Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Italian Turn: How Meloni is Bringing Europe’s Conservatives and Far Right Together

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Chris Bambery spoke to author David Broder ahead of his booklaunch in Glasgow, about the fascist roots of the Italian government and its attempts to synthesize a new European right.

1)  In post-war Italy all the major parties gave homage to the mass resistance movement which in April 1945 had liberated the great cities of the North. But the cleansing of the state and society of the legacy of the Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini fell far short even of de-Nazification in West Germany. What impact has that had?

The Republic declared in 1946 had a new constitution, written by the major Resistance parties, which banned the recreation of the Fascist party. So, the official identity of the state was antifascist, and the institutions to various degrees honoured the legacy of the Resistance. But, there was little purging of the state apparatus, also because the ruling elite had split in summer 1943, and so the king, fascist generals like Pietro Badoglio, but also much of the top ranks of the army, civil service and so on directly joined the Allied side and were able to avoid the change of Constitution meaning a real refoundation of the state. So, the Resistance did have a big impact in terms of popular mobilisation, building mass democratic parties, and creating an anti-fascist political culture, but it jarred with the reality of the state machine inherited from the regime. Historian Cesare Bermani tells us that even in 1960, over four-fifths of provincial police commissioners were Fascist-era appointees, and that surely included people determined to keep up the fight against the Communists in particular. Various acts of violence against labour organising in the decades after the war show that 1945 did not mark some sudden or total “condemnation of history” that made fascism disappear.

Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Glasgow Booklaunch Tickets, Sat 13 May 2023 at 14:30 | Eventbrite

The German comparison is interesting but in contradictory ways: the Allies certainly exerted stronger pressure for de-Nazification, at least in the first three years after the German defeat (notably in the International Military Tribunal and the principals of collective criminal responsibility it set out) whereas in Italy, even before the end of the war, the Allied Military Government chose not to conduct thorough purges. But in post-war West Germany I don’t think there was anything like the antifascist political culture that existed in Italy, and that state’s own efforts at de-Nazification were meagre. So, in post-war Italy we see elements of popular antifascist culture — not unanimous, but kept up through popular mobilisation — faced with antidemocratic enemies both in the state machine, and in open neofascist organising. 

2)  You use the term “Neo-Fascism,” and explain that is how the founders of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) created a movement which aimed not at unleashing paramilitary squads or re-creating the dictatorship, but one that could operate in conditions of parliamentary democracy. How much of a break was this and how much continuity was there?

Paradoxically, Italy was both the Western democracy with the most explicit “antifascist” official mores, and the one that had an explicitly fascist party contesting elections. The MSI at first refused membership to those Fascists who had abandoned Mussolini in 1943 — in its name and membership, it continued the legacy of the Italian Social Republic (1943–45), known as the Salò regime, during the period of German occupation. So, a party of diehards who had gone all the way in Nazi collaboration, but which also upheld ideas like being a party of “fascists in a democracy” or promising “neither to renege on the regime, or restore it”. Giorgia Meloni now paints the MSI as a party that actually helped build Italian democracy, including by drawing a “demonised” minority into electoral politics.

In reality the relationship is much more complex: the MSI was a party that participated in elections, but damned the postwar republic as illegitimate, and maintained an ambiguous attitude toward democracy as such (thus favouring systems like “qualitative” voting where citizens would elect representatives of their social category, rather than support parties). Moreover, the MSI strongly sympathised with, and had organisational ties to, right-wing dictatorships in countries like Spain and Portugal, for instance advocating their integration into the European Community even without prior democratisation, as well as South American anticommunist military juntas. Some such states were also important to allowing former regime personnel and fascist terrorists to evade justice.

Moreover, while the MSI was a party that took part in elections, many figures were also involved in coup plots, planned “counter-insurgency”, and ultimately in terrorism, aimed at creating the conditions for an authoritarian replacement of Italian democracy. Surely there is a distinction between the MSI and armed-struggle groups at the cutting edge of this strategy like Ordine Nuovo and Avanguardia Nazionale, which actually were banned because of their murderous terrorist attacks, but often there was a complex relationship of the MSI providing a kind of legal cover for the wider neofascist milieu. A famous example I give in the book is the neofascist milieu who made Milan’s Piazza San Babila their fiefdom during the Years of Lead, in which many of the organisational distinctions were blurry. In the 1970s Giorgio Almirante spoke of an “articulated anticommunist front”, which sought to make the MSI the pivot of a broad alliance including, at the same time, both non-fascist conservatives (the so-called “Silent Majority”) and the militant, grassroots neofascist milieu.

3)  The MSI was, aside from one brief episode in 1960, excluded from government by the Christian Democrats, who governed Italy from 1945 until 1992. It dissolved after a massive corruption scandal while the Communist Party, the largest outside Russia and China, had dissolved with the collapse of the Soviet Union. A key figure emerged to fill the vacuum created on the right, Silvio Berlusconi. He entered into coalition with both the racist Lega Nord and the Alleanza Nazionale (as the MSI renamed itself in 1995). How significant was that?

In 2019 Silvio Berlusconi claimed that he had “constitutionalised the fascists” — using a rather blunt term to describe his long-term coalition partners, without even a “neo” or a “post” to qualify it. Many Fratelli d’Italia leaders deny this, but it surely meant a great deal at the time: Berlusconi entered the electoral arena in 1994 making the MSI part of his coalition, in fact even before it changed its name to Alleanza Nazionale and adopted what leader Gianfranco Fini called a “post-fascist” identity. In December 1993, Berlusconi had announced that he would back Fini in the mayoral election in Rome, rather than the Green candidate Rutelli, and he insisted that the MSI were really just moderates.

Still, this needs qualifying in two ways. Firstly, there was a significant softening of other mainstream parties’ hostility toward the MSI even in the 1980s, in the name of “pacification” after the violent “Years of Lead”, and somewhat leaning on the MSI to rein in parts of its own base. At the end of the decade, president Francesco Cossiga also took up a rhetoric, rather similar to the MSI’s own, damning the “party-ocracy” who dominated Italy, and the corruption scandal you mention also helped the MSI, which had never been in government, pose as a party that was “honest” — the party of “la gente” (ordinary folks) not “la tangente” (the bribe).

Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Glasgow Booklaunch Tickets, Sat 13 May 2023 at 14:30 | Eventbrite

The end of the Soviet Union also matters in another way, in the sense that Berlusconi brought the MSI into the fold at a time when much was being said about the “end of history”. The 1995 MSI congress that turned it into the “post-fascist” Alleanza Nazionale actually also claimed that this was the “end of the century of ideologies” and that the past now lay in the past. With many former Communists burying their own identity and transforming into liberals, it also created an atmosphere in which it was easy for the MSI to reinvent themselves, too, claiming that their anti-communist mission had been vindicated and they were now just another right-wing party in a pacified society. As they would see it, the Cold War had fixed in place a division of Europe between Communists and mostly Christian Democratic parties of government, and that order now came to an end in Italy as well as in Eastern Europe.

4) Like the former MSI leaders Meloni tries to avoid praising Mussolini but does celebrate those of his senior followers who after 1945 formed the MSI. She herself was a militant in the party and firmly roots Fratelli in that tradition. How important is the MSI’s legacy to her.

Very important. Fratelli d’Italia carries an ambiguous relation to the reform process that dissolved the MSI in the 1990s, and if anything is less critical of historic, regime-era fascism than Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale was. It simply declares that the issue lies in the past and it has nothing to apologise for. But it also tends to reframe the problem by reducing the meaning of the word “fascism” to the regime era alone, and simply ignore the fact that postwar MSI leaders called themselves fascists. Meloni rebrands this the “tradition of the democratic Italian right”, including Salò veterans like her hero Almirante. When Fratelli d’Italia was founded in 2012, Meloni actually damned Fini for “destroying the Italian right”, calling him a plaything of “high finance” and such like.

Obviously in a way “generations” don’t exist, in the sense they don’t have fixed boundaries. But the handover of the party between people who’ve lived through different eras is part of the explanation. Meloni grew up politically not, like Almirante, in the regime era, or like Fini and senate president Ignazio La Russa, in the 1970s Years of Lead, but in the 1990s — so, the period when political violence and social conflict in general was less, when the “end of history” was announced, after the Soviet Union had fallen and once EU integration and neoliberalisation were more advanced. For all these reasons, she actually does have a less “transformative” vision of political change than the older generations, and is further from the regime experience, even while also voicing conspiracy theories that use the language of the “extinction” of Italians, civilisational “warfare” and so on.

Her political mindset is much more moulded by the experience of the MSI itself, and in particular the idea that it was an “oppressed political community” in postwar Italy. We almost get the impression that Italy was somehow Communist-dominated. In her confidence speech to parliament in October she ignored all reference to neofascist terrorism or the antifascist resistance, but did mention the case of Sergio Ramelli, an 18 year old MSI activist killed by members of far-left Potere Operaio in 1975, as an example of what “militant antifascism” really means. She often voices, and in some sense really believes, that antifascism is an ideological justification for repressing the right, and that the MSI was unjustly treated as what she calls “children of a lesser god”, unwanted “stepchildren” (as La Russa put it) of postwar democracy. Much of Fratelli’s victim identity is rooted in the idea that they are finally getting one over on antifascist Italy, finally showing that they have as much right to rule as anyone else.

5)  Meloni has succeeded in positioning her party within a wider rightwing alliance, including Donald Trump. She has brought the neo-fascist tradition, its slogans and themes into the mainstream. How important is that? And what about its ties to parties like Vox in Spain?

A big theme of my book is that the “mainstreaming” of Fratelli d’Italia does not necessarily rely on it going “moderate”. Rather, it is part of a wider process of change in right-wing politics, at least at the level of the West and also in certain other countries beyond that. That is, while it broadly accepts the parameters of electoral democracy, and indeed the fundamentals of neoliberal economics it is also a politics much more obsessed with resisting cultural decline, defending ethnic conceptions of citizenship and so on. It is a postmodern identity politics, a new product that is uniting different traditions on the right in the name of “conservatism”.

Surely this is a contradictory process, for it also integrates elements of liberalised social mores, in a deeply hypocritical way. For instance, Fratelli d’Italia members say that they are “not racist”, but also oppose citizenship for the children of immigrants, and often evoke “great replacement theory”, the idea of a plot to destroy Italian identity in order to replace the “European, Christian” population with another. This is important in two ways, for answering your question. One, this is not just the old Spenglerian idea of the twilight of the West, but a conspiracy theory focused on the collusion between finance capital (“the usurer Soros”) and Marxists in planning the destruction of the Italian people. Second, that the idea doesn’t come from a Mussolinian tradition, but can serve as a glue between radical right-wingers not from this tradition (the likes of Steve Bannon, Viktor Orbán and Éric Zemmour) and a party of fascist roots like Fratelli d’Italia. Great Replacement Theory was only coined in 2010, but can ‘rhyme with’ and be directly cited alongside Italian Fascist thinkers like Giovanni Gentile. So, as Roger Griffin put it, they “hybridize” their own political ancestors with other new influences. We should also not underestimate the power of anticommunist identity politics in countries like Poland, Lithuania and Hungary, in giving a kind of moral vigour to this agenda: the claim, in Rome as in Budapest, that they are overcoming a long communist hegemony.

Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Glasgow Booklaunch Tickets, Sat 13 May 2023 at 14:30 | Eventbrite

Vox in Spain has a good chance of being in government with the Partido Popular after the election in December; in Sweden, Fratelli’s sister party (Sweden Democrats) is now decisive to sustaining the government, and the Polish Law and Justice are already in power. Rather than expect an Italexit-type scenario (which is completely unrealistic and outside of Fratelli’s agenda or identity) we should fear the recreation of the Italian-style “centre right alliance” (i.e. what Italian media call the alliance of Berlusconi, the Lega and Meloni) at the European level. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has vastly accelerated this process and made Meloni’s EU-wide group (“European Conservatives and Reformists”) a much more legitimate interlocutor for the Christian-democratic group (European People’s Party). It’s far from certain they’ll form an alliance after the 2024 European elections, but there’s a lot of “feelers” and a lot of speculation about it. Without doubt, there is no real cordon sanitaire between them. We could also cite the example of Meloni’s recent visit to Britain, where her dealings with Rishi Sunak were not just businesslike, but chummy (she even denied that flying people to Rwanda can even be called “deportation”). If when MSI first joined the government in 1994, ministers in other countries didn’t know how to react, and some even boycotted their representatives, that is no longer true. They have succeeded in normalising themselves.

6) What hope is there of left-wing resistance, in a country with such a proud tradition of the workers’ movement?

For some decades, the centre-left have been important architects of Italian neoliberalism, and have long defended a growth model that has left Italian workers’ wages lower than in 1992 (the only country in the EU where this is the case). The European project was somehow both an alibi for the pain workers suffered in several rounds of austerity (cast as externally imposed necessity) but also the “promised land” of modernisation that never actually came. I talked about this in my last book, First They Took Rome.

Given this poor picture, there have been three decades of plunging electoral turnouts and waning faith in political action as such, affecting in particular the most disadvantaged. Up till the 1980s, Italy had 90%+ electoral turnouts even in regional elections… now not even half that. Outside electoral politics, we could surely point to many important struggles, which I don’t want to disparage at all, but overall it is hard for them to shape the terms of national politics, especially after such a long and general period of defeat. If people can’t see many struggles visibly winning things that benefit them, and if unionisation and party membership have been falling for decades, then it becomes ever harder to turn things around and re-energise an ever more stagnant democracy.

Even the recent victorious campaign for left-winger Elly Schlein in the Democratic Party primary (she had not even been a member before the contest) did not really critically revisit this party’s record or fundamentally challenge, for instance, its pattern of supporting technocratic governments in the name of often austerian budgets. That said, given that her own social-democratic politics are not ever so radical or confrontational, Schlein has done creditably in calling out Meloni’s agenda as reactionary and anti-worker. That is, rather than judging her in the narrow and depoliticising terms of “competence”, in the manner of many liberals and centre-leftists. The third largest party, the Five Star Movement under Giuseppe Conte’s leadership, while not a party of the Left, also today has a more distinctly “social” edge — on benefits, on proposing a minimum wage — than was the case four or five years ago.

Sometimes right-wingers deride writers like me for bringing up Meloni’s fascist “roots”, as if I thought endlessly calling her a “fascist” were the necessary path for the Left to reconnect with its base. I don’t think that this is anything like alone sufficient. Eleventh-hour “antifascism” has diminishing returns, and evidently the left has to mobilise people around all manner of issues, including economic interest as well as a certain more “spiritual” idea of their identity and whose side they are really on.  Nonetheless, the “antifascist” (and for that matter, anti-racist, pro-LGBT, feminist, etc) and “pro-worker” struggles are actually quite closely linked by the government itself, whose identity politics promotes a harsh social Darwinism. 

It promotes “culture war” about the idea of hardworking “normal” families against various supposed outsiders and malingerers, and Meloni’s economic agenda draws on quite classic Reaganite principles, including for instance claiming that it is “pro-worker” through a policy that premises job creation on reducing labour costs. For instance, tax cuts for businesses who take on more workers. It is also strongly opposed to welfare payments for the unemployed, which the government has already drastically slashed.  But there are tax cuts promised for large families, whereas both immigrants and same-sex couples are excluded from counting as families at all.

So, surely it is not easy to rebuild mobilisation. But I think we can see lots of space for interesting alliances between different struggles (or at least, different groups set to lose out under this government). And in that picture, it’s better to have a Democratic Party leader who says she’s on their side, than just some corporate liberal saying we need to get the technocrats back in charge.

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