Jose Ortega y Gasset on Bolshevism and Fascism

Daily Dabble in the Classics, José Ortega y Gasset

Both Bolshevism and Fascism are two false dawns; they do not bring the morning of a new day, but of some archaic day, spent over and over again: they are mere primitivism. And such will all movements be which fall into the stupidity of starting a boxing-match with some portion or other of the past, instead of proceeding to digest it. No doubt an advance must be made on the liberalism of the XIX century. But this is precisely what cannot be done by any movement such as Fascism, which declares itself anti-liberal. Because it was that fact — the being anti-liberal or non-liberal — which constituted man previous to liberalism. And as the latter triumphed over its opposite, it will either repeat its victory time and again, or else everything — liberalism and anti-liberalism — will “be annihilated in the destruction of Europe. There is an inexorable chronology of life. In it liberalism is posterior to anti-liberalism, or what comes to the same, is more vital than it, just as the gun is more of a weapon than the lance.

At first sight, an attitude “anti-anything” seems posterior to this thing, inasmuch as it signifies a reaction against it and supposes its previous existence. But the innovation which the anti represents fades away into an empty negative attitude, leaving as its only positive content an “antique.” When his attitude is translated into positive language, the man who declares himself anti-Peter does nothing more than declare himself the upholder of a world where Peter is nonexistent. But that is exactly what happened to the world before Peter was born. The anti-Peterite, instead of placing himself after Peter, makes himself previous to him and reverses the whole film to the situation of the past, at the end of which the re-apparition of Peter is inevitable. The same thing happens to these antis as, according to the legend, happened to Confucius. He was born, naturally, after his father, but he was born at the age of eighty while his progenitor was only thirty! Every anti is nothing more than a simple, empty No.

This would be all very nice and fine if with a good, round No we could annihilate the past. But the past is of its essence a revenant. If put out, it comes back, inevitably. Hence, the only way to separate from it is not to put it out, but to accept its existence, and so to have in regard to it as to dodge it, to avoid it. In a word, to live “at the height of our time,” with an exaggerated consciousness of the historical circumstances.

Your copy of Ortega y Gassett’s classic work: The Revolt of the Masses

The past has reason on its side, its own reason. If that reason is not admitted, it will return to demand it. Liberalism had its reason, which will have to be admitted per saecula saeculorum. But it had not the whole of reason, and it is that part which was not reason that must be taken from it. Europe needs to ‘preserve its essential liberalism. This is the condition for superseding it.

If I have spoken here of Fascism and Bolshevism it has been only indirectly, considering merely their aspect as anachronisms. This aspect is, to my mind, inseparable from all that is apparently triumphant today. For today it is the mass-man who triumphs, and consequently, only those designs inspired by him, saturated with his primitive style, can enjoy an apparent victory. But apart from this, I am not at present discussing the true inwardness of one or the other, just as I am not attempting to solve the eternal dilemma of revolution and evolution. The most that this essay dares to demand is that the revolution or the evolution be historical and not anachronistic.

The theme I am pursuing in these pages is politically neutral, because it breathes an air much ampler than that of politics and its dissensions. Conservative and Radical are none the less mass, and the difference between them — which at every period has been very superficial — does not in the least prevent them both being one and the same man — the common man in rebellion.

There is no hope for Europe unless its destiny is placed in the hands of men really “contemporaneous,” men who feel palpitating beneath them the whole subsoil of history, who realize the present level of existence, and abhor every archaic and primitive attitude. We have need of history in its entirety, not to fall back into it, but to see if we can escape from it.

Excerpted from The Revolt of the Masses, by José Ortega y Gasset