Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Some More Thoughts on Griffin's Modernism and Fascism

One of the themes that comes across strongly in Griffin's book is the sense of "spiritual" dysfunction in European society at the end of the 19th Century. What becomes apparent is that while there was the triumph of Positivism, which bore fruit in terms of scientific discovery and material power it came at a cost to the "inner life" of European man which was profoundly unsatisfying on a spiritual level. Durkheim called this unease Anomie.

Now Anomie is an interesting thing, some people seem perfectly fine with it, or at least accept it. On the other hand, as Griffin shows, there were many who were horrified by the mechanistic and deterministic universe that Positivism i.e. science, promised. It was these men, who while admiring the technics of Science, wanted to fill the void left by the metaphysics of it. It was these men that took part in the "revolt from Positivism" and laid the foundations of Fascist ideology.

It is Emilio Gentile who, by combining impeccable archival research with sophisticated conceptualization, makes the most authoritative pronouncements on Fascism's 'modernist' credentials, and in so doing explicitly imparts the term connotations that corroborate our primordialist perspective. He asserts that 'Fascist modernism sought to realize a new synthesis between tradition and modernity, without renouncing modernization in order to realize the nation's goals of power'. It was through the `sacralization of politics and the institutionalization of the cult of the fasces' that Fascism attempted to fulfill the key ambition of modernist nationalism, 'the construction of a lay religion for the nation'. Fascism's futural dynamic and civilizing mission emphasized by both Ventrone and Gentile is amply borne out by Pier Giorgio Zunino's comprehensive account of the matrix of Fascist ideology as inferred from the torrent of publications that poured forth from the new regime. He documents the way that for most Fascists the new state's mission to 'lead Italy out of its humiliating condition of marginalization' was linked to a much more ambitious goal, namely to 'spread the seeds of a new civilization in which the main problems inflicting contemporary society had been finally resolved'. Under Mussolini Italians were encouraged to feel they were living on the threshold of 'a new civilization whose essence as yet no-one can know', a 'third time', a 'new epoch', a 'new cycle'. Zunino insists that the countless texts, speeches, events, and rituals mass-produced under Mussolini aimed not to 'manufacture consensus', but to fill his most fervent supporters with a 'longing for tomorrow' and 'thirst for [making] history'." 
 By 1930 convinced Fascists at every level of society were now crowding onto the craggy outcrop of rock where once only Marinetti and a small artistic elite once stood enjoying the heady Nietzschean experience of standing 'on the last promontory of the centuries'. The experience of Aufbruch lauded by Expressionist poets had been democratized, the sense of an ending replaced by the heady sense of a beginning. Emilio Gentile himself draws attention to this factor when he claims that 'the principal impulse of fascism stemmed from its "movementist" and Dionysian feeling for existence, from the myth of the future, and not from a static contemplation of the past'. This futural dynamic is only apparently belied by the cult of Romanness (romanita) that came to assume such importance under the regime, for it too was 'celebrated modernistically as a myth of action for the future'. In the words of Giuseppe Bottai, the most technocratically minded of the Fascist gerarchia, the regime's fascination with Rome sprang not from erudition, not from books, not from so-called "dead history"', but above all from its capacity to inspire action in the present. Fascism meant to carry out 'not a restoration but a renovation, a revolution in the idea of Rome'.

Now there's a lot to unpack here, but the point I'm trying to get across is that they were attempting to "construct a new religion", a palliative to the anomie bought about the Enlightenment* led transformation of Western society. In many ways, the best way to think about fascists is that they were "romantic" socialists, providing a socialism that catered not just for the body but one which catered for the "soul". It needs to be understood that Fascism was more than a government organisation it was a pseudo religion. It gave people a purpose, a sense of belonging and justification for their acts. Perceptive readers will note that there was no mention of a return to Christianity. Italian, and German Fascism both wanted to form a new mythic religion which was specifically Christian lite. So in a sense, from the vantage point of this blog,  whether you think of Fascism as either modernist or reactionary it really doesn't matter, what matters is that it was anti Christian at its core. Hard core Nazi's specifically saw Christianity as a corruption of the "mythic" [Ed: invented by themselves] Aryan ideals and wanted it expunged. It was a competing weltanshauung to theirs. How anyone can square this claim up with European history is beyond me. But hey, intellectual consistency has never been a feature of mass movements.

Griffin extensively illustrates how modernist approaches were used to project this "new religion" onto the community. Furthermore Fascist aesthetic ideals seem to yield more to human nature than Western contemporary art does now. It's rejection of the deformed, the ugly and the repellent shouldn't be seen reactionary, rather Fascism's Dionysian dynamic was complemented by an art which reflected these values rather than challenged them. There was no doubt allowed with regard to the legitimacy of the aesthetic vision. Art was not there to dialogue with the ideal, it was to serve it.
Fascism had no problem with modernist art or technology as long as it was subordinate to these ideals and Griffin shows with numerous examples the embrace of Modernism by the Fascists.

It's a hard going book, and Griffin is sometimes excessively verbose but I think in many ways he brings across the appeal of Fascism in a way that Gregor doesn't. Fascism wasn't just a response to the social crisis of the early 20th Century it was also a response to the anomie bought about by the dechristianisation of Europe.


Michael Rothblatt said...

Hm, one issue so far is that nowhere is there a mention of the Great War. Does he ever mention it and its effects anywhere in the book? Enlightenment was bad, but it doesn't seem to have caught on amongst the general populace, it was a movement of the elites, of absolute monarchs, nobility, and the intellectuals. And while revolutions of 1848. have certainly been for the worse, there still doesn't seem to be any widespread disillusionment with the old, Christian, Weltanschauung before the Great War. Only in the aftermath of the Great War, there appears a disillusionment with Christian Weltanschauung among the general populace. Great Was has purged the last vestiges of the Ancien RĂ©gime from Europe, and, it seems, turned the ordinary people into bitter cynics, ordinary people who have had nothing to do with lofty theories of philosophy of science.

Nulle Terre Sans Seigneur said...

The Great War (and actually before that, the Italo-Turkish War) was the necessary catalyst to turn the ideas into a solid organizational presence, but the prerequisites were there. Syndicalism, being inspired by psychology and sociology like that of Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon, switched from emphasizing the workplace and trade union as the focal point of proletarian consciousness, into emphasizing the nation. Enrico Corradini was one of the first to formulate this "proletarian nationalism," which was in some ways a precursor to various Neo-Marxist ideas of dependency theory that used to be popular in developmental economics during the post-WWII Keynesian era.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Michael Rothblatt

Griffin has a good section on the First World War and his take on it is, in my opinion, correct--not the usual boilerplate that one sees from both the Left and mainstream Right. The First World War was seen a chance of renewal the experience of it and the collapse of Christianity is not exactly causal. The elites had given up on Christianity well before then and I feel that its effect on the dechristianisation of the masses was far more complex. To quote Griffin;

"It would be logical to assume from a humanist perspective that the infernal realities of industrialized warfare that unfolded over the next four years would shatter such great illusions. Certainly, the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, the outstanding bestseller of the inter-war period, spoke for untold thousands for whom the experience of combat was hell on earth, and whose only new community was the international but largely silent one of fellow survivors for whom promises of redemption rang lugubriously hollow. Yet, as the prospects of a short war evaporated and the death toll from the 'war of position' grew ever higher, powerful psychological processes continued to be activated, thereby ensuring the war would remain for millions a catalyst to experiencing transcendence. It was as if the fantasy of redemption through sacrifice, a fantasy stubbornly entertained by both the fighters and the onlookers, was fuelled rather than quenched by the blood of the fallen, like pouring oil on flames."

Lots of people emerged from the horror of the First World War surprisingly normal and positive about the experience. The experience of it seems to have energised many into wanting to build a new world.

Giant Bean said...

I've not read the Griffin book - would like to - but your comments on it bring to mind Robert Nisbet's The Quest for Community, insofar as totalitarianism steps in to fill the void created by the breakdown of traditional bonds of religion and civil society, and as a response to the natural yearning of man for belonging and purpose.

Fascinating themes of clear relevance to our troubled age.

Michael Rothblatt said...

@The Social Pathologist

The elites have given up on Christianity in some parts of Europe. In others, most notably Ottoman Empire, Russian Empire, and the Austrian Empire, faith still used to be taken seriously before the War. The Great War saw all three of those reactionary empires destroyed, and worse yet, brought Communists in power in Russia (also for a short while in Bavaria, where Hitler participated, back then he was a regular socialist, and in Hungary). It was disastrous even for France, Great War had killed off far more nobility than the Revolution and the subsequent revolutionary wars.

It energized them, but not in a good way. They didn't start becoming monks and missionaries. No, everyone wanted emancipation... from morals, from obligations, from religion. The Great War was the final split with tradition, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe says "the end of civilization." Women gained equality, morals loosened, and everything became permitted. Celebrities became national heroes, and that fact was the clear sign of the begining of the end, as Sir John Glubb wrote "The heroes of declining nations are always the same—the athlete, the singer or the actor." As easy money fueled the loose morals of the Roaring Twenties, all kinds of radical ideas about sexuality remiscent of today's left-wing theories surfaced.

And then easy money struck back, the Great Depression happened. During the Great Depression, someone who wanted to build a new world joined a party militia... now that the people were not just spiritually empty, but also of empty stomach, the scene for the rise of totalitarianism was set—anyone offering the exit out of the desperate situation seemed godsent. As Communism became greater, and greater a threat, even those that otherwise wouldn't have turned to fascism, turned to fascism as the only viable alternative.

David Foster said...

A neglected but very good novel that deals with the aftermath of WWI is Erich Maria Remarque's 'The Road Back,' which is sort of a sequel to "All Quiet on the Western Front." I reviewed it here:

The Social Pathologist said...

Thanks David,

I remember the review. Yes, there is the whole tradition of Remarque, but there is also the tradition of Junger, something that gets little mention in the Anglosphere. Junger is particularly interesting since he saw war as a test of manhood and character. Also, in Italy, the Arditi (who suffered enormous losses on the battlefield) came out of the war with contempt for pacifism.

I think we live in a different age where death is comparatively rare. The 1914 West was still a world without antibiotics and things like childbirth still had high mortality rates. I think people were more accepting of death in the past. Somewhere in the comments section of the post you mentioned there was link to a French novel about the war, Le Fuere, I think. What struck me reading that novel is just how accepting of death people were.