The liberal élite who by and large control our culture love to tell us that right-wing populism is a modern version of fascism and Giorgia Meloni a modern version of Benito Mussolini.
They have been quick to note that Meloni, 45, is about to become prime minister in Italy almost exactly 100 years after Mussolini, 49, did in October 2022. There must be some connection, they feel sure, above and beyond mere coincidence, or destiny.
Now, to say that Meloni and Mussolini are similar is quite absurd and most journalists must know that when they call Meloni far right, ergo fascist, as they always do, they are not just wrong but dishonest. Meloni is best defined not as a populist, a nebulous word with no clear meaning, but as a national conservative. When I interviewed her in Rome this summer she told me that if she were British she would be a Tory. She has no plans to demolish democracy, nor is any peroposal in her programme fascist.
Herd mentality, however, seems to operate like herd immunity. You get to a point where if enough people believe something then it must be true.
Mussolini was a revolutionary socialist who founded fascism in 1919 as a left-wing alternative to communism. The rising star of Italian socialism and editor of its newspaper Avanti! had been expelled from the party in 1914 because he opposed its policy that Italy should remain neutral in the First World War.
Instead, the future Duce felt that Italy must fight against Austria and Germany which it eventually did. Socialists must not wait for history – he thought - but make history, and such a war would help, not hinder, the revolution. As it did, in Italy, as elsewhere. The French and German socialist parties agreed with Mussolini and decided to fight for their countries against each other. This caused the collapse of the Second Socialist International and international socialism.
Fascism began as left-wing heresy against the Marxist creed and remained so at heart to the end - regardless of the far right tag attached to it after 1945 by a left desperate to avoid fascism and communism being treated as two sides of the same coin. When captured and shot at Lake Como by partisans in April 1945 along with his mistress Clara Petacci and diehard associates, those with him included his old friend Nicola Bombacci, a founder of the Italian communist party in 1921, who had been his close adviser in the last two years of the war. All communist revolutions would use the same nationalist blue-print as Mussolini's to seize and keep power. A classic example is the Cuban revolution in which the Patria and the cult of the leader played such a pivotal role. Mussolini's understanding of how to plan and execute a revolution was second to none.
So whatever else you call fascism you cannot call it conservatism, or national conservatism, and whereas in 1922 the King, Victor Emmanuel III, fearful of a socialist revolution, appointed Mussolini prime minister after the relatively bloodless March on Rome by his fascist blackshirts, in 2022 Meloni has arrived in power via the ballot box.
The First World War had exposed the Achilles Heel at the heart of international socialism whose mission was world revolution and the abolition of the nation-state: people are more loyal to their country than their class.
Mussolini made this cardinal rule the basis of fascism: it caused him to create national socialism which he called fascism, in place of international socialism.
In his new newspaper Il Popolo d'Italia, he revered those who had fought in the war calling them La Trincerocrazia - the aristocracy of the trenches. Many would become the fascist rank and file.
His version of socialism quickly attracted nationalists who were both right and left wing and whose roots went back to Giuseppe Mazzini and Italian reunification. Futurist artists who eulogised speed, the machine, and war as a cleansing force, played a significant early role. As did the poet-warrior Gabriele D'Annunzio who is often called the first Duce because of his electrìfying speeches – or dialogues with the crowd – delivered from balconies and his March on Fiume (Rijeka) in 1919.
The fascists did not believe, as the communists did, in the nationalization of the means of production but once in power ensured that the state ran the economy via corporations – the so-called Corporate State – also known as the Third Way between capitalism and communism. Among early manifesto pledges was the abolition of the monarchy.
Fascism also had its own variant of the class war, this one between producers of whatever class, and parasites of whatever class. It introduced the welfare state.
In the years after the First World War, Italy was on the brink of socialist revolution but it was Mussolini's private black shirt militia that the Italian state and the Italians increasingly came to rely on to keep the peace and keep open the workplace.
The genius of Mussolini was to create fascism, not just as an armed political movement, but as a religious cult with him as its sacred leader which transformed politics into a daily act of collective faith.
In the Dottrina del Fascismo, an essay written with the philosopher Giovanni Gentile setting out the principles of fascist thought, published in 1932, we read that "The fascist conception of life is a religious one" that aims to create "a spiritual society". Fascism "accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the state." The state is "all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist (...) Thus understood, Fascism, is totalitarian". In each town, the fascists built a party headquarters that looked like a church complete with bell tower. This often stood opposite a church – uneasily. Fascism failed not just because of its involvement in doomed wars and its demolition of democracy but because it was the rival of the Catholic Church in the battle for the minds, if not the souls, of the Italians. But the Duce was not Jesus, nor even Pope.
George Orwell, a revolutionary socialist who was also a patriot, was one of the few on the left to understand why fascism had mass appeal. In a 1940 review of Hitler's Mein Kampf he wrote: "Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. (...) (but) they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades." Elsewhere Orwell wrote that "the overwhelming strength of patriotism" was the key to understanding the modern world and Mussolini, like Hitler, got and kept power "very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not." Compared to patriotism, he added, "Christianity and International Socialism are as weak as straw".
To dismiss the Duce as a grotesque buffoon, as Anglo-Saxon historians do, or a puppet of the bourgoisie, as Marxist ones do, cannot be right. Such definitions fail to explain why he was able to get power and keep it for more than two decades with relatively little use of the mass murder that characterises most dictatorships - especially communist ones. Nor why there was so little resistence to him until he began to lose battles in the Second World War – or why he was so popular abroad.
The American ambassador in Rome called him "the greatest figure of his sphere and time", and Winston Churchill "the Roman genius". Cole Porter wrote him into his hit "You're the Top!" with a lines: "You're the top! You're the great Houdini! You're the top! You're Mussolini!" That fascism was wanted by so many Italians, not imposed, is something that the mainstream left refuses to accept because it means accepting an uncomfortable truth: the Italians not just the Duce were to blame for fascism. Fascism was not even anti-Semitic until his fatal alliance with Hitler in the late 1930s and his penultimate favourite mistress was Jewish. Its anti-Semitic laws were despicable but no Jews were deported from Italy to the Nazi death camps until after his overthrow in 1943 and then only 8,500.
The international media – whether right or left wing – calls Meloni and her party, Fratelli d'Italia, "the heirs to Mussolini". Technically they are right because she and others who founded the party in 2012 had been in the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), a neo-fascist party founded in 1946 by fascists who had served in Mussolini's regime. But the MSI disbanded in 1995 and was replaced by Alleanza Nazionale which renounced fascism and disbanded in 2009.
But Fratelli d'Italia was founded as a conservative party and Meloni is inspired not by Mussolini but by English Tories such as the philosopher Roger Scruton and the author of Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien. Sam Gangee is her favourite character. That the Italian media usually call her "centrodestra" ought to make their foreign colleagues hesitate before reaching for the familiar far right ergo fascist trope.
The closest we get to fascists in the West these days – it ought to be clear - are the heirs, not to Mussolini. but to Lenin: the social media mobs and social media censors who will not tolerate free speech and whose cancel culture destroys the careers and lives of people who insist that a woman is a woman.
Nicholas Farrell is the author of Mussolini A New Life, Weidenfeld&Nicolson/ Orion/Pheonix.
George Orwell, review of Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler in The New English Weekly, March 1940
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: English Socialism and the English Genius, Searchlight Books, February 1941.
Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile, La Dottrina del Fascismo, published in Enciclopedia Italiana under "Fascismo", Treccani, 1932
Renzo De Felice, Intervista sul Fascismo, ed. by Michael Ledeen, Laterza, 1975
Gustave Le Bon, La Psychologie des Foules, Édition Félix Alcan, 1895
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