Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!

This is part of a series

Jan 6, 2016

Precursors and Origins of Italian Fascism

D’Amato traces the ideological and historical roots of Italian fascism.

Much of the meaning contained in the word fascism has been lost in its constant and lazy employment as a general term of abuse. Charges of fascism are shrieked quite without thought to the word’s history or to the record of the actual political and economic system it denotes. This is regrettable, because fascism and its legacy are still very much alive and well—not only as a blanket epithet, but as an operable ideology and philosophy. To achieve a thorough understanding of fascism, it is necessary to embark on an examination of the first and truest fascism, the Italian fascism of Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party. Indeed, a substantial body of the scholarship on fascism argues compellingly that only Italian fascism is entitled to be designated “fascism.” Whenever we contemplate fascism, then, we should account for the fascist project as it emerged and expressed itself in Italy, in the first half of the twentieth century. Even as it offered a critique of existing socialism, it is important to recall that Italian fascism was distinctly and self-consciously socialist, its policy content and character as a movement emerging from the constellation of socialist organizations active in Italy in the early twentieth century. It is simply impossible to understand the advent of fascism without first undertaking a thorough examination of the context provided by the tenor of the Italian radical left in the years before it. There is, therefore, a remarkable irony in the fact that the word fascism is now almost universally associated with the political right. Perhaps this association shows, if anything at all, the glaring inadequacy of the common left-right political spectrum, which reveals itself again and again as unable to meaningfully address the subtleties of political ideology and philosophy.1

The story of Mussolini’s socialist pedigree begins with his father, a blacksmith by trade and a committed socialist and atheist who had been influenced by the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin. Mussolini was thus reared on socialism and became active in radical politics early in his life, honing his ideas and becoming a formidable intellectual. Here it is important to understand socialism as a broad category under which we may group a diverse array of ideas and practical systems. This category contains (paraphrasing Walt Whitman) multitudes and contradictions. Mussolini apparently sampled many of these, and the fascism that he created presents a distinctive blend of his influences. Fascism can be understood in part as a reconciliation or synthesis of the nationalistic sentiments that gripped and defined the nineteenth century and the ascendant state socialism of the early twentieth. The nineteenth century saw the birth—really the invention—of Italy, its unification as one nation-state from the several sovereign states that had existed on the peninsula for centuries before. But at the moment Italy’s peoples were united under a single flag and government, the rising tide of socialism was increasingly encouraging them to see themselves as part of a global and international brotherhood of workers, to reject the idea that nationality itself could make special impositions. It is necessary also to distinguish the socialist left of Mussolini and his contemporaries from the New Left of the later half of the twentieth century, which was in large part a criticism of industrialism and modernity. Quite oppositely, the Italian socialists of the early twentieth century almost uniformly advocated unhampered economic and industrial development, eager to reap the rewards of scientific progress.

The young Mussolini became active in Italy’s Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano), founded during the Congress of Genoa in 1892. That assembly arguably closed the period of Italian history during which both socialism and anarchism were sufficiently young and unformed as to allow for a degree of cooperation. The socialists had a new party and a new agenda; it was this party in which the young Mussolini first rose to prominence, distinguishing himself as an effective and charismatic leader. By 1912, before his thirtieth birthday, he had become the editor of the party newspaper Avanti!, a position of especial power and influence within the party hierarchy—power and influence that he leveraged to change the landscape of Italian socialism. As an intellectual and trafficker in ideas, Mussolini was a revolutionary rather than a reformist. Socialism, he believed, could not simply be grafted onto the existing political and economic edifice. That edifice must be destroyed root and branch, a project that necessarily entailed the displacement or expulsion of reformists in the Socialist Party leadership. But despite his power within the party, it was Mussolini who would soon be ousted, his position on the First World War isolating him from his socialist comrades. Mussolini’s support of Italian intervention in the war suggests some of the doctrinal deviations that make fascism a distinct phenomenon, and it resulted in his expulsion from the Socialist Party. Socialists in Italy at the time overwhelmingly opposed the war, predictably regarding it as a capitalist scheme that would sacrifice many to enrich a few. When the Great War broke out, the Italian Socialist Party was singularly steadfast in its insistence on neutrality, committed to its principles of internationalism and peace. Almost alone among European socialist parties, the Italian Socialists pertinaciously held onto their anti-war position and remarkably maintained it through the course of the conflict. Historian Emanuel Rota notes that even for the socialists of Italy, ideologically indisposed to war, the prospect of determined neutrality was fraught with difficulties, for, among other factors, the tense course of Italo-Austrian relations made it difficult for Italians to see the belligerents of both sides as fundamentally the same. Besides vying for power in the Balkans, the border dividing the two countries was often the subject of contention, with Austria “control[ling] territories where the majority of the inhabitants were Italian-speakers.”

Mussolini’s break with his party on the issue of war is a pivotal point in the history of fascism. Where more traditional socialism had made the workers themselves central and paramount, proposing an international harmony between them, Italian fascism reasserted the importance of national character and its distinctions; it sought empire and the aggrandizement of the Italian nation through war, which Mussolini said “brings all human energies to their highest tension.” Such ideas on the virtues of violence and the spiritual purification of the people through war Mussolini borrowed from syndicalism—the aspect of socialism to which fascism owes most. As historian Alexander De Grand argues, “National syndicalism was the original nucleus of the fascist ideology.” Syndicalism is a revolutionary variant of socialism that emphasizes the role of the trade union in the empowerment of the working class and in the reorganization or society. Distrustful of politics generally, syndicalists urged direct action in the form of wildcat strikes and violent propaganda of the deed, their philosophy stressing the morally transformative quality of violence. In the words of Georges Sorel, perhaps the greatest theoretician of syndicalism, “Proletarian violence … [is] a very fine and heroic thing; it is at the service of the immemorial interests of civilization.” In Sorel’s accentuation of violent, physical acts of heroism, we see hints of Mussolini’s fascism. Syndicalism thus provides fascism with its point of departure from orthodox socialism’s hostility toward nationalism and imperialism.

To socialists of Mussolini’s time, these were significant deviations. Despite fascism’s deep roots in the socialisms percolating in Italy during their formative years, socialists summarily proceeded to regard it as counterrevolutionary, to treat it with scorn and derision. That this should be the prevailing socialist reaction notwithstanding the ideologies’ shared socialist extraction only stands to reason. Socialists and fascists now competed for the same hearts and minds, the vulnerable and poor Italian masses from whom the war had exacted a terrible toll. In a 1919 article in The American Political Science Review, University of Chicago political scientist Charles E. Merriam observed that “[n]o nation made greater sacrifices in the European war than did Italy.” Unless fascism could effectively draw on the emotional resonance of Italy’s halcyon past, real or imagined, the Italian people would be loath to accept a movement that so celebrated war and patriotism. Fascists were naturally eager to claim for their own burgeoning movement the grandeur of Imperial Rome, to trace their lineage back to the impressive mixture of history and myth that is Roman antiquity. They embraced not only the vision and language of empire, but also its iconography and aesthetic, deliberate in their attempt to tap into the emotion and authority lent by the Eternal City and its erstwhile Empire. Italian fascist thought, particularly as we find it manifested in Mussolini, put romanità—meaning roughly a rebirth of the “spirit of the ancient Romans”—at its center.2 The spirit encapsulated in romanità was, of course, a highly idealized and stylized one, designed to win hearts and minds rather than to impart accurate historical or cultural information.

In Italian fascism, we find the apotheosis of the religion of the nation-state. Given the fascists’ own statements and picture of their philosophy, such a characterization cannot be dismissed as mere hyperbole; indeed, they enthusiastically presented the state as the route to spiritual unity and as the one true spiritual reality, to which active submission was morally obligatory. Only through the state could the individual know and be a part of genuine liberty, in Mussolini’s words, “the liberty of the State.” As philosopher Paul Russell Anderson put it in his 1937 article The Philosophy of Fascism, fascism criticizes classical liberalism “for its assumption that individual man has rights over [and] against the state, for its view of the state as a policeman but not as a unifying determiner of destiny.” Instead, the state, embodiment of the will of the Italian people, was to be society’s preeminent institution—the agent of the divine nation. Of Italy, Napoleon had famously remarked that “unity of customs, language and literature must, within a period more or less distant, unite her inhabitants.” Yet this was nonetheless a new idea, the notion that cultural and linguistic commonalities ought necessarily to mean political cohesion. After all, why should it? History had largely been the story of sprawling, multinational empires or else of small city-states. Seldom had political authority corresponded in any neat way to the indefinite boundaries mapped by culture and language, which is to say ethnicity. The fascists represent the most extreme extrapolation of this idea, the claim that the people, the nation, and the state are not only aligned, but spiritually inextricable, bound by fate and proceeding through history as one.

Considered retrospectively, the appearance of Italian fascism seems almost a foregone conclusion. Of course, its adherents thought so too. Mussolini, in his article on fascism for the Enciclopedia Italiana, saw it as naturally “arising from a given system of historical forces.” And fascism certainly was a convergence of several historical and political trends, capable of exciting the masses with the promise of a new “third way” that would propel Italy into strength and prosperity. The Italian fascists detested liberalism while simultaneously seeing orthodox socialism as foredoomed, ill-suited to confront the challenges of modern governance. Their answer was a profoundly destructive and authoritarian ideology that made the nation-state the object of worship and called for the obliteration of the individual personality. We must continue to study and scrutinize the ideas of Italian fascism, for, in spite of their utter failure, those ideas continue to shape the political institutions under which we live.

  1. See, for example, Crispin Sartwell’s “The Left-Right Political Spectrum Is Bogus.” 2014.
  2. Cristian Olariu, “Archaeology, architecture and the use of the Romanità in fascist Italy.” 2012.

This is part of a series