Fascist Counter-Revolution: Italy (Part 2)


It is important to try to define what the term ‘fascist’ stood for, because it 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.

Nowadays there is a tendency among the left to label as ‘fascist’ anybody who holds rightwing views. 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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

Fascism was especially hostile to communism, which explains much of its popularity with big business and the wealthy.

5. 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 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.

6. 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.

7. 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 (explained later). In fact Fascism was especially hostile to communism.

8. Great use was made of all the latest modern forms 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!”

9. 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.

10. 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.


There was no sudden change in the system of government and state institutions; at first Mussolini was merely the prime minister of a coalition cabinet in which only four out of twelve ministers were fascists, and he had to move cautiously. However, the king had given him special powers to last until the end of 1923, to deal with the crisis. His blackshirt private army was legalized, becoming the National State Voluntary Militia (MVSN). The Accerbo Law (November 1923) changed the rules of general elections. From now on the party which got most votes in a general election would automatically be given two-thirds of the seats in parliament. As a result of the next election (April 1924) the fascists and their supporters came out with 404 seats while the opposition parties could manage only 107. The right-wing success can be explained partly by the general desire for a strong government which would put the country back on its feet again, after the weak minority governments of the preceding years. But there is no doubt that there was a good deal of violence and fraud during the election which prevented many people from voting freely.

Beginning in the summer of 1924, using a mixture of violence and intimidation, and helped by divisions among his opponents, Mussolini gradually developed Italian government and society along fascist lines. At the same time he consolidated his own hold over the country, which was largely complete, at least politically, by 1930. However, he still seems to have had no ‘revolutionary’ ideas about how to change Italy for the better; in fact it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that his main interest was simply to increase his own personal power by whatever methods were appropriate at the time.

(a) Only the fascist party was allowed

Persistent opponents of the regime were either exiled or murdered, the most notorious case being the murder of Giacomo Matteotti, the socialist leader in the Italian parliament, who was stabbed to death. Soon after the 1924 election Matteotti made a speech in parliament complaining about the fraud and violence, and demanding that the election be declared invalid. Mussolini was furious, and there can be little doubt that he was responsible for having Matteotti killed. Later, another opposition leader, the liberal-conservative Giovanni Amendola, was beaten to death by fascist thugs. The fascists’ popularity levels slumped dramatically in the aftermath of these outrages; the party seemed likely to split, as many moderates felt that their tactics had gone too far. Even Mussolini thought his regime was likely to be overthrown. However, nobody seemed to have the nerve to take the lead and try to unite the opposition against the fascists. Mussolini survived, partly because he was still seen as a guarantee against a communist and socialist takeover. After 1926, when Mussolini felt more secure, violence was much reduced and the Italian system was never as brutal as the Nazi regime in Germany.

  • Further changes in the constitution were made:
  • the prime minister (Mussolini) was responsible only to the king, not to parliament (1925);
  • the prime minister could rule by decree, which meant that new laws did not need to be discussed by parliament (1926);
  • the electorate was reduced from about 10 million to 3 million (the wealthiest).

Although parliament still met, all important decisions were taken by the Fascist Grand Council, which always did as Mussolini told it. In effect Mussolini, who now adopted the title il Duce, was a dictator.

(b) Changes in local government

Elected town councils and mayors were abolished and towns were run by officials appointed from Rome. In practice the local fascist party bosses (known as ras) often had as much power as the government officials.

(c) Education supervised

Education in schools and universities was closely supervised. Teachers had to wear uniforms and take an oath of loyalty to the regime; new textbooks were written to glorify the fascist system. Children were encouraged to criticize any teachers who lacked enthusiasm for the party. Children and young people were encouraged to join government youth organizations such as the Gioventu ltaliana del Littorio (GIL); this had branches for both boys and girls aged 6 to 21 and organized sports and military parades. Then there was a special organization for young boys aged 6 to 8 known as ‘Sons of the Wolf‘ which also tried to indoctrinate them with the brilliance of the Duce and the glories of war. From 1937 membership of one of these organizations was compulsory. The other main message emphasized was total obedience to authority; this was deemed necessary because everything was seen in terms of struggle – ‘Believe, Obey, Fight!’

(d) Employment policies: Corporatism

Benito Mussolini said: “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”

The ‘Corporate State’ was one of the key elements of the Fascist system. The government claimed that it was designed to promote co-operation between employers and workers and to end class warfare. Fascist-controlled unions had the sole right to negotiate for the workers, and both unions and employers’ associations were organized into corporations, and were expected to work together to settle disputes over pay and working conditions. Strikes and lockouts were not allowed.

By 1934 there were 22 corporations each dealing with a separate industry; each one included a government official among its members, and there was a minister of corporations in charge of the whole system. Mussolini himself acted as the first minister of corporations from 1926 until 1929. In this way Mussolini hoped to control workers and direct production and the economy. 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 facilities and cheap tours and holidays.

Although the Italian system was based upon unlimited government control of economic life, it still preserved the framework of capitalism. State intervention in economic production arises only when private initiative is lacking or insufficient, or when the political interests of the State are involved. The corporations were generally weighted by the state in favor of the wealthy classes, and they served to combat socialism and syndicalism by absorbing the trade union movement.

(e) An understanding was reached with the pope

The Papacy had been hostile to the Italian government since 1870 when all the territory belonging to the Papacy (Papal States) had been incorporated in the new kingdom of Italy. Though he had been sympathetic towards Mussolini in 1922, Pope Pius XI disapproved of the increasing totalitarianism of fascist government (the fascist youth organizations, for example, clashed with the Catholic scouts).

Mussolini, who was probably an atheist himself, was nevertheless well aware of the power of the Roman Catholic Church, and he put himself out to win over Pius, who, as the Duce well knew, was obsessed with the fear of communism. The result was the Lateran Treaty of 1929, by which Italy recognized the Vatican City as a sovereign state, paid the pope a large sum of money as compensation for all his losses, accepted the Catholic faith as the official state religion, made religious instruction compulsory in all schools and left the Church free to continue its spiritual mission without interference from the government. In return the Papacy recognized the kingdom of Italy, and promised not to interfere in politics. Some historians see the ending of the long breach between Church and State as Mussolini’s most lasting and worthwhile achievement.

(f) Propaganda and censorship

Great importance was attached to propaganda in the attempt to brainwash the Italian people into accepting fascist values and culture. The government tried, with some success, to keep a close control over the press, radio, theatre and the cinema. Strict press censorship was enforced: anti-fascist newspapers and magazines were banned or their editors were replaced by fascist supporters.

A Ministry of Popular Culture was set up in 1937 to mastermind the campaign to spread the fascist message, suggesting perhaps that for the last 15 years the campaign had been less successful than had been hoped. The main points for emphasis were the cult of Mussolini, the hero and the man of action, always in uniform; and the celebration of military greatness. People were bombarded with slogans such as ‘Mussolini is always right.’ The military glories of ancient Rome were constantly extolled, with the implication that fascism would bring more military glory.

(g) Racial policy

For much of his time in power Mussolini showed little interest in any so-called problems to do with race. He had certainly not shown any signs of anti-Jewishness. At one time he had even encouraged Zionism because he thought it might be useful for embarrassing the British. Many leading members of the fascist party were Jews, and he had several times insisted that there was no such thing as a Jewish problem in Italy. He was very critical of the Nazis’ anti-Semitism.

On the other hand he had also claimed that certain races were superior to others. He suggested that the Italians belonged to an Aryan race that was superior to such nationalities as Spaniards and Greeks, as well as to the Africans in the Italian territories of Abyssinia and Libya. He seemed to be more worried about what he called the ‘Levantines’, by which he meant the slaves brought in during the time of the Roman Empire. He was afraid that as their descendants intermarried with the pure Aryans over many generations, a wrong impression of the Italian national character would be given to the rest of the world.

As late as September 1937 he said that the Jews in Italy were no problem; after all, there were at most only about 70 000 of them. In the summer of 1939, however, Mussolini announced the introduction of anti-Jewish laws on the same lines as the Nazi laws. In view of his earlier pronouncements most people were shocked by this sudden change. The reasons for the change were simple. Following the hostile reception from France and Britain of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 and their imposition of economic sanctions on Italy, Mussolini found himself being pushed towards an alliance with Hitler. In 1936 he reached an understanding with Hitler, known as the Rome-Berlin Axis, and in 1937 he joined the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany and Japan, which was directed against Communism. After a four-day visit to Germany in 1937 Mussolini realized the political expediency of aligning Italy with Germany as closely as possible. As he moved towards the full alliance with Germany – the Pact of Steel – signed in May 1939, Mussolini moved quickly to emulate Hitler, in what was simply a cynical, tactical move. There was another motive for the policy change, or so Mussolini claimed: the possession of territory in Africa (Abyssinia and Libya) meant that it was important for Italians to emphasize their domination over Africans and Arabs, and make sure that they showed the respect due to people of a superior race.

In July 1938 the Charter of Race was published which claimed that Arabs, Africans and Jews were all inferior races. He began by urging people not to employ Jews and to sack those already in jobs. Then the press were told to report that Jews had managed to get themselves into important and influential positions and must be ousted before they sent Italy into decline. This policy was not popular with the general public, but when the pope protested strongly, the press was ordered to print articles justifying the persecution of Jews and to ignore the pope. As the Second World War got under way Mussolini appointed Giovanni Prezioso, a well known journalist and virulent anti-Semite, to supervise the racial policy. They agreed that all Jews must be expelled from Europe. Although they knew that the Nazis were systematically murdering Jews, including women and children, they still ordered thousands of Italian Jews to be deported to Germany. Again this policy was extremely unpopular and some officials either sabotaged orders or simply refused to carry them out.

How totalitarian was Mussolini’s system?

It seems clear that in spite of his efforts Mussolini did not succeed in creating a completely totalitarian system in the Fascist sense of there being ‘no individuals or groups not controlled by the state’; nor was it as all-pervasive as the Nazi state in Germany. He never completely eliminated the influence of the king or the pope.

In spite of the cult of Mussolini as il Duce, the king remained head of state, and was able to dismiss Mussolini in 1943.

The Roman Catholic Church remained an extremely powerful institution and it provided the Italian people with an alternative focus of loyalty; there was no way that Mussolini could sideline it, and there were several clashes between the two even after the signing of the Lateran Treaty. The pope became highly critical of Mussolini when he began to persecute Jews in the later 1930s. The historian and philosopher Benedetto Croce and other university professors were constant critics of fascism and yet they survived, apparently because Mussolini was afraid of hostile foreign reaction if he had them arrested. They would certainly not have been tolerated in Nazi Germany.

A more accurate description of Mussolini’s system would be authoritarian rather than totalitarian. Even fascist sympathizers admitted that the corporative system was not a success either in controlling production or in eliminating class warfare. According to historian Elizabeth Wiskemann, ‘on the whole the big industrialists only made gestures of submission and in fact bought their freedom from the fascist state by generous subscriptions to Fascist party funds’. Most of the important decisions on the economy were taken by the government in consultation with business leaders, and the workers themselves had very little say. It was the workers who had to make all the concessions – agree not to strike and give up their own trade unions – while the big employers enjoyed considerable freedom of action. In fact the corporate state was little more than a propaganda exercise and a way of controlling the workers.

As far as the mass of the population was concerned, it seems that they were prepared to tolerate fascism while it appeared to bring benefits, but soon grew tired of it when its inadequacies were revealed by its failures during the Second World War.


Q. Corporate State‛ was Mussolini’s answer to socio-political problems of his country. Elucidate.


  • (See the section of previous years solved papers for answer)

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