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Fascist Counter-Revolution: Italy- Part I

Fascist Counter-Revolution: Italy- Part I

Introduction

  • The unification of Italy was only completed in 1870, and the new state suffered from economic and political weaknesses.
  • The First World War was a great strain on her economy, and there was bitter disappointment at her treatment by the Versailles settlement.
  • Between 1919 and 1922 there were five different governments, all of which were incapable of taking the decisive action that the situation demanded.
  • In 1919, Benito Mussolini founded the Italian fascist party, which won 35 seats in the 1921 elections. At the same time there seemed to be a real danger of a left-wing revolution; in an atmosphere of strikes and riots, the fascists staged a ‘march on Rome’, which culminated in King Victor Emmanuel inviting Mussolini to form a government (October 1922); he remained in power until July 1943.

Why was Mussolini able to come to power?

  • Disillusionment and frustration
    • In the summer of 1919 there was a general atmosphere of disillusionment and frustration in Italy, caused by a combination of factors:
      • Disappointment at Italy’s gains from the Versailles settlement
        • When Italy entered the war the Allies had promised her Trentino, the south Tyrol, Istria, Trieste, part of Dalmatia, Adalia, some Aegean islands and a protectorate over Albania.
        • Although she was given the first four areas, the rest were awarded to other states, mainly Yugoslavia; Albania was to be independent.
        • The Italians felt cheated in view of their valiant efforts during the war and the loss of close on 700 000 men.
        • Particularly irritating was their failure to get Fiume (given to Yugoslavia), though in fact this was not one of the areas which had been promised to them.
          • Gabriele d ‘Annunzio, a famous romantic poet, marched with a few hundred supporters and occupied Fiume before the Yugoslavs had time to take it.
          • However, in June 1920, after d’ Annunzio had held out in Fiume for 15 months, the new prime minister, Giovanni Giolitti, decided that the government’s authority must be restored. He ordered the army to remove d’ Annunzio from Fiume – a risky move, since he was viewed as a national hero.
          • The army obeyed orders and d’ Annunzio surrendered without a fight, but it left the government highly unpopular.
      • The economic effects of the war
        • The effects of the war on the economy and the standard of living were disastrous.
        • The government had borrowed heavily, especially from the USA, and these debts now had to be repaid.
        • As the currency lira declined in value, the cost of living increased.
        • There was massive unemployment as heavy industry cut back its wartime production levels, and 2.5 million ex-servicemen had difficulty finding jobs.
      • Growing contempt for the parliamentary system
        • Votes for all men and proportional representation were introduced for the 1919 elections.
        • Although this gave a fairer representation than under the previous system, it meant that there was a large number of parties in parliament.
          • After the election of May 1921, for example, there were at least nine parties represented, including liberals, nationalists, socialists, communists, the Catholic popular party and fascists.
        • This made it difficult for any one party to gain an overall majority, and coalition governments were inevitable. It led to the instability, indecisiveness and people became impatient with the system.
  • There was a wave of strikes in 1919 and 1920
    • The industrialization of Italy in the years after unification led to the development of a strong socialist party and trade unions.
      • Their way of protesting at the mess the country was to organize a wave of strikes in 1919 and 1920.
      • These were accompanied by rioting, looting of shops and occupation of factories by workers.
      • In the south, socialist leagues of farmworkers seized land from wealthy landowners and set up co-operatives.
    • The government’s prestige sank even lower because of its failure to protect property; many property-owners were convinced that a left-wing revolution was at hand, especially when the Italian Communist Party was formed in January 1921.
    • But in fact the chances of revolution were receding by then: the strikes and factory occupations were fizzling out, because although workers tried to maintain production, claiming control of the factories, it proved impossible (suppliers refused them raw materials and they needed engineers and managers).
    • In fact the formation of the Communist Party made a revolution less likely because it split the forces of the left; nevertheless the fear of a revolution remained strong.
  • Mussolini attracted widespread support
    • Mussolini and the fascist party were attractive to many sections of society because as he himself said, he aimed to rescue Italy from feeble government and give the country a political system that would provide stable and strong government.
    • Politically he began as a socialist and made a name for himself as a journalist, becoming editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti. He fell out with the socialists because they were against Italian intervention in the war, and started his own paper, ‘The People of Italy‘.
    • In 1919 he founded the fascist party with a socialist and republican programme, and he showed sympathy with the factory occupations of 1919-20.
    • The local party branches were known as fasci di combattimento (fighting groups) – the word fasces meant the bundle of rods with protruding axe which used to symbolize the authority and power of the ancient Roman consuls.
    • At this stage the fascists were anti-monarchy, anti-Church and anti-big business.
    • The new party won no seats in the 1919 elections; this, plus the failure of the factory occupations, caused Mussolini to change course.
      • He came out as the defender of private enterprise and property, thus attracting much needed financial support from wealthy business interests.
      • Beginning in late 1920, black-shirted squads of fascists regularly attacked and burned down local socialist headquarters and newspaper offices and beat up socialist councillors.
      • By the end of 1921, even though his political programme was vague in the extreme, he had gained the support of property-owners in general, because they saw him as a guarantee of law and order and as a protector of their property (especially after the formation of the Communist Party in January 1921).
      • Having won over big business, Mussolini began to make conciliatory speeches about the Roman Catholic Church; Pope Pius XI swung the Church into line behind Mussolini, seeing him as a good anti-communist weapon.
      • When Mussolini announced that he had dropped the republican part of his programme (September 1922), even the king began to look more favourably on the fascists.
      • In the space of three years Mussolini had swung from the extreme left to the extreme right.
    • Some of the working class supported the fascists, especially among industrial workers, supported parties of the left.
  • Lack of effective opposition
    • The anti-fascist groups failed to co-operate with each other and made no determined efforts to keep the fascists out.
    • The communists refused to co-operate with the socialists, and Giovanni Giolitti (Prime Minister from June 1920 to July 1921) held the elections of May 1921 in the hope that the fascists, still unrepresented in parliament, would win some seats and then support his government.
      • He was willing to overlook their violence, feeling that they would become more responsible once they were in parliament.
      • However, they won only 35 seats whereas the socialists took 123.
      • Clearly there should have been no question of a fascist takeover, though the number of fascist squads throughout the country was increasing rapidly.
    • The socialists must take much of the blame for refusing to work with the government to curb fascist violence:
      • A coalition of Giolitti’s nationalist bloc and the socialists could have made a reasonably stable government, thus excluding the fascists.
      • But the socialists would not co-operate, and this caused Giolitti to resign in exasperation and despair.
      • The socialists tried to use the situation to their own advantage by calling a general strike in the summer of 1922.
  • The attempted general strike, summer 1922 and ‘March on Rome’
    • This played into the hands of the fascists, who were able to use it to their advantage: they announced that if the government failed to quell the strike, they would crush it themselves.
    • When the strike failed through lack of support, Mussolini was able to pose as the saviour of the nation from communism, and by October 1922 the fascists felt confident enough to stage their ‘march on Rome‘.
    • As about 50 000 blackshirts converged on the capital, while others occupied important towns in the north, the prime minister, Luigi Facta, was prepared to resist.
    • But King Victor Emmanuel III refused to declare a state of emergency and instead, invited Mussolini, who had remained nervously in Milan, to come to Rome and form a new government, which he obligingly did, arriving by train.
    • Afterwards the fascists fostered the myth that they had seized power in a heroic struggle, but it had been achieved legally by the mere threat of force, while the army and the police stood aside.
  • The role of the king:
    • He made the crucial decision not to use the army to stop the blackshirts, though many historians believe that the regular army would have had little difficulty in dispersing the disorderly and poorly armed squads, many of which arrived by train.
    • The march was an enormous bluff which came off. The reasons why the king decided against armed resistance remain something of a mystery, since he was apparently reluctant to discuss them. Suggestions include:
      • lack of confidence in Prime Minister Facta;
      • doubts about whether the army, with its fascist sympathies, could be relied on to obey orders;
      • fears of a long civil war if the army failed to crush the fascists quickly.
    • There is no doubt that the king had a certain amount of sympathy with the fascist aim of providing strong government, and he was also afraid that some of the generals might force him to abdicate in favour of his cousin, the duke of Aosta, who openly supported the fascists.
    • Whatever the king’s motives, the outcome was clear: Mussolini became the first ever fascist premier in history.

Characteristics of Fascism

  • The term ‘fascist’ was later applied to other regimes and rulers, such as Hitler, Franco (Spain), Salazar (Portugal) and Peron (Argentina), which were sometimes quite different from the Italian version of fascism.
  • The fact that fascism never produced a great theoretical writer who could explain its philosophies clearly in the way that Marx did for communism makes it difficult to pin down exactly what was involved.
  • Mussolini’s constantly changing aims before 1923 suggest that his main concern was simply to acquire power; after that he seems to have improvised his ideas as he went along.
  • Apart from other things, “The Doctrine of Fascism“, an essay attributed to Benito Mussolini and first published in the Enciclopedia Italiana of 1932, gives us main clue about characteristics of Fascism.
    • The Doctrine of Fascism” as an authoritative document of the fascism emphasised on
      • nationalism,
      • corporatism,
      • totalitarianism and
      • militarism.
  • It eventually emerged that the type of fascism that Mussolini had in mind included certain basic features:
    • A stable and authoritarian government:
      • The Italian fascist movement was a reaction to the crisis situation that made stable democratic government impossible, just at the time when strong and decisive leadership was needed.
      • An authoritarian government would arouse and mobilize the great mass of ordinary people, and would control as many aspects of people’s lives as possible, with strong discipline
      • One aspect of this was the ‘corporate state‘.
        • This was a way of promoting efficiency by setting up a separate organization of workers and employers for each branch of the economy.
        • Each ‘corporation’ had a government official attached to it.
        • In practice it was a good way of controlling the workforce.
    • Extreme nationalism
      • The defining feature of fascism is often said to be nationalism.
      • This idea is well supported in the essay, though Mussolini generally prefers to speak of the state rather than the nation.
      • State lay at the heart of Fascism. Mussolini says: “The keystone of the Fascist doctrine is its conception of the State, of its essence, its functions, and its aims. For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative”.
      • An emphasis on the rebirth of the nation after a period of decline; building up the greatness and prestige of the state, with the implication that one’s own nation is superior to all others.
    • Rejection of individualism and absolute primacy of the State
      • Fascism is opposed to all individualistic abstractions based on eighteenth century materialism.
      • Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State.
      • For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative.
      • The State guarantees the internal and external safety of the country, but it also safeguards and transmits the spirit of the people, elaborated down the ages in its language, its customs, its faith.
      • The State hands down to future generations the memory of those who laid down their lives to ensure its safety or to obey its laws; it sets up as examples and records for future ages. The State is not only the present; it is also the past and above all the future.
    • A one-party state was essential
      • There was no place for democratic debate, because that made decisive government impossible and held up progress.
      • Only fascism could provide the necessary dynamic action to guarantee Italy a great future.
      • It also involved the cult of the great charismatic leader who would guide and inspire the nation to great things.
      • Mussolini did not see himself as a prime minister or president – instead he took the title il Duce (‘the leader’), in the same way that Hitler called himself Fuhrer.
    • Anti-communism:
      • Fascism was especially hostile to communism, which explains much of its popularity with big business and the wealthy.
    • Elitism
      • Salvation from rule by the mob and the destruction of the existing social order can be effected only by an authoritarian leader who embodies the highest ideals of the nation.
      • This concept of the leader is as hero or superman.
      • The fascist party members were the elite of the nation and great emphasis was placed on the cult of the leader who would win mass support with thrilling speeches and skillful propaganda.
    • Totalitarian system of Government
      • Totalitarianism is a political system where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible.
      • This government attempted to arouse and mobilize the great wars of ordinary people, to control and organize with strong discipline as many aspects of people’s lives as possible. This was necessary to promote the greatness of the state.
      • Fascists believed in strict press censorship in which anti-fascist news-papers and magazines were either banned or their editors replaced by fascist supporters. Radio, films and theatre were controlled in the same way.
      • The fascists also supervised the education.
    • Economic self-sufficiency (autarky)
      • Economic self-sufficiency was partially important in developing the greatness of the state.
      • The government must therefore direct the economic life of the nation, through not in the Marxist style of the state owning factories and land but corporatism. In fact Fascism was especially hostile to communism.
    • Use of propaganda
      • Uniforms, marches, songs and displays, all to demonstrate that fascists were a completely new and dynamic alternative to the boring, old-fashioned traditional parties, and to mobilize mass support behind the heroic leader.
      • Fascists had to wear uniforms and new text books were written to glorify the fascist system.
      • Children and young people were forced to join the government youth organizations which indoctrinated them with the brilliance of dice and glories of war.
      • The other main message was total obedience to authority which was necessary because everything was seen in terms of struggle – “Believe, obey, fight!”
    • Militarism and Social Darwinism
      • In domestic affairs they were prepared to use extreme violence against opponents.
      • Mussolini himself also gave the impression that they would pursue an aggressive foreign policy; he once remarked: ‘Peace is absurd: fascism does not believe in it.’
      • Hence the Italian fascists fostered the myth that they had seized power by force, when in fact Mussolini had been invited to form a government by the king.
      • They allowed the violent treatment of opponents and critics, and they pursued an aggressive foreign policy.
      • The doctrine of survival of the fittest (Social Darwinism) and the necessity of struggle for life is applied by fascists to the life of a nation-state.
        • Peaceful, complacent nations are seen as doomed to fall before more dynamic ones, making struggle and aggressive militarism a leading characteristic of the fascist state.
        • Imperialism is the logical outcome of this dogma.
    • Radicalism
      • Fascism may have been a movement of the right, but it was a movement of the radical right rather than the reactionary right.
      • It was authoritarian in nature and sought to suppress socialism and liberalism, but it did so in order to create a new national order rather than to turn the clock back to a time when Italy was ruled by feudal élites, kings and popes.
    • Corporatism
      • Benito Mussolini said: “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”
      • The corporate State considers that private enterprise in the sphere of production is the most effective and useful instrument in the interest of the nation.
      • In view of the fact that private organisation of production is a function of national concern, the organiser of the enterprise is responsible to the State for the direction given to production.
      • State intervention in economic production arises only when private initiative is lacking or insufficient, or when the political interests of the State are involved. This intervention may take the form of control, assistance or direct management.
      • The Fascist government believed in cooperation between employers and workers and to end class warfare in what was known as the corporate state.
        • Fascist controlled unions had the sole right to negotiate for workers, and both unions and employer’s associations were organized into corporations and were expected to work together to settle disputes over work and pay conditions.
        • Strikes and lockouts were not allowed.

How Corporatism was Mussolini’s answer to socio-political problems of Italy?

  • Socio-political problems faced by Italy
    • Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922 when Italy was facing many socio-political problems:
      • Class conflict was prevalent where society was split into working class, middle class, Industrialists. Strikes were frequent in factories.
      • There were increase in violent activities by left wing Communist Parties and right wing radicals.
      • Situation of working class was worsening due to exploitation and capitalists were always fearful about left wing revolutionary activities.
      • These conflicts and violent activities along with worsening economic condition and nature of political system (like system of proportional representation) had resulted in political instabilities.
      • Economy was in crisis due to Italian participation the First World War and inefficient economic system of Italy.
  • Mussolini’s answer to the problem
    • Mussolini and his Fascist government believed in cooperation between employers and workers and to end class warfare.
    • Mussolini believed that both capitalist and communist approaches to economic strategy were flawed, they both led to civil unrest, class struggle and caused socio-political problems in Italy.
    • The answer of Mussolini to these problems was to devise a new economic strategy, called the ‘Corporate state’.
    • This was called “third way” claiming that it was a genuine alternative to capitalism and communism.
    • The corporate state was in theory meant to have the best elements of both capitalism and communism.
  • Mussolini’s Corporate state had the following characteristics
    • The twenty-two corporations, each dealing with a separate industry was created. Everyone involved, be it worker or boss, would be in the Corporation.
    • Within the Corporation, companies would be privately owned, allowing for competition – however the Corporation would be state controlled.
    • Thus, in theory the Corporation had both advantages of Capitalism (profit and private enterprise) and Socialism (the state overseeing everything).
    • Workers and bosses would resolve disputes (working condition, pay scale etc.) in the Corporation. Fascist controlled unions negotiated on the behalf of workers. Strikes and lockouts were not allowed.
    • To compensate for their loss of freedom, workers were assured of such benefits as free Sundays, annual holidays with pay, social security, sports and theatre facility and cheap tours and holidays.
    • State intervened directly as needed to create a collaboration between the industrialists, the workers, and the state. The government crushed fundamental class conflicts in favor of corporatism.
    • Similar to socialism, the idea of the Corporate state was for every Italian, no matter what race, to contribute themselves to the state, rather than themselves.
    • The lack of industrial resources, especially the key ingredients of the industrial revolution, was countered by the intensive development of the available domestic sources and by aggressive commercial policies – searching for particular raw material trade deals, or attempting strategic colonization.
  • How successful was the Corporate State?
    • Corporate State was Mussolini’s way to control workers and direct production and economy but is was only partially successful.
    • Mussolini claimed that his Corporate State was a revolution. But in reality, very few changes were made to the Italian economy.
      • The working classes were still completely answerable to their employers and gained little in return.
      • Employees lost freedoms and employers were supported by the state to get what they wanted.
      • Class conflict was suppressed not solved.
      • Corporatism was criticized with communists saying it was too capitalist and vice versa.
    • In the short term the government worked to reform the widely-abused tax system, dispose of inefficient state-owned industry, cut government costs, and introduce tariffs to protect the new industries. But Italy still remained economically backward and inefficient.

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