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Mussolini’s New Fascist Man

[1]2,812 words

Czech translation here [2]

“A greater degree of power corresponds to a different consciousness, feeling, desiring, a different perspectival view.” — Friedrich Nietzsche[1]

“The steel faithfully taught me the correspondence between the spirit and the body: thus feeble emotions, it seemed to me, corresponded to flaccid muscles, sentimentality to a sagging stomach, and overimpressionability to an oversensitive white skin. Bulging muscles, a taut stomach, and a tough skin, I reasoned, would correspond respectively to an intrepid fighting spirit, the power of dispassionate intellectual judgment, and a robust disposition.” — Yukio Mishima[2]

Conceptual and Bodily Vitality

In his contribution to the 1932 Enciclopedia Italiana explaining the social and political doctrine of Fascism, Benito Mussolini wrote that political doctrines were not freely available to men, regardless of time and place. Particular conditions lead to specific ideologies, each one linked with, or opposed to, others. Thus, he said, because the 19th century was an epoch of individualism, it did not necessarily follow that the 20th century would be so. Instead Mussolini explained that it would be a collectivist century, and in doing so, set the conditions for a discussion of a re-imagined relationship between individual men and society.[3]

In contrast to the liberal understanding of “uselessly free” atomized and autonomous individuals living under a “bookkeeping state” designed above all for assuring the peaceful functioning of the marketplace, Mussolini described man as a creature that thrives best under strict conditions of duty, sacrifice, and discipline; inspired by heroism, martial valor, and a socially-sanctioned measure of (Roman) virility.[4] It was the state’s responsibility to provide the framework around which new, harder, “Fascist” men could be created from the flabby raw material provided it by liberalism. Man, one discerns, is a remarkably pliant creature, capable of both decadent enslavement to materialism and virile heroic idealism.

In proposing to give such a creative function to the state, Mussolini was looking back to a similar social and physiological transformation that had occurred in the 7th Century B.C., when the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus created the warrior society now identified simply as Sparta. And, given that he was a voracious reader of Friedrich Nietzsche, Mussolini might have been inspired by Nietzsche’s thinking on morality, human forms of life, and the breeding of strength, to understand man as a collection of types created by history’s various social and political doctrines.

However, Mussolini was also looking forward to 21st Century understandings of man as a dually social and genetic – epigenetic – creature, similarly capable of incredible variations of strength and weakness. It is the purpose of this paper to examine each of these variations – Fascist, Spartan, epigenetic, and Nietzschean – on the theme of the implications of social variation and individual capacities for decadence and virility. The paper then examines the possibilities of creating an environment of virility – at once bodily, conceptual, and social – that is counter to the normalized decadence and mediocrity of bourgeois American postmodernity.

The Ethical Organic State and Fascist Man

Synthesizing Hegel, Giambattista Vico, and Angelo Camillo De Meis, Mussolini described the state as both organic and ethical.[5] As an organic entity it is the accumulated strength, vitality, weakness, and decadence of its people. As an ethical impetus, the state must provide a self-perpetuating creed – in this case a narrative that motivates to courage and heroism – to its people. Mussolini theorized a direct relationship between the state’s organic health and the content of its creed.

The state, he said, has a specific health and vitality, with a pulse that can be sensed in the “vital energy” of the people.[6] The weakness of this pulse and vital energy had made itself known before, during, and after Italy’s engagement in WWI. In a pre-war attack on Socialist and bourgeois neutralists, Mussolini explained that the general population’s will to passivity and to scorning military duty was symptomatic of the cowardice and economic rationality of liberalism. War, he said, had less to do with economics and race hatred – as the Socialists argued – than with will, courage, duty, and extreme love.[7] “The purely economic man does not exist,” he said, before adding that those who believe in such a creature will be seen by history as accomplices in the destruction of Italy’s (and man’s) greatest and most noble traditions.[8]

After the war, hardened by trench warfare on the Carso plateau, Mussolini and the other founders of Fascism, many of them members of the arditi (The Bold) shock troops, conceived of the militant anti-liberal movement in direct contradistinction from the weakness of the typical Italian and the liberal state. The arditi played a central role in this, so much so that without them, some scholars claim, Fascism would have never even been born.[9] The arditi were modern warfare’s first elite assault troops.[10] Their sole purpose on the Austrian front was to break the stalemates frequent in trench warfare. To do this, they used small groups designed for speed and surprise; armed with daggers, revolvers, flamethrowers, and grenades. But, as their name suggests, boldness and audacity were their greatest weapons.

The arditi were selected from infantrymen already fighting on the warfront, provided they had brothers or male heirs. They were trained in the previously mentioned weapons, but faced rigorous screening techniques – such as training under fire of live ammunition – designed to test courage and confidence.[11] Running, gymnastics, swimming, wrestling, and “dagger combat” were part of arditi military training, which also contained a fair amount of indoctrination.[12] Classical literature, Greek and Roman mythology, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra are known to have been used to inspire the arditi, a fact promoted by the army to dispel rumors that it was creating a band of murderous thugs.[13]

Indeed the “Ten Commandments of the Ardito” provide much fuel for the legend of the arditi (they remain central to the heroic ideology of contemporary Italian Fascism). Commandment Two is a case in point: “To win, numbers and weapons do not count: above all discipline and boldness are the sole values. Discipline is the most beautiful and the highest moral force; boldness is the cold, firm will to demonstrate to the enemy your superiority, whenever and wherever”.[14] The other commandments are of the same spirit, and are peppered with such words as courage, loyalty, strength, beauty, violence, cleverness, attack, and terror. “You are the best example of the genius of our people,” the ardito is told.[15]

With their proven military, physical, and ethical virtue, the arditi provided Mussolini and Fascism with muscle, as well as a model of the Italians’ capacity to become new (Fascist) men. “One courageous man is worth a hundred men,” they demonstrated with their vitality and audacity.[16] For Mussolini, though, the lesson of the arditi transcended wartime. While many might have entered the army as involuntary conscripts, as arditi their Classically ideal bodies matched only their ennobled worldviews and sharpened intellects – all of which were made hard under the rigors of training and battle. Mussolini saw in them an example of the corollary relationship between bodily strength and virtue, and he decided early in his role as Duce of Fascism to transform the weak and decadent bodies and minds of the Italian people in similar fashion.

According to Mussolini, Fascism is “thought and action,” demanding that doctrines themselves be vital acts, and not rhetorical exercises; and that men have a will to life as well as an intellectual drive.[17] Giuseppe Bottai, editor of Critica Fascista – the journal most supportive of Evola’s critiques of the regime – echoed these sentiments, saying that thought must accompany action, with neither having value without the other. “War,” he said, “is fought with weapons of the spirit, of the mind, of a new intelligence.”[18] The Fascist theoreticians, Mussolini included, sought the creation of new instincts in men, not just that they unthinkingly follow the new regime; thus, the importance placed upon developing the body in conjunction with the mind.

Particularly important in this regard is Bottai’s insistence that a Fascist be armed with a properly coded will to action, so that he may trust his preconceptual, “bodily energy”. It was at the level of this “bodily energy” that convictions were grounded.[19] Elsewhere, Mussolini made it clear that Fascism is a physiological revolution.

“Fascism,” he said, “wants man to be active and engaged in action with all his energies. It wants him to be manfully aware of the difficulties facing him and ready to confront them head on. It conceives of life as a struggle in which man is called upon to conquer for himself a truly worthy place, first of all by fashioning himself (physically, morally, intellectually) into the instrument required for achieving victory.”[20]

Thus, Fascists were stridently opposed to the life of leisure promised by bourgeois modernity. Being “bookish” and overly intellectual tied one more to leisure than to revolution, because the soft body continued to exist “at the mercy of” the bourgeois form of life.[21] To be clear, however, Fascism was not intent to make literal warriors of the entire populous. There was desired, instead, a natural system of “individual hierarchies,” wherein each individual is emboldened with a “Fascist spirit in opposition to cowardice and avarice”. Each member of society – “from the highest to the humblest” – would “feel a sense of pride in carrying out [his or her] duty.”[22]

And, because the state is an organic amalgamation of its citizen body, Italy was also deemed an unfit host to new Fascist bodies. As a pre-modern society, both conceptually and materially, Italy was in need of a hygienic makeover that would ensure the basic physical health of the people. The Fascist regime set about clearing medieval quarters, running sewage lines, and building clean and wide boulevards all over Italy.[23]


The Stadio dei Marmi, part of the Foro Mussolini, a sports complex in Rome built between 1928 and 1938, designed by Enrico Del Debbio and, later, Luigi Moretti.

This hygienic urban recreation project, along with the modernist radicalism of Futurist art, has long given the impression of Fascism as a modernist political movement. Yet, if one considers the dually organic and ethical conception of the state that drove such a project, modernism is properly relegated to an aesthetic consideration. “Every doctrine tends to direct human activity towards a determined objective,” explained Mussolini.[24] Likewise, the state must exist as a “spiritual and moral” imperative, driving the will and personality of the people toward a higher state of excellence and vitality,[25] educating toward civic virtue, the consciousness of a noble mission, and the unified strength of the people.[26] And, just as it cleared away all that was “decadent” in Italy’s past – Fascism considered the medieval period decadent – so too did it seek to “trim the bourgeois fat” from Italian bodies and minds.

In connecting the state’s health with that of the people, Mussolini was not only explicitly denying the validity of the laissez-faire liberal state but also demanding that, for the sake of the state, the people embrace a vitalist lifestyle. In other words, Fascism used ethics to attempt to change the organic makeup of the state. While eugenics, especially the negative variety, was being pondered and perhaps practiced in liberal nations like the United States, Mussolini was never committed to sterilization or even to selective breeding. Instead, he had a romantic connection with the inherent value of each of the various native “Italian” stocks. Thus, one need only “wake them up” to their natural proclivities as “poets, artists, heroes, saints, thinkers, scientists, explorers, and transmigrants” in order to restore Italy’s pre-liberal vitality.[27]

Thus, children from age six and able-bodied adults were enrolled in school, weekend, and after work exercise programs designed to “energize and vitalize the hearts and minds of the Italian race” (as it was being called by 1940). “The Second Book of the Fascist,” a grade school book for ten-year olds, explains Fascist exercise of mind and body as a “way to enervate the (male) body with the spirit of sacrifice, heroism, work, and combat,” that was one of the hallmarks of “pre-liberal Italy.” In camps, parade fields, and sports venues, Italian men, women, and children performed calisthenics, jumped through flaming hoops, rode horses, and even learned to operate firearms. While each age and gender group had a specific training rationale – women’s training, for example, focused on a strengthened body and vital mind that would serve them in childbearing and motherhood – the regime clearly believed that the body was central to the ethical and philosophical transformation being demanded of the people.[28]

Harshness, duty, and discipline were thought to be transformative of individual men and their offspring. This belief stemmed not only from the arditi but also from Fascism’s Romanità, or cult of Roman greatness. As the ultimate symbols and manifestations of vitality, the Romans represented the consummate “will to power,” as Mussolini phrased it.[29] Even before the 1922 March on Rome, Mussolini explained Fascism in Roman terms:

In Rome we see the promise of the future. Rome is our myth. We dream of a Roman Italy, which is to say, of an Italy wise and strong, disciplined and imperial. Much of the immortal spirit of Rome has arisen again in Fascism. Roman is our lictorian fasces, Roman the organization of our fighting forces, Roman our pride and our courage.[30]

The Roman state, as Mussolini understood it, thrived only in relation to the ferocity and fitness of the Roman people. And, because the will of the state, especially in the Republican period, could be equated with the will of the individual Roman, and because the individual Roman was idealized as a virtuous man fighting with “dynamic leadership, skill, and imagination” against the “superior numbers” of a barbarous world, Mussolini saw fitness and virtuous heroic violence as all one needed to transform not only the heirs of Rome but the state as well. If the Fascist state makes virtuous men, then those men will ensure the virtue (and durability) of Fascism, the thinking went.[31]

While Mussolini and Fascism did not go as far as Lycurgus and Sparta (subjects of my next article) in instituting state controls on individual vitality, the regime clearly had a vision of the concerted effort – between mind and body – needed to overcome weakness and decadence. The distance between Fascist Italy and Sparta, however, can be explained in the latter’s insistence that all men (and women) share the same role and have the same duties. In contrast to the Spartan warrior society, Fascist Italy instead desired to instill a common conceptual and bodily vitality across a wide range of cultural, intellectual, and occupational differences; making a new type of man that was capable of transforming all social fields by his strength and will to action.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Late Notebooks, trans. Kate Sturge, ed. Rüdiger Bittner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 91.

[2] Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel, trans. John Bester (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1970), 26–27.

[3] Benito Mussolini, The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism (La dottrina del fascismo), trans. Jane Soames (New York: Gordon Press, 1976), 19-20.

[4] Mussolini, 24–26.

[5] I am purposely ignoring Evola’s discussion of the organic state, even as it relates specifically to the Italian Fascist regime, because there is no evidence that the regime shared Evola’s deep understanding of the Traditional implications of such a state.

[6] Mussolini, Doctrine, 21.

[7] Benito Mussolini, Mussolini as Revealed in His Political Speeches, November 1914–August 1923, trans. Barone Bernardo Quaranta di San Severino (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1923), 10–13

[8] Mussolini, Speeches, 11.

[9] Paul Baxa, Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 17–18.

[10] Angelo L. Pirocchi, Italian Arditi: Elite Assault Troops, 1917–1920 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2004), 4.

[11] Pirocchi, 19–24.

[12] Pirocchi, 25.

[13] Pirocchi, 56.

[14] Translated from an original document in Dyal’s collection.

[15] From Commandment Ten.

[16] From Commandment Six.

[17] Mussolini, Doctrine, 20.

[18] Giuseppe Bottai, “Twenty Years of Critica Fascista,” in A Primer of Italian Fascism, ed. Jeffrey T. Schnapp, trans. Schnapp, Sears, and Stampino (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 188.

[19] Bottai, Critica Fascista, 192.

[20] Mussolini, Doctrine, 19 (emphasis added).

[21] Bottai, Critica Fascista, 185.

[22] Giuseppe Bottai, “Fascism as Intellectual Revolution,” in A Primer of Italian Fascism, ed. Jeffrey T. Schnapp, trans. Schnapp, Sears, and Stampino (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 85.

[23] Baxa, 84.

[24] Mussolini Doctrine, 20.

[25] Mussolini Doctrine, 21.

[26] Mussolini Doctrine, 22.

[27] See the inscription atop the “Colosseo Quadrato” in Rome’s EUR district.

[28] PNF, Il Secondo Libro del Fascista (Verona: Mondadori, 1940), 52–53. (Translated by M. Dyal)

[29] Mussolini, Doctrine, 25.

[30] Mussolini as quoted by Gioacchino Volpe, “Excerpt from ‘History of the Fascist Movement,’” in A Primer of Italian Fascism, ed. Jeffrey T. Schnapp, trans. Schnapp, Sears, and Stampino (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 24.

[31] Jack Greene and Alessandro Massignani, The Black Prince and the Sea Devils: The Story of Valerio Borghese and the Elite Units of the Decima Mas (Cambridge: Da Capo, 2004), xx.