You must create your life, as you’d create a work of art. It’s necessary that the life of an intellectual be artwork with him as the subject. True superiority is all here. At all costs, you must preserve liberty, to the point of intoxication. — Gabriele d’Annunzio
The complex relationship between fascism and modernity cannot be resolved all at once, and with a simple yes or no. It has to be developed in the unfolding story of fascism’s acquisition and exercise of power. The most satisfactory work on this matter shows how antimodernizing resentments were channeled and neutralized, step by step, in specific legislation, by more powerful pragmatic and intellectual forces working in the service of an alternate modernity.
The word fascism has its root in the Italian fascio, literally a bundle or sheaf. More remotely, the word recalled the Latin fasces, an axe encased in a bundle of rods that was carried before the magistrates in Roman public processions to signify the authority and unity of the state. Before 1914, the symbolism of the Roman fasces was usually appropriated by the Left. Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, was often portrayed in the nineteenth century carrying the fasces to represent the force of Republican solidarity against her aristocratic and clerical enemies. Italian revolutionaries used the term fascio in the late nineteenth century to evoke the solidarity of committed militants. The peasants who rose against their landlords in Sicily in 1893–94 called themselves the Fasci Siciliani. When in late 1914 a group of left-wing nationalists, soon joined by the socialist outcast Benito Mussolini, sought to bring Italy into World War I on the Allied side, they chose a name designed to communicate both the fervor and the solidarity of their campaign: the Fascio Rivoluzionario d’Azione Interventista (Revolutionary League for Interventionist Action). At the end of World War I, Mussolini coined the term fascismo to describe the mood of the little band of nationalist ex-soldiers and pro-war syndicalist revolutionaries that he was gathering around himself. Even then, he had no monopoly on the word fascio, which remained in general use for activist groups of various political hues. Officially, Fascism was born in Milan on Sunday, March 23, 1919. That morning, somewhat more than a hundred persons, including war veterans, syndicalists who had supported the war, and Futurist intellectuals, plus some reporters and the merely curious, gathered in the meeting room of the Milan Industrial and Commercial Alliance, overlooking the Piazza San Sepolcro, to “declare war against socialism . . . because it has opposed nationalism.” Now Mussolini called his movement the Fasci di Combattimento, which means, very approximately, “fraternities of combat.”
Definitions are inherently limiting. They frame a static picture of something that is better perceived in movement, and they portray as “frozen ‘statuary’” something that is better understood as a process. They succumb all too often to the intellectual’s temptation to take programmatic statements as constitutive, and to identify fascism more with what it said than with what it did. The quest for the perfect definition, by reducing fascism to one ever more finely honed phrase, seems to shut off questions about the origins and course of fascist development rather than open them up. Fascism, by contrast, was a new invention created afresh for the era of mass politics. It sought to appeal mainly to the emotions by the use of ritual, carefully stage-managed ceremonies, and intensely charged rhetoric. The role programs and doctrine play in it is, on closer inspection, fundamentally unlike the role they play in conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. Fascism does not rest explicitly upon an elaborated philosophical system, but rather upon popular feelings about master races, their unjust lot, and their rightful predominance over inferior peoples. It has not been given intellectual underpinnings by any system builder, like Marx, or by any major critical intelligence, like Mill, Burke, or Tocqueville. In a way utterly unlike the classical “isms,” the rightness of fascism does not depend on the truth of any of the propositions advanced in its name. Fascism is “true” insofar as it helps fulfill the destiny of a chosen race or people or blood, locked with other peoples in a Darwinian struggle, and not in the light of some abstract and universal reason.