Michael Ledeen
Universal Fascism

Few people were more acutely aware of the shortcomings of fascist theory and practice than the educated young fascists who were raised after the March on Rome of October, 1922. These young Italians, who constituted a 'fascist generation,' genuinely wanted to transform fascism into a phenomenon which could achieve a thorough change in Italian society, and so provide the basis for restructuring all Western societies. If this grandiose prospect seems somewhat exaggerated to us, it did not to many intellectuals and statesmen, fascist and nonfascist alike, in the turbulent thirties in Europe. Many took the possibility very seriously indeed, as the meeting of representatives from fascist movements in thirteen different European countries in 1934 shows quite clearly. It would seem, then, that Italian fascism had sufficient appeal to draw together the representatives of diverse European fascist movements.

Indeed, to say that fascism had little in the way of a coherent ideology is both to miss the point of its appeal and to grossly overstate the merits of intellectual consistency when assessing the attractiveness of political doctrines. In the first place fascism in Italy emerged in response to a domestic crisis which many believed to have threatened the very existence of Italian society. Fascism thus had originally claimed to be a therapy for a body politic on the verge of extinction. Mussolini had not claimed doctrinal coherence at first, and the fact that fascism could appeal to a body of supporters ranging from the Nationalist Right to the anarcho-syndicalist Left demonstrated both the personal appeal of Mussolini himself and the confidence of large sectors of the Italian public that he and the men around him were capable of solving Italy's problems. Secondly, the existence of various versions of fascism, or, as we have termed it earlier, of several fascisms in the late twenties and early thirties, enabled the regime to win the confidence of people with very diverse political views, and to avoid internal rupture of the sort often associated with more 'coherent' political movements. In a sense, Mussolini's Italy represented the triumph of what Americans have called 'consensus politics,' that is, of a form of political behavior which seeks to accommodate the maximum number of people and ideas within the framework of the nation. Its undoubted success in the early thirties is testimony to the viability of this form of political behavior, and to Mussolini's ability to convince his public that he was capable of supporting various elements within Italian society.

Thus, far from weakening the popular appeal of his regime, the very lack of any codified ideology lent fascism considerable political strength. The ability of diverse elements of Italian society to make of fascism what they wanted enabled Mussolini to deal with various threats to his own power and prestige in a way that would have been impossible in a more rigid ideological situation.

Yet it would be erroneous to treat fascism solely in terms of traditional political models, for it came to represent a revolutionary approach to Western society for many, especially young people. These young fascists believed themselves to be on the verge of a total reconstitution of their own country, and, ultimately, the entire Western world. Camillo Pellizzi has nicely characterized this as the concept of the Fascist State as a 'dynamo,' a generator of energy and creativity, which would liberate men from the conditions of alienation and class warfare that typified the liberal societies of the nineteenth century, and open the Fascist Era. It was to be the era of youthful genius and creativity, and the most common metaphor which fascists used to contrast their own concept of the world with that of the preceding generations was the Mazzinian dichotomy of 'young Italy' against 'old Europe.' It was this notion which lay at the heart of the attempt to create a Fascist International, and which enabled Italian fascists to claim that they were the harbingers of a new European epoch.

What was this new epoch to be? Above all, a period when society was restructured so as to remove class conflict, and where human abilities were able to develop to the fullest. Therefore, fascist writers tended to describe their future society in human terms, rather than in economic or social concepts. In accordance with Mussolini's oft-quoted dictum, 'Economic man does not exist,' Italian fascists looked to a period where genuine human emotions would be free to develop spontaneously. They believed that in the fascist society of the future, a new kind of mentality would develop, and that the possessors of this new mentality would restructure society in accordance with their own enhanced knowledge and sensitivity. The new society, then, could not be created by those who had been tied to outmoded conceptions of the world, but could only be brought about by those who were unfettered by previous models. So the 'new fascist man' had to be found among the young, who had been raised in the heady atmosphere of fascist innovation.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.