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Page 2 of 3 -- Ledeen adopted Mosse's methodology, but used it to draw a quite different conclusion. A lifelong internationalist and socialist, Mosse always looked at nationalism with an outsider's eyes. By contrast, Ledeen displayed an activist's interest in deploying sacred nationalist mythology for contemporary political purposes. For Ledeen, early 20th-century European mass politics, rooted in a half-millennium-old cultural legacy, could serve as a wellspring for reinvigorating contemporary middle-class nationalism, particularly in the United States.

In his first book, "Universal Fascism" (1972), based on his doctoral thesis, Ledeen drew a strong connection between two seemingly different intellectual currents: the fascist cult of youth and the attempt in the mid-1930s to form a fascist international. Both tendencies, he demonstrated, grew out of the disillusionment of younger intellectuals with the first decade of Mussolini's reign. Since the Duce had failed to radically transform Italian society, his more idealistic followers now dared to hope that the younger generation all across Europe would form a confederation of radical nationalists that would reject the virulent racism of German fascism.

Ledeen further explored the cultural dimension of politics in his best work of pure scholarship, "The First Duce: D'Annunzio at Fiume" (1977). Here, Ledeen describes how the Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio led a military coup to capture the port city of Fiume in 1919, which he feared would be handed over to Yugoslavia by the great powers in the diplomatic aftermath of World War I. Bringing romantic aesthetics to politics, D'Annunzio won the hearts of the city with a barrage of innovative rituals including "daily marches in the countryside, . . . speeches from the balcony . . . [and] dialogues with the crowd." Far from being a historical oddity, Ledeen argued, D'Annunzio helped invent modern politics: "D'Annunzian political style -- the politics of mass manipulation, the politics of myth and symbol -- have become the norm in the modern world."

Reviewing "The First Duce" in The New York Review of Books, the cultural journalist Luigi Barzini called Ledeen one of the best historians of modern Italy. But by then Ledeen had already abandoned academia for a career as a Washington journalist and political insider. He had also begun the now-familiar neoconservative trek from left -- he opposed the Vietnam War and voted for McGovern in 1972 -- to right. (Today, he rejects the label "conservative." "I have always thought of myself as a `liberal democrat' in the sense that Walter Lippmann used the word," he wrote via e-mail.)

An important way station on this journey was a curious formation called the Social Democrats, U.S.A. (SDUSA), an outgrowth of Norman Thomas's old Socialist Party that argued for strong labor unions at home and militant anticommunism abroad. A 1977 speech on democracy and human rights, reprinted in the SDUSA's journal, prefigured his subsequent calls for the United States to spread democracy across the globe."   Continued...

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