• Lawrence Dennis

What is Mussolini?

The Library, What Is Mussolini? by Lawrence Dennis The American Mercury, March 1936, pp. 372-374

I have never been able to see eye to eye with the banker intellectuals who used to sell fascist seven per cent bonds and Mussolini, or with the communist intellectuals who sell world revolution and Marx, when, from divergent viewpoints, they proclaim that Mussolini is the instrument of conventional capitalism. My knowledge of bankers and big businessmen, which is not based entirely on distant observation, told me from the start that big businessmen would not select a personality of Mussolini’s type to save them, no matter how badly they needed saving. Instead of being used by the bankers and industrialists of Italy, as the communists have insisted, Mussolini, it seems to me, has been using bankers and big businessmen both in and out of Italy. The myth that the Duce is the white hope of the propertied classes is due to two false assumptions: First, that whatever is not capitalism is not law and order. Second, that whatever constitutes law and order must be capitalism. To practical businessmen and politicians, who have neither the time nor the aptitude to apprehend the ideological content and social meaning of fascism, Mussolini’s law and order achievements, until recently, meant that he was sound, and that Italian 7’s were an excellent buy.

To the practical businessman, before 1929, communism connoted anarchy. He could not imagine an orderly (regimented is now the word) social regime, with armies operating more precisely than the empires of the Insulls or the Kreugers, but having among the principal objectives of all this superb order the orderly shooting of businessmen and the orderly expropriation of property. Back in 1922-1925, the newsreels failed to present close-ups of the Soviet armies goose-stepping on parade, while the newspaper cartoons of that period featured a wild-eyed fellow labelled “Bolshevist,” running around in aimless circles with a knife in one hand and a bomb in the other. But all this, of course, was before the rounding out of a Soviet Five-Year Plan or a Capitalist Five-Year Depression. The point now is that both communism and fascism can maintain law and order quite as well as liberalism. This they can do – in the one case eliminating private rights in productive capital, and in the other, the fascist case, modifying the legal regime of private ownership and management to such an extent that the result may no longer be called the old system of liberalism.

Today, Mussolini stands forth as one of the most dynamic and dangerous challengers of the status quo in the world. His rivals for first rand are Hitler and Stalin. What makes Mussolini so dangerous in this stellar role is just what our businessmen most admired in him a few years ago, and what made them think that was a God-sent savior of capitalism for Italy, namely, his genius for order. Our capitalists and statesmen who applauded Mussolini in 1925, and who favor economic sanctions against him today, might well have engaged a student of history, philosophy, and politics, such as Professor Herman Finer of the University of London, author of Mussolini’s Italy, to ascertain for them what fascism was all about, or to explain that it was more than a matter of running Italian trains on schedule, preserving public order, or adding zest and color to Italian politics. They might have learned that Mussolini was a lifelong socialist; that, when he was expelled from the Socialist Party in 1914 for his nationalistic support of Italy’s entry into the World War on the side of the Allies, he cried out to the Socialist Congress: “one remains a Socialist even when one’s membership card is taken away, for Socialism is something which grows into the roots of the heart. “ Professor Finer now thinks that “that cry is the dominant note of Mussolini still and that all the rest is polemical.” They might have learned that the Fascist State owns about three-fourths of the bonds of the national industries; that it has developed an efficient set of mechanisms for government ownership and control which are progressively taking over business, as the day to day result of depression and war emergencies. They might have learned that Italian fascism is a dynamic social system rather than the perpetuation of a static economic system. Professor Finer’s book, therefore, is especially helpful, for, while it gives comparatively little statistical data, it makes a penetrating, even if hostile analysis of fascism. Professor Finer makes it the major thesis of his work, as indicated by the title, Mussolini’s Italy, that fascism is Mussolini and must perish with him. Perhaps this contention may prove correct, but it is the sort of prophecy about the future which can never be susceptible of proof by the facts of the present. A similar prediction about Napoleon and his system might well have been made the morning after Waterloo – and Mussolini has not yet met his Waterloo – still, few students would say today that the Napoleonic system perished with Napoleon. It is too soon to make such appraisals of Mussolini, and the attempt to substantiate them detracts from the merits of any study which pretends to be impartial or scientific.

The author has striven to center all this social philosophy in the mind and will of Mussolini; but it requires more than a crisis in public order to produce a leader stating as his condition for Italy: a single political party, at totalitarian state, and a will to live in a period of highest ideal tension. This third condition never implied, as most American admirers of Mussolini supposed, mere bluster to keep the rabble interested. Its meaning must be sought in a view of the situation of the Italian people in the light of a will-to-power philosophy. The situation of course, is that of an under-privileged and over-populated nation confronting a world of rising tariff and immigration barriers, with all that these trends imply.

Professor Finer deplores the universal craze for a high standard of living which, in the case of under-endowed Italy, he recognizes to be fraught with greater dangers for peace than in the cases of richer countries, such as the United States or the British Empire. But, while everything he says in criticism of Mussolini, fascism, and war will be read with wide approval in this country and the British Empire, nothing he says about lowering immigration bars will command applause. The Finers make out a splendid case for socialism, but, after more than fifty years of preaching such doctrines, they cannot control the admiration of any large city, let alone a national government, while, within twenty years, the Mussolini’s and Hitler’s have swept into complete control of vast nations. In these facts bristle a whole series of profound questions about human nature and social questions about human nature and social control which Professor Finer’s critique leaves not only unanswered but even unmentioned.

Anyone seeking to understand fascism or Mussolini, however, will find little help in Sawdust Caesar by George Seldes. This book is merely a newspaperman’s attempt to smear the Duce by the publication of the fruits of diligent research for unfavorable facts. Professor Finer credits Mussolini with some social ideals and achievements: Mr. Seldes simply treats Mussolini as a wicked madman. There is, of course, an obvious inconsistency in any thesis which tries to make a man out to be both lunatic and a sinner. And the trouble with the thesis that a fascist leader is insane and that the people of this country have gone crazy is that its proof, on paper, still leaves the nations of the world the alternatives of trying to get on pleasantly with the leader and nation so characterized, or else of declaring war on them. Proving such a thesis, then, can serve but one ration end, namely, that of promoting war. It cannot serve the ends of good relations with that nation to prove its people wicked or mad. The purpose of stirring up a war against Mussolini’s Italy, and no other, is rationally served by Sawdust Caesar. This fact, no doubt, explains why the author and publishers were recently informed that the British Foreign Office had withdrawn a formerly expressed objection to the publication in Great Britain of this envenomed expose of Mussolini. It is most significant as war propaganda rather than as libel.

Another trouble with any sort of “Hang the Kaiser” preachment, besides that of provoking people to a holy war, is that, after such propaganda has started, waged, and won the holy war, it leaves a climate and feeling and opinion in which no durable peace can be made. War propaganda, such as we were fed ruing the late world struggle and such as Mr. Seldes is now serving up, can only mean one holy war after another, which is not a cheerful prospect, even assuming that the British and angels win every such conflict.

Dragon-slayers like Mr. Seldes and the propagandists of the late war, simply will not mar their convincing picture of the personal devil of a Mussolini, a Hitler, or a Kaiser Wilhelm by complicated and dull analyses of underlying clashes of national interests in which these personal devils are but symbols. It never seems to occur to the dragon-slayers that the real devil may not be a person, but the feelings of an entire people toward an intolerable status quo. Yes, the real devil may be, quite simply, the desire of the Italian people for an international New Deal. It is this popular desire and not the peculiar qualities of Mussolini which after all, make Italian fascism a mighty force, whether for good or for evil. The Duce’s show of the past thirteen years, which to Mr. Seldes is an incoherent mixture of egotism, bestial cruelty, and monkey shines, has been a preparation of Italy to assert effectively this desire. Surely the important thing is this national desire, not the matters Mr. Seldes stresses. Call this desire an envy of the more privileged, call it a will to power, or a will to live, it is something in peoples which was not born with any one great military dictator of the past and which has never died with one.....