“The Book and the Rifle”: Cultural & Racial Policy in Fascist Italy, Part 1


Storia della cultura fascista (Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 2011)
by Alessandra Tarquini

Since World War II, the very word “fascism” has always conjured up images of evil in the cultural and political mainstream. This is largely because the fascists lost that war and, as we know, the victors write the history books. It is also because the most famous fascist regime, National Socialist Germany, did in fact have an official doctrine of disregard for the lives of many non-German groups, thus providing ample material for the Allies’ atrocity propaganda.

It is interesting then to note that the original fascist regime, that of Fascist Italy, also been widely demonized despite the fact that this government was far more moderate. Indeed, the deaths attributable Fascist Italy are perhaps an order of magnitude lower than those of the Western Allies or the Soviet Union. Italian Fascism, having ruled for over 20 years, longer than National Socialist Germany and mostly in peacetime, then provides another example of what the West might have been had history taken a different course.

Here at The Occidental Observer, we are obviously extremely interested in culture and its impact on evolutionary adaptiveness and reproduction, that is to say gene-culture coevolution. Italian historian Alessandra Tarquini has provided a useful summary of cultural policy and life in Fascist Italy in her Storia della cultura fascista (History of Fascist Culture). Tarquini’s study is scrupulously neutral and empathetic, even as she dedicates her book to “the memory of the first anti-fascist I knew” (presumably a close relative).

Perhaps the most striking theme in the book is the absolute importance the Fascists gave to culture understood as the systematic education of the people. This meant especially the youth, but also the working masses and women who had been neglected by previous regimes. Tarquini observes: “From 1922 to the end of 1943, one of the main objectives of Fascism’s cultural policy was the education of the young generations” (p. 231). The National Fascist Party (PNF) “for the entire Ventennio [two decades of Fascist government] invested all its energy in the mobilization of the new generations” (p. 232). Furthermore, “from the earliest years, the Fascists showed the will to educate women and workers” (p. 233). This was not done in the lackadaisical way characteristic of liberal regimes — a bit of schooling, perhaps some cultural subsidies, but otherwise leaving young people’s minds in the hands of often hostile television oligarchs —  but systematically, through schooling, sports, Party activities, holidays, film, radio, etc.

Another striking theme is the degree to which a social consensus was achieved around Fascist values. Renzo De Felice, perhaps the most influential historian of Fascism, argued that Mussolini’s government was largely able to secure the consent of the elites and the masses by the 1930s, titling his volume for that period The Years of Consent. Tarquini notes that “the choice of stressing the presence of consent in the fascist regime led to a harsh attack by many historians who accused De Felice of wanting to rehabilitate fascism,” a sign of the penalties for academics in violating left-wing politically-correct taboos (p. 35).

The Fascists argued that social unity, discipline, hierarchy, state authority, nationhood, national power, and race were paramount. More generally, the interests of the community were to prevail over the false values of individualism and egalitarianism. This is the sense in which the terms “totalitarian” and “totalitarian pedagogy” were coined and used unabashedly by the Fascists: that all things must serve the interests of the community, itself inseparable from the state, understood as the entire community organized by its aristocratic leadership (as we shall see below). The term “totalitarian” for Italian Fascists did mean an authoritarian popular dictatorship, but certainly not anything like a regime of Orwellian terror or of Bolshevik/Stalinist war against the people.

The “new Italian” was supposed to be “a virile and sporty man, of healthy body and mind, conscious of difficulties and ready to face them; a man who had nothing in common with the Italian of the past, bourgeois and liberal, who understands life as struggle and an object of conquest” (p. 235). In all this, Fascism was then self-consciously both elitist and populist.

While the “new Italian” was to be principally made by good culture, upbringing, and training, Fascist Italy also had a lively and sophisticated community of eugenic scientists and racial activists. These argued for the improvement of the Italian race through positive and negative eugenics. In practice, the regime’s racial policies appear to have been limited to some natalist measures (banning of abortion, unprecedented support for single mothers), the banning of miscegenation (notably with Sub-Saharan Africans and Jews), and, beginning  in 1938, the removal of Jews from positions of elite power and influence. Somewhat bizarrely, most Italian Fascist thinkers of race did not define this in biological terms, but as kind of political community or even a mystique, an incomprehensible position for Anglo-American and German racial thinkers.

Tarquini asserts that the Italian intelligentsia, in the broadest sense, adhered “in the majority” to the Fascist state (p. 234) and that they were often “sincerely fascist,” providing “their contribution and their talent, convinced of participating in a historic great work of construction” (p. 238). This began early on, for in March 1925 the government organized a cultural summit with 250 intellectuals in attendance “including the most important artists and historians of the era” (p. 69).

She makes clear that these artists, scientists, architects, philosophers, architects, filmmakers, and others were of an often impressive intellectual and artistic caliber, as one might expect from a major modern European nation-state such as Italy.

There was thus a vast and sophisticated intellectual and cultural world beyond the particular leadership and ideology of Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator, and the government. This was evident from the beginning with Mussolini’s appointment of Giovanni Gentile, a prestigious Hegelian philosopher, as minister of public education. Gentile would ghostwrite parts of The Doctrine of Fascism for Mussolini, pass a major school reform, and prove influential especially during the first half of the regime.

Tarquini furthermore claims that Fascist education resonated powerfully with Italian youth, who as they grew up sought their place in the system and faulted their elders for insufficient adherence to the reigning Fascist ideology. (It seems to be common for university students to attack their parents by regurgitating the ideology they have imbibed from their educational-cultural establishment. This phenomenon is also evident in National Socialist Germany and, in the opposite direction, in the 1960s student revolutions across the West.) Tarquini writes: “not only were [the youth] not secretly antifascist, as has been claimed, but on the contrary they were the most authoritative testimony of Fascism’s success as a totalitarian experiment” (p. 237).

Tarquini notes that the historians of Fascism in the immediate postwar years largely derived from the “anti-fascist” liberal and communist subcultures, which is to say the Left. These often claimed that Fascism was opportunistically “reactionary” or conservative, preserving the interests of the capitalist class and the Catholic Church, or was purely backward-looking in its glorification of Ancient Rome. Tarquini argues none of this was the case and, in fact, the Fascists thought of themselves self-consciously as proponents of an “alternative modernity” to that of “demo-liberalism,” offering a “modern, revolutionary, and totalitarian” counter-project to individualism and egalitarianism. Indeed, it is striking how “modernist” much Fascist art was and it is perhaps surprising to learn that a major Fascist publication like Il Selvaggio was initially released in French in order to be more influential internationally.

In many respects, Italian Fascism appears well within the mainstream of Western history as a particularly self-conscious stage in the modernization of a particular nation-state. This is evident in Fascism characteristic projects: unification of national consciousness, political and educational centralization, participation of the masses in culture and welfare, sense of educational mission, sacralization of nation and state, the insertion of esthetics into politics, attention to the youth, general modernization and developmental drives, and attempts to systematically develop the country’s economic self-sufficiency and military potential.

Tarquini notes that many of these aspects were shared by the French Revolutionaries of the eighteenth century. Emphasizing the novelty of their regime, the Fascists, like the French Revolutionaries, made a new calendar dating from their seizure of power in 1922 (a practice taken up by the American poet Ezra Pound, among few others). Some Fascists, such as the historian and political scientist Antonio Pagano, paid homage to Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a flawed genius who had understood that the state (or nation/community) is the proper subject of history, as opposed to the individual (p. 142). The French Revolution had not only been liberal and democratic, but had also had communitarian tendencies, with the cult of the national army (including a certain militarization of society) and the primacy of civic duty towards the nation. Fascism differed from the French Revolution principally in an explicit renunciation of individualism and egalitarianism, and in affirming the importance of race.[1]

Italian Fascism then provides a powerful example, beside its German counterpart, of the ability of a small and motivated elite to seize the leadership of a nation, create a social consensus, and radically reshape its cultural trajectory. In this review, I will go into detail on the cultural and racial policies of Fascist Italy, highlighting their intellectual rationale, characteristics, successes, and failures.

Fascism: A Nationalist Civil Religion

Fascism, both in Italy and in general, must be understood as a civil-religious and ethnocentric phenomenon. Both of these socio-psychological systems, the sense of the sacred and the sense of the tribe, were quite explicitly appealed to by the Fascists and were considered essential elements to organizing a good society.[2]

The philosopher Gentile wrote in 1920 — even before his association with Fascism:

Our thoughts cannot but be religious, our action cannot but be penetrated by the sense of the divine. And if our action is a political or State action, our State also befits being governed by a purely and deeply religious spirit.[3] (p. 63)

Previous regimes had legitimized themselves with civil religions — one thinks of the American, French, and Bolshevik revolutions — but the Fascists were noteworthy in explicitly calling for a sacralization of politics, understanding the nation and the state as holy. Religion was understood as public myths, ideals, and rituals, meant to bind men’s consciousness together and build solidarity (etymologically, the word religion comes from the Latin religare, to bind), give meaning to their daily lives and collective action. These were manifested in public ceremonies, saluting, gathering, solemn events, songs, and so forth.

This political religion was quite distinct from what we commonly understand by religion, which in Italy meant Catholicism. Gentile’s 1923 school reform introduced the teaching of Catholicism in elementary schools, but this was done by secular teachers, rather than priests. Catholicism was taught as a critical component of Italian history and identity, and as a “philosophia inferior,” which might prepare some students for higher philosophy (this was incidentally in line with the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s views on the utility of the religion in moralizing the masses). Tarquini asserts that while political Catholics often could find common ground with the Fascist regime, Fascism did not derive from reactionary Catholicism and considered the religion merely useful as an “instrumentum regni” (p. 181).

Gentile later argued that “fascism is a religious concept” and that the state is (or should be) “self-aware ethical substance,” that is the intellectual and moral leadership of the people (p. 114). As Gentile (in)famously argued in the ghostwritten part of Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism:

For the fascist everything is in the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, and even has value, outside of the State. In this sense fascism is totalitarian, and the totalitarian State, a synthesis and unity of every value, interprets, develops, and empowers the entire life of the people. (p. 134)

For the Fascist, everything is meaningless outside of the enlightened organization of the community, which is what is meant by “the State,” as opposed to merely a coercive administrative apparatus. This is what must be understood by Mussolini’s notorious 1925 declaration: “All within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State” (p. 113).

One prominent Fascist went so far as to argue that “Mussolini has spoken many times of a religious conception of fascism and of political faith as the principal characteristic of fascism” (p. 200). Giuseppe Bottai,[4] the minister of national education who became the dominant force in Italian cultural policy from the 1930s onward, argued that Fascist politics was “a form of religious thought” with myths, “faiths and passions which touch and move the great and varied souls of the peoples, as the celestial influences move the seas” (p. 86).

These “myths”[5] were official glorified ideals: the ideal man, the Italian nation, the state, Mussolini as the Duce, which the people were conditioned to embrace as ideals, which they would then seek to live up to and realize in reality.[6] Tarquini writes of Bottai: “Convinced that the ability to feel the power of the political myth was the prerogative of few, he elaborated an aristocratic model of society founded upon the best who fight for the realization of the political myth” (p. 86).

Tarquini emphasizes that “the production of political myths did not simply derive from the will to dominate of the ruling classes,” but was meant to inspire both elites and the masses (106). For example, the Party was justified on grounds of a mission of providing the state with the best people and in keeping alive the flame of the Fascist Revolution. The myth of Party was “sometimes alogical, but sublime”; it was meant to be a “congregation of the faithful [congregatio fidelium]” which was “tight-knit, uniform, powerful” (230). The society was to be organized by the fascio, the “body of volunteers” who were sensitive to Fascism and its ideal, and would be a dynamic force driving the people forward (143).

Go to Part 2 of 3,

[1]Most succinctly, the French Revolution’s “original sin” was egalitarianism, whereas the American Revolution’s was individualism. This is so even though the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen’s Article I (“Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good.”) strikes me as infinitely more defensible than Thomas Jefferson’s notorious demagogical line in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”).

[2]Plato and Tocqueville among many other Western thinkers believed appeal to religiosity and patriotism were crucial to creating a good society.

[3]Mahatma Gandhi once famously noted: “’those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.” Perhaps the West’s troubles with nihilism begin with secularism, which becomes political agnosticism.

[4]Highlighting the extreme difficulties and ambiguities of that era — with Axis officials being forced to choose between “unconditional surrender” or infinite violence on the part of the Allies — Bottai voted to topple Mussolini in 1943, was condemned to death by the remaining Fascists in 1944, and chose to flee by joining the French Foreign Legion under a pseudonym, serving against the Axis in the war’s final years.

[5]The political myth had been theorized by the revolutionary syndicalist French Georges Sorel, who was acknowledged by some Fascists as a intellectual predecessor.

[6]The use of myths appears to be pervasive in human cultures. The most striking myth today would be that of “equality,” whether economic, sexual, or racial, as a supreme ideal and the perpetual struggle and failure to achieve it.

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