James Strachey Barnes Talks With Mussolini (1937)

Pp 30-36 Half a Life Left by James Strachey Barnes New York Coward-McCann 1937

JSB. England still likes to gull itself into imagining that there is no or little liberty under Fascism. I told Mussolini this, and he answered me very shrewdly.

Mussolini. “I know,” … and I am the last to deny that certain things are not permitted in Italy today which might well be conceded tomorrow. As I have often said, there is a liberty for times of peace, and other for times of war; a liberty for times of plenty, another for times of stringency; a liberty for settled times, another for times of revolution, and so on. Here in Italy we have been passing through a revolutionary period, and it is not yet over. A revolution can never be completed until those in its atmosphere have become middle aged men. All Europe besides is in ferment. Mutually exclusive principles are at stake, and every regime must either defend itself or surrender. There is not middle course. Your countrymen have the reputation of being practical. They must recognize this patent distinction. What you permitted during the War was very different from what you permit in peace time. What you permit in India is very different from what you permit at home. You should therefore be the first not to confuse Fascism with the suppression of certain liberties which happen to be permitted in England. If you insist on making this confusion it is either a matter of muddled thinking or of bad faith.

“After all, what is liberty? What distinguishes liberty from license? Ask your countrymen that. I am sure they will not reply that liberty is just doing what one likes.”

JSB. “The best definition of liberty I know of,” I answered is “St Paul’s: Liberty is freedom from bondage and sin.”

Mussolini. “An excellent definition,” … But your countrymen will ask: what is sin, and who is to decide on the measures to prevent or eradicate it? I will try to answer these questions. Perhaps it would be as well to start with, to drop the word ‘sin’. Let us speak of social evils, which is really what concerns us, as statesmen – though to my mind to perpetrate or advocate a social evil is quite obviously a sin – so why not call a spade a spade? The word ‘sin’ has stupidly become discredited under the liberal dispensation owing to the excessive individualism, ushered in by the Renaissance, which produced a kind of intellectualism affecting to set aside universal ethical standards. Ethical subjectivism and scepticism had even become a kind of dogma by the end of the last century! But the reality of universal standards pops up, nevertheless, behind this intellectual façade every time we use the word ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We cannot escape from it. In so-called ‘liberal’ countries, as much as anywhere else, social evils are the object of continual laments and of reform. This proves that everybody recognizes them, though people may differ as to remedies.

“As for the remedies, they are of two kinds: education and law. Law must necessarily lag a bit behind education. A degree of force and a degree of interior consent are both necessary for social progress. But in so far as social evils can be prevented or eradicated by education and by law, nobody in their senses would declare that their liberties were being curtailed. Good laws promote true, concrete liberties. Law and liberty are reciprocal terms. Fascism merely underlines this truth. I challenge anybody to put his finger on any of our laws or on any of our educative principles that can be shown to have any other purpose than to eradicate or prevent an obvious social evil or promote an obvious social good.

“That is the test; and the rest is entirely a question of means: of practical politics. Of course, we may make mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable. Human wisdom is limited. But at least we have established to the best of our ability a system which progressively eliminates the possibility of selfish and particularist interests from dictating the laws or seducing public opinion – the great danger of liberal institutions. We have, in fact, established a system of authority in politics which, at any rate, tends both to assemble the best political brains and to produce a degree of moral responsibility as high as that of any other authoritative body – such as the medical profession, for example, whose authority and high moral responsibility are universally acknowledged.

“So, to sum up, we can confidently way: ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are epithets applicable to conditions, especially to conditions of the spirit (the mind). Knowledge of good and bad is universal. Otherwise there could be no progress except casually, as the result of conflict in which the bad has as likely a chance of triumphing as the good. Belief in the inevitability of progress towards better conditions is misplaced optimism. We hold fast to this truth and we seek to create an aristocracy in the true sense of the word (the rule of the best available) to guide us towards the good. No aristocracy is infallible, but it is indispensable. The fascist constitution is based on that principle. It is no more than a piece of machinery. If it fails we will scrap it and make another. There is no perfect constitution any more than a perfect aeroplane. But one aeroplane can be said to be better than another in so far as it better fulfils its purpose. And the purpose of Fascism is plain: to make the world a better place to live in and man a nobler citizen. Church and State, each in its own sphere, have the same aim: the service of God. That is what we mean, in simple language, by the Ethical State. The Authoritative State follows as a logical consequence; and the Corporative State is an excellent means devised to evolve the best possible Authoritative State, in which collective interests may be safeguarded and in which every man may, at the same time, be born carrying in his knapsack a marshal’s baton of authority and responsibility, which, together with Christian charity and the principal of equality before the law, is the foundation and perhaps also the limit of a good democracy. Can you inform your countrymen of that?

J.S.B. “I will. But tell me: You have condemned class war as a social evil. What about international war? You know you are often accused of being a war-monger in my country.”

Mussolini: That is, of course, nonsense. I have never preached war. I have merely sought to teach my people to be prepared for its necessity, no be morally, physically and materially prepared for the necessary sacrifices, if it becomes a necessity. War is an evil, but here may be worse evils. Look at class war. It has its justification as the only remedy for injustices in the absence of machinery having the confidence of both classes and capable of settling disputes equitably. Exactly the same principle applies to internal strife. As long as no machinery exists for the promotion of justice and having the confidence of both ‘proletarian’ and ‘capitalist’ nations, war may be the only remedy for injustices. No body can pretend that the League Nations is such a tribunal. It is merely an instrument of diplomacy by conference – at its best – and, otherwise, like all liberal institutions base don the interplay of organized interests, a means by which the interests commanding the majority may put pressure on the minority. It is impossible for a world order or even a European order to grow out of Liberalism and its economic counterpart, Capitalism, the very essence now which is individualism and the rejection of universal standards of value. Socialism might achieve a world order in the end, but only at the expense of human dignity, personality, beauty and of belief in God. Fascism is the only way, the only hope, which is compatible with morality. That is my conviction.

J.S.B. “And what of imperialism?”

Mussolini. Imperialism is an expression of life, the inevitable expansion or predominance of a vigorous people. It is no more possible or desirable to crush imperialism than to stamp out life. But there are many kinds of imperialism, and not all are territorial, not all predatory. Empires grow in all kinds of ways: the struggle for existence; the need and duty to impose law and order where chaos has come; crusades; conversion; cultural movements. It is essentially a spiritual activity. The right to national independence, for this very reason, is not universal. All right have to be won; and even if trial by the sword is one way of winning it, trial by the sword is often the supreme test of faith. I am not saying it always is. I am not passing judgment. I am sating facts. Civilization has certainly been mainly spread by the sword. That is another fact. But of course, it has been spread in other ways as well. Ultimately the rights and wrongs of imperialism can only be judged case by case on the results, just as we judge a man who climbs to place and power by the value of his achievements. The ultimate test is a moral test. What is the record of Rome? What is the record of Britain? Where would the world be without the one and, for that matter, without the other? Is the world to stay still because Italy, as a national State, was only born yesterday? We also have a mission to fulfil and mouths to feed. We also can claim to be capable of universalizing our interests, of transcending our selfish aims by a civilizing purpose. It is all, as far as the statesman is concerned, a question of measure and moral responsibility. And I can say this - it is not altogether beside the point: the fascist States are the best Europeans, for Fascism has a sense of European historical traditions and appreciates the essential value of European civilization.”

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