Understanding Fascism

I’ve recently finished reading Italian Fascisms:  From Pareto to Gentile, an anthology edited by Adrian Lyttelton that was recommended to me by Drieu a long time ago.  After a few half-hearted efforts to understand fascism as a distinctive ideology, things are finally starting to click for me.  The quality of the collections is uneven–as was the actual quality of fascist writers:  lots of vitalist idiots, but four contributors that were really first rate:  Vilfredo Pareto, Alfredo Rocco, Giovanni Gentile, and Benito Mussolini.  Pareto was a sociologist who emphasized the importance of elites; what are presented as revolutions of the masses are always just the replacement of one elite by the another (usually of the class immediately behind the ruling one).  The Marxists would agree, except that Pareto is more consistent, applying the rule to socialist takeovers as well.  Rocco does a good job of explaining fascist corporatism and presenting the fascist view of history from the fall of Rome to the present as the story of the State asserting itself against rival forces and, by subjugating them, putting an end to those awful Middle Ages.  Mostly, though, I would like to focus on Mussolini and Gentile, who try to directly present the key fascist doctrines.

First, it’s important to understand what the fascists mean when they call their doctrine “totalitarian” (and they do call it that).  It does mean that no power, no organization, no social force of any kind is to exist outside of the state.  Now, when we hear that, we imagine the State just doing the minimalist sorts of things a liberal state does, and everything else wiped out–a social wasteland.  The fascist would say that this is a complete misunderstanding.  None of the peoples’ collective activities–their arts, commerce, festivities, scholarship, and religion–is to be lost.  The state is to make itself the guardian of them all, only directing them to the common good.  “The Fascist State…takes over all the forms of the moral and intellectual life of man.”  The fascist state does this not by obliterating lower levels of organization (as it accuses the socialist of doing), but by incorporating them into itself, providing a context where they can truly come into their own.  For example, private ownership of factories is to continue, but they are to be subordinated to the state via corporations, governing bodies where both owners and workers are represented.  One might well ask what good private ownership is without private control.  The fascist would probably reply by pointing to the high degree of subsidiary control:  most decisions would be made at the lowest levels by the owner/manager/worker organizations.

The fascist understanding of the state is the key to their system.  As Mussolini put it

The State, as conceived by Fascism and as it acts, is a spiritual and moral fact because it makes concrete the political, juridicial, economic organization of the nation and such an organization is, in its origin and in its development, a manifestation of the spirit.  The State is the guarantor of internal and external security, but it is also the guardian and the transmitter of the spirit of the people as it has been elaborated through the centuries in language, custom, faith.  The State is not only present, it is also past, and above all future.  It is the State which, transcending the brief limit of individual lives, represents the immanent conscience of the nation.  The forms in which States express themselves change, but the necessity of the State remains.  It is the State which educates citizens for civic virtue, makes them conscience of their mission, calls them to unity; harmonizes their interest in justice; hands on the achievements of thought in the sciences, the arts, in law, in human solidarity; it carries men from the elementary life of the tribe to the highest human expression of power which is Empire; it entrusts to the ages the names of those who died for its integrity or in obedience to its laws; it puts forward as an example and recommends to the generations that are to come the leaders who increased its territory and the men of genius who gave it glory.  When the sense of the State declines and the disintegrating and centrifugal tendencies of individuals and groups prevail, national societies move to their decline.

Given the State’s charge to the people’s “spirit”, it is obvious how fascism will reject the liberalism for its individualism and socialism for its materialism.  What is more interesting is the fascist reason for rejecting conservatism in its religious, nationalist, and traditionalist forms.  This is because of fascism’s other key doctrine:  immanentism.  The State is prior to individuals and groups, but nothing is prior to the State.  It has no goal outside of itself; it can be judged by nothing outside itself.  How could it, since the State is supposed to already embody the people’s highest spiritual ideals?  The reactionaries, nationalists, and theocrats (as the fascists characterize them) disagree, seeing the state as ordered to some good–God, dynasty, nation, tradition, race–that is conceived as existing prior to the State.  Gentile is particularly clear on this.  Regarding the nationalists:

The nationalists’ “nation” is, in a word, something which exists not by virtue of the spirit but as a given fact of nature, either because the elements that give it being, such as the land or the race, depend on nature itself or else because they must be considered as human creations:  language, religion, history.  Because even these human elements contribute to the formation of the national entity, inasmuch as they are already in being and the individual finds himself face to face with them, since they pre-exist him, from the moment he begins to act as a moral being; they are therefore on the same plane as the land and the race…This naturalistic attitude is a weakness…This naturalism was particularly and obviously visible in the loyal support shown by the nationalists for the monarchy….

So basically, fascists are as devoted to autonomy as liberals, but autonomy for the collective spirit known as the State rather than for individuals.  Note that racialism is incompatible with fascism.  Strictly speaking, Hitler was not a fascist.  Regarding the Church:

The Italian Fascist state, desirous…of forming one single unit with the mass of the Italians, must be either religious or else Catholic.  It cannot fail to be religious because the absolute nature which it attributes to its own value and authority cannot be conceived except in relation to a Divine Absolute.  there is only one religion based on and indeed rooted in the mass of the Italian people and meaningful for them, on which they can graft this religious feeling of the absolute nature of the will of the country…So the Fascist state must recognize the religious authority of the Church…

This, too, is a difficult problem since the transcendental conception on which the Catholic Church is based contradicts the immanent political conception of Fascism; and Fascism, I must reiterate, far from being a negation of liberalism and democracy, as people say–and as its leaders, for political reasons, are often justified in repeating–is, in fact, or strives to be, the most perfect form of liberalism and democracy, as defined by Mazzini, to whose doctrine it has reverted.

So, Fascism in its Italian incarnation must preserve the Catholic Church, because it gives the people an imaginative apparatus for experiencing awe for the State.  However, Catholicism has the drawback that it is ordered to something outside and above the State and the national community.  That is a dilemma, and Gentile doesn’t really point the way out.

The contradiction between fascism and conservatism is quite instructive.  Is the nation a completely immanent being, ordered to nothing outside itself, or is it the collective response of a particular people to the order of being around it?  The goal of fascism is to take the nation’s spiritual resources and give them an entirely immanent frame, but can that be done without doing violence to them?  What would it even mean to have a religion without a “transcendental conception”?  That’s practically the defining feature of a religion!  I would say the same thing about arts and sciences; they are essentially ordered to apprehending a cosmos that transcends us, and only accidentally express the genius of a people.  Perhaps if fascism had lasted longer, we would have seen how its best thinkers–represented in this book–would have dealt with this.

7 Responses

  1. The Fascist idea of immanence can be reconciled with religion only if you are a thorough-going Hegelian, for whom history is the self-manifestation of Eternal Spirit, through the familiar dialectical process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

    Marx, by the by, completely misunderstood Hegel, when he said that, for Hegel, the Idea alone is real and the material world is only its exterior manifestation. On the contrary, for Hegel, the material world is not its “exterior manifestation,” but its content. Reason becomes “objective” only insofar as it is actualised in history.

    This is very like pantheism, although Hegel himself would have denied it.

    Mussolini’s invocation of Manzzini is telling: like most Italian Liberals of his generation, Manzzini was saturated in the thought of Hegel and Mussolini could, quite legitimately, claim to be the heir of that tradition.

  2. This is a minor point, but I’d encourage you not to identify religion with the transcendent. The idea that “religion” is essentially about the transcendent (or the supernatural) is largely a doctrine of 18th century rationalism and 19th century positivism. They invented the category in order to discredit rival worldviews. Because so many of us have accepted the secularist doctrine of “religion,” teachers today cannot discuss God in the public schools, but they can discuss Gaia, or History (Hegelian sense), or Justice (reified form). I believe the concept of “religion” does further mischief by associating Catholic Christianity with farrago of imperfect, ignorant, and sometimes deeply sinister peers.

  3. But surely this is misdirected? To speak of God as the Transcendent is one of the most incisive ways of distinguishing an understanding of the world rooted in and orientated toward God from an understanding grounded in a naturalism almost definitionally characterized as a foil against and rejection of the Transcendent. “Single vision, and Newton’s sleep,” as Blake put the matter. Of course, in speaking of God’s transcendence, we should also speak of God’s aesity, ontological necessity, absoluteness and yes, immanence.

  4. Another problem presents itself: fascism, like most revolutions (including the modern one more generally), had an internal logic which many of its inventors and practitioners did not immediately recognize and did not have a chance to work out and reconcile themselves to. If the Nazis were fascists, they were desperately incoherent ones; one of the few early attempts to work out the logical implications of Nazism (the Boxheim affair) resulted in the humiliation of its authors, even though it was basically accurate.

  5. If you are still monitoring your page and thread…

    I would define Fascism, in cold substantive ideology, as the corporate state, centrally organized, for a materialist end.

    Movement Fascism is the fascist phenomenon viewed as a process. It is the Fascism tied into history and the reality of conditions. In fact, Fascist doctrine deliberately encompassed this seemingly, inasmuch as it is voluntarist and not deterministic, i.e., describes a historical praxis of not what is, but what is willed to be. I would define Movement Fascism thus as corporatist, centrally-led but constituting a grass roots mass, for a mythic materialist end.

  6. Fascism shares much of Marxism historical philosophy, but sees Bolshevism’s project as impossible, inasmuch as simultaneous world-wide revolution would be necessary for the project, but is impossible. In fact, international socialism of all stripes tends to be seen as the tool of international capitalism by Fascism. Vertical liberation of Man is possible (the nation), according to Fascism, while Horizontal liberation (a worldwide worker’s paradise) is really not. So Fascism works at the level of the existent nation-state, beginning with autarcky, just as the Commintern works on worker solidarity.

    As many have come to realize, the reactionary or traditional “state” is also a corporate entity like that of Fascism (e.g., feudal Christendom), but the traditional state works organically from the bottom up, at least in large part, and it is oriented toward a transcendent, non-materialist end. While traditionalist states can, and often do, have law givers (e.g,, emperors, great monarchs), this is the origin, exception, or watershed phenomenon; it is not the normative state of affairs. Human nature itself works against such as a normative state. While this may certainly explain the affirmative enthusiasm the Church endorsed Constantine the Great, making Christendom a harmonious reality; it perhaps even more explains why and how the Church was able to come to terms with Napoleon and later Mussolini with a disgruntled but hopeful acceptance.

    It is doubtful (i.e., impossible) that such a concordat could be reached with Liberalism. The perpetual discontinuity of the perpetual law giver (the individual person, in fact)—even set against the supernatural impossibility involved—mitigates against it.

  7. Hello Mr. Salyer,

    Excellent points.

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