It was 80 years ago that fascism first came to power, and it happened in Italy. There is a myth that Benito Mussolini seized power after his March on Rome and the occupation of the city by his fascist shock troops. Fascist columns did assemble at four points near the city – but they were lightly armed, ill fed and left standing in the rain.
Workers had ripped up railways to stop the fascists reaching Rome. Mussolini himself was miles to the north in Milan, close to the Swiss border in case he had to make a speedy escape. He did not march into Rome. He was summoned by the Italian king, who appointed Mussolini as prime minister even though the fascists had few parliamentary seats.
Mussolini's appointment as head of a coalition government was supported by big business, the military and the Vatican. Fascist troops did not occupy Rome. They were shepherded in by the army in special trains and allowed to march around before being ushered home. Mussolini was a former socialist firebrand. He had made a career out of attacking parliamentary democracy first from the left and then from the right. So why did the rulers of Italy summon him to power?
For two years the country had been in the grip of civil war in which fascist terror had spread from town to town and city to city. A new book, The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini by Tom Behan, explains why this happened and shows that Mussolini's triumph was not inevitable. Fascism was not just another form of dictatorship. It represented the end of all democracy and free speech, and state control of all areas of life. Above all fascism represented the unleashing of civil war against the working class movement. Neither was fascism simply a tool of big business. It represented a mass movement that collaborated with the police and army but retained its independence.
Fascism was attractive to big business because it could unleash politically committed thugs on common enemies. But fascism's independence meant big business felt uneasy about giving power to Mussolini. In 1922 Italy had been a united country for only 60 years and its ruling class was divided.
In the north there were great industrial cities, in the north and centre capitalist agriculture, and in the south virtual feudalism. The decade before the 1914-18 First World War saw an explosion of industrial militancy in the northern cities, and strikes and land seizures by agricultural labourers and peasants. The industrialists and landowners became disillusioned with the ineffective parliamentary politicians in Rome.
During The First World War many issues in Italian society came to a head. A substantial section of the Italian ruling class felt they had been cheated out of colonies promised to them by their allies, Britain and France. The Italian working class and rural masses rose in a sustained rebellion which led to 1919 and 1920 becoming known as the Red Years. In the end, while workers occupied the factories, their leaders turned their backs on revolution and brokered a deal.
The ruling class was relieved. But the government's refusal to use the army against the workers because it could not trust the soldiers' loyalty left it feeling humiliated and thirsty for revenge. Mussolini had broken with the left to support Italy's entry into the war. His new Fascist Party was marginalised during the revolutionary storm, but now he bragged that he would inflict revenge on the left.
In central Italy the landowners employed the fascists against the socialist-led rural labourers' trade unions. Columns fanned out across the countryside, burning union offices, and beating up and murdering activists with weapons supplied by army officers. The rural trade unions were destroyed.
In Bologna and other cities the fascists occupied the town and removed elected socialist councils. The fascists' confidence was boosted when the left failed to mobilise against them.
The Italian Socialist Party should have been a mighty force. It had a mass membership and its leaders talked endlessly of revolution. But the leadership believed that all they had to do to win this revolution was wait for it to drop into their laps.
They let the revolutionary challenge of 1919-20 pass them by, preferring to build their party in isolation from the real struggle for revolution. The party focused on parliament, not mass action, and its leaders had no strategy for resisting fascism.
A section of the Socialist Party became so frustrated by the leaders' failure to take on fascism that they broke away to form the Communist Party, inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Tragically this new party dismissed Mussolini as being just another right winger and refused to work with other forces on the left to stop him.
Matters reached ridiculous heights during 1921 and 1922 when former crack soldiers, the Arditi del Popolo (Shock Troops of the People), organised resistance to the fascist Blackshirts and inflicted serious defeats on them. The Socialist Party denounced the Arditi for being so militant and then signed a pact with Mussolini – which he, of course, ignored. The Communist Party ordered its members to quit the Arditi's ranks because non-Communists led them!
Tom Behan's book provides the only description in English of this heroic resistance and the left's failure to embrace it. In 1921 the Italian economy entered recession and industrialists began to subsidise fascism, hoping it would wage a war on the trade unions and the left.
In 1922 Mussolini signalled that the ruling classes could cut a deal with him. Mussolini's supporters were overwhelmingly middle class, with a core of brutalised former soldiers.
They hated the workers' movement, but they also resented big business and the banks. Mussolini promised them a revolution for the 'little man' – the shopkeeper, ex-officer and small businessman.
But Mussolini talked in two tongues. By 1922 this former republican was reassuring the officer corps he was in favour of the monarchy. The ex-atheist was singing the praises of the Catholic church. And he was reassuring big business he would allow it a free hand.
The main trade union federation called a general strike against fascist violence, but it made no preparation and the strike crumbled within hours. The fascists felt confident to attack and conquer militant centres of the Arditi like Livorno, and some cities like Genoa and Milan.
The Italian working class had waged a far, far greater resistance than German workers would later offer to Hitler. But now demoralisation and the physical isolation of the cities began to undermine it. In the autumn of 1922 big business, the army command, the king and the Vatican felt reassured they could gamble on Mussolini.
Mussolini was installed as head of a coalition of different political figures, but he quickly squeezed them out and instituted a dictatorship, backed by his new supporters.
Outside Italy Mussolini is remembered as something of a buffoon. But he unleashed a cruel violence that, though it might not match that of Hitler or Stalin, was then something new in the world. Mussolini was responsible for the deaths of a million people. They were killed during the terror in Italy and vicious colonial wars in Libya, Somalia and Ethiopia.
They died because of his support for General Franco in the Spanish Civil War and fascist Italy's own butchery in the Second World War. And Mussolini's alliance with Hitler involved the deportation of Italian Jews and compliance in the Holocaust.
Mussolini also waged a merciless war against the anti-fascist Resistance movement that liberated so much of Italy between 1943 and 1945 In April 1945 Mussolini himself met justice in the form of a Resistance bullet. There are two lessons from Mussolini's rise to power.
Firstly, compromise in the face of a revolutionary crisis leads to disaster. An Italian anarchist leader warned at the height of the revolutionary wave of 1919-20, 'If we do not carry on until the end we shall pay with tears of blood for the fear we now install in the bourgeoisie.' He was right. Looking back in July 1923 Mussolini bragged that the Italian left had not known how 'to profit from a revolutionary situation such as history does not repeat'.
Secondly, Tom Behan's book demonstrates how unity in action is needed to stop Mussolini and his heirs. Events 80 years ago prove that we ignore that advice at our peril.
The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini by Tom Behan, £8. Available from Bookmarks – phone 020 7637 1848 or buy online from www.bookmarks.uk.com.