Fascism: The Career of a Concept
Northern Illinois University Press, 2016
A brief anecdote in the author’s introduction makes clear why tradition-conscious Catholics may find interesting this work by Jewish intellectual Paul Gottfried:
As a young, impressionable person, I was told by a family friend that an opera singer whose voice I greatly admired had become a “fascist.” When I asked whether this singer was a devotee of Mussolini or José Antonio, I was told that the opera singer had recently converted to Catholicism. Our family friend, who was a militant atheist, equated a singer’s religious conversion with an affirmation of the most extreme form of fascist enthusiasm.
Although he has no personal commitment to defend the Church, as a serious scholar Gottfried strenuously objects to emotive abuse of “the f-word,” and he does not believe things have gotten better since his youth. Vladimir Putin is a fascist, say the Russian leader’s Western critics, because he jailed feminist activists for protesting before the altar inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the King. Yet from hate speech laws in Europe to civil rights laws in America, the 21st-Century West likewise sees fit to impose limits on citizens’ behavior, choices, and freedom of expression. So too did the governments of imperial China, the Plymouth Rock colony, and ancient Athens. Maybe it is order as such which is “fascist”?
One of the most pertinent chapters of Fascism: The Career of a Concept deals not with fascism itself but with the concept’s weaponization by propagandists and social engineers. At the highly influential Frankfurt School, Freudian and Marxist thought merged to produce antifascism, something Gottfried regards as an ideology – an “ism” – in its own right. In their 1950 book The Authoritarian Mind, Frankfurt School luminaries like Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm took for granted that deference to authority represents a perilous first step toward a fascist state, and then took it upon themselves to liberate Americans from ostensibly proto-fascist ways of thinking, from deference to parents, pastors, and so on. (In one study which appears to reveal more about its author than about its subject, Adorno saw fit to label a man “semifascist” for having questioned socialized medicine and the New Deal.)
How well the resultant atmosphere of political-correctness protects us from tyranny is debatable. But it is certain that it stifles intelligent discussion, says Gottfried:
I think the term fascism has a specific historical meaning and should not be hurled at anyone who holds what are now unpopular opinions. As a historic phenomenon, fascism has nothing to do with advocating an isolationist foreign policy, trying to restrict Third World immigration, or favoring significant income redistribution in order to achieve greater social equality. I mention these associations because all of them are characteristic of recent, divergent attempts to identify fascism with whatever the speaker happens to dislike – and then belaboring his or her target with the accusation of sympathizing with Nazi atrocities.
While the reader hopefully already realizes that Catholic traditionalism is not synonymous with fascism, he is still likely to find this book informative. Without glossing over the sinister turn Italy later took once it fell under German hegemony, or excusing colonialist aggression in Ethiopia, Gottfried reminds the reader that Mussolini at one time played a role on the international scene quite different from the one we would normally imagine for him:
Foreign admiration for the Italian national revolution reached a crescendo in the mid -1930’s when Mussolini took center stage as the leader of the anti-Nazi Stresa Front. This united front under Italian initiative consisted of countries that opposed Nazi German belligerence, and it took shape after Hitler tried to topple the Austrian government in 1934 with internal assistance in Vienna. Mussolini also created a helpful anti-Nazi image for himself by publicly deploring Hitler’s anti-Semitism. At the same time he offered asylum to German Jews and allowed the Revisionist Zionists, who were well disposed to his rule, to train their forces on Italian soil.
Yet given the erratic nature of Mussolini’s administration, an understanding of fascism is best attained by considering not specific decisions but the movement’s underlying ideas. In Gottfried’s analysis, the “generic fascism” of Mussolini may be distinguished from Nazism by what is absent, just as it is clearly distinguished from liberalism and socialism by what is present. Fascist thinker par excellence Giovanni Gentile had no particular interest in eugenics or scientific racism, and was not only not attracted to anti-Semitism but actively opposed it. What did drive fascism was a vision of history as a perpetual cycle, one comprised of periods of decadence punctuated by revolutions. Like his leftist counterpart Karl Marx, Gentile drew inspiration from the notoriously opaque work of Hegel. Where Marx dismissed Hegel’s pantheism in favor of atheism and materialism, Gentile advocated a politicized spirituality; where Marx predicted that class struggle would culminate in a utopian end of history, Gentile rejected the idea of progress altogether, forecasting instead the rise and fall of nations ad infinitum. There is an inherent restlessness in Gentile’s doctrine. “The nation as the state is only an ethical reality to whatever extent it can develop,” he proclaimed. “A state that ceases to develop is doomed to death.”
Like most other modern ideologies, fascism included neopagan elements. As Gottfried notes, both this neopaganism and Gentile’s Hegelianism “were seen as equally poisonous from the standpoint of the Catholic Right.” Gentile was particularly enthusiastic about the Risorgimento, the revolutionary metamorphosis of Italy from a patchwork of independent principalities to a modern, centralized nation-state. As those familiar with the history of Italian revolutionary hero Giussepe di Garibaldi are well aware, the emergence of the modern nation-state was also a triumph for anti-clericalism.
At best, then, the relationship between the Church and Mussolini’s regime would be a wary truce:
Gentile viewed the state, particularly once fortified with his philosophical work, as fully able to provide for the educational needs of the young. He chafed at what he thought were the unjustified pretensions of the Church following the Lateran Pacts in 1929, particularly the Church’s insistence that it should be responsible for the moral formation of Italian children […] The Church and “the ethical fascist state” each claimed for itself the right to be the primary source of public moral education. Either one or the other would have to yield, and there was no doubt whom Mussolini’s minister of education and chief ideologue thought should give ground.
Thus it is easy to see why Gentile is characterized as “a quintessentially modernist thinker,” someone who sought to create “a modern alternative to older, Catholic traditions of thought.”
If fascism is a distinct, modernist, neopagan ideology that proclaims an eternal cycle of decay, struggle, and renewal, contends Gottfried, then neither pragmatic anticommunist strongmen like General Franco nor “clerical fascists” like Engelbert Dolfuss or Antonio Salazar were true fascists. Especially relevant to this point is the story of Dolfuss, the pious authoritarian Austrian chancellor who fought to maintain his homeland’s independence and identity. Dolfuss used every power at his disposal to battle Anglo-American liberalism, the Communist organizations which sought to overthrow his government, and pro-Nazi groups which wanted to see Austria absorbed into the Third Reich.
Nazi agents assassinated him in 1934, a year which deserves more attention in modern-day history classes, especially Catholic ones, for it was only the ruthless elimination of Dolfuss that made possible the Anschluss – the portentous 1938 annexation of Austria by Hitler’s Germany. Whatever we may think of his policies there can be little doubt that Dolfuss was a devoted son of the Church, or that he tried to preserve his native Austria by promoting subsidiarity and economic justice as best he knew how. Far from being guided by Hegel or neopagan ideology, he relied instead upon Thomist thought, Catholic corporate theory, and the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI. His character lies well beyond the limits of the liberal imagination, which cannot possibly conceive of someone rejecting both liberalism and Nazism.
The preceding has only addressed a few of the important themes and questions which appear in Gottfried’s book. In Chapter Two, for instance, he introduces the reader to Hannah Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism, a theory which suggests that “radically antitraditional” Nazism had more in common with Marxist dictatorships than with fascists. In Chapter Five he discusses efforts to form a Fascist Internationale to rival that of the Communists, and explains why such efforts failed. In Chapter Six he discusses scholarship on the Falange. Clearly Gottfried has investigated at length what “the f-word” actually means, which is more than one can say for the politicians and journalists who hurl it at one another.