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The Doctrine of Fascism by Benito Mussolini
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The “Doctrine of Fascism” is a 1932 essay and Italian encyclopedia entry written by Giovanni Gentile and Mussolini, although it was originally presented as being entirely authored by the latter. The entry is divided into two parts. The first part, “Fundamental Ideas,” is by the neo-Hegelian Idealist philosopher Gentile, who offers a brief overview of fascism as a political philosophy. It foreshadows the essay’s longer second section, “Political and Social Doctrine,” by Mussolini. Fascism, Gentile writes, is concerned with the group over the individual; the group—society, or “the people”—finds its fullest expression in the State. It’s the freedom of the State, not the individual, that fascism is committed to maintaining. Fascism rejects “individualistic abstractions based on eighteenth-century materialism.” The State is not only a political institution but a spiritual one, insofar as it represents a concentrated expression of the “will of man.” The second part of the essay is the most noteworthy; it offers a coherent and detailed description of fascism as a political philosophy. It is useful, therefore, as a historical document, a reference you can turn to when examining the theoretical origins of Italian fascism in particular and fascism in general, which exists in its “classical” form in Mussolini’s Italy.

Mussolini begins by explaining how fascism emerged as a philosophy. It was born, he writes, out of a need for action. Fascism has no political program or doctrine in the 1910s because this is when its principles were being formulated, based on necessities. It took time for its tenants to develop because it was born out of the chaos of the times. It was not, “the nursling of a doctrine previously drafted at a desk.” In those “early years” fascism may not have had a doctrine but it had a “faith” and a “will” that was later elaborated. Fascism is anti-pacifistic and militaristic. Influenced by social Darwinism, it conceives of the world as a difficult and competitive contest between warring nations. Its commitment is to expansion and conquest, to the “fighting spirit,” which motivates the imperial enlargement that animates and energizes a nation. It’s through claiming this Spazio Vitale (a pretty name for an ugly thing) that a nation asserts its dominance and strength. Fascism is hierarchal and highly authoritarian. It arose, Mussolini explains, as a consequence of the failure of all other political systems, which are ill-suited to the vicissitudes of modernity.

While Mussolini claims that fascism is revolutionary rather than reactionary, he spends a lot of time distinguishing it from socialism and liberalism. Fascism is incompatible with socialism on three accounts. Because it rejects the dialectical materialist conception of history (which belittles human action as a mere shadow or echo of economics). Fascism does not see class struggle as the major defining tension in history, nor does it posit that, once economic justice has been achieved, felicity will necessarily follow. Fascism sees things differently: the force that shapes history is the will of man (as embodied, under fascism, in the will of the State); its divides the world, first and foremost, into nations rather than classes; and it begins by resigning itself to the idea that felicity will never be achieved on earth. It renounces hopes for happiness and relishes instead the "spiritual" and national solidarity that is embodied in its highest form in the State. Mussolini goes on to distinguish fascism from liberalism.

Cynically, he defines democracy as a system in which people operate under the “delusion” that they exercise sovereignty when in fact “real sovereignty resides in and is exercised by other and sometimes irreconcilable forces.” (Of course, fascism emerges when there is a widespread belief in the failure of democracy; frustration with the chaos and impasse of the democratic process instills in people a longing for authority and discipline, a willingness to give up a degree of their classical freedoms to have someone (“the man”) tell them what to do and get things done.) Fascism is opposed to liberalism because it is anti-individualistic, inequalitarian and opposed to the idea that “numbers… can be a determining factor in human society.” It is one’s loyalty and love of State that give one civic authority, not one’s mere existence.

Mussolini reiterates the importance of the group over the individual. In one of the essays most chilling passages, he observes that, “If the 19th-century was the century of the individual (liberalism implies individualism) we are free to believe that this is the ‘collective century’ and therefore the century of the state.”

In the final section, Mussolini expands his theory of State responsibility. The State, under fascism, is “totalitarian”; it penetrates into every aspect of public and private life (yikes). Rather than simply being a means of political organization, it invests the people (a euphemism for what inevitably becomes violent coercion) with the nation’s highest spiritual, moral, and cultural values:
“The State guarantees the internal and external safety of the country, but it also safeguards and transmits the spirit of the people, elaborated down the ages in its language, its customs, its faith. The State is not only the present; it is also the past and above all the future. Transcending the individual’s brief spell of life, the State stands for the immanent conscience of the nation. The forms in which it finds expression change, but the need for it remains. The State educates the citizens to civism, makes them aware of their mission, urges them to unity; its justice harmonizes their divergent interests; it transmits to future generations the conquests of the mind in the fields of science, art, law, human solidarity; it leads men up from primitive tribal life to that highest manifestation of human power, imperial rule. The State hands down to future generations the memory of those who laid down their lives to ensure its safety or to obey its laws; it sets up as examples and records for future ages the names of the captains who enlarged its territory and of the men of genius who have made it famous. Whenever respect for the State declines and the disintegrating and centrifugal tendencies of individuals and groups prevail, nations are headed for decay… The Fascist State organizes the nation, but it leaves adequate elbow room.”

The contrast between this glorified characterization of what the Fascist State “does” and the ruthless coercion and repression (not to mention mass murder) that it is historically responsible for is enough to discredit fascism as a political disposition that, while tempting in times of crisis, misery, and impasse, inevitably devolves, as Hayek argues, into tyranny.

Culturally, fascism commits itself to sustaining the more “arduous” forms of culture. If culture deteriorates and grows lax under democracy. Fascistic culture is disciplined and rigorous, says Mussolini.

If you take Mussolini’s treatise as an ur-text of fascist theory (and I don’t think it’s a mistake to), Nazism appears to be a distinct and slightly peculiar version of fascist thinking. German fascism has many of the same impulses as Italian fascism: its militarism, nationalism, hyper-authoritarianism, collectivism, its hearkening back to some epic mythic past (the Roman Empire or the Norse sagas), its longing for some glorious rebirth. Nazism's vast and intricate racialist mythology marks it as peculiar and distinctly repulsive manifestation of a political philosophy that is more general in its objectives.

Still, in films like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia you have a good example of what Benjamin and co. call fascist aesthetics. In the former, a synchronized choreography of ecstatic bodies march and orbit around their leader; the individual vanishes. Though the central avenue of Nürburg’s historic center, past the timber-framed houses and glittering fountains, on the vast rally grounds, and in massive congress hall, all that exists is the crowd and their führer, a dynamic of domination and submission that lends structure to previously war-ravaged Germany but only on the surface. Beneath the rippling movement and breakthrough camerawork is an abyss, the unspeakable—the human lives that are sacrificed in the service of an “eternal order” that inevitably reveals itself as a sham, based on the arbitrary dictates of a tyrant.

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Reading Progress

July 8, 2019 – Started Reading
July 8, 2019 – Shelved
July 23, 2019 – Finished Reading

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