Fascism in Germany. Robin Blick 1975

Chapter XII: Italy: The First Warning

The Brown shirt would probably not have existed without the Black shirt. The march on Rome in 1922 was one of the turning points of history. The mere fact that anything of the sort could be attempted and could succeed, gave us impetus... If Mussolini had been outdistanced by Marxism, I don’t know whether we could have succeeded in holding out. At that time National Socialism was a very fragile growth. (Adolf Hitler, 1940)

It would be incorrect to conclude that Germany is faced directly with the establishment of a fascist government à la Mussolini... The great change that has taken place [since the march on Rome] is the growth of fascism within Social Democracy. (’social Fascism in Germany’, Communist International, Volume 6, no 11-12-13, May 1929, p 529)

In Italy Mussolini has triumphed. Are we guaranteed against the victory of German Mussolinis in Germany? Not at all. (LD Trotsky, Report on the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 28 December 1922)

There was one sphere of activity in which the leaders of the German working class cannot be deemed remiss and that was in the manufacture of alibis. Confronted in the spring of 1933 with the ruins of what once had been the world’s most powerful labour movement, a movement which they had jointly led to defeat and destruction, Stalinists and Social Democrats frantically heaped abuse on one another, as the leaders of the two tendencies conspired to conceal from their tormented followers their mutual responsibility for the victory of fascism in Germany. While Comintern and KPD pen-prostitutes railed hysterically against the ‘social fascists’ for their policy of ‘tolerating’ the ‘lesser evil’ of the quasi-Bonapartist Brüning regime (a policy which resulted in the victory of the Nazi ‘greater evil’), the reformists hit back tellingly by pointing to the several occasions on which the KPD leaders had not merely refused a united front with the ‘social fascists’, but actually entered into a united front with the so-called ‘national fascists’ (a ‘Third Period’ Stalinist term distinguishing Nazis from ‘social fascists’) against the SPD!

But there was one alibi or diversion that not even the most debauched and case-hardened bureaucratic hireling dared employ. None could claim that Hitler’s victory took them by surprise, that the rise of German fascism lacked an historical precedent, that there had not been ample warning of the fate that awaited the German proletariat should its leadership not be equal to the task of carrying through the socialist revolution. For staring the German workers’ movement in the face for fully 10 years had been the tragic consequences of the Fascist ‘March on Rome’. By an unprecedented campaign of systematic anti-proletarian terror, Mussolini’s black-shirted Fascisti had not only succeeded in turning the tide of revolution which had been running high in the summer of 1920, but, unlike previous strike-breaking organisations, had at once gone over to the offensive in a determined bid for state power. This was something entirely new in the history of the class struggle under capitalism. Eagerly seizing the initiative presented to him by the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) reformists and centrists after their betrayal of the September factory occupation movement, Mussolini launched an unremitting siege of the Italian proletariat’s major citadels. Spearheaded by squads of First World War veterans, black-shirted columns blazed a counter-revolutionary trail through north Italy until, one by one, every stronghold of the labour movement had fallen into Fascist hands. In every case, the pattern was the same. Armed Fascists (often with weapons supplied by the army and police) would bodily eject the constitutionally elected administration from the town hall, and replace it with power-hungry petit-bourgeois, craving for rewards of office. The premises and print-shops of the local workers’ organisations would be looted, sacked and frequently closed for good. Workers’ leaders and labour activists would be publicly humiliated before their comrades by the forcible administration of castor oil, and even on occasions simply shot out of hand. With the proletariat either cowed or divided by the cowardly retreat of its leaders, who at no stage in the Fascist offensive organised any serious resistance to the gathering reaction, Mussolini rapidly convinced important sections of the bourgeoisie – not to speak of key army leaders and the highest circles of the royal family – that the formation of a Fascist-dominated government was the logical outcome of his bloody crusade against the Italian labour movement.

Four years of Fascist rule in Italy were sufficient to root out the last remnants of any independent workers’ organisation. The trade unions were outlawed, being superseded by Fascist ‘corporations’ which claimed to harmonise the interests of workers and employers in the interests of production and for the greater glory of the state, while the two workers’ parties, the PSI and the Communist Party of Italy (PCd'I) were declared illegal and driven underground by the Fascist secret police. A movement which at its peak had numbered millions, and enjoyed the devoted support of millions more, had been shattered. Not since the crushing of the Paris Commune had the European proletariat suffered such a terrible reverse. Its theoretical lessons and political implications would be neglected at the peril of every single detachment of the international working-class army. And just as had been the case in Germany, the ideological preconditions for the emergence of such a movement as Mussolini’s had been a long while maturing. In searching for and discovering them, we find ourselves amidst philosophical surroundings that are remarkably similar to and in some cases identical with those that nurtured the ideologues of National Socialism. For Mussolini, although a renegade from the extreme left flank of the pre-1914 PSI, had from his earliest years as a political activist been influenced more by the subjective idealist schools of European thought than the theories of Marx and Engels. Both before as well as after his defection to the counter-revolution, Mussolini bolstered his political conceptions by invoking the very same names that in France, as well as Germany, had helped to stoke up the fires of philosophic reaction: Nietzsche, Max Stirner, Schopenhauer, Bergson and Sorel. [1]

What unites each of these major figures in the history of European thought is not so much a shared political outlook – Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Bergson were all in their own fashion avowed opponents of socialism, while Sorel considered himself an uncorrupted champion of the proletariat – as a common theory of knowledge which can be summed up in one word: intuition. And it was in the name of this mystical force that Mussolini struck out along the uncharted path that was to lead him from the extreme left of the Italian Socialist movement to the ultra-right flank of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. His revolt against the supposed rigidities of Marxist theory and principles, and his quest for ‘action’ at all costs became the ideological hallmark of what passed for the ‘philosophy’ of Fascism: faith and ‘deeds’ rather than science and action guided by theory:

I do not believe in the supposed influence of books... For myself, I have used only one book... I have had only one great teacher. The book is life lived. The teacher is day-by-day experience. The reality of experience is far more eloquent than all the theories and philosophies in all the tongues and on all the shelves... my political evolution has been the product of a constant expansion, of a flow of springs always nearer to the realities of living life, and always further away from the rigid structures of sociological theorists. [2]

The intuitionist or ‘integralist’ influence of the Bergsonian subjectivist school, especially as distilled through Sorel, is all too obvious in these lines. With Mussolini, the rejection of Marxism was open and brutal in the extreme. However in the case of Sorel’s attack on the dialectical materialist foundations of the Marxist theory of knowledge, it was carried out in the name of defending Marx from his traducers and epigones. [3] This line of approach is most clearly expressed in his two famous essays, Reflections on Marxism (1906) and The Decomposition of Marxism (1908), written at a time when the French trade union movement was passing through its peak of prewar militancy. Viewing this combativity of the French proletariat through the eyes of a romantic, anti-rational intellectual, and seeing in it the antidote to the senility, parliamentary cretinism and ministerial opportunism of the official French Socialist movement, Sorel raised this class aggression to an absolute, and equated its most developed form – the general strike – with the proletarian revolution itself. Thus was born the Sorelian ‘myth’ of the general strike, as being a goal for which the proletariat strove for its own sake, and not as a means to an end, the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist society. But firstly it is essential to see by what methodological route Sorel arrives at such intensely mystical conclusions, ones which have absolutely nothing in common with Marxism, even though they can, with some justice, be said to share a common basis with the theoretical postulates of the so-called ‘revolutionary syndicalism’ of the decade preceding the First World War. Sorel was an avid pupil and follower of Bergson, seeking to apply the latter’s ‘integral’ theory of knowledge, which Bergson had evolved in his critique of mechanist theorists and ‘model builders’ in the natural sciences, to history and primarily to the study of the class struggle under modern capitalism.

... I put before my readers the working of a mental effort which is continually endeavouring to break through the bonds of what has been previously constructed for common use, in order to discover that which is truly personal and individual. The only things I find it worthwhile entering in my notebooks are those which I have not met elsewhere; I readily skip the transitions between these things, because they nearly always come under the heading of commonplaces. [4]

Yet such ‘commonplaces’ are precisely the repositories of all those shadings, the ‘skipped transitions’, wherein and by whose integral polarity the unique evolves and finally bursts forth as something which to the subjective idealist appears invested with a magical quality of absolute uniqueness. Thus ‘intuitionism’, far from laying bare the secrets of nature and society shrouded by hidebound dogmatic theorists, both obscures the mediations and transitions by which the old is negated into the new and the very inner complexities and further polarities contained within the fruits of this act of negation. What we ironically described as Bergson’s ‘short cut to infinity’ becomes a plunge into an abyss of mysticism and political reaction. [5] And this was as true in the case of Sorel, the renegade syndicalist, as it was with Mussolini, the renegade Socialist. Let us follow through the main progressions of Sorel’s argument in favour of a cult of proletarian violence and his propagation of the ‘myth’ of the general strike. Firstly Sorel frankly concedes that his theory lacks either substantiating objective evidence or any real prospect of fulfilment. And that is precisely its virtue:

... men who are participating in a great social movement always picture their coming action as a battle in which their cause is certain to triumph. These constructions, knowledge of which is so important for historians, I propose to call myths, the syndicalist ‘general strike’ and Marx’s catastrophic revolution are such myths... [Like]... those which were constructed by primitive Christianity, by the reformation, by the Revolution and by the followers of Mazzini... we should not attempt to analyse such groups of images in the way that we analyse a thing into its elements, but they must be taken as a whole, as historical forces, ... we should be especially careful not to make any comparison between accomplished fact and the picture people had formed for themselves before action. [6]

In other words, the myth (and here Sorel the would-be Marxist equates the proletarian revolution with the reactionary utopias of the early Christians) must at all costs be preserved intact, must be protected from the inquisitive scrutiny of science, and above all must continue to dominate the thinking of those it holds in thrall:

In employing the term myth I believed I had made a happy choice, because I thus put myself in a position to refuse any discussion whatever with the people who wish to submit the idea of a general strike to a detailed criticism, and who accumulate objections against its practical... possibility. [7]

Sorel’s refusal to countenance such a critical examination of his theories was reinforced by the opportunist political position of his opponents in the leadership of the French Socialist Party, who looked with suspicion on the activities of the syndicalists not so much for fear they might derail the struggle for socialism, but actually bring it about by revolutionary rather than evolutionary means. [8] It was this cleavage within the French workers’ movement – a split which found what Trotsky once called the ‘healthiest’ forces in the ranks of ‘revolutionary syndicalism’ – that both nourished and created an audience for Sorel’s theorising. And here there is an important parallel with the pre-1914 career of Mussolini, whose anarchist-flavoured Marxism was without doubt a largely intuitive reaction against the class-collaborationist policies favoured by the majority of the PSI leadership.

As a fervent anti-rationalist – rationalism being equated in his mind with parliamentary democracy, reformist socialism, bourgeois liberalism and middle-class intellectualism – Sorel welcomed any expression of the class struggle which in his view would give primacy to the instinct, to the dark forces of intuition, to violence that knew no limits or predetermined goal (as is the case in Marxist-led proletarian revolution). Thus in the scenario devised by Sorel, the proletariat, mobilised by the myth of the syndicalist (and not political) general strike, did not fight as a force in its own right and for its own emancipation from the rule of capital. For if we look more closely at what Sorel is saying, we see that his aim, far from the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, is its reinvigoration. Sorel spends much time denouncing the leaders of French socialism for their ‘bourgeoisification’, yet it is to the rescue of this same bourgeoisie that Sorel summons the proletariat:

It is here that the role of violence in history appears to us as singularly great, for it can... so operate on the middle class [bourgeoisie] as to awaken them to a sense of their own class sentiment... The day on which employers perceive that they have nothing to gain by works which promote social peace, or by democracy, they will understand that they have been ill-advised by the people who persuaded them to abandon their trade of creators of productive forces for the noble profession of educators of the proletariat [that is, bourgeois reformers – RB]. Then there is some chance that they may get back a part of their energy... proletarian violence not only makes the revolution certain, but it seems also to be the only means by which the European nations – at present stupefied by humanitarianism – can recover their former energy. This kind of violence compels capitalism to restrict its attentions solely to its material role and tends to restore to it the warlike qualities which it formerly possessed. A growing and solidly organised working class can compel the capitalist class to remain firm in the industrial war; if a united and revolutionary proletariat confronts a rich middle class, eager for conquest, capitalist society will have reached its historical perfection... Everything may be saved if the proletariat, by their use of violence, manage to re-establish the division into classes, and so restore to the middle class something of its former energy; that is the great aim towards which the whole thought of men... must be directed. Proletarian violence, carried on as a pure and simple manifestation of the sentiment of the class war, appears thus as a very fine and very heroic thing; it is at the service of the immemorial interests of civilisation... [9]

For all their invocation of ‘proletarian violence’, these are ideas pregnant with a whole range of the most reactionary conceptions. For it transpires that Sorel is by no means a partisan of the proletariat in the class struggle. If he summons it into battle, it is to bestir a reformist and democratic bourgeoisie to take up its old ways (exemplified by the ‘June Days’ of the 1848 revolution, and the massacre of the Communards in 1871) by regaining its former lust for power and counter-revolutionary violence. In this gladiatorial fashion, the nation can purge itself of its ‘weaker’ elements, and thus regain its lost virility. Shades of Nietzsche, whom, incidentally, Sorel greatly admired, despite the former’s well-known aversion for all forms of socialism and trade unionism. [10] Sorel’s position therefore seems to straddle the embattled classes. He urges both to fight with the maximum vigour and ruthlessness, to cast aside all democratic and reformist subterfuges, to scorn the parliamentary process and by-pass the various mechanisms which a reformist labour movement and a liberal bourgeoisie has evolved to regulate the social conflicts and mitigate their repercussions in the political sphere. So for all the scorn Sorel displays for the middle-class intelligentsia, which he sees as the main agency in this muffling process, he adopts the classic pose of the politicised but disoriented petit-bourgeois thrown hither and thither in a period of violent class conflict (France was in this period the battleground for a series of monumental clashes between the syndicalist-led workers and an intransigent industrial bourgeoisie and capitalist state). His attacks on the ‘middle class’ were not so much a critique of its pernicious influence on the proletarian movement, as a total repudiation of theory, a position which he found fortified by the writings of his mentor Bergson. [11] Sorel saw as his mission the liberation of the workers from their intellectual seducers, for only in this way could they be led back to their pristine ‘trade union’ purity. Here too, Sorel was no innovator, since an almost identical line of attack on Marxist leadership had been launched less than a decade previously inside the Russian workers’ movement, by the tendency which came to be known by the name ‘Economist’. Its advocates argued that socialist students and intellectuals were diverting the working class from its trade union struggles by seeking to harness the power of the proletariat to the struggle to overthrow the autocracy, an aim that transcended trade union goals and methods of combat, even though it would necessarily embrace them. Economist agitators exploited the mistrust felt by the more backward workers towards middle-class intellectuals, and incited them to ‘wrest their fate from their leaders’. Politics – that is, the struggle for the destruction of Tsardom – was seen as a corrupting influence on the Russian proletariat, which, the Economists insisted, was perfectly capable of devising its own theory, tactics and strategy for socialism without the assistance of Marxist intellectuals. Their job was not to interfere in the workers’ movement, but to win over the liberal bourgeoisie.

Now Sorel by no means shared all these essentially revisionist [12] notions – we cannot even be certain that he knew of them. But this much is sure. Sorel was part of that process of theoretical degeneration within the prewar international workers’ movement which in the summer of 1914 reached its treacherous nadir with the collapse into rampant chauvinism and collaboration with the capitalist state. And this collapse became the starting point for Mussolini’s defection from the ranks of the PSI and his rapid transition towards the extreme counter-revolutionary right.

If we view the origins of German and Italian Fascism from the standpoint of the personal biographies of their founders, there is much that separates the two movements. Hitler, as we have noted, was never a supporter, let alone member or activist, of the Austrian workers’ movement, while Mussolini was from his youth until his defection from the PSI in the autumn of 1914 a passionate advocate of revolutionary socialism, suffering repeated police victimisation and persecution for his convictions. Nor can we detect in the younger Mussolini any trace of the national hatreds that dominated the thinking of Hitler from the dawn of his social and political consciousness. Indeed, the future butcher of Ethiopia was famed (or feared) in the PSI and the Second International for his seemingly intransigent opposition to militarism and chauvinism in all their forms, just as he was regarded as the leading antagonist of those PSI leaders who sought to enter the portals of the government ministries in coalition with the ‘reformist’ wing of the bourgeoisie headed by Giovanni Giolitti, leader of the Liberals. [13] Yet the historical, political and economic soil which nurtured the two movements and fertilised their early growth was in many ways strikingly similar. Firstly there is the oft-stated fact of the retarded national unity of Germany and Italy, a delay which in both countries led to the ‘national question’ predominating in the political, social and cultural life of both countries. In Germany, it tended to take the form – for deep-seated historical reasons – of militant anti-Semitism mingled with an almost equal hatred for France and Poland; while in the case of Italy, imperialist sentiment was directed primarily against Austria in the north, and only later southwards towards Africa, where the still-unconquered expanses of Libya beckoned on protagonists of an aggressive colonialist policy. Looking more closely at the class and political structure of the two nations, we can also detect similarities as well as differences. Rapid industrialisation of north Italy, though by no means as tempestuous and massive as in the German Ruhr, had hewn a militant proletariat out of what had been up to the last decades of the nineteenth century a primitive and God-fearing (or rather priest-fearing) peasantry. Consequently the ‘social question’ loomed as large as the national question in every quarter of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy just as the two issues had become fused during the Bismarckian era in Germany. And so the ideological antecedents of Italian Fascism are to be found amongst those organisations and individuals which, as in Imperial Germany, saw the solution to these twin dilemmas as residing in a political counter-revolution sweeping away bourgeois democracy and independent workers’ movements alike, and the creation of a regime which would harness the energies of the working class in a struggle for empire. Such was the Nationalist Party, which played the ideological role in Italy performed for National Socialism in Germany by the Pan-German League. Its contribution to Italian Fascism was in fact greater in that it not only helped to shape Mussolini’s aggressive foreign policy, but also pioneered many of the conceptions which were later to reappear in the official Fascist theory of the corporate state. Founded in 1910, a time when clamour for empire had reached a crescendo, the Nationalist Party fused Catholic social doctrines (see Chapter X) with a militant anti-parliamentarianism and a bellicose nationalism. The party’s principle ideologist, and one who exerted a considerable influence on later Fascist thinking, was the high-school teacher Enrico Corradini. It was he who evolved the notion of an Italy condemned to poverty and backwardness by its being denied its rightful share of colonies. Italy, he claimed, was a ‘proletarian nation’, and it would only end its servitude to the sated capitalist powers when the energy-sapping fratricidal struggle of classes within Italy was brought to an end. [14]

The Nationalists, like their counterparts in the Pan-German League, never secured a mass following, though they were ahead of them in seeing the need to acquire one. Their ‘social’ and even ‘proletarian’ phraseology did, however, succeed in attracting into their ranks a small group of renegade socialists and more significantly for the future development of Italian Fascism, defectors from the syndicalist movement. These latter comprised the embryo of that counter-revolutionary tendency which assumed the title ‘national syndicalism’ and after 1914 gravitated rapidly into the orbit of Fascism. We should recall that in Germany, the forerunner of the Nazi movement, Drexler’s German Workers Party (not to speak of the Bohemian organisation of the same name), advocated a national ‘trade unionism’, as indeed did Hitler, and that the DAP served as a bridgehead for the Pan-German Fatherland Front and the Munich-based Thule Society into the masses, which they themselves could never hope to reach. So it was with the Italian Nationalists. The foundation of the party had been anticipated and to some extent prepared by the publication of Corradini’s nationalist review, II Regno, which first appeared in November 1903. Right from the beginning, he struck a new note in ruling-class politics, scolding the bourgeoisie for its ‘decadence’ and summoning it, very much in terms that Sorel employed in his Reflections on Violence, to regain its lost virility and ruthlessness. This was also the theme of his address to the founding Nationalist Congress, where he called upon the government to throw caution to the winds and carve out an empire in North Africa before Italy’s imperialist rivals choked the ‘proletarian nation’ to death:

As socialism teaches the proletariat the value of the class struggle, we [the Nationalists] must teach Italy the value of the international struggle... But if the international struggle means war, well then, let there be war!

And when war against Libya did come only a few months later, Corradini’s chauvinist rantings were being echoed by voices which had till then been strident in their opposition to imperialist war and national hatreds. Arturo Labriola, militant syndicalist leader and theoretician, hailed the invasion and conquest of Libya in terms both reminiscent of Sorel and foreshadowing the glorification of war indulged in by Mussolini:

War is]... a school of character, virility and courage... A people that does not know how to make war, will never make a revolution... Behind Turkey [whom Italy was fighting to annexe Libya] is the Europe of money, which desires its prey... We are really combating Mammon... [Shades of Carlyle and Feder – RB] [15]

With the approach of the world war, Italy and Germany presented what was in many ways a similar picture – an imperialist-oriented bourgeoisie confronted by an increasingly powerful labour movement, a polarisation which was itself mirrored at each pole by deep divisions over strategy and tactics. The liberals, encouraged by openly reformist and national trends in the workers’ movement, sought a rapprochement with the more ‘moderate’ of their former enemies (thus Weber and certain of the Progressives in Germany, and Giolitti in Italy), while the extreme chauvinists demanded a policy of all-out war on every shade of socialism (in Germany, the Pan-German Junkers and industrialists, in Italy, the Nationalists). In both countries, the outbreak of the imperialist war threw these conflicting tendencies into flux. All except the most intransigent enemies of the German workers’ movement welcomed its leaders’ collaboration in prosecuting the war, while within the SPD and the trade unions, chauvinist degeneration proceeded at such a tempo that the voice of internationalism was all but stifled.

In Italy, events took a different turn. Waverings and divisions among the bourgeoisie and the military over which side to support enabled the leadership to take a seemingly firm stand against the war. Since the government was officially neutral, it did not require the courage of a Liebknecht to call on the workers’ movement to be neutral also. Yet this stand did not satisfy all of the PSI leadership, no more than did the Italian government’s neutrality please the militantly imperialist Nationalists, who were demanding a crusade to ‘liberate’ the Italian-speaking population of the Austrian Tyrol. For Mussolini, the editor of the PSI daily Avanti, a more ‘active’ policy was called for, even if it involved support for one or other of the two imperialist camps. This blind quest for action for its own sake, which had been a feature of his thinking both as a party activist and journalist, led Mussolini to challenge every single basic principle of Marxism. If adherence to such ‘rigid’ and abstract ‘dogmas’ as internationalism and anti-militarism stood in the way of action, then Mussolini the pragmatist decided they had to be jettisoned, as ideas condemning the movement to passivity in the face of great events. The crisis came on 18 October 1914, when Mussolini broke party discipline by publishing in Avanti his notorious article calling on the PSI to revise its policy on the war. In it he combined eclectically the terminology of Marxism with the intuitive philosophy of Sorel and Bergson:

Many indications support the inference that the PSI is not at ease on the cushions of so comfortable a formula as ‘absolute neutrality’. Comfortable because it is negative, allowing one to abstain from thought and to do nothing but wait. A party that wants to live in history, to shape history, cannot accept a rule that has been made into a sacred dogma or eternal law independent of the inexorable exigencies of space and time... We have condemned war, but this condemnation of the phenomenon itself, viewed in its ‘universality’, has not prevented us from distinguishing – logically, historically, socialistically – between wars. The war forced upon Belgium and Serbia and in a certain sense upon France is quite different in character from the war waged by the Austro-German combination... Marx believed that ‘whoever formulates a programme for the future is a reactionary’. Paradox! In our case, however, it is true: a programme of ‘absolute’ neutrality for the future is reactionary. Such a programme made sense once. Today it is dangerous because it immobilises us. Formulas are accommodations to events; to accommodate events to formulas is sterile... If tomorrow... it should become evident that Italy’s intervention can hasten the end of the terrible slaughter, who among us Socialists would favour a ‘general strike’ to prevent a descent into hostilities which, by saving hundreds of thousands of proletarian lives in France, Germany, Austria, etc, would constitute a supreme attestation of international solidarity? Under pressure from the Socialists, could not Italy become tomorrow the armed mediator of a peace based on a limitation of armaments and respect for the rights of all nationalities? ... unless we are prepared to condemn ourselves to immobility, we cannot remain bound by any formula... Do we wish to be – as men and Socialists – inert spectators of this grandiose drama... sometimes the ‘letter’ destroys the ‘spirit’. Let us beware of saving the ‘letter’ of the party, if by so doing we destroy the ‘spirit’ of socialism. [16]

As so often has been the case both before and after Mussolini, the attack on Marxism began with a passionate invocation of its founder’s name. This particular onslaught was all the more pernicious in that it sought to defend the revolutionary, or rather activist, ‘spirit’ of Marxism from the allegedly passive exponents of its ‘letter’. Neither was Mussolini alone. Others also previously identified with the extreme left-wing of the PSI and the main trade union organisation, the CGL (General Confederation of Labour) began to talk in the same highly ambiguous terms, among them the syndicalist Fillippo Corridoni (not to be confused with the Nationalist Enrico Corradini) who had been jailed for his part in the violent struggles of the so-called ‘Red Week’ in June 1914, when workers and land labourers took over entire townships in Emilia and the Marche and defied police and army efforts to dislodge them for nearly a week. It is therefore too simple an argument to explain his and Mussolini’s renegacy in terms of material corruption. Mussolini lost his post as editor of Avanti, while Corridoni proclaimed his support for Nationalist interventionist policy from the gloom of an Italian prison! And this line of reasoning is not only vulgar, it is dangerous, for it obscures the profoundly idealist philosophical roots of the movement that rapidly crystallised out of the fusion between the PSI and syndicalist renegades from the left and the Nationalists on the far right. If all treachery to the working class can be explained purely or even largely in terms of material corruption, or – and this is but a more sophisticated version of the same theory – that such renegades, whether they pass over to fascism or stop short at an opportunist position within the workers’ movement, are pursuing a course they have already clearly mapped out in their heads, then this is merely another variant of idealist philosophy, which views the behaviour of individuals in moral terms or as a part of a larger ‘conspiracy’. In the case of Mussolini, the intuitionist par excellence, we can see that this method of analysis is patently unable to explain his political evolution. Deeper and more complex forces were at work than ‘bad faith’ or some other moral deficiency. [17] Following Mussolini and Corridoni into the interventionist camp were small fractions from the PSI and the CGL. Among defectors from the latter were Michele Bianchi, Edmondo Rossini, Alceste Ambrisi and Giuseppe Giulietti, and they wasted no time in founding their own nationalist organisation which took the name Italian Labour Union (UIL). The ‘national syndicalism’ of Arturo Labriola, first expounded in the heat of the Libyan war, was now on the verge of becoming a vital ingredient in Fascist demagogy and, after 1922, an organisational prop of the corporate state. But by its very act of separation from the main body of the Italian syndicalist movement, the UIL surrendered all claims to being a genuine trade union. It denounced both the class struggle and the international solidarity of the working class, and called upon the proletariat to wage war, not on the Italian bourgeoisie, but its class brothers in uniform, the cannon fodder of the Austrian imperial army.

Meanwhile, Mussolini’s career as a PSI journalist was coming to a bitter and fateful end. Outraged militants demanded his removal from the editorship of Avanti and his expulsion from the party, both being carried out before the end of November 1914. One career had ended, and a new one was about to begin. On 15 November, Mussolini launched his new interventionist daily paper, Il Popolo d'Italia, which carried on its masthead the legend ‘A Socialist Daily’, suggesting that its editor had not parted company with socialism, rather he was seeking a more national interpretation of it. Describing the outlook and background of his first supporters in this new journalist venture, Mussolini writes:

They were composed of revolutionary spirits who believed in intervention. They were youths – the students of the universities, the socialist syndicalists, destroying faith in Karl Marx by their ideas. There were professional men too, and working men who could still hear the real voice of the country. [18]

In December 1914, this group founded the germ-cell of the future Fascist Party, the Fascio d'Azione Rivoluzionara, the Fascio of Revolutionary Action (the word Fascio or Fascist being derived from the symbol of authority carried before the rulers of ancient Rome – an axe surrounded by a bundle of rods). At this stage, as the name of both his group and the subtitle of his paper implied, he was still posing as a revolutionary socialist, albeit of a highly unorthodox kind. Still groping for a new programme to replace the rejected internationalism of the PSI, Mussolini was at first motivated mainly by blind hatred for the movement which had expelled him from its ranks as a class traitor, and by a desire for violent action no matter what the cause or cost. Nevertheless, his subjectivism and intuitionism served as a vehicle for the most reactionary and consciously anti-working-class forces in Italian and international politics. The Nationalists and other interventionists began to look with favour upon Mussolini’s patriotic drum beatings, especially since his ‘national syndicalist’ allies could prove invaluable in lending substance to Nationalist propaganda concerning the ‘proletarian’ and ‘revolutionary’ nature of Italian imperialism’s struggle for new land and markets. Support of a more tangible kind was forthcoming from another and at first sight more unlikely source. Acting with the full approval of the French government, Marcel Cachin, a pro-war leader of the French Socialist Party (and subsequently of French Stalinism) visited Italy in December 1914 with funds for the financing of interventionist groups in and around the Italian workers’ movement. And among the beneficiaries of Cachin’s largesse was Mussolini’s new daily paper, Il Popolo d'Italia. [19] With the fall of the neutralist Giolitti government on 12 May 1915, Mussolini’s Fascio seemed to be left high and dry without a programme, since the pro-war administration of Antonio Salandra proceeded to carry it out by invading Austria on the 25th of the same month. Yet it rapidly became clear that Mussolini was not merely seeking war to regain the Italian-speaking regions of the Tyrol. His Fascio (who by now had been joined in their pro-war clamour by a motley band of Futurist literati and bohemians) also desired an entirely new political system where there would be little or no room for either parliamentary democracy or independent workers’ organisations. ‘Parliament’, wrote Mussolini on the eve of Giolitti’s fall, ‘is Italy’s bubonic plague which poisons the blood of a nation. It must be extirpated.’ [20]

Along with several others of his group, Mussolini volunteered for front-line service, leaving the day-to-day running of his paper to his closest co-thinkers. As working-class opposition to the war hardened (by 1917 real wages had dropped 27 per cent from their prewar level), so Il Popolo d'Italia became more strident in its demands for a war on two fronts against Austria and against the Socialist movement at home. The campaign came to a head with the cataclysmic rout of the Italian army at Caporetto in October 1917. All pretence at being a Socialist movement was discarded. The imperialist fatherland was in danger, and all those who hampered its struggle for survival were traitors to be shown no mercy. The paper then dropped its old subtitle of a ‘Socialist daily’ and now claimed to speak for the ‘combatants and producers’, a change which Mussolini himself later regarded as marking a watershed in the history of Fascism. [21] The tone of the paper’s articles also hardened:

With a fiery style I demanded on the part of the government severe action against slackers and whosoever undermined the spirit of the War. I called for the organisation of a volunteer army. I asked for military rule in the north of Italy, insisted on the suppression of Socialist newspapers. [22]

Unlike Hitler, who, totally lacking in original political thought, took over ready-made the programme of the Pan-German and volkisch right, Mussolini was groping his way into unmapped territory, feeling his way step by step towards the rounded-out strategy and ideology that was to become Italian Fascism. And all the time Mussolini the ex-Socialist and former editor of Avanti was applying his considerable knowledge of mass movements and agitation to the task of breaking up, and not building, the movement he had served with no little skill and devotion for more than a decade. [23] Business circles most closely linked to the war industries – notably the Ligurian shipbuilding firm Ansaldo – soon overcame their inhibitions at collaborating with a former notorious enemy of Italian capitalism, and began to subsidise Mussolini’s paper and the activities of his group. The company was a classic example of a medium-size firm which mushroomed to enormous wealth and importance. Ansaldo shared Mussolini’s enthusiasm for war, even though not for the same reasons. Government contracts increased its capital from 30 million lire in 1914 to 500 million by 1918, and its labour force over the same four-year period from 4000 to 56 000. By the war’s end Ansaldo was producing not only warships, but guns, ammunition and even aeroplanes. Ansaldo’s owners, the brothers Pio and Mario Perrone, also had a controlling interest in the big Banca Italiana di Sconto, so their decision in the summer of 1918 to subsidise Mussolini’s movement possessed a significance far beyond the actual sums of money involved. It indicated that for the first time, Mussolini was being taken seriously not only as a patriotic drum-boy for imperialist wars, but a potential candidate for the role of strikebreaker and counter-revolutionist once the war came to its inevitable conclusion amidst a wave of working-class radicalism.

Though events never went as far as the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils – partly at least because unlike Germany, Italy was a member of a victorious and not defeated imperialist coalition – Mussolini found no response to his nationalist anti-socialist and anti-democratic propaganda amongst the working class. They had had enough of war, and they detested Mussolini as a traitor to socialism. Like Hitler, he rapidly discovered that middle-class ex-servicemen were far more sympathetic to his ideas:

A war of the masses ends with the triumph of the masses... The bourgeois revolution of 1789 – which was revolution and war in one – opened the gates of the world to the bourgeoisie... The present revolution, which is also war, seems to open the gates of the future to the masses, who have served their hard apprenticeship of blood and death in the trenches. [24]

And though separated by victory and defeat, the political conditions which compelled Hitler and Mussolini to turn towards the ‘trench socialist’ for their firmest cadres were remarkably similar. In Italy too, the bulk of the middle class of town and country were pulled to the left by the pre-revolutionary upsurge within the working-class movement. This profound shift away from the old parties of order [25] drove the Vatican to the unprecedented and momentous decision of sanctioning the formation of a Catholic ‘social’ party, the Populari, or Populists, and the creation of a parallel trade union organisation to counter the rising influence of the CGL amongst the more backward Catholic workers. (In fact the Catholic union, the Italian Confederation of Labour – CIL – was founded in March 1918, some 10 months before the official launching of the Populari.) Another indication of the crisis in extreme right-wing circles was the rout of the Nationalists, who lost all three of their seats in the November 1919 elections, and the decline of the right-wing Liberals, Italy’s main bourgeois party (analogous to Stresemann’s DVP) who also lost support in the middle class. In all, the outlook for a movement of Mussolini’s type looked grim, no more promising than that which confronted Hitler when he decided with all his doubts about its future prospects of success to become member number seven of the Munich German Workers Party. That Mussolini was able to break out of his group’s postwar isolation, and blaze a counter-revolutionary trail which inspired Hitler to follow him, was due entirely to a series of fatal tactical and strategical errors committed by the leadership of the Italian workers’ movement, not excluding that section of it, organised after 1920, in the Communist Party. And here too, there is a common bond with Germany, where the treachery of the reformists and mistakes of the centrists permitted the counter-revolution to regroup and strike back at the proletariat with deadly consequences.

And Mussolini’s political prospects at the end of 1918 were black indeed. A movement which proclaimed harmony between classes and preached the mystical doctrines of nation and race could expect precious little support from the proletariat, now surging into the trade unions and the ranks of the PSI like a torrent. [26] While this movement maintained its forward impetus, Mussolini could only bend to it, even mimicking its radicalism and outbidding the Socialist leaders with shameless demagogy.

That his pseudo-anarchist rantings [27] of this early postwar period were pure camouflage for his sinister counter-revolutionary aims is evident from his later recollections:

Everything was discussed again. We Italians opened the box of political problems and took apart the social clockwork. We pawed over everything from the Crown to Parliament, from the Army to our Colonies, from capitalistic property to the communistic soviet proposal for the federation of the regions of Italy, from schools to the Papacy. The lovely structure of concord and harmony that we combatants and the wounded had dreamed that we would build after the luminous victory of October 1918 was coming to pieces. [28]

And as in Germany, nationalist war-veterans returned from the ‘harmony’ of the trenches and the barracks thirsting for revenge against those who had snatched from them the rewards they believed their courage and sacrifices had merited. They did not relish the Italy they saw – a battlefield of classes, not of nations. Unity therefore had to be imposed on the nation, and by military means if needs be. The following passage from Mussolini’s autobiography describes the circumstances which brought about the formation of the Italian Fascist movement:

I knew very well that a strong government would quickly put in order the Socialists and anarchists, the decadents and wreckers and the instigators of disorder... And thus... one Sunday, 26 February 1919, I saw at Milan a fact more disquieting and more important than I thought possible. I saw a Socialist procession – with an endless number of flags... with banners cursing the War. I saw a river in the street made of women, children, Russian, German and Austrians [sic!] flowing through the town... They had numerous meetings. They clamoured amnesty for the deserters. They demanded the division of the land! [29]

And equally disturbing for Mussolini was the same cowardice or indifference in the propertied classes which drove Hitler to conclude that only mass terror could combat the menace of Marxism:

As the procession passed through the streets the bourgeois closed hastily their windows and doors. They pulled down their roller blinds. ‘There’, said I, ‘are eyes closing with the weariness of anxiety and fear... Not a single force interventista [that is, nationalist] or any other put their feet on to the street to stop the irresponsibles.’ [30]

The very next day, Mussolini thundered against the Socialist ‘beast’ in Il Popolo d'Italia:

If the opposition to war that is not only finished, but was victorious, is now a pretext for an ignoble doubt, then we, who are not ashamed to have been interventisti, but feel the glory of our position, will shout to the heavens – ‘Stand back – you jackals!’ No one shall separate the dead... We shall defend the dead... even though we put dug-outs in the public squares and trenches in the streets of the city. [31]

It was a declaration of war against the Italian proletariat. Less than a month later, on 23 March 1919, the Fasci di Combattimento held its historic meeting (in a hall fittingly offered to Mussolini by the Milan Association of Merchants and Shopkeepers) which saw the adoption of the founding Fascist programme. [32]

Taken at its face value, the programme was distinctly ‘left’ in flavour, demanding not only a republic but the ‘suppression of all forms of speculation’ and ‘confiscation of unproductive revenues’. But there was much that was deliberately ambiguous and even mystifying, especially point 12, which called for the ‘reorganisation of production according to the cooperative principle, including the workers’ direct share of profits’. Mussolini’s speech to the Milan meeting helped to resolve at least some of these uncertainties. His new movement might appeal to the proletariat, but not in the name of socialism. Socialism was ‘reactionary’, ‘national syndicalism’ revolutionary:

Unquestionably, Bolshevism has ruined the economic life of Russia... For our part, we declare war on socialism... because it has aligned itself against the nation... The official Socialist Party has been obviously reactionary... It cannot lead a movement of renovation and reconstruction... Majorities are inevitably static, minorities dynamic. We wish to be an active minority, to separate the proletariat from the Socialist Party.

Then in a typical display of demagogy, Mussolini continued:

But if the middle classes think that we shall be their lightning conductors, they are mistaken. We must go toward the workers... and accept their premises. Do they want an eight-hour day? Will miners and night workers insist on a six-hour day, invalidity and old age insurance, control over industry? We will support these demands, partly because we want the workers to become accustomed to the responsibilities of management and to learn in consequence that it is not easy to operate a business successfully... as for economic democracy, we favour national syndicalism and oppose intervention by the state whenever it is aimed at throttling the creation of wealth... There are industrialists who shun technical and moral innovations. Should they prove incapable of changing, they will be swept aside. However, we must impress on the workers that it is one thing to destroy, another to build... We are strongly opposed to all forms of dictatorship, whether of the sword or the cocked hat, of wealth or of numbers. The only dictatorship we do acknowledge is that of will and intelligence. [33]

This is the classic ‘supra-class’ programme of Fascism. The workers are to be rewarded with a voice in the running of industry – and backward employers are to be ‘swept away’. Yet the state will not tamper with the economy while wealth is being created. Socialism is to be fought, but not for the benefit of the bourgeoisie... and so on. Each point balances out the next, the end result being a policy which promises everything to everybody yet commits the movement to nothing.

Both Hitler and Mussolini began their careers as professional counter-revolutionaries hoping to win over a sizeable segment of the proletariat to fascism. Early experiences taught them that this was impossible, and that the potential mass reserves of their movements lay elsewhere, namely in the petit-bourgeoisie. Proletarians were conspicuous by their absence from the cadre of the early National Socialist movement, and so it was in the case of its Italian counterpart. True, Mussolini enjoyed the support of a handful of renegade Socialists (as did Hitler: that is, Esser and Otto Strasser) and syndicalists, but they brought precious few workers with them into the infant Fascist movement. Fifty-four persons attended the Milan rally – ‘syndicalists, old interventionists, demobilised officers still in uniform, and many Arditi, those brave grenade-and-knife shock troops of the war’. [34] These last, and not the renegades from socialism and syndicalism, were to comprise the fighting forces of Italian Fascism, just as in Germany, the commanding staff of the SA was recruited largely from the ranks and leadership of the Free Corps brigades:

This typically Italian formation [the Arditi] lived on after the War. The first fighting Fascisti were formed mostly of decided men. They were full of will and courage. In the first years of the anti-Socialist, anti-Communist struggle the Arditi war veterans played an important role. [35]

Their baptism of fire on the home front came the next month, when a general strike in the Milan industrial region provided the pretext for a Fascist attack on the offices of Mussolini’s old paper, Avanti. Though massively outnumbered by thousands of demonstrating workers, the Arditi veterans of hand-to-hand trench fighting in the alpine north, routed the hastily assembled forces guarding the Avanti offices. The premises were sacked and burned with the Arditi escaping unharmed, much to the delight of the Milanese bourgeoisie, who were beginning to despair of the red tide ever receding. [36]

Even so, only a small trickle of anti-socialist fanatics found their way into the new movement’s ranks in its first few months of activity. The bulk of its future middle-class supporters were still either putting their trust in bourgeois liberalism or watching – full of a mixture of hope and apprehension – the struggle of the proletariat to refashion Italy along socialist lines. Only when this bid had been decisively betrayed by the PSI reformists and centrists, and the bureaucrats of the CGL, did Mussolini find the courage to launch his massive onslaught on the proletariat, and only then did the middle class begin its violent plunge towards the extreme right. The great tragedy was that in Italy as well as in Germany, the revolutionary crisis matured more rapidly than the assembling and steeling of the leadership necessary to exploit it. In Germany, the Spartacists split from the USPD centrists at the end of 1918. Though long delayed, the formation of the KPD at least enabled the most advanced sections of the working class to enter the massive class battles of the next months and years behind a clear and distinct Communist banner.

Not so in Italy, where the genuinely Bolshevik elements in the party, headed by Antonio Gramsci and Amadeo Bordiga, only succeeded in demarcating themselves from the centrist ‘Maximalists’ in January 1921; that is, after the working class had passed through its most momentous offensive battles against the bourgeoisie. The PCd'I was founded in conditions of political reaction, and this too redounded to the tactical and strategic advantage of the Fascists. [37] The revolutionary energies squandered by the PSI and trade union leadership in the first two postwar years were truly prodigious. In 1913, a year of violent class conflict, 385 000 workers engaged in strike action. In 1919, this total had soared to 1.5 million, and was itself surpassed in the fateful year of 1920, when 2.3 million proletarians struck work. If, as the syndicalists and worshippers of spontaneity claimed, militancy were enough to overturn capitalism, then it should surely have done so in these two years. Yet it did not. The high point was reached in September 1920, when what began as a trade union struggle turned into an occupation of the major industrial concentrations of north Italy. Spreading from that hotbed of proletarian radicalism in the Fiat works at Turin, the factory seizures rapidly embraced Milan, Florence, Bologna and all the other industrial centres of the so-called ‘iron triangle’; while in the countryside, from the fertile Po valley in the north to poverty-stricken Sicily in the extreme south, poor peasants and land labourers were also on strike for the right of their ‘leagues’ to negotiate their own working conditions with the employers and landlords. For the first time in the history of modern Italy, the whole nation was aflame with struggles of revolutionary dimensions and implications. But the one factor required to fuse these two still distinct, yet parallel streams into a single torrent was lacking.

For two weeks, the revolutionary situation ripened as the government, headed by the wily old Liberal Giolitti, stood back, powerless to intervene. It was a situation analogous in many ways to that of Germany in November 1918. The Italian bourgeoisie lacked both the will and the material reserves to crush the advancing proletariat by sheer brute force. And as in Germany, the most astute elements of this fearful bourgeoisie, guided by a Giolitti who knew the PSI and CGL reformists like the back of his hand, staked the fate of Italian capitalism on this bureaucracy’s sure conservative instincts. With the agreement of the PSI centre and right, the trade union leaders were permitted to shift the struggle away from the issue of state power to a more familiar and less explosive terrain, and naturally, like their German counterparts in November 1918, the Italian employers, organised in the recently-founded General Confederation of Industry (Confindustria) were only too pleased to sign on the dotted line. Anything rather than expropriation! But it was an agreement which only one side intended to keep. While the CGL leaders prided themselves on their ‘moderation’, [38] the big industrialists began to consider ways and means of taking back what had been extracted from them under duress. In this too there was a direct parallel with Germany, where the big employers reneged on the November 1918 accords with the ADGB by opposing the social and economic clauses of the Weimar Constitution; but in Italy, the most reactionary employers (and landlords) wasted little time experimenting with the various parties of the traditional right. The defeat of the September occupation movement almost at once reflected itself in a rapid shift of the middle class towards the far right. The Socialist movement, having failed in its hour of great opportunity to give the clear lead the petit-bourgeoisie requires in periods of crisis, the treachery of the trade union bureaucracy and PSI reformists and centrists now created the conditions for a counter-revolutionary movement in the middle class which the big bourgeoisie could exploit to take the offensive against a working class thrown into disarray by the September defeat.

Yet this new situation was partially masked by the communal election results of 31 October 1920. Held little more than a month after the end of the factory occupations, they more reflected the level of political consciousness which produced that great movement than the period of political decline which set in during the following months, and which culminated in the victory of Fascism two years later. The PSI won 25 of the 69 provinces, and more than a quarter of Italy’s 8300 communes, thereby maintaining its position as the country’s largest party. But there was a shadow on the horizon. A resurgent bourgeoisie had combined its political forces to form the so-called ‘National Bloc’, and under its anti-socialist banner they rallied the middle classes to such good effect that not only in the backward south, where the PSI had but a small following, and Rome, where the population was predominately petit-bourgeois, but even in industrial Florence, Genoa and Turin, the birthplace of Italian Communism, Giolitti’s bloc (with Fascist support in Milan) took control of the local administration. The Catholic Populists also lost ground – heavily – on their performance in November 1919, reflecting a shift in the rural poor and more conservative workers back towards the right. Fascism itself also underwent a change in this period. Many of those misguided workers who had been dragged in its tow (while rarely becoming members of the party) through their membership of the UIL began to drift away as the middle class donned the black shirt of the squadristi and armed itself with knives, pistols and castor oil for the crusade against the ‘reds’.

Bologna was Mussolini’s first target. A stronghold of the workers’ movement, it had returned a Socialist administration in the elections of November 1920, and was still celebrating the PSI’s great ballot box triumph when a motorised Fascist assault column roared into the city armed to the teeth on 21 November and set about teaching the local Socialist officials some basic lessons of class warfare – lessons which they were tragically slow to learn. The arrival of the black-shirted army heralded an orgy of anti-proletarian terror which did not abate until every Socialist had been driven from office, the local labour press and premises sacked, looted and burned, and the city’s working class driven to distraction and despair by the utter inability of their leaders to organise any resistance.

Mussolini’s march on Rome began on that black day in the history of Italian and European labour, signposted by the reformist and centrists of the PSI. For none had heeded the prophetic warning of Gramsci, made at a time when the Italian working class was still in the ascendant and Fascism regarded by most PSI militants as little more than a minor political irritant:

The present phase of the class struggle in Italy is the phase that precedes either the conquest of political power by the revolutionary proletariat... or a tremendous reaction by the propertied classes and the government caste. No violence will be spared in this subjection of the industrial and agricultural proletariat to servile labour: a bid will be made to smash inexorably the working-class institutions of political struggle (the Socialist Party) and to incorporate its institutions of economic resistance (unions and cooperatives) into the machinery of the bourgeois state. [39]

Gramsci only erred in assuming that the reaction would stop short at the smashing of the unions and cooperatives. Once in power, Fascism, despite its demagogic pledges to preserve the ‘economic’ organisations of the workers, made no distinction between the PSI, the PCd'I and the CGL. Being independent class organisations, all stood condemned by the corporatist principles of class harmony and ‘national syndicalism’. There was to be no ‘incorporation’, as Gramsci had predicted (indeed the very nature of the corporate state precludes it), but total obliteration. [40]

Rich landowners as well as industrialists began to subsidise the Fascists once it became evident that Italian labour, while still capable of fighting heroic defensive battles, was in full-scale retreat before the gathering reaction. During September 1920, Mussolini had not dared to come out openly against the factory occupations. He even criticised the employers for not accepting some of the CGL’s demands. But by the summer of 1921, and with his black-shirted Arditi blazing a trail of burned-out trade union, Socialist, Communist and cooperative buildings throughout north Italy, [41] he was speaking with a rather different voice:

... let me warn you at once that we shall resist with all our strength any attempt at socialisation, collectivisation and state socialism... we assert that the real history of capitalism is only now beginning, because capitalism is not just a system of oppression, it also represents a choice of values, a coordination of hierarchies, a more developed sense of industrial responsibility. [42]

In this, his first speech to the Italian Parliament following his election – on a Giolittian National Bloc ticket – he also revised his previously anti-clerical views on church-state relations:

Fascism does not preach and does not practice anti-clericalism... I affirm here and now that today the Latin and imperial tradition of Rome is represented by Catholicism. I believe and affirm that the universal idea that exists in Rome today is that which radiates from the Vatican... I believe that if the Vatican were to renounce once and for all its dreams of temporal power – and I think it is going to – profane or lay Italy would furnish the Vatican with material aid for its schools, churches and hospitals. [43]

And so the first foundation stone was laid for the Lateran Accords of 11 February 1929, which established Catholicism as the Italian state religion and as ‘the basis and apex of public education’. (The drafters of Italy’s postwar constitution – headed by the Stalinist Minister of Justice Palmiro Togliatti! – were obviously delighted by Mussolini’s handiwork, since the Lateran Accords were incorporated into the republican constitution which went into effect on 1 January 1948.)

The elections of May 1921, which brought 35 Fascist deputies into the Italian Parliament, marked a further shift to the right by the middle class. The bourgeois democrats and radicals lost 60 seats, dropping to 108, while the National Bloc and right-wing liberals totalled 148 seats. The Republican non-Socialist left, like the democrats, lost heavily (43 down to 22), while the Populists made a good showing, increasing their representation to 108. But now the workers’ parties could not escape the consequences of the September defeat. Whereas in 1919, the PSI had won 156 seats, the PSI and PCd'I combined could now only claim 131 (PSI 108, PCd'I 15). The writing was on the wall, and written in language that even the most cretinous parliamentarian could decipher. Yet what was the reaction of Avanti?The Italian proletariat has buried the Fascist reaction under an avalanche of red ballot papers.’ Other – and more real – burials and cremations were soon underway. Emboldened by his enemies’ total lack of a fighting strategy and tactical plan, and greatly strengthened by tacit and often open support from the organs of state, Mussolini’s offensive against what remained of the Italian labour movement now gathered momentum. His middle-class army waged a truly ferocious war of revenge on the proletariat, which it saw as the cause of all its political frustrations and economic problems. An official breakdown of Fascist Party membership made at its congress at Rome in November 1921 revealed that of the movement’s 320 000 members, many were workers dragooned into the Fascist Party by virtue of their forcible enrolment into the UIL after the destruction of their own local trade union organisation. By contrast, landowners (36 000) tradesmen (7000) manufacturers (8000) and learned professions (20 000) comprised a percentage of Fascist Party membership far above the proportion warranted by their representation in Italy’s total population. In other words, Mussolini’s movement recruited its main forces from the propertied upper and middle classes and those strata and groups most closely associated with them either occupationally, materially or ideologically. As one Fascist squad leader – U Banchelli – himself once stated in his memoirs with remarkable frankness, the black-shirted onslaught on Italian labour was unleashed by those who did not consider themselves so much Fascists as ‘sons of lawyers, doctors, tradesmen... for long these gangs had only to meet people who looked like workers to attack them without pity’. [44]

Hitler’s assumption of power was preceded and to a great extent prepared for by a period when the polarisation of class forces produced a parliamentary stalemate in which no party or coalition of parties could form a majority government. This became the political basis for the semi-Bonapartist government of Brüning, and the fully Bonapartist regimes of Papen and Schleicher. So it was in Italy, where Populist disaffection with the Giolitti regime, which had adopted a harsh attitude towards the Catholic trade unions, brought about its fall after the May elections and its replacement by the administration of Ivanoe Bonomi, which sought to adopt a more compromising attitude towards the moderate left. These waverings in the political circles of the bourgeoisie only redoubled Fascist determination to brush aside the liberals and step up the war against Italian labour. In the last months of the Weimar Republic, decisive sections of heavy industry and finance broke with their traditional parties – the DVP and DNVP – in calling for the formation of a Hitler-led government. By the beginning of 1922, this trend was under way in Italy. Sufficient numbers of rich landowners, bankers and industrialists had switched their allegiance from the old bourgeois parties and leaders to the Fascists to make a Mussolini government a distinct possibility if the workers’ movement found itself so tied by the reformists that it could not offer any serious resistance to a Fascist coup. Bonomi fell in February 1922, to be replaced by the even more ineffective Luigi Facta. His government did little more than hold the ring while the Blackshirts moved with impunity from town to town crushing the last centres of working-class resistance to Fascism. Thus the stage was set for the final act in this tragedy – the so-called ‘March on Rome’. This theatrical affair was carefully stage-managed by Mussolini and his closest aides to deck out the Fascist seizure of power in a revolutionary garb, for Il Duce had been under heavy pressure from the Fascist militants not to compromise with the old rulers of Italy. The trek from Naples – where the Fascists had been holding their congress – to Rome was certainly not undertaken with a view to toppling the Facta government by force, nor to intimidate the big bourgeoisie. A series of important speeches made throughout the previous year had banished the last lingering doubts in the minds of the propertied classes about Mussolini’s intentions as to private property, the monarchy and religion. In November 1921, at the Dome party congress, he had declared:

Our aim is not to introduce socialism but to leave it far behind. We are economic liberals because we maintain that the national economy cannot be entrusted to collective, bureaucratic agencies. In view of the Russian experiment, the time has come to put a stop to all that. I would return the railways and the telegraph lines to private ownership because the present arrangement is monstrous and vulnerable in every way... We oppose the economic state. Socialist theories have been disproved; internationalist myths have crumbled. The class struggle is a fairy tale, mankind cannot be divided. Instead of being separated the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are integral parts of a single whole... One hears it said that the masses must be won over... We do indeed wish to serve them, to educate them, but we also intend to flog them when they make mistakes... we are hereby warning them that when the interests of the nation are at stake, the egoism of everyone, of the proletariat as well as the bourgeoisie, must take a back seat.

Ten months later, Mussolini made another speech which was nothing less than a demand to be handed the reins of state power. Only Fascism could quell the rebellious masses and set them to work:

You know very well that I do not worship the masses, that new divinity created by democracy and socialism. [According to them the masses]... are necessarily in the right solely because of their numbers. Nothing of the sort is true... history proves that it is always minorities... that produce profound changes in human society. We refuse to worship the masses even if they come endowed with all the sacrosanct calluses on hands and brain...

He then went on to explain why Fascism had to resort to ‘social’ demagogy and employ some of the language of syndicalism:

We have had to practice syndicalism and are continuing to do so. Some say: ‘Your syndicalism will end up by becoming entirely indistinguishable from socialist syndicalism; you will be forced by the necessary logic of events to wage the class struggle.’ ... In actuality, our syndicalism differs from that of others because we absolutely deny the right to strike in the public services. We particularly favour class collaboration and are therefore trying to imbue our syndicates with this... idea.

On the vexed question of the monarchy (Mussolini had continued to favour a republic even after his defection from the PSI), Mussolini stated:

I really believe that the regime can be renovated in depth even if the monarchy is left untouched. We shall leave the monarchy alone because we believe a large part of the country would view with suspicion any transformation of the regime which went as far as that... I am basically of the opinion that the monarchy has no reason whatever to oppose the Fascist revolution.

Mussolini was right. After a conference in Milan with the Confindustria leaders, who were pressing Rome to appoint him Prime Minister in place of the demoralised Facta, Mussolini arrived at the Naples party congress, where after once again stressing to assembled bourgeois, aristocratic and military dignitaries that Fascist syndicalism was not really syndicalism at all, he made his most significant ploy of all. Fearing a possible clash with the army en route to Rome, he declared to the rally that ‘the army should know that we defended it at a time when the ministers were advising its officers to go about in civilian dress in order to avoid clashes’. Mussolini now hoped the army leaders would repay this loyalty by refusing to defend these ministers should they give the order to fire on the black-shirted army when it arrived at the gates of Rome.

There was talk of such an order being given, but King Emmanuel III, who had grown increasingly sympathetic to Fascism as it steadily shed its republican hue, refused to sign the order proclaiming a state of siege in the capital. Now back in Milan, Mussolini awaited the call to the once scorned and despised Quirinal. Whilst there, he held a series of last-minute conferences with the leaders of Italian industry, notably Crespi, Conti, Pirelli and Olivetti (the last being head of the all-powerful Confindustria). He made it clear to them that the aim of his government would be ‘the restoration of discipline especially in the factories’. So when Mussolini did finally enter Rome on 30 October as its new Caesar, it was with the full approval of Italy’s leading men of industry and in response to a summons from the king. And he arrived, not on a white horse at the head of his black-shirted legionaries, but in a first-class sleeper from Milan wearing that symbol of bourgeois rectitude, a bowler hat. The reactions of his business backers were predictable enough. Three days after the formation of the Mussolini coalition [45] the Confindustria organ, L'Organizzazione Industriale, gleefully heralded the advent of the first Fascist dictatorship in human history:

We look to it with great hopes. We will support the programme of this regime with all our strength, for in it, for the first time after long years, protection of property rights, the general obligation to work, a full valuation of the energy of the individual and of national sentiment are energetically proclaimed.

In making this triumphant declaration, the leaders of Italian monopoly capitalism were running true to form, as were the reformist leaders of the trade unions, who rather than continue to resist the Fascist menace, sought to come to terms with it. In doing so they foreshadowed the miserable capitulation to fascism carried out by their opposite numbers in Germany, who in the first weeks of the Nazi regime grovelled on their knees before Hitler in the vain hope that he would spare them and their organisations.

Oblivious to the fact that, unlike previous governments, Fascism had no need of their services, the CGL leadership curried favour with Mussolini by announcing their separation from the PSI, a move which elicited from Mussolini the ironic remark ‘at last’. Though the CGL unions were destined for eventual liquidation, it suited Mussolini to play along with the right-wing bureaucracy as a counterweight to the left wing of the workers’ movement. The CGL leaders lent themselves to this manoeuvre, shamelessly participating in talks with Mussolini in December 1922, just as the ADGB parleyed with NSBO officials in April 1933, at the very time when Hitler was already putting the final touches to his plans for winding up the entire trade union movement and putting its leaders in jail.

The pay-off for Mussolini was immediate. The CGL unleashed a furious witch-hunt against PCd'I and other trade union militants, many of whom were summarily expelled over the next few weeks. Nor was this all. The CGL bureaucracy issued a statement ‘fingering’ those workers who despite intimidation refused to accept its collaborationist policy, and warning others of the dire consequences of resisting the new regime, a ‘struggle from which they must absolutely remain aloof’. Non-political trade unionism, one of the hallmarks of syndicalism, had reached its nadir. But even though the CGL grovelled on its belly before Mussolini, it was all to no avail. Having performed their function of choking off the revolutionary militancy of the working class in the September 1920 occupations, and then of damping down their burning desire to hit back at the Fascists when the black counter-attack began later that same year, the bureaucrats of the CGL found the new regime had no more use for them. What big business demanded of Fascism was not a new era of compromise in which the union leaders would be permitted to ‘win’ a series of reforms for their members, but a long period of reaction, of naked dictatorship, in which the proletariat would have torn from its grasp everything that it had won – despite and even against its own leaders – in the period when the employers had been in retreat before the onrushing workers’ movement. Much to their dismay, there was to be no ‘tying of the unions to the state’, nor were Ludovico D'Aragona and the other leaders of the CGL bureaucracy permitted to ‘sit in the boardrooms of the corporate state’. In fact some were soon to find themselves sitting in far less salubrious surroundings, as step by step, the functions of the CGL were usurped by the bogus Fascist ‘unions’, which, because of their non-proletarian character and open adherence to the corporatist conception of ‘national syndicalism’, rapidly secured exclusive ‘bargaining rights’ with employers in all the major industrial centres of Italy. By 1926, Italy’s once-powerful trade union movement, which had struck fear into the heart of many an employer and landowner, had been reduced to rubble. Under Fascist corporative legislation (samples of which are reproduced at the end of this chapter) strikes were banned, militants jailed, wages cut, hours lengthened and working conditions worsened as big business reclaimed all that it had been compelled to surrender in the period of upsurge in the first two postwar years. [46] Little wonder that Mussolini’s triumph gladdened the heart of reactionaries the world over.

The Nazis were no exception. Even though Hitler made the initial mistake of believing he could mechanically reproduce on German soil and from his Munich base the Teutonic equivalent of a March on Rome – that is, the ‘March on Berlin’ – he gleaned a great deal more from the Italian experience than did those whose task it was to wring the last drop of political wisdom from this tragic defeat lest fascism be unleashed on any other section of the international working class. That the lessons of the Italian disaster were drawn by only a handful of Marxists, and not by the entire vanguard of the European workers’ movement, is almost entirely due to the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, and its malignant effects on the political life of the other sections of the Communist International. Only the most thoroughgoing and unrestricted discussion inside the Communist parties on the origins, nature and role of fascism, the mistakes committed in the fight against it in Italy (and in Germany, where the Nazis were already becoming a menace to the labour movement), and the correct policy to be adopted in the workers’ movement to defeat it, could arm the International in what was its very struggle for existence. Such a discussion was indeed begun after the March on Rome and the rise in the early months of 1923 of the Nazis in Germany, but it had barely got under way when the bureaucratic hand of Stalinism, first in the CPSU, then in all the other parties of the Comintern, stifled all genuine discussion and polemic on this as on all other questions germane to the struggle for socialism. This is not the place to discuss the consequences for Germany of the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR – this will be dealt with in far greater detail in later chapters – but it must be stressed here that the Italian defeat had a dialectical relationship with events both in Germany and the Soviet Union. Mussolini’s triumph, because it marked a decisive setback for the Bolshevik strategy of extending the revolution from backward Russia to the more economically advanced regions of Central and Western Europe, by the same token greatly strengthened the forces of conservatism both outside and within the Soviet state and party. [47] Likewise Mussolini’s victory over Italian labour emboldened his Nazi emulators in Germany who now had living proof that the hated Marxist enemy could be crushed:

In this period [between the March on Rome and the Munich Putsch – RB] – I openly admit – I conceived the profoundest admiration for the great man south of the Alps, who, full of ardent love for his people, made no pacts with the enemies of Italy, but strove for their annihilation by all ways and means. What will rank Mussolini among the great men of this earth is his desire not to share Italy with the Marxists, but to destroy internationalism and save the fatherland from it. How miserable and dwarfish our German would-be statesmen seem by comparison. [48]

The impact of Mussolini’s victory on the Nazi movement was immediate. In Munich only days after the march on Rome, Hermann Esser told an ecstatic Nazi rally that ‘what has been done in Italy by a handful of courageous men is not impossible. In Bavaria too we have [our] Mussolini. His name is Adolf Hitler.’ Volkisch as well as Nazi circles began to talk of a ‘March on Berlin’ with Munich serving as their Naples – or rather Milan – as Munich police reports recorded that the Nazis had received ‘a special force of gravity’ following Mussolini’s victory in Italy. Hitler later recalled that:

... the mere fact that anything of the sort could be attempted, and could succeed, gave us impetus. A few weeks after the March on Rome, I was received by the [Bavarian] Minister Schweyer. That wouldn’t have happened otherwise. [49]

And a former close colleague of Hitler’s, Ernst Hanfstangl relates that in a speech to another Nazi rally in Munich, Hitler ‘quoted approvingly the role of Kemal Atatürk and the example of Mussolini who had marched on Rome three weeks earlier’. [50]

Neither was it a question of inspiration alone. Just prior to Mussolini’s victory, Kurt Lüdecke, a Nazi businessman who enjoyed wide political connections abroad as well as in Germany by virtue of his activities as a buying agent for large companies, visited the Fascist leader in Milan for a discussion on the joint aims of their two movements. To Lüdecke (whose mission had the personal approval of Ludendorff and the north German volkisch leader Count Ernst zu Reventlow):

... it seemed apparent that the Italian Fascist movement, like the Nazis, was strongly nationalist and directed against Marxism and Bolshevism, and that it might develop into an attack on the whole parliamentary system. [51]

Mussolini’s victory continued to be a model and source of strength for National Socialism right up to its assumption of power in 1933. Hitler’s future Minister of the Interior Frick told a Young Plan referendum rally in Pyritz on 18 October 1929 that the Nazis ‘were determined to promulgate by force that which we preach. Just as Mussolini exterminated the Marxists in Italy, so we must succeed in accomplishing the same thorough dictatorship and terror.’ And finally Goebbels wrote shortly after his own ‘March on Berlin’ had ended in victory that:

... the March on Rome was a signal, a signal of storm for liberal democracy. It is the first attempt to destroy the world of the liberal-democratic spirit which started in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille and conquered one country after another in violent revolutionary upheavals, to let the nations go under in Marxism, democracy, anarchy and class struggle.

That German capitalism did not ‘go under’ in the same way was due in no small degree to the fact that unlike the Stalinists and Social Democrats, the Nazis proved themselves to be capable of learning from history.

Appendix I

The Founding Programme of the Italian Fascist Movement, Adopted 23 March 1919

1. A national Constituent Assembly, Italian section of the international Constituent Assembly of nations, which will proceed to a radical transformation of the political and economic foundations of collective life.

2. Proclamation of the Italian Republic. Decentralisation of executive power; autonomous administration of regions and municipalities by their own legislative bodies. Sovereignty of the people exercised by means of universal, equal and direct suffrage, by all citizens of both sexes, the people keeping the right of initiative for referendum and veto.

3. Abolition of the Senate. Suppression of political police. Election of magistrates independently of the executive power.

4. Suppression of all titles of nobility and orders of knighthood.

5. Suppression of compulsory military service.

6. Freedom of opinion, of conscience and of belief, freedom of association and of the press.

7. An educational system, general and professional, open to all.

8. A maximum of public health measures.

9. Suppression of limited liability companies and shareholding companies; suppression of all forms of speculation, suppression of Banks and Stock Exchanges.

10. Census and taxation of private wealth. Confiscation of unproductive revenues.

11. Prohibition of child labour under the age of 16. Eight-hour day.

12. Reorganisation of production according to the cooperative principle, including the workers’ direct share of profits.

13. Abolition of secret diplomacy.

14. Foreign policy inspired by international solidarity and national independence within a Confederation of States.

Postulates of the Fascist Programme (May 1920)

... the broad lines of the immediate tasks that confront the Fascio di Combattimento can be sketched under the following major headings: support for our recent war, winning the peace. Resistance to the theoretical and practical degenerations of politically-oriented socialism. Against political parasitism... With the hope of mobilising all our national energies to win the peace, the Fascio di Combattimento express their disgust for those men and agencies of the political bourgeoisie who have shown that they are incapable of handling domestic and foreign problems, that they are hostile to every profound renovation and to every spontaneous recognition of popular rights and that they are inclined to make those concessions that are dictated by calculations of parliamentary advantage.

For a Bourgeoisie of Labour: The Fascists recognise the very great value of the ‘bourgeoisie of labour’, which in all fields of human endeavour (from that of industry and agriculture to that of science and the professions) constitutes a precious and indispensable element for bringing out progressive development and the triumph of national aspirations.

Against the Degeneration of the Labour Struggle: The Fascio di Combattimento, which are anxious to support the moral improvement of the proletariat and to help the establishment of syndical organisations that will increase the self-confidence of labour, feel that it is their duty to maintain an attitude of staunch opposition to those labour struggles in which strictly economic goals are submerged by considerations of pure demagogy...

The Fasci and the Labour Organisations: The Fasci express their sympathy with and intention of supporting every initiative of those minority groups of the proletariat who seek to harmonise the safeguarding of their class interests with the interests of the nation. With respect to syndical tactics, they advise the proletariat to make use of whatever forms of struggle assure the development of the whole and the well-being of the various producers, without any special prejudices and without dogmatic exclusiveness...

This was the first clear exposition of ‘national syndicalism’, since the founding Fascist Programme of March 1919 said nothing about ‘harmonising’ the interests of the proletariat ‘with the interests of the nation’, nor indeed of assuring the ‘well-being of the various producers’, by which last term Mussolini meant not only the working class, but the so-called ‘bourgeoisie of labour’, the ‘productive’ bourgeoisie. These notions were subsequently codified in the various social, economic and labour legislation of the Fascist regime, from which selections are reproduced below.

Excerpts from the Rocco Labour Law, 3 April 1926, drafted by Alfredo Rocco, Minister of Justice and former leader of the Nationalists:

1. Associations of employers and of workers... may obtain legal recognition when they can prove that they comply with the following requirements... in the case of associations of workers that the workers who have voluntarily registered as members number not less than one-tenth of those of the class for which the association has been formed... that besides the protection of the economic and moral interests the association proposes to promote, and does actually promote, the assistance, instruction and moral and patriotic education of its members... that the director of the association affords guarantees of ability, morality and sound national loyalty...

5. ... Only legally recognised associations can appoint representatives of employers or workers to sit on councils, guilds or other bodies on which such representation is provided by law...

6. ... In no case can associations be recognised which, without the preliminary consent of the government, have contracted any ties of discipline or dependence with associations of an international character.

18. The lock-out and the strike are forbidden... Three or more workers who, by concerted agreement, leave their work or perform it in suchwise as to interfere with its continuity or regularity, with a view to obtaining from their employers different labour conditions, render themselves liable to a fine of not less than 100 and not to exceed 1000 lire... When the persons guilty of the offences foreseen under the above paragraph are more numerous, the leaders, promoters and organisers are liable to detention for not less than one year and not to exceed two years, besides the fine provided...

More stringent punishments are stipulated in Articles 19 and 21 for the same offences committed by workers in the state and public services, and for striking for the purposes of ‘coercing the will or influencing the decisions of a department or organ of the state’, that is, for political strikes. The former offence merited a maximum sentence of two years, and the latter of three years.

Excerpts from the Decree on Corporations, 1 July 1926. These derived from Article 3 of the Rocco Labour Law, which made provision for the merging of ‘associations of employers and workers... by means of central liaison organs...’.

42. The liaison organs provided for by Article 3 of the Act of 3 April 1926 are of a national character. They bring together the national syndical organisations of the several factors of production, employers, intellectual and manual workers connected with a given branch of production, or with one or more given classes of enterprise. Organisations thus linked up form a corporation...

43. The corporation is... an organ of the state administration...

44. ... Corporative organs are endowed... with the following powers... to promote, encourage and subsidise all initiatives aiming at the coordination and improvement of production...

56. ... corporate organs shall be guided by the considerations of equity and endeavour to conciliate the interests of the employers and workers, and both these interests with the higher interests of production...

Charter of Labour, 21 April 1927

III. There is complete freedom of professional or syndical organisation. But syndicates legally recognised and subject to state control alone have the right of legal representation of the whole category of employers and workers for which they are constituted...

IV. Solidarity between the various factors of production is concretely expressed by the Collective Labour Contract, which conciliates the opposing interests of employers and workers, subordinating them to the higher interests of production.

VII. The corporate state considers private enterprise in the sphere of production is the most effective and useful instrument in the interests of the nation... The worker... is an active collaborator in the economic enterprise, the direction of which rests with the employer, who is responsible for it...

IX. State intervention in economic production arises only when the private initiative is lacking or insufficient, or when the political interests of the state are involved. The intervention may take the form of control, assistance or direct management.

XII. The action of the Syndicate, the conciliatory efforts of the corporative organs, and the decisions of the Labour Court guarantee that wages correspond to the normal demands of life, to the possibilities of production, and the output of labour. Wages shall be determined without reference to any general rule, by agreement between the parties to the collective contracts.

XIX. Breaches of discipline or the performance of acts which disturb the normal working of the concern on the part of the workers shall be punished, according to the gravity of the offence, by fine, suspension from work, or in very serious cases, by immediate discharge without indemnity...

These three key laws make it abundantly clear that the Fascist corporate state as practised in Italy did not rest in any sense on ‘collaboration’ between trade unions and the state, or between trade unions and employers. The very definition of what constituted a bona fide ‘workers’ association’ (articles one and six of the Rocco Labour Law) excluded the CGL from participating in the machinery of the corporate state, however much the trade union bureaucracy might have desired to do so. The ‘corporations’ were formed out of the fusion of an entirely bogus ‘workers’ syndicate’ (staffed by hard-core Fascists and run on the explicitly anti-proletarian principles of ‘national syndicalism’) and employers’ ‘syndicates’ that represented their members in practice as well as in theory. Once again then we see how false is the claim made by Workers Press that corporatism is a form of class collaboration practised between reformist trade union leaders and the capitalist state. It is not. It is, on the contrary, the supersession of the methods of class collaboration by the systematic dismemberment of all those mechanisms and agencies by which this collaboration has in the past been carried out. Fascism is not a form of collaboration between the classes, as its ideologists demagogically claim. For all its talk of social harmony, Fascism wages the most brutal class war – even on those whom the Workers Press so wrongly terms ‘corporatists’.

Appendix II: Corporatism and ‘National Syndicalism’ in Spain, France and Portugal

Fascism almost always attempts to establish a base – however temporary or precarious – among the masses by stealing some of the slogans, vocabulary and even programmes of its proletarian enemies. Thus in Germany, Hitler – despite his own misgivings about the use of the term – stood before the German petit-bourgeoisie and backward workers as a ‘socialist’, while in Italy, Fascism bedecked itself out in the garb of ‘national syndicalism’. In both cases, fascism worked up its own counter-revolutionary ideology and propaganda from materials stolen from the dominant tendencies in the workers’ movement and perverted by the reactionary doctrines of nationalism and racialism. (In Britain today, we can see a similar tactic being employed by various shades of reaction from the Tory government, through Powell to the fully-blown fascist groups on the far right. They all speak of ‘fair play’, ‘justice’, the ‘rights’ of the ‘individual’, and claim to stand for the protection of the ‘small man’ against the ‘faceless’ bureaucracies of big business and the trade unions. This last is, of course, also a ploy of the Liberal Party.) The three other European countries which witnessed the growth of fascist movements – Spain, France and Portugal – were also strongholds of syndicalism, and it is no surprise therefore that in each case once in power the movements attempted to conceal the capitalist bases of their regimes with a veneer of ‘syndicalist’ demagogy. In Spain, the founder of ‘national syndicalism’ was Ramiro Ledesma Ramos, whose journal The Conquest of the State began publication in 1931. Influenced by Mussolini’s corporatism and pseudo-syndicalist demagogy, Ledesma wrote that the:

... syndication of economic forces will be obligatory and in each instance bound to the highest ends of the state. The state will discipline and will guarantee production at all times... Our primary goal is revolutionary efficiency. There we do not seek votes but audacious and valiant minorities... Our organisation will be founded on the basis of syndical cells and political cells.

The other and more well-known pioneer of Spanish fascism, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, also employed much of the vocabulary of syndicalism to conceal his reactionary aims. Yet few workers were deceived by his noisy rhetoric, of which the following is a sample:

If anything truly deserves to be called a workers’ state, it is the fascist state. Therefore, in the fascist state – and the workers will come to realise this, no matter what – the workers’ syndicates will be elevated to the dignity of organs of the state.

In fact, the fascist state of General Franco ground them to pulp. And since the army, and not a fascisised petit-bourgeoisie, provided the main support of the new regime, Franco had little need of a pseudo-radical doctrine to justify his rule. Spanish ‘national syndicalism’ was accordingly given a more conservative flavour than in Italy, where even for a period after Mussolini’s seizure of power, the Fascist ‘syndicates’ had to compete against the genuine workers’ unions of the CGL (see Chapter VIII, ‘The Political Economy of National Socialism’).

In Portugal, Salazar’s rise to total power was accompanied by the growth of a ‘national syndicalist’ movement under the leadership of Dr Rolão Preto. In 1934, one year after the Salazar regime instituted its corporative National Statute of Labour, the movement’s national executive voted to join the pro-government National Union against the wishes of Preto, who went into opposition and was eventually deported to Spain. Salazar’s corporatism, like that of his close ally Franco, eschewed the excesses of pseudo-syndicalist demagogy:

We are opposed to all forms of internationalism, Communism, Socialism, syndicalism and everything which may divide or minimise or break up the family. We are against class warfare, irreligion and disloyalty to one’s country...’

No renegades from the trade union or Socialist movement ever held high office in Salazar Portugal or Franco Spain. This was not true of Vichy France, however, where two former syndicalists, Rene Belin and Hubert Lagardelle (the old Sorelian ‘integralist’) served Pétain and Laval respectively as Ministers of Labour. Like Mussolini, Belin certainly did not begin his career as a trade unionist with the intention of ending up as an oppressor of the French proletariat. After a militant record as a leader of the postal and telegraph workers in Lyon (where he organised a stubborn strike against the government), Belin climbed rapidly up the trade union hierarchy, and in 1935 was appointed Deputy General Secretary of the main trade union federation, the CGT. His anti-political approach to trade union questions drove him sharply towards the right when in 1938, he founded a weekly journal, Syndicate, which campaigned against Communist Party influence in the CGT (the Stalinist-led minority trade union federation, the CGTU, after denouncing the CGT as a ‘social fascist’ organisation throughout the ‘Third Period’, had unified with the ‘social fascists’ following the adoption of the Popular Front strategy in 1934). His anti-Communism (an extension of his anti-political syndicalism) led him even further to the right two years later when with the formation of the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain, he agreed to serve it as Minister of Labour. In this capacity he helped draft the thoroughly corporatist Charter for Labour, which became law in 1941 after gaining the approval of the Nazi authorities in Paris. Belin also presided over the liquidation of his old trade union federation, the CGT, which was officially outlawed by government decree on 9 November 1940. (Like their counterparts in Italy and Germany, the CGT bureaucrats had sought to evade this fate by disavowing any intention of waging the class struggle, but to no avail.) The Vichy ‘national revolution’, with its slogans of ‘work, family, country’, was badly in need of ideological embellishment and a social doctrine, and Belin helped to provide both. The preamble to the programme of the Vichy ‘national revolution’ declared:

... only one aristocracy will be recognised: the aristocracy of intelligence; one sole merit: work... Work and talent alone will be the foundation of the French hierarchy... The class struggle, so fatal to the nation, can only be done away with by doing away with the causes that formed those classes and set them against one another. Thus there will be born again the true élites that the superseded regime spent years in destroying... the economic life of our country is about to have a new orientation... It will... be necessary to put an end to the present economic order by a rational organisation of production by corporative institutions.

In each of the cases cited – and this cannot be emphasised too often or too strongly – the establishment of a ‘corporative’ system was only possible after the total destruction of the independent workers’ organisations, economic as well as political. Belin had to resign from the CGT, and Vichy had to liquidate it, before this syndicalist renegade could concoct his corporatist fantasies about termination of the class struggle. Those who recklessly talk of reformist trade union leaders or Social Democrats being transformed into corporatists – Stephen Johns refers to Transport Workers’ leader Jack Jones as a ‘devoted disciple of corporatism’ [52] – have simply learned nothing from the immensely rich history of the workers’ movement in its fight against fascism. If Belin, Lagardelle and the Italian syndicalist renegades were corporatists when they entered the service of Vichy France and Italian Fascism – and they undoubtedly were – then on what political grounds, and with what historical and theoretical justification, is it correct to describe a leader of a bona fide workers’ union also as a ‘corporatist’ – and a ‘devoted’ one at that? To do so is to equate, or closely to relate, reformist class collaborationism as advocated and practised by Jones and the rest of the TUC leadership, left as well as right, with the entirely bogus claim of fascist corporatism that it too stands for ‘collaboration’ between the classes. Formalist thinking has led the Workers Press into the trap of taking the claims of corporatist propaganda seriously. Corporatism in Italy, Spain, Vichy France and Portugal, and the Nazi variety in Germany, with its demagogic talk of a ‘people’s’ or ‘works’ community’, had nothing to do with class collaboration. It was all-out class war, masked by an ideology that preached social harmony and justice. By detecting a fully-blown ‘corporatism’ in the words and deeds of British trade union and Labour Party leaders, Workers Press has mistaken myth for reality.


1. In 1911, Mussolini wrote from prison of his literary journey through the mountain peaks of European culture: ‘And of these summits of the spirit are called Stirner, Nietzsche, Goethe, Schiller, Montaigne, Cervantes, etc.’ On the young Mussolini’s desk, so a contemporary of his relates, were always to be found volumes of Nietzsche, Stirner and Schopenhauer. In 1919, and now embarked on his new career as a professional enemy of the Socialist Party he once served so ably as agitator and journalist, we find Mussolini more deeply committed than ever to a defence of his early philosophic mentors. ‘Leave the way free for the elemental power of the individual’, he wrote in his demagogic, pseudo-anarchistic style, ‘for there is no other human reality than the individual! Why shouldn’t Stirner become significant again?’ Mussolini attempted an exposition of Italian Fascism’s guiding ideology in his maiden speech to the Chamber of Deputies on 21 June 1921, in which he claimed to have ‘introduced into Italian socialism something of Bergson mixed with much of Blanqui’, while in his definitive essay, The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism, which dates from 1932, he writes that ‘in the great stream of Fascism are to be found ideas which began with Sorel, Peguy, with Lagardelle in the “Mouvement Socialiste” and with the Italian trade union movement which throughout the period of 1904-14 was sounding a new note in Italian Socialist circles’. Some, but by no means all, of these sources’ of Fascist ideology are discussed in this chapter.

2. B Mussolini, My Autobiography (London, 1939), pp 34-35.

3. And this, despite Sorel’s collaboration in the immediate pre-1914 period with the French ultra-monarchist movement, the Action Française. Sorel co-edited the monarchist journal l'Independence with two avowed anti-Semites and enemies of socialism, Paul Bourget and Maurice Barres. Sorel also participated in this journal’s forerunner, Cite Française, with the equally reactionary George Valois, who attempted to synthesise anti-Semitic monarchism with a Proudhonist anarchism. Valois’ Cahiers du Cercle Proudhon had a frankly corporatist flavour, a fact which led its editor to claim some 15 years later that it was the first journal to espouse the cause of fascism in France. It should be noted that this enterprise enjoyed, even if only for a short period, the support of Mauras, the founder of the Action Française, and Sorel, the high priest of the myth of the proletarian general strike.

4. G Sorel, Reflections on Violence (New York, 1961), p 28.

5. ‘The ‘myth’ of the general strike’, Sorel writes, ‘has all the advantages which “integral” knowledge has over analysis, according to the doctrine of Bergson; and perhaps it would not be possible to cite another example which would so perfectly demonstrate the value of the famous professor’s doctrines... Movement, in Bergson’s philosophy, is looked upon as an undivided whole; which leads us precisely to the catastrophic conception of socialism...’ Yet Sorel does not believe that such a ‘catastrophe’ will come about, nor even that this matters in the least: ‘... it is even possible that nothing will come to pass – as was the case with the catastrophe expected by the first Christians... The myth must be judged as a means of acting on the present [that is, purely from a pragmatic standpoint – RB]; any attempt to discuss how far it can be taken literally as future history is devoid of sense. It is the myth in its entirety which alone is important... we know that the general strike is... the myth in which socialism is wholly comprised, that is, a body of images capable of evoking instinctively all the sentiments which correspond to the different manifestations of the war undertaken by socialism against modern society... We thus obtain that intuition of socialism which language cannot give us with perfect clearness – and we obtain it as a whole, perceived instantaneously... This is the “global knowledge” of Bergson’s philosophy.’ (Sorel, Reflections on Violence, pp 123-28, emphasis added) Another theorist of French syndicalism, Hubert Lagardelle, whom Mussolini cites as one of the ancestors of Italian Fascism, embraced a similar theory of knowledge: ‘No more dogmas or formulas; no more fruitless discussions on the future society; no more compendious plans for social organisations; but a sense of struggle that provides through practice a philosophy of action which gives first place to intuition and which indicates that the simplest worker engaged in the class struggle knows more than the most doctrinaire thinkers.’ [Emphasis added] Lagardelle’s evolution is most instructive in this regard. Following the collapse of the Third Republic in 1940, he drifted towards a collaborationist position, and in 1943 entered the Vichy regime as Minister of Labour.

6. Sorel, Reflections on Violence, pp 41-42, emphasis added.

7. Sorel, Reflections on Violence, p 43.

8. ‘... the objections urged by philosophy against the revolutionary myths would have made an impression only on those men who were anxious to find a pretext for abandoning any active role, for remaining revolutionary in words only... [those] Socialists who are afraid of a revolution... do all they can to shake the confidence of the workers in the preparations they are making for the revolution; and in order to succeed in this they cast ridicule on the idea of the general strike – the only idea that could have any value as a motive force.’ (Sorel, Reflections on Violence, pp 45-49)

9. Sorel, Reflections on Violence, pp 90-98.

10. Sorel shared Nietzsche’s cult of the ‘superman’, finding him not in the ranks of the proletariat, which he viewed as an elemental mass devoid of individual personality whose only valid contribution to ‘civilisation’ was the unleashing of periodic salvos of therapeutic violence, but the so-called ‘captain of industry’ (a reverence he shared with Carlyle and Spengler, not to speak of Feder): ‘We know with what force Nietzsche praised the values constructed by the masters, by a superior class of warriors who, in their expeditions, enjoying to the full freedom from all social restraint, return to the simplicity of mind of a wild beast... I believe that if the professor of philology had not been continually cropping up in Nietzsche he would have perceived that the master type still exists under our own eyes, and that it is this type which, at the present time, has created the extraordinary greatness of the United States. This type is still found today in all its purity in the United States: there are found the indomitable energy, the audacity based on a just appreciation of its strength, the cold calculation of interests, which are the qualities of great capitalists.’ (Sorel, Reflections on Violence, pp 89, 230-31) Sorel tries to establish a common bond between the ruthless tycoons of his day (exemplars of Nietzsche’s ‘wild beasts’ freed from ‘all social restraint’) and his conception of ‘revolutionary syndicalism’ which, he asserted, ‘would be impossible if the world of the workers were under the influence of such a morality of the weak’ (p 236). Sorel’s was a ‘warrior socialism’, a ‘socialism’ of the ‘strong’, of the ‘violent’ and the pitiless. And as such, it had absolutely nothing in common with the socialism of Marx. Also to be noted here, and of special significance not only for Sorel’s pre-1914 flirtation with the pioneers of French corporatism, but for Mussolini’s subsequent use of the syndicalist vocabulary to conceal the class basis of his own Fascist ‘corporate’ state, is the former’s use of the term ‘producers’. It was a word freely used in the syndicalist movements of France and Italy to distinguish the workers from those who parasitically exploited them as mere owners or ‘non-producers’. Both Sorel – and following him Mussolini in his Fascist career – distorted this admittedly vague term to include what Feder called the ‘productive’ bourgeoisie. ‘Proletarian violence’, writes Sorel, ‘confines employers to their role of producers, and tends to restore the separation of classes just when they seemed on the point of intermingling in the democratic marsh.’ (p 92) And Mussolini, while like Hitler denouncing the political leadership of the bourgeoisie for its lack of resolve in combating Marxism, allots to it the leading role in the organisation of the so-called ‘corporative’ economy. In his pronouncement published on the eve of the ‘March on Rome’, Mussolini wrote: ‘Fascism does not march against the police, but against a political class both cowardly and imbecile, which in four long years has not been able to give a government to the nation. Those who form the productive class must know that Fascism wants to impose nothing more than order and discipline upon the Nation and to help raise the strength which will renew progress and prosperity.’ [Emphasis added]

11. Thus in the thundering tones of the French petit-bourgeois enfant terrible (epitomised by the anti-militarist rhetoric of a Gustav Hervé, who, at his bourgeoisie’s hour of need, rallied to the flag he once declared to be fit only for planting on a dung-heap), Sorel pours scorn on ‘our parliamentary Socialists, who spring from the middle classes and who know nothing outside the ideology of the state, [and who] are so bewildered when they are confronted with working-class violence... If revolutionary syndicalism triumphs, there will be no more brilliant speeches on imminent justice, and the parliamentary regime, so dear to the intellectuals, will be finished with!’ (Sorel, Reflections on Violence, p 40) Very much in the Economist fashion, Sorel claims that ‘a new culture might spring from the struggle of the revolutionary trade unions against the employers and the state: our greatest claim to originality [sic!] consists in our having maintained that the proletariat can emancipate itself without being compelled to seek the guidance of that section of the middle classes which concerns itself professionally with matters of the intellect’ (p 53). Here Sorel finds himself totally opposed to Lenin, who in his polemic against the Russian ‘Sorelians’, the Economists, wrote that ‘there could not have been Social Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness... The theory of socialism... grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.’ (VI Lenin, ‘What Is To Be Done?’, Collected Works, Volume 5, p 375) Events both in France as well as Russia proved Lenin, not Sorel, to be right. The French proletariat certainly lacked nothing in combativity as its history shows. But what it lacked in Sorel’s day – and lacks still – was a revolutionary party guided by what Lenin called ‘the most up-to-date revolutionary theory’.

12. Sorel the super-revolutionary was deeply sympathetic towards Bernstein the evolutionary. Both denied the importance of the goal of the workers’ movement, regarding the latter as sufficient unto itself. Despite differences of terminology and emphasis, their method was closely similar, as was their counterposing of the ‘practical’ aspects of the trade union struggle to what they both declared to be the utopian goal of a socialist society: ‘Bernstein’s ideas were received most favourably by those who wanted to see Marxism escape the rigid mould in which Kautsky wanted to keep it... thus life was introduced into a doctrine which was, until then, condemned to sterility... Bernstein asserted... that the final aim is nothing and that the movement is everything. He thus penetrated the true spirit of contemporary, that is, “integralist” or Bergsonian philosophy, in that he does not trouble himself with a point of departure, or with a starting point, but rather with the forces which, at each instant, are able to generate the movement in the sense that he conceives it.’ (G Sorel, ‘The Decomposition of Marxism’, in I Horowitz, Radicalism and the Revolt Against Reason (London, 1961), pp 118-19, emphasis added)

13. The anarchist flavour of Mussolini’s anti-parliamentarianism distinguished his critique of bourgeois democracy from that of Marx and Lenin, revealing an indifference towards democratic rights and freedoms which subsequently became one of the hallmarks of Fascist anti-parliamentarianism. ‘I take an absolutely negative view of the value of parliamentary suffrage... The uses to which it has been put should prove to the workers that it is not the weapon which will enable them to win complete emancipation. [The former assertion does not at all flow logically from the latter statement – RB] We hold that Italy needs a strong, homogeneous socialist, incohesive democracy... Bissolati, Cabrini, Bonomi [all leaders of the PSI ‘coalitionist’ wing] can go to the Quirinal [the king’s residence], to the Vatican too, if they wish; but the Socialist Party must declare that it will not follow them today, tomorrow, or ever.’ (B Mussolini, Speech to the PSI Congress, Reggio Emilia, 8 July 1911) Little more than 10 years later, Mussolini did follow them, smashing on the way not only Italy’s chaotic, ‘incohesive democracy’, but his own Socialist Party.

14. Corradini even coined the term socialismo nazionale to delineate his social and foreign policies from those of the labour movement and the bourgeois liberals. In his Italian Nationalism (Milan, 1914) he bitterly assails the ‘plutocratic nations’ (France, Britain and Germany) for denying Italy its place in the imperialist sun. Imperialism divided nations into the ‘haves’, the plutocrats, and the ‘have-nots’, the proletarians, for whom pacifism and democracy were not only luxuries they could ill-afford, but downright obstacles to their emancipation: ‘Nationalism... is the socialism of the Italian nation in the world.’ Similar reactionary ideas were also peddled in Germany at this time, not only by the traditional right, but by extreme nationalist elements of the SPD (see Chapter VII).

15. ‘I: War may be considered from its noble side... the idea that the profession of arms cannot compare to any other profession – that it puts the man who adopts this profession in a class which is superior to the ordinary conditions of life, that history is based entirely on the adventures of warriors, so that the economic life only existed to maintain them. II: The sentiment of glory which Renan [a Catholic ‘integralist’ admired by Sorel] so justly looked upon as one of the most singular and the most powerful creations of human genius, and which has been of such incomparable value in history. III: The ardent desire to try one’s strength in great battles, to submit to the test which gives the military calling its claim to superiority, and to conquer glory at the peril of one’s life... The Syndicalist general strike presents a very great number of analogies with this conception of war.’ (Sorel, Reflections on Violence, pp 166-67) ‘Fascism... believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. It thus repudiates the doctrine of pacifism, born of a renunciation of the struggle and as an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up the highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it. All other trials are substitutes, which never really put men into the position where they have to make the great decision – the alternative of life or death. Thus a doctrine which is founded upon this harmful postulate of peace is hostile to Fascism.’ (B Mussolini, The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism)

16. B Mussolini, ‘From Absolute Neutrality to Active and Operative Neutrality’, Avanti, 18 October 1914, emphasis added.

17. Thus Trotsky writes of the leader of the Soviet Thermidor that ‘if Stalin could have foreseen at the very beginning where his fight against Trotskyism would lead, he undoubtedly would have stopped short, in spite of the prospect of victory over all his opponents. But he did not foresee anything... He did not have the slightest understanding of the historical function he was fulfilling.’ (LD Trotsky, Stalin (London, 1947), p 393) Mussolini’s defection from the PSI was also governed by social processes and objective forces that he at first had little or no comprehension of. He later told Hitler that ‘at the moment when he undertook the struggle against Bolshevism, he didn’t exactly know where he was going’ (Hitler’s Secret Conversations, p 118). But this did not prevent either Stalinism or Italian fascism from emerging as consciously counter-revolutionary movements (the former as a corrupted bureaucratic tendency within the workers’ movement, the latter as a direct instrument of monopoly capitalism against it) at a certain critical stage in their development. As for Hitler, he began as and remained until the end of his days an avowed and fanatical enemy of proletarian socialism, and in this sense his political make-up and evolution differs from that of Mussolini.

18. Mussolini, My Autobiography, p 49.

19. The aptly-named Cachin, who acted as go-between for the French government in its dealings with Italian Socialist and syndicalist ‘interventionists’, negotiated an initial cash grant of one million lire for Mussolini’s struggling new daily, a sum that was compounded by further monthly payments of 10 000 lire. After a brief flirtation with Bolshevism, Cachin became a Stalinist stalwart, and after the adoption of the Popular Front policy of alliances with bourgeois liberals in 1934, was able once more to give his suppressed patriotic sentiments full vent.

20. Il Popolo d'Italia, 11 May 1915.

21. ‘... the word “producers” was already [in the summer of 1918] the expression of a mental attitude’, wrote Mussolini in his The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism. By ‘producers’ he meant not the proletariat alone, but all those classes and individuals whom corporatist doctrine declared to be ‘productive’. This included not only the working class and the rural proletariat, but ‘productive’ capitalists and landowners. This misuse of syndicalist terminology – a salient characteristic of Italian Fascism – had already been foreshadowed more than a decade before by Sorel in Reflections on Violence, which Mussolini is known to have received with great enthusiasm. The admiration was mutual, Sorel remarking that Mussolini (who by this time was a fully-blown fascist) was ‘the only energetic man capable of redressing the feebleness of the government’.

22. Mussolini, My Autobiography, p 59.

23. Comparing the fascist dictators of Germany and Italy, Trotsky considered Mussolini to be far more original: ‘Mussolini from the very beginning reacted more consciously to social materials than Hitler... Mussolini is mentally bolder and more cynical... the Roman atheist only utilises religion as he does the police and courts, while his Berlin colleague really believes in the infallibility of the Church of Rome.’ And while Hitler denied the class struggle in theory only to wage it the more viciously in practice, Mussolini never forgot that which he learned in the PSI, namely ‘the theory which sees in the life of contemporary society first of all the reciprocal action of two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat’. And, Trotsky went on, ‘just as scientific medicine equips one with the possibility not only of curing the sick but of sending the healthy to meet their forefathers by the shortest route, so if scientific analysis of class relations, predestined by its creator for the mobilisation of the proletariat, enabled Mussolini, after he had jumped into the opposing camp, to mobilise the middle classes against the proletariat, Hitler accomplished the same feat in translating the methodology of fascism into the language of German mysticism.’ (LD Trotsky, ‘What Is National Socialism?’, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York, 1971), pp 401-02) And in his biography of Stalin, Trotsky writes of Mussolini’s intuitionism, that the leader of Italian Fascism was: ‘Agile and inordinately ambitious, he smashed his Socialist career in his greedy quest for success. His anger at the party became a moving force. He created and destroyed theory along his way. He is the very personification of cynical egotism... Hitler exhibits traits of monomania and messianism. Personal hurt played a tremendous role in his development. He was a declassed petit-bourgeois who refused to be a working man... He achieved a vicarious social elevation by execrating Jews and Social Democrats. He was desperately determined to rise higher...’ (Trotsky, Stalin, p 413)

24. Il Popolo d'Italia, 5 March 1919.

25. The degree of this shift can be partially measured by comparing the election results for 1913 with those for 1919. In the last prewar election, the bourgeois parties with a middle-class following – the liberals, democrats, radicals, republicans and nationalists – won 417 of the 508 seats in the Italian parliament, while the PSI secured but 51. In the first postwar election (November 1919), the bourgeois bloc had been cut down to a total of 151 seats, while the PSI had tripled its representation to 156. The Populari accounted for the remaining 100 seats.

26. CGL membership rose from 300 000 in 1914 to 1 375 000 in 1919 and to a peak of 2 200 000 in 1920, the year of the September factory occupations. From this date, there was nothing but decline. PSI membership also followed the same curve – 100 000 in 1920 as against 50 000 before the outbreak of war.

27. ‘I start with the individual and strike at the state... Down with the state in all its forms and incarnations: the state of yesterday, and of today and of tomorrow, the bourgeois state and the socialist state. To us, there remains during the present gloom and dark tomorrow, only the religion, at present absurd, but always consoling, of Anarchy!’ This was how Mussolini wrote in April 1920. Within a year, he was denouncing the ‘bourgeois state’ for its liberalism! And in his first speech to the Italian Chamber of Deputies after the march on Rome on 16 November 1922, this former enemy of the state declared: ‘The state is strong and will prove its strength against everyone. Whoever defies the state will be punished.’ Finally, this champion of the individual against all authority wrote, in his The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism (1931) that being ‘anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the state and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the state... The Fascist concept of the state is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist... The state is not only the present, it is also the past and above all the future... The Fascist state expresses the will to exercise power and to command.’

28. Mussolini, My Autobiography, p 65.

29. Mussolini, My Autobiography, p 69.

30. Mussolini, My Autobiography, pp 69-70.

31. Il Popolo d'Italia, 28 February 1919.

32. Reproduced at the end of this chapter.

33. Il Popolo d'Italia, 23 March 1919.

34. Mussolini, My Autobiography, p 74.

35. Mussolini, My Autobiography, p 75.

36. Like Hitler, Mussolini took care not to become closely identified with the old bourgeois parties. Anxious to deflect charges by his former comrades that he had gone over to reaction, Mussolini demonstratively supported an ‘occupation’ organised by the ‘national syndicalist’ UIL at the Dalmine engineering works near Milan. By not striking, and by raising the Italian tricolour rather than the red flag, these workers were acting ‘creatively’ by ‘not forgetting the nation’. It was a ‘strike’ with a difference.

37. Addressing the Third Congress of the Communist International on this problem, Trotsky warned against the adoption of a ‘leftist’ line by the newly-formed PCd'I in the wake of the historic September reverse: ‘I might have said “Here is a country ruined by war where the workers have seized the factories, where the Fascists are sacking labour printing plants and setting fire to working class institutions. And if this party does not raise the cry: ‘With All Our Forces Forward Against the Enemy’, then it is a cowardly party which will be condemned by world history.” But if we look at things not from the standpoint of weighing the situation cold-bloodedly, we would have to say what comrade Zinoviev did, namely: they must gain anew the confidence of the working class since the workers have become much more cautious precisely owing to this treachery. They will say to themselves: “We heard the same phrases from Serrati [leader of the PSI centrists]. He said virtually the same thing and then he betrayed us. Where is the guarantee that the new party will not betray us, too?” The working class wants to see the party in action before going into the decisive battle under its leadership.’ (LD Trotsky, ‘Speech on Comrade Radek’s Report on Tactics of the Comintern’ (1 July 1921), The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume 1 (New York, 1945), p 178) Trotsky’s advice was not heeded by all the leaders of the new party. The group headed by Amadeo Bordiga stubbornly refused to adopt a united front tactic with the centrists and reformists workers’ organisations and leaders, arguing that such a policy involved a surrender of revolutionary principles. Neither did Bordiga distinguish between the parliamentary and Fascist forms of capitalist state power. ‘If the Fascists destroy parliament, we shall be delighted’, declared Bordiga to the PCd'I Congress held at Rome in October 1921, with the Fascist coup only a matter of days away. And continuing a line of reasoning that the Stalinist KPD leadership developed to its ultra-leftist nadir in the period of Hitler’s rise to power, Bordiga claimed that no distinctions existed between the various non-Communist parties in Italy. He termed them the ‘Socialist-populist Fascist ruling class’ while their respective leaders, Turati, Sturzo and Mussolini, were three names for a single ‘grim tyrant’. Bordiga and his leftist comrades were soon to discover that there was a very great difference between the ‘grim tyrants’ of the PSI and those of Italian Fascism, for within a matter of months, PSI and PCd'I militants – and even leaders – were sharing the same cells and prison compounds!

38. Just prior to the march on Rome, CGL secretary Ludovico D'Aragona declared with obvious sincerity that ‘it is our glory and pride that we prevented the outbreak of the revolution which the extremists desired’. One can understand why Mussolini wrote in August 1921: ‘If the three secretaries of the Labour Alliance [the alliance of Italy’s three main trade union bodies] had been three of the most fanatical Fascists, they really could not have rendered a greater service to the cause of Italian Fascism.’ (Il Popolo Italia, 5 August 1921) The Socialist reformists were no better. Following the ignominious collapse of a poorly organised anti-Fascist general strike at the beginning of August 1921, Turati wrote: ‘The general strike has been our Caporetto... We must have the courage to recognise that today the Fascists are masters of the field.’ Giacomo Matteotti, the reformist deputy murdered by Fascist assassins in June 1924, adopted a similar defeatist line, advising workers to ‘stay at home... Even silence and cowardice are sometimes heroic.’

39. A Gramsci, Speech to the PSI National Council, L'Ordine Nuovo, 8 May 1920.

40. Gramsci was of course speaking at a time (the spring of 1920) when there were no concrete historical precedents to work from. His premonition of Fascism – for such it was, even though he does not refer to Mussolini specifically – cannot be faulted simply because it failed to predict with complete accuracy the course of the Fascist regime. But when, more than half a century later, and 47 years after the official liquidation of the Italian trade union movement with the promulgation of the Rocco Labour Law (3 April 1926), we still encounter Marxist publications which refer to corporatism as if the March on Rome had never happened, let alone Hitler’s liquidation of the German trade unions in May 1933 or Franco’s merciless, extermination of the Spanish UGT and CNT, we can only be amazed at such theoretical slovenliness. Repeatedly Workers Press treats what it calls ‘corporatism’ as a species of ‘collaboration’ between the trade union leaders and the employers and capitalist state. Thus in Workers Press of 3 August 1973, we read that ‘in answer to the demand that a Labour government is returned to power by revolutionary working class action, committed to nationalising big capital, they [the TUC] hold out the sop that unions would be allowed to nominate their own men to help organise the counter-revolution. And in opposition to the demand for full workers’ control of both former private and former state-run industry, they suggest politely that officials of the new, corporatist unions could sit in the boardrooms of the corporate state too.’ (’scanlon Praises TUC’s Corporatist Report’, Workers Press, 3 August 1973, p 9) Here the TUC figures not merely as an essential element of a future corporatist regime, but as its pacemaker, as the following extract from the same article bears out: ‘Thus Scanlon becomes an essential prop for the bureaucratic corporatist machinery with which the trade union leaders want to divert the growing support in the working-class movement for immediate policies of socialist nationalisation and workers control.’ [Emphasis added] So, Workers Press tells us, the TUC actually wants to institute a corporatist regime. And since, in the Trotskyist book, corporatism is the ideology of the fascist state (after all, the corporatist Mussolini was also a fascist), we arrive at the proposition that far from being an obstacle – however feeble – to the establishment of a fascist dictatorship by the monopolies, as Trotsky repeatedly insisted against ‘Third Period’ Stalinist claims that the reformist unions had turned ‘social fascist’, the trade unions will become one of the main agencies in the institution and maintenance of such a regime. This dangerous line of thinking is a mockery of Trotskyism, and, moreover, it flies in the face of history. Corporatist Italy was the graveyard of trade unions – and a prison for even their most collaborationist leaders.

41. This was the tally of Fascist destruction visited on the workers’ movement during the first six months of 1921: 17 newspaper offices and print-shops, 59 ‘People’s Houses’, 119 chambers of labour, 107 cooperatives, 83 peasant leagues offices, 141 Socialist and Communist clubs and offices.

42. B Mussolini, Speech to Chamber of Deputies, 21 June 1921.

43. B Mussolini, Speech to Chamber of Deputies, 21 June 1921.

44. Italo Balbo, one of the top four Fascist leaders (quadrumvirs) described in his diary one such onslaught – that on the working-class stronghold of Ravenna in July 1921; ‘We undertook this task in the same spirit as when we demolished the enemy’s stores in wartime. The flames from the great burning building [the Socialist headquarters] rose ominously into the night. The whole town was illuminated by the glare, we had to strike terror into the heart of our enemies... I announced to him [the Ravenna police chief] that I would burn down and destroy the houses of all the Socialists in Ravenna if he did not give me within half an hour the means required for sending the Fascists elsewhere... I demanded a whole fleet of lorries... after half an hour they told me where I could find lorries already supplied with petrol. Some of them actually belonged to the office of the chief of police... We went through Rimini, Sant'Arcangelo, Savignano, Cesena, Bertinoro, all the towns and centres in the provinces of Forli and Ravenna, and destroyed and burnt all the red buildings, the seats of the Socialist and Communist organisations. It was a terrible night. Our passage was marked by huge columns of fire and smoke. The whole plain of the Romagna was given up to the reprisals of the outraged Fascists determined to break for ever the red terror.’ (I Balbo, 1922 Diaries, pp 103-09)

45. The composition, as well as origin, of Mussolini’s first government was similar to that of Hitler’s (both also shared the official designation of governments of ‘national concentration’), though it included representatives of parties whose German counterparts were excluded from the smallest share in the exercise of power in the early months of the Third Reich. Mussolini headed a coalition of, besides himself, three Fascists, two Populists, two rightist Liberals, three ‘Democrats’, a Nationalist and two ‘non-political’ appointments as heads of the army and navy. Though excluded from power, Germany’s liberals, democratic and Catholic leaders were not one whit less anxious to lick the fascist boots than their Italian predecessors. Both Hitler and Mussolini received unanimous votes of confidence from the old bourgeois parties, Hitler’s enabling act of 23 March 1933 being opposed only by the SPD – the KPD was already banned – while in Italy, the confidence vote of 16 November 1922 was carried 306 to 116, with once again only the deputies of the two workers’ parties – the PSI and PCd'I – voting against. At the death, the bourgeois liberals, democrats and radicals preferred Fascism when the alternative appeared to be a victory of socialism.

46. Italian labour succeeded in forcing a wide range of concessions from the bourgeoisie in the period of its greatest militancy between the end of the war and the autumn of 1920. By 1921, industrial wages had increased by 557 per cent on their prewar monetary value, while prices had risen over the same period by 501 per cent. This marked an increased share for the proletariat of the total national product, and a considerable diminution in the rate of profit of the industrial and banking bourgeoisie. With the defeat of September 1920 capital once more took the offensive, and aided by the onslaught of Mussolini’s Blackshirts on the nerve centres of the labour movement, began to restore the dominant position it held before and during the war. While retail prices rose to an index of 517 by the end of 1922 (base year being 1913) industrial wages were, with the tacit acceptance of the trade union bureaucracy, pushed back from their 1921 peak of 557 to 503 two months after the march on Rome. And the bosses’ counter-attack had only just begun. With their Fascist allies holding the reins of government, and the Fascist-dominated ‘syndicates’ increasingly becoming the only organisations permitted to ‘represent’ Italian labour, wage cuts, price increases and the lengthening of the working day continued apace. Retail prices soared to 633 by the first half of 1926, while wages now limped along 38 points behind. And this was in a period of industrial expansion, when had it been free to organise in independent trade unions, the proletariat would have been able to exploit the increased demand for its labour power by demanding higher wages. Instead, they were, in real terms, progressively cut. Meanwhile company profits rose from 1.7 per cent on total capital in 1922 to 8.0 per cent in 1925 and 7.0 per cent in 1926. Other measures which gladdened the hearts – and helped replenish the coffers – of Italian big business included the restoration of the telephone system to private enterprise, the ending of the state monopoly in life insurance created by Giolitti in 1921, the winding up of the Ministry of Labour, and the abolition of rent controls. The Confindustria, whose support for Mussolini had been crucial in the days prior to his appointment as Prime Minister, was rewarded by being recognised as the sole spokesman for industrial interests, much to the chagrin of the Fascist ‘national syndicalists’ and the small businessmen who had provided many of the activists and funds for Fascism in its early days of struggle. Fascism in power was, despite its ‘national’ and ‘social’ claims, the most ruthless champion of big business, and, by the same token, a merciless enemy of the proletariat.

47. ‘... Russia could not isolate itself from the profound reaction that swept over postwar Europe in the early 1920s... the coincidence of such dates as the organisation of the first Fascist coup under Mussolini on 30 October 1922 in Italy, the coup in Spain of 13 September 1923, which placed Primo de Rivera in power, the condemnation of the Declaration of the Forty-Six Bolsheviks by the joint plenum of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission of 15 October 1923 are not fortuitous. Such signs of the times will bear serious consideration.’ (Trotsky, Stalin, pp 411-13)

48. A Hitler, Mein Kampf (London, 1943), p 681.

49. A Hitler, Hitler’s Secret Conversations (New York, 1953), p 9.

50. E Hanfstangl, Hitler: The Missing Years (London, 1937), p 34.

51. K Lüdecke, I Knew Hitler (New York, 1937), p 58.

52. Stephen Johns, ‘Stewards Keen on Merseyside Collaboration Scheme’, Workers Press, 3 September 1973, p 11.