I would describe my reaction to reading Mussolini: A Biography, by Denis Mack Smith with two words: shock and astonishment. How could a treatment of the political life (the author describes it as a “political” biography of Benito Mussolini) evoke such reactions? I mean, he’s been dead and documented for seventy years, right? Well, I never knew much about him or his reign, mostly because Hitler and the Nazis attract so much more attention and treatment in the media, but his story is indeed incredible.
I came to this book after reading Mack Smith’s biography of Cavour, and parts of his history of modern Italian politics, as preparation for visiting Turin and the Piedmont region. Cavour was the first prime minister of the newly united Italian state and was a count in the Piedmont region which dominated the new nation, and from which its constitutional monarch, Victor Emmanuel, came. Some readers of the biography of Mussolini complain that it lacks in-depth analysis of its subject, or the historical context, and this is true: at times it reads like a chronicle of choices made and statements uttered, and there is some significant repetition in his evaluation of these, but the simple chronology and recounting of events is itself so outlandish that it has tremendous value, I think.
Reading this biography, I have to doubt that I even understand something I thought was very clear: What is fascism? Or what was it? Certainly it has taken on a life of it’s own, down to the recent history of Chile and Argentina, to mention a few states, but when Mussolini invented it, coined its name, created its symbols, it was, as this book shows, simply a vehicle for him to gain power. Hitler, monstrous as he was, had a program that extended beyond himself: he saw a 1000 year Reich based on his hellish principles. Mussolini simply juggled about 100 balls at once, keeping them all in the air, so he could continue to rule – that was Fascism for him.
The incredibly detailed and notated biography reveals that Mussolini’s rule was based on several basic principles:
- Use violence to extort, intimidate, and sow chaos among enemies and neutral parties. Use it without stint, and keep an eye out for the opportunity to extract advantage. He did not deny his penchant for violence, he celebrated it as a central principle of fascism.
- Control the news completely: Mussolini started his political life as a journalist and newspaper operator, and to a great extent, his reign resembled that of a ruthless media tycoon who also happened to control an army of violent thugs willing to do his bidding.
- Divide and rule without reserve: Eventually, the Fascist party Mussolini himself created became a potential threat to his own power. He had no compunction at setting its members against one another to keep it as weak as he needed it.
- Abandon consistency: Perhaps this is the most truly astonishing part of Mussolini’s rule. The freedom with which he would contradict himself, often within a day, was incredible. He started as a revolutionary socialist, then he advocated corporate industrial control of society, later he went back to the socialist stance. It all depended on who he was trying to outmaneuver at the time, and since he controlled all the press, each contradictory expression would be reconciled with his other statements by judicious “erasures” within the archives.
With complete control of the press, comes the freedom to create the big lie. Italy has the greatest army in Europe, ten million men at arms (his generals knew that it had barely 1/10th that number), a major military defeat is trumpeted as a great victory, the train system is proclaimed the best in the industrialized world, running 100% on time (journalists from abroad noted, before they were ejected from the country for saying it, that the system was a shambles.)
His government was totally centralized in his own person, and he became increasingly remote from reality, surrounded by sycophants who posed no threat, and who were totally incompetent in their posts. Mussolini seems to have actively sought dullards and incompetents to appoint to positions of nominal power, but he rarely listened to them anyway. Many times he delivered himself of incorrect opinions on matters of economics or military import and refused to be corrected – that would diminish his prestige – even to the point of accepting awful terms in the negotiation of foreign treaties rather than backtrack. It was rule by an egomaniac “play-actor” backed up by vicious criminal gangs who made out while the gettin’ was good.
How did this gimcrack, ramshackle, jerry-rigged chaos come to run a modern state? The author’s explanation seems to be that two principle factors were at play in the post-WWI era that was threatening to many established regimes: Mussolini was some kind of a political genius; the liberal political establishment let him take power. He was brilliant at picking the right moment to act, ruthless in employing lies and violence, totally without scruple, principle, or consistency, other than in his drive for power, and he knew how to inspire loyalty. He was a demagogue, in other words. And the liberal bourgeois establishment, which could have destroyed him easily at many critical moments in his rise to power, feared him less than the communists, a familiar story. Like Hitler, he too was voted into power, a fact which annoyed him greatly as he felt it was more proper for a fascist leader to seize power with violence. But he was willing to live with that… Even when Mussolini was still only member of parliament and was personally implicated in a murder of a prominent opponent, the dominant establishment parties dealt lightly with him. They sat and listened as he insulted and harangued them in speeches, even as his party members instigated fights on the parliament floor. They were utterly exhausted as a political class, and this was both a cause, and a rallying cry of the Fascist ascendancy.
Needless to say, once he was in power, the industrial interests were happy to connive with him in his program, confident that his outlandish plans for the economy would never be implemented, the case with most of his pronunciamentos. As Mack Smith frequently notes, the actual effect of his proposals and pronouncements was not so important; to keep those balls flying in the air, the appearance was all that mattered.