1930s >> 1935 >> no-373-september-1935

The Present Condition of Italy

 This article, which we publish for the information of readers interested in the attitude of Italian workers towards their rulers, is taken from the Indian Labour Journal, July 28th, where it appeared under the title, “Through Italy.” It was supplied by the International Transport Workers’ Federation and was written by a former resident in Italy who recently had the opportunity of making a tour of investigation. For reasons of space it has been necessary to shorten the article. While offering it for information, we do not share the writer’s point of view on all points.—Editorial Committee


Grotesque as it may sound, Italy is at present a Fascist state in which there are no longer any Fascists. This is the astounding result of the observations I have made during a tour of several weeks through the entire country, a tour which enabled me to come into touch with all classes of the population and to learn what their disposition was. Clear distinctions must be made between appearances and reality. As far as appearances go, the Fascist spirit is still trumps. Fascist uniforms and badges are still being worn, and the Roman salute is given. But I have found that people who are outwardly out-and-out Fascists confess, in confidential chats, to being the most downright anti-Fascists. That this is not due to a concatenation of coincidences but represents the general situation is shown by a saying now current in Italy, which runs as follows:


Three Italians together—three Fascists; two Italians together—two friends; one Italian alone— one anti-Fascist!


The estrangement from Fascism is equally marked in all classes of the population. Workers are anti- Fascists, the farmers are anti-Fascists, the middle-class people are anti-Fascists, the capitalists are anti-Fascists. Some are so because, besides taking away their liberty, Fascism has also robbed them of their scanty livings, others because they tremble to observe that Fascism is steering more and more towards an economic disaster. Those basing their judgment on appearances alone and not getting into closer touch with the people, will have no inkling of such a disposition of the people in Italy. Again and again tourists in Italy have recounted to me in the most enthusiastic terms the great and far-reaching changes that have taken place under Mussolini. Fascism, according to them, has extracted Italy from its former position of backwardness, and raised it within hardly thirteen years to the level of the big European industrial states. In proof of this they point to the up-to-date arterial roads met with all over the country, one of which actually leads up Mount Etna to a height of 2,000 metres; to the work of modernisation, the signs of which are to be seen in any of the larger towns; to the progress of traffic facilities, etc., etc.; not forgetting, of course, the construction of new towns like Littoria and Sabauda, which announce their existence to the tourist from afar, being bathed in seas of light such as are elsewhere only to be met with in a metropolis.


Those are all incontrovertible facts. Those visiting Italy to-day, and remembering the state of the country ten or twenty years back, got the impression that a fresh state on a gigantic scale has been made in the direction of progress. But this impression rapidly fades on deviating even a few kilometres from the main roads of the tourist traffic in Italy. There the order of the day is not construction but dilapidation. The houses and alleys are dirtier than ever before. Nowhere is a new building, or even so much as a scaffolding, to be seen. The people are badly dressed and badly nourished. The tourist witnesses a scene of indescribable squalor. In Messina, for example, slums dating from the time of the earthquake are to be seen, generating pestilential smells. Usually—at least in the south—electric light extends no farther than a few kilometres from the towns, and even the railway stations have to carry on with oil lamps for illumination. In many cases drinking water has to be conveyed in big tank trains to places where there are no springs, not to mention water mains. Sicily, once the granary of Rome, is even now still withered and dried up in summer over two-thirds of its area, because Fascism, too, has failed to provide the necessary irrigation works, the construction of luxurious, and consequently uneconomic, arterial roads evidently seeming to Fascism to be of greater moment and thus more urgent.


It will be readily understood that the Italian country people are not exactly rapturous about the arterial roads. They are shrewd enough to know not only that they only swallow up the money needed for the construction of irrigation works and the better maintenance of their own roads, but also that their own increasing poverty is somehow connected with the luxury constructions of Mussolini. The country people, they say, must fare worse, so that the townspeople may fare all the more luxuriously.


Campaign against Abyssinia
What distinguishes Italy nowadays very markedly from what it was in former times is the dominance of the uniform in street scenes. Many towns give the tourist at once the impression of just having wandered into a big barrack. It is as if the entire Italian nation had exchanged the mandoline for the rifle and as if Mussolini cherished ambitions—besides those of being a maker of roads and builder of cities—to make Italy the Prussia of the Mediterranean.


In the south, uniforms are much more plentiful than in the north. Anyone travelling from Messina to Milan might get the idea that he was travelling, through two different countries, one at war, the other at peace. Militia especially are rarely to be seen in the streets of northern towns. In Milan I could go about for hours in the busiest parts of the town without coming across a single militia uniform. Fascist badges are also less plentiful in the north, while the Roman salute is conspicuous only by its absence.


These distinctions are not confined to appearances, either. The people of the north have not managed to get up any real enthusiasm for Fascism. They consider it as a fruit of the south and, above all, a costly one.


That antipathy to Fascism is stronger and less covert in the north, could be inferred from the short-livedness of the Fascist placards. Stuck up overnight they were torn up by the next day, in the hub of the town as well as on the outskirts. I was told that this has been quite a common occurrence for a long time past. Typical Fascist papers, too, are read in the north to a much less degree than in the south. Mussolini’s Popolo d’Italia, which is published at Milan, was indeed vociferously hawked about the streets, but hardly any were being sold.


Is this land of uniforms also indeed a militarised land? This question interested me keenly. During a long stay in the country previously I had come to regard the Italians as a peace-loving people, to whom militarism and war were abhorrent. It was just when more than two decades back I stood for the first time in the square fronting the cathedral of Milan, that I found myself surrounded by crowds of people taking part in a mass demonstration against the Lybian war. Had Mussolini succeeded in so completely reversing the character of a nation as to cause it now to greet a similar enterprise with jubilation?


In order to satisfy myself on this point I have taken great pains, making observations throughout the country as to how the nation is reacting to the Abyssinian conflict. And I have discovered no trace of any such enthusiasm as the Italian newspapers would like to make out as existing, for the sake of opinion abroad and even at home. The attitude of the people is one of earnest reticence, and in intimate chats I was able to elicit surprising opinions, lending a somewhat sinister aspect to the present state of affairs in Italy. A former Communist, now to all appearances a strict Fascist, explained to me that Mussolini’s assault on Abysinia was the most palpable proof that he was at the end of his resources. It had not been forgotten in Italy, he said, that former regimes had always begun an African campaign when they got into difficulties; and Mussolini was pursuing the same method. He should not be restrained, however, in this enterprise, but rather urged on. On the rock-bound plains of Abyssinia grew no laurels for him to pluck. He would merely be running his head against that rocky wall as so many others had done before him, not least the Italians.


In uttering these sentiments the Communist was only voicing the thoughts of many an Italian as to Mussolini’s Abyssinian venture. Similar expectations were expressed by the Italians in most of the conversations I had with them, and simple workers more than once remarked: “We need the guns to put an end to the famine.’’ And when, with feigned astonishment, I inquired whether by “famine” they really meant Fascism, the answer was in the affirmative every time.


A Hunger-Stricken Land
It made a great impression on me that the workers had hardly let themselves be infected by Fascism at all. Of one accord, north and south, they reject it; and this observation of mine has frequently been confirmed by remarks I have heard in bourgeois circles. This contrasts markedly with Hitler’s national socialism which, by means of the so-called “Battle of Labour,” has succeeded in sweeping a considerable portion of the workers off their feet.


I seek the explanation in the fact Mussolini had no such hard and unfortunately effective predecessors in wage-cutting as Hitler had later in Brüning and Von Papen. He had to make the cuts himself and consequently to unmask himself before the workers from the very outset. Besides this, the severe unemployment prevailing in Italy to-day first came into the country under Fascism, so that Mussolini was not able, either, to lay the blame for it on to his predecessors in the Government; nor could he make “Marxism” the scapegoat, for its organisations had never obtained representation in the Government. The relief work provided by Mussolini in the shape of the construction of arterial roads, harbour works, public buildings, etc., did not succeed in making the desired impression on the Italian workers, who, in contrast to the Germans, are not satisfied merely with working, but want to make a living by it, too. And Fascism has failed to enable them to do so. The thirteen years of Mussolini’s dictatorship have proved to the workers to be thirteen years of continual robbery of their wages and thus of their subsistence.


The most deplorable conditions in this respect I have come across in the south. Here the average daily wages amount to a mere seven lire, equivalent to about 2s. 4d. Only in quite exceptional cases is this level exceeded in the south. A wage of twelve lire is regarded there as quite a big income. In Central Italy and, above all, in the north, the level is, generally speaking, higher, and would be, for the broad masses in the region of 18 lire. Skilled tradesmen may occasionally be found earning more, in exceptional cases perhaps as much as 30 lire, but this is exceptional indeed. The elite of the manual and brain workers is considered to be the civil servants, whose monthly incomes vary for the most part from 400 to 700 lire. All the figures given represent gross earnings which, in practice, suffer considerable reductions in the shape of compulsory contributions to Fascist organisations, etc.


But it should by no means be inferred that this low level of wages carries with it a correspondingly low level of prices. Italy is rather to be classed among the dear countries than among the cheap ones.


Another rock menacing Mussolini is his increasing isolation in the midst of the Italian people. It has already led to a fundamental alteration in the character of the Fascist dictatorship. Able, formerly, to rely on the support of certain sections of the bourgeoisie, it has now no other backing than that provided by the Fascist militia. For the alienation of the bourgeoisie from Fascism has been accompanied by an increasing loss of hold on the regular forces, the officers of which practically reflect the opinions and ideas in vogue among the bourgeoisie. The higher officers’ circles were never particularly attached to Fascism. The generals had compounded with it because they were in need of its services, and because they had their orders from the King. Now the old discrepancies have cropped up again, and on the part of the officers, at any rate, little effort is made to conceal them from the public. Yet Mussolini need have no immediate fears on this score. A military dictatorship would be compromised in Italy to-day just as much as the present dictatorship of the militia is, and at all events the fall of Mussolini would, to the masses of the workers, be the signal for a storm such as no military sabres could hope to arrest. This is indeed the sole reason why the bourgeoisie find it expedient to fold their hands and let things take their natural course. Fearing the consequences of Mussolini’s policy as they do, they fear even more the unknown things that may lurk behind Fascism to emerge when it has fallen.


Nor need Mussolini fear as yet the hostility of the agricultural and industrial workers. Their limbs are paralysed by the terror of dictatorship, and they lack, too, the organisational connections and political conceptions needful to enable them to carry out a really menacing movement against the dictatorial system.


More important to my mind at present, therefore, appears the rock which may loom up in Mussolini’s path in the shape of his own militia. It is no uncommon thing for the good understanding between dictators and their militia to be of short duration. We have a bloody case in point in the events of June 30th, 1934. Such St. Bartholomew’s Eves among friends Mussolini has not been obliged to exhibit to the world, only because, being a better student of history than Hitler, he had thoroughly purged his militia long before the fabled “March on Rome,” and thenceforward subjected it to continual siftings. Only just during the last few weeks he seems to have resumed his activities in this direction, for the dispatchment of strong contingents of militia to Africa is generally attributed to difficulties that Mussolini has experienced out of the ranks of his own troops. Everything points to the fact that this time he is carrying out the most drastic purge that ever the Fascist militia in Italy have experienced. But cauterise the existing sores as he may, the virus, uneliminated, is sure to break out again in fresh places, and the more evident the isolation of his dictatorship becomes to the public, the more and the worse these sores will grow.


I have not been in sufficiently close touch with the internal affairs of the Fascist militia to be able to determine with any degree of exactitude the extent and the reasons of the conflicts that have arisen within its ranks. But the looming shapes of these rocks are becoming more and more clearly outlined. Will Mussolini be able to steer clear of these, too? Just now it rather seems as if he will run straight on to them at headlong speed, if he does not run up against the financial or the Abyssinian rocks first.