The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini and fighting fascism in Britain today
italy / switzerland |
Wednesday June 15, 2005 23:11 by Anarcho
The importance of checking references
The rise of fascism in Italy is a subject of interest to anarchists as Mussolini's rise cannot be detached from the biennio rosso, the two red years of 1919 and 1920. Unfortunately, there are few decent books on this period in English.
This made Tom Behan's "The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini" potentially very important. It claims to be the about the "Arditi del Popolo" (AdP), the world's first anti-fascist movement . The actual accounts of the development of the AdP and specific (successful) fights against the Black Shirts in Rome, Parma and Sarzana presents the English speaking
world with much new material. However the book is riddled with inaccuracies and downright distortions which are easily identified simply by reading the references Behan himself provide
The importance of checking references
The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini
The rise of fascism in Italy is a subject of interest to anarchists
as Mussolini's rise cannot be detached from the biennio rosso, the
two red years of 1919 and 1920. Italy was on the verge of social
revolution, reaching a peak with the factory occupations of 1920.
Fascism was a response to this, a "preventative counter-revolution"
(to use Luigi Fabbri's expression).
Unfortunately, there are few decent books on this period in
English. This made Tom Behan's "The Resistible Rise of Benito
Mussolini" potentially very important. It claims to be the
about the "Arditi del Popolo" (AdP), the world's first
anti-fascist movement (its name means the "people's shock troops").
While it managed to stop Mussolini's Black Shirts on numerous
occasions, it is rarely mentioned in accounts of the rise of Fascism.
However, being the SWP, the book is riddled with inaccuracies and
downright distortions. As is the case with SWP accounts, these
distortions are easily identified simply by reading the references
Behan himself provides.
Needless to say, Behan's distortions inflict most harm on the
anarchists and anarcho- syndicalists, ironically the only groups who
supported the AdP wholeheartedly and, doubly ironically, the only
people who publicly advocated the "united front" tactic Behan
champions. Not, of course, you would know that from Behan's book.
This is unsurprising, as an honest account would quickly come to one
conclusion, namely that anarchist ideas were proven right.
This book itself is not all bad. The actual accounts of the
development of the AdP and specific (successful) fights against the
Black Shirts in Rome, Parma and Sarzana presents the English speaking
world with much new material. This information is inspiring and worth
reading. It is a shame you have to wade through so much crap to get
to it. He also correctly shows the role of fascism as a defence of
capitalism against a rebellious working class, the state protection
of the Black Shirts, the links between the fascists and the police
and the funding provided by industrialists and landlords. And he is
right in stressing that fascism could have been stopped and in
placing the AdP at the centre of any attempt to do so. However, this
should not detract from the major limitation in Behan's book, namely
that it is ideologically driven and utterly unreliable in regards to
Italian anarchism and, consequently, the dynamics of the period and
the lessons to learn from it.
Factual errors abound. Behan states that state repression and
propaganda in 1917 saw "the left flipping over and supporting the
war." In fact, the anarchists had been intransigently anti-war from
the start and that did not change in 1917. Discussing the 1870s, he
asserts that anarchism was "more attuned to the needs of the
peasants" and that it "was concentrated in the towns and countryside
of the South, and had relatively little following in the northern
cities." While this may reflect Marxist ideology on the social roots
of anarchism, the facts are radically different. Italian anarchism's
real stronghold at this time was north-central Italy, with the
majority of members being artisans and workers. The peasantry had the
least representation. It goes without saying that all these
assertions are contradicted by the books he used as references.
Then there are the omissions. He makes no mention of the
Italian Anarchist Union (UAI), the twenty thousand strong
anarchist federation with a daily newspaper which played a key role
in the biennio rosso. Anarchists only appear as "individuals" and
never as part of an organisation. He also forgets to mention the
Marxist roots of the "surprisingly large number of revolutionary
syndicalists" whom Mussolini "found common ground with" after the
war. He fails to inform his readers that David Roberts (one of his
references) points out that these people "explicitly denounced
anarchism" and "insisted on a variety of Marxist orthodoxy." He also
tries to downplay the fact that Mussolini had been a leading
left-wing Marxist before the war, dismissing him as little more than
a "demagogue" with "superficial radicalism." How such a person
managed to rise so far in the Socialist Party to begin with is left
His most outrageous claim, however, is that "semi-anarchist,
semi-revolutionary syndicalist USI federation . . . with its main
stronghold in the rural areas of the Po valley . . . therefore played
a relatively minor role in the big industrial disputes" of the
biennio rosso. He does provide a reference for, a 1963 book by D
Horowitz called "The Italian Labor Movement." Sadly, Behan
fails to explain why he should prefer this source than the subsequent
work by Gwyn Williams, Carl Levy and Martin Clark (all of which he
uses as references) which focus directly on the factory occupations.
Perhaps an answer can be gleaned from looking at these books? If you
do, you will be struck by the significant role played by the USI
during these "big industrial disputes." It was the anarchists who
first raised the idea of factory occupations and practised it in
1920. Even in Turin, the syndicalists were at the head of the
movement. The Marxists around Ordine Nuovo played no part in
the events leading up to the factory occupations there (and even
opposed to factory seizure as a method of class struggle). Outside of
Turin, the council movement was essentially libertarian.
All of which is quite impressive for a movement which had "played
a relatively minor role" in these struggles! Given the crucial role
libertarians played in these events, it is unsurprising that Behan
prefers to reference an academic study of Italian trade unionism
rather than those later studies that specifically concentrate on the
dynamics of the class struggle during the near-revolutionary period
It is understandable why Behan should rewrite history so. His book
shows the absolute failure of Marxism (in all its guises). Looking at
the Italian Socialist Party, it proved Bakunin right, not Marx and
Engels, by becoming as bureaucratic and reformist as he had
predicted. As Behan notes, this had "happened to similar parties,
such as the Social Democrats in Germany" but fails to discuss whether
Marx's tactics contributed to this. The Socialist bankruptcy reached
its height with its betrayal of the anti-fascist struggle. After the
total and bloody defeat of the fascists in Sarzana by the local AdP
in July 1921, Mussolini purposed a "peace" pact with the Socialists
who signed up to the pact, denouncing the AdP and declaring itself
"unconnected" to it.
Behan fails to discuss the negative effects of the hierarchical
structures favoured by Marxists. He denounces the "Socialists'
inability to provide strong leadership," yet he fails, unlike
anarchists at the time, to link this to the hierarchical leadership
so beloved by Marxists. Rather than ponder whether hierarchy works,
he simply calls for "strong" leadership. The irony of so doing in a
book about resisting fascism seems lost on him!
This blindness is repeated in his discussion of the Italian
Communist Party (PCI). He deplores its actions and its leadership,
yet never asks basic questions about what it says about Leninism. He
states that "many PCI members used their common sense and joined the
AdP" against their party's wishes and the despite "feedback from
below" the "PCI Executive Committee dug its heels in." Why, if the
Leninist party is most democratic ever, did the PCI pursue its policy
against the wishes of its members as Behan implies? And if Bordiga
was so at odds with the membership then why were his theses supported
by an overwhelming majority in 1922? Behan does not explain why the
people he considers as "often the most politically sophisticated
activists" should have elected (and re-elected, until 1926 when they
were replaced by the Comintern) such incompetent leaders.
Yet even here, on Bordiga, he misses the context. For example,
Behan attacks him for being "wrong on the issue of democracy" yet
fails to place this position within the context of the Russian
revolution and the actions and ideology of the Bolsheviks. Given that
the leadership of the PCI considered itself as following in their
footsteps, it is easy to see why they advocated the ideas they did.
But then Behan fails to explain why Borghia and the bulk of the PCI
held the positions they did. Even if flawed, it is as unconvincing to
simply dismiss them without real discussion as it is to ignore the
impact of the Bolshevik's policies.
This is the key flaw. While Behan claims that the AdP "forms the
central part" of the book, the real focus is on the Communist Party.
He discusses the ins and outs of its internal politics and its
relations with Moscow far more than giving a serious account of the
problems facing the AdP, how it organised, how confronted both
fascism and its relations with other anti-fascist forces. Perhaps
this can be explained by the fact that the AdP's first manifesto
states that it was "An anarchic formation par excellence"? In a
country with a strong anarchist movement and tradition, such a
comment cannot be considered accidental.
The AdP takes back stage to the PCI and its leadership. Behan
continually points us in the direction of flawed leaders, not in the
dynamics of the class struggle. Thus he states that it is "hard to be
sufficiently critical of Amedeo Bordiga in this period" with the
obvious conclusion being that if the PCI had a better leader then
fascism would have been defeated! History is reduced to the actions
of a few great men, with the masses simply followers and unable to
achieve liberation by their own efforts. In this he repeats one of
the most repulsive aspects of Leninism and, like Lenin, is proved
wrong by the class struggle. Like the Russian workers in 1905, 1917
and 1921 with regards to Bolshevism, the AdP were more advanced than
Unsurprisingly, when Behan does discuss the politics of the AdP,
he rarely does it justice. He states, for example, that "they were
still influenced by the ideas of D'Annunzio and therefore
nationalism" before quoting their first manifesto which clearly
stated that "We reject the manipulations and greed of patriotism,
which takes pride only in its race. We avoid all nationalist
scheming." If Behan gets such basic points wrong, it is fair to say
that his attention is less than focused on the AdP!
Pondering the actions of the PCI leadership he tries to explain
this by the party being a young (infantile, perhaps?) as well as
being "much smaller" than the Socialist Party. He then adds that "it
also had to contend with a very large anarchist movement." This
"context" allows some of its "suspicion and sectarianism" to be
"understood." Why this should be the case, Behan does not explain. Is
he really suggesting that it was anarchist sectarianism that caused
the PCI leadership to reciprocate? But such a conclusion could not be
drawn in light of over two years of anarchist arguments for a united
front, initially raised by libertarians in January 1919 when Armando
Borghi, anarchist secretary of the USI, proposed a "united
revolutionary front" formed by the PSI, the CGL, USI, UAI and the
railway union. The Socialist trade union, the CGL, was totally
opposed. In mid-September 1920 the USI sponsored an
"inter-proletariat" convention in which the PSI refused to
participate. All of which Behan is silent on.
Behan does quote Malatesta's appeal for unity against fascism made
in May 1922, while remaining quiet on previous libertarian calls (and
Marxist responses to them). Given that he argues that the tragedy was
that the "Communist and Socialist left never came together around an
enlarged AdP to form a united front against fascist attacks," this
silence is deafening. Particularly as the anarchist policy would have
worked. The successful resistance to fascism in Parma and elsewhere
was due to the application of libertarian ideas of a revolutionary
united front. Indeed, the strongest working-class resistance to
Fascism was in towns or cities with a strong anarchist tradition.
This fact is something Behan ignores. In spite of lack of evidence
and official hostility, Behan tries his best to paint the PCI as the
mainspring of the AdP. While acknowledging that "its membership came
from many different political traditions" he asserts not only that
the "majority were probably Communists" but also "if they continued
to engage in politics they generally became Communists"! What is it?
And how could the PCI have "entered the AdP en masse" if they were
"probably" the majority? And if the majority of the AdP were
communists, why did the PCI leadership oppose it? He even selectively
quotes Gramsci, conveniently forgetting that he considered the party
leadership's attitude correct as it "corresponded to a need to
prevent the party members from being controlled by a leadership that
was not the party's leadership." Behan's contradictions can only be
explained by the simple fact that the "majority" in the AdP were not
"probably" communists at all.
Perhaps the problems with the historical accuracy of Behan's
account could be forgiven if he managed to draw correct conclusions
from this period Italy but he does not. He states that the
anti-capitalist demonstrations "have brought people together, and
taught them the importance of having hundreds of thousands of people
on the streets -- of safety in numbers." Yet his example, Genoa, does
not prove this as large numbers did not stop the police attack! And
if the rise of Mussolini can be said to show anything it is that
"safety in numbers" is not enough.
Incredibly he asserts that the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) has "some
similarities" to the AdP. What an insult to the AdP! The AdP was
rooted in working class life and t is precisely such links that
anti-fascists need to rebuilt. Yet Behan seems to reject this,
arguing that the class based politics of the 1920s were a mistake as
the "sterile verbal extremism" of the PSI resulted in "a practical
refusal to make common cause with any 'progressive bourgeois'
elements." By 1921, he argues, the working class "was now on the
defensive and needed allies. This meant creating alliances on the
ground, even outside the working class." The "fascists managed to win
over the urban middle classes," caused in part by the left being
"obsessed with attacking the middle classes as a whole rather than
wining large sections of them to an anti-fascist position."
Yet fascism needs to be fought using revolutionary socialist
ideas, not the ANL's "two simple strands", namely "the exposure of
people pretending to be democrats as Nazi Hitler-lovers" and
"militant campaigning to ensure that the Nazis never gain a stable
foothold in society." This does not present an alternative to fascism
and, moreover, can boil down to supporting New Labour (or even the
Tories) as a preferable "alternative" to fascism. Given that these
parties are responsible for maintaining the social problems that
fascists try to use to scapegoat minorities, the message is that
"anti-fascism" means supporting the status quo and the shit
conditions we face.
Behan does, of course, pay lip service to the need for
anti-fascism to be relevant to working class people, yet this is not
seen as being at the core of anti-fascism as it not one of the "two
simple strands" the ANL is based on. He patronising states that "a
revolutionary party is needed to educate and organise together with
workers." Thus the working class (like the AdP) is considered the
steam which the engineers of revolution use to implement their
ideologically correct principles. Rather than a socialism rooted in,
and growing out of, working class life and struggles, we have a
"socialism" which the working class must be "educated" into
Little wonder that armed with such an elitist and patronising
attitude the SWP and its fronts have been so ineffectual against the
BNP. Rather than present a working class socialism, the SWP is
pursuing an essentially conservative agenda. Its "anti-fascism"
amounts to supporting the status quo and fails to explain the class
argument against fascism. It is ironic, therefore, that Behan attacks
the "popular front," saying that it "involved Communist parties
entering into broad national agreements with the leaderships of major
bourgeois organisations and political parties." The "united front" is
"unity in action from below aimed at a specific goal," by working
class organisations. Yet his own arguments show that the ANL has more
in common with the former than the later. Rather it is a mish-mash of
various individuals and tendencies, united by the lowest common
denominator of being "outraged and disgusted" by fascism. How can it
pursue a strong class policy against fascism if, by so doing, it will
alienate the "middle class" elements the SWP wants to attract?
Little wonder, then, that its interventions in such places as the
North of England have meet with so little success -- in spite of
leafleting against the BNP, people still voted for them. Clearly
labelled them "Nazi Hitler-lovers" simply does not work. Fascism will
only be defeated when a viable working class socialism exists -- one
based on self-management, direct action and solidarity (i.e.
anarchism). As the resistible rise of Italian Fascism shows.
(for more details see my "The irresistible correctness of
anarchism" available at:
Written for Anarkismo.net