Jan 14, 2016
Italian Fascism in Maturity
D’Amato discusses the rule of the Fascist Party in Italy and draws parallels to American politics.
Following World War I, Mussolini’s power and prominence in Italian politics increased at a rapid pace. Fascism’s blend of socialism and fervid, militaristic nationalism proved appealing to a large and growing segment of the Italian populace. With strongholds in northern and central Italy, Mussolini, keen to cultivate his myth, declared that he and three hundred thousand Fascist partisans were prepared to March on Rome. The Fascists’ 1922 March on Rome arguably marks the start of Mussolini’s regime, though initially the existing parliamentary system of government remained intact and functioning. The number was, in fact, much smaller, and the “march” itself consisted mostly of several train rides on October 28, 1922. To successfully paint the picture of an imposing military force, prepared to assume power through strength of arms, was enormously important to Mussolini and his political goals. Fascism as an ideology sought to inspire the confidence of the Italian people by stressing heroism and valor. But for an authoritarian system such as Mussolini’s Fascism to take hold and function, it is imperative that the people also be afraid, overawed by the formidability of the machine. Masterful in the use of theatrics and propaganda, Mussolini understood the political environment in which he found himself and shrewdly crafted the message of Fascism. Reflecting his contempt of liberalism and democratic government, Mussolini called parliament a “dull and grey hall” that would better serve as a camp for his soldiers. Fascist propaganda quite consciously characterized the government and its institutions as old, decayed, and behind the times, Fascism being the “young, virile, new” alternative.1 Mussolini became prime minister at the request of Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III shortly after the march. And from his first days in office, he dedicated himself to the task of the overhaul of the Italian government, to transforming it from a parliamentary democracy to a dictatorship. Still, forced by circumstances to play the political game, Mussolini used every tool at his disposal to secure advantages for his Fascists in the elections of 1924; he used his clout to alter electoral rules, giving an automatic two-thirds of parliament’s seats to the party with the largest share of the votes, provided that this share amounted to over one quarter of the votes. The new law (known as the Acerbo Law) in place, the Fascists and politically aligned parties dominated the election, gaining 374 seats. Later, by the second half of the decade, Mussolini and his Fascist Party would abolish all opposition parties and, with them, parliamentary elections. From 1922, when the King had fatefully invited him to form a government, Mussolini had managed to consolidate his power in an unprecedented drive toward total dictatorship.
Inspired by the March on Rome, Germany’s National Socialists hoped to pursue a similar course of action, unseating the existing government and ushering in a new age of German greatness. Indeed, an associate of Hitler and fellow National Socialist, Hermann Esser, praised the Fascists as a “band of men filled with animosity,” adding, “We also have our own version of the Italian Mussolini: his name is Adolf Hitler.” Mussolini was, by all accounts, something of a hero to Hitler. But while Mussolini made an impression on Hitler, the feeling was not mutual, at least not immediately, with the former dismissing the latter and his cohorts as a “buffoons” in 1923. Whether Mussolini could see it or not, the Nazis and the Fascists shared important characteristics, many of these resulting from the Nazis’ conscient efforts at imitation. Like Hitler, Mussolini was a consistent militarist. The ideal of military discipline pervades his political and economic thought, replacing the ideological centerpiece of socialism, class conflict, with the argument that his one party state would create “a link that unites all in a common faith.” The economic ideas of Italian Fascism were premised on the idea that, in Mussolini’s words, the nation was “in a permanent state of war.” Mussolini understood a critical fact of realpolitik that history, particularly of the twentieth century, has confirmed again and again—that war provides the state with an almost unlimited number of pretexts for the growth and consolidation of its power. The Fascists spoke of the economy using the language of battle and military campaigns, calling for “general economic mobilization” and “real conscription, a real civic and economic recruitment of all Italians.” Mussolini was careful to stress that the fascist economic system—the cornerstones of which were syndicates overseen by the Fascist Party—would harmonize the interests of all social classes. The Fascist revolution would not undermine the progress of the Italian workers in their efforts at organization. Instead, as sociologist Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi explains, Mussolini argued that “the resolution of workers’ struggles guaranteed the grandeur of the nation through social order [and] class collaboration.” Fascist economic reasoning was predicated on the enduring fallacy that the productive and efficient allocation of resources requires government oversight and management.
In the spring of 1926, Mussolini’s regime reorganized Italy’s economy through a package of syndical legislation, granting to several state-controlled corporate bodies the exclusive right to administer their respective sectors of the economy. These syndicates were to be the mechanisms through which the omnipotent Fascist state would at last resolve all class antagonisms. Presiding over these bodies was a Minister of Corporations, charged with coordinating the various stakeholders within a given industry (for example, labor, government, capital)—much as our own government often advances “public-private partnerships” to solve perceived social and economic problems. In point of fact, Robert Higgs has frequently pointed out the similarity between the “corporatist ideal achieved … under Mussolini’s regime” and the neocorporatist tripartism of the United States. In both, established, nominally private interests work in concert with the state to mutual benefit. Higgs further notes that although (like our own government) the Italian Fascist government represented its economic system as a “grand compromise between interest groups,” it was in fact designed to serve the interests of the state. American libertarians often worry about creeping state socialism, yet, in a number of important senses, American political economy is already markedly fascist. Once more it is necessary to reiterate that pointing out the common characteristics of the present day United States and Italy under Fascist rule should not be taken as a scare tactic or as rhetorical bombast. The similarities are real, measurable, and easily identifiable in the historical record. During the twentieth century, as the administrative state swelled, its gravity pulling ever more governmental powers into its orbit, the important, defining features of liberal, democratic government succumbed one after another to the malignant growth of bureaucracy. The Italian Fascism of Mussolini and the American Progressivism of Woodrow Wilson and others are ideological relatives, if not twins.2
Intent on creating distance between fascist and socialist (and communist) ideas, particularly in economics, the academy has for decades overplayed their dissimilarities. In fact, they are very much alike in their essentials and in their embrace of a particular notion of modernity. As war historian Joseph Maiolo observes in his book Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931-1941, “His [Mussolini’s] ideal—and that of a rising cohort of visionary public and private technocrats for whom wartime industrial mobilization and planned epitomized modernity—was a managed economy.” In Mussolini’s conception of the economy, everyone should perform a function, defined by the state, and receive a ration, allotted by the state. This kind of centralization and planning—in which the state need not actually own the nation’s various resources and industries—has become without doubt the most dominant politico-economic paradigm in the world today. While it may be that following the Cold War state socialism and communism lost the global battle of ideas, fascism, in its most literal and historical sense, seems to have won. Towering administrative and regulatory agencies have taken the place of Italian Fascism’s syndicates, yet the aims and effects are quite the same—to proscribe the spontaneity and self-determination of free economies and to gather power and property in the hands of an elite.
In many ways, from his military aesthetic and magnetic public persona to his police state, Mussolini became the model for all subsequent twentieth century dictators. Similarly, the word fascism itself came to stand in for and describe any number of authoritarian systems, becoming an emotive shorthand for our condemnations of police statism and attacks on civil liberties in general. We can and should recognize Italian Fascism as a unique phenomenon while also understanding it as one of many anti-Enlightenment, modernist reactions against classical liberalism during the twentieth century. Mussolini ultimately represents a danger to which libertarians are well attuned—generally, the danger of thinking of ourselves and each other in terms of our membership within certain groups; nationalism is only a specific example of this. As George Orwell wrote in a 1944 letter, “All the national movements everywhere … seem to take non-democratic forms, to group themselves round some superhuman fuhrer (Hitler, Stalin, Salazar, Franco, Gandhi, De Valera are all varying examples) and to adopt the theory that the end justifies the means.” Tragically, the crucial distinction between means and ends remains little understood in the general political discourse, but it is this distinction that libertarianism underscores, insisting that no end can justify the violation of individual rights. Fascism answers simply that the individual has no rights, that only the nation-state exists. But what fascists of all kinds will never understand is that the strongest communities are constituted of free individuals who voluntarily join them. Italian Fascism, while promoting itself as an agent of scientific and industrial progress, was in fact a retrograde movement, discarding the genuine progress of eighteenth and nineteenth century liberalism. The good news, then, is that fascism can be defeated by a rediscovery of liberal principles.
- Philip V. Cannistraro, “Mussolini’s Cultural Revolution: Fascist or Nationalist?” in Journal of Contemporary History (1972). ↩
- See also Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. Goldberg writes: “Mussolini coined the word ‘totalitarian’ to describe not a tyrannical society but a humane one in which everyone is taken care of and contributes equally. It was an organic concept where every class, every individual, was part of the larger whole. The militarization of society and politics was considered simply the best available means toward this end. Call it what you like—progressivism, fascism, communism, or totalitarianism—the first true enterprise of this kind was established not in Russia or Italy or Germany but in the United States, and Woodrow Wilson was the twentieth century’s first fascist dictator.” ↩