September 8, 2015 by AK
I have finished Mussolini by Prof. Richard Bosworth, also known as R. J. B. Bosworth, the prominent Australian-British historian of 20th-century Italy. It was first published in 2002 by Oxford University Press and was followed in 2006 by Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945, published by Penguin Books. I read the latter book first: it was excellent all around. The dictator’s biography required more effort from me, probably because of Bosworth’s steadfast respect for the confines imposed by the genre. He wrote a story of a man, as advertised, providing essential background details but probably expecting the reader to have done some homework in Italian history.
It’s a story of a provincial intellectual of modest academic achievement, broadly but eclectically read, who wanted to make it big and eventually bluffed his way to the top. He held on to the ducal seat until bluffing no longer worked, and a blood sacrifice was required from the nation to keep him in power.
In Bosworth’s telling, Mussolini never deludes himself by believing in Fascist “theory” but keeps it as general, as devoid of content, and as open to interpretation as possible. ”Fascism is A and yet is not A; it is B and the opposite of B; those who claim that fascism is C are also wrong, but not entirely,” and so on. Mussolini’s disquisitions on the essence of fascism are like obscene parodies of apophatic theology (I can’t help mentioning that I have recently read The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams), deliberately so: fascism only had overpowering value as long as it propped up its Duce so its specifics were obligingly negotiable.
The man, however, always feared his bluff would be called. In contrast, it seems that some Italians did take fascism seriously, and some historians claim that Fascist thought was actually thought, not sound and fury. Giovanni Gentile, whose name is borne by many a street in Italy (note: he has two prominent namesakes), is cited as an example – perhaps the only example – of a serious Fascist philosopher. But Gentile’s influence on practical affairs was probably limited to his status as a the top Fascist academic, and to his brief but productive tenure as minister of education (the education reform he started in 1923 was hardly Fascist in character despite being called so by Mussolini). He could have, and actually did influence the thinking of a few highly educated intellectuals, but that’s about it.
It is curious how the country’s supposedly finest mind was a true believer while the man on top of the state hierarchy, who also thought of himself as an intellectual (with insuppressible self-doubt), was always elusive on the true meaning of Fascism.
Fast forward to 2015. Vladimir Putin may have sincerely accepted himself as the savior of the nation and a reincarnation of Vladimir the Baptist. But surely he did not think of himself in these terms until lately. He has not offered a shell ideology like fascism but has successfully exploited some essentially Soviet reflexes of the post-Soviet mass man. The early and “middle” Putin’s reluctance to commit to a doctrinal ideology produced a stream of writings from homegrown “politologists” and “philosophers” offering “insights” into Putin’s true doctrine. Most were exercises in wishful thinking (some people’s wishes are unsettling enough by themselves) and in projecting personal fantasies on the great unknown leader. Up to a point, “he is what you want him to be” worked pretty well for Putin but then things work pretty well, speaking in general, when oil prices are on a growth path. One thing is certain: there is neither a philosopher nor an education reformer of Gentile’s caliber on Putin’s team. An education reform is underway, true, but it’s too early to judge it.
On second thought, there is one guy on the band with that sort of ambition. He’s probably the only one of them who’s heard about Gentile.