The Italian Far Right’s Long March Back to Power

While it is still too soon to say how far Italy will now move toward fascism, the norms of the post-war epoch have been shaken as never before

The Italian Far Right’s Long March Back to Power
Benito Mussolini addressing a crowd during the Declaration of the Italian Empire, May 9, 1936, in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. (Photo by George Rinhart / Corbis via Getty Images)

In what can only be described as a rant in front of the cameras in her final rally before Italians went to the polls, Giorgia Meloni, the head of Italy’s far-right political party Fratelli d’Italia (“Brothers of Italy”), shouted hoarsely into the microphone: “After our victory, you can raise your heads.”

Following her victory, which puts her on course to become Italy’s next prime minister, she declared it a “night of pride for many, and a night of redemption.”

While many commentators interpret Meloni’s intended audience as old fascists nostalgic for their former glory, she speaks to the wider Italian public, harnessing a sense of political resentment ameliorable only through the replacement of memory with myth — in short, a whitewashing of history.

It is, in fact, difficult to reckon with, much less account for, shame in history. We see it in the United States with the stubborn resistance to critical race theory, or really any effort to situate the legacy of racism within the throughline of U.S. history that resonates in contemporary social conditions. Vladimir Putin’s efforts to purge the weight of failure of two political systems — Tsarism and Stalinism — mark an attempt to recapture an analogous sense of greatness in which a continuous line of glorious, civilizational tradition runs through Russian veins.

Meloni’s efforts to “Make Italy Great Again” carry this current forward, aiming to purge the negative memory of fascism as a kind of “black spot” in Italian history for a defensive anger against those who seek to saddle Italians with a feeling of guilt. Yet her “post-fascist” framing of a period in which the question of fascism is no longer politically relevant conceals the workings of her party and a narrative once viewed as scandalous and tendentious in equal parts by the majority of Italians.

In the decades since its collapse, fascism has been treated by the Italian Republic as a historical aberration. Benito Mussolini’s overthrow by the Fascist Grand Council and subsequent arrest in 1943, quickly followed by the armistice signed with the Allies by King Vittorio Emanuele III, brought much of the military establishment to turn against the fascist movement and enlist with the liberated South. After his rescue by Nazi paratroopers from his prison high in the Abruzzo mountains, Mussolini created a new “Social Republic” out of the northern regions that his German handlers could still ruthlessly control through SS and Wehrmacht coercion.

Despite Mussolini’s pretense, captured in the Manifesto of Verona, to resurrect the purest spirit of the fascist idea in his new Italian Social Republic, the state governed only through vicious militias and counter-partisan groups like the Black Brigades and the Decimas MAS. Even then, his regime was less identified with his commandeered residence at the Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda than the propaganda offices down the road at Salo. Indeed, people jokingly called Mussolini’s rump government the Republic of Salo, because it had all the legitimacy of its propaganda and nothing more.

After the summary execution and infamia of il Duce and his mistress Clara Petacci in 1945, the creation of the Italian Republic largely became the work of those who served in the Resistance — people like Alcide De Gasperi, who had known and debated against Mussolini when the latter was still a young revolutionary socialist and worked through the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (“National Liberation Committee”) to finally get rid of the dictator once and for all. But the establishment of a new republican system under the enshrinement of an explicitly anti-fascist constitution could only aspire to avoid the problem that nostalgia for Mussolini’s regime remained ingrained among many in the civil service, universities and industrial managers — not to mention the police and armed forces.

Only the die-hards of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the party cobbled together by Mussolini loyalists in 1946 seeking the resurgence of the Social Republic, would openly declare their fidelity to il Duce, but officers in the military, carabinieri (military police) and police, along with the expanding secret services, would grow increasingly frustrated with the corruption and glacial pace of the parliamentary system. By the late 1950s, the Christian Democrats represented a relatively stagnant force.

Though it produced some loyalty through its relationship with the church and an economic boom brought about in no small part through financial support from the U.S., partisans of the left and right criticized the entire parliamentary system for what they called partiocrazia, a system in which party membership determined one’s social and economic life, forming not an integral state but a combative system of competing, homogenous groups. From this assessment grew a “presidentialist” movement supported by both fascists and reactionary politicos from a cross-section of anti-Communist parties, calling for the repudiation of parliamentarism and the solidification of a strong executive branch similar to the system produced by Charles de Gaulle in France in 1959.

In 1960, the reigning Christian Democrats fell short of a “single-color” parliament and found themselves without a coalition partner. When their leader, an intrigue-obsessed right-winger named Fernando Tambroni, attempted to bring the Movimento Sociale Italiano into the governing coalition, paroxysms of mass protest broke the country in half. In partisan strongholds like Genoa and Reggio-Emilia, protesters erected barricades, fought with police and attacked the political offices of the far right. The week of rioting resulted in the police killing eight protesters and brought about the collapse of the parliamentary coalition.

The parliamentary crisis that followed forced the Christian Democrats to move left, forging an anti-Communist coalition with the Socialist Party in what became known as the “center-left formula.” This “opening to the left” produced feverish reactions from the right, leading to a decade of subversive activity and coup-plotting by members of the secret services and fascist paramilitaries generally known under the rubric of the Strategy of Tension.

Future judicial reconstructions and parliamentary investigations found that the decade from 1964-1974 saw a heated period of right-wing violence sanctioned and, at times, coordinated by factions within the state, with the intention of undermining parliament and establishing the conditions for a presidentialist coup d’etat. The means of bringing this about would involve the declaration of a state of emergency following a bombing or series of bombings made to look like left-wing terrorism. The most notorious of these attacks took place at the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricultura in Milan’s picturesque Piazza Fontana on December 12, 1969, killing 17 and wounding 88.

Occurring just one month after the radical Giorgio Almirante took the helm of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the Piazza Fontana massacre ushered in the most intense phase of this period, from 1970-1974. This also coincided with the funneling of millions of dollars from the Nixon administration through the U.S. embassy to right-wing groups around Italy, from Christian Democrat leaders to forces loyal to the Italian secret services. Although the CIA disagreed with the administration of the program, Ambassador Graham Martin believed the funding would help pry the Christian Democrats away from the center-left formula, thus preventing a further slide toward a “historic compromise” with the Communist Party. The presidentialists, however, had other, perhaps grander ideas.

After a localist, populist uprising in Reggio Calabria stoked by far-right politicians and the feared Calabrian mob, known as the ’Ndrangheta, turned the country upside down from 1970-1971, the fascists of Milan got an idea. With Almirante in charge, the radical fascist militants of the Ordine Nuovo (“New Order”), led by Giuseppe “Pino” Rauti, felt free to rejoin the Movimento Sociale Italiano, with a new strategy they called the “right-wing bloc,” an effort to forge a street movement-cum-insurgency peopled by small business owners, fascist politicos, and young street toughs who colonized spaces around the city like Piazza Sanbabila in association with their youth group, the Youth Front. With the establishment of the Maggioranza Silenziosa, or Silent Majority, led by the monarchist lawyer Adamo Degli Occhi, the far right attempted to consolidate forces, ironically, around the rejection of political violence.

The first Maggioranza Silenziosa brought huge success, marching some 50,000 protesters from the Porta Veneziato to the Piazza del Duomo using the tactic of a somber, silent protest adopted from the Reggio Revolt. Even a number of centrist dignitaries came along for the ride, perhaps credulously buying the idea that the far right opposed political violence. At this point, in March 1971, many still thought the left responsible for the bombing at the Piazza Fontana, so the Milanese protests from the right aligned with a “business-as-usual” approach taken by the ”double-breasted fascism” crew organized by Almirante.

But there were rumblings of doubt as investigators pursued the “black trail” of the Piazza Fontana bombing, and, in April 1973, a failed bombing on the Saturday Milan-to-Rome train blew open the Strategy of Tension. The culprit, a member of the terror group Squadre d’Azione Mussolini and a denizen of Piazza Sanbabila named Nico Azzi, strutted through the train cars with a leftist newspaper prominently jutting out of his pocket before attempting to set the bomb in the bathroom. Despite his injuries, he immediately identified himself as a “pawn” of fascist leader Giancarlo Rognoni, who promptly fled to Switzerland. His other accomplice in the bombing confessed that the group’s failed plan involved executing the bombing under the guise of a left-wing terrorist group — a false-flag attempt that led many to reconsider the Piazza Fontana incident.

The association of Azzi and Rognoni with the Milanese fascist scene, particularly the journal “La Fenice” (The Phoenix), prompted the authorities to cancel the upcoming Maggioranza Silenziosa protest on April 12. In response to the official ban, local fascists rioted through the streets, attacking high schools and passing cars. During one of several melees with police, a man named Maurizio Murrelli hurled a grenade which exploded against the chest of a young officer, Antonio Marino, killing him in the streets of Milan. The grenade came from Nico Azzi’s collection, pilfered from the barracks after his mandatory service.

The riots and killing of Marino would go down in Italian history as “Black Thursday,” one of the lowest points in a tragic series of events spiraling into a terrifying period of political violence between the left, right and police known as the Anni di piombo, or “Years of Lead,” for the number of political assassinations and shooting battles carried out in Italy’s streets. All of this is not to say that the Christian Democrats played around with relitigating the fascist epoch or attempted to cleanse it of guilt. Quite to the contrary, while some factions did hope to collaborate with fascists to erect a new presidentialism, most Christian Democrats understood their party as heroes of the Resistance and veterans of the National Liberation Committee.

Giorgia Meloni’s current party, Brothers of Italy, stems directly from the pro-Mussolini Movimento Sociale Italiano, in which she served as a member during the early 1990s as a teen. In 1995, Almirante’s heir apparent created a new party called Alleanza Nazionale to cast off some of the negative implications taken on from the previous decades of political struggle. It carried the Movimento Sociale Italiano’s logo of a tricolor flame in its own insignia, but the Alleanza Nazionale repudiated the negative legacy of fascism, even as it maintained an approving posture toward what it viewed as il Duce’s more providential decisions. Fini himself decried the evil of the Holocaust, while pointedly remaining relatively positive on Mussolini’s political record.

Coming as it did out of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the Alleanza Nazionale ventured in spirit into an indirect rebuke of the legacy of the anti-fascist National Liberation Committee. Its effort to rehabilitate the fascist regime, at least in part, stands in stark contrast to national discourse, at least on the official level, since 1945 (and arguably two years before that). Its platform paved the way backward in time against the liberalizing reforms gained through the hard work of social movements in the 1970s that brought women the right to divorce or to get an abortion, for instance.

As Ruth Ben-Ghiat noted in The Atlantic, the Alleanza Nazionale, along with its subsequent formation, Brothers of Italy, obsessed over demographics and birth rates, mobilizing concerted opposition to abortion and immigration in efforts to rekindle the flame of nativist natality. Despite their efforts to distance themselves from a kind of hagiography of the fascist era, they maintained clear links to the party of Almirante. The list is too long to recall, but at its top must be Pino Rauti’s son-in-law, the former Fronte della Gioventù leader, Giorgio Alemanno, who Romans elected as their mayor in 2008.

More recently, Rauti’s daughter, Isabella, defeated the left-wing candidate on Sunday in a successful bid on the Brothers of Italy ticket for the position of senator in the Milanese district of Sesto San Giovanni, once known as the “Stalingrad of Italy” for its entrenched Communist loyalties. The day after the elections, the former paper of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, “Il Secolo d’Italia,” gloated about the “humiliation” of the left.

Of course, the press gets the opportunity to embarrass the Brothers of Italy relatively frequently for breakdowns in discipline amid feverish Roman salutes — on Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less — while digging up associations with groups seeking to restore the powers of the disenfranchised nobility, like Aristocrazia Europea. As recently as Sept. 19, cameras caught the Milanese security councilor and Brothers of Italy exponent Romano La Russa giving the Roman salute during a funeral cortege for a militant fascist named Alberto Stabilini. Known for their long history with the fascist movement, both La Russa and Stabilini were arrested in the dragnet that picked up 64 fascists after Black Thursday back in 1973.

Aside from its inheritance of the fascist street movement, perhaps the most politically-charged component of the Brothers of Italy platform is its avowed presidentialism. From the attempted coup led by the former leader of the anti-partisan Decima MAS forces, the “Black Prince” Junio Valerio Borghese, which foundered on the Night of the Madonna in 1970, to the occulted Rosa dei Venti plot that implicated a NATO psychological warfare general and the head of the military’s intelligence services, the subversive far right in Italy has long sought, through the Strategy of Tension, the very thing Meloni’s party now openly advocates.

From presidentialism to the social movement, Brothers of Italy carries the baggage of the Years of Lead, though to imagine that period as driven exclusively by fascist intrigue would be its own form of revisionism. Indeed, the rough assemblage of fascists that organized into gangs like the sanbabilini emerged in part through the necessity of mutual defense, as revolutionary left-wingers hunted them in the streets virtually for sport. From Lotta continua to Potere Operaia to Avanguardia operaia and even the Movimento studentesco, these groups gained a fierce reputation for anti-fascist action, building into a strategy that the former called “the general clash,” through which constant street fighting would grow the forces of the vanguard toward the emergence of the revolutionary mass movement (or the insurrectionary armed party, for others). Some in Potere Operaio even called for “armed defense of the proletarian neighborhoods” during a mass-based struggle for housing — a fairly ambiguous strategy that many viewed as a stumbling block on the way to the degeneration of the organization.

Amid the financial and political crises that rocked Italy in the mid-1970s, the New Left formations largely did break down and dissolve — particularly over the problems of patriarchy in the movement — leading to a kind of decentralized, networked movement alternately called Autonomia operaia, Autonomia diffusa, or Autonomia organizzata (organized, diffuse, and workers’ Autonomia). The radical diffusion of left-wing organizations into semi-leaderless horizontal networks, matched with the influx of drugs on Italian streets and a new generation that had not lived through the mass workers’ and students’ movements of the 1960s, only escalated internecine violence. The annual butcher’s bill reflected a state of “low-intensity conflict,” also called a “creeping civil war.”

Indeed, the most notorious far-left group of the 1970s, the Brigate Rosse, torched the car belonging to Romano La Russa’s brother Ignazio in 1972 during their early activities building up to kidnapping, assassination and the ever-present menace of gambizatti, or knee-cappings. By the late-1970s, gambizatti had become so commonplace that many on the left mockingly called the rich la classe zoppicante, or “the limping class.” For all its excesses, however, the left rejected indiscriminate attacks, claiming far fewer civilian casualties than the right, and its violence picked up steam only after 1974, once the collusion of the Strategy of Tension had largely run its course. Scholars often read left-wing terrorism of the late ’70s as retaliatory against the prior decade of state-protected fascism. Suffice to say, it’s complicated.

Without justifying its violence, the extra-parliamentary left of the 1970s did hold the fascist movement in check through exhilarating and dogged journalistic exposes as well as protests and direct action. The reciprocal patterns of violence that emerged during the period led many to take the centrist position that the two sides represented a system of “opposite extremism,” a kind of early iteration of today’s “both sidesism.” Yet the indiscriminate fascist terror often led to the derailing of “opposite extremism,” among other things, retrenching the center-left formula as a necessary palliative for an ailing system.

Now, then, for the question on every mind: given Italy’s boisterous history of political clashes, and the resurgence of one side directly out of the fascist tradition, how are the heirs of the Movimento Sociale Italiano — really, the Repubblica Sociale Italiano — sweeping into electoral office without major pushback in the streets?

In the first place, the rise of Brothers of Italy has been a slow and long-term process that began with the inclusion of Alleanza Nazionale in Silvio Berlusconi’s short-lived first parliament. The coalition fell apart due to splits between the Alleanza Nazionale and their other coalition partner, Lega Nord, as well as the ever-present problem of corruption plaguing Berlusconi’s coalitions. The present incoming government appears to have flipped the initial one on its head, bringing Brothers of Italy to power with Berlusconi as a minor partner as a result of a slow-motion normalization process.

But things are never so simple. Before the pandemic, Brothers of Italy polled so low that Meloni considered leaving the party. However, after the disgraceful collapse of Lega as a result of a corruption scandal implicating its leader, Matteo Salvini, in a plan to trade a sweet oil deal to Russian businessmen and political operators for campaign support, Brothers of Italy found themselves with scant competition on the right. And then COVID-19 happened.

In Italy, a country so often associated with effusive camaraderie, romance and sociability, the pandemic hit particularly hard, yet many viewed the ensuing regulations as draconian and cruel. The party in power, the renegade Movimento 5 Stelle that made its name as the rabble-rousers of the anti-establishment, suddenly risked looking like the party of lockdowns and public safety restrictions. People from all political backgrounds hit the streets to demonstrate against the ruling elites and their efforts to rein in Italians’ social lives.

As happened in Australia with the so-called “fake tradie” movement of purported union rank-and-file resisting their leadership, and in Canada with the notorious truckers’ convoy, Italian workers in Trieste blockaded the ports in opposition to the “Green Pass.” Sergio Bologna, co-founder of the New Left group Potere Operaio and veteran of the ensuing autonomist movement, remarked, “When in Trieste the coordination of the No Green Pass movement and the [Collective of Workers of the Port of Trieste] declared an all-out blockade of the port, I immediately thought of it as a neo-fascist initiative.” However, Bologna notes that things are more complicated; he sees the port blockade as a having “served up on a silver platter a nice lunch” to the “no-vax” movement and the Brothers of Italy, while still representing the unmet needs of students, workers and others struggling for a better life.

The Gordian knot of opposition could not be cut. During the pandemic, the rejection of managerial “paternalism,” to use Bologna’s word, brought about the conditions for fascist entryism and organizing in popular movements, as clearest exhibited by the fascist militant group Forza Nuova’s attack on the left-wing trade union, the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, in the context of a protest against COVID-19 measures. But disentangling the far right from the far left in those conditions proved impossible, straining the center-left coalition in power.

Ultimately, the fracturing of the technocratic coalition between the major anti-establishment party and its center-left coalition partner, and the fall of its main competitor on the right, allowed Brothers of Italy to capitalize on the reactionary turn in autonomous mass movements and upset the center-left. I suppose this could be called “bad luck” or a “perfect storm,” but it has taken the wind out of the sails of the far left that once held in check the yearnings for a phoenix-like release from the burden of guilt with promises of progress and accountability. The present, demobilized state of the left may, however, be temporary.

As Sunday’s low voter turnout shows, Italians currently suffer from a moral exhaustion palpable in every country in the West, resulting from feelings of political and economic stagnation. It is no longer 1960, and the entrance of the political heirs of the Movimento Sociale Italiano will not result in mass revolt throughout the country. Will Meloni be able to bring in a new age of presidentialism in Italy, transforming 80 years of national history in a move that could bring the country closer to a descent into fascism? It is, in fact, far too early to tell. The truth is, probably not. Fractious political life in Italy, the humbling of Lega, and the awkward assemblage of the right-wing coalition may lead to political disintegration before any drastic changes can take place. Still, her reframing of “post-fascism” as “center-right” will change the dialectics that framed the post-war epoch, dragging the political center outside of established norms.

For that reason, it would be a mistake to write off Italy’s MAGA moment. The country’s most reactionary forces have not enjoyed this degree of success since World War II, and the fascist bedfellows of the presidentialist movement are always waiting in the wings to bring about their rivoluzione nazionale and restore the myth of what Mussolini called “the eternal valor of our race.”

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