Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini (29 July 1883 – 28 April 1945) was a man who made history his plaything. He is regarded as the father of fascism, but he is much more than just that. He for once and forever proved to the world, how easy it is to sway the minds of men and upset every form of control and governance just by the charisma and words spoken by one man. He was not just a fierce autocrat with no regard for constitutional rights and human justice, but an even fiercer orator who could infuriate the bloods of his audience with patriotism and violent action to secure it.
Let’s dig deeper into how the man evolved.
Mussolini always prided himself on his birth and childhood life. He loved to glorify himself as the son of a mere blacksmith, becoming a leader born from the common people. His father was a local blacksmith in a small town provincial life, and also an ardent socialist worker and a part time journalist. His grandfather was a lieutenant in the National Guard and his mother was a school teacher. His father inculcated him with his political views since the very beginning. He was named Benito after a liberal Mexican president and his middle names an ode to famous Italian socialists. His father exposed him to anarchist views combined with military authoritarianism and nationalism. His claims to a humble origin as a common man may not be well-founded, but his stories of poverty are true owing to his father’s excessive drinking and social activities including spending all his money for the upkeep of his mistress.
As a young child, Benito was said to be extremely restless, prone to violence and disobedience. His village school expelled him for being too much of a bully. There are reports of him stabbing his classmates over petty quarrels and he was packed off to complete his education in a boarding school run by Salesian monks. He completed his education being constantly thrown in and out various schools and hostels. He obtained a diploma in teaching and emigrated to Switzerland, partly in search of new life and partly to avoid military service. He spent his timein Switzerland, jumping from one job to another, reading widely on politics and history and being an active worker among the socialist circles. His reading is said to range from Friedrich Nietzsche to Georges Sorel. But as all Fascists tend to do, he seems to haveaccepted only those ideas that were acceptable to him and laid complete disregard for others. Inspite of all the vivid reading and observation he did, his mind seemed to have been shut to new ideals.
While in Switzerland, working with socialists, he began to garner attention as a potentialrevolutionary. Though he didn’t have any political ideals or innovation that can be claimedas his own, he managed to charm people with his oratory skill, even in the absence of any revolutionary content.Emphasis on the need for overthrowing decadent liberal democracy and capitalism by the use of violence, direct action, the general strike and the use of neo-Machiavellian appeals to emotion are few ideals that impressed Mussolini deeply. He started working with local newspaper and quickly started gaining fame as a journalist and an activist. He was arrested multiple times for propagating violence and finally deported to Italy.Mussolini returned to Italy in 1904, taking advantage of the amnesty issued for military desertions and continued promoting a socialist agenda. The following years he did extensive work for the socialists, across Italy and his fame kept on rising. He became a well-knownjournalist, published several essays and even a novel: The Cardinal’s Mistress, which was fiercely anticlerical and exhuming all his antichristian ideas. But funnily enough, the novel, co-authoredhimself, was pulled out of circulation by him when he came into power and entered into a treaty with Vatican. He labeled himself as a Marxist, working for the poor and engaged in an unending war to end the class struggle. He helped in the expulsion of socialists leaders that he termed as revisionists and for this he was awarded the editorship of the organization’s newspaper, Avanti, which expanded his influence.
However his split with socialism began with the World War. The socialist party was vastly divided on the stance it should take on the War. Where people saw bloodshed and all around destruction, Mussolini saw nationalism and Italian pride. The war was an opportunity for him in terms of national and personal ambitions.Mussolini initially held official support for the party’s decision and, in an August 1914 article, Mussolini wrote “Down with the War. We remain neutral.” He saw the war as an opportunity, both for his own ambitions as well as those of socialists and Italians. He was influenced by anti-Austrian Italian nationalist sentiments, believing that the war offered Italians in Austria-Hungary the chance to liberate themselves from rule of the Habsburgs. He eventually decided to declare support for the war by appealing to the need for socialists to overthrow the Hohenzollern and Habsburg monarchies in Germany and Austria-Hungary who he said had consistently repressed socialism. Mussolini further went on to say that the war will change the social situation of the nation and allow for a unification of all Italians and this will give wider base to promote the party’s agendas. The split within the party and his radical views eventually ended in him being expelled from the party.
Thus the National sentiments that rose up during the war ended Mussolini’s stunt with socialism and his worship of Karl Marx. He was motivated not just by the love for his motherland, but he saw war as a pristine opportunity to increase his own role as a leader of the people. He resigned from Avanti and was expelled from the Socialist Party. Financed by the French government and Italian industrialists, both of whom favored war against Austria, he assumed the editorship of The People of Italy , in which he unequivocally stated his new philosophy: “From today onward we are all Italians and nothing but Italians. Now that steel has met steel, one single cry comes from our hearts—Viva l’Italia!“. It was the birth cry of fascism. Mussolini went to fight in the war.
He returned from the war following injury and he returned as a complete antisocialist. He started propagating the idea that the need of the hour for Italy was a strong willed determined ruler who would whip the country back into its track of progress and unity.
The following year the nucleus of a party prepared to support his ambitious idea was formed in Milan. In an office in Piazza San Sepolcro, about 200 assorted republicans, anarchists, syndicalists, discontented socialists, restless revolutionaries, and discharged soldiers met to discuss the establishment of a new force in Italian politics. Mussolini called this force the fasci di combattiment. The name fascism is derived from the Latin –“fascis”, meaning bundle. The fasces are a bundle of rods strapped together around an axe. A symbol of authority in ancient Rome, it represented absolute, unbreakable power. Mussolini promised to recreate the glories of the Roman Empire in a movement that was nationalistic, anti-liberal, and antisocialist.
This marked one of the turning points in world history. What followed, paved way for rise and fall of numerous dictator and autocrats. Mussolini lit up the dark paths of mass manipulation and how to effectively control the emotion of a nation and suppress all forms of dissent. The techniques he used maybe crude but later years, several political parties and leaders have used this as a stepping stone to achieve their goals. His ideals have been fine tuned to perfection and the RSS we see in India is just a flawless imagery of this.
The ideological basis for fascism came from a number of sources. Mussolini utilized works of Plato, Georges Sorel, Nietzsche, and the economic ideas of Vilfredo Pareto, to develop fascism. Mussolini admired Plato’s The Republic, which he often read for inspiration. The Republic expounded a number of ideas that fascism promoted, such as rule by an elite promoting the state as the ultimate end, opposition to democracy, protecting the class system and promoting class collaboration, rejection of egalitarianism, promoting the militarization of a nation by creating a class of warriors, demanding that citizens perform civic duties in the interest of the state, and utilizing state intervention in education to promote the development of warriors and future rulers of the state.
The greater depths of fascist ideologies and how they were executed will be covered in the subsequent articles. For they draw parallel across wide number of movements and leaders. The same ideological elements are seen repeating in time and space in different variations. The coming chapters each will be dedicated to one portion of the common ideology and how it has been implemented throughout the history.