Heading far-right

In light of recent opinion polls, Toby Abse looks at the increasing danger of a neo-fascist government

The Italian far right is the strongest in western Europe, at least in terms of opinion poll ratings. Two of the parties represented in the Italian parliament can only but be described as far-right: namely the Lega and Fratelli d’Italia (FdI). At the European level, the Lega is allied with both Marine le Pen’s Rassemblement National and the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

The FdI is, as I will explain below, directly descended from the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), so readers should not be misled by its membership of the European Conservative and Reformist group (ECR), of which FdI leader Giorgia Meloni is president.1 The FdI and the Lega currently have the support of 20.5% and 17.4% of voters respectively. The FdI is the second most popular Italian party, very narrowly behind the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD), which has 20.8%. I will discuss each of these parties in more detail, before touching on the best-known extra-parliamentary and more openly violent far-right outfits, Forza Nuova and Casa Pound.

The FdI’s leading figures came into politics as members of the MSI, the neo-fascist party founded in the late 1940s by Giorgio Almirante. He started his career as editor of La Difesa della Razza, the anti-Semitic journal set up in the later years of the fascist regime in the wake of the racial laws of 1938. He played an active role in the Repubblica Sociale Italiano (RSI), Mussolini’s puppet republic of September 1943-April 1945, which collaborated with the German occupiers in sending Jews to the death camps and slaughtering not only resistance fighters, but also many Italian civilians who either really or only allegedly sympathised with the resistance.


MSI’s choice of name was as blatant a reference to Mussolini’s RSI as could be made at the time, since Italy’s 1948 constitution formally prohibited the reformation of a fascist party. The continuity between the MSI and FdI is not only a question of the long-term trajectory of the FdI’s leading personnel (like Ignazio La Russa, who first came to prominence as a neo-fascist street fighter in 1970s Milan, or Giorgia Meloni, who joined the MSI’s youth wing as a teenager), but also of its use of symbolism - for instance, the Tricolor Flame (Fiamma tricolore) of the MSI has been incorporated into the FdI’s electoral logo. In short, the FdI implicitly rejects the belated attempt by the MSI’s last leader, Gianfranco Fini, to transform the party into a more mainstream conservative party, as the Alleanza Nazionale (AN) in the late 1990s.2

Fini’s political career ended in disaster, when it was revealed that he had sold a house in Monte Carlo bequeathed to AN to his own brother-in-law at a price far below its market value. However, given the degree of corruption prevalent in mainstream Italian politics, Fini’s desertion by his erstwhile close associates in MSI/AN probably owed much more to their distaste for Fini’s willingness to repudiate Mussolini’s legacy than to any shock at this swindle. Moreover, many of them, including Meloni and La Russa, subsequently spent a few years in Berlusconi’s Partito della Libertà (PdL - Party of Freedom, as Forza Italia temporarily renamed itself after its fusion with the remnants of AN). This was hardly the action of anybody disgusted by financial malfeasance, since Berlusconi was a far more serious crook than Fini.

Whilst some ex-AN members, such as Fini’s former leading lieutenant, Maurizio Gasparri, remained in Forza Italia up to the present, the PdL fusion failed and La Russa and Meloni set up the FdI in 2012. Whilst Meloni’s only spell in public office was as Silvio Berlusconi’s youth minister in his 2008-11 government, her very recent remark that “I owe him nothing” is true enough - he had to give the former MSI/AN group within the PdL some minor posts, and very few veteran neo-fascists were of an age to be a credible youth minister.3

Her decision to set up the FdI may have seemed foolhardy at the time, but the party has made very rapid progress over the last four years, moving from the fringe to the mainstream. It only scored 4.4% at the last general election in 2018, and even its improved 6.5% score in the 2019 European election only placed it fifth, behind the Lega, the PD, Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) and Forza Italia. Meloni’s decision not to join Mario Draghi’s national unity government (which included all the other major parties - PD, Lega, M5S and Forza Italia - as well as some minor ones) has been a major factor in her party’s rise, enabling her to win over many of the 34.3% who had voted for the Lega in the 2019 European contest, at a time when Matteo Salvini’s strident anti-migrant and Europhobic rhetoric had made him the dominant figure on the far right.


FdI is a more consistently ideological party than the Lega, and in recent times this has been made apparent in two of Meloni’s key decisions. The first, as I have suggested above, was not to join the Lega last February in entering Draghi’s government. This enabled Meloni to pose as the pure opponent of a liberal and pro-European establishment, in contrast to the vacillating Salvini, who has had to restrain himself to some extent and some of the time - especially since one wing of his party remains northern regionalist rather than ultra-nationalist, and is very eager to gain pragmatic advantages for northern capital from EU funds. The second was to refuse to join Forza Italia and the Lega in belatedly supporting Sergio Mattarella’s re-election as Italian president, even in the eighth and final ballot of that epic contest at the end of January.

Mattarella is a popular figure, and there was a pragmatic logic to the decision of the other two components of the ‘centre-right’ electoral coalition to back the winner after their own candidates had either given up a couple of days before the start of the contest (Silvio Berlusconi) or failed even to keep their own official supporters loyal in a secret ballot (Elisabetta Casallati). However, Meloni, in urging her followers to back the no-hoper, Carlo Nordio, to the end, was able to appear more principled.4 This oppositional stance means she has been able to rally a lot of the discontented in society to her side at a time when the combination of two years of Covid with an economic crisis has left a lot of people angry and eager to find scapegoats. Arguably, there has been a steady radicalisation towards the extreme right of a lot of the disaffected groups, who first looked to M5S in 2018, and then the Lega in 2019 as an anti-system party.5

The Lega, as many readers will remember, started life in 1992 as the Lega Nord6 - in other words. as a northern regionalist party that was hostile to the Italian central state, as the slogan ‘Roma ladrona!’ (Rome, the big thief) made clear. It was also rabidly hostile to southern Italians, as slogans such as ‘Forza Etna!’ or ‘Forza Vesuvio!’ indicated. At one stage, it went beyond demands for increased regional autonomy and advocated a totally independent Padania (within the EU), but subsequently returned to its original advocacy of more devolution. It has always been racist in the more conventional sense of hostility to blacks and Arabs, but was originally hostile to Italian nationalism - especially ultra-nationalism, and hence by and large opposed to neo-fascism, which it saw as linked with Rome, the south, statism and so on.

Whilst Berlusconi gradually persuaded Umberto Bossi to join his Forza Italia and the neo-fascist MSI/AN in various ‘centre-right’ coalitions, this process had its ups and downs. Bossi broke with Berlusconi in late 1994, fought the 1996 general election in solitary opposition to both Berlusconi and the left, and only came on board again in 2000. Eventually Bossi was forced to resign as party leader after he and his family were found to be involved in a corruption scandal.

For a period, he was succeeded by Roberto Maroni, who had been interior minister in one of Berlusconi’s governments, but this change of leadership failed to halt the party’s decline, and Maroni was in turn replaced by Matteo Salvini. Salvini soon transformed the party’s stance from pro-European/northern regionalist to anti-European/Italian ultra-nationalist. He even changed the party’s name, dropping the Nord from Lega Nord and put the phrase ‘La Lega per Salvini’ on ballot papers. This abrupt change did not go down too well in many of the party’s northern strongholds, and there is still some degree of grumbling amongst its elected representatives in northern municipalities and regional governments, who are aware that the old line was more popular with their own traditional voters.

However, the shift to nationalism enabled the Lega to make a breakthrough in central and southern Italy, and attain its highest ever general election score of 17.4% in 2018. Salvini was able to overtake Forza Italia, which only got 14% in 2018, and therefore present himself, rather than Berlusconi, as the overall leader of the so-called ‘centre-right’. In the aftermath of that election, he decided to make a governmental alliance with the politically confused populists of M5S, becoming deputy prime minister and minister of the interior in Giuseppe Conte’s first government (June 2018-August 2019). His new position allowed him to bring in tough anti-migrant ‘security laws’, and to ostentatiously refuse to let ships with refugees land in Italian ports.

Buoyed up by the Lega’s 34.3% score in the June 2019 European elections, he overreached himself in August 2019, breaking with M5S in a bid to precipitate an early general election. However, Conte outmanoeuvred him and formed a second, more leftish government, aligning M5S with the PD. From that moment on, Salvini has been on the defensive, and the Lega’s decision to abandon opposition and join Draghi’s national unity government may well have been the result of pressure from the more traditional northern regionalist elements of the Lega, represented by his deputy, Giancarlo Giorgetti, the current minster for economic development. Salvini’s attempt to intervene as kingmaker in the ballot for the presidency of the republic, by putting forward a succession of candidates without sufficient consultation with the rest of the parliamentary right, ended in failure. There is now the possibility that the Lega may revert to a slightly more moderate line that contrasts with Salvini’s deliberate adoption of catchphrases heavily associated with Mussolini back in 2018-19. However, the alleged turn to a more pro-EU stance associated with participation in the Draghi government is still contradicted by the alliance with Le Pen and the AfD at the European level - an alliance which Giorgetti thinks they should ditch.


Thus far, I have concentrated on the parliamentary far right, represented by FdI and the Lega, but one cannot ignore the more openly thuggish groups active on the streets, of which Forza Nuova and Casa Pound are the most prominent, although not the sole examples. Both have contested elections under their own banner in the past, but after their miserable scores in 2018, they seem to have turned towards Salvini. By and large they tend to regard Meloni and the FdI as ‘traitors’ who are insufficiently vigorous in defending the fascist heritage, although there is probably some element of overlap with FdI in some localities, just as there was between the MSI and fascist terrorist groups in the cold war years.7

Both these groups have a long record of violence, sometimes including murder, against gypsies, blacks and leftists. Forza Nuova led the successful attack on the headquarters of Italy’s largest trade union confederation, the CGIL, on October 9 2021. Although mainstream press sources claim that Forza Nuova only has about 300 members, it has been the main force behind Italy’s anti-vax movement, which for months on end was able to mobilise thousands on the streets of Rome and Milan every Saturday afternoon. Forza Nuova is led by Roberto Fiore, the man who has been active on the extreme right for more than four decades. Fiore, involved in neo-fascist terrorism in the late 1970s, was able to live a charmed existence in Chelsea for most of the 1980s, only returning to Italy when the criminal charges against him were ‘timed out’.8 It is widely believed that in London he enjoyed the protection of MI5, not just of the Italian secret services, whose association with neo-fascist terrorism from 1969 until at least the mid-1980s has been proved on numerous occasions. Given that the police and Carabinieri were easily able and willing to scan crowds with helicopters and drones in Rome during the G20 summit later in October 2021, it is hard to believe that there was not some degree of collusion by some elements of the security forces in the total devastation of a centrally located building equivalent to the TUC headquarters in Great Russell Street.

Be that as it may, recent investigations by magistrates have shown that Fiore and his associates were able to bring millions of euros into Italy from the UK to finance the anti-vax protests, using British trusts with names like ‘St Mark the Evangelist’ and ‘St Michael the Archangel’, reminiscent of the scam involving a chain of phoney charity shops named after St George that brought Fiore to the attention of the Evening Standard during his London years. Needless to say, Casa Pound was also eager to intervene in the anti-vax movement, but these enthusiasts for the anti-Semitic poet seem to have taken second place to Fiore’s followers.

However, Casa Pound cannot be ignored. It was its leaders, rather than Fiore, who joined Salvini for dinner after the first Lega rally in central Rome, which he organised with Casa Pound’s assistance soon after changing the name of the former Lega Nord. This close association with Salvini, who went on to become interior minister in 2018-19, may partially explain why no attempt has been made to evict the leadership of Casa Pound from the government-owned building near Rome’s main railway station that it has illegally occupied for two decades.9

In conclusion, it needs to be stressed that electoral support for the Lega and FdI is not confined to the petty bourgeoisie or the lumpen proletariat - two sectors which have suffered as a result of Covid and its economic consequences. More than 50% of the ‘operai’ (ie, manual workers, in factories, construction, ports, etc) express support for one of these two parties in what seems to have been a serious survey10 - with the Lega doing somewhat better than the FdI, since the old Lega Nord had already made inroads into the northern working class electorate, especially in smaller towns. By contrast, only 9% supported the PD, and support for anything to its left seemed minimal.

As the economic crisis deepens and the price of fuel and food rises, the longer the PD remains inside Draghi’s neoliberal national unity government, the more likely it is that the 2023 general election will produce a far-right government, probably with Giorgia Meloni rather than Matteo Salvini as prime minister.

  1. The largest component of the ECR in the European Parliament is the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS). The ECR was originally founded by the British Conservatives under David Cameron when they left the more europhile Christian Democratic group known as the European People’s Party (EPP). Although the ECR’s original Italian affiliate was Raffaele Fitto’s small split from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and the FdI only wormed its way into the ECR through incorporating Fitto’s minor group into its own ranks, it is nonetheless worth noting that in the last months of the Tory presence in the European parliament after the June 2019 European election, the Conservatives happily sat beside these heirs of Mussolini.↩︎

  2. The fact that both La Russa and Meloni were sufficiently opportunist as politicians to remain inside AN rather than join one of the ill-fated hard-line splinters, such as Moviemento Sociale Fiamma Tricolore, should not fool us into thinking that they genuinely approved of Fini’s project.↩︎

  3. This appointment cannot be ascribed to Berlusconi’s notorious fondness for much younger women. Unlike some of Berlusconi’s other female ministers, who have remained leading figures in Forza Italia, nobody has ever alleged that her promotion was due to her physical appearance rather than her political acumen. Indeed, when Meloni is not claiming that political attacks on her are motivated by her gender, she is wont to say that her critics are picking on her because she is short.↩︎

  4. Moreover, Nordio got a noticeably larger number of votes than the total of FdI members in the electoral college, suggesting Meloni is now gaining support from other parties of the right.↩︎

  5. M5S topped the 2018 poll with 32.7%, slipped down to 17.1% in 2019, and currently stands at 15.6%. The Lega got 17.4% in 2018, rising to 34.3% in 2019 and is now back at 17.4% and probably falling.↩︎

  6. This was itself an initially uneasy fusion of Umberto Bossi’s Lega Lombarda with the Liga Veneta. I have discussed this earlier period in previous Weekly Worker articles.↩︎

  7. Some members or close sympathisers of Forza Nuova and Casa Pound have been elected to local councils under other labels in the context of broad alliances involving the allegedly respectable right.↩︎

  8. Space does not permit an extensive discussion of the bizarre Italian practice of prescrizione - usually translated (rather inaccurately) into English as ‘statute of limitations’.↩︎

  9. No such tolerance has been shown in Rome to other illegal occupations by migrants, leftists or even one fairly mainstream feminist group.↩︎

  10. It was treated as accurate by journalists from both La Repubblica, a daily now owned by the Agnelli/Elkann family, and Il Manifesto, the self-styled ‘communist’ daily.↩︎