The Fascist, His State and His Mind. By E. B. Ashton. New York: William Morrow and Company. $2.50.
No account of Fascism can fail to take note of the fundamental opposition which exists between the Fascist and the liberal-democratic notions of government. The Fascist himself insists more loudly than any of his critics that the totalitarian state—or the collectivist state, to use E. B. Ashton’s phrase in “The Fascist, His State and His Mind”—is a contradiction and a denial of democracy. Yet, despite the fact that Fascism has been a political reality for nearly fifteen years, that it has been widely discussed in the press, in magazines, in books, and on the platform, the term continues to be the twentieth century’s most misused catch-phrase. It became a popular epithet during the presidential campaign of 1936, for it was something everyone was against. It was applied freely to all parties but the Communist—to which it might have been directed with some justice—and continues to be used by the opposition to describe many obviously popular policies of the administration.
The reason for our continued failure to understand Fascism, claims Mr. Ashton, is that it cannot be analyzed through the use of familiar terms. One must grant to begin with that the “bases of political thought may be truly relative”; that they are in the end “entirely a question of irrational personal preference, insoluble by logic or deliberation.” It is then necessary to try to apprehend Fascism from its own point of view by accepting Fascist pronouncements at their face value and attempting to fit the facts into the Fascist mental pattern. For Fascism is a religious concept of life and hence must be felt before it can be understood.
In presenting “The Fascist, His State and His Mind,” Mr. Ashton employs a method which is in some respects similar to that of the Fascist propagandists themselves. In turn he reviews the political, the economic, and the administrative structure of the collectivist state, giving little attention to a description of its operation but reiterating again and again the Fascist conception of its purpose and meaning. Despite the vigor of the author’s style, the reader is apt to be wearied by a method which smacks a bit of the classroom lecture. “How does it work?”—that is the question he will insist upon asking in spite of all warnings. And he is right, for the author has not at his disposal the elaborate machinery necessary to create a state of mind. He has pretty well carried his point by the end of Chapter III. The reader then would like to know specifically how the collectivist conception of the state has affected its functioning. He will not find the answer in this book.
In only one direction has an attempt been made to discuss the practical consequences of collectivism, and that, unfortunately, is in the field of foreign affairs. The Fascist belief that a healthy state is an expanding organism can lead, in Mr. Ashton’s opinion, to but one conclusion: that war is an inevitable consequence of such expansion and hence that the Fascist must accept the implications and be prepared to wage war whenever the state cannot achieve its ends by peaceful methods. “When all is said, the net result of our reflections is the kindergarten truth that a party willing to apply force will get away with murder until stopped by some stronger force. What the Fascist did was simply to build a system of international affairs on this platitude. . . . And this scientific discovery is being paid for with the most serious jeopardy of what took centuries of human and political development to create—the democratic system of government.”
To what extent the present attitude of Germany and Italy in international affairs is part of a realpolitik dictated by external and internal pressures the author does not take into account. He ignores the fact that the state of the “have-not” powers was rendered acute by economic and other policies of the democracies. Those policies and the shortsightedness of democratic statesmen helped bring about the Fascist dictatorships and were in addition responsible for the resort to international policies which they now deplore. The claim that this belligerence is an integral aspect of the collectivist state of mind will require more than vigorous statement if it is to be proved. Such proof will involve a separate treatment of the post-war histories of Italy and Germany and a careful examination of the whole machinery for creating and sustaining the state of mind which is Mr. Ashton’s concern. And this last is another factor the author might have discussed under the title of his book.
It is not enough to claim that the democratic concept of communal relationship never existed in either Italy or Germany, that whereas the forms of democracy were assumed its substance was never present. No doubt the sort of freedom envisaged by the Italian and German peoples in their struggles for independent nationality was a different sort of freedom from that demanded by the individuals of the strongly unified states. It may indeed have been a concept of collective rather than individual freedom. That thesis demands and will have the attention of the historian. But the fact remains that the primary concern of the collectivist governments of Italy, Germany, and Russia, is the national state of mind, present and future. A careful examination of the systems of propaganda and education created to form that state of mind is needed before any guess can be hazarded as to the inevitable consequences of Fascism. One would like to know whether the “irrational personal preference” of the average German or Italian is in fact what the propagandist claims it is. The truth is that the Italian treatment of the expansionist idea leaves the way open for an alternative which Mr. Ashton overlooks. It asserts that the true mission of the Italian is a civilizing mission which does not necessarily involve conquest. The Ethiopian situation may not be dismissed with the hasty conclusions which the author draws.
Mr. Ashton writes with a lively style. His book is full of interesting ideas provocatively set forth. But his reiterated point, the fundamental opposition of Fascism to democracy is, after all, only the conventional presentation of Fascism. He raises a good many issues but deals with none of them very fully. The reader interested in the working of the Fascist state will find less excitement but more information in Professor Schneider’s volumes on Fascism.