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The Situation in Italy - Is Fascism Cracking?

On March 25th of this year Mussolini's list of candidates for election to the Chamber of Deputies received 10,041,997 votes, while only 15,265 votes were given against. The poll was the largest ever recorded, only 3 per cent, of the electorate staying away. This, at least, is what the Italian government announces, but those who know the extent to which election-faking has been carried in some European and South American countries will be sceptical. As one observer has pointed out, if over ten million voters are enthusiastically for the government and only 15,000 against, why does Mussolini require an enormous and costly army of police and troops and government agents to defend himself and his satellites?

Why the continual public trials of alleged plotters and rebels? Why the penal settlements on lonely islands for political offenders? Why, when Mussolini travels to certain industrial towns to receive the delighted plaudits of the admiring multitude, does he mass police, troops, detectives, armoured cars, and bombing planes for his protection? The answer is that capitalism in Italy has proved to be no different from capitalism anywhere else, and numbers of Italian workers who suffer under it are no more satisfied with its effects than they were before Mussolini rose to power.

How the vote was rigged was explained in a letter to The Times (April 5th), written by an Italian voter who, needless to say, did not consider it safe to disclose his identity. First, he explains, the general public were given to understand that abstention from voting would be treated severely, just as severely as voting against. Secondly, the voting was not secret, every vote being easily and immediately identified by the officials present at the polling booth. At some voting stations the authorities did not even issue any "no" voting slips to the voters. Other observers reported that there were gangs of armed Fascists at the polling booths to impress doubters with the wisdom of voting the right way. It was an offence to influence voters to vote "no," and anti-Fascists who tried to distribute leaflets were at once arrested.

In this situation Italian workers who are strongly opposed to Mussolini's government and his list of candidates, decided that the only thing to do was to go to the poll and vote "yes" and thus safeguard their illegal political activities from the inquiry that would be set afoot concerning any man who voted "no" or stayed away.

Nevertheless, the importance of these various modifying factors ought not to be exaggerated. In the absence of specific information there is not sufficient reason to doubt that Mussolini can still count on the support or, at least, on the indifference of a majority of the population. A government does not need to have the active support of a majority in order to be able to carry on the administration of capitalism. During last century, and in recent years, there have been many examples of minority government. The position of such a government is secure enough (assuming the continued allegiance of the armed forces) as long as the population are indifferent or are banded in mutually hostile groups, which hold aloof because they are more opposed to each other than to the government. Dollfuss's government in Austria is in that position.

The distribution of votes to the various Italian parties, prior to their suppression by Mussolini, gives us something on which to form an estimate. The non-Fascist parties were not dissolved until 1926, four years after Mussolini came into control. In 1924 elections were held at which all parties put forward candidates, and the three separate and mutually warring parties into which the Italian Labour group had split (Unitarians, Maximalists and Communists) between them only received one-quarter of the votes cast for the Fascists. Prior to the Fascists coming into power, the Italian Socialist Party (the name under which the Labour group went before its breaking up into these three separate parties) had polled about one-third of the total votes. This then can be taken as their maximum strength at that time, but some of these supporters undoubtedly went over to the Fascists before and after he gained control in 1922. This, together with intimidation, accounts for the decline in the total Labour vote between 1919 and 1924.

In the ten years that have passed since 1924 it is certain that the normal evils of capitalism, poverty, unemployment, insecurity and so on, will have made the pendulum swing back again towards the Labour and Communist groups notwithstanding the fact that they are not allowed to exist as legal political parties. It is possible, therefore, that if all of the non-Fascist sections of the population were added together (including those who are indifferent as well as Liberals and some of the Catholics) they might by now outnumber Mussolini's supporters. On the other hand, it is fairly certain that none of the opposition groups alone is nearly as strong in numbers as the Fascist Party.

One factor which would assist Mussolini to get a large "Yes" vote, even without pressure, would be the form of the vote. Many electors who felt no enthusiasm for the Government or for the 400 candidates as a whole would be induced to vote "Yes" by the fact that the only alternative was to reject the whole list and the Government behind it. Not being able to vote for and against individual candidates, they would be inclined to vote "Yes" to the whole 400 because of the presence in the list of some few who, in addition to nominally representing working-class interests, appeared to be less objectionable than the majority of candidates.

Taking all these factors into account, when we are told by Italian exiles and by others to whom the wish is father to the thought that Italy is on the verge of revolt, we need to accept their statements with more than caution. It is not questioned that strikes and riots occur from time to time in Italian industrial areas and villages, and that armed force is used to suppress them, but these are normal features of capitalism, and, in isolation, they have no great significance. What we have to ask is whether there are in Italy any indicators pointing to widespread revolt, now or in the near future. When this question is put to Italian anti-Fascists they tell us how the bankruptcies have increased, how trade and railway traffic have declined, how wages have been cut, and how crimes have increased with the increase of unemployment to over a million, and how the Government is faced with a big budget deficit.

However, an examination of these signs brings out one thing only. It is that none of them is peculiar to Italy. Every capitalist country, during the depression, has faced them and dealt with them more or less successfully from the electors' point of view. In many countries the result has been a change of Government, sometimes a, mere reshuffling, sometimes a veritable upheaval. Can Mussolini weather the storm? That depends on his skill in adjusting his policy to the discontent among different sections of the population. Hitherto he, like Stalin in Russia, has managed to do so, although it is interesting to observe that Stalin has just had to abandon secret trials and introduce other relaxations of the dictatorship. Mussolini, with his modified electoral system, has so far succeeded in doing what politicians in Great Britain do rather more smoothly and easily with their system of unfettered democratic elections.

That he, in Italy, and Stalin, in Russia, and their advisers, can do this, is due in the last resort to the political inexperience and limited demands of the population. Given an electorate which demands of its rulers nothing more than work or unemployment pay, and various sops in the way of social reforms, those petty demands will accurately measure the value they place on elections to Parliament or to any other elected assembly. An astute politician like Mussolini, aided by the knowledge of political trickery he gained in the Italian Labour movement, and backed up by the resources of the State with which to broadcast his views and suppress those of his opponents, has been able to divide and rule. When discontent becomes acute in any quarter he can give just the same kind of concessions as are obtainable in the democratic Parliament of England, and thus buy off sufficient of the discontent to be able to suppress or ignore the remainder.

Since pettifogging social reforms are the utmost that the majority of workers demand of capitalism so far, they are relatively indifferent to the workings of the system provided that some of their demands are met. For a while they can even be put off with mere promises of better times in the future, "when the depression is over," or "when the second five-year plan is completed," or "when we have finished planning our Corporative State," according to the custom of the particular country.

If free elections are permitted these non-Socialist workers will vote for the reform programmes of Liberal, Tory, Labour or Communist candidates as their fancy leads them. If free elections are suppressed they will grumble a little, but many of them will be quite content to believe that they will continue to get much the same reforms as before by voting for Mussolini's selected 400 nominees. In short, they accept capitalism administered by Mussolini with little more complaint than capitalism administered by a party of their own choice.

In Italy Mussolini's task was from the outset rendered even easier than it would otherwise have been by the idiocy of the Anarchists and Syndicalists who persuaded many thousands of workers to accept the silly doctrine that control of the State is a myth, thus helping to clear the way for the Fascists to gain what was indispensable to them - control of the machinery of Government. There was truth in the remark made to Trotsky by Serrati, the Italian Labour leader, that "to our shame, Mussolini learned more from the Bolsheviks than we did."

Another important factor was, and still is, the large number of peasants and the relatively small number of industrial workers. This made it difficult even for a reformist Labour Party to secure a majority, and enabled Mussolini to some extent to set the peasants against the town workers.

If there had been in Italy a strong Socialist movement instead of the vague attachment to reformism, the vote would never have been misused by Socialists as it was by Labourites in the years before the Fascists rose to power. They would have strongly opposed the series of stupid seizures of factories and attempted general strikes which gave the Fascists their plea that they were needed "to restore order." They would have valued Parliament, not for the petty reforms obtainable through it, but because through and only through control of the machinery of government will the Socialist majority be in a position to establish Socialism. Socialists would not, like so many of the Italian workers, have been bought off by Mussolini's mixture of social reforms and political claptrap.

One entertaining aspect of Italian Fascism is the reputation Mussolini has gained for being a man of action, "the man who cleared out the talkers." Now, twelve years after gaining control, he and his deputies are still discussing what kind of "Corporative State" it is going to be when (and if) it ever gets beyond the stage of discussion. All that has been done so far is the passing of the Corporations Law, for Mussolini, that interminable speechmaker, with his Fabian belief in "hastening slowly," has postponed the real Corporative State three stages into the future. First, he says, the Corporations have to be set up (Corporations being bodies representing employers and workers in each great branch of production). Then they must be watched functioning under a continuance of the present political system. Then finally will come the third step of actually allowing the Corporations to supersede the political system. Mussolini is probably quite well aware that the whole thing is a great bluff. Like many of his activities, its function is to make the capitalist rose appear to smell sweeter because it is called by another name.

Mussolini promised a new system, neither Capitalism nor Socialism, but has not modified the capitalist economic system in any important particular, as witness the poverty and unemployment to be found there. He promised to free Italy from dependence on world capitalism, but has been hit, just like other countries, by the depression, and by a huge fall in Italian exports. He - like Stalin - talks of "national self-sufficiency," but - also like Stalin - his Government strains every nerve to encourage production for the export trade and to find new world markets. He attacked the capitalist monetary system, but is now fighting hard to save Italian currency from depreciation and to keep on the gold standard. He promised the abolition of "demagogic" election campaigns of the kind familiar in Great Britain, but has in fact only pushed them off the stage. Behind the scenes, for weeks before polling day, there is a great secret election campaign in progress, the rival interests trying to secure the inclusion of their favoured nominees among the 400 Government candidates who are offered to the electorate to be voted for or against.

Although Mussolini (again like Stalin) has been so adroit in retaining power by cunning manoeuvres, by reshuffling his cabinet, by repeatedly changing some feature or other of the political system, and by frequent changes of policy, neither he nor Stalin, for all their cleverness, have been able either to get rid of capitalism or to make it work any more satisfactorily for the workers than in the capitalist countries where democratic methods are used. They are just as much the creatures of the forces and interests in their respective countries as ever Lloyd George or Hitler, and should some event occur which turns the shallow favour of the population to another hero, they will disappear from the public eye, leaving little or no permanent mark behind them.

In spite of his gerrymandered election victory. Mussolini might well ponder over the fate of Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. In 1848 he was elected President by 5,400,000 votes, more than three times as many as were cast for his two rivals together. In 1851, in order to aid certain capitalist interests, he manoeuvred a change in the Constitution providing, among other things, that the President should be elected for ten years. The population confirmed the change by 7,500,000 votes to 640,000, and a year later he became Emperor by 7,800,000 votes to less than 250,000. After eighteen years he again revised the Constitution and was delighted that his schemes received nearly 6 million votes on a poll of 9 millions. This was on May 8th, 1870, and he and his advisers were confident that his position and popularity were firmly grounded, although, like Mussolini, they took care to "influence" the voting. Yet within four months he had abdicated, and the bulk of those who had voted for him saw him go without regret. French troops had surrendered to Germany and the millions of voters wanted their hero no longer.

Mussolini's power and popularity rest on similar broad but shallow foundations. Sooner or later he will go, but capitalism will not be undermined by that. The task of building up a genuine Socialist movement as the first step towards working class emancipation will still remain to be tackled.