A review of Mussolini's Intellectuals: Fascist Social and Political Thought, by A. James Gregor

Fascist" is nowadays a swearword for a politician or political stance one strongly dislikes. Orwell observed a half-century ago that the term was already on its way to vapidity; in our time, it has lost almost all specific meaning. This intelligent book is a helpful reminder that "Italian Fascism" was historically the first, and remains the most authentic, expression of fascism as an intellectual movement.

A. James Gregor, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, has written several useful books on the fascist era. His latest, Mussolini's Intellectuals: Fascist Social and Political Thought, exhibits his clear, incisive writing style, and is adorned with detailed notes, mostly referring to volumes in Italian. This is a book written by a scholar for scholars (and students) of the Italian fascist movement—all the more reason the volume should have included a bibliography and cited, wherever possible, the best English translations of the principal Italian works. 

To most readers, Gregor's often apologetic tone regarding fascism, not to mention his sparse criticism of fascist ideas, will appear provocative. But he is not alone. His position is consistent with several recent revisionist interpretations of the history of fascism that have appeared in Italy and elsewhere. At any rate, he leaves no question about his main thesis: fascism was animated by a credible and coherent belief system. If "credible" means that fascist ideas were believed by hundreds of thousands of Italians as well as foreigners, he is right. But if "credible" means verifiable in some empirical sense, he is not; no idealist epistemology (including the Italian fascists') that denies the reality of an independently existing world is credible. Besides, such facts as the dissolution of the Italian Parliament, the censorship of books that criticized Mussolini's regime, the annexation of foreign countries by force, the murder of Matteotti and other Italians, the destructive acts of the squadristi, the imprisonment of critics, such as Antonio Gramsci and Guido Calogero, and finally the imposition of Italian racial laws—all contradicted fascism's self-declared liberalism and its neo-Hegelian concept of the ethical state. The fact that fewer Jews were killed in Italy than in Germany does not, in itself, lessen Italian fascist injustice or immorality. 

Gregor argues for the coherence of fascist ideas, as well. If "coherence" implies a set of propositions each of which is consistent with the others, Gregor himself casts doubt on fascism's coherence over time. For example, neither Giovanni Gentile, who was after all the self-proclaimed philosopher of fascism, nor most of the other fascist thinkers covered in this book, ever believed in the German idea of racial inferiority. Nor could such an idea be logically deduced from early Italian fascist ideas. Note, too, that fascist ideology did not presuppose a coherence theory of truth. In the fascist account, what was true consisted in the most recent pronouncements either by il Duce or by his elite, regardless of consistency with past statements; in short, truth was the creative act of the uomo fascista. So coherence becomes irrelevant for fascist ideas, because truth depends on both the time when a statement is expressed and who expresses it. Here, in the idea of truth as willful creation by the elite or the uomo fascista, we can see the influence of 19th-century thinkers, especially Nietzsche. Yet Gregor refers to Nietzsche only in passing. 

Gregor denies the influence of irrationalism on fascist doctrine, and the texts support him. Yet I would add that, for these thinkers, a complete understanding of any human action or expression had to include, alongside will and thought, feeling. All three activities were equally important for 20th-century idealism. It is difficult to understand, especially in the light of the neo-Hegelianism developed by the philosopher of fascism himself, Giovanni Gentile, and by his student, Ugo Spirito, how anyone could think otherwise. 

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Although in this book Gregor devotes most of his attention to lesser lights, Gentile remains the most systematically philosophical, and by far the most brilliant, of the group of fascist intellectuals. It would have been helpful if Gregor had more thoroughly discussed the philosophical roots of Gentile's "actual idealism," and his early influence on Mussolini and his followers. According to the author, during the 1920s British and European thinkers considered Gentile the most brilliant philosopher of education on the continent and the principal spokesman for Italian neo-Hegelianism. Gentile was Mussolini's first Minister of Public Instruction. His reforms left a lasting impact on Italian education, particularly his ideas for national examinations and the night school. Benedetto Croce, who during the first two decades of the 20th century was one of Gentile's strongest supporters, publicly broke with him in the early 1920s. But as Gentile noted, their fundamental differences had begun to emerge much earlier. At least since his Ciò che è vivo e ciò che è morto della filosofia di Hegel (What is Living and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Hegel), published in 1907, Croce had rejected neo-Hegelianism. He remained a liberal neo-Kantian. 

Gregor's choice to treat the fascist intellectuals and their ideas chapter by chapter proves somewhat awkward, due to their mutual influence on one another. Perhaps a more seamless division by theme would have been better. Still, he gives a dependable overview of, for instance, Spirito, who did more than anyone else to disseminate Gentile's philosophy. When I was a student at the University of Rome, taking a course from Professor Spirito, I was told (not by him) that Gentile's two brightest students were Spirito and Calogero. Calogero became an Italian pragmatist, much impressed by the philosophy of John Dewey, whereas Spirito became first an "actual idealist," then after World War II a Marxist, and finally an existential nihilist. 

Mussolini's Intellectuals discusses other fascist thinkers, including Sergio Panunzio, Camillo Pellizi, and Carlo Costamagna, now known mainly to specialists. It barely mentions some arguably more famous and influential fascist minds. But they all held to an idealist epistemology, according to which what we know is the creation of intellect, feeling, and will. In short, they proposed, contrary to Marx and to the positivists, an idealist metaphysics. This was the culmination of Italian neo-Hegelianism, as filtered through the ideas of Bertrando Spaventa. Indeed the roots of Gentile's "actual idealism," at times labeled a "philosophy of immanence" and the metaphysics of the "I" (io), partly lay in Spaventa's conception of spiritual idealism. To spiritualize means to make an external object one's own by transforming it. During this process, the self appropriates and synthesizes a material object. By psychologically assimilating and unifying it, the self creates a spiritual object out of a material one. 

In their rebellion against Kantian and Enlightenment intellectual dualisms, the Italian neo-Hegelians wanted to unify what they believed that Kant had put asunder—thought, will, feeling; subject and object; man and nature; ought and is, citizen and state; nature and God; spirit and matter. What was described as the actual idealism of Gentile and his followers was not only epistemological but also metaphysical: ultimate reality is a spiritual organic unity. The presence of an organic unity requires that the relations between its parts be necessary, not accidental or fortuitous, such that if any part were changed the whole organism would be altered. This concept was essential to the fascist idea of the nation-state, which was employed to justify the notion that the state was more real and more valuable than its citizens. The nation-state expressed the highest spiritual reality; it was the march of the fully immanent God on earth. 

Fascist logic, based on the neo-Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, supported the idea of progress. The nation-state expressed the best political, ethical, economic, and sociological order possible at a given time and place; it expressed the people or nation in the fullest and highest sense. Rebellion against the state in the name of abstract, permanent ideals that supposedly existed independently of human beings, or on the ground of natural rights, was never justifiable. Nevertheless, for fascism, reform or even revolution understood in terms of the dialectical progress of human nature and values should occur continually inside the state. Such conflict took place within the structure of all political regimes, which were fated to evolve, through conflict, into ever more harmonious entities. 

Of course, fascist discord too often produced disharmony rather than superior harmony, and at times ended in nihilistic chaos. The limits of fascist idealism were evident to thinkers like Croce long before these illiberal imperatives began to assert themselves in practice, and, needless to say, long before the Nazis put their own stamp on matters. Too late, experience joined reason in exposing the folly of Italian fascism's belief in history's inerrancy and the state's divinity.