Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(323)

Donald Sassoon, Harperpress, £14.99

This is a useful and concise explanation of how Mussolini came to power in October 1922. This was not by marching on Rome. Rather Mussolini arrived by sleeper train and was driven to the palace to be sworn in as premier by the king.

Donald Sassoon is especially good on the paralysis which overtook the liberal order which had run Italy since its unification. Wrapped between the great European powers, to which Italy aspired, and with a weak, though not insubstantial, economy, the ruling class in the course of the 20th century's second decade began to grasp that they could not rule in the old way.

The old way was one in which local and personal interests were what counted, reflecting the fact that Italy and its rulers were, in so many ways, deeply divided. The gap between the industrial north west and the rest of the country was the most obvious example, but there were many more.

Parliament was not based on a party system but on conflicting interests with governments essentially buying support. The master of this was Giovanni Giolitti who, prior to the First World War, dominated a series of governments, whether he was formally premier or not. But this set-up found itself squeezed from two directions from around 1910.

Firstly, there was a growing and increasingly insurgent working class movement, based not just in the towns and cities but among the agricultural labourers of the Po Valley and Puglia. Secondly, among the ruling class there was a growing sentiment for an aggressive imperialist policy abroad and a more robust response to strikes and other forms of plebeian unrest.

Things came to a head, as Sassoon explains, with Italy's entry, in 1915, into the First World War on the side of Britain and France. The pressure cooker effect of the war translated into the two post-war "Red Years" of 1919 to 1920 when fear of revolution gripped the ruling class.

Giolitti was brought back to office to contain and defuse this situation but got no thanks from a ruling class which demanded vengeance.

Fascism began in Emilia with bands of students and ex-servicemen waging war on the rural trade unions who failed to respond in a coordinated and effective manner. Sassoon is good on how Mussolini had to scramble to gain control over these bands of blackshirts.

The new fascist movement was never a tool of big business but it received greater direct funding, and even membership, from the ruling classes than Hitler's Nazis did prior to the final months before the takeover of power.

What the book shows is how liberal politicians and big business believed they could co-opt Mussolini, and how he played them well.

The one weakness in Sassoon's book is the absence of any idea that the working class could have stopped the fascist takeover (in part reflecting his relatively dismissive approach to the two Red Years). As in Germany the leadership of the left failed to unite to fight fascism and were blasé about the consequences of Mussolini's takeover, but the rank and file put up far greater resistance than anything seen in Germany 11 years later.