Stalin biographer Stephen Kotkin spends several pages of his book discussing the lessons to be learned from Mussolini’s seizure of power in Italy in the early 1920s. It was something that happened gradually, in stages, when institutions that should have been able to bring him to heel did nothing, either due to their own lack of resolution or tacit support of his power grab.
Italy after the First World War was, like many European countries, rife with instability and factionalism. Mussolini’s “fascist” party in 1922 had collected only 35 out of 500 seats in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies; despite this apparent lack of popular support he was still asking to be appointed prime minister. He threatened to march on Rome himself with his private militia (squadristi) and take power with or without official permission. He had some support from the established institutions of the day: the monarchy, the army, the church, and big business. In the wake of the Bolshevist radicalism that was threatening Europe, the establishment was looking for a charismatic figure who might be able to restore order and bring the county some measure of stability.
In the end, these temptations proved too attractive to resist. King Vittorio Emanuele III asked Mussolini to become prime minister. He thought that by making him part of a coalition, he would be able to restrain the worst of Mussolini’s excesses. The so-called “March on Rome” took place only after he had been appointed prime minister. Arriving in Rome by train–not marching along with his men–Mussolini then had his 20,000 blackshirts parade around the city like conquerors. This was the origin of the myth of his “seizure” of power: but there was no seizure. Instead he was appointed by the existing powers, who thought they could use him for their own ends. In this they were only partially correct.
Besides being favored by the powerful institutions of the country, Mussolini was also aided at critical junctures by the ineptitude of his political opponents. In the elections of April 1924, Mussolini’s party won 374 seats out of 535; this amounted to 66.3% of the popular vote. There then occurred an event that proved to be of great advantage to him. Giacomo Matteotti, a law professor at Bologna and the son of wealthy family from the Veneto, publicly denounced the fascists in strident terms, calling the vote a fraud and the result of intimidation and squadristi violence. With this step he had signed his death warrant. He was abducted eleven days later, bundled into the boot of a car, and stabbed repeatedly; his body was found two months later, dumped on the outskirts of Rome.
It was never established whether Mussolini was involved or knew anything about the plot beforehand. He was certainly not above using violence, or encouraging its use, against political opponents; but such a reckless step probably was taken without his knowledge or approval. Despite this, he was able to use the crisis that the murder generated to consolidate his hold on power. Anti-fascist demonstrations escalated in the streets, general strikes were declared, and it seems that Mussolini would have to resign.
But the king did not call for him to step down. His political opponents then committed a grievous error: they left the field of political conflict and walked out of the Chamber of Deputies. Trying to imitate the ancient Roman plebian practice of going to the Aventine Hill to protest measures taken by the nobility, the anti-fascist deputies probably thought that by walking out of the chamber they could pressure Mussolini to resign. In this they were sorely mistaken. The situation was getting more and more dangerous by the hour, until finally Mussolini (on January 3, 1925) threw down the gauntlet. In a dramatic speech, he “assumed responsibility” (whatever that meant) for the crisis and dared those present to remove him or indict him.
But nothing happened. By exposing his opponents as all talk and no action, he successfully called their bluff. He also refused to permit the deputies who had boycotted the session to return to the Chamber. By the middle of January, it was clear he had won; all political parties except the fascists were outlawed and Italy was on its way to becoming a dictatorship. This was how he consolidated his hold on power. In retrospect we can see how this happened: (1) the established institutions of the country (monarchy, church, army, and big business) more or less supported Mussolini and thought he was preferable to the communist alternatives; and (2) at the critical moment, his opponents failed to muster the requisite will to call his bluff.
Readers will draw their own conclusions and lessons from this narrative of events. We may note also that this same “walking out” mistake was made by the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, when they thought that by boycotting the United Nations sessions on Korea, they could somehow prevent US military intervention in that country. This also turned out to be a delusion; for what the Americans did was simply to take advantage of the Soviet absence to vote for intervention in Korea under the flag of the United Nations.
On the political scene today, it is clear that some power elites believe that they can use unscrupulous, amoral demagogues for their own ends. They know very well that such demagogues are amoral, lacking in restraint, and totally unsuited for office. Yet they do not care; they believe they can use the venality and stupidity of the demagogue for their own selfish ends, and for the ends of those who support them. In this they are mistaken. By putting partisan, factional considerations ahead of the national interest, they reveal themselves to be men without moral courage. They will find out, all too soon, just how serious was the mistake they have made.
And it is the public that will suffer, just as it was the Italian people of the 1940s who suffered for the venality and crimes of their leaders. Mussolini was a con artist, a fraud, and a liar, but he would never have taken power had not the powerful elites in Italy looked the other way and collaborated with him for their own selfish purposes. Political factionalism and its associated moral cowardice, plutocratic control of economic life, the concentration of wealth in the hands of too few, and public ignorance combine to produce one outcome: the slide into authoritarianism.
When in doubt, one should never leave the playing field until the last hand has been dealt, and the final card played.
Read more about the results of hubris and political factionalism in the groundbreaking new translation of Sallust, which includes notes, maps, charts, and much more: