A small group of paramilitary thugs ransacked the offices of Italian socialist daily Avanti! in Milan in April 1919. They murdered four people, injured 39, and burned the offices to the ground.
Fascism had announced itself to the world, with Italy’s soon-to-be dictator Benito Mussolini hailing the attack as the “first incident of the civil war”. It came just after he had founded the fascist movement 100 years ago this week.
Mussolini’s fascists were a new and unique threat to the left and working class people.
Fascism was born out of an intense social crisis and the threat of socialist revolution in the wake of the First World War.
Italy was gripped by a revolutionary wave—known as the Two Red Years—in 1919 and 1920.
In the industrial north workers struck, occupied their factories and some set up their own democratic workers’ councils to run things. In the rural south agricultural workers rose against the landowners.
Sections of Italian big business and landowners had begun to lose faith in mainstream democratic politicians’ ability to face down the revolt.
Mussolini had once been on the left of the Socialist Party, but had supported Italy’s participation in the war and moved sharply rightwards.
One minister said the attack on Avanti! had, “saved the country”.
Fascism isn’t simply another form of right wing dictatorship, but seeks to build a mass movement that can smash workers’ organisation and democracy.
The fascists in northern cities, such as Milan, were made up of middle class sections that felt squeezed between capitalists and the workers’ movement.Supporters included small-time capitalists, shop owners, professionals—and a significant layer of army officers.
The arson of Avanti! was carried out by officers of the “Arditi”, the Italian army’s special forces regiment.
The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci wrote, “The gangs that were already organised and armed by the big landowners soon adopted the label fascist for themselves too.” And then the fascists developed into a “White Guard of capitalism against the class organs of the working class”.
They went on to bomb a socialist demonstration in November 1919. And within a year groups were breaking strikes and shutting down trade unions and other democratic organisations across the country.
After socialists won elections in Bologna, the fascists occupied the town hall and overthrew the democratically-elected council.
These sorts of actions were repeated in other towns.
Mussolini liked to present the fascist seizure of power as a heroic overthrow during a “March on Rome” in 1922.
While fascists did march into Rome, they were escorted through the streets by the army and then marched back out.
Mussolini was appointed prime minister by the King of Italy. Fascist movements have never come to power through winning elections or simply through violent overthrow.
They have been handed power by the ruling class in times of crisis.
Unfortunately the leaders of the reformist Socialist Party turned their back on the idea of fundamental change and betrayed the factory occupations and the workers’ movement.
It failed to mobilise to stop the fascists.
Fascists are organising in a very different context today.
So there aren’t thousands of demobbed army officers organised in paramilitary groups.
But across the world fascist and far right forces are growing again.