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The "Fundamental Ideas" of Fascism
Benito Mussolini

Following the end of World War I in 1918, many yearned for a return to the pre-war world, to bourgeois certainties of liberal politics and economic progress--in the words of U.S. President Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), a return to "normalcy," a malapropism which then entered popular English usage. Such desires were, in many ways, unfulfilled, rendered impossible by the carnage of the trenches of the Western front and revolutionary upheavals in Central and Eastern Europe. Throughout Europe, both intellectuals and workers demanded a sweeping reorganization of society. Italy had been on the winning side in World War I (1914-1918), but Italian involvement had never been very popular. The unsatisfactory outcome--in the eyes of Italian nationalists--of the Versailles Peace Conference, which had not delivered the full measure of territorial possessions promised to Italy by the Allies in 1915, left many disgruntled. Unhappiness was especially high among war veterans, typically unable to find jobs in the sluggish post-war economy. These men, joined by restless youths, found a place for themselves in fasci di combattimento, right-wing paramilitary groups prone to violence. The emergence of such groups was a continent-wide phenomenon; in Germany the Freikorps were an analog, serving as a fertile recruiting ground for radical nationalist movements such as the Nazis. In Italy, Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) soon emerged as the leader of the fascist movement. Drawn to radical politics, Mussolini had been a socialist until his expulsion for support of Italian entry into the war. Following the war, Mussolini, himself a veteran, joined the fascists; his oratorical and political skills enabled him to become the movement's leader very quickly. Membership in the movement swelled; by 1921, it had some 300,000 members. As the Italian economy remained stagnant and the working classes became increasingly restive, the fascists employed violent methods to combat the striking workers, and Mussolini seemed to promise protection for middle-class property owners. In 1922, buoyed by his successes and tempted by the weakness of the parliamentary government, Mussolini threatened a massive march on Rome unless he was named prime minister. The government caved in, and the king appointed Mussolini, soon to be referred to as "Il Duce," prime minister. He would remain leader of Italy until he was hanged in 1945. Fascism, one brand of totalitarianism that emerged in the inter-war years, is a term often misused. In its proper sense, it refers to a revolutionary, mass movement that glorified the state and violence, rejecting totally liberalism and democracy as decadent. Even though Mussolini was the first of the new style of twentieth-century European dictators, he never achieved the level of totalitarian control that Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) in Germany or Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) in the Soviet Union did. Italian fascism also lacked the virulent and ultimately deadly anti-Semitism that characterized the Nazi movement. In this selection, excerpted from his Fascism: Doctrines and Institutions, published in the U.S. in 1935, Mussolini outlines his "Fundamental Ideas."

Questions to Consider
  • How does Mussolini link history, the state, and human beings?

  • What is the role of the individual, according to Mussolini?

  • In what ways does Mussolini argue that fascism is totalitarian?

Like all sound political conceptions, Fascism is action and it is thought; action in which doctrine is imminent, and doctrine arising from a given system of historical forces in which it is inserted, and working on them from within. It has therefore a form correlated to contingencies of time and space; but it has also an ideal content which makes it an expression of truth in the higher region of the history of thought.... To know men one must know man; and to know man one must be acquainted with reality and its laws. There can be no conception of the State which is not fundamentally a conception of life: philosophy or intuition, system of ideas evolving within the framework of logic or concentrated in a vision or a faith, but always, at least potentially, an organic conception of the world.

Thus many of the practical expressions of Fascism--such as party organisation, system of education, discipline--can only be understood when considered in relation to its general attitude toward life.... A spiritual attitude. Fascism sees in the world not only those superficial, material aspects in which man appears as an individual, standing by himself, self-centered, subject to natural law which instinctively urges him toward a life of selfish momentary pleasure; it sees not only the individual but the nation and the country; individuals and generations bound together by a moral law, with common traditions and a mission which suppressing the instinct for life closed in a brief circle of pleasure, builds up a higher life, founded on duty, a life free from the limitations of time and space, in which the individual, by self-sacrifice, the renunciation of self-interest, by death itself, can achieve that purely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists.

The conception is therefore a spiritual one, arising from the general reaction of the century against the placid materialistic positivism of the XIXth century....

In the Fascist conception of history, man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process to which he contributes as a member of the family, the social group, the nation, and in function of history to which all nations bring their contribution.... Outside history man is a nonentity. Fascism is therefore opposed to all individualistic abstractions based on eighteenth century materialism; and it is opposed to all Jacobinistic utopias and innovations....

Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal will of man as a historic entity. It is opposed to classical liberalism which arose as a reaction to absolutism and exhausted its historical function when the State became the expression of the conscience and will of the people. Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual. And if liberty is to be the attribute of living men and not of abstract dummies invented by individualistic liberalism, then Fascism stands for liberty, and for the only liberty worth having, the liberty of the State and of the individual within the State. The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State--a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values--interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people....

Source: Benito Mussolini, Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions (New York: Howard Fertig, 1935), 7-11.