Socialist Worker

The rich and street thugs: a warning from Italian history

There are times when our rulers may offer support to fascist street thugs, as the experience of Mussolini's rise to power shows

Issue No. 2193

The idea that the far right thugs of the English Defence League (EDL) might gain friends, allies and even adherents in the upper classes would be scoffed at in polite society.

Yet the first fascist movement was not the “well oiled machine” of Adolf Hitler but more a coalition of local paramilitary squads and a party that had little control over them. That was Italian fascism before it took power in October 1922.

Trade union leaders had contained and dissipated the revolutionary upsurge that followed the First World War by late 1920.

The government had been too weak to suppress it.

Big business breathed a huge sigh of relief and decided on revenge, determined never to face such a challenge again.

Gangs began killing activists, burning union halls and using terror to intimidate the left. The violence started in rural areas where labourers had formed unions and taken over land.

The sons of great landowners and industrialists led these squads. Their fathers financed them and the army high command gave them transport and arms.

They physically ejected a socialist-led council in Bologna. Desperadoes, brutalised by war, found themselves lauded by the great and the good.

Thousands of them went on long marches through central Italy burning, killing and beating.

The right wing of the Socialist Party argued that workers should obey the law and rely on the state – even though the army and police were collaborating with the fascists. The left Socialists buried their heads in the sand, saying that the rampage was a blip on the road to revolution.


The infant Communist Party refused to work with either section of the Socialist Party. It argued that fascism was just another right wing movement and if it destroyed parliamentary democracy, good!

Despite this there was successful resistance organised by ex-soldiers, the Arditi del Popolo (People’s Squads).

In Rome they led mass demonstrations that forced the fascists to close a national conference and leave the city.

In August 1922 they led the people of Parma in driving off the fiercest fascist squads. But the various left parties and unions refused to work with them.

The fascist leader Benito Mussolini was based in Milan, far from the frontline of this civil war. The squads were loyal to local leaders who sometimes defied Mussolini.

As the ruling class began to contemplate giving power to Mussolini they also put pressure on him to discipline the movement. The army high command welcomed fascist terror against the left but if fascism took power they wanted a monopoly of state force.

Mussolini browbeat and bribed the squad leaders into agreeing to create a national fascist party under his command.

In October 1922 Mussolini was appointed premier by the king. The fascist myth is that he seized power in “The March on Rome”.

But Mussolini arrived on a train wearing a top hat and tails. The squads were allowed into the city to march past their leader and be hurried onto trains home.

Now in office, Mussolini incorporated them into a national militia under army control.

In Italy, lawyers, eminent philosophers and sons of industrialists were prepared to join with the equivalents of today’s EDL.

Of course, Italy was a pressure cooker then. Sections of the ruling class wanted revenge on the working class, strong government and imperial expansion. The fascists found a sea to swim in.

That is not the case in Britain now. But when the EDL marched to parliament recently some well-heeled UK Independence Party types joined them demanding free speech for Islamophobes.

Both sides seemed at ease with their new found friends.

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Tue 16 Mar 2010, 19:38 GMT
Issue No. 2193
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