Fascism means “life must not be taken easily”

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.


    • The first name that comes to mind. But I would suggest Galkovsky. He turned info a Putin supporter around 2013, IIRC. I don’t know if he qualifies as a philosopher but as the author of The Endless Dead End and a few memorable essays, he’s one of the most gifted living Russian writers, no matter how crazy. This occurred to me just yesterday, so I apologize for not replying at once.

  1. Yes, Putin has a few things in common with Mussolini: machismo (e.g. the topless photos); worship of brute power; use of foreign aggression (Ukraine/ Abyssinia) to win public support; and an adolescent sense of grievance that the world isn’t showing his country due respect. I also think the West overrates the strength of Putin’s Russia as it did with Mussolini’s Italy (again Ukraine/Abyssinia) – although Putin does have nukes. But Putinist ideology is indeed a half-hearted thing compared to Italian fascism.

    Still, he’s closer to Mussolini than to Hitler and maybe closer to Slobodan Milosevic than either.

    • You were the first to point out the parallels between Putin and Mussolini to me. They make good sense but my recent reading on Italy has also revealed major contrasts, above all, I think, the difference between the social fabric of the two countries. Russian society is still largely atomized, the opposite of Italy.

      • You were the first to point out the parallels between Putin and Mussolini to me.

        Of course, that was partly a rhetorical ploy. Comparing Putin to Mussolini rather than Hitler is a lot less flattering. Mussolini’s popular reputation is that of a posturing buffoon and military and economic incompetent.

        Italy’s history is very different from Russia’s. Italy was only unified in 1860 and regionalism is still very much alive. Welding Italy together was one of Mussolini’s main problems. Russia has a much longer tradition of absolutist centralised power for Putin to draw on.

        Incidentally, I’ve just finished reading a history of Genoa. Mussolini’s youth organisation the “Balilla” was named in honour of a street urchin who started the Genoese revolt against Austrian occupation in 1746. Unfortunately, twentieth-century historians discovered that the urchin’s nickname was actually “Mangiamerda” not “Balilla”. Mussolini had this bit of research suppressed.

        • That’s a good tale, although I suspect he was both “Balilla” (short for GianBattista) and “Mangiamerda” (in lieu of surname).

          Obviously, Italy and Russia followed two very different routes to modernity, and it was not Mussolini who took the totalitarian way, although he was one of the first to use the word. He did not go after the church and the traditional family. The Bolsheviks did not preach polygamy or promiscuity either, but one of the foremost role models for the Soviet youth was Pavlik Morozov, a boy who denounced his father as an enemy of the people.

          • He wasn’t a very good totalitarian, was he? Catholics followed the Pope; he had limited success bending major industrialists to do his economic bidding; he had to water down his policies to appeal to the middle classes; and he was lucky that Victor Emmanuel was so weak-willed because the army were loyal to the king not Il Duce. I think there’s an anecdote in Christopher Duggan’s book on modern Italy where a southern peasant is being interviewed after the war and is asked if he’s happy Mussolini has been overthrown. The peasant replies that he’s never heard of the guy.

            • I’m thinking of a Russian or Ukrainian peasant who had not heard of Stalin in 1945. He would have been a lucky man.

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