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ON TAKING power in October 1922, Mussolini declared his intention of remaining faithful to the Italian Constitution. The only changes contemplated in the fundamentals of Italian government, he said, would be to "adapt the parliamentary procedure" (by depriving the legislature of some of its power in favor of the executive), to impose the Government's policies on the bureaucracy (which had become increasingly a law to itself as a result of the frequent change of ministries) and to limit the exercise of certain rights and liberties previously enjoyed by the Italian people. Whether the measures Mussolini adopted in putting these changes into effect violated the provisions of the Italian Constitution is a question on which there has been much difference of opinion. This divergence is, in part at least, due to the nature and wording of the Constitution itself.
This document, known as the Statuto, was promulgated by King Charles Albert of Piedmont on March 4, 1848. Having been drawn up before the outbreak of the February Revolution in Paris, its authors had modelled it on the 1830 Constitution of the July Monarchy, which dated from 1830. The Constitution was drawn up by the King and his close advisers; the people of Piedmont in no way participated. In conferring this document, the King described it as the "fundamental law, eternal and irrevocable, of the Monarchy." And indeed, one of the grave shortcomings of the Statuto is that it contains no provision for amendment. True, some articles are sufficiently vague or qualified by provisos to allow considerable latitude in their interpretation. For instance, article 26 specifies: "Individual liberty is guaranteed. No one may be arrested or brought to justice except in such cases as are provided by law and in the manner which it prescribes." Article 27 stipulates: "The domicile is inviolable. No domiciliary search can take place except in pursuance to the law and in the manner which it prescribes." Article 28 stipulates: "The press is free, but a law shall check its abuses."
But not all the articles of the Statuto include provisions of that nature giving the legislative bodies a certain amount of discretion. Most of them are definite and categorical, and allow of little, if any, room for "amendment by interpretation." The only procedure for a revolutionary government, then, was to ignore whatever parts of the Constitution it disliked and to replace them with legislation or decrees more to its taste. Consequently, it was not strange that only a few months after the March on Rome, the politicians and the newspapers of the anti-Fascist opposition began accusing Mussolini of overthrowing the Constitution. The Opposition hoped in this way to rally the forces, at that time still strong, which clung to representative government and to parliamentary institutions. Only in 1925 did Mussolini accept the challenge of his opponents. On June 22 of that year, at the final session of the Fascist Congress, he unmasked his true intentions. "The Constitution," he said, "cannot be a hook on which to hang each generation. . . . Day after day, we are obliged to violate it." He concluded by announcing that it was his will that every institution be adapted to "the ineffaceable reality of Fascism" and by hurling forth his new watchword: "All power to all Fascism."
No one can say that Mussolini has failed to keep his word. Indeed, he has far exceeded it, for ever since 1925 the process of "fascistizing" the state has been going on at an ever accelerating pace. Mussolini has not only modified constitutional institutions in order to adapt them to the exigencies of his new régime; he has destroyed them outright, one after the other. He has suppressed every right guaranteed the Italian people by their Constitution. Individual liberty, the inviolability of the home, freedom of the press and of assembly, the sanctity of property, the prohibition against creating special tribunals and extraordinary commissions, the irremovability of judges -- all these are now only a memory.
Principal among the rights guaranteed the Italian people by the Statuto of Charles Albert was that of Article 24: "All inhabitants of the realm, regardless of title or rank, are equal before the law." This Article also went on to declare that "The enjoyment of civil and political rights and admission to civil and military posts are open equally to all, except for such cases as are determined by law." Under Fascism, this equality was first seriously abridged by the laws excluding from most government jobs all citizens who were not members of the Fascist Party or who were suspected of lack of fidelity to the régime. The recent laws directed against the Jews discriminate between citizens of different racial origin and thus have destroyed that equality altogether.
The Crown itself has had to submit to restrictions. The throne continues to be hereditary according to the Salic Law (Article 2), but the principal organ of the Party, the Fascist Grand Council, must be summoned to advise on "every legal matter concerning the succession to the throne, the powers of the King and the Royal prerogatives." In form, the King continues to wield executive power by means of his Government under the direction and responsibility of the Prime Minister. However, the Fascist Grand Council, "supreme coördinator of every activity of the régime born in the Revolution of October 1922," compiles, and keeps up to date, a list from which the King must choose his ministers. Technically, the King retains the rights to declare war and to make treaties of peace, alliance, commerce and the like (Article 5). But these prerogatives are in practice annulled by the Fascist order in which the Head of the Government monopolizes executive power. Finally, the law creating the new Chamber of Fasci and Corporations has taken from the King the right, given him by the Statuto (Article 9), to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies and call elections.
The same procedure has been followed regarding parliamentary institutions. According to the Constitution, the bodies exercising legislative power are the King; the Senate, composed of members appointed by the King for life from certain specified classes of citizens; and the Chamber of Deputies, composed of members chosen by the electorate. What has become of these bodies under the Fascist dispensation? The Senate has been preserved; Mussolini has merely curtailed its powers and modified its membership by appointing Senators faithful to the régime. The Chamber of Deputies, on the other hand, has been abolished, to make way for a body completely subservient to the executive power.
According to the Statuto, the Chamber was to be composed of deputies elected by electoral districts; they were to represent the nation and they were elected for five-year terms (Articles 39, 41, 42). A periodic renewal was thus assured, thereby permitting changes in public opinion to be reflected in the legislature. During the first years after the advent of Fascism the electoral system was modified so as to assure the Government of a strong and stable majority. The law of December 13, 1923, divided the nation into 15 election districts, each of which was to elect a certain number of deputies. The party whose list of candidates secured the largest number of votes automatically received two thirds of the seats in the Chamber, provided that it had obtained 25 percent of the total votes cast in the election. The distribution of the remaining seats among the minority parties was made proportionally in each district. This law was superseded by one of February 15, 1925, which supposedly reinstated the old single-member constituency but which nevertheless guaranteed electoral predominance to the party then in power. However, this law was never enforced.
Though enacted to assure the Government of a sure and lasting majority, these laws did not abolish the elective and representative character of the Chamber. It was only after the suppression of all political parties except the Fascist that the voters were deprived of their electoral freedom. The reform of the Chamber embodied in the law of May 17, 1928, empowered the Fascist Grand Council to draw up a single list of candidates, which the electors were to accept or reject en bloc. Under this system the Deputies were in effect chosen by the Party and were therefore subject to its severe discipline. They were not elected in the proper sense of the word. Both chambers became mere registry bureaus, forced to approve unanimously every proposal and act of the Government. Monologues by Il Duce or members of his Government replaced parliamentary debates, and applause was substituted for criticism.
But this was not enough. Though chosen by the Party leaders, though deprived of the right to oppose or criticize, the Chamber of Deputies was still a reminder, at least in name, of the old liberal constitutional régime. Quite naturally, therefore, Mussolini felt that this last vestige of a disappearing order should be destroyed. On March 10, 1938, the Fascist Grand Council voted unanimously to replace the Chamber of Deputies with a new political organism founded on the two great Fascist institutions: the Party and the Corporations. The law creating this new Chamber of Fasci and Corporations was adopted by acclamation in both branches of the Parliament. There was no debate; only the rapporteurs and a member of the government made addresses. Thus it was that in December 1938 the Italian Chamber of Deputies ceased to exist. For 90 years it had performed its duties and had served as the symbol of constitutional, representative monarchy. By its suppression the Italian constitutional crisis, which began in October 1922, came to an end in the complete destruction of the order created by the Statuto of 1848.
The new Chamber of Fasci and Corporations is not a parliamentary institution. It is not an elected body. Its members do not call themselves deputies, but "national councillors;" they are chosen because of their functions in the Party or in the Corporations. This new Chamber, headed by Il Duce, is composed of members of the Fascist Grand Council, of the National Council of the Fascist Party and of the National Council of Corporations. This raises the question as to who are members of these three constituent bodies.
The Fascist Grand Council, whose president is Il Duce and whose secretary is the Party Secretary, consists of the following: (1) life members -- the three Quadrumviri of the March on Rome who still survive (De Bono, De Vecchi and Balbo); (2) functional members, appointed by Royal decree on Mussolini's suggestion because of the high offices they fill in the civil, military or corporative administration (e.g. Cabinet members, president of employers' confederations and of trade unions); and (3) extraordinary members, chosen by the Head of the Government from among those who have deserved well of the nation and of the Fascist Revolution.
The statutes of the Fascist Party (promulgated by royal decree on April 28, 1938, and modified by royal decree on November 21, 1938) confer membership in its National Council on the following: (1) the members of the National Directory, which includes the Secretary of the Party, three vice-secretaries, the administrative secretary, and eight other members; (2) the federal secretaries of the provincial organizations; (3) the party inspectors; (4) the secretary, vice-secretary and two inspectors of the Fasci abroad; and (5) the presidents of two official veterans' organizations. By no means are all of these chosen by the Party. The Secretary is appointed and recalled by royal decree at Mussolini's suggestion, and he is responsible to Il Duce directly, not to the Party. The inspectors are chosen and recalled by the Secretary of the Party, to whom they are responsible. The members of the National Directory, as well as the federal secretaries, are appointed and recalled by Il Duce on the motion of the Party Secretary.
The National Council of Corporations, the structure of which was revised by the law of January 5, 1939, is composed of the members of the Central Corporative Committee and of the councils of the 22 corporations into which Italian economic life has been divided for the purposes of the Corporative State. The Central Corporative Committee is made up of (1) Ministers and Under Secretaries of State; (2) the vice-secretaries and the administrative secretary of the Fascist Party; (3) the representatives of the Fascist Party who act as vice-presidents in the 22 corporations; (4) the ten presidents of the employers' and workers' confederations, artisans' unions, and the National Fascist Institute of Coöperation. The members of the councils of the corporations who sit in the new Chamber are appointed, and demoted, by royal decree or by the Head of the Government.
The members of the new Chamber serve only for the period during which they belong to one of these national councils. Altogether they constitute an assembly of around 650 or 700 men. Unlike the old Chamber, the new one has no fixed legislative term. Incidentally, it might be added that the procedure of the Senate has been altered to coincide with that of the Chamber.
Such being the composition of the Chamber of Fasci and Corporations, what are its functions and powers? It does not have the right to discuss, much less to criticize, the acts and projects of the Government. It does not select its president -- he and the vice-presidents are appointed by royal decree. The president in turn selects the other officers. He also appoints and convokes the committees through which the Chamber carries on most of its work. The ostensible function of the new Chamber is to assist the Government in making laws. It can see that this task is performed in various sorts of meetings: at plenary sessions of the entire Chamber, by the general budget committee, by the permanent legislative committees, or by special ad hoc committees set up when the need arises. The Chamber has the right to discuss and approve the following measures: bills of a constitutional character; general legislative delegations; the budget and financial reports of the state, of autonomous administrations of the state, and of any public agencies which are of national importance and which are directly or indirectly financed by the state. The Chamber can also be convoked to discuss and approve other bills when the Government so wishes, or when such a step is proposed by a plenary session or by a committee and is approved by Il Duce. Bills which are not laid before the Chamber as a whole are examined by the proper committee. Il Duce may submit, for special discussion and approval, any bill which he decides must be acted upon immediately. However, this normal procedure may be superseded by the issuance of royal decrees in the event of an emergency created by war or by financial difficulties, or when the legislative committees have not had time to finish their work within the time allotted them.
No bill submitted to the Chamber of Fasci and Corporations for approval can be rejected or amended without the consent of Il Duce. And, in order to avoid those surprises always possible in a secret ballot, the law provides that the Chamber shall vote openly. Every contrary vote is considered an act of insubordination against the Party; the voter automatically loses his seat in the Chamber and is excluded from public life.
The new Fascist Chamber has been defined by jurists of the régime as "the synthesis of the values and the forces residing in the nation." That is a high-sounding phrase signifying as much or as little as one may choose to read into it. The inescapable fact, which no amount of verbiage can conceal, is that the Chamber of Fasci and Corporations in no way represents the will of the Italian people. The creation of that impotent if decorative body merely marked the completion of the process by which Fascism transformed the old liberal state of the Statuto into a totalitarian state where all power is concentrated in the hands of one man, Il Duce.