When I was a university student, a history professor said the first kind words I’d ever heard about Benito Mussolini (1883-1945). The professor was, of course, referring to Mussolini’s early incarnation as a socialist.
With this year marking the centenary of the fascist movement’s founding, it’s worth pondering the professor’s observation. In fact, one can go further and ask whether historian Paul Johnson was right in describing fascism as no more or less than “a Marxist heresy.”
The teenage Mussolini characterized himself as a socialist and got involved in socialist organizations. When he left Italy for a sojourn in Switzerland at the age of 19, he carried a nickel medallion of Karl Marx in his pocket.
Back home a couple of years later, Mussolini developed a reputation for left-wing radicalism, got himself arrested and showed a taste for the idea of politically-directed violence. Revolution was in the air and he was well up for it.
By 1912, Mussolini was in the leadership circle of Italy’s Socialist Party and editing their newspaper Avanti! He was very effective at the job, doubling circulation and personally becoming a widely read radical socialist journalist.
What’s purported to be Mussolini’s rightward shift began in 1914, when he switched his position with respect to the First World War. Initially opposed to Italian involvement, he changed his mind, resigned his editorial slot, founded his own newspaper and was expelled from the Socialist Party.
Various factors have been suggested as motivators.
One is that he was caught up in the nationalist fervour surrounding the war. Another is that he was mindful of Marx’s aphorism that social revolution usually follows war and thus saw it as an enabler for what he wanted politically.
But speaking for himself at the time, Mussolini was clear on his ideology: “I am and shall remain a socialist and my convictions will never change! They are bred into my very bones.”
And looking at the early fascist program, one can see massive overlaps with a socialist agenda circa early 20th century. Among other things, there was to be a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, a progressive tax on capital, expropriation of uncultivated lands, and universal suffrage.
Once ensconced in power, there was much of the same. To quote political commentator Jonah Goldberg, “Mussolini did not move fascism from left to right; he moved it from socialist to populist.” In the process, the Italy he strove to create had much more in common with authoritarian socialism than with free markets and laissez-faire economics.
There was a shorter workweek, the introduction of family allowances and the launching of public works schemes. Free time was also enriched by government provision or facilitation of sporting events, concerts and holidays.
As far as the broader economy was concerned, Mussolini’s fascists were big time interventionists, developing “a huge, state-led industrial sector, which was especially important in banking, steel, shipping, armaments and the supply of hydroelectricity.” Adam Smith’s invisible hand wasn’t the altar at which they worshipped.
Then there’s the famous Mussolini declaration from 1928. By now well into his dictatorship period, he had this to say: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
In other words, the interests of the collective – as determined by the fascist state – would always take precedence over the rights and interests of the individual.
Whether that viewpoint is compatible with the term right-wing is a matter of opinion. But if right-wing is synonymous with political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and thinkers like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, then calling fascism right-wing is a misnomer.
Whatever one thinks of them, the likes of Reagan, Thatcher, Hayek and Friedman weren’t evangelists for the all-powerful state. Quite the contrary.
A parting thought.
While we’ve come to think of Mussolini as a bumbling buffoon, that’s not how he was always perceived.
Smart, a voracious reader and possessed of a flair for the theatrical, Mussolini struck many contemporaries as the man of action that difficult times called for. Even figures like Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt once had friendly things to say.
And let’s not forget the bare-chested images of Mussolini cutting wheat as he led Italy’s quest for agricultural self-sufficiency. Forty years on, Fidel Castro was in Cuba’s sugar fields with the cameras in tow. You might call it emulating the master.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.
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