Theatre of revolution

While the March on Rome was significant, writes David Broder, the active collaboration of the Italian ruling class with the fascists was central

The Italian fascists’ March on Rome in the final days of October 1922 is not quite a hundred years behind us. Yet the reasons - real or presumed - for fascism’s rise have been very prominent in the Italian media and political sphere in recent months.

This owes not only to the rise of the contemporary far right, but also to this January’s centenary of the foundation of the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I), which is blamed for easing Benito Mussolini’s path to power. One of the most prominent new books on the PCd’I was penned by Ezio Mauro (a long-time editor of establishment centre-left daily La Repubblica) entitled The damnation: 1921, the divided left at the dawn of fascism.1 It blamed the communists’ split from the socialists - consummated at the Livorno congress in January 1921 - for allowing fascism to defeat a divided opposition. In Mauro’s version of events, particular blame attaches to the communists, given that their ambitions were motivated by the desire to “do like the Russians did”, when the real task of the time was to save Italian democracy.

Another volume of more scholarly trappings - The wind of the revolution by Marcello Flores and Giovanni Gozzini - presents the PCd’I of 1921-22 as governed by Amadeo Bordiga’s supposed logic of ‘the worse things get, the better’. Painted as a precursor to Stalin’s ‘Third Period’ theory of ‘social-fascism’,2 in these historians’ account the Bordiga leadership seemingly all but willed the fascists to power.

Even keener to stick the knife in are the politicians once close to the Communist Party, but who have since the 1990s reinvented themselves as liberals. On April 25 - the holiday marking the anniversary of the anti-fascist victory in 1945 - the formerly communist-aligned senator, Pietro Ichino, wrote that leftwingers should not bask in the partisans’ glory, but rather reflect on anti-fascists’ responsibility in Mussolini’s initial rise to power. For Ichino, the March on Rome was the product not only of a left which failed to “fight it effectively”, but also the strikes of the previous years and the “petty violence of farm labourers against their bosses, which proved useful only for justifying the big, systematic violence by the [fascist] squadristi”.3

Such virulent attacks on the left of a hundred years ago show how much of a shadow the Communist Party still casts over Italian public life - and how central condemning ‘Bolshevism’ remains to the identity of countless Eurocommunists-turned-liberals. Zealous ex- and anti-communists like to quote former president Francesco Cossiga’s comment that Italy is the “last country with pockets of actually-existing socialism”, from its supposed bureaucratic elephantiasis to the allegedly widespread presence of reds under the beds. This demands an endless war on all traces of leftwing thinking and identity, even in a country which no longer has any sizeable left and (as a crude but telling measure of this) has not had a single self-declared communist MP since 2008.

Such condemnations fit with what Richard Seymour wittily termed the “anti-communism without communism”, also pursued by hard-right governments in such countries as Brazil, Hungary and Poland.4 Yet these denunciations of the PCd’I of 1921-22 also draw on the vision advanced by the party in its 1930s Stalinist version under the leadership of Palmiro Togliatti, which redefined it in direct counterposition to its initial ‘sectarianism’ and its expelled founder, Amadeo Bordiga. In the high-Stalinist (popular-front) PCd’I, Bordiga and his co-thinkers were damned for passively failing to defend democracy; today, three decades after the party’s ultimate demise, ex-communist centrists still blame the party for failing to stop the rise of fascism, without seeming too bothered about what liberals like themselves were doing in the early 1920s.

This transfer of a somehow ‘internal’ polemic to a generic anti-communism is hardly unique to this case: the (different) Trotskyist critique of the KPD’s failure to form a united front against Hitlerism is gleefully mobilised by liberal historians to blame it alone for the Nazi victory in Germany5 - as if the liberals and national-conservatives’ unanimous vote for the Enabling Act in 1933 were ultimately the fault of Stalinism.

We will go on later to discuss the communists’ anti-fascist mobilisation and its limitations in more relative terms. Evidently, it is perverse that the only party that did mobilise armed resistance to fascism (alongside anti-fascist movements attached to no party), should today be infamous as the one force most to blame for Mussolini’s success. The ‘valour’ that attaches to this resistance does not, of course, absolve the party of responsibility for its mistakes or failures, or imply that its defeat was the simple result of circumstances beyond its control. But to set the communists’ activity in its proper context also demands that we understand those other forces that actively and willingly aided fascism to power: the reasons not just why the resistance failed, but why fascism was itself powerful.

I hope that this is useful in three particular ways. Firstly, because it is important to recognise the specific motors to fascist success a hundred years ago, to see not only the parallels with our own time, but also the differences with an era so heavily coloured by the recent experience of mass war mobilisation and its aftermath in post-war political violence. Secondly, to refute myths exaggerating the revolutionary aspects of fascism as a historical movement, and, connected to this, propagandistic claims as to its supposedly plebeian or even proletarian social base. And thirdly - connected to this - to reject the notion that there existed some innocent liberal-democratic side cruelly besieged by twin extremisms, when in reality anti-communism galvanised the main statesmen of liberal Italy into consistent indulgence of Mussolini and then active support for his first government.

This was evident when we look at the March on Rome itself. The march was not an armed coup d’état: the number of Blackshirts converging on the capital, by train or on foot, has been estimated at around 15,000 men, and they could easily have been rebuffed by the state’s own forces, had only these latter wanted to. Moreover, the fact that there was no such resistance did not owe simply to philo-fascist sentiment among the army or police, but rather the political leadership of liberal Italy. Statesmen like repeat prime minister Giovanni Giolitti and then-incumbent premier Luigi Facta had actively manoeuvred to bring Mussolini into government in some form, having already since November 1920 run joint electoral lists.

Since August 1922, there had been negotiations on various coalitions including the fascists, despite their small parliamentary weight; Mussolini had promised various liberal leaders that he would be willing to join their administrations, or perhaps let a non-fascist rightwinger like Antonio Salandra (the prime minister who had brought Italy into World War I) lead a cabinet with a strong fascist presence.

The March on Rome, from October 28 to 30, was a spectacular piece of theatre; it did involve occasional clashes with police, as in Pisa, when fascists commandeered trains and took down telegraph wires. Yet the fact that the king appointed Mussolini as premier on October 31 owed not simply to an impressive display of Blackshirt force, but the fact that there was no ‘anti-fascist’ prejudice that would have led the dominant liberal and conservative politicians to reject a coalition with him. They were, in short, consistently anti-communist, but prepared to accommodate to the fascists. Mussolini’s first government was voted full powers by the previous four liberal prime ministers; the only change his allies imposed on his planned coalition was to bar any representatives of the CGL trade union confederation from joining the cabinet.

In this sense it is important to reject the excuses provided by liberals who voted for Mussolini’s first government like idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce and former prime minister Ivanoe Bonomi - a renegade socialist who returned to high office in June 1944 when the Allies liberated Rome. These figures’ pleading that they backed Mussolini’s first government in November 1922 in a failed effort to moderate his movement is no explanation at all - for this was the explicit claim that the fascist leader himself made at the time. Mussolini insisted that only by bringing his movement into government would it be possible to tame the rowdier elements of the Blackshirt base; in historian Adrian Lyttleton’s words, this “actually identified normalisation with the piecemeal conquest of state power”. The call for peace was in essence a call for capitulation, according to the logic that “it is incredible how the squad leader changes when he becomes a councillor or a mayor”.6

Relative to the fascist paramilitary leaders like Giuseppe Bottai and Roberto Farinacci, Mussolini presented himself to liberal and conservative politicians as a man with whom they could do business - alternately using displays of armed force and moments of “disciplining the ranks” in order to convert his leadership of the fascist movement into a stranglehold on the state machine. The March on Rome was fully in line with this logic, enacting a transfer of power which was already underway, albeit incipiently, by constitutional means - it had first been conceived as a means of pressure, ensuring that a new coalition should have six fascist ministers rather than only two.

Two months before the king appointed Mussolini prime minister on October 31 1922, the fascist leader had told his lieutenants that they needed to have the “courage to become monarchists”: that is, to join rather than overthrow the constitutional order. Historian Emilio Gentile puts it bluntly: the March on Rome was a compromise between Mussolini and the liberal state.7

Ruling class allies

That such a coalition was possible was surprising to no-one - as early as the November 1920 local elections, the fascists had stood in alliance with liberals and conservatives in a common ‘National Bloc’, and in May 1921, 35 of them were elected to the national parliament (Chamber of Deputies - total 535 seats) as part of this same alliance. Yet, while the existence of this small parliamentary base doubtless aided the constitutional takeover in October 1922, the fascist movement’s strength was based on its extra-parliamentary force directed against the left and labour movement and, connected to this, the weakness and indulgent attitude of the state’s repressive machine.

This was shaped firstly by the country’s weak democratic traditions - not only in the sense that male universal suffrage had been granted only in 1912 (which hardly made Italy an outlier among European countries), but also the near absence of mass parties, with the parliamentary system organised around clientelism and local patronage. The centrality of horse-trading and vote-buying had been fundamental to the so-called Giolittian era, in the period from around 1890 to 1920, dominated by the liberal statesman, Giovanni Giolitti. But added to this was a much more destabilising factor: the millions of soldiers returning from World War I - brutalised, mobilised and often still armed after the conflict, yet with the wartime promises of social reform and land redistribution unkept by post-war governments.

The combination of these factors, as well as the abrupt reconversion to peacetime production, made the post-war situation constitutively febrile. On the nationalist side of politics, particular resentment owed to the fact that Italy had been on the winning side in the war, but made only minor territorial gains - its half-million dead earning it only what Gabriele D’Annunzio, a partisan of resumed wars of conquest, termed a “mutilated victory”.

This did not mean that the soldiers returning from the front from winter 1918-19 onward were already prey to fascist ideas. Emilio Lussu, himself an ‘interventionist’ (pro-war) socialist at the beginning of the war and later a leader of the anti-fascist Action Party, wrote in his 1931 book The March on Rome8 of rank-and-file soldiers’ disgust at those men who had “advocated the war, but not themselves fought it”. Mussolini had himself joined the army, but been discharged in February 1917 after being hit by shrapnel and needing an operation.

A former editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti!, Mussolini had been expelled from the party on account of his call for Italy to enter the war, before it actually joined on the French-British side in May 1915. The initial movement around Mussolini’s new newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia was distinguished from some other nationalist movements by its commitment to these “democratic” powers, rather than Italy’s previous German and Austrian-Hungarian allies, and even in the early post-war months fascism remained highly politically unstable. During the biennio rosso strike wave of 1919-20 - driven by disappointed hopes of social change, but also the effects of rapid conversion from war to peace industries - Mussolini had even visited occupied factories near Bergamo to praise the “creative strikes that do not interrupt production”: that is, factory occupations that heralded new forms of workplace representation, rather than seeking to shut down the engine of industry.

The initial fascist movement, formed in 1919, bore an extremely varied array of influences, from Mazzinian republicanism to a more traditional nationalism. Yet the multiple demands of the war generation served as an ideological glue: what Mussolini called the “aristocracy of the trenches”, as against the feebleness of liberal parliamentarism.

At least initially, the cadres of the fascist movement had an oversized presence among demobilised officers, as well as students, independent professionals and white-collar employees. In its initial programme the movement did advertise unspecific “social” objectives, such as land redistribution, the lowering of the pension age, and corporatist forms of collective bargaining. Yet, while the electoral advance of the Socialist PSI (with its 32% in the November 1919 election, making it the single largest party) and the strikes and factory occupations of September 1920 succeeded in radicalising the anti-socialist students and ex-officers of such ‘red’ strongholds as Bologna, fascism assumed mass dimensions only in 1921.

Decisive in this regard was the support urban fascist groups received from landowners, who began to employ them to break up the peasant leagues, whether under socialist or Catholic (Popular Party) leadership - that is, an ‘anti-Bolshevism’ directed not at an immediate revolutionary threat, but rather the reformist achievements from previous waves of organising. This accelerated after the biennio rosso was already over, with fascist violence especially targeted at the institutions of reformist socialism, such as peasant and consumer cooperatives, newspapers and labour halls (Camere del Lavoro).

From this derived the constitutive double-sidedness of fascism: an avowedly ‘modernising’ and ‘regenerative’ movement of urban bourgeois youth, funded by conservative agrarian interests before securing the backing of the big industrialists. Fascism hired out its services as an ‘instrument’ of capitalist reaction against the left and labour movement - but also used this to rapidly expand its own armed organisation, separate from Italy’s liberal institutions, and quickly to begin ousting socialist-led local administrations by force, often with police connivance. The dominant parliamentary force, the liberals, did nothing to defend broad democratic rights, apart from the most tokenistic calls for an end to violence; upon the renegade socialist Bonomi’s appointment as prime minister at the start of July 1921, Antonio Gramsci could even term him the “main organiser of Italian fascism”, given his recent ministerial record in purging the armed forces of leftwingers, but not Blackshirts.

Faced with this growing paramilitary conquest of Italy, and the liberal institutions’ indulgence of it, the workers’ parties were the main target of violence, with a death toll in the low thousands. Their failure to organise a common front of resistance - and the special blame attaching to the PCd’I in this regard - is a common theme of literature from both the Togliattian tradition and works by Trotskyist authors like Tom Behan, which often focused on the potential for resistance shown by the Arditi del Popolo movement (AdP), which did at times successfully defend working class neighbourhoods from fascist assault.9 The PCd’I’s failure to intervene more effectively in the AdP movement, led by anarchists and republicans, was a criticism levelled against it at the Comintern Fourth Congress in November 1922, just weeks after the March on Rome.

But before we go on to discuss this movement formed in late June 1921, it is worth highlighting that the communists were not - contrary to the commonplace damnatio memoriae - either passive, faced with the rise of fascist attacks, or indifferent to the need for armed organisation. Already during the biennio rosso in 1919-20, which had driven the local-level emergence of ‘red guards’, the question of political violence had been a key drive to the incipient socialist-communist split, with the Communist Fraction seeing the old party’s limp pacifism and complacent reliance on the existing constitutional order as illustrative of the reasons why a revolutionary party was needed.

Already during the biennio rosso the socialist youth (which decamped en bloc to the PCd’I in January 1921) had mounted its own independent study of the military question and the means at hand, and throughout 1920 Francesco Misiano - a non-abstentionist communist close to Bordiga’s Naples Il Soviet group, who had spent almost a year in prison in Germany after his participation in the Spartakus Uprising in Berlin - had insisted on the question within the socialist leadership.

Misiano was elected a socialist MP in 1919 and was then a leading figure in the communist split in January 1921; already by this point a death sentence had been passed against him by the nationalist poet and paramilitary leader, Gabriel d’Annunzio, on account of his desertion during World War I. In June 1921 he was carried out of parliament by fascist deputies and dragged through the streets, his hair forcibly shaven; he was forced into hiding and eventual exile, though already by the end of that year parliament voted to expel him.

Faced with such attacks, the socialists nonetheless counselled the gospel of ‘turning the other cheek’ - or, in the words of reformist leader Filippo Turati, “the courage to be cowardly”. At the beginning of August 1921, the liberal prime minister, Ivanoe Bonomi, brokered a ‘pacification pact’ between the socialists and the fascists, in which each agreed to disarm. This also amounted to an excommunication by the socialists of the AdP, on the understanding that an end to violence by all extremists would allow a return to the normal functioning of Italian democracy.

Yet in practice there was no equivalence in this relationship: police (often allied to fascists) used the pact as a pretext for raids and ‘weapons checks’ on socialist party branches and cooperatives, whereas local fascist hierarchs were quick to refuse the pact Mussolini had just signed and continued their ‘punitive expeditions’ against the left. If in its own way a display of Mussolini’s inability to dictate a central line to his base at this point, this play of military pressure from below (and his role as conciliator) was also central to his entire project - it allowed him to present himself to liberal and conservative politicians as a peacemaker, even at the same time as the Blackshirt movement constantly waged war on leftwing ‘subversion’.

Failed resistance

What, then, were the prospects of resistance against the gradual fascist conquest of Italy? Many accounts highlight the essential military superiority of the Blackshirt movement - not least its success in coordinating forces from across whole regions to overwhelm targets fighting isolated defensive battles. For reformist socialist Pietro Nenni, there was no chance of a successful armed resistance to a movement so strongly backed from within the state’s own repressive apparatus.

Responding to this, Behan’s account centres on the possibility of stirring dissent within the armed forces, thus breaking this front of paramilitary and official violence. The AdP was itself a creation of anti-fascist army officers (including ‘interventionist’ - ie, pro-war - republicans). The PCd’I’s armed structures, which trained all able-bodied members and also distributed thousands of weapons (many coming from the overspill of the German and Hungarian revolutions) did play an active role in resisting fascist attacks. But despite the party’s insistence - as against the socialists - on the need to “take to the same terrain as the bourgeoisie”, in reality its action was largely defensive and reactive. Its command was led by the Ufficio I (‘illegal office’) headed by Bruno Fortichiari.

While in cities like Livorno, Rome and Parma the communists fought alongside the AdP - albeit as a distinct force - the position of Bordiga (and, at the time, also Gramsci, Togliatti, Umberto Terracini and all major leaders) was to insist on the need to maintain the PCd’I’s own organisational integrity, including on military grounds. Yet this implied no general refusal to join other forces in fighting the fascists, even from outside the workers’ movement - in the days before the March on Rome, Fortichiari even issued a circular calling on the PCd’I to launch a general offensive against the Blackshirts, if they clashed with the Royal Guards.

More than communist sectarianism, the obsessive anti-communism within the Italian state destroyed its own defences against the fascist conquest of power. The biennio rosso had struck fear into the hearts of the bourgeoisie, without being able to lead to any revolutionary conclusion; the number of industrial workers at that time was only around half a million, and the petty localism and verbal radicalism of the Socialist Party ensured that the movement lacked any strategic direction able to mobilise a broad worker-peasant alliance around the factory occupations and their demands.

Already by the moment of the factory occupations of September 1920, Gramsci saw grim prognoses as to the prospects of revolution in Italy, and the Communist Party was founded in January 1921 in a moment of severe reflux, soon compounded by the disastrous March Action in Germany. Yet the German case did also offer some inspiration: in March 1920 the Kapp Putsch led by far-right army officers had been felled by a general strike, called by the social democratic government. There, both the impressive force of the workers’ movement and the SPD’s commitment to the Weimar Republic - which had so recently led it to join the violent repression of the revolutionary left - had steeled the state machine against Wolfgang Kapp’s onslaught.

Yet even the more reformist elements of Italian socialism were weakly integrated into the bourgeois parliamentary game, and when, on July 31 1922, the trade unions called a “strike for legality” in protest at the fascist violence which struck against the labour movement and even leftish Catholics, the result was to push the liberal leaders toward Mussolini. The fascists issued a 48-hour deadline, demanding that the state crush the strike, or else they would - and the violence that then followed demonstrated both the Blackshirts’ dramatically superior military force and their indulgence by official Italy.

While in Parma the AdP and the local working class population successfully resisted the invasion by Italo Balbo’s fascist forces, and the fascists were also repulsed in Bari, the Blackshirts overran socialist-controlled Milan city hall, and the reformists’ rapid move to call off the strike faced with the violent backlash in turn left the few pockets of resistance isolated.

The ‘legalitarian strike’ and its failure were the moment that liberal leaders decisively opted for a formal pact with Mussolini. They chose this path of ‘normalisation’, even though they had seen the thousands that fascism had killed, the burned newspaper offices and the overthrown mayors and city councils across Italy. Without doubt, the socialists’ lack of military response to the Blackshirt movement in the ‘offensive’ phase of the workers’ movement in 1919-20 made this appeasement of Mussolini an easier decision for men like Bonomi and the king: fascism was not their own instrument, but rather a force which they believed they could accommodate and normalise, unlike the revolutionary threat they still saw in the Socialist and Communist parties.

After the March on Rome, the fascists would, in turn, continue their piecemeal conquest of power, with their violence turning from the left to even liberals, ultimately banning all opposition in late 1926. Not just industrialists or landlords, but even the officials at the helm of Italy’s parliamentary institutions had opted for Mussolini over the even notional ‘red’ threat.

We can hardly doubt that liberals were sincerely appalled when Blackshirts murdered the social democratic MP, Giacomo Matteotti, in June 1924, or the liberal former colonies minister, Giovanni Amendola, in April 1926 - and there were plenty of individual cases of figures who voted full powers to Mussolini’s first government, before becoming anti-fascists, as the regime then hardened. Yet, taken as a whole, the hegemonic orientation of the Italian ruling class was that of an active and even enthusiastic collaboration with the fascist regime, whose massive wage compression, commitment to ‘sound money’ and repression of the most basic working class defence were sure to win support. If syndicalist fascists made big claims of their project for a ‘corporatist’ economy, fusing employers’ organisations and fascist trade unions, these latter had no shopfloor presence, and the regime’s actual corporatist structures served more as a coordination between private businessmen and the selection of ‘national champions’.

A well-established argument from historian Renzo de Felice differentiates between the fascist movement and fascist regime - the expectations of the Blackshirt grassroots and local hierarchs, measured against the reality of Mussolini in power and his accommodation with the pre-existing institutions of the Italian state, the church and industrialist and agrarian interests. From 1919 until the final consolidation of the regime in the late 1920s, the balancing act between the two was the very basis of Mussolini’s authority - using his alliance with institutional power and top capitalists as a means to discipline the fascists’ expectations, and in turn using the latent threat from these latter to break down the weak defences put up by the Italian state.

The March on Rome was the culmination of this process - the theatre of revolution which sealed a grubby deal with the old men of liberal Italy.

  1. E Mauro La dannazione 1921: la sinistra divisa all’alba del fascismo Milan 2021.↩︎

  2. M Flores and G Gozzini Il vento della rivoluzione: la nascita del Partito comunista italiano Rome 2021, pp75, 97.↩︎

  3. P Ichino, ‘A che cosa dovrebbe servire il 25 aprile’: pietroichino.it/?p=58622.↩︎

  4. R Seymour, ‘Why is the nationalist right hallucinating a “communist enemy”?’ theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/26/communist-enemy-nationalist-right-trump-us-bolsonaro-brazil.↩︎

  5. Notable in this regard is the percolation of specific tropes and quotes from the anti-Stalinist left through liberal historiography: for instance, the infamous German Communist Party (KPD) watchword, “After Hitler, our turn”. This was not a real KPD slogan, but a parodic summary of the party line by CLR James. Yet it has had an afterlife in liberal condemnations of leftist sectarianism: eg, in centrist US Democrats denouncing Bernie Sanders’ “divisive” primary efforts as driven by the spirit of ‘After Trump, our turn’.↩︎

  6. A Lyttleton The seizure of power: fascism in Italy 1919-1929 London 1987, p134.↩︎

  7. E Gentile L’Ideologia del fascismo (1918-1925) Bologna 2011.↩︎

  8. E Lusso La marcia su Roma e dintorni Milan 1968, pp11-12.↩︎

  9. T Behan The resistible rise of Benito Mussolini London 2003.↩︎