Habermas, Fascism, and the Public Sphere

  • Paul Corner
Part of the Mass Dictatorship in the Twentieth Century book series (MASSD)


On the face of it, the term ‘fascist public sphere’ — in the sense of ‘public sphere’ as used by Habermas — would seem to be a contradiction in terms.1 The ‘public sphere’ implies debate, discussion, representation of position, exchange of ideas, respect of other people’s opinions, and so on. The public sphere is the agora in which rationality can triumph in politics; indeed it is that element that makes society function properly — almost a kind of embodiment of the ideas of the Enlightenment. It is the testimony that civil society — the people — exists in separation from the state, a state to which the civil society concedes legitimacy by virtue of reasoned argument.


Civil Society Public Sphere National Unity Fascist Government Street Theatre 
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  1. 1.
    The reference is, of course, to Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Enquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991; orig. German, 1962).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See e.g., the comments of Geoff Eley, ‘Nations, Publics and Political Cultures: Placing Habermas in the Nineteenth Century’, in Craig Colhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 289–338.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    In this respect it is worth noting the useful distinction Emilio Gentile makes between the ‘aestheticisation of politics’ and the ‘aestheticisation of Fascism’ — the first being a legitimate way of looking at the fascist mode of doing politics, while the second risks relegating to a secondary position the essentially political nature of fascism. See, E. Gentile, Le origini dell’ideologia fascista (1918–1925) (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1996), p. 27.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    For the classic (and much criticised) statement of the consensus position see Renzo De Felice, Mussolini il duce: Gli anni del consenso 1929–36 (Turin: Einaudi, 1974), p. 55.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    On the importance of the impression of national unity, see Martin Sabrow, ‘Consent in the Communist GDR, or How to Interpret Lion Feuchtwanger’s Blindness in Moscow 1937’, in Paul Corner (ed.), Popular Opinion in Totalitarian Regimes. Fascism, Nazism, Communism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 168–82.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    See Gianpasquale Santomassimo, La terza via fascista. Il mito del corporativismo (Rome: Carocci, 2006).Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    For more on this, see Paul Corner, ‘L’opinione popolare italiana di fronte alla guerra d’Etiopia’, Italia contemporanea 246, March 2007.Google Scholar
  8. 15.
    Examples are given in Paul Corner, ‘Everyday Fascism in the 1930s. Centre and Periphery in the Decline of Mussolini’s Dictatorship’, Contemporary European History 15/2, May 2006.Google Scholar
  9. 16.
    Adrian Lyttelton (ed.), Roots of the Right. Italian Fascisms from Pareto to Gentile (London: Cape, 1973), p. 36.Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    David Tabor, ‘Operai in camicia nera? La composizione operaia del fascio di Torino, 1921–31’, Storia e problemi contemporanei XVII, 36, May–August 2004. A similar point is made in respect of Nazism by Wilfried Gottschalch in ‘Perspectives on the Fascist Public Sphere: A Discussion with Peter Brückner, Wilfried Gottschalch, Eberhard Knödler-Bunte, Olav Münzberg, and Oscar Negt’, New German Critique 11 (1977), 108–9.Google Scholar
  11. 18.
    Luca La Rovere, Storia dei GUF. Organizzazione, politica e miti della gioventù universitaria fascista 1919–43 (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2003).Google Scholar
  12. 19.
    On these issues, see Maria S. Quine, Italy’s Social Revolution. Charity and Welfare from Liberalism to Fascism (London: Palgrave, 2002).Google Scholar
  13. Perry R. Willson, The Clockwork Factory. Women and Work in Fascist Italy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  14. 21.
    Marta S. Stone, The Patron State. Culture and Politics in Fascist Italy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). Unlike some of those who use her text, who come close producing cultural studies with the politics left out, the author is herself very careful to indicate the considerable limits of the artistic ‘pluralism’ she identifies.Google Scholar
  15. 23.
    On Mussolini’s method of making decisions on the basis of improvisation and intuition, see Alberto Aquarone, Lorganizzazione dello stato totalitario (Turin: Einaudi, 1965), ch. 5.Google Scholar
  16. 25.
    For the adverb ‘apparently’, see the qualification made by Habermas in Jürgen Habermas, ‘The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article (1964)’, New German Critique 3 (1974), 49–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Paul Corner 2013

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  • Paul Corner

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