Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini: SLE-Ti (Normalizing subtype); or LSI-Se?
from Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning by Jonah Goldberg; page 17:
. . . it’s illuminating to note that Jews were overrepresented in the Italian Fascist Party and remained so from the early 1920s until 1938. Fascist Italy had nothing like a death camp system. Not a single Jew of any national origin under Italian control anywhere in the world was handed over to Germany until 1943, when Italy was invaded by the Nazis. Jews in Italy survived the war at a higher rate than anywhere under Axis rule save Denmark, and Jews in Italian-controlled areas of Europe fared almost as well. Mussolini actually sent Italian troops into harm’s way to save Jewish lives. Francisco Franco, allegedly a quintessential fascist dictator, also refused ******’s demand to hand over Spanish Jews, saving tens of thousands of Jews from extermination. It was Franco who signed the document abrogating the 1492 Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Meanwhile, the supposedly “liberal” French and Dutch eagerly cooperated with the Nazi deportation program.
- page 62:
For most of his career, Mussolini considered anti-Semitism a silly distraction and, later, a necessary sop to his overbearing German patron. Jews could be good socialists or fascists if they thought and behaved like good socialists or fascists. Because ****** thought explicitly in terms of what we would today call identity politics, Jews were irredeemably Jews, no matter how well they spoke German. His allegiance, like that of all practitioners of identity politics, was to the iron cage of immutable identity.
- pages 25-52 (Ch. 1—Mussolini: The Father of Fascism):
If you went solely by what you read in the New York Times or the New York Review of Books, or what you learned from Hollywood, you could be forgiven for thinking that Benito Mussolini came to power around the same time as Adolf ******—or even a little bit later—and that Italian Fascism was merely a tardy, watered-down version of Nazism. Germany passed its hateful race policies—the Nuremberg Laws—in 1935, and Mussolini’s Italy followed suit in 1938. German Jews were rounded up in 1942, and Jews in Italy were rounded up in 1943. A few writers will casually mention, in parenthetical asides, that until Italy passed its race laws there were actually Jews serving in the Italian government and the Fascist Party. And on occasion you’ll notice a nod to historical accuracy indicating that the Jews were rounded up only after the Nazis had invaded northern Italy and created a puppet government in Salò. But such inconvenient facts are usually skipped over as quickly as possible. More likely, your understanding of these issues comes from such sources as the Oscar-winning film Life is Beautiful,* which can be summarized as follows: Fascism arrived in Italy and, a few months later, so did the Nazis, who carted off the Jews. As for Mussolini, he was a bombastic, goofy-looking, but highly effective dictator who made the trains run on time.
All of this amounts to playing the movie backward. By the time Italy reluctantly passed its shameful race laws—which it never enforced with even a fraction of the barbarity shown by the Nazis—over 75 percent of Italian Fascism’s reign had already transpired. A full sixteen years elapsed between the March on Rome and the passage of Italy’s race laws. To start with the Jews when talking about Mussolini is like starting with FDR’s internment of the Japanese: it leaves a lot of the story on the cutting room floor. Throughout the 1920s and well into the 1930s, fascism meant something very different from Auschwitz and Nuremberg. Before ******, in fact, it never occurred to anyone that fascism had anything to do with anti-Semitism. Indeed, Mussolini was supported not only by the chief rabbi of Rome but by a substantial portion of the Italian Jewish community (and the world Jewish community). Moreover, Jews were overrepresented in the Italian Fascist movement from its founding in 1919 until they were kicked out in 1938.
Race did help turn the tables of American public opinion on Fascism. But it had nothing to do with the Jews. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, Americans finally started to turn on him. In 1934 the hit Cole Porter song “You’re the Top” engendered nary a word of controversy over the line “You are Mussolini!” When Mussolini invaded that poor but noble African kingdom the following year, it irrevocably marred his image, and Americans decided they had had enough of his act. It was the first war of conquest by a Western European nation in over a decade, and Americans were distinctly unamused, particularly liberals and blacks. Still, it was a slow process. The Chicago Tribune initially supported the invasion, as did reporters like Herbert Matthews. Others claimed it would be hypocritical to condemn it. The New Republic—then in the thick of its pro-Soviet phase—believed it would be “naïve” to blame Mussolini when the real culprit was international capitalism. And more than a few prominent Americans continued to support him, although quietly. The poet Wallace Stevens, for example, stayed pro-Fascist. “I am pro-Mussolini, personally,” he wrote to a friend. “The Italians,” he explained, “have as much right to take Ethiopia from the c**ns as the c**ns had to take it from the boa-constrictors.” But over time, largely due to his subsequent alliance with ******, Mussolini’s image never recovered.
That’s not to say he didn’t have a good ride.
*Robert Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1998) won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor and was nominated for Best Director. The title of the film, ironically enough, derives from Leon Trotsky. According to Benigni, shortly before the exiled Bolshevik was to be assassinated in Mexico, he supposedly looked at his wife in their garden and said, “Life is beautiful anyway.”
In 1923 the journalist Isaac F. Marcosson wrote admiringly in the New York Times that “Mussolini is a Latin [Teddy] Roosevelt who first acts and then inquires if it is legal. He has been of great service to Italy at home.”* The American Legion, which has been for nearly its entire history a great and generous American institution, was founded the same year as Mussolini’s takeover and, in its early years, drew inspiration from the Italian Fascist movement. “Do not forget,” the legion’s national commander declared that same year,”that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.” [John Patrick Diggins, Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America, p. 206; Norman Hapgood, Professional Patriots, p. 62.]
*“Calls Mussolini Latin Roosevelt,” New York Times, Oct. 7, 1923, p. E10.
In 1926 the American humorist Will Rogers visited Italy and interviewed Mussolini. He told the New York Times that Mussolini was “some ***.” “I’m pretty high on that bird.” Rogers, whom the National Press Club had informally dubbed “Ambassador-at-Large of the United States,” wrote up the interview for the Saturday Evening Post. He concluded, “Dictator form of government is the greatest form of government: that is if you have the right Dictator.”* In 1927 the Literary Digest conducted an editorial survey asking the question: “Is there a dearth of great men?” The person named most often to refute the charge was Benito Mussolini—followed by Lenin, Edison, Marconi, and Orville Wright, with Henry Ford and George Bernard Shaw tying for sixth place. In 1928 the Saturday Evening Post glorified Mussolini even further, running an eight-part autobiography written by Il Duce himself. The series was gussied up into a book that gained one of the biggest advances ever given by an American publisher.
And why shouldn’t the average American think Mussolini was anything but a great man? Winston Churchill had dubbed him the world’s greatest living lawgiver. Sigmund Freud sent Mussolini a copy of a book he co-wrote with Albert Einstein, inscribed, “To Benito Mussolini, from an old man who greets in the Ruler, the Hero of Culture.” The opera titans Giacomo Puccini and Arturo Toscanini were both pioneering Fascist acolytes of Mussolini. Toscanini was an early member of the Milan circle of Fascists, which conferred an aura of seniority not unlike being a member of the Nazi Party in the days of the Beer Hall Putsch. Toscanini ran for the Italian parliament on a Fascist ticket in 1919 and didn’t repudiate Fascism until twelve years later. [Toscanini’s relationship with the Mussolini regime was turbulent. For reasons probably more artistic than political, he refused to perform the fascist national anthem, “Giovinezza.”]
Mussolini was a particular hero to the muckrakers—those progressive liberal journalists who famously looked out for the little guy. When Ida Tarbell, the famed reporter whose work helped break up Standard Oil, was sent to Italy in 1926 by McCall’s to write a series on the Fascist nation, the U.S. State Department feared that this “pretty red radical” would write nothing but “violent anti-Mussolini articles.” Their fears were misplaced. Tarbell was wooed by the man she called “a despot with a dimple,” praising his progressive attitude toward labor. Similarly smitten was Lincoln Steffens, another famous muckraker, who is today perhaps dimly remembered for being the man who returned from the Soviet Union declaring, “I have been over into the future, and it works.” Shortly after that declaration, he made another about Mussolini: God had “formed Mussolini out of the rib of Italy.” As we’ll see, Steffens saw no contradiction between his fondness for Fascism and his admiration of the Soviet Union. Even Samuel McClure, the founder of McClure’s Magazine, the home of so much famous muckraking, championed Fascism after visiting Italy. He hailed it as “a great step forward and the first new ideal in government since the founding of the American Republic.” [The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, Volume II: Muckraking/Revolution/Seeing America at Last, p. 799; McClure’s view can be found in Diggins, Mussolini and Fascism, pp. 28-29.]
Meanwhile, almost all of Italy’s most famous and admired young intellectuals and artists were Fascists or Fascist sympathizers (the most notable exception was the literary critic Benedetto Croce). Giovanni Papini, the “magical pragmatist” so admired by William James, was deeply involved in the various intellectual movements that created Fascism. Papini’s Life of Christ—a turbulent, almost hysterical tour de force chronicling his acceptance of Christianity—caused a sensation in the United States in the early 1920s. Giuseppe Prezzolini, a frequent contributor to the New Republic who would one day become a respected professor at Columbia University, was one of Fascism’s earliest literary and ideological architects. F. T. Marinetti, the founder of the Futurist movement—which in America was seen as an artistic companion to Cubism and Expressionism—was instrumental in making Italian Fascism the world’s first successful “youth movement.” America’s education establishment was keenly interested in Italy’s breakthroughs” under the famed “schoolmaster” Benito Mussolini, who, after all, had once been a teacher.
Perhaps no elite institution in America was more accommodating to Fascism than Columbia University. In 1926 it established Casa Italiana, a center for the study of Italian culture and a lecture venue for prominent Italian scholars. It was Fascism’s “veritable home in America” and a “schoolhouse for budding Fascist ideologues,” according to John Patrick Diggins. Mussolini himself had contributed some ornate Baroque furniture to Casa Italiana and had sent Columbia’s president, Nicholas Murray Butler, a signed photo thanking him for his “most valuable contribution” to the promotion of understanding between Fascist Italy and the United States. [Diggins, Mussolini and Fascism, pp. 255, 257.] Butler himself was not an advocate of fascism for America, but he did believe it was in the best interests of the Italian people and that it had been a very real success, well worth studying. This subtle distinction—fascism is good for Italians, but maybe not for America—was held by a vast array of prominent liberal intellectuals in much the same way some liberals defend Castro’s communist “experiment.”
*“Hughes a Humorist, Will Rogers Say,” New York Times, Sept. 28, 1926, p. 29; Diggins, Mussolini and Fascism, p. 27, citing Will Rogers, “Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President,” Saturday Evening Post, July 31, 1926, pp. 8-9, 82-84.
While academics debated the finer points of Mussolini’s corporatist state, mainstream America’s interest in Mussolini far out-stripped that of any other international figure in the 1920s. From 1925 to 1928 there were more than a hundred articles written on Mussolini in American publications and only fifteen on Stalin.* For more than a decade the New York Times’s foreign correspondent Anne O’Hare McCormick painted a glowing picture of Mussolini that made the Times’s later fawning over Stalin seem almost critical. The New York Tribune was vexed to answer the question: Was Mussolini Garibaldi or Caesar? Meanwhile, James A. Farrell, the head of U.S. Steel, dubbed the Italian dictator “the greatest living man” in the world.
Hollywood moguls, noting his obvious theatrical gifts, hoped to make Mussolini a star of the big screen, and he appeared in The Eternal City (1923), starring Lionel Barrymore. The film recounts the battles between communists and Fascists for control of Italy, and—mirabile dictu—Hollywood takes the side of the Fascists. “His deportment on the screen,” one reviewer proclaimed, “lends weight to the theory that this is just where he belongs.” [Diggins, Mussolini and Fascism, p. 244.] In 1933 Columbia Pictures released a “documentary” called Mussolini Speaks—supervised by Il Duce himself. Lowell Thomas—the legendary American journalist who had made Lawrence of Arabia famous—worked closely on the film and provided fawning commentary throughout. Mussolini was portrayed as a heroic strongman and national savior. When the crescendo builds before Mussolini gives a speech in Naples, Thomas declares breathlessly, “This is his supreme moment. He stands like a modern Caesar!” The film opened to record business at the RKO Palace in New York. Columbia took out an ad in Variety proclaiming the film a hit in giant block letters because “it appeals to all RED BLOODED AMERICANS” and “it might be the ANSWER TO AMERICA’S NEEDS.”
Fascism certainly had its critics in the 1920s and 1930s. Ernest Hemingway was skeptical of Mussolini almost from the start. Henry Miller disliked Fascism’s program but admired Mussolini’s will and strength. Some on the so-called Old Right, like the libertarian Albert J. Nock, saw Fascism as just another kind of statism. The nativist Ku Klux Klan—ironically, often called “American fascists” by liberals—tended to despise Mussolini and his American followers (mainly because they were immigrants). Interestingly, the hard left had almost nothing to say about Italian Fascism for most of its first decade. While liberals were split into various unstable factions, the American left remained largely oblivious to Fascism until the Great Depression. When the left did finally start attacking Mussolini in earnest—largely on orders from Moscow—they lumped him in essentially the same category as Franklin Roosevelt, the socialist Norman Thomas, and the progressive Robert La Follette. [La Follette’s son, Philip, the famously progressive governor of Wisconsin, kept a picture of Mussolini in his office as late as 1938. Diggins, Mussolini and Fascism, pp. 220-21.]
We’ll be revisiting how American liberals and leftists viewed Fascism in subsequent chapters. But first it seems worth asking, how was this possible? Given everything we’ve been taught about the evils of fascism, how is it that for more than a decade this country was in significant respects pro-fascist? Even more vexing, how is it—considering that most liberals and leftists believe they were put on this earth to oppose fascism with every breath—that many if not most American liberals either admired Mussolini and his project or simply didn’t care much about it one way or the other?
The answer resides in the fact that Fascism was born of a “fascist moment” in Western civilization, when a coalition of intellectuals going by various labels—progressive, communist, socialist, and so forth—believed the era of liberal democracy was drawing to a close. It was time for man to lay aside the anachronisms of natural law, traditional religion, constitutional liberty, capitalism, and the like and rise to the responsibility of remaking the world in his own image. God was long dead, and it was long overdue for men to take His place. Mussolini, a lifelong socialist intellectual, was a warrior in this crusade, and his Fascism—a doctrine he created from the same intellectual material Lenin and Trotsky had built their movements with—was a grand leap into the era of “experimentation” that would sweep aside old dogmas and usher in a new age. This was in every significant way a project of the left as we understand the term today, a fact understood by Mussolini, his admirers, and his detractors. Mussolini declared often that the nineteenth century was the century of liberalism and the twentieth century would be the “century of Fascism.” It is only by examining his life and legacy that we can see how right—and left—he was.
*These numbers evened out a bit as Americans became increasingly interested in the Soviets’ five-year plan. Simonette Falasca-Zamponi, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy, p. 51.
Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was named after three revolutionary heroes. The name Benito—a Spanish name, as opposed to the Italian equivalent, Benedetto—was inspired by Benito Juarez, the Mexican revolutionary turned president who not only toppled the emperor Maximilian but had him executed. The other two names were inspired by now-forgotten heroes of anarchist-socialism, Amilcare Cipriani and Andrea Costa.
Mussolini’s father, Alessandro, was a blacksmith and ardent socialist with an anarchist bent who was a member of the First International along with Marx and Engels and served on the local socialist council. Alessandro's "[h]eart and mind were always filled and pulsing with socialistic theories,” Mussolini recalled. “His intense sympathies mingled with [socialist] doctrines and causes. He discussed them in the evening with his friends and his eyes filled with light.” [Benito Mussolini, My Rise and Fall, p. 3.] On other nights Mussolini’s father read him passages from Das Kapital. When villagers brought their horses to Alessandro’s shop to be shod, part of the price came in the form of listening to the blacksmith spout his socialist theories. Mussolini was a congenital rabble-rouser. At the age of ten, young Benito led a demonstration against his school for serving bad food. In high school he called himself a socialist, and at the age of eighteen, while working as a substitute teacher, he became the secretary of a socialist organization and began his career as a left-wing journalist.
Mussolini undoubtedly inherited his father’s hatred of traditional religion, particularly the Catholic Church. (His brother Arnaldo was named in homage to Arnaldo da Brescia, a medieval monk, executed in 1155, who was revered as a local hero for rebelling against the wealth and abuses of the Church.) When Mussolini was ten, the priests at his school had to drag him to Mass kicking and screaming. Later in life, as a student activist in Switzerland, he made a name for himself by regularly offending devout Christians. He particularly liked to ridicule Jesus, describing him as an “ignorant Jew” and claiming that he was a pygmy compared to Buddha. One of his favorite tricks was to publicly dare God to strike him dead—if He existed. After returning to Italy as a rising socialist journalist, he repeatedly accused priests of moral turpitude, denounced the Church in sundry ways, and even wrote a bodice ripper called Claudia Particella, the Cardinal’s Mistress, which dripped with sexual innuendo.
Mussolini’s Nietzschean contempt for the “slave morality” of Christianity was sufficiently passionate that he’d sought to purge Christians of all kinds from the ranks of Italian Socialism. In 1910, for example, at a socialist congress in Forlì, he introduced and carried a resolution which held that Catholic faith—or any other mainstream monotheism—was inconsistent with socialism and that any socialists who practiced religion or even tolerated it in their children should be expelled from the party. Mussolini demanded that party members renounce religious marriage, baptism, and all other Christian rituals. In 1913 he wrote another anti-Church book on Jan Hus, the Czech heretic-nationalist, called Jan Hus the Truthful. In it, one could argue, lay the seeds for Mussolini’s Fascism to come.
The second major theme in Mussolini’s life was sex. At the age of seventeen, in 1900, the same year he joined the Socialist Party, Mussolini lost his virginity to an elderly prostitute “who spilled out lard from all parts of her body.” She charged him fifty centesimi. At the age of eighteen, he had an affair with a woman whose husband was away on military duty. He “accustomed her to my exclusive and tyrannical love: she obeyed me blindly, and let me dispose of her just as I wished.” Boasting 169 mistresses over the course of his sexual career, Mussolini was also, by contemporary standards, something of a rapist. [Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, p. 96. Here’s how Mussolini describes one incident in his autobiography: “I caught her on the stairs, throwing her into a corner behind a door, and made her mind. When she got up weeping and humiliated she insulted me by saying that I had robbed her of her honor and it is not impossible that she spoke the truth. But I ask you, what kind of honor could she have meant?”]
Indeed, Mussolini was one of the first modern sex symbols, paving the way for the sexual deification of Che Guevara. The Italian regime’s propagandistic celebration of his “manliness” has launched a thousand academic seminars. Countless intellectuals celebrated Mussolini as the ideal representative man of the new age. Prezzolini wrote of him, “This man is a man and stands out even more in a world of half-figures and consciences that are finished like worn out rubber bands.” Leda Rafanelli, an anarchist intellectual (who later slept with Mussolini), wrote after hearing him speak for the first time, “Benito Mussolini . . . is the socialist of the heroic times. He feels, he still believes, with an enthusiasm full of virility and force. He is a Man.” [Falasca-Zamponi, Fascist Spectacle, p. 43.]
Mussolini cultivated an impression of being married to all Italian women. The investment paid off when Italy faced sanctions for its invasion of Ethiopia and Mussolini asked Italians to donate their gold to the state. Millions sent in their wedding rings, 250,000 women in Rome alone. Nor were the ladies of high society immune to his charms. Clementine Churchill had been quite smitten with his “beautiful golden brown, piercing eyes” when she met him in 1926. She was delighted to take home a signed photo as a keepsake. Lady Ivy Chamberlain, on the other hand, treasured her Fascist Party badge as a memento.
Because Mussolini trifled with men’s wives, owed money, enraged the local authorities, and was approaching the age of conscription, he found it wise to flee Italy in 1902 for Switzerland, then a European Casablanca for socialist radicals and agitators. He had two lire to his name when he arrived, and, he wrote to a friend, the only metal rattling in his pocket was a medallion of Karl Marx. There he fell in with the predictable crowd of Bolshevists, socialists, and anarchists, including such intellectuals as Angelica Balabanoff, a daughter of Ukrainian aristocrats and a longtime colleague of Lenin’s. Mussolini and Balabanoff remained friends for two decades, until she became the secretary of the Comintern and he became a socialist apostate, that is, a fascist.
Whether Mussolini and Lenin actually met is the subject of some controversy. However, we know that they were mutual admirers. Lenin would later say that Mussolini was the only true revolutionary in Italy, and according to Mussolini’s first biographer, Margherita Sarfatti (a Jew and Mussolini’s lover), Lenin also later said, “Mussolini? A great pity he is lost to us! He is a strong man, who would have led our party to victory.” [Falasca-Zamponi, Fascist Spectacle, p. 224, n. 61.]
While in Switzerland, Mussolini worked quickly to develop his intellectual bona fides. Writing socialist tracts wherever he could, the future Duce imbibed the lingo of the international European left. He wrote the first of his many books while in Switzerland, Man and Divinity, in which he railed against the Church and sang the praises of atheism, declaring that religion was a form of madness. The Swiss weren’t much more amused with the young radical than the Italians had been. He was regularly arrested and often exiled by various cantonal authorities for his troublemaking. In 1904 he was officially labeled an “enemy of society.” At one point he considered whether he should work in Madagascar, take a job at a socialist newspaper in New York, or join other socialist exiles in the leftist haven of Vermont (which fills much the same function today).
While Mussolini would become a fairly inept wartime leader, he was not the bumbling oaf many Anglo-American historians and intellectuals have portrayed. For one thing, he was astoundingly well read (even more so than the young Adolf ******, who was also something of a bibliophile). His fluency in socialist theory was, if not legendary, certainly impressive to everyone who knew him. We know from his biographers and his own writings that he read Marx, Engels, Schopenhauer, Kant, Nietzsche, Sorel, and others. From 1902 to 1914 Mussolini wrote countless articles both examining and translating the socialist and philosophical literature of France, Germany, and Italy. He was famous for his ability to speak on obscure subjects without notes and in great depth. Indeed, alone among the major leaders of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, he could speak, read, and write intelligently in several languages. Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf ****** were undoubtedly the better politicians and commanders in chief, largely because of their legendarily keen instincts. But by the standards that liberal intellectuals apply today, Mussolini was the smartest of the three.
After Mussolini’s return to Italy (and a time in Austria) his reputation as a radical grew slowly but steadily until 1911. He became the editor of La lotta di classe (Class War), which served as the megaphone of the extremist wing of the Italian Socialist Party. “The national flag is for us a rag to be planted in a dunghill,” he declared. Mussolini openly opposed the government’s war against Turkey for control of Libya, and in a speech in Forlì he called on the Italian people to declare a general strike, block the streets, and blow up the trains. “His eloquence that day was reminiscent of Marat,” the socialist leader Pietro Nenni wrote. [Ivone Kirkpatrick, Mussolini, p. 47.] His eloquence didn’t save him from eight counts of seditious behavior. But he wisely exploited his trial—in much the same way that ****** made use of his time in the dock—delivering a speech that portrayed him as a patriotic martyr fighting the ruling classes.
Mussolini was sentenced to a year in prison, reduced on appeal to five months. He emerged from prison as a socialist star. At his welcoming banquet a leading socialist, Olindo Vernocchi, declared: “From today you, Benito, are not only the representative of the Romagna Socialists but the Duce of all revolutionary socialists in Italy.” [Kirkpatrick, Mussolini, p. 49.] This was the first time he was called “Il Duce” (the leader), making him the Duce of Socialism before he was the Duce of Fascism.
Using his newfound status, Mussolini attended the Socialist congress in 1912 at a time when the national party was bitterly split between moderates who favored incremental reform and radicals who endorsed more violent measures. Throwing in his lot with the radicals, Mussolini accused two leading moderates of heresy. Their sin? They’d congratulated the king on surviving an attempted assassination by an anarchist. Mussolini could not tolerate such squishiness. Besides, “What is a king anyway except by definition a useless citizen?” Mussolini joined the formal leadership of the party and four months later took over the editorship of its national newspaper, Avanti!, one of the most plum posts in all of European radicalism. Lenin, monitoring Mussolini’s progress from afar, took note approvingly in Pravda.
Had he died in 1914, there’s little doubt that Marxist theorists would be invoking Mussolini as a heroic martyr to the proletarian struggle. He was one of Europe’s leading radical socialists in arguably the most radical socialist party outside of Russia. Under his stewardship, Avanti! became close to gospel for a whole generation of socialist intellectuals, including Antonio Gramsci. He also launched a theoretical journal, Utopia, named in tribute to Thomas More, whom Mussolini considered the first socialist. Utopia clearly reflected the influence of Georges Sorel’s syndicalism on Mussolini’s thinking. [Mussolini wrote in a review of Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, “That which I am . . . I owe to Sorel . . . He is an accomplished Master who, with his sharp theories on revolutionary formations, contributed to the molding of the discipline, the collective energy, the power of the masses, of the Fascist cohorts.” A. James Gregor, The Ideology of Fascism: The Rationale of Totalitarianism, p. 116. In 1913 Sorel said, “Mussolini is no ordinary Socialist. One day you will see him at the head of a consecrated battalion, greeting the Italian banner with his dagger. He is an Italian of the 15th century, a condottiere. You do not know it yet. But he is the one energetic man who has the capacity to correct the weaknesses of the government.” Kirkpatrick, Mussolini, p. 159.]
Sorel’s impact on Mussolini is vital to an understanding of fascism because without syndicalism fascism was impossible. Syndicalist theory is hard to penetrate today. It’s not quite socialism and it’s not quite fascism. Joshua Muravchik calls it “an ill-defined variant of socialism that stressed violent direct action and was simultaneously elitist and anti-statist.” Essentially, syndicalists believed in rule by revolutionary trade unions (the word is derived from the French word syndicat, while the Italian word fascio means “bundle” and was commonly used as a synonym for unions). Syndicalism informed corporatist theory by arguing that society could be divided by professional sectors of the economy, an idea that deeply influenced the New Deals of both FDR and ******. But Sorel’s greatest contributions to the left—and Mussolini in particular—lay elsewhere: in his concept of “myths,” which he defined as “artificial combinations invented to give the appearance of reality to hopes that inspire men in their present activity.” For Sorel, the Second Coming of Christ was a quintessential myth because its underlying message—Jesus is coming, look busy—was crucial for organizing men in desirable ways. [Joshua Muravchik, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism, p. 146; Joseph Husslein, The Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 386; Roger Eatwell, Fascism: A History, p. 11.]
For syndicalists at the time and, ultimately, for leftist revolutionaries of all stripes, Sorel’s myth of the general strike was the equivalent of the Second Coming. According to this myth, if all workers declared a general strike, it would crush capitalism and render the proletariat—rather than the meek—the inheritors of the earth. Whether the implementation of a general strike would actually have this result didn’t matter, according to Sorel. What mattered was mobilizing the masses to understand their power over the capitalist ruling classes. As Mussolini said in an interview in 1932, “It is faith that moves mountains, not reason. Reason is a tool, but it can never be the motive force of the crowd.” This kind of thinking has been commonplace on the left ever since. Think of Al Sharpton when allegedly confronted by the fact that the Tawana Brawley “assault” was a fake. “It don’t matter,” he’s reported to have said. “We’re building a movement.” [If all the workers were already dedicated socialists, there would be no need for a general strike because the society would have already made the transition to socialism. Neil McInnes, Encyclopedia of Philosophy. For the Mussolini interview, see Kirkpatrick, Mussolini, p. 159. For the quotation from Sharpton, see John Cassidy, “Racial Tension Boils Over as Rape Case is Branded a Hoax,” Times (London), June 19, 1988.]
Even more impressive was Sorel’s application of the idea of myth to Marxism itself. Again, Sorel held that Marxist prophecy didn’t need to be true. People just needed to think it was true. Even at the turn of the last century it was becoming obvious that Marxism as social science didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Taken literally, Marx’s Das Kapital, according to Sorel, had little merit. But, Sorel asked, what if Marx’s nonsensicalness was actually intended? If you looked at “this apocalyptic text . . . as a product of the spirit, as an image created for the purpose of molding consciousness, it . . . is a good illustration of the principle on which Marx believed he should base the rules of the socialist action of the proletariat.” [Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology, trans. David Maisel, p. 56.] In other words, Marx should be read as a prophet, not as a policy wonk. That way the masses would absorb Marxism unquestioningly as a religious dogma.
Sorel was deeply influenced by the Pragmatism of William James, who pioneered the notion that all one needs is the “will to believe.” It was James’s benign hope to make room for religion in a burgeoning age of science, by arguing that any religion that worked for the believer was not merely valid but “true.” Sorel was an irrationalist who took this sort of thinking to its logical conclusion: any idea that can be successfully imposed—with violence if necessary—becomes true and good. By marrying James’s will to believe with Nietzsche’s will to power, Sorel redesigned left-wing revolutionary politics from scientific socialism to a revolutionary religious movement that believed in the utility of the myth of scientific socialism. Enlightened revolutionaries would act as if Marxism were gospel in order to bring the masses under their control for the greater good. Today we might call these aspects of this impulse “lying for justice.”
Of course, a lie could not become “true”—that is, successful—unless you had good liars. This is where another of Sorel’s major contributions comes in: the need for a “revolutionary elite” to impose its will upon the masses. On this point, as many have observed, Mussolini and Lenin held almost identical views. Central to their common outlook was the Sorelian conviction that a small cadre of professional intellectual radicals—who were prepared to reject compromise, parliamentary politics, and anything else that smacked of incremental reform—were indispensable to any successful revolutionary struggle. This avant-garde would shape “revolutionary consciousness” by fomenting violence and undermining liberal institutions. “We must create a proletarian minority sufficiently numerous, sufficiently knowledgeable, sufficiently audacious to substitute itself, at the opportune moment, for the bourgeois minority,” Mussolini channeled Lenin in pitch-perfect tones. “The mass will simply follow and submit.” [Gregor, Ideology of Fascism, p. 116.]
If Mussolini stood on Sorel’s shoulders, then in an important respect Sorel stood on Rousseau’s and Robespierre’s. A brief review of the intellectual origins of fascist thought reveals its roots in the Romantic nationalism of the eighteenth century, and in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who properly deserves to be called the father of modern fascism.
Historians have debated the meaning of the French Revolution for centuries. In many respects, their contending views of this event embody the fundamental difference between liberal and conservative (compare Wordsworth and Burke, for example). Even our modern distinction between “left” and “right” derives from the seating arrangements in the revolutionary assembly.
Whatever else it may have been, however, one thing is clear: the French Revolution was the first totalitarian revolution, the mother of modern totalitarianism, and the spiritual model for the Italian Fascist, German Nazi, and Russian Communist revolutions. A nationalist-populist uprising, it was led and manipulated by an intellectual vanguard determined to replace Christianity with a political religion that glorified “the people,” anointed the revolutionary vanguard as their priests, and abridged the rights of individuals. As Robespierre put it, “The people is always worth more than individuals . . . The people is sublime, but individuals are weak”—or, at any rate, expendable.
Robespierre’s ideas were derived from his close study of Rousseau, whose theory of the general will formed the intellectual basis for all modern totalitarianisms. According to Rousseau, individuals who live in accordance with the general will are “free” and “virtuous” while those who defy it are criminals, fools, or heretics. These enemies of the common good must be forced to bend to the general will. He described this state-sanctioned coercion in Orwellian terms as the act of “forcing men to be free.” It was Rousseau who originally sanctified the sovereign will of the masses while dismissing the mechanisms of democracy as corrupting and profane. Such mechanics—voting in elections, representative bodies, and so forth—are “hardly ever necessary where the government is well-intentioned,” wrote Rousseau in a revealing turn of phrase. “For the rulers well know that the general will is always on the side which is most favorable to the public interest, that is to say, the most equitable; so that it is needful only to act justly to be certain of following the general will.” [Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses, trans. G. D. H. Cole, p. 297.]
That fascism and communism promised to be more democratic than democracy itself was axiomatic for their twentieth-century proselytizers in Europe and America. “The movement” represented, variously, the Volk, the people, the authentic nation and its providential mission in history, while parliamentary democracy was corrupt, inauthentic, unnatural. [For example, in 1924 the Italian Fascist theorist Giuseppe Bottai declared in a lecture, “Fascism as Intellectual Revolution”: “If by democracy one understands the possibility granted all citizens of actively participating in the life of the state, then nobody will deny democracy’s immortality. The French Revolution rendered this possibility historically and ethically concrete, so much so that an ineradicable right was born that exercises a tenacious hold on individual consciousness, independent of abstract invocations of immortal principles or developments in modern philosophy.” Reprinted in: Jeffrey T. Schnapp, ed., A Primer of Italian Fascism, p. 82.] But the salience of the general will is more profound than the mere rationalization of legitimacy through populist rhetoric. The idea of the general will created a true secular religion out of the mystic chords of nationalism, a religion in which “the people” in effect worshipped themselves. Just as individuals couldn’t be “free” except as part of the group, their existence lacked meaning and purpose except in relation to the collective.
It followed, moreover, that if the people were the new God, there was no room for God Himself. In The Social Contract, Rousseau tells us that because of Christianity’s distinction between God and Caesar, “men have never known whether they ought to obey the civil ruler or the priest.” What Rousseau proposed instead was a society in which religion and politics were perfectly combined. Loyalty to the state and loyalty to the divine must be seen as the same thing.
The philosopher and theologian Johann Gottfried von Herder, credited somewhat unfairly with laying the intellectual foundation for Nazism, took Rousseau’s political arguments and made them into cultural ones. The general will was unique in each nation, according to Herder, because of the historic and spiritual distinctiveness of a specific Volk. This Romantic emphasis led various intellectuals and artists to champion the distinctiveness or superiority of races, nations, and cultures. But it is Rousseau’s divinization of the community under the direction of the most powerful state ever proposed in political philosophy to which the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century were most indebted. Rousseau’s community is not defined by ethnicity or geography or custom. Rather, it is bound together by the general will as expressed in the dogmas of what he called a “civil religion” and enforced by the all-powerful God-state. Those who defy the collective spirit of the community live outside the state and have no claim on its protections. Indeed, not only is the state not required to defend antisocial individuals or subcommunities, it is compelled to do away with them. [The observation that Rousseau’s state is the most “powerful to be found anywhere in political philosophy” is Robert Nisbet’s. Robert Nisbet, The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America, p. 52.]
The French revolutionaries put these precepts into effect. For example, Rousseau had suggested that Poland create nationalistic holidays and symbols to create a new secular faith. Therefore the Jacobins—who had nearly committed Rousseau to memory—immediately set about launching a grand new totalitarian religion. Robespierre argued that only a “religious instinct” could defend the revolution from the acid of skepticism. But the revolutionaries also knew that before such faith could be attached to the state, they had to exterminate every trace of “deceitful” Christianity. So they embarked on a sweeping campaign to dethrone Christianity. They replaced venerated holidays with pagan, nationalistic celebrations. The Cathedral of Notre Dame was renamed a “temple of reason.” Hundreds of pagan-themed festivals were launched across the country celebrating such abstractions as Reason, Nation, and Brotherhood.
Mussolini’s Italy in turn aped this strategy. The Italian Fascists held pageants and performed elaborate pagan rites in order to convince the masses, and the world, that “Fascism is a religion” (as Mussolini often declared). “Two religions are today contending . . . for sway over the world—the black and the red,” Mussolini would write in 1919. “We declare ourselves the heretics.” In 1920 he explained, “We worked with alacrity, to . . . give Italians a ‘religious concept of the nation’ . . . to lay the foundations of Italian greatness. The religious notion of Italianism . . . should become the impulse and fundamental direction of our lives.”
Of course, Italy faced a special challenge in that the nation’s capital also contained the capital of the worldwide Catholic Church. As such, the battle between secular religion and traditional religion became muddied by parochial power politics and the uniqueness of Italian culture (Germany had no such handicap, as we will see). The Catholic Church understood what Mussolini was up to. In its 1931 encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno, the Vatican accused the Fascists of “Statolatry” and denounced their effort “to monopolize completely the young, from their tenderest years up to manhood and womanhood, for the exclusive advantage of a party and of a regime based on an ideology which clearly resolves itself into a true, a real pagan worship of the State.”
The idea of priests and leaders representing the spirit or general will of the people is modern to the extent that it dethrones traditional religion. But the impulse to endow certain classes of people or individual rulers with religious authority is very ancient and may even be hardwired into human nature. Louis XIV’s (probably fictional) declaration “L’état, c’est moi” summarized the idea that the ruler and the state were one. The revolutionaries’ accomplishment was to preserve this doctrine while displacing the source of legitimacy from God to the people, the nation, or simply to the idea of progress. Napoleon, the revolutionary general, seized control of France with just such a writ. He was a secular dictator committed to furthering the revolutionary liberation of the peoples of Europe. His victories against the Austro-Hungarian Empire prompted the captive nations of the Hapsburgs to greet him as “the great liberator.” He beat back the authority of the Catholic Church, crowning himself Holy Roman Emperor and ordering his troops to use cathedrals to stable their horses. Napoleon’s troops carried with them the Rousseauian bacillus of divinized nationalism.
Thus tumbles both the glorious myth of the left and the central indictment of the right: that the French Revolution was a wellspring of rationalism. In fact it was no such thing. The Revolution was a romantic spiritual revolt, an attempt to replace the Christian God with a Jacobin one. Invocations to Reason were thinly veiled appeals to a new personalized God of the Revolution. Robespierre despised atheism and atheists as signs of the moral decay of monarchy, believing instead in an “Eternal Being who intimately affects the destinies of nations and who seems to me personally to watch over the French Revolution in a very special way.” [David Nicholls, God and Government in an “Age of Reason”, p. 80.] For the Revolution to be successful, Robespierre had to force the people to recognize this God who spoke through him and the general will.
Only in this way could Robespierre realize the dream that would later transfix Nazis, communists, and progressives alike: the creation of “New Men.” “I am convinced,” he proclaimed in a typical statement, “of the necessity of bringing about a complete regeneration, and, if I may express myself so, of creating a new people.” (To this end, he pushed through a law requiring that children be taken from their parents and indoctrinated in boarding schools.) The action-priests of the Revolution, wrote Tocqueville, “had a fanatical faith in their vocation—that of transforming the social system, root and branch, and regenerating the whole human race.” He later recognized that the French Revolution had become a “religious revival” and the ideology that spewed from it a “species of religion” which “like Islam [has] overrun the whole world with apostles, militants, and martyrs.”
Fascism is indebted to the French Revolution in other ways as well. Robespierre appreciated, as did Sorel and his heirs, that violence was a linchpin that kept the masses committed to the ideals of the Revolution: “If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.” [Robespierre, speech of Feb. 5, 1794, in Modern History Sourcebook, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/r...re-terror.html ]
“For the first time in history,” writes the historian Marisa Linton, “terror became an official government policy, with the stated aim to use violence in order to achieve a higher political goal.” The irony seemed lost on the Bolsheviks—self-proclaimed descendants of the French Revolution—who defined fascism, rather than their own system, as an “openly terroristic dictatorship.” [Marisa Linton, “Robespierre and the Terror,” History Today, Aug. 1, 2006.]
The utility of terror was multifaceted, but among its chief benefits was its tendency to maintain a permanent sense of crisis. Crisis is routinely identified as a core mechanism of fascism because it short-circuits debate and democratic deliberation. Hence all fascistic movements commit considerable energy to prolonging a heightened state of emergency. Across the West, this was the most glorious boon of World War I.
WAR: WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?
Both Mussolini and Lenin are reported to have had the exact same response to the news of the war. “The Socialist International is dead.” And they were right. Across Europe (and later America) socialist and other left-leaning parties voted for war, turning their backs on doctrines of international solidarity and the dogma that this was a war for capitalism and imperialism. After a reflexive two-month period of following this party line, Mussolini started moving into what was known as the interventionist camp. In October 1914 he penned an editorial in Avanti! explaining his new pro-war stance in terms that mixed Marxism, pragmatism, and adventurism. A party “which wishes to live in history and, in so far as it is allowed, to make history, cannot submit, at the penalty of suicide to a line which is dependent on an unarguable dogma or eternal law, separate from the iron necessity [of change].” He quoted Marx’s admonition that “whoever develops a set program for the future is a reactionary.” Living up to the letter of the party, he declared, would destroy its spirit. [R. J. B. Bosworth, The Italian Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of Mussolini and Fascism, p. 104.]
David Ramsay Steele suggests that Mussolini’s switch in favor of war “was as scandalous as though, 50 years later, [Che] Guevara had announced that he was off to Vietnam, to help defend the South against North Vietnamese aggression.”* It’s a good line, but it obscures the fact that socialists throughout Europe and America were rallying to the cause of war, largely because that’s where the masses wanted to go. The most shocking example came when the socialists in the German parliament voted in favor of granting credits to fund the war. Even in the United States the vast majority of socialists and progressives supported American intervention with a bloodlust that would embarrass their heirs today—if their heirs actually took the time to learn the history of their own movement.
This is a vital point because, while it is most certainly true that World War I gave birth to Fascism, it also gave birth to anti-Fascist propaganda. From the moment Mussolini declared himself in favor of the war, Italian Socialists smeared him for his heresy. “Chi paga?” became the central question of the anti-Mussolini whisper campaign. “Who’s paying him?” He was accused of taking money from arms makers, and it was hinted darkly that he was on France’s payroll. There’s no evidence for any of this. From the beginning, fascism was dubbed as right-wing not because it necessarily was right-wing but because the communist left thought this was the best way to punish apostasy (and, even if it was right-wing in some long forgotten doctrinal sense, fascism was still right-wing socialism). It has ever been thus. After all, if support for the war made one objectively right-wing, then Mother Jones was a rabid right-winger, too. This should be a familiar dynamic today, as support for the war in Iraq is all it takes to be a “right-winger” in many circles.
Mussolini on occasion acknowledged that fascism was perceived as a movement of the “right,” but he never failed to make it clear that his inspiration and spiritual home was the socialist left. “You hate me today because you love me still,” he told Italian Socialists. “Whatever happens, you won’t lose me. Twelve years of my life in the party ought to be sufficient guarantee of my socialist faith. Socialism is in my blood.” Mussolini resigned his editorship of Avanti! but he could never resign his love of the cause. “You think you can turn me out, but you will find I shall come back again. I am and shall remain a socialist and my convictions will never change! They are bred into my very bones.” [Muravchik, Heaven on Earth, p. 148, citing Margherita G. Sarfatti, The Life of Benito Mussolini, trans. Frederic Whyte, p. 263.]
Nevertheless, Mussolini was forced to quit the party organization. He joined up with a group of pro-war radicals called the Fascio Autonomo d’Azione Rivoluzionaria and quickly became their leader. Again, Mussolini had not moved to the right. His arguments for entering the war were made entirely in the context of the left and mirrored to no small extent the liberal and leftist arguments of American interventionists such as Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, and Walter Lippmann. The war, he and his fellow apostates insisted, was against the reactionary Germans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a war to liberate foreign peoples from the yoke of imperialism and advance the cause of socialist revolution in Italy, a true “proletarian nation.”
*David Ramsay Steele, “The Mystery of Fascism,” Liberty, www.la-articles.org.uk/fascism.htm
Mussolini founded a new newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia. The name itself—The People of Italy—is instructive because it illustrates the subtle change in Mussolini’s thinking and the first key distinction between socialism and fascism. Socialism was predicated on the Marxist view that “workers” as a class were more bound by common interests than any other criteria. Implicit in the slogan “Workers of the world, unite!” was the idea that class was more important than race, nationality, religion, language, culture, or any other “opiate” of the masses. It had become clear to Mussolini that not only was this manifestly not so but it made little sense to pretend otherwise. If Sorel had taught that Marxism was a series of useful myths rather than scientific fact, why not utilize more useful myths if they’re available? “I saw that internationalism was crumbling,” Mussolini later admitted. It was “utterly foolish” to believe that class consciousness could ever trump the call of nation and culture. [Mussolini, My Rise and Fall, p. 36.] “The sentiment of nationality exists and cannot be denied.” What was then called socialism was really just a kind of socialism: international socialism. Mussolini was interested in creating a new socialism, a socialism in one state, a national socialism, which had the added benefit of being achievable. The old Socialist Party stood in the way of this effort, and thus it was “necessary,” Mussolini wrote in Il Popolo, “to assassinate the Party in order to save Socialism.” In another issue he implored, “Proletarians, come into the streets and piazzas with us and cry: ‘Down with the corrupt mercantile policy of the Italian bourgeoisie’ . . . Long live the war of liberation of the peoples!” [Muravchik, Heaven on Earth, p. 149, citing Jasper Ridley, Mussolini: A Biography, p. 71.]
In 1915 Mussolini was called up for service. He fought well, receiving shrapnel in his leg. The war tended to accelerate his thinking. The soldiers had fought as Italians, not as “workers.” Their sacrifice was not for the class struggle but for the Italian struggle. He began to formulate the idea—known as trincerocrazia—that veterans deserved to run the country because they had sacrificed more and had the discipline to improve Italy’s plight (echoes of this conviction can be found in the “chicken hawk” epithet today). “Socialism of the trenches” seemed so much more plausible than socialism of the factory floor, for Mussolini had in effect seen it. On March 23, 1919, Mussolini and a handful of others founded the Fasci di Combattimento in Milan, aiming to form a popular front of pro-war leftists, from socialist veterans groups to Futurist, anarchist, nationalist, and syndicalist intellectuals. Some highlights from their program:
• Lowering the minimum voting age to eighteen, the minimum age for representatives to twenty-five, and universal suffrage, including for women.
• “The abolition of the Senate and the creation of a national technical council on intellectual and manual labor, industry, commerce and culture.”
• End of the draft.
• Repeal of titles of nobility.
• “A foreign policy aimed at expanding Italy’s will and power in opposition to all foreign imperialisms.”
• The prompt enactment of a state law sanctioning a legal work-day of eight actual hours of work for all workers.
• A minimum wage.
• The creation of various government bodies run by workers’ representatives.
• Reform of the old-age and pension system and the establishment of age limits for hazardous work.
• Forcing landowners to cultivate their lands or have them expropriated and given to veterans and farmers’ cooperatives.
• The obligation of the state to build “rigidly secular” schools for the raising of “the proletariat’s moral and cultural condition.”
• “A large progressive tax on capital that would amount to a one-time partial expropriation of all riches.”
• “The seizure of all goods belonging to religious congregations and the abolition of episcopal revenues.”
• The “review” of all military contracts and the “sequestration of 85% of all war profits.”
• The nationalization of all arms and explosives industries.
[Jeffrey T. Schnapp, pp. 3-6; Charles F. Delzell, Mediterranean Fascism, 1919-1945, pp. 12-13.]
Ah, yes. Those anti-elitist, stock-market-abolishing, child-labor-ending, public-health-promoting, wealth-confiscating, draft-ending, secularist right-wingers!
In November the newly named and explicitly left-wing Fascists ran a slate of candidates in the national elections. They got trounced at the hands of the Socialists. Most historians claim this is what taught Mussolini to move to the “right.” Robert O. Paxton writes that Mussolini realized “there was no space in Italian politics for a party that was both nationalist and Left.” [Robert O. Paxton, “The Five Stages of Fascism,” Journal of Modern History 70, no. 1 (March 1998), p. 15.]
This, I think, distorts the picture. Mussolini did not move fascism from left to right; he moved it from socialist to populist. An unwieldy phenomenon, populism had never been known as a conservative or right-wing orientation before, and it is only because so many were determined to label fascism right-wing that populism under Mussolini was redefined as such. After all, the notion that political power is and should be vested in the people was a classical liberal position. Populism was a more radical version of this position. It’s still a “power to the people” ideology, but it is skeptical of the parliamentary machinery of conventional liberalism (e.g., checks and balances). In the United States the populists—always a force on the left in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—pushed for such reforms as direct elections of senators and the nationalization of industry and banking. Direct democracy and nationalization were two of the main planks of the Fascist agenda. Mussolini also stopped calling Il Popolo d’Italia a “socialist daily” in favor of a “producers’ daily.”
An emphasis on “producers” had everywhere been the hallmark of populist economics and politics. The key distinction for “producerism,” as many called it, was between those who created wealth with their own hands and those who merely profited from it. William Jennings Bryan, for example, was keen on distinguishing the good and decent “people” from “the idle holders of idle capital.” The populists sought to expand the scope of government in order to smash the “economic royalists” and help the little guy. This was Mussolini’s approach in a nutshell (much as it is that of left-wing icons of today, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez). Fascist slogans included “The land to him who works it!” and “To every peasant the entire fruit of his sacred labor!” Mussolini still employed warmed-over Marxist theory when convenient—as many populists did—to explain his new fondness for the small landowner. Italy was still a “proletarian nation,” he explained, and so needed to develop economically before it could achieve socialism, even if that meant making a pragmatic nod to capitalist expediency in the form of trade. Lenin had made the identical adjustment under his New Economic Policy in 1921, in which peasants were encouraged to grow more food for their own use and profit.
None of this is to say that Mussolini was a deeply consistent ideologue or political theorist. As a pragmatist, he was constantly willing to throw off dogma, theory, and alliances whenever convenient. In the few years immediately following the formation of the Fasci di Combattimento, Mussolini’s main governing themes were expediency and opportunism. This was, after all, the age of “experimentation.” FDR would later preach a similar gospel, holding that he had no fixed agenda other than to put Americans to work and launch a program of “bold experimentation.” “We do not distrust the future,” FDR declared. “The people . . . have not failed. In their need they have . . . asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In that spirit I take it.” Likewise, the Fasci di Combattimento, Mussolini wrote in May 1920, “do not feel tied to any particular doctrinal form.” And much as Roosevelt would later, Mussolini asked the Italian people to trust him now and worry about an actual program down the road. Shortly before he became prime minister, he famously responded to those who wanted specifics from him: “The democrats of Il Mondo want to know our program? It is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mondo. And the sooner the better.” [Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, p. 17; Bosworth, The Italian Dictatorship, p. 39. According to Hannah Arendt, Mussolini “was probably the first party leader who consciously rejected a formal program and replaced it with inspired leadership and action alone.” Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, rev. ed., p. 325 n. 39.]
From 1919 to 1922, when Mussolini led the March on Rome and became prime minister, his first objective was power and combat. Make no mistake: many Fascists were skull crackers, leg breakers, and all-purpose thugs, particularly among the OVRA, the secret police of the Fascist state modeled after Lenin’s secret police, hence the nickname “Cheha.” The casualties from the Fascist-initiated “civil war” hover around two thousand, with 35 percent of the dead confirmed leftists and 15 percent Fascists. This may sound like a lot or a little depending on your perspective, but it is worth keeping in mind that more Italians died during this period from traditional Italian Mafia wars. It’s also worth noting that many Fascists were actually impressive, respectable men who earned not only the cooperation of the police but the sympathy of both judges and the common man. In a national contest between two broad factions, the Italian people—workers, peasants, small-business men, and professionals, as well as the well-to-do and wealthy—chose the Fascists over avowed international socialists and communists.
Mussolini’s style was remarkably similar to Yasir Arafat’s (though Arafat was undoubtedly far more murderous). He played the political game of claiming to seek peaceful accords and alliances while straining to contain the more violent elements within his movement. His hands were tied, he’d claim, when squads of Fascist Blackshirts broke the bones of his opponents. Again like Lenin—and Arafat—Mussolini practiced a philosophy of “the worse the better.” He celebrated the violence committed by socialists because it gave him the opportunity to commit more violence in retribution. A brawler who’d been in countless fist and knive fights, Mussolini saw physical violence as a redemptive and natural corollary to intellectual combat (in this he was a lot like Teddy Roosevelt). There’s no need to defend Mussolini against the charge that he was a practitioner of organized political violence, as some of his more friendly biographers have tried to do. It’s easier to concede the points of both defenders and critics. Yes, the socialists and communists he was fighting were often just as bad as the Fascists. And on other occasions the Fascists were much worse. At the end of the day, however, the salient fact was that in a nation torn by economic and social chaos as well as political bitterness in the wake of the Versailles Treaty, Mussolini’s message and tactics triumphed. Moreover, his success had less to do with ideology and violence than with populist emotional appeals. Mussolini promised to restore two things in short supply: pride and order.
The precipitating events in his rise are controversial for reasons not worth dwelling on. Suffice it to say that the March on Rome was not a spontaneous, revolutionary event but a staged bit of political theater designed to advance a Sorelian myth. The violence between Fascist and other left-wing parties reached a crescendo in the summer of 1922, when the communists and socialists called for a general strike to protest the government’s refusal to clamp down on the Fascists. Mussolini declared that if the government didn’t break the strike, his Fascists would do it themselves. He didn’t wait for—or expect—a response. When the “Reds” launched their strike on July 31, Mussolini’s squadristi—made up largely of skilled ex-military troops—broke it within a day. They drove the streetcars, kept the traffic moving, and, most famously, got the “trains running on time.”
Mussolini’s strikebreaking tactics had a profound effect on the Italian public. At a time when intellectuals all over the world were growing cynical about parliamentary democracy and liberal politics, Mussolini’s military efficiency seemed to transcend partisan politics. Just as many today say we need to “get beyond labels” in order to get things done, Mussolini was seen as moving beyond the “tired categories of left and right.” Similarly—like certain modern liberals—he promised what he called a “Third Way” that was neither left nor right. He just wanted to get things done. With the public largely behind him, he planned to break a different sort of strike—the parliamentary deadlock that had paralyzed the government and, hence, “progress.” He threatened that he and his Blackshirts—so named because Italian special forces wore black turtlenecks, which quickly became a fashion among Fascists—would march on Rome and take the reins of state. Behind the scenes, King Vittorio Emanuele had already asked him to form a new government. But Il Duce marched anyway, reenacting Julius Caesar’s march on Rome and giving the new Fascist government a useful “revolutionary myth” that he would artfully exploit in years to come. Mussolini became prime minister and Fascist Italy was born.
How did Mussolini govern? Like the old joke about the gorilla, however he wanted. Mussolini became a dictator, less brutal than most, more brutal than some. But he was also very popular. In 1924 he held reasonably fair elections, and the Fascists won by a landslide. Among his achievements in the 1920s were the passage of women’s suffrage (which the New York Times hailed as a nod to the pressure of American feminists), a concordat with the Vatican, and the revitalization of the Italian economy. The settlement of the long-simmering schism between Italy and the pope was a monumental accomplishment in terms of Italy’s domestic politics. Mussolini succeeded where so many others had failed.
We will deal with many of the ideological issues and policies swirling around Italian Fascism in subsequent chapters. But there are some points that are worth stating here. First, Mussolini successfully cast himself as the leader of the future. Indeed, he was brought to power in part by an artistic movement called Futurism. Throughout the 1920s, even if he implemented some policies that Western intellectuals disliked—anti-press laws, for example—his method of governing was regarded as quintessentially modern. At a time when many young intellectuals were rejecting the “dogma” of classical liberalism, Mussolini seemed a leader at the forefront of the movement to reject old ways of thinking. This was the dawn of the “fascist century,” after all. It was no coincidence that Fascism was the first politically successful, self-styled modern youth movement, and was widely recognized as such. “Yesterday’s Italy is not recognizable in today’s Italy,” Mussolini declared in 1926. “The whole nation is 20 years old and as such it has the courage, the spirit, the intrepidity.” No leader in the world was more associated with the cult of technology, particularly aviation, than Mussolini in the 1920s. By the 1930s world leaders were trying to fit into Mussolini’s mold as a “modern” statesman.
Part of Mussolini’s reputation as a new kind of leader stemmed from his embrace of “modern” ideas, among them American Pragmatism. He claimed in many interviews that William James was one of the three or four most influential philosophers in his life. He surely said this to impress American audiences. But Mussolini really was an admirer of James (and the James-influenced Sorel), who believed that Pragmatism justified and explained his governing philosophy and governed in a pragmatic fashion. He was indeed the “Prophet of the Pragmatic Era in Politics,” as a 1926 article in the Political Science Quarterly (and subsequent book) dubbed him.
If at times he would adopt, say, free-market policies, as he did to some extent in the early 1920s, that didn’t make him a capitalist. Mussolini never conceded the absolute authority of the state to dictate the course of the economy. By the early 1930s he had found it necessary to start putting Fascist ideology down on paper. Before then, it was much more ad hoc. But when he did get around to writing it out, doctrinal Fascist economics looked fairly recognizable as just another left-wing campaign to nationalize industry, or regulate it to the point where the distinction was hardly a difference. These policies fell under the rubric of what was called corporatism, and not only were they admired in America at the time, but they are unknowingly emulated to a staggering degree today.
Pragmatism is the only philosophy that has an everyday word as its corollary with a generally positive connotation. When we call a leader pragmatic, we tend to mean he’s realistic, practical, and above all nonideological. But this conventional use of the word obscures some important distinctions. Crudely, Pragmatism is a form of relativism which holds that any belief that is useful is therefore necessarily true. Conversely, any truth that is inconvenient or non-useful is necessarily untrue. Mussolini’s useful truth was the concept of a “totalitarian” society—he made up the word—defined by his famous motto: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” The practical consequence of this idea was that everything was “fair game” if it furthered the ends of the state. To be sure, the militarization of society was an important part of fascism’s assault on the liberal state, as many anti-fascists assert. But that was the means, not the end. Mussolini’s radical lust to make the state an object of religious fervor was born in the French Revolution, and Mussolini, an heir to the Jacobins, sought to rekindle that fire. No project could be less conservative or less right-wing.
In this and many other ways, Mussolini remained a socialist until his last breath, just as he predicted. His reign ended in 1943, when he became little more than a figurehead for the Nazi regime headquartered at Salò, where he pathetically plotted his comeback. He spent his days issuing proclamations, denouncing the bourgeoisie, promising to nationalize all businesses with more than a hundred employees, and implementing a constitution written by Nicola Bombacci, a communist and longtime friend of Lenin’s. He selected a socialist journalist to record his final chapter as Il Duce, according to whom Mussolini declared, “I bequeath the republic to the republicans not to the monarchists, and the work of social reform to the socialists and not to the middle classes.” In April 1945 Mussolini fled for his life—back to Switzerland, ironically—with a column of German soldiers (he was disguised as one of them) as well as his aides, his mistress, and his acolyte Bombacci in tow. They were captured by a band of communist partisans, who the next morning were ordered to execute him. Mussolini’s mistress allegedly dove in front of her lover. Bombacci merely shouted, “Long live Mussolini! Long live Socialism!” [Muravchik, Heaven on Earth, pp. 170, 171.]
- page 68:
Unlike Mussolini’s Fascism, which was mostly a creation of his own intellect, ******’s ideology came to him largely preassembled. Mussolini’s Fascism, moreover, played no discernible role in the formation of early Nazi ideology or ******’s embryonic political vision. What ****** would later confess to admiring about Mussolini was Il Duce’s success, his tactics, his Sorelian exploitation of political myth, his salesmanship.
- from The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left by Dinesh D’Souza; page 65-70 (Ch. 3—Mussolini’s Journey):
The conflict between the Fascist or National Socialist and the older socialist parties must be very largely regarded as the kind of conflict which is bound to arise between rival socialist factions.—Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom
On March 23, 1919, one of the most famous socialists in Italy founded a new party, the Fasci di Combattimento, a term that means “fascist combat squad.” This was the first official fascist party and thus its founding represents the true birth of fascism. By the same token, this man was the first fascist. The term “fascism” can be traced back to 1914, when he founded the Fasci Rivoluzionari d’Azione Internazionalista, a political movement whose members called themselves fascisti or fascists.
In 1914, this founding father of fascism was, together with Vladimir Lenin of Russia, Rosa Luxemburg of Germany, and Antonio Gramsci of Italy, one of the best known Marxists in the world. His fellow Marx¬ists and socialists recognized him as a great leader of socialism. His decision to become a fascist was controversial, yet he received congratu¬lations from Lenin who continued to regard him as a faithful revolution¬ary socialist. And this is how he saw himself.
That same year, because of his support for Italian involvement in World War I, he would be expelled from the Italian Socialist Party for “heresy,” but this does not mean he ceased to be a socialist. It was common practice for socialist parties to expel dissenting fellow socialists for breaking on some fine point with the party line. This party reject insisted that he had been kicked out for making “a revision of socialism from the revolutionary point of view.” [Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology, 208.] For the rest of his life—right until his lifeless body was displayed in a town square in Milan—he upheld the central tenets of socialism which he saw as best reflected in fascism.
Who, then, was this man? He was the future leader of fascist Italy, the one whom Italians called Il Duce, Benito Mussolini.
Mussolini’s socialist credentials were impeccable. He had been raised in a socialist family and made a public declaration in 1901, at the age of eighteen, of his convictions. By twenty-one, he was an orthodox Marxist familiar not only with the writings of Marx and Engels but also of many of the most influential German, Italian, and French Marxists of the fin de siècle period. Like other orthodox Marxists, Mussolini rejected religious faith and authored anti-Catholic pamphlets repudiating his native Catholicism.
Mussolini embarked on an active career as a writer, editor, and political organizer. Exiled to Switzerland between 1902 and 1904, he collaborated with the Italian Socialist Party weekly issued there and also wrote for Il Proletario, a socialist weekly published in New York. In 1909 Mussolini made another foreign sojourn to Trento—then part of Austria-Hungary—where he worked for the socialist party and edited its news¬paper. Returning the next year to his hometown of Forli, he edited the weekly socialist publication La Lotta di Classe (The Class War). He wrote so widely on Marxism, socialist theory, and contemporary politics that his output now fills seven volumes.
Mussolini wasn’t just an intellectual; he organized workers’ strikes on behalf of the socialist movement both inside and outside of Italy and was twice jailed for his activism. In 1912, Mussolini was recognized as a socialist leader at the Socialist Congress at Reggio Emilia and was appointed to the Italian Socialist Party’s board of directors. That same year, at the age of twenty-nine, he became editor of Avanti!, the official publication of the party.
From the point of view of the progressive narrative—a narrative I began to challenge in the previous chapter—Mussolini’s shift from Marxian socialism to fascism must come as a huge surprise. In the progressive paradigm, Marxian socialism is the left end of the spectrum and fascism is the right end of the spectrum. Progressive incredulity becomes even greater when we see that Mussolini wasn’t just any socialist; he was the recognized head of the socialist movement in Italy. Moreover, he didn’t just climb aboard the fascist bandwagon; he created it.
Today we think of fascism’s most famous representative as Adolf ******. Yet as I mentioned earlier, ****** didn’t consider himself a fascist. Rather, he saw himself as a National Socialist. The two ideologies are related in that they are both based on collectivism and centralized state power. They emerge, one might say, from a common point of origin. Yet they are also distinct; fascism, for instance, had no intrinsic connection with anti-Semitism in the way that National Socialism did.
In any event, ****** was an obscure local organizer in Germany when Mussolini came to power and, following his famous March on Rome, established the world’s first fascist regime in Italy in 1922. ****** greatly admired Mussolini and aspired to become like him. Mussolini, ****** said, was “the leading statesman in the world, to whom none may even remotely compare himself.” [William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 298.] ****** modeled his failed Munich Putsch in November 1923 on Mussolini’s successful March on Rome.
When ****** first came to power he kept a bust of Mussolini in his office and one German observer termed him “Germany’s Mussolini.” Yet later, when the two men first met, Mussolini was not very impressed by ******. Mussolini became more respectful after 1939 when ****** conquered Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Norway, and France. ****** continued to uphold Mussolini as “that unparalleled statesman” and “one of the Caesars” and confessed that without Italian fascism there would not have been a German National Socialism: “The brown shirt would probably not have existed without the black shirt.”
****** was, like Mussolini, a man of the Left. ****** too was a social¬ist and a labor leader who founded the German Socialist Workers’ Party with a platform very similar to that of Mussolini’s fascist party. Yet ****** came to power in the 1930s while Mussolini ruled through most of the 1920s. Mussolini was, during those years, much more famous than ******. He was recognized as the founding father of fascism. So any account of the origin of fascism must focus not on ****** but on Mus¬solini. Mussolini is the original and prototypical fascist.
From Socialism to Fascism
So how—to return to the progressive paradigm—do progressives account for Mussolini’s conversion from socialism to fascism, or more precisely for Mussolini’s simultaneous embrace of both? The problem is further deepened by the fact that Mussolini was not alone. Hundreds of leading socialists, initially in Italy but subsequently in Germany, France, and other countries, also became fascists. In fact, I will go further to say that all the leading figures in the founding of fascism were men of the Left. “The first fascists,” Anthony James Gregor tells us, “were almost all Marxists.”
I will cite a few examples. Jean Allemane, famous for his role in the Dreyfus case, one of the great figures of French socialism, became a fascist later in life. So did the socialist Georges Valois. Marcel Deat, the founder of the Parti Socialiste de France, eventually quit and started a pro-fascist party in 1936. Later, he became a Nazi collaborator during the Vichy regime Vacques Doriot a French communist, moved his Parti Populaire Francais into the fascist camp.
The Belgian socialist theoretician Henri de Man transitioned to becoming a fascist theoretician. In England. Oswald Mosley, a socialist and Labor Party Member of Parliament, eventually broke with the Labor Party because he found it insufficiently radical. He later founded the British Union of Fascists and became the country’s leading Nazi sympa¬thizer. In Germany, the socialist playwright Gerhart Hauptmann embraced ****** and produced plays during the Third Reich. After the war, he became a communist and staged his productions in Soviet-dominated East Berlin.
In Italy, philosopher Giovanni Gentile moved from Marxism to fas-cism, as did a host of Italian labor organizers: Ottavio Dinale, Tullio Masotti, Carlo Silvestri, and Umberto Pasella. The socialist writer Agos¬tino Lanzillo joined Mussolini’s parliament as a member of the fascist party. Nicola Bombacci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, became Mussolini’s top adviser in Salo. Gentile’s disciple Ugo Spirito, who also served Mussolini at Salo, moved from Marxism to fascism and then back to Marxism. Like Hauptmann, Spirito became a communist sympathizer after World War II and called for a new “syn¬thesis” between communism and fascism.
Others who made the same journey from socialism to fascism will be named in this chapter, and one thing that will become very clear is that these are not “conversion” stories. These men didn’t “switch” from socialism to fascism. Rather, they became fascists in the same way that Russian socialists became Leninist Bolsheviks. Like their Russian counterparts, these socialists believed themselves to be growing into fascism, maturing into fascism, because they saw fascism as the most well thought out, practical form of socialism for the new century.
Progressivism simply cannot account for the easy traffic from social-ism to fascism. Consequently, progressives typically maintain complete silence about this whole historical relationship which is deeply embar¬rassing to them. In all the articles comparing Trump to Mussolini I searched in vain for references to Mussolini’s erstwhile Marxism and lifelong attachment to socialism. Either from ignorance or from design, these references are missing.
Progressive biographical accounts that cannot avoid Mussolini’s socialist past nevertheless turn around and accuse Mussolini—as the Socialist Party of Italy did in 1914—of “selling out” to fascism for money and power. Other accounts contend that whatever Mussolini’s original convictions, the very fact that his fascists later battled the Marxists and traditional socialists clearly shows that Mussolini did not remain a social¬ist or a man of the Left.
But these explanations make no sense. When Mussolini “sold out” he became an outcast. He had neither money nor power. Nor did any of the first fascists embrace fascism for this reason. Rather, they became fascists because they saw fascism as the only way to rescue socialism and make it viable. In other words, their defection was within socialism—they sought to create a new type of socialism that would actually draw a mass following and produce the workers’ revolution that Marx antic¬ipated and hoped for.
Vicious fights among socialist and leftist factions are a recognized feature of the history of socialism. In Russia, for example, there were bloody confrontations between the rival Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Later the Bolsheviks split into Leninists and Trotskyites, and Trotsky ended up dead on Lenin’s orders. These were all men of the Left. What these bloody rivalries prove is that the worst splits and conflicts sometimes arise among people who are ideologically very similar and differ on relatively small—though not small to them—points of doctrine.
In this chapter I will trace the development of fascism by showing precisely how it grew out of a doctrinal division within the community of Marxian socialists. In short, I will prove that fascism is exclusively a product of the Left. This is not a case of leftists who moved right. On the contrary, the fascists were on the left end of the socialist movement. They saw themselves not as jettisoning Marxism but as saving it from obsolescence. From their perspective, Marxism and socialism were too inert and needed to be adjusted leftward. In other words, they viewed fascism as more revolutionary than traditional socialism.