The first volume of what promises to be by far the most rigorous and methodologically exciting analysis of Italian Fascism yet to have appeared has recently come out in France: Robert Paris’ Histoire du Fascisme en Italie.footnote1 Showing complete familiarity with the mass of published material on the subject, Paris’ book is doubly welcome since it is clearly deeply indebted for its method and inspiration to the work of Antonio Gramsci, whose studies of Italian history and culture are fundamental to an understanding of Italian society of the last hundred and fifty years. The richness of Paris’ method and scholarship is high-lighted by the simultaneous publication in English translation of a slim volume on recent Italian history by an eminent liberal historian: A History of Italian Fascismfootnote2 by Federico Chabod, which, despite its manifest inadequacies of content and weaknesses of analysis, has received warm acclaim from reviewers. The appearance of Chabod's book, however, suggests that some dis-cussion of the nature of Fascism may be timely.
Although Fascism is one of the most familiar terms in our political vocabulary, it is hardly ever used in a way that suggests both an analytical grasp of its essential nature, and a real awareness of its autonomy as a category. Most writing either signally fails to advance beyond simple description of its external characteristics, or reduces it totally to its infrastructural base, effectively abdicating before its historical and concrete existence.
The usual Marxist interpretation of Fascism in the inter-war period, despite serious attempts in certain cases to define the sociological conditions for its existencefootnote3, was vitiated by one fatal false
Nevertheless, it should be remembered that this analysis of Fascism was at least practical and geared to active opposition— although this opposition was later critically weakened by Stalin’s disastrous thesis that Fascism and Social Democracy were “not antipodes but twins”. Whereas for the English middle-class in the twenties and early thirties, Fascism was a system which, although perhaps idiosyncratic by British parliamentary standards, seemed the sort of strong government that was needed for Italians. During the thirties the Nazi rise to power in Germany, the Abyssinian war, the Spanish Civil War, and Mosleyism, helped to produce a moral and emotional anti-Fascism in the Liberal bourgeoisie, which was consolidated by World War II propaganda, in which the issue of “democracy against Fascism” was presented as the reason for the war, and was accepted as such (at least overtly) even by those who had been impressed with the punctuality of Italian trains. Perhaps the most eloquent example of this kind of seeming inconsistency was provided by Winston Churchill. In 1927, speaking in Rome to the Roman Fascists, he said: “If I had been an Italian, I am sure I should have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.” Yet in 1940 he was able to become the spokesman of “democracy” in its struggle against Fascism, without any basic change in his political philosophy. In fact, of course, the anti-Fascist aspect of the war against Italy and Germany was of negligible importance, if any, in deciding the British government to go to war; although it later became the real and felt rationale of the struggle.
It is important to contrast the sincere condemnation, indeed often violent abhorrence, of the actual manifestations of Fascism which was and still is widespread among all strata in this country (including—why not?—industrialists, generals, cabinet ministers, etc.) with the complete lack of any real attempt to analyse what it was essentially, whose interests it served, and how it could be opposed. Liberal and social-democrat interpretations were in this respect utterly mystified, even when most hostile and most serious
Since 1945, of course, the strength of emotional anti-Fascism has greatly diminished, and to a large extent has become merely a mechanical slogan on the left, while it has been subsumed by the right and by cold-war liberals under the pseudo-concept of totalitarianism. As Paris points out, not only is this notion in fact aimed (usually in conscious intention, always in objective effect) at Communism rather than Fascism, but it is also, and above all, the ideal liberal concept, in that it diverts attention firmly from problems of structure to derivative phenomena, from problems of history and man’s attempt to make it to an abstract critique which logically presumes an unchanging, hypostasized world in which ideas contend for mastery. As such, it is particularly useful in a country with a large organized working-class with socialist traditions, where the crude American opposition of Socialism-Communism over against freedom and free enterprise is politically unviable. This anti-communism which parades as anti-totalitarianism is reinforced and made unequivocal in its effects by the apparently marginal contemporary importance of Fascism. Hitler and Mussolini are gone, Fascist symptoms in West Germany are minimized or concealed, Spain and Portugal escape notice as backwaters. Atlantic anti-Fascism today is thus in every sense an epiphenomenon.
However, in Italy, with its recent Fascist past and vast heritage of institutions, legislation and cultural formation from that past, the problem of Fascism is still of a living political issue. Those Italians who are over thirty-five today grew up under Fascism, and were forced to accept it or reject it. Those who rejected it, Catholics, Liberals, Socialists and Communists, those who fought in the Resistance, did so for reasons which were not necessarily connected with the essence of Fascism, but often related rather to its contingent aspects. This in no way detracted from the genuineness of their resistance, nor did it in any way impair its effectiveness. Their resistance was an immediate response to an oppressive reality.