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Mussolini's Intellectuals: Fascist Social and Political Thought

Mussolini's Intellectuals: Fascist Social and Political Thought - A. James Gregor Chapter six in Gregor's book examines the philosophical basis of fascist corporatism - a project that Gregor takes as at the core of the fascist philosophic enterprise. Formulated by men like Ugo Spirito and Sergio Panunzio, it was ultimately based on the Idealism (called 'Actualism') of Giovanni Gentile (himself a disciple of Croce) -- who was Mussolini's 'official' philosopher (cp. the 1932 Dottrina del Fascismo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Doctrine_of_Fascism). The doctrine is remarkably coherent and sublime.

(The use of this last word is not careless, but expresses something of the spirit of fascism; it was the Spanish fascist (Falangist), José Antonio Primo de Rivera, for example, who said that 'the shortest distance between two points is the one that goes through the stars', a typical formulation of interwar fascist romanticism. There is an account of this individual in Robert Wohl's, the Generation of 1914. I first encountered this line, btw, in the books of Henry Miller… just think of all the fascists or would be fascists who are quoted and idolized by Miller, men like Knut Hamsun, Gabriele D'Annunzio…, Elie Faure…)

The fascism of Giovanni Gentile's Actualism was fashioned in conscious and overt opposition to the liberal views of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment began with the assumption that the primary social unit was the solitary and asocial empirical individual -- the doctrine referred to by Lockeans as 'social atomism' -- from which the State (which is nothing but a legal fiction, given weight by articles of incorporation) is constructed by means of a contractual coming together of these atomic selves. Its role is simply to serve as "the night watchman". But Gentile assumed that there exists, even at the metaphysical level, a profound identity between the empirical individual and the corporate entity of relevance -- whether this be the family, the clan, the nation, the race, or (as the French Fascists would have it) 'la communité de foi'.

(From this last, one can begin to recognize why men like Pat Robertson or Ralph Reed -- why the Christian Dominionists like R.J. Rushdooney and his progeny -- including Palinism -- indeed are fascists).

Actualists argued that the collective is prior ontologically to the individual. Indeed, it is an historical fact that the social unit of human society is most probably the primitive herd, the kinship group, and that the individual only emerges from it as an autonomous actor fairly late -- in Greece, one thinks of the rise of Lyric, or of the 5th century…; in the Early Modern West, of the Renaissance (Jacob Burckhardt)…; that, as Nietzsche put it: Das 'Du' is alter als das 'Ich'. At any rate, this is the anti-Enlightenment view that Gentile starts with.

The primary existent, then, in the group -- whatever historical form that community assumes -- and the individual is only a precipitate of that group -- originally unformed, and taking on greater and greater individuation over time. He is not a given, or a self-contained monad (as liberals presume). The collectivity is antecedent, and expresses a collective will (-- this notion ultimately is derived from the General Will of Rousseau's Social Contract; it is fascinating to see how the fascists have appropriated Rousseau, since the Rousseau of the Second Discourse is so widely admired by the Left, and was read by Marx) -- which Collective Will is seen as a 'transcendental ego'. From this Transcendental Ego, the empirical individual of sense (as I said) precipitates. (Think now, once again, of the Christian Right….) But it is the community from which it precipitates that is the ground -- ontologically, cognitively, morally. The community -- and the State, which is its executive expression -- is therefore not a construction 'inter homines', but is a reality immanent 'interiore homine'. Individuals (pace Hayek) are simply not found in a state of nature; but emerge out of an organized community.

This position is rooted, astonishingly, in Gentile's Idealism: The essence of the human being (according to Gentile) is thought or thinking…. we are essentially thinkers. Therein resides our being. But neither thought nor thinking can be conceived, in any real sense, as private or individual. Thought (qua thinking) 'intrinsically' involves language (-- if you doubt this, try a thought experiment - imagine you were a dog or a plant with vision, but no language whatsoever…have never had any language at all… now think about something… ); and there ARE no private languages. Every so-called private language, like every encryption, is really parasitical on some public language. Comprehensibility itself implies common use. The criteria governing such activity (i.e., governing our activity… our CORE activity) is thus, at its very heart, collective, As there is no private language, there are no uniquely individual judgments. Thus everything we are is, at our very core, an expression of the society that 'sponsors' us. We are but a precipitate of the historical community that forms us.

If there is no private being, then neither can there be any private initiative in the true sense -- hence, no private property. It is all organic. The very distinction between 'private' and 'public' collapses, vanishes… man is, at his VERY core, political. There is nothing to him that does not belong more truly to the group from which he comes. Likewise, the distinction between ruler and ruled must vanishe -- there are not rulers -- but only a sublimely collective regime. But the regime (expressed as the State) expresses the General Will -- not the will of a collection of empirical individuals -- and the General Will may not be recognized by the multitude (of these individuals). It is rather an elite, and among this elite… the leader, alone that conceives it -- and that will express it… and mold it… and impose it….

The transformation from the fractious liberal state of the modern period to this 'organic' enterprise -- 'organic', of course, is another code-word that one should watch for… will be slow, and must be mediated. Thus the emerging consensus will establish intermediate agencies, commencing with a variety of youth and student goups, professional organizations, labor syndicates, entrepreneurial groups, that will organize social life…. thus life will be regimented in all its aspects and harmonized into the totalizing and totalitarian goals of the organic community that is being fashioned. It is in these various organizations that we take on our individuating traits -- but a posteriori -- and which thus shape our thinking, our reality… our 'us-ness' (das 'Ich'). The role of the State is thus to be pedagogical (think: fascistization), as the individuals are molded to be obedient, self-sacrificing, so as to further the ideals and aims of the community -- which is driven, however, ultimately and unfortunately, to compete, often to the death, with competing groups….

There's much more, but this gives you some idea of it. One can learn much about the Bush years by reading this material. And I say that dispassionately and without hyperbole.

(This truly is an excellent book; if anyone is looking for a concise, readable, eminently clear and yet serious account of the development and structure of fascist thought -- this is the book. In fact, it is Gregor's contention -- and one I agree with -- that it is precisely the ideas developed in these pages that informs the thought underlying the rise of resource nationalism in the 21st century. As such, this is a timely book.)

This is a outstanding book - in fact, it has a poignancy and seriousness and maturity from the opening lines. I am reading this on my new iPhone via a kindle edition -- while standing on-line at the supermarket and such -- the first ebook I've ever read -- I had no idea what I was missing...!

It also corrects a few misconceptions I had about Gregor himself. First of all, he is not an admirer, as I always thought, of Julius Evola (though I had read somewhere once that he had started out as a disciple of his) - but thinks he's a nut. No argument there. He also, interestingly, states that he does not think fascism is a plausible solution -- he seems closest now to Prezzolini, Ugo Spirito, Gentile, and Panunzio.

He believes that fascism is a movement neither of the Left nor of the Right; that it represents a revolt of the middle-class in collaboration with capitalism. Because Marxism considers this a contradiction (for Marx, as Gregor thinks it, the petite bourgeoisie is destined for extinction by the ever-increasing concentration of capital), Marxist interpretations of fascism (and their derivatives) HAVE to assume that fascism is doctrinally hollow. To refute this, Gregor goes through a collection of fascist thinkers, the Syndicalists, the corporatists, the nationalists, and explicates their thought. That they are not absurd, or inconsequential, and incoherent -- is undeniable. But fascism, even as Gregor understands it, still rests on certain primary assumptions -- the priority of the collectivity - that cannot be ignored, and Gregor's insistence that fascism is not essentially anti-modern, or anti-Enlightenment is not, in my opinion, persuasive. It also rests, the Italian variety, on a Neo-Hegelian idealism (clear in Gentile) that is a bit preposterous, in the final analysis.

When he talks about fascism, Gregor thinks about Italy, and about Mussolini - and seems to think that all the other far-right ideologies from Nazis to Berlusconi to teabaggers have nothing at all to do with it. This is preposterous, and the fly-in-the-ointment. It is a testament, however, to Gregor's genius that his work remains both fascinating and insightful and of great value DESPITE certain over-arching absurdities.