Ho, Lictors, Clear the Way! Fascismo and the Fascisti

I

FASCISM and the Fascisti have so long and so completely dominated the life of the nation that it has been almost impossible to consider or discuss anything else. In the early days of October, however, another subject crept into the columns of the newspapers — the possibility of a return to war-bread, that unwholesome necessity of Italy’s hard times, the taste of which is still in our mouths, the effect still in the insides of some of us. The warbread discussion lasted but a few days; Fascism held its newspaper columns just as it held the offices or headquarters of all organizations throughout the country with which it disagreed. And now it holds the State. Yet it is only an event, striking and of vast importance, but an event in the life of the country; whereas, in his suggestion of the possibility of a return to war-bread, the Treasury Minister pointed to the beginning and ending and centre of that life. Italy’s problem is not so much political or social as it is economic. Fascism, moreover, has recognized that fact.

Incidentally, one may recall, though not many realized it, that Italy’s problem was economic in May 1915. By the people at large, certainly, the fact was not fully realized; it was sentiment, the indefinable impulse which carries away whole peoples at times, — sentiment of patriotism and of sympathy, — which urged them into war. But the economic side of the question was really of far greater moment. The war showed us, if we had not realized it clearly enough before, that in order to live at all Italy must import many necessaries, first among them coal and wheat. Neutral, she would not have been able to import a ton of either. The inevitable result would have been unemployment, starvation, revolution, and the end of all things. But that by the way.

The Fascisti are the after-war successors of the war-time Fascio of National Defense, which arose to combat anti-war and anti-Ally propaganda in Italy, and to keep the spirit of the people high. But a beginning of the Fascist movement, or at least of the Fascist idea, in Rome itself, can be traced to an incident which occurred some months before the war broke out. The present movement arose to fight extreme Socialism, threatening Communism; the movement of the spring of 1914 had the same object; in itself it was a tiny thing, but it was significant, prophetic.

At that time Italy was upset by a railway strike. There was real trouble for ten days. In the Ravenna district, little ‘republics’ proclaimed themselves; one of them took prisoner a general who had gone out incautiously to see what was happening. In Rome all the big squares which might be used as meeting-places were occupied by troops; all approaches to the central Piazza Colonna and streets near the Post Office were barred. Shops were shut; there were things resembling barricades; cavalry charged with drawn swords into crowds. There were casualties — one fatal.

One afternoon a dozen young men issued from the National Liberal Club in Via Tritone with a flag, and started to walk through the city, telling the people it was time to put an end to it, to open their shops, to put the flag of Italy out from their windows. In ten minutes the twelve were a hundred, in half an hour, a thousand; when they had finished their tour round the city, they were anything from ten to twenty thousand, with a band and a hundred flags, and the soldiers standing wearily on duty cheering as they passed. The Chamber of Labor, which was sitting permanently, directing the strike, came out to have a look at things and having looked sent out word that the strike was over. It was over, all over, killed by the initiative of a dozen young men, backed by the good sense of the people. That was how Fascism began in Rome.

Fascism — the dozen young men of the afternoon walk down the Via Tritone — has now, some say over half a million, some say two million, officially enrolled members. It has a complete military organization and disciplinary regulations by which it can put an ‘ army ’ into the field at a given spot at a given moment. Rome has had an opportunity recently to realize the truth of this.

It is a syndical organization, too. It is impossible, again, to estimate how many members of Socialist and other workingmen’s syndicates, and associations of all sorts, have now passed under the Fascisti flag. Months ago they were reckoned at 70,000; but since then opposition to Fascist penetration has grown less and less; transference of allegiance has followed frequently, almost as a matter of course. The Fascisti have, for instance, now definitely broken the iniquitous Socialist domination of the Italian ports.

Lastly, the Fascisti are a political organization; and it is in the political field that the difficulty of the situation has been outwardly apparent. They have but three dozen members in a Chamber of 538, and they claimed that under existing conditions that was absurd. They said, in fact, that it was they, — not the Liberals, Socialists, Democrats, Communists, Populars, or anyone else, — it was they, the Fascisti, who represented the country. They pointed out that if their contention was not accepted they were in a position to bring out an army to prove its justice. They pointed to numerous occasions, from important socio-political events to such things as the immediate relief of the sufferers from the Spezia explosion, when government action was needed, but was not seen, and the Fascisti did the work. Some of them went so far as to sum up presentday conditions: ‘There is no State; we are the State, at any rate when there is anything for the State to do.’ They said that a situation in which they, who really represented the country, had no official share or influence in its government, was abnormal, and while they were not until lately unanimous, and no one of their leaders, in fact, could define the remedy that ought to be adopted, something, they all said quite definitely, must be done: immediate elections; reform of the proportional representation provisions of the existing law, which makes the formation of a stable government impossible; adoption meanwhile of a preponderant Fascist element in the government — something.

In the little Roman episode of the spring of 1914, the dozen young men appealed, not to a class or party, but to the people, to the good sense of the whole population. Recognition of that mass of public opinion is essential to an understanding of conditions here; recognition of it by would-be reformers in a hurry would have saved the country much loss and suffering of late, for here, as elsewhere, it is irresistible. ‘Revolution in Italy’ — that excellent newspaper heading — was flying all over the world at the end of 1919 and in 1920, the days of the seemingly overpowering ascent of the Socialist parabola, which culminated in the occupation of the factories and then wavered, stopped, fell, and has been falling ever since.

There were some here who knew that a moment must come when the good sense of the Italian people would be aroused, as in Rome on that afternoon in the spring of 1914, and its invisible but invincible strength would break the mad movement. When the Chamber of Deputies, with its 156 Socialists, was assembling, in November 1919, there were two atmospheres: that of excited, sometimes frightened whispering inside the Chamber, that of enthusiastic cheering in the streets outside, as the King drove down from the Quirinal. The first was interesting, but fictitious; the second instructive, actual.

Such as had listened to the Italian, the Roman, in the street, not in the Chamber, were not afraid of revolution when the ‘frenzied drunkenness’ of would-be Communism reached its culminating point months later. Undeniably that was a bad moment in the history of the country. Worse than the episodes of brutal crime was the realization that for the moment authority was powerless. To mobilize the forces of the State against the revolutionaries — the existence of a certain number of people revolutionarily inclined does not. mean that there is a revolution — would have meant civil war. The alternative was to wait for the movement to die down. That was what Giolitti did, using meanwhile all the political arts of which he is a past master. The beginning of the end was the decision of the General Labor Federation against the extremist policy of the Communist leader-agitators. The Federation represents, and is in touch with, the workingman; he is in touch with the general mass of the Italian people; and it was, in the long run, the condemnation of the people that killed the Communist madness.

From that moment the Socialist parabola began to fall; now it is at a very low level. The party first rid itself of the frankly Communist element, then split into two fairly evenly divided parts — collaborationists and abstentionists: those who, while not forgetting their ideal, will use, will even coöperate with, the powers that be, in order to gain actual advantages for the proletariat; and those who will not touch what they call borghesia — capitalism — at any price. Pure theorists these; practicalists, the others. And it is the practicalist, the opportunist as his opponents call him, who is on the upgrade now.

Socialism in Italy has ruined itself momentarily by its excess. As an idea, a theory, a political doctrine expounded by a political party within the orbit of the Constitution, it had its established place, with its handful of deputies in Parliament. When, in a mad moment, Italian Socialism developed into a Communism foreign to the spirit and good sense of the nation, the latter rose and killed the intruder, and Communism dragged down the parent Socialism in its fall. It may recover more quickly than would seem probable after such a remarkable disintegration; in any case it would be the greatest mistake in the world to regard it as dead. The Socialist idea will always live in Italy, and every living idea finds its political expression here.

II

The actual instrument of its downfall was the emblem of authority of the Lictors of the old Roman Republic, the bundle of rods, the Fasces, — Fascio in the modern vernacular, — the group of a dozen young men of the spring of 1914, developing into the group of National Defense of war-time, and the party, with its triple organization and activity, by which Italy suddenly was confronted.

Its origin is well known, and was excellent. It was the expression of the reaction of the nation when Socialism overstepped due bounds. Locally, for two years, Communists and Fascisti fought, and the latter won. As their superiority became apparent, individual members of workingmen’s organizations transferred their allegiance to the winning side; and this infiltration of irresponsible, sometimes unprincipled, elements did the movement much harm. There was little to choose between Fascist excesses and those which in the beginning they had set out to suppress. In the beginning, the authority of the State had been glad of their assistance; had, indeed, used them. As time went on, however, it saw itself impotent to check the local episodes of civil war between the two sides. When the preponderance of the Fascisti became absolute, and not only individuals but entire organizations transferred their allegiance, it came to be true to say that Fascism and the State were standing face to face.

The situation could not but be temporary. In the long run, it is the good sense of the w hole people that will prevail; for that is stronger than any party movement, even if it be, as Signor Mussolini describes the Fascist movement, political, syndical, military, and religious at the same time. To gain popular support, Fascism must shed its excesses, revert to its excellent origins; then only will the last state of Italy be better than the first.

It seemed possible that, just as some blood spurted when — to use a homely simile — the Socialist boil burst, so in this instance there might be momentary trouble before Italy got back to normal. The Italian State might have produced a really big man to clear the situation by leading the nation, Fascism included, back to sanity — in the mens sana in corpore sano meaning of the word. Like so many other countries, Italy has many good men, but no one great man; thus the job of adjusting the situation fell on Fascism itself. And Fascism had its man — Signor Mussolini. With the remarkable demonstration at Naples, the situation began to develop. Signor Mussolini’s speech gave ground for hope that a constitutional solution would be found.

He declared definitely for the Monarchy, thus clearing the air of doubts to which his suggestion a year ago, of the ‘tendentially Republican’ nature of Fascism, had given rise. He said that the aim of the Fascisti was ‘to put into the “Liberal State,” which has done its work, — a great work which we shall never forget, — all the forces of the new generation of Italians emerging from the country’s war and victory.’ These and other reassuring sentiments more than balanced the awkward-sounding references to ‘force, which decides in the long run,’ and the somewhat abrupt propounding of the alternative that ‘Fascism will become the State, either legally through Parliament or through insurrection.’

Before a gathering such as that at Naples, — 30,000 Fascisti assuredly conscious of their organized strength, — such phrases were regarded as inevitable. Signor Mussolini, however, who has the reputation of being a serious thinker, must have known that any policy of ‘insurrection,’ even if sufficiently powerful to attain its object for the moment, would be faced by, and if it was to make good would have to satisfy, the public opinion of the nation as a whole. Also, he must have realized that while it is easy to criticize a government it is by no means so easy to direct the complicated machinery of a modern state. Communism here in 1920 thought that by occupying factories and killing anyone who stood in the way it could run industry. It soon found out its mistake. On the other hand, there is no Italian, except a few Communists (some of whom, by the way, have joined the Fascist movement solely, of course, to get what they can out of any disturbance that may arise), who, when he sees the power and energy of young Italy setting itself to assist, invigorate, rejuvenate the State, will not applaud and help.

Eighteen months ago there was a notable procession through the streets of Rome, of thousands of young Italians. They called themselves Fascisti; really they were just young Italy. And the people cheered them wholeheartedly.

Later, there were gatherings of others, who also called themselves Fascisti; but they were sinister beings, in black shirts with death’s-head devices, long hair flying in the wind (‘ to make myself more terrible,’ as one explained), marching, singing, shouting, as if Italy were theirs and they were Italy. These the Italian did not cheer: he distrusted them as wholeheartedly as he liked the others. Yet many of them were the same. If that was Italian Fascism, those rough elements and nothing else, then, it seemed, Fascism must inevitably fall, in the long run. On the other hand, if Fascism could slough the unnatural parade, and return to what it was, — the vigorous youth of Italy at the service of the country, — then its reward would be the people’s cheers, the consciousness in years to come of duty done. For it had it in its power to save the country by doing what the State, as at present managed, was powerless to do: it could check the country’s economic downward drift.

So we get back to the Treasury Minister’s suggestion of the possibility of a return to war-bread: it is on the economic side, above all, that the remedy has to be applied if it is to be efficacious.

III

Events moved quickly after Naples. Fascism chose its course. It refused political alliances: it would govern the country unhampered. There must be a Mussolini Ministry. Official Italy wavered weakly, with a pretense of strength; the country’s course was chosen for it by its King; he refused to sign the proclamation for the state of siege, invited Signor Mussolini to form a ministry and take over the government of the country. So Fascism, its leader at the King’s call, its army marching in without bloodshed, took Rome, Italy. And now, looking back on the tumultuous days, Rome recognizes that the King was right.

Rome sees so much of politics that it is often ignorant of facts. It had not realized the strength and solidity of the Fascist movement until it saw that unending, grim, silent, armed, organized, disciplined procession — march is the better word — through the straight length of the narrow Corso to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, thence to the Quirinal, where for long hours the King stood at salute to the cheering homage of his volunteer, utterly illegal, army, fifty thousand strong, with rifles, revolvers, and machine guns; thence to the station, to entrain, as trains could be got ready, for home in every part of Italy. It was not until Rome saw the fifty thousand that it got an idea of the million or more adherents that it did not see.

Secondly, that afternoon Fascism seemed to have shed the unnatural parade which had been making Romans nervous. You might have met in the streets that morning an individual with hair flying, black shirt adorned with a death’s-head device, two revolvers and a stabbing knife stuck into a crammed ammunition-belt; but you did not see him, or at least notice him, in the afternoon. And Rome has been so impressed by the phenomenon of the afternoon that it has almost forgotten its nervousness at the sight of the individual of the morning; it has, in fact, agreed quite cheerfully to follow its King, and give Signor Mussolini a free hand. Now that the insurrection — or the revolution; Fascisti have used both words — is over, one may say that the Prime Minister has the feeling of the Italian people generally with him, in his determination to reorganize the life of the country.

His detailed programme was announced in Parliament last November; an outline of it was given at the first full Council of Ministers, and it showed his thoughts running on the same lines with those of the Treasury Minister who suggested the possibility of a return to war-bread. That particular economic item was dropped almost as soon as suggested. The cost of bureaucratic supervision, added to the necessary replacement for live stock of the by-products which the people would have been consuming, would have balanced any gain accruing from diminished importation of grain. But Signor Mussolini was seen to be in agreement with the Minister who had made the suggestion in the view that it is the economic side of Italy’s life that matters. The Government, he said, will govern.

Every prime minister of late has said that first, immediately on taking office; has promised that the authority of the State shall prevail; but not one of them has been able to keep his promise. Signor Mussolini, having overthrown extreme Socialism, being himself the leader of Fascism, and determined to extricate the Government from the web of bureaucracy, has made an opening for himself to succeed where his predecessors have failed. He will simplify government by abolishing such ministries and departments as are not doing paying work: that is a much-needed purification of administration, but it is economy first of all. He will hand over by degrees to private enterprise state undertakings, such as railways, posts, telegraphs, and telephones, which are being run at a loss (that on the railways amounts to a billion and a quarter lire per annum) — economy again. He will abolish the vexatious state regulations hampering emigration — economy again: the home country will have fewer unemployed mouths to fill, more remittances from its people earning foreign gold. He will restore confidence to capital, and give industry a chance, by doing away with the proposal of past administrations to have all bonds registered, instead of payable to bearer — economy again. And the lictors’ rods and axe will hew into the unwholesome jungle of bureaucracy grown up since young Italy in the making took over ready-made systems of government, administration, judiciary, for which it was not ripe; bureaucracy fostered by prime ministers for their personal political aims, and slowly choking the country. Purification again, but always economy.

There is a deficit of about six billion lire on the 1921-22 budget. It should have been less. It was estimated at about four billions, but the late government was not strong enough to resist pressure from every quarter of Parliament — particularly from those who had been preaching economy most vociferously — for subsidies for favored classes. The new Treasury Minister hopes to wipe off this deficit in two years. The deficit is about twenty-five per cent on a total expenditure of twenty-five billions. If we look back to the first days of United Italy, after the 1866 fighting, which gave the Venetian Province to the new kingdom, already in possession of the rest of the peninsula except the ‘Patrimony of Saint Peter,’ Rome and surroundings, we find the country faced with a fifty per cent deficit: receipts, 480,000,000 lire, expenditure 962,000,000. United Italy balanced its budget by 1875; and although another period of extravagant expenditure followed, resulting in a deficit of 120,000,000 as late as 1894, Sonnino, completing Quintino Sella’s work, soon brought things straight again, and the 1913-14 budget balanced at about two and a half billions.

If United Italy, exhausted as it was, could wipe off fifty per cent, Completed Italy can wipe off twenty-five. Taxation, indeed, has about reached the economic limit; but there is a proportionately far greater possibility of diminishing expenditure. And here lies the great economic opening for the new movement, — young Italy, — headed, not by a hide-bound, clique-bound politician, but by a determined man. It is beginning to be realized also that Signor Giolitti’s vindictive taxation of industry, while it brought in money at the moment, was not economically politic. It dried up the founts. Witness the unusual phenomenon in Italy of fifty thousand unemployed.

IV

On the economic side, the figures appear less promising. In pre-war times there was an adverse trade-balance, as between imports and exports, of about a million lire, which was made up by the arrival in the country of foreign gold, that brought by visitors and that sent in emigrants’ remittances. These cannot to-day fill the gap, which amounts to as much as fifty per cent: roughly, imports twenty millions, exports ten. Here Signor Mussolini cannot work a miracle; all he can do is give a lead. The country has got to go back four years, and begin again. Moreover, it has to make up for these past four years, during which it has been spending, not working, political passion has been running to excess, and there has been little or no real government.

Politically, during and ever since the Paris Conference, Italy has been a disgruntled country; the feeling has been general that she has not been fairly treated by her Allies and Associate. Subjectively, this state of mind has been largely responsible for excesses such as the Fiume enterprise — which, however, was backed by the inner feeling of the whole country, even if, objectively, the good sense of the vast majority saw its illegality and condemned it — and for the inertness of government and country, which made possible, first, the Socialist frenzy, which culminated in the occupation of the factories, and, secondly, the reaction expressed in Fascism, which, however, now has the opportunity, shedding its own excesses, to bring things back to normal. Old landmarks, old standards, old ideas, the old economy have been swept away, and, although the same thing has been occurring in other countries as well, Italy has been peculiarly unable to accommodate herself to the new.

Italy has suffered especially in the world-upset following the war because she had not had time since her formation, little more than fifty years before, to complete the process of ‘finding herself,’politically, financially, economically, when war broke out. Now she has the opportunity. The job is harder than it was before, but the necessity is seen. In that wide aspect, Fascism in its present development is at once a revolution and a blessing. Italy might have gone on drifting.

There is a tremendous lot to do here: more than in many other countries because of the leeway to be made up. There is a considerable amount of capital awaiting employment, but either held up on account of political uncertainty or put into unproductive enterprises. And all the old energy, especially labor power, which was Italy’s fortune in the past, is still available. For it must never be forgotten that the rise and growth of Italian industry in the period preceding the war was made possible solely through the existence here of cheap and abundant labor. Through that alone Italy was enabled to import the coal and raw material required.

A result of the war, and of the absolute dependence of governments on labor during the war, has been the artificial raising of standards. Every thinking man agrees that in many departments there was room for a rise; justice demanded it; but the economic law cannot in the long run be evaded. The uneconomic rise hit Italy far harder than other countries. Italy has to import, and at a high exchange, material and some machinery to build ships, — if she does not get them built abroad, paying at the same disadvantageous rate, — as well as coal to run them; and an artificiality by which at one time an Italian was getting more wages, rate of exchange considered, than an English sailor, cannot hold. And no longer now does an Italian peasant girl come on the land in silk stockings and highheeled shoes, removing them for her five or six hours’ leisurely work, for which she received as much pay as a magistrate.

These are just instances. Such attempted internationalization of labor standards must give way, if people are to work and live, before the economic law; and there are signs here that the latter is beginning to prevail. Many uneconomic industries, founded for the war, must go; many, indeed, have gone already; nor, in the future, will subvention from a weak government be available. Sound industries, on the other hand, — textiles, for instance, and the best among the metals and engineering, — were already showing signs of recovery before the Fascist coup, and now will gain further confidence. And the same amount of work that is now put into agriculture, Italy’s mainstay, guided and administered with up-to-date knowledge, methods, material, and appliances, can add fifty per cent to production, and a hundred per cent to financial results, if the many side avenues now neglected are explored and utilized.

V

Fascism has brought about a fusion of classes: patricians and plebs were side by side in that amazing march. It has the noble, the great landowner, the farmer, the industrial, the trader, and the workingman in industry and on the land, as well as the huge professional so-called middle class, who were being squeezed to death under the old administration and who are its patriotic backbone. And the subjective common spirit has engendered an objective desire to get to work for the country’s and for each individual’s good. Socialism is down, too; Communism is down and out; in a huge proportion of the workingmen, thus brought into touch with the employer, the spirit is now national, not party.

If Signor Mussolini has already got the good sense of the Italian people largely with him, it is because he seems to have discerned with a far-seeing eye what is wanted in the realm of actuality, and to be determined to go straight on to accomplish it. His system may seem dictatorial; but when we remember the inertness and weakness of late governments, when we note the signs already appearing of opposition on the part of political bureaucracy and intrigue, then his dictatorial symptoms are not surprising. He says that he is going to govern, and he has the means to do so.

It is an Augean task, and he himself may not be able to clean up the stable thoroughly; for in Italy no man stays in power very long. Giolitti’s twelve years of parliamentary dictatorship were achieved solely by political intrigue — which is what we are now abolishing. Mussolini’s merit, when his time comes, will be to have shown the way. How far he himself will have penetrated into and destroyed it will not matter if Young Italy will go on steadily. For if Fascism runs to excess, it will lose the support of the nation, without which it can do no good.

Signor Mussolini, then, is first of all going to govern. He must be able to do that to do anything at all. Then he is going to run the country on business lines. A foreign policy of dignified upholding of Italy’s due place in the comity of nations — with the claim that, in mutual coöperation for mutual interests, Allies and Associate should not turn the poorer partner down — will look to it that the reorganization shall afford her a chance and if need be assistance to recover along the lines which her special characteristics, lack of material but abundance of human wealth, suggest. At home, replacement of political bureaucratic by business management. No more unproductive grandiose monuments — Palaces of Justice all show and inconvenience, Chambers of Deputies which cost twenty times the original estimate, public works of all sorts which, having elected a deputy, then become as millstones.

Expenditure must be productive. Signor Mussolini does not ask for foreign loans, but he will welcome foreign aid for Italy’s development, giving at the same time adequate guaranties of stability of conditions and of tenure. That is a rock on which more than one proposal on the part of foreign enterprise has come to grief of late: business government can easily avoid the danger on which bureaucracy gets wrecked. Now that conditions look like being stable and straightforward, there are openings in connection with — to take one or two instances alone — railways, harbors, and above all the utilization of the abundant water-power, by which capital, provision and utilization of appliances, up-to-date methods, administrative experience from abroad, combined with Italian capital and manpower, unhindered by the old bureaucracy, may work miracles for the new Italy which Young Italy was envisaging when it ‘marched on Rome’ and through Rome, saluting its Unknown Soldier and its living King, in the fateful first days of November 1922.