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The Great Benito?

Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism

by A. James Gregor
University of California Press, 271 pp., $16.50

Italian Fascism and Developmental Dictatorship

by A. James Gregor
Princeton University Press, 427 pp., $9.75 (paper)

Sergio Panunzio: il sindacalismo ed il fondamento razionale del fascismo

by A. James Gregor
Volpe editore (Rome), 327 pp., 5,000 lire

The word “fascism” is used in so many senses that much of its utility has been lost. The term “Italian fascism” is more precise, but can still present problems to anyone looking for a convincing and comprehensive definition. Professor Gregor is not daunted by these difficulties; in three much overlapping books he examines the ideology of Italian fascism and comes to the striking conclusion that it was one of the most consistent ideologies of our time, entirely coherent, with “intellectual credentials as compelling as any.” He sees Mussolini as not just a successful politician, but as a sophisticated political thinker who anticipated most of the problems exercising us today and whose thought has significantly influenced European history ever since his death in 1945.

His main theme is that Mussolini, as well as being a major syndicalist theoretician, was the first person to realize that an undeveloped country such as Italy could not be modernized until it renounced pluralism and parliamentarism and developed into a dictatorship with a vision of national development, capable of mobilizing the masses; hence Castro and Mao, in their different ways, have been merely following the long-term plan of the fascists to modernize Italy. The published works of the young Mussolini are quoted as showing us “the shape of things to come” and opening “an epoch that is not yet behind us”; if studied carefully his early writings will afford what Gregor calls “explanatory and predictive leverage” for future would-be revolutionaries, and the only pity is that world war came in 1939, too soon for other countries to realize that fascist syndicalism had a universal application.

Syndicalism is another word that covers a variety of meanings. Though all syndicalists believed that power should ultimately be held by organized groups of workers, some Italian syndicalists were republicans, others monarchists; some were anti-state, some pro-state; some were protectionists, some believed in free trade. But Professor Gregor glosses lightly over these difficulties and singles out half a dozen syndicalists who were “the intellectual architects” of fascism and who, through their “documented influence on Mussolini,” had an “incalculable impact” on the shaping of events between 1920 and 1945. Chief among these were Sergio Panunzio, Robert Michels, and Paolo Orano. All were influenced by the syndicalism of Georges Sorel and all used to write for the periodical Avanguardia socialista just after the turn of the century. Like Sorel they opposed both parliamentary reform and the notion of some Marxists that social change would be the inevitable consequence of existing conditions, suggesting indeed that such change would only be brought about by a violent struggle on the part of the proletarian elite. All of them were eventually given professorships in the faculty of fascist political science at Perugia where they became the principal ideologues of the regime.

The choice of these three men is a strange one. If we are talking about documented influence, it is doubtful there is proof that Mussolini read more than one book each by Michels and Orano: he used to quote from a second book by Michels, but suspiciously the quotation was always the same one. (Of course the reading of one book can be influential but Gregor fails to give precise evidence of such influence.) Orano wrote forty other books, but Mussolini, after a brief infatuation, had by 1912 ceased to take him seriously, and as a fascist writer he became nothing better than a contemptible hack.

Michels is far more interesting as a person and a writer, but his brief flirtation with syndicalism was over by 1908 when he began to advocate oligarchic rule and the “iron law of elites.” It is not entirely impossible that Mussolini learned something from his later writings on mass mobilization and the orchestration of consensus, but Gregor gives no evidence for saying that he had a powerful influence on the Duce in the years up to 1927. My own view is that on these particular subjects, Mussolini learned far more from the author of Psychology of the Crowd, Gustave Le Bon, than from the syndicalists, and on this point we have Mussolini’s own abundant testimony.

Of the three writers, Panunzio is the one who had the greatest influence during the years of fascism; at all events many people liked his suggestion that all classes be recruited for the revolutionary movement and his theory that social change should be controlled by a hierarchical and authoritarian state. Gregor’s exposition of his now almost forgotten books is something we can be grateful for. Here too, however, it is impossible to agree with the bold statement that Panunzio “produced an impressive body of theoretical literature that shaped the aspirations and governed the behavior of the most dynamic and effective political revolutionaries in Italy for more than a generation.” Not without reason Adrian Lyttleton, one of the most knowledgeable historians of the period, chose to omit Panunzio’s name from a list of the eleven main theorists of Italian fascism. As for Panunzio’s influence on the Duce, the forty volumes of the latter’s Opera omnia hardly mention him at all, except for one article disagreeing with something he wrote.

That Mussolini sympathized with some elements in syndicalism for a few years is true, but he never belonged to the movement, and what he liked about it was its libertarianism, its anticlericalism, antimilitarism, and anticapitalism, in other words something quite different from later fascist orthodoxy. Gregor, on the contrary, believes that this small group of syndicalists provided the “belief system” that developed into fascism, indeed the beliefs that were fascism, and this is the central theme of his three books. One awkward fact for such a thesis is that among the syndicalists from whom Mussolini learned most were Arturo Labriola, one of the earliest and most intransigent, opposed to all parliamentary reform, and Alceste De Ambris, who led syndicalist efforts to bring Italy into the First World War. Both of them were decided opponents of what fascism later became. Another difficulty is that Mussolini in 1912-1914 became leader of a socialist party that had already expelled the syndicalists for their intellectual deviations.

Such difficulties are not considered by Professor Gregor, who likes his history simple, but they suggest that the influence of political theory on political practice is harder to ascertain than might be thought. The evidence does not in fact support his view that fascism had a clear ideological consistency, let alone that it can be traced to a single and syndicalist source. Mussolini was a socialist before he ever heard of syndicalism, and people close to him believed that the anarchic socialism of his father had much more influence on his development than any of the people who, with his breathtaking cultural exhibitionism, he sometimes claimed as intellectual ancestors. It is important to remember that in tracing the influences on Mussolini we are dealing with a cultural poseur who never stopped boasting of the books he had read, who for example used to claim that among his favorite authors were Defoe and William James, though it is more than possible that he never read a line of either. Sometimes he wanted to stress the originality of fascism, and would then insist that he had no precursors; at other times he wanted to impress a different audience with the fact that fascism was part of a long and respectable intellectual tradition, in which case he would drop every name that came to mind.

Gregor admits, correctly, that Mussolini owed a great deal to Marx, though probably, since he was an intellectual dilettante, most of his knowledge came in digest form and at second hand. Hardly any reference, however, is made by Gregor to the militant French socialist Gustave Hervé, to Nietzsche, or to that eccentric but fascinating patriotic writer Alfredo Oriani, each of whom—to me at any rate—appears to have had a bigger impact on Mussolini than any syndicalist. Too little is also said about the philosopher Giovanni Gentile, the nationalists Alfredo Rocco and Enrico Corradini, futurists such as Giuseppe Bottai and Filippo Marinetti, or Ugo Spirito—who all would have as good a claim as Orano or Michels to be considered the real theorists of Italian fascism. On the contrary we are told here that “the principal ideologues of fascism were almost all revolutionary syndicalists.”

A closely related theme in Gregor’s books is a denial of the conventional view that Rocco and the nationalists gave fascism its central doctrines after 1922; the syndicalists had already done all that was required. Gregor advances the strange argument that Mussolini was already a good patriot in 1909 before the nationalist party was founded, and he quotes a private letter to show that Mussolini’s patriotic views must date back as early as 1905. No recognition is given to the fact that this letter can be interpreted quite differently, or to the dozens of public statements which show that, up to 1914, Mussolini was a dogmatic anti-patriot who believed only in class war. “Patriotism,” he wrote, “is a lying fiction that is now entirely out of date,” and he added that good socialists should have absolutely nothing to do with it. Only later, and certainly under the influence of others than the syndicalists, Mussolini on this point made one of his many volte-faces.

But Gregor’s admiration for Mussolini’s coherent convictions and intellectual integrity is so complete that when ever the facts seem to deny consistency, when for example he turned against the syndicalists in 1910-1914, or when he went to prison in 1911 for opposing a “patriotic war,” or when he appeared to move from extreme left to extreme right in 1919-1921, the apparent aberrations are said to be just “tactical.” When Mussolini called colonial ventures a complete absurdity for Italy, and the national flag “a rag to plant on a dunghill,” we are informed that this was just because he had to say such things if he wanted to become leader of a socialist party that was antimilitarist and anticolonialist.

A more plausible view is that it is almost impossible to distinguish genuine from tactical attitudes in such a man, and one can as easily argue that Mussolini never had durable and sincere opinions of any kind but always let purely tactical considerations prevail. When Panunzio in September 1914 argued that Italy had to enter the world war to create a gigantic catastrophe that would sweep away the whole capitalist system, Mussolini wrote that this was absolute nonsense, but a few days later he suddenly made a complete about-turn to state that Italy needed a blood bath to bring about a proletarian revolution that would regenerate the world. Neither of these contradictory views helps one to accept Gregor’s conclusion that Mussolini had a coherent belief system. Efforts were later made to bury both his pacifism and his advocacy of communist revolution in an attempt to rewrite history and show the Duce’s prescience and consistency.

When the fascists discussed their first program in March 1919, most of those present at the meeting, according to Professor Gregor, were syndicalists. This is entirely untrue, and he does not think it worth discussing why Panunzio, Michels, and Orano were not there if they were by now the mentors of the movement. Equally untrue is his categoric statement that, already before 1919, Mussolini had a coherent “belief system” derived from the syndicalists which contained almost every element of what was to become the official doctrine of fascism. Among the views Mussolini propounded in 1919 we find some that are hard to reconcile with what fascism became. He was against dictatorships of any kind and against all arbitrary power; he was against censorship and a political police; he championed freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of association and the press; he was in favor of regional autonomy, of expropriating land to give to the peasants, and he demanded an independent judiciary. Above all he claimed to be a libertarian, supporting anything that gave greater freedom to the individual, even for those who disagreed with him. So much for coherence and intellectual integrity.

Ideas and doctrine mattered little to Mussolini. He was an intellectual magpie, who picked up odd bits and pieces to use for what they were worth and then discard; and he did this with remarkable effectiveness. Sometimes, to make fascism look more serious, he claimed to have a doctrine; at other times he would say that there was no doctrine at all and this very lack was the secret of his success: his former syndicalist friend Alceste De Ambris described fascism as not, like the French Revolution, “an idea that has found bayonets,” but rather “bayonets in search of an idea.”

Some of the ideas that fascism found, as Gregor correctly says, were good ones. It was no doubt right to aim at the industrialization and modernization of the Italian economy. But to identify modernization and fascism is naïve: Italy made far greater strides toward modernization under liberal governments before 1922 and after 1945, whereas fascism positively held back development by its unsuccessful attempt to keep the country rural and by wasteful expenditure on prestige ventures and other follies that were merely theatrical and cosmetic. Gregor derides bolshevism as “jerry-built” by comparison with the vast program of industrialization carried out by fascism. So did Mussolini, and got the shock of his life in 1941 when he threw his illarmed troops into Russia. The Duce, like Gregor, was simply deceived by such flatterers as Panunzio and Orano who told him he had created a new and efficient civilization that would soon be accepted all over the world. His own son was nearer the mark when he commented that “it is all useless; fascism is just bluff, and papa has failed in everything; the Italians are fascists purely out of funk and don’t care a damn for his revolution.”

Sergio Panunzio is the hero of these three books, and anyone interested in syndicalism will find him of some interest. But it is wrong of Professor Gregor to pretend that he has given us a summary of Italian fascist ideology, let alone that he has written, as he says, the best outline of fascist thought available in English. Nor does he even give us all of Panunzio. There is nothing here of Panunzio’s praise for fascist thuggery and the politics of hate; nothing of his anti-Semitism and his involvement with the absurd School of Fascist Mysticism; nothing of his participation in the chorus of extravagant praise of Mussolini that did so much harm to the regime. Panunzio became one of those intellectuals who did what they were told, condemning Hitler and then praising him, praising Stalin then condemning him, just as Mussolini’s fancy went. These were the intellectuals who helped unwittingly to destroy fascism and nearly destroyed Italy in the process, intellectuals whom Mussolini despised but whom he cleverly exploited in his brilliant design to rivet the domination of one man on to Italian society—“they are like street organs that with a few coins I can set in motion.”

Letters

An Exchange on Fascism November 6, 1980

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