“I am constantly amazed by man’s inhumanity to man.” Primo Levi
“It is necessary, with bold spirit and in good conscience, to save civilisation. We must halt the dissolution which corrodes and corrupts to roots of human society. The bare and barren tree can be made green again. Are we not ready?” Antonio Gramsci
A rapid and intensive development of modern, industrial capitalism took place north eastern Italy, especially in the area in and between Genoa, Milan and Turin, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth.
The first electric power station in Europe was built in Milan in 1884. Electricity production increased very quickly to three billion kilowatt hours by 1914. Steel production increased 12-fold from 1896 to 1913, and then by half again during the war.
In 1899, Fiat was founded in Turin. By 1914, 44 Italian car firms employed 12 000 workers producing 9 000 cars a year. After the war, in 1918, production had more than doubled
As the First World War began Italy was tied to Germany and Austria-Hungary by the Triple Alliance pact. However, Italy was manoeuvred into the war on the side of France and Britain in May 1915 with the promise of Austrian territories inhabited by (a minority) of Italians. Nationalist, irredentist agitation had been a feature of Italian political life for several decades and had gripped the ruling class.
However Italian confidence was shaken during two years of grinding, brutal war followed by a major rout after the battle of Caporetto. France and Britain shored up the Italian forces with troops and, more importantly, with coal and steel, which the Italians were desperately short of. During the war 5.7 million Italians were drafted, 600 000 killed and 700 000 disabled.
In August 1917, a general strike began in Turin after police killed two people during a protest over bread shortages. The Turin movement was brutally repressed. Troops armed with machine guns killed over 50 people and wounded 800. 1,000 demonstrators, mainly Fiat workers, were sent to the front.
Many categories of industrial worker were excluded from the draft. However large numbers of peasants were conscripted. This reduced the rural labour force of males over 18 from 4.8 to 2.2 million and created a crisis of food production. It widened the gap between the northern workers and southern peasants. Sardinian soldiers had shot down Turin workers in August 1917.
Many northern factory workers worked under military discipline, unable to get other work under the threat of prison or posting to the front.
During the war there was a tripling of the value of paper money in circulation; wages rose quickly, but inflation was more rapid and real wages fell in value by a quarter.
Benito Mussolini was born on 29 July 1883 in Predappio, a village outside Forli, south of Bologna. His mother was a school teacher and devout Catholic. His father occasionally worked as a blacksmith, and was a socialist who had been to jail for his beliefs; he also drank and had a series of affairs.
Mussolini spent time in Switzerland and worked with the socialist movement there. In 1910 Mussolini was back in Italy, editor of the paper of the socialist clubs in Forli, La Lotta di Classe (Class Struggle), with a picture of Marx on his office wall. The paper was anti-military (he was jailed for calling on soldiers to disobey their officers), and anti-church (the priests were “black microbes” and the church was an authoritarian opponent of free thought).
Later, when in power, the Pope claimed Mussolini had been sent by Providence to deliver Italy from liberalism and religious error. And after he came to power copies of his socialist writings disappeared from libraries. Inside the Socialist Party he advocated the far left secede because he considered the fight for reforms through parliament was a waste of time and what was needed was armed insurrection instead.
When the Liberal prime minister Giolitti declared war on (Turkish) Libya in 1911 Mussolini denounced the war and declared patriotic loyalty as “a lying and outdated fiction”. He advocated strikes and rebellion against the war. In court, charged with stirring up violence, he denied the charges, claiming the people of Forli, in fact, did not like him; his arguments against the war were essentially patriotic. He was jailed for five months. In 1912, he was elected to the party executive and later became editor of the party paper, Avanti!
However, on 18 October 1914, after World War One had begun, Mussolini announced in Avanti! that Italy should go to war against Austria. Isolated among the Socialist leadership he resigned and founded a new paper, Il Popolo d’Italia, which was nominally socialist. It began publication in November 1914. Il Popolo d’Italia was funded by money from armaments firms as well as Britain and France and by early 1915 Mussolini was using the paper to advocate a “great war” and Italian imperialist expansion into the Balkans and Middle East. Mussolini was conscripted into the army in September 1915 and spent nine months in the trenches until he was injured by a grenade blast.
Invalided out of the army, Mussolini rejoined Il Popolo d’Italia, advocating a more aggressive war, and involving himself with right-wing coup plotters. His militancy was still there, but his revolution now had a different, far-right, content.
Following the shock of Caporetto, when the generals blamed the soldiers for cowardice and shot thousands of their own men, Mussolini concluded the army leadership — and more generally the ruling elite — were to blame. He advocated discipline and a dictator who would militarise the Italian nation. Later, in 1919, Mussolini founded the Combat League (Fasci di Combattimento) with 200 members around a core of unemployed veterans. It was characterised by militancy, nationalism and an anti-establishment pseudo-leftism. It became involved in anti-socialist violence.
In the parliamentary elections of November 1919, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) got 1,834,000 votes (30%) and 156 Members of Parliament.
The PSI also took control of 2800 local councils (24% of the total) and its overall membership rose to over 200,000. Only two years earlier the party membership had stood at 60,000. By 1920 3,800,000 workers and peasants were organised in the various unions. This was five times the pre-war figure.
In February 1919, the engineering workers won a shorter working day: eight hours with no loss in pay. In the summer of 1919 the FIOM (the Socialist-aligned union federation, CGL, metalworkers’ section) was involved in a struggle in Lombardy, Liguria and Emilia (three regions in the north of Italy) over the minimum wage and the cost of living index. They were demanding that this be increased in line with the constant increase in the price of basic goods.
In 1919, there were 1,660 industrial strikes (against 800 in 1913). Over one million industrial workers struck that year, three times the 1913 figure. The trend continued in 1920, which saw 1,881 industrial strikes. Peasant strikes also rocketed, from 97 in 1913 to 189 by 1920, with over a million taking action.
The high point of the movement was 1920, with a wave of factory occupations during which half a million workers joined the action in September. The factory council movement was championed by Antonio Gramsci through the paper L’Ordine Nuovo. As the wave of workers’ militancy ebbed serious right-wing violence, directed at the workers, began in rural areas of the north. In November fascist terror forced the Socialist Party to move their conference from Florence.
Wheat and maize production had fallen. Industrial production had also fallen: by 15% in mining, by 40% in the engineering industry, by 20% in the chemical industry.
The exchange rate with the dollar went from 6.34 lira at the end of 1918, to 13.07 in 1919 and 28.57 at the end of 1920. This led to a huge increase in inflation. The serious economic crisis created widespread unemployment which eroded working-class confidence.
In January 1921 the left wing of the Socialists split and formed the Italian Communist party, led by Amadeo Bordiga and Gramsci. By the end of April 1921 the factory councils had been defeated in Turin — using troops and fascists to back an employers’ lock-out.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett begins The Pike, her biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio: “In September 1919, Gabriele d’Annunzio — poet, aviator, nationalist demagogue, war hero — assumed leadership of 186 mutineers from the Italian army… he led them in a march on the harbour city of Fiume in Croatia, part of the defunct Austro-Hungarian empire [and claimed by Italian nationalists for Italy]… by the time he reached Fiume his following was 2000 strong.”
D’Annunzio had marched past Italian soldiers who had orders to stop him — killing him if necessary. But he held Fiume until December 1920, in the process undermining the authority of Italian democracy and creating a prefiguration of fascism. Although d’Annunzio hated Hitler and thought Mussolini was a windbag, both Hitler and the Italian fascists learnt a lot from him.
Hughes-Hallett comments, “Though d’Annunzio was not a fascist, fascism was d’Annunzian. The black shirts, the straight arm salute, the songs and war cries, the glorification of virility and youth and patria and blood sacrifice were all present in Fiume three years before Mussolini’s March on Rome.”
In the elections of 1921 Mussolini’s followers joined the National Bloc as a minority. Giolitti, the prime minister and leader of the Bloc, believed the fascists would, like fireworks, “make a lot of noise but… leave nothing behind except smoke.” The Bloc won 19% of the vote and of their 105 MPs, 35 were fascists, including Mussolini. The largest vote went to the Socialists (25%, 123 seats); the Communists took 4.6% and 15 seats.
Mussolini created the National Fascist Party (PNF) at the third fascist conference held in November 1921, incorporating various paramilitary groups under a single political command. The programme adopted included a ban on the right to strike, compulsory military service and the supremacy of the state over individual liberty. Mussolini also dropped his anti-church and anti-monarchy rhetoric, and had this warning for the workers: “One hears that the masses must be won over… we do wish to serve them, to educate them, but we also intend to flog them when they make mistakes.”
During 1922 the fascists were on the rampage throughout the north. In August the Socialist Party called a general strike demanding law and order. Mussolini’s response was to call on his squadristi to use terror to break the strike. In Genoa, Ancona and Leghorn Socialist Party offices were burnt down. The strike collapsed.
Triumphant, Mussolini addressed a fascist conference in Naples on 24 October 1922. He declared, “The problem has to be faced as a problem of force… That is why we have gathered and powerfully equipped and resolutely disciplined our legions.” As he sat down the crowd chanted, “To Rome!”
In Rome the prime minister, Luigi Facta, panicked and offered the fascists — still with less than 7% of the MPs in parliament — places in government. Mussolini rejected the offer saying he had no intention of coming to power “by the servants’ door.”
The fascists assembled — 6,000 at Civita Vecchia, 8,000 at Tivoli and 13,000 at Monterotondo. However heavy rain began to fall, railways had been sabotaged and those that were heading for Rome were only lightly armed.
On the 27th the fascists began occupying government offices, railway stations and telephone exchanges. Eventually the King, Victor Emmanuel, signed a notice for martial law and the army quickly began to retake occupied buildings and blocked the railways and roads to Rome. Later, however, the King changed his mind. After a few hours Mussolini was invited to become prime minister.
A small minority in parliament had been offered power after attempting a military putsch, despite the state’s ability to easily defeat them (General Badoglio, the military commander, correctly told the King the fascists could be quickly dealt with).
The 61 years of government since unification had produced 86 ministers of justice, 88 ministers of education and 94 ministers of the navy. There had been several short-lived governments since the war. Italian bourgeois democracy was weak and since the end of the war the system had decayed further. There was open class war, an increase in lawlessness (robberies, murders) and various services were on the point of collapse (rail, post).
In fact sections of the capitalist class, landowners, the King and liberal politicians had come to the conclusion that the fascists were needed to bring order and stability and to crush the workers’ movement. No doubt many continued to believe they would rule in the background, controlling the fascists. Many liberals went directly over to the fascists.
However, Mussolini had other thoughts. He manipulated the law to rig future elections. The Acerbo law of November 1923 gave the largest party with more than 25% of the vote two-thirds of the seats in parliament. In April 1924 new elections gave Mussolini’s National Bloc 63% of the vote; Social Democratic parties won 11% and the Communists 4%. The elections had been compromised by vast fascist violence – including the murder of a Socialist candidate — and ballot rigging.
This was the last election Mussolini intended to hold. He stated: “50 000 guns are better than the support of five million voters.”
However, speaking in parliament on 30 May the Socialist Party deputy Giacomo Matteotti accused the fascists of massive fraud and demanded the election be annulled; Matteotti had a large dossier of documents to back his case, as well as details of bribery and corruption implicating leading fascists. On 10 June Matteotti was grabbed on the street by a fascist gang, bundled into a car, killed and buried in a shallow grave. Matteotti’s murder created a major political crisis – the gang’s car was identified and those responsible linked directly to Mussolini. Mussolini stated, “If I get away with this we all survive, otherwise we all sink together.”
Many fascists left the party in panic. But the workers’ movement had been beaten down, and remained silent, and Mussolini rode the crisis out. Later, in 1925, terror against leading oppositionists was renewed. Censorship laws were brought in as Mussolini strengthened his dictatorship. In 1926, following an attempt at assassination, Mussolini passed a series of emergency laws that removed many of the remaining checks on fascist power. Antonio Gramsci was arrested and spent almost all the remaining years of his life in jail (he died aged 46 in 1937).
By 1928 the fascist party was the only legal party. Unions had been turned into organisations that policed the workers, with leaders imposed from above. Mussolini declared the class struggle was at an end and parliamentary elections were replaced by plebiscites on a single list of candidates.
The fascist dictatorship became a highly personalised affair. Mussolini often held six or seven ministerial posts in his own hands, and quickly demoted any individual who showed talent or competence or independence. For example, the fascist party secretary through most of the 1930s was the obsequious Achille Starace whose police file included accusations of involvement in drugs, prostitution, violence and rape. Starace was, however, narrow-minded, loyal and an efficient organiser. Under Starace the party and state machines became bloated, thoroughly corrupt, and inefficient.
Many of Mussolini’s personal idiosyncrasies – unmediated by others capable and willing to argue with him — went immediately into circulation. Historian Mack Smith describes his mania for uniforms —– considered to convey discipline – and quotes a journalist as writing that Mussolini became so overdressed he “looked like a circus performer in off hours.” Handshakes were banned as unhygienic. Umbrellas were considered English (a nation in decline) and so Mussolini never used one.
Starace then invented a rule that stated anyone who entered Mussolini’s office had to run to his desk; after the interview had ended they had to run out at the double, saluting at the door as they left. Mussolini was followed around by an “applause squad” and his Cabinet ministers were expected to stand in his presence, sometimes for hours at a time. His birthplace and the tomb of his parents were made into shrines.
Mussolini became obsessed with proving the supremacy of all things Italian. Great scientists such as Faraday and Pasteur were shown to have merely developed discoveries made in Italy. Einstein was denounced as a Jewish fraud. And it was discovered that Shakespeare had been the pseudonym of an Italian poet.
Unsurprisingly Mussolini acquired a reputation — among sections of the British press, for example — as a pompous buffoon. Although his unrestricted narcissism and bullying pretentiousness were indeed ridiculous, Mussolini’s underlying weakness was the disparity between his aggressive, imperialist posturing and what relatively weak Italian capitalism was capable of. This was a problem Hitler did not have.
The weakness of fascist Italian power was finally — brutally — exposed in the Second World War.