wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Francois Furet

The Passing of an Illusion

Today, it is hard to imagine the hatred aroused by parliamentary deputies at the time. The deputy was hated as the essence of all the lies of bourgeois politics. He symbolized oligarchy posing as democracy, domination posing as law, corruption lurking beneath the affirmation of republican virtue. The deputy was seen as exactly the opposite of what he pretended to be, of what he ought to be: in theory, the representative of the people; in reality, the man through whom money—that universal master of the bourgeois—takes possession of the will of the people. He was plutocracy disguised as politics. With this image, which in the nineteenth century was shared by everyone from the extreme Right to the extreme Left, the critique of the idea of the 'representation' of the people inseparable from modern democracy reached its peak. After World War I, it was reinforced by the psychology of the soldiers who had emerged from that terrible ordeal, a war that had been voted for but not undergone by members of parliament. Even when it took the form of a constituent assembly, ennobled by the French precedent, an elected assembly elicited little indulgence from Lenin in January of 1918. The dictatorship of the proletariat, inscribed in historical necessity and incarnated by the Bolshevik Party, could dispense with the vicissitudes of a vote and the incertitudes of a parliament; Mussolini, decked out in the values of war and fortified by the violence exercised by his partisans in Italy, had merely to bend the deputies to his will.

What was lost in both cases, along with the political abstraction of representation and juridically abstract law, was the idea of the constitutional state. The substitution of a party or its leader for the vote of the citizens or their elected representatives did away with democratic legitimacy and legality. On the one hand, the seat of power was henceforth occupied permanently in the name of its essential identity with a class chosen by history or with a national community superior to all others—an identity of an ontological order, bearing no relation to the empirical contingency of a vote and making nonsense out of political competition arbitrated by an election. On the other hand, the party or person, or both, now in power were no longer encumbered by laws, for which they tended to substitute or superimpose their own will. For them, history was merely the bearer of a law constituting the relationship between the state and its citizens—a dynamic of the forces between classes and between peoples. Revolution was the most constant and natural embodiment of that dynamic.

Disdain for the law as a nominal disguise for bourgeois domination, apology for force as the midwife of history—these themes existed well before the beginning of the twentieth century in Western political thought and were particularly virulent in the decades preceding the Great War, both on the right and on the left. On this subject, Georges Sorel remains one of the most interesting authors of the period, both for the tenacity with which he detested and denounced the pusillanimity of bourgeois parliamentarianism and for the hopes he invested in violence, that great, hidden truth of the modern world. Though an interesting writer, he was never quite to be trusted, for he navigated between revolutionary syndicalism and Action francaise, was anti-Semitic, and admired both Lenin and Mussolini—which is precisely why we should be curious about his writings. His work is of interest not only on account of its prescient aspect but because it allows us, for once, to measure the distance between theory and practice, and even between intellectuals and real history.

In Sorel's thought, violence is inseparable from creation. Infused by a great idea—the general strike—its role was to tear away the web of lies that covered society and to restore moral dignity to individuals and meaning to their collective existences. As in Nietzsche's thought, it facilitated a reunion of humanity with its own grandeur, beyond the reach of the universal pettiness of democratic times. The bourgeoisie lived in hypocrisy; class struggle brought virtue back onto the public scene to the benefit of the proletariat. It lent violence an ethical goal and turned the revolutionary activist into a hero. The reason the proponents of the general strike admired Lenin and Mussolini was that they saw them as two prodigies of volition who had taken charge of their peoples in order to realize the new humanity. Poor Georges Sorel! Intellectually a son of Proudhon, an individualist and an anarchist, he was filled with admiration for the founders of regimes in comparison to which the despised bourgeois state looked like a libertarian Utopia! He saw only the aspects of those regimes that fit with his own passions and ideas. Lenin was the successor to the great czars, as revolutionary as Peter the Great and as Russian as Nicholas I. Mussolini belonged to the betrayed tradition of the republican Risorgimento. By marrying national renaissance with the socialist idea returned to its revolutionary vocation, these two 'leaders of peoples' forcibly destroyed the bourgeoisie order in the name of a higher concept of the community.

In fact, neither the Red Terror that Lenin exercised in order to retain power, nor the Fascist Terror used by Mussolini in order to gain power, had much to do with the philosophical idea of violence developed by Sorel. Lenin's and Mussolini's Terrors were born of an event—the war—not of an idea. Rather than products of an unprecedented conviction, they were part of a general revival of revolutionary means of domination through fear.

The war generalized the dual habit of violence and passivity. It gave European nations the worst kind of political education just as it was mobilizing populations into the military, down to the last citizen. The Russian Revolution, even the February one, was no exception to the rule. On the contrary, it combined military defeat, governmental incompetence, and revolutionary ineptitude and was incapable of establishing a constitutional order. It was the first event to show that the postwar period was still at the mercy of the passions and expedients of the war. In October, Lenin seized power not because of his philosophical ideas but in spite of them. It was circumstance that opened the way to his inflexible will, in what was a most improbable context for a Marxist. Mussolini did not triumph in 1922 because he held fast to a doctrine but because his adversaries were weak, timid, or both. The postwar political world as prefigured by these two men—each of whom claimed to be its exclusive guide—was not, no matter what they said, one of Sorelian violence. It was a world of political gangsterism that happened to be supported by favorable conditions.

Domestic political battles had lost the body of rules that had been etched into and had become part of the workings of European mores and institutions during the nineteenth century. Emancipated from civilization's constraints, the passionate wellsprings that animated those rules grew more powerful and universal than ever. Hatred of money, egalitarian resentment, and national humiliation resonated all the more as the leaders, not to be outdone, fanned the flames. While remaining opportunistic tacticians, the leaders both shared and, at the same time, manipulated the passions liberated by the war. As European politics took a turn for the doctrinal—Bolshevism and Fascism were doctrines, after all—it also became increasingly elementary: first, it transformed ideas into beliefs; and, second, any means were considered acceptable, starting with the elevation of deception and assassination to the status of civic virtues. You could kill your fellow citizens like enemies in a war. They need only belong to the wrong class or to an opposing party. The denunciation of legality as a 'formal' lie led to the 'real' exercise of arbitrary power and of terror. Whoever was in power had the right to designate the adversaries he needed to exterminate.

Thus, in both Russian Bolshevism and Italian Fascism we find a two-tiered political system in which a philosophy of history coexisted with a political method, the former made up of noble intentions and ideas, the latter of expedience. The former was the poetry, the latter the prose. Fascism lost its poetry with World War II, whereas Bolshevism used it as an opportunity to conceal its prose. In attempting to understand Europe during this period, no historian can sidestep the fact that Mussolinian Fascism was a doctrine and a hope for millions of people. It lacked a great intellectual forebear, but it sought to get rid of the bourgeoisie in the name of the new humanity and, moreover, managed to co-opt a large part of the intellectual avant-garde—the futurists, those nostalgic for the enthusiasm of the Risorgimento, Marinetti, Ungaretti, Gentile, and even Croce if only briefly.