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Benedetto Croce – Liberal, Idealist, Activist (In This Order)

Benedetto Croce – Liberal, Idealist, Activist (In This Order)

Many people throughout history are known for acts of great courage and grand conquests. Some live by through immortal creations forever bearing their name. Others were examples of irreproachable ethics and conduct, strength of character and Olympian serenity. They are usually separated in men which demonstrated either active or passive involvement in asserting dedication to their ideals, much more rarely both. But even far less are those who showed they had achieved all these signs of distinction during their lifetime, troubled by the fatality of history and hazardous game of eras. In the shade of the dusk of epochs rise strong characters ready to resist the darkness of upcoming times and bring back the light spread by the flame of liberty. After years of spiritual wickedness, ethical scarcity and social cowardice, it is possible that justice be made. If so, those who once took up their role as freedom fighters and tirelessly took action in favour of what they believed to be just shall get their sincere recognition from their admirers.

Let it be known that a man like this was Benedetto Croce, whose idea(l)s have been animating generations upon generations of fellow Italian countrymen and world-spread followers. A life of ups and downs always defined by integrity and consistency of thought and action defines the existence of this man, thinker and politician. His ultimate dream was a return to the old ideals and liberal institutions of Risorgimento, unarguably the golden epoch of Italian liberalism. He was a great historian and philosopher, yet he never secluded himself in the ivory tower of scholarly research, less so in the safety of his general pre-fascist fame. Post-war documents, writings and confessions have revealed even much more about this man than it was known before his passing, thus there is a generous amount of information in this regard. What never suffices is reflection within the world of ideas and contribution to the philosophy most dear to Croce’s heart and mind – “the religion of liberty”.

Croce was a liberal. He was an intellectual with strong convictions shaped by a complicated youth and along years of hardship. He was not necessarily an elitist, but a scholar dedicated to his studies and research. Safe to say he was also a statist – he believed in the necessity of a strong and functioning State enforcing rules meant to assure personal liberty. He never favoured a free market economy – he was not opposed to it, yet he believed there were many situations in which capitalism obliterates national interests. Socially, he was a conservative. Scholarly, a polemicist. Philosophically, an idealist. 

Forming years – trembling land 

He was born in a good family of influential people and raised in the spirit of a strict Catholicism and adherence to the old dynasty. However, the spark of his future genius overcame limitations of religious thought and reached a different form in his adolescence. Fascinated by the essayistic works of Francesco de Sanctis or inspiring poetry of Giosuè Carducci, he built within himself an idealised view of the Risorgimento – a period of relative prosperity for the Italian bourgeoisie and elites, during which the middle class grew in numbers and consolidated its political importance. For Croce and liberal-minded men, this was a peak time for liberalism and its institutions. It was not important whether a republic or a monarchy embodied the noble ideals of these times. On the other hand, others believe back then prosperity belonged to the few and was reserved only for elitists and industrialists – for them, the Risorgimento, was not a “revival”, but an unnatural evolution of Italian politics under the tricky guidance of Giuseppe Mazzini, key figure in the process of unification of Italian states into one bigger Kingdom.

Religiously, Croce likens to many other liberals. His loss of faith in divine transcendence was always doubled by a personal respect for religious practices and recognition of their role in building the Europe of today. In 1883, a 17 years-old Croce was buried by an earthquake under the ruins of a hotel for hours, only to later learn that his parents and sister were dead. This represented the ever-recurring tragedy characteristic to many great people, which would change their perception of the world. Rarely talking about such an unfortunate event, Croce would reveal in its most sincere moments the meaning and impact of this unexpected occurrence on his life and perceptions. A negative view of existence, bouts of depression, fear and anxiety would always accompany Croce until his very last day.

He never finished his higher education. Like many other men with unique traits, he would not feel comfortable with his professors or impressed with the perspectives a university could offer. He would rather surround himself with liberal-leaning writings, contribute to the according literature and identify those who shared his cheered liberal values, such as Giustino Fortunato, renowned politician and historian. In short time Croce would embrace the dim philosophy of Marxism, only to realize that it could not satisfy his desire for human freedom. One could not call it a mistake, but rather the exception which proves the rule, namely Croce’s constant dedication to the idea of liberty and his willingness to support it no matter what other tempting options there were. Unsurprisingly, he always tolerated and even appreciated the existence of all political parties on the Italian parliamentarian scene, anticipating that a healthy liberalism has to encompass various ideologies. He never hesitated to befriend and exchange letters or thoughts with Socialists, Democrats or Conservatives, contributing to their journals with the intellectual touch of the Liberal and trying to find associations and analogies between liberalism and other ideologies. The latter would only contribute to the final cohesion of political thought into the victory of liberalism, believed Croce. He also had his own periodical, La Critica, in which over 40 years of publications will have defined his life-standing works.

It is highly interesting to note that during the years previous to the rise of Fascism, all intellectuals of great distinction never held personal grudges against each other, but assumed their roles as spiritual and intellectual leaders of Italy. Sincerely believing in the importance of this state of affairs and due to his activity, Croce is considered to be the father of civic nationalism, in other words patriotism as it is most commonly understood in our times. 

Two friends who chose different paths 

Giovanni Gentile’s hallmark as the main ideologue and arguably founder of Fascism is well known. Not many do know that Gentile was once friends with Croce, and not necessarily in the abovementioned spirit of “patriotic cooperation” of Italian thinkers to the good of their nation. Both neo-Hegelians, they also owed their intellectual formation to other different currents of thought. Early collaborator to La Critica, Gentile did not start out as a man inclined to authoritarian philosophies and actions. When he joined the Fascist cause, he first offered intellectual support to the moderate wing of the Fascist Party. Even so, Croce considered Gentile’s adherence to Fascism a betrayal which greatly disappointed the liberal philosopher. Gentile was not a “founder” of Fascism in truth, as Fascism already was a reality by the time debate on the nature of this political current burst out within Italian society. It was only then when Gentile declared his admiration for Fascism, as he thought it was a representation of the “ethical State” and an embodiment of his future concept of “actual idealism” (also named “actualism”). Croce saw Fascism rather as an immoral phase, an illness which needed to be tolerated until its expected disappearance. The two would never talk to each other ever again after 1924 – it was one of the first friendships crushed by the rapid advancement of the Fascist Party at the helm of Italian politics.

Over decades Croce tried to understand why and how Fascism became a common reality in his beloved nation. As a historian, he tried to search for an answer in the troubled past of the Italic Peninsula. This is how one of his well-known works, The History of the Kingdom of Naples, took shape. He therein hints that Fascism is characterised by religious fanaticism, racial pride and unhindered nationalism. For him, love for one’s nation could only take the form of the “old patriotism with a human and Christian background”. Instead, Fascism was “full of Nietzschean and decadent literature”. “The future did not belong to nationalism”, imagined Croce. 

Croce and (Anti-)Fascism 

Benito Mussolini was first believed to be a “Moderate Fascist” by many, Croce included. Except Communists, the other non-Fascists were keeping the hope that the Duce’s party would cool down with its growing demands once it gained majority in the Parliament. This was obviously not the case – even if Mussolini was not an authoritarian and crude leader from the very beginning, he slowly showed his dictatorial tendencies once with his closest collaborators and nucleus of the Fascist Party. The more he was doing so, the more Croce figured out he had to assume an active role as an anti-Fascist activist. The ultimate trigger of this necessity was the assassination of Giacomo Matteotti, a young Socialist leader and ardent anti-Fascist who in 1924 condemned the autocratic tendencies of Fascism in Parliament and who was also an active pamphleteer and contributor to various journals with an anti-Fascist stance. This act of cowardice was carried by men with ties to the Fascist movement, yet Mussolini’s involvement was never demonstrated. For Croce this was the supreme warning that the new regime was a menace and that there is no room for negotiation or common ground.

In brief time Croce became a clear enemy of the Fascist regime, although the latter had always hoped it could draw Croce on its side, as he was probably the most distinguished Italian scholar, philosopher and writer of those times. Harsh opposition to the Fascist peril followed up his refusals. When Gentile defined the “Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals”, Croce soon responded to it with a “Protest against the Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals”, quickly joining the historical Liberal Party. He saw this as a duty and almost an obligation given the circumstances. Croce was not the greatest speaker of Italy, he did not possess unseen oratorial qualities, nor was he the most active politician of the country, but whenever he held a speech in the Parliament most Italians would be impressed by his clear thought and ethical upbringing, making a great impression among the confused masses. Not long after the publication of their “Manifesto”, Fascists made known another essay, “The Fascist Manifesto” (popularly named “Gentile’s Manifesto”), to which Croce replied with “The Anti-Fascist Manifesto” (or “Croce’s Manifesto”). Moreover, he pursued intellectual “pilgrimages” throughout Italian cities and towns, giving lectures on Italian history, always trying to find the suiting comparisons between the past of the Risorgimento and the present of Fascism, always pointing to the latter as a moral disease but never fully explicitly, as he was well conscious of the possibility of being silenced like Matteotti. Nonetheless, Croce’s senatorial privileges granted him a precious and necessary protection against fears of assassination; the twist of fate makes it so that Fascism was not as decisive and aggressive as National Socialism in Germany when it came to imprisoning and eliminating those who even slightly disagreed with the politics of the main party.

Croce and a small hand of Anti-Fascists refused to contribute to any intellectual enterprise directed on a national level which intended to find a point of cohesion for the most brilliant minds of Italian cultural life. In no way did he want his name to be associated with the political movement he so strongly opposed. In the midst of social unrest Croce used his Liberalism to show that there were more than two possible choices to be made. Fascism and Communism were supporting each other on an ideological basis, as Italian citizens were prone to fall into the binary paradigm of these two extreme views and opt for one or another. In truth, Liberalism was a third option, but not as appealing as the other two. In making Fascism appear as adventurous, noble and Roman-spirited to the people, poet Gabriele D’Annunzio played a significant role with his praise of danger and hardship in a Nietzschean-Evolian manner, whereas for Communism Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s genius attracted various dissident elements of Italian society. Croce was not an exuberant person who could stir up crowds of people ready to sacrifice their life to an ideal. He was a calm being and an undisturbed dreamer. For this, Croce had to face criticism for false accusations of passivity against Fascism on behalf of historical illiterates or unscrupulous rivals.

Changes of politics made Croce adopt a certain disdain for nationalism in general, while never abandoning his understanding for Socialists, with whom he disagreed always keeping a certain respect for them as intellectual partners. His future friendships and alliances will have proven this fact. Liberals like Piero Gobetti or Marxists such as Gramsci will admit the brilliance of Croce and his importance for the final defeat of Fascism. For this Croce started his fruitful but dangerous collaboration with the Anti-Fascist Resistance, undisturbed by the fact that OVRA would open his letters and survey activity around his house. Croce’s dwelling became a place for pilgrimage for Anti-Fascist intellectuals, young students and dissident politicians. When the regime started its persecutions, Croce financially supported various intellectuals who chose the path of exile. Furthermore, he never hesitated to recommend his exiled friends for jobs at prestigious universities in Europe and the USA, including the Jews who managed to escape Italy as soon as Mussolini’s law against Italian Jews was enacted.

By 1926 it was clear that in Fascist Italy there was no more place for open criticism. Once with Anteo Zamboni’s assassination attempt against Mussolini came a shameful act of trespass and vandalism in Croce’s own house in Naples. Once again, just like in the Matteotti Affair, Fascists were found to be guilty but Mussolini’s interference could never be demonstrated. This event attracted international sympathy and attention to Croce and his cause. Letters of support were sent and even visits were paid, much to the comfort of the philosopher, his wife and little daughters, the latter also being in the house when the looting took place.

Croce continued to offer support to friends in exile, in jail or in need. Not seldom did he pay for the education of his fallen comrades’ children or for the support of their widows, such as Ada Prospero, Piero’s widow (Piero Gobetti was murdered by Fascist thugs in 1926). Croce himself benefited from generous support from his family and friends, among which Giovanni Laterza, his editor and friend, was one of the most important advisers. Laterza always knew how to deal with the censorship of times and find the necessary funds for the publication of Croce’s vast work. The Italian philosopher would sometimes ask Laterza to pay other Anti-Fascist writers more than usual for their works, the difference of money to be supported by Croce from his own funds.

By 1928 the Italian Parliament was already dominated by Fascist elements and the Statuto, the written law which governed Italian life, was reduced to a mere illustrative role. Croce did what he knew best and continued to write essays and books inspiring for Liberal thought and risorgimental ideals. A reconsideration on his early stance on Marxism and a complete redefinition and review of Liberalism were meant to offer a new intellectual basis for the dispersed Resistance, as Gentile had done for Fascism a few years ago. He did not forget to once again express his full support for individual freedom, while rejecting the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism – he would often say he’s more concerned with the freedom of own’s spirit, not so much with complete freedom of the national economy. In Croce’s eyes, “unhindered capitalism” was liberism, not Liberalism. This was radical liberalism (or social liberalism) further advanced to the world scene of political ideologies.

Croce’s History of Italy from 1871 to 1915 made his debut on the market in 1928 with great effort on behalf of Laterza, quickly becoming a best-seller much to the Fascists’ sorrow. Besides historical considerations on recurrent subjects such as the disparity between the agrarian South and the industrial-bourgeois North or Italy’s position in Europe, Croce built an intelligent thesis against Mussolini’s Fascism. Croce knew how to enframe the idea of parliamentarian tradition, freedom of the press and democratic institutions in such a way that many Italians would feel nostalgic about the past pre-Fascist times. By admitting that socialism had played a significant role in shaping Modern Italy, Croce gave the signal for the alliance of opposing ideologues such as Liberals, Socialists, Conservatives not absorbed by Fascism or Catholics still faithful to their credentials instead of political lamentations of Mussolini (who had always had a blatant dislike for the Catholic Church – let us not forget Mussolini was a Socialist agitator in his youth and did not believe in a God in the religious sense; also see his attitude and role in signing the Lateran Pacts!). Croce’s History of Italy is completed by History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century; in both these works he does not hesitate to point out that forces of irrationalism and nihilism undermined Liberal institutions and gave free way to the advent of authoritarian regimes meant to fulfil a spiritual gulf. The success of these works once again asserted what was already known – Croce was a good politician, a better philosopher and the best Italian pen of those times.

Croce also maintained a good relation with the Anti-Fascist movement Giustizia e Libertà of Nello Rosselli, much to the advantage of both parties. He also preserved an intellectual relationship with other intellectuals of other countries like Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein or Robert Collingwood. From 1926 onwards, he collaborated with all Anti-Fascist movements of those times, yet he never joined one of these underground organizations. In 1931 Croce unequivocally refuse to take the oath of loyalty to the Fascist regime, being expelled from various associations and academies. His life was divided between activism, literary activity and reduced political involvement until history changed its path and the Fascist Party was slowly reduced to nothingness. 

Croce during WW2 and afterwards 

One of the hardest choices in Croce’s life was to decide whether he would support his nation’s decision in fully engaging into the Fascist cause and embrace the alliance with the German Fascism (National-Socialism) or to continue the fight against his own Government. It was una malattia morale, a harsh reality which convinced Croce that liberty was synonymous with Italian defeat. Ivanoe Bonomi assumed a great responsibility as representative of the Liberal forces soon to play an essential role in negotiations with the victorious Allies. He was also the Chairman of the Committee of National Liberation, another important actor at the table of peace negotiations.

Croce exploited his own image to the good of his shattered nation, then under the control of Anglo-Americans. He was defined by an “unusual diplomatic tact and political realism” and wrote letters to the American President F.D. Roosevelt or British Prime Minister W. Churchill. He never hesitated to offer interviews to the most distinguished newspapers of the Democratic forces and managed to construct a more positive image of Italy and Italians in need to resume their credibility in the eyes of a torn-apart Europe. He served as adviser for the post-war Government of Pietro Badoglio, the ingenious but canny general who tried to continue the transition to the upcoming period of relative peace under Anglo-American control. Croce continued his correspondence with important statesmen and argues in favour of keeping Italy within the limits of international treaties and advantages of European organizations. The Italian philosopher had been an inspiration for many of the people he was now negotiating with, therefore he received the suitable respect on behalf of most of his interlocutors. Croce called for a return to the values of Illuminism – justice, liberty and ration – with the hope that Italy would be guided by a different paradigm than that of the past and return to the much-esteemed values of the Risorgimento.

Having escaped the claws of one authoritarian regime, Croce was witnessing the growth of another similar ideology – he became an active speaker against the danger of Communism and could not put up with the cult of Antonio Gramsci, whose Marxist orientation had been fully revealed to the entire world after his letters from prison were published.

Once with Mussolini’s infamous death and consequently of Fascism, Croce’s purpose in the Italian society became that of an old sage whose opinions and influence greatly mattered for the construction of a new political life which welcomed new parties and formations. In spite of his old age, he continued to deliver great speeches and condemned potential abuses from the Allied side given its total victory and control over Italy, Germany and many other damaged countries after the Second World War. However, he assumed a new political position as President of a weakened Liberal Party which was trying to gain its past fame. He stirred little controversy when he chose monarchy over republic in a referendum meant to consult the public opinion and its new desires; his choice was supported by aspirations to the earlier values of a unified Italian Kingdom under the guidance of Liberal ideas.

To the very last days of his life Croce continued his scholarly research and his addresses to the Parliament, urging for reforms and change of his disoriented fatherland. After his death in 1952 he was mourned for a long time by old friends and rivals alike. Having been considered the single most important “asset” of post-war Italy, he has remained a symbol of liberty and a fighter against the challenges of sorrowful times not all people chose to face. Most succumbed either to passivity or the pursuit of self-interest. Croce chose to resist to the end and with a bit of fortune he became greater than his times and overcame the difficulties. 

“History is various and sinuous and no essential part of the human spirit is ever wholly absent from it.” (Benedetto Croce) 

NB: For a more detailed history of Croce’s life, see Rizi, Fabio Fernando, Benedetto Croce and Italian Fascism, University of Toronto Press (2003). 

Photo source: [1]; [2]



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