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Published on: November 22, 2014
The Origins of Fascism
Another Round on Sarfatti

Brian R. Sullivan, the editor of Margherita Serfatti’s memoir, takes issue with Michael McDonald’s recent review in our pages. Michael McDonald replies.

Godmother of Fascism
Brian R. Sullivan

In his recent review of Margherita Sarfatti’s My Fault. Mussolini as I Knew Him, Michael McDonald presents two major criticisms: one, that my introduction greatly exaggerates Sarfatti’s influence on Mussolini and Fascist ideology; two, that her memoir offers scant value. The first point echoes some reviews of the 1993 Cannistraro & Sullivan Sarfatti biography, Il Duce’s Other Woman. Those were understandable. Sarfatti was little known outside Italy. However, after our book appeared in Italy, reviewers there reacted positively. They knew of Sarfatti’s relationship with Mussolini and her cultural influence under Fascism. Our evaluation of her received wide acceptance.

Six more Sarfatti biographies have appeared, in Italian, German, Spanish and French. Each supports the Cannistraro-Sullivan theses. In fact, Simona Urso lambasted us for underrating Sarfatti’s conceptualization of Fascism and downplaying her precedence over Mussolini in doing so. Roberto Festorazzi tellingly titled his biography Margherita Sarfatti: La donna che inventò Mussolini. American scholars have acknowledged Sarfatti’s crucial role in inventing Fascism. I finished editing My Fault before I could read her diary notebooks. Recently donated to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art archives in Rovereto, these record Sarfatti’s evolving thoughts on culture and politics from 1913 and her formulation of Fascist ideology in 1918-21. No one person invented Fascism. But Sarfatti bears the dubious distinction of conceptual primacy.

If one denies Sarfatti’s  significance, there follows My Fault’s near-worthlessness. But it is not “14 not very extensive articles.” Instead,  My Fault amalgamates Sarfatti’s Argentine newspaper serialization, “Mussolini. Cómo lo Conoci,” with three longer manuscripts, enhanced with considerable commentary. This provides far more information than the 1945 newspaper articles. (McDonald should re-read my introduction’s final pages.) Sarfatti experienced most of her narrative and learned the rest from witnesses. My Fault combines Mussolini’s tales about his youth, information from documents he provided and what Sarfatti observed of him for a quarter-century. No one else ever enjoyed such access. The account provides new material for future Mussolini biographies. However, to appreciate My Fault’s revelations requires understanding of its author’s historical importance.

Professors hired as tutors centered Margherita’s education on her favorite subjects: art, architecture, literature, history and political philosophy. They also infused Margherita with intense nationalism and devotion to Italy’s Roman heritage. The cultural heritage of Venice, filtered through Ruskin’s writings, enriched Margherita’s studies. Ruskin argued that Venetian art and architecture reflected the values of la Serenissima, instilling them in its citizens. Sarfatti would eventually seek a new form of art to do so in Italy. A totalitarian State would impose it on all Italians.

Margherita rebelled against her conservative environment, adopting Socialism and abandoning Judaism. In 1902, she and her husband, Cesare Sarfatti moved to Milan. They joined the Italian Socialist Party leaders’ social circle. Margherita established a salon which attracted intellectuals, artists and leftist activists. She began a column, “Le ore della quindicina,” for the Socialist newspaper Avanti, as well as articles for feminist publications. Sarfatti concentrated on art and literature, becoming the first Italian woman cultural critic. Her work reflected her self-taught leftism, but one flavored by nationalism. This diverged considerably from Marxist orthodoxy and “scientific Socialism.” 

Sarfatti’s knowledge of French, German and English facilitated her immersion in European intellectual currents. She read William James, Nietzsche, Freud, Gobineau, Renan, Le Bon, Sorel, Bergson, Daniel Halévy, Péguy, Pareto and Papini. Sarfatti’s acquaintances also influenced her: the Pankhursts with their violent campaign for womens’ suffrage; her husband’s schoolmate, Gabriele D’Annunzio; Marinetti’s Futurists, especially her lover, Umberto Boccioni; and Giuseppe Prezzolini, editor of La Voce.

La Voce’s articles expressed themes that fascinated Sarfatti. The Italian parliamentary system, characterized by compromise and corruption, must be abandoned. An intellectual elite should create a new form of government, austere, ethical, authoritarian. It would regenerate Italians through a moral code of State supremacy, then lead them to national greatness. These views reinforced Sarfatti’s attitudes. Her idiosyncratic Socialism, education and associations made willpower and emotion seem superior to rationality and intellect; she stressed artistic creativity over scientific observation; she rejected pacifism for revolutionary violence; she embraced non-religious mysticism.

By late 1912, Sarfatti had written hundreds of articles. Her concepts, containing the elements of Fascism indicated above, had alienated her from the old Reformist Socialist leadership. The revolutionaries under Mussolini who had taken over the Party attracted her. That December, she met the new editor of Avantiཀ in the flesh. Mussolini’s charisma and sexual magnetism entranced her even more than his impassioned rhetoric and bold, though inchoate, ideas. Sarfatti introduced an initially hesitant Mussolini to her salon. There he encountered the urban intellectuals, writers and painters who formed Sarfatti’s circle. They exposed him to the latest cultural trends. Sarfatti’s wealth, beauty, education and intellect persuaded the poorly educated, misogynistic Mussolini to accept her as tutor and lover. She began educating him in everything from table manners to Dante.

The American journalist Thomas B. Morgan knew the couple while helping craft their English-language articles for Hearst newspapers. Of their early years together, Morgan wrote in Spurs on the Boot: “Margherita had set him upon the new course. She mapped out his classical education. He began his study of history, philosophy and sociology… [She provided] the happy combination of private tutor where abstruse philosophic systems were made more sublime and much easier by compassionate collaboration. Margherita made a classicist out him… It would not be right to say that what Mussolini achieved he owed to Margherita. He commenced with his own native equipment, which was considerable. She did much. He had qualities approximating genius in the realm of leadership. She often turned his head in new directions and opened up to him avenues which he had not known existed.” McDonald to the contrary, Mussolini was Sarfatti’s “pupil and dependent.”

Mussolini and the Sarfattis broke with the Socialist Party by supporting Italy’s intervention in World War I. Mussolini founded his newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, partially sustained with Sarfatti’s funds and substantially directed by her during Mussolini’s front-line service. Mussolini founded the Fascist movement in March 1919 with veterans of the Great War, many wearing the black shirts of elite Italian assault troops. However, his electoral platform that November reflected more revolutionary Socialism than nationalism. Competing with the Socialists for votes from radicalized leftists, Mussolini received few.

After the election, Mussolini withdrew from political activity, concentrating on editing Il Popolo d’Italia and his new journal, Ardita, also co-edited with Sarfatti. Meanwhile Sarfatti had begun enunciating a new direction for Mussolini’s movement. The Sarfattis’ elder son, Roberto had fallen in combat. His heroic death inflamed Margherita’s nationalism. She initiated celebrations of Roberto prefiguring the Fascist cult of the dead. More significantly, she elaborated a way to mobilize veterans as a new political force. As she asserts in My Fault: “I came to believe that some other way had to be found for Italy. We needed to try different methods to succeed. It took some time for Mussolini  to understand this.” Sarfatti’s 1919-21 Il Popolo d’Italia articles provide clear evidence that she led Mussolini in that new direction.

Employing Ruskin’s theories, Sarfatti envisioned  a national cultural transformation. She described Italian veterans as creators of a new Italy. Survivors of the conflict had undergone a revolutionary spiritual experience. It taught them what was precious, what was not. Their postwar mission was to impose this view though order based on discipline and hierarchy. Paradoxically, this would be reinforced and reflected by a culture inspired by classical Roman values. These values rejected positivism, liberalism, individualism, democracy and conventional Socialism. They embraced intuition, feeling, mysticism and community. They supported a concept of the State as a sacred institution which educated, shaped, directed and inspired the nation. An elite, necessarily drawn from the middle class, would employ public displays of ritual, political liturgy, spectacle to guide the masses. That elite would erect architecture, create art and literature, employ rhetoric and mass choreography to shape society according to an ethical aesthetic. Thus Sarfatti imagined  Fascism.

In writing that Sarfatti “was not nearly the pivotal ideological figure depicted by Sullivan,” that “nothing in Sarfatti’s memoirs comes remotely close to supporting such claims” and that “she had no role (and understood that she had no role) in crafting Italian fascism” McDonald ignores Sarfatti’s words in My Fault, dismissing Sarfatti’s vision as merely “an achievement that lies exclusively in the realm of public relations and emotional manipulation of mass society through ritual, rhetoric and unrelenting propaganda.” He ignores the centrality of imposing cultural hegemony and the cult of State power in Fascist ideology. As Sarfatti’s 1919-21 articles attest, these were her ideas, not Mussolini’s. In fact, they do “make Sullivan’s case for Sarfatti’s overarching intellectual significance in Mussolini’s life.”

D’Annunzio, leading veterans and adventurers, seized Fiume for Italy in September 1919. Sarfatti corresponded with the poet-dictator until his expulsion from the city state in January 1921. She noted his theatrical ruling style, which Mussolini would copy. After their defeat, many of D’Annunzio’s men joined the Fascist movement. Largely out of Mussolini’s control, they became right-wing, violent thugs battling Socialists. But their numbers, their ruthlessness and their need for effective direction persuaded Mussolini to lead them. Sarfatti served as his adviser, confidante and source of funds. They used the Blackshirts to seize power in October 1922.

Sarfatti’s English-language biography of Mussolini appeared in 1925. An Italian version, Dux, followed in 1926. It sold millions of copies. Sarfatti  portrayed Mussolini as a Nietzschean Übermensch. He came to believe that myth with catastrophic results. In exile Sarfatti conceived her second biography as exculpation for the first.

In My Fault, Sarfatti admits Mussolini possessed genius. But even after her remediation, he remained a hoodlum. She describes his childhood  made wretched less by poverty than by frustration. Like her, he realized his gifts as a child. Unlike her, he could not develop them. Perhaps he invented his tale about selling his soul to Satan. But it rang psychologically true. He repeatedly made Faustian bargains to achieve power What Mussolini told Sarfatti of his youth and what she later observed was utter determination to dominate. He also revealed a sordid, superstitious personality, aching loneliness and timidity paradoxically combined with overweening pride and a gambler’s daring. His appetites and resentments fed his cunning, brilliant rhetoric and pathological dishonesty. Yet Sarfatti loved him and judged him the only man who could transform Italy through her design.

My Fault describes the rise and fall of a tyrant. Mussolini and his Blackshirts erected the Fascist hierarchy. She developed the ethos to sustain it. Each was human. Power magnified their flaws. Each sought supremacy. The system favored Mussolini. His thirst for greater power led Mussolini to ally cynically with Hitler. McDonald complains “Sarfatti’s memoirs are regrettably silent on major issues such as anti-Semitism… Sarfatti sheds no light on how Mussolini… came to impose anti-Jewish legislation in 1938.” McDonald has not read My Fault carefully. Sarfatti shares the opinion of Mussolini’s major biographer, Renzo De Felice. Mussolini’s anti-Semitism was purely opportunistic,  required for partnership with Nazi Germany.

Sarfatti fled, then watched the edifice collapse she had helped create. Even then, she insisted that Mussolini’s Fascists had perverted something beautiful and just. McDonald misunderstands why “My Fault mostly retails gossip about [Sarfatti’s] enemies and Mussolini himself.” In fact, Sarfatti tells of actual Fascist crimes and depravity. She describes criminals debasing what she designed as rule by an aristocratic meritocracy. Her fault lay in thinking frail mortals would not abuse such power.

McDonald complains that “Sarfatti’s memoirs… lack even the slightest political or philosophical depth.” They depict a man quoting Nietzsche and Machiavelli to justify his tyranny. They show great thinkers’ theories as impotent against evil, perverted into instruments of oppression. They describe both well-meaning Reformist Socialists and experienced Liberal politicians as helpless against the Fascists. There is depth in My Fault – that of grief and regret.

In November 1952, Sarfatti and her old friend Bernard Berenson talked about Fascism. They agreed about what happened, less on how and never why. Mussolini’s militia had hunted Berenson in 1943-44. Sarfatti stressed her good intentions. By then she had disappeared from public life, dying almost unnoticed in 1961.


Wasting Away Again in Margherita-ville
Michael McDonald

For over a quarter of a century now, Dr. Sullivan has devoted his considerable scholarly talents to reassessing and promoting the extraordinary life and career of Margherita Sarfatti.  Dr. Sullivan believes Sarfatti was an important figure in Italian cultural circles in the early decades of the twentieth century. From what I wrote in my review, it should be clear that I share that view.  Accordingly, I appreciate his good work in rescuing Sarfatti from neglect.

But Dr. Sullivan can’t let matters rest there. The long years of study he’s dedicated to Sarfatti seem to have transmuted an initial commendable impulse to render historical justice to a woman unfairly dismissed as “Mussolini’s Jewish lover” into something of an obsession to inflate Sarfatti’s political importance beyond all reason.

The problem with “people with obsessions,” as Ian Fleming has James Bond observe in one of his world-rescuing adventures, is that they quickly become “blind to danger.” The danger Dr. Sullivan has sightlessly stumbled into is that of appearing foolish. Which is precisely how he looks when, in both in the commentary he inserts into My Fault, Sarfatti’s memoirs, and in the irritating series of ipse dixits that comprise the gravamen of his complaint over my review, he asserts that Sarfatti “did more than anyone else” to invent Fascism.

As the kids say these days: “Come again?”

More than de Maistre, Barrès, Drumont and Le Bon? More than Maurras, Sorel, Mosca and Pareto? More than Corradini, Prezzolini, Marinetti, and D’Annunzio? More than Mussolini himself?


“The conceptual framework of fascism,” to quote the respected intellectual historical Zeev Sternhell, “[was] created long before August 1914” and certainly long before Sarfatti, in Dr. Sullivan’s absurdly revisionist retelling, “enunciat[ed] a new direction” for Mussolini’s nascent political movement sometime around 1919.

Strangely, Dr. Sullivan’s blindness to danger is such that he is quite prepared to concede the point. In his letter, he writes that Sarfatti immersed herself in what various precursors of fascism such as Le Bon, Sorel and Pareto wrote. So much, one might think, for Sarfatti’s role as fascism’s “inventor.” But such is the grip of Dr. Sullivan’s obsession that one paragraph later he’s back proclaiming without any factual support that it was Sarfatti who “imagined Fascism.”

Serious scholars of the origins of fascism—men such as Sternhell, A. James Gregor, Roger Griffin, George Mosse, Stanley Payne, and Robert Paxton—have little or nothing to say about Sarfatti in their studies of the subject. She is a marginal figure at best and goes unmentioned not only in their works, but also in the works of Italian scholars such as Giuseppe Bedeschi and Gabriele Turi who have written on 20th century Italian political thought. Moreover if Sarfatti were such an important political figure in the development of Italian Fascism one would think that Renzo De Felice, the dean of Italian historians of fascism, would have reserved a spot for her in his Breve storia del fascismo, which outlines the key events and actors in Mussolini’s political career. But Sarfatti’s name is utterly absent.

If, as Dr. Sullivan asserts, “American scholars have acknowledged Sarfatti’s crucial role in inventing Fascism” one would think he might do us the favor of telling us who these American scholars are and what they have written in support of the claim. But the assertion sits on the page nakedly without a shred of factual clothing.

Instead, Dr. Sullivan asserts—again without adducing any factual support—that various Italian, German, Spanish and French biographies on Sarfatti that have appeared in recent years validate his claim. He seems particularly proud that a book by the Italian historian Roberto Festorazzi that appeared in 2010 bearing the title Margherita Sarfatti: La donna che inventò Mussolini accepts his thesis. But here is where Dr. Sullivan fudges things a bit.

No one doubts or disputes that Sarfatti, as I wrote in my review, smoothed off the rough edges of Mussolini’s provincial persona at the start of his political ascent and, once in power, “helped to create Mussolini’s image and enhance the projection of his charisma.” But it’s patent hyperbole to state that Sarfatti “invented Mussolini,” as the late Italian intellectual Nello Ajello—a man who knew a thing or two about fascism—wrote when he reviewed Festorazzi’s book:  “Che Margherita lo abbia inventato suona eccessivo, ma è indubbio il suo impegno a dirozzare l’amante destando in lui interessi d’arte.” (“To say that Margherita invented him [Mussolini] seems excessive, but there is no doubt that her work in refining her lover’s tastes thereby raised his interest in art.”)

Indeed, one of the few times Dr. Sullivan quotes a source in his letter—namely, the American journalist Thomas B. Morgan—to buttress his claim that Sarfatti “invented Mussolini,” he ends up proving just the opposite. To Sullivan, Mussolini was Sarfatti’s “pupil and dependent.” But to Morgan nothing could be further from the truth: “It would not be right to say that what Mussolini achieved he owed to Margherita.”

More to the point, there is a clear difference between alleging, as Dr. Sullivan’s does, that Sarfatti “did more than anyone else” to invent Fascism, and saying Sarfatti had a role in inventing Mussolini’s image as a cultured statesman. But the distinction seems lost on Dr. Sullivan.

Sullivan further descends into willful blindness on various other topics. For example:

1)  When when he accuses me of “ignor[ing] the centrality of imposing cultural hegemony and the cult of State power in Fascist ideology.” Wrong again. As the art historian Emily Braun has correctly pointed out in her outstanding monograph on the painter Mario Sironi (an artist whom Sarfatti knew and promoted), “Mussolini never sanctioned an official style” when it came to state intervention in the arts; rather he held a “liberal attitude toward the fine arts” that changed little “over the course of twenty years, as the Fascist movement was transformed into a regime.”

2) When he misreads what I wrote to assert that I didn’t accurately described the contents of My Fault.  I did not, pace Dr. Sullivan, simply write that the book consisted of “14 not very extensive articles.” Rather I wrote that the volume “offers readers not one book but three,” specifically mentioning his footnotes and commentary. I also wrote that it “assembles Sarfatti’s memoirs”–emphasis on the plural—because of the incorporation of other Sarfatti material in addition to the 14 articles. But, in any case, there is no gainsaying that the 14 articles constitute the essence of the book.

3)  When Dr. Sullivan says that if I’d read My Fault carefully I’d have learned why, according to Sarfatti, Mussolini turned to anti-Semitism in the late 1930s: namely, for “purely opportunistic reasons.” In fact, Dr. Sullivan himself may want to reread that part of Sarfatti’s memoirs. If he does he’ll find that Sarfatti’s explanation—which is negligible when it comes to the matter of anti-Semitism—is rather different. She simply asserts that “Mussolini transformed himself into a brutal German-style superman.” And that, as they say, is that.

Sarfatti was less of an intellectual than a cultural impresario and spin doctor. Even if she had been an intellectual who had played a crucial role in conceptualizing fascism—which she wasn’t—it still would be wrong of Dr. Sullivan to overstate her importance, as he does. I say this because I happen to agree with Robert Paxton that: “Fascism was an affair of the gut more than of the brain, and a study of the roots of fascism that treats only the thinkers and the writers misses the most powerful influences of all.” A study that treats only a “thinker” such as Sarfatti misses even more. To quote Paxton again, “fascism is more plausibly linked to a set of ‘mobilizing passions’ that shape fascist action than to a consistent and full articulated philosophy.” As one Fascist militant declared in 1920: “The fist is the synthesis of our theory.”

I would recommend to Dr. Sullivan that if he wants to understand the roots of fascism he would do well to put Sarfatti aside for a while. But that seems unlikely.  Much like those contrarian and pig-headed Elizabethan scholars who continue to churn out books arguing that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, or Francis Bacon “really” wrote Shakespeare’s plays, I’m sure we can count on Dr. Sullivan to continue to press his thesis that Margherita Sarfatti invented fascism. His obsessive certainty on this score is regrettable. And I worry for him. For, to quote a philosopher dear to both Sarfatti and Mussolini: “It’s certainty, not doubt, that causes madness.”

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