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The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini and fighting fascism in Britain today

category italy / switzerland | anti-fascism | feature author Wednesday June 15, 2005 23:11author by Anarcho Report this post to the editors

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
Tom Behan

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 unasked.

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 in question?

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 the PCI.

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 following.

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

author by nestor - FdCA - personal capacitypublication date Thu Jun 16, 2005 21:48Report this post to the editors

Just a quick point. The Communist Party of Italy (PCd'I) was only formed as an organization in January 1921 when Bordiga's Communist Abstentionist Fraction of the PSI split away, joining up with the Torinese group led by (pro-Moscow) Gramsci. Although Bordiga was nominally leader of the new PCd'I (note: not PCI, Italian Communist Party, which was not formed until after the war), he was arrested later in 1921, so effectively Gramsci led the party in an unofficial capacity until 1926 when his current gained control of the party during a congress.

author by Andrewpublication date Thu Jun 16, 2005 23:40Report this post to the editors

Are you aware of any more material online or otherwise on this period in English? The British 'Anti Fascist Action' magazine published one or two articles five years or so ago but otherwise as with the Italian left in general its a puzzlingly blank space.

author by nestorpublication date Thu Jun 16, 2005 23:56Report this post to the editors

The communist left should have a fair bit of material online, also in english, but nothing else comes to mind offhand - apart from the forthcoming FdCA pamphlet on the period from an anarchist communist point of view.

author by Adam - F5publication date Fri Jun 17, 2005 13:16Report this post to the editors

For Nestor... it would be great if the FdCA produced a pamphlet on this period and the anarchist and syndicalist involvement in the factory occupations. I would also hope that you could touch apon the role of the PCI and Ordine Nuovo group along with Gramsci.

While folks out here have a lot of respect for many of Gramsci's concepts (many of which he popularized, but I don't think could be credited as the originator of), I think people completly miss and are ignorant of the role of anarchists and their praxis and ideas. Also, in historical moments where communists tend to have libertarian ideas, and thus people use these in an attempt to redeem their overall horrible track record (such as Italian communists who supported the factory occupations or the Chinese CP who were interested in overcoming the divisions in mental and manual labor), these ideas usually stem directly from anarchism or not coincidentally exist in a political space where anarchism has a high degree of influence.

PS- Even better, if it is not too much trouble, would be an english version could be made that gave citations or a bibliography of English sources. This could be helpful in changing people's viewpoint and understanding of things here in the US.

author by nestor - FdCApublication date Wed Nov 02, 2005 18:17Report this post to the editors

Hi Adam,

just to let you know that the pamphlet I mentioned is now available. See

In solidarity,

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