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John G. Wright

“What to Do with Italy?”

(October 1943)

From Fourth International, Vol. 4 No. 10, October 1943, pp.&#nbsp;308–311.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What To Do With Italy
by Gaetano Salvemini and George LaPiana, 1943
Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York. $3.50

It has been the lot of liberals, literally from their very first appearance on the historical scene, to find the search for truth to be the most embarrassing of all human pursuits. The glaring discrepancy between their views and reality has bared itself constantly, especially in times of great social stress. If during periods of relative stability they found it necessary to apologize at regular intervals for themselves and the world, then in our generation, this has become almost a daily ordeal.

Liberals, above all liberal academicians, have solved this contradiction by enlisting as the most ignoble servants of reaction, and becoming the most vicious practitioners of the lie. Salvemini and LaPiana, however, have remained loyal to the old doctrine of liberalism. These two noted Italian scholars, refugees from Mussolini’s thugs and now teachers of history at Harvard University, are among the few living academicians who still retain a modicum of respect for truth; and in dealing with events do not by and large hesitate to set down the actual facts alongside of their opinions and interpretations.

With the futile and outworn equipment of nineteenth century liberalism, they, in their latest book, still try to oppose the onrush of reaction and to solve the burning and unpostponable problems of our day, among which they correctly put the problem of “what to do with Italy.”

Let us see how the logic of events squares with the logic of liberalism.

Italy: 1918–1921

Italy entered the last war as a democracy and emerged from it, in the camp of the victors, still a democracy. In 1914-1918 capitalism in Italy and throughout the world had behind it not the years of economic stagnation and crisis that mark the interval between the two world wars, but several decades of relatively uninterrupted growth and prosperity. Capitalist democracy had therefore far more favorable conditions for demonstrating its viability in Italy after World War I than is the case today when, after 21 years of fascism, the country turns up a captive of the rival imperialist camp. But Salvemini and LaPiana argue to the contrary. They see a great future for a “democratic revolution” in Italy.

They have learned nothing from the events of 1918–1921 when the Italian democracy proved itself incapable of solving a single major problem during the post-war crisis that gripped the country. The Italian masses were then compelled to seek their own solution, just as is the case today. They rallied to the program of socialism.

The Italian Socialist Party which had 47,000 members in 1914 grew to more than 250,000 by 1920. The number of organized workers under the party’s influence and direction leaped from 300,000 in 1914 to more than 2,000,000 in 1920. Even these significant figures and tempos of growth do not reflect quite fully the mighty surge of the Italian masses toward the socialist solution. In 1920 the workers seized the factories; the peasants were dividing the landlord’s estates. Demoralization and panic prevailed among the ruling class. All the conditions obtained for an easy victory for the revolution, except one: a genuine revolutionary leadership.

It is precisely at this point, however, that our authors, in summing up these events, substitute a liberal fiction for historical reality. They maintain:

“The social revolution which had been feared did not take place only because the rank and file of the Italian people did not want it ... The failure to carry on a revolution when it would have met with little or no resistance was in itself evidence of the common sense of the mass of the Italian people.” (Page 59. Our emphasis.)

The “people who did not want it” were actually engaged in making the social revolution. The ruling classes who most certainly did not want the revolution were powerless to prevent it. “It would have met with little or no resistance.” Why then was it not carried through? Was it because the revolution was left leaderless at the height of the crisis? Was it because the treachery of the social democratic leaders had caught the masses off-guard, paralyzed their self-action, and permitted passivity, disorganization and demoralization to set in? According to Salvemini and LaPiana, to answer these questions in the affirmative is to deny “common sense” to the Italian people.

The Fascist Counter-Revolution

What happened in Italy after the betrayal of the revolution by the Social Democratic leaders?

Our authors now return from the domain of liberal mythology to that of historical facts. They write:

“... The capitalists thought that the time had come to make the masses pay for the scare they had suffered and played ball with the Fascist hoodlums; the Nationalists, a noisy crowd of pseudo-intellectuals who had regarded the Fascists with contempt, now shook hands with them and joined in the fray; and, last but not least, the politicians who were in the government cast a benevolent eye upon these paladins of reaction and let the military chiefs, the police, and the courts more or less openly assist the Fascists in their criminal exploits.” (Page 60.)

This is the truth. The monarchy, the army, the courts, the police, all the government politicians “played ball with the Fascist hoodlums.” The entire state apparatus was placed at the disposal of fascism, in so far as this was possible at each stage. The finances were provided by Italian Big Business. Salvemini and LaPiana write:

“. . . We may say that the entire large class reactionaries and conservatives, big business men, bankers, great landowners, the upper clergy, aristocrats of wealth and title, and a large section of the upper bourgeoisie were from the beginning or became afterwards, with few exceptions, firm supporters of the Fascist regime. It is enough to glance over the list of Fascist officialdom, especially of the podesta, or administrators of cities and towns; there, side by side with those of the Fascist parvenus, we find most of the names registered in the heraldry of Italy.” (Pages 166–167)


“What Italy went through in that period from the fall of 1920 to the fall of 1926 was really a civil war in which the Italian people were betrayed: by the wealthy class which created the new Fascism; by the army generals and officers who supplied Fascist bands with weapons, ammunition and trucks; by the Giolitti government (and the ministers who followed him – J.G.W.) which allowed the Fascists to carry on their so-called punitive expeditions under the disguised protection of the police and with Impunity from the courts; and finally, by the Monarchy which in the end abandoned the country to the Fascists as a conquered territory.” (Pages 58–59)


“The fact is that it took Fascism six years of unequal struggle between a power which had at its disposal all the resources of the government, the police, the militia, and the Monarchy on the one hand, and, on the other, a reluctant people whose labor organizations had been wiped out, whose leaders had either betrayed them by going over to the enemy, or had been murdered, forced to flee, or merely rendered helpless by sweep of events.” (Page 61)

“The fact is ...” Yes, these are the facts. They have been recorded, as our authors point out, “again and again in many languages by reliable historians,” among them by Salvemini himself in this and three other books: The Fascist Dictatorship in Italy; Under the Axe of Fascism; Italian Fascism.

The Mind of a Liberal

The complicity of capitalist democracy in bringing fascism to power in Italy is impossible to deny. How then can anyone retain faith in so rotten a system? Very simply: by using the old subterfuge of explaining facts away psychologically when it is too embarrassing to explain them politically.

Years ago, fascism used to be explained away by such banalities as “war psychosis,” “post-war neuroses,” and similar pseudo-scientific verbiage. Salvemini and LaPiana now serve up a hardly superior current variety:

“A strange combination of muddy thinking and cheap Machiavellianism got hold of various groups ...” Or, “they all cherished the illusion ...” Or, “mistakes and blunders” were committed. “Strange mystery ...” “Unfathomable mystery ...” The latter expressions are reserved for those emergencies when events descend with crushing force and nothing remains for our scholars except to throw up their hands in perplexity, horror and despair.

Strange combinations, muddy thoughts, cheap Machiavellianism, blunders, mysteries, illusions and lamentations dance through their pages. These are gloomy companions of a disturbed imagination at odds with reality.

What staggers the Italian liberals the most is that so many seemingly splendid people “play ball with Fascism,” and condone any and all deals with reaction.

If fascism won in Italy thanks to the treachery of the social democracy and the aid of the “democratic” state at home, then Mussolini’s regime was able to sustain itself only thanks to the aid of the “democracies” abroad. This, too, the book affirms:

“Six years of struggle (1920–1926) which would have ended in the victory of the people, if Fascism, besides having the support of such groups and classes In Italy as we have here described had not been protected and aided also by powerful forces outside Italy.” (Page 61)

What were these forces?

“It seems that the two countries in which Mussolini and his Fascism achieved the greatest success in publicity and popularity were England and the United States.” (Page 61)

In Engand and the United States, statesmen and bankers, diplomats and corporation heads, professors and corporation lawyers, politicians and journalists, judges and intellectuals, Catholic priests and Protestant laymen, in short the entire galaxy of “democracy,” sang the “praises of Mussolini and Fascism on all occasions.”

Profoundly symbolic of the class connection between Big Business, “democracy” and fascism is the fact that Myron Taylor, former head of United States Steel Corporation, had hanging in his office side by side the inscribed photographs of Franklin D. Roosevelt and – Benito Mussolini.

Salvemini and LaPiana select from hundreds of other instances. For example, in 1923 Otto H. Kahn, head of the Wall Street banking house of Kuhn, Loeb and Co., hailed Mussolini as a “great man, beloved and revered in his country, a self-made man ... no enemy of liberty ... no dictator in the generally understood sense of the word ...”

“I feel certain,” Kahn added, “that American capital invested in Italy will find safety, encouragement, opportunity and reward.”

Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University and one-time winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, gratefully accepted Mussolini’s friendship and decorations. He paid homage to fascism as a “form of government of the very first order of excellence”; and found it “safe to predict that just as Cromwell made modern England, so Mussolini would make modern Italy.”

English statesmen never failed the Duce.

“In the chain of events which permitted Mussolini to strengthen his dictatorship, England played a conspicuous part. Prime Minister Baldwin and Foreign Minister Curzon helped Mussolini, in 1923, to save his face after his criminal attack on Corfu. At the time of the crisis brought about by the Matteoti murder, while Italy was seething with indignation and Fascism was on the verge of ruin, the English foreign minister, Sir Austen Chamberlain in December 1924, made the move of paying an official visit to the Duce. It was the first time that such a dignitary of the English government had ever condescended to pay such a compliment to Italy. The English minister rushed ostentatiously to shake the hand of the Duce which was at that moment, in the opinion of the Italians, wet with Matteoti’s blood.” (Page 71)

Churchill and Mussolini

Churchill’s eloquence soared on many occasions in paeans to the man he now so righteously contemns. In January 1927, Churchill said in an interview, “If I were an Italian I would don the Fascist Black Shirt.” In 1931 he acclaimed the “monumental work of Mussolini.” In September 1938 he discovered that Mussolini towered above Washington and Cromwell; and in passing praised the Italian king for his acumen in accepting fascism. In 1940, with England already at war, he told the Italian people that the Duce was “a great man.”

Let us add that Mussolini was the recipient not only of plaudits, diplomatic favors, etc., but also of hard cash. For instance, when the fascist regime was caught in 1925 in the vice of a desperate financial crisis, a consortium of American bankers headed by J. P. Morgan floated, on behalf of the Italian government, a loan of $100,000,000. Mussolini was enabled to stabilize both the lira and his regime.

All this barely scrapes the surface of the “democratic” record vis à vis Italian fascism. The book infers as much.

Still another powerful international force protected and aided Mussolini. This was the Vatican.

Salvemini and LaPiana devote more than one-fourth of their volume to the analysis of the Holy See’s role and devious policy in support of Mussolini. They say correctly:

“No historian, whether of the present or of the future, will be able to understand and explain fully the many Fascist successes in international affairs without taking into account the friendly relations between the Vatican and the Fascist dictatorship.” (Page 81)

Inside Italy, the Vatican moved cautiously at first. Mussolini received his initial favors from the Catholic Church in this country. Citing official sources, the authors prove this to the hilt. On page 68, they write:

“In 1924, Cardinal O’Connell of Boston, while the civil war was going on in Italy, stated that ‘Italy was in process of undergoing a marvelous transformation since Benito Mussolini bad seized the reigns of government ... I have never in my life witnessed a change so impressing. I see perfect order, cleanliness, work, industrial development (Progresso Italo-Americano, January 3, 1924).’

“In 1926, Cardinal O’Connell accepted a high Fascist decoration and, in his address of thanks to Mussolini’s representative, he stated: ‘Mussolini is a genius in the field of government, given to Italy by God ...’ (Il Carroccio XXXIV, p. 553.)”

The Vatican and Mussolini

In 1925, Cardinal Mundelein, the Archbishop of Chicago, stated in an interview that “Mussolini is a great big man, the man of the time.” In October 1926, Cardinal Dougherty, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, referred to the “admirable work of the Duce and the Fascist government.” Cardinal Hayes of New York accepted four high decorations from the Duce and each time expressed high praise to the donor.

These statements and actions are typical of innumerable others made by the highest dignitaries of the Catholic hierarchy, not to mention mere archbishops, bishops, or priests, friars, monks and nuns, or the editors of hundreds of Catholic diocesan bulletins, newspapers and periodicals.

This flood of support and adulation turned into a tidal wave after Pope Pius XI stated on December 20, 1926 that Mussolini had been sent by Divine Providence.

It would take us too far afield, even to summarize succinctly the wealth of material gathered by the authors concerning the relations between the Holy See and fascism and contained in the best chapter of this book. (See Chapter IV. The Vatican.) Nor would such a summary do justice to the scholarship and courage of the authors in following the Vatican step by step through the years of fascist rule. But one additional fact is worth noting.

On June 13 of this year, the Pope delivered, in person, an address to 25,000 Italian workers “gathered in Rome from various parts of the country, especially from Northern Italy.” Salvemini and LaPiana point out that all the assembled workers who “heard the papal address could not fail to understand that the whole papal sermon was delivered for the purpose of telling them that they should not revolt against the Fascist regime and should refrain from ‘civil disobedience.’” The Vatican supported fascism to the bitter end.

If these were the forces that sustained reaction in the past, by what logic could they be depended upon to oppose it today and in the future? Only by the logic of liberalism, which inhabits a world of its own, feeding on past memories.

The lessons of Italy were repeated in all their essential features in Germany in 1933. The authors themselves do not fail to point out that the “big industrial firms, banks, shipping, and insurance companies, in Italy no less than in Germany, were, together with the army, responsible for the creation of the dictatorship.” In the Spanish Civil War, the “democracies” played essentially the same role as in the case of Italy and Germany; while the Pope reserved his highest praise of Mussolini for the occasion of the latter’s entry – jointly with Hitler – into the Spanish “crusade.” Franco, the butcher, had and still has the full support of the Vatican.

To know all this, to say it, and to prove it, as the authors do, is to demonstrate that the Allies are counter-revolutionary, that they tend not toward “democracy” but to blackest reaction and dictatorship. But Salvemini and LaPiana conclude just the opposite. They see the hope of mankind in Churchill and Roosevelt, their “high principles” and their war aims.

Allied Policy

Yet the ideas of liberalism enter into sharpest conflict with reality precisely when it comes to the actual and not pretended policies and war aims of Washington and London. The course of the war has already demonstrated with crushing force that the “democracies” – not to mention the Vatican – have not altered their peacetime conduct in any significant way.

Salvemini and LaPiana do not hide their genuine alarm in citing the Darlan-Giraud deal and the advances to Otto Hapsburg, the Austrian pretender. They analyze in detail the negotiations and close collaboration between the Allies and the Vatican; they warn about the implications of the campaign to whitewash the Italian monarchy, etc., etc.

In their book, which was completed before the downfall of Mussolini, the authors say:

“As far as the American public can judge from what has leaked out about the plans being secretly and discreetly concocted in high circles, our diplomats in Washington are determined to supplant Mussolini with an Italian Darlan or Petain ... If such a plan is carried out, the Savoy monarchy will remain as a guarantee against any radical revolution. A coalition of former leaders, the big business men and clericals supported by the Vatican, would take up the government of the country under the protection of the American and English armies of occupation. Some of the extreme fascist laws would ‘be abolished, some concessions would be made to save the face of the democracies, and the new regime would, to all appearances, be hailed as a fulfillment of the terms of the Atlantic Charter ...”

Ironically enough, the publishers released the book the same week that the Badoglio government surrendered to the Allies. Since that time, events have completely verified the above-cited analysis of the authors, much to their own dismay no doubt. Nevertheless, Salvemini and LaPiana remain staunch supporters of the Allies and their war. The most rational explanation they have to offer for the conduct of Roosevelt and Churchill reads as follows:

“The lot of gangsters has become a comfortable one throughout the world, thanks to the fear of revolution which blinds the leaders of the liberty-loving peoples.” (Page 15)

Unable to face reality, Salvemini and LaPiana who suffer from a self-inflicted blindness impute their own affliction to Churchill and Roosevelt who proceed with open eyes from the knowledge that it is impossible really to stabilize capitalism in Europe and to avert the socialist revolution on the old “democratic” basis.

Salvemini and LaPiana fumble in the dark because they hold on to the ideas of liberalism which life itself has long ago discarded; and which can and do serve nowadays only as the most convenient cover for reaction. Old Labriola, one of their greatest countrymen, taught a lesson which they have never bothered to learn: “Ideas do not fall from heaven.”

No one has sucked the ideas of liberalism out of his thumb. Nor are they something good for all times and under all conditions. These ideas arose in the course of the class struggle. They have their class roots in the bourgeoisie. They played a great and progressive role in the struggle of the rising bourgeoisie against feudalism. When capitalism was young and vigorous the “logical form of bourgeois domination was the democratic republic.” (Engels) But capitalism has long since passed this heyday when democracy could and did serve as sheet-anchor for the whole bourgeois and even feudal regime; when everything which used to be reactionary could behave as democratic.

But there is another “logical form” just as inherent in capitalism: that of dictatorship. This form manifested itself progressively in the case of England (Cromwell) and France (Napoleon Bonaparte). As capitalism developed the trend to dictatorship tended more and more to manifest itself in a reactionary way. France relearned the lesson that the logical form of bourgeois domination is also the dictatorship under Napoleon the Little while Germany learned it under Bismarck. So long as capitalism remained in its ascendancy democracy and dictatorship could alternate and combine in many peculiar and transitional ways. But with the entry of capitalism into its highest and final stage the logical form of bourgeois domination is and can be only the dictatorship (Italy, 1921; Germany, 1933; Spain, 1938). This same historical process found still another expression in the rise of a new and higher democracy with its class roots in the proletariat. This democracy was established by the Russian Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky in October 1917, in Russia. The regression of proletarian democracy into Stalinist totalitarianism is purely episodic; the regression of outlived capitalist democracy is chronic.

In May 1929, Leon Trotsky explained this historical process, as follows:

“We cannot measure our epoch with the yardstick of the nineteenth century, which was par excellence the century of the extension of democracy. In many respects the twentieth century will be more differentiated from the nineteenth than the whole of modern history differs from that of the Middle Ages ... After the installation of revolutionary power in Russia and the check to revolutionary movements in a succession of other countries, we witnessed the establishment of fascist dictatorship in the whole of southern and eastern Europe. How are we to explain this dousing of the fires on the altars of democracy?

“It is sometimes said that in these cases it is a question of backward nations, or of those lacking maturity. This explanation happens to be just good enough in the case of Italy. But even in cases where the explanation is appropriate, it is not enlightening. In the nineteenth century it was considered a law that backward nations were climbing the steps of democracy. Then why does the twentieth century push them along the road of dictatorship? I think that the explanation emerges from the facts themselves. Democratic institutions show that they cannot support the pressure of contemporary conflicts which are at one time international, and at another domestic, and on the other occasions both international and domestic at one and the same time. Is this a good thing or an evil? At all events, it is a fact.

“By analogy with electro-technology, democracy may be defined as a system of interrupters and insulators against the too powerful currents of the national or social struggle. There is no epoch in human history so saturated with antagonisms as ours. A hypertension of the current makes itself more and more felt along various points of the European system. Under a too high tension, the ‘fuses’ of democracy – class and international animosities – ‘blow out.’ Hence the short circuits of dictatorship. Naturally the weakest ‘interrupters’ are the first to give way. But the force of domestic and world conflicts does not weaken; it grows. It is doubtful that it is destined to calm down, given that the process has so far taken hold only of the periphery of the capitalist world. Gout begins in the little finger of a hand or in the big toe, but once on the way it goes right to the heart.”

When history herself has rendered the ideas of liberalism impotent and illogical, the spokesmen of liberalism have no choice but to follow suit.

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