What the rise of fascism really looks like
100 years ago, Mussolini‘s violent, youthful movement came to power.
In late October 1922, Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party assumed power in Italy. Understanding the rise of fascism 100 years ago, and what it meant, remains more important than ever. Not, as is the fashion today, to highlight the supposed parallels between its rise and that of populism – but to show how very different fascism was to all that is damned and demonised in its name today.
What is widely referred to as the March on Rome was the culmination of a months-long fascist conquest of the Italian state. Mussolini’s black-shirted squadrismo, a movement of fascist militias, had begun taking control of city administrations in northern Italy in Spring 1922. They pushed socialist governments out of Ferrara and Bologna in May. They took Cremona in July. And they were busy ‘Italianising’ German-speaking minorities in Trento and Bolzano in early October. By this point Rome was firmly in the fascists’ sights.
A direct assault on the capital certainly seemed to be Mussolini’s plan. On 24 October, he ordered his Blackshirts to commandeer trains, seize public buildings and converge on three points around Rome. By 27 October, post offices and train stations in several northern cities were in the fascists’ hands.
Yet there was little to suggest that the fall of the Italian government, as weak as it was, was imminent. Quite the opposite. Police and railroad officials had successfully intercepted several trains carrying Mussolini’s troopers, and King Victor Emmanuel III had approved prime minister Luigi Facta’s request for the reinforcement of Rome’s garrison. The Blackshirts, reduced from 25,000 to less than 10,000, were being outnumbered and potentially out-thought. On 28 October, as Rome began to prepare for martial law, Mussolini’s paramilitary assembled, hungry and unkempt, outside Rome’s gates.
But Mussolini was no political outsider – his Italian Fasces of Combat, the precursor to the National Fascist Party, had been a part of former prime minister Giovanni Giolitti’s nationalist-liberal coalition, the third largest bloc in the chamber of deputies since elections in May 1921. Mussolini had secretly been negotiating with Italy’s liberal rulers. Marshalling armed Blackshirts on the fringes of Rome was more a bargaining tool than a realistic attempt at a coup d’etat.
And it worked, such was the weakness of Italy’s rulers. King Victor Emmanuel III abruptly refused Facta’s request for martial law, and invited Mussolini to participate in a new coalition government. Mussolini turned the king down, and pushed his luck, insisting that he should be allowed to form his own government. The king accepted his request, and, on 29 October 1922, Benito Mussolini was proclaimed prime minister. The world’s first fascist government had been formed.
Some observers today, eager to paint Donald Trump as a neo-fascist dictator in the making, have likened last year’s ‘January 6’ riot on Capitol Hill to Mussolini’s March on Rome. They misunderstand both. The chaotic scenes in Washington, DC nearly two years ago, involved a disorganised mob, some of whom were wearing buffalo hats. The March on Rome was the product of a long assault on state power, involving organised, armed militias, many of whom had fought in the trenches of the First World War.
But most important of all, just as January 6 was not even an attempted insurrection, the March on Rome was not an actual insurrection. Mussolini did not have to force his way into power. He was invited in by a desperate and fatally weak liberal establishment – much as Adolf Hitler was invited into power over a decade later by German president Paul von Hindenburg. In fact no fascists have ever come to power through force of arms. They almost always benefited from the connivance of fatally weak liberal elites, who were more fearful of Communism than of fascism. To portray January 6 as an attempted neo-fascist insurrection misunderstands how real fascists actually did come to power.
So the March on Rome was never quite what it appeared to be. It was the archetypal fascist coup that never was. In fact, the idea that Il Duce, as Mussolini styled himself, won power through a violent act of will is one of fascism’s own myths – revived, it seems, by shallow anti-Trump pundits today. The Blackshirts, fed and scrubbed up, did eventually get to march through Rome on 29 October, and they even managed to mete out some perfunctory beatings. But, as one perceptive analysis has it, this did not bring down the government. It was merely ‘the choreographic appendix to Mussolini’s legal appointment as prime minister’.
It was only afterwards that the March on Rome was mythologised as Italian fascism’s insurrectionary foundation. Mussolini marked it the following year with a four-day-long commemoration. And then, in 1926, the march was reconstructed as the starting point of the Era Fascista – a new calendar launched to demarcate the fascist epoch from prior history. In 1932 the fascist regime established 28 October as the date for the ‘Decennial of the Revolution’ and unveiled an ‘Exhibit of the Fascist Revolution’.
The March on Rome is best grasped, then, in terms of what sociologist Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi calls the fascist spectacle. It is one of the key moments in fascism’s self-dramatisation – a symbolic demonstration of violent energy, revolutionary will and collective national mission that was to constitute Mussolini’s new Italy.
The death of the old Italy
That Mussolini was determined to forge a new nation was testament to the death of the old nation. Signs of its morbidity had long been apparent if anyone had cared to look. By the turn of the 20th century, the future of liberalism and laissez faire capitalism was in question throughout much of Europe, with socialist movements galvanising large swathes of a growing, disenfranchised working class.
These Europe-wide tensions were even more pronounced in Italy. The hopes for national renewal that had accompanied Italian unification in 1861 – the Risorgimento – had long-since dissipated. Socialist resistance was growing in the industrialised cities of the north, while semi-feudal elements persisted in the impoverished south. As Mussolini’s one-time parliamentary adversary Antonio Gramsci was later to note, Italy’s weak bourgeois class, a reflection of Italy’s economic underdevelopment, had been unable to impose its unifying will on a hopelessly divided nation and its rebellious ‘popular classes’. The result was a weak state, garnished with an unrepresentative parliamentary democracy, that lacked both legitimacy and authority.
At the same time as Italy’s national project was faltering in the late 19th century, a more assertive, radical form of nationalism was developing in response. The likes of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Giuseppe Prezzolini and Enrico Corradini convinced themselves and others of the need to radically refashion the populace and forge a new Italian type, capable of realising a modern Italy. Their nationalism was more proletarian in focus than bourgeois – Corradini even promoted something called ‘proletarian nationalism’ in 1919. It represented a long-standing and direct challenge to the liberal status quo, and was also to feed into the development of fascism itself.
The political crisis simmering away at the turn of the 20th century was a profoundly ideological crisis, too. The deep anti-Enlightenment turn among many European thinkers, writers and artists – an often reactionary expression of disillusionment with bourgeois modernity – was pulling at the intellectual foundations of the 19th-century liberal order. Reason, autonomy and universalism were being assailed in the name of feeling, crowd psychology and cultural / racial particularism. The principal antagonists of the counter-Enlightenment, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Georges Sorel, were not proto-fascist. But in their repudiation of the Enlightenment – in both its liberal and later Marxist incarnation – and in their celebration of will, action and emotion, they helped clear an intellectual space for fascism to emerge.
Mussolini’s worldview was forged in this moment of deepening crisis. Born in Romagna in northern Italy in 1883, he grew up under the political tutelage of his socialist father, a blacksmith, and his Catholic mother. During the early 1900s, while briefly living in Switzerland, he immersed himself in the milieu and works of Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, crowd psychologists, and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Then, after stints as a teacher, he became a journalist for a series of socialist newspapers, a member of the national directorate of the Italian Socialist Party in 1912, and editor of the party’s organ Avanti!. In Mussolini’s eyes, as in those of many others, liberal Italy’s days were numbered.
The rise of the ‘trenchocracy’
Facism was born amid the cataclysmic experience of the First World War. This was an event, a socio-political rupture, for which we have no comparison today. It effectively marked the end of an entire societal existence. It finished off the long 19th century, consigning a palling liberalism to the past. And it pulled the now threadbare rug out from under the ruling elites. ‘A civilisation perished in 1914’, recalled the historian, EH Carr, in the 1970s, ‘and no return is possible’. What was a distressing moment for some was an emboldening moment for the likes of Mussolini.
Italy’s war experience was doubly painful. It joined the conflict late, in 1915, on the side of the Allies. Over half a million Italian soldiers lost their lives, and 250,000 were crippled for life. Worse still, all the slaughter and maiming was for nothing, despite Italy being on the triumphant side – the Allied powers reneged on the Treaty of London, in which Italy was promised substantial territories in the Austro-Hungarian empire and beyond.
The war’s impact on Italy was devastating. Italy’s leaders were humiliated, the last vestiges of their authority gone; the economy was in ruins; and civil order was breaking down. Liberal Italy was in its death throes.
Initially, however, it was the Italian socialists, with the Russian Revolution at their back, who looked to be seizing the day. During the so-called Biennio Rosso – the ‘two Red years’ – between 1919 and 1920, there were countless occupations and strikes across the north, and Soviet-style factory councils established in Turin and Milan. Trade unions had millions of active members, the Socialist Party had over 250,000 members. Some even excitedly anticipated Italy following Russia towards a Communist future.
This was the political context in which fascism flourished. In a battle to succeed a decadent, defeated liberalism, it was pitted against a resurgent, even revolutionary socialism. Fascism would never have survived and exploded into political life without a radical, class-conscious adversary. The absence of such an adversary today – and, no, scolding identitarians do not amount to a radical left – is another reason why speaking of fascism in the 21st century makes no sense. Without the threat of Communism, there is no fascism.
Mussolini’s own attitude to socialists rapidly evolved during the war. Having initially toed the Socialist Party’s anti-imperial line, and called for neutrality on the First World War, he began agitating for Italy’s intervention from late 1914 onwards – with a little financial encouragement from Britain’s secret services. For his part, he saw the war as an opportunity for Italy’s rejuvenation – a chance not just for national aggrandisement, but also to forge ‘a New Man’ through the crucible of war. For his pro-intervention campaign, Fascio d’Azione Rivoluzionaria, he even used the ‘fasces’ symbol – an axe encased in a bundle of rods, which Ancient Roman magistrates used to carry on processions as a symbol of the authority and unity of the state.
He was to stick to the fasces theme for his next, post-war venture, the Italian Fasces of Combat. It was formed in Milan, on 23 March 1919, during a meeting with a mixture of war veterans, syndicalists and Futurist intellectuals. There they ‘declare[d] war against socialism… because it has opposed nationalism’. As part of this declaration, they birthed Squadrismo by proposing the formation of militias. This new political group retained something of Mussolini’s left-wing heritage, proposing worker participation in industrial management, women’s suffrage and progressive taxation – almost all of which was later to be dropped. But it was their vehement and violent opposition to a then insurgent socialism and Communism that was to prove their making.
The fascists’ first action was a hint of what was to come. On 15 April 1919, they smashed into the offices of Mussolini’s one-time employer, Avanti!, destroyed the presses and killed four people. Squadrismo was soon to come into its own in the Po Valley, in northern Italy. Between 1919 and 1921, Blackshirts killed countless socialist officials, and destroyed homes, socialist clubs and employment offices. Po Valley landowners saw in the fascists a group capable of protecting their interests against the socialists in a way the Italian state was no longer capable of doing. This was key to the tacit support fascists gained from the small and large bourgeoisie alike in the coming years. They talked of building a new corporatist Italy, in which workers worked with managers. But in practice they protected and maintained existing property relations, ultimately through brutal force.
The violence of Italian fascism was never merely political, however. It was also an end in itself. It was seen as invigorating, a sign of vitality, a means to develop a certain character. (Some clearly got a kick out of it, too.) As Mussolini was to write of Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (1908), Sorel taught people that ‘life is struggle, sacrifice, conquest, a continuous “overcoming of one’s self”’. Through the violent act, Mussolini argued, people could refashion themselves. They could become part of a collective, a corporate will, a national machine – the new Italy.
This was the violent energy of fascism in which Futurist intellectuals, like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, exalted. Fascist violence was used against socialists, but it was also a knife to the throat of what they saw as the stale, shabby cowardice of liberalism, too. It’s worth noting here that fascism in the 1920s was a movement predominantly of young anti-bourgeois malcontents, some too young to have even fought in the war. As Robert Paxton notes of fascism’s rise, it ‘remained a generational revolt against the elders’. Indeed, as Eric Hobsbawm notes in The Age of Extremes, at the time of the March on Rome, nearly 15 per cent of party members were students.
Throughout Mussolini’s long reign, collective violent activity – especially war – continued to play a character-forming, nation-building role. Fascist violence was near enough spiritual. Indeed, fascist Italy’s colonial adventures, in particular its bloody conquest of Ethiopia in 1935, were often justified in those very terms. Or as Marinetti put it at the time, ‘war is beautiful’.
The violence, the warring, always needed new outlets. So, after the proclamation of the Fascist Empire in May 1936, Mussolini extended the state’s efforts to transform Italians into members of a martial nation. Asked by a political ally what Italy would do after its intervention in the Spanish Civil War had finished, Mussolini replied: ‘I will think of something else. The character of the Italian people must be moulded by fighting.’
This commitment to violence and war, as a means of forging a new Italian national consciousness, was ultimately to lead to the self-destruction of fascism. Permanent mobilisation needed a permanent war. A struggle that Italy was eventually bound to lose. But in the early 1920s, violence was indispensable to Mussolini’s rise to power. It won land and property owners over to his side. It established fascism’s brutal source of authority. And it provided Il Duce’s Italy with a near enough existential purpose.
As Mussolini was to note in the early 1920s, the First World War, as fascism’s breeding ground, had given rise to a new ruling elite – the ‘trenchocracy’. Its members, their characters forged in battle, were the rulers of the future. Men with ‘passion, faith and tenacity’, who would forge a new body politic and create a new national consciousness, eclipsing the class consciousness of the socialists and Communists.
From aesthetic politics to totalitarianism
We are accustomed today to hearing the charge of ‘fascism’ levelled at those deemed resistant to change. It is lazily and cruelly aimed at the socially conservative, those who cleave to any continuity of place or community. They are the ‘left behind’. They are ‘standing in the way of progress’. They are on ‘the wrong side of history’.
Italian fascism was the very opposite. It was closest, if anything, to a modernist, almost avant-garde project, with Il Duce himself cast in the role of artist creator. Not for nothing was fascism so popular with actual modernist avant-gardists, from the Futurists in Italy to Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticists in England. It promised to fulfil their desire to re-enchant and give meaning to modernity, to remake men fit for the modern world.
Mussolini really did seem to conceive of himself as an artist, an engineer of the soul. When asked by an interviewer in 1932 how he viewed his role ahead of the March on Rome, he responded: as an ‘artist’. And no wonder. He viewed the modern masses as the raw material from which he was to sculpt the new Italy. This was due in part to the influence of the then popular mass-psychology theories, elaborated by, among others, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto and, above all, Gustave Le Bon. ‘I don’t know how many times I have re-read [Le Bon’s] Psychologie des Foules’, remarked Mussolini. ‘It is a capital work to which, to this day, I frequently refer.’
Following Le Bon, Mussolini viewed Italian society not in terms of classes, or as individuals, but as an irrational mass susceptible to emotional manipulation. As he put it in a speech on 20 September 1922: ‘[T]he task of fascism is to make of [the masses] an organic whole with the nation in order to have it tomorrow… The nation needs the masses, much as the artist needs raw material in order to forge his masterpieces.’
Italians were to be transformed through symbol, ritual and performance. They were to be made to feel part of a continual national experience, a spectacle to which they themselves contributed as actors. The fascist crowd was the object of Mussolini’s art. They didn’t need freedom or old-fashioned liberties. They needed shape and direction. ‘Democracy has deprived people’s lives of “style”’, said Mussolini in a speech just weeks before the March on Rome. ‘Fascism brings back “style” in people’s lives: that is a line of conduct, that is the colour, the strength, the picturesque, the unexpected, the mystical; in sum, all that counts in the soul of the multitudes. We play the lyre on all the strings, from violence to religion, from art to politics.’
This captures the essence of fascism. It was not a political enterprise: policies and principles were adopted and dropped as the moment demanded. The Doctrine of Fascism didn’t emerge until 1932, and even then most of it was written by philosopher Geovanni Gentile rather than Mussolini himself. Fascist politics existed in a domain beyond reason. It was an aesthetic enterprise, in which a national consciousness was to be excited and stimulated into being through ceremonies, rituals and, later, violent colonial expansion. Indeed, as one Italian fascist put it in 1939, imperial conquest ‘modifies the soul of the conquerors’. The German left-wing critic Walter Benjamin captured its essence best in his 1935 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’: ‘Fascism attempts to organise the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves… The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.’
This aestheticisation of politics helps explain fascism’s most sinister innovation: totalitarianism. This was a deepening of the aesthetic effort to create a ‘New Man’ who was simultaneously to be an expression of the new fascist nation. This was Wagner’s ‘total art work’ (Gesamtkunstwerk) at the level of nation state.
The noun ‘totalitarianism’ first appeared in January 1925, in an article by a socialist journalist. The following day, Mussolini announced the end of Italy’s constitutional state, and the beginning of a dictatorship – which was formalised in 1928. All parties were dissolved apart from the National Fascist Party. Fascist unions were granted a monopoly on worker representation, and what civil liberties there still were were crushed. The fascists also established the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro, which was to organise Italians’ leisure time and recreational activities – an unprecedented attempt to infiltrate every aspect of people’s lives so as to create the New Man.
By the Summer of 1925, Mussolini was talking of fascism’s ‘totalitarian will’, and even describing his regime as totalitarian. Fascism was not simply an authoritarian project, an attempt to clamp down on socialist and communist agitation through force. It was also an attempt to dominate and refashion the individual, shaping him into a living, breathing expression of the national whole. ‘Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State’, to use Mussolini’s most famous formulation. This was nothing short of the most profound of cultural revolutions – an attempt to create new Italians, to have them express themselves not as members of a class or as individuals, but as parts of a fascist nation.
Mussolini was not trying to revive or conserve a past. Fascism was no ‘explosion of antiquarianism’, as Thomas Mann had it at the time. Mussolini was trying to banish the past through the sheer force of the creative will. Some at the time were clearly impressed. After visiting Italy in the early 1930s, ex-Labour MP Oswald Mosley claimed that Mussolini had ‘produced not only a new system of government, but also a new type of man, who differs from politicians of the old world as men from another planet’.
There was more to fascism, of course, but these characteristics were of its essence: a violent renunciation of the past, a casting aside of the remnants of old Italy; an attempt to remake people, to mould their attitudes and character into something new; and a totalitarian, statist will to extinguish any alternative modes of social and civic life. If anything, Mussolini’s aesthetic politics is closer to a progressive or woke politics than it is to what is damned as ‘fascist’ today.
But then that’s the problem. Since the populist surge of 2016, the term ‘fascism’ has been degraded through overuse. Brexit voters are fascist. The Tory government is fascist. Trump-era Republicans are fascist – or ‘semi-fascist’, as US President Joe Biden has it.
It is the go-to insult of establishment politicians, the object of countless academics’ shallow jeremiads and the great fear of Twitter’s bourgeois hysterics. They see fascism everywhere, from Union flag bunting to anti-woke views. It simply refers to everything in general they dislike.
This superficial name-calling blunts our sense of the past and the present. Fascism was a distinct historical phenomenon that emerged from the trenches of the First World War, and developed in violent opposition to the very real threat of Communism. Youthful, violent and modernist, it culminated in a culturally revolutionary regime that sought to mould the masses into New Men through totalitarian means. Whether in its Italian or later Nazi form, it bears no relation to the anti-establishment forces we have seen emerging over the past decade. We need to isolate fascism’s distinctiveness to make sense of the past – and, more importantly, to understand the present.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.
Pictures by: Getty.
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