Fascism was originally an authoritarian movement started by Benito Mussolini in March 1919, which came to power in Italy in Oct. 1922. Later on it became the general name for similar movements started in other countries, among which German national socialism is the most prominent. By 1940 fascism could be regarded as a form of societal organization and as an attitude of mind which had its adherents in practically all countries of the earth. The original Italian name of “fascismo” is derived from the Latin “fasces,” bundles, denoting in ancient Rome a bundle of rods with an axe, borne before Roman magistrates as a symbol of authority.
The origins of the fascist movement in Italy are to be found both in the wave of disillusionment and at the same time in the exacerbated nationalism which swept Italy after 1918. Even before the war of 1914-1918, Enrico Corradini had propagated a doctrine of extreme and belligerent nationalism, which had fanned enthusiasm for the Libyan War of 1911 and for imperial expansion, and the poet Gabriele d’Anninzio had exalted in verse and prose not only the mission of a victorious Italy, but also the love of danger, adventure and war. In the military coup by which he and a legion of black-shirted followers gained possession of Fiume in Sept. 1919, and during the 16 months in which he as Duce ruled the city, d’Annunzio introduced a constitution foreshadowing the “corporative state” and all the rites, salutes, allocutions and mass shouts which later became characteristic of the fascist movement. Mussolini himself before 1914 had been a leading member and editor of the Italian Social Democratic party, but he had always represented the tendencies of revolutionary syndicalism with their emphasis on direct action and enthusiastic will. Against the attitude of his party, Mussolini supported Italy’s entrance into the war in the fall of 1914; on November 15 he founded his own newspaper, the Popolo d’Italia, in Milan, which called itself an organ of combatants and producers and carried the social revolutionary motto by Blanqui, “Who has steel has bread,” and Napoleon’s saying, “The revolution is an idea which has found bayonets.” Mussolini’s first famous editorial bore the characteristic title, “Audacity.”
In the social unrest and moral confusion which followed the war of 1914-1918, Mussolini founded the Fasci di Combattimento on March 23, 1919, in Milan. The new group had no definite program; at first Mussolini was still a revolutionary syndicalist, who propagated the expropriation of the land, the mines, and all means of transportation. It was not until the beginning of 1921 that he allied his group openly with the propertied classes, with the landowners and the industrialists. But whatever his sociological affiliations, he was moved throughout by a fierce nationalism and by the love of violence and adventure. When he ran in Milan for a parliamentary seat in the elections of Nov. 16, 1919, he got less that 5,000 votes out of 346,000. But the deep social unrest prevailing in Italy in 1920 gave Mussolini a chance, and though the danger of any bolshevist or socialist success had entirely faded by the end of the year, Mussolini and his squads of violent young men appeared to the frightened upper classes as a guarantee of security. Thus, with the army conniving, Mussolini’s followers set for themselves the task of “restoring order” and breaking up the socialist movements and organizations. With a boastful ruthlessness, with the proud sacrifice of all ethical scruples to success, the local squadristis, under the leadership of men like Grandi, Balbo, Farinacci and others, set out for the conquest of power in the name of youth against what they called “the tottering parliamentarism” of the “senile” and undecided liberals. The lack of resistance on the part of the government, the army and the police, emboldened the fascists who had formed themselves into the national fascist party in Nov. 1921.
In the following year Mussolini completely abandoned his original socialist, anti-monarchist and anti-Catholic program. He had no definite doctrine to offer. “Our program is simple: we wish to govern Italy. They ask us for programs, but there are already too many. It is not programs that are wanting for the salvation of Italy, but men and will power.” On Oct. 28, 1922, the famous march on Rome was staged. Though the fascists and the nationalists were outnumbered in the Italian parliament by ten to one, and though with some show of resolute action the fascists could easily have been stopped, the king refused to sign the proclamation of the state of siege which his government had prepared, and on Oct. 29 invited Mussolini to form the new government. Though the new prime minister at first accepted a coalition cabinet and preserved some of the forms of the liberal state, within a very few years all the trappings of parliamentarism were gone, all other parties outlawed, all civil liberties and constitutional guarantees suppressed, and a full dictatorship established. The process was accelerated by the reaction of the country and of the civilized world to the murder of the socialist deputy Matteotti, in June 1924, on the eve of his exposure of the graft and corruption of the fascist party. Highest fascist officials were alleged to have been implicated in the murder. In his effort to save his regime from the outraged feelings of the country, which in turn was identified with its leader. Though he professed to fight bolshevism, he successfully adopted its methods, without, however, being able to carry them in the different climate of Italy as far as they were carried in Russia and later on in Germany. The different squadristi organizations had been reformed on Feb. 10, 1923, as the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale.
Fascism in its beginnings was not a doctrine and had no clearly elaborated program. It was a technique for gaining and retaining power by violence, and with an astonishing flexibility it subordinated all questions of program to this one aim. But it was dominated from the beginning by a definite attitude of mind which exalted the fighting spirit, military discipline, ruthlessness and action, and rejected contemptuously all ethical motives as weakening the resoluteness of will. Fascism is power politics and realpolitik in their most naked form; all theoretical considerations are subservient to what is regarded as the “inexorable dynamics” of the factual situation. Ultimately everything depends upon the ever-changing will of the leader, decisions which cannot be discussed, but are blindly obeyed and immediately executed. Thus fascism could present itself in a given situation as a bulwark of the social order against social revolution, against Marxism and the proletariat, and could in a different situation become the propagandist and spearhead of a proletarian world revolution against conservatism and wealth, against bourgeoisie and capitalism.