In-of-itself, Romanticism is not a fascist movement or philosophy. But fascism drew upon the rich intellectual traditions of Romanticism, even if it distorted it some very important and meaningful ways. So what is Romanticism?
Philosophical Romanticism was a counterrevolutionary intellectual and artistic movement that arose in the late Enlightenment. It was starkly opposed to Enlightenment ideals and metanarratives. Moreover, Romanticism was obsessed with preserving the roots of history, culture, and tradition, which Enlightenment liberalism seemingly served to overturn in the name of perpetual progress and modernization. Are these not themes we still hear today?
Yes, “traditional leftism” seeks to preserve nature and tradition much like the conservatism—the major point of difference is in how they view that history, culture, and tradition. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the “Moses of Romantics,” nature and tradition was one of collective egalitarianism and primitive harmony between man and the natural world. The rise of reason, private property, industrialization, and capitalism, the rise of the State, laws, and institutions, upended that “noble savage” tradition which is the history of primordial man. Rousseau’s Social Contract, far from being a treatise on the ideal republic, is really a treatise on the decline of the human social condition (as is his other famous work: A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality). From Rousseau to Marx the thrust of leftist history is cyclical and restorative; it is not progressive in a linear sense. It opposes liberal modernization for the negative aspects it produces on humanity (competition and material inequality). The hope for Rousseau and Marx is to restore the primitive egalitarianism and collective harmony of primordial man, this would occur, according to Marx, through the self-exhaustion of the material conflict that leads to the “illusion of progress” in the first place, from which capitalism and even socialism themselves back to our primordial state of being which is what communism is in Marx’s dialectical understanding of History.
But the proto-fascism found in romantic philosophers, mostly from Germany, but also a few from France (like Maurras), was much more historicst and nationalistic in nature rather than dialectical—and their works aren’t necessarily “proto-fascist” either. Historicism is the view that history is understood relatively, history is moved in certain epochs through certain beliefs of the age, great men, but also unfolding to something. This is reminiscent of the progressive (or Whig/liberal) views of history, which is quasi-teleological and linear—history has a purpose, and history is moving towards that goal. Rousseau’s and Marx’s view of history was cyclical and restorative, by contrast.
Thus, fascism’s obsession with “restoration” is paradoxical to the philosophically untrained and uninitiated. It is simultaneously “reactionary” and “progressive.” It is reactionary insofar that fascism saw the modern advances of liberalism and progressivism as something terrible that needed to be cleansed from culture and the human species, but once “healing” the disease that infected society – so to speak – the wheels of history could get moving back to its original purpose and progress to what history was to unfold to. It is progressive insofar that it is historicist, and like the Whig view of history, fascism understood history as having a goal, or end, to which everything was unfolding to. The key was to understand what this goal was and align yourself to it.
The emphasis on nationality is a key element of fascist thought. It was inspired by mostly German romantic thinkers, like Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Fichte, two important late Enlightenment thinkers who provided the intellectual basis for German nationalism and exclusiveness.
Herder’s most famous philosophical legacy was his notion of the volk, or volksgeist—“people’s spirit.” For Herder, the collective whole of a community (the volk) provides the formation of culture and intellectual activity. This stems from organic unity, or a common heritage rooted in language and what language produces: culture, namely literary culture and shared stories. Implicit in Herder’s writings is that the German people are a united people, with a shared heritage, and a common culture and intellectual disposition. Fichte is important in nationalizing Herder’s volk. In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, where the old Holy Roman Empire was dismantled, Germany divided between pro-French and anti-French states, and Prussia militarily defeated in 1792 and 1806, Fichte delivered his “Address to the German Nation.” This is a seminal text in the formation of German nationalism.
Fichte maintained that a strong, united Germany could defeat the French and restore Germany’s rightful place as a powerful nation on the continent. He maintained throughout his address that all Germans: Prussians, Bavarians, Hanoverians, were united in a shared language, a common history, and united literature. Again, we see the emphasis on organic unity in the formation of romantic nationalism. “Us vs. Them,” or what was later expanded upon by Carl Schmitt as the “friend-enemy distinction” in The Concept of the Political. The “Us” (or friend) were people who shared a language and culture to each other. Being neighbors or even having intermarried was not considered in-grafting. Language begets culture for the German Romantic philosophers, and it was from culture that we, as individuals, find our meaning and absorption into the whole. (In this sense, contrary the racialists, blood actually had very little to do with romantic thought – language and culture reigned supreme.)
Like Boulanger, Fichte arose in a time of national crisis. While Herder’s volk was more philosophical and abstract, Fichte’s nationalism was concrete. It was formulated after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, the establishment of pro-French client states along the Rhine, and the repeated humiliations of the Prussian army on the battlefield. In just three weeks, Napoleon had shattered the famous armies that considered themselves the heir of Frederick the Great’s armies and had occupied Berlin. Prussia knew nothing but defeat from Valmy (1792) to Jena (1806). Fichte fed into the victimhood mentality of the Prussians (and the Germans as a whole) during his “Address to the German Nation” while also mapping a future of a strong and united Germany.
Here we see the romantic origins of nationalism as inherently progressive in nature. Nationalism serves a purpose, or end, and that end is revolutionary. The purpose of the nation is to unite and strike back at one’s enemies. Hence why Schmitt noted that nationalism transcended patriotism – which was more localist and communitarian in nature – and that nationalism to nation rested on the “friend-enemy” distinction). In other words, without an enemy to fight, the nation has no purpose. (This leads to the great theme of struggle in fascist thought; life and history is all about struggle – and what other ideologies and philosophies that also arose in the 19th century also concur with this view?)
The issue of nationalism over and against patriotism is very important in political philosophy. While I will not digress too far into the differences, patriotism is generally rooted in “love of land” that stems from agrarianism and land-laboring. Working the land makes one attached to the land they work. The land provides one’s well-being in life, literally, because without food or produce one cannot live. (Patriotism, rooted in patrie, means “love of (father)land” more than it does love of other peoples.) Nationalism, by contrast, emerges in the industrial revolution. Nationalism is mechanistic and industrialistic, it is a binding ideology just as industry and modernity brought people “closer together” so too did nationalism. Nationalism was about the celebration of the achievements of a peoples and or state (state-nationalism). Lastly, as already mentioned, the binding of the nation had a political end in mind (in the 1800s it was generally revolution). Industrialization and capitalization killed agrarianism, and therefore killed patriotism, but replaced it with nationalism which is tied to industrialization and capitalization.
Apart from the nationalism of the German romantics, their literature produced a rich history of Germanic mythology, tales of heroism, purity, and power of ages gone by. The tales of the Teutons, the Aryans, the Norse Pagans, all inspired a deep sense of community, history, and a glorious past that the new German nation was restoring. Two seminal events occurred in the forming of the German nation as a united empire. First was the defeat of Habsburg Austria in 1866, which ended Austrian domination of the German Confederation. It allowed for Prussia to become the dominant German nation, and paved the way for a united Germany (Austria wanted a disunited Germany). Second, Prussia’s victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War led to the declaration of the German Empire. Germany was united at long last. And Germany would become, in just a few years after, the most powerful nation on the continent.
Apart from Herder and Fichte, is the French aristocrat and pseudo-scientist Arthur de Gobineau. Ironically, it is Gobineau—a Frenchman—who developed the idea of a master Aryan race. For Gobineau, the Aryan race was the mythological origins of the White European peoples, an Indo-Aryan people of warlike character with superior strength and intellect than the Semitic and Slavic peoples, whom they often conquered. Eventually making their way into northern and central Europe, these Indo-Aryans became the foundation for the Europeans (which excludes the Latins, Greeks, and Slavs). These people achieved many great achievements, military victories, and produced the culture of liberty and freedom—in their fight against oppressors, Jews, and would-be emperors.
Gobineau’s work on Aryanism is part of the larger Romantic Movement, seeking to explore the roots of past culture, its influence, and history. However, Gobineau’s relationship with anti-Semitism is much cloudier than sometimes presented (as is the whole of the Romantic Movement). Some were anti-Semitic, others philo-Semitic—instinctively viewing the Jews as a pure community that was never tainted. Gobineau was philo-Semitic, holding to positive views of the Jewish people—although not French or Aryan—he also called for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The controversy is, however, whether Gobineau’s positive views of the Jews also recognized the Jews as a separate people from the Franco-Aryans and therefore they also didn’t have a proper home in France so that had to have their own homeland, in which case Gobineau’s philo-semitism was more or less a front to expel the Jews from France and send them elsewhere, even if he thought they deserved their own national homeland just like all other peoples did.
What we see among the romantic philosophers is not a concrete fascism, or even a proto-fascism as some would like to suggest in order to repudiate and disregard the whole of the romantic tradition. What they produced, however, was a new mythology that later fascists would try to (re)claim. The emphasis on organic unity, purity, reclaiming a lost tradition or restoring oneself to a high pedestal, and a general animosity toward liberal modernity are all common themes in Romantic thought. Push furthered, we see the romantic nationalism of the romatnicist philosophers coming after periods of political and military humiliation.
Prussia’s defeat at the hands of Revolutionary France and Germany’s subjugation under French dominionism prompted Fichte’s “Address to the German Nation” and the birth of German Nationalism. It built upon Herder’s conception of the volk, the German people shared a common heritage, language, and tradition. It was time for them to be strong again. Likewise, France’s defeat at the hands of Prussia and the collapse of the Second French Empire during the Franco-Prussian War, from which France became the second most important power in Europe (behind the newly inaugurated Germany) was painful for the prideful French to swallow. The loss of Alsace-Lorraine furthered resentment toward Germany and a spirit of revenge to restore national pride and honor.
None of these movements however: integral nationalism, Boulangism, or Romantic Nationalism are fascist, properly speaking. Some might view them as proto-fascist, but there remains debate over this claim as well. What is important is that these movements, and ideas, serve as the foundation to which fascism seeks to reclaim. The ideas, general concerns, and philosophies that emerged in these outgrowths of romantic thought were later adopted by fascists and fascist-sympathetic writers and intellectuals in the 20th century. The themes of revolution, struggle, the nation, culture, purity, and overcoming victimization, the adoration of the hero and of heroic struggle (in particular), were all later synthesized into fascist philosophy.
The nationalism of the Romantic period saw the rise of a Greater Germany, one united and strong. It installed into other nations, like France, a sense of high honor and pride. The integral nationalism of Maurras, the volksgeist of Herder, and the theories of Aryanism by Gobineau produced a sense of organic unity, collective triumphalism and superiority, and a mythological past that fascists would seek to reclaim or rediscover. Boulangism was militant and populist, giving inspiration to later fascist movements to be equally militant and populist in orientation.
In Part III we will pivot away from the 19th century roots, circumstances, and intellectual trends that provided some foundations for fascism and begin looking at fascism in its historical epoch. We will begin with Italian fascism first, and then analyze some of the works of Julius Evola who sets the early stage for ideas that more clearly get invoked in German fascist thought.