THE most thorough way to understand and judge Fascism is by dissociating Fascism as a political program from Fascism as a movement in the history of the Italian national revolution. It is my intention in the following pages to consider and appraise particularly this second aspect--or function--of Fascism as it is revealed in the history of my country.

The history of the Fascist political party, which is much simpler and shorter than that of the Fascist revolutionary movement, can be easily summed up. The recent political struggles in Italy had unluckily opened the way to parties anti-nationalist in theory as well as in practice, viz., the Socialists, the People's Christian Party (Popolari) and the organization of the Freemasons. For years Socialism had preached to the masses the principles of the economic class struggle pure and simple, totally disregarding the immense danger to the unity and strength of nations in theories which appeal to violence in order to assert the primacy of material requirements and which deny all the moral and historical values championed by nationalism in behalf of State and country. The People's Party, a spontaneous and vigorous post-war formation sprung from the ashes of the shattered Christian democracy, which had seemed dead since the disappearance from the scene of Pope Leo XIII, took up again some of the precepts of the radicalism of the last century. It did away with the balance between justice and humanity on the one side and the exigencies of the fatherland on the other, and aimed to restore the bond between the Catholics of the whole world, so as to bring them into obedience to the principles common to all believers apart from and above the obligations of citizenship. This was not the international Socialism of class struggle. It was a spiritual internationalism fatally tending to weaken the ideas of state and country. Finally, the mighty Masonic organization, as it exists in western Europe, made a forceful cosmopolitan appeal, strongest wherever Freemasonry assumes a financial or a directly anti-religious character.

In Italy of late these three elements had become in a certain sense a common peril through their common international spirit. Their activities seriously retarded the crystallizing of Italy's national unity when, precisely at the close of the World War, this conception was gaining clearness and intensity. Fascism as the motive of a political party of conscious, impetuous, abounding nationalism challenged these three internationalisms and fought them in the social, the spiritual and the political field. It was only natural that, having inaugurated this national crusade, the Fascist party should enroll a mighty host of followers, thousands of whom had seceded from the parties that the Fascists opposed.

This will explain the intensity of the political warfare now waging between the Fascist party and the internationally-minded groups. The triumph of either combatant may well be an important event in Italian history. The victory or defeat of the principles of the Fascist party will determine the rate of progress of these principles in other European countries. For Italy, however, the outcome of this contest is vital because Fascism is essentially a typically Italian movement. Such it remains whether we consider it as a political party or as a phase of our national revolution--and even more so in the latter case; for Fascism, though in the guise of a political party, is a capital factor in the formation of the modern Italian state. It is my belief that this standpoint should be accepted when writing the history of the Italian national regeneration which began early in the nineteenth century and continues to this day. From this angle Fascism stands out properly in the grandiose panorama of nineteenth century Europe. Observers often isolate the phenomenon of Fascism and reduce it to the proportions of a rebellious political group. Then it appears as a mere episode, lively, to be sure, but effervescent, in Italy's recent political struggles. We, however, who wish to give it its place in the history of Italian unity shall show the continuity, the inevitability, of the events during the last hundred years of Italy's existence.

From the time when Italy became a sovereign state, and even before she had established her capital in Rome, an element of disharmony was felt within her--the great disequilibrium between the immense heritage of artistic, religious, intellectual and social culture created by Italy for the benefit of the whole world, and the young state's organic weakness. From 1860 on, Italy began to feel the political, diplomatic, economic and psychologic consequences of this disequilibrium--a unique phenomenon, perhaps, in the history of nations. We Italians would speak to the world as representatives of an age-old civilization of which we had inherited countless works of artists and thinkers --a civilization that entitled us to a place among the foremost Powers in Europe--and all the while we were speaking in the name of a very young state, still administratively incomplete, still divided by the remains of a feudal structure, and lacking economic and military independence. To be sure, Italy possessed abundant civic and diplomatic tradition; but she was a novice in commerce and industry, weak in finance, and given to an agnostic tendency in religion which left her powerless at the moment when she needed the loftiest inspiration to help her conquer in the struggle for existence.

Among those Italians of that period who were endowed with visions of Italy's future there was intense concern over the extreme youthfulness of their country. Speaking on his deathbed to the young men to whom he was leaving his work of unification, Cavour said some plan to effect a perfect fusion between the south and the north was the most vital task on hand. Francesco Crispi, who next to Cavour foresaw most enthusiastically and intelligently the maturity of Italy, held that second only to the admitted economic inequality between south and north was the disparity between the resources of the new nation and the ambitions of its younger statesmen to claim a part in the future of the Mediterranean basin. The conference of victorious nations that followed upon the World War gave us the very latest instance of incompatibility between, on the one hand, our need and purpose to make ourselves felt in Europe and Africa with all the authority due to our standing as a nation and, on the other, the active opposition to this purpose of those Powers that have for centuries dominated the destinies of Europe.

Such are the historic origins of Fascism. It came as the manifestation of our nation's resolve to remove the disparity already referred to, to square our resources with our aims, our measures with our rights, our forces with our will, in a word, our policy with our civilization. This is what Fascism as a historic movement claims to undertake. Needless to add that if Fascism succeeds in reducing even in part the divergence between our cultural and our political status--for to abolish it entirely is the task of more than one generation--it will have made one of the best and greatest contributions to the history of Italian national evolution.

This is why it cannot be maintained that Fascism is merely the creed of one among sundry political parties. As well brand as mere political parties the followers of Garibaldi and the liberals led by Cavour.

Undoubtedly the chasm between our very advanced civilization and our limited political efficiency was gradually closing during the years of the national revival--the Risorgimento--that immediately preceded the unifying of Italy. It behooves us to see how and why that chasm remained a considerable one even after Italian unity had been achieved. I think it was due chiefly to the over-rapid progress of events during the Risorgimento. The masses of the people and the small proprietors had been unaffected by the political vicissitudes of the petty vassalstates, most of them under alien rule, that subdivided Italy down to the beginning of the nineteenth century--subdivisions that kept in abeyance the initiative and the patriotism of their inhabitants. During that period of foreign domination, politics and public office attracted only those few aristocrats and men of affairs who could, albeit reluctantly, identify themselves with the foreign-born ruling element in each little state. The people at large neither opposed nor did they support their princes of alien race, although for centuries they had been fighting and conquering in causes not their own.

With the dawning of the Risorgimento the number of Italians who entered into public affairs increased greatly, and now although the masses largely remained unmoved by the political events that had convulsed Europe and were soon to convulse Italy, the aristocratic or intellectual minorities who began to take a part in public life assumed the defense of the great principle of nationality proclaimed in the words: "Liberty and Union!"

As events progressed and the splendid objective drew nearer, attended by important diplomatic events and by the glories of military and political successes, the rank and file of liberal patriots notably increased; but it still was only a small minority of the most high-minded Italians that foresaw Italy as a nation, the national capital at Rome and the birth of a Great Power. The great mass of wage earners, farmers and small tradesmen remained indifferent, or even to a slight extent upheld the interests of foreign domination. Thus was protracted the contrast between the desire of our leaders for the due recognition of a state with centuries of culture behind it and the modest means at their disposal for the assertion of modern statehood. Hence the prolongation of the Risorgimento as a spiritual and political phenomenon long after the attainment of its tangible aims.

Italians had been accustomed for centuries to identify government and state with personal and foreign domination. They were slow to adapt themselves to the new fact--a national state and government. The concept of liberty which before the Risorgimento had implied the negation and antithesis of government suddenly became one with government and state. Slowly, gradually, the meaning of the great national evolution, set in motion by the few choice spirits whose prophetic vision it had been, penetrated the minds of the people.

The great makers of a new and united Italy did more than all others to abolish the disparity between the high cultural level of Italians in the middle of the nineteenth century and their primitive political consciousness. This creative effort was a blend of cold intelligence and of chivalrous heroism, a blend of the best that the spirit of Old Italy could offer and of the latest and most spontaneous of youthful patriotic ardor.

At the close of the events that established the Risorgimento in 1870, and in the next few years thereafter, we find the political leaders of Italy continuing, though with less drastic action and less haste, the effort of their great predecessors. It was theirs to build up the strength of a new state that had come into being suddenly through a series of almost incredible events, to organize more thoroughly the nation's military, financial, administrative and economic systems, to secure popular respect for government institutions, and finally--a most subtle and difficult process--to win the loyal support of Italian citizens.

The period during which the Italian commonwealth grew in strength and consistency, amid the stress of internal political strife and of increasing international competition, lasted from 1870 into the first decade of the twentieth century. It was during this period that the earlier work of creative statesmanship began to show definite and hopeful results. On the other hand, it was fully apparent that there was no corresponding development of the public consciousness in the new citizenry. The first international questions with which budding Italy had to deal demonstrated that the people were earnestly, fervently patriotic, that they had fully accepted the discipline of the monarchical régime, but that they were nevertheless still falling short of spontaneous and effective participation in the activities of a modern state whose international rights and obligations were daily increasing and whose economic scope was enlarging.

This failure in participation on the part of Italian citizens was, if not the cause, at least a favoring circumstance of the growth of a vigorous, restless, militant Socialism, anti-national and antigovernmental. We can admit today, with the calmness of those who study the past, that our Socialist party cleverly preëmpted the vacant ground which separated the political listlessness of the Italian people from the difficult, toilsome and often feverish life of their juvenile state. We may say that after 1890 a day came when a weak state faced a powerful Socialism with definite political as well as economic objectives. For, besides reiterating Marxist doctrines with their standardized program for improving the condition of the proletariat, the Italian Socialists added something of their own. They sought to hasten by a quick revolutionary ferment the slow and incomplete evolution of statehood--a dangerous purpose because with our young and weak national organism it had fair chances of success.

The Italian Government had to face and solve without violence or serious disturbance the problem of its relations with a Socialism that had been undermining public authority for some decades. A strong conservative government would have fought Socialism in open field and might have routed it; a liberal, democratic government would have tried to rid Socialism of its anti-governmental and revolutionary content and reduce it to the relatively harmless place of an advanced party of the Left.

Forty years ago, however, Italian governments were too weak to adopt either of these policies. They endeavored to absorb Socialism, to regulate it and confine it within the bounds of the established order by pampering it and granting it privileges. This was a most unwise policy and the present generation has had to pay heavily for it. These concessions were only a confession of weakness. It has been said that an enemy must be either blandished or annihilated, but this precept, meant to apply primarily to the foreign relations of a state, or perhaps to the enemies of "The Prince," can be followed in the internal politics of a state only at grave risk. The Italian body politic not only failed to absorb Socialism but actually succeeded in making the state subservient to the Socialists, and Socialism more powerful than the state. In fact, the very people who had accepted a constitutional government joined hands with subversive anti-nationalists in paralyzing the commonwealth, although operating from opposite standpoints and moved by quite different aims.

The French monarchy had for a long time pursued some such policy as this towards the great nobles, granting them all kinds of privileges in order to secure their allegiance to the state and make them dependent on it. That was an attempt to win over the aristocracy: the Italian Government by a like system of favors and grants sought to win over the masses affected with Socialism. It was an absurd policy, manifestly predestined to failure. It had failed even before the war. The failure became a disaster when the war was over and the Italian Government found itself beset on every side by insistent Socialist demands for further favors. The country was in imminent danger of the plague of State Socialism. The Red coöperative unions were bleeding the Treasury white. Strikes became the only sure incidents in production. Thus, when the magnificent Fascist reaction broke loose it seemed, as in fact it was, a rebellion against the sluggish evolution of the national body politic--that disability that had hampered our national life ever since the birth of Italian unity--and at the same time an outbreak against the recent decline of the Government's rightful authority and its subservience to those who sought to exact the utmost farthing of spoils in the form of political, economic and class privileges, and then--torpedo it.

Italy's participation in the World War greatly helped her people to develop a national and political self-consciousness, and led therefore to the organization of the impressive legion of Fascists and their "March on Rome." Captained by Mussolini, a typical man of the hour--and this is his highest title and his best claim to embody the genius of the Italian people--the great mass of workers passed over from Socialism to Nationalism.

If Italy had not taken part in the World War, assuredly she would not have had her recent nationalist revolution, indeed it is more likely that she would have suffered a rapid degeneration. Our participation in the war was an event of signal national importance not only because of the diplomatic and territorial gains that resulted from it but for its symbolical and political implications. It is true that Italy desired to round out her territory with the Italian lands that Austria-Hungary had unjustly held for centuries; it is a fact that we wanted for our own benefit--and for theirs--Trent, Trieste, Fiume, and Zara, not merely because they are important cities, but because they were the last outposts of Italian population not yet included in the Italian realm; but above all is it true that from 1915 to 1918 Italy of her own free will offered to undergo the supreme test of national strength and unity, for the army of over five million men that went under fire bearing the standards of King Victor Emanuel fused her classes and her masses in one heroic crucible.

The war did indeed complete our unification not only by bringing back to us the upper Adriatic and the upper Trentino but by causing modern Italy, who had confined her military efforts for fifty years to petty African wars, to draw up for the first time in her history a mighty national army and to lead it to victory against the great and martial empire which for centuries had dominated the northern part of the Italian peninsula.

The Italian statesmen who held the reins of power in 1914 failed to understand the idealistic motives that prompted our young men to go into the war. The elders viewed the state as an administrator of government and of public finance and as a dispassionate slow-moving umpire in the contests between political parties. The younger generation saw it as combining and safeguarding the existence and welfare of every one of its nationals. Beyond all question the war has quickened the inner life of the state, has broadened the foundations of the national structure spiritually, economically, politically, and morally. The national consciousness and the authority of the Government have been greatly enhanced. The disparity already mentioned between Italy's high culture and her limited political experience and efficiency is at an end. War brought the nation the fairest conceivable prize.

When Fascism took upon itself to guard and exalt this prize, and appointed itself trustee of the common treasure of patriotic spirit, it encountered more or less scepticism as to the miracle that had been wrought and the opposition of the three groups described above, the Socialists, the Christian-Democrats, and the radical Masons. It was inevitable and logical that Fascism should proceed to quell these surviving internationalists, who had consistently tried to discredit the war and the victory, for the reason that Fascism stands for the newly-awakened national consciousness of Italy.

Having taken over the government of the nation by virtue of the now familiar events of 1922, Fascism went on to lay a solid foundation for its plan of national and governmental reconstruction. In this way this most extraordinary revolutionary movement harked back to its distant but undoubted origins in the Italian Risorgimento of half a century before, which was waiting completion by the Italian civic consciousness of our day. Down to 1921, Mussolini, the unique and forceful man who was to lead Fascism to its conquest of political power, voiced the principle of nationalism when he declared as follows: "The state is the legal embodiment of the nation. Political institutions are efficient to the extent to which they express and safeguard national interests." He said further: "The nation is not merely the sum total of its living nationals, still less is it an agency for the accomplishment of partisan purposes. It is an organism covering an unlimited number of generations in which individuals are but transitory items. It is the supreme synthesis of the material and spiritual values of the race."

For a better understanding of the theoretical content of Fascism as a motive force in Italian history, we must be more definite. Liberty cannot be only an abstract general idea: it has a concrete application to each of the varying circumstances of a nation's political life. The divine right of sovereigns--sacred and inviolable--is no longer recognized in these modern days; but neither is the liberty of the people an absolute and unquestionable right as it was proclaimed by the French Revolution. Modern statesmanship has found in the constitutional régime both an ideal and a practical mean between these two extremes. In the case of Italy the need of the hour is to preserve her as a constitutional state against corruption, decline and ruin. Such ruin might befall as the result of granting the citizens of a constitutional parliamentary state a degree of liberty incompatible with the functioning of such a state. Liberty within a state must serve to coördinate for the common weal all the energies of the nation. Granted that a people cannot be happy or prosperous or respected if the state to which they belong is not strong and respected, the so-called "reactionary" character of Fascism disappears. There arises instead the prospect of a great patriotic Italian democracy founded upon the willing spontaneous agreement of the people at large and the governing classes that all the national energies shall subserve the well-being of the nation.

It is the interest of the people that their state shall be powerful and respected. If we admit that there cannot be civic happiness when the state is not thriving, the internationalist and class-conscious theories of Socialism which would set class interests above national receive a serious setback. In Italy it comes about of itself that any party which fails to uphold the principle of a nationalistic state but marks time in an anti-nationalistic attitude is thereby debarred from sharing in the new civic consciousness. Not otherwise did the young state in 1870 eject from its orbit the remnants of those political parties--especially of the Clerical Party of the Vatican--which had opposed the unity of Italy.

It would be a great mistake to believe that Fascism forcibly excludes certain political groups from participation in national affairs. This is not true. It should be remembered that Mussolini himself has invited the cooperation of parties of the Left. In June, 1924, he invited even the Socialists, but these parties have either failed to respond or have declined the invitation, and this because Mussolini imposes certain conditions indispensable to coöperation. The parties in question must accept the fundamentals stated above, for it is by virtue of these that Fascism will invigorate the body politic.

It is true that considerable numbers of the proletariat are still enrolled in the Socialist ranks; it is equally true however that they do not expect to remain there. Of more importance to us are the multitudes enrolled in the Fascist labor unions, for these accept two postulates. The first is that the interests of the nation are best conserved if the class struggle does not assume a form so violent as to disrupt the essentials of production and of civic life. The class struggle can be kept within bounds imposed by circumstances at any given moment, and it should lead not to a collision but to a combination of interests. The second postulate is that the swarming of workers into the Fascist labor unions is doing away with the traditional incompatibility between people and government to abate which was one of the unfulfilled longings of the Risorgimento. In Italy today the small proprietors who have definitely accepted the new ideas are reinforced by hosts of agricultural and industrial workers who are no longer indifferent or hostile but who have subscribed to the basic principle that governs the relation between a state and its people --a total and unconditional subordination and submission of individuals and classes to the state.

We are thus in a period that is post-revolutionary, if we take that word in its usual sense, a period of reconstruction or rehabilitation of public order and of public authority indispensable to every modern state for the right ordering of political and economic life.

This renovation comprises also the safeguarding of Italy's heritage of religion that has been interwoven with her civilization for centuries. The Church of Rome, a marvelous piece of hierarchical organization that has withstood through the ages such tempests as have overthrown the greatest post-mediaeval states of Europe, accepts the hospitality of the Kingdom of Italy. An anti-clerical policy on the part of the Italian Government would be doubly baneful. It would encourage suspicion and hostility from which all religious organizations might suffer and it would proclaim to the world the inability of the Italian state to shelter the most ancient and venerable religious organization that Latin civilization has produced.

I call attention to this particular matter in order to show that the mandate of present-day Fascism is to restore in the hearts and lives of Italian citizens those high principles of public action that a long series of abuses due to socialistic aberration had seriously impaired. Fascism is not the mere temporary expedient of a political party, nor is it a world-wide political movement. It is the right solution of some of the fundamental problems of Italy today. It does not profess to be a formula applicable to the needs of all nations. Whether we look upon it as a party policy or as an historic movement, it remains a thing Italian, not incapable, however, of affecting the mentality of other European peoples.

What will be its fruitage, there is no telling at the present moment. But one thing is certain: the more firmly Fascism takes root in the historic soil of Italy, the better it will know how to assimilate and be assimilated by forty millions of Italians. Given its idealistic program, it is clear that Fascism will have accomplished its mission and attained its objectives when, having won over the entire population of Italy, it shall no longer be the cry of a party, but shall inform and permeate a Nation spiritually regenerated and unified by the ideals that Fascism sets forth and champions and with which it conquers today.

[*] Officially approved, as an expression of his views, by Signor Mussolini.

 

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now