This essay, first published in the Enciclopedia Italiana in 1932, can be regarded as an official explanation of the Italian political movement known to history as fascism. It was ghostwritten for the Duce by the philosopher Giovanni Gentile.
The essay isn't over-long. It is structured in quite an orderly, academic fashion, and its arguments are supported by references to other material. Its verbiage is dense and sometimes obscure. The charitable interpretation of this would be that it is dealing with philosophical concepts at a certain level of sophistication. A less charitable interpretation would be that it is incoherent and rather sinister nonsense.
In this post, I want to draw out the main themes of fascist ideology as set out in the essay, paying particular attention to the question of what relationship fascism bore to the old-style conservatism of the Counter-Enlightenment.
Nationalism and statism
The defining feature of fascism is often said to be nationalism. This idea is well supported in the essay, though Mussolini (or his ghost-writer) generally prefers to speak of the state rather than the nation. Statism, he said, lay at the heart of the movement:
The keystone of the Fascist doctrine is its conception of the State, of its essence, its functions, and its aims. For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative.... The Fascist State is wide awake and has a will of its own.
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.
As we will see, this means that fascism was distinct from liberalism because it concerned itself with "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". The resulting conception of the state was comprehensive to the point of being totalitarian: "outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value".
One striking feature of the article is that the main enemy that it identifies is not socialism but liberalism. This may be the result of the fact that Mussolini's movement itself grew out of the Italian left. The article links liberalism with economic liberalism and points to growing government intervention in the economy as evidence that the era of statism is at hand. This is not to say, as some present-day right-wing controversialists do, that fascism was a left-wing ideology. The essay makes the right-wing affiliation of fascism explicit in its mercifully misconceived prediction that the 20th century would be "a century tending to the 'right', a Fascist century".
The article treats liberalism as a transient phenomenon 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 meant individualism and ultimately anarchy. It mechanically attempted to level natural and beneficial human inequality by giving everyone a vote, and it denied the state its proper rights. The role of the fascist state was quite different:
Its functions cannot... be limited to those of enforcing order and keeping the peace, as the liberal doctrine had it. Fascism is definitely and absolutely opposed to the doctrines of liberalism, both in the political and the economic sphere.
Anti-materialism and anti-socialism
The article contrasts the liberal, "self-centred" life of "selfish momentary pleasure" with the "spiritual attitude" of fascism. The movement demanded self-sacrifice in the place of self-interest. It rejected the Marxist view of human history as class struggle and the idea of direct or indirect economic interests as determining human behaviour. On the other hand, it recognised the "real needs which gave rise to socialism and trade unionism" and sought to reconcile them with competing interests within (of course) the ambit of the state.
The fascist view of life is described as "serious, austere, and religious". There is some use of religious language - talk of "moral forces", a "higher law", "spiritual responsibilities" and a "spiritual society" - though, as we will see, the religion that Mussolini, a convinced atheist, had in mind was rather different from the traditional Catholicism of the Italian peninsula.
Fascism may have been a movement of the right, but it was a movement of the radical right rather than the reactionary right. It was authoritarian in nature and sought to suppress socialism and liberalism, but it did so in order to create a new national order rather than to turn the clock back to a time when Italy was ruled by feudal élites, kings and popes:
The Fascist negation of socialism, democracy, liberalism, should not, however, be interpreted as implying a desire to drive the world backwards to positions occupied prior to 1789, a year commonly referred to as that which opened the demo-liberal century. History does not travel backwards. The Fascist doctrine has not taken De Maistre as its prophet. Monarchical absolutism is of the past, and so is ecclesiolatry.
The fascist state, we are told, "is not reactionary but revolutionary". By this time, the fascists had shed their earlier republicanism and Mussolini was cohabiting with King Victor Emmanuel, but the essay seems rather lukewarm about the idea of monarchy. It prefers the idea of a modern populist state:
A State based on millions of individuals who recognize its authority, feel its action, and are ready to serve its ends is not the tyrannical state of a mediaeval lordling. It has nothing in common with the despotic States existing prior to or subsequent to 1789.
The essay says little about either religion in general or Catholicism in particular. It speaks favourably of religion and distinguishes fascism from atheistic communism, but the religious outlook expressed is not a traditional one. It is not old-style Italian Catholicism, concerned with conventional piety, doctrinal orthodoxy and submission to the Pope. The worship of God is subordinate to the endeavours of humankind. In place of the old idea that God is the guarantor of a feudalistic social order in which humanity is fallen and dependent upon divine grace, there is the notion that "by the exercise of his free will, man can and must create his own world". It seems to be a kind of romantic nationalistic religion:
Fascism respects the God of ascetics, saints, and heroes, and it also respects God as conceived by the ingenuous and primitive heart of the people, the God to whom their prayers are raised.
Part of the reason why fascism had an ambivalent attitude towards traditional Catholicism was that it aspired to be something like a religion itself:
That [Fascism] is vital is shown by the fact that it has aroused a faith; that this faith has conquered souls is shown by the fact that Fascism can point to its fallen heroes and its martyrs.
It can be seen, then, that fascism was a new sort of political movement. It was right-wing insofar as it rejected the progressive movements that had appeared in Europe since the 18th century, liberalism and socialism, in favour of an organic authoritarian state with a religious tinge. However, it was not conservative or reactionary in nature. It was at best lukewarm towards the traditional totems of monarchy and Christianity, and it was strongly influenced by nationalism, which was in origin a progressive, pro-Enlightenment movement.