Giuseppe Bottai - "Fascism as Intellectual Revolution"

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niccolo and donkey Misologos Roland

Tonight I will speak to you in the language of a National Fascist Party member, one who is proud to carry the card of the National Fascist Party.

Do not view this preliminary statement as superfluous. Today, nothing predisposes our party to internal fractures. The inner moral and spiritual unity of our organization is its fivefold structure -- political, military, trade union, cooperative, and technical -- is wholly admirable, especially when one considers the pressures exerted by adversaries who remain unconvinced that the new era demands a revision of their doctrine and methods. The party retains its compact and urgent strength in the face of some recent polemics and silly splits. This is the reason I open my speech, a speech of the highest composure whose polemics are driven more by inner passion than by artful virulence, with the explicit statement that I very concretely belong to the official organization of the National Fascist Party.

Buoyed with strength in the wake of our victory, I chose to shoulder the most challenging of tasks: to remind the victors of their responsibilities and not of the advantages victory has procured. As a result, accusatory fingers have been pointing at me with increased frequency. The fingers of severe judges filled with scorn for my serenely critical language. The fingers of the timorous, eager to shore up their irrational, catastrophic pessimism through my objective analysis.

But I am a man for whom passions of this sort are entirely alien, whether due to factors of temperament or of education. A mad passion for discipline leads to blindness. A mad passion for the critical spirit leads to intellectual anarchy.

I served fascism from its origins in 1919, embracing it as an intellectual and spiritual reaction and advancing its cause with my intelligence and spirit. Standing firm against adversaries who asserted the rights of culture in order to oppose us, I felt emboldened by knowing that I possessed a more valid and ready force than muscular strength alone. In my recourse to the latter, I let necessity and measure be my guides, aided by my experience of the battlefields as an Ardito (that remarkable expression of young Italians' intelligence in the form of audacity).

I have always recognized the genesis of fascism as non-theoretical and non-logical in the sense that it was the product neither of a systematic, preordained set of ideas nor of a stone-cold calculation. Indeed, I view this anti-theory and anti-logic bias as one of the merits of the fascist movement and as one of the reasons that it unfolded so rapidly and impetuously, progressing almost instinctively, as if according to a natural chain reaction. But I never believed that intelligence, in the purest sense of this beautiful Latin and Italian term, was absent at fascism's origin.

I feel it imperative to reestablish a simple truth in the light of various cudgel-driven deformations of fascism that critics have disingenuously seized upon to chalk up all the merits of the national movement to the rough bravado of a few individuals engaged in a crazed pursuit of posthumous heroism. The truth in question is that, as consecrated in the chronicles of 1919, fascism's earliest constitutive nucleus was made up of intellectuals. These intellectuals belonged to different (even opposing) schools, disciplines, and tendencies. But, renewed due to the shared sacrifices of the trenches, they found themselves united, thanks to the sudden emergence of a new understanding of life in general and of Italian political life in particular.

Fascism's origins were decidedly intellectual.

When, in a recent speech in Naples, Deputy Giovanni Amendola scornfully denounces us for our half culture, he misses the point. Our scorn is for his brand of culture, of which we refuse even that half that he so generously ascribes to us.

Placed on jeweler's scales and measured numerically, it is entirely possible that our culture will weigh but a fourth of Deputy Amendola's, a fact we readily admit. But, just as Deputy Arturo Labriola is a living example of the discrepancy between cultural refinement and an upright moral character, Amendola illustrates the enormous difference between being cultured and having a lively, up-to-date intelligence, an intelligence able to understand the deeper meaning of changes in the course of life.

We reject Giovanni Amendola's culture.

Fascism did not wait until 1921 to become revolutionary, as Ivanoe Bonomi's theory would have it. On the contrary, it arose as a revolutionary gesture of refusal: of the culture that preceded it, of the practices and governing methods employed by the old ruling classes.

Refusing the culture of the nineteenth century does not mean endorsing ignorance. Nor does it imply a wholesale rejection of the historical period or turning the clock back to a prior century's tradition.

Simply put, it means enabling one's intelligence to grasp things with immediacy, that is, to understand them anew and to reevaluate them.

Deputy Amendola claimed in Naples that he "set out to show through his own example that public life imposes discipline on those who understand public life as a noble calling. Such a discipline obliges one not to relinquish one's positions, to stick to them even when all avenues appear closed, to resist for resistance's sake. Evidently, the speaker is overcome with nostalgia for his culture, which is all fine and well. Nostalgias are solitary, undeniable pleasures. One gets the nostalgia that one deserves.

What we fascists ask of Amendola and his generation is that they permit us to leave behind their nostalgia for well-worn paths to instead anxiously embrace new positions in the world of culture. They must allow a new generation of intellectuals to embark on both a destructive and a constructive revision of modern civilization (irrespective of whether we someday come to accept many of the works that we now denounce as outdated).

Fascism is a revolution of intellectuals. To be even more explicit, it is an intellectual revolution.

Fascism's central problem remains the creation of a new ruling class, whether externally, at the national level, or internally, within the party apparatus. To declare this openly is not to suggest that the core group gathered around Benito Mussolini in March 1919 failed to live up to its pretense of contesting the old culture and creating a new one. What it does suggest, on the contrary, is that fascism's weighty mission has not changed during the five years since the movement's foundation.

The hard necessities of the anti-Bolshevik fight -- a secondary (not primary) feature of fascism, in my view -- kept us from immediately turning to the task. There was no time for philosophizing with the enemy so near at hand. But the situation has altered now that this obstacle has been removed and power is ours, so the problem of our origins faces us once again in its entirety.

The problem of fascism's intellectual revolution.

This is how we reply to our opponents, who have been busy disseminating the lie that our revolution was the result only of muscular effort and denying our right to create a new Italian politics. This is also how we reply to those fascists who play into the hands of our enemies when they try to raise to the status of theory some obsolete or transitory aspects of our political action.

Sources and Targets of Anti-Fascist Misunderstanding

Misapprehensions regarding fascism arise when aspects of the National Fascist Party's actions or temporary positions assumed by the fascist government are deliberately distorted by men accomplished in the art of manipulating sentiments and resentments.

The result is a contradiction. The same adversaries who, when in power, grope after the realities of our national life among the clouds and address concrete problems abstractly adopt the opposite method when approaching the fascist party and government; namely, they automatically endow events of a concrete and transitory nature with universal meanings.

When the men in the current national government came to power, they were not faced with the theoretical problem of human freedom but rather with the practical problem of establishing law and order.

Who was responsible for confronting Italy with such a terrible dilemma? Who was it that permitted the problem to fester? The answer is clear: the very social class from which we seized power and to which today's anti-fascists belong. It was democracy that permitted an assault so violent on the state's sovereignty that only an exceptional measure could reestablish authority: dictatorship.

The dictatorship currently in place is not a fundamental or essential defining feature of our methods or policies (as confirmed by countless indications, noted by men of good faith, that it is already tending toward self-overcoming). Nor was dictatorship unavoidable. It was the postwar ruling class's aversion to making use of physical force (alongside its lack of genuine efforts to garner popular support) that created the need to employ force in a more rigorous and sustained manner.

The problem is not strictly an Italian one. It is European, not to mention global, in scope. But no country experienced a crisis of authority as serious or as enduring as did Italy: so serious and enduring that it profoundly shaped our movement's practical orientation and mode of action. Among the contributing factors to the ongoing crisis it is plausible to consider a residual tendency toward rebellion among some within our ranks, but it must be noted that the habit of exerting authority locally when confronted with absent or ineffectual governments can be expected to disappear only gradually, thanks to endless and heartfelt efforts. Fascism has not yet come into its own from the standpoint of political policy making. It is still expiating the past. It is still battling a crisis created by others. It is still remedying mistakes that were not its own. It is still treating illnesses that it inherited on the level of nation and its party organization.

A long list of examples is unnecessary to prove the accuracy of my thesis. To justify some of the errors or abuses of yesterday is hardly productive if one wishes to rise above everyday polemics. This said, it would be improper to overlook the principal historical reasons for the present need to impose the authority principle with greater force than under ordinary circumstances. Suffice it to recall that in 1920 there were train workers who impeded the passage of trains carrying the Italian armed forces and that the government then in place not only accepted these sorts of disruptions but also sanctioned the principle the its own employees could disobey it. In the same year, train and cable car workers refused to obey the decree establishing daylight savings time; a prefect of the kingdom legally sanctioned the violent seizure of some factories belonging to the Mazzonis Company in Piedmont; the porters' trade union imposed fines upon the judicial authorities; and the Bologna Chamber of Labor freely encroached upon the state's sovereignty by requisitioning grapes, fixing their price, and placing a cap on the price of fuel, textiles, clothes, and so on. Suffice it to recall these and similar events in order to show just how systematic was the ruling class's abdication of its responsibilities and how citizens thereby developed the habit of not observing the law.

Today it is necessary to dispel the effects of those years when the Italian people ignored the state's authority. When Mussolini asserts that freedom is a duty, his is not a generic utterance but rather a truth that reflects the deep convictions of the Italian people. Deputy Amendola has no right to assert that he "defend the people's ability to carry out the highest duties of civic life" when it was precisely the men in his political party who were responsible for the citizenry's loss of any sense of civic duty.

One cannot repair a lacerated moral fabric in a single year. The lawless perversions of yesteryear are still firmly imprinted on the souls and consciences of an infinite number of Italians of all political stripes, which is to say that if one were simply to enact the abstract principle of unlimited freedom, anarchy's powers, dormant but not yet defeated, would be unleashed anew. The democratic decay of the four years between 1919 and 1922 is an undeniable fact. For the damage to be reversed, one would have to reestablish a feeling for the interdependence between the concepts of freedom and of authority and to strengthen the latter's hold on the people, so that once it counterbalances the concept of freedom, a superior harmony can arise. The constitution embodies this very harmony. Tracing at the same time the state's ideal form and its practical structure, it stands as the first and foremost guarantee that the balance between freedom and authority will be achieved in terms of spirit, conscience, and the will of the people.

The current efforts of the fascist government aim at redressing this balance. Arduous efforts, undertaken at the unrelenting rhythms that befit an urgently need reconstruction.

On 21 February [1924] Deputy Claudio Treves had the shameless courage to sign a manifesto drafted by his party's leadership that contained the phrase "Victory, that freed the farthest boundaries of the fatherland." This from the same individual who in March 1920 told the Chamber of Deputies that the postwar social unrest was "the necessary and inevitable consequence of what took place; nobody can undo what had been done. Behold the inevitable corollary of the crime!" A crime: this is clearly Treves's image of the great war! Is it not fair then to turn the tables and to yell back at those who are now groaning under our pressure that the restoration of authority is the inevitable corollary of their crime against the fatherland and against freedom?

Dictatorship is the inevitable corollary, the unavoidable consequence of what was carried out not by us but by our opponents. Let the Italian people ask them for explanations!

The anti-fascists play their strongest card at this point: they try to show the Italian people that, by virtue of its nature and its goals, fascism is inexorably committed to dictatorship.

We reply that the fundamental character of the fascist movement is otherwise! After all, it was fascism and only fascism that stood up and defended not the freedom of a single class but the freedom of all Italians in their fatherland. This at the precise historical moment when beastlike hordes of Italians were foaming at the mouth with Lenin's slogan "freedom is a bourgeois prejudice"; when Deputies Turati and Treves voted for a platform stating that "when the proletariat reaches a position of political power it must proceed to a regime of class dictatorship" at their party's October 1919 convention; when the socialist newspaper Avanti justified the October 1920 death sentence pronounced by a workers tribunal against the guards Santagata and Crimi with the following words: "In these young men, in these women, in this sentence, one no longer must see a group of individuals, outlaws, or inhuman beings; one must instead envisage a social class that defends itself like a cohesive body, perhaps not fully conscious of itself, but driven by a blind instinct for self-preservation."

It is still easy for our enemies to try to hinder us by summoning up the sullen ghost of reaction! But recall that our martyrs died with the phrase "fascism is the savior of our freedom" on their lips. They did not sit around waiting for the various champions of a free Italy to do their bidding in the wake of the war. Their spirit lives on among the liveliest of our comrades. Immune the lure of murky nostalgias and determined to contribute to fascism's apotheosis, they declare that the dictatorship serves as guarantor of the pure idea of freedom; that it is in harmony with the best and healthiest of Italian political traditions and entirely compatible with ideas of order and nationhood; and that the anti-fascists' spurious claim that fascism is reactionary must be classed as one of the filthy carryovers from the old Italy now in demise.
The Fascist Revolution and Modern Civilization

In one of his occasional moments of lucidity, an adversary wrote the following in the July 1923 issue of a political magazine (and fascists who want to understand and not be misunderstood ought to think hard about these words):

Anti-fascists have two goals in mind when they define fascism as a pure and simple form of conservatism. First, they aim to limit the term's meaning and thereby hope to stir up and mobilize all those oppositional conservative forces that rally around liberal, democratic, populist, and so on, ideas. Second, they aim to deflate the event's importance by proclaiming that fascism's past (and hence future) strength falls short of what would be required to effect substantial change and precipitate a revolution.

One could hardly have pinpointed the anti-fascist misunderstanding any better. Here words such as liberalism, democracy, and populism are attributed social objectives that are not their own so that fascism may, in turn, be judged absolutely illiberal, anti-democratic, and opposed to the people's interests.

The time has come to confute our opponents and to reestablish the truth by precisely situating fascism's intellectual revolution within that characteristic complex of political and economic forms, philosophical doctrines and ideologies that make up modern post-Reformation civilization. The time has come to elucidate just how the fascist revolution as a form of political action and fascism as a governing method are anti-democratic and anti-liberal.

Born of the struggle between the Reformation and the Catholic Church, tied to the emergence of a capitalist bourgeoisie and to contemporaneous philosophical elaborations, the principle of individual rights attained its highest political expression in the French Revolution and in the proclamation of the rights of man and of the citizen.

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic occupation brought to light two different, even opposing interpretations and political practices, both derived from the same principle. According to the first, man constitutes the only reality of social life, and the state, deprived of any autonomous value, must place itself at the mercy of individuals, gradually annihilating itself, following the inexorable degenerative course that leads to anarchy. According to the second, the state constitutes the only reality of social life in the face of the discordant and incoherent multiplicity of individuals, and, as the only source of law, the state is entitled to treat its citizens as an instrument of its will.

This oscillation between anarchy and despotism, democratic principles and social reality proved fateful. And against it there arose, first in France and Germany and later in Italy, a vast critical movement starting in the Romantic period but extending well into the twentieth century that called into question the mindset and principles of the French Revolution.

Fascism's intellectual revolution is part of this movement, though in an original, distinctive, Italian way.

Fascism and Democracy

Those who respond to fascist critiques of democracy by arguing that fascism too will eventually give way to a democratic regime are deliberately confusing ideology and historical fact.

If by democracy one understands the possibility granted all citizens of actively participating in the life of the state, then nobody will deny democracy's immortality. The French Revolution rendered this possibility historically and ethically concrete, so much so that an ineradicable right was born that exercises a tenacious hold on individual consciousness, independent of abstract invocations of immortal principles or developments in modern philosophy. Within our own ranks it is true that some have philosophized against this fundamental truth of the democratic principle. Far more than the attacks of adversaries, they damage our cause with their feverish and eccentric thoughts.

Democracy, in the term's everyday meaning, is above all a concept and a political practice that is best defined as atomistic. There are as many kinds of democracies as there are democratic regimes. Two extreme examples come to mind: French democracy (now on the verge of anarchic dissolution) and American democracy (a system within which the federal courts limit and control the interpretation of democratic dogmas -- dogmas that thrive in North America, according to European legend).

In Italy we experienced the worst kind of democracy: an ochlocracy defined by the transfer of sovereign power from the law to the mob. We experienced democratic tyranny, the multiple and monstrous dictatorship of the people as sovereign.

For this reason we deny the creators of this variety of democracy any right of appeal (which doesn't mean that we are either able or willing to call into question the component of democracy that history has consecrated).

Fascism and Liberalism

The opposition's sleight of hand also extends to the word liberalism.

Liberalism qua political doctrine is the affirmation of a unitary historical process to which all parties and all individuals contribute. It is politics understood as fight and conquest. Marking history in its recent development, liberalism is an eminently realistic doctrine that contains elements from our best native traditions.

Liberalism is also a distinctive political ideology that arose alongside democracy. It holds that states are the mechanical result of the interplay of competing political forces and, therefore, that their duties consist in little more than administration and policing.

This conception is typical of eras of transition and change. Silvio Spaventa, a political thinker whose work Senator Albertini and Deputy Amendola have made frequent use of for their own ends, has written: "The liberal principle has proven able and even necessary when it comes to changing the status quo. But it has proven unable and ineffective when it comes to reforming what must be preserved. No European government, past or present, liberal or nonliberal in its origins, has been able or will be able to survive thanks to liberalism."

For better or for worse, Italy provides irrefutable proof of this verity. Liberalism played the determining role in our national revolution. But it also created an ineffective government. Fascism takes over from liberalism as expression of historical progress the same spirit of freedom (which determines its very nature and organization and the spirit that informs its actions), but freedom understood not as individual will but as a higher will, opposed to individual whims, that emerges from the synthesis of freedom and authority. It is from this higher universal freedom that fascism draws its deepest inspiration.

Fascist Revolution and Anti-Democratic Tradition

Now that the field has been cleared of the most damaging anti-fascist detritus, I wish to dismantle the trite commonplace that fascism lacks any spiritual and doctrinal significance by briefly elucidating its close connections to recent historical developments. As already stated, fascism's intellectual revolution builds upon the critique of the French Revolution. Contrary to what Amendola, with his usual casuistry, has suggested, this in no way implies agreement with thinkers like Bonald, de Maistre, Burke, or Taine, who are all committed to chipping away at the very idea of the nation-state (which lies at the heart of the fascist revolution). Numerous key intellectual precursors bridge the gap between their critiques and fascist thought. In the first place, there is the idealist philosophy of Kant and Hegel, which placed the principles of 1789 in a new critical light. Second, one must mention Georges Sorel's revolutionary contribution. Aiming to exalt spiritual and moral values, Sorel established a continuity between the Enlightenment and the positivist culture of the mid-nineteenth century (with all its corruption, lies, and mediocrity), debunking the cult of egalitarian utopias and positivist claims that socialism would soon become a science in a manner different from de Maistre and Bonald. Third, there is Alfredo Oriani's distinctively Italian contribution. Renewer of the cult of heroes and high ideals, Oriani preached the religion of an immortal fatherland against the leveling effects of democracy and against socialist materialism. Last but not least comes Enrico Corradini, who had the pleasure of presiding over the fusion between nationalist and fascist forces, a fusion that launched the first phase of fascism's intellectual revolution, providing a link to a powerful political tradition that can be criticized but never denied. "Never denied" because nationalism's firm and fruitful traditions provide us with unbreachable defenses against two anarchic manifestations: the opposition's criticism and the ignorance that infiltrates our organizations in order to corrupt their spirit.

The Fascist State's Modernity

The view that fascism is immune to moral, spiritual, intellectual, cultural, or doctrinal reason has now been dispelled, as have definitions of fascism as mindless and unlimited brute force or blind reaction. Connections with tradition have also been demonstrated, as has the need to go beyond certain stances in the pursuit of fascism's intellectual revolution, at which point the opposition immediately cries out, "What about the state?"

What is this fascist state of yours? In his inimitable way, Benito Mussolini answered this question last Sunday in words that he has been repeating at least since 1 January 1923: "A state is the embodiment of a moral idea that finds expression in a system of individual hierarchies, each with its own responsibilities: hierarchies whose members -- from the highest to the humblest -- feel a sense of pride and privilege in carrying out their duty." Over a year ago, Mussolini laid the foundations for an ethical state: a state that is more than an association entered into on the basis of the free will of individuals or a social contract; a state opposed to liberal-democratic models inasmuch as it proposes a productive solution to the democratic antithesis between state and individual.

This modern concept of the ethical state was first formulated by Machiavelli. It matured in the philosophical writings of Vico, Spaventa, and Angelo Camillo de Meis. It was propounded by Nationalism and elucidated in Croce's and Gentile's philosophy. It provides a basis for fascism as it marches toward victory, not because of fascism's material might but rather because, far from marking an unnatural return, its advent coincides with the rebirth of Italian thought.

At last we reach the final bulwark of anti-fascist error: the claim that fascists are at the mercy of the overbearing will of a man whose natural temperament finds expression in a dictatorship.

Our opponents (I limit myself to those who are worthy of consideration) ignore our suffering, the suffering of the young generations in the wake of the war.

They do not understand the war experience of men who enlisted at nineteen, their souls fresh and open.

They do not understand the turmoil experienced by young men who, in the immediate postwar era, were caught between the people and the fatherland.

They did not share our eagerness to obey.

They did not share the despair we felt at the absence of worthy rulers.

They do not know how long we waited for a chief.

This is why they fail to understand how much we love this chief of ours, this great national leader who molded our soul, sensibility, and intelligence, this man on whose behalf we gladly left behind our lives of leisure and faced death, time and again.

This is why our opponents are blind to the fact that we are faithfully waiting for him to perform the most painful and noble of efforts. This creator of order, beauty, and intelligence must now relentlessly, even cruelly infuse the souls of all his faithful with faith in the newborn nation-state!