The National Catholic Review

This week marks the 90th anniversary of the March on Rome. In late October of 1922, Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts mobilized across Italy to march on the capital and demand power. By the time they arrived on October 29, the Italian government had caved to Fascist demands in order to avoid a violent confrontation. Mussolini became Prime Minister and, soon, dictator.  

Although many excellent English-language biographies of the Duce are in print - including those of RJB Bosworth and Dennis Mack Smith - George Seldes’ classic 1935 account of Mussolini’s climb to power, Sawdust Caesar, remains special. Seldes’ tale reaches across time to detail how the fascists began their campaign by organizing gangs of thugs who ruled the streets, violently breaking strikes by the powerful Italian trade unions and destroying the offices and printing presses of Italy’s socialist party. Soon these squadristi turned their clubs and castor oil on the Italian Popular Party, precursor to the Christian Democrats, led by the Sicilian priest Luigi Sturzo.  

All the while, the big men of Italian politics hesitated to intervene - or even quietly encouraged the demagogue. Their commitment to free elections and the rule of law was weaker than their alarm about the lower classes filling the ranks of the Socialists or the Popolari. They stood aside as the Duce dismantled Italian democracy and assumed total power. With that, they too found themselves shunted aside. It would take American arms to free Italy from fascism.  

Recalling anniversaries like these is a useful antidote to the hyperbole that attends our own politics. No matter who wins the upcoming vote, he won’t ban the losing party. Or censor its papers, or have them beaten on the streets, or make them drink castor oil. As we move into the climax of this very excitable season, let’s all take a deep breath and thank God we live in a nation and time where our freedom isn’t REALLY in danger.

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Gabriel Marcella | 10/28/2012 - 5:56pm
Italian Fascism (there were various national forms and new forms appeared after) resulted from a complex combination of influences unique to Italy: liberalism, syndicalism, marxism, socialism, catholicism, irredentist nationalism, and the risorgimento. One cannot understand modern Italy without taking into account the powerful impact of the risorgimento of the 19th century well into the 20th century. In brief, it was the notion of the rebirth of the long and dormant Italy, a nation not unified until 1870. Mussolini was an imitator. He imitated the poet, dramatist, irredentist agitator Gabriele D'Annunzio and took inspiration from Giuseppe Mazzini, one of the leaders of the risorgimento. Post WWI Italy was a deeply fractured country, with high unemployment, poverty, and the deep chasm between North and South. Thus Mussolini captured the opportunity in a country where liberal democracy was in retreat.

Clayton's concluding points are on the mark. And I do hope that we learn from history, as you state. But it's essential not to violate history in order to serve today's political agenda. The threat to freedom in America today comes from a government which wants to violate the religious conscience of its citizens. That freedom was established by the Founding Fathers.
Marie Rehbein | 10/28/2012 - 11:32am
Gabriel #9,

Please explain what you mean when you say Facism was not new.  It is my understanding that Facism, with a capital "F", is credited to Mussolini.  Perhaps you mean that some of the ideas brought together and called Facism were not new, which of course is how these things go; ideas do congeal, rather than erupt spontaneously.

I am sure than those citizens of Italy who were not interested in ideas about governing would not have welcomed Facism, but I do imagine that had Facist policies not intruded upon their day to day experiences, they would not have opposed it either.

We learn from history.  This is why, when a politician proposes policies, and especially when policies are enacted that suggest a loss of freedom is impending, we need not wait until we are seriously oppressed before we object.
J Cosgrove | 10/27/2012 - 10:45pm
Mussolini was born a socialist, bred a socialist, was one of the leaders of the Italian socialist movement and died a socialist.  To say he squashed the socialist in Italy is misleading.  He was just establishing a new form of statist government and had to eliminate his opposition on the left as well as elsewhere.  The term Duce came from his activities as an organizer for the Italian Socialist party.  He modeled his fascist movement on nationalism as opposed to an international movement and proceeded in a different direction than did the traditional socialists who wanted the government to operate everything or the syndicalist who wanted the unions to control everything.  Mussolini's form of control was corporatism which approached the problems of labor from a different perspective but still kept economic production under the control of the state as it was under traditional socialism or the syndicalists.

He was the darling of the left in the world into the 1930's as a line from one of the most popular songs of 1934, You're the Top, indicated his popularity

You're the top!
You're the Great Houdini!
You're the top!
You are Mussolini!
Big government whether democratic, socialist or any other form will eventually lead to limited freedom of its citizens because it controls too much of the means of production.  It will never be run in the interest of its citizens.  It may theoretically start out that way but because it controls too much economic power it eventually leads to a form of government that is guided by the desires of those who control the government not the governed.
Marie Rehbein | 10/27/2012 - 9:57am
Facism was new and welcomed back in Mussolini's day.  They thought it was the answer to their problems.  I wouldn't draw the conclusion that we are not vulnerable to changes in our government that look like the answer and turn out to deprive us of our freedom.  I think passing laws that set the precendent that government gets to monitor what happens in women's wombs is one of these problematic "answers".
Gabriel Marcella | 10/27/2012 - 1:59pm
Let's not revise history to serve the purposes of current politics. Fascism was not new, it had deep roots in Italian history and political culture and merged with the maladies of WWI and the 1920s. It also included a deal with the King, whom the Italians would later reward by abolishing the monarchy after WWII. Nor was Fascism welcomed by all Italians. If it had been so, the squadristi would not have needed to apply their thuggery (including murder) to the opposition. Moreover, Italians didn't accept Fascism's regimentation. In this respect see the magisterial book by R.J.B. Bosworth, Mussolini's Italy: Life Under the Fsacisst Dictatorship, 1915-145.
Gabriel Marcella | 10/27/2012 - 9:38am
Fascism resulted from various factors: WWI, economic troubles, the weakening of democratic institutions, and nationalism.  Any similarities between now and then are likely to be superficial, but we must be constantly attentive to protecting the democratic rules of the game. A wise man once said that democracy's problems can only solved by more democracy.
ed gleason | 10/26/2012 - 2:22pm
Forget bully boys.  Berlusconi getting four years for tax fraud tells us even big money does not prevail. If Obama wins in the next 11 days the conservative stance will need a complete makeover because their demographic is shrinking rapidly. and their money advantage is for naught. . Recall the hundreds of millions down the drain in GOP ads in Ca. two years ago. Whitman Governor try spent 130 million for ziltch.  
ed gleason | 10/26/2012 - 9:24pm
Tom... Canada? (-:
David Smith | 10/26/2012 - 2:06am
I agree with Stanley that freedom is becoming less real. Governments - any governments - exist to exert power.  Power is what drives politicians hardest and best. We're becoming a police state by degrees. And the frog is content in the warming water.

George Orwell was right, you know. For him, it was probably obvious.  It should be even more glaringly obvious to us now, sixty years later. But it's not.  When change happens slowly, as it amost always does, it's almost imperceptible. Prophets are ignored - or read for amusement.

Of course, nothing's inevitable, but the noose keeps getting tighter. The drone phenomenon is chilling, as was our Nobel Peace Prize president's interrupting television broadcasts to brag that he'd just killed a man. The PATRIOT Act is still there, big and bad as ever.
T BLACKBURN | 10/26/2012 - 5:21pm
Ed Gleason, I know you are delilghted with the outlook for Nov. 6 and ignoring the polls, but take a closer look at Berlusconi. He kept getting elected by voters until he was replaced by an economist appointed by bankers. What does that do for Italian democracy - or Greek democracy where basicallly the same conditrion prevails. Or Spain, where it is about to prevail. Democracy is going away from a country near you soon.
Stanley Kopacz | 10/25/2012 - 10:28pm
I think our freedom is becoming more illusory.  They won't ban the other party because they don't have to.  It's the other sockpuppet.
T BLACKBURN | 10/26/2012 - 6:32am
With the first two commenters, I too think the last sentence of this post is too sanguine. A new Mussolini wouldn't need as many bully boys, except around the edges. He would need lots of money - obviously available - and media skills, which are widespread.

But, in regard to Mr. Smith's criticism of power, it is too sweeping. There is power for good as well as for evil. There is a difference between politicians who seek power to do good and politicians who seek power because it is there. Maybe we voters aren't very good at telling the difference, but we seem to be electing and nominating a lot of the latter lately,