Although Fascism is a palimpsest of deceit-propaganda, bombast, exaggerations, outright mendacity and self-serving explanations-meaning different things to different people during different periods, yet it can't be ignored for as Mussolini himself once said in a moment of rare lucidity, "No one friendly or hostile, could understand the modern world without taking Fascism into account." Peter Neville's timely and economic biography of "Mussolini" published by Routledge presented in typical British prose-crisp candour combined with terse taciturnity-meets this requirement. Neville's Mussolini allows us to appreciate the life and actions of the man and of the political world and society within which he lived and operated: his Catholic background, constrictive Convent education, intellectual dalliance with socialist radicalism in his youth, family life interrupted frequently by his extravagant extra-maritalism, impact of the First World War on his nationalism, oratorical and rhetorical brilliance, intellectual belligerence and incoherence, ascent to political power through progressive compromises with Capital, Crown and Church, successive betrayal of his original ideology and his fellow-Fascist comrades, pretensions in the international stage, pompous wars with lesser powers, fatal flirtation with Hitler, delusions of grandeur, and finally, his fall. With appreciable skill and vividness, drawing on a vast canvas of work, this biography paints a picture of lofty ambition, brutal opportunism and final failure, that is at the same time tempered with an understanding of Mussolini as a human being, not so different from many of his contemporaries-or, more importantly, some of our contemporaries today.
Mussolini, the man is dead, but his movement is witnessing a resurgence. Neville rightly concedes that defining Fascism is fraught with several difficulties, but nevertheless skillfully isolates its conceptual DNA: a mass-based form of perverted nationalism working in anxious alliance with the usual elites, pursuing policies of 'internal cleansing' and external expansion so as to unify and regenerate what it regards as a victimized, humiliated people and how, springing from a crisis of the liberal capitalist order, ends up elevating cultural particularism over democracy, individualism and universal rights. At the ground level, this means that it is an anti-political kind of violent politics, that is always noisily elevating a mythic and mystic national unity over class distinctions, gut prejudice over cerebral ideology, and inevitably, race over reason. Paradoxically, while its leaders tend to be grimy petit-bourgeois yobbos with criminal records, unstable mentalities (albeit with agile survival instincts) and a captivating and florid oratory, on the other hand, its most devoted acolytes are the ambitious (albeit frustrated) professionals (traditional bourgeois) with half-baked notions about their rightful place in society-bank employees, scientists, doctors, academics. The leaders are the sort of uncouth upstarts (Mussolini, Hitler, Modi) whom cultivated conservative politicians and their props, the industrialists are loathe to shake hands with, but would nevertheless, to preserve their power, partner them to marginalize (even if that means, to exterminate) the political Left. It is a testament to the perverse competence of the industrialists that their partnership in evil with fascism has never received the publicity and the attention that it so eminently deserves. The partnership proves this about Fascism: radical rhetoric, reactionary action. In neglecting this aspect, Neville is not unique.
Neville's Mussolini dispells several stereotypes and myths. Fascism is less about totalitarianism and fanaticism than about tenuous state-sponsored anarchy and opportunism. At a personal level, he shows us how Mussolini was very human, in fact, all too human; he was far from a fanatic like Marinetti or Hitler; of how in his wise wife Rachele's words, "in reality he was a poor chap" for although his ambitions and his wishes exceeded his abilities (and his nation's), nevertheless he was the most human of the dictators-he was the one who was least cruel to his enemies, and never institutionalized it in the manner that Hitler or Stalin did. Mussolini was "neither a Caeser nor a Sawdust Caeser," he was a man of the twentieth century, who possessed intellectual qualities, albeit of a mediocre sort. He was a mediocrity in everything he embraced. A social charlatan, his political philosophy fascism was his charlatanry writ large. Commencing his career as a rambunctious anti-cleric, anti-capitalist, anti-communist, anti-Royalist, he demonstrated his true and capable opportunism by compromising with the Church, Capital and Crown in his ultimate quest for the attainment and retention of power. He took the disgruntled Italian petite bourgeoisie for the longest ride in their unenviable history, like Advani took the petit Bourgeois Hindus in India. With opportunistic insolence, he used ideology to prop up the very state that he found so oppressive in his days in the opposition. If a revolution is understood to mean a significant shift in class relations, including a redistribution of income and wealth, then there was no Italian fascist revolution. His nationalism inspite of its loud and florid descriptions was of an inferior nature; of one who suffered an acute inferiority complex.
Albert Camus once described Fascism as "the politics of confused convictions" that end in political cynicism. He is right. This is the unfortunate truth about the Politics of the Right. The manner of the final end of Mussolini underlines the old adage: those who live by violence die by violence. However, the moral of the tempestuous life of Mussolini (as also his perverse intellectual creation Fascism) is this: the waste of so much good for so much of avoidable evil. In these post-Reaganite post-Communist years-when Big Business is unabashedly exalted, when our civil liberties are curtailed in the name of combating terror, when the Leftist movements which are vastly diminished do not provide a source of inspiration or support to the emerging Generation, when it has become politically correct to return to myths while disputing rationality-Indian democracy could never have been under a greater threat than now: when it is in thrall of Big Business and the Politics of the Right.