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But the world was out of joint, and we have set it right July 29, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in The Left.

Fascist Voices by Christopher Duggan, is a useful history of the rise of fascism in Italy following the First World War. Duggan uses a range of sources, but primarily those written by those in Italy in diary or memoir form, in order to outline the development of fascism from marginal force to its destination as the state power and its subsequent demise. It’s a depressing tale in many respects, not least for the sheer ordinariness of many of those voices. And it’s curious too because reading it one gets the sense that while fascism remained a force in Italy subsequent to the Second World War there seems to have been a distinction between it and more modern manifestations of national socialism such as Golden Dawn in Greece. Perhaps that was because of the nature of Italian fascism, or perhaps because the deep state in Italy was, well – deeper – than in Greece. But there’s also a sense that somehow at street level

Anyhow, one interesting passage is an outline of the age profile and social and class composition of fascist squadristi in the early 1920s.

Duggan writes:

[they] were young, frequently very young. Piazzesi was eighteen when he went on his first raids. Teoni had to wait until February 1922 before enrolling in the Arezzo fascia, but even then he was barely sixteen. As the carefully posed photographs of fascist squads taken ni those years show, their members were often of a similar age. One study has suggested that around 25 per cent of militants in the fascist movement were under twenty-one. Another has found that nearly 90 per cent of the squadristi in Bologna and 83.5 per cent of those in Florence were aged between sixteen and twenty-seven , and that while the great majority of the squad leaders were demobilised junior officers, more than half their rank-and-file followers were not old enough to have fought in the war.

Fascinating as that is, what of this?

The overwhelming majority of squadristi came from the ranks of the middle classes: landowners, entrepreneurs, professionals, civil servants, white-collar workers, students and the self-employed. In the study of Bologna and Florence less than 5 per cent could be classified as working class. Given the age profile, it is not surprising that students made up a particularly large percentage of the squads. In Bologna and Florence more than a quarter of the squadristi were enrolled at university, and 17 per cent… in secondary school.

And this was, as if that doesn’t demonstrate, a class war.

Duggan recounts an exchange between social democrat politician Emilio Lussu and a friend of his who was a university student about the nature of the squadristi:

-what brigands?
-the peasants.
-Were the peasants attacking or were they attacked?
-No, we were attacking. And we managed to beat them. Their land of cokaigne is finished. Imagine, each peasant was earning up to 40 lire a day.
-And now?
-Fourteen lire. Whish is still too much… do you know, immediately after the war, when I walked in the street with my medals, they laughed in my face?
-And that’s the reason, today, why you reduce their pay to 14 lire and cut them to pieces?
-Oh! It’s easy to criticise. You needed to have been living with us. The peasants were dressing like me, and the cowman’s daughter was more elegant than my sister.
-Let’s not exaggerate. But still, this seems to you sufficient provocation to justify hunger and death?
-But the world was out of joint, and we have set it right.

Yet it’s also notable from Duggan’s research that the fascists made every effort to break any manifestation of workers autonomy. For example, they also attacked Catholic workers organisations and continued to do so – no doubt in part because they would tolerate no competition.

It sometimes seems to me that there’s been insufficient examination of not just fascism, but the manner in which it was able to relatively successfully co-opt political support in Germany and Italy during the inter-war period. Any examination of the melting away of both social democrat and communist lefts during that period raises questions. These were, of course, brutally repressive regimes, but… they were also at significant points regimes that were tolerated and more by a broad swathe of the population from all classes.

Without drawing futile comparisons between fascist/national socialist states or between and bourgeois democracies it is perhaps useful to consider how relatively easy it appears to legitimise state structures, something that has an importance today.

And their roots are fascinating too. Duggan notes that in Italy the left, and in particular the Socialist Party, was after the First World War fragmented and in a much less commanding position than the right thought. He argues that the rhetoric of revolution in the post-Bolshevik period was hollow, and suggests that ‘[the SP] knew well that [despite the rhetoric] there was no serious prospect of the Western powers allowing a Bolshevik-style regime to be formed in Southern Europe’.

That too is an intriguing thought and that too has more contemporary resonances.


1. Gewerkschaftler - July 29, 2014

Yes more attention has to be given to the social seed-bed of the various fascisms between the wars – I still remember a lecture on just how fast the German Trades Union movement collapsed and/or became co-opted after the Nazi take over. They were split between the SPD, the KPD and the Christian aligned unions, split between civil servants and workers in private industry, and many expected the Nazis to be a passing phase. The unions and the military were the two forces that the Nazis genuinely feared could prevent their seizure of power.

It’s vital too that we look at the variety of the Right-Nationalist to Nazi spectrum now manifesting in Europe – it would be a grave mistake to tar them all with the same brush.

The explicit class war aspects of earlier fascism are not there in most of the current right spectrum (probably because the neo-liberal hegemony has already got that covered). And it would be foolish to ignore that part of their emotional appeal is the correct impression that ‘the world is out of joint’ – that the political economy no longer works for them.

The French Front National for instance has a larger working class supporter base than the equivalent movement of the 1930s, mainly because of the surrender / ineffectiveness of the left.

Winning back a majority of the wage and benefit dependent class that are identifying with the nationalist right and moving the centre of gravity of resistance from ethnic/racist conflict to class and ecological conflict is one of the essential tasks for the left in the coming years.

I believe there is a potential to win at least some of these people to a basic class and ecological analysis but it have to take at least some of the tactics from the ‘populist’ play-book.


2. Phil - July 29, 2014

When democratic politics is effectively decapitated, and any active attempt to revive it from below is likely to be repressed fairly brutally, it’s not that surprising that most people would keep their heads down.

Emilio Lussu’s an interesting figure – he was an MP prior to Mussolini’s coup, but took the view very early on that Fascism would only be defeated militarily. Which had two sides – organising & propagandising armed resistance (he was one of the leading intellectuals associated with the socialist armed struggle group Giustizia e Libertà) and staying safe (he escaped from prison in 1929 and went into exile, only returning to Italy in 1943).


3. Michael Carley - July 29, 2014

Worth reading is Rossana Rossanda’s autobiography, where she is very open about the appeal of Fascism to Italian youth in the thirties, in part because of the image, and to a lesser degree Ingrao’s.

In 2007, in Ravenna I met an old man who had been just too young to be conscripted by Mussolini. He told me that his mother had been a Catholic anti-Fascist in the early twenties, a time when it was neither profitable nor popular, who established cooperatives (“real ones, not these multinationals”). This was more of a surprise to me than it should have been, but clearly there was a Catholic anti-Fascism, and the assumption that religious equals right-wing is not automatically correct.

Also very good, though I don’t know if it’s translated, is Giorgio Bocca’s work.


4. benmadigan - July 29, 2014

Italy has always loved having “a strong man” to save the country.(due to the Catholic ethos – god or some saint will save you?)
In the 30s it was Mussolini, in the 90s-2010 it was Berlusconi. Berlusconi had fertile ground for his populist policies because there had been no “De-Fascism” policy in Italy as there had been a denazification policy in Western Germany so there was a strong nostalgic background in what is basically a conservative country.


5. workers republicu - July 29, 2014

Sounds like books well worth reading Michael,what you heard about the Catholic Anti-facism and Co-operatism reminds me of Fr.Mc Dyer of Gleann Colmcill , whom I met in 1970 . A priest who knew him said James Mc Dyer described himself as a ‘Christian Communist’.
What struck me about the post was the jealously between the classes , that “a cowmans daughter should look as elegant” as his sister. Status , appearance seems to be a major factor. I remember a radio play in the 60s about a farmers son who would emigrate to be Talabh Sheain Bui and work on “Englands Motorway ” rather than for the local council, where he would be working with local labourers sons. I heard a lot of that kind of thing , a the start of the “boom”, when some non- manual workers were jealous of
the money some labourers were
allegedly getting, ignoring the fact that
kind IF they were getting g that kind of
money they were earning it hard, getting
paid by piece-work


6. levdavidovic - July 30, 2014

The Partito Popolare (PPI), effectively the Catholic Party in pre-Mussolinismo Italy was deeply split between those like Sturzo who wished an accommodation with the left and centre left and others like De Gasperi who turned right, probably with the assent of the Vatican, in a time when remember Italians were up to 1919 nominally prevented from engaging with politics because of the Roman Question. So there was indeed an anti-fascist Catholicism but those like Sturzo who tried to align the PPI with the left paid a high price.


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