Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was named after three revolutionary heroes. The name Benito--a Spanish name, as opposed to the Italian equivalent, Benedetto--was inspired by Benito Juarez, the Mexican revolutionary turned president who not only toppled the emperor Maximilian but had him executed. The other two names were inspired by now-forgotten heroes of anarchist-socialism, Amilcare Cipriani and Andrea Costa.My word, that's a lot of typing. I don't think I'll do it again; my aged eyes are feeling the strain. But it was necessary, I think. Too many people, when told that fascism is only national socialism and not a thing of the right at all, not conservatism run amok, respond by suggesting that perhaps the fascists, claiming to be socialists, didn't know what they were talking about, or were just saying that they were socialists. Mussolini's life, I think, demonstrates otherwise. If Mussolini didn't know what a socialist was, probably nobody in Italy, perhaps no one in Europe, did. It is very clear: Mussolini did not believe that he'd abandoned socialism for a different political ideology. He believed he was championing a better, more practical, more achievable version of that same ideology. He was a socialist, a creature of the left, and fascism is a creature of the left. The word itself, "fascism," has its origins in this time frame, that is to say, this is when fascism, properly speaking, was born. It is not something that existed throughout the ages; it has a birthday and a birthplace. I know it seems to some like I am hammering the point too hard, but it must be done. Fascism has nothing to do with the political right, if by "political right" you mean all the varying stripes of conservatism. It was born out of socialism, most especially Italian socialism; it is socialism's child, socialism's mutant child, if you like. It is all yours, Leftists--and by "Left," I do not mean your run-of-the-mill slightly left-of-center liberal, but the hard-core Left--like it or not, you own the phenomenon, you spawned it, you defined it, and dadgummit, you champion its offspring to this very day. And all the while you try to fool yourselves and others into believing that it has something, anything to do with conservatism. You seem to compelled to blind yourself to the reality that it's not merely Stalin's murders that are on the Left's conscience, Hitler's are, too.
Mussolini's father, Alessandro, was a blacksmith and ardent socialist with an anarchist bent who was a member of the First International along with Marx and Engles and served on the local socialist council. Alessandro's "[h]eart and mind were always filled and pulsing with socialistic theories," Mussolini recalled. "His intense sympathies mingled with [socialist] doctrines and causes. He discussed them in the evening with his friends and his eyes filled with light." On other nights Mussolini's father read him passages from Das Kapital. When villagers brought their horses to Alessandro's shop to be shod, part of the price came in the form of listening to the blacksmith spout his socialist theories. Mussolini was a congenital rabble-rouser. At the age of ten, young Benito led a demonstration against his school for serving bad food. In high school he called himself a socialist, and at the age of eighteen, while working as a substitute teacher, he became the secretary of a socialist organization and began his career as a left-wing journalist.
Because Mussolini trifled with men's wives, owed money, enraged the local authorities, and was approaching the age of conscription, he found it wise to flee Italy in 1902 for Switzerland, then a European Casablanca for socialist radicals and agitators. he had two lire to his name when he arrived, and, he wrote to a friend, the only metal rattling in his pocket was a medallion of Karl Marx. There he fell in with the predictable crowd of Bolshevists, socialists, and anarchists, including such intellectuals as Angelica Balabanoff, a daughter of Ukrainian aristocrats and a longtime colleague of Lenin's. Mussolini and Balabanoff remained friends for two decades, until she became the secretary of the Comintern and he became a socialist apostate, that is, a fascist.
Whether Mussolini and Lenin actually met is the subject of some controversy. However, we know that they were mutual admirers. Lenin would later say that Mussolini was the only true revolutionary in Italy, and according to Mussolini's first biographer, Margherita Sarfatti (a Jew and Mussolini's lover), Lenin also later said, "Mussolini? A great pity he is lost to us! He is a strong man, who would have led our party to victory."
While in Switzerland, Mussolini worked quickly to develop his intellectual bona fides. Writing socialist tracts wherever he could, the future Duce imbibed the lingo of the international European left. He wrote the first of his many books while in Switzerland, Man and Divinity, in which he railed against the Church and sang the praises of atheism, declaring that religion was a form of madness. The Swiss weren't much more amused with the young radical than the Italians had been. He was regularly arrested and often exiled by various cantonal authorities for his troublemaking. In 1904 he was officially labeled an "enemy of society." At one point he considered whether he should work in Madagascar, take a job at a socialist newspaper in New York, or join other socialist exiles in the leftist haven of Vermont (which fills much the same function today).
After Mussolini's return to Italy (and a time in Austria) his reputation as a radical grew slowly but steadily until 1911. He became the editor of La lotta di classe (Class War), which served as the megaphone of the extremist wing of the Italian Socialist party. "The national flag is for us a rag to be planted in a dunghill," he declared.
Mussolini was sentenced to a year in prison, reduced on appeal to five months. He emerged from prison as a socialist star. At his welcoming banquet a leading socialist, Olindo Vernocchi, declared: "From today you, Benito, are not only the representative of the Romagna Socialists but the Duce of all revolutionary socialists in Italy." This was the first time he was called "Il Duce" (the leader), making him the Duce of Socialism before he was the Duce of Fascism.
Using his newfound status, Mussolini attended the Socialist congress in 1912 at a time when the national party was bitterly split between moderates who favored incremental reform and radicals who endorsed more violent measures. Throwing in his lot with the radicals, Mussolini accused two leading moderates of heresy. Their sin? They'd congratulated the king on surviving an attempted assassination by an anarchist. Mussolini could not tolerate such squishiness. Besides, "What is a king anyway except by definition a useless citizen?" Mussolini joined the formal leadership of the party and four months later took over the editorship of its national newspaper, Avanti!, one of the most plum posts in all of European radicalism. Lenin, monitoring Mussolni's progress from afar, took note approvingly in Pravda.
Had he died in 1914, there's little doubt that Marxist theorists would be invoking Mussolini as a heroic martyr to the proletarian struggle. He was one of Europe's leading radical socialists in arguably the most radical socialist party outside of Russia. Under his stewardship, Avanti! became close to gospel for a whole generation of socialist intellectuals, including Antonio Gramsci. He also launched a theoretical journal, Utopia, named in tribute to Thomas More, whom Mussolini considered the first socialist. Utopia clearly reflected the influence of Georges Sorel's syndicalism on Mussolini's thinking.
[great big hairy snip]
From the moment Mussolini declared himself in favor of the war, Italian Socialists smeared him for his heresy. "Chi paga?" became the central question of the anti-Mussolini whisper campaign. "Who's paying him?" He was accused of taking money from arms makers, and it was hinted darkly that he was on France's payroll. There's no evidence for any of this. From the beginning, fascism was dubbed as right-wing not because it necessarily was right-wing but because the communist left thought this was the best way to punish apostasy (and, even if it was right-wing in some long forgotten doctrinal sense, fascism was still right-wing socialism). It has ever been thus. After all, if support for the war made one objectively right-wing, then Mother Jones was a rabid right-winger, too. This should be a familiar dynamic today, as support for the war in Iraq is all it takes to be a "right-winger" in many circles.
Mussolini on occasion acknowledged that fascism was perceived as a movement of the "right," but he never failed to make it clear that his inspiration and spiritual home was the socialist left. "You hate me today because you love me still," he told Italian Socialists. "Whatever happens, you won't lose me. Twelve years of my life in the party ought to be sufficient guarantee of my socialist faith. Socialism is in my blood." Mussolini resigned his editorship of AVanti! but he could never resign his love of the cause. "You think you can turn me out, but you will find I shall come back again. I am and shall remain a socialist and my convictions will never change! They are bred into my very bones."
Nevertheless, Mussolini was forced to quit the party organization. He joined up with a group of pro-war radicals called the Fascio Autonomo d'Azione Rivoluzionaria and quickly became their leader. Again, Mussolini had not moved to the right. His arguments for entering the war were made entirely in the context of the left and mirrored to no small extent the liberal and leftist arguments of American interventionists such as Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, and Walter Lippman. The war, he and his fellow apostates insisted, was against the reactionary Germans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a war to liberate foreign peoples from the yoke of imperialism and advance the cause of socialist revolution in Italy, a true "proletarian nation."
Mussolini founded a new newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia. The name itself--The People of Italy--is instructive because it illustrates the subtle change in Mussolini's thinking and the first key distinction between socialism and fascism. Socialism was predicated on the Marxist view that "workers" as a class were more bound by common interests than any other criteria. Implicit in the slogan "Workers of the world, unite!" was the idea that class was more important than race, nationality, religion, language, culture, or any other "opiate" of the masses. It had become clear to Mussolini that not only was this manifestly not so but it made little sense to pretend otherwise. If Sorel had taught that Marxism was a series of useful myths rather than scientific fact, why not utilize more useful myths if they're available? "I saw that internationalism was crumbling," Mussolini later admitted. It was "utterly foolish" to believe that class consciousness could ever trump the call of nation and culture. "The sentiment of nationality exists and cannot be denied." What was then called socialism was really just a kind of socialism: international socialism. Mussolini was interested in creating a new socialism, a socialism in one state, a national socialism, which had the added benefit of being achievable. The old Socialist Party stood in the way of this effort, and thus it was "necessary," Mussolini wrote in Il Popolo, "to assassinate the Party in order to save Socialism." In another issue he implored, "Proletarians, come into the streets and piazzas with us and cry: 'Down with the corrupt mercantile policy of the Italian bourgeoisie'...Long live the war of liberation of the peoples!"
I don't blame you, in a way, but I don't appreciate my political philosophy's track record being inaccurately conflated with that of yours.
Sorry if that's hard for some of you to swallow. Order the book here