the Philosophy of fascism

psychoanalysis, the italian dictatorship, and the power of persuasion

Note: This essay was originally written for an MA course at University College London. Instead of submitting it to academic journals where no one would be able to access it, I prefer to share it here.  

Illustration: Aaron Lopez-Barrantes, "Chapter Two," in Slim and The Beast: A Novel

Illustration: Aaron Lopez-Barrantes, "Chapter Two," in Slim and The Beast: A Novel

Italian fascism (Fascism hereafter) was demagogic and opportunistic. It arose after the Great War amidst massive economic and social instability, defined by disillusionment with not only the future of Italy but with the state of humanity as a whole. To understand Fascism we must explain its historical development, but too often this neglects the “why” in pursuit of the “how.” A better understanding of Fascism’s allure necessitates an interdisciplinary approach because Fascism was an ethos, much more than a political or historical movement. Fascism permeated past, present, and future by absorbing politics, society, philosophy and religion, all of this predicated on the promise of satisfying human drives. Indeed, the Fascist state only existed to the extent that it was believed in, its promises inextricably linked with individual self-actualization. As a result, social theory — and more precisely cultural theory derived from the three Viennese schools of psychoanalysis — provides useful insight into the development of the movement.

Fascism was an ethos, much more than a political or historical movement.

Fascism was attractive because it promised to satisfy distinctive human drives as defined by the three Viennese schools of psychoanalysis: the will to pleasure, the will to power, and the will to meaning. It promised to increase pleasure and deter suffering; it championed the will to power by promoting social unity (and discord); and it instilled purpose and meaning through the ethos of the State. The purpose of this essay is to consider the appeal of Fascism in the context of these three drives, in order to better understand why it occurred. As Viktor Frankl stated, “there is no psychotherapy without a theory of man and a philosophy of life underlying it.”[1] Although psychoanalysis is largely an individual clinical method, human neuroses are socially constructed. Sigmund Freud argued that man was driven by the pleasure principle and the avoidance of unpleasure, Alfred Adler argued for an inferiority complex and a subsequent will to power, and Viktor Frankl argued that nihilism was the source of human neuroses, best alleviated through a will to meaning. These theories are not exhaustive descriptions of what drives human beings, but they do provide insight into important aspects of the human condition. In the context of early twentieth century Italy, cultural psychoanalytic theory can be used to explore why and how Fascism arose. The need for the pleasure principle was represented in post-war Italy; the will to power through Fascist squadristi, racism and expansionist policy; and the imposition of a political religion as the actualization of collective meaning and purpose.

THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE AND THE GREAT WAR

World War One was a watershed event in European history. It devastated entire economies, left almost an entire generation of men dead on the battlefield, and with the Bolshevik revolution in Russia instilled an immediate fear and threat in recovering nations. Disillusionment with Enlightenment ideals signified paradigmatic shifts in modern European thought, not the least because of the unprecedented level of human suffering during the war, which left many Europeans at a loss to make sense of the human catastrophe.

Disillusionment with Enlightenment ideals signified paradigmatic shifts in modern European thought, not the least because of the unprecedented level of human suffering during the war

Italy was no exception. Even before the war it had been at a political crossroads[2], but following the military disaster at Caporetto, an “image of an endangered motherland, dead or under deadly threat” proliferated throughout.[3] This notion of the “death of the motherland” was not unique to Italy, but with historic political turmoil and communist sympathies rising to the surface, Italians feared what the future entailed. Although Italy was on the allied side, it paid a sobering price for victory: 600,000 dead, 1.48 billion lire of war debt (twice the total expenditure of Italian governments between 1861-1913), two million unemployed citizens, and a devastating military defeat at Caporetto that led to paranoiac fears of an “enemy within,” defeatism and disillusionment.[4] Much like the Germans, many Italians perpetuated a “stab in the back” theory to underplay potential internal military and political problems. Perhaps most importantly, despite being on the victor’s side Italy lost territory in Northern Italy, Galicia, and Southern Austria, leaving many wondering what if anything had been gained from the war.

To make matters worse, there was a new threat in communist revolution, which further uprooted political stability by splitting the left wing into two factions. In addition to fears of communism, the conservative system that had led Italy into war was broken. All strata of the society were affected: while many blamed the state for allowing the poor to die on the battlefield while the wealthy remained protected [5], urban and rural working classes were fearful of losing what was left of their standard of living, and socialist reform further threatened industrialists and landowners. Italy struggled to make sense of the war’s social, political, and economic impact; and at the same time most Italians simply wanted to maintain what little they had left, a return to normalcy in an abnormal situation. Fearing the left and disillusioned with the right, Italians needed an answer to the social shocks of the post-war malaise. Maintenance of what little pleasure remained and avoidance of further suffering was central to Italian desires, concepts that are also fundamental to Freud’s pleasure principle.

Maintenance of what little pleasure remained and avoidance of further suffering was central to Italian desires, concepts that are also fundamental to Freud’s pleasure principle.

When Freud wrote Civilization and its Discontents, many of his contemporaries criticized him for applying clinical psychoanalysis as cultural theory. Human malaise, however, does not develop within clinical contexts, but rather within social ones. For Freud, civilization in itself was a cause for malaise: “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.”[6] According to Freud there are three major origins of human suffering: our own body and the inevitability of death, the external world and its destructive forces, and from our relation to other human beings. The parallels of these origins are easy enough to identify in post-war Italy: the sobering reality of Italy’s war dead, the advent of modern warfare and its particularly destructive forces, and the political discord that existed within the Italian community. It is impossible to consider Fascism without acknowledging post-war political and economic strife; as a result, it is useful to consider Freud’s theory as a window into Italy’s discontent.

Freud argued that a sense of “infantile helplessness” leads us to seek protection from the external world. Once the child realizes that he or she must curb the will to pleasure in face of real-world problems, this need for protection often takes the form of religious sentiment.[7] The paternal protector, no longer blood related, assumes the role of deities, and the gods must “exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate […] and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them.”[8] Within the cult of El Duce, Fascism took on a paternalistic role as protector and deliverer from the travails of the Great War. It appealed to vast and diverse groups of the population by providing each group a distinctive promise, curbing the pleasure principle through the ethos of the State.

[The gods] must exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate
— Sigmund Freud

The first supporters of Fascism were right-wing nationalists, war veterans and patriotic men who blamed the post-war loss of power and territory on the Versailles Treaty. Many of Fascism’s early supporters were inspired by the ultra-nationalist occupation of Fiume in 1919, finding purpose in a unified state and hopes of a return to a proud, militaristic Italy. Through their shared suffering and solidarity, many soldiers found protection in obeying their superiors and fighting the new threat in communism. In addition to military men, the lower middle class saw hope in the movement, which promised them protection from big business and fueled dreams of social mobility. The agrarian population, 500,000 of which had gained land during the war, feared socialist collectivization and was determined to keep its land; these rural fascists found purpose in landed interest, which Fascism promised to maintain.[9] Landowners and estate holders also supported Fascism because it protected them from labor unions and socialist policies; these conservative Fascists were contented with various changes as long as they could maintain their traditions. Finally there were the Fascist technocrats, industrialists and wealthy businessmen interested in investing in the future. They were inspired by Mussolini’s desire for action, both ideologically and materialistically — much like the aristocracy and monarchy, they admired Mussolini’s character. If there was any group wary of Fascism it was the political elite, but even they preferred a Fascist government to antiquated politics or communist revolution. Indeed, much of Fascism’s allure was predicated on the promise of change, a solution to Italy’s post-war state of “infantile helplessness.”

Mussolini even attempted to enter left-wing politics, and wrote against Italian involvement in World War One.

Mussolini began his political career as a revolutionary socialist. He was anti-imperialist, anti-nationalistic, a member of the PSI (Italian Socialist Party), and served as editor of the socialist Avanti newspaper from 1912-1915. Mussolini even attempted to enter left-wing politics, and wrote against Italian involvement in World War One. Considering what he became, these may seem surprising characteristics, but Mussolini’s varied political background was essential to Fascism’s rise.

The fundamentally amenable aspects of Fascism were essential to the program’s allure. Dynamism and political flexibility freed Mussolini from stagnancy, which allowed him to appeal to normally discordant social groups by invoking the notion of a classless and unified State. Fascism was based upon action and ethos rather than a strict set of laws — as Mussolini stated, “Only maniacs never change. New facts can call for new positions.”[10] Mussolini thus took advantage of the binary system of the rightist Italian Popular Party and the leftist Italian Socialist Party by promising something new — on the one hand were out-dated and stagnant governing policies, while on the other hand was the widespread fear of communist revolution. Following the war, Giovanni Gentile, the Fascist philosopher and contemporary of Mussolini, stated, “What [the Italian people] needed was not a platform of principles, but an idea which would indicate a goal and a road by which the goal could be reached.”[11] That goal was protection — against outsiders, against nihilism, and against perceived internal threats.

Only maniacs never change. New facts can call for new positions
— Mussolini

While Fascism promised to heal Italy’s war wounds, build a strong Italian nation, and unite citizens under a singular cause, it overtly rejected the pleasure principle as an end in itself. It professed that it wanted more for Italians than to simply be content: Fascists associated individualism and hedonism with liberal-capitalist bourgeois culture, which neglected the idea of nation in favor of the individual. The Fascists argued that the current political and social disarray was a result of Enlightenment ideals, and that the rejection of community in the name of the individual was the root cause of Italy’s malaise. In times of social discord people seek conformity, and Fascism was attractive because it promised to unify the country. Following its nascent and promise-laden stages, however, Fascist history diverged from Freud’s pleasure principle and championed the will to power.

THE WILL TO POWER AND SQUADRISMO

Alfred Adler’s “will to power” is dependent upon social interest. Based upon an inferiority complex, Adler argues that a feeling of inadequacy — the need to prove oneself in a social context — is the source of our malaise. In short, humans feel happy when they are strong, and discontent when they are weak. Power is the true source of the neurotic’s condition — not power in the Nietzschean sense (where Fascist interpretations argued that might was right), but rather in a socially interested one. For an individual to overcome her inferiority complex and become a true participant in the community, she must cooperate by being socially interested. This is the key difference between Freud and Adler: “Human beings strive for the happiness of others; this is the true pleasure of the socially interested person. The ‘pleasure principle’ is the striving of a person who is only interested in himself and not in others.”[12] According to Adler, man becomes man through social cooperation.

Human beings strive for the happiness of others; this is the true pleasure of the socially interested person.
— Alfred Adler

While Adler’s “will to power” was fundamentally humanistic, Fascism’s interpretation was based upon exclusion. In Mussolini’s words, it limited its definition of community and solidarity to Italians:

In the Fascist conception of history, man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process to which he contributes as a member of the family, the social group, the nation, and in function of history to which all nations bring their contribution.[13]

Consequently, Fascism accepted the individual only in so far as his interests coincided with the State. Indeed, it reasserted “the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual.”[14] To achieve social unity and individual freedom, the Italian people had to submit to the will of the State, whose essence manifested in a militant will to power. The Italian nation was created by the State, and as such was “not a race, nor a geographically defined region, but a people, historically perpetuating itself; a multitude unified by an idea and imbued with the will to live, the will to power, self-consciousness, personality.”[15]

Fascism accused hedonism of liberalism and individualism, arguing that the pursuit of pleasure limited man to animalistic drives.

Fascism accused hedonism of liberalism and individualism, arguing that the pursuit of pleasure limited man to animalistic drives. What was more, liberalism pitted the individual against the State and liberty as distinctive from an authoritarian hierarchy. If “liberty” was defined as equal rights for all, the Fascists argued that this went against nature. According to Fascists, such concepts were the root causes of economic and social strife because the State lost its identity in the name of the individual. Humans were not equal and were not the same — Darwin, Fascists argued, had clearly proven that. Mussolini thus rejected the pleasure principle as the driving force of human nature:

Fascism denies the materialistic conception of happiness as a possibility […]

This means that Fascism denies the equation: well-being = happiness, which sees in men mere animals, content when they can feed and fatten, thus reducing them to a vegetative existence pure and simple.[16]

Power depended upon suppressing weakness in the Fascist State. Social Darwinism and the advent of nationalism were deeply enticing to many Europeans following the war, and while Social Darwinist principles championed the strength and superiority of majority ethnic groups, they also had a “scientific” basis that argued for survival of the fittest. Nations that could recover were the only ones that should recover; in order for Italy to return to Roman glory, the Hobbesian “might is right” suggested the way forward. Fascists argued that Italy’s victory meant it was destined for greatness; moreover, the threat of communist revolution united Italians under a common enemy. With the brutality of the Great War and the bloody Russian revolution fresh in the Italian psyche, violence became a tolerable deterrent against socialist uprising. Aggression thus became acceptable in the context of protecting Italy, not the least because so many had grown accustomed to violence during the Great War.

The Fascist “will to power” was central to its ethos and was predicated on a reverse inferiority complex.

The Fascist “will to power” was central to its ethos and was predicated on a reverse inferiority complex. With Social Darwinism as its “scientific” basis, Fascism conceived “of life as a struggle in which it behooves a man to win for himself a really worthy place, first of all by fitting himself (physically, morally, intellectually) to become the implement required for winning it.”[17] In order to “win” this “worthy place,” action was necessary because inactivity was death. Fascism was anti-democratic and against universal suffrage, asserting the “irremediable and fertile and beneficent inequality of men who cannot be leveled by any such mechanical and extrinsic device as universal suffrage.”[18] In order to combat communists and socialists i.e. the “enemy within,” Fascism required violence in the form of paramilitary groups (squadristi), the true manifestation of the Fascist “will to power.”

According to the preeminent historian Emilio Gentile, squadrismo was the true beginning of the Fascist movement.[19] It used violent militias to quell socialist uprisings, attack strikers and intimidate voters. Additionally,squadrismo allowed many young men to pursue militaristic ambition, based on the historically successful aspects of Italian glory: order, leadership, and discipline. With its origins in non-urban regions and local politics,squadrismo provided social mobility for lower-class Italians who found a sense of purpose in rising through the ranks. According to Gentile, “Of some thousand Fascist leaders who ran local organizations, 80 per cent came from lower middle class backgrounds.”[20] Thousands of men thus exercised their own will to power as they became spiritually unified in a common Fascist faith. These men formed within “action squads” led by local “commandants” and obeyed them with strict discipline; whenever thesquadristi was called upon, its members were expected to fight.[21] Many young men were attracted to squadrismo’s solidarity, not the least because it was based upon fighting anti-Fascist enemies. Through an Adlerian lens, squadrismo provided a strong-armed solution to the inferiority complex, placing the mirage of power in the hands of Fascist foot soldiers.

Squadrismo provided a strong-armed solution to the inferiority complex, placing the mirage of power in the hands of Fascist foot soldiers.

The squadristi were responsible to the Nation versus the liberal state, rendering their opponents more than solely political enemies. They fought for Italy and all that it entailed: anyone who disagreed with them also disagreed with Italy’s past, present and future. In this way Fascism ceased to be a political party — it melded a religious faith with the concept of the State, unifying all of its followers regardless of class, profession or age. InThe Doctrine of Fascism, Mussolini wrote:

The Fascist State expresses the will to exercise power and to command. Here the Roman tradition is embodied in a conception of strength. Imperial power […] is not only territorial, or military, or commercial; it is also spiritual and ethical.”[22]

Hence, the well being of the individual meant nothing without the well being of the State. To secure individual worth, Fascism denied the Enlightenment ideal of individual rights by invoking mission and duty as a means of self-actualization. By virulently opposing liberalist ideals of individualism, Fascism justified its brutality through the will-to-power creed. Mussolini hoped to “[build] up a higher life, founded on duty, a life free from the limitations of time and space, in which the individual […] can achieve purely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists.”[23]This higher meaning and purpose was born in the concept of the Fascist State, “an inwardly accepted standard and rule of conduct, a discipline of the whole person [that] permeates the will no less than the intellect […] entering into the soul and ruling with undisputed sway.”[24] There is no doubt that the Fascist will to power secured Mussolini’s victory, but in order to maintain supremacy, ethos had to take center stage.

THE WILL TO MEANING AND FASCIST PHILOSOPHY

Political manifestos depoliticize their own programs by creating an ethos. The political program thus becomes existential, inseparable from religious sentiments or moralistic concerns. Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism, co-written by the Fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, remains the most comprehensive ideological summary of the Fascist ethos. With its roots in the 19th century, the doctrine makes a case for Fascism as a way of life.

Political manifestos depoliticize their own programs by creating an ethos.

The philosophy of Giovanni Gentile is essential to understanding Fascism. Gentile believed that the Italian victory in the Great War represented “the defeat of all forms of transcendentalism (Catholic, Kantian, and Marxist) by an immanent form of historical imagination,” which placed the concept of history as firmly belonging to the present. [25] For Gentile, the paradigm shift following the Great War was not only social or political, but also spiritual. Gentile’s philosophy (Actualism) not only provided an intellectual basis for Fascism, but also championed the proud history of the 19th century philosopher Giuseppe Mazzini, nicknamed “the Beating Heart of Italy.”

Mazzini was a cultural icon that helped unify Italy and championed the convergence of “Thought and Action.” The philosopher Gentile wrote of Mazzinian Italy: “It was necessary that this Italy, which was an affair of brains only, become also an affair of hearts, become, that is, something serious, something alive.”[26] In the face of destruction, a similar situation arose following the Great War. The belief in “Thought and Action” thus formed the basis of Fascism: “the individual has a law and a purpose in obedience to which and in fulfillment of which he alone attains his true value […] he must make sacrifices, now of personal comfort, now of private interest, now of life itself.”[27] Fascism’s idealistic and sacrificial form demanded the surrender of individual life to the eternal life of the State: “Since the State is a principle, the individual becomes a consequence — he is something which finds an antecedent in the State.”[28]

It was necessary that this Italy, which was an affair of brains only, become also an affair of hearts, become, that is, something serious, something alive.
— Giovanni Gentile, Fascist Philosopher

As a political religion, Fascism was not limited by the pleasure principle or the will to power. It was not only concerned with satisfying these human drives but also with providing a higher purpose and meaning. Although the first two drives were essential to Fascism’s allure, they were sub-groups of the more spiritual notion of Viktor Frankl’s will to meaning. Fascism went beyond satiating human needs: central to its doctrine were rules on how to live. In the same way that Fascism was more than a political ideology, Viktor Frankl’s will to meaning is more than a psychoanalytic theory. While Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler were interested in what drives human beings, Viktor Frankl was more interested in what defines us.

For Viktor Frankl, man is ultimately self-determining. Whatever he becomes he has made out of himself. Frankl’s theory (logotherapy) does not accept that we are slaves to certain conditions, although he makes clear that the Freudian and Adlerian schools are essential sub-groups of his own theory (Frankl equates himself with a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant (Freud and Adler) to see a bit farther than the giant himself).[29] What makes us human is our ability to transcend ourselves, which Frankl argues he realized as a prisoner in Auschwitz. “To detach oneself from even the worst conditions is a uniquely human capability […] what matters is not the features of our character or the drives and instincts per se, but rather the stand we take toward them.”[30] His “school,” therefore, does not nullify the pleasure principle and the will to power, but rather overarches them.[31]

What matters is not the features of our character or the drives and instincts per se, but rather the stand we take toward them.
— Viktor Frankl

Because man is not driven by instincts, man cannot simply fulfill the pleasure principle or the will to power and be content. In order to feel fulfilled and become what he is supposed to be (and in the context of suffering in order to survive), man must find a purpose greater than himself. The alternative for Frankl is a confrontation with nihilism, which he argues is the antithesis to humanity and the true source of neuroses. Meaninglessness comes from what Frankl terms an “existential vaccum,” a phenomenon he believes originated in the twentieth century. “Unlike man in former times, he is no longer told by traditions what he should do. Often he does not even know what he basically wishes to do.”[32] Due to this modern lack of spiritual direction, most humans either conform to existing traditions or submit to the wishes of others in the form of totalitarianism. Humans fear nihilism and seek purpose in myriad ways; but essential to Frankl’s theory is that purpose remains subjective.

In order to overcome nihilism, meaning can be derived in three ways: 1) By creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude taken toward unavoidable suffering.[33] What is important in Frankl’s theory is not what man expects from life, but rather what life expects of him. As a prisoner in Auschwitz Frankl came to the conclusion that life questions man and not the other way around — man is not free from life’s conditions, only in how he responds. The will to meaning is thus not a drive but rather a need: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”[34] This worthwhile goal is accessible but not guaranteed; man is an animal but is also something more: like an airplane taxiing on a runway, he is not limited to earthly concerns (however, this does not imply that he will always transcend them). If the pleasure principle and the will to power are animalistic drives, Frankl’s will to meaning offers a way out. Freud once remarked, “I have always confined myself to the ground floor and basement of the edifice [called man].” [35] In this sense, Frankl posits a more comprehensive view of the human condition from the top floor of man’s edifice.

Meaning can be derived in three ways: 1) By creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude taken toward unavoidable suffering.
— Viktor Frankl

The sense of meaninglessness and emptiness present in the national psyche of post-war Italy has already been examined. Yet despite Italy’s travails during WWI, the country was victorious. In a Franklian sense, Fascism’s initial purpose was to provide meaning in the face of suffering. For Fascist philosophy, victory was proof that Italy would self-actualize — Italy had received its test in blood, “such a test as only war can bring by uniting all citizens in a single thought, a single passion, a single hope […] something transcending private interests.”[36] Fascism’s belief in war as a unifying force necessitated that the State continue to expand. To validate the victory, Italy had to return to regional dominance. “For the Fascist, the State is always in fieri [pending]. It is in our hands, wholly; whence our very serious responsibility towards it.”[37] As a result of this responsibility to the State, Fascism took hold of the innate need to find purpose in something higher than oneself and proceeded to manipulate it through indoctrination. Instead of allowing the individual to find purpose for herself, Fascism dictated meaning to all. If Viktor Frankl’s theory of the meaning of life was subjective, Mussolini’s was the opposite: the only legitimate meaning or purpose in the Fascist State was the State itself.

Fascism was anti-historical materialism, which Mussolini argued saw men as “mere puppets on the surface of history.”[38] It virulently opposed a Marxist interpretation of history because it feared the nihilistic implications of history being defined by forces out of human control. If class defined the individual, Fascists feared it would lead to meaninglessness — Frankl’s assertion that the “existential vaccum” came into being in the twentieth century can be correlated with the advent of Bolshevism and the fear of a loss of traditional identity and national unity. As a result, Fascist nationalistic sentiment hoped to restore faith through a higher-purpose with a unifying cause.

The turn of the century confronted many Europeans with the metaphoric Death of God.

Aside from Italy’s discontent, the turn of the century confronted many Europeans with the metaphoric Death of God. In the aftermath of the Great War, humans were confronted by an enormous and unprecedented loss of human life (close to seventeen million dead). In addition to this brutal paradigm shift, the renowned scholar Benedict Anderson has argued that nationalism and sovereignty were “born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.”[39] In an age of violence and uncertainty, Italians had a means to survive but had no meaning; Mussolini seized this opportunity to stir nationalist furor by embodying the role of El Duce.Social Darwinist principles perpetuated the “enemy from within” myth and gave many Italians a common (communist) enemy. Mussolini denied the democratic election of leaders by defining himself and the State as representing the national consciousness — there was no room for debate because the ethos became tautological: to be Italian meant to be Fascist, and to be Fascist meant to be Italian.

The Doctrine of Fascism is deeply religious and philosophical in tone. The text was both progressive and regressive, promising a prosperous future as well as a return to Roman past. Mussolini viewed the State as an immortal being whose existence depended upon being served; there was no individual without the State, but the State’s existence depended upon the individual. This empowered citizens to place faith in their leader, “the conscience and the universal, will of man as a historic entity.”[40] Anti-democratic and Socially Darwinist, the leadership elect was based on imagined qualities rather than votes garnered. Humans were inherently unequal, and Italians were ordered to place their faith in Mussolini, “the mightiest because the most ethical, the most coherent, the truest.”[41] Historical and mythical values constituted the secular religion, whose goal was to make the individual and the masses one. Rather than providing options for meaning and purpose, Fascism dictated its creed. Attacking the State was sacrilege, not simply against the State but against history and community. Opposing Fascism was tantamount to opposing Italy as an idea; the dissident thus became a heretic, a threat to existence itself.

“The State exists only as, and in so far as, the citizen causes it to exist. Its formation therefore is the formation of a consciousness of it in individuals, in the masses.”
— Giovanni Gentile, Fascist Philosopher

By rejecting the individual in favor of the State, meaning through the State became the only possible purpose in Fascist Italy. The State did not compromise, it did not bargain, it did not “surrender any portion of its field to other moral or religious principles which may interfere with the individual conscience.”[42] The individual was the State and vice versa; Italy was more than a race or a geographical area, it was a people self-actualized through obeisance to Mussolini. Giovanni Gentile argued that Fascism had even found a solution to the paradox of liberty and authority: since the State only came into being through Italian consciousness (i.e. it had to believed in) the State’s authority was a representation of the collective will; and although the Fascist State was antecedent to the individual, it was the individual’s belief in the State that brought the State into being. “The State exists only as, and in so far as, the citizen causes it to exist. Its formation therefore is the formation of a consciousness of it in individuals, in the masses.”[43] Individual Italians could thus pursue the pleasure principle or the will to power as long as it was in accordance with the Fascist ethos. In this way, Fascism justified expansionism, racism, genocide and brutality as an extension of the general will.

Wouldn’t it suffice just to refer to decent people? It is true that they form a minority. More than that, they always will remain a minority. […] So, let us be alert.
— Viktor Frankl

The major difference between a Franklian will to meaning and the Fascist will to meaning is the difference between freely chosen purpose and imposed purpose. Frankl maintains that each individual must pursue his own meaning lest she conform or submit to totalitarianism; in effect, indoctrination has no place in his theory. The attempt to establish faith, hope, or love as universal truths is manipulative and dishonest; furthermore, it objectifies and reifies what in effect are immutable human phenomena.[44] And yet, although Frankl’s theory is humanistic and optimistic, fundamentally opposed to totalitarianism, Social Darwinism, and violent expressions of the will to power, it leaves room for the opposite spectrum of the human condition. This inherent ambiguity in Frankl’s theory — that the meaning of life is subjective — serves as an explanation as well as a warning of what the will to meaning can entail. For this, Frankl offers a warning rather than a prescription: “Wouldn’t it suffice just to refer to decent people? It is true that they form a minority. More than that, they always will remain a minority. […] So, let us be alert.”[45] Of course most Fascists were neither despicable nor irrational human beings — to blame them for their beliefs is juvenile and myopic. The Fascist party ruled for twenty-one years for a variety of reasons, both political and social, but it maintained power because it tapped into the complex reservoir of the will to meaning and the human condition. To believe that an entire nation could simply be duped into submission distances the historian from the very real human potential to succumb to a dictated will to meaning.

CONCLUSION

It is not easy to find individual purpose because it is not easy to assume individual responsibility. Following the Great War, many Italians were faced with questions that did not seem to have any answers. The loss of human life, the economic and political crises, and post-war disillusionment posed myriad problems for the war-torn nation. In the face of so much suffering, it is not hard to recognize why Italians looked for a solution to their “infantile helplessness.” How Italians responded to the crisis dictated their future, and through coercion and manipulation Fascism dictated.

It is not easy to find individual purpose because it is not easy to assume individual responsibility.

As Frankl often argued, when faced with adversity it is much easier to follow or succumb to another’s wishes than to respond to life as an individual; yet we must respond to life’s questions by being responsible for our own existence. Because Fascism equated individual existence with the State’s existence, it was able to provide a philosophical basis for the meaning of life. While in its nacent stages Fascism sought to satiate the most basic of human drives, as a political religion it provided something more. Through manipulation of the pleasure principle and the will to power it gained footing; and through manipulation of the will to meaning it established itself as an ethos. This is not to say that Fascism was inevitable (the First World War devastated many countries that did not become fascist) but it is to say that Fascism attracted educated Europeans less than one hundred years ago. That it happened in Italy is important, but to dismiss Fascism an Italian phenomenon neglects the reality and malleability of the human condition.

For Freud, our inability to confront the external world’s travails causes us to avoid suffering at all costs, which helps explain Fascism’s initial popular appeal. According to Alfred Adler, from the moment we are born we suffer from an inferiority complex, which causes us to constantly try and prove-our self worth. Squadrismo and the Fascist “will to power” allowed many to transcend their own-shortcomings by facilitating a will to power and a sense of self-worth. Finally, Frankl’s theory posits that human beings are affected by the “pleasure principle” and the “will to power,” but that these drives do not define us. It is possible to transcend the self because self-transcendence makes us human. Although Fascism promised self-transcendence through a belief in the State, it trammelled the individual pursuit of purpose by dictating a singular cause. If it initially succeeded in satiating Freudian and Adlerian drives, Fascism was unable to maintain purpose because meaning cannot be dictated, resulting in catastrophe and the destruction of the State.

REFERENCES

[1] Viktor E. Frankl, The Will To Meaning (New York: Meridian, 1988), 15.

[2] For a concise overview of underlying instability in pre-war Italy, see Stephen J. Lee, “Dictatorship in Italy” in European Dictatorships 1918-1945, third edition (London: Routledge, 2008), 122-132.

[3] Claudio Fogu, “Fascism and Philosophy: The Case of Actualism,” South Central Review 23, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 17.

[4] Lee, “Dictatorship in Italy,” 125.

[5] Giovanna Proccaci, “The Disaster at Caporetto,” ch. 5 in Disastro! Disasters in Italy Since 1860: Culture, Politics, Society, edited by John Dickie, John Foot and Frank M. Snowden (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 154.

[6] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), 23.

[7] Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 21. “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection. Thus the part played by the oceanic feeling […] The origin of the religious attitude can be traced in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness.”

[8] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, edited by James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1989), 22.

[9] Lee, “Dictatorship in Italy,” 129.

[10] Lee, “Dictatorship in Italy,” 130.

[11] Giovanni Gentile, “The Philosophic Basis of Fascism,” Foreign Affairs 6, no. 2 (January 1928): 298, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20028606

[12] Alfred Adler, “The Meaning of Life,” The Lancet, 217 (1931), 226,http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673600878290

[13] Benito Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism” Universitat Pompeu Fabra, http://www.upf.edu/materials/fhuma/nacionalismes/nacio/docs/muss-doctrine.pdf (Accessed January 15, 2013).

[14] Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Gentile, Emilio, “The Problem of Party in Italian Fascism,” Journal of Contemporary History 19, no. 2 (April 1984): 144.http://www.jstor.org/stable/260595

[20] Ibid, 146.

[21] Ibid, 155.

[22] Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism.”

[23] WriteMyService.Com

[24] Ibid.

[25] Fogu, “Fascism and Philosophy,” 17.

[26] Gentile, The Philosophic Basis of Fascism,” 292.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid, 301.

[29] Viktor E. Frankl, The Will To Meaning (New York: Meridian, 1988), 10.

[30] Ibid, 17.

[31] Ibid, 46.

[32] Ibid, ix.

[33] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 111.

[34] Ibid, 105.

[35] Frankl, The Will To Meaning, 10.

[36] Giovanni Gentile, “The Philosophic Basis of Fascism,” 290.

[37] Ibid, 302.

[38] Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism.”

[39] Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities,” Ch. 23 in The Post-colonial Studies

Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (London: Routledge, 2006), 125.

[40] Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism.”

[41] Ibid.

[42] Gentile, “The Philosophic Basis of Fascism,” 304.

[43] Ibid, 302.

[44] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (London: Rider, 2011), 17-18.

[45] Ibid, 154.