Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism-Donald Sassoon- HarperCollins UK 2008

“He raised the Italian people from the Bolshevism into which they might have sunk in 1919 to a position in Europe such as Italy had never held before”, Winston Churchill.

Whether the author consciously set out to write a book that challenges a very dangerous trend in some poorly written books is open to debate. These books have sought to impose a revisionist historiography that attempts to rehabilitates Benito Mussolini and mystify the rise of Italian fascism.

For Sassoon, the study of Italian fascism is not merely an exercise in historical research but has lessons for today’s political situation. To combat the growth of right-wing and fascistic forces in Italy today, the past must be studied objectively and truthfully.

Modern Italian Politics

Perhaps the most marked development in the policy during the Berlusconi years was the attempt to rehabilitate Mussolini and his fascist party. Italy’s former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, on numerous occasions, praised the fascist “Duce” Benito Mussolini.  According to him, Mussolini had “done a great deal of good.”

Berlusconi went on to downplay Italy’s collaboration with the Holocaust saying it was “not comparable to that of Germany.” He also repeated the tired lie that Mussolini was pressured by Hitler.

One of the more grotesque by-products of the whitewashing of the Italian fascist leader by Berlusconi came about when iPhone issued an app of Mussolini’s speeches. Apple was roundly condemned by a large number of Jewish groups who correctly stated that Mussolini was directly responsible for sending thousands of Jews to the death during the Holocaust. The app was subsequently pulled by Apple.


This political whitewashing of Mussolini and the fascists is mirrored in publishing circles by a growing number of poorly written books. At the moment, it is hard to gauge whether this revisionist whitewash is a minority, or has started to gain a foothold in academic circles.  So many of these books have appeared that one writer sees it as “a noir publishing niche.”
It would take a historian a rather long time to sift through over 100 current biographies of Mussolini to tell whether this very nasty revisionist trend has done any damage in academia.

According to the historian R J B Bosworth, “It is true that much revisionism of the Berlusconi years is hard to take seriously. The slew of biographies and memoirs devoted to praising 'good Fascists' mostly fall well below acceptable academic standard. In devoting himself without reserve to the idea in which he believed'. But the quality of the research base of such works, and the decisions about which facts to include and which to exclude are too blatantly slanted to make much impact on scholarship.[1]

While that may be the case for academic books, there is a definite trend in non-academic publications for rebranding fascism to fit into today’s politics. As one reviewer put it these books are not so much an attempt “at revisionism but at restoration.”

One such book is by Nicholas Farrell[2] who has sought to overturn decades of historiography to claim that Mussolini was not really all that bad and that he took a wrong direction because of his alliance with Hitler. According to Farrell, Mussolini had "charisma" and was a "phenomenal" personality. Farrell tends to mirror Berlusconi thoughts.

It is not that difficult to challenge these falsehoods. A more objective and truthful examination of the facts would also lead us to a different picture. Mussolini’s prime goal was to create a new. “Roman Empire” around the Mediterranean Sea.

To achieve this goal, the Italian fascists invaded and occupied North Africa and areas of Yugoslavia. To justify the slaughter of Jews, Africans, and Slavs the fascists classified them as “subhuman.” This discrimination was done in defense of a “pure Italian race.” According to historian Carlo Moos, Italian racial laws were very similar to the Nazi’s and belonged to “a long-existing, general-fascist racial concept” [3]

Another book Liberal Fascism [4] is “less a work of neutral scholarship or unbiased journalism than thinly veiled historical revisionism”. Jonah Goldberg’s argument is simplistic, to say the least, it is the idea that fascism came from liberalism. A position was not dissimilar to some of the “pseudo-left” writers from the Frankfurt school who put forward the perspective that fascism can be traced back to the Enlightenment. However, it must be said that it was difficult to take this writer seriously when he describes former presidents of the United States as fascists.
The rise of fascism

Given a limited space, Sassoon does a very competent job in explaining the rise of Italian fascism. While not a Marxist he does favor a left-wing slant to his history. The increase of fascism in Italy was a spur-of-the-moment development with significant sections of the population taking part.  Its leaders predominantly came from the rank and file fascist organization.
Despite taking a plebian character, it was controlled and financed by big business. Its social composition was made up largely of the petty bourgeoisie, lumpen elements of the working class and in its latter stages, it began to draw in larger sections of the working class.

Sassoon has done some real research into the social makeup of the fascists in 1921 24-per cent rural workers; 15.5-per cent industrial workers; 14-per cent white-collar workers; 13-per cent students; 11.9-per cent small farmers; and 9- percent shopkeepers. “The proportion of students was, "a much higher percentage than any other group in the population."
Mussolini’s Rise to Power

The notion fostered by far too many right wing history books is that Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy at the end of 1922 by carrying out a heroic march on Rome. The truth revealed by Sassoon is a little less glamorous.

The majority arrived in special trains. The few that did march were hardly a fascist vanguard they were as one writer put it a “raggle-taggle bunch with hardly a modern weapon among them, and who could have been easily stopped by the army.”

Benito Mussolini and his fascists did not crush all before him rather he was invited by the aristocracy and sections of big business to form a coalition government. Once fully in power, the fascists carried out a murderous crackdown against its opponents in the working class
The Italian bourgeoisie had always fancied itself as a high power, but economically this was not the case. The crisis of capitalist rule that brought the Italian fascists into government was the product was Italy's entry, in 1915, into the First World War on the side of Britain and France.

The pressure of the war merely escalated Italy’s economic and political crisis. This led to the famous post-war "Red Years" of 1919 to 1920. During these years, a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism was clearly on the cards. Sassoon’s account is very puzzlingly light in these years. Why?

To solve this crisis, the Italian bourgeoisie turned to the fascists, as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explains “At the moment that the "normal" police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium -- the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat -- all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy”.[5]

There are two major weaknesses of the book the first being Sassoon’s complacent attitude towards the Italian Communist party’s role in the rise of fascism. Despite its being only two years old when Mussolini was given power it played a crucial role in allowing the fascists to consolidate its rule again as Trotsky said “One must admit, however, that the German Communist Party has also learned little from the Italian experience. The Italian Communist Party came into being almost simultaneously with fascism. But the same conditions of revolutionary ebb tide, which carried the fascists to power, served to deter the development of the Communist Party. It did not give itself an accounting as to the full sweep of the fascist danger; it lulled itself with revolutionary illusions; it was irreconcilably antagonistic to the policy of the united front; in short, it was stricken with all the infantile diseases. .[6]

The second major political weakness of the book is its glaring underestimation of the revolutionary nature of the working class. The Italian bourgeoisie saw very clearly the dangers of socialist revolution and turned to fascism to solve its predicament. In doing it had the collaboration of both social democracy and Stalinism.

Despite these weaknesses, I would recommend this book to anyone who is beginning a study of this important international event. I would also urge students and anyone interested in history to fascism to consult Leon Trotsky’s writing on the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy.


1.       Mussolini and The Rise of Fascism, by Donald Sassoon A timely riposte to Il Duce's wrong-headed revisionists Reviewed by Ian Thomson 2008
2.       Bosworth, R.J.B-Mussolini, Arnold, 2002
3.       Behan, Tom, The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, Bookmarks, London,2003
4.       Guerin, Daniel, Fascism and Big Business, Monad Press, New York,1973

[1] R. J. B. Bosworth -  Benito Mussolini: Bad Guy on the International Block- Contemporary European History, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 123-134
[2] Farrell Nicholas Mussolini: A New Life Weidenfeld, 2015
[3] Moos, Carlo: Late Italian Fascism and the Jews, 2008).
[4]  Jonah Goldberg- Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning- Penguin- 2009
[5] Leon Trotsky - What Next? vital Question for the German Proletariat, 1932

[6]Leon Trotsky - Fascism- What It Is and How to Fight It