Friday, May 3, 2024

Historical fascism (2024)

Book Review from the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Blood and Power. The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism. By John Foot. Bloomsbury, 2023. 416pp.

It has become common for the cry of ‘fascism’ to go up, from both right and left, every time a government or political party enacts or proposes policies which seem destined to increase state control over the system we live under. Some even argue that western capitalism itself is in fact fascism, if a cleverly dissimulated form. One thing historian John Foot’s new book on Italian fascism does is to give the lie to all this. It shows, in the starkest possible terms, how different fascism, in its original incarnation anyway, really was from what many idly give that label to today.

Blood and Power takes the reader on a harrowing journey of violence, torture and murder, without which fascism could never have taken hold of Italy and then ruled the country for over 20 years, only finally collapsing when its leader, Mussolini, made the fatal mistake of allying himself with Nazi Germany and being brought down when Hitler was brought down. Otherwise, the author speculates, the regime may have lasted longer, as did the similar set-up in Spain under Franco. But this book is not just a conventional, linear account (of which there are many) of Italy’s ‘ventennio nero’ (‘black 20 years’), but rather an excavation of that period ‘from below’, seen in large part, that is, via the on-the-ground experiences of many ‘ordinary’ individuals who lived, and not infrequently died, under fascist terror.

And terror it truly was, some of it stomach-churning as we see it depicted on the page. From as early as 1919, those who opposed the politics of fascism, either through declaring themselves ‘socialists’ or ‘communists’ or just voicing opposition to its ‘lawless’ approach, were subjected to brutal and terrifying treatment at the hands of increasingly large and merciless bands of fascist thugs. They were intimidated, beaten, tortured, maimed and often murdered, while the ‘democratic’ state and its authorities (ie, police and military) looked the other way, allowing a sort of ‘state within a state’ to develop. As the author writes, ‘fascism eliminated its opponents with gusto or reduced them to a state of fear’ (…) ‘it was fundamental, visceral, epochal and life-changing: both for those who experienced it, and those who practised it’.

Nor was there any redress for victims, and once the fascist party had taken full power from 1925 onwards, after which elections and any semblance of democracy ceased, it became all the more implacable. So, for example, as the author tells us, ‘it became nigh on impossible to print or distribute any kind of newspaper that wasn’t in full support of Mussolini and fascist rule (…) prisoners were often ‘disappeared’ or ‘committed suicide’ in prison (…) ‘torture was common, ritualised and sanctioned from above.’ The regime relentlessly pursued all its opponents, having no compunction about even sending its spies and agents abroad in pursuit of those who had fled the country and wreaking vengeance on them there. In all, according to the author, Italian fascism was ‘responsible for the ‘premature deaths” of at least a million people, in Italy and across the world’, including of course many thousands of Jews who were transported from Italy to the gas chambers in the latter part of the war.

How does all this compare to what is often referred to as fascism, or at least potential fascism, nowadays, in particular the ‘populist’ politics and regimes that have risen up in recent times? How, for example, does it compare to the current right-wing government in Italy, often labelled ‘neo-fascist’? How does it compare to the politics of Donald Trump in the US and the foreboding about what might be to come if he wins the 2024 presidential election? How does it compare to attempts by the Conservative Party in this country to undermine trade unions or criminalise certain forms of expression or to the apparently racist and ultra-nationalistic policies of right-wing groupings such as the Reform Party? The knowledge that this book imparts of the reality of Mussolini’s one-party state makes it clear that, however retrograde and undesirable it may be, the kind of modern-day populism exemplified above does not bear comparison to the vicious, ultra-repressive, anti-democratic nature of fascism in its original Italian form.

What, however, Italian fascism does share with today’s ‘populist’ ideologies or governments and indeed with the more ‘enlightened’ administrations in most Western countries is that the purpose of them all is to manage the profit system (ie, capitalism). And, broadly speaking, this takes place most effectively, as far as capitalism is concerned, in a political environment where there are democratic elections and scope for relatively free circulation and exchange of ideas. Regimes that do not allow this (eg, China and Russia today), while by no means impregnable in the longer term, inhibit such development and, in the way they operate, are the closest things that exist today to the kind of system excavated and characterised so expertly by John Foot in his exploration of Italian fascism. It should be added that such regimes also inhibit the spread of consciousness necessary for the establishment of the alternative system of society beyond the system of wages, money and profit which this journal calls socialism.
Howard Moss

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