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Radicals

The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution

by Zeev Sternhell, with Mario Sznajder, and Maia Asheri, translated by David Maisel
Princeton University Press, 338 pp., $29.95

Fascism seems easy to grasp. It presents itself to us in crude primary images: the leader haranguing an electrified crowd, disciplined youths marching by, the exaltation of communal purity within and of aggressive expansion without. As soon as one attempts to define and analyze fascism as a generic concept, however, difficulties arise. Its borders are fuzzy. Do we include Stalin? Do we include charismatic third world dictators like Nkwame Nkrumah, expansionist military dictatorships like that of Imperial Japan, modernizing dictatorships like that of Argentina’s Perón, or even religious purification movements like the ayatollah’s in Iran? Even if we limit ourselves to Europe during fascism’s heyday, Hitler’s Germany, ruled absolutely (albeit messily) by an obsessed anti-Semite, matches poorly with the laxer Italy, where Mussolini had a Jewish mistress, Jewish backers, and Jewish henchmen (at least in the early days). Hannah Arendt omitted Italy from her Origins of Totalitarianism, even though Mussolini had invented the term. Today such authoritative scholars as Karl Dietrich Bracher in Germany and Renzo De Felice in Italy refuse to treat Nazism and Fascism1 as a single phenomenon.2 At the level of epithet, however, lumpers prevail over splitters. Practically everyone in authority has been called fascist by some mudslinger or another.

Adding to the confusion is the ambiguous relation between thought and action in fascism. Mussolini launched his fasci de combattimento in 1919 with a program that mingled war veterans’ demands and virulent nationalism with such radical proposals as the abolition of the senate, the nobility, and the monarchy, the suppression of joint-stock companies and banks, the confiscation of war profits, and the vote for women. The Nazi Party began by proclaiming a program of twenty-five points in 1920 that mixed nationalism, anti-Semitism, and hostility to international finance capitalism. All fascist movements that have reached power have casually violated their early platforms, however, especially their economic planks, according to the tactical needs of the moment. Fascists even glory in their contempt for thought and reason. Moreover, fascists deny any validity to universal rights or natural law, since, for them, there is only one yardstick of right: the prowess of their own race, their own blood, their own community. No wonder the fascist regimes differed from each other fundamentally in their rhetoric and imagery, since these were drawn from each national symbolic heartland. George Orwell grasped right away that the decor of fascism could not be exported: a successful British fascism, he believed, must come clad in sober British garb and not in the alien black shirt of Sir Oswald Mosley.3 It seems doubtful that some common intellectual position can be the defining character of movements that valued action above thought, the instincts of the blood above reason, duty to the community above intellectual freedom, and national particularism above any kind of universal value. Is fascism an “ism” at all?

Zeev Sternhell is the chief proponent of the opposite view, that fascism is first and foremost an ideology. He is the leading scholar of the beginnings of fascist ideas in Latin Europe. In three earlier books4 he has already examined the writers who, he maintains, first put together the elements of fascist ideology in France around the turn of the century. The present work restates that case for France, and demonstrates how French “national socialism” was further developed in Italy before 1914.

Fascist ideology, in Sternhell’s account, was formed by the convergence of nonconformists from two disparate intellectual camps in Latin Europe: integral nationalism and revolutionary syndicalism. Integral nationalists were troubled by what they perceived as the fragmentation of their community by hedonistic individualist materialism, divisive political parties, class conflict, and the arrival of immigrants. They were looking for some way to reintegrate and reinvigorate their community. While some leading integral nationalists like the French novelist and deputy Maurice Barrès had settled into a comfortable conservatism, some younger followers of Charles Maurras’s Action Française such as George Valois were attracted by the vitality of new working-class anti-democratic currents. These, Valois believed, were much fitter than the decadent middle class to win workers away from left internationalism and back to the national community.

Revolutionary syndicalists yearned for an apocalyptic general strike in which radicalized labor unions would serve not only as the destroyer of the state but also as its replacement, the building-block of a postrevolutionary society of free producers untrammeled by either state or middleman. Such syndicalists as Edouard Berth and Arturo Labriola scorned parliamentary socialists for the timidity of their reformism, for the materialism of their Marxist assumption that capitalism must ripen before the proletariat is ready to take over, and for the statism implicit in their bid for political power. The syndicalists offered instead a voluntarist, activist, “spiritual” recipe for revolution, one in which the proletariat would be motivated less by their increasing misery (as that era’s version of Marx held would be the case) than by a transforming “myth” (in the usage made famous by syndicalism’s best-known propagandist, Georges Sorel) such as the general strike.

Zeev Sternhell’s main interest is to show how nonconformists from both currents found common ground in the period between 1909 and 1913. Sorel himself took the first step by deciding in 1909 that the proletariat, which had recently thrown in its lot with bourgeois reformers in the defense of Captain Dreyfus, was less capable of mounting heroic opposition to liberal democracy than were the street-fighting nationalists around Charles Maurras. Sorel’s disciple Edouard Berth and George Valois jointly founded in 1911 the Cercle Proudhon, whose Cahiers strove to awaken nationalism and syndicalism, “these two great currents of national energy,…both of them antiliberal and antidemocratic” against “plutocracy,” democratic individualism, and the decadence they produced.

Despairing that the proletariat could ever be raised to heroism by the general strike, some French national syndicalists discovered what they perceived as a more powerful motivating myth: the nation. Italian national syndicalists went one step further by finding in nationalist war the transforming myth necessary to regenerate their people’s heroism. Their dress rehearsal was the Italian invasion of Tripoli in 1911, supported by such national syndicalists as Arturo Labriola, Paolo Orano, and Angelo Olivetti (but not by Mussolini, who decided that war had revolutionary potential only in 1914).

Syndicalists and nationalists found extensive common ground: both rejected the materialism which underpinned progressive reform efforts, socialist as well as bourgeois; both hated democratic individualism as the dissolvent of any kind of community élan; both dreamed of replacing bourgeois complacency by heroic grandeur; both admired producers and entrepreneurs while condemning financiers and speculators. They could even find common ground in a commitment to “revolution” once some dissident syndicalists were ready to alter revolution’s goals from the redistribution of wealth and power to the redemption of human moral fiber.

Sternhell’s emphasis on fascism as an ideology has two implications. It puts more weight upon origins than upon later developments, and it rates the thinkers as more authentically fascist than the doers. In Sternhell’s thesis, fascism was already fully formed before the First World War, as an “independent cultural and political phenomenon that was not less intellectually self-sufficient than socialism or liberalism.” It was thus a free-standing ideology, and no mere reaction, either to Marxism or to the experience of the First World War. The war provided it only with auspicious circumstances and new recruits.

Moreover, fascism, in Sternhell’s approach, was purest in countries where it did not come to power. It is in studying fascism in France, he wrote earlier, where it “remained theoretical and never had to make the compromises that to some degree always falsify the official ideology of a regime,” that “one is able to apprehend the true significance of the phenomenon of fascism in general.”5 For Sternhell, the real fascists are intellectuals, guilty of a “trahison des clercs“; leaders who reach power by compromising and distorting the program become, one presumes, less purely fascist.

The problem with defining fascism by its cultural origins is that the national syndicalists, whom Pierre Milza has called the “first fascism,” were everywhere a failure. Mussolini’s Fasci received fewer than 5,000 votes out of 270,000 in Milan in November 1919. No political space was available for a movement with such mixed signals: it announced a radical program in March, and, in April, a raid led by the Futurist painter Marinetti wrecked the offices of the Milan socialist daily Avanti!. The following year, Mussolini was rescued from this impasse by some of his lieutenants in the Po Valley who saved the Fasci by finding a new function for them, and new allies. Converted into strong-arm squads—the famous squadristi—Mussolini’s blackshirts formed common cause with the big landowners to mount nightly rides to destroy Socialist Party offices and trade union headquarters in the Po Valley. As war veterans, the blackshirts hated the Socialists for their pacifism between 1915 and 1918. The landowners wanted to break the aggressive farm workers’ unions. Together they invented a “second fascism,” much more successful than the first, for which Sternhell’s concentration on cultural origins prepares us poorly.

The emergence of this “second fascism” in the Po Valley provoked the embittered departure or expulsion of many early idealists of the “first fascism,” disillusioned by the transformation of their movement into the hired thugs of big landowners.6 But it was this “second fascism” which became so powerful in some parts of northern Italy in 1921 and 1922 that the main deal makers of Italian conservative politics like the former prime ministers Giovanni Giolitti and Antonio Salandra became convinced that the Italian moderate elite could not continue to rule without bringing Mussolini into their circle.

Nazism’s trajectory had many parallels. The Nazi Party with its mixed rhetoric of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and anti-capitalism failed to become popular among German workers up to the end of the 1920s; but it won votes and conservative attention by battling young Communists for control of the streets of Berlin and by offering to replace the faltering and divided Weimar Republic by a traditional Germany forcibly unified and energized. After Hitler had made his own deals with Franz von Papen and other conservative advisers of President von Hindenburg who wanted to “borrow” the energy of his movement, he handled his old colleagues from the “first fascism” more brutally than Mussolini. The Duce merely dismissed his closest trade-unionist ally, Edmondo Rossoni, in 1928, and ignored the Futurist artists around Marinetti. The Führer had his embarrassingly radical (and disloyal) colleague Gregor Strasser murdered on the “Night of the Long Knives,” June 30, 1934.

If the “first fascism” remained pure in France, it was largely because so much less political space was available. Existing conservative elites were firmly enough in control to feel less need of fascist help; and French nationalism remained strongly associated with the universal values and individual rights of the Revolutionary period when France won its greatest military successes. But wherever fascism remained pure, it remained limited to cafés, struggling newspapers, and the occasional street demonstration. This is not to deny Sternhell’s valid point that its ideas contaminated. French mainstream politics in the 1930s, but they did so from the sidelines. Thus the Vichy regime of 1940 began under clear conservative-authoritarian control, leaving the French fascists to panhandle in Paris for Nazi subsidies.

As soon as one gives serious consideration to the cases where fascism achieved political power, it becomes evident that the proper study of fascism cannot be limited to the movements themselves. We must also study the settings which offered them political opportunities in which to grow (and to be transformed in the process), and allies within the political elite who made possible the participation of a transformed fascism in power. For no fascist movement has so far acquired political power alone, without conservative allies. That outcome is not a matter of chance. Fascist leaders ambitious for political power cannot avoid alliances with existing elites. High office has not been accessible to them from the outside by mass agitation alone, because their street-fighters, acting by themselves, risk humiliation by the police and army (as Hitler discovered in Munich in November 1923 when he made the mistake of imitating what he believed Mussolini had done in the so-called “March on Rome”).

Moreover a fascist revolutionary rising (assuming such a thing is possible) runs the risk of losing control of popular agitation to Communist rivals and enemies. Once in office, fascists have not been able to wield authority in the ways that matter to them—ways that aggrandize national power—without at least the acquiescence of industrialists and the armed services. The route to power for those fascist leaders who sought it (and not all of them did) passed through a transformation of fascist parties to fit the needs of conservative alliances. The first step in that transformation was to prove that fascism could effectively neutralize, or even destroy, the Marxist left.

This leads us to the perennial question: How seriously should we take the “socialist” language that some Fascist and Nazi intellectuals never abandoned, even in power? Was fascism “revolutionary”? The more narrowly one concentrates on fascist cultural beginnings, as Sternhell has done, the more radical fascism looks. Everything depends on what the first fascists meant by these terms, however. Sternhell’s subtitle lends support to those who consider fascism revolutionary. In the text, however, he puts his finger brilliantly on the crucial divide that separated the national syndicalists who jumped ship, as fascist movements were transformed into fighting organizations against Marxism and its democratic “antechamber,” from those who remained aboard. For the syndicalists who remained allies of fascists, revolution was a moral transformation of ordinary mortals into heroic supermen, capable of supplanting the tired bourgeoisie by a general strike—or, better still, by a nationalist war.

The syndicalists who refused to go along with fascists clung to the expectation that revolution must involve some transfer of economic power. Fascism was revolutionary in its desire to form a “new man”; it was “socialist” in its desire to subordinate the individual to the community—a national community rather than a class one. The fascist propagandists never stopped claiming to be “revolutionary” and “socialist” according to their own meaning of these terms as moral regeneration and community solidarity, and they never stopped hoping that these appeals would recapture the working class for the nation.

Such populist appeals served the fascists’ claim to offer the only efficacious means of winning mass support away from liberalism, democracy, and socialism for nationalism, and the only unifiers of a people divided by party and class. In the last analysis, the left’s contribution to fascism remained a minority current. Sternhell himself says that while revolutionary syndicalists provided the ideas, nationalists provided the troops. For the few (though conspicuous) fascists who came from the left, the apostate passion with which they joined in the assaults on their ex-comrades was likely to be all that was left of their roots.

Sternhell’s implication that the intellectuals were the most authentic fascists raises further problems. A purely cultural approach risks reducing the discussion of fascism to a labeling exercise. If Sternhell has encountered trouble in France and, to a lesser degree, Italy,7 it is partly because of whom he has included and whom he has excluded by treating fascism as an ideological “essence”—a word one encounters often in this book. Having left no room for a concept of tactical alliances in his model of fascism, he has no category except intellectual “impregnation” for those who helped it on grounds of pure expediency—in Italy, for example, such politicians as Giolitti and Salandra who gave Mussolini political respectability, and the local landholders and police officials who gave the squadristi de facto local power in regions like the lower Po Valley.

On the other hand, he tends to include pamphleteers and journalists who expressed at one moment or another some intellectual position crucial to the itinerary from revolutionary syndicalism to national syndicalism, such as an anti-materialist objection to Marx. This aligns them, at least momentarily, with the “essence.” Some thinkers who had major parts in the creation of the first fascism, however, wound up as staunch enemies of the second fascism. Sternhell is far too scrupulous a scholar to gloss over the fact that such radicals as George Valois and Arturo Labriola were to turn back to the left. Valois eventually died in a German concentration camp. But Sternhell sometimes seems to be portraying a march of intellectual essences and their “logical continuations” more than personal itineraries that may turn in unexpected directions.8

Sternhell’s identification of France as not only “the real birthplace of fascism” but also the country in which fascism attained its purest intellectual expression has not been well received in that country. Bertrand de Jouvenel, whose works Sternhell quoted in Neither Right nor Left as examples of the “impregnation” of French politics by fascism in the 1930s, sued Sternhell for defamation. It was already remarkable for a scholar to be sued in France for what everyone agreed were scrupulously accurate quotations. Sternhell’s trial became frontpage drama in February 1984, when the celebrated French liberal political philosopher Raymond Aron collapsed on the courthouse steps after testifying in de Jouvenel’s favor, and died a few hours later. Aron had told the court that Sternhell’s book was “the most ahistorical work imaginable.” The judge was eager to avoid having his court incriminate a scholar for scholarly faults, however. In a mixed verdict which left both sides unsatisfied, he found Sternhell guilty of defamation in two of the eight contested passages (where Sternhell seemed to attribute to Bertrand de Jouvenel an active intention to propagate fascist thought), and fined him one symbolic franc in damages. He did not require Sternhell to alter his book, or the publisher to withdraw it from sale.9

Sternhell has been the target of scholarly criticism as well as of lawsuits. French scholars, including even some who regretted Sternhell’s trial, found his application of the fascist label to anti-liberal, anti-parliamentary and anti-individualist thought in 1930s France far too loose and sweeping. Some on the moderate left were particularly incensed by Sternhell’s views that French left dissidents like the Sorelians were the fathers of fascism. American critics have been less negative, though even a favorable reviewer regretted “the loose and shifting way Zeev Sternhell applies the concept of fascism.”10

It is therefore worth putting the positive case for Sternhell’s work as firmly as possible. His work obliges us to ground any study of fascism in the particular moment toward the end of the nineteenth century when politics expanded dizzily from a gentleman’s hobby to a matter of mass opinion and votes. He shows irrefutably that fascist doctrine had complex cultural origins, drawing not only from conservative efforts to adapt to the novel requirements of mass politics (pioneered by figures like Charles Maurras in France and Georg von Schönerer in the German-speaking parts of the Habsburg empire), but also from dissent within the left against the materialism, positivism, and reformism that mainstream Marxism shared with social democracy in the 1890s.

These points are fundamental, for they make it impossible to dismiss fascism as the mere creation or the agent of the right, or of capitalism, or of anyone else. Fascism is itself; and it has been redoubtable precisely because, given a propitious setting and weak competitors, it has been able to arouse popular enthusiasm all the way across the political spectrum. Sternhell’s work has the further merit of tracing carefully, accurately, and thoroughly the explicit intellectual steps by which dissident syndicalists could find common ground with dissident nationalists and create that novelty, “national socialism.” He is never guilty of the misquotation, truncation, and elision that mar the work of some authors with whom Sternhell has been unjustifiably compared, such as Bernard-Henri Lévy in L’Idéologie française.

If Sternhell singles out leftist dissidents among those responsible for these beginnings, it is because their apostasy was the most unexpected, and far from minor in its effects. The combination of nationalism and syndicalism was indeed an influential new creation of the opening twentieth century, and it unquestionably helped prepare the way for fascism by weakening the attachment to democratic institutions and values on the part of some of those very middle-and working-class citizens who had the most to lose by their rejection. If fascism was to prove capable at times of recruiting a genuine mass following, capturing even traditional partisans of democracy and socialism, it was partly because some revolutionaries in the first years after 1900 came to accept heroism, war, and national expansion as revolutionary values. Those first intellectual positions, however, do not tell us very much about the subsequent development of fascism.

It is probably more useful to define mature fascism by its actions: a dedication so fanatical to the reinvigoration and reunification of a divided, humiliated, or decadent community that any and all means become acceptable, and a rejection of any values other than the prowess of the community in the attainment of those ends.11 The specific images and rhetoric that work for one community differ so widely from those that work for another that no one of them can serve as the essential characteristic of fascism.

Fascism went through a sequence of stages: from a cultural revolution to a serious anti-left movement, to a contender for power, to a form of government. We cannot leave out any stage if we want to assemble a comprehensive account that sees fascism whole. While the first fascism’s amalgam between the national syndicalists and integral nationalists has its place in the story, fascism reached power as a result of a different amalgam: that between those conservatives who feared losing their capacity to rule unless they received some rejuvenating injection from fascism, and those fascist leaders who were tempted to exploit emerging opportunities for power. Together they were responsible for letting fascism get its hands on the state. The second amalgam has been more fateful for the world’s history than the first.

  1. 1

    Fascism will be capitalized here when referring to the Italian party and regime; fascism in lower case refers to the generic phenomenon.

  2. 2

    Sternhell excludes Germany from his work on fascism, and observes that biological determinism distinguishes Nazism fundamentally from Latin fascism; nevertheless he still considers the “conservative revolution” of late-nineteenth-century Germany to be “the local variant of fascism” (p. 80).

  3. 3

    The Road to Wigan Pier (1936). See also The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), quoted in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Vol. III: My Country Right or Left, 1940–43 (Harcourt Brace, 1968), p. 93.

  4. 4

    Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français (Brussels: Editions Complexe, 1985, second edition) found preparations for fascism in the itinerary of France’s greatest nationalist writer of 1890–1914; La Droite révolutionnaire: les origines françaises du fascisme (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984, second edition, 1978) examined other protofascist intellectuals of the same period; Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France (University of California Press, 1986) argued that French public discourse became widely “impregnated” with fascist ideas in the 1930s.

  5. 5

    Neither Right Nor Left, p. 270.

  6. 6

    Fascism’s adaptation to the particular opportunities offered by Po Valley social conflicts, and the subsequent departure of early idealists, is best recounted in Paul Corner, Fascism in Ferrara (Oxford University Press, 1976), a work which is unfortunately out of print.

  7. 7

    A useful roundup of French and Italian responses is Antonio Costa Pinto, “Fascist Ideology Revisited: Zeev Sternhell and his Critics,” European History Quarterly, Volume 16 (1986), pp. 465–483.

  8. 8

    For an exemplary study showing the relation between intellectual choices and the vicissitudes of personal careers, see Philippe Burrin’s account of how Marcel Déat, Jacques Doriot, and Gaston Bergery moved from the left to fascism in La Dérive fasciste (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1986).

  9. 9

    Pierre Assouline, “Enquête sur un historien condamné pour diffamation,” L’Histoire, No. 68 (June 1984), pp. 98–101.

  10. 10

    Robert Wohl, “French Fascism both Right and Left: Reflections on the Sternhell Controversy,” Journal of Modern History, Vol. 63 (March 1991), p. 92.

  11. 11

    Paul Brooker, Three Faces of Fraternalism: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1991) compares three attempts at obligatory national integration.

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