Mussolini, inventor of totalitarianism

"Mussolini," by Jasper Ridley. St. Martin's Press. 448 pages. $27.50. Shortly after he assumed power in Italy in 1922, Benito Mussolini invented the word "totalitarian" to describe the state under his fascist government. Mussolini intended it to have a positive connotation: the totalitarian state demanded total commitment and devotion of all its citizens who would, in turn, reap the benefits of a strong regime.

Inescapably, however, it also meant the supremacy of the state, the use of brutal force as the means of exacting social obedience, and an unquenchable thirst for policies of conquest, oppression and annihilation.


Jasper Ridley examines Mussolini's contribution to this century's horrific experiment with totalitarianism in this historical biography.

By way of setting Mussolini's rise to power in context, Ridley does a serviceable job of explaining fascism as a response to the traumas of the industrial age, the iniquities of early capitalism, and the intense sense of class hatred bred by these conditions. Existing values and political orders in Czarist Russia, Imperial Germany and newly industrialized Italy collapsed, giving rise to movements - fascism, nazism, and communism - that wrapped the concept of social justice around a message of social hatred and proclaimed organized state violence as the tool of social redemption.


Enter Mussolini. Born in the Romagna, a breeding ground for violent revolutionaries, he embarked on a political journey that began on the extreme Left and ended on the extreme Right. Ridley efficiently describes Mussolini by the roles he played in each chapter of his life: knife-wielding schoolboy, cagey draft dodger, passionate socialist, self-promoting newspaper editor, and murderous founder of the Fascist party. Ridley gives Mussolini credit for being a savvy politician, able to portray himself as a responsible statesman while condoning the illegal violence of his terrorist squads, neutralize the Roman Catholic Church by offering appeasing rhetoric, and develop a pragmatic alliance with Hitler that allowed Mussolini to expand his own empire. His all-consuming megalomania made him a natural tyrant, and his rule made him one of the 20th century's poster boys for the corrupting effects of absolute power.

Neither a condemnation nor an apologia, Ridley's book is a straightforward account of Mussolini's life. This is both a positive and a negative. For those searching for a reference guide to the facts of the Duce's life, it is useful. But for those expecting a more enlightened understanding of that life, it is a disappointment. The problem is that the book reads like an extended entry in Encyclopedia Britannica. It is full of data but wholly lacking in literary grace and expositional insight. For example, Ridley's discussion of the death of Mussolini's father, whom he idolized, is limited to five sentences, none of which describes the impact of the loss on his son.

At other times, Ridley gets so immersed in the minutiae of the contextual details that Mussolini himself often gets lost. Between the stilted prose and the overreliance on background, the book often casts Mussolini as a secondary player in his own story. As a result, he never truly comes to life here. One of the great archvillians of the 20th century - a man of brutality, passion and shrewdness - seems flat and mechanical and never truly inhabits the pages.

The disappointing failure to animate Mussolini and the lack of original analysis leaves the reader with no grander perspective. Ridley might have helped us to navigate our prejudices about the man who coined and practiced "totalitarianism" but instead serves up an encyclopedic formula that sheds little new light on the dictator or his fearsome reign.

Monica Crowley served as foreign policy assistant to former President Richard Nixon from 1990 to his death in 1994 and is the author of "Nixon Off the Record" (1996) and "Nixon in Winter" (1998), both published by Random House. She is completing work for a doctorate in international relations at Columbia University.

Pub Date: 11/08/98