Italy: Berlusconi – mad man or useful tool in the hands of the bosses?

Billionaire media tycoon and former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, died of leukaemia today. He will be remembered for his involvement in numerous corruption scandals, sleazy ‘bunga bunga’ parties, child prostitution allegations, and for the attacks perpetrated by his governments against the working class. The liberal wing of the ruling class would like to distance itself from him, but for all that, Berlusconi held up a mirror to the rottenness of his class.

Between 1994 and 2011, he headed four governments. Twice, he was ejected and replaced by a ‘left’ government in the form of the Democratic Party of the Left (which later became the Democratic Party) – and twice these so-called ‘left’ governments headed by Prodi ended in disappointment, having carried out programmes of austerity and privatisation. Thus, Berlusconi’s long political career was only possible because of the rotten role of the Democrats, and it is a stark lesson in the failure of ‘lesser-evilism’. 

Berlusconi entered politics precisely to protect his own business interests and to keep himself out of prison, but, more important for the ruling class, to save the Italian bourgeoisie. His rise coincided with the collapse of the traditional party of the Italian capitalists (the Christian Democracy), of the country’s political system and with the stagnation of the Italian economy in the 1990s and the full-blown crisis after 2008. He attempted to foster an image as an ‘outsider’, whilst using right-wing populist rhetoric, full of racism and misogyny.

As the following article from 2005 points out, he also repeatedly defended the record of fascist dictator Mussolini, and in doing so his views fully accord with the most reactionary and money-grabbing section of his class.

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, does not know the meaning of shame. In an interview with a British magazine, last week he said that Mussolini, "never murdered anyone, he sent people on holiday into internal exile". The journalist's comparison between Mussolini and Saddam Hussein provoked the anger of Berlusconi. He later justified his comments by saying, "I reacted as a patriot, as a real Italian, to a comparison which I do not accept." According to this logic Germans should defend Hitler, Chileans should defend Pinochet, and so on. Berlusconi simply reveals the views of the class he belongs to, or at least the most reactionary and money grabbing sections of it.

It may well be true that Mussolini may not have killed anyone with his own bare hands. He wouldn’t get involved in such dirty work. Better to leave that to the thugs he had gathered around himself. However, he definitely ordered the killing of thousands of socialists, communists and trade union activists. He was the leader of a regime that caused the death of tens, and hundreds of thousands of people. In reality Berlusconi no doubt has a great sympathy for the figure of Mussolini. After all he was able to destroy the organisations of the labour movement and impose the will of the bosses without having the nuisance of going through parliamentary procedure, or having to deal with mass protests.

All the judges are "communists"

Berlusconi Image Niccolò Caranti Wikimedia CommonsIn spite of his seemingly "crazy" outbursts, Berlusconi does represent an important wing of the Italian bourgeoisie / Image: Niccolò Caranti, Wikimedia Commons

In another part of the same interview, Berlusconi launched another of his usual attacks against the Italian judges. In his opinion they are all "communists". But this time he went even further. "If they do that job, it's because they are anthropologically different", he claimed. This is in tune with his obsession with Communism. He is convinced that everyone in the media, in the bulk of the state apparatus, in the Trade Unions, etc, is a dangerous Communist. Now of course, we would be very pleased as revolutionaries if this were true. If it were true it would mean that in Italy we would now be on the eve of a socialist revolution.

We can, of course, but laugh at all these "statements" and also agree with a lot of people on the left in Italy that seriously think that Berlusconi is mad. However, if it is true that he is mad, why is it that a raving lunatic can become the Prime Minister of Italy? This is one of the seven most powerful nations in the world!

The fact remains that, in spite of his seemingly "crazy" outbursts, Berlusconi does represent an important wing of the Italian bourgeoisie. He came to power two years ago with the full backing of the Italian ruling class. He had the complete support of the Confindustria (the Italian bosses’ confederation), the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Italy and the majority of the mass media.

Responsibility of the left

It is also true to say that he could not have come to power simply with the backing of this unholy alliance of the powers that be. He was also able to exploit the fact that the centre left coalition government had failed to deliver any reforms for working class people. Not only did they not do anything for the workers, they actually carried out a whole series of counter-reforms such as cuts in the pension system, privatisation of many state run utilities, etc. In the 2001 general elections all this led a lot of left wing voters to stay at home as they had lost confidence in the left but were not prepared to vote for the right.

Berlusconi is often presented in the British and international media as a kind of buffoon, or at the very least an untrustworthy character. The British magazine, The Economist, has made its position quite clear on more than one occasion. They have openly challenged Berlusconi to answer a series of questions about his business dealings and his long list of court cases that have never really led to any clarification about his methods of bribery, corruption and underhand deals.

It would however be the height of naivety to believe that The Economist stands for genuine representative government, or that in some way it stands for "fair play". In reality what they are worried about is the credibility of Berlusconi. They want him to deliver the goods, as the saying goes. They want firm action on pensions, the welfare state in general, and on the so-called excessive state spending. If Berlusconi cannot provide this because of the delicate balance of forces within his coalition government, then he is of no use to him. If on the other hand he proves capable of attacking the working class and getting away with it, (i.e. without a mass reaction from the working class) then he becomes a man they can do business with.

An embarrassment they can live with

Bush and Berlusconi Image White House Wikimedia CommonsAt the end of the day, both Bush and Blair appreciate his support for their war in Iraq / Image: White House, Wikimedia Commons

Proof of this is the recent war in Iraq. Berlusconi came out in support of the US and Britain. Of course his "support" was of the verbal type. He didn’t actually send forces to do any fighting. Nonetheless it allowed Bush and Blair to present themselves as not being "isolated". Berlusconi is indeed a bit of an embarrassment when he comes out with his idiotic statements. He is a bit like a "nouveaux riche" joining the club of the long established wealthy classes. He doesn’t know how to hold his fork, and which knife to use for the fish. But this doesn’t stop him from having a very good relationship with Bush and Blair. In the case of Bush, no doubt when it comes to intellect they compete for the position of most uncultured, unknowledgable and most clumsy of international leaders. So Bush will see him as "one of the boys". Blair probably has a bit more to be embarrassed about. But as he feels a bit lonely, even a Berlusconi type will do. At the end of the day, both Bush and Blair appreciate his support for their war in Iraq.

So although Berlusconi may be an embarrassment on certain occasions, the fact remains that he defends the same class interests of the imperialists in general. So when these are at stake he can be of use to them.

We should remind our readers of the attitude of the Italian (and international) bourgeoisie towards the rise of fascism. It was considered as a "painful" but "inevitable" necessity against chaos and Bolshevism. Turning to a fascist dictatorship was the only way for the capitalist system to survive.

The facts…

Let us recall some figures… Mussolini didn’t kill anyone says Berlusconi. The truth is rather different. Mussolini came to power on a wave of killings. At least five hundred people were killed by the Fascist squads between 1919 and 1922. They went around in groups attacking socialist and communist party headquarters, the offices of left wing journals and trade unions in a systematic campaign of terror which finally ended in the smashing of the workers’ organisations. Thousands where injured and tens of thousands were imprisoned.

Between 1926 and 1943 the Special Tribunals sent more than 5,000 people to jail for "political crimes". Another 15,000 were sent into internal exile. This involved the sending of left wing and trade union activists to isolated villages, often in the south or on the islands, where they were forced to report to the local police and could not leave the village. In exchange for this they were allowed to stay in one of the village houses. Thus they were kept far from their families and isolated from their comrades. Berlusconi considers this a holiday!

In 1938 Mussolini introduced the Racist Laws as a concession to his friend Hitler. Thus a widespread persecution of the Jews in Italy was unleashed and around 10,000 of them died in the Nazi concentration camps. Yes, Mussolini didn’t kill them himself. He just handed them over to Hitler to do with them as he pleased!

The number of people who died at the hands of the Mussolini regime, however is far higher. One biographer of Mussolini, Richard Bosworth (well known for his right wing views) has estimated that at least one million people died as a result of his policies during his 20 years in power. The "atrocious massacres of Libyans, Ethiopians, inhabitants of ex-Yugoslavia" involved the death of at least a million people. This, in the warped mind of Berlusconi, is what makes for a great statesman of the 20th century.

Finally we must forget the period between 1940-45 when Mussolini entered the war in alliance with Hitler. Mussolini’s famous statement, "I need some thousands of dead to sit down at the table of victory" has gone down in history as one of the most cold-blooded and cynical of calculations. Between 1940, when Italy entered the war, and September 1943, when the Fascist regime collapsed, 200,000 Italian soldiers and more than 30,000 civilians died. Then came the period of Nazi occupation between September 1943 and the end of the war in 1945, during which more than 50,000 people were killed in the partisan struggle to remove the invaders and their local Fascist puppets. More than 70,000 soldiers and civilians also died in the Nazi concentration camps.

These are some of the tragic figures that Berlusconi seems to have forgotten (or pretends to have forgotten about). It is no accident. Most of those killed were ordinary workers, trade union activists, partisans, socialists and communists. They came from the world that he despises so much, the world of the workers, the peasants, the poor people of Italy who fought with all their strength against fascism and capitalism. That generation of Italian workers finally overthrew the despotic regime of Mussolini and the Nazis. Those same workers who refused to be tools of Italian imperialism, often deserting en masse, were prepared to take up arms and fight to smash the despot in their own homeland. Those workers desired radical change, going beyond the question of formal parliamentary democracy. They wanted to put an end to the very system that had created Mussolini and his regime. Unfortunately they were thwarted in this. The leaders of the Italian labour movement (Communists, Socialists and Trade Unions) played a key role in this and handed power back to the bosses. If they had not done so, we wouldn’t have to be listening to the likes of Berlusconi today. But that is another story.

Whatever Belusconi may say or do in his attempts to rewrite history, we will not forget the martyrs of our movement. In honour of their memory we will build the genuine forces of Marxism until a successful socialist transformation of society is achieved in Italy, Britain, and throughout the world.

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