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THE BIRTH OF FASCIST IDEOLOGY

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Zeev Sternhell
with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asheri

THE BIRTH OF FASCIST IDEOLOGY
FROM CULTURAL REBELLION TO
POLITICAL REVOLUTION

Translated by David Maisel

PRINCETON

UNIVERSITY

PRESS

PRINCETON,

NEW

JERSEY

Copyright  1994 by Princeton University Press
Translated from Zeev Sternhell, with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asheri,
Naissance de l’idéologie fasciste. Copyright  1989
Librairie Arthème Fayard, Paris
Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street,
Princeton, New Jersey 08540
In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, Chichester,
West Sussex
All Rights Reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Sternhell, Zeev.
[Naissance de l’idéologie fasciste. English]
The birth of fascist ideology : from cultural rebellion to
political revolution / Zeev Sternhell, with Mario Sznajder and
Maia Asheri : translated by David Maisel.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-691-03289-0
ISBN 0-691-04486-4 (pbk.)
1. Fascism—Europe—History. I. Sznajder, Mario.
II. Asheri, Maia. III. Title.
D726.5.S7413 1994
320.5′33′094—dc20 93-17629 CIP
This book has been composed in Bitstream Caledonia
Princeton University Press books are printed
on acid-free paper and meet the guidelines for
permanence and durability of the Committee
on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity
of the Council on Library Resources
Third printing, and first paperback printing, 1995
Printed in the United States of America
3

5

7

9

10

8

6

4

To the memory of Jacob L. Talmon

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Contents

Acknowledgments

ix

Introduction
Fascism as an Alternative Political Culture

3

Chapter One
Georges Sorel and the Antimaterialist Revision of Marxism
The Foundations of the “Correction” of Marxism
Antirationalism and Activism: The Social Myths
Anti-Cartesianism and Pessimism
The Junction of Sorelianism and Nationalism
Chapter Two
Revolutionary Revisionism in France
The “New School”
Applied Sorelianism
The Emergence of Socialist Nationalism
Chapter Three
Revolutionary Syndicalism in Italy
Twenty Years: 1902–1922
The Primacy of Economics and the Revision of Marxist
Economic Doctrine
Sorel, the Mobilizing Myth of the Revolutionary General Strike,
and the Lessons of Reality
Chapter Four
The Socialist-National Synthesis
The Myth of the Revolutionary War
From the Libyan War to the Interventionism of the Left:
The Imperialism of the Workers, the Syndicate,
and the Nation
National Syndicalism, the Productionist Solution, and the
Program of Partial Expropriation
From the Carta del Carnaro to Fascist Syndicalism
Chapter Five
The Mussolini Crossroads: From the Critique of Marxism to
National Socialism and Fascism
Within the Orbit of Revolutionary Syndicalism

36
36
55
71
78
92
92
99
118
131
131
143
152
160
160

163
177
186

195
195

viii

CONTENTS

The Intellectual Realignment of a Socialist Militant
National Socialism
The State and Dictatorship: From National Socialism to Fascism

206
215
227

Epilogue
From a Cultural Rebellion to a Political Revolution

233

Notes

259

Bibliography

315

Index

327

Acknowledgments

THIS WORK is an expanded and improved version of a book published in
France in 1989 and represents the results of an inquiry begun several years
ago. It is also some time since several Ph.D. students in the history and
political science departments of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, whose
work I had the privilege of supervising, began to interest themselves in the
growth of Fascist ideology. In so doing, some of these young scholars came
to investigate certain paths I had indicated in previous works. This applied
particularly to the process of transition of the Left toward fascism.
Some of these studies have now come to fruition. Two of them have been
incorporated into this book, to which each brings its own contribution.
Chapters 3 and 4 are by Mario Sznajder, a specialist in Italian revolutionary
syndicalism. Only a concern for presentation and a desire to offer the reader
an integrated text caused me to revise their structure. Most of the material
that enabled me to write Chapter 5 was provided by Maia Asheri, who has
completed a study of early Italian fascism. Thus, many of the qualities this
work may possess can be ascribed to my collaborators, but since the intellectual responsibility for the book and its general conception is mine, I am
prepared to take the blame for its weaknesses.
As in all such cases in the last eighteen years, this book has benefited from
the assistance of Georges Bensimhon. Whether it is a matter of essential
problems or of the French language, Georges Benshimon has allowed no
omission, no obscurity to pass him by. My gratitude toward this friend far
exceeds anything I am able to express in these few lines.
The initial idea for this book took shape in my mind in 1983–1984, when
I was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New
Jersey. The book progressed at Columbia University, where I spent profitable months in the summer of 1986, and two years later, thanks to an invitation from the French government, I enjoyed an especially rewarding period
of work in Paris. The main part of the work, however, was carried out in
1986–1987 at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem. My acknowledgments are due to its director, Menachem Yaari,
and to the whole administrative staff headed by Shabtai Gairon and Bilha
Gus. The invitation to pass a year in this center of research relieved me of
my teaching responsibilities and allowed me to devote myself entirely to the
preparation of this book. Our seminar of multidisciplinary research, in
which Amatzia Baram, Sana Hassan, Menachem Friedman, George Mosse,
Emmanuel Sivan, Michael Walzer, and Jay Winter in particular took part,
was a source of great enrichment for me. As an assistant to this group, Anat

x

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Banine could not be faulted. Most of the reading and writing for the English
edition of this book was done during the year 1991–1992, which I was happy
to spend at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. I want to thank the center’s director, Charles Blitzer, and the
director of fellowships, Ann Sheffield, for providing me with the opportunity
to work in an outstanding intellectual environment and make the best use of
my time.
Special thanks are due to the staffs of the following libraries: the National
and University Library in Jerusalem, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris,
the Italian National Libraries and Archives in Rome, the libraries of the
universities of Columbia and Princeton, and the Library of Congress.
I am grateful to the S. A. Schonbrunn Foundation and the Leonard Davis
Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University for the financial assistance I received in most stages of my work on this book.
My final thanks go to David Maisel for an excellent translation, to Lauren
M. Osborne, Editor, History and Classics, for her good advice along the way,
and to Dalia Geffen for her skills and devotion in editing the manuscript.
—Jerusalem, Fall 1992

THE BIRTH OF FASCIST IDEOLOGY

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INTRODUCTION

Fascism as an Alternative Political Culture

THIS BOOK is based on two assumptions. The first is that fascism, before it
became a political force, was a cultural phenomenon. The growth of fascism
would not have been possible without the revolt against the Enlightenment
and the French Revolution which swept across Europe at the end of the
nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Everywhere in Europe, the cultural revolt preceded the political; the rise of the Fascist movements and the Fascist seizure of power in Italy became possible only because of the conjunction of the accumulated influence of that cultural and
intellectual revolution with the political, social, and psychological conditions
that came into being at the end of the First World War. In that sense, fascism was only an extreme manifestation of a much broader and more
comprehensive phenomenon.
The second assumption, which follows from the first, is that in the development of fascism, its conceptual framework played a role of special importance. There can be no doubt that the crystallization of ideology preceded
the buildup of political power and laid the groundwork for political action.
Fascism was not, in Benedetto Croce’s famous expression, a “parenthesis” in
contemporary history. It was not, as he thought, the result of an “infection,”
of a period of “decline in the consciousness of liberty” following the First
World War.1 It was not the product of some kind of “Machiavellian” renaissance to which twentieth-century Europe fell victim. Contrary to what
Friedrich Meinecke and Gerhard Ritter have sought to convince the generation after the Second World War, fascism was an integral part of the history
of European culture.2
Similarly, fascism was not a sort of shadow cast by Marxism, as claimed by
Ernst Nolte, whose brilliant and well-known book continues the work of
Meinecke and Ritter. One should also not exaggerate the “anti” quality of
fascism; fascism was not only a form of antiliberalism (to use the expression
of Juan Linz, the writer of a remarkable study). Nor was fascism a “variety of
Marxism,” as claimed by A. James Gregor, a normally perspicacious scholar
and the author of major works.3 Moreover, fascism cannot be reduced, as the
classical Marxist interpretation would have it, to a simple antiproletarian
reaction that took place at a stage of declining capitalism.4 Between these
two extremes is an abundance of interpretations. With regard to the schol-

4

INTRODUCTION

arly publications of the last twenty years, the reader should refer to the work
of Karl Dietrich Bracher, Emilio Gentile, A. James Gregor, Roger Griffin,
Pierre Milza, George L. Mosse, Stanley G. Payne, Fritz Stern, Domenico
Settembrini, Jacob Leib Talmon, and Pier Giorgio Zunino.5
In Interpretations of Fascism, the highly respected doyen of Italian scholars, Renzo De Felice, has given us a survey of different interpretations deserving of mention. He has also given us his own interpretation, based on a
dual typology of countries and forms of regime. De Felice emphasizes the
importance of regional characteristics, especially in the case of Italy.6
The present study is conceived quite differently. First, fascism is regarded as an independent cultural and political phenomenon that was not
less intellectually self-sufficient than socialism or liberalism. Second, the
book is devoted to a discussion of ideology and assumes that the intellectual
content of fascism had the same importance in the growth and development
of the movement as it had in liberalism or later in Marxism. The ideology is
described in this book as a product of the interaction of culture and politics,
reflecting the inner relationship between the adoption of intellectual positions and the shift to action. Then, we seek to demonstrate that the conceptual framework of fascism, created long before August 1914, was nonconformist, avant-garde, and revolutionary in character. Due to this intellectual
content, fascism became a political force capable of assailing the existing
order and competing effectively with Marxism not only for the support of
elites and minority groups but also for the allegiance of the masses.
In this book, we focus on the formative period of fascism. We analyze the
development of the thinking of the movement and of the intellectual structures it created within the context of the Franco-Italian cultural complex.
The France of integral nationalism, of the revolutionary Right, was the real
birthplace of fascism. We have already demonstrated this elsewhere, so it
does not have to be dealt with here.7 Moreover, France was the birthplace
of Sorelian revolutionary revisionism, the second elementary component of
fascism. Originating in France, it was in Italy that revolutionary syndicalism
developed into an intellectual, social, and political force. In the summer of
1914, the Italian revolutionary revisionists, in alliance with the nationalists
and futurists, found the adherents, the situation, and the leader who enabled
them to transform the long intellectual incubation dating from the beginning
of the century into a historical force.
Before proceeding any farther, we have to insist on another element of the
definition we are proposing. Fascism can in no way be identified with Nazism. Undoubtedly the two ideologies, the two movements, and the two
regimes had common characteristics. They often ran parallel to one another
or overlapped, but they differed on one fundamental point: the criterion of
German national socialism was biological determinism. The basis of Nazism
was racism in its most extreme sense, and the fight against the Jews, against

INTRODUCTION

5

“inferior” races, played a more preponderant role in it than the struggle
against communism. Marxists could be converted to national socialism, as
indeed quite a number of them were; similarly, national socialism could sign
treaties with Communists, exchange ambassadors, and coexist with them, if
only temporarily. Nothing like this, however, applied to the Jews. Where
they were concerned, the only possible “arrangement” with them was their
destruction.
Certainly, racism was not limited to Germany. At the end of the nineteenth century, biological determinism developed in a country like France
too; but if it was a factor in the development of the revolutionary Right,
racism in its French variant never became the whole purpose of an ideology,
a movement, and a regime.
In fact, racial determinism was not present in all the varieties of fascism.
If Robert Brasillach professed an anti-Semitism very close to that of Nazism,
George Valois’s “Faisceau” had none at all; and if some Italian Fascists were
violently anti-Semitic, in Italy there were innumerable Fascist Jews. Their
percentage in the movement was much higher than in the population as a
whole. As we know, racial laws were promulgated in Italy only in 1938, and
during the Second World War the Jews felt much less in danger in Nice or
Haute-Savoie, areas under Italian occupation, than in Marseilles, which was
under the control of the Vichy government.
Racism was thus not a necessary condition for the existence of fascism; on
the contrary, it was a factor in Fascist eclecticism. For this reason, a general
theory that seeks to combine fascism and Nazism will always come up
against this essential aspect of the problem. In fact, such a theory is not
possible. Undoubtedly there are similarities, particularly with regard to the
“totalitarian” character of the two regimes, but their differences are no less
significant. Karl Bracher perceived the singular importance of these differences, which Ernst Nolte (this was his chief weakness) completely ignored.8
Having clarified this question, let us now return to our definition of fascism. If the Fascist ideology cannot be described as a simple response to
Marxism, its origins, on the other hand, were the direct result of a very
specific revision of Marxism. It was a revision of Marxism and not a variety
of Marxism or a consequence of Marxism. One of the aims of this book is to
study this antimaterialistic and antirationalistic revision of Marxism. It is
absolutely necessary to insist on this essential aspect of the definition of
fascism, for one can scarcely understand the emergence of the fundamental
concepts of fascism and of the Fascist philosophy and mythology if one does
not recognize, at the same time, that it arose from an originally Marxist
revolt against materialism. It was the French and Italian Sorelians, the theoreticians of revolutionary syndicalism, who made this new and original revision of Marxism, and precisely this was their contribution to the birth of the
Fascist ideology.

6

INTRODUCTION

In this respect, the rise of fascism was one of the aspects of the intellectual, scientific, and technological revolution that overtook the European
continent at the turn of the twentieth century. This revolution changed the
prevailing way of life to a degree hitherto unknown, transforming the intellectual climate as well as social realities. All of a sudden, one saw the inadequacy of the social and economic laws Marx propounded. Confronted with
problems that the previous generation had not even envisaged, the new
generation proposed totally unexpected solutions.
Consequently, anyone who regards fascism as no more than a byproduct
of the First World War, a mere bourgeois defensive reaction to the postwar
crisis, is unable to understand this major phenomenon of our century. A
phenomenon of civilization, fascism represents a rejection of the political
culture prevailing at the beginning of the century. In the fascism of the
interwar period, in Mussolini’s regime as in all other western European
Fascist movements, there was not a single major idea that had not gradually
come to fruition in the quarter of a century preceding August 1914.
Although an ideal prototype of a disruptive ideology, fascism cannot be
defined only in negative terms. Undoubtedly, fascism rejected the prevailing systems: liberalism and Marxism, positivism and democracy. This is always the case; a new ideology and an emerging political movement begin by
opposing the systems of thought and political forces already in place. Before
offering its own vision of the world, Marxism began by opposing liberalism,
which a century earlier had risen up against absolutism. The same was true
of fascism, which conflicted with liberalism and Marxism before it was able
to provide all the elements of an alternate political, moral, and intellectual
system.
In the form that it emerged at the turn of the century and developed in
the 1920s and 1930s, the Fascist ideology represented a synthesis of organic
nationalism with the antimaterialist revision of Marxism. It expressed a revolutionary aspiration based on a rejection of individualism, whether liberal
or Marxist, and it created the elements of a new and original political
culture.
This political culture, communal, anti-individualistic, and antirationalistic, represented at first a rejection of the heritage of the Enlightenment and
the French Revolution, and later the creation of a comprehensive alternative, an intellectual, moral, and political framework that alone could ensure
the perpetuity of a human collectivity in which all strata and all classes of
society would be perfectly integrated. Fascism wished to rectify the most
disastrous consequences of the modernization of the European continent
and to provide a solution to the atomization of society, its fragmentation into
antagonistic groups, and the alienation of the individual in a free market
economy. Fascism rebelled against the dehumanization that modernization
had introduced into human relationships, but it was also very eager to retain

INTRODUCTION

7

the benefits of progress and never advocated a return to a hypothetical
golden age. Fascism rebelled against modernity inasmuch as modernity was
identified with the rationalism, optimism, and humanism of the eighteenth
century, but it was not a reactionary or an antirevolutionary movement in
the Maurrassian sense of the term. Fascism presented itself as a revolution
of another kind, a revolution that sought to destroy the existing political
order and to uproot its theoretical and moral foundations but that at the
same time wished to preserve all the achievements of modern technology. It
was to take place within the framework of the industrial society, fully exploiting the power that was in it. The Fascist revolution sought to change the
nature of the relationships between the individual and the collectivity without destroying the impetus of economic activity—the profit motive, or its
foundation—private property, or its necessary framework—the market
economy. This was one aspect of the novelty of fascism; the Fascist revolution was supported by an economy determined by the laws of the market.
When the Fascist regime in Italy practiced a corporatism based on a liberal economy, when the Fascist movement, long before it came to power,
declared through Mussolini that the revolution would relieve the state of its
economic functions, this was not mere opportunism. On the contrary; Mussolini was only repeating the lessons of political economy taught throughout
the first decade of the century by the intellectuals of revolutionary syndicalism.
This point requires special emphasis. If fascism wished to reap all the
benefits of the modern age, to exploit all the technological achievements of
capitalism, if it never questioned the idea that market forces and private
property were part of the natural order of things, it had a horror of the
so-called bourgeois, or, as Nietzsche called them, modern values: universalism, individualism, progress, natural rights, and equality. Thus, fascism
adopted the economic aspect of liberalism but completely denied its philosophical principles and the intellectual and moral heritage of modernity.
Similarly, it was not the practice of Marxism that was questioned—certainly
not where the role of violence in history is concerned—but the rational,
Hegelian content of Marxism, its determinism. Its disapproval was directed
not at the element of revolt, but at historical materialism.
In its essence, Fascist thought was a rejection of the value known in the
culture of the time as materialism. For fascism, liberalism, which at the end
of the nineteenth century developed into liberal democracy, and Marxism,
one ramification of which was democratic socialism, represented one and
the same materialistic evil. In the sense in which it was understood at the
end of the nineteenth century, antimaterialism meant the rejection of the
rationalistic, individualistic, and utilitarian heritage of the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries. In terms of political philosophy, antimaterialism
meant a total rejection of the vision of man and society developed from

8

INTRODUCTION

Hobbes to Kant, from the English revolutions of the seventeenth century to
the American and French revolutions. In terms of political practice, antimaterialism meant a rejection of the principles applied for the first time at
the end of the eighteenth century and carried out on a far larger scale a
hundred years later by the liberal democratic regimes of western Europe. It
was thus a general attack on the political culture dominant at the end of the
nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, on its philosophical
foundations, its principles, and their application. It was not only the theory
of natural rights and the primacy of the individual that were questioned, but
all the institutional structures of liberal democracy. However, antimaterialism was not just a negation of liberalism, whether in the form found in the
“social contract” school of thought or in the one represented by English
utilitarianism, which from the beginning implied the democratization of political life and the reform of society. To an equal degree, toward 1900 antimaterialism also represented a rejection of the main postulates of Marxist
economics and an attack on the rationalistic foundations of Marx’s thought.
It was the revolutionary syndicalists, those dissidents and nonconformists of
the Left, who by means of their criticism of Marxist determinism created the
first elements of the Fascist synthesis in the first decade of our century.
Thus, antimaterialism, a direct assault on liberalism and Marxism, at the
beginning of this century represented a third revolutionary option between
the two great systems that dominated the political life of the period and that,
over and above all their differences, nevertheless remained the heirs of the
eighteenth century. Fascism was antimaterialism in its clearest form. But if
it was opposed to liberalism and Marxism, it took from liberalism a respect
for the power and vitality of the mechanisms of the market economy, and
from Marxism a conviction that violence was the motive force of history,
which was governed solely by the laws of war.
If, in its philosophical essence, fascism represented a rejection of the rationalistic and individualistic principles that constituted the foundation of
Marxism as well as of liberalism, where political ideology and political movements were concerned it represented a synthesis of an organic, tribal nationalism with the revision of Marxism that Georges Sorel and the Sorelians of
France and Italy proposed at the turn of the century.
These were the two great supporting pillars of the Fascist edifice, which,
taken as a whole, represented a coherent, logical, and well-structured totality. Let there be no doubt about it: fascism’s intellectual baggage enabled it
to travel alone, and its theoretical content was neither less homogeneous nor
more heterogenous than that of liberalism or socialism. Nor were the incoherences and contradictions greater in number or more profound than those
which had existed in liberal or socialist thought for a hundred years. The
opportunism of the various Fascist parties and movements, including that of

INTRODUCTION

9

the Mussolini regime, hardly differed from the way in which socialist parties
struggling to gain power, or that had already gained power, compromised on
principles. Thus, when the process of the fascistization of the state was completed, an ever-increasing number of militants called for a return to the roots
and assailed dubious compromises with the bourgeois, clerical, or royalist
Right—complaints that recalled the lamentations of the no less numerous
“purists” of European socialism when confronted with the harsh realities of
practical politics.
Certainly, fascism did not derive from a single source as socialism derived
from Marx, but neither did liberalism have a Marx, and one can hardly say
that in the first half of the twentieth century it attained a higher intellectual
level than fascism. Moreover, even in Marx’s lifetime Marxism was already
split up into tendencies, groups, and sects, and a few years later, after Engels
passed away, who could still claim to represent the authoritative interpretation of Marxism? Who was recognized as worthy of the title “defender of the
faith”? Who, around 1910, could say he was a Marxist? The same sort of
question may be asked with regard to fascism, and the absence of a common
source comparable with that of Marxism need not necessarily be taken as a
sign of incoherence.
The first of the two essential components of fascism to appear on the
political scene of the end of the nineteenth century was tribal nationalism,
based on a social Darwinism and, often, a biological determinism. In France,
this type of nationalism was found in its clearest form in the work of Maurice
Barrès, Édouard Drumont, Charles Maurras, and the representatives of Action française.9 In Italy, Enrico Corradini demonstrated, in a truly fascinating manner, the evolution of Italian nationalism from the time, still close, of
the struggle for independence. From the end of the nineteenth century, the
new nationalism truly expressed the revolt against the spirit of the French
Revolution. The gulf that divided Corradini from Mazzini, or Barrès, Drumont, and Maurras from Michelet, reveals the distance between Jacobin
nationalism and that of la Terre et les Morts, the Land and the Dead. This
formula of Barrès was in fact only the French counterpart of the German
formula Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil), and it showed that the old theory,
consecrated by the French Revolution, that society was made up of a collection of individuals, had been replaced by the theory of the organic unity of
the nation. In this respect, the system of thought developed in France by the
generation of the 1890s was scarcely different from the one that grew up in
the same period on the other side of the Rhine. The nationalist fervor of the
French writers of the time was in no way inferior to that of their contemporary Heinrich von Treitschke, the celebrated theoretician of German nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century. Drumont and Wilhelm Marr,
Jules Guérin, the marquis de Morès, Adolf Stöcker and the Austrian Georg

10

INTRODUCTION

von Schönerer, Georges Vacher de Lapouge and Otto Ammon, Paul
Déroulède and Ernst Hasse, the head of the Pan-German League, were as
alike as peas in a pod.
We are here in the presence of a general European phenomenon. For this
new nationalism—which was situated at the opposite pole from the one that,
from the French Revolution to the Commune of Paris, had attempted a
synthesis of the “religion of the fatherland” with the religion of humanity—
the nation was an organism comparable to a sentient being. This “total” nationalism claimed to be a system of ethics, with criteria of behavior dictated
by the entire national body, independently of the will of the individual. By
definition, this new nationalism denied the validity of any absolute and universal moral norms: truth, justice, and law existed only in order to serve the
needs of the collectivity. The idea of society as something isolated and shut
in, a violent antirationalism, and a belief in the supremacy of the subconscious over the forces of reason amounted to a truly tribal concept of the
nation.
Here one can feel the full weight of the influence of social Darwinism,
even among the Maurrassians who did not, as readily as Barrès, compare
animal instinct with human reason, to the detriment of the latter. The idea
that the depths of the irrational and the instinctive have to be separated from
the factitiousness of rationality was widespread among the members of that
generation.
This cult of deep and mysterious forces that are the fabric of human existence entailed as a necessary and natural consequence the appearance of a
virulent anti-intellectualism. For this school of thought, the fight against
intellectuals and against the rationalism from which they drew their nourishment was a measure of public safety. There were a great many nationalists at the turn of the century who, like those of the interwar generation,
constantly attacked the critical spirit and its products, opposing them to
instinct, intuitive and irrational sentiment, emotion and enthusiasm—those
deep impulses which determine human behavior and which constitute the
reality and truth of things as well as their beauty. Rationalism, they claimed,
belongs to the “deracinated”; it blunts sensitivity, it deadens instinct and can
only destroy the motive forces of national activity. Barrès believed that only
the emotional content of a situation had any real value; for him, the process
of what is known as thought took place on the level of the unconscious. He
concluded from this that to attack the unconscious was to divest the national
organism of its substance. Consequently, in order to ensure the welfare of
the nation, one had to turn to the people and exalt the primitive force, vigor,
and vitality that emanated from the people, uncontaminated by the rationalist and individualist virus. For the revolutionary Right of 1890 as for that of
1930, the incomparable merit of popular opinion was its unreflecting spontaneity, springing from the depths of the unconscious. At the turn of the cen-

INTRODUCTION

11

tury as on the eve of the Second World War, these were the new criteria of
political behavior.
Since the masses were truly the nation, and since the primary aim of
politics was to ensure the nation’s integrity and power, nationalism could not
accept that the social question should remain unsolved. Barrès, the major
theoretician of this “Latin nationalism,” which was even more genuine than
“Latin Marxism,” was one of the first people to understand that a “national”
movement can exist only if it ensures the integration of the most disadvantaged strata of society. At the same time, he understood that a “national”
movement cannot be Marxist, liberal, proletarian, or bourgeois. Marxism
and liberalism, he claimed, could never be anything other than movements
of a civil war; a class war and a war of all against all in an individualistic
society were merely two aspects of the same evil. As a result of this way of
thinking at the end of the nineteenth century there appeared in France a
new synthesis, the first form of fascism. Barrès was one of the first thinkers
in Europe to employ the term “national socialism.”10
The idea of national socialism quickly spread throughout Europe. It was
a response to a problem of civilization created in the second half of the
nineteenth century by the rise of the proletariat and the industrial revolution. Very soon, more or less everywhere, theoreticians claimed that the
social question could be solved by means other than an unbridled capitalism
or a socialism of class struggle. A solution based on the idea that the survival
of the nation demanded peace between the proletariat and the body of society as a whole was put forward in France at the turn of the century by
Barrès, and in Italy in the first decade of the twentieth century by Enrico
Corradini.
Like Barrès, who had preceded him by some twenty years, Corradini
sought to revive what he called the fundamental pact of family solidarity
among all classes of Italian society. In 1910 he used the term “national socialism” and fixed the aims of this socialist and national movement. First, he
said, the Italians had to be made to understand that their country was materially and morally a proletarian country. Then they had to be taught the
necessity of international war, in the same way as socialism taught workers
the principles of class warfare. Finally, one had to make peace between the
proletariat and the nation.11 After the First World War, during the rise of the
Fascist movement, Corradini summed up in a concise formula the concept
he had developed for years, since the foundation of the Nationalist Association in 1910: “Because nationalism is by definition national in politics, it
cannot fail to be national in the domain of economics, as the two things are
interconnected.”12 In his way, the theoretician of Italian nationalism borrowed the idea of class struggle from Marxism and transposed it onto a
higher level, that of war between national groups. The principle remained
the same: violence is the motive force of history.

12

INTRODUCTION

Essentially, the principles of Italian nationalism were hardly different
from those developed in France some twenty years earlier. Corradini’s only
original contribution was the idea of the “proletarian nation,” intended to
prepare the Italians for the struggle for existence, in other words, war. The
state of war, he said, was the natural state of relations between nations in all
periods; discipline, authority, social solidarity, the sense of duty and sacrifice, and heroic values were all conditions necessary for the survival of the
country. Anything that made for unity was positive: a strong government,
the individual always at the service of society, and the social classes united
in a single effort for the sake of national greatness. Similarly, anything that
constituted a factor of diversity was to be eliminated. The philosophy of the
Enlightenment and the theory of the rights of people, internationalism, and
pacifism, like bourgeois or proletarian class egoism, were to be destroyed.
The same applied to democracy: democracy was nothing other than the expression of the class interests of the bourgeoisie. As for Marxist socialism, it
divested the body of the nation of its substance in order to serve the class
interests of the proletariat. And finally there was reformist socialism, which,
under the pretext of improving the lot of the proletariat, entered into an
alliance with bourgeois democracy. This alliance of the politicians, said Corradini, was the greatest lie of contemporary democracy. To liberal democracy, “business” democracy, Corradini opposed a form of democracy that
was an “ethnarchy”; to “business” politics and a plutocracy, to “class parasitism,” he opposed a regime of order and authority based on natural hierarchies. This regime was to be a regime of producers, a regime of class collaboration, responsible for the well-being of all.13
The second main component of fascism, which, together with antiliberal
and antibourgeois nationalism, made up the Fascist ideology, was the antimaterialist revision of Marxism. This revolt, which involved both the nonconformist extreme Left and the nationalist Right, allowed the association of
a new kind of socialism with radical nationalism.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the socialism of western Europe (including, of course, Germany to the west of the Elbe) had to confront
two phenomena of major importance. It was obvious, first, that the great
prophecies of Marxism had not been realized. Nobody at that time could
claim that social polarization and pauperization—two sine qua non preconditions for the future revolution—had truly come to pass. On the contrary.
Already, in the last third of the nineteenth century, the standard of living of
the working class had risen and its purchasing power increased, and if social
differences always remained the same, the conditions of life of the lower
classes had improved considerably. This evolution resulted in an economic
and political situation without precedent in Europe. One should also mention the great technological and scientific revolution of the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century which affected the forms

INTRODUCTION

13

of production and consumption, changed the rhythm of life, and offered new
perspectives of progress and well-being. The technological revolution undoubtedly ensured the triumph of the bourgeoisie, but it nevertheless
deeply affected the relationship of classes. Half a century after the Communist Manifesto, a quarter of a century after the commune of 1871, one was
a long way, in western Europe, from the industrial hell of Manchester or the
“Bloody Week” of Paris.
Social relationships became less brutal, for it was in the interests of
everyone to avoid confrontations that could turn into pitched battles. Since
the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the international situation had also
stabilized, and the continent enjoyed a calm hitherto unknown. All these
factors, to which one should add a demographic upsurge made possible by
the improved conditions of life, led, at the end of the nineteenth century, to
a period of unprecedented expansion and prosperity. This new prosperity,
which seemed to last, created an environment in which political and economic phenomena were very different from those which Marx had been able
to observe. Socialist thought consequently had to confront a series of new
problems that were hard to explain in terms of orthodox Marxist analysis.
With this new situation began the celebrated “crisis of Marxism.”
To the economic changes were added two other transformations, which
also lessened the relevance of traditional Marxist analysis: the democratization of political life and the growth of national consciousness among the
masses. Liberalism was a political system invented by an elite in order to
govern a society in which political participation was limited. The adaptation
of the representative system to universal suffrage, the adaptation of liberalism to democracy and the masses, did not take place without major jolts. It
was with tremendous difficulty that liberalism, adopting the principle of
political equality, developed into liberal democracy. This was one of the
main aspects of the crises of the turn of the century as of those of the interwar period.
The new urban masses created by industrial concentration thus gained
access, if only partly, to the decision-making mechanisms. In a regime of
universal suffrage, one cannot constantly govern against the interests of the
majority. Marxism had not foreseen a situation in which the proletariat, organized in syndicates, socialist parties, and local pressure groups would one
day come to the conclusion that bourgeois democracy could also serve its
own interests. Universal suffrage—even where, as in Germany at the beginning of the century, it was not accompanied by political liberty—showed
itself to be a true force of integration. To this one should add a continuous
economic expansion and the undeniable social progress to which it led. The
founding fathers of socialism had not foreseen the eight-hour working day,
the weekly day of rest, or social insurance, any more than they had dreamed
of free and compulsory education.

14

INTRODUCTION

It appeared, moreover, that the democratization of political life, like social
progress, did not necessarily favor socialism. On the contrary, the modernization of the European continent and the political participation and mobilization of the masses led to a growth of national consciousness among those
masses. Very soon, it appeared that compulsory education, the spread of
literacy in the countryside, and the working class’s slow but continuous acquisition of culture encouraged not the class consciousness of the proletariat, but rather an increased consciousness of national identity. The creation
of new strata of wage earners and the development of new tertiary activities
proved that modernization, contrary to all expectations, worked against socialism. The famous process of polarization failed to take place, and, in the
political field, the national movement in France, Italy, and Germany reaped
the benefits of this development. The nationalist, populist, and revolutionary movement gained the most from the intellectual revolution of the end of
the nineteenth century. After all, neither social Darwinism, nor antipositivism, nor the new social sciences like psychology and sociology (which, with
Pareto, Simmel, Durkheim, and Max Weber represented the response of the
European university establishment to Marxism) were favorable to socialism.
This new reality and the new intellectual climate that developed within it
led to the revision of Marxism.
This revision of Marxist theory (really a reinterpretation of the ideological
corpus associated with Marx’s thought and its adaptation to the new realities) took place following the great debate on Marxism, whose first protagonists were Engel’s two associates, Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky.
Bernstein’s attack, Kautsky’s reply, the participation of all the major figures
in international socialism, and the sheer importance of the controversy,
which lasted for years, gave the celebrated Bernstein debatte an exceptional
significance.
It should be pointed out that Kautsky, who had collaborated closely with
Bernstein between 1880 and 1895, never intended to separate socialism
from democracy. If Bernstein, who for a long time had been under the influence of the Fabians, seemed ready to come to terms with a constitutional
monarchy, Kautsky envisaged the establishment of a radical republican regime.14 There was no disagreement between them, however, with regard to
the necessity to work, by means strictly compatible with universal suffrage
and the law of the majority, for the democratization of the German state and
society. For Kautsky, the “revolution” meant that the accession to power of
the Socialist party would necessarily be accompanied by a total change in
class structure, with everything else being left to democracy.15
Kautsky, it should be remembered, was the principal author of the “Erfurt
Program” of 1891, adopted immediately after the expiration of Bismarck’s
antisocialist laws. The Erfurt Congress consecrated both the “Marxification”
of the German Socialist party and its entry into the political life of the em-

INTRODUCTION

15

pire. Thus this document reflected from the beginning a fundamental ambiguity that soon became a prime example of the difficulties western Marxism
faced. This ambivalence stemmed from an apparent contradiction between
the revolutionary, very “class-struggle” character of the theoretical part of
the program and the purely democratic and “reformist” character of its practical, political part. In 1892 Kautsky wrote a document of 260 pages, Das
Erfurter Programm, in which he expressed his thinking and which immediately became a classic of socialist literature. This exposition contributed
greatly to making its author the official theoretician of the party. A few years
later, when the great debate on Marxism began, this document became the
chief target of the revisionists.
Thus, the German Social Democratic party was endowed with a revolutionary doctrine at the very moment when it committed itself to the path of
democracy and no longer even dreamed of violence or revolution. If Bebel
and Liebknecht, the two leaders of the party, ever had any revolutionary
inclinations, nothing remained of them at the moment the party became
Marxist. To many foreign socialists, this contradiction looked increasingly
like a dubious opportunism, especially as the German party was regarded as
the truest repository of the thought of Marx and Engels. Had not Engels
remained until his death in 1895 in continuous contact with Kautsky?
This gulf between theory and practice can be explained by the situation
that existed in Germany, where doctrinal intransigence was a characteristic
of all political parties. Prevented by the political structures of the empire
from assuming real responsibilities, all German parties were free to exhibit
their doctrinal purity. The Erfurter Programm was written not only to satisfy
Engels, but also in order to demonstrate the specific intellectual content of
Marxism. At the same time, the Socialist party was fighting for the democratization of political life in Germany. It believed in the virtues of democracy
and in the possibility of attaining the objectives of socialism by democratic
means.16
It soon became obvious, however, that the revolutionary ideology could
not stand up to the demands of political life, and the contradiction between
the theory of class struggle and the tacit acceptance of the existing order
finally became insupportable. From this long debate, most of which took
place between 1895 and 1905, practically the whole of western European
socialism emerged bearing the label “revisionist.” Revisionism, moreover,
began not in 1899 with the publication of Bernstein’s critique of Marxism,
but five years earlier, at the Frankfurt Congress, with the controversy over
the sections of the Erfurter Programm dealing with the problem of the peasants, and following the revolt of the Bavarian socialists against what they saw
as the excessively Marxist character of the program.17 This intellectual debate divided the whole socialist movement of western Europe into two
schools of thought of very unequal importance. These two trends, which

16

INTRODUCTION

differed completely with regard to the content of reformism and its ultimate
objectives, were in agreement with regard to method: they sought to harmonize the theory with the practice and to alter the theory, and also, wherever
necessary, to alter the practice.
These two schools of thought were not comparable from the point of view
of their immediate importance. One of them encompassed nearly all of western European socialism; we are referring to the “reformist” type of revisionism—a revisionism that was liberal and democratic in the accepted sense of
these terms. In the form it assumed in the writings of Bernstein, Turati, and
Jaurès and in the political behavior of the socialist parties of Germany, Italy,
and France—where the unification of the Socialist party in 1905 resulted in
a reformist party very similar to the German Social Democrats—this revisionism accepted both the legitimacy of liberal and democratic values and
the rules of liberal democracy. One had, in fact, not only a compromise with
the existing order but an acceptance of its principles. At the beginning of the
century, the great majority of western European socialists had resigned
themselves to the perpetuity of the capitalist regime and of bourgeois
society.
There remained a minority that also recognized the failure of classical
Marxist predictions but that nevertheless rejected ideological and political
compromise with the established order. This minority, which retained its
revolutionary characteristics, very correctly laid claim to the title “revolutionary revisionists.”18 Indeed, by about 1905, these revisionists were the
only socialists to remain revolutionary in western Europe. They sought to
revise Marxist doctrine in the opposite direction from that of Bernsteinian
revisionism. They claimed that instead of watering down Marxism by interpreting it in democratic terms, they were returning to the roots of Marxism
in order to make it once again what it should never have ceased to be: a
mechanism of war against bourgeois democracy. The revolutionary revisionists sought to reexamine the original doctrine in order to place it once more
at the service of the revolution. They felt that it was a betrayal of the proletariat to regard it as an aggregate of electors or as the backbone of a political
mass movement that relied on numbers in order to take over the government and reform society. The proletariat was and had to be the agent of the
revolution.
Here one was dealing with questions relating to the particular situation
that existed in western Europe. In Austria-Hungary, in Poland, divided into
three, in Russia, and also in Prussia, the problems were different. Here, too,
Karl Kautsky played a major role. His synthesis of orthodox Marxism and
democratic socialism inspired the revolutionaries of central and eastern Europe. A whole generation was reared on the writings of Kautsky, who, together with Plekhanov, was the spiritual father of Russian Marxism. The
function of the revolution in Kautsky was to bring a full and complete de-

INTRODUCTION

17

mocracy, not the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The great difference between Kautsky and Bernstein was the importance that Kautsky gave, in this
transition to democracy, to the mechanism of class struggle, which, in turn,
reflected the workings of the capitalist economy as described by Marx.19
But if Kautsky was attacked by the Bernsteinian revisionists who rejected
his interpretation of economics as a whole and his conception of class struggle in particular, he also came under fire from a faction of the Left led by
Rosa Luxemburg, who objected to his “fatalism.” These leftists maintained
that Kautsky’s deterministic theories had the effect of confirming the party
in its traditional wait-and-see attitude.
Most of the radicals of central and eastern Europe belonged to a younger
generation than the Marxist “old brigade” of Kautsky, Mehring, Victor
Adler, Axelrod, and Plekhanov. Rosa Luxemburg, Otto Bauer, Rudolf Hilferding, Martov, Radek, Trotsky, and Lenin shared a conviction that eastern
Europe, and perhaps all of Europe, was on the eve of a tremendous earthquake. The problems that confronted this East European generation of
1905, which were totally different from those which existed in France or
Italy, lie outside the scope of this book, but conditions in eastern Europe
explain why these nonconformists remained firmly attached to their Marxist
roots, while quite a number of “Latin” dissidents, after having attempted a
correction of Marxism, turned away from it—some of them to such a degree
as to found another revolutionary movement, fascism.
Indeed, these East Europeans, unlike the nonconformists in France and
Italy, never deviated from the final objective: the destruction of capitalism
by the proletariat. For them, the revolution never had any other purpose
than to put an end, above all, to capitalist exploitation and the system of the
market economy. The instrument and the beneficiary of this revolution always remained the proletariat. These people may have differed considerably
among themselves about the revolutionary tactics to adopt or the role of the
party, the state, or the dictatorship of the proletariat, but they never lost
sight of the real objective. This factor united the Austro-Hungarian school,
with Karl Renner, Rudolf Hilferding, Otto Bauer, Friedrich Adler, and Max
Adler, the German-Polish group gathered around Rosa Luxemburg and Karl
Liebknecht—which also included Parvus (pseudonym of Alexander Israel
Helphand) and Karl Radek—the group of Mensheviks to which Trotsky in
fact belonged, and the Bolsheviks, including Lenin. All these people were to
have very different destinies and to give birth to contrary schools of thought
and political currents, and terrible rivalries were to develop among them;
yet they all remained faithful to the rationalist, materialist, and Hegelian
content of Marxism. The conceptual framework created by Kautsky under
the watchful eye of Engels always remained the common denominator. This
factor also distinguished the central European innovators from the Sorelian
ones. That was the reason why the former group always, each in its own way,

18

INTRODUCTION

remained true to the essence of Marxism while the latter group embarked on
a revision of Marxism that voided the system of its original content.
Within these limits, however, Marxism showed itself to be sufficiently
flexible to enable Max Adler to discover in Marx a quasi-Kantian sociologist,
or to inspire Otto Bauer’s works on the question of nationalities and the
problems of imperialism, or those of Rudolf Hilferding on finance capitalism.20 All three of them made contributions of high quality and of major
importance to Marxism. If the works of Max Adler represent, above all, an
intellectual tour de force, those of Hilferding and Bauer opened up new
avenues not only for Marxist thought, but also for the political actions of the
socialist parties in the Austrian empire, then on the point of disintegrating.
The Leninist conception of imperialism was in fact a simplification of
Bauer’s and Hilferding’s theoretical ideas.21
The first edition of Rudolf Hilferding’s Finance Capital appeared in
Vienna in 1910 and had immediate success. A dry, austere, and technical
work, Finance Capital was recognized at once as one of the few original
contributions to Marxism that, relating to new developments, took Marxist
theory a stage farther. The major figures in socialism immediately hailed
Hilferding’s work: Jaurès praised it in the Chamber of Deputies, and in 1916
Lenin was inspired by it to write Imperialism, the Supreme Stage of Capitalism. Between these two dates, the book was translated into seven languages.22 The works of Luxemburg, Parvus, Radek, and Trotsky were also,
despite enormous theoretical difficulties, firmly rooted in Marxism—a
Marxism relatively close to orthodoxy. Luxemburg made a major contribution to Marxist theory concerning capitalism in underdeveloped countries;
her description of the accumulation of capital in a “closed” system and of
capitalist expansion in nonindustrialized countries remains important for an
understanding of the question of economic growth. At the same time, Luxemburg maintained that capitalist expansion undermined its own foundations, so that the ultimate collapse of the system as a whole could be
regarded as a historical certainty. Here one finds most of the analytical
weaknesses of her work, which derive essentially from her need to prove the
inevitability of the fall of capitalism on the basis of premises elaborated by
Marx.23 But if Luxemburg and Hilferding could arrive at opposite conclusions from the same statistics, they nevertheless remained true to Marxist
methods and tools of analysis.
This clearly explains the great difference between the French and Italian
nonconformists and those of central and eastern Europe. While the Austrians, Poles, and Russians (most if not all of whom sprung from the Jewish
intelligentsia) made impossible efforts to stick to Marx’s economic theories,
to the deterministic character of his system, to the idea of historical necessity, and to the materialistic basis of the Marxist view of history and spoke of
a “permanent” international revolution, in France and Italy there began an

INTRODUCTION

19

antimaterialist revision of Marxism based on a violent criticism of Marxist
economics. Whereas Kautsky, the prophet of orthodoxy, became in fact the
architect of the change of orthodox Marxism into democratic socialism, in
France and Italy a ferocious struggle was waged against democracy itself.
Moreover, these internationalist and revolutionary Jewish intellectuals—
Luxemburg, Hilferding, Parvus, Radek, Trotsky, Otto Bauer, Max Adler,
and many others—functioned in an environment poisoned by national and
religious hatreds. All of them detested the tribal nationalism that flourished
throughout Europe, both in the underdeveloped countries of the east and in
the great industrial centers of the west. These people never bowed down
before national collectivity and its soil, religious piety, traditions, popular
culture, cemeteries, myths, prides, and animosities. Consequently, these political thinkers and leaders were immunized against collaboration with conservatives and nationalists.
The first signs of the great onslaught on Marxism appeared with the publication in 1894 of the third volume of Das Kapital. The attack was initiated by
the Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, who in 1896 wrote Zum
Abschluss des Marxschen Systems. Immediately translated into Russian and
English, the work was a great success, both in Europe and in the United
States. Thrice minister of finance and a professor of political economy at the
University of Vienna, Böhm-Bawerk was one of the most respected and influential economists of the period. His critique of the Marxist theories of
value and surplus value represented a kind of official reply to Marx by professional economists.24 Universally acclaimed by the anti-Marxist camp,
Böhm-Bawerk’s work also inspired the criticism of Marxism within the socialist camp. Vilfredo Pareto and Benedetto Croce, for instance, moved in
the same direction. Pareto’s criticism appeared in two stages: first his introduction to Karl Marx: Le Capital, extraits faits par M. Paul Lafargue, which
was published in 1897, and then his two large chapters in Les Systèmes
socialistes (1902–1903).
It is interesting to observe how close Pareto’s critique of Marxism was to
Sorel. Pareto launched a general attack on socialism, Marxist economics, and
the theory of surplus value. His attack on the descriptive part of Das Kapital
was based on a critique of the Marxist method and its “sophisms,” but he
concentrated mainly on a criticism of the theory of surplus value.25 Pareto,
who knew Böhm-Bawerk and recognized the value of his work, made a
strong defense of free enterprise, without “exonerating or even excusing the
abuses that exist in our societies”—abuses that resulted from the state’s intervention in the economy. Since any restriction of economic freedom is
wrong, wrote Pareto, the intervention of the state in the economy has to be
strictly limited.26 Pareto returned to these ideas in his celebrated work Les
Systèmes socialistes. Here the attack on Marxist economics and the theory of
surplus value was accompanied by a criticism of the materialist theory of

20

INTRODUCTION

history and a conviction that “from the scientific point of view, the sociological part of Marx’s work is far superior to the economic part.”27 All these
ideas without exception could also be found in Sorel, whom Pareto praised
for opposing “the sweet and sickly socialism and democratic humanitarianism that are gaining so much ground these days.”28 Sorel, however, was
considered by others—Croce, for instance—as “an eminent French Marxist,”29 which was clearly not the case with Pareto.
At the same period, Croce also made a critique of Marxist economics,
stressing the same elements as Pareto. From 1896 on he criticized the weaknesses of the theory of surplus value.30 Sorel came to the same conclusions
as the two Italian thinkers, who had a great influence on him and his school.
Thus we see that in Vienna, where at that time one could be only Marxist or
anti-Marxist, revisionism did not take root, despite the debate BöhmBawerk initiated, while in France and Italy, the special breeding ground of
revolutionary syndicalism, the situation was quite different. There one could
launch an attack on the economic principles of Marxism while invoking the
authority of Marx, whom one saw solely as a sociologist of violence. There
one could appeal to Marx against the eighteenth century and its rationalism,
against Descartes, intellectualism, and positivism.
For in France and Italy, around 1905—the year that, for Europe to the
east of the Elbe, heralded the coming revolution—the question was whether
Marxism still provided the key to universal history, if it had a correct vision
of social and economic realities, and if, in the final analysis, Marxism, as
stated in the ninth thesis on Feuerbach, was still able to explain the world
and to transform it. When asked in a country like France, where the industrial proletariat seemed to have reached the peak of its numerical strength
but did not hold the strategic position it had in Russia, these questions produced a number of original answers.
The rupture began with the critique of Marxist economics. It was here
that revolutionary revisionism and its progenitor, Georges Sorel, started off.
Sorel, to be sure, could scarcely claim to be a serious rival to Rosa Luxemburg or Rudolf Hilferding. His Introduction à l’économie moderne (Introduction to modern economics) or his collection of selected writings, translated into Italian and published under the title Insegnamenti sociali
dell’economia contemporanea, can hardly stand a comparison with The Accumulation of Capital or Finance Capital. In the same way, the Viennese intellectual milieu at the beginning of the century was infinitely superior, where
socialist thought was concerned, to the one frequented by Georges Sorel in
the Latin Quarter. The importance of a work, however, cannot be judged
solely on an absolute plane; one should also take into account its influence
and its political function. Sorel’s writings represented the conceptual space
in which the theoreticians of revolutionary syndicalism evolved.
At the start of his career as a Marxist theoretician, Sorel attacked the
theory of value and came to the conclusion that Marxist economics were

INTRODUCTION

21

quite superflous for anyone who regarded Marxism as it ought to be regarded: a weapon of war against bourgeois democracy. This was an idea that
Parvus, one of the first promoters, if not the inventor, of the theory of “permanent revolution,” would never have thought of. Similarly, despite their
fierce opposition to the methods of social democracy, such an idea would
never have occurred to Lenin, Luxemburg, or Antonio Labriola. (Antonio
Labriola is the father of Italian Marxism, while Arturo Labriola founded the
Italian Revolutionary Syndicalism.)
Some people today claim that Antonio Labriola, the chief Marxist theoretician of the period in western Europe, was the representative of a “Latin”
Marxism, at the opposite pole from the German and Polish “economism.”
Sorel, according to this view, was another “pioneer of the nondogmatic
Marxism of our period,” a prophet of the ideology of self-management, who
can be regarded as the equal of Antonio Labriola, Rosa Luxemburg, and
Benedetto Croce.31 However, if Antonio Labriola was the first person to
interpret historical materialism as a “philosophy of praxis”—the Italian version of the philosophical aspect of Marxism—based on noneconomic factors,
he never thought of offering the labor movement a completely new system
of economics.32 There was a great difference between the act of singling out
the noneconomic aspects of Marx’s work and that of declaring the whole
economic aspect of Marxism obsolete and proclaiming the perpetual validity
of capitalism. Antonio Labriola understood this very well and in 1898, after
an initial period of infatuation, broke off his relations with Sorel. “What am
I to do?” he asked in his preface to the French edition of Socialism and
Philosophy. “Do I have to write an anti-Sorel after having written a proSorel?” Labriola felt the need to apologize to his readers for this passing
wave of enthusiasm. “I could not imagine in 1897,” he wrote, “that he would
become so soon, in 1898, the herald of a war of secession.”33 Antonio Labriola made no mistake about the significance of Sorel’s position.
As for Luxemburg, her ideas on the general strike may recall those of
Sorel. She too was primarily interested in the moral content of action. Peter
Nettl has shown, however, that for Sorel the general strike was the specific
fulfillment of a general concept of action, whereas Luxemburg considered it
a tactic dictated by the situation of the moment. Similarly, violence, for her,
was never the object of a cult, as with Sorel. She, like him, could have the
greatest contempt for the neutrality of the social sciences; she, like him,
wanted to influence ways of thinking and to change the world,34 but she
never sought to give the proletariat the gift of a theory of moral and spiritual
revolution that would fail to touch the bases of capitalism.
Much the same applied to that other nonconformist, Otto Bauer. One
need only glance at his pamphlet The March toward Socialism in order to
see the deep gulf between the Sorelian revision of Marxism and not only
orthodoxy, but everything that constituted the basis of European socialism.
This series of articles, which summarized the plan of action of Austrian so-

22

INTRODUCTION

cialism, envisioned the socialization not only of heavy industry, banks, and
large-scale private property, but also of agriculture, land for building, and
private homes.35 This is precisely what Sorel rejected, quite simply because
he refused to touch private property and because he believed neither in
equality nor in social justice—values that, for him and his school, would
never be anything other than the whinings of Rousseauist anarchists or
Jaurèsian socialists with sickly souls.
For Sorel did not simply single out certain aspects of Marx’s thought in
order to develop them in a more specific manner, as Max Adler and Antonio
Labriola did, nor, like Luxemburg, did he intend to create a complement to
Marx’s economic writings. No. He regarded Marxism as a whole, including
Marx’s own works and the codification of Marxism by Engels, Kautsky, and
Bernstein as a kind of receptacle that could be voided of its original contents
and filled with another substance. This principle applied not only to the
means but also to the end of revolutionary action.
The Sorelians always stuck to the idea that all progress depended solely
on a market economy, and that consequently any interference in the mechanisms of the liberal economy or any legislation that interfered with the free
play of social or economic forces constituted a lethal danger to socialism.
Sorel unhesitatingly identified Marxist economics with Manchesterian economics; both, he believed, possessed the same foundations and the same
principles. Only these principles, he claimed, would ensure social polarization and the development of an all-out class struggle—violent, open, loyal,
without mercy or compromise. This concept was by no means untrue to
Marx’s original idea that capitalism itself creates the forces that will destroy
it, but the great difference between the Sorelians and all the other socialists
was that with the Sorelians, from the very beginning, capitalism as such was
never questioned. They had nothing to put in place of capitalism and they
did not conceive of a postcapitalist era. This was where, from the appearance
of Sorel’s Introduction à l’économie moderne onward, they parted company
with all other European socialists, including all the western European reformist theoreticians who, resigning themselves to the existence of capitalism, nevertheless remained true to the idea that a society based on the collectivization of property would always be better than a society that made
private property its fulcrum.
The fact that the socialization of property is no longer in fashion in socialist parties, intellectual cafés, and the editorial rooms of leftist reviews is
quite irrelevant. At the beginning of the century, there could be no socialism
without the socialization of property, and there could be no socialist revolution without the elimination of the capitalist economy. The Sorelians were
the first revolutionaries of leftist origin to refuse to question private property, individual profit, or the market economy.
“A class liberalism! That’s what syndicalism is!” exclaimed Arturo Labriola, the founder of Italian Sorelianism, in 1905. “It combats legal privi-

INTRODUCTION

23

leges for the other classes and for itself, and it is only from the struggle and
free play of organized economic forces that it expects the emergence of new
historical formations and the great hopes of a humanity pacified in work.”36
This indeed was the crux of the problem. Since the Marxist prophecies
showed no sign of coming to pass in the foreseeable future, and since the
capitalist economy, on the contrary, was in excellent shape, it was difficult to
conclude, like Kautsky, that socialism was an economic necessity. Capitalism, in short, did not seem to carry in itself the seeds of its own destruction.
It followed in the dissident’s view, that in order to destroy bourgeois society
one first had to develop the factors favorable to class struggle; and then, still
more important, one had to introduce to Marxism new elements that would
artificially produce the effect of division, of permanent violence, of insidious
warfare not produced by capitalism—a capitalism that was far more dynamic
and efficacious than Marx had thought or than most of his disciples had
wanted to believe, a capitalism that had shown itself capable of adapting to
all conditions of production. Moreover, even when a conflict did arise, the
bourgeoisie and the socialist parties that spoke in the name of the proletariat,
because they operated in a liberal democratic regime and could function
only according to the logic of the system, hastened to reach a compromise
that would satisfy the immediate needs of the proletariat. In this way, any
combativeness that existed in the working masses was neutralized. According to the Sorelians, this produced a fundamental incompatibility between
socialism and democracy which necessitated the immediate destruction of
the existing system.
In this situation, the dissidents came to the conclusion that the revolution
could take place only if three conditions were met simultaneously. These
three elements, or rather, these three series of elements, taken together and
as a single whole, constituted revolutionary syndicalism. It was the totality
that counted, and this totality finally developed into national syndicalism
and then into fascism. As we said at the beginning of the introduction, this
evolution, which took place during the first twenty years of this century,
forms the subject of this book.
The first of the three elements that ensured the development of Fascist
thought was the idea that the revolutionary dynamic was dependent on the
market economy, which was regarded as representing the universal laws of
economic activity.
The second element was the introduction of new and very special types of
catalysts into Marxism. Intended to create a cleavage, these in fact totally
changed the content, significance, and character of the system. Since the
economic mechanisms had failed to produce a catastrophe, one had to have
recourse to social myths, and since the material cleavage did not take place,
one had to create a psychological and moral cleavage. This attempt at modernizing and improving Marxism left nothing behind except the terminology, especially the concept of class struggle, and it also radically altered the

24

INTRODUCTION

meaning of the fundamental concepts of socialism. Indeed, in the period of
Réflexions sur la violence, the label no longer indicated the nature of the
product; the notion of class struggle now represented an ideology in which
vitalism, intuition, pessimism and activism, the cult of energy, heroism, and
proletarian violence—sources of morality and virtue—had replaced Marxist
rationalism. In addition, violence, from being an impersonal technical tool,
became a source of morality and greatness, a barrier to the decline of the
West into ruinous degeneracy.
Marxism was a system of ideas still deeply rooted in the philosophy of the
eighteenth century. Sorelian revisionism replaced the rationalist, Hegelian
foundations of Marxism with Le Bon’s new vision of human nature, with the
anti-Cartesianism of Bergson, with the Nietzschean cult of revolt, and with
Pareto’s most recent discoveries in political sociology. The Sorelian, voluntarist, vitalist, and antimaterialist form of socialism used Bergsonism as an
instrument against scientism and did not hesitate to attack reason. It was a
philosophy of action based on intuition, the cult of energy and élan vital.
This was the very original solution Sorel proposed for overcoming and
superseding the crisis of Marxism. Since the free play of economic forces
was unable to start up the revolutionary process, psychology had to compensate for the deficiency of economics. One had to summon the deep forces of
the unconscious and of intuition and to mobilize these sources of energy that
formed the greatness of ancient Greece, of early Christianity, and of the
armies of Napoleon. One needed myths—myths being “systems of images”
that can neither be split up into their component parts nor refuted. Proletarian violence was a myth that aimed to produce a continuous state of tension
leading to breakdown and catastrophe, an insidious state of war, and a daily
moral struggle against the established order. In this way, Sorel sought to
rectify Marx by introducing irrational elements into Marxism. Myths and
violence were key elements in Sorel. They were not expedients but permanent values, as well as being means of mass mobilization suited to the needs
of modern politics. There was thus a progressive shift in the main emphasis
of Marxist doctrine: psychology replaced economics as the motive force of
revolutionary activity.
The third principle of revolutionary revisionism was the destruction of the
liberal democratic regime and its intellectual norms and moral values. Since
recent history had shown that democracy was simply a swamp in which
socialism had become bogged down, the labor movement had to be freed
from the dominance of the socialist parties, and all connection between the
workers’ syndicates and socialist political institutions had to be severed. In
short, one had to destroy the democratic system as a whole.
Such were the principles of the revolutionary revisionism that in two
major stages was transformed into fascism. In the first stage, the Sorelians,
metamorphosing Marxism, constructed a new revolutionary ideology. The

INTRODUCTION

25

second stage proved much more difficult. They now had to deal with a
wholly unexpected problem: at the end of the first decade of the twentieth
century it became clear that not only the socialist parties but also the workers, including the minority organized in syndicates, were quite unwilling to
engage in battle. In the first stage, Sorel still believed that a proletarian elite,
organized in syndicates in fighting units, would carry the burden of the revolution. It soon became apparent, however, that the proletariat had absolutely no intention of fulfilling its role as the standard-bearer of the revolution. This realization gave rise to a need to find someone else to play this
role, and in about 1910 the Sorelians decided to confer this task on the entire
nation. The nation was to be enlisted in the struggle against democratic and
rationalist decadence. Thus, a new way progressively opened out between
the two total conceptions of man and society that are liberalism and Marxism. This new revolutionary path reflected the various forms of the revolt
against liberalism and socialism but was also close to developments in liberalism and socialism. The Sorelians shared with the democratic reformists the
conviction that capitalism, far from containing the seeds of its own destruction, encouraged technological progress and seemed unlikely to sink in the
foreseeable future into a catastrophic crisis. Both agreed that capitalism was
a factor of social progress and well-being. The reformists, however, while
accepting the fact of capitalism, did not abandon the final objective of the
socialization of property. The same could not be said of the Sorelians, who,
for their part, recognized the laws of capitalist economics as having a permanent value. Moreover, to the reformists, liberal democracy was all of a piece.
An acceptance of the capitalist economy necessitated an acceptance of all
aspects of political liberalism. Against this, the revolutionary syndicalists expressed a fierce hatred for democracy and its spiritual heritage and wished
to obstruct and finally destroy its institutional mechanisms.
Sorelianism, at that time, represented a revolutionary aspiration relying
exclusively on an elite of the industrial proletariat entrenched in its autonomous strongholds. It was convinced that this proletarian elite, organized in
fighting units in its syndicates, was and remained the sole agent of change.
In this, revolutionary syndicalism differed profoundly from Leninism. Formulated in a highly industrialized country, this doctrine ignored the peasantry. Moreover, Sorel could not conceive of placing the responsibility for
changing the world in the hands of a team of professionals. Nothing was less
congenial to him than the idea of a group of Blanquist technicians assailing
not only the regime but also all the achievements of capitalism. Moreover, it
should be remembered that the Bolshevik Revolution was in the final analysis a revolution on behalf of the proletariat, and that it was made in its name.
The revolution of the Sorelians, by contrast, developed into a national revolution. Only at the end of his life, when all his works had been written and
he looked at the world around him with a deep sense of despair, did Sorel

26

INTRODUCTION

publish in September 1919 his famous epilogue to the fourth edition of
Réflexions sur la violence. His hatred for the bourgeoisie and for democracy
was so great that he even greeted with shouts of joy the revolution taking
place in Russia, which was a rebellion led by professional revolutionaries
such as he had disdained all his life. At the same time, he did not disown the
use that the Fascists made of his name.
There was a time at the beginning of this century when the Sorelian revolution seemed to be coming to pass. The Réflexions provided an ideological
foundation for the new labor militancy that had appeared in France and
Italy, and that, when strikes were taking place, could be interpreted as both
a revolt against the bourgeois state and a rebellion against the existing socialist parties. Indeed, the syndicalist ideology was a good reflection of the dialectical relationship that always exists between thought and action. Even if
this ideology developed out of the syndical organizations and immediately
provided an ideological justification for the existing labor activism, it nevertheless soon gained an autonomous existence. In the beginning, the Sorelian
theory did little more than to reflect the actions of the syndicates as they
developed in France in the final years of the nineteenth century. Once it
became an independent system of thought, however, this theory preceded
action, which it sought to lead and utilize in order to shape reality. In Italy,
revolutionary revisionist theory preceded syndical actions; in France, it followed them at first and preceded them later on. At the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, France and Italy were at the same point. In
both cases, the theory provided a complete conceptual framework for the
revolution, but the revolution failed to come.
It was at the point when the syndicalist theory was some way ahead of the
reality of the labor movement, when the revolutionary ideology was no
longer a reflection of the reformist practices of the proletarian organizations,
that the ideological crisis developed which permitted the fusion, both in
France and Italy, of the Sorelians and the nationalists. Indeed, very soon,
the limitations of proletarian action became evident, whether it was a matter
of the capacity of the syndicates to undermine the bourgeois state or of their
will to go farther than fighting for the immediate well-being of the workers.
The proletariat of the great industrial centers of western Europe corresponded to the portrait Le Bon had painted of it: it too was only a crowd, and
a crowd is conservative. In Germany to the west of the Elbe, in France, and
in Italy, where frequent, violent strikes seemed to herald the rise of a new
militancy, it became evident that this proletariat of universal suffrage, of the
eight-hour working day, of compulsory education, and of military service
was no longer the proletariat of the Commune of Paris, nor that of the struggle against the antisocialist laws of Bismarck. This proletariat was no longer,
and would never again be, an agent of the antibourgeois revolution. One had
therefore either to follow it into its retirement or to find an alternate revolu-

INTRODUCTION

27

tionary force capable of destroying liberal democracy and rescuing the world
from decadence.
The main reason for the facility with which revolutionary revisionism was
able to change its concept of the nature of the generator of the revolution
was that this movement lacked the safety valves possessed by the variants of
Marxism opposed to democratic reformism. Democracy for one school, permanent revolution or a faith in the logic of Marxist economics for another, or
a belief in the “avant-garde” party of the revolution for a third were positions
that allowed one to adhere to the fundamental principles of Marxism while
postponing the revolution indefinitely, or to work for the revolution in the
expectation of a conflagration that, in view of the international situation at
the beginning of the century, was a quasi-certainty. The adherents of revolutionary syndicalism lacked a perspective of this kind. This was why their
solution to the dilemma that preoccupied them was of a different nature: the
ineffective proletariat would be replaced by the great rising force of the
modern world, born of modernization, wars of independence, and cultural
integration—that is, the nation. The nation with all its classes joined together in the great fight against bourgeois and democratic decadence. This
process was completed before the war, and without being in any way connected with it.
The adherents of this form of socialism needed the proletariat only as long
as they believed it capable of fulfilling its role as the agent of revolution.
Listen to Lagardelle, writing in the summer of 1912:
The labor movement interests us only to the degree that it is the bearer of a new
culture. If the proletariat trails along in demagogy or egoism, it no longer has
any attraction for those who seek the means by which the world is transformed.37

That is why so many Sorelians, like many other people of the Left both
before and after the war, slid into fascism. When these leftists of all shapes
and colors came to the conclusion that the working class had definitely
beaten a retreat, they did not follow it into this attitude. Their socialism
remained revolutionary when that of the proletariat had ceased to be so.
Having to choose between the proletariat and revolution, they chose revolution; having to choose between a proletarian but moderate socialism and a
nonproletarian but revolutionary and national socialism, they opted for the
nonproletarian revolution, the national revolution.
Thus, it was quite natural that a synthesis would arise between this new
socialism, which discovered the nation as a revolutionary agent, and the
nationalist movement, which also rebelled against the old world of conservatives, against the aristocrats and the bourgeois, and against social injustices
and which believed that the nation would never be complete until it had
integrated the proletariat. A socialism for the whole collectivity and a nation-

28

INTRODUCTION

alism that, severed from conservatism, proclaimed itself as being by definition the messenger of unity and unanimity thus came together to form an
unprecedented weapon of war against the bourgeois order and liberal democracy.
That was the nature of the synthesis that produced fascism. The Sorelians
contributed the idea of a revolution that must eradicate the liberal democratic regime and its moral and intellectual norms without destroying all the
structures of the capitalist economy. To the world of traders and hair splitters they opposed another, all heroism and virility, where pessimism and
puritanism were made into a virtue—a world in which the sense of duty and
sacrifice was glorified. The new society would be dominated by a powerful
avant-garde made up of an aristocracy of producers joined to a youth avid for
action. Here we come upon the great discovery Sorel made: the masses need
myths in order to go forward. It is sentiments, images, and symbols that hurl
individuals into action, not reasonings. It was likewise from Sorel in particular and the Sorelians in general that fascism borrowed something else: the
idea that violence gave rise to the sublime. Fitted out in this way, revolutionary action could now overcome all the resistances of the material world.
To this combination of revolutionary revisionism and integral nationalism
was added, in about 1910, a third element: futurism. This total synthesis
infused fascism, giving it its character of a movement of rebellion and revolt:
of cultural revolt, and afterward, political revolt. One can hardly exaggerate
the significance of the avant-gardist element in the original fascism, the importance of the revolutionary aesthetic it contained. To this combination of
revolutionary syndicalism and radical nationalism that was coming to fruition in the first decade of the century, Marinetti, with the publication of the
Futurist Manifesto in 1909, brought the enthusiastic support of cultural
avant-gardism.
1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy, and fearlessness. 2.
Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry. 3. Up to
now, literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend
to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal
leap, the punch and the slap. 4. We say that the world’s magnificence has been
enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is
adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that
seems to ride on grapeshot—is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
5. We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit
across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit. 6. The poet must spend himself
with ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the
primordial elements. 7. Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work
without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them

INTRODUCTION

29

before man. 8. We stand on the last promontory of the centuries! . . . Why
should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors
of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the
absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipotent speed. 9. We will glorify
war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture
of freedom bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman. 10.
We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight
moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice. 11. We will
sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of
the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will
sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent
electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents;
factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride
the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels
paw the tracks like hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the
sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and
seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.
Standing on the summit of the world, we once more send a challenge to the
stars!38

With his sense of theater, Marinetti knew that in order to strike the imagination of his contemporaries, this cry of rebellion had to come out of Paris.
The mecca of arts and letters, an unequaled cultural center, Paris was also a
major center of Italian culture where the most famous Italian writer of his
period, the nationalist hero of the immediate postwar era, Gabriele D’Annunzio, lived and worked. Moreover, Marinetti and D’Annunzio often wrote
in French and participated in the intellectual life of the French capital.39
The manifesto of February 1909 was followed by a whole series of declarations of principles applying to various artistic domains such as music, painting, and architecture. There was even a futurist science and a futurist cuisine. And Marinetti’s influence was more or less—and more, rather than
less—felt in most of these areas. The Fascist synthesis meant that aesthetics
became an integral part of politics and economics.40
The Fascist style, striking in its aggressivity, well expressed the new ethical and aesthetic values. The style expressed its content; it was not simply a
means of mobilizing the masses but represented a new scale of values, a new
vision of culture. All the futurists had the cult of energy, of dynamism and
power, of the machine and speed, of instinct and intuition, of movement,
willpower, and youth. They professed an absolute contempt for the old bourgeois world and praised the necessity and beauty of violence.41
Was it not natural that these rebels recognize the Sorelians as their veritable twins, especially as this “poetry of heroism” involved a cult of direct

30

INTRODUCTION

action and war? And finally (this, from the point of view of its historical
function, was most important), it was violently nationalistic. According to
Giovanni Lista, the profoundest political convictions of Marinetti, to take
only him, can be summed up in the two ideas of violence and fatherland, or
of war and nationhood. His anticlericalism and anarchic individualism,
meant to bring about the total liberation of man, were adopted within this
framework. “Revolutionary patriotism” was the criterion of his political futurism, a nationalistic and bellicose ideology to which he remained true to
the end of his days.42
In his espousal of an antitraditionalistic and antibourgeois nationalism,
which, together with anarchic individualism, formed a single religion of violence as the generator of the future, Marinetti found himself in 1910 in the
same camp as the Sorelians and the nationalists. This encounter of nonconformist and avant-gardist revolutionary forces took place several years before the war and had no connection with it.
Futurism, an artistic avant-garde par excellence, which had a profound
influence long before 1914, was at this period the first intellectual current to
give a political formulation to an aesthetic conception. Italian futurism and
the British vorticism of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, close to futurism,
are good illustrations of the cultural aspect of fascism. One can explain the
attractiveness that this school of thought had, throughout the first half of our
century, for large segments of the European intelligentsia when one understands that they found in it an expression of their own nonconformism and
their own revolt against bourgeois decadence, and that in addition to proposing a conception of the relationships between the individual and society,
this ideology represented a new ideal of the beautiful and the admirable.
This was the true common denominator of the revolutionary revisionists,
the nationalists, and the futurists: their hatred of the dominant culture and
their desire to replace it with a total alternative. The Sorelians, who had
opened up a new revolutionary path and provided the initial idea, gave the
nationalists the social basis and the forces that enabled the idea of protest to
be translated into a political movement. Futurism brought to this fusion
artistic flair, the spirit of youth and boisterousness, and the magic of cultural
nonconformism.
Sorelians, nationalists, and futurists could no longer fail to encounter one
another. Their hatred for the dominant culture placed them on the front line
against bourgeois democracy. The proletariat having proved defective, nationalism provided the critical mass that could transform a system of ideas
into a political force. This was a realization of the hope of the revolutionary
syndicalist Robert Michels, who called for a “grandiose union” of the revolutionary idea with the great revolutionary force of the hour. Michels had
hoped that the proletariat would fulfill this role. When that failed to happen,
he too fell back on the nation. Toward the end of the first decade of the

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31

century, revolutionary syndicalism contributed the idea and the nationalist
movement provided the troops.
But this was not all. Nationalism also brought to the original fascism the
cult of a strong authority. Of course, the theoreticians of revolutionary syndicalism never attacked authority as such; these advocates of labor autonomy
were not anarchists. A syndicate is a fighting unit, not a club. Nevertheless,
they did not have the cult of political authority, so important to the nationalists. In this respect, the war played a vital role in the crystallization of the
Fascist ideology, not only because it offered proof of the mobilizing capacities of nationalism but also because it revealed the tremendous power of the
modern state. The state was seen as the emanation of national unity, and its
power depended on the spiritual unanimity of the masses. But, at the same
time, the state was the guardian of this unity, which it developed, using
every possible means of strengthening it. The war demonstrated the greatness of the individual’s capacity for sacrifice, the superficiality of the idea of
internationalism, and the facility with which all strata of society could be
mobilized in the service of collectivity. The war showed the importance of
unity of command, of authority, of leadership, of moral mobilization, of the
education of the masses, and of propaganda as an instrument of power. It
showed, above all, the ease with which democratic liberties could be suspended and a quasi-dictatorship accepted. From the Fascist point of view,
the war largely proved the validity of the ideas of Sorel, Michels, Pareto, and
Le Bon: the masses move forward under the impulsion of myths, images,
and feelings. They wish to obey, and democracy is merely a delusion. For
the founders of fascism, the Great War was a laboratory where the ideas they
had put forward throughout the first decade of the century were entirely
vindicated.
With regard to political theory, the fascist synthesis was already clearly
expressed around 1910–1912 in publications like La lupa in Italy and the
Cahiers du Cercle Proudhon in France. After the first manifestations of the
Fascist synthesis in France, the war was needed in order that a situation
should exist in Italy that would enable this movement of ideas to be transformed into a political force.
Indeed, for reasons related to a semipermanent crisis that prevailed in
Italian society at the beginning of the century, this synthesis flourished in
Italy and became a political force. Sorel was regarded as a patriarch, an
authority, and a continual inspiration. It was the pure Sorelians, the proponents of an ethical, vitalist, and voluntarist revisionism, the advocates of
creative and moral violence, who formed the real ideological core of fascism
and provided it with its initial conceptual framework. The first biography of
Sorel, by Agostino Lanzillo, appeared in Italy in 1910. It was again among
the youth in the Italian universities that his theories, mingled with scientific
data, took root.

32

INTRODUCTION

At the end of 1902, Arturo Labriola began the publication of a weekly,
Avanguardia socialista, which soon became the center of activity for Italian
revolutionary syndicalism. Labriola was at that time the spokesman of the
extreme Left of the socialist movement, which was opposed to the reformist
policies of Turati. He adopted Sorel’s theory of proletarian violence, whose
champion in the Avanguardia socialista was Sergio Panunzio. Panunzio was
the major theoretician of fascism in the 1920s: only Giovanni Gentile outshone him, later on. In 1905 Enrico Leone and Paolo Mantica founded a
syndicalist review, Il divenire sociale. They were followed by one of the
major future ideologists of fascism, Angelo Oliviero Olivetti, who in 1906
published in Lugano another revolutionary syndicalist journal, Pagine
libere; this was already nationalist in its orientation and heralded the approaching convergence between nationalists and syndicalists. This encounter seemed natural—just as it appeared inevitable in France—after the expulsion of the revolutionary syndicalists from the Italian Socialist party in
1908. It took place around the journal La lupa, founded in October 1910.
Despite its ephemeral character, this review was a particularly important
milestone in the process of the intellectual incubation of fascism, for it
brought together for the first time the nationalists grouped around Enrico
Corradini and the theoreticians of revolutionary syndicalism: Paolo Orano,
Arturo Labriola, Lanzillo, Olivetti, and Michels, who had come from Germany. Other syndicalists chose an even shorter route and joined Corradini’s
Nationalist Association.
In Italy the synthesis of nationalism with revolutionary syndicalism was
based on the same principles as in France: on one hand, a rejection of democracy, Marxism, liberalism, the so-called bourgeois values, the eighteenth-century heritage, internationalism, and pacifism; on the other hand a
cult of heroism, vitalism, and violence. Robert Michels, one of the outstanding figures of revolutionary syndicalism, an Italianized German and one of
the foremost theoreticians of fascism until his death in 1936, said that in
order to shatter the conservatism of the masses, a vitalist and voluntarist
ethic was needed, and an elite able to lead the masses into combat. Michels
is known not only for his contribution to Fascist ideology, but also for his
pioneering work Political Parties, which even today is a classic of political
science. Together with Pareto and Mosca, he brought to fascism the support
of the new social sciences.
After the encounter between the Sorelian revisionists and the nationalists,
the national-socialist synthesis developed quickly. The major revolutionary
syndicalist intellectuals were strongly in favor of the Libyan War of 1911,
and from August 1914 on all the revolutionary syndicalists threw themselves
enthusiastically into the campaign in favor of Italy’s intervention in the European war, which had just broken out. Like the Leninists, the revolutionary
syndicalists considered the war an event that could change the face of the

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33

continent, a truly revolutionary war. The war, they believed, created an environment in which the great human and social virtues—violence, heroism,
altruism, solidarity between the classes—could be expressed. The war established the conditions for a moral and spiritual renewal. In the hour of
battle, there was no place for talk of natural rights, justice, and equality, for
all that humanistic lachrimosity that had characterized liberal democracy
and democratic socialism.
During the war years and in the months that followed the armistice of
November 1918, revolutionary syndicalism developed into national syndicalism. This new type of syndicalism was, as Sergio Panunzio said in 1921,
no longer a revolutionary, negative, partial labor syndicalism but a syndicalism reuniting all social classes. At the beginning of the 1920s, national
syndicalism already embodied the essence of the Fascist ideology, and the
transition to corporatism took place smoothly.
Not all Italian revolutionary syndicalists became Fascists, but most syndicalist leaders were among the founders of the Fascist movement. Many even
held key posts in the regime founded by the most famous fellow traveler of
revolutionary syndicalism, Benito Mussolini. In 1909 Mussolini declared
that he had become a syndicalist during the general strike of 1904, but in
fact, at the time of his exile in Switzerland between 1902 and 1904, his
connections with the revolutionary syndicalists were well established. Before 1905, he collaborated in the Avanguardia socialista, read Sorel and
Pareto, and was decisively influenced by theoreticians and leaders of revolutionary syndicalism such as Olivetti, Panunzio, Alceste de Ambris, and
Filippo Corridoni. Mussolini soon became one of the best-known leaders of
Italian socialism. A charismatic personality, at once an intellectual and an
outstanding leader, he quickly rose in importance. From being a provincial
socialist leader, he became the head of the revolutionary Left of the Socialist
party and the editor of Avanti! At that period, in the European socialist
parties, the task of editor was reserved for a dominant personality, for one of
the leading figures, if not for the head of the party himself. Jaurès, Blum,
Vanderwelde, Bernstein, Kautsky, Plekhanov, and Lenin were all editors.
During this period, Mussolini often crossed swords with heretics who preferred to leave the party or who were dismissed, especially in connection
with the political decisions of the organization. A chapter of this work is
devoted to Mussolini, his political activities, and his ideas. It is nevertheless
necessary to point out at this stage that his opposition to the revolutionary
syndicalists concerned only political tactics, not major ideological options.
From the beginning of his association, Mussolini in effect subscribed to the
fundamental principles of revolutionary syndicalism.
In 1913 the socialist leader rejoined the people who had shaped his thinking. When he seemed to have reached the peak of his ascension within the
party, Mussolini did something unexpected: he began to publish a journal

34

INTRODUCTION

with the symbolic name Utopia, opening its pages to the dissidents that the
party had excluded from its ranks a few years earlier. This was a quite calculated step that reflected the deep intellectual crisis through which the socialist leader was passing at that time. At the end of his soul-searching and
under the pressure of the dramatic events of the summer of 1914, Mussolini
put an end to the ambiguity that for two years had characterized his relationship with the leadership of the party he was supposed to guide at the time
of the European war. The leader of the socialist Left quit the party and
joined the revolutionary syndicalists, who were already organized in aggressive and vociferous pressure groups and demanded Italy’s participation in
the Anglo-French alliance. The ideological crisis Mussolini passed through
had begun long before the war and had no connection with it, but the war
brought it to a head. Like all European socialists, Mussolini had to cease
wavering. A heroic socialism extolling vitalistic values had always captured
the heart of this young man who had fought democratic socialism from his
first day of political activity. Twelve years after he had started in the wake of
Arturo Labriola, Mussolini found practically all the revolutionary syndicalists in the interventionist movement. But the war also added something else:
the mobilizing power of nationalism. When the armistice arrived, Mussolinian fascism was almost complete. In any case, he had already incorporated
the ideas of revolutionary syndicalism.
Many years later, he correctly wrote, speaking of his formation and his
intellectual debt:
Reformism, revolutionarism, centrism—these are terms the very memory of
which is forgotten, but in the great river of fascism you will find currents that
go back to the Sorels, to the Péguys, to the Lagardelles of the Mouvement
socialiste, and to that group of Italian syndicalists who, thanks to Olivetti’s Pagine Libere, Orano’s La Lupa, and Enrico Leone’s Il Divenire sociale, between
1904 and 1914 introduced a new note into socialist circles emasculated and
chloroformed by the Giolittian fornication.43

The presence of Péguy in this list may at first seem surprising. Some will
see it as an additional reason to doubt the credibility of this well-known text.
In reality, the opposite is true: Mussolini has reconstructed with exactitude
the atmosphere of his militant youth. The mention of Péguy does not reveal
any apologetic tendency on the part of the Duce; on the contrary, it draws
attention to one of fascism’s sources of inspiration: the revolt of intellectuals
from the Left who, with the failure of democratic socialism, discovered a
source of strength and hope in nationalism. This is the memory that Mussolini had of Péguy, a former Dreyfusard whose venomous attacks on Jaurès,
the living symbol of the democratic republic and reformist socialism, have
seldom been surpassed.

INTRODUCTION

35

There is thus nothing surprising in the fact that the Duce remembered
Péguy’s invectives as one of the factors that influenced his own thinking, for
who condemned more vigorously than Péguy—and Sorel—a socialism
steeped in parliamentary decadence? Who more forcefully deplored the degeneration of the Dreyfusard “mystique” into socialist and liberal-democratic politics? Who more than he lambasted Jaurès, the ally par excellence
of the Italian reformists, the sworn enemies of the fiery young revolutionary
from Forlì? Péguy called Jaurès that “dishonest man,” that “traitor in essence,” that “drum major of capitulation.”44 At any rate, twenty years later,
that is what Mussolini remembered of Péguy: not the defender of Dreyfus,
the committed and forceful enemy of anti-Semitism, but the detractor of
reformist socialism in particular and the policy of compromise in general. In
their ferocious hatred of liberal and democratic socialism, which had now
become an integral part of the established order, the editor of Avanti! and
the author of Notre Jeunesse turned out to be natural allies. Their mutual
discovery of the nation pushed the Italian socialist even farther toward the
French Catholic writer. Moreover, for Mussolini, this exceptional figure,
who met a fate that the proponents of heroism could only regard as heroic
(Péguy was killed in the war), was the object of an interest bordering on
admiration.
Undoubtedly, Mussolini’s dictatorship would have horrified Péguy and
Sorel, but this assertion does not allow us to question the authenticity of
Mussolini’s contribution to the Italian Encyclopedia. Written in 1932, this
article was no more an a posteriori reconstruction than it was an attempt to
confer some intellectual respectability on fascism. In fact, it gives a good
account of the realities at the beginning of the century. Innumerable texts of
that period, both by Mussolini and by other militant socialists who were
among the founders of fascism, prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt.

CHAPTER ONE

Georges Sorel and the Antimaterialist
Revision of Marxism

THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE “CORRECTION” OF MARXISM

“I have reason to believe that the doctrines of Réflexions sur la violence are
ripening in the shade. The sycophants of democracy would surely not so
frequently declare them to be perverse if they were powerless.”1 This is how
Sorel, in 1910, ended his major essay “Mes Raisons du syndicalisme” (My
reasons for syndicalism), which definitely terminated his career as a socialist
theoretician. Unlike claims in the hagiographies and apologies that have
abounded recently, Sorel never sought to disguise the meaning and purpose
of his thought.2 He drew attention to the place where his main intellectual
contribution was to be found: Réflexions sur la violence, “a book,” he wrote,
“that has a place of paramount importance in my work.” Sorel considered
this work to be so important that he admitted, in the prefatory note to the
Avenir socialiste des syndicats (Socialist future of the syndicates), that he had
thought for a long time “that it was inappropriate to put into circulation a
little work whose main ideas might seem more than once not to harmonize
easily with the main ideas” of the Réflexions.3
The Réflexions, together with Les Illusions du progrès and La Décomposition du marxisme, constitute a relatively well-structured whole that occupies
a central position in Georges Sorel’s work. The importance of Matériaux
d’une théorie du prolétariat lies chiefly in the ideological panorama offered
by this collection of essays, prefaces, and introductions dating from 1897 to
1914. Here one should also mention Le Procès de Socrate—a work that well
illustrates the main preoccupations of Sorelian thought—Introduction à
l’économie moderne, and the Insegnamenti sociali della economia contemporanea. In these last two works, Sorel dealt with subjects of which, by and
large, he had an uncertain grasp, but which no socialist theoretician could
afford to overlook. In these books, as in his other works on economics,
he helped to lay the foundations of a theory of revolution based on private property. However, these writings by no means revolutionized the
Marxist thinking of the period. For that, one had to await the appearance of
Réflexions.
It is thus necessary to distinguish between Sorel’s original offering, his
real intellectual contribution to the movement of ideas at the beginning of

GEORGES SOREL

37

the century, and whatever is secondary. We should also remember that
Sorel had his limitations and he knew them. He did not claim to be a
Bergson or a Nietzsche. If he could immediately grasp the significance of a
philosophical system and was capable of assimilating it quickly and making
use of it, he was incapable of producing philosophical thought. He did not
have the encyclopedic mind of Renan or the formation of Rudolf Hilferding
or Max Adler; he did not have Taine’s power of synthesis, he was not a writer
of quality like Barrès, and by and large he disliked the spirit of Maurras’s
system, which was the mainstay of l’Action française. Sorel did not even
trouble to work up his major writings. Thus, they all bear the imprint of what
they originally were before being put into a volume: review articles hastily
thrown into the ideological battle.
In Sorel, the expression of an extraordinary talent exists side by side with
the most blatant crudities. Sorel believed that the Jews of eastern Europe
ritually murdered Christian children. His political analyses and criticisms of
parliamentary democracy scarcely rose above the level of invective; compared with those of his contemporary, the revolutionary syndicalist Robert
Michels, his were laughable. Neither a metaphysician, nor a sociologist, nor
a historian, nor even a writer of literature, but a philosophe in the eighteenth-century sense of the term, Sorel was fascinated, from the time of his
earliest writings, by the role of myths in the history of civilizations, and he
elaborated, in the course of a long process of intellectual fermentation and
political involvement, an idea of real genius: the theory that heroic myths
and violence were creative of morality and virtue. Grafted onto the Marxist
view of history, this idea modified Marxism to such an extent that it immediately transformed it into a neutral weapon of war that could be used against
the bourgeois order not only by the proletariat but by society as a whole.
It should also be pointed out that Sorel never sought to create a homogeneous ideological corpus, nor did he try to conceal what he called his “variations.” Honest as he was, he never attempted to cover up the various stages
of his development or, as he said, “the multiplicity of opinions I have successively adopted.”4 Indeed, he had no reason to do so. Despite appearances,
his intellectual progress was perfectly coherent and followed a strict political
logic.
From his Procès de Socrate to his famous appeal “Pour Lénine,” Sorel
hardly changed where the main issue was concerned: he always had a holy
horror of bourgeois society and its intellectual, moral, and political values; of
Cartesian rationalism, optimism, utilitarianism, positivism, and intellectualism; the theory of natural rights and all the values inherited from the civilization of the Enlightenment and generally associated, at the turn of the twentieth century, with liberal democracy. Socrates, Descartes and Voltaire,
Rousseau and Comte, the “great ancestors” of the time of the French Revolution and their successors, headed by Jaurès—this, according to Sorel, was

38

CHAPTER ONE

the intellectual path that inexorably led to decadence. History, for Sorel, was
finally not so much a chronicle of class warfare as an endless struggle against
decadence. Opposite the forces of degeneration, one always found the
agents of resistance: Anytus, representing the heroic society, confronted Socrates and the Sophists, those intellectuals of the Athenian democracy and
first corrupters of martial values. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Pascal opposed Descartes and Voltaire, but religious feeling was no
longer able to stem the rising tide of materialism or to prevent the collapse
that followed. Fortunately, Nietzsche, Bergson, and William James heralded
a movement of renewal capable of repairing the damage caused by Rousseau
and Diderot, Condorcet and Auguste Comte.
Maurras and Lenin fulfilled the same function: both provided Sorel, each
in his own way and at different times, with weapons with which to fight
bourgeois democracy. At one time it was Maurras who was praised, because
the “Action française seeks to persuade the educated youth that the democratic idea is in retreat; if he [Maurras] achieves his aim, he will take his
place among the men who deserve to be called masters of the hour.”5 A few
years later, Lenin was declared to be in the forefront of the battle against the
accursed “plutocratic democracies.” Sorel proclaimed him “the greatest theoretician socialism has had since Marx.”6
From a purely analytical point of view, Sorel’s work can easily be reduced
to certain main lines of thought, which deserve our attention. Similarly, his
accumulated writings, impressive in quantity if one considers the number of
pages, in fact amount to a smaller volume. The breakdown gives us some
twenty books and pamphlets, several dozen important pieces in journals,
and hundreds of minor articles and book reviews. In reality, most of his
books were created on the basis of already published articles or were simply
collections of articles. Almost all his work was studded with repetitions and
reiterations. The same themes recur ad nauseam, on many occasions transcribed word for word from one book to another.
The undeniable originality of Sorel’s thought lies in the fact that it was a
living reservoir that served as a receptacle and then as an agent of dissemination for all the ambiguities and difficulties of a period of gestation, the
period that saw the elaboration of the new syntheses of the twentieth century: fascism, for instance, which is no easier to classify than the thought of
Sorel. Sorel’s work attracts yet disconcerts; it captivated a large segment of
a whole generation of Europeans by its unexpected, nonconformist, and
contentious character. The same could be said of fascism, in which many
people found a heroic and dynamic quality at the opposite extreme from
bourgeois decadence.
At the beginning of this “long march” one finds Marxism. In 1893 Sorel,
a retired engineer, an autodidact who had read and reflected a great deal and
already published two large volumes and a few articles, stated in a well-


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