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Fascism and Philosophy: The Case of Actualism

Fogu, Claudio, 1963South Central Review, Volume 23, Number 1, Spring 2006, pp. 4-22 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

DOI: 10.1353/scr.2006.0007

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Fascism and Philosophy: The Case of Actualism

Claudio Fogu, University of CaliforniaSanta Barbara

OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, a multidisciplinary cohort of American scholars comprising historians, art historians, and literary critics as well as
anthropologists and sociologists have probed into the previously unexplored complexities of the cultural practices developed under and/or
supported by the Italian-Fascist regime.1 It might be too early to assess
if the contributions of this trendwhich has also coincided with a wider
and still ongoing cultural turn in historiography and historical consciousness at largeare of a paradigmatic sort, but one thing can be affirmed
already with relative certainty. Rather than adding to existing knowledge, the focus on culture in the historiography of fascism has tended to
challenge the socio-political frameworks of interpretation traditionally
connected with liberal and Marxist historiography in two fundamental
First, the study of the cultural-intellectual origins of fascist ideology
has highlighted its dynamic appropriation and syncretic combination of
ideas widespread in fin-de-sicle European culture. From the studies of
Zeev Sternhell, Walter Adamson, and Emilio Gentile we have learnt
that the crisis of liberalism was quintessentially cultural, and that the
new politics of fascism dipped their roots in the multifaceted fabric of
a modernist cultural front that had denounced the moralistic and optimistic view of evolutionary modernization associated with the consolidation of (liberal-capitalist) bourgeois culture in the second half of the
nineteenth century.2 Denouncing the Victorian synthesis of political,
artistic and scientific realism as insufficient to either describe or control
a modernity that was experienced as inherently a-historical, revolutionary, ambiguous and ambivalent, the intellectual-artistic front that we
have come to call modernist can be identified with a search for a way to
re-articulate the relationship between the secular and the sacred (religious, spiritual, mystical) before the metaphoric Death of God, first,
and the very real death of nearly a whole generation of European men in
the Great War. The intellectual history of fascist ideology has thus revealed that its illiberal content was much more complex and articulated
than the political rejection of democracy.3 For fascism, liberalism had
come to stand for a de-valued form of materialist politics, that is, a poli South Central Review 23.1 (Spring 2006): 422.


tics that had been encroached by the law of exchange value, and was
confronted by the revolutionary threat of Communist materialism, which
sought the destruction of exchange value, but in the name of the same
economic laws. Saying it with Marx and Nietzsche at the same time,
capitalism had already melted all values into air, replacing them all with
an injunction to materialist consumption, and cultural transvaluation
could thus be achieved only by re-infusing politics with the
suprahistorical aura of the sacred and the aesthetic. Therefore, the barrage of myths, symbols, mass-rituals and images in which fascist political culture expressed itself was therefore neither superstructural nor
merely propagandist. Rather, it was aimed at exploiting the ambiguities
of modernity to produce a collective consciousness structured around
the rhetorical logic of analogies, oxymorons and paradoxes.4 Hence the
second direction of research that has further challenged both liberal and
Marxist frameworks of interpretation.
The thick description of fascist forms of modernism and their relationship to the creation of a mass culture opposed and alternative to the
consumer culture developed in the liberal-capitalist world has occupied
the historiographical center stage of studies of fascism in recent years.
Virtually every aspect of the ritual and image-politics implemented by
the regime, and the contribution that artists and intellectuals gave to
their institutionalization has been closely explored. The result of this
composite exploration has been the marginalization of the twin concepts of totalitarianism and propaganda, with which an earlier generation of scholars had successfully excluded the study of fascist culture
from the realm of legitimate concerns. If the theory of totalitarianism
had been devised so as to make the Fascist, Nazi and Soviet regimes
comparable, this had been possible only by highlighting disproportionately their common negative denominator, anti-individualism, and
downplaying the immense cultural differences among the utopias they
projected and sought to realize. The new focus on the cultural peculiarities of each regime had de facto redefined the very notion of totalitarianism as a term used by the actors themselves to legitimize very different goals and practices.5
Similarly, the tendency of cultural historians to identify fascist values and provide close readings of the symbolic, visual and ritual means
to institutionalize them, has de facto valorized these practices as constitutive of the fascist phenomenon rather than epiphenomenal, thereby
putting an end to the habit of grouping all non-political and non-social
facts under the dismissive and eminently anti-analytical concept of propaganda. As a result, study after study have highlighted key differences


in the cultural practicesboth high and lowofficially sponsored or

sanctioned respectively by the fascist and Nazi regimes, as well as pockets of counter-fascist intellectual, artistic, or otherwise cultural currents
that, though marginalized and often repressed, would nonetheless survive and make their mark in the postwar period.6 In so doing, however,
the study of fascist cultural politics has also undermined the Marxist
theory of fascism which, in diametrical opposition to liberal theorists
of totalitarianism, put Italian fascism and German Nazism in a common
anti-Bolshevik camp inherently closer to the capitalist democratic pole
of the political spectrum.
Summarizing and simplifying a bit, the multidisciplinary study of
fascist cultures has tended to trade the antifascist posture of an earlier
generation of scholars (liberal or Marxists), characterized by a refusal
to write the words fascism and culture on the same line, with a new
historicist interest in close readings and detailed reconstructions of fascist value-systems, which have often utilized theoretical tools and frameworks derived from the humanities as the means to maintain a critical
distance from the phenomenon under description.7 It could be argued,
in fact, that the key generational divide between historians of fascism
who began to write in the 1950s and 60s and those who have done so in
the 1980s and 90s is that the latter have shifted their attention away
from theoretical paradigms derived from political sciences and turned
to those made available by semiotics and critical theory. For decades
the theory of fascism and that of totalitarianism had contended for
the hearts and minds of historians of Fascism (and Nazism). To the new
generation of cultural historians, schooled in the reading of Frankfurt
critical theory and French (post)structuralism, theory has meant first of
all a shift from a purely historical-diachronic to a more synchronicanthropological orientation towards modernity, and second, a correlative interest in making intelligible the inter-relational structuring of sociocultural phenomena, understood via the metaphor of the text, rather than
either the Marxist binary of structure versus superstructure, or the liberal polarization of agency and determinism.8 In the wake of this cultural-linguistic turn in the study of fascism the old questions of whether
fascism was essentially anti-communist or anti-liberal, and therefore
comparable only to German Nazism or, instead, part of a totalitarian
ensemble that included Soviet Bolshevism, have thus become much less
relevant than those exploring the relationship of fascism to the consolidation of mass-consumer politics, cultures, and societies in the twentieth century. Yetand this is the point I wish to address in these introductory remarksthis shift in both phenomenal and comparative


horizons in the study of Italian fascism seem to have come to confront

an unexpected stumbling block represented by the critique that intellectual historians have mounted against the very theoretical tools utilized
by cultural scholars in their analyses.
Though the linguistic turn had never been accepted wholeheartedly
by all intellectual and cultural historians, and looked upon with dismissive tolerance or outright hostility by the bulk of the discipline, only
a handful of historians had ventured to engage in the contentious debates about postmodernism, post-structuralism and all we have come to
identify as French theory that have animated the humanities in the
1980s and 90s.9 More recently, however, a number of prominent historians, with Richard Wolin in the foreground, have began attacking the
very theoretical premises of the cultural-linguistic turn by historicizing
the moment of French theory in a narrative of what they have named the
Counter-Enlightenment tradition.10 In particular, Wolin has sought to
identify and highlight the German-fascist contributions to the story of
French Counter-Enlightenment. For Wolin the seduction that unreason has exercised on the intellectual generation of 68 originated with
Counter-Enlightenment ideologues such as Joseph De Maistre, but
passed into French culture at large through a two-pronged German vessel: Martin Heideggers antihumanist philosophy of being, and Friedrich
Nietzsches celebration of the superman. In a now famous volume on
the controversy surrounding the publication of some incriminating documents on the relationship between Heidegger and Nazism, Wolin
among othersdenounced the de-politicization of Heideggers thought
that has characterized its French endorsement.11 For Wolin, instead,
Heideggers philosophy remained implicated with the rise of Nazism
not only because of the support that its author landed, however briefly
to the Nazi enterprise between 1934 and 1937, but, more generally, for
the legitimacy that certain of Heideggers positions on the demise of
being offered to drive political conservatives closer to the acceptance of
the Nazi identification of blood and soil.12
More recently, Wolin has completed his critique of the postmodern
phase of the Conter-Enlightenment movement, by locating its political
origins in the selective reading and reception of Nietzsches thought in
1930s France. For Wolin, the de-politicized and aestheticized Nietzsche
that emerged from the pages of Pierre Klossowskis writings in the late
1950s, and that affected a whole generation of French thinkers, from
Foucault to Baudrillard, was but a re-elaboration of the appropriation of
Nietzsche by the left fascist George Bataille and the apostle of the
French young right Maurice Blanchot in the 1930s. Though animated


by contrary instincts and political goals, the left-wing Bataille and the
right-wing Blanchot succumbed to the seduction of fascism precisely
because Nietzsches thought constituted the key point of conjunction
between them and Mussolinis own elaboration of fascism.13
This is not the place to assess in detail the charges and arguments that
Wolin has brought against the moment of French theory in the American academy. As anticipated above, my concern here is with the implicit challenge that Wolins argument has brought to the marriage that
some scholars have celebrated between French theory and the study of
fascist culture. What more fitting confirmation of the arguments that
Jay and Wolin have brought against the political unconscious of French
theory, than a new historiography of fascism that succumbs to the seduction of unreason and the anti-ocularcentrism of the Counter-Enlightenment project? How can scholars of fascist cultureincluding the one
who writesmaintain any distance before their object of study, when
the theoretical tools they employ in their analysis, derive themselves
from a line of thought that first did not maintain that distance before the
event itself, and later conveniently forgot to openly admit to its compromises? There is, of course, a way to avoid answering these questions
directly with some combination of sophism and polemicism, but it seems
to me that the time has come for all involved to enter in a more productive dialogue.14
My answer to the first question is a qualified yes. Seen from the narrative perspective constructed by Wolin, the embrace of so-called French
theory by some scholars of fascist cultureincluding the author of this
essaydoes partake in a line of thinking that does not identify itself
with the project of the Enlightenment, and might more readily claim a
new historicist ethos and a presentist desire to make history intelligible
derived from the lesson of the Annales.15 To the first belongs the close
attention paid by cultural historians of fascism to the theoretical insights
of engaged observers such as Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci and
George Bataille, who elaborated the most powerful paradigms of interpretation for exploring not only the appeal that fascism exercised on the
Italian masses, but also the enthusiasm that it generated among so many
intellectuals and artists in Italy and abroad. That most studies of fascist
culture refer themselves either to the fascist sacralization of politics theorized by Bataille, or their aestheticization, as Benjamin puts it, or the
fascist exercise of hegemony analyzed by Gramsci in his celebrated
notebooks, is part and parcel of a solid interdisciplinary dialogue that
does not lack internal debate, of course, and even heated polemics, but
is united in the new historicist premise that the best tools of cultural


analysis and intellectual classification are the ones emerging from and
around the subject itself. By the same token, the appeal of semiotics,
discourse theory, psychoanalysis and even deconstruction as theoretical
languages offering further conceptual tools for analyzing specific cultural practices, is all the more understandable given their intellectual
tieshighlighted by Wolinto more or less seduced theorists that in
the 1930s began considering fascism precisely under the aspect of its
mass-cultural appeal. In fact, although missing from Wolins account
and the close scrutiny of most intellectual historians, even the highly
respected figure of Communist antifascist Antonio Gramsci was not
exempted from collusion with the intellectual roots of fascism. Gramscis
unique attention among Marxist theorists of his generation to the role of
intellectuals in society, and his subsequent theorization of hegemony
came principally from the revisionist reading of Marxism authored by
fascisms prime philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, in his youth.16
So, if by being part of the project of the Enlightenment is meant that
one should renounce a historicist attitude that privileges the language of
history over that of abstract ideas and the role of cultural theory and
criticism in guiding research agendas and offering tools of analysis to
make the past relevant to the understanding of the present, unless impeccable liberal credentials are offered, then, yes, I fear that most scholars of fascist culture would not pass the test. The qualification, however, is that seen from this new historicist perspective Wolins idea of a
unified and self-contained project of the Enlightenment, universal and
identical to itself in time, is just that, a contemporary idea, or more
precisely a de-historicized narrative fiction that draws its rhetorical
strength from the essentialist ideasdemocracy, tolerance, and reason
attributed by its author to its subject-agent (the Enlightenment). One
does not need to read Foucault to ascertain that despite the self-conscious cosmopolitanism and universalism embodied by several 18th-century intellectuals, there were as many Enlightenments and definitions
of its project as there were philosophes in France, and the conditions of
formulation and realization of their ideas were historically situated like
any other before them.17 And even if such a unified project had existed,
where is the evidence that it remained identical to itself in the long time
between its supposed origin in the mid 18 th -century and its
conceptualization qua project in self-defined liberal historiography?
What about its confrontation with the rise of industrialization, the working class movement, imperialism, the Great War?
I dont doubt that a qualified answer to these questions can be provided by Wolins self-defined liberal historians, but my purpose in re-



marking the un-self-critical relationship to (historical) representation

that characterizes Wolins narrative image of the project of the Enlightenment is that it finds its complement in the equally a-historical image
of a Counter-Enlightenment tradition. Both images do away with the
whole history of nineteenth-century Europe, and in particular with its
second half, which saw the institutionalization of an imperialist-industrial society whose liberal supporters could not have been further removed from the ideas of democracy, tolerance, and reason. More to
the point of this essay, the twin narrative images of an Enlightenment
project and a Counter-Enlightenment tradition distract us from the event
that was central to both the rise of Fascism and the confrontation that
intellectuals on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum
engaged with it: the Great War.
In the essay that follows I want to explore the relationship between
Giovanni Gentiles writings, the Italian experience of the Great War,
and the rise of fascism. My first intent here is to show that a politically
conservative liberal such as Gentile could still navigate the waters of
the philosophical Enlightenmentespecially Kantswhile at the same
time grounding a quintessentially modernist philosophy of history in
the experience of the Great War. On these grounds, I hope to show that
it makes no sense to speak of protofascism for any pre-Great War figure, be it a Nietzsche or a Gentile. The attraction of right wing conservatives like Gentile could not have taken place before the Great War
no matter how much Nietzsche he actually readbecause the experience
of the war is intimately tied to the type of sacralization of politics ushered in by veterans movements like fascism in the aftermath of the
conflict. Secondly, I hope to show that there is much to be gained by
conducting close readings of fascist or pro-fascist writers, since they
reveal aspects of the phenomenon that cannot be accessed by orienting
oneself towards antifascist literature or a self-defined antifascist paradigm of interpretation.
Compared to the Heidegger controversy, the question of the philosophical ties between Giovanni Gentiles philosophical system
(actualism) and Italian fascism has had no purchase in the non-Italian
scholarly community.18 This fact can be easily attributed to two conditions that make Gentiles case very different from that of Heidegger.
First, of course, the fact that outside of a restricted circle of Italian
epigones actualism has had no impact on European intellectual culture either during or after fascism. Second, that there is no case here,
that is, there in no question concerning Gentiles lasting ideological
commitment to Italian fascism. Gentile joined Mussolinis first govern-



ment as Minister of Education (19221924), remained a member of the

party from 1922 until his death in 1944, and covered leading positions
between 1922 and 1929. He authored tens of articles and essays offering ideological legitimacy to the regime and its cultural policies. Finally, he was one of Fascisms most powerful and active intellectual
organizersauthor of the 1925 Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals,
founder of the National Institute of Fascist Culture, and of the Italian
Encyclopedia, director of the Normale University of Pisa, co-owner
of four publishing houses, editor of four scholarly journals, etc.
The list of Gentiles political commitments could go on and on, but
my purpose here is to stress that while duly recognizing the roots of
Gentiles political choices in the development of his philosophy, and
illustrating the powerful influence he exercised with Croce on the formation of Italian intelligentsia in the first decade of the 20th century,
still most studies on the relationship between Gentile and fascism have
focused their attention on Gentiles fascist-time writings and, specifically, on what Emilio Gentile has aptly called the actualist theology of
the state that the philosopher developed in the 1920s. Notably, neither
Zeev Sternhell nor Walter Adamsontwo of the most authoritative scholars of fascist ideologyassign to Gentile any key place in its genesis.
Yet, this lack of attention to Gentiles pre-fascist writings has left unexplained both the philosophical basis upon which Gentile based his theology of the state, and the relationship between this dimension of his
thought and the formation of fascist mentality before actualism and
Fascism ever came in contact with each other. My intent here is to treat
Gentiles case a bit more like a Heideggers, focusing on those traits of
his philosophy that rather than exerting a direct influence on the formation of fascist doctrine may have anticipated and revealed important
aspects of the Italian-fascist imaginary in the making, while also participating in that Europe-wide revision of Marxism that characterized
the first two decades of the century. In particular, this essay focuses on
the development of actualism during the war years in order to first illustrate how Gentiles works offered philosophical consistency to that
modernist cultural front that according to Adamson gave fascism its
peculiar trademark of an ideology without a core, and then show that in
these years Gentile also completed his revision of Marxist philosophy
of history, elaborating an actualist critique of both materialist and idealist notions of historical consciousness that anticipated and grounded in
the experience of the Great War a peculiarly fascist vision of history
that Mussolini himself would express in the famous motto that fascism
makes history rather than writing it.



Gentile was a prominent member of the intellectual generation entering the Italian cultural scene between 1900 and 1914, whose modernist
project Adamson has aptly defined as a cultural regeneration through
the secular-religious quest for new values.19 According to Adamsons
study, at the religious end of the modernist spectrum we would encounter the vociania group of Florentine intellectuals lead by Giovanni
Papini and Giuseppe Prezzoliniwhile at the secular end we would
meet Marinettis futurists. Gentile was squarely situated in the middle
of the spectrum. The new philosophical dogma actualism affirmed was
the concept of autoctisi, a neologism which appeared for the first time
in the founding document of actualism, Latto del pensare come atto
puro (1912).20 On the idealist-secular side, autoctisi meant that every
action was an act of thought and every act of thought was pure because
it was an act of spiritual self-consciousness. But on Gentiles Catholicreligious side, autoctisi was fundamentally related to the affirmation of
only one version of the Christian God: the God of Creation. It meant
self-creation, and it summarized in one concept Gentiles claim to have
definitively emancipated Christianity from both Greek philosophy and
the Protestant Reformation.
For Gentile, with the invention of a single Godboth creator and
incarnated in the man-God ChristChristianity had initially rejected
Platonic transcendentalism, only to readmit it later through the back
door with the concepts of grace and supernatural revelation. These concepts Gentile saw as the basis of Protestantism. Rejecting instead all
supernatural and mythological aspects of Christianity, actualism literally resolved the Catholic Trinity into a single self-creating Spirit, replacing the Holy attribute with the fundamental character of divinity:
creation. Gentiles combined reform of Hegelian dialectics and Catholicism thus coincided in the personalization of the Creative God-Act. The
Holy Trinity and the triadic movement of dialectics were unified in the
eternal movement of the self-creative act: the subject-Thought poses
itself before an object (of thought/action), which in the interactive process of thinking-writing-reading it overcomes and perceives as belonging to itself as subject. For Gentile, then, the act of subjectification was
a circular dynamic between thought and action that took the subject to
another level. In this respect, actualism may be best understood as a
modernist philosophy of catastrophe in the ancient affirmative sense of
the Greek verb katastrpho which meant to unify at a higher level. As
Del Noce has aptly suggested, actualism proposed a syntactical catastrophe of Catholic religion and idealist philosophy, which may be summarized as switching the declination of God from the third to the first



person.21 However, with this catastrophic conflation of creation and

self-creation, the actualist syntax of the intellectual act also converged
with the futurist syntax of the artistic act as self-generation, despite the
distance that continued to separate Gentiles philosophy of art from futurist aesthetics.
As Gramsci correctly suspected, the intellectual horizon of Gentiles
ritual autoctisi was the same as futurisms: the dissolution of the medium (representation) from all (discursive, aesthetic, political) practices.22
In fact, the modernist nucleus of actualism may be identified in the systematic obliteration of distinctions at all linguistic levels: syntactical,
semantic, rhetorical, and grammatical. We could equally summarize
actualism as the syntactical subjectification of objects, or the semantic
contamination of philosophical and religious language, or the translation of rhetorical analogy into catastrophe, or the grammatical activation of select nouns into predicates: from fact to acting, from philosophy to filosofare (to do philosophy). From whichever perspective
we were to look at actualism, we would inescapably find the cardinal
utopia of a self-generating actant mimicked in Gentiles famous habit
of writing all of his texts as spoken discourse, without first drafts or
corrections, and subverting all orthographic rules.
In conclusion, actualism offered the Italian modernist front a philosophical syntax similar to futurisms in its articulation of the immanence of both artist and intellectual in the act of self-generation, yet
much more resonant with the Catholic roots of Italian modernist culture. In fact, quite aside from Papini and Sofficis 1913 flirtations with
futurism (Lacerba), the crucial point of conjunction in the modernist
camp before the war may be identified in Gentiles proposition of a
modernist intellectual habitus alternative to the critical one embodied
by Benedetto Croce.23 Thus, on the eve of the Great War, which forced
the nation to confront the question of intervention, the Funeral of the
passatista (past-lover) philosopher (Croce)infamously performed by
Marinetti and company in early 1914was reenacted by the whole
modernist front, most notably seen in Prezzolinis abandonment of La
Voce for Mussolinis Il Popolo dItalia, and in Gentiles surrender of
the philosophical treatise for the newspaper article.24
The sixty-four articles Gentile published during the war in prominent newspapers and political journals were centered on the political
imaginary La Voce had constructed around two powerful and interrelated images: that of the two Italies and that of the internal enemy.25
Since 1907, the vociani had been popularizing the image of a dichotomy
between the real and the official Italy, the healthy people and the



corrupted political establishment.26 During the first years of the conflict

this image had contributed to the populist polarization of the obedient
soldier and the privileged officer, but after the disastrous defeat of
Caporettoto which I will return shortlyit had been supplemented
and rapidly replaced by the multifaceted projection of an enemy inside:
inside the people, inside the troops, inside all political forces. Overnight, the internal enemy had become an icon agitated by all interventionist factions, referring simultaneously to a plurality of subjects: the
saboteurs, the neutralists, the socialists, the shirkers, the war profiteers.
Under Gentiles pen, however, the image of the internal enemy received a most original articulation and contemporaneous exorcism, while
at the same time beginning the politicization of Gentiles thought.
For Gentile the sole cause of the psychological malaise that had produced the military defeat at Caporetto was the inability of Italians to
experience the State as immanent, that is, interiore homines. The objectification of the State was the sole internal enemy of every Italian,
because this objectification had been equally nourished by all political
factions before and during the war. He considered the materialist conception of the State held by the socialists to be mistaken because it did
not recognize the States ethical substance and its identification with
every individual personality. However, he also regarded the old Liberal conception of the lay state subordinated to the rights of the individual as abstract, and the Nationalist identification of Stadt und
Macht articulated by Treitshke as static. To all these, Gentile opposed his actualist chain of identifications between theory and practice,
subject and object, state and will, right and duty, which supported a
dynamic identification of the Ethical State with the interior feeling of
the fatherland.27
For Gentile, therefore, the psychological trauma of Italians in front
of the near military catastrophe of Caporetto could only be overcome
by appropriating what they had internally rejected, the State. The war,
he wrote, had not been fought for the fatherland alone, but for the triumph of the Ethical State, in which respect, the internal enemy of all
Italians assumed, for Gentile, the explicit configuration of Catholicism.
While nineteenth-century liberalism, nationalism, and even socialism
had nourished mistaken conceptions of the state, Catholicism had rejected the state altogether, preventing the spiritual unification of State
and Motherland in the national consciousness of all Italians. Expressing these anti-Catholic political positions in the aftermath of the successful Italian resistance on the Piave river, Gentile inserted himself in
a general re-alignment of political and intellectual forces that sought to



tear down the old divide between interventionists and neutralists. But
the central appeal of Gentiles positionand the related fame he acquired between Caporetto and the end of the conflict as the philosopher of the warcontinued to reside in its simultaneous articulation
and exorcism of a war imaginary rotating around the figure of the internal enemy.28 The near-death of the motherland was, for Gentile, the birth
of the Immanent State. The defeat of Caporetto was only the defeat of
the Catholic harbored in every Italian soul. The resistance and the struggle
for a final victory were the sure signs of a mature collective Italian
personality that had finally begun to interiorize the state.29 No wonder,
then, that in Politica e filosofia, the last article Gentile published before
the official end of the war, the philosopher would come to celebrate the
Italian victory as the coronation of this process as well as the occasion
for reformulating his entire philosophical system from the perspective
of the interiorized state.
Essentially, Politica e filosofia proposed that actualism had surpassed
its idealist precursors because it had not only dissolved the fundamental
dichotomy they had maintained between history and philosophy but, in
so doing, also allowed the resolution of philosophy into politics. As a
philosophical history (of philosophy), actualism had acknowledged the
Italian Risorgimentothe process of national unification between 1848
and 1860as the historical realization of philosophical modernity. For
Gentile, Italian patriot-thinkers had overcome the Renaissance dichotomy
between spirit and nature by means of the very idea of a concrete Italy
[ . . . ] which had become an active idea, producing itself its own realization. As a historical philosophy (of history), however, actualism had
also recognized that the conscious unification of politics and philosophy had not taken place in the Risorgimento but in the contemporaneous development of Marxs philosophy of praxis. Historical materialism had incited the proletariat to unify on the basis of a correct
understanding of human action as the unity of will, ends, and program for the dissolution of the state. For Gentile, the historical importance of Marxs philosophy of history rested on its having become the
critical consciousness of the communist movement that refers itself to
Marx. The crucial goal of actualism, therefore, was nothing short of
unveiling the implicit philosophy of Risorgimento politicians within
a counter-Marxist philosophy of history.30
This task Gentile took up in the central section of Politica e filosofia
where he elaborated the reciprocal immanence of philosophy and history with unusual clarity, but also in an unprecedented direction. For
the first time, Gentile presented their identity as the consequence of a



preliminary choice between two opposite orientations of the historical

imagination. One moment, Gentile wrote:
history belongs to the past, the next moment it belongs to the
present; but, most of the time, we only see the former, which is
actualized in a historiography that presupposes entirely its object; and thus, only with great effort we are able to see the latter, which presupposes nothing, because it creates its object.31

Quite predictably, the concept of history belonging to the past coincided, for Gentile, with the positivist conception of the historical fact
determined in past-time and past-space and it corresponded to our representation of ourselves to ourselves beyond the heat of passion and
action, since the fact is given as accomplished. From the perspective
of positivism, history (the transcendental whole) ended up being identified with the nature of naturalism, an irretrievable past that does not
depend on us, but conditions us. The historicity of history, Gentile
instead proposed, is intelligible only if we orient ourselves toward the
opposite concept of history belonging to the present: that is, history that
is all present and immanent in the act of its construction.32 This was the
mental reorientation that actualism had labored to induce philosophically and that now, in 1918, Gentile believed had been historically realized on the Italian war front.
Quite literally Gentile read the Italian victory in the Great War as the
historical sign of a collective reorientation of the historical imagination
toward history belonging to the present. In the first place this victory
was the result of a successful reaction of the Italian war front to the
double event that had come to endanger not only the Italian war-effort
but also his whole philosophical enterprise in October 1917: the Bolshevik Revolution and the defeat of the Italian army at Caporetto. By
all accounts, the prolonged retreat that followed the defeat of Caporetto
had produced a collective shock of unprecedented proportions throughout the Italian military war front, but its effects on the intellectual war
front had been equally momentous.33 According to Gentile, the political
success of the October Revolution had interacted with the contemporaneous psychological trauma suffered by all Italians over the military
defeat of Caporetto, thereby feeding the specter of an internal enemy
undetected by other commentators. The traumatic defeat of the Italian
army at Caporetto had temporarily helped to transform the victory of
the Bolshevik Revolution into a new historical sign of transcendental
history. After Caporetto, then, the internal enemy that the Italians had



successfully fought against was not only their intrinsic Catholicism, or

simply the revolutionary appeal of the October Revolution, but the very
transcendental conception of the historical sign articulated by Kant in
the face of the revolution of his times.34 For Gentile, the moral-military
resistance of the Italian army had fulfilled the Risorgimento in the
sense that it had only been possible thanks to the fact that the Italian
soldiers had internalized the historiographical image of the present conflict as a fourth war of independence formulated and propagandized
by the intellectual war-front. The victory, therefore, represented the defeat of all forms of transcendentalism (Catholic, Kantian, and Marxist)
by an immanent form of historical imagination.
At last, on the Italian battlefields the historiographical and historical
act had come to coincide in the consciousness of political leaders, intellectuals, and masses. And with this catastrophe of the histori(ographi)cal
act the Italian experience in the Great War had acquired for Gentile a
universal value. On the Italian war front, intellectuals, Catholic masses,
and political leaders had experienced history as immanent rather than
transcendental. For Gentile, the stage was therefore set for the birth of a
new political subject whose philosophical vision would be funded entirely on history belonging to the present. And, since actualism had correctly anticipated this reorientation of the historical imagination, Gentile concluded his essay by claiming that actualism had overcome
Marxism (historical materialism) with a more realistic philosophy of
Although appearing in Gentiles most influential political-philosophical text, this unorthodox claim to realism has been largely ignored by
scholars of actualism.36 From our perspective, instead, Gentiles claim
deserves specific attention on both ideological and historical grounds.
First, of course, because not only would Gentile explicitly identify the
new political subjectoriented towards history belonging to the
presenthe had called for in the young fascist movement, but also because Mussolini himself would echo and give political translation to the
polarization proposed by Gentile in his famous motto that fascism makes
history while liberalism writes it. Second, and most importantly, because Gentiles historical intuition has received confirmation in studies
connecting the Italian war-trauma to the formation and early mass appeal of fascist mentali.37
As Elvio Fachinelli has argued, the intensified production of internal enemy imagery after Caporetto may have concealed a much deeper
and more prolonged trauma at the level of mass imaginary. During the
two months of retreat that followed the defeat of Caporetto, there rose



throughout the Italian war front a collective image of an endangered

motherland, dead or under deadly threat that spread rapidly to the home
front and survived well after the victory, traversing the entire aftermath of the Great War. Rather than subsiding with the military counterattack, this image produced an ambivalent reaction in both soldiers
and civilians. The perceived death of the motherland had been feared
because it represented the loss of the supreme value for which all Italians had fought, but it had also been desired or even accomplished, in
the imagination of some, insofar as the motherland had been the cause
and origin of the colossal and useless pains they had suffered during the
conflict. It was by tapping into this widespread ambivalence, and opposing to it an obsessive denial of the death of the motherland that the
early fascist movement was embraced by so many war veterans.38
Following Fachinelli, we may observe that Gentiles final exorcism
of the internal enemy in Filosofia e politica collided with an ambivalent
mass imaginary at the same time as the ideological compound of early
Fascism began attracting the support of war veterans, transposing the
ideal of motherland onto an absolute plane, entirely unknown until
then.39 Indeed, this conjunctural configuration of forces is further supported by Fachinellis corollary observation that the most lasting appeal
exercised by Fascism over large sectors of the Italian population throughout the ventennio was rooted in its ability to transform and institutionalize its obsessive denial of the death of the motherland into an archaic
annulment of time.40 Just as in archaic communities, the fascist movement responded to the ambivalent perception of the death of the founding value-figure of the nation-state with ritualized denial, and, once in
power, institutionalized a proper catastrophe of the sacred. The fascist regime transposed the motherland under the mythic sky of its
Roman origins, while colonizing the collective time of Italians with
omnipresent rituals reaffirming the existence and greatness of the motherland against the periodic resurgence of doubt concerning its destitution. Hence, Fachinelli concludes, the fascist annulment of time not
only prevented the development of a proper form of historical consciousness, but forced the regime to move just like the tight-rope walker on
the rope, stepping precisely upon the fine line between mythic
affirmations of eternal time and ritual negations of historical time.41
Fachinellis study of the origins and evolution of the fascist annulment of time confers both historical and theoretical texture to the ideological connection between Gentiles catastrophe of the
histori(ographi)cal act and the evolution of fascist imaginary. At the
same time, however, this connection suggests a crucial qualification to



Fachinellis thesis. The mass appeal of the fascist annulment of time

may not have been as archaic as Fachinelli posits it to be, nor anchored solely to obsessive denial. Rather it may have been rooted in
Fascisms orientation towards history belonging to the present, and
sustained by a mass literacy of historic semiotics. In other words, the
fascist catastrophe of the sacred may have been founded upon Gentiles
modernist catastrophe of the histor(iograph)ical act.
At the very least, it was this connection that Mussolinis 1929 polarization of liberal history-writing and fascist history-making acknowledged as the ideological point of convergence between actualism and
Fascism. Conversely, throughout Gentiles fascist writings, and expressively in his 1935 theorization of The Transcendence of Time in History
we may locate precise textual traces of a continuous dialogue between
the evolution of actualist philosophy of history and the fascist annulment of time during the ventennio. Most significantly, however, the
crucial role that actualist philosophy of history played in the construction of a fascist historic imaginary can be traced in the analysis of fascist ritual and visual culture, rather than ideology and discourse. It was
in history museums, monuments, exhibitions, and anniversary commemorations that the catastrophe of the histor(iograph)ical act was collectively consumed in fascist Italy, and the actualist-fascist historical
imaginary visualized in a modernist mode of historical representation.
1. Among the most recent and comprehensive studies in English see Ruth Ben
Ghiat, Fascist Modernities: Italy, 19221945 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University
of California Press, 2001); Emily Braun, Mario Sironi and Italian Modernism. Art and
Politics under Fascism (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Marla
Stone, The Patron State: Culture and Politics in Fascist Italy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 1998); Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolinis Italy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
Press, 1997); Emilio Gentile, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); Barbara Spackman, Fascist Virilities: Rhetoric, Ideology, and Social Fantasy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996);
Jeffrey Schnapp, Staging Fascism. 18 BL and the Theatre of Masses for the Masses
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996); Karen Pinkus, Bodily Regimes: Italian
Advertising under Fascism (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1995); Zeev
Sternhell, with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asheri, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: from
Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution, translated by David Maisel (Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 1994); Walter Adamson, Avant-Garde Florence: From
Modernism to Fascism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); Andrew
Hewitt, Fascist Modernism: Aesthetics, Politics and the Avant-Garde (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1993); Zeev Sternhell, Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ide-



ology in France, trans. David Maisel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986);
and, by the author of this article, The Historic Imaginary. Politics of History in Fascist
Italy (University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 2003).
2. See note 1 above.
3. In fact, on merely political grounds fascism would have stood in good company with most nineteenth-century liberals, since it was not until after the Great War
that liberal culture at large would identify itself with democracy.
4. Jeffrey Schnapp, Epic Demonstrations: Fascist Modernity and the 1932 Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution, in Richard Golsan, ed., Fascism, Aesthetics, and
Culture (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1992), 132.
5. See for example Gentiles definition of totalitarianism as a vicious cultural
cycle between symbol and ritual, in The Sacralization of Politics, 63.
6. See for example Ruth Ben-Ghiats study of the fascist origins of Neorealism
in Fascist Modernities.
7. Naturally not all scholars of fascist culture either openly endorse the linguistic
turn or are particularly keen to use theory in their approach. Ruth Ben Ghiat, Walter
Adamson and Marla Stone would probably object to the characterization I am proposing here. And yet in all three cases theoretical tools like Pierre Bourdieus theory of the
cultural field (Adamson), Jean Budrillards theory of simulacra (Stone), and Walter
Benjamins theory of aestheticization (Ben-Ghiat) were invoked and used even by
these historians.
8. This textualization of context of course has been enacted with more or less
explicit intention and self-reflexivity by different scholars, but it is nonetheless typical
of a cultural historiography that has differentiated itself from earlier modes.
9. See Sylvre Lotringer and S. Cohen, eds., French Theory in America (New
York: Routledge, 2001).
10. The other most noticeable contributor is Martin Jay with Downcast Eyes: The
Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1993).
11. Richard Wolin, ed., The Heidegger Controversy. A Critical Reader (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1993).
12. Richard Wolin, The Politics of Being: The Political Thought of Martin
Heidegger, 19271966 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).
13. Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason. The Intellectual Romance with
Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2004), especially 5961.
14. Let me just raise incidentally in note a polemical question addressed to the
implications of Wolins methodology: given the premises of Wolins indictment of
thinkers who more or less explicitly flirted with Fascism, what should we do with
thinkers we find standing on the conservative-nationalist side of the political fence
while also identifying themselves with the project of the enlightenment? What for
example of Comtes support for the creation of a Church of positive science? Or Herbert
Spencers attribution of the 1844 famine to the excessive production of sperm among
Irish Catholics? Or Max Webers virulent nationalism during the Great War?
15. Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); and on the importance of the present in
historical research, see the still unsurpassed Marc Bloch, The Historians Craft (New
York: Vintage Books, 1953).



16. See Peter Ives, Gramscis Politics of Language: Engaging the Bakhtin Circle
and the Frankfurt School (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2004).
17. See Keith Baker, Whats Left of Enlightenment? A Postmodern Question
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).
18. See note 11.
19. Walter Adamson, Modernism and Fascism: The Politics of Culture in Italy,
19031922, American Historical Review 95 (1990): 360.
20. Giovanni Gentile, Latto del pensare come atto puro, Annuario della
biblioteca filosofica di Palermo I (1912): 2742; now in Giovanni Gentile. Opere complete, 310321.
21. Augusto Del Noce, Giovanni Gentile. Per una interpretazione filosofica della
storia contemporanea (Bologna, 1990), 268.
22. Antonio Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere. 193435, vol. III, 2038. For a discussion of futurisms anti-representational syntax see Andrew Hewitt, Fascist Modernism.
23. On the delicate question of the relationship among Croce, Gentile, and the
modernist cultural front illustrated by Adamson, I do not agree with the authors recent
inclusion of Croce in the first generation of the Italian modernist avant-garde.
Adamson, Modernism and Fascism, 368; compare to Benedetto Croce and the Death
of Ideology, The Journal of Modern History 55, n. 2 (June 1983): 208236, where
Adamson mentions neither the term avant-garde nor modernism.
24. During the war Gentile published sixty-four articles in prominent national newspapers, and political journals, which he later collected in two volumes: Guerra e fede
(1918), and Dopo la vittoria (1919).
25. The articles were published in Il Resto del Carlino, Corriere Toscano, Giornale
dItalia, Rassegna Italiana, Politica, Il Messaggero della Domenica, LIdea Nazionale,
Volont, Il Nuovo Giornale, and collected in 1919 in the popular volume Guerra e
fede. Frammenti politici (Naples, 1919). All Quotations are from the new edition of
Guerra e fede in Giovanni Gentile. Opere varie, vol. XVIII (Florence, 1989)
26. Walter Adamson, The Language of Opposition in Early Twentieth-Century
Italy: Rhetorical Continuities between Prewar Florentine Avant-gardism and Mussolinis
Fascism, Journal of Modern History 64 (March 1992): 2251.
27. Adamson, The Language of Opposition in Early Twentieth-Century Italy:
Rhetorical Continuities between Prewar Florentine Avant-gardism and Mussolinis
Fascism, pp. 136, 141, 143, 142, 132, 122.
28. Gentile published his first public statement on the incumbent European war as
a pamphlet entitled La filosofia della guerra (Palermo, 1914).
29. Gentile, La filosofia della guerra 102, and 110.
30. Gentile, La filosofia della Guerra, pp. 150, 156, 157, 157.
31. Gentile, Politica e filosofia, 145, my emphasis.
32. Gentile, Politica e filosofia, 148, my emphasis.
33. Giovanna Procacci, Aspetti della mentalit collettiva durante la guerra. LItalia
dopo Caporetto, in La Grande Guerra. Esperienza, memoria, immagini, edited by
Dino Leoni and Camillo Zadra (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1986), 261289.
34. Leninism, Gentile argued in a related article, was unrealistic because it negated the political substance common to all individuals, groups and social classes,
just as much as Kantian liberalism had become obsolete because it had maintained a
distinction between moral and political action. Gentile, Lenin, in Guerra e fede,



35. Gentile, Lenin, 156.

36. According to most accountsincluding Gentiles ownPolitica e filosofia
constituted the key text in the fateful encounter between actualism and Fascism. Considering its publication in the nationalist journal, Politica, Augusto Del Noce has argued that this article plainly signaled Gentiles definitive detachment from liberalism
by proposing actualism as the critical consciousness of a nationalist-liberal movement in fieri which Gentile would later identify with Fascism (Del Noce, Giovanni
Gentile, 360). By the same token, Gentiles most recent biographer, Giovanni Turi, has
insisted on Politica e filosofia as the founding text of that Risorgimentalist interpretation of Fascism, which Gentile developed with two articles on Mazzini published in
the same nationalist journal in 1919 and then elaborated in most of his fascist period
writings (Turi, Giovanni Gentile, 254). In fact, Gentile himself would later refer to the
fundamental thesis of this articlethe obliteration of the autonomy of philosophy from
politicsas having established actualism as the natural ideology of Fascism well before their political encounter in 1922. These readings in hindsight have certainly rendered justice to the crucial role that this text played in the ideological encounter of
actualism with Fascism, yet they have also obscured a much deeper level of conjunctural
convergence between actualist philosophy of history, the Italian response to the wartrauma, and the formation of a specifically fascist imaginary.
37. See Elvio Fachinelli, Il fenomeno fascista, in La freccia ferma. Tre tentativi
di annullare il tempo (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1979) 135152; Giovanna Procacci, Aspetti
della mentalit collettiva durante la guerra. LItalia dopo Caporetto, in La Grande
Guerra. Esperienza, memoria, immagini, edited by Dino Leoni and Camillo Zadra
(Bologna: Il Mulino, 1986) 261289; and, for a specific study of the mental world of
Italian soldiers, Antonio Gibelli, Lofficina della guerra. La grande guerra e la
trasformazione del mondo mentale (Turin: Bordighieri, 1991), especially 316 and
76121. On the decisive contribution of modernist intellectuals to the creation and
multifaceted development of an Italian myth of the Great War and its different impact on soldiers, see Isnenghi, Il mito, especially 323394. There is no specific study
in English on the Italian experience of the Great War.
38. Fachinelli, Il fenomeno fascista, 143. Fachinellis hypothesis finds historical support in the studies cited above, which confirm that an ambivalent feeling towards the military near-catastrophe of Caporetto was born of the interaction between
the conflicting war mentalities of interventionists and non-interventionists. In particular, see Belardelli, Il mito della Nuova Italia, 6775, and Isnenghi, Il mito della Grande
Guerra, 261296.
39. Fachinelli, Il fenomeno fascista, 147.
40. Fachinelli, Il fenomeno fascista, 166.
41. Fachinelli, Il fenomeno fascista, 1489.