Did the Italian Fascist party rule by consent or coercion?
The question of whether Mussolini’s fascist party ruled by either consent or coercion is one which cannot be answered with an outright conclusion. The question addresses one of the most debated areas of the Italian historiography on Fascism. It implications reach deeper than an analysis of the Fascist party itself, instead it burrows deep into the heart of the Italian people. Ultimately the question is asked in order to gauge the moral culpability of the Italian people, asking how heavy should history weigh the evils of fascism on its people? Could it be said that they were consenting in the actions and evils propagated by their Totalitarian state or was it the case that they had been manipulated, threatened and coerced into accepting their despotic fate? This essay will attempt to look at a variety of periods of this nation’s history, and its relationship with fascism; from unification in 1870 until the liberation of Rome in 1944, if only to examine an the intricacies of Italian pre-fascism socio-political structures which, when understood would help to our explain the rise and fall of fascism The time period is vast but we hope to focus our greatest attention on the period between 1922 beginning with the march on Rome and ending in 1943with the death of Mussolini.
This essay will look at Gramaci’s theory on Hegemony which outlines how the Fascism believed it could transcend party, state and culture in a dictatorship of ideas, rather than violence, noting that in order to so consent would have to be achieved. We also be addressing areas contested areas in relation to the consent or coercion of the Italian peoples; such as the failure of the left, Fascist youth groups, the reclamation of the Pontine Marshes, the cult of the Duce and finally, public guilt and the political vacuum left after the fall of fascism.
The failure of the left
Following Versailles Italian politics was in the doldrums, a power vacuum had been created after the collapse of faith in the Risorgimento government and it was widely accepted that the socialist left were going to step in and take power, “This was diciannovesimo, a pre-revolutionary yearning for change and a utopian faith in a better world, to be born”(511 watson). However the left failed to seize the moment, the air of passivism that surrounded Italy’s socialists condemned itself to impotence, forfeiting a chance to take reign of the country. Leftist ostracisation of the returning soldiers due to a combination of elitism by the petty-bourgeoisie (which made up the majority of the left) and their reactionary condemnation of the any nationalist leanings saw the left shunning the very people which could have brought about the realisation of their socialist republic. It is within this small space that Mussolini and the Fasci de Combattimento marched on Rome in 1922 and met with little resistance one could claim that consent, if not sheer indifference of the Italian people allowed Mussolini take reign of the country.
That’s not to say that Fascism had come completely out of the blue, Gabrielle d’Annumnzio’s occupation of Fiume acted as the litmus test for Fascist rhetoric and ideology, both influencing and confirming Mussolini’s own belief that the Italian people were ‘yearning’ for a drastic shift in the political landscape, “Fascism had come out of the social conditions established under the previous regime. It did not come out of nowhere.”(236 rome fascist capital). Following the emasculation and perceived injustice as regards Italy’s rights to lands in Africa and Yugoslavia, grand political gestures, jingoistic in nature were the allures which bred the Italian people’s acceptance of Mussolini’s Fascist party. As a result when attempting to analyse the question of consent or coercion it is important to note that the apathy, or non-intervention displayed by the Italian people is indicative of their attitudes to the fascist party throughout its entire twenty year governance, a societal conditional acceptance, or rather, ‘conditional consent’. It is this culture of ‘conditional consent’ which gave way to the popularly uncontested rise of Mussolini and his party, and which allowed the Fascist party to create a ‘political’ hegemony in Italy.
Conditions had been similar in pre-Nazi Germany with a very real power struggle being fought on the streets, The Spartacus uprising of the left and the reactionary right wing suppression of it by the Freikorps displayed in violent carnage the ideological battle being fought on the ground. In pre-Fascist Italy however the political environment was very different. One only has to examine Mussolini’s own involvement with the socialist newspapers Avanti, as well as the relatively peaceful strikes of the time to understand that the political ‘warzone’ of Germany was one which was being forged through violent conflict, while Italy’s politics was being debated in the chambers of the Intellectuals. The Fascist party had simply been the party which chose to act quickest and with the most amount of aggression, opportunism
Fascist Youth and Covert Coercion
The political hegemony, as recounted by Gramasci was the very embodiment of the Fascist youth groups. Fascist ideology believed in the ‘consent’ of the people, as the epigraph to this essay would suggest, Mussolini in his deluded narcissism genuinely believed in the full consent of the Italian people, thinking that they too had been moved by the same hyperbolic hero-rhetoric which he himself so deeply believed. The truth lies in the cultural and societal manipulation by the Fascist youth groups. This is what one could call, ‘covert coercion’, the creation of a political and socio-economic landscape where favour was given to both children and families who had signed up as members, without eliciting direct threat or violence against those who joined, “Membership was not obligatory until 1939 but in practice social and political pressure pushed the children in the direction of conformity and not resistance, belonging and not separateness”(96 koon).
Rather the direct and tangible violence which would usually suggest coercion, a quasi-cultural or economic hegemony was being created by the party. Membership of the Fascist youth would have determined, or even been a necessity for Italian children’s access to viable careers, especially in the civil service. The Fascist party had sought about creating and moulding a state where socio-political decisions were based on party membership, coercing the Italian middle class into becoming party members. However this does differ greatly from violent or threatening coercion as can be seen with the introduction of ‘mandatory membership’ in 1939, a fact which is symptomatic of the falling numbers of member attendance nearing the latter half of their reign. In fact many Italians of the South had passively resisted party membership by joining the remaining right wing parties of the time in order to meekly resist Fascist control.
The educational system which had under the authority of Gentile attempted to further homogenise the Italian youth by increasing drilling and military standardisation in place of academic works, expanding the bellicose agenda of the fascist party. The failure of the gentile reforms are exemplary of such a political landscape, in which ‘conditional consent’ or even ‘covert coercion’ existed, “As the years past, [Gentile] realised that the fascist regime had failed in the task and that the national consensus, if broad, as also superficial-motivated by opportunism and not faith”(93 koon). The ideological delusion that total political and cultural homogeny could be achieved through ‘consent’ is what left the almost half-hearted ‘coercion’ of both education and culture void of any real impact.
The Pontine Marshes
As part of the cultural reimaging of Italy, socially and structurally the Fascist party had hoped to augment and finely tune its population and its landscape in order to complement its cultural and political hegemony. Bound to this concept the fascist party began attempting to reclaim land for its citizen by draining the marshes of Lazio in central Italy, believing that the ‘decline’ in birth rates was as a result of couples not being able to afford the enough children in the confines of the industrialised north. The forced migration of tens of thousands from the north to the reclaimed land is outlined by Caprotti as being an example of the hybrid form of ‘consent’ and ‘coercion’, and which creates an impasse for those attempting to give a static answer to the question proposed. Capprotti notes, “potential colonists were meant to migrate voluntarily”, however as a result forced migration had to be implemented. They attempted the olive branch, then used the sword, failing a consensual migration the Italian northerners were then coerced into occupying these ‘newly reclaimed marshes’( Caprotti 21).