Mises Daily

What Is Fascism?


Mussolini became premier in October 1922. With the innumerable arguments about the march on Rome or with the story of the violent, lawless, and outrageous tactics he used to come to power we are not concerned here. That history has been told many times. Our business is to see the use he made of his power to fashion a new form of society.

He did not have a majority in parliament. He had to form a coalition cabinet which included a moderate socialist and a member of the Popolari. Some liberal politicians saw the hope of a stable government and the General Confederation of Labor (socialist) agreed to collaborate. Mussolini, of course, began to move toward dictatorship. But the full dictatorship did not come until 1925, after the assassination of Matteoti.

We will now see the elements of the fascist society emerge—point by point. First we must note one important difference between Communism and Fascism which becomes clear here. Socialism has a definite philosophy, based upon clearly enunciated principles which had long been debated and were widely understood. Socialists disagreed among themselves on certain points and upon programs of action. But socialism as a system of social structure with an organized body of doctrine was well understood. This was not true of Fascism. Whether it was capitalist or anticapitalist, labor or antilabor, no one could say until the leaders themselves decided upon a course of action. It was improvised as the movement went along. Therefore we cannot define Fascism as a movement committed to the collection of principles enunciated in its formal proclamation of principles and objectives—the Eleven Points of San Sepolcro. Mussolini, being in pursuit of power, made that objective the mold by which his policies were formed. Behold now the erection of the great Fascist edifice.

1. He had been a syndicalist and hence anticapitalist. The original program included a demand for confiscation of war profits, confiscation of certain church property, heavy inheritance and income taxes, nationalization of arms and munitions plants, and control of factories, railroads, and public services by workers’ councils. These, Mussolini said, “we have put at the head of our program.” But in power he did none of these things. Signora Sarfatti quotes him as saying:

I do not intend to defend capitalism or capitalists. They, like everything human, have their defects. I only say their possibilities of usefulness are not ended. Capitalism has borne the monstrous burden of the war and today still has the strength to shoulder the burdens of peace…. It is not simply and solely an accumulation of wealth, it is an elaboration, a selection, a coordination of values which is the work of centuries…. Many think, and I myself am one of them, that capitalism is scarcely at the beginning of its story.1

On another occasion he said: “State ownership! It leads only to absurd and monstrous conclusions; state ownership means state monopoly, concentrated in the hands of one party and its adherents, and that state brings only ruin and bankruptcy to all.” This was indeed more in conformity with his syndicalist faith, but it completely negated the original Fascist platform. The first point we shall have to settle, therefore, is that fascism is a defense of capitalist society, an attempt to make it function. This view, which Mussolini did not entertain when he began, he came around to as he saw that Italy, in spite of all the disorder, had no mind to establish a socialist state. Moreover, he attached to himself the powerful industrialists and financiers of Milan and Rome along with many of the nobles, two of those powerful minorities essential to his general aims. Thus he molded Fascism into a powerful weapon to beat down the Red menace. But it was Italy which molded him to this philosophy, new for him, the man who, when the factories were occupied, had applauded the act of the workers.

2. Next Mussolini had denounced “demagogic finance” and promised to balance the budget. However, he lost little time in turning to the time-worn favorite of ministers—the unbalanced budget. As late as 1926 he wrote in his autobiography: “The budget of the nation [as he came to power] had a deficit of six and a half billions. It was a terrific figure, impossible for an economic structure to bear…. Today we have a balanced budget.” The surface facts supported that statement. His first budget showed a deficit of 4,914,000,000 lire; his second a deficit of only 623,000,000; and his third (1924–25) a surplus of 417,000,000 lire. It is entirely probable that Mussolini believed a balanced budget a good thing and consistent with his other promises. But Mussolini’s policies were made for him by the necessities of power, not by the laws of economics. At the very moment he was boasting of a balanced budget he was on the eve of a huge deficit of nine billion, in 1926–27. The year after that he balanced the budget once more so far as his books showed, and this was his last. From then on Italy was to float upon a sea of deficits, of spending and ever-rising national debt.

But as a matter of fact, Mussolini never balanced a budget. Immediately on taking office he proceeded to spend more on public works than his predecessors. Dr. Villari, Fascist apologist, says that between 1922 and 1925, despite drastic economies, Mussolini spent 3,500,000,000 lire on public works compared with only 2,288,000,000 lire in the previous three years. He also spent more on the army and navy and continued to increase those expenditures. How Mussolini could spend more than his predecessors on arms and on public works and yet balance the budget excited the curiosity of Dr. Gaetano Salvemini, who investigated the subject with surprising results.

Dr. Salvemini discovered that Mussolini resorted to a subterfuge to pay contractors without increasing his budget. He would make a contract with a private firm to build certain roads or buildings. He would pay no money but sign an agreement to pay for the work on a yearly installment plan. No money was paid out by the government. And hence nothing showed up in the budget. Actually the government had contracted a debt just as much as if it had issued a bond. But because no money passed, the whole transaction was omitted from the treasury’s books. However, after making such a contract, each year the government had to find the money to pay the yearly installments which ran from ten to fifty years. In time, as the number of such contracts increased, the number and amount of the yearly payments grew. By 1932 he had obligated the state for 75 billion lire of such contracts. The yearly payments ran to billions. What he did by this means was to conceal from the people the fact that he was plunging the nation ever deeper into debt. If these sums were added to the national debt as revealed in the treasury admissions, the actual debt was staggering ten years after Mussolini’s ascent to power on a promise to balance the budget. According to Dr. Salvemini’s calculations, the debt of 93 billion lire, when Mussolini took office, had grown to 148,646,000,000 lire in 1934. To what breath-taking sum it has now risen no one knows.2  But an Associated Press dispatch to the New York Times (August 8,1943) announced that the Italian debt was then 405,823,000,000 lire, and the deficit for the year was 86,314,000,000 lire.

Mussolini made no secret of the fact that he was spending. What he concealed was that he was loading the state with debt. The essence of all this is that the Fascist architect discovered that, with all his promises, he had no formula for creating employment and good times save by spending public funds and getting those funds by borrowing in one form or another—doing, in short, precisely what Depretis and Crispi and Giolitti had been doing, following the long settled practice of Italian governments. Thus spending became a settled part of the policy of Fascism to create national income, except that the Fascist state spent upon a scale unimaginable to the old premiers save in war. But in time the Fascist began to invent a philosophical defense of his policy. What the old prewar ministries had done apologetically the Fascists now did with a pretension of sound economic support. “We were able to give a new turn to financial policy,” says an Italian pamphlet, “which aimed at improving the public services and at the same time securing a more effective action on the part of the state in promoting and facilitating national progress.”3  It was the same old device plus a blast of pretentious economic drivel to improve its odor. Thus we may now say that fascism is a system of social organization that recognizes and proposes to protect the capitalist system and uses the device of public spending and debt as a means of creating national income to increase employment.

3. The third point to be noticed has to do with industry. For decades, as we have pointed out, men of all sorts believed that the economic system ought to be controlled. Mussolini accepted completely the principle that the capitalist economic system ought to be managed—planned and directed—under the supervision of the state. By this he did not mean that kind of state interference we employed in America before 1933—that is, regulatory commissions to prevent business from doing certain unlawful things such as combining to restrain trade. What he had in mind was what so many in Italy had in mind, that some force should be brought into being to direct and manage the movement and operation of economic law—controlling such great glandular energies as production, distribution, labor, credit, etc.

In doing this Mussolini was again complying with a general though vague desire of the people. And in doing it he had in mind two generally favored objectives. First, there was a growing weariness of the eternal struggle between employers and employees. Second, people wanted in some general way the functions of production and distribution managed in the interest of better times.

Nothing that Mussolini did fell in with his own ideas more than this. He was a syndicalist. And, as we have pointed out, it was the central principles of syndicalism that were making their way unnoticed into the thinking of all sorts of people. The syndicalist believed that industry should be controlled. So did Mussolini and so did most other people. The syndicalist believed that this control should take place outside the state. So did Mussolini and so did almost all others. The syndicalist believed that society should be organized for this control in craft groups. So did labor, industrialists, the people. And so did Mussolini. The syndicalist believed that industry should be dominated not by consumers or citizens as such but by producers. So did most others including the Duce. There was only one point on which they differed. That was the meaning of the word “producers.” The employers considered themselves the producers. The syndicalists believed the workers were the producers. One way to resolve that question was to call them all producers. After all, outside of the doctrinaires of various groups, the masses among them had in mind very practical ends. The bosses wanted to curb competition, protect themselves from what they called “overproduction,” and from what they also called the unreasonable aggressions of labor. The leaders and doctrinaires among the laboring groups had theories about workers’ councils, etc. But what the membership wanted was higher wages, better working hours, job security, etc. The seemingly wide gap between the employers’ and the workers’ definition of the word “producers” was not so great. An organization that would form all the producers—the employers and employees—into trade groups under state authority in separate groups but brought together in some sort of central liaison agency or commission, in which the rights of workers to bargain with their employers would be preserved, while the employers would have the opportunity to make, with the backing of the law and upon a comprehensive scale, regulations for the planning and control of production and distribution, came close to satisfying the desires of many men in all parties.

All this did not correspond completely to the Sorel syndicalist’s blueprint for society, but it drew most of its inspiration from that idea. So much is this true that the system has come to be frankly called Italian syndicalism, and Fascist historians and apologists like Villari now refer to Italy freely as the syndicalist state.

Whether Fascism was capitalist or anticapitalist, labor or antilabor, no one could say until the leaders themselves decided upon a course of action. It was improvised as the movement went along.

It would not be true to say that this is precisely what employers and labor leaders and their union members wanted. The point I make is that at the bottom of it was the central idea that these groups held in one degree or another, and that while it certainly excited the opposition of many, it corresponded sufficiently with a general drift of opinion to paralyze any effective opposition to it. It was moving in the direction of a current of opinion—of several, in fact—and not wholly against such a current.

Out of all this came the Fascist Corporative System and then the Corporative State. Briefly, it is built on the old syndicalist principle that there is a difference between the political and the economic state. The political state is organized by geographic divisions and has as its function the maintenance of order and the direction of the defense and progress of the nation. The economic state is organized in economic divisions, that is according to craft or industrial groups, and has as its function the planning and direction of the economic society.

Employers are organized into local trade associations called syndicates. The local syndicates are formed into regional federations, and all these regional federations into a National Confederation. The same holds true of the workers. In each locality the local labor syndicate or union and the local employers’ syndicate or trade association are brought together in a corporative. The regional federations are brought together in a regional corporative. And the National Confederations of Employers and of “Workers are united in a great National Corporative. I refrain from going into any details about the functions and techniques of these bodies. It is conceivable that in different countries they might differ widely—as indeed they have. But the central principle will be the same—that through these federations and corporatives employers and workers will plan and control the economic system under the supervision of the state. Mussolini himself called this “self-regulation of production under the aegis of the producers.”

In time Mussolini went further and made this the basis of reorganizing the state. Instead of abolishing the Senate as he had promised in his original platform, he abolished the Chamber of Deputies and substituted for it the Chamber of Fasces and Corporations, the members of which are supposed to represent the great trade and professional estates along with the representatives of the Fascist state. This Mussolini has called the Corporative State. He looks upon it as his greatest contribution to the science of government.

At this point we can say that fascism is (1) a capitalist type of economic organization, (2) in which the government accepts responsibility to make the economic system work at full energy, (3) using the device of state-created purchasing power effected by means of government borrowing and spending, and (4) which organizes the economic life of the people into industrial and professional groups to subject the system to control under the supervision of the state.

4. Mussolini, having incorporated the principle of state-created purchasing power into his system, turned naturally to the old reliable project of militarism as the easiest means of spending money. It is scarcely necessary to dwell on this since our newspaper files are well supplied with statements of returning American travelers since 1935 telling, some with an accent of approval, how Mussolini has solved the problem of unemployment in Italy by means of expenditures on national defense. Some of our own high officials have found occasion to comment on this fact, contrasting his accomplishment with our own failure to put our people to work.

Money was spent on highways, schools, public projects of various kinds, and on the draining of the Pontine Marshes, which became in Italy the great exhibition project not unlike our TVA in America. But this was not enough, and so he turned more and more to military expenditures. It must also be said that this fell in with his own tastes and temperament and with certain other objectives he had in mind, such as the elevation of the Italian spirit by this display of warlike power.

William Ebenstein gives the following figures for Fascist outlays on the army and navy:4


Compared with Great Britain, which spent 20 percent of her budget on defense in 1936, and France, which spent 27.2 percent, Italy spent 31 percent. In 1939 she spent 52 percent.

The militarization of Italy became an outstanding feature of the new regime. And the economic value of this institution in relieving unemployment while inducing the population to submit compliantly to the enormous cost became a boast of Fascist commentators.

5. It is not necessary to comment on the Fascist brand of imperialism. What we have already observed on that head—the intimate connection of militarism and imperialism—applies with full force here. It is unthinkable that Mussolini could induce the people of Italy to bear with patience the load of deficits and debt and taxes which this policy forced without supplying them with an adequate reason. Of course the reasons were the same old ones—the necessity of defense against enemies and external dangers daily magnified by propaganda, the economic necessity of colonies, and the appeal to the purple spirits in the population, the lovers of action and danger and glory. The extent to which Mussolini worked all these instruments is too well known and too recent to call for any further comment. The very nature of his regime called for action, ceaseless action, like a man on a bicycle who, if he stops, will fall. Imperialist ambitions, the re-creation of a new Roman Empire became an essential part of the whole scheme of things, intimately bound up with the policy of spending and with the propaganda of egoism and glory directed against the imagination of the people.

In 1929, the Depression, which struck every capitalist nation, hit Fascist Italy. Foreign and domestic trade was cut in half. Factories cut their output in half. Unemployment rose 250 percent. The problem of the Fascist magician was to reverse all this. Mussolini blamed it not on the defects in Fascist doctrine, but on the “bourgeois spirit with its love of ease and a career” which still lurked in Italy. What was the remedy? “The principle of permanent revolution,” he cried in a speech March 19, 1934. He repudiated the doctrine of peace. “War alone brings up to the highest point the tension of all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it.” This he called “dynamism.” What he meant was that he had no weapon against the inevitable economic crisis save that ancient one—more and more military expenditures paid for with borrowed funds and supported by the evangel of heroism and high adventure ending in war.

To sum up, we may say, then, that Fascism in Italy was and is a form of organized society (1) capitalist in character, (2) designed to make the capitalist system function at top capacity, (3) using the device of state-created purchasing power through government debt, (4) and the direct planning and control of the economic society through corporativism, (5) with militarism and imperialism imbedded in the system as an inextricable device for employing a great mass of the employables.

There is one more ingredient. But before we look at it, let me point out that none of these activities or policies already described involves moral turpitude according to the codes of the great nations of the West. It is entirely possible for an ordinarily decent person to approve and defend both public debt and spending, the corporative or guild system along with militarism and imperialism. In my view both militarism and imperialism are evil things, but not in the view of Western culture. There is no revolt against Western culture in any of these things, for all of them have been present in it for centuries, and the West is well peopled with the bronze and marble statues of heroes who have been associated with their advance.5

It is for this reason that it is an easy matter for ordinarily good citizens to look with indifference or tolerance or even approval upon the juncture of these several forces in our midst. My own opinion, however, is that no state can undertake to operate these separate devices all together to save the capitalist system without sooner or later finding itself confronted with the necessity of employing force and suppression within its own borders and upon its own people.

It is a fact, as we have seen, that minister after minister over many years used the policies—spending and borrowing, militarism and imperialism, and that business control was attempted by private business organizations—but the use of these devices never succeeded, first because they were never tried on a sufficiently large and persistent scale and second because within the framework of the constitutional representative system it was not possible to carry them to their full and logical lengths. The difference between Mussolini and his old parliamentary predecessors and precursors is that he used their devices upon the grand scale and organized the internal force that was necessary to give them an ample test. And he was enabled to do this because of the extensive and demoralizing collapse of the whole system which had been slowly degenerating for several decades and whose degeneration had been completed by World War I. We can now examine this sixth and final ingredient.

In all that we have seen thus far there is the familiar pattern of the man devoted to power and in possession of that power fumbling about for the means of meeting the problems of the society that pressed on him from every side. There is complete evidence that Mussolini when he began his march to power had no program. Both Professors Volpe and Villari, Fascist apologists, admit that the original program was “confused, half demagogic, half nationalist, with a republican trend.” He dropped one after another of his original principles as he found it expedient to make his policies conform to the great streams of public opinion and demand as soon as he recognized them. When he took power his program had changed to the point where he was committed to an attempt to make the capitalist system work. The antimonarchist became the pillar of the Crown. The syndicalist revolutionist became the savior of capitalism. The anticlerical became the ally of the Church. But how he would make this capitalist system function was a point on which he was far from clear. His position was wholly different from that of Lenin and Stalin, who overthrew an existing economic and political order and faced the task of establishing a new one whose fundamental principles and objectives and techniques were all supposedly well understood. Mussolini was committed to making the existing economic system work at the end of several decades during which it was crumbling to ruin.

Mussolini was certainly no absolute dictator when he took office as premier in 1922. He was summoned to office in a constitutional manner, though he had created the condition which ended in that summons by violent measures which could not be called civilized. He did not have a majority in the Chamber. He had to function with a coalition cabinet containing a socialist and a member of the Popolari. It was in every sense a parliamentary government that he headed. Few looked for the absolute dictatorship which ultimately developed. As usual men were deceived by their own inveterate optimism and the words of politicians. One of the most exasperating features of political movements in the last twenty years has been the habitual use of meaningless words by the Machiavellian leaders.

There has always been a tendency among politicians to juggle with words. But in the last dozen years, when the art of propaganda has been developed to a high degree and all sense of moral value has evaporated from public pronouncements and documents, leaders of democratic countries make statements so shockingly at variance with their convictions and intentions that the casual listener is almost wholly defenseless against them. It is difficult to believe now that Mussolini ever prattled about democracy. Yet he did. Only two years before he took power he boasted that the Great War was a victory for democracy. Of Fascism he said, when he took office, “that a period was begun of mass politics and unqualified democracy.” Mussolini had been an antimonarchist. When first named to the legislature he, with some of his colleagues, remained away from the Chamber on the occasion of the king’s speech as a gesture of disdain of the monarchy. The year before he assumed power he declared Fascism was ready to cooperate with the liberal and socialist groups. He urged freedom of speech for the socialists who, he declared, were no longer dangerous to the state and should be permitted to carry on their propaganda. Ivanoe Bonomi, who preceded him as premier, says that he tried to recall his party to its original republicanism and that he insisted the use of force must be abandoned against the organization of the proletariat. Mussolini’s party showed its distaste for these attitudes at the party congress in November 1921. But these were taken as an indication of Mussolini’s own position.

It is also possible that Mussolini himself, though he was hungry for more power, did not believe he could attain to absolute power. It seems probable that he underestimated the feebleness of the political system he attacked. And the moderate gestures toward democracy which he made for public consumption were beyond doubt lip service to a force he believed to be stronger than it was. But corruption and traffic with evil polity had weakened the structure of the old republican spirit. In the past it had been possible for ministers to attain a degree of power which could be more or less loosely called dictatorship. We know that within the framework of democratic controls an enormous amassing of power can be created. Americans who have seen men like Croker, Murphy, Quay, and Penrose, and, at a later period, Huey Long and a number of other autocrats at work know how it is possible through the manipulation of patronage, appropriations, the courts, the police, and the election machinery for one man to gather into his hands powers only inferior in degree to those of a dictator. This had happened in Italy. Thus we find the Italian publicist Romondo, before the Great War, referring to Giolitti’s regime, writing:

Under the shadow of a democratic flag we have insensibly arrived at a dictatorial regime…. Giolitti has nominated nearly all senators, nearly all the councilors of state, all the prefects, and all the other high officials which exist in the administrative, judicial, and military hierarchy of the country…. With this formidable power he has carried out a grouping together of parties by means of reforms and a working agreement of individuals by means of personal attentions…. Now when the parties forget their programs … when arriving at the threshold of the Camera they leave at the door the rags of their political convictions … it is necessary for the majority to support itself by other means … as all personal powers support themselves, with tricks and corruption. … Thus in practice one arrives at the annulment of parliamentary institutions and the annihilation of political parties.

I quote Romondo’s lament because it was uttered by one who perceived these phenomena at the time. We have in these pages already seen how power had been leaking out of every community and out of parliament into the hands of the premier. Prefects had been planted in the provinces who had reduced the mayors and local officers to subjection. Decisions on local matters were thus transferred to Rome. Business, labor, farmers, communes—every class and every section—rushed with their difficulties to Rome, which encouraged the illusion that it could handle them. Parliament, overwhelmed by these multitudinous issues, sought escape by creating commissions to make rules and to manage them. Thus Rome got into its hands jurisdiction over every part of the political and economic system and undertook to manage that through a bureaucratic state dominated by a premier who held his power through the incomparable power of a philanthropic treasury which kept public funds flowing everywhere. Italy became a highly centralized philanthropic bureaucratic state in which parliament became an instrument in the hands of the premier.

Italy had become accustomed to this sort of thing—a minister who could gather into his hands all the strings of power. It was of course by no means an authentic dictatorship. The right of opposition remained. The right of criticism continued. The premier had to gather the support of many minority parties in the Chamber, and his insecure dictatorship lived from hand to mouth at the mercy of unstable and contentious and bargaining parliamentary groups. Yet Giolitti could get a vote of confidence of 362 to 90. It could be called a dictatorship only by analogy. But it represented a loss of power by the republican organs of state, and these losses constituted a serious erosion of the republican foundations. And this erosion was the prologue to the swelling theme of Mussolini’s imperial act. Italy under Mussolini did not have to leap at one wide stride from pure representative government to dictatorship. The legislature and the people had been partly conditioned to the so-called dictatorship principle.

Mussolini had to have more power and he set out to get it. Few sensible men defended the condition that had grown out of numerous parties so that seldom did one party win a clear majority in the Chamber. The premier had to govern with the support of a collection of hostile elements drawn together behind him by coalitions of several minority parties. When proportional representation for parliament was introduced, the situation became worse. Parliament became a hopeless, brawling society with the power of clear decision almost destroyed. The public was exasperated with parliament. Even the parliamentary system was discredited and blamed for everything. There was an incessant demand for parliamentary reform. That reform took the course of less power for the Chamber, more for the executive. It was not called “streamlining the government” because that word was not yet invented. Mussolini had to rule with a Chamber split many ways and with his enemies in the majority. He determined to correct that condition at once. He did not cease in the process until he had made himself an unrestrained tyrant. Here is what he did.

He used three devices: (1) the electoral law of 1923, (2) the use of the military party, (3) the capture of all agencies of modern propaganda.

The electoral law was called a reform. Members of the Chamber were elected by proportional representation under a reform forced through by Premier Nitti. Socialists had rejoiced in this reform because it enabled them to get so large a vote in the Chamber. But this became the basis of Mussolini’s electoral law and his electoral system. He adopted the proportional representation system with the provision that would enable a party receiving a fourth of the votes to have two thirds of the seats in the Chamber. How did he succeed in doing this? It was passed by the same Chamber that had been elected under the sponsorship of Giolitti in 1919. Villari says it passed both houses by substantial majorities. On this he bases his claim that no objection can be made to its constitutionality. Having done this, Mussolini now held two thirds of the votes in the Chamber.

Many, however, defended this law. The Italian Chamber was split into numerous parties—fractional parties. A stable government was next to impossible in this situation, and many felt that some change should be made by which the party with the most votes, even though it had a minority, should be able to carry on the government. Thus Mussolini got plenty of highly respectable help along the first steps to absolute rule. The balance of the support was obtained by intimidation.

The other weapon of dictatorship was the party. The characteristics of this party were that it was (a) limited in numbers and (b) subject to quasi-military discipline. There is nothing unique about this. In this respect it followed the socialist model, which is in all countries a party calling for a rigidly disciplined membership limited necessarily by the very nature of the discipline it enforces. The military character of the party had no precedent in the socialist political forms. The military character, however, has been found in other countries and takes its form from the intention of the organizers to employ force as an instrument of attaining power. In this respect it followed the syndicalist theory of violence. Thus the form of political organization, like so much of the economic doctrine, was borrowed from the strategy of the Left. The quasi-military character of the party, with its black-shirt uniforms, was merely one form of using violence—an instrument of coercion and intimidation and confusion which is not unknown in the history of political parties.

Few Americans are familiar with a department of human art in which European radicals have specialized for many years—the art of revolution. Revolution through the barricades or by mass proletarian attack upon a regime is no longer thought to be a practical art. Revolution by procedures within the framework of the existing constitutional system has been for many years the accepted technique. There is a considerable literature on this subject which Americans, little concerned with revolution, have ignored. But we know that Mussolini’s reading had been largely devoted to this very literature. The central objective of this type of revolution is to produce confusion. Groups of all sorts unfriendly to the regime must be encouraged and activated whether they are in agreement with the revolutionists or not. They add to the divisions and the sense of hopelessness. Violence is a second arm of action. It intimidates the weak and creates disorder that harries the indifferent citizens. Within this atmosphere of division, intimidation, and disorder it is possible for an audacious and assertive and cocksure minority to force itself into power by quasi-constitutional means after which it can use the parliamentary and constitutional instruments it then controls to work its will upon the whole fabric of the society. The Fascist Party performed this function.

When Mussolini became premier and obtained a majority by means of the electoral law, he was still hesitant in his assumption of absolute power. There remained in the Chamber a large number of critics—vocal opposition. Most aggressive of these was Matteoti, socialist leader. The constant attacks within the Chamber upon Mussolini drove Fascist black shirts to further outrages against the enemies of Fascism, and as the culmination of a series of criminal assaults. Matteoti was assassinated by men holding high place in the Fascist Party and the charge was made that Mussolini had ordered the crime.6

The incident presented Mussolini with a real crisis. He met it with an extraordinary exhibition of assurance and audacity, assumed full responsibility for the state of the country, while denying complicity in the murder, and defied his enemies. He then unloosed upon all opposition the same relentless persecution and suppression he had meted out to the socialists. The more intrepid critics who refused to comply with the new order were assaulted, jailed, or exiled. Mussolini assumed the role of despot. To complete this, the Grand Council of the Fascist Party was made “the supreme organ of coordinating all activities of the regime.” All its members were appointed by Mussolini and he alone could summon them to meet. Later the Chamber decreed its own dissolution and a new Chamber, in accordance with the principle of corporativism, was established. Its members were chosen as follows: The Fascist syndical organizations chose 800 candidates and other Fascist groups chose 200. From these 1,000 the Fascist Grand Council named 400 to be the party candidates for the Chamber. Their names were submitted to the electorate, which voted “yes” or “no.” Thus all opposition was completely extinguished. But the regime began with a compliance with parliamentary forms and used that form to destroy the constitution.

There is a third weapon the dictatorship uses with deadly effect. This is the weapon of modern propaganda, which is quite different from that mild and old-fashioned thing which in America was once known as “publicity.” Complete control of the press is of course a vital element of this along with suppression of all critical elements. But this modern propaganda is something more than the negative force inherent in suppression. It is a positive assault upon the mind of the people. I have said that these modern dictatorships are popular or demagogic. I do not mean that they are popular in the sense of commanding the love of the people. But for reasons associated with the structure of modern societies, these dictatorships must have their roots running deep into the populations as the final source of power. They rise to power by running with all the streams of thought in the population. They are committed more or less to do those things that the powerful minorities among the people wish. But when they face the necessity of doing these things, immediately powerful countercurrents press against them. Thus spending involves taxes and borrowing, which in turn involves more taxes, which sets up powerful resistance from all quarters.

Corporative control means regimentation of business which, when attempted, involves stern compliance measures that also provoke another powerful group of irritations and enmities. In the end, the dictator must do things that the population does not like. Hence he must have power—power to subdue criticism and resistance. And this necessity for power grows by what it feeds on until nothing less than absolutism will do. And so the popular mind must be subjected to intense conditioning, and this calls for the positive and aggressive forms of propaganda with which we are becoming familiar in this country. The chief instruments of this are the radio and the movies. In the hands of a dictator or a dictatorial government or a government bent on power the results that can be achieved are terrifying. Along with this, of course, goes the attack upon the mind of youth. The mind is taken young and molded in the desired forms. It is at this point the dictatorships develop their attitude toward religious organizations, which cannot be permitted to continue their influence over young minds.

The dictatorship element of the Fascist state has accounted for two sets of facts: (a) a collection of theories upon which the totalitarian organism is founded, and (b) a collection of episodes that have grown out of it.

The Fascist organizers have felt the need to fabricate a philosophical basis for their system, which is a recognition of the popular stake in the experiment. They have, therefore, invoked the principle of the elite. This is not new in Europe. Almost every existing government at the time recognized the principle of monarchy and the principle of aristocracy, including the government of England, which to this day dedicates its upper chamber to the aristocracy or the elite. Long before the last war the principle of the elite was extensively discussed. Pareto was one of those who had subjected this institution to minute analysis. He criticized the static or hereditary elite that existed in most countries. In Britain and Germany there was an effort to mitigate this by providing for fresh infusions of new members into the elite by conferring of nobility upon candidates for the distinction from time to time. But the old hereditary elite remained and continued to dominate its class. Pareto played with the idea of a fluid or a circulating elite, as he called it. And Mussolini, who had listened to Pareto at Lausanne, had heard him with approval. It would be a simple matter to get an endorsement of this idea from large numbers of thoughtful people in every European country. It was this principle Mussolini adopted—the Fascist Party being the instrument for the creation of this new elite. Hitler adopted the same idea in Germany. At the bottom, the idea is defended upon the theory that men are not equal in their intellectual and ethical endowments and that society should seek to isolate those who represent the highest development of the race and give them special functions in the exercise of social power.

Out of this, therefore, might be said to grow the idea for the exclusive party, limited in membership and exercising a determining influence on the social structure and the government, while according the masses a share in the power through the elected Chamber. In fact, however, the Fascist Party did not grow out of any such theory. The theory instead is a rationalization to provide the Fascist Party with an ethical basis. The party is a pure instrument of absolute power. But the idea invoked to defend it is not without its appeal to great numbers of people.

The other principles of Fascist policy are the totalitarian government and the principle of leadership. They are not the same. Our own government is almost unique in its proclamation of the idea that the government shall not possess complete power over all human conduct and organization. The only powers possessed by our government are those granted by the Constitution. And that Constitution grants it very limited powers. The powers not granted to the central government are reserved to the states or to the people. Totalitarian government is the opposite of this. It defines a state whose powers are unlimited.

However, a state with unlimited powers need not necessarily be a dictatorship. While equipping the state with unlimited powers, those powers may be diffused through several organs of government such as the legislature, the monarch, the courts, and the states. In Italy the leadership principle is invoked to concentrate all the powers of the state in a single head. The principle of hierarchy may define it also—a structure in which at each level of authority the powers, such as they are, are lodged in a single person—a leader—who in turn is responsible to another leader above him who possesses all the power deposited at that level, such leader being finally accountable to the supreme leader—the dictator.

As we survey the whole scene in Italy, therefore, we may now name all the essential ingredients of fascism. It is a form of social organization

  1. In which the government acknowledges no restraint upon its powers—totalitarianism
  2. In which this unrestrained government is managed by a dictator—the leadership principle
  3. In which the government is organized to operate the capitalist system and enable it to function—under an immense bureaucracy
  4. In which the economic society is organized on the syndicalist model, that is by producing groups formed into craft and professional categories under supervision of the state
  5. In which the government and the syndicalist organizations operate the capitalist society on the planned, autarchical principle
  6. In which the government holds itself responsible to provide the nation with adequate purchasing power by public spending and borrowing
  7. In which militarism is used as a conscious mechanism of government spending, and
  8. In which imperialism is included as a policy inevitably flowing from militarism as well as other elements of fascism.

Wherever you find a nation using all of these devices you will know that this is a fascist nation. In proportion as any nation uses most of them you may assume it is tending in the direction of fascism.

Because the brutalities committed by the fascist gangs, the suppressions of writers and statesmen, the aggressions of the fascist governments against neighbors make up the raw materials of news, the public is familiar chiefly with the dictator element in fascism and is only very dimly aware of its other factors. Dictatorship alone does not make a fascist state.

The dictatorship of Russia, while following the usual shocking techniques of tyranny—the concentration camp and the firing squad—is very far from being a fascist dictatorship. In any dictatorship the dictator attacks such internal enemies and coddles such internal allies as suit his purposes, and so his suppressions and propaganda will be directed at different groups in different countries. Hence while Hitler denounces and persecutes the Jews, it was two Jews—Theodore Wolff and Emil Ludwig—who acclaimed Mussolini, because the latter did not find it profitable to attack them.

The central point of all this is that dictatorship is an essential instrument of fascism but that the other elements outlined here are equally essential to it as an institution. In different countries it may alter its attitudes on religion or literature or races or women or forms of education, but always it will be militaristic and imperialist dictatorship employing government debt and autarchy in its social structure.

The commonly accepted theory that Fascism originated in the conspiracy of the great industrialists to capture the state will not hold. It originated on the Left. Primarily it gets its first impulses in the decadent or corrupt forms of socialism—from among those erstwhile socialists who, wearying of that struggle, have turned first to syndicalism and then to becoming saviors of capitalism by adapting the devices of socialism and syndicalism to the capitalist state. The industrialists and nationalists joined up only when the Fascist squadrons had produced that disorder and confusion in which they found themselves lost. Then they supposed they perceived dimly at first and then more clearly, in the preachments of the Fascists, the germs of an economic corporativism that they could control, or they saw in the Fascist squadrons the only effective enemy for the time being against Communism. Fascism is a leftist product—a corrupt and diseased offshoot of leftist agitation.

It is equally superficial to assume that this job was the work of the practical men and that the world of scholarship remained aloof, ignoring the dark currents that were rushing beside it eating away its foundations, as one fatuous American writer has asked us to believe. Far from being the work of the practical men, it was much more the achievement of a certain crackpot fringe—the practical men coming in only when the work of confusion was well under way. They came in on the tide of confusion. As for the scholars and poets—remote from the evil smell of politics and economics—Italy’s foremost philosopher and historian, Benedetto Croce, had long before created a tolerance for the syndicalist ethic in Italy. He wrote approvingly of Sorel. He went so far as to say that the Inquisition may well have been justified. Certainly Mussolini and Gentile believed up to 1925 that he supported Fascism. Later he was to have his house burned over his head when the practical politicians took the scholar at his word.

If there was a second to Croce among the scholars it was Giovanni Gentile, who became Mussolini’s minister of education. It was Gentile who brewed most of the nasty draughts which were offered to the lips of the scholars—such as first taking the Fascist oath and later joining the Fascist Party under compulsion. Mussolini himself, says Borgese, stood reluctant before these proposals for two years because of his awe of the mysterious world of the mind and the academy, since he yearned to be thought of himself as an intellectual. But Gentile finally persuaded him. And when the professors were presented with the demand to take the oath and join up, of all the thinkers and teachers in Italy, only thirteen refused. After that, having taken the first step, caught in the spiritual necessity of defending themselves in the forum of their own consciences, they proceeded to out-fascist the Fascists in their fabrication of ethical and philosophical supports for the new order.

No one will wish to mitigate the dark colors of this evil episode in the history of our civilization. But it will not do to say it is just the work of bad men. Too many men who lay claim to being called good citizens have proclaimed their approval or at least a warm tolerance for the performances of Mussolini. Mussolini’s black shirts had clubbed socialists into flight and the timid into submission. One might suppose that the use of the cudgel would have called at least for an apology from some of those men like Gentile who entered the Fascist movement at the head of a group of liberal academicians and writers.

Mussolini had boasted that his Fascist revolution was made with cudgels. And the philosopher Gentile was so far from being horrified at this that he actually said that in the days before the march on Rome, “the cudgels of the squadristi seemed like the grace of God. The cudgel in its material brutality became the symbol of the fascist, extra-legal soul…. That is holy violence.”

Here is the dread cult of violence which becomes holy the moment it appears in support of one’s own special cult. Let no man suppose that it is only in Italy that a liberal philosopher can hold a brief for “holy violence.”

It was after the vulgar brutalities of the march to power, after newspapers had been burned and editors beaten, political clubrooms sacked, after the sacred cudgel by God’s grace had done its holy violence on its enemies and others had been gorged with castor oil, after thousands had been thrown into concentration camps and countless other brave men had been driven from their country, after Matteoti had been assassinated and Mussolini had proclaimed that democracy was “a dirty rag to be crushed under foot,” that Winston Churchill, in January 1927, wrote to him, saying, “If I had been an Italian I am sure I would have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.” He assured the Duce that were he an Italian he would “don the Fascist black shirt.” And a year later, in Collier’s Magazine, he wrote extolling Mussolini above Washington and Cromwell.

Does this mean that Churchill approves of beating and suppressions? Hardly. Its significance lies in the revelation of the extent to which evil deeds will be excused or tolerated or even defended when some cherished public or religious or social crusade is the excuse. Man’s capacity for cruelty—even the good man’s capacity for cruelty—in the prosecution of a spiritual crusade is a phenomenon to affright the soul.

Mussolini—the same Mussolini whose career of violence and aggression and tyranny had been widely advertised—has testimonials from many Americans. Mr. Myron C. Taylor, until recently envoy to the Vatican, said in 1936 that all the world has been forced to admire the success of Premier Mussolini “in disciplining the nation.” He did not use the word Ethiopia, but he told a dinner audience that “today a new Italian Empire faces the future and takes up its responsibilities as the guardian and administrator of an alien backward nation of 10,000,000 souls.”7

When Mussolini wrote his autobiography he did so at the instance and prodding of one of his most devoted admirers, the United States ambassador to Italy, the late Richard Washburn Child, who had been in Italy during a considerable part of the whole Fascist episode and knew it at first hand.8  When the book appeared, it contained a fulsome preface by the ambassador, just as another book by Count Volpi, Mussolini’s finance minister, on the glories of Italian Fascist finance, carried a complimentary preface by Mr. Thomas W. Lamont.9

Mr. Sol Bloom, now chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the House of Representatives, said on the floor of the House January 14, 1926,

He [Mussolini] is something new and vital in the sluggish old veins of European politics. It will be a great thing not only for Italy but for all of us if he succeeds.

It is his inspiration, his determination, his constant toil that has literally rejuvenated Italy and given her a second, a modern, Renaissance.

He has taken nothing for himself, neither titles, money, palaces, nor social position for his family. His salary is only … about $1,000 in American money.

I can only compare Mussolini and his men to what would have happened if the American Legion, led by a flaming hero, had become sick and weary of trusts, of graft, of incompetence, of stupidity, and, feeling their youth, their intelligence, and their patriotism bursting within them, had organized to demand the right to try their ideas of a sane and strict administration.

Although bloodless, Mussolini’s “revolution” has changed Italy for the better.

You do not find any violence there and you do not find any strikes.

The world-wide interest in Italy today is undoubtedly due to the career and the achievements of her great Premier, Benito Mussolini, who, crashing out of obscurity three years ago, has remained the most powerful personality in Europe ever since.10

Mr. Churchill was not the only one to see another Cromwell in Mussolini. Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler said “that it was safe to predict that just as Cromwell made modern England, so Mussolini could make modern Italy.” He boasted of his friendship for Mussolini, who covered him with decorations, and he described “fascism as a form of government of the very first order of excellence,” and insisted that “we should look to Italy to show us what its experience and insight have to teach in the crisis confronting the twentieth century.”

Dr. Gaetano Salvemini, who preserves these choice examples of applause for the Duce in his recent book What to Do with Italy, also favors us with one from the late Mr. Otto Kahn, who spoke before the faculty of Wesleyan University, November 15, 1923:

The credit for having brought about this great change in Italy and without bloodshed belongs to a great man, beloved and revered in his own country, a self-made man, setting out with nothing but the genius of his brain. To him not only his own country but the world at large owes a debt of gratitude.

Mussolini was far from fomenting class hatred or using class animosities or divergencies for political purposes.

He is neither a demagogue nor a reactionary. He is neither a chauvinist nor a bull in the china shop of Europe. He is no enemy of liberty. He is no dictator in the generally understood sense of the word.

Mussolini is far too wise and right-minded a man to lead his people into hazardous foreign adventures.

His government is following the policy of taking the state out of business as much as possible and of avoiding bureaucratic or political interference with the delicate machinery of trade, commerce, and finance.

Mussolini is particularly desirous for close and active cooperation with the United States. I feel certain that American capital invested in Italy will find safety, encouragement, opportunity, and reward.

The great Fascist evangelist did not fail to excite the admiration of some of those American foreign correspondents who are now proclaiming themselves the most ardent lovers of democracy and flinging around their venom upon men who were denouncing Mussolini’s Fascist dominion when they were extolling it. Mr. Herbert Matthews, of the New York Times, in The Fruits of Fascism, tells us that he was for long “an enthusiastic admirer of fascism” and intimates that he was converted only when he saw the Fascist airmen raining bombs on Spain in 1938.

Eleanor and Reynolds Packard, United Press correspondents, in their book written after their expulsion from Italy, assure us that historians will divide Mussolini’s dictatorship into two parts and that the first, covering twelve years of his collaboration with the democratic powers, was marked by a social program that was good, despite his oppressions, and that is being copied now by democratic countries. To Mr. Matthews there was a time when Mussolini was the “one man who seemed sane in a mad world.”11

I recall these testimonials here merely because of their bearing on American and British opinion upon what happened in Italy. We cannot count on all good people in America rejecting fascist ideas. To many the pursuit of the hated Red justified the elements of violence in the episode. To others the imperious need of meeting the challenge of labor justified the cudgels. Mussolini was all right as long as he played along with the democratic powers. “I do not deny,” said Mr. Churchill as late as December 1940, in a speech in the House, “that he is a very great man. But he became a criminal when he attacked England.” Mussolini’s crime lay not in all the oppressions he had committed upon his own people, not in his trampling down of liberty in Italy, in attacking Ethiopia or Spain, but in “attacking England.” It is precisely in this tolerance of ordinarily decent people for the performances of such a man that the terrible menace of fascism lies for all peoples.

This article is excerpted from As We Go Marching, part 1, chapter 10.

  • 1Life of Benito Mussolini, by Margherita G. Sarfatti, Stokes, New York, 1925.
  • 2For a full and interesting discussion of this weird chapter in fiscal policy see “Twelve Years of Fascist Finance,” by Dr. Gaetano Salvemini, Foreign Affairs, April 1935, Vol 13, No. 3, p. 463.
  • 3The Italian Budget before and after the War — pamphlet issued by Proweditorato Generale Delia Stato, Rome, 1925.
  • 4Fascist Italy, by William Ebenstein, American Book Company, New York, 1939.
  • 5“The transformations undergone by business organizations in those countries which have revamped their national systems along totalitarian lines are fully consonant with and may be considered the logical outgrowth of previous trends in structure, policies, and control within the business world itself.” Business as a System of Power, by Robert A. Brady, Columbia University Press, 1943.
  • 6The evidence against Mussolini on this point has been collected and presented in great detail in Mr. George Seldes’s Sawdust Caesar, Harper & Bros., New York, 1935. A very full and reliable record of the depredations of the fascist gangsters is made in Dr. Gaetano Salvemini’s Under the Axe of Fascism, Viking Press, New York, 1936.
  • 7New York Times, November 6, 1936.
  • 8My Autobiography, by Benito Mussolini, Scribner, New York, 1928.
  • 9The Financial Reconstruction of Italy, by Count Volpi and Bonaldo Stringher, Italian Historical Society, New York, 1927.
  • 10Congressional Record, January 14, 1926, 69th Cong., 1st Session.
  • 11The Fruits of Fascism, by Herbert L. Matthews, Harcourt, Brace & Co., New York, 1943. Balcony Empire, by Eleanor and Reynolds Packard, Oxford University Press, 1942.
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