Mussolini Speaks, and Tells Us How Democracy Dies

A new novel about the rise of fascism, written from Il Duce’s perspective, has lessons for our fragile political system.

Photomontage of Mussolini and crowds
Adam Maida / The Atlantic; Getty

When Benito Mussolini founded, on March 23, 1919, the organization that would become the National Fascist Party, Italy’s top newspaper relegated the news to a blurb, roughly the same space devoted to the theft of 64 cases of soap. That’s where Antonio Scurati’s novel M: Son of the Century starts. It ends on January 3, 1925, the date commonly considered the beginning of Mussolini’s authoritarian reign, when he claimed responsibility for the murder of the Socialist lawmaker Giacomo Matteotti. By then, Il Duce had already been the prime minister of Italy for two years, and violent repression of the opposition was rampant, but it was the first time he owned up to it as the head of government, throwing off the mask. “If fascism has been a band of criminals, I am the leader of this criminal band,” he boasted to Parliament. The lawmakers cheered.

M: Son of the Century is the tale of how democracy can die to the sound of such thunderous applause. And, among its insights, it points to an unlikely enabler for Mussolini’s rise: the liberal establishment, the educated urban elite who assumed that they could control the rabble-rousing leader for their own ends.

The book is an ambitious exploration of the rise of fascism in Italy. It’s a self-styled “documentary novel,” a phrase used in a note in the original Italian edition to stress that all characters and events are based on historical documentation. And while this is largely true of Scurati’s technique, the book’s most interesting feature is the liberty he takes to venture into the mind of Mussolini himself.

The reader follows the titular M, experiencing from his perspective both his engineered grasp of power and the miscalculations of his opponents. Other members of Mussolini’s inner circle get close-ups as well, such as his lover and mentor Margherita Sarfatti and the party’s hitman Amerigo Dùmini. In these pages, the Fascisti transform from a group on the margins with slightly socialist leanings into the violent, long arm of an effort to squash the surging power of the left at a revolutionary moment in Europe. Much of the book covers the squadrismo agrario, the campaign of terror unleashed by Fascist militias against poor farmers trying to unionize.

M: Son of the Century was a literary and political sensation in Italy, winning the country’s major book prize. Many readers viewed it as a cautionary tale about the nation’s current vulnerability to authoritarianism, especially because it came out in 2018, when the far right was on the rise (a sequel was published in 2020, a third and fourth volume are in the works, and, naturally, a TV adaptation will start filming next year). The critic Luca Mastrantonio called it a “literary inoculation” against “new populisms.”

For readers in the United States, the lessons will feel poignant as well. Translated into English by Anne Milano Appel, the book illustrates how a ruling class, embodied by Italy’s Liberal Party, was complicit in bringing Mussolini to power. It makes an interesting case study at a time when elites across the democratic world tend to think of themselves as a bulwark against populist, antidemocratic forces.

Scurati wrote his novel, he says, largely in response to the fading of a certain postwar consensus, one that perceived fascism as the ultimate evil. This shift has opened the gates to a nostalgic far right previously kept at bay, but it has also, ironically, allowed a novelist to explore the regime from within—which would have been nearly taboo decades ago—rather than from the viewpoint of its victims. “I wanted to do something to rebuild anti-fascism and its democratic principles on new foundations,” Scurati told me in a telephone interview. “I wanted the reader to have a strengthened repulsion of fascism, but at the end of the book, not at the beginning.”

This intent is evident from the novel’s structure, a mosaic of short chapters, each dedicated to a single historical event. Mussolini is depicted as a brute—at one point, he describes the prostitutes he often visits as “flesh and blood urinals”—and a ruthless tactician, devoid of any belief or ideology, but with a special talent for capitalizing on chaos: “We fire out ideas we do not have, then immediately sink back into silence.”

Scurati apportions guilt for Mussolini’s rise to a wide swath of Italy’s interwar society. The Socialists, the Catholics, the press, all appear here as democratic forces that were either too fainthearted or too shortsighted to stop Mussolini. But the shortcoming that shocks the most is that of the borghesia liberale, the liberal bourgeoisie, imbued with 19th-century ideals—a love of nation, individualism, and an economy free of government intervention. This ruling class had dominated the largely poor and illiterate country since its national unification as a modern state in 1861.

But, as historians have pointed out, the gradual introduction of universal male suffrage following World War I had scared this old guard, who felt threatened by the new spirit of populism, most pronounced on the left. Antonio Salandra, a senior Liberal politician who later supported Mussolini, put it succinctly: “Liberalism was overwhelmed by democracy.”

Even if Mussolini’s movement eventually gained traction with the popular masses, an electoral alliance with these elites allowed him into Parliament in the first place. When the Fascist Party first ran for general elections, in 1919, it didn’t get any seats. For the following elections, in 1921, it formed a joint list with the Liberal Union, obtaining 19 percent of the votes and placing third. By the time Mussolini launched his infamous March on Rome, in 1922, prompting the king to nominate him prime minister, his Liberal allies were mostly on board.

In Scurati’s account, this establishment is drawn into Mussolini’s arms by a combination of myopia and fear. On one hand, the bourgeoisie felt their world sinking; on the other, they deluded themselves into thinking that Mussolini would stop the wave of violence he had launched, if only they appeased him. Their plan, Scurati writes, was “to curb fascist lawlessness, considered a passing phenomenon, by tethering it to the constitutional arch.” But Mussolini had a “counterplan: to stir up disorder to show that only he can remedy it. Unleash the squadristi with one hand and then rein them in with the other.”

A commonly held view is that Liberals sided with Fascists to stop the meteoritic rise of Socialists. But that’s only part of the story. The 1919 elections, the first in which all adult males had the right to vote, marked the true beginning of public participation in Italian politics. It also resulted in the sudden ascent of another populist party, a Catholic movement called Popolari, that placed second. Unlike the Socialists, some of whom were admirers of the Communist revolution in Russia, the Popolari were hardly an insurrectionist force. And yet the Liberals felt almost equally threatened by them, both because they saw a religious party as a danger to the secular state and because it gave a voice to the lower classes in some rural areas.

Scurati is approaching this tension as a novelist—and a fictional interpretation is of course an exaggeration of historical reality, no matter how grounded by documentation—but seeing these events from Mussolini’s perspective gives him access to an essential truth about this crucial hinge moment: that the Liberals feared the people, and this fear could easily be taken advantage of. “Liberals sided with Mussolini because they saw fascism as an antidote against mass parties,” Giovanni Dessì, a professor of the history of political thought at Tor Vergata University of Rome, told me. “They were a political class of intellectual elites; the last thing they wanted was that the masses could start participating in the res publica.”

The borghesia liberale of 1920s Italy was, of course, very different from the liberal elites of contemporary democracies. But the group’s grievances echoed the lamentations that still resurface, in some circles, whenever popular elections produce what today’s elites consider nefarious outcomes. Think of the reactions to Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, which prompted commentators such as Andrew Sullivan to wonder, as the headline of his article on the latter’s campaign put it, whether “democracies end when they are too democratic,” and popularized theses like that of the philosopher Jason Brennan, who advocated granting more political representation to the knowledgeable (his book Against Democracy came out after Brexit but before Trump).

As Scurati dramatizes, Liberals thought they could use Mussolini to restore order but ended up fostering even more chaos. They thought they could incorporate Mussolini into the liberal order, but they found themselves incorporated into fascism instead. As Mussolini said in both real life and Scurati’s novel, “We will absorb liberals and liberalism because by the use of violence we have buried all previous methods.”

By Antonio Scurati

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.