THE Grand Council of Fascism was set up in 1923, shortly after the "March on Rome," as a private advisory council of the Prime Minister. The Fascist deputy, Signor Volpe, not long ago described it as " the General Staff of Fascism." By the terms of the bill which will undoubtedly have been passed by the time these words appear in print, the Grand Council becomes "the supreme body, which controls all the activities of the régime." The members composing this "supreme body" fall into three categories:

1. Life members. The Dictator; the "Quadrumvirate" who led the March on Rome; ex-ministers who have held office in the Fascist Cabinet for at least five years; and those who have acted as secretaries-general of the Fascist Party since the March on Rome.

2. Ex-officio members. The President of the Senate; the Speaker of the Corporative Chamber; the Cabinet Ministers; the Prime Minister's Under-Secretary; the Under-Secretaries of the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Labor; the members of the central executive of the Fascist Party; the two Presidents of the National Organizations for Industry and Agriculture and the President of the Trade Unions; and five other high officials.

3. Extraordinary members, designated among "men who have deserved well of the National Cause and the Fascist Revolution, or are experts on the questions under discussion in the Grand Council."

The first two categories total thirty-five persons; the numbers in the third are not fixed. In category two only the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the Corporative Chamber are designated by their respective assemblies; the others owe office to the Dictator. Members of category three are likewise all designated by the Dictator.

One of the important functions of the Grand Council is that of "designating" the deputies for the Corporative Chamber. A few words must be said about this interesting process.

When the Corporative Chamber is to be nominated, the National Councils of the six National Confederations of Employers, the six National Federations of Employees and the one National Confederation of the Professional Classes, meet in Rome, and each Council "presents" names for its allotted share of 800 candidates. Two hundred more names will be "presented" by such cultural, educational or charitable bodies as are designated by the Government on the recommendation of a committee composed of five senators and five deputies.

The Fascist Corriere della Sera (September 29, 1928) estimates that about ten thousand persons will have a share in this "presentation" of candidates. I tabulate below the members of each National Council, as given by the Corriere, and the candidates whom each Council is empowered to "present" according to the law of May 17, 1928.

 

        Number of
      Number of Candidates
Organization     Members in its Presented by
      General Council General Council
INDUSTRY { Employers 500 80
Employees 6,000 80
         
BANKING { Employers 50 24
Employees 100 24
         
COMMERCE { Employers 113 48
Employees 1,000 48
         
AGRICULTURE { Employers 200 96
Employees 550 96
         
MARITIME AND AERIAL TRANSPORT { Employers 50 40
Employees 100 40
         
INLAND ROAD AND WATER TRANSPORT { Employers 21 32
Employers 700 32
         
PROFESSIONAL CLASSES 250 160

The agricultural classes, both employers and employees, have in their hands at least three-fourths of the economic activities of the country, but they are allowed to put forward hardly one-fourth of the total. The Confederation of Industrialists, with a membership of 60,000, puts forward eighty names; so does the Federation of Workers, which has a membership of 1,206,586. The 450 employers in maritime transport put forward 40 names, as do 49,000 employees in the same trade. The 22,000 employers in land transport put forward 32 names, as do their 247,000 employees.[i] This is the system described by Mussolini to the Paris-Midi, February 8, 1928, in the following terms: "Capital and labor shall have equal rights and duties as brothers in the Fascist family."

After the list of a thousand names has been "presented," the Fascist Grand Council "designates" the final list of 400 deputies, not only by selection from the "presented" lists, but even by the addition of persons not included in it. This unlimited discretion makes the "presentation" of the preliminary lists a mere farce. The Minister of Justice wrote in the Memorandum with which he introduced the bill into Parliament: "The designation made by the Grand Council may be regarded as the actual election of deputies; subject only to ratification by the electorate." When the Fascist Grand Council has "designated" the 400 candidates, the list goes for "ratification" to the electorate. The whole country will form a single electoral unit. The ballot will bear the formula: "Do you approve the list of deputies designated by the National Grand Council of Fascism?" The electors are to give the answer "Yes" or "No." If the majority answers "Yes," the 400 candidates are elected en bloc.

Fascist theorists are at much pains to explain that this "ratification" has nothing to do with the "elections" of the old era. Fascism claims to have abolished the vote-catching system forever. In a speech made on January 22, 1928, the General Secretary of the Fascist Party stated:

The method of appointing the leaders from above is a fundamentally Fascist one. It has produced good results by suppressing all remains of democratic mentality. We are an army of believers, not a mass of associates.

Signor Rocco, Minister of Justice, in the Memorandum with which the bill was introduced into Parliament, wrote:

The electoral system has been reduced to a mere expression of assent or dissent in regard to a Government policy -- an expression not beyond the power of people of little education or culture, and consisting only in saying "yes" or "no." Its similarity to a plebiscite must not, however, obscure the real nature of the institution. The expression of opinion demanded of the electors is not intended as a tribute to the principle of the sovereignty of the people. It is not as a tribute to a fancied sovereignty on the part of the electors that they are asked their opinion on the policy indicated by the Grand Council, but as a test of their disposition, in order to maintain better and better the contact between the State and the masses.

And Signor Maraviglia on behalf of the parliamentary sub-Committee who examined the bill insisted:

It is not a question of an election, since individual voters are not asked to choose members of Parliament, but only to approve or reject en bloc the list drawn up by the Grand Council, to represent a definite trend of policy. All the voter is asked to do is to ratify this list and by it the policy of the Grand Council. Such a right of ratification cannot be regarded as an even indirect recognition of sovereignty manifested by ballot. It has been deemed expedient as clearing away all misunderstandings as to the true nature of the Fascist State. This is not an oligarchy, but a State built on a wide popular foundation.[ii]

The Law makes provision for the hypothetical case of the list failing to gain a majority. Then fresh elections will be held in which it will be possible for different lists to be put forward. As only Fascist organizations having more than 5,000 electors will be allowed to put forward lists, in this second election, too, only Fascists will be candidates.

Signor Rocco explained the advantages of the new system in an interview with the Paris-Midi, February 10, 1928:

The country will be able to express its opinion about the candidates proposed and the policy they represent. If by an extraordinary chance a difference were to appear between the answer given by the nation and the preliminary selection made by the authorities representing the nation, this would be simply the sign of some misunderstanding or uneasiness which it would be well to dissipate. But we shall always be sheltered from chaotic elections and surprise outbursts of public opinion.

But it is evident that there never will be "misunderstandings" to dissipate. Signor Forges-Davanzati, in the Tribuna of February 21, 1928, rightly remarks:

There is no interest in the alternative system of elections; these provisions have been introduced as a merely formal hypothesis.

The "merely formal hypothesis" has, however, its uses as an article of export. It is intended to make foreign countries believe that, in the words of the Tevere, February 21, 1928, "Fascism respects all the rights of the opposing currents of thought," since it permits a genuine election if the official list is rejected.

Even Signor Rocco's allusion to the "opinion of the country" is an article of export for the readers of the French paper whose correspondent he was addressing. At home the Fascist leaders boast that they do not care a fig for the opinion of the country. Mussolini in a speech at the National Congress of the Fascist Party on June 22, 1925, said:

There are certain gentlemen who define themselves as officiating priests of a mysterious divinity called public opinion. We do not care a damn for this public opinion. Fortunately we are still an army.[iii]

The principle on which the Fascist electoral system is based was outlined by Mussolini in an interview with the Buenos Aires La Prensa, December 7, 1926:

Our aim is to create a Corporative Chamber without an opposition. We have no desire nor need for any political opposition.

And on May 26, 1927, he announced to the Chamber:

The humbug of universal democratic suffrage had been solemnly buried in the Corporative State.

But even this "Corporative Chamber without an opposition" is stripped of all powers. By the law of December 24, 1925, no motion can be laid before the Chamber or the Senate without the previous sanction of the Prime Minister, who can thus suppress any discussion which might lead to a vote of no confidence. The law of January 31, 1926, authorizes the Government to modify any existing law and to make new laws by Royal Decree in virtually every field of public administration, "whenever reasons of urgent and absolute necessity require it." The sole limitation to this legislative omnipotence is the obligation placed on the Government to secure the confirmation of its legislative decrees by Parliament within two years of their date; if such confirmation is not secured, the decree "ceases to be operative from the day of the expiry of the two years." In the Senate on December 14, 1925, the Minister of Justice explained what would happen in this case:

If in Parliament there are various currents and opinions as to the approval and ratification of a decree, and it proves impossible to secure agreement within two years, it will certainly be possible to prolong its operation by a special law. If in extreme cases it proves impossible to secure agreement and the case is one of urgency, a fresh legislative decree will be promulgated.

Side by side with the "Corporative Chamber without an opposition" and without powers there remains the Senate. It consists one-fifth of generals, one-fifth of high officials, one-fifth of big landowners, one-fifth of big industrialists and bankers, and one-fifth of university professors and Fascist intellectuals. It therefore contains the groups which control Italy through the Fascist Party. As the Senators are appointed by the King, i.e. by the Prime Minister, there is no danger that a popular election would give unpleasant surprises. Moreover, the number of Senators is not fixed. The Prime Minister, by introducing the requisite number of new-baked Senators, can down all opposition, assuming that in such an assembly an opposition could arise. In short, the Senate as it exists today in Italy might be thought to be the ideal Chamber for a Fascist régime, making any other Chamber unnecessary. But it has not been judged expedient to abolish every form of elective representation in Italy whilst all other civilized countries are still under the spell of that ridiculous infatuation. The Fascists compromise by retaining a pretended elective Chamber alongside of the Senate, on condition that neither Chamber nor Senate have any power.

I have tried to indicate briefly the rôle of the Fascist Grand Council in "designating" the deputies for the "Chamber without an opposition." It has other functions as well:

It must give its opinion on all bills dealing with constitutional issues: the succession to the Throne, the powers of the King and the royal prerogatives; the composition and functions of the Grand Council, of the Senate and of the Chamber; the appointment and prerogatives of the Head of the Government; the right of the executive power to promulgate laws; corporative legislation; relations between the State and the Catholic Church; international treaties involving territorial changes. The Grand Council draws up the list of names to be submitted to the Crown for the appointment of Head of the Government should a vacancy arise. The Grand Council likewise draws up the list of persons suitable for holding high offices in the Government.

The italicized words empower Mussolini to ask the opinion of the Grand Council on a bill substituting some other prince for the Heir Apparent. He may even propose that the King and his heirs make way for the "Emperor," Benito I. If the Grand Council gives a favorable opinion on such a bill, the latter is not likely to be rejected by the "Chamber without an opposition," or by the Senate in which no effective opposition is possible.

This is nothing less than the abrogation of the Salic Law which has always governed the succession in the House of Savoy. The measure is the more striking since, besides the Heir Apparent, there stand ready today in the House of Savoy ten possible heirs to the throne. The fact that Mussolini and his friends have raised such a delicate constitutional issue would indicate that they must not only be meditating some change in the order of succession, but must also feel strong enough to carry it through. Since the time of Childeric III, the last Merovingian king, who was deposed by his major-domo, Pippin the Short, A. D. 751, no king in history has been in a more ignominious position than His Majesty King Victor Emanuel III -- "feliciter regnans."

The law of December 24, 1925, enacted that the Prime Minister should be appointed and dismissed by the King; the King should maintain him in power until " the system of economic, moral and political forces," which brought him to power, should come to an end. As the Prime Minister was independent of a Parliamentary vote of confidence or censure, it rested with the King to dismiss him when he deemed that "the system of forces" had come to an end. This seemed an increase in the King's authority. But in a speech to the Chamber as early as May 26, 1927, Mussolini declared:

I have become convinced that I must carry on the task of governing the Italian Nation for ten or fifteen years yet. It is a necessity. My successor is not born yet.

Thus, for the next ten or fifteen years the royal prerogative would have to remain in abeyance.

The Parliamentary reform setting up the "Chamber without an opposition" struck a grievous blow at the powers of the King. Signor Albertini in his memorable speech in the Senate on May 12, 1928, pointed this out:

Some of the most sensitive prerogatives of the Crown are undermined by a machinery which puts in the hands of the leaders of the dominant party the choice of deputies subject only to a kind of national plebiscite. This system cramps the power of the crown with fetters which profoundly change the spirit if not the letter of those articles of the Constitution which define the powers of the crown -- for instance, Art. 85, which lays down that the King nominates and dismisses his ministers. Under the new system the Sovereign will never be called upon to intervene, since it is unthinkable that deputies of one single party, who owe their nomination to their party leaders, should turn against the Government which is the Government of their own party.

At which point Signor Giunta, Under-Secretary at the Presidency, called out: "You may be quite sure of that."

Now that the Fascist Grand Council has become the supreme governing body in the Constitution, the King has been stripped of all authority. Even should the King be convinced that "the system of economic, moral and political forces," which brought Mussolini to power, has come to an end, and even if he felt himself in a position to invite Mussolini to resign, he has no freedom in the choice of a successor, but must choose him from the list drawn up by the Grand Council, which, being nominated by Mussolini, will present him a list consisting of a single name: Mussolini.

In an interview with the Paris-Midi, February 10, 1928, the Minister of Justice, Signor Rocco, drew an analogy between the Fascist Party and the Catholic Church:

The mechanism of Fascism bears a certain resemblance, both in form and substance, to that of the Church; not that Fascism has copied this from the Church, but that they have in common the spirit of unity and order. Like the Church, the Fascist State is one and omnipotent, it has its undisputed leader and its powerful hierarchy. It works through its organizations of defense, education and propaganda. The Grand Council of Fascism is a sort of conclave. Our political organization corresponds to the Order of the Jesuits and our organization of education and propaganda to the other religious orders. The essential thing is unity.

The comparison is apt. The analogy may be further developed. Mussolini and the Grand Council of Fascism are to the Corporative State what the Pope and the College of Cardinals are to the Catholic Church. The Pope nominates the Cardinals, and the College of Cardinals elects the new Pope; just as Mussolini nominates the members of the Grand Council, and these in turn elect his successor. The King has the same function with regard to the Grand Council as the Holy Ghost in the College of Cardinals. There is, however, one difference between the Conclave of Fascism and the Conclave of Catholicism. When a new Catholic Pope is to be elected, it is the Holy Ghost which inspires the Cardinals; when a new Fascist Pope is to be elected, it is the Fascist Cardinals who inspire the Holy Ghost. There is another difference. In the Catholic Church, the Holy Ghost cannot be dismissed from office. In the Corporative State, the Holy Ghost may at any moment be dismissed.

Count Thaon de Revel, plenipotentiary of the Fascist Party in North America, in an interview with the New York World, September 15, 1927, stated:

You must have a dictatorship during every revolutionary period. But within two years (i. e. in 1929) the Corporative State should be established. Then the Dictatorship will cease and you will have a democracy. The Corporative State of Fascism is essentially democratic.

But, as always happens, Mussolini went one better than his admirers. Fascism, he proclaimed in his interview with the Paris-Midi, is the "united true democracy."

A democracy? Mussolini and his friends merely give a respectable political terminology to the old instruments of violence and tyranny. They borrow from democracy its technique of organization, but while this technique presupposes the existence of competing parties, the Fascists abolish all other parties and remain alone in the ring, fighting with nobody. In a democracy, the elector chooses his representative from among different candidates; under Fascist rule, the Dictator, who first of all elected himself, next elects the electors; then elects the elected; and finally summons the non-electors to approve the elected. Whilst at one moment claiming to be the negation of democracy, and at another to be a superior democracy, Fascism is merely a falsification of democracy.

[i] The membership of each group was given by Signor Bottai, Undersecretary at the Ministry of Labor, in his speech on March 15, 1928.

[ii]Tribuna, March 13, 1928.

[iii]Stampa, June 23, 1925.

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  • GAETANO SALVEMINI, lecturer at London University, formerly Professor of History in the University of Florence, author of "The Fascist Dictatorship in Italy" and numerous other works
  • More By Gaetano Salvemini