(MUSSOLINI and FASCISM in ITALY – continued)
In 1921, Mussolini's fascist membership grew to around 250,000. Some disillusioned Leftists were siding with success and going over to the fascists. Italy was still more rural than urban, and Mussolini's movement had more appeal in rural areas and little appeal among unionized workers in cities.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Giolitti had done much to alienate conservatives. His government was in need of additional strength, and after dissolving parliament in April 1921 he tried to make an electoral alliance that would give him a majority in parliament. In May, Fascists were invited to join with Giolitti in a coalition – a "national block." Mussolini saw an opportunity for entering national politics and securing power by legal means. He joined the coalition, disturbing some of those within his movement who disliked and distrusted politicians and wanted the Fascists to gain power through a coup. There were elections to fill parliament's 535 seats. In these elections, representatives of the reformist Catholic Popular Party increased their representation to 108. The Socialists held on to 125 seats. And as usual the Communists were a small minority: they won 15 seats. The Fascists won only 35 seats, but they became a part of the coalition that governed the country, and it was the Fascists who controlled the streets.
Disorders initiated by the Left had been declining, but Mussolini continued his warning against the evils of Bolshevism and of Bolshevism's possible expansion westwards from Russia – a theme he was to repeat the rest of his life. What Mussolini really feared was a coalition among non-Fascists that would leave his Fascists politically isolated – as some liberal, centrist and conservative politicians favored. To stave off such an opposition, Mussolini began leaning on his squadron leaders to hold back their violence. Now that he was into legitimate politics, Mussolini was seeking more respectability. And he knew that he and his Fascists had to have allies.
Giolitti continued as an unpopular prime minister, and Mussolini felt free to join with others in withdrawing support from him. The Fascists denounced Giolitti for supporting the League of Nations and for his support of parliamentary democracy. Not having majority support, Giolitti resigned. His successor, Ivanoe Bonomi, formed a coalition with the Catholic Popular Party, and Mussolini and his Fascist Party were no longer a part of a coalition government.
The Bonomi government also failed, its cabinet resigning in February 1922. For several weeks Italy had no government. Then a weak government was formed by Luigi Facta, which dithered and was in and out of power in the coming months. In contrast to this weakness in parliamentary government, Mussolini was a picture of strength. Mussolini spoke of restoring Italian power and prestige, reviving the economy, increasing productivity, ending harmful government controls and furthering law and order. Also, he declared his support for the monarchy, and he had the admiration and support of Italy's Queen Mother, Margarita.
Mussolini, wearing the sash, second from the left, and Blackshirts displaying their medals.
Again the question arose of bringing the Fascists and Mussolini into a coalition government, while leaders among the Fascists were pressuring Mussolini to take power by "marching on Rome" with his Fascists and supporters. Knowledge of the possibility of such a march became public. Facta's government appeared unwilling to defend against a Fascist coup or to curb the Fascist violence that was still occurring. The Left saw itself as the only force that could stop the Fascists, but they were divided and without a militia that could stand up to the Fascists. In late July, in an attempt at a show of force, the Socialist Party and Railwaymen's Union declared a general strike. The strike gave Mussolini renewed opportunity: immediately his armed Fascists took on the role of heroes of social order. They began running the essential services abandoned by the strikers. The strike was poorly supported, and it was called off on its fourth day, with the Fascists having won the praise from Italy's middle-class.
By October, the march on Rome by the Fascists to bring order and good government to Italy appeared imminent, and the government responded to this threat by moving toward the declaration of martial law. The king's signature was required for the declaration, but the king, Victor Emmanuel III, refused. To avert a civil war, he sought the creation of a strong coalition government made up of rightists, including the Fascists. The Socialists and the Popular Party were to be ignored despite the majority that they together had in parliament. Mussolini refused to join the coalition unless he was made its leader, and the king obliged him. He invited Mussolini to become prime minister. Mussolini, at 39, accepted. Fascists from around Italy were already arriving in Rome on their march, and Mussolini turned what had been a threat to seize power into a victory parade. Some among the Fascists believed that a new order, or revolution, was in the making, while some others believed that what was taking place was the restoration of what was good about the past.
Copyright © 1998-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.