Books in Review

The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 103 (May 2000): 59-62.

The Cultural Revolution of Fascism

The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism. By George L. Mosse. Howard Fertig. 230 pp. $35.

Reviewed by Brian C. Anderson

"Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing above the state." So Benito Mussolini trumpeted the ideal of fascism, the wild–eyed political movement that he rode to power in Italy in 1922 and that died with Adolf Hitler’s defeat in 1945.

Mussolini’s infamous quote captures the remarkable hubris of fascism, its frightening impulse to rule over every dimension of life (the word is from the Latin fasces, the bundle of rods sporting an axe–head that symbolized the unchallenged state authority of Rome). In varying degrees, that hubris characterized fascism in all its historical forms: the Rexist movement in Belgium, the Spanish Falange, the Romanian Iron Guard, the French Fascists surrounding Jacques Doriot, and of course Mussolini’s Italian thugs and Hitler’s monstrous National Socialists.

But despite the bluntness of Mussolini’s definition, fascism remains disturbingly enigmatic. What, exactly, were its central tenets? Unlike its equally murderous counterpart, Marxian socialism, fascism won power in the heart of Europe; it succeeded in gaining the uncoerced allegiance of ordinary men and women in a way Marxism never did. What was the source of its appeal? And is it historically obsolete?

Historian George L. Mosse, who died in January 1999, wrote extensively on fascism during his long and illustrious career; among his most important books on the subject were The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich and Toward the Final Solution. The present book collects ten of Mosse’s essays on the subject, published over a period dating back to 1961. The essays, on everything from Fascist homoeroticism to Nazi political theater, are uneven, often turgidly written, and tend to leave promising suggestions frustratingly undeveloped, but at their best they help provide provisional answers to the three questions posed above. Most helpful of all is Mosse’s method, which is to get inside the Fascist mind, to see fascism as it saw itself—a kind of phenomenology of politics that I believe is the most fruitful way to illumine the political world.

What were the main tenets of fascism? Though Mosse doesn’t come close to a "general theory" of fascism, he correctly stresses the crucial role of nationalism—the "bedrock" upon which all Fascist movements built themselves. Fascism promised a "third way" between Marxism and capitalism that would celebrate the organic national community. To be German, Italian, or French, the Fascists asserted, meant something more than just inhabiting a piece of geography; it meant something outsiders could not really enter into, something beyond reasoned argument.

Mosse carefully distinguishes German National Socialism—in which a virulent racist ideology, drawing on social Darwinism, anti–Semitism, and various nineteenth–century racialist theories, wedded itself to nationalism—from other forms of fascism that downplayed or shunned racism. (In Italy, for example, fascism was nonracist for more than a decade until Mussolini cynically began to stoke anti–Semitism in 1938. The unholy alliance of racism and nationalism is one reason National Socialism proved so much more destructive than Italian fascism.)

But whatever the differences among the various Fascist movements, Mosse rightly underscores how the worthy evocation of national belonging can slide toward nationalism, and how nationalism, becoming aggressively xenophobic, can slide toward the abyss. Unfortunately, in these essays he gives little weight to the intellectual history of nationalism. (For that history one should turn to the recent, posthumously released book by Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, which describes the rise of fascism as growing out of the Romantic revolt against the Enlightenment.)

A second major tenet or characteristic of all Fascist movements was the glorification of war and violence. Half–measures and compromises, Mosse notes, were anathema to all Fascists; these were typical of the craven bourgeoisie, Fascists held, not of the virile Fascist "new man." For Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, for example, a true National Socialist would willingly carry out a scorched–earth policy or ruthlessly gun down deserters. Mussolini at one desperate point even threatened to execute schoolchildren who skipped classes. Fascists stressed the greatness of dying for the cause in war, the dignity of a mad heroism, and a willingness to struggle against all odds.

Nationalism and the love of violence and war—these are familiar themes in the copious literature on fascism’s attributes. Where Mosse is most interesting is on Fascist irrationalism and on fascism and revolution. In a fascinating chapter, originally published nearly four decades ago, Mosse explores the roots of National Socialism in nineteenth–century mysticism. Recreating the feverish world of such forgotten late–nineteenth century writers as Julias Langbehn, Alfred Schuler, and Paul de Lagarde, Mosse paints a disquieting portrait.

These irrationalists despised the cosmopolitan—and in their view largely Jewish—bourgeois universe of calculation, contract, and money. Instead, they surrendered themselves to "a belief in nature’s cosmic life force, a dark force whose mysteries could be understood, not through science but through the occult." In some of the most vivid pages in The Fascist Revolution, Mosse describes Schuler trying to cure Friedrich Nietzsche of his madness with an ancient Roman spring rite, bizarre seances, theosophical preachments, and much other anti–Christian and anti–Enlightenment nonsense—seemingly harmless until one realizes the culture of irrational barbarism it did its part in conjuring. But the Nazis weren’t alone in their irrationalism; Mussolini, too, drank from its well, in his case from the thought of Nietzsche and the theorist of violence George Sorel, though Mosse unfortunately neglects to discuss these intellectual sources of Italian fascism.

It is in Mosse’s discussion of fascism and revolution that he makes his most important contribution. In contrast to those analysts, especially Marxists, who interpret fascism as reactionary—a kind of last gasp of bourgeois capitalism—Mosse accents its revolutionary thrust. Mussolini called for a "revolution of the spirit"; Hitler spoke of the "German Revolution." In Mosse’s words, "Fascism encouraged activism, the fight against the existing order of things." Like all revolutionary movements, fascism in power had to restore order and prop up its own authority, diminishing revolutionary ardor; but fascism in its main thrust sought to remake the human world, to forge a new future—whether based on futurist ideas, as with Mussolini, or on an imagined pagan past, as with Hitler—that would break decisively with the corrupt and weak present. Though rightists and conservatives, sharing their rejection of the modern world, often supported Fascist movements, fascism was anything but conservative.

In a chapter dating from 1989, Mosse goes beyond the obvious political opposition between the spirit of the French Revolution and that of fascism to see deep commonalties and even subterranean influences that bind them across time. Mosse views both as products of the modern liberation of the will—rival manifestations of "the people worshiping themselves." Both the French Revolution and fascism sought to transcend the mundane complexities of politics and create perfect societies; both rejected the West’s biblical heritage; both aestheticized politics in public festivals and songs. Writing of the French Revolution, Mosse observes: "This new politics attempted the politicization of the masses, which, for the first time in modern history, functioned as a pressure group and not just through episodic uprisings or short–lived riots." In fascism, says Mosse, "the age of modern mass politics had begun." The Jacobins’ sacred spaces—the Champs–de–Mars or the Tuileries—would find their amplified echoes in Forum Mussolini in Rome and in Nuremberg.

Mosse, a historian and not a philosopher, remains on a somewhat superficial level in his account of fascism as a pathology of democratic modernity—as based, in essence, on a rejection of the West’s Jewish and Christian heritage. Major scholars of fascismArendt and Ernst Nolte come immediately to mind—make no appearance in Mosse’s book; a pity, since their more philosophically informed thinking would have added needed depth to Mosse’s treatment. But his interpretation is essentially correct. National Socialism especially, as the Hungarian Catholic philosopher Aurel Kolnai wrote in 1950, sought to negate "Christian civilization as such," scripting a dark epiphany in which man "wrenched himself free from Christianity and construed the automatic workings of his fallen nature into a mirage of self–made heaven." As with all such self–made heavens, it opened the gates to a netherworld.

These four marks of the Fascist spirit—nationalism and racism, a love of violence and war, irrationalism, and revolutionary presumption—though not exhaustive, help us to understand its appeal during the first half of the twentieth century, particularly where democratic institutions were feckless and resentments bred by World War I festered.

Fascism brought with it a thick set of assumptions about the world’s past, present, and future. It was, as Raymond Aron noted during the late 1930s, a "secular religion," a complete vision of life that brooked no pluralist opposition but that, unlike Marxism, crossed class divisions. In Mosse’s similar language, fascism wrought a "sacralization of politics" that made it demonic but that also allowed it to sink its hooks deep into the soul.

What of our third question: does fascism have a future? It is fascism’s modern genesis that gives one pause in declaring its historical senescence. Although Mosse does not stress this here, fascism shared with communism an antipathy toward the bourgeoisie, which helps explain its attraction for intellectuals like the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the French novelist Pierre Drieu la Rochelle. Modern man’s revolt against anything constraining the will is a problem that confronts the democratic world, too. For all the unprecedented freedoms and decencies of liberal democratic regimes, certain tendencies within those regimes—aborting unwanted children, euthanizing the old and burdensome, a rising irrationalism—are eerily reminiscent of the mental universe of fascism in their elevation of the untrammeled human will above any constraints of nature, grace, or even reason. Nationalist movements in Europe stand perilously close to fascism at times.

Perhaps fascism represents a permanent temptation of modern politics, the seduction to leave behind the ambiguities and trade–offs of prosaic liberal democracy for a true (and truly destructive) "politics of meaning." If so, we need to be perpetually on guard against it, and George Mosse’s intelligent reflections are of much more than historical interest.