In his exploration of 20th century fascism between the wars, Payne (1995) described Mussolini as the most liberal of the totalitarian personalities that dominated that period. Perhaps this was a vestige of his earlier involvement with revolutionary socialism, or a reflection from his early years. Yet, the fact remains that Mussolini, along with Hitler, was an architect of fascism and of the policies that led to World War II. The intention in the following pages is to explore Mussolini’s rise to power, including his childhood and youthful political development.
Benito Mussolini was born in July of 1883 in Varana di Costa, a village in the Commune of Predappio in Romagna. According to Ivone Kirkpatrick (1964), Romagna, at that time, was a hotbed of anticlericalism and republicanism. It was an era of rural nonconformity. Mussolini himself was named after both a Mexican revolutionary and two Italian revolutionary socialists. Both his grandfather and his father were politically involved, his grandfather in the struggle against the papacy and his father in the struggle to institute revolutionary socialism in Italy.
However, his mother was deeply religious, conformist, and conservative. Both eventually had an important influence on Mussolini’s development and choices. He became a political activist and political writer, like his father, but he was essentially conservative, like his mother. Mussolini himself asserted that his greatest love was for his mother, and that she had much influence on his character development and behavior (Mussolini, 1928). That character, at least in his early years, seemed to be unruly, rebellious, and antiauthoritarian.
Records of his behavior and demeanor in school indicated that he reacted poorly to any kind of authority and order, was passionate and unruly, hated discipline, and sought revenge in the case of any slight or injury. He was eventually asked to leave the school. His later schooling, however, was more successful. At this time, he began his involvement in politics and became known as an excellent public speaker. Still, he remained undisciplined, even while obtaining a diploma to serve as an elementary teacher. Although he received high marks in several of his subjects, his personality and character seemed highly unsuited to that career.
A career as a political agitator seems much more appropriate. Ultimately, this was the course Mussolini followed. Although he served for a short while as a schoolteacher, this was not satisfying to him. Instead, he determined to emigrate to Switzerland, which some have asserted was simply to avoid being drafted into the military service in Italy. There he wandered much of the time, became involved with a number of women, and spent much of his time with revolutionaries, both Italian and Russian. He was not a settled young men, and he was a resentful, rebellious, disorderly one.
This seems to have been the course of his early life, which included much violence and encounters with the police. These were not the result of Mussolini’s revolutionary principles, but of his temperament. He continued to be an undisciplined individual who drifted into jobs, relationships, and political involvements. He was not a good companion, nor an individual who had much respect for the rights of others. His basic attitude toward other human beings seemed to be one of contempt, despite his early Socialist leanings.
Unlike his father, he never exhibited compassion for people, but scorn. It was in 1908 that he began the main part of his political career, still a Socialist, writing a Socialist newspaper in Oneglia. Again, he had a very poor attitude toward most of his peers. He did not think well of the passivists in the Socialist party, nor the reformists. He was still extremely anticlerical and he began to speak for the most revolutionary element of the Socialist party. He was against anything that was established, anything that seemed connected to the middleclass.
Ultimately this man spoke to the heart of the middleclass, but not in these early years. Kirkpatrick (1964) noted that Mussolini seemed to be motivated primarily by the desire for attention than anything else. He indicated that Mussolini did not care that the people love him, but that they notice him. Mussolini believed that it was actually more profitable to him for people to fear him than to love him. Ultimately it brought him more power. This desire for power and attention helps to explain the ongoing political changes that characterize Mussolini’s early political career.
Although he began as a Socialist and rose to prominence in that party by 1912, he abandoned it by 1914. As a Socialist, he had advocated violent revolution, rather than the gradual, evolutionary approach favored by many in the party. His writing and speaking ability helped gain him power in the party and the editorship of Avanti. This was the official Socialist newspaper (Payne, 1995). At the age of 29, then, Mussolini had obtained quite a bit of attention and power. He controlled the press of the Socialist party and was an acknowledged leader of its revolutionary, and leading, faction.
Nonetheless, this was not satisfactory. He was dissatisfied with the pace of change within the country and felt that the Socialist party was inadequate to the challenges of the times. James Gregor (1979) noted that Mussolini was basically an authoritarian Socialist who shared much in common with Lenin, who actually endorsed Mussolini’s success in 1912. Gregor indicated that both opposed bourgeois parliamentarianism, both believed that the masses were unable to lead the revolution, and both believed in a leadership of a minority of professional revolutionaries.
Both also supported ongoing organized violence as a means to an end, and both thought that revolutionary consciousness would be imposed on the masses from without, rather than emerging from within (Gregor, 1979). This is interesting since the two men ultimately wound up on opposite sides of the struggle. Nonetheless, in these early days, Lenin and Mussolini were similar in their thinking. The initial break occurred in 1914 when Mussolini disagreed with the official Socialist position on World War I. That position was neutral and noninterventionist.
Mussolini believed, however, that neutrality failed to serve the interests of the Italian state, which was relatively undeveloped. In order to protect those interests, he favored intervention on the side of the Entente. He asserted that Italy had to join those forces which were working to defeat the old European empires, and he actually received support from business interests which supported intervention (Payne, 1995). Payne (1995) indicated that Mussolini’s stance now changed to support revolutionary war, rather than revolution within.
He joined the Fascio Rivoluzionario in December of that year, involving himself with a conglomeration of forces and movements that still emphasized revolution, but with a different orientation. This revolution was more nationalist and involved the masses in its development and implementation. The Fascio Rivoluzionario itself was reorganized in January of 1915 and renamed the Fasci d’Azione Rivoluzionaria. This was the nascent fascist movement that Mussolini joined. It was to have its first victory in May of that year, although the victory was overstated.
The fascists, along with many others interested in intervention, mounted enormous protests in May, which ultimately pressured the parliamentary deputies into voting for intervention in the war. The fascists took credit for this achievement and publicized it as the first element of its antiparliamentary revolution. It is important to remember that Mussolini always distrusted the bourgeoisie and its institutions, whether church or parliament. From both the Socialist side and the Fascist side, he wanted to destroy these compromised institutions in favor of a more ideal, ideologically pure nationstate.
It was during his service in the war that Mussolini’s ideas underwent further change. From being a Socialist with an elitist stance on revolution, he became an extreme nationalist, with the desire to meld nationalism with socialism in a way involving the entire country. His involvement in the military seems to have given Mussolini new ideas about discipline and order, too. From henceforth, the elements of discipline and selfsacrifice were to be important aspects of his political philosophy (Payne, 1995). This change in both temperament and politics were the final piece in his development as a political leader.
He returned to Milan after the war and became party leader again, only of the Fascists, not the Socialists. The Fascist movement actually became a viable political party only with Mussolini’s intervention and revitalization of the movement in 1919. Like the Nazis in Germany, the new movement had few supporters in the beginning, with an initial attendance of less than 150 men. According to Kirkpatrick (1964), it was Mussolini who essentially determined the program of the party, although with great difficulty. He was never a very astute political thinker and was most often ruled by his emotions and his desires.
As a consequence, he muddled along, gradually developing his ideas and principles, often in opposition to others. For example, his first important speech to the new party asserted that the Fascists needed to oppose the Socialists, not because they supported socialist principles, but because the Socialist party in Italy had acted against the best interests of the nation. This was a rejection of his earliest political connection, and a rejection of the philosophy of his father and grandfather. Mussolini had changed into a nationalist and this was the ruling element in the development of his program.
He had gained new pride, along with Italy, and he wanted to solidify Italy’s position in the modern world, making it one of the powerful nations. The next decade was the important one, representing the advent of Fascist power in Italy. Always the movement was led by Mussolini, although he had an executive committee working with him. The Fascist movement was actually decreed to be the antithesis of traditional parties, which were associated with corruption and rigidity. It was to be an antiparty, a movement, a force of nature, in which the whole of the people would involve themselves with building a powerful nation (Lyttelton, 1973).
This was the time when the Fascists went from one successful candidate in November 1919 to control of the government by 1929. The turn began with the decision by the Fascist movement to counterattack the Socialists in the rural area, using violent measures. These were the Blackshirts, analogous to Hitler’s brownshirts. They obtained their support from the middle and upper classes, but also from some of the lower classes, interested in Italian pride more than Socialist class struggle (Lyttelton, 1973). By the end of 1921, the Fascist movement had become a mass movement and the largest political organization in Italy (Payne, 1995).
They had, in other words, found the heart of the people. The rhetoric, too, began to change. Instead of being antibourgeoisie, Mussolini and the Fascists became antislacker. They supported all productive Italians, of whatever class, seeking to meld the classes together to create an ordered, disciplined, selfsacrificing state able to take its place at the center of world politics. Mussolini himself was challenged for the leadership of the party in 1921, but compromised some of his positions on violence in order to develop a more centralized and organized movement.
At that time, the Fascist movement became the Partito Nazionale Fascista, with a central committee, an executive committee, and Mussolini, who had now become known as Duce (Payne, 1995). This set the stage for Mussolini’s ongoing ascension to power, beginning with his service as prime minister in 19221925 and his development of the Fascist dictatorship from 19251929. Again, these are characterized by Mussolini’s opportunism and tendency to compromise principles in favor of power.
Eventually, this onetime Socialist became the quintessential leader of the middle classes, and an authoritarian dictator who relied on symbols and myths of ancient Roman glory to unite the nation behind him.
References Gregor, A. J. (1979). Young Mussolini and the intellectual origins of Fascism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Kirkpatrick, I. (1964). Mussolini. A study in power. NY: Hawthorn Books, Inc. Lyttelton, A. (1973). The seizure of power: Fascism in Italy, 19191929. New York. Mussolini, B. (1928). My autobiography. London. Payne, S. G. (1995). A history of Fascism, 19141945. Madison, WI: The