Some preliminary reflections on the left-right political spectrum, totalitarianism, freedom, and the relation of Italian Fascism to the same.
I have been pleased to review the responses posted beneath the Mussolini article published week before last – and more pleased still at their critical, often incisive character. Understanding Fascism represents one of the great challenges of our time for any serious inquiry into the political alternatives presented by what is increasingly a blandly, almost tyrannically unanimous Modernity. The difficulties begin even from the word itself: is ‘fascism’ meant to indicate specifically Italian Fascism? Or does it rather denote that loose family of regimes which emerged in various European countries in the interwar period? Even leaving aside the difficulties involved in comprehending ‘fascism’ in the generic sense – for instance, the differences between its various manifestations in various European states, its sometimes amorphous or deliberately anti-ideological stance (particularly in Italy), etc. – a clear view of this phenomenon is, of course, complicated still further on account of the fact that it – for several comprehensible reasons and a swarm of utterly absurd and doctrinaire ones – has been swaddled in a fog of obscurantism, loathing, and dread.
There is nothing surprising in this. As I point out in my introductory notes to Mussolini’s article, fascism generically understood is the only real alternative to Liberalism to actually emerge as a political reality in late centuries, yet which at the same time was never disproven by the ‘march of history’; it was defeated militarily, never ideologically – nay, nor even concretely, in terms of its praxis. It has never been demonstrated, in the ‘laboratory of reality’, that Fascism of one variety or another would not have been able to produce a long-standing and successful state, had it not been for its obliteration in the war.
It should go without saying – though alas, given the present climate, it certainly does not – that our right aim in seeking to investigate Fascism is the improvement and the deepening of our political understanding, and not some crude and historically ingenuous will to resurrect Fascist ideas from their tomb. We contend that Liberalism has had a great opponent in Fascism: it should then be of interest to the friends and critics of Liberalism alike then to comprehend Fascism in a lucid light. Liberalism is impaired in this, among other things, by its natural and continual animosity toward its old nemesis. The ruthless but judicious theoretical critique of Fascism, which can only be carried out today by those standing beyond the present political conventions, is therefore of utmost importance today – and I find that the Journal’s commentators have not failed to put their finger on several of the essential questions which must be included in any such critique.
I would like to offer several very preliminary thoughts on a few of these questions, with the aim of promoting further reflection in this greatly important matter. I will refer to several of the comments submitted under Mussolini’s article1 as my point of departure.
Fascism: Left or Right?
To begin with what is nearest me, several of the commentators noted what they believed to be an error in my introductory notes to my translation of Mussolini’s article. In these notes, I endorse Mussolini’s neat distinction between Fascism and the political left of his day, while the commentators in question either believe this distinction to be untenable, or hold that that the left-right spectrum itself is so. Before anything, then, a point of at least partial agreement between us: I wholly agree that the left-right dichotomy, which is so entrenched in our discourses as to be absolutely presupposed by them, is radically limited in scope, choked by its narrow horizon and basically unequal to the ambitious task which is generally set before it of qualifying the entire gamut of human political thought. This spectrum in fact issued from a specific historical moment – the French Revolution, as one commentator has rightly indicated – and therefore dwells entirely within a paradigm of Enlightenment political thought, of which the Revolution was merely the great emblem and most celebrated manifestation. This spectrum is breaking apart in our time, because that paradigm itself no longer encompasses the full range of real political possibilities confronting us. That is the measure of the dizzying, often frightening potentialities which are opening beneath our very feet in the present day.
Some of the commentators have suggested that the conventional spectrum is therefore false; I would rather say it is limited. It cannot be wholly false, because it was confidently used to understand and categorize the better part of political phenomena for some two centuries, even by eminently competent observers and almost without any substantial critique, which suffices to demonstrate that it evidently referred to real features of the political situation of prior times. That it is being called into question today indicates, not that we have somehow seen its errors, to which past generations were blind, but that we are exceeding its limits and so can no longer adequately explain the political facts of our time with reference to it.
The left-right political spectrum almost fully suffices to understand the politics of middle Modernity – which is to say, the republican/liberal/revolutionary left as against the conservative (and therefore usually monarchistic or aristocratic)2 right. It is altogether an Enlightenment schema, and is quite suitable to the period in which the Enlightenment was politically coming into its maturity. It falls apart in late Modernity and especially in so-called ‘Postmodernity’, because here, for the first time, alternatives are both actually realized and actively proposed to the Enlightenment as such. Communism is not among these alternatives; communism is in fact in many ways the culmination of Enlightenment thought, and for that reason stands naturally on the far political left, as has historically been acknowledged and almost universally accepted; communism marks the natural and generally accepted boundary of the left. I therefore entirely subscribe to Kerry Bolton’s view that Liberalism and Communism must be regarded as closer kin and kind, than Fascism and Communism.
Fascism and National Socialism, meanwhile, have likewise commonly been placed on the political right of our spectrum; in my opinion, however, this has been done reflexively and unreflectively, out of the mere presupposition of this conventional spectrum – i.e. out of the prejudice that that spectrum is sufficient to understand all possible political forms, and perforce must encompass as well the regimes of the interwar period. The inadequacy of their placement on the right is indicated by several visible and well-known facts. For one, while the left generally does not protest the view that communism is its extreme boundary, almost no one on the mainstream right rests easy with its purported kinship to Fascism, National Socialism, Spanish Francoism, etc. – neither the conservatives, who fail to understand how these revolutionary regimes could possibly represent the far boundary of conservative thought, nor the remnant traditionalists of monarchical stamp, who see in all of these forms of government something quite different from, and in some cases perhaps inherently threatening to, the traditional monarchies of Europe. Moreover, while it is almost never argued that communism belongs to the political right, there inevitably arise voices (usually, though not always, of libertarian origin) which insist on the extreme left-wing nature of Fascism.
These facts indicate a degree of confusion regarding the very concept of Fascism. My claim is that the right-wing or the left-wing placement of Fascism is, by the standards of the left-right spectrum itself, fundamentally misguided. In truth, both Fascism and National Socialism were reactions against the Enlightenment, and therefore were reactions against the whole of the political spectrum produced by the Enlightenment. They amalgamated or incorporated qualities and political aims or characteristics from both sides of the conventional scale, and for this reason alone, it is impossible to adequately plot them on that scale.
The Totalitarian Question
All of this is directly relevant to a second point of agreement standing between me and several commentators: they have indicated Mussolini’s contempt for freedom as a dangerous and potentially totalitarian element of his political thought, and I agree with them – supposing the issue is rightly understood. This purely reactionary element of Fascism in my view owes its existence to a widespread but shallow comprehension of those Enlightenment dynamics which Mussolini (among others) was openly seeking to redress and replace. The Enlightenment attempted to marry freedom with equality, but, in order to arrange a marriage between two ideas that had always been understood to stand in tension if not hostility, had to fundamentally alter the concept of freedom itself: freedom, no longer as the culmination and mark of virtue, but freedom as the mere absence of constraint. This work was done by the Enlightenment thinkers, not explicitly or with great ado, but quietly and surreptitiously.3 Those who have merely reacted against the Enlightenment without deeply understanding it (as many of the Italian Fascists) have rejected both equality and this modified view of freedom. Their inadequate grasp of the insidious theoretical work done upon the very concept of freedom during the Enlightenment led directly to their failure to reclaim the older idea of freedom; they became antagonistic and hostile to freedom as such, and this led inevitably in many cases to a kind of obsession with blind obedience, irrationalism, instinctualism, primitivism, mysticism of the most obtuse kind, labour as the aim of life, productivity as the measure of man, etc. It led, in other words, to a resounding failure to resurrect, in anything near its full sense, the pre-modern idea of human virtue.
This is surely connected with totalitarianism, and does indeed point to noteable similarities between the Fascist regime, the National Socialist regime, the Communist regime, and other like regimes of the same period – similarities we would be remiss not to note. Under Fascism there was indubitably a quantity of idolatry of the state, which more than one commentator has justly raised as a possible critique against Fascism. It must be stated, however, that in clear opposition to Soviet Communism, this idolatry was not unquestioned and was not universally adopted by the Fascists themselves. It always remained a point of debate in Fascist Italy.4 This tension can be seen in the regime itself, which often protested that it was ‘spiritualizing politics’ and attempting to forge a ‘new man’ (words heard from the lips of Mussolini himself on more than one occasion) – attempts which were of enormous potential, though they often ring hollow in the light of what we know about daily life under Fascism. In focusing so strongly on blind and absolute obedience from the very bottom to the very top of its hierarchy, and without at the same time seeking to nourish and stimulate, at its upper echelons in particular, a new liberty and initiative, Fascism could not possibly forge a full human being, nor even adequately aim at such, and everything from the legal order to the intellectual life of the nation suffered for this dearth.5
In one respect, of course, taking the state as the crucial point of reference for public life was healthy for Italy, since most human beings are incapable of true freedom, and thrive best in hierarchy and order, in an organic state wherein they may work constantly for the fulfilment of generally recognized and communally beneficial social roles. It could perhaps be said that Fascism solved the problem of mass society in its pragmatic quality, but not in its spiritual quality.
There is a key lesson here, which totalitarian governments of all stripes not only fail to grasp but actively undermine, whether consciously or unconsciously: the only way of thoroughly opposing the egalitarianism of Modernity is through a thorough renovation of the true aristocratic ideal of freedom. Because Fascism was insufficiently radical to grasp this, it naturally tended to drift in a similar direction as other late-modern dictatorships of the epoch, and to this extent can be regarded as sharing distinct features and practices in common with Soviet Communism. The wholly modern concept of totalitarianism is therefore useful for understanding these points of contact. However, it cannot explain the equally overpowering tensions standing between those same regimes – and here we return to Mussolini’s useful distinction between Fascism and the political left.
In a state of affairs in which two states emerge with similar ‘ideologies’, there is generally a natural confluence of the two into a single political alliance, since they share common ends and perceive that their power to attain those ends will be augmented through their conjunction. This is all the truer when they possess at the same time a common and powerful enemy. Their coalescing can be interrupted, of course, by political intrigues, coups, assassinations, etc.; it can be compromised by the existence of ambitious individuals who struggle against one another for power, or by divergences between the national, economic and geopolitical interests of established states; but the tendency, particularly on the level of the mass and the gross, is toward unity and not division. Thus the radical anarchists, Marxists, communists, socialists, proponents of the ‘Crystal Palace’ etc. etc. during the Russian Revolution for the most part flowed naturally together into the Red Bolshevik Army. Thus the monarchists, reactionaries, blackshirts, etc. in Italy of the interwar period naturally converged in Fascism. The United States and Britain were destined allies during the war, despite their patent conflicts of interest on the global scale and their ambitions for unilateral domination over the same seas; they were both, at bottom and despite various internal contradictions, liberal states, and shared a set of metapolitical goals, which overrode their geopolitical antagonism.
But it is precisely such convergence between Fascism and Marxist socialism, or between National Socialism and Marxist socialism, which one does not see in the rise of the former two regimes. To be sure, Stalin borrowed much from Mussolini and from Hitler; but what he borrowed were primarily tactics and outward trappings, not inward principles or aims. National Socialism remained intransigently opposed to Communism, despite its brief marriage of convenience with Soviet Russia; meanwhile, the earliest emergence of the Fascists as a political force involved ubiquitous and often enough bloody battles with socialists. Mussolini was originally a socialist critical of socialism; he could not have become a Fascist without first rejecting socialism and being expelled from its ranks. As a clear measure of his opposition, it should be recalled that communism very well might have seized power in interwar Italy had it not been precisely for Mussolini’s rise. One commentator to the article published the week before last has pointed out that Mussolini was killed, not by the Allies, but by his fellow Italians. Given. Yet his final execution was not carried out by just any Italians; it was the Partisans who murdered him, almost all of whom were socialists of one stripe or another. The assassination of Mussolini at the hands of left-wing elements might be explained as a mere political ploy in a time of great political upheaval; the gloating public display of his mutilated corpse cannot be explained in these terms.
Put briefly, the alliance between National Socialist Germany and Fascist Italy was often uneasy, but that between National Socialist Germany and Soviet Russia was untenable. The differences in the first case, though real and important, were not diametrical; in the second case, only matters of geopolitical import could suffice to temporarily suppress them, so far apart did the two regimes stand on several fundamental issues. It is useful here to recall what Alliance actually won the war. And while this alliance, too, proved ephemeral, this was not because Communism and Liberalism stood so much opposed to one another, but because America and Russia did.6
Alternatives to the Spectrum
It is generally allowed in the New Right that the conventional political spectrum is or has become somehow inadequate.7 If we accept this premise for a moment, the question becomes what manner or method we should then adopt to analyze and comprehend political things, both in their essential qualities and in their specific relations with one another. We have been so long accustomed to the use of a simple bipolar spectrum that we are wont to attempt to preserve it in some form or other by changing or multiplying its poles. We need not list here the variety of often wild alternatives that have been proposed, which range from Cartesian coordinate systems to horseshoes, with probably even more curious geometries yet lurking around the manifold chambers of the internet. I would rather like to focus on an alternative suggested by one of our own commentators, which seems to me one of the likeliest substitutes that I have seen, but which to my mind, precisely for its superiority to most other possibilities, demonstrates the fundamental inadequacy of ‘lineal thinking’ of this kind as a whole.
The commentator in question suggests that the true poles of the scale should be conceived to stand between a hypothetical extreme of total individual freedom on the one hand, and a hypothetical extreme of total governmental control on the other. Leaving aside the question of whether freedom itself can adequately be understood in terms of the absence of constraint, I do not dispute that the alternative between a certain kind of freedom and governmental control is a real one, and that it can be useful for comprehending any number of political things. More, I do not doubt that one can indeed, should one wish to put oneself to such a task, arrange all human societies upon such a scale. I suspect, however, that such a spectrum will lead to problems of its own which it is not equipped to surmount. A single example will have to suffice: a theocratic Muslim state stands at or near the totalitarian antipode of this scale, alongside atheist Soviet Communism, godless ‘Brave New World’ technocracy, and certain tribal societies wherein the chief controls practically every aspect of the private lives of his tribemates. Do these kinds of government or social organization really have more in common than not? Are there not real and essential political and social differences between them which, following this scale, we are led to downplay or ignore altogether? Or, put from a different point of view, do we really adequately understand a Muslim theocrat or a Marxist idealogue leader, by supposing that his overriding or most important concern is with political power?
I for one doubt this, and I suspect that, while at this level the matter remains rather theoretical, important practical consequences follow from these considerations.
One could similarly arrange societies on a scale ranging from the least technological to the most technological, or from the perfectly egalitarian society to the perfectly hierarchical society, or from the most capitalistic society to the most communistic society. All of this might now and then be useful, but to privilege one or another of these scales as being somehow the measure of political things can only be justified by a rigorous demonstration that the two antipodes are not arbitrarily selected, but represent the root political alternative. For my part, I doubt that there is a single alternative, so much as alternatives. But then binary reductions of any kind, while locally useful, will be globally confounding.
I would propose here what I have already proposed elsewhere, namely, a fundamentally different approach: rather than considering the political in terms of a single scientistic and lineal (or even planar) scale, it is meet to think of political things in terms of a variety of possible political regimes. This kind of thinking originates in classical antiquity, primarily in the work of Plato and Aristotle. These thinkers generally reduced the possible human regimes to anywhere between five and six.8 The task then would be to understand whether totalitarianism is the reflection of one or more of these regimes (principally tyranny), or whether it forms its own characteristic kind of regime. Furthermore, the question emerges of the character of Fascism and National Socialism in their most distinctive features – whether they pertained more to monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, etc., or whether they somehow represented a mixed regime, or some new regime which, for developments arising from modern times, cannot be understood exclusively in classical terms at all. Even in this latter case, however, classical regime analysis would provide the necessary frame of reference for a comprehensive understanding of new things.
Recovering this diversified and nuanced view of human societies is to my mind the only way of transcending the narrow limitations of every ‘political spectrum’ and freeing ourselves from the logical or ideological cages of our late modern political theory. It could permit us to grasp the essential nature of Fascism with a surer clarity – through which understanding alone we can measure the degree to which Fascism, despite all its blunders and mistakes, represented a legitimate alternative to modern political philosophy, and the degree to which it was nothing but the wayward, prodigal and indeed wastrel child of the same.
2There are exceptions to this, not least of all the conservative right in the US, which was from its very origins republican (in the original sense), and not aristocratic or monarchical. The conventional American right has always set its sights on conserving the original republican order of the United States; it has always taken its bearings almost exclusively by the Constitution. The only competitor to the Constitution as a ‘founding document’ for the American right has been the Bible, and it is characteristic of American conservatives to stubbornly assume (rather curiously, in our view) a harmony between the two texts. The possibility of a ‘republican’ or even ‘democratic’ right reflects the deficit of the idea of the right itself. I offer some reflections on this in my essay on conservatism.
3 One commentator provided the following quotation by Locke: ‘[F]or law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good of those under that law’. It is my contention that this presupposes the Enlightenment idea of freedom, not the older Christian or Roman concept of liberty. Further in the same passage (Second Treatise of Government, Chapter VI, § 57), Locke states that ‘liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be, where there is no law: but freedom is not, as we are told, a liberty for every man to do what he lists: but a liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.’ The two alternatives proposed here purposely omit the third and classical idea of freedom: freedom as the attainment or consummation of virtue, which perfects the will, liberates one from the inner slavery to vice, and tames the passions. Nothing could be more representative of this difference in views than that a philosopher confined to a prison cell would be viewed, from the modern perspective, as unambiguously enslaved, whereas the same philosopher to antiquity would in no way suffer a diminution of his freedom. For a particularly poignant statement of this view, see the words of a philosopher who was imprisoned: Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, e.g. Book 1, Chapter VI and Book 2, Chapter II.
4Consider for instance the Second Conference on Trade Unionist and Corporatist Studies, a much publicized event held in Ferrara in 1932, at the very centre of the Fascist regime’s twenty-year rule. This event became the stage for a heated debate between two vying visions of the Fascist state, the one tending toward a (sometimes openly) communist vision of total integration in the organic body of the state, the other defending a more hierarchical view of the Fascist order. For more on this event and on the relation of Fascism to the political left, see Julius Evola, Recognitions (Arktos 2017), Chapter 1, and especially pp. 4–8. See of course also Evola, Fascism Viewed from the Right.
5Fascism is often regarded as an attempt to consolidate all freedom in the single figure of the head of state; to this extent, it might be considered monarchical or tyrannical, depending on the nature of that ruler. Yet it should also be noted that this state of affairs has more in common with the Rousseauean view of the embodiment of the ‘general will’ or the Hobbesian supreme monarch than with any premodern idea or ideal of monarchy; for it tends to divorce the will of the leader altogether from any sense of human virtue.
6Insofar as the Cold War was also an ‘ideological’ struggle, it was the vestigial Republicanism of the United States, in the form of its conservative traditions, which produced such a state of affairs. The left in the United States, and particularly the left-wing intelligentsia largely supported Soviet Communism, and those who opposed it were often considered right-wing cranks. I would claim that, while the American right at that time surely had a more respectable position, the American left was in many ways more intellectually consistent. For anyone who would like to better understand the arguments for a deep kinship between American-style liberalism and Soviet-style communism, including a consideration of the Cold War in this light, I cannot do better than recommend Tomislav Sunic’s Homo Americanus: Child of the Postmodern Age (Arktos, 2018).
8It is worth noting that Machiavelli reduced them to two; see his Prince, Chapter 1. There is evidently something reductionistic here about modern thought, and it would be well worth considering why.