Reassessing Political Ideologies: The Durability of Dissent

By Michael Freeden | Go to book overview

7

Fascism

Reflections on the fate of ideas in twentieth-century history

Zeev Sternhell

A reflection on the extreme right is not only a reflection on the twentieth-century European catastrophe but on the culture of our time. 1 But despite the fact that the Great War is more and more commonly seen as the end of the nineteenth century, the twentieth century I am referring to is not the so-called 'short' twentieth century which began with the Great War, the fall of the multinational empires and the Russian Revolution but the twentieth century which came into being with the intellectual, scientific and technological revolution of the 1880s and 1890s. 2 The idea that the First World War was the beginning of the twentieth century has, perhaps, a certain logic - although to a very limited degree - in connection with Russia or Austria-Hungary, but it is not really applicable to Western Europe. The nineteenth century did not end on the day that Lenin got off the train at the Finland Station but with the construction of the first electrical power plant, with the invention of the automobile, the telephone, the wireless telegraph, the cinema, and the X-ray, and with the opening of the Paris Métro. It ended when the first motor-driven bus went forth into the streets of London, and with the discovery of the tuberculosis bacillus and the vaccines against diphtheria and typhus. The nineteenth century died when the European worker, that beast of burden who lived in conditions often worse than those of the slaves in the American South, became a citizen enjoying universal suffrage and who was able to read and write, and whose children, instead of going down into the mines at the age of eight, went to school where, as in France, there was free and compulsory education.

The century of The Phenomenology of Spirit, of Capital and of Democracy in America came to an end when, right in the midst of a period of unprecedented scientific and technological progress, the rejection of the heritage of the Enlightenment, of rationalism, universalism and the idea of progress - in other words, the rejection of ideological modernity - reached a point of culmination and, becoming a mass phenomenon, acquired its disruptive force. Our century began when Nietzsche and Bergson, Le Bon and Freud, Pareto, Mosca, Durkheim and Dilthey created a new conception of morals, man and society, when the impressionists, followed by the cubists and futurists, created a new aesthetics, and when Max Planck and Albert Einstein propounded a different vision of the universe.

-92-

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