By Akshay Ragupathy
“Fascism” is a word that is heard depressingly often. The enormity of the crimes of Fascist regimes have lent the old thing a rather macabre halo, the result of which is that it has found itself rather easily used in conversation as a prompt way to derail meaningful discussion. While, if the reality of our situation matches our words – and that would certainly be an alarming situation – the terminology may be appropriate, a less rigorous and more pejorative deployment of the word threatens to dissolve it; to exhaust the moral outrage still evoked by the living memory of bygone atrocities. The first step, then, is to establish a picture.
Now, Fascism is a complex historical and social movement: we can hardly fix and essentialize it to a series of traits; nonetheless, we can attempt to define the logic behind a fascist politics.
The birthplace of Fascism was Italy. The Italian unification – the Risorgimento – culminated in 1870, resulting in a constitutional monarchy in the manner of Great Britain. In the years that followed, the tensions between the industrializing North and the rural South and the iron-clad control of the Party Bosses – corrupt politicians who had hijacked the political process – left Italy with a spate of none too trifling problems. As the year 1914 trundled along, Italy was a poor and backward country by most standards. In the year 1913, a tiny 2.5% of the population was enfranchised; Italy had neither natural resources nor any fertile land. Unemployment scoured the land. Droves of men and women emigrated. When Italy attempted to exert itself as a colonial force in a capitalist world, she found remarkably little success; Abyssinia, an African state, defeated Italian armies at Adowa in 1896.
After the First World War, despite the Kingdom of Italy being a full-partner Allied Power, Italian nationalism claimed that Italy was cheated in the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The Italians fought bravely and lost 600,000 men, yet found them not receiving the territory they had been promised. This resentment simmered, fueled by the post-war poverty of Italy. In the immediate aftermath of war, the country’s tourism industry screeched to a halt, while the debts incurred for the war-effort slowly piled up. Unemployment was aggravated by the return of the ex-soldiers, and its effects compounded by runaway inflation.
Faced with an uncaring State, the people turned to the Socialists and the Catholic Popular Party in 1919. The Socialists seized more than 1/3rd of the entire vote, forming the single largest party in the Chamber of Deputies. At a length followed the Catholics – and behind them, losing heavily – the liberals and the democrats. Buoyed by success, the Socialists prepared to strike. Socialist agitation hit a fever pitch on September 1920, with the call for a general strike: with it, the workers took over more than 600 factories and established Soviets on the Russian model. Socialist dominance was established in the North, but this failed to translate into a long lasting hegemony. When the government promised a 20% wage increase, the strike was called off (leading to the split between the Socialist Reformists and the Communists in 1922) and the Socialists hardly made a mark on the mostly peasant populated south – rather, the peasantry found itself alarmed by the talk of collectivization.
Though merely a momentary conflagration, the Red Menace terrified the industrialists, landlords, and the other beneficiaries of the regime of property rights. They found their champion in an ex-socialist, disillusioned by the Socialists’ rejection of World War 1 – Benito Mussolini.
Mussolini first appeared on the scene in 1904 as a famous socialist agitator and journalist. His oratory and writing won him the editorship of Avanti! – the socialist newspaper. His views fluctuated from a syndicalist interpretation of Marxism to a loose, untheorized Anarchism – he did not continuously endorse any stance. In 1915, the Socialist party attacked him for favoring war on the side of the allies. In response, Mussolini left the party and joined the army. On his return from the war, he formed the Milan Fascio – a group with no clear-cut programme, except an ardent belief in action. He floated vaguely worded ideas of universal suffrage, the abolition of the Senate, land for the peasants, improvement of workers’ conditions, and a strong foreign policy. In the 1919 elections, these views won Mussolini no seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
The general strike and the Bolshevik fear gave Mussolini the window of opportunity – he adopted a violently anti-Bolshevik stance; he ceased his earlier attacks on the Monarchy, the Capitalists, and the Catholics. He promised a strong government that would suppress class conflict and championed a strong foreign policy that would bring national glory to Italy. Finances from the industrialists began pouring in and membership in the Fascist party increased exponentially.
Alarmed at the rising power of the fascists, the Socialists and Communists declared a general strike in August 1922. In the swirling chaos, Mussolini threatened a ‘March on Rome’ if he was not accepted into the cabinet – in tune, bands of armed Fascists roamed the countryside, causing genuine alarm to the political class. The government dissolved with embarrassing haste and the King tasked Mussolini – the new Prime Minister – with restoring Order. The large-scale disenchantment with constitutional government, the events of the First World War, and the threat of socialist revolution created a particular historical conjuncture that propelled Mussolini into power, fueling his meteoric rise.
It is precisely within this historical conjecture that we can unearth the dynamic of fascist ideology. The Fascist movement was a spontaneous movement of large masses, with new leaders from the rank and file. It was fundamentally a plebeian movement in origin; though directed and financed by big capital, it issued forth from the lower-middle class and the workers – what was, in the language of the Marxism of those days, referred to as the ‘petty-bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat.’ Mussolini himself was a self-made man, an ex-member of the socialist party. It would be misleading to portray this politics as operating purely on the level of propaganda – Fascism responded to the genuine needs of the situation offering a solution.
Fascism comes in part from ‘fasces‘ – a bundle of rods around an Axe carried by magistrates in ancient Rome as a symbol of power and authority and in part from ‘fascio‘ – or group. In the face of the alienation that capitalism subjects the working population to, Fascism offered a vision of individual achievement attained through devotion to the State; a vision of a unified State which, like so many little sticks, bound together, would form the terrifying fasces that would realize the glory of the Nation. This is the vision of the totalitarian state, extolled and glorified – the term accepted wholeheartedly – a state that would control the economic, political and cultural activities of the national life – a strong state. Parliamentary democracy could only lead to inefficiency and corruption – the Italian State prior to World War I, which teetered at the edge of ruin, was quite enough. Only a well-disciplined party elite could restore order and stability and realize the good of the nation. These enlightened philosopher-princes, drawn self-consciously from Platonic tradition, apprehended the true unity of the Nation – to which Fascism demanded that all classes subordinate themselves to. To the Marxist dictum of Class Struggle, Mussolini forwarded Class Cooperation; egalitarianism, in such a view, is a fanciful myth.
Thus, the Fascist Nation is, perforce, a glorious nation. Mussolini’s Italy was to be the Third Empire, following in the legacy the first (the Roman Empire) and the second (the Renaissance). In a paradoxical double-movement, the glory of the past is embraced – but not in such a manner as to restore tradition – but to modernize tradition. The present pales before the wonders that came before it, and it is this very feeling of indignant rage, of a civilization dispossessed, of a race laid waste to, that is the source of the powerful enthusiasm that the modernizing forces of the Fascist movement generate. Italy must be returned to its place of glory, Mussolini insisted: the project of Risorgimento completed, Irredenta Italia returned – but a glory judged by what standard? That of modernity – evidenced by the enthusiasm Mussolini had for Futurism – and at another place in another time, for the fascination with routinization and rationalization that culminated in the holocaust.
The glorious nation of Fascism is, by definition, united; but this unity is a contextual one. The racial and cultural Others of the Nation are continually expunged and the claim of unity is in fact a simultaneous call to arms to get rid of the excess. Here, those who challenge the mythical unity of the Nation – such as organized labour – are in their very existence antithetical to the fascist imagination. The idea of the Nation is secured by the erasure of trade unions and collective bargaining – by the ballot, or if it comes to it, the gun. The fragmentation of proletariat – to the point that it no longer recognizes itself as such – is the primary condition for this political regime; explaining the characteristic distaste of Fascism for Communists – routinely the first to be dispatched off in pogroms.
The exploitation that the capitalist economy brings into daily life is harnessed – the rage of economic depredation experienced, and displaced into the cultural realm, and responded to with a cultural politics. The racial-cultural language of reclamation (the ‘spazio vitale’) that justifies further expansion while tautologically legitimating a racial politics of purification within the Nation.
It was this Nation – this mythic, grandiose and overpowering Nation, that tolerated no rebuke and which recognized in it no inequity – that in the years following 1924 legitimated a slow but consistent decapitation of the democratic state: the banning of the press, the shutdown of the unions, and the disintegration of all political parties save the Fascist. It is a politics of indignation, of frustration. For the wild aspirations of the citizen of Fascism, his nation disappoints him. It is in this time of bitter and brittle rage that the roaring voice of the Nation calls out for his obedience, and he responds.
Akshay Ragupathy is pursuing his masters in Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi.