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The Pageant of World History vs. Wikipedia: The Case of Mussolini

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When I was in sixth grade, a 1967 copy of The Pageant of World History by Gerald Leinwand came into my possession.  While I learned a great deal from it, the book contains shocking omissions.  Here's what Leinwand says about the early years of Mussolini:
Mussolini, at one time, had been a socialist, and, as a newspaperman, had written articles favoring the overthrow of capitalism.
All true, but so misleading!  Leinwand makes Mussolini sound like a low-level journalist who happened to be a rank-and-file member of the socialist party.  I didn't learn the real story for decades, when I discovered the works of A. James Gregor, especially his Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism.  Fortunately for the sixth-graders of today, Wikipedia has the facts that Leinwand leaves out.  Mussolini wasn't just another socialist; he was the Lenin of Italy - the leader of the hard-line revolutionary faction.  And Mussolini wasn't just a "newspaperman"; he was the editor of Avanti!, the official newspaper of the Socialist Party.  By 1910, he...
...was considered to be one of Italy's most prominent Socialists. In September 1911, Mussolini participated in a riot, led by Socialists, against the Italian war in Libya. He bitterly denounced Italy's "imperialist war" to capture the Libyan capital city of Tripoli, an action that earned him a five-month jail term.  After his release he helped expel from the ranks of the Socialist party two "revisionists" who had supported the war, Ivanoe Bonomi, and Leonida Bissolati. As a result, he was rewarded the editorship of the Socialist Party newspaper Avanti! Under his leadership, its circulation soon rose from 20,000 to 100,000.
Wikipedia's article on the Italian Socialist Party has more details on Mussolini's purge of "revisionists":

At the start of the 20th century, however, the PSI chose not to strongly oppose the governments led by five-time Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti. This conciliation with the existing governments and its improving electoral fortunes helped to establish the PSI as a mainstream Italian political party by the 1910s.

Despite the party's improving electoral results, however, the PSI remained divided into two major branches, the Reformists and the Maximalists. The Reformists, led by Filippo Turati, were strong mostly in the unions and the parliamentary group. The Maximalists, led by Costantino Lazzari, were affiliated with the London Bureau of socialist groups, an international association of left-wing socialist parties.

In 1912 the Maximalists led by Benito Mussolini prevailed at the party convention and this led to the split of the Italian Reform Socialist Party.

For socialists, of course, Mussolini's apostasy proves nothing except his supreme evil.  For everyone else, though, Mussolini's origin story puts his subsequent career in a whole new light.  Outsiders can easily see what insiders deny: The apostate fruit rarely falls far from the orthodox tree. 

Yes, Mussolini realized that socialism plus nationalism had more mass appeal than socialism alone.  Yes, Mussolini realized that socialism would be stronger if it allied with the Church instead of destroying it.  Yes, Mussolini realized that full-fledged mass expropriation of private property would devastate the economy.  And yes, Mussolini realized that the word "socialism" alienated millions of Italians who would otherwise be receptive to his message.  But this doesn't make Mussolini a radical socialist who betrayed everything he believed in.  It makes him a radical socialist who dropped some peripheral socialist dogmas that stood between him and absolute power.  If he'd kept the socialist label and avoided alliance with Hitler, Mussolini might now be a left-wing icon as big as Che Guevara.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Cedric writes:

Great post. Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism has a good chapter on Mussolini's socialism, and the American left's love of Mussolini prior to the war.

Gian writes:

If all these-internationalism, anti-clericalism, anti-private property--are peripheral socialist dogmas then I wonder what are essential socialist dogmas?
What is the essence of socialism that Mussolini kept secure?

Greg G writes:

Yes and Reagan was a former left leaning Democrat and union leader. That must be why he later "proved that deficits don't matter." Big spending with right wing rhetoric probably had more mass appeal than big spending alone. His apostasy didn't fall so far from the tree either.

Tom West writes:

Greg G: beautiful!

TED writes:

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RPLong writes:

This post could have greatly benefitted from a few quotes from Mises' Omnipotent Government. Fascism and socialism are exactly the same thing. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why socialists consider fascism to be anything other than another offshoot, no different than anarcho-syndicalism or Leninism.

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

Excellent post. Mussolini's writings are well worth serious study, even (especially) by classical liberals. Not to quibble with the previous commenter, but Mussolini's argument isn't _identical_ to Marx's, it parallels it, substituting ethnicity/nationality for socio-economic class. Both the similarities and the differences are telling.

Glen Smith writes:

Gian,

Internationalism and anti-clericalism are not platforms of socialism but of the dominant form of communism (although communism itself is not necessarily anti-clerical). Communism is a FORM of socialism just like fascism is also a FORM of socialism. The attempt to create a society based on coercion is the identifying characteristic of a socialist form of government. A nicer way of putting that is that the only platform of any socialist system is that it believes property is defined by government.

RPLong,

You may know this but the fact that communism (especially the Leninist variety) is confused by many as a synonym for socialism is the greatest victory of Stalin.

By the way, the reason that the dominant forms of socialism are often anti-clerical is that if you desire ultimate power, there can be no moral limits as to your exercise of power. However, to get and maintain nearly unlimited power, a clerical system can spray spiritual perfume on the leader (to a point) and spiritual stank upon the leaders enemies (to a point). Of course, now we are developing a new class of cleric called the political economist.

Mike Rulle writes:

I am reading William Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich"
(written 1960). It is "journalist history", which reveals a different and fascinating window into the mini/micro details of the various interactions leading up to the War. One of the most interesting aspects of this was the Mussolini Hitler relationship. Mussolini clearly did not want War as he knew Italy was too weak to not get destroyed. He constantly was trying to persuade Hitler to hold off. While the Fuher had no intention to refrain, he never turned on the Duci. They each had this crazy mutual respect. Yet it made no sense for either. The Duci ultimately went along, despite knowing it had to be the end.

He was seduced by Hitler-----but Hitler truly respected Mussolini---a peculiar mutual vanity driven respect.. The latter's vanity relative to Hitler's respect is a remarkable show of weakness, particularly in light of his early rise.

Tom West writes:

The attempt to create a society based on coercion is the identifying characteristic of a socialist form of government.

Well, if you're playing that game, then *every* government that has ever existed is socialist, which pretty much renders the word meaningless.

One can call every government fascistic as well, but it doesn't make for meaningful or interesting conversations...

John Runyon writes:

Can't remember where I saw it - probably in J. Goldberg's work somewhere - the succinct explination of what's going on:

Communism = International Socialism
Fascism = National Socialism (with or without the racist trappings)

Gian writes:

Glen Smith,

"it believes property is defined by government."

Nomadic and hunter-gatherer societies do not have property rights in land but agricultural societies do have.

So property rights can not be universally defined but depend upon the nature of production in a given society.

Socialism involves a derogation of Individual and Family. It can be recognized but perhaps may not be defined.

Eric H writes:

If I remember correctly, I may be the editor who first entered the information about Mussolini's involvement in the Socialist party and Avanti!. I had just finished reading both Omnipotent Government and Joshua Muravchik's Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism. I also found it surprising that while Lenin and Mussolini seemed to have a mutual admiration society, Mussolini's reforms (pre-WWII) were admired in the UK and the US, and not generally by the Right. Most of what we are taught in school today about that period and those actors is informed by the WWII propaganda.

Getting stuff like that into Wikipedia is difficult. There are a small number of rabid Marxists who deny anything the label of socialism unless it was previously endorsed by Marx, Engels, or one of their early followers (not any of the dozens of apostates). Chip Berlet was among those who regularly scanned for anything outside The Gospel. At one point, I had a well-cited section removed on the pretext that "Austrians are not considered mainstream."

Mark Brady writes:

I seem to remember that at one time Mussolini espoused classical liberalism, but I guess this apple fell far from that tree!

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