Why fascists beat liberals

von macchiato

After yesterday’s first part of the interview with Prof.Duggan, we are now going to ask him whether fascisms reach(ed?) parts of the human psyche others did (do?) not reach.

Prof. Christopher Duggan is the author of the following books, all translated into Italian: The Force of Destiny. A history of Italy since 1796 (Allen Lane, 2007; n.b. the Italian edition by Laterza has irritated some Italian historians, see our 5th June Italian-language post „Professore provocatore?„); Francesco Crispi. From nation to nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2002); A Concise History of Italy (Cambridge University Press, 1994); Fascism and the Mafia (Yale University Press, 1989); A History of Sicily, with M.I.Finley and D.Mack Smith (Chatto and Windus, 1986).

Is there a kind of passion which rational liberal democratic ideologues and lobbyists are not able to offer?

That’s what it was felt. The way that liberalism was protrayed in Italy, and not just by the fascists -it goes back a long way to really the very beginnings, in the 1860s and 1870s- is of liberalism as an ideology that somehow is not working for Italy, and probably is not suited to Italy. By the early 1870s, and increasingly in the 1890s, you get criticisms of Parliament, criticisms that are tied up with attempts to analyze: why is Italy not more successful, all those hopes for Risorgimento, creating this „third Rome“, a great Italy, something that is going to be economically strong, is going to be united, why is all this not working?

Increasingly, what you get in the 1870s and 80s, is a sense that liberalism, because it is individualistic, because it is materialistic, and because it is ultimately perhaps alien to Italian traditions and Italian culture, it’s something that comes protestant culture, from Northern Europe, is not suited to Italy, and it is something which is not capable, because it is individualistic, and materialistic, of having the kind of transformative effect on Italy and on Italians that the country would like.

A lot of debates from the 1880s and 1890s is about Italian character, about sense of decadence, about the lack of militarism in Italy. And the feeling is that liberalism, because for example in Parliament you reflect people rather than change people, because it has big stress on individual interests and rights rather than duties, is not able to have the kind of transformative effect, and the unifying effect, that Italy is felt to need.

Here, there is also a bit of a contrast with what happens Britain, where the idea of liberalism, particularly parliamentary liberalism, in the 19th century gets invested with a kind of mythological status, one may think of works of Macaulay in the mid-19th century, how the whole idea of the glorious revolution, traditions of Parliament, and freedom and so on, become really emotive in Britain.

In the case of Italy, the idea of liberalism, increasingly from the 1870s, 1880s is seen in negative terms. Of course, nationalists pick on that, and see liberalism as providing for not freedom, but license anarchy lack of idealism materialism corruption decadence. All these things get tied up with the idea of liberalism, and fascism is able to exploit that. One of the striking things about looking at diaries or letters, as I have done for the period of fascism, is how there is no nostalgia as Croce famously did have nostalgia, (rather belatedly: he was still, as we know, in the 2nd half of 1924 looking quite seriously to Mussolini); he was one of the very few who becomes seriously nostalgic about liberal Italy, but it did not resonate as an ideal with the great majority of those times.

Many of the things you mentioned remind me of Europe and the world, in the 21st century, now, not just of Germany nor Italy of the late Twenties and Thirties: crises, depression, disorientation among youngsters, future prospects not as good as the last 60 years which were enormous for Europe: do we have to be somehow pessimistic that in some forms these quasi-religious, less rational approaches to politics might come back, as we see all over Europe now coming back all sort of nationalistic populisms, people saying well parliamentary democracy is just not up the job, capitalism is not working?

They were always doing this. Looking back to the period from the late 1950s through until very recently, this is an extraordinary period in which we’ve lost the sense of serious crisis in Europe. There have been wars, we’ve seen what’s happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But for most Europeans it has been a time of extraordinary prosperity. There have been downturns in the economy: high points in the 60s, a bit lower in the 70s, high points in the 80s.

But now that we’re a facing a time of potential catastrophy for the European economy, I think it is very sobering and very important to remember that most of history is determined by crises of a kind we have not seen in sixty years, but which may come back in Europe in the next few years.

And one of the things you know which one can sadly see in history is that when things become criticalally economically politically, when people become insecure, frightened, can’t see a future, it is very easy, even from most civilized peoples, to latch on to what’s seen to be THE solution. This can often go hand in hand with deeply irrational currents of thought and feeling, with anger directed towards particular groups, who are felt for some reason -often quite irrationally- to be the cause of the problems, whether immigrants or whatever group it might be.

For people out of a sense of desperation, and I don’t think any country is immune to this, or more prone to this, one can look around the world, for example what’s happened in recent years in North Africa: when things get very bad, you go on the streets, and you dream, and those dreams often are not fulfilled. But you latch onto individuals, ideas, ideals, whatever it is that you think will provide a solution to what have been great problems, economic problems, political security or whatever.

I don’t think any culture any country can see itself immune from that tendency. I think, especially because we had such an exceptional period in Europe at least the last sixty or so years, that it is very important at this stage to look back and remind ourselves just how easy it is for people as civilized, intelligent as Germans or Italians or whatever it is, to be seduced by extreme ideas. I see no reason why in Britain -you know we have xenophobic strands in Britain as well- that those could not be developed and capitalized upon by politicians in times of crisis.

It’s all there, and we just have to be alert and conscious and weary.

(2nd part of the transcription of the interview with Prof. Christopher Duggan at Reading in May 2012 by faschistensindimmerdieanderen.wordpress.com; for 1st part see yesterday’s post)