The victory of the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) in the Italian general election held in September 2022, where it emerged as the biggest party, poses sharp questions.1
The overall vote for the right-wing electoral coalition—composed of the Fratelli, Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s declining Forza Italia—was little changed, but much depends on the understanding of the nature of the Fratelli. The Fratelli’s share of the vote leapt from 4.4 percent in 2016 to 26 percent in 2022. It gained nearly 6 million votes and became the leading party on the right. If the Fratelli is seen as essentially another right-wing conservative force then this is of only limited significance. If, however, the Fratelli is seen, as I will argue, as a much more defined fascist force than the far-right Lega, let alone the conservative Forza Italia, then the sense of alarm and danger must be far greater.
What cannot be denied is that a party with its origins in post-war neo-fascism is now the senior party in a governing coalition for the first time in Italy or elsewhere in Western Europe. The Fratelli’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, sits as prime minister. This is a party that traces its historical roots back to the Italian Social Movement (Movimento Sociale Italiano; MSI), which was established in 1946 by veterans of Benito Mussolini’s Nazi-collaborationist Italian Social Republic (Republicca Sociale Italiana), also known as the Salò Republic. Meloni herself entered politics by joining the MSI as a 15 year old. A former leading MSI cadre, Ignazio La Russa, is now the president of the Italian Senate.2
Campaigning under its motto of “God, Fatherland and Family”, redolent of Italy’s fascist era, the Fratelli has, since 2017, chosen a party logo with the same well known tricolour flame image long used by the MSI.3 Indeed, to add to the troubling historical allusions, Meloni’s formal appointment as prime minister took place within a week of the centenary of Mussolini’s installation into the same position by King Victor Emmanuel III on 31 October 1922.
Yet, this also highlights the major differences between these two moments. Mussolini’s path to power, whatever its outward constitutional forms, was paved by a two-year wave of violent reaction directed against Italy’s workers’ movement. Fascist squads, known as the “blackshirts”, conducted, invariably with extensive state complicity, a campaign of terror, starting in the Po River valley and across Apulia in the winter of 1920-21, and then spreading through Italy’s major cities in 1921-22. The fascist “squadristi” waged a low intensity civil war against the left and workers’ organisations, leaving thousands dead and thousands more injured.4
Through this murderous violence, fascist squads established de facto provincial dictatorships with their local and regional leaders, the so-called ras, at their head. This then allowed Mussolini to bargain with the Italian ruling class for power (a process that created significant tensions between Mussolini and the ras). The combination of a ruling class seeking authoritarian solutions and Mussolini’s mass fascist movement opened the way for the destruction of liberal democracy and the creation of a fascist state by late 1925. Angelo Tasca, a former comrade of the Marxist militant Antonio Gramsci, called Italian fascism a “posthumous and preventive” counter-revolution aimed at smashing the organised workers’ movement, which had so terrified the Italian ruling class during the bienno rosso, the “two red years” of 1919-20, when socialist revolution seemed perilously close.5
Yet, the Fratelli lacks anything approaching such paramilitary forces and therefore, in this sense, resembles a conventional electoral political party, rather than what historian John Foot calls the “militia party” model of classical fascism.6 Does this mean that the allusions and references to the Mussolini era are simply “nostalgia”—sops to keep happy the old guard of former MSI members in the Fratelli—while in reality the party accepts the framework of liberal democracy? In other words, should we accept the claims of the Fratelli and Meloni that the organisation is a “post-fascist”, democratic conservative party? Indeed, this was the same claim made about its immediate predecessor, the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance).
In his history of post-war fascism in Italy, Franco Ferraresi has suggested, “The life of the MSI was long dominated by the tension between its ‘souls’, the ‘revolutionary’ and the ‘moderate’ one…a replication…of the two characters of fascism”.7 This does capture an important aspect of fascist movements, as we shall see. However, both the “moderate” and the “revolutionary” faces of fascism are best understood as masks that it wears to conceal its real project. As Leon Trotsky most clearly grasped, fascism is not merely another form of reaction or even a simple instrument in the hands of the ruling class. Fascism is a mass movement from below that aims at the overthrow of liberal democracy and the complete annihilation of all working-class organisations—both its reformist as well its revolutionary wing. In its most developed forms, in inter-war Europe, building a fascist movement involved a dual strategy: creating both an electoral base (though with much more limited results in Mussolini’s case than for Hitler’s) and a paramilitary street fighting wing (the blackshirted fascist squads in Italy and the brownshirted stormtroopers of the Sturmabteilung, or “SA”, in Germany).8
However, fascism’s counter-revolutionary project is veiled with the two masks identified by Ferraresi in his history of the MSI. The first is a moderate, legalistic, constitutional mask that cloaks fascism’s ambition to destroy liberal democracy. The second is its “anti-system” mask, claiming it desires revolutionary transformation in opposition to the existing elite and even aspects of capitalism. Again, this disguises the reality that fascism is a counter-revolutionary enterprise seeking to entirely eradicate the ability of the exploited to collectively resist the predations of capital.
So, if the Fratelli should be understood to be fascist, what is the significance of saying this when they currently lack the means to carry through the violent destruction of the workers’ movement achieved by both Italian fascism and German Nazism?
“The 70-year tradition”: Italian fascism after Mussolini
Meloni and the Fratelli seek to present themselves as a democratic conservative party, avoiding too open an identification with Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. Both Meloni and her party do, however, openly identify with the MSI. Meloni, for example, refers to the “70-year tradition of my party”, even though the Fratelli was only founded in 2012.9 However, the MSI not only identified with the fascist regime, but was created and led from its foundation in 1946 until the late 1980s by former participants in that regime. These include figures who played significant roles in the final incarnation of Mussolini’s regime, the Salò Republic.
The Salò Republic was established after the Nazis occupied northern Italy in 1943. This followed the Allied invasion of southern Italy, which prompted a section of the Italian ruling class and the fascist leadership to oust Mussolini in a palace coup. The Nazis rescued Mussolini from prison and re-installed him as the head of what was now effectively a puppet regime resting on Nazi military force. The Salò Republic engaged in a brutal war against anti-fascist partisans in northern Italy in collaboration with the SS and was implicated in the Holocaust.10
The MSI’s relationship to Mussolini’s fascist regime is not merely a question of tainted origins many decades ago. Until 1987, all the national secretaries of the MSI had been direct participants in the fascist regime and complicit in its crimes. Augusto De Marsanich, MSI leader between 1950 and 1954, was a junior member of the Salò government, and his successor, Arturo Michelini, who led the party between 1954 and 1969, was the vice-secretary of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party in Rome in the 1930s. However, the pivotal figure in the party was Giorgio Almirante, who was MSI national secretary between 1947 and 1950 and again from 1969 until his death in 1987.
Almirante was the editor of the regime’s antisemitic periodical, La Difesa della Razza (In Defence of the Race), between 1938 and 1943, before becoming a junior minister in the Salò regime. After the war, Almirante, who had served in Mussolini’s notorious anti-partisan Brigate Nere (Black Brigades), faced charges of ordering the shooting of partisans, but an amnesty was issued, and he was never put on trial.11 For Meloni, Almirante remains a respected figure and a key political reference point. In May 2020, for example, on the 32nd anniversary of Almirante’s death, she lauded him as a “patriot” for his “unconditional love for Italy, his honesty, his coherence and his courage”.12
The MSI was able to establish a small electoral toehold and some clientelist networks in the post-war years, especially in the cities of underdeveloped southern Italy. These regions were largely spared the brutal civil war between the regime and partisans that raged in northern Italy from 1943 to 1945. Moreover, the fascist regime had expanded civil service jobs in the southern regions. In 1948, at the MSI’s first general election, it took 2 percent of the vote and sent Almirante and five others into parliament. In 1953, its vote rose to nearly 6 percent, resulting in an expanded parliamentary group of 29 MPs. The MSI was also able to lead local governments in alliance with monarchists and other conservative forces in a number of southern cities such as Naples, Bari and Catania.13
Two developments were crucial in providing this political space for the MSI. The first was the series of amnesties and pardons by the new Italian Republic, which, despite its avowed anti-fascism, allowed vast numbers of former fascists, such as Almirante, to evade prison or gain early release and re-enter public life. In addition, a 1952 law that supposedly outlawed the re-establishment of a fascist party was never applied to the MSI, rendering it essentially hollow. The Italian ruling class was seeking to evade its own complicity in the fascist regime and limit possibilities for radical social change—after all, Italy’s northern cities had been liberated by an insurrection of armed workers, with the Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano) emerging from the resistance as a mass party. What made the ruling class’s task easier was the willingness of the Communist Party leadership to go along with this.14
The second development was the onset of the Cold War in 1947-8. This resulted in the expulsion of the Communist Party from the government and the intensification of “anti-communism” as a central ideological buttress of the post-war Italian state. For the MSI, after repositioning itself by abandoning its rejection of NATO and opposition to United States imperialism (which many MSI leaders and members had been at war with just a few years earlier), anti-communism provided a powerful point of convergence with the ruling Christian Democracy (Democrazia Cristiana) party. This enabled the MSI to present itself as part of a necessary counterweight to the Italian left.
The MSI adopted a deliberately ambiguous attitude towards Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship, proclaiming its approach to be, “Do not deny, do not restore!” In other words, it would mount a defence of the fascist regime’s “necessity”, but it would also claim that the MSI now accepted democratic norms. It is this self-proclaimed commitment to democracy that Meloni now points to when she portrays the MSI as having always been a party of the “democratic right”.
In the post-war period, the MSI pursued its own version of a twin track strategy. It defended fascism and presented itself as an “anti-system” party but also pursued opportunities for “inserimento”: seeking insertion into alliances with the conservative right in order to avoid isolation and gain respectability and political influence. In this way, it sought to act as a pole of attraction for the wider conservative right.
As Spanish historian Ferran Gallego has noted, this dual track approach—combining elections and a search for respectability with a pseudo-revolutionary posture—was no break from classical fascism. Instead, it involved considerable continuity:
This duality on the part of the MSI, a characteristic that allowed it to be both an alternative to and part of the system at the same time, was not the result of the movement’s metamorphosis at the hands of pure post-war necessity. Fascism in the 1920s was also characterised by such a duality, capable of sustaining the double facade of anti-systemic squadristri action and electoral collaboration with the liberal right… Classical fascism and neo-fascism have always maintained the double condition of anti-systemic discourse and the practical politics of coalition.15
During the 1950s, the MSI’s strategy of offering itself as a junior partner to the ruling Christian Democrats and a bulwark against the left increasingly paid off. This emphasis on presenting a more respectable face led to internal tensions and splits. Those who placed greater stress on adopting a more openly fascist identity and presenting an “anti-system” face quit the party to form groups such as Ordine Nuovo (New Order), led by Pino Rauti, and Avanguardia Nazionale (National Vanguard).
By 1960, the MSI’s strategy had brought it to the threshold of government, with the party providing the sole parliamentary support for Fernando Tambroni’s minority Christian Democrat government. The “cordon sanitaire” that had excluded the MSI from political legitimacy seemed all but abandoned in ruling conservative circles.
However, a militant anti-fascist response from below successfully reimposed the political containment of the MSI. Mass protests erupted over the decision by the Christian Democrat government to allow the MSI to hold its party congress in Genoa, which was seen as a huge provocation in a city that had witnessed intense fascist repression just 15 years earlier.16 Alongside a huge demonstration in Genoa, general strikes took place in Milan, Livorno, Ferrara and other cities two days before the planned conference. When the police violently assaulted the anti-fascist protestors, a semi-insurrectionary atmosphere developed in Genoa:
The rioting continuing for several hours, with police reinforcements arriving the next morning. Meanwhile, local partisans had set up a so-called liberation committee, which ominously threatened “to take over the government of the city”. A new general strike was announced, with strikers asked to take to the streets. Overnight, dozens of barricades were built, and hundreds of Molotov cocktails prepared, presumably to be used the followed morning. Meanwhile, the local government prefect spoke with prime minister Tambroni and decided to cancel the MSI conference. That evening, the whole city celebrated, and the resistance monument was covered in flowers.17
Despite this victory, protests across Italy continued and police violence resulted in 11 deaths. Yet, a few days after being forced to ban the MSI’s congress in Genoa, the government itself fell. Subsequent Christian Democrat administrations now turned to the centre-left Italian Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano) as a coalition partner. In other words, the ruling class turned to a reformist solution to restore political stability by drawing the non-Communist wing of the workers’ movement more closely into its orbit.
The MSI found itself hurled once again to the sidelines and suffered stagnation and decline for most of the 1960s. In turn, this fed the further development of new fascist groups, including some drawn into conspiracies with sections of the army for military coups if the feared “communist takeover” looked set to happen. Other fascist groups turned towards terrorism.18
Nonetheless, by the end of that decade, wider shifts in Italian society and politics once again raised the MSI’s hopes of a breakthrough. Intense class struggles erupted in the Italian “hot autumn” of 1969, with an explosion of working-class militancy and student radicalism. This lasted into the early 1970s, creating a highly polarised environment, with authoritarian “law and order” arguments winning a wider hearing in parts of the right-wing electorate and sections of the ruling class fearful of an insurgent left.19
Almirante now returned as MSI leader in 1969 with a reassertion of the dual strategy. The MSI, he argued, must pursue “the cudgel and the double-breasted suit”.20 Ordine Nuovo returned to the MSI, where its members were welcomed with open arms, and Rauti was immediately placed on the central committee.21
The reference to “cudgels” was no mere metaphor. Physical attacks on the left were common. A key battleground was in the universities. In May 1966, 300 “squadristi” led by two MSI parliamentary deputies stormed an anti-fascist occupation in the law department of the University of Rome. This occupation was itself a response to the beating to death of a student by members of Avanguardia Nazionale. This episode also highlights that the MSI, whatever its public denials, had links and overlaps with more overt fascist street groups, as well having as its own street fighting forces. In March 1968, a “punitive expedition” by around 200 members of the MSI’s Volontari Nazionali (National Volunteers), this time led personally by Almirante, stormed the fine arts department in the University of Rome, only to be fought off by anti-fascist students.22
The other track Almirante pursued was relaunching an electoral strategy, attempting to appeal to a wider section of those on the conservative right alarmed by the rising radicalism among students and workers. The MSI was able to subsume the small Italian Democratic Party of Monarchist Unity (Partito Democratico Italiano di Unità Monarchica), rebranding itself as the MSI-Destra Nazionale (National Right). The party presented itself as a strong force that could reimpose order and authority—a task the Christian Democrats seemed incapable of carrying out. It received its highest ever vote in the 1972 general election with 8.7 percent. Political scientist Piero Ignazi explains:
The party strategy aimed at abandoning the neo-fascist ghetto by setting up a novel party structure, the “Destra Nazionale”, which could attract conservative political groups and independent opinion formers… In the early 1970s, this strategy progressed, enabling the MSI to attract new forces. The monarchist party merged with the MSI, and some Christian Democrat and Italian Liberal Party (Partito Liberale Italiano) politicians, as well as some high-ranking army officers, joined.
This opening and accommodating strategy, however, included a contradictory element, namely, an appeal for a tough confrontation in the streets with the “reds” in order to mobilise the party and recapture the extreme right movements.23
These were the years of the “strategy of tension”, when sections of the state machine colluded in terror attacks carried out by small fascist groups. The MSI officially distanced itself from these outrages, but there were often shared contacts.24 In the same year that it was readmitted to the MSI, Rauti’s Ordine Nuovo group was responsible for the bombing in Milan’s Piazza Fontana, which killed 17 people. The aim was to pin the blame on the left and thus justify repression.25 Although continuing to claim adherence to democracy, the MSI also openly defended the dictatorships that existed in the early 1970s across southern Europe in Spain, Portugal and Greece.26 Almirante declared in parliament that the murderous 1973 military coup in Chile, which overthrew the radical left-wing government of Salvador Allende, should also be an option for Italy.27
Nonetheless, the ruling class overall was not looking to such solutions and instead opted to draw the other excluded party of the republic, the Communists, into the orbit of the government. The goal was to use the Communist Party and the mass base of reformism to contain and erode militancy from below—a strategy known as the “historic compromise”.28 In 1976, a drop in the MSI’s vote precipitated a crisis. Half its parliamentary group split away towards a more decisive embrace of a purely parliamentary strategy, although ironically the new Democrazia Nazionale (National Democracy) party they set up was virtually wiped out at the next elections.
In the 1980s, the MSI once more found itself trapped in isolation, facing impasse and stagnation. However, this situation was transformed by two great crises that allowed the MSI and its successors to reinvent themselves and make inroads into Italian society and politics in ways that had long eluded it in previous decades.
Crisis 1: corruption and the collapse of the old parties
In the early 1990s the Italian political system was shaken to its core by corruption scandals centred on the financing of political parties. These events reconfigured the political landscape and created vast new opportunities for the MSI to break out of its isolation. As Alex Callinicos explained in the mid-1990s:
Europe has been swept by a wave of disillusionment with, and hostility to, all the established political parties. The most extreme case of this is, of course, Italy. The exposure by Milan magistrates of Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”)—the systematic pillaging of the state and reliance on large-scale bribery from big business by the ruling parties, most importantly the Christian Democrats, politically dominant since 1948, and the Socialists, their key ally since the 1960s—generated an enormous popular revulsion…
The result, at the level of electoral politics, has been an earthquake. In the Italian parliamentary elections of March 1994, the Socialists, who had won 13.6 percent of the vote in April 1992, vanished, while the Italian Popular Party (Partito Popolare Italiano), the heir to the Christian Democrats, received 11.1 percent of the vote, a fraction of the 29.7 percent share its predecessors had gained two years earlier.29
The overall crisis did not just sweep away the old governing parties, but also the main opposition party. In addition to the Socialist Party disappearing and the once mighty Christian Democrats splintering into several smaller formations, the Communist Party, once the largest in Western Europe, voted to dissolve itself and rebrand as the Democratic Party of the Left (Partito Democratico della Sinistra) in 1991 in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. All the key parties that had in some way claimed legitimacy through identification with the anti-fascist resistance had either disappeared or been severely weakened. Into this political vacuum stepped the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who presented himself as an outsider not beholden to the old establishment (although in truth he had extensive ties to the old order, especially former Socialist Party prime minister Bettino Craxi).
As Robert Paxton, one of the most perceptive historians of fascism, has noted, fascist movements are not static phenomenon. In order to grow and deepen their roots and influence as the available possibilities and political spaces change, they must reshape themselves and adapt. For Paxton, therefore, the “settings and allies” for fascism are just as crucial to understand as the fascists themselves.30
Quoting from Paxton, political scientist Jim Wolfreys has spelt out some of the conclusions that follow from his description of fascism:
The emphasis on political space means that the art of understanding fascism does not have to rely on checklists, ticking off features of modern movements against a “fascist minimum”, or ﬁnding “exact replicas of the rhetoric, programmes or aesthetic preferences of the ﬁrst fascist movements of the 1920s”.
Rather than a ﬁxed essence, fascism in action “looks much more like a network of relationships”. These relationships embed tensions within the movement, between radical or revolutionary activists and more conservative elements.31
This capacity for mutation and reinvention relied on two developments. Firstly, there were new post-Cold War “settings and allies”. The very exclusion of the MSI from the “constitutional arc” of Italian politics, especially after 1960, suddenly turned to its advantage. Its ability to present itself as an outsider, untainted by the corruption of the Italian Republic, was now an asset. Berlusconi had positioned himself as an enemy of communism and was looking for allies on the right, which meant a willingness to embrace the MSI. This provided vital legitimacy, reducing the barriers to a wider layer of society voting for the MSI, especially among parts of the former support base of the Christian Democrats that were now politically homeless. When Gianfranco Fini stood as the MSI candidate in the Rome mayoral election in 1993, Berlusconi told an interviewer, “If I were in Rome, I would certainly vote for him.” Fini came a close second in the election. Berlusconi brought the MSI into his electoral coalition alongside his own new Forza Italia party and the racist Northern League (Lega Nord), the antecedent of today’s Lega. This coalition swept to office in the 1994 elections, and the MSI entered government, with Fini serving as foreign minister.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Berlusconi justified this move by defending the early part of Mussolini’s regime and denying the MSI’s fascist lineage:
Later, of course, Mussolini took away liberties and lead the country into war, so obviously the total outcome was to be condemned. However, for a while, Mussolini did some good things here, and that’s something that history says is correct… Fascists do not exist in my government. They do not exist. There is nobody in my government who is against liberty and democracy.32
In fact, some of the rehabilitation of the MSI and Mussolini’s regime had already taken place even before the collapse of the so-called First Republic and its party system in 1994. As prime minster in the 1980s, Craxi had sought to draw the MSI into official, institutional political processes, which historian Tom Behan described as the start of the party’s “political defrosting”.33 At the intellectual level, Renzo De Felice, an influential historian and biographer of Mussolini, sought to draw a sharp distinction between Italian fascism and German Nazism. He presented Mussolini’s regime as a more benign force, based on a wide social consensus in the 1930s, which was only derailed by the external pressures created by the later alliance with Nazi Germany. In a 1988 interview, De Felice set off a major public debate when he called for the end of the official anti-fascism of the Italian Republic, arguing this was an outworn obstacle to necessary political reform.34 Sometime later, in 2003, Berlusconi would carry the whitewashing of Mussolini’s regime even further and reinforce the spurious claims that his regime was largely benign, telling the Spectator magazine, “Mussolini never killed anyone… He sent people into confinement to have vacations”.35
The second development that enabled a new respectability and influence for the MSI was its political rebranding. In January 1994, Fini, who was Almirante’s chosen successor to lead the MSI, announced that the party would be transformed into the Alleanza Nazionale (AN) the following January. With the addition of some elements of the former Christian Democrats, the dissolution of the MSI and the founding of the AN took place at a conference in Fiuggi at the start of 1995.
In 1991, Fini had declared, “We are fascists, heirs of fascism, the fascism of the year 2000.” Now he proclaimed that the AN was a “post-fascist” organisation. The “svolta di Fiuggi” (turning point of Fiuggi) sought at a stroke to slough off the old fascist skin and the opprobrium this had created in wide sections of the population. To reinforce the claims of a newfound conversion to democracy, Fini took further symbolically loaded steps. He visited the site of the Fosse Ardeatine massacre in Rome, where the Nazis had killed 335 people with Italian fascist collusion in March 1944. In 1999, he also visited the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. In 2003, he went to Israel and denounced the antisemitic Racial Laws (Leggi Razziali) that were introduced by the fascist regime in 1938 as an “absolute evil.”36
The MSI/AN leadership aimed to distance itself from its past as it sought electoral success and participation in national governments. Success muted internal criticisms, although tensions and splits did take place as a result of Fini’s conciliarity moves. Yet, how far did the AN represent a break with fascism?
The overwhelmingly political and academic consensus was simple. The AN’s self-representation as “post-fascist” was accepted. The prevailing judgement was, as Ignazi put it, that AN had gradually evolved into “post-fascist, proto-conservative party” and broken with its fascist past.37 Despite this, even Ignazi had to note that this process was rather shallower among the party’s middle level cadres, who remained “quite prone to fascist nostalgia” and “xenophobia”, as opposed to the party leadership.
Historian Roger Griffin, an influential figure in liberal academic discussions of fascism over the past 30 years, has provided a more nuanced argument. Griffin saw the continuing ambiguities and tensions in the AN as representing more than just a section of the old guard’s attachment to dreams of the past. He saw the AN as a curious hybrid of two contradictory ideologies, fascism and liberalism, which co-existed uneasily. Both were genuinely accepted within the party. The AN was now a strange creature, a “constitutional fascist party”, still committed to fascist ideas but also rejecting any “revolutionary” (in reality, counter-revolutionary) break with liberal democracy.38
So, although Griffin accepted the AN’s claims of a newfound commitment to liberal democracy, he also detected signs of continuity with its fascist past—even in the Fiuggi Theses, the programme issued at its founding conference that was meant to signal its “post-fascist” conversion to democracy. Writing about the Theses, Griffin comments, “The AN shows that, in a typically fascist spirit, it still cultivates a nostalgia for an organic national community of shared values centred on the family and underpinned by a stable social hierarchy.” He continues:
The impression that the ineliminable core of generic fascism still lurks within the AN mindset is reinforced by the section of the Fiuggi Theses that disclose its ideological mentors… In the same breath as claiming as one of its intellectual precursors Alexis de Tocqueville, emblem of liberal democratic theory, it also associates the AN with the individualism of Ernst Jünger, doyen of non-Nazi German fascism and of the “conservative revolution”, the decisionism of Carl Schmitt, the legal apologist of Hitler’s racial legislation…and Julius Evola…by far the most prolific and influential of all neo-fascist ideologues…39
Should, however, the public claims to liberalism in the AN’s programme and declarations have been taken at face value by writers such as Griffin (even if he was honest enough to note that this continued to co-exist alongside authoritarian, elitist and ultra-nationalist ideas and an embrace of fascist thinkers)? Another historian of the MSI and AN, Marco Tarchi, pointed to the need to pay attention to the tensions between the party’s “self-representation” and its underlying “latent ideology”, rather than assuming the party’s public declarations signalled its real direction of travel.40
Indeed, the Fiuggi Theses’ public acceptance of “democracy and liberty as inalienable values” served a purpose other than genuine conversion to liberalism. The prize facing the new AN was retaining its newly expanded electorate. The old MSI’s vote had oscillated for decades between 5 and 8 percent, but the MSI/AN had received 13.5 and then 15.7 percent of the vote in 1994 and 1996, respectively. With this electoral breakthrough came the tantalising prospect of entry into government, something that had eluded it for half a century. The entry ticket for this prize was public adherence to democracy and greater critical distance from aspects of Mussolini’s regime. Open antisemitism and biological racism had to be dispensed with—at least in public.
As Wolfreys notes, “AN acceptance of the role of anti-fascism came only after the collapse and fragmentation of anti-fascist political representation.” Wolfreys points to surveys of those attending the 1995 AN founding conference that showed that the party’s cadre retained a “deep-seated afﬁliation to fascism” with “the overwhelming majority identifying with Mussolini, his regime and his philosophical acolytes”:
A quarter of party cadres believed strikers should be sacked and homosexuals should not be employed in bars or restaurants. Over 40 percent wanted the “elimination” of conscientious objection. Even higher proportions expressed antagonistic attitudes towards immigrants, a belief in racial superiority and an identiﬁcation with antisemitism.41
Although antisemitism, racism and racist violence were condemned, the language of racial difference was merely recast in terms of cultural difference:
The party stressed the need to protect “authentic” cultures by preserving ethnic autonomy in the face of globalisation and the “egalitarian myth”. This meant that Italians came ﬁrst… It also expressed identiﬁcation with ethnic nationalism in more direct terms, asserting that the state “should be an expression of ethnic community” and that those who did not belong to it were “excluded from the nation”.42
A number of commentators also observed that the party leadership did little to conduct a serious and throughgoing debate in the party about the legacy of fascism, reinforcing the interpretation that the rebranding was about refashioning the party’s public image rather than a real break with the past. In other words, this repositioning served only an “external function”. Wolfreys writes:
In the wake of the collapse of the party system, the lack of a serious debate on the meaning and role of fascism meant that its legacy had been remodelled for new times but kept intact… The party had taken advantage of the availability of a mainstream political ally—in the albeit unconventional form of Berlusconi—and the historical revisionism of De Felice, which allowed the MSI/AN to abandon “defensive and desperate positions”…and occupy the political space that had opened up at the heart of the political establishment. This helped the AN to present itself as part of a reaction against the “parasitic bourgeoisie” (the old parties, the banks and the unions) that it claimed had dominated post-war Italian politics and to recast the role of fascism as a departure from the historical tradition of the Italian right, made necessary by the imperative of defeating communism in the inter-war period.43
The potential for the “latent ideology” of the AN to resurface expressed itself in a number of ways. Tarchi notes that, in the period from 1995 to 2000, the AN’s public messaging placed an emphasis on its supposed acceptance of democracy and neoliberalism. From 2000, however, aspects of the old MSI outlook were partially reintroduced into its public stances. These included an emphasis on the leading role of the state in shaping the economy, as well as on law and order, and a renewed focus on the role of national community.
More ominously, when the former MSI youth leader and AN minister Gianni Alemanno won the Rome mayoral election in 2008, his victory was met with crowds of supporters, including open Nazis, giving raised arm fascist salutes and shouting “Duce! Duce!”.44 Nevertheless, the following year, the AN liquidated itself, merging into Berlusconi’s new People of Freedom (Il Popolo della Libertà) party. The AN leadership around Fini thought that they would ultimately be able to displace the ageing Berlusconi as leaders of the merged organisation.
The MSI/AN had adapted itself to the “available space” that the collapse of the old party system in the 1990s offered. However, this was a process marked by tensions and ambiguities. It is possible that Fini himself did come to wholly adapt to liberal democracy and abandon his former adherence to fascism. Yet, even if this was the case, it did not eradicate the latent possibility that the AN might radicalise into a more open fascist project should the political space be once again reconstituted. This is exactly what took place with the onset of the Italian debt crisis in the early 2010s.
Crisis 2: the 2010-2 eurozone crisis and the creation of the Fratelli d’Italia
The second great crisis that reordered the political terrain and created possibilities for former MSI/AN cadres to reassert a fascist identity was the eurozone crisis between 2010 and 2012. In the wake of the financial and economic crisis that shook the advanced economies in 2008-9, the weaker economies on the European Union’s southern periphery were badly exposed to punishing debt levels and rapidly rising interest rates. The series of political and social convulsions that swept Greece made it the epicentre of the turmoil, but Italy was not far behind.
Italy’s colossal public debt, standing at €1.9 trillion, and rapidly rising interest costs motivated both Italian big business and international elites to search for a government capable of driving through the scale of austerity they required. Berlusconi, who had led his right-wing coalition to victory again in 2008, was seen as incapable of delivering this. With Italy increasing dependent on financial infusions from the so-called Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), these institutions used their leverage to force Berlusconi’s resignation in November 2011. The Financial Times summed up the ruling-class attitude to Berlusconi in an article headlined, “In God’s Name, Go!” Berlusconi’s unelected replacement, Mario Monti, was a former EU commissioner and adviser to Goldman Sachs and Coca Cola.
Soon, Berlusconi agreed to back Monti’s “national unity” government, opening a space to his right. Berlusconi had dominated politics since the mid-1990s, and he had been prime minister four times between 1994 and 2011, but he was now a weakened and compromised figure. In the resulting political vacuum, other forces—some new, some reinvented—increasingly moved centre stage.
In the context of a downward economic spiral, support for austerity and neoliberalism became increasingly toxic policies with which to be connected. Italian GDP per capita fell to a lower level than it had been in 1999, and industrial capacity collapsed by 25 percent over the same period. Yet, after 1991, the Italian state ran a primary budget surplus (that is, before debt repayments) in every year except one—“an embrace of austerity without parallel in Europe”, according to researcher David Broder.45 The impact of the euro debt crisis only deepened the assault on workers, with wages in 2019 below pre-2008 levels.46 This has driven a huge sense of malaise and social degeneration, especially for the young. The proportion of unemployed young adults doubled in the wake of the debt crisis, reaching 42.7 percent in 2014. The number of Italians aged 25-34 living with their parents rose 10 percent to reach just over half.47
Moreover, as Broder perceptively argues, since the 1990s, the Italian ruling class has sought to use the EU as both a mechanism and an alibi for austerity and the neoliberal restructuring of Italian capitalism. It promised that Italy could become a “normal country”, cleansed of corruption and enjoying prosperous growth, through an acceptance of the EU’s economic medicine. The reliance on the external discipline provided by the EU’s fiscal constraints served to insulate assaults on workers from electoral pressures. Unsurprisingly, as the promises of prosperity and an end to corruption soured, a mood of deep distrust towards politicians and the EU took hold. By 2018, polls suggested that discontent with the EU was higher in Italy than in Britain, which had just voted for Brexit.
The parliamentary left was unable to give expression to the discontent being produced by the crisis. The former Communist Party, which had now turned into the centre-left Democratic Party, had strongly identified with the logic of EU-imposed austerity and neoliberalism.
The resulting vacuum was worsened by the political collapse of Rifondazione Comunista (Party of Communist Refoundation), which had been the main left-wing force challenging neoliberalism, in the second half of the 2000s. Rifondazione’s origins lay in a minority within the old Communist Party that opposed its transformation into the Democratic Party of the Left after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Rifondazione threw itself into the rising anti-capitalist movement. It played a pivotal role in the mass demonstration at the 2001 Genoa summit of the G8, ensuring that the police killing of a young demonstrator, Carlo Giuliani, was met with a defiant response. The party was also central to the Florence Social Forum in November 2002, which saw one million take to the streets against the looming Iraq war. This period also saw mass opposition to Berlusconi’s attacks on workers’ rights, with the unions bringing 3 million demonstrators onto the streets in March 2002.48
Yet, when these movements failed to topple Berlusconi, the leadership of Rifondazione under Fausto Bertinotti rapidly shifted towards an orientation on government, joining Romano Prodi’s centre-left government as a junior coalition partner in 2006. Rifondazione proceeded to vote to refinance Italy’s deployment of troops in Afghanistan and send Italian soldiers to Lebanon. The impact on the party’s electoral support was devastating; two years later, it saw the loss of over a million votes and all of its MPs. The anti-war movement dramatically declined, and Rifondazione’s mass activist base (it had claimed 100,000 members) was demoralised and disoriented. This was only further reinforced by Bertinotti’s extraordinary decision to attend the annual conference of AN’s youth wing and physically embrace Fini while sharing a platform with him.49
Thus, rather than the left, it was the politically ambiguous, anti-establishment, populist Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle) that benefited most from the political crisis, at least initially. The Northern League, recast as the Lega under the new leadership of Matteo Salvini, turned away from focusing on regional autonomy, shifting towards Italian nationalism, anti-migrant racism and Islamophobia. In this way, the Lega began to eclipse Berlusconi and become the dominant force on the Italian right by the late 2010s.
However, the erosion of Berlusconi’s authority also saw a shift in approach by a layer of former MSI/AN cadres such as La Russa and Meloni as well as Maurizio Gasparri and Fabio Rampelli. Meloni was a former AN youth minster in Berlusconi’s final government. After these figures were blocked by Berlusconi in their bid to win control of his People of Freedom party, they split away to create an independent organisation, the Fratelli d’Italia, at the end of 2012. Crucially, the open re-emergence of the fascist current was combined with an increasingly emphasis on more radical “anti-systemic”, pseudo-anti-establishment and even superficially anti-capitalist rhetoric. Meloni and the Fratelli reserved a particular ire for Fini, who they viewed as having liquidated and sold out the fascist tradition. According to Broder, Meloni denounced Fini as a “a good luck charm for the freemasons and high finance”.
Researchers Gianluca Piccolino and Leonardo Puleo argue that, in contrast to the AN’s self-presentation as “a new moderate, and pacifying, political force”, the Fratelli portrayed itself as an insurgent anti-establishment force from the outset. It framed this in nationalist terms, claiming that the Monti cabinet and the entire political class had expropriated the people’s sovereignty at the behest of the EU and financial markets. Moreover, Puelo and Piccolino also identify a gradual radicalisation of the Fratelli’s public declarations over the years following its founding. They note a departure from the AN’s attempts to present a cautious stance on migration while it tried to guard against overtly racist associations. Increasingly, the Fratelli adopted a more overtly “exclusionary nativism”:
The second Fratelli congress, held in Trieste in 2017, provided further strength to nativist discourse. Interestingly, the document refers to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, arguing that the EU is attempting to fill European demographic depression with migrants, which will cancel out the Christian roots of the European continent. This culturalist approach to discussing migration was also reflected in the proposal to select arriving migrants based on their cultural background. This favoured migrants with a more proximate cultural background and would hinder the arrival of Muslims.50
The Trieste programme attacked “the traditional parties that are stuck in the Europeanist and globalist political view” and was centred around what Puleo and Piccolino call a “nativist construction of the pure Italian people oppressed by the EU institutions and threatened by immigrant inflows”. For Puleo and Piccolino, this was a shift back to this language deployed by the old MSI, and they note the high degree of continuity in the leaderships and cadres of the MSI, AN and Fratelli. They conclude:
The 2013 electoral earthquake opened new windows of opportunity for an ideological rebranding. On the one hand, Fratelli exploited the growing Eurosceptic and anti-establishment sentiment of Italian voters, and on the other hand, the party built a strategic distinctiveness separating it from the rest of its competitors, who have all cyclically occupied governmental positions.51
The AN adapted to the new political space offered by the mid-1990s crisis by stressing respectability and repackaging itself as a more traditional conservative force while preserving much of its core fascist worldview. The Fratelli’s trajectory has been to present itself as a radical force with a much more overt “anti-systemic” face. This is further underlined by looking at the worldview Meloni now presents in public. For example, in October 2021, she gave a speech to the Spanish far-right Vox party, providing a clear outline of the political conceptions she is promoting.52 The speech was constructed around a central line of division—the nation versus “globalism”. Globalism is presented as a force without any anchor in the national setting and as an existential threat to the integrity and health of the Italian nation. Forces associated with “globalism” by Meloni include “financial speculators”, “the oligarchs of Silicon Valley” and “multinational lobbyists”, who work together to weaken nations and enhance their own control.
Meloni claims that this globalist agenda is promoted through a curious alliance of international capital and the left, which encourages “uncontrolled” immigration and advocates LGBT+ and abortion rights in order to weaken the family. She argues that these malign forces want to secure rights for migrants so that they can attack the nation’s borders and create downward pressure on living standards. Meanwhile, the “barbarians of Black Lives Matter” topple statues and attack national identity and history. Not forgetting to invoke Islamophobia, Meloni also claims that the left is encouraging a campaign of secularism to undermine “our sacred Christian roots” while turning a blind eye to “entire neighbourhoods under the grip of Islamic law”.
According to Meloni, the malevolent forces of globalism aim to undermine the nation by eradicating supposedly unique cultural differences, which are rooted in a shared history. They seek to “standardise” populations across borders, stripping them of their national identity, thus rendering them rootless and exploitable. This pseudo-anti-capitalist language displaces the threat of capital onto the international plane, advocating strengthening the nation by fending off foreign influences. Yet, the narrow limits of Meloni’s anti-capitalism are shown when she denounces “monstrous taxation that hampers free enterprise”. Castigation of high finance exists alongside essentially neoliberal demands for boosting healthy “national” capital.53 In Meloni’s fevered imagination, “The homeland is under attack from the globalist model… We are bound together by borders, identity and history. We believe in one nation, one people, one language and one flag. Our whole identity is under attack.”
Underlining this worldview is a call to drive out hostile foreign influences that threaten the nation with internal destruction, opening the way for restoration of a homogeneous national community. Globalism is identified with the left and the rootless forces of financial speculation, and this can shade into antisemitic motifs when the name of Jewish financier George Soros is evoked. Moreover, since globalist forces are presented as an existential threat, this rhetoric carries the implicit message that a harsh response is needed to deal with them. Indeed, any level of violence could potentially be presented as a justified necessity.
In 2019, all the major parliamentary parties agreed to join a new “national unity” government under Giuseppe Conte and the Five Star Movement, but Meloni and the Fratelli shrewdly stayed in opposition and inevitably benefitted as discontent with the government grow. Rapidly moving ahead in opinion polls, the party plotted a path to government. Meloni carefully sought to reposition the party once more, this time expressing fidelity to two key ruling-class institutions, the EU and NATO, in order to reassure both the Italian and Western establishments that a Fratelli-led government would pose no threat to elite interests. This meant stepping back from any talk of leaving the EU and the eurozone, refraining from criticism of neoliberalism, retreating from any expression of support for Vladimir Putin’s regime, and stressing support for NATO’s backing of Ukraine in its war with Russia.54 For the liberal ruling class, Meloni’s loyalty to the EU and NATO was what mattered, not her association with fascism.
So, is the Fratelli still fascist? As we have seen, there is a contradiction contained in the very nature of a fascist project: a search for alliances with the conservative right within the liberal democratic framework and the ambition to destroy democracy. This tension means that there is at least the potential for adaptions to liberal democracy by sections of fascist parties. The possibility of abandoning the project of overthrowing democracy thus always exists. Writing about the “long haul” of fascism in India in the decades after independence, Chris Harman explained this in words that could equally be applied to post-war Italy:
Fascism as a movement depends on its continual forward momentum to make its members forget economic and social interests that might lead them to engage in struggles alongside workers and minorities for a better world. As Hitler once said, “The little man feels like a worm, but we involve him in a movement that makes him feel part of a great dragon.” However, it is very difficult to keep a movement going with this momentum if it is kept a long way from power for a long period of time. Splits begin to arise between those tempted to accept the fruits of normal parliamentary influence and those impatient for direct confrontation.55
In the late 1990s, Bruno Mégret, the second most senior figure in the French National Front (Front National), led a major split from the party. Like the Democrazia Nazionale’s split from the MSI in the late 1970s, this too represented an accommodation to liberal democracy. Jean-Marie Le Pen led a furious and ultimately successful fight to maintain the Front National as a significant, albeit weakened, fascist force.56 Such tensions are inbuilt and can recur. However, the Fratelli represents precisely those elements from the old MSS/AN tradition that resisted such accommodation in the past.
What, then, is the nature of the new Fratelli government? It will not preside over a fascist state—that requires much more than the electoral victory of a party ideologically rooted in fascism. There are two required conditions for such a state to emerge. First, the fascists would need a mass paramilitary organisation capable of smashing the working-class movement. Second, the ruling class would need to seek the destruction of liberal democracy as the solution to its crisis and would have to be willing to gamble on the fascists. Neither of these two conditions are anything like close to existing at the moment.
Nonetheless, the Fratelli’s presence in office will allow it to try to reshape the state, giving it a more authoritarian cast. French Marxist Ugo Palheta calls this “authoritarian hardening” and claims it is a wider trend within liberal capitalist states.57 A long-running demand of the old MSI and the Fratelli is the creation of a stronger presidency based on direct elections, rather than one elected by parliament and limited to a largely ceremonial role. This would shift the balance in the political system towards a powerful presidential figure with a direct mandate, instead of one subordinated to parliament.
The Fratelli and its coalition partners lack the two-thirds majority to simply enact this measure, but they may try to get it passed via a referendum. Meloni defends such proposals as no threat to democracy and points to the directly elected presidential system in France. However, the authoritarian reshaping of the Hungarian state by Viktor Orbán is the Fratelli’s more likely model.
This may not be achievable, and Meloni will face a stronger working-class movement in Italy than Orbán has had to contend with in Hungary. Nevertheless, if successful, it would represent another step in creating a more hospitable environment for future authoritarian shifts and the further radicalisation of the fascist project. Indeed, the first law passed by Meloni’s government introduced draconian prison sentences of up to six years for rave parties, but it was also general enough to potentially be applied to other forms of gatherings as well as occupations of buildings. The legislation enables state surveillance, including phone tapping, of those suspected of organising such events.58
The Italian ruling class is certainly not in the position of the German elite in early 1930s, which began to desire an abandonment of the parliamentary democracy of the Weimar Republic and its compromises with the workers’ movement. Nevertheless, it has repeatedly shown a willingness to evade the inhibitions of democratic accountability in moments of crisis.59
On four occasions in the past three decades, unelected figures associated with either the Italian central bank or the EU have been imposed as prime minister. Carlo Ciampi and Lamberto Dini, who held the office, respectively, in 1993-4 and 1995-6, were both former Bank of Italy governors. As mentioned above, Monti, prime minister in 2011-3, was a former EU commissioner. Mario Draghi, holding power in 2021-2, was both a former governor of the Bank of Italy and president of the European Central Bank. As Monti put in an interview in the mid-1990s while talking about the need to use the EU to impose neoliberalism and austerity on Italy, the ruling class needed solutions that were “sheltered from the electoral process”.60
A dramatic deepening of the crises for Italian capitalism could see sections of the ruling class countenance more drastic evasions of the electoral process than the dragooning of a majority in parliament behind an unelected banker as prime minister. Although the Fratelli lack anything approaching a street army—even on the scale that the MSI once possessed—their presence in government is a boost to the smaller extra-parliamentary fascist groups such as Forza Nuovo (New Force) and CasaPound (“House of Pound”, named after US fascist poet Ezra Pound, who worked as a broadcaster in Mussolini’s Salò Republic) as well as the wider climate of racist violence. Many targets are in the sights of such groups. In October 2021, Forza Nuovo cadres led a breakaway from a demonstration against Covid-19 health passes in Rome and used metal bars to attack the headquarters of the Italian General Confederation of Labour (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro; CGIL) trade union federation.61 In December 2022, fascist thugs dressed in black and wearing masks attacked young Arabs celebrating Morocco’s football victories in the World Cup in the streets of Verona.62 In February 2023, members of Azione Studentesca (Student Action), the Fratelli’s youth wing, beat up school students from a high school in Florence who refused to take their leaflets.63 Of course, all this remains far removed from the sheer scale of murderous violence deployed by the fascist squads in 1920-22. Nonetheless, the Fratelli’s success can create yet more favourable conditions for the growth of a fascist street force in the future.
Harman argued that fascism requires more than votes to succeed. It needs the creation of mass street armies and a ruling class willing to allow these forces to be unleashed. Nonetheless, Harman also noted that what he called “electoral fascism” could provide a framework for such street forces to emerge, suggesting that this had taken place in Austria and Spain in the mid-1930s.64 For this to happen, it would be necessary for a significant section of the Fratelli’s electorate to move beyond merely passive modes of support such as voting and towards active willingness to risk life and limb in an all-out confrontation with the left and the workers’ movement. This would probably only come about on the basis of a much deeper level of social crisis. Yet, such a crisis certainly cannot be ruled out of the realm of possibility.
Fascism is a shape shifter, adapting to the available political space. The long history of the MSI, AN and Fratelli has seen numerous reinventions and shifts. Different masks are deployed at different times: from respectability and a search for alliances with conservatives to apparently radical denunciations of the “system”. The result of this process is that the fascist core of the Fratelli now has millions of voters around it as well as the legitimacy of government. This affords it a much greater capacity for initiatives to reshape the state and create an environment that can foster further advances of its core project. The latent possibilities that lie within the Fratelli include a much more classical, and hence more threatening, form of fascism.
The many crises—economic, geopolitical and environmental—convulsing capitalism today mean even an advanced capitalist state may see sections of the ruling class seek an authoritarian break with liberal democracy “from above”, that is, via the state apparatus. The basis for this could be laid if the Fratelli carry out an authoritarian recasting of the state. Moreover, further crises might also see the Fratelli or splinter groups try to assemble the forces necessary to control the streets.
These two possibilities—elite forces seeking to end liberal democracy from above and a mass fascist movement with a substantial paramilitary wing seeking the same from below—may not develop at the same tempo. A future fascist street movement may find its bargaining position in relation to the ruling class weaker than Mussolini’s and Hitler’s and might thus be forced into a more junior role. Indeed, the fascist Falange was clearly a subordinate force to General Francisco Franco’s counter-revolution from above during the Spanish Civil War. Either way, breaking the Fratelli now would throw obstacles into the path of such developments. The key tasks are rejecting liberal complacency, which argues the fascist beast has been “tamed” by parliamentary democracy, and creating a mass anti-fascist response.
The potential for resistance
What are the possibilities for resistance to the Fratelli? Despite the setbacks for the left in Italy over the last two decades, there are still important workers’ struggles. In July 2021, for instance, workers’ occupation of the GKN car components plant near Florence, where the workforce has long established militant traditions, became a significant focus of resistance:
From the moment of the announcement of the occupation, the workers set up a “permanent assembly” inside the plant. This is essentially a permanent occupation, day and night, to prevent the firm’s squads from removing the production machines from the plant. This was then followed by a four-hour strike of the metal working sector in the province of Florence on 19 July. There were two very large city-wide demonstrations on 24 July and 11 August. A large concert was organised at the factory gates on 28 August. Finally, a massive national demonstration was called on 18 September, attracting 40,000 people from all over Italy. This was the largest mobilisation witnessed in the country since the start of the pandemic and by far the most combative labour-related protest in Italy for years.65
The slogan of the occupiers and their supporters was “Insorgiamo!” (“Let’s Rise Up!”), which was the motto of the anti-fascist partisans in Florence. Researchers Rossanda Cillo and Lucia Pradella have also drawn attention to the important spread of struggles led by migrant workers in Italy’s important logistics industry since 2008, which they describe as “the most important struggles in the wake of the financial crisis”.66 These are often organised through smaller, more militant unions and are marked by high levels of combativity.
Meloni’s backing for NATO’s arming of Ukraine is one potential focus for resistance. General strikes in April and May 2022, called by some of the more militant unions, linked the fight against austerity to opposition to Italy’s arming of Ukraine, raising the slogan, “Weapons down! Wages up!” In November, tens of thousands marched in Rome to demand an end to arms shipments to Ukraine.67
There have also been signs of a potential for a mass anti-racist and anti-fascist movement that can throw the Fratelli onto the defensive. Forza Nuovo’s 2021 attack on the CGIL headquarters resulted in the trade unions organising a protest of 200,000 in Rome. Placards read “Fascism—Never Again!” A year later, an attempt by the Fratelli’s youth group to hold an event at the Sapienza University of Rome in October was met by protests, with banner’s calling for “Fascists Out of the University!” Student anti-fascists were then attacked by police. The beating of school students in Florence by the Fratelli’s youth wing in February 2023 was met with hundreds of students marching and chanting, “Florence is only anti-fascist.” This was followed a fortnight later by tens of thousands demonstrating in the city.68
However, building a mass anti-fascist movement involves two central political challenges. First, it requires constantly exposing and explaining the Fratelli, and not just the smaller street groups, as fascist. This is central to insisting that they should be denied legitimacy and driven out of public space—driven from the streets, the media and, ultimately, the government. Second, it necessitates creating a mass challenge to fascism that avoids becoming subordinated to the centre-left parties, which simply wish to use explosions on the streets to ride back into office.
A previous upsurge of anti-racist action, the so-called Sardines protests against Salvini and the Lega over the winter in 2019-20, showed the dangers of such co-option. A group of friends in Bologna issued a call out for people to pack out city squares “like sardines” after becoming alarmed by the threat of the Lega winning regional elections in Emilia-Romagna. Some 15,000 people assembled in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, and “Sardine” protests spread to the squares of other cities in Emilia-Romagna and then across Italy.69 However, both the centre-left Democrats and the Five Star Movement succeeded in corralling the movement towards the ballot box.70 Building a mass anti-fascist united front means fighting to avoid such demobilisation and any identification with the neoliberal politicians whose failure opened the space for the Fratelli in the first place. The anti-fascist mass militancy of Genoa in 1960 needs to be rebuilt by a new generation.
Mark Thomas is a workplace and trade union organiser for the SWP.
1 Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Alex Callinicos, Richard Donnelly, Iain Ferguson, Jacqui Freeman, Tony Phillips and, in particular, Gianni Del Panta, for their feedback and comments on an earlier draft of this article.
2 La Russa is a former leader of the MSI’s youth section. His father was a local fascist party secretary in Sicily in the 1940s and gave his son the middle name “Benito”. Just before the 2022 general election, he declared, “We are all heirs of Il Duce.” This is the title, meaning “the leader”, given to Mussolini. La Russa also has a predilection for collecting Mussolini memorabilia.
3 Bruno, Downes and Scopelliti, 2021. The flame was said to signify the eternal fire burning at Mussolini’s tomb.
4 For useful accounts of Mussolini’s rise to power, see Rossi, 2010, Lyttleton 1973, Behan, 2003, and most recently, Foot, 2022a.
5 See Rossi, 2010. Note, “Angelo Rossi” was Tasca’s pseudonym. For valuable accounts of the bienno rosso, see Williams, 1975, and Behan, 2003.
6 Foot rejects the notion that Meloni is a fascist on this basis—see Foot, 2002b.
7 Ferraresi, 1996, p23.
8 See my outline of Trotsky’s approach—Thomas, 2019.
9 This phrase was quoted by David Broder in an interview for the Politics, Theory, Other podcast about his forthcoming book, Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy (Pluto, 2023).
10 For a discussion of Mussolini’s regime and the Holocaust, see Foot, 2022a, pp267-77.
11 Davis, 1971. In a 1958 article in the MSI’s newspaper, in which Almirante declared that he was honoured to have fought in the Brigate Nere, he also wrote, “The MSI is a fascist party that fights in the streets for the honour of fascism.” The 1946 amnesty that allowed figures such as Almirante to return to political life and escape trial was issued by Palmiro Togliatti, the minister of justice and leader of the Italian Communist Party.
12 Meloni tweeted this statement to her army of Twitter followers on 22 May 2020. See also, Ghiglione, 2023a.
13 Ignazi, 2003, pp36-37.
14 See Behan, 1997.
15 Gallego, 1999.
16 Behan, 2009. Tom Behan notes that the MSI even announced that the chair of its conference would be Carlo Emanuele Basile, the head of government in Genoa during the Nazi occupation, who had direct responsibility for the deportation of workers to Germany and the torture of captured partisans.
17 Behan, 2009, p143.
18 See Ignazi, 2003, p38.
19 For more on the hot autumn, see in Harman, 1988, chapter 10.
20 See Koff, 1973.
21 Ferraresi, 1996, p53.
22 Ferraresi, 1996, p53; Ghiglione, 2023a.
23 Ignazi, 2003, p39.
24 The “strategy of tension” was partially aimed at pressuring the left, and especially the Italian Communist Party, to discipline the trade unions and the more militant parts of the left. This was something the Communist Party leaders were only too willing to do. See Harman, 1988, p198.
25 Isabella Rauti, Pino Rauti’s daughter, is a member of the Fratelli. She is now under-secretary for defence in Meloni’s government.
26 For a discussion of the nature of these three regimes and the mass struggles that destroyed them in the mid-1970s, see Harman, 1988.
27 Ghiglione, 2023a.
28 Harman, 1988, pp200, 339-342.
29 See Callinicos, 1994, and Abse, 1993.
30 Paxton, 2005, p207.
31 Wolfreys, 2012, p22.
32 See Behan, 2009, pp149-150. The elite’s embrace of Fini was an international phenomenon; Behan noted that the British ambassador to Italy and US president Bill Clinton had lunch with him.
33 Behan, 2009, p148.
34 For an outline and sharp critique of De Felice’s interpretation, see Painter, 1990.
35 Ben-Ghiat, 2022. For a powerful rebuttal of claims that Italian fascism largely eschewed violence, see Foot, 2022b.
36 Behan, 2009, pp150-151.
37 Ignazi, 2004.
38 Griffin, 1996.
39 Griffin, 1996. The conservative revolution was a far-right intellectual current in Weimar Germany.
40 Quoted in Wolfreys, 2012.
41 Wolfreys, 2012, p31.
42 Wolfreys, 2012, p31.
43 Wolfreys, 2012, p33.
44 Hooper, 2008.
45 Broder, 2020, p82. For a useful discussion of Broder’s research into the Italian right, see Del Panta, 2021.
46 Broder, 2020, p99.
47 Broder, 2020, p90.
48 Ruggiero, 2005.
49 Trudell, 2007.
50 Puleo and Piccolino, 2022, p12.
51 Puleo and Piccolino, 2022, p20.
52 The speech is available on YouTube.
53 Gianni Del Panta has pointed out that the social base of the Fratelli’s core support does not lie in any significant section of the Italian capitalist class. Rather, it comprises layers of what he calls the “half-classes”: small business owners, such as hotels, restaurants, beach clubs and bars owners, as well as shopkeepers, taxi drivers and so on. These are economic sectors dominated by small capital. This is a more significant social layer in Italy than in the other major advanced European states. Indeed, this is the classic base of fascism—the petit bourgeoisie—even if these layers do not currently face the kind of crises that would push them beyond electoral politics and towards physical confrontation with the left. Del Panta notes that the Fratelli’s social base is different from the Lega’s, which is based on small and medium-sized capitalists in northern Italy. I am grateful to Del Panta for these insights.
54 Roberts and Leali, 2022. In 2018, Meloni described Putin’s presidential election victory as “the unequivocal will of the Russian people”.
55 Harman, 2004.
56 For an account of this split, see Wolfreys, 2002. Mégret’s new National Republican Movement (Mouvement National Républicain) party, like Democrazia Nazionale in Italy, rapidly disappeared.
57 Palheta, 2018.
58 Ghiglione, 2023b.
59 For an account of how all the major sections of the German ruling class turned towards an authoritarian break with liberal democracy after 1930, see Peukert, 1993.
60 Broder, 2020, p81.
61 Basketter, 2021.
62 Zampano, 2022.
63 Mazzucchi, 2023. See also Bonnel, 2023.
64 Harman, 1994.
65 See the accounts by Cini and Tassinari, 2021, and Gabbriellini and Gabbuti, 2022.
66 Cillo and Pradella, 2018.
67 Sweeney, 2022; Kazmin and Ricozzi, 2022.
68 See the accounts in Bonnel, 2023, and Mazzucchi, 2023.
69 Tondo, 2019.
70 See Guardian, 2020.