which truly can be said to be the defining trait of Fascism - to take life seriously. Life is labour, effort, sacrifice and hard work - it is a life which we well know that there is no pleasure. There is no time for pleasure. Before us there is always the ideal to be realized, an ideal that does not allow us rest.
This is pretty clear philosophically, though the premises are difficult to accept. In passing, I submit that no set of beliefs could be less Fascist than my own libertine-Utilitarian views.

But there are important complications and compromises in Fascism of a kind not brooked by Nazis or Communists. The desired "totalitarian" relationship between state, society and individual has important pragmatic limits. One of these is the question of monarchy. The Fascists amalgamated with the Italian Nationalists. In principle, says Gentile, the two are opposites since the Nationalists are inspired by the past and the Fascists by the future. But in practice they want the same thing - the greatness of Italy. However, the monarchy is a sticking point for the Nationalists and so Gentile declares that the House of Savoy is an essential component part of Italy (as is Dalmatia!). Il Duce, originally a republican and revolutionary, seems now to be more of a follower than a leader in the unity of his will with that of the populace.

This in turn generates a good deal of political sophistry. Since the Fascists have achieved office by political compromise rather than by revolution they are not fully able to define legitimate conduct on their own terms and Gentile has to admit the illegality (though, of course, necessity) of the activities of the Fascist "squadrons" which were a rival to the proper agents of government in the decade leading up to 1928. In that year, when this was written, the Fascist Grand Council, with its corporatist structure, finally replaced the last vestiges of Italian parliamentary democracy.

There is also the question of compromise with the Roman Catholic Church. Gentile's own views on religion seem rather slippery: he argued (elsewhere) that God was a human construction, but no less real for that. Like a psycho-somatic disease, you might say. He declares that (p. 31-2):

The Italian Fascist State - for reasons already given - one with the mass of Italians, is either not religious, or it is Roman Catholic. It cannot be irreligious, because the absolute value and authority it confers on itself would be incomprehensible without a relationship to a divine Absolute.
But, since I regard myself as an irreligious Anglican, it would behove me to tread lightly in this area. Par of the practical application of this doctrine was, of course, the Lateran Treaty of 1929 which gave us the Vatican in its present form.

I don't think there is the slightest doubt that Fascism, as defined here, is a purely Italian phenomenon. It is entirely different from Nazism: Gentile is not in the least concerned with the racial identity of Italians (just as well, you might say!) nor does he ever mention the Jews. The Nazi preoccupations with "purity" and "nature" are strictly Northern European in their cultural nature and are entirely absent here. The Nazis were, if nothing else, very keen on conservation (witness the Reichsnaturschutzgesetz of 1935) and Hitler and Mussolini quarrelled over the destruction of forests in what one of them called the Sud Tyrol and the other the Alto Adige.

So - can there be any justification for the generic use of the word "fascist" in other contexts? If anywhere, it would apply to Spain and Orwell, in writing about fighting for the Republicans, always refers to his enemies as "the fascists". But Hemingway, the other notable writer in English about fighting on the Republican side, expresses a constant awareness of the diversity of his enemy. They consist, in fact, of several strains of monarchists, conservative republicans and clerical authoritarians as well as a minority of "Falangists". And of many who simply thought that, given the appalling condition of the republic, "something had to be done". (Here I am quoting the only successful leader of a coup d'etat I ever had in my political theory seminars.)

Frankly, I think the generic use of the word "fascist" is just a rhetorical nonsense and (as usual) I blame the French Revolution, specifically for giving us the idea of political positions being "right" and "left" wing. I note that when people have said, usually in a jocular fashion, that I am "to the right of X" the part of X has been variously played by Genghis Khan, Louis XIV, Adolph Hitler and Milton Friedman - among others. Who have nothing in common whatsoever except that they are not part of a collectivist-socialist project. So "right" only means "not left" where it's not even remotely clear what "left" means. Which licenses the utter nonsense of calling a libertarian hedonist like myself a "fascist".

Finally, I think I know where you can find the Italy of Machiavelli, Mazzini, Marinetti and Gentile. An Italy which is strong-willed and successful, where the individual is subordinated to the national collective, where Italy is ruthless and leads the world, where local loyalties and the style-fetish do not obstruct the drive to world supremacy. You find it on the football field. And, thank goodness, only on the football field.

Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


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I don't know how right it is, but I came across this letter:

"How 'all the talents' led straight to fascism ".


Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 25, 2007 08:24 AM
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