Anarchism and Mussolini: A Prologue to Italian Fascism


YoungFascistMussolini

INTRODUCTION

Benito Mussolini interested me ever since learning, shortly before launching this website three years ago, that Italy’s fascist leader had a soft spot for anarchists. I finally picked up a biography last year and, well, my cup runneth over. I hadn’t guessed the extent of his anarchist background, or that his conception of fascism owed so much to anarchism.

I’m a blogger who writes about anarchism with an eye to ridicule. I liked the idea of offering a tour through Mussolini’s early life, from his father’s involvement with Mikhail Bakunin’s Italian disciples beginning in 1873; Benito’s own anarchistic climb through the ranks of Italy’s socialist party after 1901; to his realignment in 1914 with the anarcho-individualists who helped shape Italy’s fascist ideology.

Most historians would allow that Mussolini held strong sympathies for anarchism, but no single source delivered the goods in detail. So this series of articles retells the story of the young Benito Mussolini against the backdrop of Italian anarchist history. If nothing else, I offer elaborately drawn chuckles at the expense of today’s anarchists, who claim their tradition is inherently “anti-fascist.”

What role did anarchism play in Mussolini’s life?

Mussolini did not convert to anarchism; it was always an assumed element of his socialist birthright. His father, Alessandro, had been swept up in Mikhail Bakunin’s Italian propaganda campaign of the 1870s; he would be a village delegate to the Italian Federation of the International, a small conspiratorial body set up by Bakunin compete with Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association.

We’ll look at Bakunin’s largely unsuccessful and often comical exploits in Italy. This includes the tale of the Baronata, the expansive Swiss villa and anarchist wonderland built by Bakunin, thereby completely exhausting the funds of his Italian Federation. And I’ll introduce you to Bakunin’s clique of Italian disciples, detailing factional disputes and personal rivalries before and after Bakunin died in 1876.

Alessandro Mussolini, a local leader in Italy’s Romagna region and somewhat removed from the intrigues of Bakunin’s inner circle, was nonetheless a known and valued member of the Italian Federation’s network. He regarded the Bakuninists as heroes, inheritors of the utopian socialist tradition and successors to Italy’s best-known republican insurgents.

Neither Alessandro or Benito were whole products of anarchism. The Romagna region had a long insurrectionary tradition going back to the Medieval heretics and through Italy’s periods of republican insurgency. Indeed, vestiges of the rebellious Medieval temperament lingered in the Romagna, a stronghold of republicanism and atheism in Italy.

Anarchists never came close to dominating in the Romagna, but it did prove a top recruiting ground. Republican insurgents already animated against the Catholic Church and the monarchy need only add parliaments and militarism to their list of enmities to make appealing anarchist converts. Alessandro would be among the village hotheads joining a futile march from his village to Bologna for Bakunin’s failed insurrection of 1874.

“Once a Romagnole, always a Romagnole,” Benito Mussolini often boorishly said to Margherita Sarfatti, his later right-libertarian patron, advisor, chief mistress, and adoring biographer. Historians largely agree that the two most determining influences on Mussolini were his Romagna background and Alessandro, more than any of the books on his bookshelf.

While anarchism certainly accommodated father and son’s belief in violence as a forum of socialist achievement — and Bakunin offered insurgency an exciting contemporary expression — the Mussolini spirit sprang from the Romagna.

“I owe a lot to my father,” Mussolini explained in 1943 to a German doctor. “I found the road of socialism chalked out for me: all I had to do was follow it, which I did with real conviction.”

Alessandro’s socialism was insurrectionary and libertarian. “What is socialism?” he wrote in a radical sheet in 1891, when Benito was eight years old. “Socialism, we answer, is open, violent and moral rebellion against the inhuman order of things as now constituted.” He fought for infinite freedom, “free love taking the place of the legal contract” and “free agreement among all men to live a truly decent life.”

The most routine activity within Italy’s anarchist movement was not planning delusional insurrections. Not inciting riots. Not campaigning to free imprisoned comrades. No, it was engaging in inflammatory editorial wars with local Catholic newspapers, something even a republican might appreciate, even if they would never go so far or get so personal.

Alessandro wrote about the Church as the “Black Sect” and called individual priests “microbes.” Young Benito would aspire to being a journalist of the same kind, using the very same tone, the very same terms to infuriate parish priests. Along with his attacks on the local bourgeoisie, town officials, and parliamentary socialists, his anti-clerical eloquence helped win a reputation as a talented young voice of revolutionary socialism.

From an early age, Benito could deliver a rousing speech on a famous anarchist, utopian socialist, or republican hero at a moment’s notice. In 1900, at the age of 17, he gathered his classmates to hear him defend Gaetano Bresci, the anarchist who had recently assassinated Italy’s king. In his socialist writings, there seems not one international anarchist cause célèbre Mussolini did not support.

Yet by the time Benito came of age, as my upcoming articles dramatize, the anarchist movement had lost significance as a force within Italian socialism. Benito would join the socialist party.

The Italian Federation, one of Bakunin’s few conspiratorial inventions ever to gain traction, waned years before Mussolini set out as a socialist. In 1892, Italy’s early socialist party grew tired of anti-reformist arguments and anti-authoritarian disruptions at their meetings, expulsing the anarchists. Or more specifically, anarchists were told that instead of trying to anarchize the socialist party, they should form their own, which of course they were unable to do.

The same year saw the rise of anarchist terrorism in Europe. Now loners and small cells anywhere could jump to the forefront by bombing a police station or theater or assassinating a monarch or government leader. Bourgeois liberals who once sympathized with freedom-loving anarchists standing trial for inciting riots did not pack the courtroom in the same mood when the crime was bombing a Paris café.

Intensified police monitoring and anti-anarchist measures and laws brought arrests and imprisonment, taking a toll on what had always been a tenuous movement. Younger Italian socialist and anarchist leaders were likely to travel or emigrate to Italian colonies in countries such as Great Britain, Argentina, and the United States. The young Mussolini once considered a turn in Vermont.

All was not lost for anarchism’s delusional and confusing ideas in Italy. If there was little Italian anarchist movement to speak of, a few were now respected Italian intellectuals. Moreover, anarchist ideas were finding their way into various elements of broader intellectual climate in Italy and Europe. The domineering son of a Romagnole anarchist would tie the loose threads together.

The office door to Il Popolo d’Italia, the last of many newspapers Mussolini would edit before assuming power.

Outside Il Popolo d’Italia, the last paper Mussolini edited before assuming power.

THE SOCIALIST HERETIC

The young Mussolini called himself a “socialist heretic.” Just as the heretics of the Middle Ages were Christian believers who refused to allow their faith to be contained by the Catholic Church, Mussolini regarded republican insurgency as heritage while disdaining “the republican church” (not meaning republicans were too closely aligned with the Church, but that republicanism had become a church).

A portrait of the republican general Giuseppe Garibaldi hung in Mussolini’s boyhood apartment, yet Alessandro believed that the socialist comrades “massacred” at Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886 had been “killed by the republicans overseas.”

“Ah! certainly it was not worth while that so many heroes should have left their lives on the gallows, in prisons and on the fields of war, in order to create a fatherland like this! This is certainly not the Italy envisioned by those great men like Pisacane, Mazzini and Garibaldi,” wrote Alessandro, trusting future insurgency to socialism.

Benito likewise honored the republican leader Giusseppe Mazzini as a fierce intellectual and political agitator but rejected Mazzini’s belief that elected assemblies did good for the people. Our socialist heretic loved thinking he was despised by bourgeois republicans for being a socialist and by reformist socialists for his anti-electoral “revolutionary” stance, what the reformers dismissed as “catastrophic socialism.”

Alessandro did not like labels. Benito resisted them. Rather than submit to being a catastrophic socialist, Benito thought he was being clever by naming his socialism “barbaric” instead.

The young Benito is probably best described as an insurrectionary socialist operating within the socialist party. You would not put his name alongside doctrinally pure Italian anarchists like Errico Malatesta, but he was a partial product of the movement launched by Malatesta and Bakunin’s other Italian disciples.

Benito’s not-so-anarchist embrace of party politics likely originated with a grand anarchist schism of his youth and was encouraged by his connection with the socialist G.M. Serrati. It was Serrati who shepherded his early writing for socialist newspapers.

Years later, in the early days of the fascist movement, Mussolini reminded socialists that Serrati had once helped police in the United States apprehend Luigi Galleani, leader of American anarchism’s most prolific bombing cell. Mussolini painted Serrati as a traitor and Galleani as a socialist of high repute.

More than once, in key socialist debates, he used an anarchist-bred controversy as a wedge issue to stake out the revolutionary high ground. Mussolini mastered anarchist tactics and reached frequently from the grab bag of ritualized anarchist phrases.

Still, he was not one to let the anarchist bugaboo of authoritarianism get in the way of his self-aggrandizing individualism. Nowhere did the young Mussolini deviate from anarchist doctrine more than in seeing the necessity of seizing power. In his earliest years as a socialist, he told a disbelieving anarchist girlfriend that he would be greater than Napoleon.

The young Mussolini also talked about the dictatorship of the proletariat. In this, he less resembled Marx than Louis Auguste Blanqui. A hero of the Paris Commune, Blanqui, like the anarchists, believed an immediate violent insurrection by “men of action” would topple capitalism — Marx’s necessary historical conditions be damned — but unlike anarchists envisioned a takeover by a socialist elite.

Mussolini wasn’t squeamish about socialists taking state control. Then again, Mussolini didn’t mind if listeners came away with the impression he was a Marxist, either, a necessary image for a young man craving adulation as a revolutionary intellectual. The socialist heretic hung a picture of Marx in his office and celebrated him as a man of action, but found his economic theories “secondary” and “weak.”

In a lavishly hateful private letter, he wrote that his Marxist mentor, an acquaintance of Lenin named Angelica Balabanoff, was full of “dried up ideas.” Already, at this early stage in his socialist journey, you see signs of the anti-Marxist socialism of early Italian fascism. Still, for over a decade he was accepted as a socialist leader, his rough bravado thought to be susceptible to grooming.

Italy was a highly illiterate country where perhaps a dozen members of the socialist party truly understood Marx. Many understood Marx through the lens of other thinkers. In the end, being a socialist heretic allowed him to believe whatever position he happened to take at the moment — Marxist, Sorelian, Nietzschean, Blanquist, Kropotkinist — was the one representing true revolutionary socialism.

Much of Mussolini’s writing praising anarchist actions seems crafted to appeal to both non-anarchist revolutionists and anarchists at the same time, all the while implying he possessed the strongest revolutionary spirit. For example, a year before winning a seat on the executive committee of Italy’s foremost socialist party, Mussolini is found fashioning himself as a kind of Nietzschean Marxist and extolling anarchists as ubermensch.

“Only these sublime, violent people who live beyond good and evil can call themselves anarchists,” Mussolini wrote in 1911 in a long section on the Houndsditch criminal gang, who fought a deadly firefight with police known as the Battle of London. “Are these volunteers of destruction — so distant from us in life and death — the last violent men of the old world or the first violent men of the new world?”

The young Mussolini’s anarchism was ambivalent, if not apologetic. He understood Marxism well enough to grasp anarchism’s shortcomings or at least its diminished reputation, but owed too much to his father’s legacy and to riot incitement to fully leave anarchist idealism behind.

THE INSURRECTIONAL TEMPEST

James Joll, an Oxford historian who authored The Anarchists (1964), still the essential primer in English, did not view anarchism as an issue of doctrine alone. In a 1971 essay, “Anarchism — A Living Tradition,” Joll offered a historical context for the emergence of terrorist youth tribes in the United States and Europe. People were wondering if the spirit of the sixties had been an anarchist spirit, and Joll offered some aspirin and water for the New Left hangover.

“One can look at the anarchist tradition in three different ways,” Joll wrote (italics are mine), “as a doctrine; that is to say, a set of ideas about social organization and about social relations; as a movement, that is to say as a technique of revolution; as a certain type of temperament, based on a desire to push things to extremes, to carry ideas through to a logical practical end, to overthrow society from top to bottom, a temperament which in many cases enjoys or believes in the act of revolution for its own sake, without worrying about the consequence of the revolution later.”

If Mussolini hardly qualifies as an anarchist doctrinally, he relied heavily on the anarchist movement’s tactics as Bakunin’s Italian disciples had practiced them.

We are not entirely sure of Mussolini’s early activities; the fascists took pains to suppress his personal history, turning it into one long struggle of nationalism and patriotism. One early biographer, Gaudens Megaro, suspected he was involved in a failed plot to bomb a police station in Trento, Austria, in 1909, but I’ve seen this neither confirmed nor refuted in the years since.

We do know that, aside from the ferocity of his public speaking and writing, Mussolini did little labor organizing as a member of the socialist party. He resisted party orthodoxy and looked upon labor strikes as opportunities to incite rioting. Like the anarchist leaders revered by his father, Mussolini romanticized his arrests in print and used his courtroom appearances to promote himself as a brave revolutionary resisting persecution.

Mussolini’s reputation as a courageous young socialist grew with his police record.

In temperament, Benito remained betrothed to his father’s idea of socialism as the “open, violent and moral rebellion against the inhuman order of things as now constituted.” Mussolini, ambivalent on many points of anarchist doctrine, could by Joll’s standard given a place within the anarchist tradition.

The young Mussolini looked forward to “a bloody duel between the forces of conservatism and those of the future — an insurrectional tempest, the preliminary episode of that profound transformation of human society which will be realized with the advent of socialism.” Strikes were “the strategic prelude to the coming and supreme battle.”

Marxists thought they could nurture the talented young orator toward a labor organizing and a more detached analysis, and Mussolini was glad to learn from them to gloss his insurrectionism with a rudimentary class analysis. His basic outlook did not change over the next decade.

“We, called the catastrophic ones by the Italic reformist group, do not preclude a future epoch of bloody conflicts in which we will be forced to the painful necessity of violence,” Mussolini wrote in 1914. “The arrogant demeanor of the classes in power shows that they prefer death under ruins to a long slow and inglorious agony. After the tempest of the revolutionary period is over, the socialist revolution will be a great and practical consecration of respect for the human being.”

So, then, Mussolini’s doctrine was the Romagnole’s “classic revolution,” the insurrectionary outlook, crudely Marxist, vaguely utopian and anarchist, perhaps Blanquist. Yet tactically he drew from the Italian Bakuninist playbook of his father’s era. At the psychological level, he rejected bourgeois society and reform socialists with vengeance and romantically thought of himself as being the center of a Millennial “supreme battle.”

INFINITE FREEDOM

Mussolini’s faith in violence does not by itself mark his psychology as anarchist; it’s that what lay on the other side of revolution sounded so much like the rapturous mysticism of anarchism or utopian socialism.

Certainly this was true of Mussolini’s socialist outlook in 1902. At age 20, he explained “the disappearance of the tyranny that one social class, with its economic privileges, exercises over another will also mark the end of every violence instigated by race fanaticism and hatred; and all men will be united by a bond of fraternal solidarity.”

Yet you have today’s leading Italian scholar of fascism, Emilio Gentile, stating flatly, “Mussolini was never an anarchist, mainly because of his skepticism about human nature and his psychological rather than ideological contempt for the masses, whom he felt incapable of spontaneous emancipation without the guidance of leaders who were aware of the revolutionary process.”

“Never” is a strong word for a figure as erratic as Mussolini. Gentile recoils at the observation of one of Mussolini’s contemporaries, the reformist socialist Antonio Granziadei, who said “Mussolini’s view went beyond socialism” and that his revolutionary socialism was simply anarchism. Which may have been overstating the case, but Gentile will have none of it.

Gentile is a good example of an academic who only examines the doctrine — approaching anarchism wholly by what anarchists say about themselves.  And Gentile only sees one side of the anarchist psyche, the meddlesome purveyor of goodness Dostoevsky portrayed in The Idiot, not the self-absorbed killer of The Possessed.

Gentile is oblivious to the elitism of anarchism, that aristocracy of the egalitarian spirit which disdains slaves in their midst. As for Gentile’s belief that anarchism precludes the guidance of leaders, he has poor grasp of anarchist conceits, specifically if we’re talking about Bakunin, who said “the army must always be the people” but called for “a kind of revolutionary general staff made up of devoted, hardworking and intelligent men, and above all of sincere friends of the people, without ambition or vanity, and capable of acting as intermediaries between the revolutionary idea and the popular instinct.”

The notion of spontaneous revolution is achieved primarily through very careful phrasing that downplays the anarchist’s own role.

Historians who want to purge anarchism from Mussolini’s record face an uphill battle due to the amount of evidence running the other direction. Mussolini’s anarchist sympathies as a socialist were traits that only intensified after his break with the socialist party in 1914.

Mussolini’s stature, domineering personality, and left-libertarian background made him attractive to right-wing libertarian nationalists, revolutionary syndicalists, and anarchist-individualists who thought World War I would lead to a catastrophic revolution. Subjected to public pressure by Italy’s leading anarcho-individualist, Massimo Rocca, Mussolini joined with those who supported the war.

Mussolini miscalculated in thinking he could swing the socialist party to his side, but was denounced with cries of “Traitor!” He suffered a narcissistic meltdown right there, shouting in disconnected phrases. “I am and will remain a Socialist!” Then he blurted, “It is not possible to transform one’s mind…Socialism is part of my flesh.”

Maybe, perhaps not, he then delivered the line famous in Italy, “You hate me because you still love me.”

A few days after leaving party, Mussolini did, in fact, explain his interventionism, and did so this way: “We cannot explain the universal phenomenon of war by attributing it solely to the whims of kings, the clash of races, or the conflicts among economies; other feelings come into play that each one of us has in his soul and that led Proudhon to say that ‘war’s origins were divine.’”

In another published statement after the break, in early 1915, Mussolini specifically distanced himself from Karl Marx, not socialism, and cites the republican hero Mazzini among others.

“Do we — as free spirits — wish to believe in a single gospel and follow one master? Or isn’t it better — in times of liquidation — to throw our ‘political and moral values’ into the great boiling cauldron of History to separate what is eternal from the temporary, from that which passes from which does not die? Is monogamy of ideas possible within the endless landscape of the spirit? Is this not ‘self-denial’ of the deepest and most direct understanding of life and the Universe? Life is varied, complex, multifaceted, rich in opportunities, fertile with surprises, and prodigal with contradictions,” Mussolini wrote.

He proceeded to hold out “infinite freedom” as the goal of socialism. “Freedom to repudiate Marx if Marx has grown too old and is finished; freedom to go back to Mazzini if Mazzini speaks to our expectant souls the words that excite and elevate our humanity, freedom to return to Proudhon, Bakunin, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen, Ferrari, Pisacane, Cattaneo…”

Mussolini’s citations are a mix of famous anarchists, utopian socialists, and insurgent republicans, the ones embraced by Alessandro and his comrades 40 years before. He would later say his break with the socialist party had come as a genuine relief, and as dictator often claimed he was the social revolutionary he’d always been.

In 1945, captured by the partisans with a summary execution looming, someone asked Mussolini, “Why did you betray socialism?”

“I did not betray it,” he replied. “Socialism betrayed me.”

ANARCHIST CONTINUITIES

“Every anarchist is a failed dictator,” Mussolini never quite famously said. Wanting to know the context of this quote, the closest thing I could find was in an interview with Emil Ludwig in 1932, the 10th year of the New Order.

“Don’t you think many young men are only anarchists because they have no chance of becoming rulers?” Ludwig asked Mussolini.

“Of course, every anarchist is a dictator who has missed fire,” Mussolini replies in the English edition of Talks with Mussolini. Whatever the translation issues, Mussolini was clearly echoing Ludwig, maybe showing his habit of toying with credulous interviewers.

Perhaps Mussolini elsewhere said “failed” or “baffled dictator,” as one also reads; I’ll never find out because I don’t know Italian.  I’m cut off from the bulk of sources on Italian fascism and, most killingly, the first volume of Renzo De Felice’s huge and supposedly definitive biography, never translated into English.

Another thing suggesting the quote borders on apocryphal is that it’s so perfect.

Finding out where Mussolini actually stood is hard enough without being a monolingual history hobbyist. Many major political figures are hard to fathom, but with Mussolini you’re also dealing with someone who could not only be insincere and opportunistic, but was also mentally disturbed. Trying to separate his mental condition from his opportunism and irrationalist beliefs gives a headache to the best-trained scholars.

The first book I picked up for this project was Denis Mack Smith’s 1983 biography, which may be the most capable mix of academic rigor and general readability available in English. Mack Smith takes a lot of shots from other historians, and I throw some rocks myself, but really he delivered a skilled, taut overview and thoroughly understood Italian history.

Mack Smith left the question of Mussolini’s anarchist thrust ambiguous. Historians work to determine what’s most important to know, not set out to skewer undue anarchist sanctimoniousness on the subject of fascism, like I have. “Mussolini was often called an anarchist,” Mack Smith wrote, “and though he sometimes rejected the ascription, at other times he accepted it with pride.”

This sums up Mussolini and anarchism as well as any one sentence might.

However, Mack Smith regularly stumbles past anarchist signals he doesn’t call out. For example, he notes the young Mussolini believed “a bomb could be more effective than a hundred speeches.” This is no window into the young Mussolini’s uniquely twisted mind, as Mack Smith seems to suggest. The anarchist Johann Most and the Haymarket martyrs used the same line, when Mussolini was a toddler.

I had many moments like this, all the way to the end of Mack Smith’s book, when Mussolini grumbled in 1945 that Hitler was a “thoroughgoing authoritarian.” Mussolini felt he himself was an authoritarian “only on the surface.” And nowhere were the anarchist parallels thicker than in Mack Smith’s subchapter, “The doctrine of fascism.” Mack Smith’s summary shows Mussolini borrowing one ritual anarchist phrase after another to explain fascism.

These were not the bland generalities of “totalitarianism,” these were granular affinities.

Fascism was not a doctrine but a method, Mack Smith informs us up front, and of course we know this is precisely the anarchist mindset. Anarchists are about action, as were the Italian fascists, who adopted as a slogan, “Action first, doctrine later.”

Some Italian fascists said their beliefs were leftist, others neither right nor left, or both. Which is, of course, what happens when doctrine is secondary to action. You frequently find anarchists today arguing over whether they are inherently leftist or should not confine themselves by the traditional political spectrum. There is no end to the confusion and anxiety this causes, whether the topic is anarchism or Italian fascism.

Mussolini had an “unusual ability to face two ways at once,” Mack Smith contends. Maybe Mussolini was particularly talented on this score, but rapid about faces and taking two points at once is nearly a required anarchist skill.

Mussolini said fascism was a religion, which was the Italian anarcho-syndicalist view and perhaps influenced by Georges Sorel. At the same time, fascism was not a body of beliefs to be taken seriously. He insisted “fascist dogma is an impossibility,” a common anarchist conceit.

There was the hatred of “peacemongers” along with the romantic belief that fascism embodied beauty and courage, a string of anarchist parallels broken only by occasional futurist clichés, and finally the demand of obedience to Mussolini’s personal authority. To someone who’d been studying anarchism for three years, Italian fascism sounded surprisingly like anarchism with individualism limited to one person and his cronies.

Capping it all off was learning that anyone who found all this suspect or feeble would be told that fascism was “too subtle to be easily understood by the layman.” Today, this is anarchism’s most common self-defense reflex to criticism. Anarchists and fascists, you see, have always been sublime.

The parallels unnerved me; it was a few days before I could think about it calmly.

Then I wondered, what did it matter if the anarchist influence on Mussolini was underestimated? Historians agree that fascism mixed irrationalism and nationalism, so who cares if a blogger thinks the irrationalism had a stronger anarchist flavor than many scholars acknowledge or detect?

I promised myself that before retiring this blog I would outline anarchism’s relationship to liberalism, Marxism, and fascism. I’m tenacious, and inserting Mussolini into the history of Italian anarchism seemed a novel enough, really teasing it out in a way no professional academic would risk their reputation doing.

A bust of Mussolini by the futurist artist Renato Bertelli, honoring fascist speed.

A bust of Mussolini by the futurist artist Renato Bertelli, honoring fascist speed.

PATTERNS OF CONTRADICTION

Mack Smith’s point in describing Italian fascist doctrine was not to draw parallels with anarchism nor demonstrate what he called Mussolini’s “anarchist instincts.” He wanted to show Italian fascist doctrine was flimsy, based on hard-sounding, mystical assertions that didn’t hold up to examination.

Moreover, Mack Smith implies Mussolini was too contradictory to be taken seriously, here again made a personal attribute. He writes that “it was an awkward fact that there is not a single belief or idea in all his voluminous writings that he did not directly contradict somewhere else.”

This might be more awkward than Mack Smith realized. A common mistake made by those trying to tackle the topic of anarchism, James Joll pointed out, is to grow hesitant in labeling a historical actor or movement as anarchist when faced with contradictions. “Even Proudhon, perhaps the greatest anarchist thinker, is contradictory and unsystematic in his thinking,” Joll reminds us.

Joll did not follow up with a tidy list of examples right there, so allow me.

In one essay, Proudhon declared that man’s first duty was “driving out the idea of God from one’s consciousness.” This upset many of his readers, so Proudhon followed up with another essay that retreated to the more familiar ground of utopian socialism, calling socialism “the fulfillment of Christian prophecy.”

Mussolini made the same pivot. As a young man he liked to think of himself as an anti-Christ. He attacked the official socialist party position of relegating the question of religious faith to “a personal matter” and declared socialists should be hounded out of church.

Still, like anarchists before and since, Mussolini used Christ as an example of the revolutionary spirit. “The sacred writings clearly prove that Christ severed all relations that might bind him to the old institutions. Christ renounces even the family,” Mussolini wrote. “Thus, Christianity was and is anti-patriotic in its theological essence and in its morality.”

Also, Proudhon considered himself a conservative as well as socialist, just as Mussolini did as a fascist. And Proudhon, who said, “The law of the majority is not my law, it is the law of force,” twice ran for a seat in parliament. So much for Gentile’s claim that Mussolini’s run for office excludes him as an anarchist. Gentile tries to evade both the anarchist tradition of protest candidacy and that an anarchist might enjoy joining organizations and political bodies to promote their ideas or disrupt proceedings.

Furthermore, Proudhon thought anarchy promised social harmony but might, he allowed, require the occasional torture or execution.

Other historians have been too swayed by Mussolini’s praise of Marx, calling him “the greatest theoretician of socialism.” This ignores a long string of anarchists who both praise and condemn Marx. Bakunin, for one, called Marx a man “of great intelligence, equipped with profound learning” and elsewhere wrote “it is impossible to deny his greatness.” Marx’s economic theories, Bakunin said, were groundbreaking for having “advanced and proved the incontrovertible truth, confirmed by the entire past and present history of human society, nations, and states, that economic fact has always preceded legal and political right.”

Still, Marx was intolerably authoritarian, and Jewish besides. After his famous clash with Marx at the International, Bakunin explained his earlier support. “I spared and praised him for tactical reasons, out of personal calculation.”

THE FASCIST ANTI-STATE

“We are libertarians most of all, loving liberty for everyone, even for our enemies,” Mussolini declared in March 1919 following the first small meeting of what would become the fascist movement. Fascism’s early enemies would primarily be other socialists, as we know, with whom the fascists would clash in the streets and make victims of “punitive expeditions.”

Italian fascism would remain an openly libertarian-socialist experiment for several years. It’s libertarian roots, however, are typically associated with the futurists, a group of avant-garde artists usually noted for their worship of technology, speed, risk, and violence, less for their gripes about the oppressiveness of state education and taxes. Readers familiar with Italian fascist history will also remember the syndicalists, a labor movement that found common ground with both anarchists and nationalists over its history.

Another influential group of allies often left unexamined was a right-libertarian minority group within the anarchist movement, anarcho-individualists. Their leader was Massimo Rocca, a figure often misleadingly lumped together with revolutionary syndicalists. Seeking to strengthen his alignment with Rocca and his followers to edge out his fascist competitors, Mussolini wrote and published the following on April 6, 1920:

“I start from the individual and strike at the state. The number of individuals who are in potential revolt, not this or that state, but against the state in itself, is a minority that is not unaware of its fate, but it exists,” wrote Mussolini. “Down with the state in all its forms and incarnations: the state of yesterday, of today, and of tomorrow; the bourgeois state and the socialist state. To us, who are the dying symbols of individualism, there remains, during the present gloom and the dark tomorrow, only the religion, at present absurd, but always consoling, of Anarchy!”

Mussolini, the fascist, at this moment sounds more a true anarchist than Mussolini, the socialist party member. His anti-statism is unquestionable, however, reading it twice, you’ll notice some hedging. He does not seem entirely comfortable with the prospects of “the dying symbols of individualism.”

As Mack Smith observed, Mussolini was adept at letting fascists of varied political camps believe that they, not the others, represented the true core of fascism, and imagine fascism would turn their way in the end.

Anarchism, for Mussolini, is a consolation, his socialist comfort zone in the glorious but uncertain future of fascism’s libertarian-socialist experiment. In 1922, having solidified his leadership of the fascist movement  a few months before the pivotal March on Rome, Mussolini described fascism in terms simultaneously anarchist and anti-anarchist.

“Is Fascism a movement to restore the authority of the State, or one to subvert that authority? Is it order or disorder?” Mussolini posited a few months before the March on Rome. “How can we reconcile its reiterated proclamation that it wishes to restore the authority of the State with its action in flouting the representatives of that authority? …Can one be conservative and subversive at the same time?”

Mussolini’s answer makes little sense. “In the program of Fascism, the State is defined as ‘the judicial incarnation of the nation.’ The formula is vague. The State…is this, but it is more than this. The State is, in origin, a hierarchical system. The day when a man, from a group of other men, first assumed command because he was the strongest, the cleverest, the wisest, or the most intelligent, and the others from love or fear obeyed him, that day the State was born and a system of ranks created, simple and rudimentary as the life of man then was. The head has to create a hierarchy to make war, to give justice, to administer the goods of the community, to obtain payment of tribute. It does not matter how the State originates.”

Now he really starts to sound like a mentally-ill anarchist on the verge of a bid for power.

“To refresh, or change, or weed out the hierarchy…that is the task of the Fascist revolution, which can be effected by alternative methods of a slow and legal saturation or armed insurrection with which Fascism has wisely been provided, preparing for either eventuality.” He wrote in a jumbled way about a “Fascist Anti-State,” which he distinguished favorably over the “Subversive Anti-State.” If liberals excluded fascists and forced them to dwell among the subversives, then, Mussolini threatened, fascists would have to “replace” the government.

Mussolini’s threats would have resonated with many in a country where anarchist ideas had circulated for decades, and he would seize power using a combination of legal and illegal approaches. The conflict between the parliamentary “legalists” and insurrectionary “illegalists” was the foremost issue within Alessandro’s socialist milieu at the time Benito was born.

Mussolini often sounds like he’s talking himself into believing he can remain a revolutionary even as a dictator, trying to placate socialist ghosts lingering from his boyhood as much as winning followers.

Mussolini was frequently but not always insincere. His affinity for “consoling anarchism” burst forth most unmistakably under stress; when he was a young socialist vagabond in Switzerland; after losing a parliamentary bid; when almost edged out of leadership of the early fascist movement; and in his final years after the Allied invasion of Italy.

Again, he insisted he had never stopped being a social revolutionary. In her sycophantic biography of 1925, Margherita Sarfatti tried to explain it this way: “To the careful observer, Mussolini’s standpoint was then what it is still; his was already a tragic bent,” she wrote. “The only change is that, whereas he was then attacking the State, he has now captured the position, so that he can devote his powers to the objects which he was formerly opposing.”

This is not at all convincing, of course, but it does say something about the position in which Mussolini found himself. He was a man whose worldview was in many ways shaped by anarchism, but who now — largely through the willingness of the monarchy and parliament to capitulate during a time of crisis — had actually taken power on the wings of militaristic nationalism.

Black flags fly and anarchists clash with police in Carlo Carrà’s depiction of “The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli.” The artist was an anarchist-turned-futurist, later a fascist.

Black flags fly and anarchists clash with police in Carlo Carrà’s depiction of “The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli” (1911). The artist was an anarchist-turned-futurist, later a fascist.

MEANWHILE, MALATESTA

My point is not to blame anarchists for the collective political catastrophe that was Italian fascism; it’s just that you can’t exempt them either. Conservatives, liberals, and socialists all played a role, and you can find individual members of every political camp joining Italy’s fascist ranks. These camps have been studied. Anarchists, it seems, get a pass.

But before I proceed, I’m obliged give space to Italian anarchism proper. Obviously, many anarchists opposed Mussolini. For starters, anarchists may be credited with two assassination attempts against Mussolini early in his dictatorship and at least two planned attempts.

I’ll lay out the details of Mussolini’s anarchist youth in my upcoming articles, but suffice to say now that the worldview of his boyhood in the Romagna region set the groundwork for his alignment with the futurists and anarcho-individualists. Not every anarchist was a proto-fascist, of course, and the anarcho-individualists were a largely despised minority within the movement.

Malatesta wrote shortly after the fascist March on Rome that first put Mussolini in power,  “A culmination of a long series of crimes, fascism has finally settled in the government.” Note that Malatesta regards Mussolini’s worst crime as involvement with government. Malatesta also felt the need to rebuke anarchists and socialists attracted to Mussolini, complaining of “subversives who say that ‘the fascists have taught us how to make a revolution.’”

“No, the Fascists did not teach us anything,” Malatesta insisted. Mussolini had been appointed prime minister by Italy’s king, and fascists had impurely made use of government weapons. “They have made a revolution, if you want to call it revolution, with the permission of their superiors and in the service of superiors.”

Malatesta worried there too many anarchists were taking Mussolini’s side, accusing fascists of “betraying their friends, every day denying the ideas professed yesterday, when it’s advantageous.”

The betrayal mentioned by Malatesta might be taken as a reference to the socialists targeted in punitive expeditions, but he’s not saying that. There is no call for socialist solidarity. Socialists deserve what they get for having participated in parliament.

“Rather the rise of fascism must be a lesson to the legalistic socialists, who believed, and alas! still believe, that we can overthrow the bourgeoisie by the votes of half plus one in parliament, and did not believe us when we told them if they ever reached a parliamentary majority and wanted — just to make absurd assumptions — to implement socialism by parliament, they would kick your asses!”

A few more words on Malatesta. He knew the Mussolinis, and would later say of Alessandro and Benito that they ranged indiscriminately from one belief to another. After the fascist fact, he said the Mussolinis gave the impression of being committed revolutionaries without a clear idea of what kind of revolution they wanted; as James Joll noted, this has been a perpetual anarchist foible, not limited to the Mussolinis.

It’s important to know that Malatesta rebuked anarchists on any number of issues. The movement could never live up to his ideals, and he sometimes enumerated the movement’s shortcomings so thoroughly you wonder why he stayed a committed anarchist. Malatesta was at odds with anarchists who saw leaders and stable organizations as authoritarian and unspontaneous. Vandalism and riots were not undertaken with the proper attitude.

Malatesta came late to his status as an anarchist guru. Among Mikhail Bakunin’s initial clique of Italian disciples from the 1870s, Malatesta had been the least popular of the three apostles; the most talented one had defected to the parliamentary socialists; the most devout had gone mad — again, saved for a later article.

Upon Mussolini’s appointment as prime minister, Malatesta was taking another opportunity to act as the movement’s “learned housebreaker,” as G.V. Plekhanov characterized the role of anarchism’s leaders with the unruly body of anti-authoritarians.

But then Malatesta and Mussolini worked from shared assumptions and even the same insurrectionary pallette of phrases. For example, Mussolini denounced parliamentary socialists with the very same jibe I quote above, Mussolini having stated six years before, “I would like them [reform socialists] to be exactly half plus one of the 508 in [the Parliament], because then we could all take part in the comedy of proclaiming socialism by parliamentary decree.”

No, the fascists did not teach the anarchists anything. Quite the opposite.

When Malatesta returned to Italy from exile in London in December 1919, Mussolini, well on his way to becoming fascist leader, heralded Malatesta’s return. “From 1892 to 1918, Italian anarchism was an almost insignificant element in politics. Today, no longer. Today Malatesta is the star that obscures all the leaders of the Socialist Party.” Mussolini courted Malatesta and regarded him as the duce of anarchism.

Mussolini vacillated in his support, distancing himself When Malatesta was arrested with other anarchists after a clash with police in Bologna. Still, he did offer lukewarm support during a hunger strike by jailed anarchists, saying “a Malatesta danger does not exist.” Then he backtracked again after a deadly anarchist bombing of a Milan theater that outraged fascists and the public.

Malatesta would be acquitted by the liberal government. Under Mussolini, however, his fate was house arrest from 1926 until his death in 1932.

NOTHING OUTSIDE THE STATE

Readers interested in the overlap between anarchism and fascism but who find my approach too amateurish or polemic might pick up Zeev Sternhell’s Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France (1986) or The Birth of Fascist Ideology (1989), the latter addressing fascism in Italy. Sternhell is the groundbreaker and authority on the topic, exploring the overlap with great precision and caution.

A lesser-known work is The Anarchist-Individualist Origins of Italian Fascism (2002) by Stephen B. Whitaker, written while on a Fulbright scholarship. Whitaker seems to have single-handedly imported the history of anarcho-individualist role from the untranslated work in Italian in a solid, brief, and fascinating book that goes places Sternhell did not.

Whitaker introduced a key but wholly undiscussed fascist figure, Leandro Arpinati, to English-language readers for the first time, and maybe puts an end to the practice of portraying the anarcho-individualist leader Massimo Rocca as a “revolutionary syndicalist.”

If my articles stand out in a way other than being an outgrowth of my irritation with present-day libertarian subculture, left, right, and ambiguous, it’s in my use of a book published in 1937, Mussolini in the Making by Gaudens Megaro. An American, Megaro was the earliest biographer of quality; 80 years later much of what you might read on Benito’s Romagna origins is distilled from his book.

My best resource has been Megaro’s long excerpts from the writing of Alessandro and Benito. Outdated in some spots, his analysis wasn’t bad either. He briefly mentions that he met Mussolini, meanwhile smuggling his research notes past the fascists. I thought the Internet would be a better place if Megaro’s material turned up in some searches.

“Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” Mussolini pronounced in 1936. This is the latter half of Italian fascism, often said to be a more totalitarian period fueled by Italy’s alliance with Germany. Jumbled talk of a Fascist Anti-State had been abandoned, and Mussolini’s early libertarian followers had mostly balked or fled Italy.

Yet even in Mussolini’s most strident authoritarian-statist declarations, anarchist belief peeks through. Mussolini seems a living caricature of the anarchist bête noir. Given his background and later alignment with the anarcho-syndicalists, there’s every reason to believe that authoritarian rule was the only way he could conceive of state leadership.

As my upcoming articles illustrate, Mussolini’s anarchist streak would help him win a reputation as an uncompromising socialist, at others retard his political thinking and cause embarrassment. When he was a member of Italy’s socialist party, he would repeatedly need to shore up his reputation after coming off as an impetuous anarchist yokel from the Romagna region.

My first article attempts to show the authoritarian nationalism of Mussolini’s fascism are prefigured in the beliefs of Mikhail Bakunin. I can hear anarchists and other readers object, “But anarchism is anti-authoritarian!” To believe this requires believing that anarchists really have transcended the dynamics of authority.

Bakunin believed an insurrectionist elite could steer the revolution — from the background in a suitably anarchist manner, of course. Karl Marx jibed that “all Bakunin needs is a secret organization of one hundred people, the privileged representatives of the revolutionary idea, the general staff in the background, self-appointed and commanded by the permanent ‘Citizen B’ (i.e., Bakunin).”

You don’t need to be a dialectical materialist to see this. No wonder someone, somewhere, couldn’t resist fudging Mussolini’s off-hand comment to read more incisively, “Every anarchist is a baffled dictator,” and the world loved it.■

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