Was Mussolini’s seizure of power due to his own skill or theincompetence of his opponents?On the 23 March 1919 after a series of Communist demonstrations,the almost forgotten Mussolini decided to attempt to revive hisFasci movement. A meeting was held in a hall in a Milan and wasattended by some fifty malcontents. From this seemingly small andinsignificant event the Fascio di Combattimento’ (Combat Group)was born. Initially, it would seem that the Fasci were destinedfor failure with none of their candidates (including Mussolini)winning a single seat in the 1919 elections. How was it that aparty with no clear programme, save a belief in action of somesort, became a ruling dictatorship little more than ten yearslater?By the end of 1919, Mussolini possessed hardly more than 2% ofthe vote in Milan, less than 5000 votes against 170,000 for theSocialists. Was this a complete disaster? At the time it seemedso; the Socialists were so confident of their success that theystaged a mock funeral in Milan stopping outside Mussolini’s houseto invite him to attend the burial of his party. Incredibly, by 1921 the membership of this previously tiny groupwas to rival the size of the Socialists. How was this achieved?It was certainly by no easy means; Mussolini’s skill and luckplayed a vital role, but he was also helped by the seeminglyblind incompetence of his opponents. Mussolini’s path towards the top of Italian Government washindered by many forms of opposition. However, most of hisopposition came from the Government and the rival Socialist (PSI)party. Soon after the summer of 1920 the Fascists and theiropposition inevitably clashed. The fact that Gioletti’sgovernment was faced with million workers sitting in infactories showed that Italy was a far from stable country in1920. Did an opportunity present itself for Mussolini to gainground over the Socialist opposition? If it did, Mussolinicertainly did not take it. He was still recovering from hisparty’s humiliating election defeat. Eventually the union leaders, evidently surprised by this sudden,spontaneous revolutionary outburst persuaded the workers to givein in return for higher wages. Although initially it would seemthat the workers had won, the strikes had sown the seeds of fearamongst Italy’s Socialist opposition. The overall effect of thiswas that many of the opponents of Socialism joined Mussolini’s Fascist’ party. The Socialist party by causing the strike hadunwittingly played into Mussolini’s hands; although this was dueto their own incompetence and not the skill of Mussolini. Interestingly, they were later to make exactly the same mistakeagain. The fact that Mussolini’s party benefitted greatly by offeringaction, showed that political gains could be made from theweakness of the government and from the unrest of the country. It was at this point in 1921 that Gioletti began searching forallies against the Socialists. The Vatican had turned againsthim; This was mainly due to the government’s proposal to tax thebonds which were a main form of Church property at the time. As a result Gioletti decided to use Fascist support against theSocialists. Why did Gioletti decide to use the Fascist’s supportto combat the Socialists, when there were many other safer waysof doing so? Principally, he believed that he could easilydominate Mussolini and once in power again he would discard the tougher elements’ among the Fascists. He made a grave mistakein believing this.In the winter of 1920-21, Mussolini organized his men into squadre d’azione’ (squads of action) headed by local leaders( ras’) like Balbo in Ferrara and Grandi in Bologna. Primarily,Mussolini’s clever planning was demonstrated by his success: Hisinitial campaign of violence against the Socialists led to 200dead and 800 wounded in the period between December 1920 and May1921. The government, in accordance with its alliance with theFascists, did little to prevent the violence, and instead saw itas a cheap way of curbing the rise of socialism. Even when in thespring of 1921 the clashes had reached riot proportions, thegovernment nonetheless decided that they had succeeded in theiraim of disrupting the progress of socialism. Later at theSocialist party congress in January 1921 the PSI split into arevolutionary and a reformist wing. This move was welcomed, ifnot actually forced by the Fascists. With Socialist supportdiminishing rapidly, the Fascists gained a vital foothold inParliament. Primarily, this was achieved through the election of15 May 1921. Because his party offered action, Mussolini gainedfrom the weakness of the government and from the unrest in thecountry. During the election the government used Fascist supportto unseat Socialist and Catholic deputies; this was mainly doneby beating up opponents. Mussolini met little opposition to hisactions; the police and prefects remained neutral or activelyaided the Fascists with transport and arms. The Fascistsperformed particularly well in the elections as the figures belowshow:Extreme Nationalists 10Fascists 35 Government bloc (184)National Bloc (Gioletti) 139Radicals (Liberal Democrats) 68 Potential centrist Popolari’ 107 opposition (175)Reformists 29Socialists 123 Left opposition (176)Communists 15 Total seats (535)National minorities 9The Fascists were invited by Prime Minister Gioletti to form apart of his right-wing electoral alliance, thereby promisingthem, for the first time, some influence in the government aswell as in the streets. Gioletti had given the Fascists a chanceto become an accepted political force. Primarily, Prime Minister Gioletti must be held responsible asone of the main reasons for Mussolini gaining another chance tofight for power. As Mussolini’s Fascist Party grew, so seeminglydid the incompetence of Gioletti. He became increasinglydependent upon the Fascists to take direct and often brutalaction against the unions and peasant leagues. His unorthodoxmethods were careless, unparliamentary and were to be extremelyself-destructive. It seemed that Gioletti and his government hadlost the will to govern the country and its people. >From May to July 1921 Gioletti was to govern on the basis of thiscoalition. However, within a year there were to be thirteendifferent groups in Parliament. Since the parliament fell intothree approximately equal groupings, the Fascist’s thirty-fiveseats were crucial to the stability of the government. If theFascists defected to the opposition, government would have beenvery difficult. The knowledge that the Fascists had become a powerful force ingovernment took Mussolini by surprise. His immediate reaction tothis situation was to become a respectable participant ingovernment. In doing this, he signed a peace treaty’, and a pact of pacification’ with the Socialists to end their mutualviolence. However, his lieutenants in the provinces disliked anddisagreed with his curb on their power. In actual fact Mussoliniresigned as leader for a brief period of time; however inNovember he accepted their demands for continued hostility andtore up the pact. The economic conditions of the 1920’s did much to encouragesupport for extremist parties; both the Fascists and theSocialists benefitted greatly. This was mainly due to Italy’s wardebts and problems of reconstruction, as well as the devaluationof the lire. The working-class voter’s wage remained at pre-warlevels while prices increased everywhere. This resulted inincreasing support for the left-wing parties who, the working-class voters hoped, wouldpress for wage claims. In some cases, they took action on their own behalf by strikingor occupying factories. It was to be Mussolini’s skill that was
to gain him support from these actions. The strikes had raisedthe spectre of revolution, and this in turn, increased theattraction of the Fascists to the middle-class population andthose who feared socialism. It was Mussolini’s policies of firmaction to prevent revolution that many Italians saw as the onlyalternative to Bolshevism.The period from December 1921 to November 1922 was to see theoverall demise of the Socialist and government opposition toMussolini. During this period, Fascist thuggery became ever moreefficient, claiming 3000 lives of the Socialist supporters, withonly 300 Fascist fatalities. Finally, on 26 June 1921 Gioletti’sincompetence caught up with him; he was forced to resign due toFascist opposition in Parliament. A combination of Mussolini’sopportunism and skill, and Gioletti’s inadequacy to govern Italyhad resulted in Gioletti’s resignation. His successor was to be Ivanoe Bonomi, who was a reformistSocialist, and formed a government with Radical and Popolari’support. His choice of parties was rather dangerous to hispolitical position as one was clerical and the other anti-clerical. He did not last long,and within four weeks the King had asked Luigi Facta to head the new Italian government.A famous historian, Denis Mack Smith, has described him asfollows … a timid, ignorant provincial lawyer who had risenin politics by seniority alone. His appointment was at firsttaken almost as a joke…’. Deserted by the Popolari’ in thesummer of 1922, he lost his Prime-ministerial position; however,he soon became Prime Minister again on 1 August when no othercould be found. Fortunately for Mussolini, Facta did not provideany form of powerful opposition towards him or his party’sactions.The very day that Facta formed his new ministry in government,the unions began a general strike. The strike was called in aneffort to force the government to halt the Fascist violence; inparticular it was a protest against Balbo’s actions in Romagna. Unfortunately for the Socialists, they played into Mussolini’shands, for yet again the problem of a socialist revolution wasraised. Mussolini cleverly showed the public that he was the manto restore order while in the background he made use of hisdisorderly supporters. The strike collapsed after one day, andMussolini and his Fascists gained increasing support. The oncestrong socialist opposition had disintegrated into a weak,disorganized group of individuals; Mussolini had succeeded inremoving an important part of the opposition. There were still a number of potential obstacles to Mussolini. The most obvious were the King and the army (who were controlledby the government). By October 1922 the government had virtuallybroken down, and much of Italy was in political disarray. Factasuggested that the entire cabinet should resign, but when hisidea was turned down, he started to plan a coalition with theFascists. It is interesting to note that the troops were stillloyal to the King; there can be little doubt that a firmgovernment could have crushed any armed attempt against theregime. Mussolini was well aware of this, and concentrated hisefforts on political manoeuvre. He demonstrated hisperceptiveness of the political situation when he realised thatthe Facta government was helpless and thinking in terms of acoalition. Taking advantage of the situation, Mussolini met with the leadersof the various Fascist groups. Action was planned for 28 Octoberon lines that had been worked out earlier. Three concentrationpoints were selected which the groups were to reach by any meansof transport and so avoid the chance of an early clash with thearmy. Such a clash was to be avoided at all costs and army unitswere to be treated with courtesy and friendliness. Again this wasclever decision-making by Mussolini, who realised the potentialthreat presented by the army.After a series of parades and speech-making to gather support,Mussolini presented his demands to the government. In essencethey were simple; there was to be a new cabinet with at least sixFascist ministers in important posts. On the 25 October Mussolinileft for Milan while the Party Congress continued to distract thegovernment’s attention.In reply to Mussolini’s demands, the Facta cabinet respondedsurprisingly slowly; they were convinced that they had plenty oftime in hand. Eventually, they decided that the answer would bein the form of a new coalition which would include a number ofFascists. However, confusion and disorganisation reigned asmembers of the cabinet continued to scheme. With this in mind,Facta decided to resign, though his cabinet still ran thegovernment until a new leader could be chosen. It is difficult to find sound reasoning behind Facta’sresignation; his resignation can be described as little more thana blunder. It did nothing but highlight the weakness of thecabinet and the instability of the government. Initially, itseemed to succeed; in view of his resignation, the Fascistleaders hesitated as to whether or not their plans should goahead for 28 October. However, unfortunately for the government,the Fascist party machine could not be halted and local unitsbegan to requisition trains and borrow arms from friendlymilitary units. Eventually, Facta was persuaded to return and to declare a stateof siege in Rome. Facta, now becoming increasingly worried aboutthe fascist threat, was reluctant to take such action. Instead,he went to the King to ask for a proclamation declaring a stateof emergency. This would have enabled the army to have beencalled out against the Fascist columns. However, the King rightlyfeared civil war, and doubted Facta’s ability to control thesituation. He was approached twice, but both times he refused tosign a proclamation. Facta’s reputation had been damaged so much,that even the King had little trust left for him. Mussolini having realised that there would be an armed clash,increased his demands. Again, this turned out to be a wellconsidered and successful plan. On 29 October Rachele Mussolinireceived a telephone message from Rome, requesting the presenceof Mussolini at the palace. At noon, Mussolini received atelegram; Mussolini was to form a government. It was not longbefore Mussolini had formed a moderate cabinet containing onlyfour Fascist ministers. He was secure in the knowledge that hehad the nations support for a government which was prepared toact. In addition, he knew that he had virtually no opposition,and had the support of the King, the army, and the industrialistsas well as the loyalty of his Fascist followers. In conclusion, then, to what extent can we attribute Mussolini’sseizure of power to his own skill or the incompetence of hisopponents? In view of his own skill, Mussolini’s career has beenpresented as one of blunder and bluff’. However, the 1920’s wasa period in which bluff’ was more suited to success. It is alsotrue to say that undoubtedly Mussolini helped the Fascist partyinto power through his own skill.Although initially, the Fascist party had widespread butunorganised support, Mussolini brought a certain nationalstructure and identity to the party. His first contribution wasthe organisation of the party, making it a movement as well asa party, and therefore making it a viable choice in an election. Secondly, Mussolini brought home the importance of opportunismand action as opposed to inactivity and fixed ideologies. As S. Lee argues, Mussolini was strongly inclined to intuitivebehaviour and projected himself as a flexible pragmatist. Thisallowed him to make full use of the chaotic conditions in Italy,and considerably increased the Fascist party’s fortunes. However, we must also consider that to a certain extent, theopposition’s continued failures and misjudgments almost pushedMussolini into power. We must also take account of the fact thatMussolini certainly had his fair share of luck – a prime exampleis the King’s refusal to declare a state of emergency, whichwould have allowed the army to attack the Fascists.However, it was his ability to act out the role of the Italianpeople’s dream leader that gave him the most success. He playedupon the post-war crisis, and made it appear that Fascism was theonly way in which socialism would be smashed, and Italy’s societyand status would be rebuilt. To the Italian people, Mussolini wasthe great leader they had been desperately searching for – theleader who was going to make Italy a great power, and a respectedforce in the world.