The rise of Fascism in Italy: 100 years since the March on Rome

A century has passed since the Italian capitalist class handed power to Benito Mussolini’s fascists. Below we present a series of articles by Sinistra Classe Rivoluzione, the Italian section of the IMT, on the events leading up to Mussolini’s infamous ‘March on Rome’, the first three of which are compiled below (and the fourth will soon be available in Italian on their website). It is important we understand the lessons of fascism’s rise to power in Italy, which was facilitated by the betrayals and mistakes of the workers’ leaders.


Part 1: The origins of fascism

This year marks the centenary of the March on Rome. It is easy to anticipate the amount of rhetoric and hot air that will be expended upon this occasion. Already, commenting on the CGIL (Italian General Confederation of Labour) demonstration that followed the attack against the Chamber of Labour last autumn, journalist and former MEP Corrado Augias wrote for Repubblica that fascism is an “anthropological” phenomenon: suited to somewhat simple-minded, homophobic and sexist people.

But the task of revolutionaries is not to lapse into empty sensationalism, typical of an idealist approach. How many times have we heard that impoverished and ignorant masses blindly follow strongmen who promise to build a heaven on Earth? Our task is to understand the context and the reasons that brought fascism to power. How was it possible that reactionary gangs like the Blackshirts managed to subjugate and atomise the working class, destroying its massive organisations?

We must look back at the rise of fascism in Italy, with a Marxist perspective, in order to draw the correct lessons.

From war to failed revolutions

Historically, crises of capitalism have not led inevitably to the rise of fascism. When the crisis of the capitalist system led to the massacre of millions of workers during the First World War, and the following impoverishment of the working, peasant and petty-bourgeois masses, the immediate response was not reactionary, but revolutionary. There was the October Revolution in Russia, the Biennio Rosso (‘Two Red Years’) of 1919-1920 in Italy, the 1918-1923 German Revolution, the 1919 Hungarian revolution, and several other major movements.

Italy Factories Red Guards 1920 Image Public DomainThe crisis of capitalism that resulted in the first world war did not immediately lead to fascism, but to events such as the October Revolution in Russia, or the Biennio Rosso (‘Two Red Years’) of 1919-1920 in Italy / Image: Public Domain

However, while in Russia the Bolshevik Party was able to lead the revolutionary movement to the seizure of power, things developed differently in Italy and elsewhere. The resolute struggle of the working masses was not matched by a revolutionary leadership of the workers' organisations.

In September 1920, a two-year-long rise in the workers’ and peasants’ struggle in Italy peaked with the occupation of factories and the establishment of factory councils. A pre-revolutionary situation opened up in the country. However, rather than consciously preparing the struggle for workers’ power, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI, the main workers’ party of the time) and the CGL (the trade union federation) allowed the movement to diffuse and eventually ebb away. Thus, the Biennio Rosso movement was defeated.

In a capitalist society, the petty bourgeoisie cannot hold an independent political line, but rather oscillates between big capital and the working class. It was in this situation that – after having supported the workers during the revolutionary upheavals only to witness the hesitations of the PSI leaders – the petty bourgeoisie now deserted to the opposing camp.

Mussolini: from socialism to nationalism

Mussolini came from the ranks of the Socialist Party. From 1910, he had been in charge of the magazine Lotta di Classe (‘Class Struggle’), which called for the expulsion of the reformists from the party (at the time, the reformist wing of the party was explicitly supporting Giolitti’s government in its colonial expeditions in Africa). On the eve of the First World War, Mussolini was still fiercely agitating in support of the ‘Red Week’ (settimana rossa) – a short-lived uprising led by socialists, syndicalists, anarchists and republicans opposed to the Libyan expedition and the policies of the Liberal Union government of Salandra.

Il Popolo dItalia Image Public DomainMussolini's magazine Il Popolo d’Italia aimed to counterpose itself to the old bourgeois parties, while at the same time becoming the main stronghold of opposition against socialism and Bolshevism / Image: Public Domain

But with the beginning of the conflict, Mussolini broke with his old line of opposition to the imperialist war, and pushed forward new slogans: for a “revolutionary war against the central empires” and for “national socialism”. Along with this new political line, he established a new magazine, Il Popolo d’Italia (‘The People of Italy’), funded with money received from the pro-war heads of the big Italian industrial sector on the one hand (like Edison, Fiat, and above all the steel, coal and energy giant Ansaldo), and the socialist parties of France and Belgium on the other, who had a vested interest in Italy undertaking a military intervention against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For this, Mussolini was expelled from the PSI, which instead held a position of passive opposition to the war (“neither join nor sabotage”).

With the end of the war, Il Popolo d’Italia aimed to counterpose itself to the old bourgeois parties – now largely discredited – while at the same time becoming the main stronghold of opposition against socialism and Bolshevism. In this task, it brought together war veterans and adherents to futurism, who supplied the movement with layers of intellectual youth. However, the largest group of supporters was mobilised from the ranks of syndicalism [an ultra-left split from the socialist CGL that adopted an anti-political party stance, and some of whom moved towards nationalism during the First World War].

And yet, fascism could not assert itself as a leading force in the midst of the rising revolutionary tide in Italy. This is shown, for example, by the results it obtained at the local elections in Milan (one of its strongholds) in 1919: it obtained less than two percent. At this time, the bourgeoisie was forced to play for time, relying on the reformist leadership of the PSI and of the CGL to hold back the worker’s movement.

But after September 1920, the big industrialists and landlords began to heavily support fascism. They saw it as a useful weapon for the ‘restoration of order’ and to take back all the concessions they had been forced to give away under the pressure of the workers’ and peasants’ struggles of the previous two years.

Yet, fascism cannot become a mass movement by openly defending a pro-landlord, pro-capitalist and anti-worker programme. It needs radical rhetoric, mixing reactionary nationalism with ‘social’ demagogy. On 23 March 1919, the gathering in Piazza San Sepolcro in Milan gave birth to the Fasci di Combattimento (‘Fighting Bands’, later to be renamed the National Fascist Party). There, fascism adopted a programme that included demands such as universal suffrage, voting rights for women, the eight-hour working day, a sort of progressive tax on big capital, the seizure of war profits and the establishment of a republic in the place of the monarchy.

Blackshirts

In this initial phase, fascism began forming its own armed organisations distinct from those of the state: the Blackshirts (Camicie nere). The backbone of these armed gangs came from the petty-bourgeois and the lumpen-proletarian masses, but they were also joined by a layer of disillusioned workers.

Blackshirts Mussolini March on Rome 1922 Image Public Domain Fascism formed its own armed organisations distinct from those of the state: the Blackshirts / Image: Public Domain

The Blackshirts did not exist in opposition to the repressive state apparatus, but rather they operated together and in connivance with it. Yet the fascist organisations arose outside the traditional structures of the bourgeois state – which was largely discredited in the eyes of the masses at that point – and with leaders that came not from the ranks of the ruling class, but who were of ‘plebeian’ origins.

On 15 April 1919, the Fasci di Combattimento debuted with an assault on the printing press of L'Avanti – the official organ of the Socialist Party. The newspaper Corriere della Sera attributed the responsibility of the attack on socialist provocations, while the socialists were pleading with the authorities to disband the Fasci, completely underestimating the danger posed by them and misunderstanding the actual role of the bourgeois state who collaborated with the Blackshirts. This stance of surrender on the part of the PSI, linked to its fateful role in directing the workers’ movement of 1919-20, would benefit fascism tremendously in the months to come.


Part 2: August 1922 – The fascist offensive and the barricades in Parma

While in 1919 fascism was still a small force – as shown by the results of the elections in Milan – this changed drastically and tragically in 1921.

The Biennio Rosso ended with an unsatisfactory compromise for both parties involved in the fight. On the one hand, the workers’ movement came close to seizing power, but failed to do so on account of the absence of a revolutionary leadership. On the other hand, the bosses wished to see the factories forcefully cleared by the army.

Giolitti hoped to absorb the Socialist Party into his own government to neutralise the workers’ movement through the complicity of its own leaders. However, with Turati’s faction in a minority [Turati was the leader of the right-wing, reformist faction of the PSI], entering government would have forced a split in the Socialist Party. In fact, the party rank-and-file took seriously the revolutionary (albeit abstract) phraseology of the maximalist majority [i.e. the centrists].

The bourgeoisie, terrorised by the spectre of revolution, was no longer willing to wait. If Giolitti’s government was unable to restore order by absorbing socialists into the government, the bourgeoisie would look for other means to do so.

The Fascist offensive

Squadrismo (the movement of fascist attack squads) has its social basis in the ruined middle classes, the peasants, and the lumpen proletariat, all of whom were attracted to the demagogic rhetoric of fascism in its early beginnings. Because of its position in society – halfway between the capitalists and the working class – the petty bourgeoisie politically oscillates between the two. After the miserable show of helplessness on the part of the Socialist and GCL leaders in autumn 1920, the petty bourgeoisie swung massively to the right and formed the backbone of the fascist movement.

Fasci di combattimento Image Public DomainThe armed organisation of the Fasci di Combattimento received the clear support of the bourgeoisie and the state apparatus / Image: Public Domain

Although it was formally independent of the state, the armed organisation of the Fasci di Combattimento received the clear support of the bourgeoisie and the state apparatus.

At first, fascist attack squads were formed predominantly in urban areas, financed by heavy industry. But squadrismo made a qualitative leap after the fascists built ties with the landowners.

The advance of the fascists squads first began in the Po Valley. Here alone, in the first half of 1921, 726 attacks occurred, and almost 600 people were killed – mostly socialists and trade unionists. The attacks targeted Chambers of Labour, socialist headquarters, town halls with a socialist majority, and leagues of agrarian labourers. Fascist terror was used to impose new labour contracts that benefitted the landowners. And the most militant activists of the workers’ movement were killed or forced to flee.

Squadrismo spread with the open support of the army and the state apparatus. The Blackshirts were supplied with weapons, recruits and cadres from the demobilised army officers. On some occasions, the army and the fascists acted jointly. This was the case in Trento, for example, where the infantry together with the Blackshirts attacked striking workers. In Florence, the Carabinieri (the Italian gendarmerie) and Guardie Regie (‘Royal Guards’) intervened in defence of the fascists, who risked being overwhelmed by the workers.

The workers’ movement in the face of Squadrismo

In the 1921 elections, the fascists ran candidates as part of the National Bloc (an anti-socialist coalition bringing together Giolittians, nationalists, fascists and others forces) and won 35 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. At this point, Mussolini began an operation towards ‘institutionalising’ his movement to make it into a credible political option for the bourgeoisie.

It is in this context that we should understand the ‘pacification pact’ – an agreement between fascists and local leaders of the workers’ organisations, for the gradual interruption of the fascist squads’ offensive. In reality, the pact had the effect of further paralysing the socialist forces. But the fascists continued their offensive. It suffices to mention, for example, the attacks in the Ravenna area by 3,000 fascists, led by Italo Balbo. If there was a decrease in the fascists’ attacks at all, they were only to return with full force after the founding Congress of the National Fascist Party (Partitio Nazionale Fascista).

The response of the socialists revealed their inability to understand, not only Mussolini’s tactics but the very nature of the state, which they still entrusted with the task of defending the working class. These were the slogans they gave the workers: “Stay in your homes, do not respond to provocations! Even silence, even cowardice sometimes can be heroic! Having elements of support coming from the state apparatus, the socialists repeatedly received offers of arms to protect themselves from the fascists. But they categorically rejected these offers because defending citizens against the armed violence of other citizens is the task of the state.” [Our emphasis].

The Arditi del popolo

The Arditi (‘Daring Ones’) movement was born during the war. They were selected assault troops, employed in risky missions, but removed from the more wearisome obligations of trench life. As a corps separated from the rest of the infantry and made up mostly of peasants, the Arditi attracted to their ranks many adventurers. Their tendency towards rebellion and subversion was only exacerbated by their return from the front. There, they found a ‘normality’ where crisis was rampant, prices were rising sky-high with the devaluation of the lira, and unemployment was mounting.

Arditi del Popolo Image Public DomainThe birth of the Arditi del Popolo (the ‘People’s Daring Ones’) in Rome aroused the enthusiasm and participation of the workers from the outset / Image: Public Domain

At first, the Arditi movement was linked to the nascent fascist movement. For example, in Milan – Mussolini’s stronghold – members of the “Arditi’s Foundations” were more often than not in the fascist groups too. However, this should not be interpreted as the existence of a simple and linear relationship between Arditism and Fascism. From the beginning, even among those of the Arditi who were closer to fascism, disagreements were common.

The process of differentiation between “D’Annunzian adventurers” and those who linked themselves to Mussolini became clearly marked, especially after the failure of the “Endeavour of Fiume”. [This was an incident in which a group of war veterans (led by the Italian poet D'Annunzio) decided to conquer the city of Fiume (Rijeka), against the decision of the Italian government, and in contravention of the Paris Peace agreement.]

But Arditism was not only a right-wing phenomenon. On 27 June 1921, the birth of the Arditi del Popolo (the ‘People’s Daring Ones’) in Rome aroused the enthusiasm and participation of the workers from the outset. On 6 July, they responded en masse to a call for a demonstration against the fascists at the Botanical Garden. The following day, the commander and founder of the Arditi, Argo Secondari, was interviewed by Gramsci’s newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo (‘The New Order’). The communist newspaper greeted this new organisation with much sympathy. And activists of the main proletarian parties took the same attitude.

In a number of cities, ex-soldiers, youth from the new generation called to the front, socialists and communists began to group around the Arditi del Popolo. In Turin, the members of the Red Guards proclaimed themselves to be Arditi del Popolo, leading to the formation of an armed group of 300 communist, socialist and anarchist workers.

There was clear potential for the establishment of a united front of self-defence organisations across the workers’ movement. But the PSI leadership, completely infected with pacifist illusions, distanced themselves from the movement.

From 1921, the united front became one of the central tactics of the Comintern. However, the newly formed Communist Party of Italy, while rightly coming out against the ‘Pacification Pact’, took a sectarian stance. It demanded that communists break away from the Arditi del Popolo and promote self-defence organisations made up of communists only. These turned out to be scattered organisations, detached from the masses and unable to counter the fascists’ attack squads.

Failing to listen to the most advanced layers of the working class, the leaders of the workers’ movement sealed their own fate and that of the entire working class by way of these decisions, despite the fact that the workers were calling for resistance, organisation and weapons to defend themselves against fascism. Instead, fascism was given a 20 year period to carry out the most horrific atrocities.

The barricades in Parma

The so-called “legalitarian strike” [i.e. “strike to restore legality”] began on 31 July 1922. In line with the socialists’ rejection of self-defence, the strike aimed at convincing the state to intervene against the fascists. But following the defeats of the factory occupations in September 1920, the impotence and divisions of the workers’ leaders, and their helplessness in the face of the fascist offensive, a mood of disillusionment had spread through the masses. They lost faith both in themselves and in their organisations.

Barricades Parma Image Public DomainThe way in which the Battle of Parma was led shows us the way today: only a united and resolute working class can change the course of history for their benefit / Image: Public Domain

On this basis, the strike was doomed to fail. The fascists everywhere got the better of the workers, with only two notable exceptions: the working-class neighbourhoods of Bari and Parma.

There were several specific factors that contributed to the success of the resistance in Parma. Before the war, there was a particular presence of ‘revolutionary syndicalism’ – a section of the syndicalist movement that ended up wholeheartedly joining the Italian war effort, convinced that it was an important opportunity for systemic change, misunderstanding the actual imperialist character of the war.

After the war, despite the socialist majority achieved in the Chamber of Labour and the growth of the PSI in the city, as Tasca [founding member of he Communist Party, on its right wing] puts it: “the establishment of the socialist influence in Parma was entirely recent, and the workers maintained a certain spirit of independence, if not distrust towards the leaders of the traditional workers’ parties.”

The political trajectory of Guido Picelli, a former soldier who came to lead the barricades in Parma, reflects these peculiar conditions. On his return from the war, he became a leading member of the PSI and got elected to parliament in 1921. This was despite the fact that in 1920 he was among the founders of the Red Guards, who were opposed by the socialists. Indeed, the socialists in Parma enjoyed a relative independence from the dictates of the party.

For his political stance, removed from reformism and sectarianism alike, the workers in Parma recognised in Picelli a leader who could unite the movement and create a well-organised and active section of the Arditi del Popolo.

At dawn on 2 August 1922, around 15,000 fascists flowed into the city with the aim of crushing the strike that had been going on for two days. Balbo and his troops, who arrived the same evening, found in their path the workers and the Arditi del Popolo who, although clearly outnumbered and outgunned, were determined to put up a strenuous resistance.

As soon as Picelli heard of the arrival of the fascists, he summoned the group leaders to organise a defence of Parma. They erected barricades and dug trenches in the working-class neighbourhoods of Oltretorrente and Naviglio. Mines were laid at strategic points. The area was divided into four sections, and each squad could rely on eight to ten men, including fighters and auxiliary staff. The Arditi command, made up of a few elected workers, took the reins of power and divided among themselves the task of directing the service branches (i.e. defence, internal organisation, supplies and healthcare). The bell towers were used as watchtowers. Women had pots full of oil and petrol ready to be lit on fire. Within hours, the city’s workers’ districts were entrenched with barricades made of every sort of makeshift material.

It was not only the fighters that took it to the streets, but the entire proletarian population. Picelli himself recounted how men, women, children, and people of all ages participated.

Faced with this resistance, the fascists demanded the intervention of the army. But the insurgents’ attitude towards the soldiers was exemplary. Instead of shooting them, they fraternised with them. Frustrated, the fascists resumed the hostilities with a new offensive in Oltretorrente, which ended with the death of 39 fascists, the wounding of another 150, and with only five dead and a few wounded on the defenders’ side. Balbo, on the advice of Mussolini himself, was forced to retreat.

This was a political victory. The unity of the workers’ front (made up of trade unionists and anarchists, socialists and communists, including their local leaders) was fundamental in drawing in the veterans and interventionists, as well as the petty bourgeoisie, under the banners of their organisation. It was precisely the leadership of the working class that led the resistance to victory in those days. The way in which the Battle of Parma was led shows us the way today: only a united and resolute working class can change the course of history for their benefit.


Part 3: The day the ruling class threw the doors wide open to the fascists

Fascism and the bourgeoisie

Towards the end of October 1922, the March on Rome marked the formal handover of power to fascism by the Italian bourgeoisie and monarchy. The ruling class, which had initial reservations, gave the government to Mussolini as he had proven his reliability in repressing the working class.

In the course of 1922, two governments led by the liberal Luigi Facta succeeded each other. These were weak governments. A variety of political factions within them placed a permanent question mark over their stability. No traditional party, from the Liberals, Populists or Democrats, was able to respond to the bourgeoisie’s need to establish a strong government in the face of the advancing workers’ movement.

While the San Sepolcro programme of 1919 adopted radical rhetoric and put forward social demands and republican slogans, fascism now presented itself as willing to institutionalise itself within the framework of the capitalist system, backed up by the force of arms. The fascists’ attack squads would become an integral part of the regular army, fascism would become loyal to the monarchy and reach agreement with the demands of the ruling class.

Mussolini strengthened his credibility by drawing nearer to the royal household and the top brass of the army, whom he praised with magniloquence in a speech he gave in Naples on 24 October 1922, just a few days before seizing power. In fact, having led the repression of a general strike on 31 July, fascism had already prepared the occupation and institutionalisation of the Blackshirts in many cities in northern and central Italy.

The March on Rome

Mussolini carefully planned the seizure of power. The initial plan was to begin with the occupation of public buildings in various cities, then gather the fascist militias around strategic locations in central Italy, demand the resignation of the Facta government, and only then to enter the capital with arms.

March on Rome Image Wide World Photos It was only after the ruling class and the official institutions threw the doors wide open to welcome him, that the Duce gave the order for the fascist columns to march towards Rome / Image: Wide World Photos

The future Duce wasn’t confident of the outcome. In fact, he tried to distance himself from any direct responsibility by assigning the military and decision-making tasks to a Quadrumvirate in Perugia, formed by loyal fascist henchmen Bianchi, Balbo, Del Bono and De Vecchi. Mussolini remained in Milan, from where he could organise a quick escape to Switzerland, should operations go awry.

On 27 October, tensions were high. Bourgeois newspapers called for the formation of a strong government that would include the fascists. The Facta government resigned, but proclaimed a state of siege. The fascists’ ‘March on Rome’ did not come as a surprise, as it had been announced and prepared for weeks.

King Vittorio Emanuele III held the country’s fate in his hands. He decided against ratifying the state of siege and instead invited Mussolini to Rome. Having been assured a future appointment as prime minister, Mussolini jumped on a train to Rome. It was only then, after the ruling class and the official institutions threw the doors wide open to welcome him, that the Duce gave the order for the fascist columns to march towards Rome. It was necessary to consecrate the power he had acquired with a pompous demonstration.

The establishment of fascism was therefore not the result of an unexpected and unstoppable coup d'état, nor of a counter-revolutionary march, but of a direct call from the bourgeois institutions, which embodied the will of the big landowners, the industrialists and the Vatican.

Both before and after October 1922, there was every possibility to prepare a strong, militant response against rising fascism. But once again, socialists and communists failed to understand the need to build a united front of resistance in the workers’ movement.


Lessons for today

There were many opportunities to avert the rise of fascism in Italy. The leaders of the Socialist Party and the trade unions played a lamentable role in holding back the working class, and so the Biennio Rosso ended in defeat. Filled with illusions in the state and pacifism, they failed to provide any sort of lead to repel the menace of Mussolini.

Far from being a dramatic coup d’etat, the March on Rome was actually a stage-managed affair. Mussolini entered government with the blessing of the King, the capitalist class and the state forces, without serious opposition, precisely because of the demoralisation and disorganisation of the working class: the only force that could have stopped him in his tracks. Once in power, Mussolini went on to liquidate and attack, not only the working class organisations, but he would also attack the poor and middle-class elements he leaned on to win power. All his demagogic promises around wages and rights were abandoned, and he ruthlessly defended bourgeois interests through naked force until he was finally overthrown and executed by communist partisans.

Many on the left today fear that history is repeating itself following the electoral victory of Fratelli d'Italia (‘Brothers of Italy’), a right-wing party with a direct historical link to the National Fascist Party. But the fact is that the objective conditions for fascism do not exist at the present time in the way they did in the 1920s and 30s.

Fascism only raised its head in Europe after the defeat of a revolutionary wave in which many opportunities presented themselves for the workers to seize power. It was a last throw of the dice for the bourgeoisie. But the Italian working class today is far stronger than it was a century ago. Meanwhile the classes that fascism based itself on – the middle classes and the peasantry – are numerically far weaker. Not only are its organisations undefeated and intact, but it has barely begun to move. Far from signalling a turn to the far right, the last elections (which saw very high levels of abstention) signalled a general disgust with the political establishment. Fratelli d'Italia only benefited because they had not taken part in the previous, despised coalition government of Draghi.

Nevertheless, the lessons of the events described here must be absorbed by all class fighters. Fascism was a product of a defeat of the working class following a revolutionary upheaval; a defeat resulting from the absence of bold, radical leadership that was prepared to take the class struggle all the way. In the face of ascendent fascism, these reformist leaders clung to the institutions of the bourgeois state and ‘legality’ until it was too late, refusing to allow a decisive confrontation between the organised workers and the fascists. As the heroic example of Parma demonstrates, fascism must be fought and smashed in the streets, not through appeals to state intervention.

Today, a profound crisis of Italian and world capitalism is preparing an almighty intensification of the class struggle. What is needed is fighting leadership capable of carrying out an uncompromising struggle against capitalism, with the goal of socialist revolution. In this, the working class can trust only in its own forces. Such a revolutionary struggle is the only way to ensure the events of 1922 are never repeated.