Magazine article The Spectator

The Days of the Jackal

Magazine article The Spectator

The Days of the Jackal

Article excerpt

MUSSOLINI. by Nicholas Farrell. Weidenfeld, L25, pp. 533, ISBN 0297819658

Nicholas Farrell has produced a fascinating biography of Mussolini which is bound to be controversial; not, one suspects, that that will worry him. The central thesis can be baldly stated: 'the truth is that a critical mass of people in Italy did actively support fascism and an even larger proportion, a clear majority, did actively support Mussolini'. This cuts across the postwar Italian consensus which maintains precisely the opposite position. Farrell has no time for the argument (also prevalent in Germany) that all the blame for the mis-deeds of fascism can be placed firmly on the shoulders of the dead leader; in his eyes the Italians were complicit in what happened: Mussolini and fascism were not inherently 'evil', although they 'did do evil'. Farrell locates fascism, like its author, Mussolini, firmly on the Left as an unusually pathological variety of socialism; it was, he argues, the 'third way between capitalism and communism'. Mussolini, who was fond of inventing 'battles' (for wheat, the lira and for babies), would have welcomed this 'battle for Mussolini'.

It is inevitable that Farrell will have the adjective 'revisionist' attached to his name, although surely the alternative to 'revisionist' history is plagiarism? Farrell brings two sorts of new perspective to this mammoth but highly readable work: in the first place he lives in Predappio, the Romagna village where Mussolini was born and is buried; in the second place he brings a sceptical intelligence informed by the debates of the post-communist era about the very nature of democratic legitimacy. This makes for a highly combustible mixture. He recovers the 'respectable' Mussolini who, for nearly 20 years, was a 'statesman' respected by men as diverse as Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw; this was the man who seemed to have invented a third way between the excesses of Leninism/Stalinism and unbridled capitalism; the man who modernised the Italian state; the man who made Italy the Great Power its founders had dreamed of; this Mussolini was no mere vulgar buffoon although Farrell does not spare us accounts of his early life that make it clear that he had plenty of both in his make-up.

Like so many of his fellow revolutionaries (Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler), Mussolini's early life lacked direction and dedication; a shiftless, indeed shifty, character, he betrayed anyone who trusted him, and only discovered in early manhood that such behaviour could be excused, and even praised, as a revolutionary rejection of the values of the bourgeoisie. …

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