May 10, 2017

1927. "What is Fascism—And Why?" by H. G. Wells

"What is Fascism?"
The facade of the "Autarchy" pavilion in Rome illuminated at night, featuring the Italian fascist imperial eagle above the words "Mussolini ha sempre ragione" ("Mussolini is always right") as Blackshirts guard the entrance, November 18, 1938 (source)
This article is part of a series of posts on how The New York Times covered the rise and fall of fascism in Europe. In 1927, H. G. Wells gave his own thoughts on the rise of Italian fascism and the cult surrounding it.

From The New York Times Magazine, February 6, 1927, pp. 1-2, 18:


Is Fascism the invention and weapon of Mussolini or is Mussolini the creature of Fascism? Is Fascism something that would die if he died, or is it something that would have played its part in the world if that eminently theatrical figure had never been born?

No doubt that under its present name and as an organization Fascism from its very beginning has been most intimately associated with Mussolini. But though it has kept its name and its leader, it has changed its nature very completely since its appearance seven years ago. Beginning as something of a novelty, it has abandoned every novel pretension it ever made. The reality that has now taken on the name and organization of Fascism was fully vocal in Italy before the war, and its spiritual father is d'Annunzio. It was active and armed for the Fiume raid, while Mussolini was still encouraging crowds to loot shops and preaching "the railways for the railwaymen" and land for the peasants.

This spirit in Italy, which Mussolini did not create but which he has studied, adopted and used to clamber to his present fantastic position of Italian tyrant, had already found literary expression in the "futurist" poetry of Marinetti as early as 1912 and 1913. I can remember that rich voice in London at some dinner for the Poetry Society long before the war, reciting, shouting, the intimations of a new violence, of an Italy that would stand no nonsense, that abjured the past and claimed the future, that exulted in the thought and tumult of war, that was aristocratic, intolerant, proud, pitiless and above all "futurist." In those days Mussolini was just the sort of fellow the present time Fascist would spend a happy evening in waylaying and beating to death. He was a pacifist, a Socialist of the extreme Left, and he had made himself conspicuous by leading an agrarian revolt, the Red Week, in Romagna.

Even in 1919 Mussolini had not found the real soul and substance of his party, and the youthful violence of Italy had still to discover its organizer and god. The early Fascist program read over again now, seven years later, is almost incredibly contradictory of all that Fascism now proclaims; it was republican, pacifist, it demanded the abolition of titles, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of propaganda, a census of wealth, confiscation of unproductive capital, suppression of banks and stock exchanges, grants of land to peasant soviets and so forth. It was, in fact, a new organization of Socialist extremists, outside the trade union and peasant classes.

But its strength lay not in its ideas but in the ability with which it was organized. It set about its work from the beginning with a melodramatic picturesqueness that seized upon adolescent imaginations, it was aggressive, adventurous, quarrelsome and implacable after the heart of youth. It was in a word a great lark. But it put the rampant Italian futurists into a uniform and taught them a Roman salute. It developed a feud with the Socialists and the Populist Party. It grasped an immense opportunity at the municipal elections of 1920 when it supported, and in return had the connivance of, the Giolitti Ministry. It supplied convenient bands of young roughs to intimidate electors. It got arms in some secret but effective fashion, and a properly instructed police dealt with it in a spirit of friendly laxity. And when next year it had become an actual party represented in the Chamber, it turned against its foster father, Giolitti, which served that venerable statesman right.

The early program had dropped out of sight by that time—it would be forgotten altogether were it not for the obstinate memories of antagonists like Sturzo and Nitti—and Mussolini was feeling his way steadily toward the poses and professions that would most fully satisfy the cravings of the more energetic and adventurous sections of Italian youth. He has emerged at last in a role that d'Annunzio could have written for him fifteen years ago, the role of the unscrupulous, magnificent Savior and Remaker of a Hairy, Heroic Italy.

As late as 1919 he had still been flirting with extreme socialistic ideas; it was only with the fall of Giolitti that he moved definitely over to patriotism, nationalism, religious orthodoxy and conservatism. I would not charge him with a cunning and calculated self-seeking in this change of front. He seems to have been guided by the quick instinct of the born actor and demagogue for what would "take," rather than by any intelligible reasoning; to throw himself and all his resources into the forms demanded by romantic reaction.

The forces of romantic reaction had been incapable of producing an organization, but they were prepared for melodramatic devotion. They had no great leader except an elderly poet of literary habits, unhappily lacking in hair and a little exhausted by aviation and Fiume, and they cried out for a hero in the full vigor of life. The Fascist organization, with the very little modification needed to scrap all the original principles, gave them the first, and Mussolini was only too ready to take his cue and come forward into the limelight as the second.

One need only study a few of the innumerable photographs of Mussolini with which the world is now being spattered to realize that he is a resultant and no original. That round forcible-feeble face is the popular actor's face in perfection. It stares, usually out of some pseudo heroic costume, under a helmet for choice, with eyes devoid of thought or intelligence and an expression of vacuous challenge. "Well, what have you got against me? I deny it."

It is the face of a man monstrously vain at the mere first rustle of a hiss—afraid. Not physically afraid, not afraid of the assassin who lurks in the shadows, but afraid, in deadly fear, of that truth which walks by day. The murders and outrages against opponents and critics that lie like a trail of blood upon his record are the natural concomitants of leadership by a man too afraid of self-realization to endure the face of an antagonist.

Roll Call of Critics

Away with them! Nitti, Amendola, Forni, Misuri, Matteotti, Salvemini, Sturzo, Turati! Away with all these men who watch and criticize and wait! What are they waiting for? Not one of these names of men beaten, exiled or foully done to death which is not the name of a better man than this posturing figure which holds the stage in Italy. And the supreme sin of each one of them has been the quack-destroying comment, the chill and penetrating eye.

In truth Mussolini has made nothing in Italy. He is a product of Italy. A morbid product. Italians ask: "What should we have done without Mussolini?" And the answer is: "You would have got another." What is now drilled and disciplined as Fascism existed before him and will go on after him. If he were to die, Fascism would not have the least difficulty in finding among the rich resources a successor as dramatic and rhetorical; its difficulty would be that it would probably find too many successors.

What then is this reality of Fascism, which inflates this strange being and allows him for a little while to do so much violence as the tyrant of Italy? What complex of forces sustains him?

One power of Fascism is that it is the first entrance of an organized brotherhood upon the drama of Italian politics.

It is only apparently a one-man tyranny. There is considerable reason to suppose that organized brotherhoods, maintaining a certain uniformity of thought and action over large areas and exacting a quasi-religious devotion with their membership, are going to play an increasingly important part in human affairs. Secret societies there have always been in Italy, but Fascism is not a secret society; it is an association with open and declared aims. It discusses its activities in big meetings and regulates them through a press.

The Communist Party which dominates Russia, the Kuomintang which is rescuing China from anarchy and foreign dominion, are other such associations broader and more completely modern in spirit, but structurally akin. Their ideals and those of the Fascists are in the flattest contrast, and their procedure is freer from furtive violence, but they have much the same material form. The contents of the vehicle differ, but the form of the vehicle is similar.

And while in the Communist Party we find Marxist theories struggling with practical reality and in the Kuomintang the conception of consolidating and developing a modernized but essentially Chinese civilization, in the Fascist vehicle there seems to be the ideology of a young and essentially ill-educated Italian, romantic, impatient and, at bottom, conventional, wanting altogether in any such freshness or vigor of outlook as distinguishes the Kuomintang and Communist vision. Fascism as compared with these movements presents a mentality which cannot conceive new things, but which wants old things and itself made glorious. The Italian Futurism it succeeds was never more than a projected return to primitive violence. It is a modern method without a modern idea.

This Fascist mind demands workers who work with pride and passion and accept what is given to them cheerfully; soldiers eager for the prospect of death; priests who are saints without question, and teachers who teach but one lesson: Italy. It can face no doubts nor qualifications. It sees taking thought in the light of treason, discussion as weakness, and the plainest warnings of danger as antagonism to be beaten into silence and altogether overcome. So long as Mussolini sings its song it will lavish upon him a medieval loyalty. Should he by some miracle be smitten with intelligence and self-criticism, it would sweep him away. Its honesty, as a movement in general and disregarding the manifest cynicism and commercialism of some of its older leaders, is indisputable. Mussolini before the camera man as hero, is the caricature portrait of Young Italy before the world as hero.

Now, how comes it that Italy has produced this sort of youthful mind in sufficient abundance to fill the ranks of Fascism and make it for a time at least a great and powerful machine? Why has Italy bred her own servitude and degradation? To answer that question completely would demand a long and intimately critical study of the development of Italian secondary and higher education, and of quality and supply of reading matter to the inquiring adolescent during the past half century.

For my own part, I do not even know if it is the case of bad schools or insufficient schools, of inaccessibility of education, of religious or anti-religious tests for the teachers, of aloofness or cheapness of quality in the universities, of a pervasion of teaching by propaganda or a defective distribution of books. But bad education there has surely been, and Italy reaps the consequences today.

The Italian intelligence is naturally one of the best in Europe, but in some way or in several ways it must have been underfed, under-exercised and misdirected for this supply of generous, foolish, violent young men of the middle classes to exist. This mentality could not be possible without a wide ignorance of general history or world geography, without the want of any soundly scientific teaching to balance the judgment and of any effective training in discussion, fair play and openmindedness to steady behavior. It is the mentality of the emotional, imaginative, intellectually under-trained hobbledy-hoy.

Good in Fascists

For the most tragic thing of all, to my mind, in this Italian situation is the good there is in these Fascists. There is something brave and well-meaning about them. They love something, even if it is a phantom Italy that never was and never can be; they can follow a leader with devotion even if he is a self-deceiving charlatan. They will work. Even their outrages have the excuse of a certain indignation, albeit stupid sometimes to the pitch of extreme cruelty. Mixed up with this goodness there is no doubt much sheer evil, a puerile malignity and the blood-lust of excited beasts, as when so hideously they beat to death and out of recognition the poor child who may or may not have fired an ineffective pistol at their dictator. But the goodness is there.

Yet I do not see that the alloy of generosity and courage in Fascism is likely to save Italy from some very evil consequences of its rule.

The deadliest thing about Fascism is its systematic and ingenious and complete destruction of all criticism and critical opposition. It is leaving no alternative government in the land. It is destroying all hopes of recovery. The King may some day be disinterred, the Vatican may become audible again, the Populist Party of Catholic socialism hangs on; but it is hard to imagine any of these three vestiges of the earlier state of affairs recovering enough vitality to reconstruct anew a shattered or an exhausted Italy.

Fascism is holding up the whole apparatus of thought and education in Italy, killing or driving out of every country every capable thinker, clearing out the last nests of independent expression in the universities. Meanwhile, its militant gestures alarm and estrange every foreign power with which it is in contact. Now through Tyrol, it insults the Germans to the limits of endurance, now it threatens France monstrously and recklessly, now it is the turn of the Turk or the Yugoslav.

Yet no European country is less capable of carrying on a modern war than Italy: she has neither the coal, steel nor chemical industries necessary, and equally is she incapable of developing a modern industrialism without external resources. Her population increases unchecked; no birth-control propaganda may exist within her boundaries. So beneath all the blare and bluster of this apparently renascent Italy there accumulates a congestion of under-educated and what soon will be underfed millions. British and other foreign capital may for a time being bring in fuel and raw material to sweat the virtues of this accumulation of cheap low-grade labor. We may hear for a time quite a lot about the industrial expansion of Italy. We may be invited to invest in Italian "industrials." But one may doubt whether the more intelligent workers of Western and Central Europe will consent to have the standards of European life lowered by Italy and cheap labor without a considerable and probably an effective protest.

Italy's Horoscope

So it seems to me that the horoscope of Italy reads something after this fashion: this romantic, magnificent, patriotic Fascist Party, so exalted and devoted in its professions, will continue to grip the land, but of necessity it must become more and more the servant of foreign and domestic capital, and more and more it must set itself to reduce its dear and beloved Italy to a congested country of sweated workers and terrorized peasants, until at last it will be seen plainly as the industrial slum of Europe. I do not see any force in Italy capable of arresting the drive to degradation and catastrophe that the Fascist movement, for all its swagger, has set going.

Italy is now the Sick Land of Europe, a fever-patient, flushed with a hectic resemblance to health and still capable of convulsive but not sustained violence. She declines. She has fallen out of the general circle of European development; she is no longer a factor in progressive civilization. In the attempts to consolidate European affairs that will be going on in the next decade Italy will be watched rather than consulted. She has murdered or exiled all her Europeans.

Many things may happen ultimately to this sick and sweated Italy, so deeply injured and weakened by its own misguided youth. Her present flushed cheeks and bright eyes and high temperature will presently cease to deceive even herself. She may blunder into a disastrous war or she may develop sufficient social misery to produce a chaotic social revolution. Or one of these things may follow the other. And either war or revolution may spread its effects wide and far. In that way, Italy becomes a danger to all humanity. But as a conscious participant she ceases to be great and significant in the world drama. She is now, for other countries, merely Mussolini. She may presently be his distracted relic.

But Italy is something more than a huge river valley and a mountainous peninsula under a Fascist tyrant. Italian intelligence and energy are now scattered throughout the earth. Who can measure the science and stimulation, we in the rest of the world may not owe presently to the fine minds, the liberal spirits, who have been driven out of Italy by the Fascists' loaded cane? How many men must there be today, once pious sons of Italy, who are now learning to be servants of mankind!