Ignazio Benito La Russa is a former defence minister whose father was secretary of Mussolini’s fascist party. He co-founded Brothers of Italy with leader Giorgia Meloni. He was elected speaker of the upper house of the Italian parliament this month.
In a video showing off his many fascist relics on display in his home, he gloated, “There’s even a communist symbol, but we put it beneath the feet of the Mussolini statue.” La Russa began his political career with the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), the party set up in 1946 by supporters of Mussolini.
As did Meloni, who claimed there were no “nostalgic fascists, racists or antisemites in the Brothers of Italy DNA”. La Russa’s brother Romano, a Brothers of Italy councillor, was filmed last month making the stiff-armed fascist salute at a funeral. The party said, “He was inviting others to lower their outstretched arms”.
If something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, but it quacks that it is no longer a duck, then it would be naive for the left to call it a rabbit. The MSI was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War by fascists who played a significant role in the pro-Nazi puppet regime that governed the northern half of Italy after the Allies invaded Sicily in 1943.
MSI also stood for “Mussolini, sei immortale” meaning “Mussolini, you are immortal.” Adherents thought the previous fascist regime had not been radical enough and wanted a return to violent revolutionary fascism. Mass strikes and armed insurrections against fascist rule in cities from Naples to Rome, Turin and Milan liberated Italy, not the Allied army.
But cowardice from the Communist leaders and interference from the US meant post-war Italian structures were set up in order to keep the left out. After taking over, Mussolini was faced with ruling class institutions much less deeply rooted than Hitler’s Germany.
He could more easily integrate fascist rule with the existing state forces. Mussolini didn’t need an SS—he used the cops. Again after the war, this state was left relatively intact. There was no denazification in Italian politics because the threat to the bosses was the left.
Italy’s 1948 constitution explicitly proscribes the reorganisation “under any form whatsoever, of the dissolved fascist party”. The MSI was excluded from government coalitions but it also meant it spoke in euphemisms from day one. But they were only kept out of government in 1960 by nationwide protests, strikes and riots. While elements of the state and fascists resorted to terrorism in the 1970s the fascists were mostly sidelined.
There was a low level battle over anniversaries and memorials to keep the fascist ideas in the frame of politics. But the fascists have crawled into government in recent times. Between 1994 and 2011 governments lazily labelled “centre-right” governed four times which opened the door for fascism to rise again.
The early 1990s saw a series of corruption scandals and the disappearance of the dominant Cold War political structures. Both the old right and its social democratic opponents went into deep crisis.
Up stepped Forza Italia, led by media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi—whose anti‑Communism paved the way for rehabilitation of the fascists. Berlusconi launched a revisionist view of Mussolini’s role in Italian history. He declared Mussolini one of Italy’s “greatest statesmen” and a “benign dictator” who had “done good things for Italy” and said any camps were “holiday camps”.
The ideological rehabilitation of fascism was sped up and continues today. Berlusconi was joined by The Northern League, a party seeking greater autonomy for Italy’s more prosperous north. They were of the racist right but didn’t come from a fascist tradition.
His other ally was the National Alliance, which did. It was the predecessor party to Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and the successor to the MSI. These fascists adopted the term post-fascism to distance themselves from Mussolini while drawing attention to that link. These same three groups, renamed, are forming the Italian government.
The last decade saw a series of rightward moving social democratic governments managing crises badly while doing enough to alienate working class support. But also not pushing through enough attacks to appease the rich. Berlusconi had opened a door and Matteo Salvini pushed it further. Salvini took over the Northern League.
He abandoned regionalism for nationalism and appealed to the extreme right. He adopted the slogan “Italians First”, which was previously used by one of the other Italian fascist parties—Casa Pound. But Salvini spent the past two years supporting a bankers’ government. Now people have moved on to the genuine article.
Meloni has been able to position herself as having been “alone in opposition”— and more in touch with “real Italians”. Meloni states, “If I were fascist, I would say so.” She argues to call them fascist is fascist—it is the deliberate politics of the irrational.
She wants curbs on access to abortion to address the “emergency” of Italy’s declining birth rate to save its supposed “Judeo-Christian” roots. She sees immigration as an invasion and part of a UN “great replacement plot”.
She is clear that “the secularism of the left and radical Islam threaten our roots.” Parties of the right, she said, needed to say a clear no to the “LGBT lobby,” and to “gender ideology.” A small example of why whether they are fascists or not matters is the Italian presidency.
The Brothers are very keen on increasing presidential powers and the president being directly elected—currently the MPs choose. The argument goes, if people directly elect a president, they will speak directly rather than having everything filtered through backroom deals in parliament as at the minute.
That can sound attractive—but for the fascists this is a stalking horse. One of the reasons is that they think that it will take politics to the street so to speak. It will let politics bypass parliament in a bad way.
Wanting it doesn’t mean they will get it, but this is a concrete demand the potential government hope to achieve. For Italy managing debt currently involves having relations with the EU. So the slightly phoney war over who loves Ukraine or who loves the EU least among the warring right wing factions was about manoeuvring for position. It’s not about any principles either way. And wanting EU money and supporting wars aren’t necessarily signs of not being a fascist.
Mussolini in the 1920s was radical and destructive as he crushed the Italian left. But he was loved by Wall Street and quite deliberately cultivated foreign finance and investment. To liberals, fascists appear merely as racist thugs who can easily be seen off by giving them a fair hearing and the discipline of their betters, who actually understand the system.
Part of that means downplaying the elements of fascism that are a threat. This has proved monstrously dangerous in the past. And it is likely to be so again. In recent years sections of fascists have looked to build up an electoral base in order to make them respectable to capital.
The downside for them is that they have not been able to build a street army to go with it. To fully win they need two interconnected things. First, they need an active mass movement capable of penetrating society.
Only that can give them the means to counter other social forces, especially the organised working class. That’s why Mussolini’s party was built out of armed squads, and why Hitler had built up a force of 100,000 by 1930.
Second, the fascists need decisive sections of the ruling class and the state machine to swing behind their bid for power. For Mussolini and Hitler there was tension between the mass organisations and the strategy of winning the support of the ruling class.
But at key moments the two can coincide. Fascism can use elections to provide the framework within which street fascism can grow. And remember it is just over a year since fascist thugs stormed the headquarters of the main trade union federation.
This happened in the interwar years in Austria and Spain. Both countries saw the rise of what were murderous, repressive right wing politics grow into full blooded fascism. The time between the March on Rome and Mussolini taking full control was a matter of years not weeks. In Germany from the failure of a coup, it took a decade for Hitler to be lifted to power.
So as the fascist Meloni becomes prime minister it does not mean fascism has triumphed. But to not recognise the threat would be dangerous in the extreme. This is the second in a series about fascism in Italy
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