On the front line with the Fas­cists

A study of far-right fringe groups in Italy is too for­giv­ing and un­crit­i­cal, says R. J. B. Bos­worth

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - R. J. B. Bos­worth is emer­i­tus se­nior fel­low at Jesus Col­lege, Ox­ford and au­thor of Claretta: Mus­solini’s Last Lover (2017).

Sac­ri­fice: My Life in a Fas­cist Mili­tia By Alessan­dro Orsini; trans­lated by Sarah J. Nodes Cornell Univer­sity Press 232pp, £21.50

ISBN 9781501709838 Pub­lished 15 Septem­ber 2017

Alessan­dro Orsini is a celebrity so­ci­ol­o­gist in con­tem­po­rary Italy, a fre­quent com­men­ta­tor on tele­vi­sion about in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism and its threat to his coun­try. In this book, how­ever, he turns his at­ten­tion to right­ist do­mes­tic en­thu­si­asts for vi­o­lence and may­hem, ar­rayed in fight­ing form in small “cells” call­ing them­selves “Fas­cist”. For three months, we learn, he was a par­tic­i­pant ob­server of two such groups, en­gaged in what he calls “liv­ing ethnog­ra­phy”.

To a de­gree, the re­sult is a rat­tling good (and well trans­lated) yarn as Orsini re­lates the der­ringdo of the cells’ lead­ing mem­bers. The Fas­cist devo­tees, we learn, sub­scribe to a “way of be­ing”; they com­mit them­selves to a “par­al­lel world” and take as nat­u­ral the mu­tual dis­dain be­tween them­selves and the rest of so­ci­ety. Mind you, we hear al­most as much about Orsini him­self as about these “rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies”. In a short book, the au­thor finds time to re­veal his father’s cancer, his mother’s ap­palled re­ac­tion to his re­search pro­ject and his var­i­ous fe­male part­ners’ re­sponses to his deal­ings with the Fas­cists. He also re­flects on how and why he or­gan­ised his re­search, with the dis­arm­ing ad­mis­sion that, in fol­low­ing up his length­ier ac­count of the left­ist Red Brigades, he searched for “an in­ter­est­ing idea that would al­low me to call into ques­tion con­ven­tional think­ing about par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal phe­nom­ena”.

Al­though he pledges on oc­ca­sion that, how­ever deeply he was be­com­ing em­bed­ded with his Fas­cists, “I don’t have po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies. I’m a so­ci­ol­o­gist. I iden­tify with so­ci­ol­ogy and not with a po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy”, at times he al­most seems to have been won over by those he was study­ing. So he pi­ously in­sists that “the con­struc­tion of a par­al­lel world re­quires calm, pa­tience, sac­ri­fice, love for your com­rades, self-ab­ne­ga­tion, and ded­i­ca­tion to the cause” and ex­empts his sub­jects from any con­nec­tion with right­ist mur­der­ers such as An­ders Breivik. In­deed, Orsini re­flects for some para­graphs on his own out­raged re­ac­tion to be­ing spat on by some lo­cal “com­mu­nist” en­e­mies of his Fas­cists; they had not re­alised that he was just a prac­tis­ing so­ci­ol­o­gist. All in all, he adds, “the spit­ting in my face had prompted me to fo­cus on at­tacks in which the Fas­cists were the in­jured par­ties”. In sym­pa­thetic frame, he re­ports in­stances of his sub­jects be­ing vic­timised by the po­lice or an el­derly fe­male neigh­bour, and does not write off a Trump­ist-sound­ing com­plaint that “jour­nal­ists are all cor­rupt and in ser­vice of the bour­geoisie”.

I am writ­ing my re­view in the af­ter­math of Trump’s re­sponse to the Char­lottesville brawl. It may be un­fair to re­mark on what now seems the sim­i­lar­ity be­tween Orsini’s ef­forts to “un­der­stand” his Fas­cist grou­plets, which fail to make much of their anti-black and anti-Mus­lim racism or their his­tor­i­cal pref­er­ence for “Hitler” over his en­e­mies, and Trump’s view that the Amer­i­can Far Right con­tains many de­cent peo­ple. Yet one of Orsini’s fe­male friends was wor­ried how he had be­come so un­der­stand­ing and even for­giv­ing of men and women ready to ad­mire and praise Hitler. I share her re­ac­tion.

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