Fascist Proletarians: An Ideological Paradox?

In this text, I examine Italian fascism from Benito Mussolini’s Marxist stage to his rise to power in 1922. European interwar fascism would not manifest itself without the profound consequences of the Great War or the bourgeois angst over the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Although a middle class “fear of the reds” facilitated fascism[1], Mussolini’s road to absolute control was ultimately realized through the forceful vigor of the Blackshirts, the paramilitary arm of the National Fascist Party. Arguably, material interests or class background can neither explain the fierce anti-Marxism of the mostly youth Blackshirts[2] nor the motivation of fascist supporters at large.

Much research and attention has been given to the collaboration between Italian fascist leaders and economic elites, because of Bolshevist alarmism and Russia’s political disarray. This essay discusses how the anti-bourgeois elements in Italian fascism attracted revolutionaries, most prominently expressed in the Blackshirt and radical Futurist artistic movement. Fascism’s intellectual fusion merged this rebellious spirit together with a recognition of the bourgeois order, which filled a timely void in the wake of Italy’s deteriorating parliamentary system in the interwar era. Fascism’s multifaceted ideological elements illuminate how both revolutionaries and reactionaries could be apart of the same mass movement.

Italy experienced a “lost victory” following the First World War; after substantial public disagreement – in which Mussolini himself had converted from his anti-war position -, Italy eventually joined the allies a year into the war, but suffered great casualties at the hands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A dispirited sense of national aimlessness characterized the political life and social conditions in post-war Italy, intensifying nationalism and other forms of sectarian mobilization. Fascism encapsulated these national sentiments, while professing to combat what they perceived as the narrow and foreign ideology of communism, its main adversary. In many ways, fascism managed to transcend class structures, providing a violent attraction in people that conceivably otherwise would have united under the banner of class warfare. Hence, class or social position cannot explain fascist enticement among its Blackshirt agitators, or the varied demography of fascist supporters and sympathizers at large, which, according to Michael Mann, disproportionately consisted of veterans and soldiers, as well as manual laborers and public sector employees such as teachers and civil servants.[3] For the same reason that diverse people could find alluring elements in fascism, however, the movement also had adversaries from powerful and mixed segments, ranging from liberal nationalists, radical socialists, reactionary conservatives, and devout Catholics.

March on Rome (1922). Mussolini with General Emilio De Bono, Italo Balbo, Cesare De Vecchi and Michele Bianchi

Edward Tannenbaum has argued that Blackshirt violence against their adversaries, from people such as Balbo, Farinacci, and Ricci, should be understood as “a means of making themselves dictators in their own provinces.” While it is far from unreasonable to ascribe the Blackshirts such instinctive motifs, this essay focuses solely on the decisive and attractive intellectual components that inspired these men to fight for a fascist future. The general hesitancy to oppose anti-socialist violence by government officials and critical masses, moreover, was a result of public antagonism against communism, but also because of real fear of violent repercussion against people who dared to speak up. Fascist enthusiasm for violence was commonly more “terroristic” than their socialist counterparts.[4] However, the social background of the fascists that assumed the disturbing insurgencies did not noticeably diverge from the people they attacked; hence, violent anti-Marxism can hardly be explained as fear of loosing privilege.[5] It must, just as fascism’s general appeal, be understood in terms of what the political ideology professed to offer.

Ernst Nolte popularized the view that fascism was a frightened anti-communist reaction. Many right-wing historians have embraced Nolte’s view as a rationale for comprehending radicalization of the right as a desperate response to communist aggression.[6] Nolte’s suggestions that fascism was a Marxist imitator, moreover, led to controversy over his alleged moral relativizing of fascist crimes in the Second World War.[7] However, a similar pretext for explaining fascism as Nolte proposed has a strong tradition in Marxist thought. Precisely because fascism’s appealed to various social classes – especially lower classes – it has posed a big ideological problem to Marxist doctrine. Marxist leaders have historically explained the phenomena with a corresponding class-conspiracy analysis. Throughout his political life, Lenin accused the “petty-bourgeois” of creating fake imitators of their labour struggle in their plea for a loyalism to the “national culture”.[8] Lenin strongly protested how “varieties of the nationalist bourgeoisie” ideology was “splitting up of the workers’ cause”.[9] At this very same time, Mussolini echoed Lenin’s internationalist writing as the editor of Avanti!. Yet, only a few months later, Mussolini split from the communists movement over their anti-war stand and founded Italy’s foremost interventionist newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, in 1914. Promptly, the primary conspiracy from his former comrades was “Chi Paga?”, suggesting that he, too, had become a vessel for the upper class against socialism.[10]

Significantly, recognizing fascism’s cross-social appeal[11] is not synonymous with denouncing neither Nolte’s thesis nor the Marxists’ view of fascism in the interwar period. Compared to fascism, socialism made far greater inroads in the industrial working class in Italy. When Mussolini entered government in 1922, the socialist and communist party had 156 combined parliamentary seats compared with 35 for the fascists.[12] However, the reasoning here claims that the line between loyalism to fascism or socialism oftentimes is razor thin, and more due to circumstance than personal interests. This is demonstrated in Mussolini’s political transformation, which also was a common background story among fascist leaders. For example, of the seven men who organized the inauguration of the Fasci di Combattimento alongside Mussolini (what became the fascist party), five were former organized communists.[13] Communists largely evaded the question of how the fascist insurgence clashed with their historical materialism, explaining it as a transitory lack of class-consciousness among fascist followers and selfish motifs among its leaders. To liberal reformers in favor of national sovereignty and democracy, moreover, the intellectual challenge of fascism was equally problematic. This challenge culminated after the parliamentary elections of 1919, which only led to increased political sectarianism and violence instead of generating civil battles of ideas.

The destabilized condition of post-war Italy heightened the sentiment among the public at large, as well as among socialists and fascists, that profound political changes were indispensable. The fascist message, although anti-democratic, consisted, above all, of national unity. As the old political order was cracking, people were forced to pick sides. Hence the middle, represented by the reformist liberals, ultimately got swallowed. In order to understand fascism, we have to examine it not merely as class transcendent, but as a fundamental rupture with the established political order. Political affiliation in Italy after its independence was largely class based. To simplify, proletariats were socialist, the emergent bourgeoisie were liberalists, and the old aristocracy and landed interests were conservative.[14] Nationalism was historically associated with liberal parliamentary reform, although it became gradually more anti-democratic, especially during the war. It was in the context of the seemingly inevitable breakdown of the old order that Italian fascism was distinctively advanced, and first politically succeeded, after Mussolini transformed the parliamentary system into governmental absolutism.

Importantly, though, fascism’s intellectual roots can be found in nineteenth century European anti-parliamentary nationalism and radical conservative movements. Moreover, Mussolini’s lifelong devotion to his early exposure to Marx’s collectivist revolutionary ideals and, later, the individualist epic superiority found in Nietzsche, created a powerful basis for fascism’s potent intellectual fusion. Early on, Mussolini displayed political inclinations that deviated from Marxist orthodoxy, ranging from communitarian anarchism, the radical syndicalism expressed in George Sorel’s violent “action from below”, and an emergent elitism praising society’s “creator”, which echoed the heroism of the nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio.[15] Mussolini’s personal contradictions, resulting from his political evolution, are commonly regarded as inseparable from fascist doctrine. These contradictions are expressed in Mussolini’s incoherent yet eloquent writings and speeches. Mussolini professed an uncompromising anti-traditionalist break with the past, while promising to restore the Great Roman Republic; he pledged a rapid industrialization of Italy, while romanticizing of a rurally pure nation; he promised social order, while staying true to his revolutionary spirit.

Mussolini was sufficiently well versed in socialism that he could appeal to factory workers in the northern industrial triangle or poor peasant in the south on his nationwide speaking tour ahead of the March on Rome. The exceptional demagogue predominantly affirmed his intention to rule “above ideology” in order to energize the masses: “It is not programs that are wanting for the salvation of Italy but men and will power.”[16] These profound contradictions imaginably mirrored the confused state of the young nation and fragile parliament of post-war Italy in the midst of ideological rivalry and violence. The triumph of Italian fascism is inconceivable without its multifaceted credos and political inconsistencies, as it allowed various people the freedom to merge their particular interest within Mussolini’s political project. Because of Mussolini’s political transformation, which complemented changing national circumstances, scholars have deemed him inherently opportunistic. According to Alastair Hamilton, “what [Mussolini] wanted was power and the means by which he obtained it was indifferent to him”.[17] This has furthermore caused fascism to be regarded as an essentially meaningless doctrine, suggesting that its revolutionary basis was a hoax.

This depiction arguably neglects Mussolini’s extant principles, which denote the appealing elements of fascism. Above all, Mussolini remained a revolutionary from his time as editor of the socialist party’s paper Avanti!. Mussolini’s ability to embody the mood of the moment was not inevitably opportunistic, but itself an expression of his tangled ideology. Hence, Mussolini did not necessarily spontaneously change beliefs when the war erupted, although it undoubtedly contested his worldview. Rather, it may just as well be an expression of his persistent hostility against political passivity, which only happened to manifest itself in the war, the greatest event in his lifetime. By remaining a criticizing bystander, Mussolini plausibly believed his socialist cause would be irrelevant, and thus doomed to be controlled by forces outside his control. Insofar as we can ascribe lasting political principles to Mussolini, it would be summarized in how he once defined socialism in his younger years: “movement, struggle, and action.”[18] Such aim gave him freedom to regard intellectual consistency as a secondary concern. Arguably, this was also the basis for his shift to the political right and eventually toward aggressive nationalism. Mussolini’s philosophy of action nonetheless attracted followers who viewed fascism as a left-wing revolutionary movement.

This illustrates fascism’s foremost advantage over communism, which is characterized by rigid ideological commitment.[19] Communism exclusively represents the interests of the proletariat; whereas in the largely rural yet evolving Italy, many hardly knew which social group they belonged to or would in the future. Moreover, the Russian revolution was, somewhat paradoxically, fascism’s most effective weapon against domestic socialism. Mussolini applied related accusations against the “Italian Bolsheviks” as his former comrades leveled against him, by characterizing it as a foreign virus serving an alien elite.[20] This generated fear not only among those with vested economic interests against communism; among lower classes, many believed fascism to be a new form of “bourgeois socialism”.[21] To others, fascism was the essence of anti-bourgeois agitation. Italo Balbo, one of the most renowned Blackshirt leaders, said in 1922, that fascism embodied “contempt for every norm of established government, irony and practical jokes in the face of all authority, the insolence of lawless musketeers.” His “battle objective” was nothing short of “destroying [the regime] with all of its venerated institutions”.[22]

The novel promises of fascism represented a similar collectivist program as the socialists, but it ultimately promised national harmony instead of conflict. Although many indeed regarded fascism as a symbol of order, even a reactionary turn, the young generation of emerging fascists, like Balbo, perceived it as highly revolutionary. No movement, however, reflected Mussolini’s spirited call to action as deeply as the explosive artistic undertaking of the Futurists, with their emphasis on speed, forcefulness, movement, and energy in a changing world. Their work replicated the radicalism of their Founding Manifesto’s powerful plea to fundamentally break the past as well as with current state of confusion: “Let’s break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind! Let’s give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd”.[23]

The Futurists were the arch example of rebels in a nation that was desperate for order. Nonetheless, their violent aversion to Italy’s current state of absurdity reflected – just as Mussolini – the mood of a large part of the Italian population. The Blackshirts, moreover, were hardly preoccupied with abstract metaphysics and creative boundary breaking. Yet their spirit echoed the Futurist declaration: “we, young and strong, wish to have nothing to do with the past.”[24] Fascist sentiments were present in the cultural landscape of Italy well before Mussolini’s transformation from socialism. This was not limited to fringe artists or even intellectuals. In 1915, Paolo Marconi, who later became a fascist agitator, wrote in his diary, “The new age belong to the young men… our age, our tomorrow – we ourselves want to create it.” Marconi further concluded, “A young man today cannot help but be revolutionary”[25]

Similar to the Red Army, which mainly consisted of energetic youth, both socialism and fascism epitomize a radical hope attractive to susceptible youth in a rapidly changing world. Fascism has been misinterpreted as a bourgeois manifestation precisely because of a notion that the opposite of chaos is order. Chaos is what initially swallowed order, and with it the traditional right. The real contrast to chaos is profoundly more chaos, which is what the fascists provided through the forceful army of Blackshirts. As much as fascism signified contradiction, it also represented an impeccable balance. Fascism became a solution to the confusion that arose from disorder; which is how it attracted both reactionaries and rebels.

The circulated cliché that Mussolini would make the train run on time is a far-reaching metaphor illuminating the sentiments toward Il Duce. For many, Mussolini embodied the symbol of a novel nation rousing against the standstill. Jumping on the moving train toward an uncertain yet promising future may be an appealing trade-off to remaining at a foreseeable yet bleak platform. Thus everyone with a vested interest in the endurance of the Italian government against this supposedly destructive force of stagnation and disarray was provided with justifications to support fascism. This obviously included public sector workers, but also, ironically, laborers that had gained rights from the socialist parties’ political influence. Many in this group were afraid that this could be lost with a complete socialist revolution, which was reflected in incessant party attacks on socialists “reformists” or in the civil war in Russia. Hence, fascism did not imitate class transcendence; it surpassed it by appealing to everyone who felt the country was at a standstill.


[1] Ernst Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism, 21

[2] Bruno Wanrooij, The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism as a Generational Revolt. Journal of Contemporary History. Vol. 22, No. 3 (Jul., 1987), pp. 401

[3] Mann, Michael, Fascists, page 27. Cambridge University Press, New York 2004

[4] Ebner, Ordinary Violence in Mussolini’s Italy, 33

[5] “The Goals of Italian Fascism” The American Historical Review.” Vol 74, No. 4 (April 1969), pp. 1188

[6] Gottfried, Paul, “The Habermasian Moment”. Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 19, No. 2 (Spring 2005) page 54

[7] Habermas, Jürgen (1987) “Eine Art Schadensabwicklung: Die apologetischen Tendenzen in der deutschen Zeitgeschichtsschreibung.” Augstein, Rudolf(ed.)

[8] Lenin, “Corrupting the Workers with Refined Nationalism”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mussolini 1883-1915, Spencer M. Di Scala and Emilio Gentile, page 248

[11] See also, Germani Gino, Authoritarianism, Fascism, and National Populism , p 60. 1978 Transaction Books, Rutgers State University, New Jersey

[12] This includes the fascist candidates that were included in Giovanni Giolitti’s National Union list. Edward Townley, Mussolini and Italy, page 24

[13] Berman Sheri, The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century, 127

[14] Edward Townley, Mussolini and Italy, page 26

[15] Mussolini 1883-1915, Spencer M. Di Scala and Emilio Gentile, 142-145 and Hamilton, Appeal of Fascism, 6, 48-49

[16] Berend , T. Ivan. An Economic History of Twentieth-Century Europe: Economic Regimes from Laissez-Faire to Globalization, page 95. Cambridge University Press, 2006

[17] Hamilton, Appeal of Fascism, 11

[18] The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism, page 60

[19] Nolte, 177

[20] Michael R. Ebner, Ordinary Violence in Mussolini’s Italy, 42

[21] Hamilton, Appeal of Fascism, xvii

[22] Tannenbaum, R. Edward. “The Goals of Italian Fascism” The American Historical Review. Vol 74, No. 4 (April 1969), pp. 1186

[23] Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism”

[24] Ibid.

[25] Whol, Robert, The Generation of 1914, 169.

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