A Leftist prophet
The ideas of Benito Mussolini, 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 amazing parallels.
The popular view
Popular encyclopedias such as Funk & Wagnalls 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 Conservative Catholic monarchist of Spain and the pragmatic socialist of Italy were in fact 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 are 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. That will attempted in the present article.
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.
In his 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).
"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. 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.
As described by others:
"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. 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 a lot of 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 was in fact first dubbed "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 not over any dissatisfaction with socialist ideology but rather because the Socialists were neutralists in the First World War whereas 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. 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 history. 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.
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"). 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?
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?
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.
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.
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 still 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.
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 in 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. 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.
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.
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. Further, there is something odd about the way people tend to look at how much Mussolini did for the workers, conclude that it was not much, and then conclude that he was not much of a Leftist. 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?
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 Winston Churchill (Hagan, 1966, p. 474). He was plausible to an amazingly wide range of people — not the least to the people of Italy.
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.
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.
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