Mussolini and the Meaning of Fascism 

Nicholas Farrell, Mussolini: A New Life (London: Phoenix, 2003) 

Nicholas Farrell, author of ‘Mussolini: A New Life’, his controversial revisionist biography of Il Duce, is a journalist, born in England but now resident in Italy. 

Indeed, at the time he wrote this biography, he was living in Predappio, Mussolini’s birthplace and a mecca for neo-fascists, which, though long a communist stronghold, had, at that time (the authorities have since clamped down), a booming cottage industry selling what can only be described as ‘Mussolini Memorabilia’ to visiting tourists, fascist pilgrims and the merely curious. 

Mussolini: A New Life’ is not the definitive Mussolini biography. Indeed, it does not purport to be. Instead, in Farrell’s own view, this honour goes to Italian historian Renzo De Felice’s four-volume magnus opus.

Unfortunately, however, De Felice’s biography stretches to around 6,000 pages, spread over four volumes and published as eight separate books, has never been translated into English, and remained unfinished at the time of the author’s death in 1996. This makes it a heavy read even for someone fluent in Italian, a daunting work to translate, and one likely to be read in full only by professional historians. 

Farrell seems to view his own biography as primarily an abridgement, translation and popularization of De Felice’s work, written in order to bring De Felice’s new revelations, and new perspective, to a wider English-speaking audience. 

In contrast to De Felice’s work, Farrell’s biography is highly readable, and indeed written in a strangely colloquial, conversational style. 

Revisionist 

Yet, be forewarned, Farrell’s biography of Mussolini is not only highly readable, it is also highly revisionist, and attracted no little controversy and criticism when first published in 2003, being variously dismissed as everything from fascist apologetics and whitewash to a hagiographic paean to Il Duce. 

Why then the controversy? How then was Farrell’s work revisionist and why did it attract so much controversy? 

There seem to be two main elements where Farrell departs from the mainstream historical narrative regarding fascism in Italy. 

First, Farrell argues that Mussolini was not so bad, and even was a relatively successful Italian ruler compared to those who came both before and after him, his posthumous reputation being damaged primarily by his association with Hitler and National Socialism.

Second, Farrell claims that Mussolini, far from being ‘right-wing’, remained, until his dying day, very much a socialist

Given that Farrell himself is himself far from socialist, these claims come close to being contradictory. After all, if Mussolini was a leftist, then what is a conservative like Farrell doing defending him? If he was a socialist than surely he was indeed bad, at least from the perspective of a conservative like Farrell. 

Of course, it is possible for conservatives to admire some leftists. (An old aphorism, often attributed to Leo Rosten, has it that conservatives only admire radicals some several centuries after the latter are dead). 

However, Farrell perhaps lays himself open to the charge of wanting to both have his cake and eat it too. 

A cynic might interpret his thesis thus: Mussolini was not so bad, and, even if he was, he was a socialist anyway so he’s not our problem. 

Rehabilitation 

Is Farrell, then, successful in rehabilitating Il Duce? 

Well, yes, up to a point – the point in question being the latter’s disastrous decision to ally with Germany during World War Two. 

Up until that point, Mussolini had been, at least by twentieth century Italian standards, a relatively successful ruler and, by contemporary international standards, a not especially repressive one. 

Of course, he had, with the aid of his infamous Blackshirt militia, more or less bullied his way into power. Indeed, contrary to popular perception, his rise to power had actually been rather more violent than that of Hitler in Germany, albeit with violence on all sides not just on the part of the Fascists. 

Yet, after he had come to power, Mussolini was not especially repressive or draconian. There were no Gulags or concentration camps in Italy (at least prior to WWII), nor any Night of the Long Knifes or Stalinist purges

Of course, Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia was indeed brutal. Here, indeed, concentration camps were employed, among other brutal and draconian measures. 

However, Italian rule in Ethiopia was surely no worse than what preceded it, namely the rule of Haile_Selassie, under whom slavery was still both lawful and widely practiced, despite repeated promises by successive Ethiopian rulers to prohibit and eradicate the practice.[1]

Moreover, Mussolini had a point when he charged Britain and France with hypocrisy for opposing Italian expansion in Africa despite their own vastly greater African colonial possessions, acquired only a few years earlier, sometimes with comparable brutality. 

For example, during the Boer War of 1899 to 1902, which was fought by the British for transparently self-interested economic reasons, namely to gain control over the Boer Republics’ lucrative and newly-discovered gold and diamond reserves, was similarly brutal in nature. Here, the British themselves employed concentration camps, and indeed are even sometimes credited with having invented the concept. 

Suppressing the Mafia

Today, there is a tendency to deny that the fascist regime had any positive impact on Italy, an implausible conclusion given both the popularity and endurance of the regime in Italy. 

Take, for example, Mussolini’s suppression of the Mafia in Sicily, an achievement to which Farrell himself devotes only a few paragraphs (p182-3). 

In most recent histories of the Sicilian Mafia, Mussolini and his regime are denied any credit whatever for this achievement. 

For example, historian John Dickie, in his books Blood Brotherhoods and Cosa Nostra, takes great pains to emphasize that, under Mussolini, the Mafia was not, in fact, finally defeated, but merely went underground and became inactive. Moreover, he insists, most of those mafiosi who were arrested and imprisoned or sent into internal exile during Cesare Mori’s clampdown on the Mafia were not Mafia bosses, but rather, at best, low-level soldiers and underlings. 

It is, of course, true that, under Mussolini, the Mafia was not finally defeated. Indeed, this was amply proven by the resurgence of the Mafia during the post-War period under the Allied occupation. 

Yet this view neglects to credit that merely forcing the Mafia to go underground and become inactive was an achievement in and of itself, and seemingly resulted in a massive decrease in serious violent crime, including homicide, in the Mafia’s traditional heartland of Palermo. 

For example, another historian of the Sicilian Mafia reports that, in the traditional Mafia stronghold of Palmermo:

Between 1924 and 1928 murders… dropped from 278 per year to 25, which, by any standard of crime prevention is impressive” (Mafia: Inside the Dark Heart: p92). 

Moreover, while leaving (some of) the mafia bosses untouched and focusing law enforcement attention on low-level soldiers may seem both unfair and inefficient, arresting and taking out of circulation a sufficiently large number of low-level soldiers is likely a highly effective method of suppressing a group such as the Mafia, since it is low-level soldiers who, on order from above, are responsible for most of the day-to-day operation, crimes and violence of the group.[2]

Indeed, if the Mafia had indeed been made inactive in this way on a long-term, indefinite basis, then ultimately it would surely have died away and ceased to exist as a criminal network. 

Thus, it was only the overthrow of the Fascist regime and Allied occupation that permitted the resurgence of the Mafia in the post-War period, not least because imprisoned and exiled Mafiosi were, on their return to Sicily, able to use the fact of their imprisonment or exile under the fascist regime as proof of their supposed anti-fascist credentials, in order to pose as anti-fascists and hence secure appointment to high office under the Allied occupation.[3]

One may, then, question the methods employed by Mori and the Fascists in their repression of the Mafia, which essentially involved employing Mafia-style intimidation and force against the Mafia itself. One may also debate whether the ends justified the means. 

However, the achievement of the regime in suppressing the Mafia surely cannot itself be denied. 

A Benevolent Dictator? 

Mussolini is famously credited with making the trains run on time. Certainly, the period of his rule up until the beginning of World War II constituted the most stable period of governance in Italy’s turbulent 20th century history, arguably right up to the present day. 

Moreover, in agreeing the Papal Accords and thereby resolving Roman Question which had dogged the Italian state from its birth, Mussolini produced a legacy that outlived both Mussolini and Fascism itself, since this agreement continues to govern the relationship between Church and State in Italy to this day. 

Thus, Farrell grandiloquently but not wholly unjustifiably claims: 

Garibaldi had begun the process of the creation of Italy. Mussolini would complete it” (p199). 

Mussolini and Hitler: A Match Made in Hell?

Mussolini’s undoing ultimately came with the rise of the Nazism in Germany, the coming of the Second World War and Mussolini’s disastrous decision to ally his regime with that of Hitler in Germany and hence tie its own fate, and that of Mussolini himself, with that of Hitler and Germany. 

While today we might think of Hiter and Mussolini as natural allies, the alliance between Germany and Italy was actually far from a foregone conclusion. 

Indeed, to his credit, Mussolini was initially wary of German National Socialism and indeed of Hitler himself, despite the latter’s professed admiration for, and ardent courtship of, the Italian dictator upon whom he had (partly) modelled himself. 

Fascism,” he famously declared, “is not for export” (p240). 

I should be pleased, I suppose, that Hitler has carried out a revolution on our lines. But they are Germans. So they will end by ruining our idea.” 

This notion, namely that Germans, by virtue of being German, would inevitably ruin the idea of fascism, even if it ultimately proved prophetic, is obviously crudely jingoistic. Yet such jingoism was entirely consistent with fascist ideology. 

After all, fascism was a nationalist ideology, and nationalist ideologies are intrinsically jingoistic.

Nationalist movements are also, by their very nature, necessarily limited in their appeal to members of a single nation or ethnicity. Indeed, the whole notion of exporting nationalism to foreigners is arguably a contradiction in terms.

A nationalist of one nation is no necessarily a natural ally for the nationalist of another, especially if the nations in question share a border. On the contrary, nationalists of neighbouring nations are natural enemies.[4]

Moreover, the fact Italy was the chief ally and protector of the Federal State of Austria, whose annexation was a major priority of Hitler’s foreign policy, and had herself annexed German-speaking South Tyrol at the end of World War I, certainly did not help matters.[5]

Hitler, however, was to prove an ardent suitor. 

Mussolini would have preferred, Farrell reports, an understanding with the British. (So incidentally would Hitler himself.)

Moreover, initially the British political establishment was surprisingly favourably disposed.

Indeed, Mussolini even counted among his most ardent British admirers one Winston Churchill, who, though then out of office, had in 1933 extolled fascism as a bulwark against Bolshevism and Il Duce himself as “the Roman genius” and “greatest law-giver among living men” (p225). 

Indeed, Farrell reveals that, given his staunch anti-communist credentials, oratorical ability and personal charisma, Churchill was was even touted by some contemporaries as a potential fascist dictator in his own right, journalist Clare Sheridan writing that he was “talked of as the likely leader of a fascisti party in England” (quoted: p130). 

Yet three factors, Farrell reports, ultimately led to Mussolini’s estrangement from Britain. These were: 

  1. The Spanish civil war
  1. The British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden
  1. Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia

Each of these factors strained Mussolini’s relationship with Britain, and precluded any possibility of an alliance, or even an understanding, between the two powers. Ultimately, this led Mussolini, reluctantly at first, into the German Führer’s fatal embrace. 

Anti-Semitism 

Hitler is also likely to blame for Italy’s anti-Semitic laws, introduced in 1938. 

True, Hitler, it seems, exerted no direct pressure on Mussolini with regard to this issue. However, given that Mussolini had been in power a decade and a half without enacting such laws, and changed his mind only after allying with Hitler, it seems likely that this was the decisive factor. 

However, Farrell claims that the rapprochement with Germany was “not the reason”, only “the catalyst” for this decision (p304). 

The real reason, he claims, was that: 

Jews had come to epitomise Mussolini’s three enemies: Communism, the bourgeoisie and anti-fascism [since] Jews were prominent in all three” (p304). 

This may be true. However, Jews, it should also be noted, were also prominent among Fascists themselves. Indeed, Farrell himself reports: 

More than 10,000 Jews, about one-third of adult Italian Jews, were members of the PNF in 1938” (p303).

Thus, relative to overall population size, Jews were in fact overrepresented among members of the PNF by a factor of three (Italy’s Jews: From Emancipation to Fascism: p44).[6]

Perhaps most prominent and influential among Jewish Italian fascists was Mussolini’s long-term mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, a leading Italian intellectual in her own right, who had followed, or perhaps even led, Mussolini from socialism to fascism, and who plays a prominent role in the first half of Farrell’s biography.

In addition to being Mussolini’s mistress (or rather one of his many mistresses) and a confidante of Il Duce for almost thirty years, she is thought to have been a key and influential figure in the Fascist regime, helping shape policy and decision-making from behind the scenes. 

She was also, Farrell surmises, the only of Mussolini’s many mistresses whom his semi-literate peasant wife (who was also, Farrell reveals, possibly his illegitimate half-sister: p40) truly “hated” and regarded as a serious threat to her marriage (p73-4). 

However, as Sarfatti aged, Mussolini’s ardour seemingly faded in parallel to her looks, suggesting that her hold over him had always been primarily sexual rather than intellectual. The breakdown of this relationship was likely a key factor in paving the way for both the Pact of Steel and Italy’s race laws. 

Mussolini also, Farrell reports, saw the Jews as harbouring “secret loyalties that conflicted with Fascism”, much like the Freemasons, themselves less fashionable victims of persecution under both Nazism and Italian Fascism (p304). 

Farrell attempts to play down the extent of persecution to which Jews were subject in Fascist Italy and absolve Mussolini of any culpability in the holocaust. 

Thus, he insists, Italy’s anti-Semitic laws “did not involve violence at all” (p310), and he concludes: 

Although not anti-Semitic, Mussolini became increasingly anti-Jewish” (p304). 

However, Farrell never really explains what exactly is the difference between these two surely synonymous terms.

Farrell also emphasizes that Mussolini’s racism was not biological but “spiritual” in nature (p305). In other words, it was not Hitlerian, but rather Spenglerian and Evolian.[7]

If this is intended as a defence of Mussolini, it rings decidedly hollow.

That the Italian dictator’s dislike of them reflected not biological but purely cultural factors was presumably scant consolation those Jews expelled from their jobs on account of their Jewishness, even if the criteria for qualifying as a Jew was less inclusive, and more open to exemptions and corrupt interpretation, than in Germany. 

Farrell quotes historian De Felice, himself, incidentally, of Jewish ancestry, as observing: 

Mussolini’s campaign against the Jews ‘was more against the Italians than against the Jews’” (p304). 

This may be true. However, I doubt either Farrell or De Felice could ever deny that it was surely the latter who ended up paying the greater price.  

The Holocaust 

On the other hand, Farrell does a good job of absolving Italians as a whole from any culpability in the holocaust. 

Italian government officials, ordered to round up Jews for deportation, often refused to comply and were deliberately obstructive. Many Italians, including the Vatican, hid and protected Jews. 

Mussolini himself, however, emerges rather less unscathed. 

Thus, reading between the lines, Mussolini seems to have been largely indifferent to the fate of the Jews

On the one hand, he ordered the rounding up and deportation of Jews in accord with Nazi orders. However, he also overlooked the refusal of many officials to comply with these orders. 

Certainly, even on the evidence presented by Farrell himself, his claim that “Mussolini did much to save Jews from Hitler” seems unwarranted (p363). 

The most Farrell manages to prove is that Mussolini was far less anti-Semitic than Hitler – faint praise indeed. 

World War II 

It is perhaps from WWII that the popular image of Mussolini as an inept and buffoonish figure emerged. Partly, this reflected allied propaganda. However, despite Farrell’s attempted rehabilitation of Il Duce, Mussolini’s conduct of the war does indeed seem inept from the start. 

Thus, before the War began, Mussolini made, arguably, his first mistake, agreeing the Pact of Steel with Germany, which obliged him to come to Germany’s aid even in the event of an aggressive war initiated by Germany herself (p317). 

Then, after the War had indeed begun in just this way, Mussolini conspicuously failed to come to Germany’s aid, in direct contravention of her newly acquired treaty obligations. 

Mussolini justified this decision on the grounds that Italy was not yet ready for war. In this assessment, he was right, as was proven tragically true when Italy did enter the war, with disastrous consequences, both for Mussolini’s own Fascist regime, and, arguably, for National Socialist Germany as well. 

To his credit, then, Mussolini had not, it seems, made the classic error of ‘falling for his own publicity’. He knew that his own militaristic braggadocio and podium strutting were mere empty bluff, and that war with Britain and France was the last thing that the Italian armed forces, or the Italian state, needed at this time.[8]

However, on witnessing Germany’s dramatic defeat of France, Mussolini suddenly decided he wanted to get in on the action, and rather in on the spoils.

Greedily and rather transparently anticipating a share of the territory of the conquered French, he suddenly and belatedly signed up for the war, albeit right about the same time that Hitler had already (seemingly) won it and hence had no further need of him. 

As a result, he got none of the territorial gains he so eagerly anticipated, the relevant parts of French territory having already been promised to the new French Vichy regime as part of the German-French peace accord of 1940 which brought an end to the fighting. 

Now, however, for better or worse, Mussolini had thrown in his lot with Hitler. Italy was now in for the long-haul and Mussolini’s own fate directly tied to that of the German war machine. Henceforth, Mussolini’s Italy would find itself relegated to the role of junior partner to the German behemoth, increasingly surrendering any capacity for independent decision-making. 

Mussolini did, however, make one last attempt to assert independence from the Nazi war machine. Chagrined that Hitler kept invading foreign powers without consulting his ostensible ally, Mussolini decided to do the same for himself, aspiring to emulate his ally by invading Greece, and thereby shift the focus of the war towards the Mediterranean, where his own territorial ambitions were naturally, and quite sensibly, focused. 

The attempt to assert independence backfired disastously. His invasion easily rebuffed, Mussolini was forced to call in for help from the very Germans from whom he had sought to establish independence and whose military successes he had so envied and sought to emulate. 

Moreover, the delay to the proposed invasion of the USSR that Germany’s intervention on Italy’s behalf in Greece necessitated, has been implicated as a key factor that ultimately doomed Operation Barbarossa, and hence led, ultimately, to the fall of both Hitler and Mussolini. 

Farrell does convincingly establish that, in his disagreements with Hitler regarding the conduct, strategy and overall direction of the war, Mussolini was, perhaps surprisingly, often more strategically astute than the Führer, who, despite his remarkable early military successes (or indeed because of them), had become increasingly detached from reality and inflexible in his strategic thinking. 

Thus, most military historians would agree that shifting the focus of the war effort towards the Mediterranean, as Mussolini advocated, was a sound strategic policy, not only in Italy’s own strategic interests, but also that of Germany and the Axis as a whole. 

But, alas, it was to no avail. Hitler was no more willing to listen to the wise counsel of his Italian counterpart than he was to listen to that of his own senior generals and commanders. Instead, Hitler had his sights firmly fixed on the Soviet Union, and would brook no delay or postponement, let alone cancelation, of these plans in order to secure his southern flank (which Churchill was later to identify as Europe’s ‘soft underbelly’) and establish complete control of the Mediterranean. 

Ultimately, Farrell is successful in explaining why Mussolini did what he did in World War Two given the limited information available to him at the time and the difficult predicament in which he increasingly found himself. 

However, he fails to revise the established view that these decisions were, in the long-term, ultimately anything other than disastrous miscalculations. 

Ciano – Diarist and Dilettante

Not only was Mussolini more often more strategically astute than the Führer, he was also, Farrell shows, far more strategically adept than his foreign minister and son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano.

The latter plays a prominent role in the second half of Farrell’s biography, probably on the value of his famous diaries as an historical source regarding Mussolini’s thinking, and that of his inner-circle, during this crucial time period.

From initially hero-worshiping his famous father-in-law, Ciano gradually became a firm critic of Mussolini, criticising the latter’s decision-making repeatedly in his diaries and ultimately betraying him.

Yet, in Farrell’s account, Ciano emerges as a political dilitante, a playboy, and a hypocrite – “the spoilt child of the regime” – who was always unpopular with the public (p322).

Thus, while he later, in his diaries, criticized Mussolini for his decision to ally with Germany, and, in the post-War period, according to Farrell, “a whole industry sprouted up on the basis of his famous diaries which would have us believe… that Ciano tried to srop the Pact of Steel”, the truth was that Ciano was no more than “the Duce’s yes man, however much whinging he did in private” (p316-7).

Moreover, though he was indeed often critical of the alliance with Germany, his views changed by the day. Thus, Farrell reports, despite his earlier criticisms, “as soon as Germany started winning easily in the west in the spring of 1940 he was all in favour of Germany again” (p322). He was also a noted champion of Italy’s disastrous invasion of Greece (p340).

Indeed, Farrell does a far better job of showing that Ciano was even more incompetent, and inconsistent, in his strategic pronouncements than was Mussolini, than he does showing that Mussoini himself was in any way competent. 

History is written, it seems, not so much by the victors, or, at any rate, not only by the victors, as by those with sufficient time on their hands, and sufficient inclination, to put across their own side of things in diaries or other writings that outlive them. As Churchill was to put it:

History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”.

Was Mussolini a Socialist? 

What then of Farrell’s second claim: Did Mussolini really always remain a man of the Left until his dying day?

Certainly, both Fascism and Mussolini seem to have begun on the Left

Mussolini’s own journey from the Left began when he advocated Italian involvement in the First World War, contrary to the doctrine of the Second International. 

Yet, in this, Mussolini was merely following in the path trodden by socialists across Europe, who, caught up in the prevailing mood of nationalism and war-fever, abandoned the internationalism and pan-proletarian solidarity of the Second International en masse, to come out in support of, and march to their deaths in the service of, their respective nation’s war-efforts.[9]

Thus, as had occurred so often before, and would occur so many more times in the future, idealism and internationalism came crashing down in the face of nationalism, ethnocentrism and war fever. 

Mussolini himself thus came to believe in the power of nationalism to move men’s souls in a way that appeals to mere economic class interests never could. Thus, he came to believe that:

Nation had a stronger grip on men than class” (p61). 

As sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe was later to put it in his excellent The Ethnic Phenomenon (which i have reviewed here): 

Blood runs thicker than money” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p243)

Thus, Mussolini and the early fascists, like the pre-Hitler German Workers’ Party in Germany, sought to combine socialism with nationalism

Mussolini also came to believe that, just as the Bolshevik revolution in Russia would never have been brought about without Lenin, so socialist revolution in Italy would require an elite revolutionary vanguard.

This was contrary to Marxist doctrine, and indeed ironically Leninist doctrine too, whereby the coming revolution was seen as both historically inevitable and envisaged as being brought about by the proletariat as a whole. 

In this assessment, Mussolini was surely right. The Bolshevik revolution would never have occurred without Lenin as the driving force.

When, in 1917, Lenin arrived by train in Petrograd, courtesy of the German government, even the vast majority of fellow Bolsheviks were resigned to a policy of support for the newly-established provisional government. Lenin was, at first, almost alone in advocating armed revolution, yet this policy was ultimately to prove a success. 

Ironically, then, the much-maligned Great Man Theory of History’, as espoused by Thomas Carlyle, became perennially unfashionable at almost precisely the moment that, in the persons of first Lenin and later Hitler, it was proven so tragically true.[10]

However, recognizing the need for an elite revolutionary vanguard also led Mussolini to question another key tenet of Leftism, namely belief in the equality of man

In other words, if an elite revolutionary vanguard was indeed necessary to bring about socialism, then this suggested that this elite vanguard represented a superior caste of men. This, ironically, undermined the entire basis for socialism, which presupposed human equality.

This led Mussolini to Nietzsche and ultimately to Fascism, Mussolini himself being quoted by Farrell as explaining to a visiting American journalist during the 1920s that: 

Nietzsche had ‘cured me of my socialism’” (p30). 

Yet Farrell insists that Mussolini nevertheless remained, in some sense, even thereafter, and indeed throughout his political life. Thus, he writes:

Mussolini was never a democrat. But much of him was and remained a Socialist” (p39).

However, in making this claim, Farrell is not entirely consistent. Thus, explaining the adoption of the black Arditi flag by the fascist faithful, he explains:

Red was the colour of the enemy – Socialism” (p80).

However, on the very next page he claims:

Fascism was anything but a right-wing movement. The first Fascist programme… reflected the preponderance of the futurists was very left-wing” (p81). 

These different claims, only a page apart, are difficult to reconcile with one another.

Perhaps, in referring to socialism as “the enemy”, Farrell has in mind ‘Socialism’ with a capital ‘S’ – i.e. the programme of the Italian Socialist party. On this view, the Socialists might be the enemy of Fascism precisely because both movements were left-wing and hence competed in the same political space for the same constituency of support.[11]

However, Farrell does not employ capitalization in any such consistent manner and also capitalizes ‘socialism’ when referring to Mussolini’s own beliefs (e.g. p39).

Mussolini’s eventual return to his leftist roots, Farrell reports, comes only much later, after his overthrow and dramatic rescue by the Germans, with the establishment of the short-lived Italian Social Republic in Northern Italy under Nazi patronage.

By then, however, Mussolini was a Nazi puppet, and any socialist pretentions, or indeed pretentions to any sort of action independent of, let alone in defiance to, his Nazi patrons, were wholly ineffectual.

Defining Fascism

To decide whether Fascism was a left-wing movement, we must first define we mean by ‘fascism’. Unfortunately, however, the meaning of the word ‘fascism’ changed a great deal over time.

The word ‘fascism’ derives from the Italian word ‘fascio’, meaning ‘a bundle of sticks’, in particular the fasces, a symbol of power and authority in ancient Rome.

Amusingly, it seems to be cognate with the word faggot, now chiefly employed as a pejorative Americanism for a homosexual male, but which also originally meant a bundle of sticks

The political usage seems to derive from the notion that several sticks bound together are stronger than one stick alone, hence emphasizing the importance of collectivism and group solidarity. 

With regard to situating fascism on the left-right political spectrum, it is certainly the case that, like Mussolini himself, Fascism began on the left

Thus, among the first political groups to style themselves ‘fascist’ was the peasant Fasci Siciliani, who unsuccessfully fought for peasant land rights in Sicily in the late-nineteenth century.

Indeed, even the first incarnation of Mussolini’s own brand of fascism, namely the Fasces of Revolutionary Action, founded by Mussolini in 1914, was very much left-wing and revolutionary in orientation, being composed, in large part, of syndicalists and other disgruntled leftists estranged from the mainstream Italian left (i.e. the Italian Socialist Party).

Most left-wing parties are less radical in power than they promise to be while still in opposition. However, Mussolini’s (and Fascism’s) own move from the left began long before they ever even came within distant sight of power.

Thus, even as early as 1920, after humiliation at the polls during national elections the previous year, Farrell himself acknowledges:

Most of the Fascists of the first hour – especially those of left-wing origin – had gone… [and] fascism… moved right” (p95).

Thus, while fascism was initially anti-clericalist and associated with revolutionary Syndicalism and the Futurist movement, it ultimately came to be associated with Catholicism and traditionalism. 

Thus, the meaning of the word ‘fascism’ evolved and changed with the regime itself. 

Fascism’ ultimately came to mean whatever the regime stood for at any particular point in time, something that both changed over time and never represented a coherent ideology as much as it did pragmatic realpolitik.

Defining the Left

To determine if fascism was truly leftist, we must also define, not only what ‘fascism’ means, but also what we mean by leftist. This is only marginally less problematic than defining ‘fascism’.

Hayek, in his celebrated The Road to Serfdom, equates the Left with big government and a planned economy. On this basis, he therefore classes both German National Socialism and Italian Fascism as leftist.

However, leftism is usually associated, not only with big government and a planned economy, but also with redistribution and egalitarianism. In this sense, fascism was not especially leftist.

On the other hand, anti-Semitism has always seemed to me fundamentally leftist.

Thus, Marxists believe that society is controlled by wealthy capitalists who control the mass media and oppress and exploit everyone else. Anti-Semites, on the other hand, believe society is controlled by wealthy Jewish capitalists who control the mass media and oppress and exploit everyone else.

The distinction between Marxism and anti-Semitism is therefore racial and largely tangential. Anti-Semites insist that our capitalist oppressors are largely or wholly Jewish in ethnicity. Orthodox Marxists, on the other hand, take no stance on this matter either way.

Hence the famous aphorism that states:

Antisemitism is the socialism of fools.[12]

Defining the Right

If fascism cannot then unproblematically be described as a phenomenon of the left, can we then instead characterize it as a phenomenon of the right?

This, of course, requires a definition of ‘the right’. Unfortunately, however, defining the right is even more difficult than defining the Left. 

For example, Christian fundamentalist who wants to ban pornography and abortion has little in common with, on the one hand, a libertarian who wants to decriminalise prostitution and child pornography, nor, on the other, with a eugenicist who wants to make abortion, for certain classes of person, compulsory. Yet all three are classified as together as ‘right-wing’, even though they have no more in common with one another than any does with a raving, unreconstructed Marxist

The Right, then, is defined as, in effect, anything that is not the Left.

As Steven Pinker puts it, the Left is like the South Pole. Just as, at the South Pole, all directions lead north, so, at the Left Pole, all directions lead right.

Therefore, right-wing is itself a left-wing term – because it defines all political positions by reference to the extent to which they diverge from a perceived leftist ideal.

Therefore, debating whether fascism was really an ideology of left or right simply exposes the inadequacy of this one-dimensional conception of the political spectrum, whereby all political positions are situated on a single left-right axis.

A Third Way?

Rather than self-identifying as of ‘the Right’, Fascists themselves often affect to reject any simplistic situation of their views as either being of the left or the right. Instead, they insist that they have moved beyond left and right, transcended the left-right political divide, and represent instead a Third Position or Third Way.

This leads Farrell to propose an even more provocative analogy in his Preface, where he writes:

Whereas communist ideas appear terminally ill, the Fascist idea of the Third Way lives on and is championed by the standard bearers of the modern Left such as New Labour in Britain” (pxviii).

Unfortunately, however, Farrell never really gets around to expanding on this single throwaway sentence in his Preface.

On its face, it at first appears to rest on little more than a curious convergence of slogans – namely, both Fascism and New Labour claimed to represent a Third Way.

However, each meant something quite different by this term.

Thus, for Mussolini the Third Way (or ‘terza via’), namely fascism itself, entailed nationalism, abrogation of individual rights to the needs of the nation, and totalitarian dictatorship.

In contrast, much though the notion of totalitarian dictatorship might have appealed to Tony Blair, the objectives ofNew Labour were altogether more modest in scale.

Indeed, the two regimes differed not only in what their respective ‘Third Ways’ were to involve, but also in their conception of the ‘First’ and ‘Second Ways’ to which they represented themselves as an alternative.

Thus, for Mussolini, the ‘Third Way’ represented an alternative to, on the one hand, Soviet-style communism, and, on the other, western liberal democracy.

For Blair, on the other hand, it was an alternative to, on the one hand, Thatcherite neo-liberalism and, on the other, the sort of unreconstructed socialism that the Blairites dismissed as Old Labour.

Defining that Blairism or New Labour itself actually entailed is, however, much more difficult, and even more difficult, perhaps, than defining ‘fascism’.

This, then, perhaps points to a deeper affinity between the two movements. Both were not so much coherent ideologies as glorified marketing campaigns – triumphs of spin over substance.

Defining what either actually stood for, as opposed to merely against, is almost impossible.

Fascism’ and New Labour represented, then, little more than catchy political slogans that tapped into the zeitgeister of the respective ages, new words for not especially new ideas.

Indeed, Mussolini, himself a former journalist (and a very successful one at that), can perhaps lay claim to being the first politician to successfully manipulate modern media to manage his own public image – the first truly modern politician.

As for Farrell’s comparison between Fascism and New Labour, this, one suspects, reflected little more than a marketing campaign of Farrell’s own.

Farrell, also a journalist, was using a provocative quote to attract media attention, publicity and hence, so he hoped, sales for his new book in Blair-era Britain.

Today, less than twenty years later, it already seems strangely anachronistic, as New Labour has itself gone the way of fascism, into the dustbin of history (at least for now), to be replaced, in the Labour Party at least, with a return to unreconstructed ‘Old Labour’ socialism, albeit now buttressed with a new, even more moronic, cultural Marxist ‘wokeism’ and deranged feminism.

Indeed, on the evidence of some recent Labour Party leaders, even “communist ideals” may no longer be as “terminally ill” as Farrell once so confidently predicted.

This, however, merely reinforces my suspicion that any attempt to draw analogies between fascism and contemporary political movements or regimes is ultimately unhelpful and reflects little more than a version of guilt by association or what Leo Strauss aptly termed the reductio ad Hitlerum.

Fascism certainly has little in common with the contemporary Left, despite the efforts of some conservatives to prove the contrary. However, as a nationalist and fundamentally anti-individualist ideology, it arguably has even less in common with the individualist and globalist ethos of contemporary neoliberalism and neoconservatism, let alone libertarianism.

As George Orwell wrote only a year or so after the defeat of both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy:

The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.”

So let’s stop using the word ‘fascist’ as a slur against our political opponents and restrict its use to an historical context.[13]

___________________

Endnotes

[1] The continued practice of slavery in Ethiopia was indeed among the justifications employed by the Italians to justify their invasion and conquest. Moreover, the Italians did indeed pass the first laws formally abolishing the practice of slavery in Ethiopia, though the extent to which these laws were enforced, or represented a mere propaganda exercise, seems to be in some dispute.

[2] Imprisoning or exiling large numbers of low-level mafia soldiers and associates will not only have taken those individuals themselves out of operation but also likely have deterred others from taking their places.

[3] Other, more genuine, Italian anti-fascists, who had indeed fought against the fascist regime, tended to be communists, who the American (and British) occupying forces were hence loathe to promote to high office. In addition, whereas the stronghold of the Mafia has always been Sicily, and other powerful Italian criminal syndicates (e.g. the ’Ndrangheta and Cammora) are likewise each based in regions of the Southern Italian Mezzogiorno, the Italian communists were always strongest in heavily industrialized Northern Italy. This ‘unholy alliance’ between the Americans, the Mafia, and, later, the Catholic Church and conservative Christian Democratic Party soon came to be almost institutionalized in post-war Italian politics, as during the Cold War, the American government, together with Italian conservatives opted to ally with the Mafia as the ‘lesser of two evils’ against Italy’s powerful Communist Party.

[4] Thus, for example, Irish nationalists and British nationalists are natural enemies, as are Pakistani and Indian nationalists, and Turkish and Greek nationalists. Indeed, as far back as the third century BCE, Arthashastra, the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, observed that next-door neighbours, by virtue of sharing a border, are natural enemies, whereas a state’s next-door neighbours but one, by virtue of sharing a border with one’s immediate neighbours, and hence one’s enemies, but not with oneself, are natural allies. Thus, France and Scotland combined against their common neighbour England in the Auld Alliance which lasted two and a half centuries, while in the First World War Russia and France allied against their common neighbour Germany. Arthashastra’s observation is sometimes cited as the origin of the famous aphorism, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

[5] It is interesting to note that, even when Mussolini did belatedly embrace the idea of a ‘fascist international’, he initially excluded National Socialist Germany from this alliance. Thus, at the 1934 Montreux Fascist International Congress, representatives of the German National Socialist government were conspicuous by their absence. Yet, in contrast, representatives of Hitler’s enemy, the Federal State of Austria, then governed by the ‘AustrofascistFatherland Front, were in attendance.

[6] This statistic is perhaps misleading and probably reflects the higher levels of political engagement of Jews as compared to non-Jewish Italians, rather than any especial affinity towards Fascism. Jews were thus likely overrepresented among almost all political movements (other than those which are overtly anti-Semitic, of course), and may indeed have been overrepresented among communists and other opponents of the Fascist regime to an even greater degree than they were overrepresented among Fascists themselves.

[7] Personally, as long-term readers of this blog, or my amazon and goodreads book reviews (assuming any such people exist) may be aware, I am actually not unsympathetic to biological theories of race and of race differences. Of course, Nazi racial theories were indeed largely nonsense. However, in purporting to be biological, and hence scientific (even if this claim was disingenuous), they at least had one benefit over so-called ‘spiritual’ theories of race, namely the benefit of being testable and hence falsifiable. Indeed, Nazi claims regarding the inferiority of the Jews are not only in principle falsifiable, but have indeed been falsified, at least with respect to intelligence differences. In contrast, the so-called ‘spiritual racism’ of Spengler, Evola and perhaps Mussoini, which admits exceptions whereby an ethnic Jew can be ‘spiritually’ Aryan and vice versa, seems to me to be wholly unfalsifiable mysticism.

[8] Although remembered as a disciple of his compatriot Niccolò Machiavelli, Mussolini, with his militaristic braggadocio and strutting, had perhaps here imbued, or, more likely, independently hit upon, the teaching of that other great guru of military strategy and statecraft, Sun Tzu, who famously advised military leaders:

The most powerful tool of a leader is deception. Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.

Thus, just as a powerful commander should fake weakness in order to lull his enemies into a false sense of security before attacking them, or even thereby provoking them to attack first, so a militarily weak power like Italy is advised to feign military strength and power in order to deter potential enemies from attacking.
However, it is likely that Mussolini’s own militaristic braggadocio and strutting was intended at least as much for internal consumption within Italy as on the international stage. Certainly, few foreign leaders seem to have been taken in.

[9] In this respect, Italy was, Mussolini and the fascists excepted, something of an outlier and exception, since, here, the leading socialist party, Partito Socialista Italiano, did indeed stand true to the ideals of the Second International by opposing Italy’s entry into the War. Unfortunately, however, there was no Second International left to which to remain true.

[10] To be clear, I do not here endorce the strong version of great man theory, whereby the impact of so-called ‘great men’ is viewed as, if not the sole, then at least the most important factor in determining the fate of peoples, nations and civilizations. On the contrary, the impact of ‘great men’ is, I believe, much less important than that of social, economic, ecological, environmental and biological factors. The overemphasis on the impact of ‘great men’ in some popular histories has, I suspect, more to do with literary conventions, which require narratives to focus on the adventures and trevails of heroes and villians and other human interest factors, in order to attract an audience, than with an objective appraisal of history. Such a focus is indeed, in my view, unscientific. However, as the undoubted impact of such figures as Lenin and Hitler, and many others, on history amply demonstrates, ‘great men’ do indeed, at least sometimes, have a major effect on human history, and such factors cannot be entirely ignored or ruled out by the serious historian. Of course, in referring to both Lenin and Hitler as I am not ‘great men’ I am not using the word ‘great’ in a moral, acclamatory or approving sense, but rather in the older meaning of the word, referring to the ‘great’ (i.e. massive) impact that each had upon history.

[11] Inevitably, it is parties of similar ideological persuasion who are most in competition with one another for support, since both will be attempting to attract the same core constituency of supporter. Relatedly, I am here reminded of a quotation attributed (possibly apocryphally) to Winston Churchill, who, when a newly elected MP, surveying for the first time the benches opposite, remarked ‘So, that’s the enemy’, was said to have replied, ‘No, that’s the oppostion. The enemy sits behind you’.

[12] Actually, as an avowed opponent of socialism and Marxism, I would think it would be more accurate to state:

Socialism is the socialism of fools. Anti-Semitism the socialism of other fools.

[13] I am here advocating that the word ‘fascism’ be confined in usage to the early- to mid-twentieth Italian political movement and ruling regime, and perhaps a few contemporaneous copycat movements that explicitly described themselves as ‘fascist’ (e.g. the BUF in the UK). Even describing the National Socialist movement and regime of Germany in the mid-twentieth century as ‘fascist’ seems to me unhelpful and potentially misleading, since, despite some commonalities, German National Socialism was, in many respects, a quite different and distinctively German phenomenon, and German National Socialist leaders such as Hitler, much as he may have admired and modelled himself on Mussolini, did not, to my knowledge, ever self-identify as ‘fascist’.

6 thoughts on “Mussolini and the Meaning of Fascism 

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