Mussolini and the political formation of fascism


Had Mussolini gone the average Italian Socialist way, he would most certainly become one of the prominent activists of the Italian Socialist party – not more than that. But Mussolini was (a) an unprecedented bastard and (b) an outstanding politician.


The creation and political development of Italian fascism is directly tied to the name of Benito Mussolini.

Two “methodological temptations” must be avoided in the discussion of this figure.

First — the temptation to become Mussolini’s biographer.

Second — the temptation to dedicate the article to the analysis of the features of the Italian fascism, completely disregarding the details of his biography.

Of course, when I say that we need to avoid these methodological temptations, I might receive the reply: “It is easy to say — avoid. How?”

I understand the validity of this argument. I will try, though, to walk this “thin ice”. And I will start from summarizing the minimum of historical and biographical material.

Benito Mussolini was born in 1883 in the town of Dovia, Forli province. His mother was a schoolteacher (a devout Catholic), his father was a blacksmith (a militant socialist, an admirer of Bakunin and a member of the Second International). Due to the disagreement between his parents, Mussolini was not baptized. He embraced the anarcho-syndicalist ideas and anticlerical convictions of his father. He almost got expelled from the Christian school where he was sent to in 1891 due to his temper. Later, after a series of conflicts, his mother transferred him to another school.

Mussolini joined the Socialist party in his last year of school and started writing articles for local Socialist newspapers. He also gained the first experience of public propagandist speeches. Having graduated from his boarding school in 1901 he started working as an elementary school teacher in a nearby village. He became the leader of the local Socialist party branch and became the member of the local peasant syndicate-union.

Benito left to Switzerland in 1902 to avoid being drafted to the military. He did different odd jobs there — in Geneva, Lausanne and other cantons — and wherever he went he tried to participate in local socialist assemblies. He got acquainted with Pareto himself and got acquainted with his theory of elites while visiting his lectures on economy in Lausanne.

Mussolini also got acquainted with Vladimir Lenin and the Ukrainian Marxist-emigrant A. Balabanova in Lausanne. The latter drew his attention to the works of Marx, Nietzsche and the theorists of elites. And even though Mussolini had joined Marxists at that time, the influence of the ideas of Pareto, Nietzsche, Le Bon, Sorel was already apparent in the things he said.

Mussolini was deported to his motherland following Italy’s request in 1903, but he was amnestied in 1904 on the occasion of prince Umberto’s birthday and joined the military as a volunteer in 1905. Having served for two years in the military he returned home. He became a professor in a French college in 1908 in the town of Oneglia. He taught Italian language, geography and history. Here Mussolini also became an editor of a local socialist weekly newspaper. The main topics of his writings became the criticism of the government and Vatican.

This criticism was quite in the spirit of Sorel’s “revolutionary syndicalism”. In the same year, in 1908, Mussolini organized a strike of workers of agriculture and was arrested twice — for the threats to the head of agricultural syndicate and for an unauthorized rally.

Mussolini moved to the Austrian city of Trento in South Tyrol in February 1909. Most of city’s residents were Italians. Here he became the secretary of the local Labor Center and later — an editor of the “Il Popolo” (“The People”) newspaper, created by a socialist politician Cesare Battisti. Here Mussolini wrote the anticlerical novel “Claudia Particella, The Cardinal’s Mistress” together with his co-author Santi Corvaja which was being published in Il Popolo for the whole year in 1910 and which made him an enemy of Vatican for a long time.

Journalism and fiction writing was making the young and bright socialist’s popularity in the Socialist party grow fast. Mussolini returned to Forli in 1910 in order to edit the weekly “Class Struggle”. He became the leader of the widespread public protest against the colonial war in Libya and organized several strikes and manifestations against sending troops to the front-line for which he got sentenced to almost half a year of prison. In the meantime, the party nickname “Duce” (the leader) was sticking to him more and more.

In 1912 Mussolini became the editor of the official newspaper of the Socialist Party, “Forward!” (Avanti!). Mussolini quickly increased the circulation of the newspaper four times with his critical and notable articles and turned it into one of the most popular newspapers in the country. He was appointed editor-in-chief of Avanti! in the end of 1912 and moved to Milan.

When the laws on universal male suffrage were adopted in Italy in 1913, the Socialist party (to a large extent, thanks to Mussolini) had achieved high results during the elections and gained certain influence in the Parliament. Its “left-wing” group led by Mussolini rejected the governmental social-reformist political approach and became the head of mass strikes of workers of industry and agriculture starting from 1914.

At the same time, nationalistic tendencies started to rise not only among nationalist and Catholic (“Popolare” party) masses, but among socialists as well.

Triple Entente. Russian poster, 1914.
Triple Entente. Russian poster, 1914.

Prior to World War I Italy was formally a part of the Triple Alliance, together with Germany and Austria-Hungary. However, the hatred towards these allies was widespread in the masses — especially towards Austro-Hungarian empire which had occupied “ancient” Italian lands for the last several hundred years by then. Socialists were in opposition on this question as well, and Mussolini persistently wrote in “Avanti” that neutrality was necessary: “We want to remain loyal to our socialist and internationalist ideas to their very core

And here we approach a moment when the biographical method exhausts its capacities. We need to use another, political method.

Had Mussolini continued to go the average Italian Socialist way, he would have most certainly become one of the prominent activists of the Italian Socialist party — not more than that. But Mussolini, unlike these dignified (and, in a certain sense, mediocre) people, was (a) an unprecedented bastard and (b) an outstanding politician, grasping the historical content of his age. And he was able to take risks, maneuver, make sharp turns according to the demands of time.

This is why Mussolini suddenly — quite in the spirit of Machiavelli — changed his political views after the beginning of World War I to exactly the opposite. He published an article in that same “Avanti” in which he urged Italy to join the war, side with France and England, meaning, Triple Entente. It was an incredibly risky move associated with immense costs. However, Mussolini’s political intuition told him that both the risk and the costs are worth it.

Mussolini, of course, was expelled from both “Avanti” and the Socialist party. He had almost immediately founded his own newspaper, “The People of Italy”, which declared a course on supporting the war (such a course is called “interventional”). Meaning, he fully supported the revanchist ambitions of the elite – from industrialists and latifundists to Vatican (which was noticed by the elite circles) — and of the broad masses of people. It is worth noting that Mussolini’s new newspaper’s masthead read “The Socialist Newspaper”; it’s motto was a quote from Napoleon: “The Revolution is an idea which has found its bayonets“.

Emblem of the National Fascist Party
Emblem of the Italian National Fascist Party

At the same time Mussolini proceeded to party-building work. He created (with the help of money of the most prominent industrialist association “Konfindustry”, according to his enemies) “Fasci di azione revoluzionaria”, “Fasci (Union) of Revolutionary Action”, a political league of interventionalists — a foreshadowing of the future fascist party.

Note that Mussolini launches this political project with the motto “Today — war, tomorrow — revolution” . However, Italians at the same time recognized the reference to both ancient Rome and violence coded in its title. “Fasci” means not only “union”; it is also “fascio” — a bundle of rods, a symbol of the punitive authority of the “magistratus” — highest ranking officials in ancient Rome. This bundle of rods (usually with a hatchet attached to it) was carried by his escort, “lictors”. Meaning that the revolutionary-syndicalist idea of Sorel was built into the name of Mussolini’s league itself — and in terms of the ancient Roman myth, and in terms of violence.

Mussolini constantly travels across the country, organizing speeches before masses of people, gathering allies and campaigning for war. And he did this in Socialist vocabulary and terminology (which, of course, strongly irritated the Socialist party leaders): “The German proletariat, having followed the Kaiser, had destroyed the International and thus exempted the Italian workers from avoiding the war“.

He kept writing articles on this same topic in his newspaper which was quickly becoming more and more popular: “Our intervention has a double meaning: national and international. It is directed at the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy; perhaps it will be followed by a revolution in Germany and, as an inevitable counteraction, the Russian revolution. In short, it is a step forward on the path of liberty and revolution… War is a crucible which smelts the new revolutionary aristocracy. Our task is a task of an overthrowing, revolutionary, anticonstitutional intervention, but not an intervention of moderates, nationalists, imperialists.”

Mussolini in the military. 1917
Mussolini in the military. 1917

Italy joined the war on May 20, 1915. Mussolini got drafted in August, to the bersaglieri regiment — a kind of special operations forces of the time. He quickly earned the respect of his brothers in arms and commanders not only by his speeches, but also by personal bravery: more than once he was the first to get out of the trench during the attacks shouting “Long live Great Italy!” Mussolini got promoted to the rank of corporal in February 1916 “for good conduct, high morale and courage of a true bersaglieri” and fought for another year — until he got injured in the leg by an explosion of a shell in the mortar tube.

After being discharged, Mussolini quickly resumes his propaganda, including among socialists. Among other things, his propaganda was successful among right-wing socialists because throughout almost all of the war the Socialist’s party in its anti-war position opposed not only the authorities, but the majority of people stricken with nationalistic tendencies and was constantly accused of anti-patriotism.

Comments of Nikolai Ustryalov are of particular interest here. He was one of the most scrupulous researchers of Italian and German fascism, a cadet, supporter of Kolchak’s dictatorship. He migrated to Chinese city of Harbin and later became an influential “political companion” of Bolshevism.

Nikolai Ustryalov
Nikolai Ustryalov

Of course, when reading Ustryalov one must take into account that he wrote his book on Italian fascism in 1928, when the facts of horrifying crimes of fascists were not yet made public, and that in addition he himself was an ideologist of quite a particular thing known as “National-Bolshevism”. Nevertheless, the members of Comintern agreed with his evaluation. Ustryalov wrote: “There was something impotent and one-legged in the neutralism of Italian socialists. They had neither the explicit patriotism of their European colleagues, nor the truly revolutionary daring of the Russian style… superficial pacifism soaked with fear… Not a fanatical bet on revolution and civil war, but washing hands of, an appeal to narrow calculations…”

But the majority of the people, unlike socialists, sincerely considered the war a chance to return the territories mostly populated with Italians which Austria-Hungary took away from Italy. Over 200 thousand Italian volunteers went to war in first few months alone.

Besides, the arms contracts the industry received, which were based on foreign (mainly, British) and domestic credits, have substantially revived the Italian economy and lowered the level of social protest.

However, the end of the war had quickly dispelled the optimistic expectations of the masses.

According to the secret agreement Italy signed with England, Russia and France in April 1915 in London, Italy was promised that the Unredeemed Italy (“Italia irredenta”) lands will be returned to it for joining the war against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. The lands included South Tyrol, part of northern Adriatic, a part of territories of the Osman empire was also promised.

According to the Saint-Germain peace treaty of 1919 Italy received much of what it was promised, but far from everything. It didn’t achieve its goals in Dalmatia and Albania, and didn’t receive Fiume city in Adriatics which was mostly populated by Italians since ancient times (the Treaty of Rapallo of 1920 declared Fiume an independent free state).

Almost all of Italy was speaking about the “stolen victory” and about the “betrayal of allies”. With the most extreme and loud voices being heard from the side of Mussolini and his fascist league supporters. One of the first Mussolini’s fascist allies, Dino Grandi, claimed: “The victorious tyranny of the Anglo-French plutocracy which, having forced the world into the horrifying in its historical injustice Treaty of Versailles, put all effort into stripping us of the most basic and sacred fruit of our victory. And it succeeded! Our victory turned out to be a well-spoken expression, our country found itself among the defeated and strangled countries”.

Meaning, the interventionalist “ground” for fascism was prepared after the end of the war. But war prepared more serious grounds for Italy and fascism.

We will talk about this in the next article.

Source (for copy):


This is the translation of the fourth article (first published in “Essence of Time” newspaper issue 56 on November 27, 2013) by Yury Byaly of a series on essence, birth and rise of fascism. Part 1: Marxism, imperialism and the justification of inequality. Part 2. Part 3.

We encourage republishing of our translations and articles, but ONLY with mentioning the original article page at (link above).


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