How Mussolini came to power
[Socialist Appeal, Vol. 5 No. 16, August 1943]
The downfall of Mussolini will be hailed with rejoicing by the working class throughout the world. His regime of blood and terror against the masses has endured for 21 years. The ending of fascism in Italy, the country of its origin, will be the first step towards the socialist revolution in Italy and throughout the world. But only if the Italian workers and the workers of Europe and Britain learn the lessons of history. To do so the working class must understand the reasons for the victory of fascism, how it arose and why it was enabled to conquer power.
Italy, although on the side of the victorious powers in the last war, came out of the struggle economically weakened. France and Britain seized the lion’s share of the territorial gains and left Italy only with desert and infertile acquisitions. All the burdens of the war were placed on the shoulders of the masses of workers and peasants, and of the middle class.
Like the workers and peasants of all Europe who had become disillusioned with capitalism which allowed the big combines and banks to amass enormous fortunes out of the war at the expense of the blood and suffering of the masses, the Italian workers and peasants were disgusted with capitalism and its wars for profits, markets and raw materials. They had in front of them the example of the Russian workers and peasants who had overthrown capitalism, and, for the first time in history, had expropriated the capitalists and established a workers’ government.
Immediately that war ended and the Italian capitalists launched their attacks on the standard of living of the masses a tremendous revolutionary ferment began in all sections of the exploited classes in Italy. The workers and peasants strove to emulate the example of the Russian workers and peasants. In Fascism and Big Business, Daniel Guerin describes the turmoil in Italy thus:
“In Italy, after the war, there was a real revolutionary upsurge of the masses. Workers and peasants, although they were not mature enough to address themselves to the conquest of power, at least were militant enough to force big concessions. Industrial workers got better wages, the eight hour day, general recognition of collective contracts, and a voice in production through factory committees. One strike followed another: 1,663 in 1919; 1,881 in 1920. In Genoa and other big sea-ports, the solidly organised dock workers won out over the shipowners. The steel workers did even better: in September 1920, they broadened a simple wage dispute into a large scale class struggle. When the big industrialists resorted to a lock-out, 600,000 Italian metal workers occupied the mills and carried on production themselves through their own elected shop committees. They opened their safes and discovered secrets, so closely guarded, of cost prices and profits... They won the fight: they were given – on paper, anyway – the right to check up on management and ‘workers’ control’.
“The peasantry showed no less fighting spirit. Returning from the trenches, they demanded the ‘division of the land’ which had been promised them, and, when it was not forthcoming, they occupied the coveted soil. A governmental decree sanctioned the fait accompli: on condition that they organise themselves into co-operatives, they obtained the right to remain four years on the lands they had spontaneously occupied (Visochi decree, September 2 1919). The tenant farmers also succeeded in improving the terms of their leases. The agricultural day labourers formed strong unions, the famous ‘Red Leagues’, backed up by the rural communes, won over to socialism, which had become so many proletarian fiefs. They bargained with the great landowners as one power with another, forcing from them union agreements, etc.”
By their occupation of the factories the workers demonstrated their desire to finish capitalism once and for all and to take power in order to do so. But the labour and trade union leaders sabotaged the struggle of the working class; ordered the workers out of the factories and exhorted the workers to stick to “constitutional” means in the struggle against capitalism. In face of the revolutionary offensive of the working class, the capitalists were powerless to resist. But the Socialist leaders, curbing and breaking the movement of the masses, saved capitalism in Italy from destruction. The Communist Party (although not yet degenerated into Stalinism) was incapable of playing a role in events, as it was too immature and weak and suffered from all the infantile diseases of leftism, refusing to attempt a united front with the Socialists, standing on the basis of ultra-leftism, and anti-parliamentarianism and thus dooming itself to isolation from the masses.
The revolutionary upsurge of the masses thus failed to overthrow capitalism. After weathering the storm by giving concessions to the workers and peasants, and having received a terrible shock, the capitalists began to prepare for their revenge against the workers.
“In Genoa at the beginning of April, 1919, the big industrialists and landowners sealed a holy alliance for the fight against ‘Bolshevism’. ‘This gathering,’ Rossi wrote, ‘is the first step towards a reorganisation of capitalist forces to meet the threatening situation.’ On March 7, 1920, the first nationwide conference of industrialists was held at Milan, and the General Federation of Industry was created. An all-embracing and detailed plan of joint action was drawn up, covering everything including the strategy of the campaign against the labour unions. Shortly after, on August 18, the General Federation of Agriculture was formed. Industrialists and landowners will no longer enter the battle with scattered forces.” (Fascism and Big Business)
For the purpose of fighting against the unions and the workers’ organisations the big industrialists began to organise, arm and finance bands of thugs and hooligans to fight against the working class. Just as in Britain, [where] the capitalists had begun to subsidise Mosley and his gangsters.
“...at the end of 1920, they furnished Benito Mussolini the means to carry on in his paper, the Popolo d’Italia, now a journal with a big circulation, a noisy campaign for naval and air armaments. In the issue of December 23, Mussolini announced that he was going to campaign ‘for a foreign policy of expansion’.” (Fascism and Big Business)
In the beginning these gangs were being used for the purpose merely of terrorising the workers amid murdering the militant leaders of their organisations. But the economic situation went from bad to worse. In January 1921 there were 600,000 unemployed. The middle class, the small shopkeepers, students, the professional classes, ex-servicemen, and the youth found themselves ruined and impoverished by the economic crisis. They began to look for a way out of the agony and suffering which capitalism had imposed on them. Meanwhile, while the unions and other working class organisations continued to exist, the capitalists, who were savagely attacking the standards of the workers and peasants and taking back all the concessions gained by their struggles, could not drive them to the starvation pittance which was necessary for the continued existence of the system. The capitalists saw the only way out in the destruction of the organisations, rights and liberties of the working class. Mussolini was financed and helped to organise the Fascist Party.
Taking advantage of the cowardice and treachery of the Socialist leaders who failed to put forward a radical programme for power, the magnates of big business subsidised the Fascists who put forward a demagogic anti-capitalist programme to suit the demands of the middle class. The middle class, failing to receive a lead from the workers and their organisations, in sheer despair supported the programme put forward by the fascists. As Guerin explains the situation:
“After the war a rather large section of the battered middle classes placed their hope in socialism. In the 1919 election, the ballots of the petty bourgeois were cast with those of the workers in greater numbers than ever before. When the metal workers occupied the factories in 1920, they had the sympathy of a great part of the petty bourgeoisie. But the Socialist Party showed itself absolutely incapable of leading the revolutionary upsurge of the masses. Instead of placing itself at their head, it dragged in their wake. In Mussolini’s own words, it did not know how ‘to profit from a revolutionary situation such as history does not repeat’.”
Mussolini began to organise his thugs, with the full assistance of the monarchy, the army, the landowners and capitalists. A veritable reign of terror was instituted against the masses. While the fascists were busy organising their murder raids against the workers and their organisations, the workers resistance was paralysed by their leaders. Mussolini and his hoodlums were enabled to march against the workers’ with impunity, while their leaders preached the necessity to rely on the “State” and the Constitution, at a time when the police and the heads of the army and the state machine were giving every encouragement and support to the fascists.
It was in this atmosphere of workers’ confusion and demoralisation that the capitalists placed Mussolini in power to retain their organisations and rights, [missing line] even if in an attenuated form, at the present time. But they will suffer the same fate as the Italian and German workers if they do not profit by their experiences.
Capitalism in its decay breeds fascism and to support the capitalist class is to make certain its victory. Not only fascism but a super-fascism will be imposed on the workers if capitalism is allowed to continue to exist. Only the building of a new revolutionary socialist party which has learned the lessons of the defeats of the workers in Europe can lead to a victory over the forces of fascism and reaction: the forces of capitalism. The advanced workers of Europe and Britain will find their way to the ranks of the Fourth International which alone can lead the toilers to a world of socialism and peace and thus guarantee the impossibility of the recurrence of the barbarism of fascism and war.