New Great War Episode: Mussolini's Fascist Party

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

It’s November 1921, and Benito Mussolini has taken another step on the road to power – it’s the creation of the Italian National Fascist Party:

The First World War was a national trauma for Italy, but even though the country was on the winning side, Italian society and politics were more angry and divided than before. The post-armistice years were marked by economic problems, social unrest, political street violence, and terrorist attacks. In 1920 and 1921 Benito Mussolini’s new fascist movement would take centre stage in the street fighting against the socialists and grow into a force to be reckoned with. So today we’ll take a look at Italy’s post-war political violence and Mussolini’s metamorphosis from socialist to fascist – and it all happened exactly 100 years ago.

Even before the Kingdom of Italy entered the Great War on the Allied side in 1915, it had a long history of political polarization. The nation state had only been unified in 1861 after a series of wars, and the north was far more industrialized and developed than the rural and poorer south. The growing working class also felt left out of the political process, which was dominated by small elites. This caused the rise of leftists parties like the Italian Socialist Party and the Italian Radical Party, whose rise in popularity was aided by the expansion of the right to vote in 1912.

One socialist supporter was up-and-coming journalist and Socialist Party member Benito Mussolini. Mussolini had been raised socialist by his blacksmith father, and in 1911-12 he joined the rest of the Italian left in opposing Italy’s war against the Ottoman Empire in Libya. By this point he had become a leading figure in the party revolutionary wing, which called for the overthrow of the liberal democratic system in favour of a proletarian dictatorship.

But Mussolini was not a typical socialist. Fellow socialist and former tutor to Mussolini Angelica Balbanoff later claimed that the Italian was not a true socialist, but a power-hungry activist with a penchant for violence.
In his newspaper articles, he promoted a broad, party-based socialism and rejected trade unions as the only path to revolution:

“Socialism means the elevation and purification of the individual conscience, and its achievement will be the result of a long series of efforts. Everyone, indeed, from the professional man to the worker, can bring a stone to the edifice, doing a socialist deed every day, and so prepare for the overthrow of existing society.” (Bosworth 70)

Mussolini also admired philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the superman, since he felt that charismatic and dynamic men would lead the coming revolution. He later reflected on his socialist years:

“[My early experience of socialism] was not a doctrinal experience. My doctrine during that period had been the doctrine of action.” (Neville 29)

Many younger socialists were tired of the party’s gradualist approach, and liked Mussolini’s ideas of action – so much so that when Mussolini became the editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti! In 1912, he doubled its readership thanks to his aggressive rhetoric. Reformist party leaders accused him of ideological incoherence and dictatorial tendencies, and he was dismissed from some socialist newspapers.

So by the time Italy was ready to join the Great War on the Allied side in 1915, Mussolini was an unusual but influential socialist who began to rub party leaders the wrong way. It was the war that would seal his split with the socialists.

The outbreak of war in July 1914 led to heated debates in Italy. The country was allied to Germany and Austria-Hungary, but only in case of a defensive war. Liberals and reformist socialists argued for neutrality, while diverse groups from the right and the left called for intervention on the Allied side. Nationalists like poet Gabriele D’Annunzio wanted to go to war to expand Italian territory and influence, while some left-wing revolutionaries hoped that war would lead to the overthrow of the aristocracy and the old order.

In July 1914 Mussolini felt the war was a bourgeois imperialist adventure, and argued for neutrality. But by October he wanted “active and working neutrality,” and eventually he came see the war as an opportunity that could not be missed:

“We have the privilege of living at the most tragic hour in world history. Do we - as men and as socialists - want to be inert spectators in this huge drama? Or do we want to be, in some way and some sense, the protagonists?” (Bosworth 104)

This was not a popular view in the Socialist Party, which had an official policy of neither support nor sabotage of the war. Mussolini’s article caused him to resign from the Avanti! Newspaper and be expelled from the party – one of the most important moments in his break with socialism.

Mussolini continued to develop his own idea of the war. He still saw war as a catalyst for revolutionary progress, but he also incorporated more nationalist concepts like expanding Italian territory and restoring national prestige. He also volunteered for military service with the bersaglieri and was wounded on the Isonzo Front in 1917.

To spread his vision, Mussolini founded a newspaper called Il Popolo d’Italia with money from industrial donors like FIAT. At first it also had the word socialist in its title, which he then dropped. By 1918, it claimed to be the ‘Journal of Combatants and Producers’.

So Mussolini was estranged from the socialist party but ran his own newspaper to spread his revolutionary nationalism. Italy did eventually enter the war in May 1915 in order to gain new territory, but the disappointing Peace Conference left many Italians feeling bitter and looking towards radical solutions.

Italy’s First World War had not gone according to plan. Its armies failed to break through the Austrian lines in the Alps and suffered a major disaster at Caporetto in 1917. The belated victory at Vittorio Veneto in 1918 didn’t do much to change the critical attitude of its Allies either – like this quip reported by British ambassador to France Edward Stanley:

‘They all say that the signal for an armistice was the signal for Italy to begin to fight.’ (Duggan 413)

During the war, Mussolini abandoned his belief that war could bring social revolution. At first he praised the Russian Bolshevik revolution of 1917, but Vladimir Lenin’s peace deal with Germany was a crushing blow to Mussolini’s theory. Mussolini gave up on revolutionary socialism for good and for the time being, he was not strictly tied to one ideology. An Italian police report came to the same conclusion:

“[Mussolini was] intensely ambitious [but] did not always stick to his convictions and ideals.” (Bosworth 125)

After the war, nationalists like D’Annunzio were disappointed that the peace deal did not Italy as much territory as its government had asked for, and considered the war a Mutilated Victory. They felt that Italy’s sacrifice of 600,000 dead had been betrayed by democrats and socialists at the negotiating table in Paris and in the parliament in Rome.

Mussolini also railed against the “parasites” of the Socialist Party, and promoted a new allegiance, not based on class, but on national syndicalism supported by shared experiences. Mussolini envisioned a new elite class that should lead the nation, made up of veterans of the war. He called it the “trenchocracy.” Many veterans, especially of the elite Arditi, liked what they read – like future fascist leader Idalo Balbo:

“When I returned from the war, like so many, I hated politics and politicians… To come home, after struggling and fighting, to the country of [Prime Minister] Giolitti, who offered every ideal as an object of sale? No. Better to deny everything, to destroy everything, so as to rebuild everything from scratch…” (Duggan 407)

By 1919, frustrated nationalist veterans began to create organizations like the National Association of Combatants, and to mix with other nationalist groups like the Futurists -
- an artistic movement that appreciated modernity, technology and violence. Not all veterans were violent nationalists. Many joined socialist veterans’ associations, and even the nationalistic associations sometimes adopted pacifist ideals. But Mussolini and others tried to control the image of the veteran for political gains, presenting them as fellow enemies of the Bolsheviks and democratic political class.

So angry veterans, nationalists, and Mussolini had begun to find common ground in the turbulence of post-war Italy. The tie that would soon bind them together in a new movement was fascism.

The term fascism literally means “bunch” or “group,” and was used in the Roman empire to describe a bundle of rods carried by officials called lictors to represent their authority. In the 19th century, it had also been used by some radical groups, and some left-wingers referred to themselves as fascistic in the sense of order, strength, and unity. Fascism became a common term in modern Italy starting in 1919, and Benito Mussolini eventually came to personify fascism and its connection to extreme nationalism.

Italian fascism can be described as a reconceptualization of rightist themes with leftist vocabulary, especially the call for revolution. But the fascist idea of revolution was national, and not class-based.

Historian Emilio Gentile identified the key elements of Italian fascism:

  • The conception of politics as a form of art
  • The transformation of ideas into myths
  • An ambivalent attitude to the masses, which are both despised and seen as a force of change
  • An elitist view of historical progress
  • The possibility of social rebirth
  • And an overall pessimistic view of humanity

With the momentum of these ideas growing, on March 23, 1919 Mussolini created the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento or FIC. His address to the new organization connected it to his so-called trenchocracy:

“The meeting of March 23 addresses its first salute and its memory and reverent thoughts to the sons of Italy who have fallen for the greatness of the fatherland and the liberty of the world, to the mutilated and the disabled, to all the fighters, to the ex-prisoners who did their duty, and it declares to be ready to vigorously support the claims of material and moral order that will be advocated by the associations of fighters.” (Martins 191)

In June, Il Popolo d’Italia laid out the demands of the FIC. The fascists called for the abolition of the Senate, a new national assembly, universal suffrage, a national militia, and a foreign policy that “values the place of Italy in the world.”

It also promoted traditionally leftist ideas like an 8-hour workday, minimum wage, labour representation, and the nationalization of war industries. Mussolini was trying to win over the workers while opposing what he saw as socialist elites:
“... we can’t however go against the people because it was the people who fought the war. The peasants who today move to solve the agrarian question cannot be regarded by us with antipathy.” (Martins 196)

But the FIC and Mussolini were still minor players in the struggle for leadership of the fascist movement. D’Annunzio was still seen as the spiritual father of Fascism, and it was he who had come up with the blackshirt uniform and Roman salute. He also gained notoriety with his occupation of Fiume in November 1919 – an action that Mussolini publicly supported while doing little to help, which soured relations between the two men.

So fascism was gathering strength but was still far smaller and weaker than socialism in Italian politics – but the balance of power would soon change.

In the November 1919 elections, the FIC got just 4000 votes while the Socialist Party received 1.8 million, more than any other party. The socialists publicly paraded a coffin to symbolise Mussolini’s political death, but Mussolini was still confident:

“There are victories which are as crushing as defeats.” (Bosworth 137)

Italy now entered a period known as the Biennio Rosso, or the Two Red Years. The political tensions that had built up because of the war now began to spill over into open street violence between socialists, nationalists, and the forces of the state.

The socialist movement seemed to be the strongest force in the country as the Biennio Rosso began. Trade unions had grown, and the Socialist Party had been elected in a third of the major towns and cities. In some places peasants began to occupy uncultivated land in anticipation of a coming revolution, which brought clashes with landowners and police.

But the socialist movement was divided between moderate reformers and radical revolutionaries, led by Antonio Gramsci, who called for a Bolshevik-style revolution. Eventually Gramsci would break with the party, but the infighting made it vulnerable.

Many middle-class landowners and professionals were afraid of the socialists, and turned to Fascism and its doctrine of action. The first major fascist raid took place on November 21st, 1919, as 300 Fascists attacked socialist politicians at a swearing-in ceremony in Bologna’s Palazzo d’Accursio. 10 socialists were killed in what became a long campaign of political violence.
Social democrat Ivanoe Bonimo recalled:

“After the tragedy in Bologna, the rural propertied classes were stirred to action and began to meet and organize themselves. In the towns of the Po valley young officers who had served at the front summoned their landowning friends and relatives and told them they needed to defend themselves against those who had been opposed to the war and now repudiated the victory, against those who were inciting violence and disorder, against those that wanted to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and repeat the Russian experiment.” (Duggan 425)

In the following months, landowners and industrialists began to lend more support to the fascists, whose blackshirts attacked socialists. Peasants in isolated villages were beaten or forced to drink large quantities of castor oil, a powerful laxative.

Between 56 and 68% of fascist squad members were veterans, but they were also joined by younger middle-class Italians, including many university graduates. Unemployment was high, and young people often blamed the government. Joining with the fascists also men who were too young to have fought in the war a chance to team up with the arditi and join the trenchocracy. Police often turned a blind eye or joined in.

The violence appeared to work. 1 million agricultural workers had struck in 1919, but only 80,000 did so in 1920. Meanwhile membership in fascist organizations reached 250,000 in 1921, and attacks increased. In the first 5 months of 1921, around fascist blackshirts attacked 300 socialist organisations and killed 200 people.

So the socialists’ success at the polls was met by a violent response by fascists, who positioned themselves as defenders of law and order. Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti now made the fateful decision and reached out to Mussolini.

The Liberal Giolitti was in his fifth term as Prime Minister in 1921, and he was struggling to counter the socialists and the Catholic Centre Party. So he decided to create an alliance of his own with the upstart fascists, whom he thought he could control:

“[The Fascists are but] fireworks: they’ll make a great deal of noise but only leave smoke behind.” (Bosworth 156)

In the elections of May 1921, the fascists achieved their first electoral success as part of Giolitti’s bloc and Mussolini was elected to Parliament. Giolitti was not impressed, since his new partner rarely attended sessions and didn’t openly support the Liberals. Mussolini did, however, temper his rhetoric in front of Parliament:

“For us violence is not a system, nor as aestheticism, far less a sport; it is a brutal necessity to which we have been driven. And I add: we are prepared to disarm if you, too, will disarm - your spirits, especially… for if we continue like this, the nation runs a serious risk of plunging into the abyss.” (Duggan 427)

Mussolini also wanted to make peace with the socialists, since the violence had served its purpose. He hoped to gain control of the fascist movement by reducing the violence and building his own legitimacy. But that was easier said than done, since he faced challenges from within his own movement, and fascist squad commanders often acted independently.

When Mussolini signed a Pact of Pacification with the Socialist Party in August, the squad leaders revolted. Some even suggested D’Annunzio should now take over, even though he’d been weakened by his failure at Fiume in 1920. In protest, Mussolini resigned as the ‘Duce’ - or leader - of the Fasci di Combattimento. This was a tactical move, and he went on to create the National Fascist Party on November 9, 1921.

At the party’s founding he rejected his former socialist ideals and spoke of the glory of Italy:

“The Italian people have a great history. It is enough to come down to Rome to feel that twenty or thirty centuries ago it was the center of the world and the Italians of the last centuries were great in arts, literature and business. From its people the genius of Dante and Napoleon [was] expressed.” (Martins 198)

So by the end of 1921 Mussolini had positioned himself as the central figure of a new organised fascist party, based on right-wing nationalism and couched in socialist rhetoric. But the fascist movement was still far smaller than its Socialist rival – in fact the FIC was still the smallest party in parliament. For Mussolini, the road to power in Rome would not come through the ballot box.

  • Alcalde, Ángel, War Veterans and Fascism in Interwar Europe, (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2017)
  • Bosworth, R. J. B. Mussolini, (London : Bloomsbury Academic, 2010)
  • De Grand, Alexander, Italian Fascism: Its Origins & Development, (Lincoln, NB : University of Nebraska Press, 1989)
  • Duggan, Christopher, Force of Destiny : A History of Italy since 1796, (London : Penguin Books, 2008)
  • Martins, Carlos Manuel, From Hitler to Codreanu: The Ideology of Fascist Leaders, (London : Routledge, 2020)
  • Neville, Peter, Mussolini, (London : Routledge, 2004)
  • Weyland, Curt, Assault on Democracy: Communism, Fascism, and Authoritarianism During the Interwar Years, (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2021)

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