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How Mussolini and fascism rose in Italy

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One hundred years ago, fascist Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome was used to declare his rule. Simon Basketter explains Mussolini’s rise, and how it flowed from the left’s weakness
Issue 2827
Benito Mussolini and his fascists in Rome

Benito Mussolini (centre) and his fascist supporters during the March on Rome (Wikicommons/ Illustrazione Italiana)

The March on Rome was the insurrection that brought Benito Mussolini to power 100 years ago on 28 October 1922. But it didn’t really take place. Most of the fascists failed to arrive on the right day, and those who did hung around miserably in torrential rain. Squads of fascists were decisively defeated in Cremona and Pisa.

In Florence, the fascists were poised for an assault. But nobody told them that General Armando Diaz, supreme commander of the Italian Armed Forces, was inside the building preparing a banquet in Mussolini’s honour. The attack was rather hurriedly transformed into a parade that government troops joined.

In Rome the king agreed to resistance. Railway lines were cut, and roads blocked. But then he refused to authorise martial law and the ­government resigned. The city was defended by 12,000 soldiers who were ordered not to use force. The king asked one right wing politician to form a government and when Mussolini refused to join it, he was made prime minister.

The coup had happened in plain sight. In the end, Mussolini’s sleeper train from Milan to Rome was the only thing that “advanced” on the capital. The coup happened because the bosses were terrified by a workers’ movement that had seized the factories during the Red Years of 1919 and 1920.

So paralysed had Italy’s bosses been that the head of Fiat offered to turn his factories over to the workers. Yet the failure of the Italian left to develop this moment into a ­successful revolution had ­disastrous consequences. Historian John Foot ­estimates that Mussolini was responsible for a million deaths at home and abroad.

A few years prior, the First World War had been a disaster for Italy. But a breakneck industrial development began. By the end of the war there were half a million ­engineering workers and union ­membership grew to three million. But inflation undermined living ­standards and food shortages were severe.

In response there was an explosion of working class ­militancy and a shattering of the political order. The industrialists of the north identified with the Liberal Party. A Catholic ­political bloc represented the older, more agricultural sections of the ruling class. Meanwhile the most powerful politician, Giovanni Giolitti, played them all off each other. 

He was fairly successful at incorporating the leadership of the Socialist Party (PSI) and the main trade union federation, the CGL. Mussolini had been expelled from the Socialist Party for backing the war. He launched a new paper with money from shipbuilding bosses and British spooks to develop fascist ideology.

In April 1919 the first attack by an organised squad of fascists burnt down the Milan office of the Socialist paper Avanti, with four people killed. By September 1919 Italian troops began withdrawing from the city of Fiume in line with the Treaty of Versailles. A ­nationalist poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio, occupied the town with 2,000 mutinous soldiers.   

The government held ­negotiations, which boosted the emerging fascists. But the bosses did not yet think the fascists had to take power. As one historian of Italian fascism put it, “So long as the wealthy remained on the defensive, fascism was not even ­modestly successful”.

In September 1920, when the engineering bosses responded to a strike with a lockout, half a million workers took over the factories and declared workers’ control. In the national elections the PSI emerged as the largest single party with 156 seats.

In Turin the ­occupations took on elements of dual power, as working class power opposed that of the official government and armed workers defended the factories. At a joint conference in Milan the CGL leaders offered to hand over their power to the PSI leadership if the latter agreed to make the revolution happen. The PSI refused the offer. 

So instead, the government made a deal that promised a joint commission of the unions and employers to establish control over industry. The unions ended the factory occupations soon after. Meanwhile, the peasants seized land and agricultural day labourers formed militant unions that won major concessions.

Landowners complained about a lack of government ­protection and the ­industrialists were ready to go to any lengths to escape the threat of workers’ control. Both now looked to the armed gangs of Mussolini’s fascists. As a result, money flowed from the rich to Mussolini. The winter and spring of 1920–21 was decisive. Fascist squads conducted a ­systematic campaign of violent terror against socialists.

Importantly, the fascists had military support. The chief of staff instructed that demobilised officers—around 60,000—should join the fascist squads. An economic slump saw employers go on the offensive. By January 1921 there were 600,000 unemployed. Bosses demanded that the government rescue them by granting tax cuts and subsidies. 

Mussolini adopted all of the bosses’ demands, focusing on ruling class dissatisfaction with government policy of co-opting the PSI and CGL. The mainstream right also attempted to co-opt the fascists, believing they could be tamed by parliamentary politics. 

In the spring of 1921 Giolitti called an election and stood in a “national bloc” that included Mussolini. As a result, 30 fascist ­deputies were elected. By the beginning of 1922 fascist columns, which could number in the thousands, were terrorising the countryside. In August 1922 they felt strong enough to seize the city halls of Milan and Leghorn—both with socialist councils. 

They also occupied Genoa’s docks to break the union and burnt down the premises of left wing newspapers. Sections of the Italian ruling class jumped decisively. As the anarchist ­historian Daniel Guerin put it, on 28 October, “Some very lively conferences took place between Mussolini and the heads of the General Federation of Industry.

“The chiefs of the Banking Association, who paid out to finance the March on Rome, the leaders of the Federation of Industry and of the Federation of Agriculture, telegraphed Rome that in their opinion the only possible solution was a Mussolini government.”

The Pope also voiced clear support for Mussolini. The Socialist and union leaders refused to mobilise against the fascist threat. In March 1921 Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti advised, “Stay home. Do not respond to provocations. Even silence, even cowardice, are ­sometimes heroic.”

In the absence of any lead from the PSI or CGL, various left wingers and ex-soldiers formed an anti-fascist militia—the Arditi del Popolo. On occasions they won the upper hand, as in Parma in August 1922 when they organised a mass response that drove back thousands of Mussolini’s Blackshirts.

The PSI proceeded to sign a “peace pact” with Mussolini, with both sides promising to disarm. The authorities used it as a pretext to raid workers’ organisations. Back in February 1922 the CGL formed an alliance of various trade unions in “defence of democracy”. On 31 July it called a general strike at a day’s notice, and called it off almost immediately. 

It then entered into ­negotiations with Mussolini and by the time of the March on Rome, it was considering his offer of a cabinet seat. In January 1921 the Communist Party split from the PSI with 40,000 members. The dominant figure was Amadeo Bordiga who on principle opposed any collaboration with the Socialists.

Bordiga rejected the ­prospect of fascism taking power because a compromise among the bosses’ parties was inevitable. This flowed from a denial that fascism represented a ­particular danger and was just another form of bourgeois rule.

Mussolini now had a ­parliamentary minority of 35 seats. In order to establish dictatorship he had to ­undermine his allies. He grabbed full control of taxation and the ability to reorganise the state, including the courts, the army and schools. In December 1922 Mussolini ordered the arrest of the Communists, and in 1924 the murder of the Socialist Matteotti. The reaction ­threatened to topple Mussolini.

Spontaneous demonstrations broke out, but the opportunity was wasted by the Socialists who simply walked out of parliament. Mussolini mocked them, “Are they calling general strikes or even partial strikes? Are they organising demonstrations in the streets? Are they trying to provoke revolts in the army? Nothing of the sort.”

The fascist squads went on the rampage against the Liberals, smashing the ­printing presses of their papers. In October 1925 the Socialists were banned, followed by all opposition parties. However shambolic, the March on Rome had won.

This is the first in a series about fascism in Italy

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