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 derring-do 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.
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
Published 15 September 2017