Fascism vs Communism

Do you understand how the Italian Fascists took power roughly 100 years ago?

Have you read letters or articles from black Southerners who were essentially re-enslaved when the Ku Klux Klan and their allies violently suppressed Reconstruction?

Have you heard the voices of those suppressed during the racist coup d’etat of 1890 in Wilmington, NC?

Have you seen eyewitness accounts of the the mass murders and lynchings of black sharecroppers in Arkansas, Oklahoma and elsewhere who dared to organize for a fair deal for the sharecroppers, or to run their own businesses?

Have you read the letters or diaries of relatives who were blacklisted or red-baited out of jobs after losing strikes in the coal fields and factories or campuses?

Unfortunately, it is the winners – who are generally the rich, the racists, and the rapacious scoundrels of this world with good PR machines – who generally get to dictate what gets written about history (and that includes the lying tyrants like Stalin or Mao who usurped the mantle of communism for their own benefit!). It is to the credit of Howard Zinn and other left-wingers that they began the process of correcting and revising the standard histories of the United States and other countries.

I was wondering how it was that in Italy, which had a very strong tradition of working-class or peasant socialist or anarchist thought and action, the Fascists were able to take over. This article in Slate, I think, explains it.

“The rise of fascism in the provinces of the Po Valley, in northern Italy, occurred in reaction to the remarkable postwar growth of Socialist power. During the biennio rosso (red two years), between 1918 and 1920, Socialists made huge electoral gains nationally and locally, while labor unions unleashed a wave of strikes unprecedented in Italian history. In the Po Valley, the Socialists established a virtual “state within a state,” winning control of municipal government, labor exchanges, and peasant leagues (unions). Socialists also founded cooperatives, cultural circles, taverns, and sporting clubs.3 Such working-class organizations exercised their power largely through legal means—elections, boycotts, strikes, and demonstrations—which nonetheless often led to clashes with police, with injuries and deaths on both sides.

“Political culture and the social order had been radically altered, with rough peasants and workers occupying the halls of power and red flags hanging from town halls. For landowners, life in this new “red” state meant higher wages, higher taxes, reduced profits, lost managerial authority, deteriorating private property rights, and the threat of social revolution. Moreover, displays of red flags, busts of Marx, and internationalist slogans offended nationalist and patriotic middle-class sentiments.4 Conservatives denounced the “red terror” and “atrocities” of this period, though the landowners and middle classes were in little real physical danger.5They were not physically assaulted, nor were their homes, offices, or private property damaged or destroyed. Yet, from their perspective, they lived in a world turned upside down. The Socialists had virtually “taken over,” and the liberal state appeared to have lost control of law and order.

Fascist squads of armed men personally beat up and humiliated all of the left-wing labor or peasant leaders, threatening their families as well, in town after town. They destroyed left-wing offices, printing presses, meeting halls, and forced elected officials to quit or be killed. All the while, the local police or military did absolutely nothing to stop them, and the left was much too divided to fight back militantly. Eventually, the Italian king invited the fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, to become the official leader of the country. He, in turn, then made all other parties illegal and launched various imperialist wars in Africa and the Balkans, helping set the stage for World War 2 – helping the Fascists come to power in Spain as well.

“…the most immediate and powerfully symbolic form of squadrist violence was the annihilation of the institutions of the Socialist Party, “but the ‘conquest’ of Socialist organizations and municipalities was reinforced and made possible by terror exercised against individuals.”7 The peasant leagues, cooperatives, labor halls, and social clubs—the entire infrastructure of the Socialist “state”—were intensely parochial institutions, organized around popular, charismatic political and labor leaders.8

Fascist squads thus practiced highly personal, localized strategies of violence and intimidation, attacking the most prominent and influential “subversives” within a given province, town, or comune. Fascists sometimes beat these men, occasionally with homicidal intent, but perhaps more commonly intimidated them until they were forced to leave town, thereby decapitating their organizations. The Fascists spent their weekends chasing prominent peasant leaders across the countryside.

Thus, life for labor leaders became terror-filled, especially because Fascists did not limit their attacks to the public sphere. Nowhere was safe. Late at night, 10, 30, or even 100 Blackshirts, as these squad members became known, sometimes traveling from neighboring towns, might surround a home, inviting a Socialist, anarchist, or Communist outside to talk. If they refused, the Fascists would enter forcibly or threaten to harm the entire family by lighting the house on fire.9

In small towns, where everyone knew everyone, Fascists inflicted ritual humiliation on their enemies, a powerful strategy of terror understood by all. Blackshirts forced their opponents to drink castor oil and other purgatives, and then sent them home, wrenching with pain and covered in their own feces. In some cases, squads forced their enemies to defecate on politically symbolic objects: pages of a speech, a manifesto, a red flag, and so on. After administering a castor oil treatment, Fascists sometimes drove prominent anti-Fascist leaders around in lorries in order to reduce them in the eyes of their own supporters.10 They also accosted their opponents in public, stripped them naked, beat them, and handcuffed them to posts in piazzas and along major roadways.11

Although individual working-class leaders might have been willing to live under the constant threat of physical attacks, most were unwilling to subject their families to such danger. Deprived of leadership, meeting places, offices, records, and sympathetic Socialist town councils, the landless peasantry became subject to the landowners’ conventional tactics of strike breaking and intimidation. Having broken the leagues, the Fascists then forced the laborers into “politically neutral” (Fascist) syndicates. Vulnerable peasants had little choice but to join. Landowners used their newfound position of power to restore labor relations to the 19thcentury status quo.

In this country, hundreds of thousands of people joined either a Socialist or Communist party at one point or another during the 20th century. In some cases, those organizations were divided by national origin (Swedes vs Russians vs Jews vs Finns vs Italians vs Blacks, etc) Many of those leftists only remained in those parties for a few months or years. But they helped re-build the American labor movement with their active, leading roles in the great industrial sit-down strikes of the late 1930s; they played important roles in the Civil Rights movement and in the New Deal. And we all know that the Soviet Red Army played the key role in bleeding the Third Reich of most of its military might and in defeating the Nazis. (Which is not to excuse any of the atrocities that the Soviet government visited upon its own people, including active communists who ended up in the gulags along with ordinary criminals or religious dissidents.)

In the late 1940s, the American government decided that all those former New Dealers or premature anti-fascists could no longer be tolerated, and the new Red Scare began. According to a recent book called “A Good American Family”, reviewed in the Washington Post,

“once the Red Scare began to gain steam, many former communists denied their pasts, refashioning themselves as ordinary liberals or refusing to talk about politics altogether. This required not only erasing the trauma of McCarthyism but also playing down the pain of breaking with a cause that had once lent so much meaning to their lives. Like many ex-communists, when Elliott did discuss his communist past, he referred to it as a mistake, a relic from a time when he was “stubborn in my ignorance and aggressive in my prejudices.”

“A Good American Family” shows us something more complex: that at one time, he thought it was possible to be a good communist, a good father and a good American all at once.”

(emphasis mine)

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Hitler also was a rabid anti-communist and took over the Socialist Worker’s Party to make a fascist state. (There’s some irony there.)

    Like


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