The ideas of Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), the founder of Fascism, are remarkably similar to the ideas of modern-day Western Leftists. If Mussolini was not the direct teacher of modern-day Leftists, he was certainly a major predecessor. Modern-day Leftism is largely Fascist. What Leftists advocate today is not, of course, totally identical with what Mussolini was advocating and doing 60 to 80 years ago in Italy but there are nonetheless extensive and surprising parallels. Although Leftists today often call conservatives “Fascists”, the truth is the reverse. If the behaviour of modern-day Leftists seems Fascist, it is because modern day Leftism IS Fascist!
Mussolini’s own summary of the Fascist philosophy: “Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato” (Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State)
A Leftist prophet
The ideas of Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), the founder of Fascism, are remarkably similar to the ideas of modern-day Western Leftists. If Mussolini was not the direct teacher of modern-day Leftists, he was certainly a major predecessor. What Leftists advocate today is not, of course, totally identical with what Mussolini was advocating and doing 60 to 80 years ago in Italy but there are nonetheless extensive and surprising parallels. Early in the 20th century, he prophesied that the 20th century would be the century of Fascism and he got that right in that most of his ideas are still preached by the modern-day Left.
The popular view
Popular encyclopedias such as Funk & Wagnalls (1983) lump together Hitler’s German regime, Mussolini’s Italian regime, General Tojo’s Japanese regime and Generalissimo Franco’s Spanish regime under the single rubric of “fascist” so it seems clear that it is the accepted wisdom that all four regimes were basically similar and differed only in matters of detail. Anyone who knows even a little of the history of the period concerned, however, must realize how far from the truth this is. The feudal warlords of Japan, the antisemitic socialist of Germany, the Catholic monarchist of Spain and the pragmatic socialist of Italy were in fact really united over only one thing: Their dislike of Lenin and Stalin’s Communism and “Bolshevism” generally. There clearly is some need, therefore, for us to look at what Mussolini and the Fascists really were and did.
In what follows, facts that should be easily checkable in popular encyclopaedias and textbooks will not be referenced. Less well-known facts, however, will be referenced. History is of course written by the victors and most summaries of historical Fascism are therefore written from a very anti-Fascist perspective so care is normally needed to tease out the facts behind the interpretations and value-judgments.
Unlike many other accounts, considerable emphasis will be given here to Mussolini’s early years. What politicians say in order to get into power and what they do once they gain power are notoriously two different things — with Lenin and Stalin being not the least examples of that. A major aim therefore will be to see where Mussolini came from and what he did and said in order to get into power.
To do so, however, is a considerable trip back in time and one effect of that is that the political terminology of nearly 100 years ago was somewhat different from today. In reading quotations from the early days one must keep in mind that those Mussolini refers to as “Socialists” were in fact Marxists rather than social democrats and those whom Mussolini refers to as “liberals” were advocates of laissez faire and would hence be described as conservatives today. Mussolini started out as a Marxist but eventually devised Fascism as a “third way” (sound familiar?). He saw it as offering a middle way between Marxism and capitalism — Leftist but not Marxist.
In Mussolini’s own words
Let us listen initially to some reflections on the early days of Fascism by Mussolini himself — first published in 1935 (See the third chapter in Greene, 1968).
“If the bourgeoisie think they will find lightning conductors in us they are the more deceived; we must start work at once …. We want to accustom the working class to real and effectual leadership”.
And that was Mussolini quoting his own words from the early Fascist days. So while Mussolini had by that time (in his 30s) come to reject the Marxist idea of a class-war, he still saw himself as anti-bourgeois and as a saviour and leader of the workers. What modern-day Leftist could not identify with that?
“Therefore I desire that this assembly shall accept the revindication of national trades unionism”
So he was a good union man like most Leftists today.
“When the present regime breaks down, we must be ready at once to take its place”
Again a great Leftist hope and aspiration.
“Fascism has taken up an attitude of complete opposition to the doctrines of Liberalism, both in the political field and in the field of economics”.
The “Liberalism” he refers to here would of course be called “Neo-liberalism” today — the politics of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Mussolini opposed such politics and so do Leftists today.
“The present method of political representation cannot suffice”.
Modern-day Leftists too seem to seek influence outside the normal democratic channels — from strikes and demonstrations to often successful attempts to get the courts to make law.
“Fascism now and always believes in holiness and in heroism; that is to say in actions influenced by no economic motive”
He here also rejects the Communist emphasis on materialism. Leftism to this day is often seen as a religion and its agitators clearly often long to be seen as heroic and unmaterialistic.
“Fascism repudiates the conception of “economic” happiness”
Leftists today also tend to regard consumerism as gross (or say they do as they drive off in their Volvos).
“After the war, in 1919, Socialism was already dead as a doctrine: It existed only as a hatred”.
Socialism has never been a buzzword in North American Leftist circles but it certainly was for a very long time in the rest of the world. And to modern day British Leftists too socialism has a meaning that is more nostalgic and emotional than concrete and many would be prepared to admit that it is functionally “dead”. Mussolini, however was 70 years earlier in announcing the death. It should be noted, however, that Mussolini was principally referring here to the policies and doctrines of his own former Socialist Party — which was explicitly Marxist — and which were far more extreme than the socialism of (say) Clement Attlee and the postwar British Labour party.
“Fascism ….. was born of the need for action and it was itself from the beginning practical rather than theoretical”.
Modern-day Leftist demonstrators too seem to be more interested in dramatic actions than in any coherent theory.
” one would there find no ordered expression of doctrine but a series of aphorisms, anticipations and aspirations”.
This is how Mussolini described early Fascist meetings. Modern-day Leftist agitators too seem more interested in slogans than in any form of rational debate.
“If the 19th century has been the century of the individual (for liberalism means individualism), it may be conjectured that this is the century of the State.
This is Mussolini’s famous prophecy about the 20th century in the Enciclopedia Italiana. It came true with the aid of the modern-day Left and their love of big government. To underline that, note that in 1900 the ratio of government spending to GDP in Italy was 10%, in the 1950s 30%, and it is now roughly 60% (Martino, 1998). In this prophecy, Mussolini rejected Marxian socialism because he disliked the Marxist notions of class war and historical inevitability but modern-day Leftists differentiate themselves from Marxists too.
But Mussolini was more like Lenin and Stalin in his overt rejection of democracy: “Fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society”. Most modern-day Leftists in the Western world would undoubtedly like to get rid of democracy too but they are less open about it than Mussolini was.
“Laissez faire is out of date”
To this day the basic free market doctrine of “laissez faire” is virtually a swear-word to most Leftists. Quoted from Smith (1967, p. 87).
“The paid slaves of kings in their gaudy uniforms, their chests covered with crosses, decorations and similar foreign and domestic hardware ….. blinding the public with dust and flaunting in its face their impudent display”.
Here Hibbert (1962, p. 11) reports Mussolini’s youthful contempt for the armed forces. Such anti-militarism would surely resound well with most student antiwar demonstrators of today.
“The Socialist party reaffirms its eternal faith in the future of the Workers’ International, destined to bloom again, greater and stronger, from the blood and conflagration of peoples. It is in the name of the International and of Socialism that we invite you, proletarians of Italy, to uphold your unshakeable opposition to war”.
This from Carsten (1967, p. 46). It is from an article that was published by Mussolini in the Socialist Party organ “Avanti!” of 22 September, 1914 during Mussolini’s Marxist period. So Mussolini’s anti-militarism persisted until he was aged 31. When compared with Mussolini’s subsequent career this shows exactly where anti-militaristic and antiwar sentiments can ultimately lead.
“Our programme is simple. We want to rule Italy”.
As I have argued at length elsewhere, that is the real program of any Leftist. But Mussolini had the honesty to be upfront about it. Quoted from Carsten (1967, p. 62).
Mussolini ha sempre ragione (“Mussolini is always right”).
This is probably the most famous of the many slogans that were plastered up everywhere in Fascist Italy. It too has a resounding echo among Leftists today. I can think of examples where modern conservative politicians have apologized and retracted their views but I can think of no example where a Leftist has. In the old Soviet empire there was virtually no such thing as “negative” news reported in the media. Even plane crashes were ignored. And as Amis (2002) notes, even though the reality of the vast, destructive and brutal tyranny of the now collapsed Soviet regime is undeniable, Leftists to this day are almost universally unapologetic about their past support for it and may even still claim that Lenin was a great man.
And Mussolini’s “Fascist Manifesto” of 1919 includes in Fascist policy such socialist gems as (I quote):
- The nationalization of all the arms and explosives factories.
- A strong progressive tax on capital that will truly expropriate a portion of all wealth.
- The seizure of all the possessions of the religious congregations and the abolition of all the bishoprics, which constitute an enormous liability on the Nation and on the privileges of the poor.
- The formation of a National Council of experts for labor, for industy, for transportation, for the public health, for communications, etc. Selections to be made from the collective professionals or of tradesmen with legislative powers, and elected directly to a General Commission with ministerial powers.
- A minimum wage.
- The participation of workers’ representatives in the functions of industry commissions
Mussolini as described by historians
“For the proletariat must consider itself anti-patriotic by definition and necessity and made to realize that nationalism was a mask for rapacious militarism that should be left to the masters and that the national flag was, as Gustave Herve had said, a rag to be planted on a dunghill”
This is a summary of Mussolini’s attitudes when he was aged 25 by Hibbert (1962, p. 14). So although in his 30s Mussolini become an ardent nationalist, in his youth he was as anti-nationalist as any America-hater among the American “liberal” youth of today.
“He was coming to the belief which was soon to dominate his life — that the existing order must be overthrown by an elite of revolutionaries acting in the name of the people”.
This summary of Mussolini’s developing beliefs in his 20s by Hibbert (1962, p. 17) could hardly be a more quintessentially Leftist outlook.
“It contained several demands that were decidedly radical: A progressive tax on capital and a tax of eighty-five percent on war profits, universal franchise for men and women, a national militia, a minimum wage, nationalization of the munition industries, worker’s participation in the management of industrial enterprises, the confiscation of all eccelesiastical property”.
This is Carsten’s (1967, p. 50) summary of Mussolini’s June, 1919, political program, already mentioned. There would be very little in that which would not strike a chord with modern-day Leftists. Note that Mussolini was even a feminist by the standards of his day — agitating for equal rights for women.
“He had a profound contempt for those whose overriding ambition was to be rich. It was a mania, he thought, a kind of disease, and he comforted himself with the reflection that the rich were rarely happy”
Here Hibbert (1962, p. 47) is describing a lifelong attitude of Mussolini that continued right into his time as Italy’s Prime Minister — when he refused to take his official salary. Given the contempt for the rich so often expressed by Leftists almost everywhere, Mussolini was clearly a Leftist paragon in that regard.
“There was much truth in the comment of a Rome newspaper that the new fasci did not aim at the defence of the ruling class or the existing State but wanted to lead the revolutionary forces into the Nationalist camp so as to prevent a victory of Bolshevism..
Here Carsten (1967, p. 50) also reports on not mistaking the rivalry between the Fascists and the Communists as being pro-establishment.
“Mussolini, however, declared that he was fighting the Socialists, not because or their socialism but because they were anti-national and reactionary”.
This is again from Carsten (1967, p. 50). So Mussolini retained his socialist loyalties even though he had also become a nationalist.
“In the summer of 1919 crowds, indignant about recent price increases, invaded the shops, looted goods and insisted on price reductions. Mussolini and his fasci proclaimed their solidarity with the rioters. The “Popolo d’Italia” suggested that it would set a good example if some profiteers were strung up on lamp-posts and some hoarders smothered under the potatoes and the sides of bacon they were hiding”.
So Mussolini was far from being an instinctive supporter of law and order (Carsten, 1967, p. 52). The “Popolo d’Italia” was Mussolini’s own newspaper.
“There Mussolini was still following a distinctly radical line. he asserted that his programme was similar to that of the Socialists, that Fascism was helping their cause, that it would carry through the agrarian revolution, the only one that was possible in Italy. He even welcomed the occupation of the factories”
This is again from Carsten (1967, p. 56) — summarizing Mussolini’s speeches of 1920. Pledging revolution and welcoming worker occupation of the factories is still of course a wet dream of the more “revolutionary” Left today.
“On 16 November the new government presented itself to Parliament…. received an overwhelming vote of confidence … Only Mussolini’s old enemy Turati, the spokesman of the Socialists rejected the government … but not even all the Socialist deputies voted against.”
So when he finally came to power, Mussolini and the “Reds” of his own former party were still bitter rivals but he was still Leftist enough for some “Reds” to vote for him! (From Carsten, 1967, p. 65). Much later, Hitler too received some parliamentary support from Germany’s Socialist party.
“Mussolini in March 1936 told the council of corporations that he did not wish to bureaucratize the entire economy of the nation but in practice the extension of government activities everywhere brought with it a top-heavy organization, slow and unresponsive, and quite out of touch with ordinary people”.
This is from Smith (1967, p. 80) and describes a picture that is all too familiar to us today as the outcome of ever increasing cries for government regulation and intervention from Leftists. And Mussolini’s disclaimer about bureaucratization is distinctly reminiscent of US President Bill Clinton’s declaration that the era of big government is over. No doubt both Clinton and Mussolini crossed their fingers as they said it!
“Mussolini set the example in his revival of pagan rites, and in October 1928 instituted a ceremony in which patriotic citizens presented their national savings certificates as a burnt offering on an ancient altar of Minerva specially brought out of its museum for the purpose”
So do modern day Leftists find a superior spirituality in pagan pre-Christian religions such as the religions of the American Indians? Mussolini was there before them (Smith, 1967, p. 100).
And perhaps the ultimate comment by others on Mussolini is what Muravchik (2002) reminds us of at some length: Leftists of the prewar era worldwide very often praised and admired Mussolini as a great socialist innovator. It was once as fashionable among Leftists to praise his regime as it later became to praise Soviet Communism.
Horowitz (1998) also quotes historical summaries showing that many modern Leftist intellectual stratagems have precedents in prewar European Fascist thought generally.
Mussolini’s Marxist Roots
So, how many people today are aware that Mussolini, that great Fascist ogre, was in his youth an incandescent revolutionary socialist, a labor-union agitator who was jailed for his pains (Hibbert, 1962)? He was as radical as any student radical of today. Even in his childhood, he was expelled from two schools for his rebellious behaviour.
After that he became one of Italy’s most prominent Marxist theoreticians and an intimate of Lenin. He in fact first became well-known as “Il Duce” (the Leader) when he was a member of Italy’s (Marxist) Socialist Party and between 1912 and 1914 he was the editor of their newspaper, “L’Avanti”. After his split with the Socialist Party he started his own Leftist newspaper “Il Popolo d’Italia” (“The people of Italy”).
When he broke with the Socialist party in 1914, it was over whether or not Italy should enter World War I. Following Marx’s internationalist doctrines, the “Socialist” (Marxist) party was neutralist and anti-patriotic but Mussolini soon became uncomfortable with that for two reasons: 1). It had already become fairly clear even before the war that the workers were nationalistic and patriotic rather than class-conscious — so the Marxist vision of the workers of the world uniting regardless of nationality was just not going to happen. And all that was thoroughly confirmed when the mainstream Leftist parties of the various European countries lined up behind their respective national governments in World War I. So it was nationalism and patriotism rather than class-struggle that would most move the workers. And, as the aspiring leader of the workers, Mussolini had to follow that! 2). Mussolini correctly foresaw that the Austro/German forces would not win the war and therefore wanted Italy to join the Allied side and thus get a slice of Austrian territory at the end of the war. Italians had suffered many humiliations at the hands of the Austrians and there must have been very few Italians who did not share Mussolini’s desire to seize historically Italian territory from them. Like many Leftists then and since Mussolini did not have any principles that he allowed to stand in the way of a grab for power.
It should be noted that Mussolini’s views in this matter did not at all disqualify him from continuing as a Marxist. Like many other Marxists of his time (See Gregor, 1979), Mussolini tempered his view of the importance of class-solidarity with the recognition that both Marx and Engels had in their lifetimes lent their support to a number of wars between nations (Engels in particular was a pretty virulent German nationalist!). He looked, in other words, not only at broad Marxist theory but also at how Marx and Engels applied their theories. Such “pragmatism” was, of course, a hallmark of Mussolini’s thinking. And, like the Communists, Mussolini had no aversion to war.
As further commentary on Mussolini’s Marxist credentials, it may be worth noting that, long before the Bolshevik revolution, Mussolini had supported the orthodox Marxist (cf. the Mensheviks) view that backward States like Italy and Russia had to go through a capitalist or bourgeois democratic stage before evolving into socialism. It was this, as much as anything, that led Mussolini to collaborate with the Italian establishment when he eventually gained power.
Mussolini’s disagreement with Lenin in this matter therefore meant that Mussolini and his Fascist friends greeted with considerable glee the terrible economic disaster (with national income at one third of the 1913 level) that emerged in Russia after the Bolshevik takeover. They saw both the Bolshevik disaster and their own eventual successes as proving the correctness of Marx’s theory of historical evolution. When, in 1919, Lenin began to speak (in language that could have been Mussolini’s) of the need to hold his country together with “a single iron will” (Gregor, 1979, p. 124) it put him belatedly but rather clearly in Mussolini’s camp.
It should also be noted that Mussolini was the son of an impoverished and very Leftist father who worked mainly as a blacksmith. Mussolini was very proud of these working-class roots and it was a great recreation of his, even after coming to power, to take drives in the country with his wife and stop at various farmhouses on the way for a chat with the family there. He would enjoy discussing the crops, the weather and all the usual rural topics and obviously just liked the feeling of being one of the people. His claim to represent the people was not just theory but heartfelt. And he never gave up his “anti-bourgeois” rhetoric.
Another formative influence on Mussolini’s thinking was Italian “Futurism”. The Futurists were well-known around the time of World War I, when Mussolini was in the trenches with the Italian army. Mussolini adopted much of their thinking wholesale. Note how quite a lot in the following quote from their manifesto foreshadows Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot. And if Mao and Pol Pot were not Leftists, who would be?
‘We shall sing the love of danger, energy and boldness!” the Futurist Manifesto shouted from the rooftops in 1909. “We declare that the world’s splendour has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. There is no more beauty except in strife, no masterpiece without aggressiveness, a violent onslaught upon the unknown forces, to force them to bow to the will of man …
“We wish to glorify war — the only hygiene of the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive arm of the anarchist, the beautiful ideas that kill!”
The futurists also set out “to destroy the museums, the libraries”, adding: “It is in Italy that we launch this manifesto of violence, destructive and incendiary, by which we this day found futurism, because we would deliver Italy from its canker of professors, archeologists, cicerones and antiquaries … free her from the numberless museums which cover her like so many cemeteries.”
And Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” and Pol Pot’s attempts to kill off Cambodia’s educated classes show that Marxists carry out such ideas too. And, perhaps surprisingly to some, such ideas were far from alien among Marxists of Mussolini’s day. Marx and Engels expressed quite similar ideas from time to time. The following is from Marx, for instance:
“Even with Europe in decay, still a war should have roused the healthy elements; a war should have awakened a lot of hidden powers, and surely so much energy would have been present among 250 million people that at least a respectable battle would have occurred, in which both parties could have reaped some honor, as much honor as courage and bravery can gain on the battlefield.”
And if Marx was not a Leftist, who would be? Mussolini’s “Fascist” ideas were in fact Marxist, and hence Leftist.
Mussolini gaining power
After 1918, Italy was in chaos, with Communist upheavals everywhere. Mussolini initially expressed his sympathies for these upheavals but soon saw that they were reducing Italy to a form of anarchy that was helping no-one. He therefore formed his “Fasci di combattimento” — mainly comprised in the beginning of fellow ex-servicemen — to help restore order. This they did by force, breaking up the Socialist and Communist rallies, strikes and organizations. Internecine feuds between Leftists have always been common, however.
Nonetheless, Fascism was subversive in that it fought against the traditional Italian ruling elite — who were essentially still 19th century liberals (what would nowadays be called “neo-liberals” or just “conservatives”). It was also subversive because of its desire to innovate in many ways and to replace the existing ruling class with a new Fascist ruling class.
So, while in Italy, as elsewhere in interwar Europe, individual Communists, Fascists, anarchists and others fought fierce street battles with one-another in a way that is reminiscent of nothing so much as the turf wars between rival black gangs in Los Angeles today, many of the Leftist brawlers eventually went over to the Fascists — showing how slight the real differences were between them.
When he did gain power, he implemented economic policies that would endear him to many of the Left today. His policies were basically protectionist. He controlled the exchange-rate of the Italian currency and promoted that old favourite of the economically illiterate — autarky — meaning that he tried to get Italy to become wholly self-sufficient rather than rely on foreign trade. He wanted to protect Italian products from competing foreign products. The Leftist anti-globalizers of today would approve.
And he even had some success. By 1939 he had doubled Italy’s grain production from its traditional level, enabling Italy to cut wheat imports by 75% (Smith, 1967, p. 92). As with all autarkist nonsense however, the price was high. The extra grain could be produced only at high cost so Italians now had to pay twice as much for their grain. But what anti-globalizer would worry about that?
But socialism was of course not the only string to Mussolini’s bow. He was also a strident Italian nationalist with an avowed aim to restore the Roman empire. He certainly offered Italians a new pride in themselves that was clearly welcomed by many Italians.
Nationalism as an exciting novelty
Something that seems generally to be overlooked is that the three countries with the most notable Fascist movements in the early 20th century (Germany, Italy and Spain) were all in countries with fragile national unity. Germany and Italy had become unified countries only in the late 19th century and Spain, of course, is only nominally unified to this day — with semi-autonomous governments in Catalonia and the Basque country. Right up until the end of the Prussian hegemony in 1918, Germans saw themselves primarily as Saxons, Bavarians, Prussians etc rather than as Germans and the contempt for Southern Italians among Northern Italians is of course legendary.
So the fierce nationalism of the Fascists (though Franco held himself above the Spanish Falange to some extent) appears to have been at least in part the zeal of the convert. Nationalism was something new and exciting and was a gratification to be explored vigorously. And the Fascists/Nazis undoubtedly exploited it to the hilt. The romance of the new nation was an important asset for them.
So if we regard the creation of large nation states as a good thing (a fairly dubious proposition) the small silver lining that we can see in the dark cloud of Fascism is that they do seem to have had some success in creating a sense of nationhood. A German identity, in particular, would seem to be the creation of Hitler. There was certainly not much of the sort before him.
There are of course differences between the three countries but in all three an acceptance of their nation-state now seems to be well-entrenched. This acceptance seems to be strongest in Germany — probably in part because modern Germany is a Federal Republic with substantial power devolved to the old regions (Laender) so that local loyalties are also acknowledged. Spain has moved only partly in the direction of federalism and there is of course a strong political movement in Northern Italy for reform in that direction also.
It is perhaps worth noting that it took a ferocious war (the civil war) to create an American sense of nationhood too.
Was Fascism middle-class?
The commonest Marxist analysis of Fascism seems to be that it was “bourgeois” — the last gasp of a failing middle class in its desperate struggle to hold onto its position against the rising tide of the working class. Since the leading Marxists themselves — from Marx and Engels, through Lenin to Pol Pot have themselves always been middle class, this analysis has its amusing side. The perennial Leftist tactic of accusing others of what is in fact true of themselves would alone account for that characterization of Fascism. But is the characterization nonetheless true? There is much to say that it is not. The breadth of Mussolini’s appeal is in fact one of the most remarkable things about him. The Fascists certainly included many middle class people but they included workers and aristocrats as well. Even Jews were prominent among them!
Mussolini the environmentalist
As well as being an “anti-globalizer”, there were several other ways in which Mussolini would have appealed to modern-day greenies. He made Capri a bird sanctuary (Smith, 1967, p. 84) and in 1926 he issued a decree reducing the size of newspapers to save wood pulp. And, believe it or not, he even mandated gasohol — i.e. mixing industrial alcohol with petroleum products to make fuel for cars (Smith, 1967, p. 87). Mussolini also disliked the population drift from rural areas into the big cities and in 1930 passed a law to put a stop to it unless official permission was granted (Smith, 1967, p. 90). What Green/Left advocate could ask for more?
Mussolini the pragmatist
Although Mussolini never ceased preaching socialism in some form, his actions when in power were like those of most politicians: Many unrealistic promises were broken and policies were adopted that in fact hurt the workers (such as wage cuts). The important point, however, is that the policies he in fact adopted once in power were not adopted for mere ideological reasons but because they were the policies that he thought would work best for Italy and, thus, ultimately for all Italians. As “Conservative” political parties tend to think in this way also (Gilmour, 1978), it is presumably in part this that causes Mussolini to be referred to as a Rightist. His appeal to Italians, however was as a socialist and a nationalist.
For all his pragmatism, however, it should also be recognized (contrary to what many of his critics say) that Mussolini did have a well-publicized and coherent economic strategy mapped out before he came to power and that policies that are sometimes seen as merely “pragmatic” were also theoretically grounded in his old Marxist ideas. He was well aware of both Italy’s poverty and the inefficiency of its bureaucrats and blamed much of the former on the latter. Following the Marxist theory of developmental stages, he argued that the only alternative to the bureaucrats that would mobilize Italy’s limited resources was the fostering of private enterprise and capitalism. He even advocated privatization of telecommunications and the post office! This coincides, of course, with the way modern-day Leftists (particularly in Britain) have abandoned the idea of State-run enterprises and acknowledged the benefits of privatization.
Mussolini was, however, far from being any sort of free-marketeer. Just like most modern-day Leftist politicians, he advocated private enterprise within a strict set of State controls designed, among other things, to prevent abuse of monopoly power (Gregor, 1979, Ch. 5).
So we see that Mussolini again had remarkable prescience. Deng Xiaoping of China and Gorbachev of Russia seem now to be generally seen as the first Marxists to have discovered pragmatism and private enterprise. Mussolini, however, did it all 60 or more years before them.
Mussolini’s socialist deeds
One major “socialist” reform of the economy that is still a misty ideal to modern-day Leftists Mussolini actually carried out. He attempted to centralize control of industry by declaring a “Corporate State” which divided all Italian industry up into 22 “corporations”. In these corporations both workers and managers were supposed to co-operate to run industry together — but under Fascist guidance, of course. The Corporate State was supposed to ensure social justice and give the workers substantial control of industry.
And in 1933 Mussolini even promised that the National Council of Corporations would eventually replace the Parliament! Surely the ultimate unionist’s dream! And the Chamber of Fasces and Corporations created in 1939 largely fulfilled that promise. Since Mussolini had dictatorial powers by then it was largely tokenism but it nonetheless showed how Leftist his propaganda was.
In reality the Fascist appointees to the corporations tended to take the side of the management and what resulted was really capitalism within a tight set of government controls. Since most of Europe and much of the rest of the world moved in that direction in the post-war era, Mussolini was in this also ahead of his times. And if the waning of the “Red” influence on Western economies in the post-Soviet era has led to some deregulation of business, the rise of the “Greens” has added a vast new area of government regulation. The precedent set by Mussolini is still being followed!
Some other clearly Leftist initiatives that Mussolini took were a big expansion of public works and a great improvement in social insurance measures. He also set up the “Dopolavoro” (after work) organization to give workers cheap recreations of various kinds (cf. the Nazi Kraft durch Freude movement). His public health measures (such as the attack on tuberculosis and the setting up of a huge maternal and child welfare organization) were particularly notable for their rationality and efficiency and, as such, were rewarded with great success. For instance, the incidence of tuberculosis dropped dramatically and infant mortality declined by more than 20% (Gregor, p. 259). Together with big improvements in education and public infrastructure, such measures gave Fascist Italy what was arguably the most advanced welfare State in the world at the time.
And if influential American “liberal” economists such as Galbraith (1969) can bemoan the low level of spending on public works as “private affluence and public squalor”, Mussolini was well ahead on that. As Hibbert (1962, p. 56) says, Mussolini
“instituted a programme of public works hitherto unrivalled in modern Europe. Bridges, canals and roads were built, hospitals and schools, railway stations and orphanages, swamps were drained and land reclaimed, forest were planted and universities were endowed.”
Given the modern-day Leftist’s love of government provision of services, it would seem that Mussolini should be their hero in that respect. He actually did what they advocate and did it around 70 years ago.
Mussolini and religion
For most of the 20th century, most Leftists were deeply antipathetic to religion. In recent decades, however, that has changed so much that the old mainstream churches are now very often major founts of Leftist thinking and propaganda. Leftists have now largely got the major churches onside. Mussolini did the same over 70 years ago. In 1929 Mussolini and Pope Pius 12th signed the Lateran treaty — which is the legal basis for the existence of the Vatican State to this day — and Pius in fact at one stage called Mussolini “the man sent by Providence”. The treaty recognized Roman Catholicism as the Italian State religion as well as recognizing the Vatican as a sovereign state. What Mussolini got in exchange was acceptance by the church — something that was enormously important in the Italy of that time.
It should also be noted that Mussolini’s economic system (his “corporate State”) was a version of syndicalism — having workers, bosses and the party allegedly united in several big happy families — and syndicalism is precisely what had been recommended in the then recent (1891) “radical” encyclical De rerum novarum of Pope Leo XIII. So that helped enormously to reconcile Mussolini to the church. Economically, Fascism was more Papal than capitalist (though in the Papal version of syndicalism the church naturally had a bigger role).
Syndicalism was of course a far-Leftist idea (with Sorel as a major prophet) long before it was a Papal one but the Holy Father presented a much more humanized and practical version of it and thus seems in the end to have been more influential than his Leftist rivals. Mussolini was of course acutely aware of both streams of syndicalist thinking and it was a great convenience to him to be able to present himself as both a modern Leftist and as a supporter of the church.
Mussolini a racist?
Despite recent upsurges of antisemitism among extreme Leftists in the Western world in connection with the Arab-Israeli conflict, most Leftists today probably continue to deplore antisemitism. The early Mussolini would have had no argument with them over that. He was a most emphatic Italian nationalist but it is perhaps important here to distinguish patriotism, nationalism and racism. These do to some extent tend to slide into one-another but there are differences too. Most notable in the present case is the contrast between Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and Mussolini’s reluctance to have any part in that.
Under Hitler’s prodding, Mussolini did eventually put antisemitism on his agenda and did in 1938 pass generally unpopular antisemitic laws but it was no part of his own original program. He had never expressed any antisemitism prior to his alliance with Hitler. In fact, Italian Jews had been prominent as leaders in some of the early Fasci di combattimento (Fascist bands) and the antisemitic laws were largely ignored by Italians — so much so that one of the safest places in Europe for Jews to be during the second world war was undoubtedly Fascist Italy. Jews were in fact routinely protected by both Fascist and non-Fascist Italians (including the clergy) and many Jews to this day have grateful memories of wartime Italy. At a time when Jews had very few friends anywhere in the world, they had friends in Fascist Italy (Steinberg, 1990; Herzer, 1989). Contrast this with the way in which Eastern Europeans and even the French actively co-operated with Hitler’s round-up of Jews. It should also be noted that, unlike Hitler, Mussolini did not set up any concentration camps for the Jews.
It must of course be conceded, however, that the Ethiopians suffered considerably at the hands of their Italian invaders but most human societies make a distinction between war and murder and Mussolini certainly did. Nazis and revolutionary Leftists, on the other hand, do not seem to.
Attitude to Hitler
Ideologically, Mussolini and Hitler were broadly similar. And when I point out how far to the Left most of Hitler’s policies were, a strong reaction I get from many who know something of history is to say that Hitler cannot have been a Leftist because of the great hatred that existed in prewar Germany between the Nazis and the “Reds”. And the early Fascists battled the “Reds” too, of course.
The reply I always give to such doubts is to say that there is no hatred like fraternal hatred and that hatreds between different Leftist groupings have existed from the French revolution onwards. Such hatreds do not make any of the rival groups less Leftist however. And the ice-pick in the head that Trotsky got courtesy of Stalin shows vividly that even among the Bolsheviks themselves there were great rivalries and hatreds. Did that make any of them less Bolshevik, less Marxist, less Communist? No doubt the protagonists concerned would argue that it did but from anyone else’s point of view they were all Leftists at least.
Nonetheless there still seems to persist in some minds the view that two groups as antagonistic as the Nazis and the Communists or the Fascists and the Communists just cannot have been ideological blood-brothers. Let me therefore try this little quiz: Who was it who at one stage dismissed Hitler as a “barbarian, a criminal and a pederast”? Was it Stalin? Was it some other Communist? Was it Winston Churchill? Was it some other conservative? Was it one of the Social Democrats? No. It was none other than Mussolini, who later became Hitler’s ally in World War II. And if any two leaders were ideological blood-brothers those two were. So I think it is clear that antagonism between Hitler and others and between Mussolini and others proves nothing. If anything, the antagonism between Hitler and other socialists and between Mussolini and the “Reds” is proof of what typical socialists both Mussolini and Hitler were.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler expressed great admiration for Mussolini and did in the early days regard Mussolini as his teacher so at least part of Hitler’s National Socialism is traceable to Mussolini’s innovations. As noted, however, Mussolini did NOT reciprocate Hitler’s regard and correctly divined and loathed Hitler’s murderous personality from the beginning (Andriola, 1997). Hitler’s mania about the Jews was also one reason why Mussolini derided Nazism as a doctrine of barbarians. Few modern-day Leftists would argue with that judgement.
Mussolini remained neutral in 1939 and 1940 and only joined in Hitler’s war when France had collapsed, Hitler already bestrode Europe and his overtures to Britain had been rejected. In such circumstances it seemed wise to be on the winning side. That was Mussolini’s one big mistake and it was, of course, ultimately a fatal one. True to his pragmatism, in both wars Mussolini simply tried to side with the winner.
Another major difference between Hitler and Mussolini would seem to flow simply from the fact that Mussolini was Italian: Mussolini was much less brutal. I grew up in Innisfail — a place that was 50% an Australian country town and 50% an Italian village. Since then I have always had an affection for Italians. Italian was even one of my matriculation languages (Ho studiato Italiano a scuola ma ho quasi tutto dimenticato). So I have always thought it in keeping that Mussolini’s Italian Fascism appears to have been the mildest of all the many Leftist dictatorships of the 20th century. The Italian Fascist response to political rivals was not to torture them to death but simply to give them a large dose of Castor oil! Almost funny! Here is a link about another instance of Italian humaneness in the Fascist era: It was OK to criticize Il Duce if you were drunk!
This also rings true to me:
“Mussolini’s widow, who died in 1979… described grand state dinners, including a banquet given by King Victor Emmanuel III for Hitler on the Nazi dictator’s visit to Rome in May 1938. “Donna Rachele said Hitler, who was a vegetarian, found all the dishes unacceptable, while Mussolini, who was clearly bored to tears, complained that the menu was in French and kept muttering that Italian regional cooking was more appetising than ‘all this pretentious and indigestible French stuff’.”
Ms Scicolone said Mussolini was not much of a bon viveur. Domestic rituals were important to him, and despite his government duties and assignations with mistresses, he always had lunch and dinner with his wife and children, “like any Italian man”. He never drank alcohol, and instead drank “litres of herbal teas and tisanes”.
Other Leftist nationalists
Those who know of the Leftist themes in the election campaigns of both Hitler and Mussolini often say that neither was a real Leftist because they were also vehement nationalists. The thought seems to be that nationalism can only be Rightist. But that shows no knowledge of Leftist history generally.
From the days of Marx onward, there were innumerable “splits” in the extreme Leftist movement but two of the most significant occurred around the time of the Bolshevik revolution — when in Russia the Bolsheviks themselves split into Leninists and Trotskyites and when in Italy Mussolini left Italy’s major Marxist party to found the “Fascists”. So from its earliest days Leftism had a big split over the issue of nationalism. It split between the Internationalists (e.g. Trotskyists) and the nationalists (e.g. Fascists) with Lenin having a foot in both camps. So any idea that a nationalist cannot be a Leftist is pure fiction.
And, in fact, the very title of Lenin’s famous essay, “Left-wing Communism, an infantile disorder” shows that Lenin himself shared the judgement that he was a Right-wing sort of Marxist. Mussolini was somewhat further Right again, of course, but both were to the Right only WITHIN the overall far-Left camp of the day.
It should further be noted in this connection that, as Horowitz (1998) reminds us, the various European Socialist parties in World War I did not generally oppose the war in the name of international worker brotherhood but rather threw their support behind the various national governments of the countries in which they lived. Just as Mussolini did, they too nearly all became nationalists. Nationalist socialism is a very old phenomenon.
And it still exists today. Although many modern-day US Democrats often seem to be anti-American, the situation is rather different in Australia and Britain. Both the major Leftist parties there (the Australian Labor Party and the British Labour Party) are perfectly patriotic parties which express pride in their national traditions and achievements. Nobody seems to have convinced them that you cannot be both Leftist and nationalist. That is of course not remotely to claim that either of the parties concerned is a Nazi or an explicitly Fascist party. What Hitler and Mussolini advocated and practiced was clearly more extremely nationalist than any major Anglo-Saxon political party would now advocate.
And socialist parties such as the British Labour Party were patriotic parties in World War II as well. And in World War II even Stalin moved in that direction. If Hitler learnt from Mussolini the persuasive power of nationalism, Stalin was not long in learning the same lesson from Hitler. When the Wehrmacht invaded Russia, the Soviet defences did, as Hitler expected, collapse like a house of cards. The size of Russia did, however, give Stalin time to think and what he came up with was basically to emulate Hitler and Mussolini. Stalin reopened the churches, revived the old ranks and orders of the Russian Imperial army to make the Red Army simply the Russian Army and stressed patriotic appeals in his internal propaganda. He portrayed his war against Hitler not as a second “Red” war but as ‘Vtoraya Otechestvennaya Vojna’ — The Second Patriotic War — the first such war being the Tsarist defence against Napoleon. He deliberately put himself in the shoes of Russia’s Tsars.
Russian patriotism proved as strong as its German equivalent and the war was turned around. And to this day, Russians still refer to the Second World War as simply “The Great Patriotic War”. Stalin may have started out as an international socialist but he soon became a national socialist when he saw how effective that was in getting popular support. Again, however, it was Mussolini who realized it first. And it is perhaps to Mussolini’s credit as a human being that his nationalism was clearly heartfelt where Stalin’s was undoubtedly a mere convenience.
And last but not least we have the original Leftist nationalist: Napoleon. Napoleon Bonaparte was the child and heir of the very first Leftist revolution, the French revolution and he is to this day lauded as the man who took the “ideals” of the French revolution to the rest of Europe. Like all Leftist dictators, he preached the central Leftist myth of equality — but did not practice it — and built up around himself a cult of the leader that was very much the same as that built up around themselves by Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung etc. And, again like other Fascists, he took French nationalism and love of gloire to new heights. During his rule — police state though it was — he made the French feel that they were the greatest nation on earth. And the French died in their droves in furtherance of that myth — just as Germans later died in their droves for Hitler. Mussolini may have invented the term but it was really Napoleon who was the first Fascist. Arthur Silber has put up some excerpts from the recent biography of Napoleon by Paul Johnson that show how very Fascist Napoleon indeed was. Since Napoleon is still a French national hero, it is no wonder that the Germans found it relatively easy to get the French to “collaborate” in World War II.
Leftist or Rightist?
We should now by this stage be able to evaluate better whether Mussolini’s Fascism was Right-wing, Left-wing or neither. As already outlined, its rhetoric certainly had strong Left-wing elements. The 1919 election manifesto, for instance, contained policies of worker control of industry, confiscation of war profits, abolition of the Stock exchange, land for the peasants and abolition of the Monarchy and nobility. Further, Mussolini never ceased to inveigh against “plutocrats”.
As has been mentioned, however, Mussolini’s nationalism is undoubtedly the major feature of Fascist ideology that gets it labelled as Rightist. Nationalism is most easily associated with the Right because it is antithetical to the “equality” gospel that characterizes most Leftism. If all men are equal, then all nations should be equal too. And Mussolini’s nationalism did endear him to the Right and gain their co-operation and support on many important occasions. His nationalism also made him eventually reject the divisive “class-war” notions of Communism and the revolutionary activities of the “Reds”. He wanted a harmonious and united Italy for all Italians of all classes and was sure that achieving just treatment for the workers needed neither revolution nor any kind of artificially enforced equality.
And his nationalism is the one thing that clearly separates Mussolini from the Leftists of today. It seems routine today, for instance, for American Leftists to hate America. Or at the least they rarely have a good word to say for their country. But one swallow does not make a summer and there have always been many varieties of Leftism (Muravchik, 2002). Mussolini’s was a nationalist variety. And as any Trotskyite will tell you, both Lenin and Stalin were nationalists in their own way too. Nonetheless, Mussolini was undoubtedly to the Right of Lenin and the Communists — but so too are most modern-day Leftists.
Another feature of Mussolini’s message that today looks inconsistent with his Leftism is the way he glorified war, strength and obedience and was explicitly anti-democratic. These ideas might seem very much at variance with modern-day Leftism but are in fact quite similar to what Lenin advocated in his famous essay on “Left-wing Communism — an infantile disorder”:
“I repeat, the experience of the victorious dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia has clearly shown even to those who are unable to think, or who have not had occasion to ponder over this question, that absolute centralization and the strictest discipline of the proletariat constitute one of the fundamental conditions for victory over the bourgeoisie” (Lenin, 1952).
So both Lenin and Mussolini simply made explicit certain ideas that modern-day Leftists usually feel the need to deny but often still practice when they get into power (e.g. Pol Pot). Unlike the Communists, however, Mussolini did not make any truly revolutionary changes or carry out any great “purges” so again was undoubtedly to the Right of Stalin — but that is not saying much, of course. Mass “purges” (murders of whole classes of people) and revolution are not generally advocated by modern-day Leftists either.
Despite his being much more upfront about his authoritarian ideas than any modern-day Leftist would be, Mussolini’s Leftism was, like modern-day Western Leftism, in fact comparatively mild compared with Stalin’s. This made Italian Fascism a much more popular creed than Stalin’s Communism. This is perhaps most clearly seen by the always persuasive “voting with your feet” criterion. Mussolini made no effort to prevent Italians from emigrating and although some anti-Fascists did, net emigration actually FELL under Mussolini. Compare this with Stalin and the Berlin wall. One notes that modern-day Leftists in the Western world today also never seem to feel the need to emigrate — for all their swingeing criticisms of contemporary Western society.
It should also be noted that, like many modern-day Leftists Mussolini gained power through political rather than revolutionary means. His famous march on Rome was only superficially revolutionary. The King of Italy and the army approved of him because of his pragmatic policies so did not oppose the march. So this collusion ensured that Mussolini’s “revolution” was essentially bloodless.
One rather amusing consequence of the way Mussolini made use of the existing power structures was that when Hitler (who in Germany was by that time both head of State and head of the government) first arrived in Italy on a State visit, he was greeted, not by Mussolini but by the King. As protocol requires, the head of government (Mussolini) was on the sidelines. This both confused and annoyed Hitler. It is a good illustration, however, of how Mussolini put pragmatism before ideology, as his 1919 manifesto was explicitly anti-Monarchist.
Some people claim that Mussolini was not really Leftist because he in fact did not do much for the workers of Italy. But how many Leftist politicians would qualify as Leftist by the criterion of whether they were of net benefit to the workers when in office? The common economic failures of Leftist regimes tend to affect all the population, with no exemption for the workers. To judge politicians as they are normally judged (by their ideology), therefore, Mussolini was very much an extreme Leftist. Was Stalin of net benefit to the workers? Given the very poor standard of living in the Soviet Union that the Gorbachev reforms revealed, it seems unlikely. Do we for that reason say Stalin was not really a Leftist?
Although everything that I have said so far is readily available in the history books, practically none of it ever reaches public consciousness. Given that Hollywood, the media and the educational system are overwhelmingly Left-leaning, that is hardly a surprise. The Left cannot AFFORD to have the public at large realize that the great tyrannies of the 20th century were all socialist. On those rare occasions when Leftists are confronted with the facts, however, a common and very amusing “excuse” that is offered is to say that “they were all doing it”. In other words socialism was somehow in the air of interwar Europe. It was just something that everyone had to advocate who wanted to get elected — whether they believed in it or not. Obviously, however, someone failed to tell the British Liberal and Conservative parties that. Both of those parties were rather more in favour of free trade and laissez faire economic policies than modern-day conservative parties usually are so I suppose that their election victories in 1918, 1922, 1924, 1931 and 1935 just did not happen!
To return to the historical Mussolini: Without his necessarily being insincere about either, both Mussolini’s Leftism and his nationalism seem to have been, however, in the end mainly tools for getting people on-side. His No. 1 priority was simply to rule — a good Leftist goal. His considerable popularity for many years among a wide range of Italians shows how effective his recipe for achieving that was. Unlike Hitler, he was even popular with Britain’s arch-conservative Winston Churchill (Hagan, 1966, p. 474).
And much less surprisingly, F.D. Roosevelt, found in Mussolini’s policies part of his inspiration for the semi-socialist “New Deal” and referred to Mussolini in 1933 as “that admirable Italian gentleman”. Mussolini was plausible to an amazingly wide range of people — not the least to the people of Italy.
And Roosevelt and his political allies practiced what they preached. As UPI financial journalist Martin Hutchinson has pointed out, the USA in the 1940s was a place “with price controls, government licensing of transportation, state intervention in the steel and auto industries, interest rates that were set by Treasury fiat and a capital market in which banks were not allowed to operate. Also a “democracy” in which electoral districts were wildly unequal and 15 percent of the population was denied the vote.” By modern-day standards the USA of that time had considerable Fascist elements too. American Leftism was Fascist even then. As Stromberg also notes:
“In 1954, Hofstadter chided those who had worried about “several close parallels” between FDR’s N.R.A. and fascist corporatism. There are more than “several” parallels. In 1944, John T. Flynn made the case in As We Go Marching, where he enumerated the stigmata of generic fascism, surveyed the interwar policies of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and pointed to uncomfortably similar American policies. For Flynn, the hallmarks of fascism were: 1) unrestrained government; 2) an absolute leader responsible to a single party; 3) a planned economy with nominal private ownership of the means of production; 4) bureaucracy and administrative “law”; 5) state control of the financial sector; 6) permanent economic manipulation via deficit spending; 7) militarism, and 8) imperialism (pp. 161-62). He proceeded to show that all these were alive and well under the wartime New Deal administration (pp. 166-258). Pragmatic American liberalism had produced “a genteel fascism” without the ethnic persecutions and full-scale executive dictatorship seen overseas. Flynn found this insufficiently cheering. Some may call Flynn’s catalogue of fascist traits arbitrary. Perhaps, but Flynn listed things he found; he did not make them up.”
See Trifkovic for more detail on the affinities between FDR and Mussolini.
But if the American Left of the “new Deal” era learnt from Mussolini, it is also true that Mussolini learnt from America. Those ideas of Mussolini which were not clearly Marxist were in fact generally American. Where did Mussolini learn his glorification of war, his imperialism, his stiff-armed “Fascist” salute, his emphasis on military-style obedience and his worship of action? They were all ideas from his predecessors among the “Progressives” (Leftists) of America in the late 19th and early 20th century. And a remarkably similar predecessor to Mussolini in both word and deed was in fact a President of the United States — Theodore Roosevelt. So ALL of Mussolini’s ideas can be traced to the Leftists of his day. I have set out details of the American contribution to Fascism elsewhere.
A knowledge of the American roots of Mussolini’s Fascism helps to explain a puzzle: That, aside from its basic nationalism and Leftism, Fascism was something of a hodge podge of ideas. This feature of Fascism (noted, for instance, in an article by Beichman) is commonly used by Leftists to dismiss the idea that there is anything worth studying or describing in Fascism at all. As it says here: “Fascism has traditionally been characterized as irrational and anti-intellectual, finding expression exclusively as a cluster of myths, emotions, instincts, and hatreds”. But if it was so loose, unsystematic and illogical, how come it was so popular? How come it had major branches in most of Europe (including England), much of South America and even in China (Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Shek)? For an incoherent set of ideas it certainly inspired a lot of copycats and generally did a remarkable job of tipping the world on its ear!
The initial level of explanation is simple: The ideas that Mussolini and his colleagues put together as constituting Fascism were very little more than the set of ideas that were already popular among European and American Leftists in the early 20th century. The ideas concerned may seem strange now but they were not strange then. So as the limitations of Marxist ideas became apparent to Europeans, American Leftist ideas rushed in to fill the gap. And to a considerable extent they rushed in via Mussolini. Fascism could thus be seen as Mussolini’s amalgam of European and American Leftist ideas, with the American ideas ending up superseding most of the original Marxist thinking. So Fascism was coherent to the extent that Leftism of the time was coherent. And that also explains, of course, the very large similarities between Italian Fascism and Soviet Communism during the 1920s and 1930s — a convergence in both rhetoric and practice. And no-one has ever denied the influence or importance of Leftist thinking. Why Leftist thinking is as it is, however, is a very large topic in its own right that I have covered at great length elsewhere.
Is Fascism warlike and aggressive?
It may seem strange to ask if Fascism is warlike in view of Mussolini’s rhetoric glorifying war and empire and in view of the invasions he mounted in Ethiopia, Albania etc. And Hitler too was the same on a much grander scale. But even two swallows do not make a summer and we have also to ask about the other Fascists of history. Ancient Sparta and Napoleon were also exceedingly warlike but what about Mosley in Britain, Salazar in Portugal, Franco in Spain, Peron in Argentina, and Pilsudski in Poland? And what about nationalistic Fascist fellow-travellers such as Horthy in Hungary, Antonescu in Romania and Pavelic in Croatia? And what about clearly non-socialist nationalists such as the 19th century British Empire and the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan? I think the obvious comment has to be that the matter is rather moot. Salazar, Franco, Pilsudski, Horthy, Antonescu, Pavelic, Peron and Mosley had primarily domestic concerns and did not go in for foreign adventures at all except in some cases to regain lost territory. So, on balance, I think we have to characterize Fascism (broadly defined) as NOT in general expansionist and warlike.
The case is also not entirely clear for non-socialist nationalists. The British Empire of the 19th century was primarily acquired “in a fit of absence of mind” rather than by a deliberate policy of expansion, though the South African (“Boer”) war was a disgraceful episode. And the Tokugawas were terminally nationalist and great control freaks yet have the distinction of giving Japan one of the longest periods of peace any country has ever had — with NO foreign adventures at all. So nationalism would not on the whole seem to be nearly as warlike or aggressive as might be supposed. It is perfectly compatible with a pacific foreign policy.
Peron: The Argentinian Fascist
Argentine dictator Juan Peron, is less well-known and understood than Mussolini but he was a disciple of Mussolini so his example is worth a special mention for the way it helps confirm what Fascism is.
Most people would not be aware that historians and political commentators often describe Peron as what Latin Americans sometimes call a “Fenomeno” (paradox). The paradox or puzzle is that he first came to power in Argentina as part of a military coup, so should have been “Right-wing” — yet he became the champion and hero of working class Argentines, and to this day the major Leftist political grouping in Argentina (the “Peronistas”) is named after him. How come?
Anybody who has read what I have so far written about the strongly Leftist nature of both German Nazism and Italian Fascism will not have far to seek for the answer. Both Nazism and Fascism won power largely through claiming to be the champions and glorifiers of the ordinary worker and both Nazism and Fascism are routinely described as “Right-wing” too. Peron was just another one of that fraternity. Peron in fact soon got kicked out by his fellow participants in the military coup and finally gained power — as did Hitler and Mussolini — through primarily political means.
And that is only the beginning of the resemblance: The doctrines Peron preached (e.g. giving the workers and managers equal say in running industry) were almost exactly what Peron had learned from Mussolini when he lived in Italy for some years in the 1930s. Peronism is Fascism. Also like Hitler and Mussolini, Peron was a great patriot and nationalist who got the foreign business interests out of Argentina and tried to make Argentina independent of foreigners generally. With the able help of his wife Evita, Peron made the Argentine people feel special and persuaded them that he was on their side and would lead them to greatness. And they loved him for it!
The only major difference is that Peron was clever enough to stay neutral instead of joining Hitler’s war. As already mentioned, Mussolini stayed neutral for a couple of years too but finally made the fatal mistake of joining in.
So what Hitler, Mussolini and Peron all show is what most modern-day Leftist intellectuals passionately deny: That you can be an extreme Leftist and an extreme nationalist too. And it shows something very troubling too: That the combination of Leftism and nationalism is POPULAR! The popularity of that combination is also shown in the way Germans fought to the end for Hitler. Perhaps we should be thankful that modern-day Leftists (who are often anything but patriotic) have not learned all that their Fascist brethren might have taught them.
So the only puzzle or paradox of Peronism is one that modern-day Leftist intellectuals have artificially created for themselves. They refuse to accept that you can be BOTH a Leftist and a nationalist so are basically just lost for words (or sensible words anyway) when confronted with great historical figures such as Peron who prove by their living example that you CAN be both.
And Peron was of course almost as bad for Argentina as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Mussolini were for the countries that they led down the extreme Leftist path. Before Peron came to power, Argentina was one of the world’s richest countries but Peron sent it broke and it has never recovered — largely because, although Peron is dead, Peronism (Fascism) is still the strongest single force in Argentine politics.
Like other Leftists, Fascists may or may not be antisemitic. Hitler’s Fascist regime was of course enormously antisemitic but one swallow does not make a summer. And one of the other swallows was Peron. As I have already mentioned, Mussolini was not initially antisemitic until he was virtually forced into adopting some antisemitic measures by his alliance with Hitler — and Italy was even then one of the safer places for Jews to be in World War II Europe.
And Peron followed Mussolini. Although Jews were subjected to some attacks under his rule Peron was only marginally interested in them. He certainly had no interest in a “final solution”.
That this made him a typical Fascist rather than an atypical one can be seen if we add in the British example. Most people have probably forgotten that prewar Britain had a large Fascist movement too — under Sir Oswald Mosley. And Sir Oswald initially used to EXPEL from the British Union of Fascists anybody who made antisemitic utterances! When his meetings came under constant attack from Jewish Leftists, however, he had something of a rethink.
And Peron’s Fascism does of course explain why so many former German Nazis found a safe haven in Argentina after World War II. Peron was simply helping out his old friends.
Sweden: Fascism in slow motion
Although it is a commonplace that Hitler got good co-operation from Sweden both before and during the war, the idea that Sweden was itself in any sense Fascist must seem like one of the most absurd suggestions ever made. Has not Sweden been the great icon of the Democratic Left in the postwar period? It has indeed, though these days conservatives have better reasons for mentioning the Swedish experience than Leftists do. Nonetheless, little-recognized though it might be, there are substantial reasons for seeing interwar Sweden as Fascist. Whether or not Sweden was Fascist is however something of a sidetrack with no important implications either way so I have looked at the matter in a separate article.
Other 20th century Fascists?
To modern-day Leftists anybody they disagree with is a “fascist” so in their discourse the term is essentially devoid of meaning, but, aside from such childishness, it remains of interest to ask what other prominent Fascists there were in the 20th century? Were there other influential Leftists in the 20th century who were also nationalists and who might hence broadly be described as Fascists?
Such were the differences between the regimes usually called fascist that a really adequate answer would be a book-length enterprise so let me just list my conclusions followed by a few explanatory notes: In addition to Hitler, Mussolini and Peron, the true Fascists of the pre-war period were Dollfuss in Austria, Pilsudski in Poland, Mosley in Britain and Chiang Kai Shek in China. They were all clearly both socialists and nationalists and to varying degrees had many other trappings of Mussolini’s Fascism too — such as militarism and a liking for uniforms. Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portugal were only semi-Fascist. Tojo in Japan, Horthy in Hungary, Antonescu in Romania, Pavelic in Croatia were simply nationalists rather than Fascists. In more recent times Papadopoulos in Greece, Pinochet in Chile and Suharto in Indonesia were just common or garden variety military dictators. Military government is of course the rule rather than the exception throughout history. It was even the rule rather than the exception in ancient Greece. Pinochet, Suharto and Papadopoulos are sometimes mentioned as Fascists purely because they had significant far-Left opponents. It may be noted that their cultural backgrounds are quite different: Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox.
Some explanatory notes:
Mosley in Britain and Pilsudski in Poland were certainly both Leftist nationalists. Pilsudski was an unabashed socialist and Mosley’s starting point in politics was to agitate for better government treatment of World War I veterans. He broke with the British Labour party in 1930 and subsequently formed the “British Union of Fascists” (BUF) because he found Labour to be not socialist enough! Mosley is also interesting in that he lived into relatively recent times so could comment on the prewar period from a modern perspective. So note what he wrote in a letter to The Times of London on 26th. April 1968: “I am not, and never have been, a man of the right. My position was on the Left and is now in the centre of politics”.
Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portugal were Catholic syndicalists first of all, and Franco did keep himself above the Falange (the Spanish Fascists) but both were nationalist to the point of autarky and both ran an overpowering State apparatus so I think they can broadly be categorized as Fascists too. The major objection is probably that neither were as welfarist as Mussolini and Hitler, though syndicalism is of course allegedly welfarist. Both regimes must however be regarded as outliers rather than as embodying what is central to Fascism. They were Leftist (certainly not conservative) in their implementation of pervasive State power but not Leftist in rhetoric of representing the worker or in implementing extensive welfare systems. The most accurate description of Franco would probably be “a military dictator with Fascist and Catholic allies”. It may be noted that the Spanish Falangists (“Falange” means “Phalanx”) were initially anti-Catholic and that they were in any case eased out of power in the latter part of Franco’s rule in favour of the intensely Catholic Opus Dei movement.
Tojo and his clique in Japan, Admiral Horthy in Hungary, Antonescu in Romania, and Pavelic in Croatia co-operated with Hitler and Mussolini out of self-interest but were basically just patriots and nationalists rather than also being socialists.
A lesser-known case and therefore one of some interest is that of Chiang Kai Shek. He was much more like Hitler and Mussolini than Franco and Salazar were in that he very clearly came from the Left. Throughout the prewar period, Chiang had close ties with the Soviets and first gained substantial power with an explicitly communist message (see here). After he had consolidated his power, however, he attacked communism in China but retained some links with the Soviets. That he was a great nationalist is undoubted but was he also a Leftist? As with Mussolini, his later opposition to communism normally gets him labelled as a rightist but, as we have already seen, this is facile. From the French revolution on, Leftists have been very prone to murderous sibling rivalry — arguably hating one-another more than they hate conservatives. So Chiang’s falling out with Mao does not prove much. Given Chiang’s thoroughly authoritarian management of Taiwan after his expulsion from the mainland, given the large State industries he created in Taiwan and given his significant welfarist policies — his relatively peaceful land-to-the peasants reforms in particular — I think it is clear that Chiang was just as much a national socialist as Hitler and Mussolini — and his unabashed militarism rather completes the similarity. So Peron and and Chiang were two Fascists who survived the war with substantial power intact — as of course also did the semi-Fascist Franco and Salazar.
And of the three most significant Communist regimes to survive into the 21st century, two had degenerated into Fascism — China and North Korea. Both these were heavily nationalist as well as allegedly socialist. Only Castro’s Cuba did not seem to be strongly reliant on nationalist themes, though there is a site here that begs to differ. The Ho Chi Minh regime in Vietnam was Fascist (both nationalist and Leftist) from the beginning and the post-Ho arrangements there are remarkably like those of Mussolini.
And after an initial flirtation with democracy, Russia under Vladimir Putin seems to have moved towards Fascism too. And there is no doubt that, like Hitler, Mussolini and Peron, Putin is personally popular with his people. So the personality cult that tends to characterize all authoritarian regimes (whether Fascist or Communist) would already seem to be developing again in Russia. As a much more modern regime than Mussolini’s however, we cannot expect Putin’s Russia to have all the features of Fascist Italy. Mussolini’s regime was a product of the ideas that were popular in his time and Putin’s regime will undoubtedly gain approval in a similar way. As was pointed out at the beginning of this article, all Fascist regimes have features peculiar to themselves so in the end the only really common components of Fascism are nationalism combined with the paternalistic and authoritarian “we will look after you” undertaking that is basic to Leftism. Russia already has the national pride so just a bit more paternalism will make Russia clearly Fascist too. Fascist regimes do however allow considerable economic liberties and the example of China has shown that even a little liberty in the economic sphere can have remarkably transformative effects. So a Fascist Russia should be capable of considerable economic advancement for its people and thus will almost certainly be a much more relaxed regime than Soviet Russia. If economic progress in Russia is stifled under Putin, however, we could see the more dismal future outlined here.
There is practically no feature of modern-day Leftism that was not prefigured by Mussolini. It is clear from the many quotations and reports that are available (only a fraction of which are reproduced here) that Mussolini was very much a kindred spirit of modern-day Leftists. It is therefore hilarious that Leftists now use the name of his movement as their routine term of abuse! Ignorance of history does indeed lead to some strange follies.
He started out as such a radical unionist firebrand and Marxist agitator that he was often jailed for his pains. But as he matured he moved towards somewhat more moderate politics which saw him win power by political rather than by revolutionary means. Modern day Leftists seem to be the same. The young go out demonstrating against globalization and the like while older Leftists exert their efforts within the framework of conventional democratic politics — via the major Leftist political parties.
And no-one was a more ardent advocate of government provision of basic services than Mussolini was — and he actually put those ideas into practice on a large scale as well. And he also instituted a “welfare state” that was very advanced for the times.
In his “corporate state”, Mussolini was the first to create that very modern phenomenon constantly now being advocated by Leftists everywhere — a system of capitalism under tight government control. And his corporate state was one where the workers had (at least in theory) equal rights with management. He actually put into full-blown practice what is still a great but rather misty ideal for most Leftists.
And he was the first socialist ruler to turn to pragmatism in deciding economic policy, thus anticipating China’s Deng, Russia’s Gorbachev and Britain’s Prime Minister Blair by 60 years or more. Europe has still not entirely moved away from direct government participation in industry so Mussolini’s influence has stretched far forward right into our time. As one expert (Nicholas Farrell) on the history of Italian Fascism puts it:
So to have listened to Mussolini in the 1920′s or even earlier would be to have heard most of the Leftist ideas that are still being preached today. Intellectually, the 20th century was largely Mussolini’s, strange though that may at first seem. He substantially foreshadowed not only Lenin, Stalin and Hitler but even Gorbachev, Deng and Tony Blair. If any one man therefore has a claim to embody the Leftist politics of the 20th century, it is surely Mussolini.
The Fascist origins of modern-day Leftist ideas should then help to alert us to the authoritarianism and potential for tyranny that lurks beneath their supposedly “compassionate” surface.
What has been said here about the nature and history of Fascism is of course only a quick summary. For those who wish to explore the subject in greater depth, a useful recent resource would be a book by an expert on Italian Fascism: The Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century, by A. James Gregor, whose earlier book has been referred to several times above. There are two good short reviews of it here and here. Gregor shows that Fascism and Nazism modelled their methods on Lenin and Stalin and that the Fascist idea of adding nationalism to socialism was later taken up by Stalin and Mao — so that in the end Fascism and Communism were two very similar Leftist sects. So during the era of their big confrontation, Soviet Russia and Maoist China were therefore perfectly correct in accusing one-another of being Fascists! So the idea that Nazism and Fascism were Rightist is an old Soviet lie that Left-leaning intellectuals in the West have perpetuated in flagrant denial of historical reality.