(Published in Gerarchia, May 25, 1922)
By Benito Mussolini
The history of Italian Fascism, which is brief, but already full of controversy, can be divided into three distinct periods: the first goes from March 1919 to November-December 1920; the second from November-December 1920 to the Congress of Rome of 1921; and the third from the latter date up to the present.
It has been asserted, and the assertion is true, that in the first period of its existence Fascism was a predominantly urban phenomenon. But we must respond to certain writers who deny the efficiency of the "Fascism of the First Hour", and who deny that we are gaining more ground. They obviously disregard history, and claim that the fortunes of Fascism only appeared when Bolshevism already began to decline, when in reality it is because of Fascist action.
It will not be inappropriate to recall once again — for those who have forgotten — that the first formidable blow inflicted against the Bolshevik madness took place in Milan in April 1919; that in September of that same year, Fascism morally and materially committed itself to the Fiume Exploit (Impresa di Fiume); that in October we held our first national congress in Florence; that later we took part in the elections; that in the spring and summer of 1920 Fascism had its first successes in Trieste and Istria, with the burning of the Hotel Balkan and other dens of the enemies of Italy; that in May of the same year the second national gathering of Fascists was held in Milan, during which it was easy to see that Fascism was developing at a rapid rate. There was, therefore, a fervent activity of Fascism well before the occupation of the factories by the Communists in August-September 1920. Deny it if you wish, like you do with so many other things, but it is childish.
From March 1919 to November 1920 Fascism held its torch high, shouting its motto. Then came the second period of its history, which can be called the Socialist Catastrophe, during which the masses of citizens flocked to Fascism.
In the economic and social life of a nation there are strategic points of fundamental importance which, if lost, the entire system is bound to collapse. One of the strategic points of the utmost importance for Italian Socialism was Bologna. As long as the Socialists ruled Bologna, their situation in the entire Po Valley was not in any danger, and their dominance could not be seriously threatened. But the barbaric assassination of Tullio Giordani produced a lightning impression of conscience: beneath this storm of offended souls, the Socialist strongholds began to collapse one after the other: the Red Army disbanded, and the former leaders disappeared from public view. The Socialists understood that if Bologna is lost, all is lost. A month later they attempted a comeback in Ferrara with the Massacre of Este Castle (Eccidio del Castello Estense). Even here the coup failed and Ferrara rose up. Modena, Reggio and the other cities of the Po Valley soon followed. The movement of revolt spread from the cities to the countryside: all the large and small institutions of Socialism crumbled: the strategic defeat of Italian Socialism was complete. Other factors also intervened to worsen the situation for them: the disappointment of the workers after the occupation of the factories; the disillusionment with the Russian myth; and the split of the Communist Party in Livorno. In the autumn-winter of 1920, Italian Fascism did not lose its 'urban' character, because its most active centres remain the urban ones, but it became rural as well; that is, it spread into small villages, it gathered followers among the inhabitants of the countryside and tended to change from a minority into a mass movement. There is no doubt that the introduction of so many new elements into the movement altered, more or less profoundly, the aspects of the original profile of Fascism: the integration of these new forces, of this sort of great spiritual and material mobilization, took place a bit tumultuously, but it is not permissible to reject these rebels, nor is it possible to select them carefully: this will only happen in the third part of the story, when Fascism transformed itself from a movement into a Party.
To what extent has Fascism become "rural"? In order respond to this question with some approximation it is necessary, first of all, to consult statistics. According to studies by Francesco Coletti, who is most competent in these matters, and on the basis of the 1911 census, the population which may be called rural in Italy is around 18 million people, grouped into three and a half million families. The regions which — according to the 1911 census — have the highest density of rural population are the following:
Lombardy . . . . . . . . . . 2,185,000
Veneto . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,990,000
Piedmont . . . . . . . . . . 1,691,000
Emilia-Romagna . . . . . 1,500,000
Tuscany . . . . . . . . . . . 1,214,000
Now, here is the number of membership cards distributed on April 30, 1922 by the Directorate of the National Fascist Party in these five regions:
Lombardy . . . . . . . . . . 43,880
Veneto . . . . . . . . . . . . 13,720
Piedmont . . . . . . . . . . 8,515
Emilia-Romagna . . . . . 35,625
Tuscany . . . . . . . . . . . 25,707
There are, therefore, in the five regions of the Po Valley, one hundred thousand regular members of the Fascist Party. Alongside the political militias, organized within the Fasci, trade unions have also arisen. How many members are there in the guilds? It is impossible to say for certain. But we can estimate that, in the above five regions, they number about 150,000. Therefore the masses which follow Fascism, in politics and in economy, has been estimated, in the Po valley alone, at about 300,000 individuals. One can not say based on these figures that Fascism has become strictly rural; one can only say that a good half of the Fascist militias come from the rural areas. Not only are we not ashamed of this, but we would like to proclaim — as a badge of honour — that Fascism in the Po Valley is today largely "rural".
Rural, not agrarian. Note the difference. Only disingenuous polemicists can confuse these two terms. In the face of blatant denials by the anti-Fascists, it is sufficient to recall that the Agrarians have formed a political party — prior to the National Congress — with a related parliamentary group, outside of the National Right; it is sufficient to recall that, alongside the National Agrarian Political Party, there is an economic organization called the National Confederation of Agriculture; and finally it is sufficient to recall that on several occasions the Agrarians have clashed — not collaborated — with the Fascists. The program of the Agrarians, who were protesting against Fascist interference, was, in fact, complacently reported by the journal "Avanti!". The Agrarians have one plan; the rural population has another. The Agrarians are big landowners and, except for a few honorable exceptions, are highly conservative; the rural people are sharecroppers, tenant farmers, small owners, day laborers. Between Fascism and the landowners there is bad blood. The renewal of certain farmhouse contracts has rendered the difference more marked, so much so that some landowners appear to be reminiscing of the Red period. They are not able, in the long run, to sympathize with Fascism, which pays no respect to their selfishness, but subordinates them to the interests of production and the interests of the Nation. The recent parliamentary debate on large estates has shown that the positions of the Agrarians and the Fascists are different, if not antithetical. How then do we explain the adhesion of vast masses of "rural people" to Fascism? During the time of the upheaval of the Red barons, the tyranny exercised by the Socialist leaders was widely documented through grotesque episodes, often criminal. Tyranny that manifested itself in boycotts, acts of sabotage, fires, assassinations, endless strikes, and which had as its ultimate goal the proletarianization of all the workers of the world: to reduce them all to the poor condition of the agricultural land laborers, and to make all property nationalized, i.e. socialized or bureaucratized. Those who lived in Romagna — especially in the area around Ravenna — know the tragedy of this crisis. Now, in a country deeply psychologically individualistic, the rural population can not be socialist. The masses of laborers were at first enthusiastic about the formula: "socialization of the land" — a formula of deplorable stupidity belonging to the so-called "scientific socialism" of Enrico Ferri. But the tenant farmers, the sharecroppers and the small owners — who are tied to "their" land — refused to go along with this and defended themselves "unguis et rostribus" against the looming threat of dispossession. The human truth is that the small owner cares about his farm; the truth is that the sharecropper or tenant farmer works with all his strength towards becoming an owner — and they have largely succeeded in the last ten years. The "socialization of the land" in a country like Italy is especially absurd; but in the meantime the threat of becoming universally poor and destitute has caused all the "rural people" to gravitate towards Fascism in order to protect their work and their living. "Land to the peasants!", they cried during the war. The peasants are now taking over the land with their forces: it is clear that these tight phalanxes of new small owners can only hate Socialism, and what it represented yesterday, and what it might threaten tomorrow. With Fascism, however, they have everything to hope for and nothing to fear.
Profound economic motives have drawn masses of rural people to Fascism in impressive numbers. But this alone is not enough to explain the "sympathies" of the new rural petty bourgeoisie for Fascism. Other psychological factors also played a role. The peasants took the war seriously. To say that they were enthusiastic would be poor rhetoric, but it is certain that the anti-war element among the rural population was very different from that of the urban population, who were later ambushed. Opposition to the war by certain peasants came not from fear of hardships or risks, or from inconvenience, that is to say, not from fear of fighting in the trenches, but for other simpler reasons. The peasants that I knew in the Carso region did not complain about the hardships of war nearly as much as the urban soldiers: food was scarce and they had to sleep on the floor. They accepted it with resignation, but often wondered "why is it necessary to kill and be killed?" The urban element tried to understand the war (its reasons), but condemned it in the name of internationalism or because of their suffering: the rural element, however, accepted it with resignation, patience and discipline. It is certain that during the last year of the war, between Caporetto and Vittorio Veneto, a profound psychological transformation took place in the masses of "rural people" who held the front. Among the assault battalions there were thousands upon thousands of peasant-farmers. Many of those who fought in the First and Second Battle of the Piave were potential Fascists. Many peasants reached the rank of "Battalion Adjutant". Maybe even became officers. All of them returned to the country and were overwhelmed by the civil disaster of the Nitti government, which devastated the national consciousness in 1919, but we were there to rescue them. It is certain that almost all the political secretaries of the small rural Fasci are veterans, and often officers or non-commissioned officers accustomed to exercising command. It is thus undeniable, therefore, that rural Fascism derives much of its moral strength from the war and from victory, but that at the same time it keeps alive these moral forces, of incalculable historic value, throughout the country. The new petty bourgeoisie of rural producers, concentrated in the Fasci, is destined to become, like that of France, a force of stability, of equilibrium, of solid patriotism. A guarantee — in short — of the continuity of national life.
Fascism respects religion; it is not atheist, it is not anti-Christian, it is not anti-Catholic. It rarely happens that a Fascist funeral rite is secular. There is no doubt that Fascism is far less anti-Catholic than the People's Party. The religiosity of rural Italians is perfectly Italian. The peasant who attends Mass every Sunday, stops at the door and chats with his neighbours and even the animals is a spectacle that may scandalize and irritate those belonging to other sects or religions, but it is in perfect conformity with our character and our temperament. The "cupio dissolvi" is not part of the religiosity of the rural Italians. The Italian peasant does not concern himself too much about whether hell exists or not. He puts himself in order, on the presumption that hell does exist, and that is enough for him. The work of violent anti-clericalism and suffragization, which was attempted by the Socialists in the years before the war, has wounded many souls. But the war has revived religious values. A movement such as Fascism, which respects religion and imparts a character of religiosity into its own demonstrations, enacts waves of sympathy in the souls of the rural people, who have never been seduced by the atheistic propaganda of the so-called freethinkers in the villages. Even the demonstrations of the Fascists, which we call military, have their sympathetic influence in the souls of the peasants who have been to war.
Recently the tendency has been to put a stigma on Fascism, accusing it of being subservient to the interests of the big landowner classes. This is untrue. Fascism, I repeat, is in every way the political and spiritual expression of a new, small, rural democracy which has been formed in recent years. The historic merit — of quite exceptional importance — of Fascism is to have succeeded in making the vast masses of our rural population a living and integral part of our history. In a sense this is the miracle which has been awaited for so many centuries. During the Risorgimento the rural people were either left out or were hostile. The unification of Italy was the work of the intellectual bourgeoisie and certain artisan sectors of the cities. But the Great War of 1915-18 incorporated millions of rural people. Still their participation in it was generally passive. Once again they had been dragged along by the cities. Now Fascism is transforming this rural passivity — the reasons for which I have outlined above — into an active participation in the reality and sanctity of the Nation. Patriotism is no longer a feeling monopolized (or exploited) by the city, but becomes the heritage of the countryside as well. The tricolour flag, ignored for a century, is now waving in the most remote villages. Not everything which flourishes and nearly explodes in this springtime of our race is destined to last, and we know this, but we also know that some spiritual upheavals leave deep traces. We will leave to the faint-hearted or the most pure the boring task of caviling about the sincerity of rural patriotism. We are just at the beginning of a new period of Italian history. And before long the immense operation attempted and accomplished by Fascism in these years will be understood and appreciated.