Sunday, September 18, 2016

6 Texts Essential to an Understanding of Fascism

The word "fascism" has been thrown about with quite the cavalier attitude throughout the 2016 presidential race, but it seems to have been predominantly used as a pejorative term for right-wing candidates (or, at least, a certain flamboyantly orange candidate). Without minimizing the substantial threats that certain xenophobic, misogynist, and otherwise extremist comments and policy suggestions have rendered all too frighteningly tangible, the word "fascism" has been improperly applied. Americans have certainly considered it a dirty word for decades (for instance, as Umberto Eco has pointed out, the insult is "fascist pig," rather than "Nazi pig" or "Falangist pig"), but it is not a well understood term and even among serious scholars there is no consensus as to what exactly fascism is, what constitutes lived fascism as opposed to ideology or theory, and whether the dictatorships usually identified as fascist - Mussolini's Italy, Hitler's Germany, sometimes Franco's Spain - demonstrated an actual fascist reality. It is urgent, I believe, in these tumultuous political times to use words clearly and with a reasoned understanding of their meaning. With that in mind, I have put together this brief reading list of sources that should allow the reader to form an opinion about the meaning of fascism. This understanding should both grant insight into twentieth century history and politics and provide groundwork for a more discerning appreciation of the political ideologies in play in this election. I would also point out that Mussolini's writings are not under copyright and quite easy to access in online, both in the original Italian and in translation. Though much, if not all, of his writing proves rather distasteful, it is unquestionably illuminating. I must confess I have preferred to leave the reading of Hitler's Mein Kampf to experts on Nazi Germany, but it too is easily accessible online.

The Origins of Totalitarianism - Hannah Arendt
Totalitarianism, like fascism, is a term that is much (over)used by journalists and political commentators, although there is substantial disagreement about what the term means even among scholars. Fascism is not totalitarianism, but the terms have been historically linked - they were both coined in Italy, by Italians, at around the same time - and one cannot talk about one without raising the specter of the other. Arendt doesn't consider fascism a form of totalitarianism: in her view, the only two truly totalitarian regimes in history were Nazi Germany under Hitler and Soviet Russia under Stalin. Her lucid, incredibly rich analysis traces the origins of these totalitarian regimes, which she sees as based in the development of a paranoid antisemitism that presumed the existence of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy and in the expansionism of late imperialism. This is a considered and yet deeply felt book that presents history and politics in the most nuanced and rational way possible. 

How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922-1945 - Victoria De Grazia
The first scholarship on fascism rendered women essentially invisible, even major figures such as Margherita Sarfatti and Ines Donati (one of the only women to participate in the March on Rome), and books like this one have remedied this unforgivable oversight on the part of male scholars. De Grazia approaches her subject from a variety of angles, examining everything from women active in politics to maternity, symbolic representations of women in fascist media to how the regime impacted social life and dating, treating these subjects with a sophisticated comprehension of political theory and a lively empathy for Italian women. The most valuable and far-reaching insight proposed by How Fascism Ruled Women is how insidiously and completely Mussolini's regime was able to penetrate daily life for Italians, even in arenas where politics would at first glance seem irrelevant or unnecessary.

Ur-Fascism - Umberto Eco (Il fascismo in tre capitoli - Emilio Gentile)
For those who speak Italian, Emilio Gentile's Il fascismo in tre capitoli is an invaluable handbook, a brief but extraordinarily succinct summary of the history of fascism and fascists in Italy that includes the most convincing definition of fascism that I have found, but treats the controversies with fairness and transparency. Although Gentile is arguably the foremost expert on the subject, this particular book is not available in English, so as a replacement I recommend Umberto Eco's essay, "Ur-Fascism," which defines with grace and wit the signs with which proto-fascist or fascistic ideologies can be identified. Eco's essay is less an attempt to understand history than a protest and a plea; he urges us to be on the watch for ideologues who might bring us again down the path of dictatorship, repression, and genocide.

A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 - Stanley Payne
Payne's hefty volume is one of the single most important books for English speakers hoping to gain an understanding of fascism; he offers a complex and exact definition of fascism (and also provides a summary and condensed translation of Gentile's definition) and traces the political history and evolution of the regimes that he views as fascist, that is, Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. Here, fascism is placed in its historical context, its origins traced from the nineteenth century. As a final gesture, Payne, like Arendt in her preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, considers what new transformations extreme right-wing ideologies could undergo and what that could mean for the future.

Three Guineas - Virginia Woolf
Woolf's masterpiece is a complex narrative framed as a series of letters within a letter in which she advances a delicately labyrinthine argument that equates the fight against patriarchy with the fight against fascism, given that both, as she makes clear, are struggles against tyranny. The dictator, whether Mussolini or Hitler, finds his counterpart in the dictator in the home; violence, Woolf tells us, is organic to the hierarchical structure in which one class of beings is oppressed by another, made secondary, denied power. Three Guineas portrays a sort of apocalyptic utopianism that in practice may be impossible to apply exactly, but that insists on a constant questioning of the status quo, a questioning that opens up an avenue for positive change. It's also one of the most exquisitely written books of the 1930s.

Vincere - Marco Bellocchio (La moglie di Mussolini - Marco Zeni)
In 2005, substantial and damning evidence was compiled and presented about a shocking and monstrous episode in Mussolini's life: he was a bigamist and he shut up his first wife, Ida Dalser, and their son, Benito, in separate insane asylums where both remained imprisoned for years and where both died under suspicious circumstances. Few stories illuminate to such devastating effect the horror of the fascist government's control over the Italian people and their ruthlessness in suppressing those who spoke up to question the regime. Unfortunately, Marco Zeni's biography of Dalser, La moglie di Mussolini, has not been translated - a real pity, since it is chock-full of lengthy quotations of letters, diaries, and other precious sources - and a documentary, Il segreto di Mussolini, which aired on state television, is not available with English subtitles. The only access English-speakers have to this incredible piece of Italian history is Marco Bellocchio's film adaptation, Vincere, which stars Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Filippo Timi, and Michela Cescon. This film is saturated with Bellocchio's own leftist politics, but it is still an exquisite and subtle film with gorgeous cinematography by Daniele Cipri and splendid costumes by Sergio Ballo.

I myself believe that the term "fascism" should only be applied to the Italian regime, though fascist, proto-fascist, and fascistic parties certainly existed elsewhere in Europe, notably in England (the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley) and the former Yugoslavia (the Croatian UstaĊĦe). It will be noted that I have included no sources that address Nazism as a primary subject, though there are hundreds of books, many of them masterpieces, that focus on Nazism, Nazi Germany, Hitler and other prominent party members, and so on. Though I see Nazism as fundamentally linked to fascism and think it is clear that the two ideologies acted as influences on each other, I do not believe that the two can be equated. For those looking for fairly accurate cinematic representations of Fascist Italy, I recommend (though of course with the caveat that they are narrative films, not documentaries): The Conformist; Rome, Open City and Paisan; Amarcord; 1900; and Love and Anarchy. Also notable, though explicitly about Nazism and Germany, is Visconti's The Damned.

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