How fascists caught power in Italy: on the anniversary of the March on Rome

– The March on Rome happened at a time of massively expanding mass politics of revolutionary upsurges. It was a time when mass politics overwhelmed the liberal states. Now Fratelli d’Italia only got 7 million votes. It is not this massive and sudden upsurge of far right support. Rather, it is a situation where Italian democracy has declined into a contest between basically technocratic forces who administer Italy’s continual economic stagnation and austerity that has lasted for decades – says David Broder, Jacobin Europe editor and expert on Italian politics.

Interview by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.

On the 100th aniversary of the March on Rome, symbolically enough, a neofascist party is forming the government of Italy. But before we have a closer look on historical parallels, let us answer the basic question: how could it have happened? The years before the March, the ‘two red years’, were full of socialist action, strikes and demans for a more just Italy. Why did the fascists prevail in the end?

I think that the whole history has to be placed in the context of the the end of of World War I. Italy had been on the winning side, albeit without achieving major territorial gains, and the war had itself involved a vast mobilization of Italian society, in a period which also saw the rise of a genuinely mass politics. Only in 1913 had Italy first had a general election with universal male suffrage. This combination of factors created a massive pressure for change in society – for if millions of people are mobilized, they demand more of a say in how society is run.

In the trenches, peasants and workers from different parts of Italy had been brought together, and this was an intensely politicising experience. In both the socialist and fascist movements, a new generation of leaders, people with the experience of war, emerged. Pre-war Italy, the so-called liberal state, had an elitist leadership with a parliament being a kind of collection of local leaders and local business interests rather than mass parties. This was being replaced by something more like mass democracy.

After World War I, the first elections were won by the Socialist Party – a party which joined the Communist International and was outwardly revolutionary. Yet while some leaders projected workers’ councils or a Soviet-type power in Italy, they lacked centralization and a real strategy. In fact, the events of 1919 and 1920 that you mentioned prove this. There was a series of strikes and factory occupations, also land occupations or some military revolts, but the Socialist Party failed to provide a leadership to this to turn the movement into a revolutionary project, despite its revolutionary identity and rhetoric.

At the same time, the fascists started organizing armed groups consisting of war veterans and students. The landowners, particularly in regions like Emilia Romagna, which had strong peasant movements, started to employ fascists as their ‘muscle’, as a force breaking up peasant and then worker protests. In addition, the years 1919-1920, the time of the peace conference, the paramilitary forces were active in what was becoming the Italian-Yugoslav border, fighting over territory. The most famous example would be Gabriele D’Annunzio, leading a paramilitary group of war veterans to seize the city of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia).

What happened in Italy was an upsurge of social conflict, which the state was unable to control. However, the left had no leadership (or a very weak one), while the forces of the far right, led by Mussolini, began to become a real armed force, separate from the state but imposing ‘order’ in their own way. Ultimately, the story of the March on Rome is the completion of that process by the paramilitary forces being merged directly into the state and Mussolini’s movement into government. While there were some important cases of armed resistance, the workers’ movement proved unable to compete with the fascist movement when it came to military force and coordination across towns and regions. The fascist squads dressed in black shirts were moving from town to town, destroying local administrations, destroying institutions and offices of the labor movement. The Socialist reaction, and from 1921 the separate Communist Party, did not prepare for this level of confrontation.

The fascists were able to take power in Italy thanks to the support from the ruling classes, from the landowners, from the monarchy. Did their movement ever gain a genuine massive support?

It is hard to tell exactly what support the fascists had before entering government. In any case, their electoral base was very small.

March on Rome: the ‘black shirts’ march under the slogan of “Rome or death”

When the fascist movement took over the leadership of the national government on the 28th October 1922, it only had 35 members of Parliament. The bulk of the ‘national coalition’ behind Mussolini was made up of liberals of various types, conservative nationalists, popular Catholic forces. It was not necessarily created upon the impulse, or under the direction, of ruling-class forces, but certainly was sustained by them. What started with landowners using fascists as hired muscle to smash up the peasant movement, eventually turned into an attempt to institutionally compromise with fascism and Mussolini by bringing him into government. Furthermore, once Mussolini had become the prime minister, there was a long period where he supported liberal economics, suppressed workers’ movement, advocated austerity in public finances. This is also why, at the beginning of his rule, organs like The Economist or The Times were very supportive of the measures taken by his government, because they saw it as an authoritarian implementation of liberal economic orthodoxy. Winston Churchill spoke favorable of Mussolini’s suppression of a once-powerful workers’ movement.

There’s a very good new book The Capital Order, by Clara Mattei, which shows how the early fascism followed liberal and austerian economic principles, and was not a state takeover of the economy. It made some sort of coordination in strategic industries, but it did not overthrow the economic order. It carried out massive privatizations.

Obviously, there was some working class support for the fascist movement before it took power. Not all workers were in the workers movement or supported workers’ parties, even though the Socialist Party did have a very strong working class support and the main resistance to rising fascism came, without a doubt, from the organized workers’ movement. Nevertheless, such support, or the lack of it, was not the key to the rise of fascism. The real issue was that parts of the workers’ movement disarmed others, faced with the threat. In particular, the right wing of the Socialist Party supported an institutional compromise, mediated by the Liberal leader Ivanoe Bonomi, which resulted in the so-called ‘Pacification Pact’ of 1921. Through this, fascists and socialists agreed to lay down their weapons, but the agreement was respected only by the weaker, left-wing side. The fascists did not disarm themselves.

After Mussolini took power, and was sworn prime minister, was there still a chance to make Italy back a democratic country?

For the first four years, until 1926, there were still some elements of democratic counter-power. There were still opposition parties in the parliament. The elections of 1924 were subject to rigging and intimidation, but not entirely falsified. One of the most famous case of parliamentary opposition were the speeches by Giacomo Matteotti, a reformist-Socialist MP who denounced the fraudulence of the elections and was then murdered by the ‘Black Shirts’. This was really the biggest moment of crisis in the Mussolini rule, before the ultimate seizure of power. At that moment, the Communist Party and to a lesser extent Socialist Party advocated for a serious action designed to bring down the government.

The communists tried to get the opposition parties to call a general strike. But liberals and more conservative forces, as well as the bulk of the Popolari (Christian-democrats), did not want to go this way. They sought a peaceful and constitutional ways out of the crisis, hoping that the king would sack Mussolini – which did not happen.

So even after Mussolini became head of government, there were important struggles. Again, though, they lacked a kind of coherent leadership. I think a lot of the battle was lost already before the fascists took power. Thousands of people were killed during the fascists’ rise to power and after that, further moves were made by Mussolini to crush the opposition parties. The leadership of the Communist Party was subject to a massive wave of arrests in January and February 1923, but even important leaders were acquitted by the courts, asserting a measure of judicial independence. Even if the party survived as an underground opposition organization with a few thousand members, it was very weak. Another opposition group were anti-fascist intellectuals – Benedetto Croce, who voted for confidence in the first Mussolini’s government, then authored a manifesto against it. But most of the opposition was very weak and subject to repression, imprisonment and exile.

The manifesto of anti-fascist intellectuals.

Which social classes were ‘pillars of the regime’ in the following years?

Again, the answer is conditioned by the fact that there was no authentic expression of the democratic will, so we can only look to circumstancial evidence. We know that elite support for Mussolini existed. As for the masses, some historians like Renzo Felice speak of the period of consent to the regime in the 1930s, but this consent could be also understood as passive conformism in the sense that people were not allowed to act differently or seriously to advance alternative demands or projects. Of course, the regime enjoyed the support of those social layers which profited from it the most – namely, the elements of Italian capitalist class which benefited from the suppression of workers’ movements. These forces were important in keeping Mussolini in power and to its ultimate downfall.

The fascist approach to mass politics was basically to organize the masses within regime structures, but without any autonomy. The preexisting workers’ and peasants’ institutions were destroyed, and this refers not only to the ‘red’ movements, but also to the Christian-Democratic peasant movement. This organised mass politics was replaced by top-down programs of social and cultural activities, as well as benefits which could be available to workers, such as Dopolavoro, a kind of state-organized leisure time. Through such actions, the regime would seek popular participation.

At the same time, its politics included not only severe repression, but also austerity, so we cannot really speak of any increase of living standards in fascist Italy. What the regime was able to do was to unite under its leadership most of the previously existing state apparatus, to secure the collaboration of the monarchy and the church, while repressing all autonomous expressions of mass politics.

As a result, it only began to head towards a serious crisis during World War II, and specifically when Italy started losing World War II.

How did the end of the regime come?

Italy only joined the war in June 1940, once Nazi Germany’s invasion of France was already very well advanced and at a point when Britain seemed weak and alone. Mussolini promised a quick and easy victory. Basically, he joined the war, hoping to take part in the division of Europe that would follow. When we look at the regime propaganda from the first year of the war, we see the message of a quick victory coming soon, without any great hardships. And then the message changes – to the one of endurance. The Italians were told that if they had not kept the war going and if they had not conquered new grounds, it would have been Soviet Union invading Europe, Italy included.

Italy faced severe economic setbacks, proving it was unable to sustain the war effort. We have lots of evidence, like the number of calories that workers were able to consume per day, being reduced to very low levels, as little as 900 calories per day, by early 1943. Bread riots and protests over lack of food started to emerge in this period. Those were popular rebellions unseen in the previous decade, indeed not necessarily with a specific antifascist political leadership. Then in March 1943, a strike wave shook Northern Italian industrial factories, largely instigated by the Communists.

By the end of 1942, there were already people in the royalist and military establishment considering to move against Mussolini. They started to think of switching sides when the Anglo-American allies have already reached Algeria and parts of the French Vichy regime defected.

Although Roosevelt and Churchill claimed that the allies would consider nothing other than unconditional surrender from the Italians, parts of Italian leadership started to reach out to them, to eventually abandon both Mussolini and the German ally. his is what happened in July 1943, after the bombing of Rome. Part of the Italian leadership tried to regain control of the situation by getting rid of Mussolini and then trying to pull Italy out of the war. Their plan reached its culmination in September 1943, when they secured an armistice with the allies, but then Germany reacted by an invasion, which marks the real beginning of the armed popular resistance, by disbanded soldiers and workers in particular.

Many Italian working people voted in these elections for Fratelli d’Italia, being disillusioned with mainstream liberal and center-left parties. They hoped that Meloni’s party could be actually some economic alternative.

What you said about the economic nature of Mussolini’s regime suggests it was a fundamental mistake, as it was a regime constructed to sustain the business and capitalist class, not the workers.

Firstly, I’m not that sure that the working class support for Fratelli d’Italia does indeed come from disgruntled former center or left-wing voters. There has always been a part of working class that voted for right-wing parties. Of course, the general tendency in 20th century was the class vote – the working class chose the left. But this was mainly true in the industrial cities. It was true of a region like Emilia Romagna, which has a history of labour organizing. But if we look at either southern Italy or, for example, at a region like Veneto, we see very small production units and workers who are religiously devout and socially close to their employers, they actually tended to vote for Christian Democrats rather than the Left.

As for the fascist era, there was a specific attempt to appeal to workers or at least to reconcile workers to the regime. In 1927, the labor charter declared a support for workers rights. But what has to be remembered is that the the effective policy of the regime was to insist that it was creating a new age of harmony that would end the conflict between labour and capital.

Their interests were to be combined in one single national interest, including economic interests. There was a certain appeal to workers based on the idea of industrialisation, building new factories and infrastructure, building new towns where migrants from rural areas could settle down and become industrial workers. Nevertheless, this was demagogical and not matched with real improvements in living standards – the workers suffered from fascism right from the start. The language of corporatism made symbolic concessions to the idea that workers had interests and that they were part of the state. The dominant approach was a repressive one rather than one based on welfare. Even if there existed some regime-organized trade unions, they were able to respond to individual complaints but not to allow free labour organization.

Today people tend to say that Mussolini did good things too. They often credit him with welfare achievements that actually existed before the regime, like the creation of health insurance or pensions. Yes, there were always elements of the fascist party who had a kind of syndicalist ideas and who spoke of the possibility of the future creation of a state based on the representation of industries, where workers would be indirectly represented via the industry they work for. There were some fascist ideologues who spoke about the idea of creating a full state control of the economy or socialization, as it eventually became called during the latter phases of World War II. But must not exaggerate how important this actually was in the real experience of the fascist economy.

It is tempting to say: 100 years later, fascists are back. On the other hand, the reality is very much different. What are the reasons for which today’s Italians vote for far right and tend to believe that the far right can bring some positive change?

Fratelli d’Italia is a party rooted in historical fascism. It’s the continuation of the post-war neofascist party, MSI, which openly called itself fascist. Fratelli d’Italia try to cleanse its image by upholding the post-war history alone and ignoring the era of the regime, but this does not change the origin of the whole organization.

I think the decisive factor is the general collapse in mass politics. For five decades after World War II, the MSI was never able to join a government. This was not just because the year 1945 represented a total moral condemnation of fascism, but because the Resistance gave rise to political forces who would block the MSI’s path for decades to come. In 1960, there was an attempt to form a government passively reliant on MSI support in Parliament, that caused a massive upsurge in the workers movement. It was this movement that stopped the Christian Democrats from ever considering doing that again.

But from the 1990s, the leadership of the workers’ movement and the Communist Party basically became market liberals. The old Communist Party was dissolved. There began a long process of separation of the biggest parties of the left from their former working class base. Privatization and marketization of large parts of Italian economy resulted in the left becoming the co-architect of undermining the workers’ rights. Overall, the left became detached from its historic base and lost its electoral competiveness.

At the same time, the generation who directly experienced and fought against fascism disappeared, so in that way, too, a barier against the far right began to fall away. Even in the 1990s, the language of ‘pacification’ and ‘deideologisation’ helped the MSI to become a junior party of government, in Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition, and more than that, a party which was treated even by the main centre-left forces as a basically ‘respectable’ opponent.

In this sense the 2022 election was not a sudden breakthrough. Fratelli d’Italia gained most of the increase in its support thanks to vote transfers from other right-wing parties and in particular the Lega, Matteo Salvini’s party. Their success is both a result of an opposition collapse — the centre-left’s vote is much smaller than twenty or thirty years ago — and of the fact that within the right-wing electorate, the barrier between center-right and far-right no longer exists. Also, there is a general fall in democratic participation, an extremely low electoral turnout.

We must bear in mind that the March on Rome happened at a time of massively expanding mass politics of revolutionary upsurges. It was a time when mass politics overwhelmed the liberal states. Now Fratelli d’Italia only got 7 million votes. It is not this massive and sudden upsurge of far right support. Rather, it is a situation where Italian democracy has declined into a contest between basically technocratic forces who administer Italy’s continual economic stagnation and austerity that’s lasted for decades. Fratelli d’Italia profited from the fall of the forces that once prevented a rise of MSI.

Do you see any chances for a return of mass politics in Italy?

On the one hand, I believe that Fratelli d’Italia and their allies will struggle to remain in power for five years, because of the depth of the crises they face, the war, the looming recession. The economic measures they propose, which basically amount to tax cuts and getting rid of welfare benefits, are very ill adapted to the particular moment they find themselves in. The situation would need a state support for incomes, even for businesses. They seem to have no vision to tackle the long-term lack of investment and low productivity, coupled with a high debt and the constraints of Euro membership.

However, I don’t expect a return of mass politics either. I don’t think that the preconditions for that exist. The average young or middle aged working class Italian would struggle to see examples of solidarity working — of the workers’ movement or any kind of protests really achieving concrete gains for them. While here is a kind of electoral volatility and dissatisfaction with the existing parties, there is no strong urge to build new parties and construct an alternative. We have an example of this in the 2010s with the rise of the Five Star Movement, which was very nihilist in tone. It did not promise great social changes – it rather suggested it offered an opportunity to kick out all the politicians. A negative gesture with no idea of running the society in an alternative way – while it is the alternative idea and even kind of moral framing and perspective which is actually necessary in order to do mass politics that unites and mobilises different social categories.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, there were new movements that brought together the various rising class subjects. Now we see all of the expressions of social solidarity rumbling. And then at the same time, it becomes harder to see how the Italian state itself would be able to make important choices that could really change the economic direction of the country. That, too, is necessary for building an oppositional, mass politics.

There are some movements in Italian society, labor movements like those of Amazon workers or of food delivery riders. These are examples of solidarity and movements, but I think the mass politics relies on the creation of a broad class subject and also on the idea of an alternative vision for society. And this is something we’re very far from having at the moment.

More educational content concerning fascism and antifascism is to be found on Watch Out site, run by our partners of Forward Foundation: see HERE.

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