My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve always been a student of history when I read and fascinated by fascism, nationalism, racism, and the like so this year in honor of Donald J. Trump I wanted to learn more about Benito Mussolini. I hear the “Trump is Hitler” chant but maybe I’m in the ‘Trump is more Mussolini than Hitler’ crowd, so this year I made time to read up on Mussolini and Italian Fascism. In the past, I’ve primarily read about the more dominant Hitler along with conflations of Hitler’s Nazism and Mussolini’s Fascism. As I read more, there’s a chance my previous reading has been heavily spiced with um Marxist historian takes on all this which maybe clouds my understanding, something I tried to be aware in my reading selections.
I started with The Doctrine of Fascism by Benito Mussolini himself, describing his take on fascism in his own words. I learned that Trump does not in fact have the best words, in fact he’s got nothing on 100-year-old Mussolini. Sad!
Next this year I read Fascism: A Very Short Introduction. I’m a big fan of the ‘very short introduction’ series. The books are very focused, cover the necessary ground, and lay a foundation for further reading.
“To the old liberal system, Mussolini presented the alternative of a new, “very strong,” and “virile” fascist state”
Next I dove into Mussolini’s Intellectuals: Fascist Social and Political Thought. A. James Gregor is no Marxist and makes that clear. The book was a refreshing take and interesting to read right now, watching the struggle in the Republican party over ‘Trumpism’. A premise of the book is that intellectuals and intellectual backing are required for any movement. While Fascism is often represented as an impulsive, physical, unthinking force it does and did not lack persuasive arguments of philosophers and writers.
“By beautifying politics, fascism reaffirmed the value of tradition-a tradition founded on hierarchy and respect for authority and drawing its aura from faith.”
I think last in my #Trump2016 Mussolini reading tour will be this book, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy. This is most immersive and sweeping history. It was a great read, and considering the content it didn’t take too long, although some of it was a chore because thinking why do I care about all of this? But the book is meant to explore the forces present in Italy at the time, Mussolini and his influences, and the outward manifestations of the party. Eventually I felt I had to care, after getting so far along. The book is heavily footnoted (100+ per chapter) so the material is well-sourced (40% of the book is attributions to sources). The chapters explore art, film, optics, doctrine, and other expressions of fascism in Italy.
“in the wake of the French revolution, the traditional embodiment of the sacred and its institutions (church and monarchy) were defeated, the myth of Christendom was shattered, and the hierarchical model of social relations had been liquidated.”
It was interesting to see how Mussolini’s own ideas and powerful personality shaped a time of rising nationalism, and disruptive social and political changes. Owners and workers in league with the powerful leader would remove the need for weak legislative bodies. Democracy was weak, a strong authoritarian state would restore the masculinity, the movement, the change. Even in the United States, oligarchs and other powerful elites were watching for elements to emulate. National arguments would be resolved by appeal to charismatic authority. The Caesarism, celebrity, and showmanship was fascinating and continues to work today. Being “above party” or outside the traditional party system, obeying hierarchy and unquestioningly performing rituals are all similar elements to movements today. It’s fascinating to learn about the Fascist critique of consumption-oriented, lazy democracy and liberalism 100 years of history later, and in these times.
“Sternhell argues that the revolutionary syndicalists’ Marxist revolt against materialism, in combination with the influence of “tribal” nationalism, prepared the soil for the birth of fascist ideology.”
Taken together my reading this year was an enlightening experience for me about Benito Mussolini and Italian – some might say the original – Fascism, more free of the explicit racial politics of Adolf Hitler. In light of the “rise” of Trump, I feel this has been a useful endeavor. I stand by my assertion that Trump is a third-rate knock-off American Mussolini, of course complete with a fake tan and a limited vocabulary, woefully shallow and ignorant and incomprehensibly proud of it. To call Trump Mussolini is to shame Mussolini. This entire election experience has led me again to doubt my faith in mass democracy.