How Mussolini invented Fascism
The account of Italian Fascism given below is generally well-informed. The note that Italian Fascism was NOT antisemitic is welcome. But the conclusion is far too florid. The author is clearly trying to avoid the historically obvious conclusion: That both socialism and patriotism have broad appeal. It was those ideas rather than any "love" of Mussolini personally that fueled Fascism's popularity.
Mussolini had the brilliant idea of offering both those dreams in the one party. Pure socialism -- Communism -- had such limited appeal that only violence abd brutality could bring it to power. But add patriotism to it and you have an enormous popular force on your side. Fascism is patriotic socialism -- a magic mix with huge popular appeal
Mussolini's appeal to Italian patriotism was strong. He said he would Make Italy Great Again. He said he would revive the Roman empire. And he set about conquests in Africa for that purpose. Add that to the "we will look after you" message of his socialist policies and he had a winning political combination
Donald Trump had only the patriotic half of Mussolini's policies. He was neither a socialist nor a Fascist. But that one half gave him the Presidency of the United States for a time despite his unattractive personality. Mussolini also had a rather unattractive personality so we have twice seen how politically masterful a strong appeal to patriotism can be
Benito Mussolini, the revolutionary socialist inventor of fascism who came to power 100 years ago this week, was one of the most talked about figures of his day. Most of that talk was positive. Pope Pius XI called him ‘a gift from Providence’ to save Italy; the US ambassador to Rome, Washburn Child, ‘the greatest figure of his sphere and time’; and Winston Churchill, ‘the Roman genius’. Anita Loos, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, wrote that he gave their epoque ‘its only flame of greatness’, and Cole Porter even wrote him into his 1934 hit song ‘You’re the Top!’ with a line that went: ‘You’re the Top! You’re the great Houdini! You’re the top! You’re Mussolini!’. The Spectator, no less, in an exclusive interview, called him ‘the great Prime Minister of Italy’ who ‘weathered the storm and took the mighty ship of state triumphantly into harbour’.
In the end, Mussolini caused catastrophic damage to Italy and Europe. But throughout the 1920s, and much of the 1930s, fascism was admired across the political divide, even by legendary icons of the modern left such as Mahatma Gandhi and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini Prime Minister after the March on Rome by his fascist blackshirts on 28 October 1922; it was a virtually bloodless coup at a time when Italy and Europe were in an even deeper crisis than they are today. The king called Mussolini to power because Italy’s democratic governments had been unable to maintain law and order on the streets, or in the workplace, unlike the future Duce’s private force of paramilitary blackshirts.
In 1922, devastated by the first world war and then the Spanish Flu, Italy appeared on the brink of socialist revolution. Lenin’s Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia in 1917 and fear of communism stalked Europe. The tectonic tensions between peoples and elites, nations and empires, that had caused the first world war then caused the collapse of both ancient regimes and democracies, and the metamorphosis of socialism into communism and fascism. Mussolini founded fascism in 1919 as an alternative left-wing revolutionary movement to socialism.
A rising star of the Italian Socialist party and a brilliant editor of its newspaper Avanti!, he had been expelled from the party in 1914 because he opposed its policy that Italy should remain neutral in the first world war. Instead, the future Duce believed that Italy must go to war against Austria and Germany which it eventually did in 1915. He insisted that socialists could not wait for history, as Marxist doctrine preached. They must make history, he argued, and such a war would help, not hinder, the revolution. As it did, in Italy, as elsewhere. The French and German socialist parties agreed with Mussolini and decided to fight for their respective countries against each other. This caused the collapse of the Second Socialist International and thus of international socialism.
The first world war had exposed a fatal weakness at the heart of international socialism whose mission was supposed to be world revolution and the abolition of the nation-state: people are more loyal to their country than their class. Mussolini made this cardinal rule the key to his version of socialism. It inspired him to replace international socialism with national socialism which he called fascism. Hitler, who would copy much from Mussolini, would call his version of fascism national socialism.
Fascism began as a left-wing heresy against the Marxist creed and remained so at heart to the bitter end – regardless of the far-right tag attached to it after 1945 by a left desperate to avoid fascism and communism being treated as two sides of the same coin. In April 1945, when communist partisans shot Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci after their capture at Lake Como, those with him included his old friend Nicola Bombacci, a founder of the Italian communist party and member of the Soviet Comintern, who had been his closest adviser in the last two years of the war. Bombacci’s last words before a communist partisan firing squad shot him dead beside the lake were: ‘Viva Mussolini! Viva il Socialismo!’
The fascists did not believe, as the communists did, in the nationalisation of the means of production, or the abolition of private property, but that the state should run the economy in partnership with owners and workers via corporations – the so-called corporate state. Among early manifesto pledges was the abolition of the monarchy.
Fascism also had its own variant of the class war, this one between producers of whatever class, and parasites of whatever class. It introduced the welfare state. Mussolini – at the same time as Lenin – had realised that only a political party – not trade unions, still less a parliament – could enact the revolution. And he rejected Marxist dogma which gave a decisive role to the proletariat. The role of the party, the revolutionary vanguard – or priesthood – was to instill and maintain faith. The role of the proletariat was to believe, which it would do only if the revolution was national, not international.
Fascism quickly attracted nationalists who were both right and left-wing and whose roots went back to Giuseppe Mazzini and Italian reunification in the mid-19th century. Futurist artists who eulogised speed, the machine, and war as a cleansing force, played a significant early role, as did revolutionary syndicalists. The poet-warrior and war hero Gabriele D’Annunzio provided inspiration with his March on Fiume (Rijeka) in 1919 and his electrifying speeches delivered from balconies – and known as dialogues with the crowd – which earned him the title the first Duce and which Mussolini would emulate so effectively.
Mussolini’s new newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia – partly financed in 1918 by British secret service money to keep Italy in the war – paid homage to all who had fought calling them the aristocracy of the trenches – La Trincerocrazia – many of whom would form the fascist revolutionary vanguard. The genius of Mussolini was to create fascism, not just as an armed political movement, but as a religious cult with him as a sacred leader who transformed politics into a daily act of collective faith. This is, of course, what the leaders of the French Revolution did as well.
In each town, the fascists built their party headquarters in the main piazza, complete with a belltower to summon the faithful, which often stood opposite a real church – always uneasily. Despite making temporal peace with the Vatican in 1929, fascism remained a rival of the Catholic Church in the battle for control of the minds, if not the souls, of Italians. It was not just its demolition of democracy, or its waging of war, that doomed fascism. The Duce was not Jesus, nor even Pope.
If you had to choose one book that Mussolini regarded as a Bible, it would not be Marx’s Communist Manifesto or Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, but Gustave Le Bon’s huge best-seller, La Psychologie des Foules, published in 1895. Le Bon, an anthropologist, defined the epoque in which he lived as ‘the era of the crowd’ because the crowd was ‘the last surviving sovereign force’ but he predicted that the result would not be democracy. As others had noted, universal suffrage necessarily means the tyranny of minorities by the majority. For Le Bon, the ‘sub-conscious’ majority in the form of the crowd now wielded power, not ‘conscious’ individuals. But the subconscious crowd is tyrannical and driven by irrational impulses, untempered by reason. And yet, without a charismatic leader able to instill a religious sense of mission, such a crowd is impotent.
In 1932, the German journalist Emil Ludwig asked Mussolini: ‘You have written that the masses do not have to know but to believe. Do you really think that this Jesuit principle is practical?’ ‘Only faith moves mountains,’ replied Mussolini, ‘not reason.’ A month before his death in his last interview, he said: ‘I did not create fascism. I extracted it from the unconscious of the Italians. If it were not so, they would not have followed me for 20 years.’
The closest there is to a fascist manifesto is the Dottrina del Fascismo, an essay Mussolini co-authored with the philosopher Giovanni Gentile, published in 1932, in which we read: ‘The fascist conception of life is a religious one’ that aims to create ‘a spiritual society’. Fascism ‘accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the state.’ The state is ‘all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist… Thus understood, Fascism, is totalitarian’. That fascism regarded the state as the solution for everything, not as the problem, defines it as completely different from the Anglo-American, conservative and libertarian ‘bourgeois’ right for whom the opposite is the case. The fascist state dominates the life of the individual both at work and outside.
George Orwell, a revolutionary socialist who was also a patriot – as opposed to a nationalist – was one of the few on the left to understand and admit why fascism had mass appeal. In a 1940 review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, he wrote:
Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain… they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.
Elsewhere, Orwell wrote that ‘the overwhelming strength of patriotism’ was the key to understanding the modern world and Mussolini, like Hitler, got and kept power ‘very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not’. Compared to this patriotism, he wrote: ‘Christianity and international socialism are as weak as straw’.
Fascism, unlike the Nazi version of it, was not explicitly anti-Semitic until Mussolini’s fatal alliance with Hitler in the late 1930s. Many Jews were fascists, as was Mussolini’s penultimate mistress Margherita Sarfatti. His anti-Semitic laws, introduced in 1938, were despicable, but no Jews were deported from Italy to the Nazi death camps until after his overthrow in July 1943 and his restoration as a Nazi puppet in the north. In the southeast of France, occupied by Italy between November 1942 and August 1943, Italian officers and officials saved the lives of thousands of Jews, primarily from the Vichy French, who were Hitler’s willing collaborators.
To dismiss the Duce as a grotesque buffoon, as Anglo-American historians normally do, or a puppet of the bourgeoisie, as Marxist ones always do, cannot be right. Such definitions fail to explain why he was able to get power and keep it for more than two decades with relatively little use of the mass murder that characterises most dictatorships – especially communist ones. Nor why there was so little resistance to him until he began to lose battles in the second world war – or why he was so popular abroad.
The explanation is obvious: true, there were no opinion polls and no fair elections, but the only feasible answer must be that a critical mass of Italians was in favour of fascism, and a majority in favour of Mussolini. That fascism was wanted by so many Italians, not imposed, is something that the mainstream left still refuses to accept because it means accepting an uncomfortable truth: the Italians, not just the Duce, were to blame for fascism.
As his estranged daughter Edda – whose husband his regime had executed for treason in January 1944 – said when she heard on the radio that he had been shot at Como with Petacci, Bombacci and other fascists, and their corpses brought to Milan where they were strung upside down from the forecourt roof of a petrol station: ‘I believe you can really hate only a person you have loved… It was the final act of love of the Italians for him.’