Fasci, literally meaning ‘bundles’, and perhaps descending from the fasci of thin staves of wood carried by Roman officials as symbol of authority, were established in Sicilian towns and villages in the late nineteenth century. They were mutually – supporting societies of peasants and workers; the basic trade union in fact. Their leaders varied in type and political opinion, but were usually anarchists, though many were teachers, local landowners and gentry, members of ancient and respected families. Not a few among them were local mafiosi.
By 1893 these groups had won wide acclaim and support among the Italian peasants, and were responsible for the organisation of some numbing industrial strikes. Unfortunately the strikes were more than usually accompanied by traditional rural violence and this was used as a excuse by the government of Francesco Crispi to start repressive measures.
In 1894 the fasci were summarily dissolved, but this required martial law in Italy. Members were arrested and imprisoned or deported to prison islands. Crispi also used the manifest disorder produced by the arrests to remove the names of potential socialist or anarchist supporters from electoral rolls.
The word Fascism has often been used with accuracy to describe nationalistic, authoritarian or populist movements – mostly in the period between world wars. The first great Fascist endeavour was founded by Mussolini as a hard republican, anti-clergy and anti-capitalist movement with a strong trade unionist slant, but oddly enough it later changed to a support of the free market, the monarchy as a concept and even the Church. Perhaps the confusion started there.
In the eyes of the public, all fascist movements – the Blackshirts in Britain, the Iron Guard in Romania, the Croix de Feu in France, or others of the breed meant aggressive, possibly violent and unquestioning nationalism; no respect for governmental, democratic or liberal institutions; no respect for police forces (unless they were under control by Fascists). It is certain however that Fascists were capable of using any of these institutions to gain power. It was the idea of power, naked unquestioned power that fascinated the Fascists, plus their deep distrust and loathing for Socialism in any of its forms. A popular leader with whom everyone could sympathise was needed, if possible one associated with extreme militarism. One was found in Mussolini, a journalist and editor with a self-designed army uniform. It should be emphasised that at least in the early stages, Italian Fascism was not anti-Semitic.
Association with Nazism is implied by many authors. Perhaps the National Socialist Party in Germany was no more than an extremely violent manifestion of Fascism, but after the end of the Second World War, which cost four times as many casualties than the first, Fascism became discredited, though certain British and French National Fronts are similar. Spain’s General Franco has been called a Fascist, but too many of his traits and reforms give the lie to the idea. No true Fascist, for instance, would introduce a national health and insurance programme. It is however possible to describe Spain’s latest political squib, Pablo Iglesias and his Podemos party as fitting the bill, as he is the ‘charismatic leader’ required, anti-everything except himself and his party. He shows every sign of being a perfect exponent of Fascism. One thing is certain about Iglesias: he will describe the Spanish Socialist Workers Party and the Popular Party as ‘fascist’. The Spanish Monarchy and the Church will be Fascist. Everything (except Podemos) must be Fascist. When he finally wins the Spanish popular vote, however, he will show who the real Fascist is. Time will tell.