Benito Mussolini addresses a crowd in Piazza Duomo in Milan, in May 1930 Benito Mussolini addresses a crowd in Piazza Duomo in Milan, in May 1930. Source: German Fedral Archive - Wikicommons / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-SA 3.0 DE / license linked below

Chris Bambery explains how Mussolini and his fascists were able to take power despite a wave of workers’ struggle after World War I

One hundred years ago, in late October 1922, a new word entered the languages of the world. It was a word which described an immediate and terrifying danger facing the international workers’ movement and the left. The word was fascism. The fasces, an ancient Roman symbol of authority, was the symbol of the Italian fascist movement, led by Benito Mussolini, who, on 29 October 1922, was appointed prime minister of Italy by the King. 

Mussolini would be dictator of Italy, creating a one-party state in which trade unions, all parties except the fascists, and any organisation independent of the state were banned. Leftists, liberals and opponents of Mussolini were imprisoned on remote islands or forced into exile, where some were killed by his secret police.

Fascism was not just another form of dictatorship. It represented the end of all democracy and free speech and state control of all areas of life. Above all, fascism represented the unleashing of civil war against the working-class movement. Neither was fascism simply a tool of big business. It represented a mass movement that collaborated with the police and army but retained its independence.

Roots of fascism

Italian fascism was the reaction to a crisis which swept Italian society at the close of the First World War. Italy entered the war in 1915 having secured promises from Britain and France of major territorial gains in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, mainly at the expense of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

The war was a disaster for Italy, the weak link of Western European capitalism. Some 5,750,000 men were drafted; 600,000 were killed, 700,000 permanently disabled. In October 1917, the Italian army was routed at Caporetto, in today’s Slovenia, and driven back nearly all the way to Venice.

That defeat brought to a head the contradictions in Italian society. The Italian state had only been created half a century before and was weak. In the northern cities of Turin, Milan and Genoa, modern capitalism had taken root, with factory owners repeatedly calling in the army to shoot strikers. However, the majority of the country was agrarian and the landlords dominated the weak parliament. The Catholic Church also wielded great influence.

The war brought greater industrialisation as artillery, machine guns, planes, trucks and more were hastily needed, but inflation undermined wages, and increased orders boosted workers’ confidence. This led to mass strikes by 1917. On the land, feudal conditions remained and landless labourers wanted land above all else.

The end of the war left much of the officer corps cruelly dissatisfied, as Britain and France ignored so many of their promises, not wanting Italy to become too powerful. The officer corps, students who were too young to have fought in the trenches, and many industrialists and landowners became disillusioned with the ineffective parliamentary politicians in Rome.

The Red Years, 1919 and 1920, brought a mass strike wave across the industrial north, culminating in mass occupations of the factories. On the land, landless labourers seized the farms they worked, taking control, while the rural trade unions mushroomed in size.

The generals did not trust the army to repress this movement, and the elite felt deserted by their state. The mass-membership Socialist Party loudly proclaimed its support for revolution in Russia and its determination to follow that lead, but words masked the reality. It was a parliamentary party, not one of direct action. In the end, while workers occupied the factories, their leaders turned their backs on the revolution, and brokered a deal giving the workers economic gains, but not giving them what they wanted, workers’ control.

The ruling class breathed a sigh of relief and, determined to exact their revenge, turned to a new force. Mussolini had broken with the left to support Italy’s entry into the war. His new Fascist Party was marginalised during the revolutionary storm, but now he bragged that he would inflict revenge on the left.

Civil war

In central Italy, the landowners employed the fascists against the socialist-led rural labourers’ trade unions. Columns fanned out across the countryside, burning union offices, and beating up and murdering activists with weapons supplied by army officers. The rural trade unions were destroyed. In Bologna and other cities, the fascists occupied the town and removed elected socialist councils. The fascists’ confidence was boosted when the left failed to mobilise against them. For two years, the fascists waged a one-sided civil war. The Socialist Party and the trade unions stuck to the old rules but Mussolini was not playing by them.

He did, however, have his own problems. He was based in Milan but had little control over the fascist squads led by thugs like Italo Balbo in Ferrara and Dino Grandi in Bologna. Eventually, he was able to organise the disparate fascist squads into one party, led by him.

In the absence of any lead from the Socialists, a grass-roots organisation of leftist ex-soldiers, the Arditi del Popolo (Shocktroops of the People) dealt the fascists a heavy blow in Rome and then routed them in Parma. Yet, they received no support from the Socialists or the infant break-away Communist Party. The leaders of the latter dismissed the threat of fascism, saw it as simply another form of reaction, and thought the destruction of parliamentary democracy was no bad thing.

By the autumn of 1922, parliamentary politics had been eroded, unable to provide a stable government. Mussolini signalled that the ruling classes could cut a deal with him. The Italian elite and the king were reluctant to give power to an upstart such as Mussolini. Mussolini’s supporters were overwhelmingly middle class, with a core of brutalised former soldiers. They hated the workers’ movement, but they also resented big business and the banks. Mussolini promised them a revolution for the ‘little man’: the shopkeeper, ex-officer and small businessman.

But Mussolini talked with two tongues. By 1922, this former republican was reassuring the officer corps he was in favour of the monarchy. The ex-atheist was singing the praises of the Catholic church. And he was reassuring big business he would allow it a free hand.

The main trade-union federation called a general strike against fascist violence, but it made no preparation and the strike crumbled within hours. The fascists felt confident to attack and conquer militant centres of the Arditi like Livorno, and cities like Genoa and Milan. The Italian working class had waged a far, far greater resistance than German workers would later offer to Hitler. But now demoralisation and the physical isolation of the cities began to undermine it. In the autumn of 1922, big business, the army command, the king and the Vatican felt reassured they could gamble on Mussolini.

Fascism established

The fascist regime based itself on a myth, the March on Rome, claiming it had seized power by a revolution in October 1922. Fascist columns did try to reach the capital, but they were easily stopped by the army. However, the king decided only Mussolini could provide a stable government and sent for him to be appointed premier. He arrived by sleeper train from Milan wearing a top hat, frock coat and spats to be sworn in. Only then were the fascist columns allowed into the city to hold a march, and to be addressed by Mussolini who ordered them home.

Mussolini was installed as head of a coalition of different political figures, but he quickly squeezed them out and instituted a dictatorship, backed by his new supporters. The selling point of fascism was the squads of committed fighters it could deploy, independently of the state. Mussolini promised them a revolution, but the old industrialists, generals and landowners remained in place, and he would cut a deal with the Vatican ensuring they retained great influence in Italy. The fascist party became bureaucratised and the squads formed into a militia officered by the army.

Today, Mussolini is remembered as something of a buffoon. Yet this ignores the fact that he was an inspiration for Hitler and that he unleashed cruel violence that, though it might not match that of Hitler or Stalin, was then something new in the world. Mussolini was responsible for the deaths of a million people. They were killed during the terror in Italy and vicious colonial wars in Libya, Somalia and Ethiopia. They died because of his support for General Franco in the Spanish Civil War and fascist Italy’s own butchery in the Second World War. And Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler involved the deportation of Italian Jews and compliance with the Holocaust.

Some apologists for Mussolini argue he was not genocidal like Hitler, but after he invaded Ethiopia in 1935, to enslave one of only two remaining independent African states, using poison gas to ensure victory, the racism and antisemitism implicit within Italian fascism came to the fore with a vengeance.

Mussolini also waged a merciless war against the anti-fascist resistance movement that liberated so much of Italy between 1943 and 1945. In April 1945, Mussolini himself met justice in the form of a resistance bullet.

There are two lessons from Mussolini’s rise to power. Firstly, compromise in the face of a revolutionary crisis leads to disaster. An Italian anarchist leader warned at the height of the revolutionary wave of 1919-20: ‘If we do not carry on until the end we shall pay with tears of blood for the fear we now install in the bourgeoisie.’ He was right. Looking back in July 1923, Mussolini bragged that the Italian left had not known how ‘to profit from a revolutionary situation such as history does not repeat.’

Secondly, unity in action is needed to stop fascism. Events one hundred years ago prove that we ignore that at our peril. Today, faced with one of Mussolini’s spiritual heirs, Georgia Meloni, becoming prime minister of Italy, and with fascism on the rise across Europe, it is vital we learn the lessons of a century ago.

Italy has chosen to mark this centenary by appointing Georgia Melloni as head of government. She has her roots in the post-war fascist party, the MSI (Italian Social Movement) and has expressed her admiration for its founder and long-time leader, Giorgio Almirante, a minister in Mussolini’s final government, operating under Nazi control from 1943 to 1945, and prior to that wrote for the regime’s antisemitic magazine, In Defence of the Race.

Melloni’s Brothers of Italy party retains the MSI’s burning-brand symbol and operates out of its old headquarters in Rome. The co-founder of the Brothers, Ignazio La Russa, has been chosen as Speaker of the Italian senate. He collects Mussolini memorabilia and his middle name is Benito. One hundred years on, fascism remains a threat in Italy and Europe.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.