Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Mussolini: Parables For Today

By William E. Connolly

Author, Resounding Events: Adventures of an Academic from the Working Class

M. by Antonio Scurati, translated into English in 2021, is a long novelesque account of the rise of Mussolini. The 773 page text is divided into a series of three or four page sharp novelistic accounts of this or that event, each followed by quotations from the key figures of the moment. 

Some critics treat the style of the text as a danger itself, fearing it might attract people to new fascist movements.  I treat that danger as real but minor by comparison to how it teaches critics of fascism how such a movement works, how it can alert those who are too casual about those dangers, how its attractions speak to real contingencies of today, and what might be done to avoid the mistakes liberals and others made about Mussolini in his own day. It challenges casualism. Organized in its episodic way, the text highlights numerous contingencies that might have broken this or that way. Sometimes a contingency breaks against M; sometimes for him; sometimes he helps to nudge it in his favor. M is thus not the master mind of a victiorious march to Rome that was inevitable; he is the mercurial leader of a movement who senses how to withdraw at one moment, dissemble at others, and strike at yet others. The text rounds out key figures such as Mussolini, who starts as a young leader of Socialism; Italo Balbo, who becomes the smiling, ruthless leader of the violent squadrista; Gabriele D’Annunzio, the foremost poet of Italy who supports Italian takeover of Fiume-a city in Croatia; Giacoma Matteoti, the socialist member of parliament who opposed Mussolini long after liberals, the Vatican, and industrialists had given up; Benedettoo Croce, the liberal who first opposes M’s advance and then concludes it may not be all that bad; Margherita Sarfatti, the upper class artist and long term mistress of M; Pareto, the renowned theorist of elite rule and secret counselor to Mussolini; and many others too numerous to be covered in this review. 

It is unwise to look for parallels or equivalences between the time of Mussolini and today. But if you read this brilliant text as a long series of parables, numerous resonances and affinities between then and now may become discernible.  Resonances that may allow antifascists better to understand the convolutions through which Mussolini came to power. A parable, as Jesus and Zarathustra knew, is a vague saying or short story too brief and circumspect from which to draw specific conclusions for other times, but juicy and urgent enough to trigger insights, warnings, and prompts from which tnew responses can be mined. Parables travel across time. They make you think. This set offers insights that might speak, for starters, to the later regimes of Hitler, Bolsanaro, Putin,  Orban, and Trump. Insights that might strengthen the backbones of those who want to think the danger of Trumpism faded or died after his electoral defeat in 2020.   Here I mostly stick to the parables themselves. Except when I cannot stop from doing otherwise.

M begins his long trek to power as a radical socialist after WWI, during a period of inflation and stress marked by the return of soldiers to a country not ready to assimilate them. Mussolini is a defender of the returning veterans in 1919 who also becomes the editor of Avanti, the leading socialist journal. He supports the quest for a General Strike to bring socialism to Europe. He also stresses the spiritual unity of a nation in the making and the need for an authoritarian leader to transfigure the surging nation into a state. He and Nicola Bombacci thus soon break, partly over the issue of authoritarianism and partly over the former’s view that timely violence is the key to gaining power.

Why do many Leftists eventually slide or run to the right while others, like Bombacci and Matteoti, remain on the Left? I suspect a virulent drive to dogmatism, violence and/or authoritarianism—either to one or all of them--often makes the difference. The right more often welcomes these things. And it has resources to offer financial and other protections. So as you face more and more opposition within the Left, you slip and slide away from it while retaining your dogmatism. This is, of course, not a law, merely a tendency, one that may chafe against other tendencies.  It is, above all, not to say that liberalism—poised as it is between Left and Right—is always the answer. Liberals, having allowed the reliability of electoral institutions to sink so deeply into their pores, too often minimize or shy away from dangers emanating from the right. They misconstrue the powers of dissembling and street violence coming at timely moments from the right sources. And they too often ignore real grievances of the working class that can open that class to the promises of fascism. And, as a recent NYT obituary on for Midge Decter shows, many liberals with authoritarian streaks eventually rumble to the right.

Mussolini, the great speaker and dissembler, propels fascist violence when his new movement is small, and he often denies he is doing so.  Fascist humor becomes the  trademark of the charismatic speaker, a humor in which vague, dark threats underwrite lighthearted denials. During a different time, for instance, he might have told the Proud Boys to stand down and stand by. In October of 1919 M writes to D”Annuzio, “”The elections are a magnificent pretext for shrill, filthy, socialist opportunism. For us, they are a means of rallying and camaflouge. We are organizing squads of twenty men each, armed and in a kind of uniform, both to demand our freedom of speech, as well as for other events…” (p.106) Pelting adversaries with a filthy vocabulary of maggots, cowardice, and vermin is a tactic M  never relinquishes. Those terms often serve as a prelude or postlude to violence, for vermin by definition are to be wasted.

By 1920, according to Scurati, “All the liberal and consevative parties  were finally coalescing into a national bloc against the socialists.., but the fascists would still be left out. Circumstances would show that they had to assert themselves through shootings, fires, destruction. Let the others grow old in the voting booth…Fascism wasn’t an assembly of voters but an order of fighters” (223). The socialists won the election that year. But the forces of anti-socialism were very strong institutionaly, particularly among industrialists, landowners, the Vatican, the fearful middle class, and rural peasants. The task of fascism is to accentuate those fears and to attack the purveyors. The police and the carbonniere are sympathetic, providing space and cover for violences the fasci enact. 

By 1920 fascism is spreading like “an epidemic”. People are suffering. The fascist ensemble of daggers, clenched fists, words as punches, guns, fires, night time attacks, fast cars, hot women, and charismatic denials becomes a tempting stew to innumerable outcasts. Sex and violence become intercoded, as expressed in the violent rapes that accompany each attack. And the famed, ruthless sexual adventurism of M, says Scurati, exudes an “erotic fury.” (272) An ugly masculinism is one of the attractions of fascism for those who relentlessly demand primacy and have been thwarted too often. 

M knows by this time that socialists occasionally call for violence. But violence does not sink as deeply into their DNA. In violent contests between fascists and socialist, the fascists will thus prevail; their numbers will grow in the countryside as they do, even if the cities at first resist. By 1921 “everyone is rushing in: big and small Landownrs, share croppers, shopkeepers, tenants.” (286) Industriallists have already begun to collude. They fear  and detest socialism and Bolshevism, while they at most merely dislike fascists. The former would take away private property, hope for big profits, entrepreneurial liberty.  M pursues an industrialism with high profits grafted onto the fascist spirituality of a nation. Neither socialist nor classical liberal, he the image of an industrial nation serves as a counter to both. In early 1921 M announces in Il Popolo d’Italia-- the defining journal of fascism of which he is is the editor—"the assembly in Bologna celebrates a year of fascist battles. It is the consecration of victory…Fascism is rampant because it carries within it the seeds of life, not those of dissolution. It is a movement that cannot fail.” (348) Violent purges, tethered to the promise of new national unity. 

Italo Balbo is the organizer of the squadrista, a melange of free wheeling fascist thugs and killers, eager to club and beat socialists and anybody else who disagrees with them. The members of this militia often arrive from the military or police forces. Balbo smiles a lot, conveying to his militia a sense of joy in combat and in killing scum. The killing is for the cause. It also exceeds it: it wreaks Vengeance for a lot in life its warriors did not choose.

That is why the dagger is such a potent symbol and weapon of fascists. It plunges into the enemy in an act of sexual violence, drawing blood. You clean off your dagger or wipe off your penis and walk away.


In 1921 Balbo’s force occupies the town of Pontelagorscuro; it “sets fire to the Chamber of Labor and forces the socialists to kiss the corpses’s hands”. Then they attack another village in Ferrara, soon obliterating several Socialist Leagues. Liberals, industrialists, and the Vatican do not like the violence, but they do like defeat of the socialists. They thus tolerate, and soon come tacitly to support, the fascist  violence they condemn in principle.  Often they can find a pretext to underplay the tenacity of the violence. It is for a good cause. Balbo creates a recipe that combines vicious violence with absolute disgrace of the socialists. Disgrace as a key weapon of combat.  “You seize a diehard socialist, ram a funnel down his throat, and force him to drink a quart of laxative. Then you tie him to the hood a car and drive him throuigh town while he farts and toots and shoots himself…Impossible not to laugh.” (359) Humiliation brings authority to the humiliators.

Fascist humor is a humor of contempt, disgrace, and humiliation, attached to memories and promises of violence. Violence and humiliation work back and forth upon each other, softening critiques of violence through the vicarious memories of disgrace in some, the love of disgracing opponents in others, and a visceral  fear of humiliation in yet others. The agents of disgrace, of course, feel most avenged when they humiliate those of decency and nobility. Such attacks lift their spirits, dragging those who previously ignored them into the muck. M both urgently needs Balbo and tries to rein in him from to time. Finally Balbo is given control of the squadrista when they are later mobilized to become an official force inside the Italian army itself. Hitler learns from this. 

At a strategic moment in 1922, Vilfredo Pareto, the famous theorist of elite rule, writes privately to M that the time to attack is now or never. He had publicly kept a thin veneer of distance between himself and M. But a series of contingencies have now temporarily broken in a fascist direction. Socialists are discouraged because of failure of their general strike. Industrialists and landowners need the violence of fascists against socialists and Bolsheviks to counter their electoral power. Liberals are demoralized as they preside over a gridlocked parliament. The king is tired. Luigi Facta, an old moderate nostalgic for a rural life, is on the verge of resigning as prime ministar. And Benedetto Croce, the prominent liberal theorist, now assures everyone that there is no need to exaggerate the effects of a fascist takeover. The institutions will tame them.

M prepares a march on Rome while vociferously denying in public that he is doing so, making one think today of  Putin’s “routine military exercises” on the border of Ukraine. The march is launched, a ragtag group of armed enthusiasts heading to Rome. At an untimely moment Luigi Facta tenders his resignation. And the king is neutralized. The armed squadrista enter the city. The army does not confront them. No one has ordered them to do so. If the order had been made, the militia would almost certainly have been defeated. The king now invites M to organize a new government. Scurati: “Had the prime minister resigned even 24 hours earlier, it would have enabled the country to have a government capable of confronting the fascist aggression.” (521) A fateful contingency of timing amid gridlock. The untimely death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg fits that description too.

Croce is not too worried, thinking the new prime minister will organize a fairly balanced cabinet. He reminds one of those pundits on “Morning Joe”, who first said Trump could not win in 2016 and then called upon liberals to give him a chance to assimilate to liberal institutions after he did. Doubly wrong. Always a step behind the eight ball. Instead, M forces a new electoral system through parliament, assuring a majority for him in the next election. Violence becomes extensive in the provinces. Matteoti, a former landowner turned socialist, now becomes a lonely voice in  parliament to document innumerable fascist violences. Other antifascists are too cowed. One day he disappears. A major public crisis erupts, until M promises to hunt for the culprits and to work relentlessly to create a beautiful fascist nation out of disorder and gridlock.  He is confident the people now favor order and rule over liberty. Here is what a ten year old, the only one who witnessed the abduction said: “I was playing with my friends. Close by was a car…Five men got out and started walking up and down. All of a sudden I saw Matteoti come out. One of the men went over to him and punched him hard, knocking him to the ground. Then the other four came over…So we could see that Matteoti was struggling. Then they picked him up by the head and feet and carried him to the car. We didn’t see anything else after that.” (705) His shallow grave was discovered much later, with his head bashed in.

Read the whole book front to back as you also track daily news items in America, Europe, South America and elsewhere about, for instance, militia violences, the Presidential insurrection against the state on January 6, the large number of former police officers, militia members, and war veterans who participated in it, the Republican legislators who embraced it, urban police street killings of Blacks, right wing refusals to obey subpoenas issued by the January 6 commission, grievances of the white working class that liberals try to ignore, Trumpian speeches that define his adversaries to be traitors, scum, and enemies of the people, desultory delays in bringing charges against high ranking insurrectionists by Attorney General Garland, systematic Republican Party suppression of Black and poor voters, surging inflation, the Big Lie about a stolen election reverberating with the base, Republican norm breaking to produce a right wing Supreme Court, extreme anti-abortion language of a new court decision that also forebodes rollbacks in other areas, insistent denials of climate change amid a growing climate crisis, white evangelical racist intensities and neoliberal collusions, Elon Musk’s takeover of twitter, and Trumpist plans to win and rule more resolutely the next time. Either the Donald himself or one of his acolytes. 

There is no star that guarantees the fascist movement will win the next time.  There are always unexpected contingencies, each posing new questions about how each side responds to it. There is no insitutional star that guarantees this movement will fail either. It is a gathering storm. You can start by refusing to call its leaders “populists”. M offers a series of parables for our time.



Post a Comment