But why is the unity of the Patria epitomized by the symbol and language of Rome? … If Mazzini, if Garibaldi tried three times to enter Rome, and if Garibaldi gave to his red shirts the tragic, inescapable dilemma, “either Rome or death,” then this means that, for the men of the Italian Risorgimento, Rome had an essential function of the first order to fulfill in the new history of the Italian nation. Thus let us too, pure in spirit and without rancor, raise our thoughts to Rome, one of the world’s few cities of the spirit, because at Rome, among those seven history-laden hills, occurred one of the great spiritual wonders that history records. There an Eastern religion, foreign to us, was transformed into a universal religion that recovered in new form that empire that the consular legions of Rome had driven to the ends of the earth. Now we aspire to make of Rome the city of our spirit, a city purged, cleansed of all the elements that have corrupted and violated her; we aspire to make of Rome the pulsating heart, the active spirit of the imperial Italy of our dreams [prolonged applause].
to the citizens of Udine a month before the March on Rome1
.’ Like the March itself, which owed its success not to military force but to its force as mythic theatre, the rhetoric compresses the essential themes of fascist culture into a mythic image.2
Rome symbolizes genuine Italian unity, not the mechanical aggregation of post-Risorgimento liberalism but the spiritual unity that had inspired the leaders of the independence movement, Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. Rome symbolizes, then, a “second Italy,” a “new” Italy, a hitherto-unattained goal. It also symbolizes a uniquely spiritual city through which a universalized Christianity had in effect restored the universality of the Roman empire and, it is implied, through which a new fascist imperium can re-spiritualize the political world.
The one element missing from Mussolini’s vision of Rome is an indication of how he intends to achieve this re-spiritualization. But we learn soon enough. “Violence,” he proclaims a few paragraphs later, “is not immoral.” Insofar as it “heals a cancerous situation, it is highly moral, sacrosanct, and necessary.”3
Myth, a secular-religious quest, the cultural rebirth of a new “spiritual” Italy, regenerative “sacrosanct” violence-these are the essential elements of Mussolinian rhetoric on the eve of the March on Rome, and they remain central for him through the final days of his regime. My concern in the present essay, however, is not the development of this rhetoric but rather one of its central sources in the political culture of post-Risorgimento, especially “Giolittian,” Italy: the avant-garde “modernist” movement.4
Provisionally, “modernism” may be understood in terms of what I take to be the central project of the intellectual generation entering the European cultural scene between 1900 and 1914: that of a “cultural regeneration” through the secular-religious quest for “new values.” By “avant-garde modernist movement,” then, I refer to those organized cultural groups of intellectuals that sought to advance this project of cultural regeneration, most often through journals but also through publicly staged events. In Italy, the most famous modernist group was the Milan-based futurists. But, for understanding the cultural sources of fascism, especially for Mussolinian rhetoric, the modernist group centered in Florence around the journal La Voce is more important. Although I cannot fully document my claims here, this essay argues that the vociani were modernist and not simply anti-democratic or anti-regime; that their modernism represented in embryo what became a fascist conception of and attitude toward life; that Mussolini took the essence of his cultural politics from them; and that his fascism might therefore be characterized in important respects as the politicization of Italian modernism.
Before proceeding, let me dispel some potential misunderstandings of this argument. First, I am not suggesting that most intellectuals attracted to fascism were modernists. On the contrary, most such intellectuals were more explicitly political from the beginning, and modernists represented only a small portion of them. Italian fascist intellectuals fell into four somewhat overlapping groups: syndicalists or ex-syndicalists, Nationalists (members of Enrico Corradini’s Italian Nationalist Association), idealists, and modernists. The first two groups were generally positivist and materialist, the latter two, anti-positivist and spiritualist. The Nationalists and idealists represented the more conservative and authoritarian side of fascism, the syndicalists and modernists its more “revolutionary” and aggressive side. Within the last group-the modernists-we may distinguish futurists, followers of Gabriele D’Annunzio, and former associate$ of La Voce.5
Second, it should not be thought that all the Italian modernists accepted fascism or that, among those who did, their reasoning was the same or their outlook equally enthusiastic. Giuseppe Borgese was a modernist, at least through 1911, and yet was never attracted to fascism.6
Giuseppe Prezzolini was attracted only in its early stages and soon became deeply ambivalent.7
Still, it is undeniable that fascism claimed, by far, more Italian modernists than did any other political movement. Only the generation that came to maturity during and after the war, the generation of Antonio Gramsci and Piero Gobetti, made a substantial effort to move Italian modernism in an antifascist direction.
Third, and perhaps most important, it should not be thought that fascism, as movement and ideology, was either a united or a coherent whole. As just indicated, fascist intellectuals alone represented a considerable range of political viewpoint. All good studies of fascism as movement and ideology acknowledge the pluralism within it, but one key ingredient in this pluralism is commonly ignored.
AN APPRECIATION OF THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CONNECTION
between the Italian modernist and fascist movements might well begin by recognizing that the modernists, a minority within the fascist movement, were disproportionately influential in legitimating it. Fascism’s greatest success in gaining intellectual legitimacy was the recruitment of Giovanni Gentile. Its pretension to be making a revolution of the spirit and a new political culture for Italy would have been much less convincing without him.8
Yet the ability of the fascists also to recruit modernists such as Filippo Marinetti, Ardengo Soffici, Luigi Pirandello, and Curzio Malaparte was far from unimportant. They were among the best-known signatories to the 1925 “Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals.” All except Mala parte became members of the Italian Academy, where they were later joined by D’Annunzio and Giovanni Papini.9
The relation of these modernist intellectuals to fascism has been misunderstood because of an important paradox in the modernists’ legitimation of it. Even as Mussolini himself appropriated a modernist understanding of the world, and even as he used some of its members to legitimate his politics, most of the various fascist modernisms of the postwar period-Marinettian futurism, D’Annunzianism, and Malaparte’s selvaggismo (“savage-ism”) and strapaesismo (“super-country-ism”)-irritated him. When Mussolini wanted cultural legitimation, he turned to the most prestigious Italian intellectual currents like those led by Gentile and Pirandello. Yet fascism did not cast modernist avant-gardism aside. Mussolini rejected only those-like Malaparte-whom he could not transform. The rest learned to play grand old men rather than cutting-edge revolutionaries.
Even more important than modernism’s assistance in legitimating fascism was its role in providing fascism a cultural-practical orientation.10
It may be that Mussolini was, above all, a masterful political pragmatist and that fascism was essentially an opportunistic response to the world war rather than a movement deeply rooted in an ideological tradition. Still, Mussolini needed ideas, and, since he had few original ones himself, he drew on nearly every anti-establishment movement or philosophy to which he was exposed: Nationalism, syndicalism, corporatism, but, above all, Gentilian idealism and La Vocean
From Gentile, he appropriated a theory of the state, which gave his regime the appearance of an ethical foundation. But his debt to La Voce
lay even deeper, for its writers gave him not only his central ideas but his closest intellectual association.12
Indeed, it was probably through them that he first came to appreciate Gentile, whose intellectual status in Italy had been immensely elevated by the esteem the vociani
held for him. Like them, Mussolini was attracted by Gentile’s almost mystical voluntarism. But, like them, he too preferred Georges Sorel’s brand of irrationalism on a more visceral level.13
For, in this irrationalism, both Mussolini and the vociani
found a crucial source for a cultural regeneration that would transcend the sterility of positivist and materialist “culture” by infusing traditional religious language, symbols, and myths into mass-based, secular institutions.
Although drawing on many sources, the early fascist movement contains little in the way of cultural ideas and ideals that cannot be found in the modernism La Voce had most fully represented. Fascism’s idea of community emphasized an “integral” civilization that would re-link the cultures of the sciences and humanities. Like the vociani, most fascist leaders believed that industrialism and technology should be embraced but that the culture of positivism with which industrialism and technology were presently bound up was sterile and alienating. Modernity needed a secular surrogate for the increasingly moribund cultures of traditional religion, one that could serve as the basis for a stronger form of human community. To regain this community, cultural practices retrieved from preindustrial society needed to be infused into modern industrial and political settings.
In fact, fascism’s emphasis on the importance of restoring the cultural authority of myths derived directly from La Vocean
modernism. The fascists believed that a strong nation needed a foundation in a common secular-religious practice based on shared political symbols, rituals, and language. In an important work, Emilio Gentile has shown that all pre-war Italian cultural groups were in search of a Sorelian “myth of the new state,” the central one of which was La Voce’s
“myth of the second Italy.”14
The point may even be pressed beyond myth in the political sense deriving from Sorel. As Niccolo Zapponi has written, ours is “the century of ‘cimetières marins’ and desolate lands, of poetic Apollos and lunar Pierrots, of ‘demoiselles’ of Avignon and anxious muses. In short, the conviction that we have alienated ourselves from reality (past, present, future), that, to salvage what is salvageable, it is necessary to entrust ourselves to myth, to a surrogate for authentic history-this conviction was in culture (and certainly not only in its most retrograde side) before it was in fascism.”15
IN THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH OF FASCISM’S FALL
, many interpreters were inclined to treat it as a historical “rupture” or “parenthesis.”16
More recent research, however, clearly establishes that fascism was much closer to everyday life than these interpreters allowed.17
It was not simply imposed nor was it entirely a manipulation of consent; fascism had a culture that undeniably attracted many. Yet this new appreciation has not been without certain accompanying overreactions, particularly in regard to “fascist ideology.” Some have tried to argue that fascism was a “body of doctrine” or “system of thought” comparable in coherence to Marxism or liberalism.18
But such views miss the essential point: fascism was, especially in Mussolini’s hands, a kind of “anti-ideology ideology,” which celebrated its own incoherence as a virtue, as indicative of its commitment to the priority of spontaneous action and its contempt for intellectualism.19
Mussolini fully understood that appealing to “faith” rather than rational (interest-based or utilitarian) argument could be a source...