Back in September, the Italian senate elected Ignazio La Russa as its new president. Just weeks before, La Russa had declared, “We are all heirs of the Duce.” The fascist party, Fratelli d’Italia, whose roots reach back firmly to Mussolini, won the general election on September 25. The FdI, whose main growth has occurred only over the past few years, has assumed power under the leadership of Giorgia Meloni, in coalition with the right-wing parties Lega and Forza Italia, led by Matteo Salvini, and Silvio Berlusconi respectively.
While we have to be careful not to overstate the immediate danger posed by Meloni’s government, her assumption of power represents an enormous victory for the international far right. The victory of Fratelli d’Italia will have consequences around the world, but particularly in Europe, where the fascist right has been making slow advances for the past decade or so.
Italy is of course no stranger to fascism. Meloni’s assumption of power held the unfortunate poetic significance of taking place within a month of the centenary of Mussolini’s own rise at the end of October 1922. Mussolini’s party was the first fascist party in the world to take control of a nation. A hundred years later his political descendants are the first fascist party to gain power in western Europe.
Fratelli d’Italia may assume a very different kind of posture than Mussolini’s party did in the early 1920s, and unlike Mussolini, they are currently forced by circumstance to operate in the context of bourgeois parliamentarism without the street movement characteristic of traditional fascism. Yet, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that contemporary fascism’s ultimate goals are any different than their predecessors were a hundred years ago.
Most importantly for those of us fighting now, the same factor that made Mussolini’s rise truly tragic is the very same that today can give us cause for hope: Fascism’s rise is always avoidable.
The traditional bourgeois parties have little recourse to stop fascism, and as the rise of mid-twentieth century fascism illustrates, the ruling class will happily hand power to fascism if they feel it’s their best option in a bad situation. As ever, our hope lies with ordinary people entering the historical process in mass to force fascism back out of public life, chanting together the slogan of the Spanish anti-fascist fighters of the late 30s, “¡No pasarán!—they will not pass.”
What is fascism?
The traditional understanding of the circumstances in which fascism can take power was expressed well by Felix Murrow in his book on the Spanish Revolution:
Fascism is that special form of capitalist domination which the bourgeoisie finally resorts to when the continued existence of capitalism is incompatible with the existence of organized workers. Fascism is resorted to when the concessions, which are a product of the activities of trade unions and political parties of labour, become an intolerable burden on the capitalist rulers, hence intolerable to the further existence of capitalism. For the working class, at this point, the issue is inexorably posed for immediate solution: either fascism or socialism.
While this was certainly true in the cases when fascism triumphed in the twentieth century (Italy, Germany, Spain), it would be a mistake to schematically apply this formula today. We should not lull ourselves into a false sense of security by thinking that since the workers’ movement is generally speaking in a weak state, that the bourgeoisie will have no recourse to resort to fascism to solve its problems. A more universal explanation was provided by Trotsky in his writings on the Spanish Civil War: “In the present epoch the fascist guard corresponds much more to the requirements of capital.”
The crises of capitalism are accelerating rapidly. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to see that we are entering a period of total crisis for the system. Inflation, rising imperial tension, environmental collapse, moral bankruptcy and the sheer exhaustion of the population after three years of pandemic—these all threaten the precarious balance of the system. It’s no surprise that the world’s population is more pessimistic about the future than they have been for over a century. The coming decades will be a time of enormous social upheavals, with billions of people set in motion to try to secure their most basic interests. These may or may not express themselves through the medium of the organized Left, but they will present massive problems for the smooth accumulation of capital in one way or another.
In short, the tasks history has handed to the bourgeoisie are more than they can handle given their tiny size and the restrictions of liberal democracy. They have to find themselves an army. They find in the fascist movement a useful tool for continuing bourgeois rule at the cost of handing over the reins of state power. Of course we are not yet at this stage, but evidence of its development can be seen in the willingness of the ruling class parties to form parliamentary coalitions with these parties and frequently adopt elements of their programs.
For a Marxist, the first question we always need to ask about any social phenomenon is, “What is its class content?”
In 1932, Trotksy wrote of fascism that,
At the moment that the “normal” police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium—the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the *masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie*, and bands of the declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy. [Emphasis added.]
When capitalism enters what Gramsci would have called an “organic crisis,” large sections of the population are suddenly desperately searching around for an answer to lead them out of the disaster they are living through. If the working class is sufficiently class conscious and sufficiently well-organized, they have the opportunity to pull the intermediate classes toward them and move society onto the path toward socialism through revolution. But if socialists are unwilling or unable to meet this moment, this leaves an unresolved crisis and a political void that fascism can surge into.
To paraphrase from the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs’ masterpiece History and Class Consciousness, it is only from the perspective of the working class that the reality of the whole of society can be worked out. The working class has an inherent interest in understanding how society actually functions because it is only by means of this understanding that they can achieve their liberation. The other classes of society have an interest in obscuring that reality in order to maintain their position.
Yet it is not only the working class that suffers during a crisis—the intermediate sections of society, whom Marxists often refer to as the “petty bourgeoisie,” are also threatened with ruin. There arises within these middle layers what the German Marxist Michael Heinrich has referred to as a “blinkered negation of commodity fetishism.” This is a fancy way of saying that since these middle layers are faced with a contradiction between the objective force of failing capitalism and their subjective interest in capitalism’s maintenance, they can only find irrational explanations for their suffering—in a “Jewish world conspiracy” uniting socialists and finance capitalists in a mission to destroy western civilization as in “traditional” fascism, a “globalist” conspiracy a la Alex Jones, or a cabal of space reptilians plotting to import Brown and Black people into western countries as in QAnon. They are unable to problematize the system itself. This contradiction explains the Nazis’ contrasting a “Jewish capitalism”—international, based in high finance and banking that was out of reach for the petty bourgeoisie, and a good “German capitalism” based upon small businesses and the small-scale family farm.
The petty bourgeoisie forms the mass base of fascism. That is as true today as it was in the 1920s and 1930s. But since history has shown that the petty bourgeoisie are incapable of acting independently, but must act in the interests of one of the two main classes of society, they end up acting in the interest of the bourgeoisie to preserve capitalism. Thus, as Donny Gluckstein has shown in The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class, Nazi rule only led to the further ruin for the middle classes as the Nazis increased national economic centralization.
Fascism arises, as Trotsky says, “as an acute expression of the helpless position of the bourgeois regime.” Society is being dragged down into crisis with such rapidity that the bourgeois center cannot hold. If fascism comes to power it seeks the deepest possible reaction, destroying by force all the social elements they scapegoat as responsible for the crisis.
We have to be careful not to take modern fascism at its word. Some thinkers such as Enzo Traverso have made this mistake, believing that fascism has abandoned its ambitions to create a fighting street movement in favor of permanent integration into the bourgeois parliamentary state. We can trace the reemergence of postwar fascism to illustrate how this is not the case.
Fascism had a long road to travel to make it back into the mainstream. The combination of fascism’s obvious bankruptcy following the Second World War and the long economic boom of the 50s and 60s made it extremely difficult for fascism to initially find any footing. Fascist movements in Germany (the National Democratic Party) and in Britain (the National Front) were both defeated by anti-fascist movements, but in France fascism was able to develop a new theoretical foundation and took the first steps on the long road toward its international rejuvenation.
In 1961 a former leader in the militia of Vichy France named François Gaucher wrote a book entitled Le Fascisme est-il actuel? The book put forward the idea that fascism was characterized by its extreme flexibility in relation to dogma. Fascists, according to Gaucher, should adapt to their times, and should not operate in an identical way as they did during the interwar years. Gaucher understood that the path for the re-emergence of fascism would be a protracted one, and fascism should adapt its strategy to that reality.
When Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of Marine Le Pen, formed the National Front (now the National Rally) in 1972, it was on the basis of this philosophy. A training pamphlet from the National Front reads:
Frightening and offending people must be avoided if we are going to seduce them. In our soft and timorous society, immoderate comments cause large parts of the population to feel apprehension, distrust, and aversion. When expressing oneself in public, it is therefore crucial to avoid comments that seem crude or extremist. Anything that can be said one way can be said with the same amount of force in established language that the public accepts. So instead of saying “let’s throw N*** to the sea” for example, say that a “return home should be organised for third-world immigrants.”
As Mark L. Thomas puts it,
The Front deliberately employs a dual discourse, one official and explicit, presenting itself as a legitimate part of the political establishment, the other unofficial and implicit, reflecting its anti-democratic, authoritarian agenda. The veneer of respectability must be sufficiently opaque to fool opponents and observers, but transparent enough to avoid deceiving its own members.
Thus, Marine Le Pen of the National Rally, who took 41.5 percent of the vote in the 2022 election, formally rejects antisemitism, but frequently speaks in an antisemitic manner, for example in remarks about the dangers of “globalism,” often referencing Jewish names when offering examples of those who lies behind these plots.
We have seen this strategy subsequently employed throughout Europe and North America. In Greece and Hungary fascists managed to build street-fighting movements in recent years, but so far we have not seen these attached to other fascist parties in Europe. We have, however, seen their outline in the National Front’s hundreds-strong security force, Département Protection et Sécurité, in the English Defense League, and in the racist antics of groups like Génération Identitaire. In the U.S., we have groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the widespread far-right militia movement, that, while not attached to a fascist party, are ready to fight in the streets for the far right wing of the Republican Party, which might justifiably be called a fascist insurgency.
Italy itself has seen far-right violence and terrorist attacks. In 2018, Luca Traini, a former candidate for Lega shot six sub-Saharan African migrants. He was arrested draping himself in the Italian flag while sporting the fascist salute and shouting “Long live Italy.” After the attack the entire political establishment blamed migrants for the attack. In October 2021, in traditional fascist form, the national headquarters of the largest trade union in the country was attacked by a 10,000 strong anti-vaccine protest. On November 15 of last year, Italian police arrested five men from a white supremacist organization known as the “Order of Hagal” for a plot to carry out racist violent attacks. Texts about committing a massacre “like the one in New Zealand” were intercepted from members of the group. On October 27, police arrested a man in Puglia on terrorism charges for his posts on the “Sieg Heil” telegram channel. The 23-year-old claimed he intended to soon make “extreme sacrifice to defend the white race.”
Fascism in Italy Today
While Hillary Clinton praised Meloni’s rise as a “step forward” for women, the majority of the world was shaken by the reality that fascism had returned to western Europe again for the first time since Franco’s death in 1975.
Meloni’s party, Fratelli d’Italia, have their roots in the fascist organization MSI, whose acronym has the double meaning of “Movimento Sociale Italiano” on the one hand and “Mussolini, sei immortale” (Mussolini, you are immortal), on the other. Meloni was in the youth wing of this organization. The MSI was founded in 1946, immediately after the fall of the fascist regime. While Meloni might claim in characteristic doublespeak that there are no “nostalgic fascists, racists or antisemites in the Brothers of Italy DNA,” La Russa, current president of the Senate and cofounder of the party, was filmed in September proudly sporting the stiff-arm fascist salute during a funeral. La Russa has an enormous collection of fascist-era memorabilia that he proudly displays to the public.
As Stefanie Prezioso writes of the FdI:
[It] has its roots in post-war neo-fascism, a direct heir, both in terms of militant personnel and political traditions and cultures, to the fascist experience, such as that of Giorgio Almirante, an enthusiastic fascist, editor in the 1930s of the anti-Semitic magazine La Difesa della razza, who joined the ranks of the Salò Republic in 1943, and after the war founded the Italian Social Movement (MSI), whose legacy Meloni proudly claims.
The MSI was unique in post-war Europe in openly identifying with a previous fascist regime. It made some small electoral gains in the south, but it wasn’t until the collapse of the traditional parties in early 1990s that the MSI got their chance to enter the mainstream. It changed its name to Alleanza Nationale in 1995 and entered a coalition with Berlusconi and the then-separatist Lega Nord (Northern League, rebranded in 2018 as Lega). Following the French prototype, the AN declared itself to be a post-fascist conservative party. After the AN dissolved in 2009, a section of it reemerged as the FdI.
Thirty years of neoliberalism has given birth to the illusion of scarcity when it comes to those things that are required for a good, stable life. All mainstream parties have used baseless worries about immigration to distract from the reality that the problems lie in the system itself. Meloni and FdI take an extreme stance on this issue. The FdI has already stepped up the war on migrants, for example refusing to allow rescue ships to land in Sicily. Meloni has referred to immigration as an invasion and calls for a naval blockade to stop it, using “great replacement” discourse to portray recent waves of immigration as stemming from a plot by UN elites.
At the same time, Meloni is well aware that the country is suffering from declining birth rates. That Italy needs immigration is a simple fact. But the FdI wants to render a service to capital by pushing immigrants into such poor conditions and dividing them from all possible allies that they are forced to accept the most exploitative working conditions imaginable. With little recourse to stop the flow of migrants coming to Europe, Meloni has already adopted a strategy of turning up the heat on the humanitarian organizations that help keep migrants safe during their difficult journey across the sea. Meloni also employs “femonationalist” language, claiming that resisting migration is a matter of defending the western value of women’s rights against invaders who do not share this value.
Meloni benefited enormously from being “alone in opposition” to the previous technocratic government led by Mario Draghi. Draghi had been head of the European Central Bank from 2011 to 2019. Draghi was the author of the imposition of austerity on Greece and the Troika’s privatization policies. His government spanned a broad section of the political spectrum, running from Berlusconi (Forza Italia) and Salvini’s (Lega) nationalism to the populist Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) and the ex-PCI Democratic Party.
Given the degree of crisis in Italian society, placing themselves outside of the government was the perfect move for FdI. The crisis is profound. An all-time high 5.6 million people (roughly 9.5 percent of the population) were living in absolute poverty in 2021, and in 2022 Italy’s debt was 150 percent of its GDP, the largest proportion for a large eurozone country. Despite this general poverty, Italy has more billionaires than either France or the UK. Between 1995 and 2015 this layer has taken their share of the national wealth from 16 to 22 percent.
In the same period, the bottom 50 percent’s share went from 11.7 to 3.5. Added to this are inflation north of 9 percent, increased military spending in the face of the war in Ukraine amidst general austerity, an energy crisis, drought, and a fragile economic recovery after the pandemic. Placing themselves outside any responsibility for this situation allowed Meloni and company to look like a possible alternative.
The Italian left has bankrupted itself as a possible alternative. Coming out of the Stalinised Comintern, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was one of the largest left parties in Europe. The PCI subscribed to the Stalinist “Eurocommunist” strategy that made them virtually indistinguishable from a run-of-the-mill social democratic party. The PCI abandoned any pretense of revolutionary politics in favor of integration into the existing state, where they tried to more benevolently manage capitalism.
At the height of their influence the PCI received 34.4 percent of the vote in the 1976 election. After the fall of Eastern Bloc the PCI underwent three rebrandings in the course of a decade and a half. First it rebranded as the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left), then in 1998 as the Democratici di Sinistra (Democrats of the Left), and finally just the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party) in 2007. Dominated by the idea that there was no alternative to capitalism, the historical function of these parties was the implementation of a neoliberal agenda in Italy, with mass privatizations and sweeping anti-labor policies. In 2015, the Partito Democratico government of Matteo Renzi approved the “Jobs Act,” that removed the prohibition of firing employees without cause in workplaces larger than 15 employees.
The slow shift to the right has its further cause in a demographic shift. The gigantic factories of the northwestern cities have slowly been replaced by medium sized industries in rural areas and in the small towns in northeastern and central Italy. This has dramatically weakened the labor movement around the country, but particularly in the industrialized north.
It’s important to note that turnout for the 2022 election was at an historic low. As Giacomo Turci noted just ahead of the election:
The reality is that there is still no political project that can revitalize the governing parties’ strong hegemony over society: for at least a decade, the percentage of non-voters exceeds the support of any party, and around 35 percent of people are expected to abstain on Sunday.
This abstention is higher in the south. In Naples, 60.5 percent of the population does not vote.
It’s not so much the case that the FdI was able to draw new elements toward the far right. Rather, Meloni’s rise represents a radicalization of those sections of the population that already supported the far-right bourgeois populist parties, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Salvini’s Lega, and the centrist populist Five Star Movement.
While not a fascist himself, Berlusconi, who served three terms as Prime Minister (1994-1995, 2001-2006 and 2008-2011) has done wonders to broaden the horizon for genuine fascism in Italy. Berlusconi was the first politician in Italy to start to revise the postwar vision of the fascist period, for example calling Mussolini one of Italy’s “greatest statesmen” and a “benign dictator.” The same can be said of Salvini’s Lega, which employed far-right and xenophobic language to promote their party.
Lega and Forza Italia normalization of fascist politics has been part of a broader forgetting and historical revisionism regarding the fascist period. This forgetting has walked hand and hand with the identification of anti-fascism with Communism in the wake of the collapse of the PCI. There has been a concerted effort made to distinguish between a supposedly comparatively blameless Italian fascism from German national socialism.
What lies ahead for Italy?
The flip-side of the coin of apathy is rage. The aggravating factors of the state of the left and a large percentage of the population fed up with traditional politics has led to a situation in which 80 percent of the population proclaims that Italy needs a “strong man,” and only 62 percent of the population still believes in democracy. All of this adds up to a state of affairs in which fascism has an opportunity to make large strides in Italy.
Fascism in Italy will use the victory of FdI as a stepping stone to increase their material and numerical strength and slowly bring larger and larger sections toward a more radical vision of the fascist project. The defeat of Meloni in a future election will not undo the damage done by her victory, and may be a reason for a further escalation of fascist strategy and tactics.
The danger posed internationally is perhaps even more significant than the danger within Italy itself. With each victory the global far right grows in strength and influence. Meloni’s victory legitimizes these politics globally.
The FdI electoral victory may turn into a springboard for a street movement domestically and offer legitimacy to these movements internationally.
Still, there are significant hurdles for fascism in Italy. For one thing, the FdI will not have the lucky benefit of an upturn in global capitalism to take credit for that the Nazis and Italian fascists had when they took power. Instead, as the European Central Bank raises interest rates, Italy becomes more and more uniquely susceptible to a debt crisis.
Furthermore, Meloni has to walk the tightrope between nationalist sentiment and the necessity of engaging in EU politics. Meloni is working in coalition with other far right parties in the European Parliament, serving as president of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), with other fascist members such as the Sweden Democrats and Spain’s Vox. Meloni is currently forced to play nice with the EU in a power play to exercise more power in a partnership with the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) in order to move the politics of Europe as a whole to the right. This explains her support for the war in Ukraine, which puts her into conflict with a plurality of Italians who disapprove of NATO involvement.
This powerplay in the EU has also meant that Meloni was forced to distance herself from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, a man after her own heart, by supporting financial measures to chastise him for his resistance to EU mandates over the rule of law. But this cozying up to allies in Brussels will require the implementation of a certain politics at home that might not be sufficiently different from the neoliberal norm to satisfy the party base. At the same time, the implementation of Meloni’s extreme anti-migration politics may put her in conflict with the EU mainstream.
Yet in the absence of a strong left, if FdI is itself discredited, this does not mean that Italy will have been saved from fascism. In the long run, with deepening crises, more militant forms of fascism will begin to take shape. The FdI, and this may even be consciously the case for many of its members, may just prove to be a useful springboard from which to further the long-term cause of fascist politics. For them, the FdI itself is nothing, the long-term fascist movement is all.
How should we fight fascism?
Addressing the German workers in late 1931, Trotsky prophetically warned, should “fascism come to power it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-Communists, you have little time left!”
Drawing on the Bolsheviks’ experience in 1917 with the coup of Kornilov, the “fighting unity,” that Trotsky refers to here is the tactic of the “united front.” Trotsky describes it’s essence when he counsels,
Communist workers must say to their Social Democratic counterparts: “The policies of our parties are irreconcilably opposed; but if the fascists come tonight to wreck your organization’s hall, we will come running, arms in hand, to help you. Will you promise us that if our organization is threatened you will rush to our aid?”
The united front is a tactic used in a period when the revolutionary left is on the defensive. It recognizes the importance of a specific struggle against fascism, and calls upon all the elements willing to fight against it to unite on the basis of that minimum agreement. This tactic is based upon two strategic considerations:
1. The democratic space won by movements from below needs to be defended. Not only does this retain those gains of working class movements such as LGBTQ liberation, abortion rights, etc. that the fascists seek to destroy, but it also maintains the breathing space that socialists need to carry on their work.
2. The second consideration “grows out of the urgent need to secure for the working class the possibility of a united front in struggles against capitalism.” An elementary proposition of Marxism is that the working class must liberate ourselves. In order to do this we must gain the experience of working together as a class. The united front gives workers this experience in a time when reaction is on the agenda. The leadership of the revolutionary socialists in the united front can win new elements to the revolutionaries’ ranks.
The long-term solution to ending fascism is the victory of socialism. Yet, the need for the united front arises out of adjusting our strategy to a period where a direct assault on capital is an impossibility. It’s not enough to say, “the solution to fascism is our program” as the Stalinists of the early 1930s said in Germany, and many do again today. We have to build a movement that unites the broad layers of the working class in the fight against fascism.
It is also essential to properly differentiate what is and is not fascism. One of the greatest mistakes of the Italian parliamentary left in the last decades was to opportunistically label any right wing party as “fascist.” This led to a situation in which the word had become virtually meaningless when the genuine article finally emerged.
Antifascists need to show up en masse whenever fascists show their faces publicly. When fascists try to use anti-abortion or drag queen story hour as a means to spread their politics, antifascists need to show up in such strength that the fascists are completely overwhelmed. The fascists cannot be given a single inch in which to operate.
We have seen a successful example of united front tactics employed in Greece, where the broad working class coalition United Movement Against Racism and the Fascist Threat (KEERFA), composed of socialist groups and trade unions, succeeded in destroying the Golden Dawn, a fascist party who at one point was the third largest party in the Greek parliament. Similarly in Barcelona, United Against Racism and Fascist Threat (UCFR) has succeeded in making it impossible for Vox to publicly announce their events in the city.
The Italian left is in an extremely fractured state, often based in individual cities rather than proper national organizations. Trade union membership has steadily declined since the mid-1980s and the national revolutionary organizations struggle to have any influence. Still, there have been some hopeful displays of working class resistance to the FdI, such as the two days of resistance in early December, with a cross-sector strike on the second and a mass demonstration in Rome on the third, with slogans against cuts to public health and subsidies to the poor, and increasing military expenditure. This is an important start, but the struggle ultimately requires building a mass coalition that stays on the alert and responds to fascist activity whenever it creeps up.
It is of supreme importance to defeat fascism in every country in which it tries to make inroads. If fascism had been defeated 100 years ago in Italy, it is entirely possible that the names Hitler, Himmler and Eichmann might be unknown to history. Fascism is as much an international movement today as it was in the twentieth century, perhaps more so. To work to destroy fascism at home is to work to destroy it internationally.
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Thomas Hummel is a member of the Tempest Collective living in New York City.