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An Exchange on Fascism

In response to:

The Great Benito? from the May 1, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

I realize that it is generally known that reviewers often review a book they have not read, but in the case of Denis Mack Smith’s recent [NYR, May 1] account of my work he has apparently managed to review three of my books without having read any. That would be the most generous explanation of his mistakes, omissions and misconstruals. Needless to say, this is hardly the place, nor is there space, to rehearse all the shortcomings of his review. The deficiencies are so abundant that they would require an essay at least as long as Mack Smith’s review in order to simply unpack them. Almost everything he says about Italian syndicalism is wrong in general—and in error with regard to specifics. Roberto Michels, for example, did not “briefly” flirt with revolutionary syndicalism. He was among its prime intellectual movers in Germany and Italy for at least five years. Mussolini did not have a “brief infatuation” with Paolo Orano and then “cease to take him seriously” after 1912. If Mack Smith takes the time to read Mussolini’s Dottrina del fascismo, written in 1932, he will find a ready reference to Orano’s periodical La Lupa listed as one of the sources of Fascist inspiration (the same place in which he credits “national syndicalism” with providing Fascism its substance). That Mack Smith could suggest that Sergio Panunzio had little influence on Mussolini because Mussolini only cites him infrequently indicates that Mack Smith knows little of the history of Italy during the decade before the first world war. Panunzio was a close collaborator of Mussolini on the staff of Avanti! and Utopia, and his influence was critical at decisive points in Mussolini’s political and intellectual career. That Mack Smith believes that I do not appreciate the influence of Arturo Labriola or Alceste De Ambris on Mussolini could only be the consequence of not having read my books. There are at least 43 references to Labriola in Young Mussolini, and at least 20 in Italian Fascism. De Ambris is similarly discussed. That both earlier or later abjured Fascism is totally irrelevant to the fact that they influenced Mussolini’s early intellectual development.

Mack Smith should know that I am not the first to indicate the role of syndicalism in the intellectual development of Fascism. Antonio Gramsci was insistent on the “syndicalist connection.” More recently, Enzo Santarelli, theoretician of the Italian Communist Party, has advanced the same thesis (in his Origini del Fascismo). Finally, no less than Renzo De Felice has maintained that revolutionary syndicalism exercised “the most important influence upon Mussolini’s development….” That Giovanni Gentile, Futurism and Italian Nationalism were important in the final synthesis I have never denied. The influence of the Nationalists is discussed at some length in Italian Fascism (pp. 133-40). The allusion to Gentile and the Futurists made in Italian Fascism had, been fully developed in my earlier Ideology of Fascism and The Fascist Persuasion in Radical Politics and hardly needed repetition in the present works.

Other than these very general errors, Mack Smith advances the notion that I maintain that Mussolini was a “good patriot” in 1909, when I carefully argued that by 1909 Mussolini advocated a form of “revolutionary nationalism” quite different from the “good patriotism” of the traditional Italian “bourgeoisie” (Young Mussolini, chapter 4). In another place, Mack Smith maintains that I argue that “most of those present” at the meeting that marked the official founding of the Fascist movement were syndicalists—a simple falsehood. He could make his case by providing an apposite quotation. He goes on to insist that I have not discussed Panunzio’s views on “fascist thuggery and the politics of hate”—by which I assume he means Fascist notions about violence. Had he taken the trouble to read the books he was reviewing he would have found an ample discussion of Panunzio’s “theory of revolution” and the role of violence on pages 224-27 of Italian Fascism and on pages 41-55 of Sergio Panunzio. He would have also found long extracts from Panunzio’s own works devoted to the “theory of violence” on pages 126-50 of Sergio Panunzio. As for Panunzio’s anti-semitism—it was marginal to his thought. But if Mack Smith desires a discussion of Fascist anti-semitism he will find it in my Ideology of Fascism.

But to rehearse all the deficiencies of Mack Smith’s review would be tedious. Perhaps the most important issue is whether or not, in fact, Mussolini was nothing other than an “intellectual magpie.” If he was, the fact escaped the entire intelligentsia of the Italian Socialist Party throughout the years when he served as one of the principal spokesmen of the Party. It escaped Antonio Gramsci, who during the years of Mussolini’s leadership of the Socialist Party, considered himself a “mussoliniano.” Until his break with official Socialism in 1914, Mussolini was never considered anything other than one of the most important intellectuals of the Italian socialist movement.

Since it is most unlikely that he has read my books, Mack Smith might want to read Domenico Settembrini’s review of Young Mussolini (il Giornale dei libri, February 14, 1980) where we are told that “Gregor confirms…that by 1909 Mussolini introduced a large dose of nationalism into working class internationalism. But it was not a ‘patriotic’ nationalism that was traditional, monarchic and conservative—which Mussolini always rejected….Gregor does not attribute to Mussolini more than he deserves…. None of the sources that influenced Mussolini escapes the attention of the American historian whose judgments are always well informed and who puts to rest the legend of Mussolini the ignoramus….” Settembrini, an Italian and a Socialist, knows something about Fascism (see his recent Fascismo controrivoluzione imperfetta). He apparently read the book.

Finally, Mack Smith imagines that because the Soviet Union could deploy more military might than Fascist Italy in World War II, that indicates that the developmental programs of Soviet Russia were more coherent and consistent than those of Fascist Italy. That continental Russia, with all but unlimited resources and manpower, should have exceeded the military capabilities of resource-poor Italy is hardly testimony to its economic planning, its Marxism, or its doctrinal consistency. Operating with that kind of conceptual machinery one would hardly expect Mack Smith to say anything insightful about the Italian economy under Fascism.

In any event, I find myself in good company. Denis Mack Smith was the one who dismissed as an “apologia,” the magisterial biography of Mussolini by Renzo De Felice. At best he is caught in a time warp. He has learned nothing and forgotten nothing since 1945.

A. James Gregor

Department of Political Science

University of California, Berkeley

To the Editors:

In his review of works by A. James Gregor, Denis Mack Smith offers another example of his difficulty in maintaining his usual very high standards when dealing with the subject of Mussolini.

For example, his assertion that “fascism positively held back development” of Italy’s economy is simply not true. Italian industrial production more than doubled between 1922 and 1929. Andrew Shonfield, Roland Sarti and others hold that the stage was set for the vaunted “Italian economic miracle” of the 1950s by Mussolini in the 1930s.

Mack Smith also challenges Gregor on the influence of the national syndicalists on Mussolini because “it is more than possible” that Mussolini never read this or that book. This is very thin stuff; it also misunderstands the way books exert influence. Few Frenchmen had read Rousseau by 1789; how many Americans have actually read Freud? Yet their ideas altered whole societies.

Mussolini the Marxist leader believed that the world was one of struggle between classes; the Great War convinced him that the decisive struggle was instead among nations. That a world war should change somebody’s views is no cause for amazement; what is amazing is that Mack Smith’s Mussolini—a “poseur” and “dilettante”—would give up his party and his job to advocate Italy’s entry into the war. Mussolini’s subsequent triumph over the doctrinaire Socialists suggests that his was the better perception of reality. Gregor shows how Mussolini gradually accepted the idea that backward Italy’s survival in a Darwinian state system required not the proletarian revolution but the completion of the bourgeois revolution (good Marxism, and a key notion of the national syndicalists). Mussolini’s task was thus to industrialize Italy without the chaos and bloodshed of Bolshevik Russia. The search for a viable and popular formula took many years, accounting for most of the tactical shifts of Fascism between 1919 and 1925. By defying the conventional unwisdom, insisting on a return to primary sources, tracing the pedigree and continuity of Mussolini’s fundamental ideas, and establishing their similarity to many of today’s “revolutionary” ideologies, Gregor has performed a real service for all students of modern dictatorship.

Anthony James Joes

Saint Joseph’s College

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

To the Editors:

I am renowned for modesty, but at the moment my love of truth has gotten the better of me. It is at least curious that Denis Mack Smith’s discussion of the syndicalist component in fascism, in his review of three books by A. James Gregor, should include no mention of my own recent Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism (Chapel Hill and Manchester, 1979), which has been attracting a good deal of favorable comment. I suppose I can survive the snub, but I worry that Mack Smith, in disposing so easily of Gregor’s willful reinterpretation, gives your readers the impression that the conventional wisdom is reassuringly immune to challenge. It is not. To challenge it convincingly, however, we must go beyond the issues that divide Gregor and Mack Smith.

Mack Smith is right in insisting that Mussolini was essentially a tactician, not a committed ideologue, a fact which undercuts Gregor’s grandiose claims; but Gregor is right in insisting on the centrality of syndicalism in fascism, a fact which makes it possible to overturn the conventional wisdom at some crucial points. A convincing synthesis requires a more sensitive treatment of syndicalist purposes than Gregor provides; they were more varied—and ultimately more contradictory—than he recognizes. And it requires a fuller consideration of the relationship between syndicalist ideas and the purposes of other major fascist groups, especially the Nationalists and the young war veterans. The discerning reader will have guessed where such a synthesis is to be found: my own interpretation is sufficiently balanced and sophisticated to encompass the 27 percent of the truth that Mack Smith provides, the 24 percent that Gregor provides, and a full 42 percent of the rest. Perhaps that is why one reviewer declared that my book “should be required reading for modern European historians” (Choice, December 1979)—including, it would seem, Professor Mack Smith.

Thank you for the chance to vent this bit of bemused irritation. Now I am back to my old modest self.

David D. Roberts

Humanities Department

Eastman School of Music

University of Rochester

Denis Mack Smith replies:

I cannot accept a single one of James Gregor’s corrections, except where he is tilting at windmills of his own invention.

Robert Michels, according to Paolo Orano who knew him well, never belonged to revolutionary syndicalism at all. My own remark that he flirted briefly with the movement is, I think, the view of Wilfried Röhrich, David Beetham, and perhaps David Roberts too.

As for Paolo Orano, who ended his life becoming a hack propagandist for fascism, Mussolini said he was not to be taken seriously, but was just a “Cagliostro dressed up to look like an intellectual.”

Professor Gregor talks of the “documented influence” of these people on Mussolini, and even calls them the “intellectual architects of fascism” who were “largely if not exclusively” responsible for its “belief system.” For myself I can find no single belief system in fascist Italy, and Mussolini prided himself (in the very same article that Gregor quotes) on deriving his views from many different sources. I can find no evidence whatsoever to show that “every element of fascist doctrine” can be traced back to these syndicalists; nor to prove the manifestly absurd idea that the fundamental tenets of Italian fascism remained constant from 1919 to 1945. Gregor produces no documents to support his improbable notion that Sergio Panunzio had a critical and decisive influence on Mussolini’s career, but merely states and re-states without convincing proof these central themes of three very repetitive books.

Where he and I can agree is on syndicalism having some place in the intellectual origins of fascism. But a reviewer is entitled to remind readers that this is to state the completely obvious. He is also entitled to point out that Panunzio and De Felice, both of whom Gregor cites in evidence, agree that Mussolini was never a revolutionary syndicalist, not even briefly; and to call him a “major syndicalist theoretician” is preposterous.

To help prove his case, Gregor quoted without demur Panunzio’s entirely untrue statement that, at the famous meeting of March 1919 which inaugurated fascism, most of those present were syndicalists and they were there by Mussolini’s personal invitation (p. 221 of Sergio Panunzio). The truth is that Panunzio, Orano and Michels were none of them present, and I wonder why Gregor cannot see that this creates a difficulty for those who like to think that these three men were already the ideologues of the fascist movement.

Equally odd is his statement that no one in the entire intelligentsia of the Italian socialist party regarded Mussolini as an “intellectual magpie”: evidently he is not acquainted with the writings of Balabanoff and Treves. Even more surprising is to find Mussolini called a patriot as early as 1905, when the most superficial knowledge of his Opera Omnia would have shown this to be an anachronism.

According to Professor Gregor, the doctrines of fascism point the way forward for us today, despite the fact that they led Italy and not only Italy to ruin. He is entitled to his political views. What he is not entitled to is to say that he has given us “the best brief outline of fascism as an ideological and political system available in English.” My review suggested that he has examined only a tiny fraction of the subject and come to conclusions that are entirely unpersuasive because based more on imagination than fact.

Professor Joes raises the important problem of the effects of fascism on the Italian economy. In the 1920s and 1930s the economy expanded, but so it did in other non-fascist countries: the really interesting questions are how far Mussolini’s policies helped or hindered, and whether growth after 1922 was not rather due to antecedent facts, or to world trends outside Italy, or to individual entrepreneurs who succeeded in defiance of and not because of fascism.

Gregor’s three books state as dogma the unprovable and improbable hypothesis that authoritarian government was and is necessary for economic development in a country such as Italy. No evidence was produced to indicate that Italy’s economic performance under fascism was particularly brilliant. And other scholars have argued on the contrary that the gap separating Italy from other industrialized and non-fascist countries widened after 1922, as scarce resources were chanelled inefficiently into wasteful projects that were designed merely to keep Mussolini in power at the cost of retarding the growth of national income.

One must not be deceived by the fact that Mussolini preached productivism; because at the same time he poured money into trying to depopulate the industrial cities, into thoroughly unprofitable imperial adventures, and into an elaborate corporative system that did not work but acted as a brake on the economy. Mussolini once said that he believed in creating the maximum number of bureaucrats so as to provide jobs and avoid popular discontent, and some of his own ministers knew (even if they were not always brave enough to tell him) that this could be a tremendous burden on the economy. He could even build factories that were intended to produce nothing at all but were merely for show.

None of this was casual. Many of the basic principles of fascism were an inescapable hindrance to development. Its very authoritarianism and refusal to allow free speech and criticism led to its being quite astonishingly inefficient. Its exaggerated nationalism led to a closed system of autarchia in which, for political reasons, resources were switched away from cost-efficient production to make things at way above world prices. Its proud rejection of outside know-how held back the technical modernization of industry and was a major reason for failing to discover the huge oil deposits of Libya.

Above all, its dogmatic belief in the positive desirability of war led to the eventual destruction of the economy, so that Italy at Mussolini’s death was at a lower ebb than when he came to power.

But already, before that final catastrophe, the second world war showed up the weakness of industry despite all the magniloquent (and typically fascist) boasting that it was as efficient as that of America and far better than that of Soviet Russia. There is something pathetic in Mussolini ridiculing as unfascist the techniques of mass production that were leading to his own defeat. Despite Italian skills in the motor industry, fascism could not produce a properly mechanized army, nor develop an aero engine for fighter planes, and made fewer aircraft in 1940-45 than had been produced in 1915-18 when industrialists had a freer hand.

In reply to David Roberts, may I agree with him that he wrote an excellent book, and his estimation of it coincides, almost, with my own.

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