On 29 October 1922, King Victor Emmanuel lll appointed Benito Mussolini prime minister as his blackshirts organised to march on Rome – beginning 20 years of fascist rule in Italy.
The 100th anniversary of the March on Rome is coinciding with Giorgia Meloni, of the ‘post-fascist’ Brothers of Italy, becoming leader of a right-wing coalition government in Italy. This has raised questions about the nature of fascism and how it initially came to power
The period preceding the March on Rome was a stormy period of intense class struggles. Even before Italy entered World War One, conditions were such that when carabinieri (military police) shot at an anti-militarist demonstration in Ancona, leaving three dead and 15 wounded, it provoked a week of uncoordinated general strikes and uprisings across Italy – the ‘red week’.
Like in Britain and many other countries, the class struggle returned with increased intensity as the war dragged on. A rising tide of strikes and factory occupations dominated the immediate post-war years in Italy, which became known as the ‘bienno rosso’ – the two red years.
Strikes went from 600,000 in 1918, to 14 million in 1919 and 16 million in 1920. One of the high points of this movement was in 1919 when metal workers went on strike and won the eight-hour day. In September 1920, a wave of factory occupations erupted, beginning in Milan, where 300 factories had been occupied, and spreading to the rest of the country.
In 1919, in some areas citizens’ committees were set up to control soaring prices and, in Turin, a system of workplace ‘commissars’ emerged, at its height involving 150,000. With such organisations, workers had effective control of the production and movement of goods.
A situation of dual power existed, where alternative workers’ organisations exerted control in the factories, while the capitalists and their state were paralysed.
It was in response to the growing threat of the workers’ movement that Italian big business began throwing money at Mussolini. Before the war, he had been the editor of the Italian Socialist Party daily, Avanti. But, in opposition to the vast majority of the party, he became a supporter of Italian participation in the war on the side of the Entente.
Taking an increasingly nationalist but populist line, he launched the first ‘Fasci Italiano di Combattimento’ (Italian Combat Squad) in March 1919.
These bodies were drawn in the main from former soldiers, particularly among the officer classes, and also from the Arditi, the shock troops of the Italian army. Initially, they were more decentralised organisations, but later were reorganised into Mussolini’s National Fascist Party.
As the Entente powers carved up parts of the German and Austro-Hungarian empire, nationalist moods were further inflamed by Fiume, a largely Italian-speaking city on the Adriatic, not being allocated to Italy. Italian nationalists seized the city, establishing a contradictory regime, which had elements of the future fascist regime in Italy, but was also the first state to recognise the Soviet Union.
This confusion was initially reflected in the outlook of Mussolini, who used anti-capitalist rhetoric to build his support. The early Fasci manifestos included support for universal suffrage and opposition to censorship.
But they very quickly used violence against what they perceived as political enemies, including the Italian Socialist Party and its associated trade unions. Mussolini had received funding for his newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, from big business, who, seeing the potential to beat down the workers’ movement, began to pour funding towards him once more.
The fascist ‘squadristi’ were directed to attack strikes and the workers’ movement in general. When bin workers in Rome went on strike, students and other volunteers were used to break the action. In Milan, the offices of Avanti were attacked and burned. In 1920, its offices in Rome and Turin were also attacked.
This was the essence of the methods of fascism: mobilising the dispossessed layers of the middle class to destroy the organisations of the working class, making it difficult or even impossible for them to function. Over 3,000 socialists and trade unionists were murdered by fascist gangs in this period.
So what role did the socialist and trade union leaders play in this struggle? While internationally most of the social democratic parties formally claiming to be Marxist had supported their own capitalist classes in World War One, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) opposed it.
But the PSI had two major trends within it. The ‘minimalist’ wing stressed the immediate demands in the party’s programme. But the party leadership was in the hands of the ‘maximalists’, led by Serrati. These defended the party’s formal commitment to socialist revolution, but did so in a passive, abstract fashion.
Serrati refused Lenin’s advice to break with the reformists. As the revolutionary movement developed, the PSI propagandised for soviets, but did nothing in practice to help promote and link up the committees workers were actually creating in the factories.
Smaller groups of revolutionaries around Amadeo Bordiga and Antonio Gramsci eventually broke with the PSI to found the Italian Communist Party in January 1921.
While Gramsci’s group had played an important role in the rise of the workers’ councils in Turin, it didn’t have the same national presence or ideological cohesiveness as Bordiga’s group, which promoted ultra-left positions.
This included rejecting a united front against the growing fascist threat, not only with the PSI, but also with the Arditi del Popolo. These were initially sections of former Arditi who organised in opposition to the fascist attacks. But they developed into a wider movement of popular defence committees, repelling a fascist assault on Parma, for example.
In 1922, Mussolini declared in Naples that “either they hand us power or we will descend on Rome to seize it.”
At different points, Mussolini was aided by elements within the Italian state. Ahead of the fascists entering Rome, for example, the King refused to declare a state of emergency. Instead, he offered Mussolini power!
He had been urged on by Confindustria, the Italian bosses’ federation, which saw in Mussolini’s fascists the best chance of crushing the Italian workers’ movement and restoring their capitalist profits in a situation of severe global economic crisis.
This meant that, rather than the fascist bands that had gathered in four places on the outskirts of Rome marching to seize power, the march became a show of force marking Mussolini’s accession.
It still took several years after the March on Rome for fascist rule to be consolidated. The biggest missed opportunity to resist this was the mass outrage that erupted after socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti was kidnapped and murdered, with mass demonstrations demanding an end to fascist rule.
But the mass workers’ organisations refused to organise decisive action such as a general strike. The continuation of the destruction of the workers’ organisations was a tragic consequence, only re-emerging 20 years later as the fascist regime crumbled during World War Two.