Interview. LeU group leader Federico Fornaro spoke on his new book, ‘The collapse of democracy,’ which traces the three-year rise of Mussolini. ‘In Italy, right-wing extremism is a remnant, but not to be underestimated, as evidenced by the attack on CGIL last fall.’

Federico Fornaro: Mussolini-style fascism will not return, but authoritarianism is already here

Federico Fornaro, LeU group leader in the Chamber of Deputies and candidate for Articolo 1 on the proportional list of the PD in Piedmont, has written a new work of historical research, now in bookstores: Il collasso di una democrazia (The Collapse of a Democracy, ed. Bollati Boringhieri) in which he retraces and analyzes the events of the three-year period 1919-1922 that marked the rise of Mussolini.

In the last chapter, there are also “warnings for future travelers,” namely us who 100 years later are facing a general election that promises to be of historic importance.

In your opinion, is there a lesson that the pro-democracy front should have learned from the events of 100 years ago?

From looking at the three-year period 1919-1922, I believe several suggestions can be drawn to avoid repeating the same mistakes. First, do not underestimate your opponents and the symbolic significance of certain events. Without lapsing into the sterile myth of unity at any cost, there are times when gathering a critical mass to counter the advance of the right is a factor which should be put before the divisions and personal grudges widely prevalent on the left. The myth of “doing it like in Russia” that inspired the maximalists back then has obviously lost the evocative force it had a hundred years ago, but the notion of overcoming capitalism is still largely present. There are, however, historical phases in which the value of actual achievements should prevail first and foremost, and social alliances should be sought in order to resume the path of equality and social justice, rather than favoring identity-based and electorally sterile positions that benefit opponents.

According to your reconstruction, without the support of the economic powers, fascism could never have made the leap to the coup. In your judgment, does the right wing today enjoy similar support and reverence?

I am among those who believe that the Mussolinian fascism of the 20-year period is not repeatable. There remains in contemporary societies what Umberto Eco called “eternal fascism,” of which multiple signs are evident, and which could slide toward illiberal forms of democracies along the lines of Orban’s Hungary. I would not have serious doubts today about the democratic allegiance of the Italian bourgeoisie, even if the contempt for politics (and even for Parliament as such) expressed on several occasions by Confindustria chairman Bonomi has always been one of the weapons used by right-wing populism to discredit representative democracy and foster anti-democratic drifts.

Looking back over the three-year period of the fascist advance, do you think it’s possible to identify a point of no return in the crisis of liberal democracy?

The inability to handle the extraordinary electoral success of November 1919 on the part of the maximalist socialists and communists, because of the spellbinding effect of the siren’s call of the Russian Revolution, had a heavy influence on events, partly due to the role played by the Populars and Giolittians. The former chose the path of absolute intransigence with respect to agreements with the left, and at first even with the liberals, while the latter deluded themselves that they could use the fascists according to the Bolshevik model and then get rid of them. Then, the monarchy did not do what was within its power to prevent the march on Rome. As the title of the book indicates, there was a “structural collapse” of the edifice of post-unification liberal democracy, rather than a single triggering event. Although one should not underestimate the destructive role of the systematic violence of fascist street gangs beginning in the fall of 1920 that brought socialist organizations at all levels to their knees. Ultimately, there was a prevalent generalized underestimation of the danger posed by Mussolini and his militia.

In conclusion, you describe three types of movements to the right of traditional conservatism: extremism, populism and authoritarianism. What trends are present in our country and – possibly – among the right wing who are trying to win the government?

In Italy, right-wing extremism is a remnant, but not to be underestimated, as evidenced by the attack on CGIL last fall. The government crisis has given once again prevalence to a right-center structure in place of the traditional center-right led by Berlusconi. Today the proposals coming from this area are a mixture of populism and traditional authoritarianism, albeit in the bland form of the leader in charge, savior of the homeland. One of the real dangers is that the clock will be turned back on social and civil rights achievements, especially with regard to the emancipation of women and the goal of full and substantive equality. If they had overwhelming success at the polls, there would then be a real risk of a radical rewriting of the Constitution in a presidentialist direction.

What do you think of the way Giorgia Meloni responded to the call to condemn fascism?

Words are important, but symbols in politics perhaps even more so. Why does Fratelli d’Italia proudly refuse to remove the tricolor flame from the logo that will be printed on ballots? Simply because that flame is the “black thread” of the Italian right-wing tradition that has its roots in the December 1946 founding of the Italian Social Movement by veterans of the Italian Social Republic. One should not underestimate the importance of this failure to make a clean break, because it is often accompanied, in right-wing publications, by a reductionist narrative of the Ventennio, with Mussolini and Fascism likened to a kind of “benign tumor” as opposed to the “malignant” tumors of Hitler’s Nazism and Stalin’s Communism.

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