Italian Fascism, Nationalism  and Socialism

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Italian Fascism, Nationalism  and Socialism

In order to assess the extent to which Italian Fascism represents a combination of elements of nationalism and socialism it is important in each case to distinguish between political ideologies, movements and regimes for although more or less coherent ideologies may exist they may be interpreted differently in different sections of political movements and, if and when such movements attain political power as political regimes the constraints and practicalities of political circumstance may prevent political regimes from governing fully in accordance with their ideologies.  The early Italian Fascist movement contained a mixture of Mussolinian socialists, national syndicalists, nationalists, futurists and war veterans. In ideological terms the movement grew out of the convergence of these groupings around ideas that the Italian nation could be regenerated through a syncretic combination of nationalism and socialism into what the nationalist Corradini and the former maverick socialist Mussolini both described as "National Socialism and, of course, Hitler's political party was known as the National Socialist German Workers' Party.

It is true that some traces of Socialist ideology can be found in Italian Fascist ideology most notably in its support for corporatism but it has been argued also that the fascist conception of human nature, fascist ultra-nationalism and fascist elitism all  combine to ensure that fascism and socialism are essentially incompatible ideologies while the alleged similarities between fascist and communist so-called "totalitarianism" have been much overstated. It may well be, as many have claimed, that the fascist attempts to combine nationalism and socialism in one political ideology amounted to no more than a cynical and obfuscatory strategy designed to unite disparate sources of support for fascism rather than a careful extension of political thought.

Andrew Heywood has defined human nature as "the inmutable [i.e. unchangeable] character of all human beings " and suggested that the three major disputes about human nature surround the relative importance of heredity and environment , the relative importance of rationality and irrationality and the relative importance of self-interested competitiveness and altruistic cooperation as determinants of human nature and human behaviour. Differing political ideologies offer differing perspectives on the characteristics of human nature and there are clearly very major differences between the fascist and the socialist accounts of human nature.

Fascists provide an essentially pessimistic account of human nature  in which there is a major distinction between the inevitably genetically superior political elite [and, in particular, the Leader] and the remaining masses; the politically elite are intellectually superior and alone have the talents to determine the national interest; the genetically inferior and primarily irrational masses are governed mainly by irrational emotions and passions, can be easily manipulated and are best suited to obey without question the directions of the political elite and although in the fascist political system a "new fascist man" can eventually be created he will be required to "Believe: Obey: Fight." rather than to think for himself.

Fascist doctrines are also in several respects racist. The Italian Fascists justified their plans for colonialist expansion into parts of the Balkans and Africa in terms of their racial superiority relative to the Slavs and the Africans and also be come more anti-Semitic as their alliance with Hitler hardened while the Nazis of course believed that the Aryan Germans were the master race superior to all others and especially superior to the Jews whom they persecuted mercilessly Of course racism and anti-Semitism were not confined to fascist countries and, unfortunately, are still widespread. Fascists claim also that individuals are essentially competitive rather than collaborative and that both individuals and nations are locked in a social Darwinist struggle for the survival of the fittest which justifies the use of violence against domestic political opponents and war in order to achieve foreign policy goals. Indeed many fascists argued that individuals could reach their full potential only through actual physical involvement in violent struggle against domestic and international opponents.

[ Contrastingly socialists argue that individual talents, attitudes and values are influenced heavily by the nature of the societies in which they exist and that although human beings can sometimes be influenced by their passions and emotions that they all have a capacity for rational thought which can be nurtured and increased in an appropriate environment. They would argue also that individuals are not inevitably self-interested and competitive but that these widely observed character traits develop because individuals have been socialised to accept these self- interested and competitive values on which capitalist societies depend for their survival. Instead socialists would tend to argue that individuals have a natural impulse to cooperation and community spirit  which can be developed further if societies were organised along more equal ,less competitive, socialist lines where individuals would be prepared to work hard not for their own narrow self-interest but in order to contribute to the good of society as a whole while the organisation of work would be more efficient  if it were organised on principles of cooperation rather than competition. And finally socialism is an internationalist creed which opposes racism in all its forms and hope for a world in which national and international political disputes can be solved by negotiation and compromise rather than resort to force and violence which demeans humanity rather than allows it to develop its full potential as some fascists suggest. ]

Proponents of fascist ideology aimed to present it as a synthesis of nationalism and socialism.  In the late C19th nationalists such as Corradini criticised Italian  liberal politicians on the grounds that they had failed to modernise the economy, failed to promote Italian colonialism and failed to safeguard the interests of the working class within the Italian nation. Corradini also entirely opposed Marxist socialism because its theories which predicted the inevitability of socialist revolution were quite simply invalid and its emphasis on the inevitability of increasing class conflict could only undermine national unity and inhibit national regeneration. Instead Corradini argued that Italy was essentially a "proletarian nation" locked in an international social Darwinist struggle for survival with more powerful European states and that Italian national regeneration would be possible only via the ending of class conflict and the growth of class collaboration and national unity which would promote the economic development and colonial expansion which in turn would eventually enable Italy to gain great power status. However, given the intensity of international rivalry Corradini accepted and even welcomed the possibility that Italy might have to go to war to achieve its aims. Italy eventually entered the First World War on the side of the UK, France and Russia but although on the victorious side Italian Nationalists and members of the early fascist movement claimed that Italy had suffered a "mutilated peace" receiving insufficient additional territories in view of the war sacrifices it had made and these ideas could be expected to attract support from returning soldiers, support which would be crucial if the fascists opted to take power through revolutionary and violent means.

By the late C19th revolutionary syndicalists had moved in the direction of national syndicalism which led subsequently to a convergence of views between the Corradinian nationalists and the national syndicalists. Both by now agreed that employers and employees should essentially unite in collaborative national syndicates which were to replace the original socialist syndicates representing only the working class and to promote faster economic growth, the benefits of which could then be redistributed disproportionately to the poor. On the basis of these arguments the various groupings [nationalists, national syndicalists, Mussolinian socialist and futurists] that formed the early Italian Fascist movement now claimed to be national socialists: they argued that under conditions of liberal laissez faire self-interested industrialists were concerned excessively with private profit; their materialism meant that they had no higher spiritual objectives which could be provided by hopes of national regeneration; their profits derived from the exploitation of the workers; and their economic dominance threatened the survival of small scale farmers and small business owners from whom the fascists hoped to draw electoral support. Contrastingly policies based upon national unity and class collaboration would promote economic regeneration and national regeneration would promote faster economic growth and colonialism which would benefit the working classes more than had occurred during the failed years of Italian liberalism.

However it can plausibly be argued that the Fascist emphasis on the importance of social Darwinist struggle for survival in both domestic and international politics  showed that their nationalism was incompatible with socialist principles which emphasis the moral necessity for the strong to support the weak and the political necessity of conflict resolution by means of reasoned argument . Furthermore as we shall see the corporatist approach to economic policy failed to deliver significant improvements in working class living standards and the principles of elite theory and totalitarianism are clearly at odds with the principles of evolutionary socialism and with Marxist theory although more consideration will have to be given to the theory that both fascism and communism are likely to degenerate into totalitarianism.

Following the foundation of the Italian Fascist movement at the meeting of the fasci di combattimento in Milan on March 21st 1919 Mussolini and his supporters seemed to see the new movement as a left wing challenger for the working class votes currently being given to the PSI {Italian Socialist Party.] Its programme, drawn up by the Summer of 1919 called for measures such as votes for women and 18 year olds, proportional representation, a minimum wage, an 8 hour day and increased worker participation in industrial decision making. However 1919 saw major political advances not for the new Fascist movement  but for the socialist trade union movement whose membership increased from 250,00 in 1918 to 2Million in 1920 and for the PSI which gained 156 seats in the general election of November 1919 to become the largest single party in the Italian Parliament. Meanwhile the Fasci di Combattimento gained no parliamentary seats at all and only 5000 votes out of 275000 votes cast in Milan which was the major urban base of the Fascist movement at this time. Many left wing supporters of fascism now decided to leave the movement but industrialists and large landowners now began to wonder whether the fascist movement if it turned decisively to the right might have the power to crush the socialist movement

Strike action intensified in both the urban industrial centres and in rural agricultural area and in particular when the Liberal Government of Giolitti adopted what was widely seen as an overly conciliatory approach  to car workers who had taken over factories in Turin  to prevent an employer lock out the feeling intensified among the middle and upper classes hat the Liberal Government would not be powerful enough to stop the growth of radical socialism Since the end of the 1st World War socialist trade unions and Catholic peasants' leagues had organised waves of strikes and demonstrations  in rural northern and central Italy designed to reduce the grinding poverty of peasant workers but such activities threatened the interests of the richest landowners and also the position and status of smaller-scale landowners, richer peasants and the provincial urban professional classes who from 1919-1920 onwards organised so-called Fascist squadrismo involving squads of armed fascists prepared to use violence against socialist organisations, trade unions and their leaders and activists. As Martin Blinkhorn describes the situation, "Over the two years between the summers of 1920-1922..the headquarters of left wing parties, socialist unions and Catholic Peasant Leagues were sacked and frequently burned down; physical violence through the use of clubs, knives and guns and the forced consumption of the laxative castor oil was meted out to left wing and trade union activists. As a result by 1922 rural socialist organisations went into rapid decline while the number and membership of rural fasci under the direction of rural ras [Ethiopian word for leaders] accelerated rapidly from about 1000 in 1920 to 250000in 1922.

Professor Blinkhorn describes the membership of the Fascist movement as follows: "its leaders and activists were recruited from among war veterans , especially former officers and NCOs; from the educated middle class youth, from urban professionals and white collar workers and from the upper and middling layers of rural society and most important from the adolescent and grown up sons of all of these elements. The Fascist movement initially attracted limited support from the working class but many poorer peasants and some workers did join the Fascist movement and its newly formed syndicates mainly "out of a  self-preservative need for work and protection once the socialist and Catholic unions had weakened. [We shall then need to consider the possible tensions between Mussolini and the regional ras; the means by which Mussolini came to power in 1922 and how he marginalised some but not all of his various political opponents . All of this can be done fairly succinctly as background to the discussion of totalitarianism.]

Although the first programme of the Fasci di Combattimento was mildly left-wing the growth of Italian Fascism between 1920 and 1922 derived mainly from the growth of the rural and provincial squads which the rural fascists squads which were prepared to use violence against socialist organisations and individual socialists as a mean s of protecting upper and middle class interests. Mussolini too recognised that if he was to attain power he would need to dilute the original mildly socialist components of Fascist ideology in order to gain the support of industrial, political and military elites as well as the support of  the middle classes.  However by 1922 the Fascists still claimed that they would address the limitations of laissez faire capitalism and that they would do so by means of a Corporatist Third Way intermediate between capitalism and Russian- style communism which would avoid the disadvantages of each: the self-interested pursuit of profit under laissez faire and the excessively rigid state bureaucracy of Russian communism. Instead industries were to be run according to corporatist principles whereby in each industry there would be corporatist organisations whose members represented employers and workers guided also by officials of the fascist state who would collectively take economic decisions designed to further the interests of the nation as a whole as well as the interests of both employers and employees thereby improving workers' wages and working conditions beyond the levels which would have occurred under laissez faire. Here in theory was the combination of the national interest with a mild but practicable form of "socialism" representing the "third way between free market capitalism and communist state control.

In practice, however, the corporatist experiment was relatively unsuccessful: by the time it was introduced the independent trade union movement had disintegrated and workers interests were now represented rather inadequately by officials of the fascist syndicates which had replaced the independent unions and in any case the fascist state officials almost always sided with the employers in disputes over wages and working conditions once they recognised that Mussolini himself had no desire to undermine the employers, autonomy dependent as he felt on their political support. Some minor reforms were introduced but historians have been uniformly critical of the corporatist experiment. If corporatist decision-making institutions were intended to provide the mechanisms for some socialist -inspired reduction in worker exploitation and income redistribution they were relatively unsuccessful in this respect.  Mussolini's collaborationism with business and industrial elites could be said to have doomed the corporatist experiment from the start. As the Historian Martin Blinkhorn concludes, "the very phrase "corporate state" is a misnomer because the Italian state was never "corporate" instead standing a part from and, crucially, above the elephantine edifice of corporatism. {I shall provide a little more detail on corporatism later.]

Insofar as fascism was to contain elements of nationalism and socialism  the socialism which it was to contain was avowedly non-Marxist  and gradualist. Fascists rejected Marxism for several reasons: Marxists claimed  that  class confrontation was inevitable under capitalism; Marxists aimed to intensify class conflict by raising what they considered to be the real class consciousness of the workers; they claimed that nationalism was simply part of a ruling class ideology which it prevented the workers from realising that class divisions within individual nations rather than divisions between nations were the most important schisms in capitalist societies and that international solidarity was a pre-requisite for the international abolition of capitalism.; class inequality would continue until capitalism was abolished. However although fascist political methods differ markedly from those espoused by western social democrats we can see some similarities between the economic objectives of fascism and those of moderate social democracy. In each case a relatively large private sector is to be retained but it is to be regulated to some extent by government; the adverse consequences of massive government intervention in the economy are to be avoided; fascist corporatist methods appear to be in some respects not dissimilar to the tripartite approaches to economic management attempted by some post Second World War Labour and Conservative governments and redistribution of income and wealth is to occur mainly indirectly through the relative redistribution of the benefits of growth to the working classes without seriously eroding financial incentives. However in practice broadly speaking Fascists failed to increase economic equality significantly under corporatism.

Italian Fascists criticised liberal democracy  the grounds that its competing political parties and pressure groups appealed to selfish individualism and intensified social conflict at the expense of the national unity which was necessary to bring about Italy's national regeneration. Instead it was necessary to create a so-called "totalitarian state"   dominated by a political elite and dominated in particular by IL Duce Benito Mussolini who alone had the talent and insight to recognise Italy's national interest and to devise appropriate policies to achieve it. Consequently all political parties other than the Italian Fascist Party were abolished; independent trade unions were replaced by fascist syndicates and other pressure groups were allowed to exist only insofar as they remained uncritical of fascism; parliamentary limitations on the powers of the fascist dictatorship disappeared; the independence of the judiciary was compromised ; mass media were strictly controlled and used as mouthpieces of fascist propaganda and fascist secret police regularly arrested political opponents although their punishments were rarely as dreadful as those inflicted in Nazi Germany. Essentially the individual liberties much prized by liberals were heavily curtailed but the fascists argued that this could only be to the advantage of Italian citizens since their best interests were served by obedience to the totalitarian state not through following their own narrow self- interest. Italian totalitarianism therefore amounted to a higher form of democracy!

As mentioned the fascist totalitarian state was to be dominated by a political elite and in particular by Mussolini himself. To provide some apparent intellectual support for their elitism fascists simplified some of the theoretical ideas of the philosopher Nietzsche and the political scientists Pareto, Mosca and Michels. Since only the Leader had the necessary political insight it was desirable that his political powers should be virtually unlimited while the fascists drew also on the theories of Le Bon and Sorel to support their beliefs that the masses are ruled very much by passion and emotion and that although they were incapable of organising themselves for political action they could be awakened and mobilised by the charismatic, demagogic leader using manipulative mass propaganda techniques. In summary the fascists claimed that national regeneration required an all powerful leader with a deferential , obedient mass following reliant upon the thoughts of the leader rather than their own.

In order to compare the fascist emphasis on totalitarianism and elitism with socialist ideology we must again distinguish between evolutionary social democracy and revolutionary Marxist socialism. Evolutionary social democrats believe in the gradual parliamentary road to socialism: that is: they wish to make use of liberal democratic freedoms to popularise their cause in order to attain political power. Once in power social democrats might well introduce some restrictions on private ownership  and seek to redistribute wealth and income to the poor but they would not be expected to restrict the powers of parliament, undermine the independence of the judiciary, strengthen the powers of the political secret police nor to outlaw opposition political parties, pressure groups and critical elements within the mass media.

Evolutionary social democratic parties do not seek to create totalitarian regimes once they attain power. It could be argued that a social democratic government [indeed any government] is in some senses a political elite often dominated by a charismatic leader. [As Tony Blair would say, "Hey..guys...remember me!} However  any social democratic political elite would be subject to the whole range of liberal democratic restrictions on its powers and, in particular, it would be accountable to and removable by its electorate. Furthermore its ultimate aim would be to promote greater economic equality and greater educational opportunity as a means of enabling all individuals to develop  their talents and abilities to the full. There is no assumption that "the masses" have no real capacity for rational thought and have only the duty to obey the leader. Of course Italian fascists could use the theories of Pareto specially to claim that liberal or social democratic regimes provide only a facade behind which elites rule but social democrats would argue that liberal democratic freedoms and social democratic reforms have meaningful beneficial consequences for the citizens of such regimes.

Revolutionary Marxist socialists argue that it may well be impossible to achieve power through evolutionary, parliamentary means  and that revolution will therefore be necessary  to achieve the transition from capitalism to socialism to communism. Lenin has sometimes been described as socialist elite theorist  because of his beliefs that a successful socialist revolution  can be led only by a small revolutionary political party dominated by an elite group of theoreticians capable of developing the appropriate revolutionary strategy. Once in power a new socialist government would necessarily have to operate as a "dictatorship of the proletariat : it would use state power to introduce repressive measures such as  the abolition of opposition of political parties, imprisonment of political opponents and controls of the mass media in order to protect the socialist revolution against the possibility of counter-revolution. Such measures are similar to those deployed in Fascist Italy and could in some respects be described as "totalitarian" although as we shall see the term "totalitarianism" must be used with care..

However in the longer term Marx suggested that the power of the state can gradually wither away and that individuals will have much greater opportunities to participate themselves in political decision making. Ultimately , therefore, Marxist theory is entirely opposed to elite leadership, totalitarian government and the pessimistic view of mass human nature as expounded by the fascists. Unfortunately, however, in practice actual governments of the former USSR especially under Stalin were dictatorial and they did destroy liberal democratic freedoms without providing viable alternative methods for wide ranging and meaningful participation in political life. All they could say that it would all be different at some point in the future when real communism is finally achieved.


  1. Use these notes to describe the fascist  perspective on human nature.
  2. Explain Corradini's views on nationalism.
  3. Explain how Italian Fascism arose out of a convergence of Corradini's nationalism and the views of national syndicalists.
  4.  Explain how Italian Fascism could be presented as a synthesis of nationalism and socialism.
  5. Explain Italian Fascist criticisms of capitalist laissez faire and  liberal democratic political institutions
  6. Explain the role of corporatism within Italian Fascism.
  7. Explain the role of elitism within Italian Fascism
  8. Explain the role of totalitarianism within Italian Fascism
  9. Explain why Italian Fascists were critical of Marxism and of evolutionary socialism.
  10. Explain why Marxists and evolutionary socialists would deny that Fascism contained any significantly socialist elements..