Zeev Sternhell
Neither Right Nor Left

The thirty years that preceded the First World War and the decade that followed it formed a truly revolutionary period in the history of Europe. In the space of less than half a century the condition of society, the form of life, the rate of technological progress, and in many respects people's way of looking at themselves underwent a greater change than at any other time in modern history. The growth of industry and technology transformed manners and morals, radically altered the pace of life, brought into being great metropolitan cities, and had a profound effect on life in the provinces.

In the second and third decades of our century, there was a strong and widespread awareness of living in a world that was changing with unprecedented rapidity. As Henri De Man wrote, 'In reality, there are not many qualitative changes in the history of mankind that can be compared, as regards their revolutionary significance for society and culture, with the change from mechanical movement to electrical movement, from the technique of the lever to the technique of waves, from the cogwheel to the electric wire and wireless transmission, from material to energetic work processes, from mechanistic thought to functional thought.' De Man felt that the world of that period was a world in gestation, 'which differed as much from the world of our grandparents as that differed from the world of their ancestors six thousand years ago.' And he concluded, in a manner very characteristic of his generation, 'We are living in the midst of the greatest social revolution that history has ever known. There is an old world that is passing away and a new world that is being born.'

However, if it was only in the interwar period that this consciousness of the new situation became practically universal, a presentiment of the upheavals that were to overtake an entire civilization already existed at the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, in the sphere of ideas, that period was already deeply affected by a resurgence of irrational values, by a cult of instinct and sentiment, and by an affirmation of the supremacy of the forces of life and the affections. The rationalist and 'mechanistic' explanation of the world that had been dominant in European thought from the sixteenth century onward now gave way to an 'organic' explanation, and the new importance given to historical values and various idealistic factors amounted to a condemnation of rationalism and individualism. The role of the individual was made subordinate to that of society and of history. To state the matter differently, for the generation of 1890—Le Bon, Barres, Sorel, Georges Vacher de Lapouge, and others-the individual had no value in himself, and therefore society could not be regarded simply as the sum of the individuals who composed it. This new generation of intellectuals was violently opposed to the rationalistic individualism of the liberal order, to the dissolution of social bonds that existed in bourgeois society, and to the 'utilitarianism and materialism' that prevailed there. It was precisely in this desire to overturn the prevailing order of values that the most clear-sighted fascist intellectuals of the interwar period perceived the origins of fascism. Gentile defined fascism as a revolt against positivism.

That revolt, which was also an attack on the way of life produced by liberalism, an opposition to the 'atomized' society, led to a glorification of the institution that was felt to represent the element of unity-the nation. This glorification of the nation, the emergence of a nationalism involving a whole system of defenses and safeguards intended to assure the integrity of the national body, was a natural outcome of the new conception of the world. The new school of thought, rejecting the system of values bequeathed by the eighteenth century and the French Revolution and assailing the foundations of liberalism and democracy, had a very different image of things: 'The selectionist morality gives one's duty toward the species the position of supremacy that Christianity gives one's duty toward God,' wrote Vacher de Lapouge.

Here we must insist on something of great importance for an understanding of subsequent developments. The antirationalist reaction that questioned the underlying principles of both Marxism and democracy was not the mere product of a literary neoromanticism that affected only the world of arts and letters. These principles were challenged in the name of science, and this was the real significance of the intellectual revolution of the first quarter of the twentieth century. When one sees them in this context, one can understand the nature and scope of the new directions taken in many fields in this period: the new humanistic and social sciences, Darwinian biology, Bergsonian philosophy, Ernest Renan and Hippolyte Taine's interpretation of history, Le Bon's social psychology, and the so-called Italian school of political sociology—Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Michels—all opposed the basic premises of liberalism and democracy. The new social sciences, which inherited many aspects of social Darwinism (this was especially true of anthropology and social psychology), created a new theory of political conduct. They thus contributed to an intellectual climate that helped to undermine the foundations of democracy and to enable fascism to come to power.

The positivist character of their scientific method cannot alter the fact that the objective criticisms of given realities of Mosca, Pareto, and Michels amount, in actuality, to sweeping attacks on democracy. The rational explanation of the irrational provided by the theory of elites constitutes a bridge between social research and fascist practice. This explanation by the Italian school of political sociology contributed to the development of revolutionary syndicalism and nationalism, and in many respects represented the meeting point of these two schools of thought. A conception of man as being essentially motivated by the forces of the unconscious, a pessimistic idea that human nature is unchangeable, led to a static view of history: human conduct cannot change, since psychological motivations always remain the same. According to this view, in all periods of history, whatever the current ideology, under whatever regime, human behavior is unchanging, and therefore the character of a regime is finally of little importance in itself. Moreover, these three authors, like Max Weber at a later date, were agreed that the social sciences could not provide a basis for value judgments either of political structures or of ideologies. This scientific objectivism, based on a vision of man as an essentially irrational being, thus played an important role in undermining the foundations of democracy, and the theory of elites associated with Mosca, Pareto, and Michels remained until the forties one of the most formidable offensive weapons against both Marxism and democracy.

  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.