Posts Tagged ‘Alfredo Rocco’

Book on Revolutionary Trade Unionism, Fascism and the Corporative State

October 20, 2020

David D. Roberts, Syndicalist Tradition & Italian Fascism (University of North Carolina Press, 1979).

Syndicalism is a form of revolutionary socialism that seeks to overthrow the liberal state and replace it with a society based on the trade unions in which they run industry. It was particularly strong in France, and played a major role in Catalonia and the struggle against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. It has also been a strand in the British labour movement, and produced a peculiar British form, Guild Socialism, whose leaders included the great socialist writer and former Fabian, G.D.H. Cole.

Fascism Mixture of Different Groups

Fascism was a strange, heterogenous mixture of different, and often conflicting groups. These included former syndicalists, radicalised veterans from the First World War, ultra-conservative Nationalists and the Futurists, an aggressive modern artistic movement that celebrated war, speed, violence, masculinity, airplanes, cars and the new machine age. Some of these groups shared roughly the same ideas. The war veterans were deeply impressed with the corporative constitution drafted by Alceste de Ambris for D’Annunzio’s brief regime in Fiume, the Carta de Carnaro. Superficially, the Fascist syndicalists shared the same goal of creating a corporate state to govern industrial relations and run industry. However, they approached this from very different directions. The Nationalists, led by Alfredo Rocco, were ultra-Conservative businessmen, who attacked liberal democracy because of the corruption involved in Italian politics. At the same time they feared the power of the organised working class. As Italy modernised, it underwent a wave of strikes. In response, Rocco recommended that the state should take over the trade unions, using them as its organ to discipline the workers, keep the masses in their place while training them to perform their functions efficiently in the new, industrial Italy. The syndicalists, on the other hand, wanted the trade unions to play a role in industrial management and at the same time draw the working class into a fuller participation in politics. The working class had been excluded from the liberal state, but through their economic organisations, the unions, they could play a much fuller role as these governed their everyday lives. They saw the corporations and the corporate state as a means of increasing democracy and popular participation, not limiting it.

Fascist Corporativism

The corporations themselves are industrial organisations rather like the medieval guilds or trade unions. However, they included both the trade unions and employers organisations. There were already nine of them, but by the end of the regime in 1943 there were 27. Under Rocco’s Labour Charter, the Carta del Lavoro, strikes and lockouts were forbidden in the name of industrial peace and class collaboration. The corporation were required to settle labour disputes. However, if management and the unions were unable to reach agreement, then the dispute was to be referred to labour magistracy for settlement in special labour courts. Mussolini also reformed the Italian parliament, transforming the Chamber of Deputies into a Chamber of Fasces and Corporations. In practice the corporate state never amounted to very much. It never won over real working class support, and the corporations were never given real legislative power. It merely added another layer of bureaucracy and acted as nothing more than a rubber stamp to pass the policies Mussolini had already made. And he seems to have used it as ideological window dressing to give the impression that here was more to Fascism than his personal dictatorship.

The Unification of Italy and Political Alienation

The book argues that the corporate state was a genuine attempt to solve the deep problems of Italian unification left over from the Risorgimento. At the same time, it was also a radical response to the crisis, breakdown and revision of Marxist socialism and the failure of Marxist syndicalism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The process of unification has produced an attitude of deep alienation from the state and politics amongst Italians, and Fascism was partly a response to this. This alienation isn’t confined to Italians, but it is particularly acute. Social studies in the 1970s showed that Italians are less likely than Americans, Brits or Germans to become politically involved. They regard the state as distant with little interest in them. At the same time, there is also an expectation that the bureaucrats in Rome will help them.

Like Germany, Italy was unified by military force and the invasion of the other, constituent states. However, for reasons of speed and a determination to preserve the new nation’s fragile unity, the other Italian states were simply annexed by Piedmont to be governed from there. There was supposed to be a constituent assembly in which the other states were to have their say in the creation of the new Italy, but this simply didn’t happen. At the same time, the industrialisation promoted by Italian liberals was concentrated in the north, so that the south remained backward and agricultural. The franchise was extremely restricted. It excluded illiterates, so that originally only 2 per cent of the population could vote. This was later extended to 7 per cent. At the same time, Italy’s leaders prevented the formation of proper political parties by taking over individuals from different parliamentary factions in order to form workable governing majorities. At the same time there was discontent and widespread criticism of the protectionism imposed to help the development of Italian heavy industry. Middle class critics believed that this unfairly benefited it at the expense of more dynamic and productive sectors of the economy. This led to the belief that Italy was being held back by class of political parasites.

This backwardness also led to an acute sense of pessimism amongst the elite over the character of the Italian people themselves. The Americans, British and Germans were disciplined with proper business values. Italians, on the other hand, were lazy, too individualistic and defied authority through lawlessness. This meant that liberalism was inadequate to deal with the problems of Italian society. ‘This English suit doesn’t fit us’, as one Fascist said. But this would change with the adoption of Fascism. One of Mussolini’s minions once declared that, thanks to Fascism, hard work and punctuality were no longer American, German and British values.

Syndicalism, Marxism and the Revision of Socialism

By the 1890s there was a crisis throughout Europe in Marxist socialism. Marx believed that the contradictions in capitalism and the continuing impoverishment of working people would lead to eventual revolution. But at this stage it was evident that capitalism was not collapsing. It was expanding, wages were rising and the working class becoming better off. This led to the reformist controversy, in which socialist ideologues such as Bernstein in Germany recommended instead that socialist parties should commit themselves to reforming capitalism gradually in order to create a socialist society. The syndicalists were originally Marxists, who looked forward to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. However, they became increasingly disenchanted with Marxism and critical of the leading role of the working class. They originally believed, as with the French syndicalist Georges Sorel, that the class-conscious workers would be a new source of values. But they weren’t. They also believed that this would only be achieved through a long process of education through general strikes. They were horrified by the biennio rosso, the two years of strikes and industrial unrest that came after the end of the war, when it seemed that the Italian labour movement was going to follow the Russian Bolsheviks and create a revolution for which Italy and it working class were not ready.

At the same time, they came to reject Marxism’s doctrine that the political was determined by the economic sphere. They believed that Italy’s political problems could not be reduced to capitalism. Hence they believed that capitalism and private industry should be protected, but made subordinate to the state. Work was a social duty, and any industrial who did not run his company properly could, in theory, be removed and replaced. They also sought to give the workers a greater role in industrial management. This led them to go beyond the working class. They found a new revolutionary group in the Italian war veterans, who were radicalised by their experiences. These would have joined the socialists, but the latter had been strongly neutralist and as a result rejected and ridiculed the former soldiers for their patriotism. These found their ideological and political home with the syndicalists. At the same time, the syndicalists rejection of Marxist socialism led to their rediscovery of other, non-Marxist socialist writers like Mazzini, who also rejected liberalism in favour of a tightly knit Italian nation. Their bitter hatred of the corruption in Italian politics and its parasites led them to join forces with anarchists and other sectors of the Italian radical tradition. They believed that for Italy truly to unite and modernise, the workers should join forces with properly modernising industrialists in an alliance of producers.

Syndicalist Opposition to Mussolini’s Rapprochement to the Socialists

Looking at the development of Italian Fascism, it can seem that there was a certain inevitability to the emergence of Mussolini’s dictatorship and the totalitarian Fascist state. But this argues that there was nothing inevitable about it, and that it was forced on Mussolini in order to stop his movement falling apart. When Mussolini entered parliament and took over as prime minister, he seemed to be transforming what was originally a movement into the very type of party that the Fascist rank and file were in revolt against. Fascism was reconstituted as a party, and when the future Duce met the kind, he wore the top hat and frock coat of an establishment politician. Worse, Mussolini had started out as a radical socialist, and still seemed determined to work with them and other working class and left-wing parties. He signed a pacification pact with the Socialists and Populists, the Roman Catholic party, stopping the Fascist attacks on them, the trade unions and workers’ and peasants’ cooperatives. This horrified the syndicalists, who saw it as a threat to their own programme of winning over the workers and creating the new, corporatist order. As a result they pressurised Mussolini into rescinding that pacts, Mussolini and Fascism moved right-ward to ally with the capitalists and industry in the destruction of working class organisations.

Syndicalists and the Promotion of the Working Class

But it seems that the syndicalists were serious about defending the working class and giving it a proper role through the corporations in the management of industry and through that, political participation in the Italian state. Left Fascists like Olivetti and Ugo Spirito believed that the Italian state should operate a mixed economy, with the state running certain companies where appropriate, and the trade unions owning and managing cooperatives. Some went further, and recommended that the corporations should take over the ownership of firms, which would be operated jointly by management and the workers. This never got anywhere, and was denounced by other left syndicalists, like Sergio Pannunzio, one of their leaders.

From Internationalism to Imperialism

The book also raises grim astonishment in the way it reveals how the Syndicalists, who were initially quite internationalist in outlook, came to support Fascist imperialism. They shared the general Fascist view that Italy was being prevented from developing its industry through British and French imperialism. The two powers blocked Italy from access to trading with their colonies. They were therefore also critical of the League of Nations when it was set up, which they saw as an attempt by the great powers to maintain the international status quo. The Nationalists, who were formally merged with the Fascists, went further and demanded that Italy too should have an empire to benefit its industry, but also to provide land for colonisation by the surplus Italian population. Without it, they would continue to be forced to emigrate to countries like America and Britain, where they would become the lowest and most despised part of their working class. The syndicalists were also acutely aware of how low Italians were regarded and exploited in these countries, even by other members of the working class.

The syndicalists during the war and early post-war years criticised the Nationalists for their militarism and imperialism. Instead of looking forward to perpetual war, as the Nationalists did, they wanted to see instead the emergence of a new, federal European order in which nations would cooperate. This new federal state would eventually cover the world. They also looked forward to a new, equitable arrangement over access to the colonies. Pannunzio did support colonialism, which he believed was bringing civilisation to backward areas. But he also believed that colonies that were unable to become nations in their own right should be taken over by the League of Nations. Pannunzio declared ‘Egotism among nations is a material and moral absurdity; nations … cannot lived closed and isolated by must interact and cooperate’. This changed as time went on and Mussolini established the corporate state. This was always fragile and tentative, and accompanied by concessions to other sectors of Fascism on the right. In order to defend their fragile gains, the syndicalists gave their full backing to the Second World War and its imperialism, which they saw as a crusade to bring the corporate state, the great Italian achievement, but a backward world.

Workers Should Have a Role In Government, But Not Through Totalitarianism

I have to say I like certain aspects of the corporate state. I like the idea of trade unionists actively involved in the management of industry and in a special department of parliament, although as Sidney and Beatrice Webb point out in their Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain, there are severe drawbacks with it. But any such corporatist chamber would have to be an expansion of liberal democracy, not a replacement for it. And I utterly reject and despise Fascism for its vicious intolerance, especially towards socialism and the working class, its rejection of democracy, and especially the militarism, imperialism and racism. Like Nazism it needs to be fought everywhere, in whatever guise it arises.

And the book makes very clear that the corporate state was an exaggerated response to genuine Italian problems, problems that could be solved within liberal, democratic politics.

Perhaps one day we shall see the return of trade unionists to parliaments reformed to allow them to play their proper role in government and industry. I make this recommendation in my booklet, For A Worker’s Chamber. But it should never be through any kind of autocratic, totalitarian regime.

Arbitrary Detention in Fascist Italy and the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition’s Secret Courts

March 17, 2019

Fascism was, from its very origins in 1919 an aggressive, violent movement that sought to destroy and suppress its opponents. But the creation of the Fascist police state was only really created in November 1926 with the passage of the legge di pubblica sicurezza, or Public Safety Law. This was introduced by the former Nationalist politician Alfredo Rocco, who declared

The function of public security is no longer to be considered as something exceptional, in conflict with the dogma of individual liberty as the foundation and aim of society. It is, on the contrary, to be judged as one of the primary functions of the activity of the state…. It is therefore an activity whose exercise cannot be obstructed by absurd preconceptions.

This allowed the Fascist parties to arrest and send into internal exile and confinement people who were only suspected of subversion without legal representation or redress. And it followed legislation originally passed by the liberal Italian state, which Mussolini and his thugs had overthrown.

I found this description of the law, its effects and its liberal origins in Adrian Lyttelton’s The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919-1929 (London: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Lt: 2nd Edition 1987). pp. 298-9. After the above quotation from Rocco, Lyttelton writes

With this flat repudiation of all doctrines of natural law or individual rights went the abolition of all distinctions between the State as a permanent entity and the Government of the moment. The safety of Fascism and the safety of the State were treated as identical.

In accordance with these premises, all vestiges of the responsibility of the executive for its actions were annulled. The citizen was left without redress; the police were no longer required to produce reasons to justify the imposition of restrictions on liberty. The police authority, for example, enjoyed absolute discretion in granting authorization to form associations or to exercise certain professions: ‘consequently the citizen has no right to obtain authorization, or – having obtained it – to keep it.

The institution of confino made possible the internal exile and confinement to an enforced domicile, for a period of up to five years, of those suspected of the intention of engaging in subversive activity. The procedures governing the operation of the confino were especially arbitrary. the decision to commit suspects to the confino was taken by a provincial committee presided over by the Prefect; the only appeal was to a committee headed by the Under-Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior. The accused could be arrested at once, before their appeal was heard, and they were not allowed either to employ a lawyer or to summon witnesses in their defence. The jurisdiction of the magistracy was entirely excluded. Moreover these unpredictable and arbitrary procedures gave an opportunity for the party to interfere. It was usually the party which denounced suspects, and on occasion local leaders, like Carlo Scorza in Lucca, used the mechanism of confino to deal with their personal enemies. it is true that regular imprisonment could not be inflicted by administrative order, as in some totalitarian regimes. The Special Tribunal set up to judge ‘crimes against the State’, which had the power to inflict the death penalty, preserved legal forms, even if the composition of the court made these a very slight safeguard.

Unfortunately the creation of the Police state in Italy was much assisted by the inadequacy of the guarantees for liberty provided under the parliamentary system. The Fascist regime was able to build upon established institutions and precedents. Confino itself was an inheritance from the Liberal State: though domicilio coatto, as it was then known, was originally intended for use against the Mafia, the camorra and brigandage, governments soon gave way to the temptation to use the weapon against political suspects. However under Giolitti the application of domicilio coatto had been confined to professional criminals. In other respects, too, the procedures of the Liberal state had left much room for arbitrary police action. The sweeping emergency measures of January 1925 were legitimized by the vague and undefined powers given to the Prefects under article 3 of the existing communal and provincial law. The power of fermo, or preventative arrest, had always been much abused, and the attempt of the 1912 penal code to introduce the rule of habeas corpus had not been a success; the police and other officials were in practice almost entirely immune from prosecution for excess or abuse of their powers. Even the sanctions of public opinion and parliamentary discussion, though effective in securing new political liberties after 1900, were usually powerless to check the more humdrum abuse of official authority. Nor can the trouble be traced exclusively to official attitudes, the truth is that to a vast number of the Italian people, especially in the backward rural areas, the informal exercise of power to keep the peace, based on tradition or practical intuition, appeared more comprehensible than the workings of the law, which were slow, cumbersome, and bore little relation to real needs.

This is very much, however, the kind of situation that may arise through the legislation the Tory -Lib Dem coalition signed in, which introduces secret courts. Similar legislation was also introduced, or mooted, by that famous Labour moderate and Centrist politician, Tony Blair. Under this legislation in the interests of national security you may be arrested without know the charges against you, and tried in a court from which the press and public have been excluded. You may not know who the witnesses are, and evidence may be withheld from you and your lawyers. It’s the kind of kangaroo court like the perverted judicial systems of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. And very similar to the quasi-judicial proceedings the Labour party has been using to throw out those accused of anti-Semitism. That passage describing the operation of a similar judicial system in Fascist Italy shows the immense dangers in giving such vast, arbitrary power to the police and the State.

We haven’t got to that stage quite yet, but the Fascist system’s precedents in the domicilio coatto of the liberal Italian state and its acceptance by a large section of the Italian public also shows how such repressive measures can be easily introduced to a public, which has been prepared for it by a relatively free state. Just as the introduction of the secret court legislation and the hysteria whipped up by the press about the threat of terrorism could easily prepare the British public for something much closer to the police states of Fascist Italy, Nazi German and Stalinist communism later.

By introducing and supporting secret courts, Blair, the Tories and the Lib Dems have shown that they are enemies of democracy. They have to be thoroughly rejected. If we want a genuinely free and democratic Britain, the only choice is to vote for a socialist Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn. 

Workers’ Chamber Book: Chapter Breakdown

November 21, 2017

As I mentioned in my last post, a year or so ago I wrote a pamphlet, about 22,000 words long, arguing that as parliament was filled with the extremely rich, who passed legislation solely to benefit the wealthy like themselves and the owners and management of business, parliament should have an elected chamber occupied by working people, elected by working people. So far, and perhaps unsurprisingly, I haven’t found a publisher for it. I put up a brief overview of the book’s contents in my last post. And here’s a chapter by chapter breakdown, so you can see for yourselves what it’s about and some of the arguments involved.

For a Workers’ Parliamentary Chamber

This is an introduction, briefly outlining the purpose of the book, discussing the current domination of parliament by powerful corporate interests, and the working class movements that have attempted to replacement parliamentary democracy with governmental or administrative organs set up by the workers themselves to represent them.

Parliamentary Democracy and Its Drawbacks

This discusses the origins of modern, representative parliamentary democracy in the writings of John Locke, showing how it was tied up with property rights to the exclusion of working people and women. It also discusses the Marxist view of the state as in the instrument of class rule and the demands of working people for the vote. Marx, Engels, Ferdinand Lassalle and Karl Kautsky also supported democracy and free speech as a way of politicising and transferring power to the working class. It also shows how parliament is now dominated by big business. These have sent their company directors to parliament since the Second World War, and the number has massively expanded since the election of Margaret Thatcher. Universal suffrage on its own has not brought the working class to power.

Alternative Working Class Political Assemblies

This describes the alternative forms of government that working people and trade unionists have advocated to work for them in place of a parliamentary system that excludes them. This includes the Trades Parliament advocated by Owen’s Grand Consolidated Trade Union, the Chartists’ ‘Convention of the Industrious Classes’, the Russian soviets and their counterparts in Germany and Austria during the council revolution, the emergence and spread of Anarcho-Syndicalism, and its aims, as described by Rudolf Rocker.

Guild Socialism in Britain

This describes the spread of Syndicalist ideas in Britain, and the influence of American Syndicalist movements, such as the I.W.W. It then discusses the formation and political and social theories of Guild Socialism, put forward by Arthur Penty, S.G. Hobson and G.D.H. Cole. This was a British version of Syndicalism, which also included elements of state socialism and the co-operative movement. This chapter also discusses Cole’s critique of capitalist, representative democracy in his Guild Socialism Restated.

Saint-Simon, Fascism and the Corporative State

This traces the origins and development of these two systems of government. Saint-Simon was a French nobleman, who wished to replace the nascent French parliamentary system of the early 19th century with an assembly consisting of three chambers. These would be composed of leading scientists, artists and writers, and industrialists, who would cooperate to administer the state through economic planning and a programme of public works.

The Fascist Corporative State

This describes the development of the Fascist corporative state under Mussolini. This had its origins in the ideas of radical nationalist Syndicalists, such as Michele Bianchi, Livio Ciardi and Edmondo Rossoni, and the Nationalists under Alfredo Rocco. It was also influenced by Alceste De Ambris’ constitution for D’Annunzio’s short-lived regime in Fiume. It traces the process by which the Fascists established the new system, in which the parliamentary state was gradually replaced by government by the corporations, industrial organisations which included both the Fascist trade unions and the employers’ associations, and which culminated in the creation of Mussolini’s Chamber of Fasci and Corporations. It shows how this was used to crush the working class and suppress autonomous trade union activism in favour of the interests of the corporations and the state. The system was a failure, designed to give a veneer of ideological respectability to Mussolini’s personal dictatorship, and the system was criticised by the radical Fascists Sergio Panunzio and Angelo Olivetti, though they continued to support this brutal dictatorship.

Non-Fascist Corporativism

This discusses the way the British state also tried to include representatives of the trade unions and the employers in government, economic planning and industrial policies, and suppress strikes and industrial unrest from Lloyd George’s administration during the First World War. This included the establishment of the Whitley Councils and industrial courts. From 1929 onwards the government also embarked on a policy of industrial diplomacy, the system of industrial control set up by Ernest Bevin during the Second World War under Defence Regulation 58a. It also discusses the corporative policies pursued by successive British governments from 1959 to Mrs Thatcher’s election victory in 1979. During these two decades, governments pursued a policy of economic planning administered through the National Economic Development Council and a prices and incomes policy. This system became increasingly authoritarian as governments attempted to curtail industrial militancy and strike action. The Social Contract, the policy of co-operation between the Labour government and the trade unions, finally collapsed in 1979 during the ‘Winter of Discontent’.

Workers’ Control and Producers’ Chambers in Communist Yugoslavia

This discusses the system of industrial democracy, and workers councils in Communist Yugoslavia. This included a bicameral constitution for local councils. These consisted of a chamber elected by universal suffrage, and a producers’ chamber elected by the works’ councils.

Partial Nationalisation to End Corporate Influence in Parliament

This suggests that the undue influence on parliament of private corporations could be countered, if only partly, if the policy recommended by Italian liberisti before the establishment of the Fascist dictatorship. Those firms which acts as organs of government through welfare contracts, outsourcing or private healthcare contractors should be partially nationalised, as the liberisti believed should be done with the arms industries.

Drawbacks and Criticism

This discusses the criticisms of separate workers’ governmental organs, such as the Russian soviets, by Karl Kautsky. It shows how working class political interests have been undermined through a press dominated by the right. It also shows how some of the theorists of the Council Revolution in Germany, such as Kurt Eisner, saw workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils as an extension of democracy, not a replacement. It also strongly and definitively rejects the corporative systems of Saint-Simon and Mussolini. This part of the book recommends that a workers’ chamber in parliament should be organised according to industry, following the example of the TUC and the GNC Trades’ Parliament. It should also include representatives of the unemployed and disabled, groups that are increasingly disenfranchised and vilified by the Conservatives and right-wing press. Members should be delegates, in order to prevent the emergence of a distinct governing class. It also shows how the working class members of such a chamber would have more interest in expanding and promoting industry, than the elite business people pursuing their own interests in neoliberal economics. It also recommends that the chamber should not be composed of a single party. Additionally, a workers’ chamber may in time form part of a system of workers’ representation in industry, similar to the Yugoslav system. The chapter concludes that while the need for such a chamber may be removed by a genuine working class Labour party, this has been seriously weakened by Tony Blair’s turn to the right and partial abandonment of working class interests. Establishing a chamber to represent Britain’s working people will be immensely difficult, but it may be a valuable bulwark against the domination of parliament by the corporate elite.

I’m considering publishing it myself in some form or another, possibly through the print on demand publisher, Lulu. In the meantime, if anyone wants to read a sample chapter, just let me know by leaving a comment.

Bernard Ingham, the Press Office under Thatcher and Mussolini and the Fascist Spin City

August 11, 2013

All regimes to a greater or lesser extent have attempted to manipulate public opinion to their own ends. A curiously modern example from the Middle Ages is the use of political ballads against Henry VI’s wife, by his opponent, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the father of the infamous Richard III. Richard had been England’s Lord Protector, governing the country. reacting to the king’s incompetence and weak-mindedness, Richard launched a political campaign against him. Political ballads attacked the queen as a ruthless, foreign princess, intent on conquering and oppressing her husband’s lands while misleading him as to her intentions. He and the king’s supporters also launched campaigns against each other in parliament, culminating in a general election, as well as fighting each other on the battlefield. Although a medieval conflict, the Wars of the Roses also appears strikingly modern, almost like the founding archetype of the coups that have been staged since. Richard III at one point even made speeches from the balcony, like great 20th century dictators like Mussolini.

Informal Influence over the Press in Democracies

During the 20th century much of the control of the press in the democracies was informal. Presidents and prime ministers arranged press conferences and dinners with sympathetic press barons. There were censorship rules, that could be invoked in times of national crisis, such as laws against the dissemination of enemy propaganda during First and Second World Wars. Some of the restrictions on what was printed in the press was simply through the personal relationship between the editor and the family of leading politicians. At the Cheltenham Festival of Literature one year, the British caricaturist Gerald Scarfe told the story of how one of his early cartoons was spiked by the editor of the Times. It was of Winston Churchill in his final period as an MP in parliament during his declining years when the powers that had inspired the country to keep on fighting during the War were fading. Scarfe said that at the time Churchill was senile, and the cartoon showed him at the end of the green benches, asleep and drooling. The Time’s editor rejected it on the grounds that it would upset the great man’s wife, Clemmie, when she opened it at breakfast in the morning.

Bernard Ingham and Thatcher’s Press Office

This relationship with the press changed slightly when Mrs. Thatcher established a press office under Bernard Ingham. Now Ingham strongly rejects the description of himself as a spin doctor. Nevertheless, as Maggie’s press officer he institutionalised the government’s manipulation of the news and public opinion in a way previous administrations had not. This in turn prepared the way for its expansion under Peter Mandelson during Blair’s government, and the consequent use of spin and propaganda by the governments following them.

Rigid Control of Press in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy

Totalitarian regimes are notorious for their absolute control of the press and media to garner mass support. In Hitler’s Germany, they were placed under the control of Josef Goebbels, the ‘Minister for Public Enlightenment’. This prompted the satirical joke, said with one eye looking over the shoulder for the Gestapo, that the Goeb was the minimum amount of power required to turn off 100,000 radio sets. Despite the Nazis’ claim that they were enthusiastically supported by the great German public, you can gather from this what that public really thought of their leaders’ rantings.

Control of the press in Mussolini’s Italy was similarly strict. Under a law of 1924, an area’s prefect could warn any editor who ‘damaged the credit of the nation at home or abroad’, ‘aroused unjustified alarm in the public’, and published ‘false or tendentious news’. Editors were also at risk if they published material inciting class hatred or urged disobedience to the law. An editor that was warned twice could be dismissed from his post by the prefect. Another decree gave the prefects the right to sequestrate the issue of a particular paper that had broken the above rules. Originally this legislation was used only against the Socialist and Communist press and papers that had very small circulations. In 1925 it was expanded against the last remaining liberal newspapers. Mussolini tried to encourage the newspapers to adopt a friendly attitude towards to his regime. When this failed, official censorship increased, while the newspapers’ proprietors were threatened with forcible closure and the destruction of their equipment. Under Alfredo Rocco, the former leader of the Nationalists and Mussolini’s Minister for Justice, a corporative Order of Journalists was set up. This was under the control of the Commissione Superiore alla Stampa, composed of other journalists, rather than magistrates. Despite Rocco’s claim that the Commissione ‘realizes both the autonomy of the class and its link with the State’, he himself appointed its members and the Order as a whole was an instrument for controlling the journalists. No journalist, who was not on its rolls was allowed to practise his profession. Stalin used a similar organisation to control writers in the Soviet Union. This was the Writers’ Union, which had actually been founded to protect literature and the press from control by the old tyrant. From 1927 to 1928 there was a sustained campaign in Italy to purge the press of non-Fascist journalists and editors. By the end of the 1920s two-thirds of the newspapers outside the major cities were owned by the Fascist Party. At the same time, the magazines and newspapers published by the individual local Fascist groups, the federations or the Fasci, were reduced by Mussolini’s brother, Arnaldo, for greater economy and to make their control by the central Fascist organisations easier.

Censored Subjects in Fascist Press

In September 1928 the regime issued new guidelines detailing what newspapers were and weren’t allowed to print. All news was intended to be optimistic and present the regime in a positive light. Newspapers were ordered to give minimal coverage to rail disasters, bank failures and air crashes. Journalists were to treat natural disasters ‘with great sobriety’. Mussolini himself decreed that the crime column should be ‘demobilized’, especially stories of suicides, tragedies of passion, violence and child molestation. Editors were also banned from publishing photographs of nude or scantily clad women. I wonder how the Right-wing tabloids like the Sun, Star, Daily Mail and so on would cope under a Fascist dictatorship, considering that much of their content consists of photographs of nude or scantily clad women, and in the Sun, a hysterical campaign against paedophiles in which innocents were targeted and persecuted.

Informal Control of Press by Mussolini; Purchase of Newspapers by Industrialists for Fascist Regime

In other ways, however, the Fascists’ control and manipulation of the press was much more subtle. From 1922 to 1924 this was done informally. Il Duce’s Press Officer, Cesare Rossi, arranged deals in which private financiers sympathetic to the regime bought up opposition newspapers. The radical Milan newspaper, Il Secolo, was purchased for the regime by a group of industrialists headed by Borletti and Cesare Goldmann. Another newspaper, the Corriere Italiano, founded by the regime, was financed by consortium consisting of Fiat, Ilva, Terni, and the shipping magnate, Odero. This approach was discredited in the crisis following the regime’s assassination of the dissident philosopher, Matteotti, in exile Marseille. This revealed the sordid intrigue surrounding the Corriere Italiano and its companion Fascist paper, Nuovo Paese. In the unrest that followed, the headquarters of opposition newspapers were occupied by Fascist squads, and were only allowed to resume publication after submitting to the orders of the local Fascist ras.

In fact simple economic reasons meant that the party and the government could not afford to own and control all the Italian newspapers and magazines. The most important Italian papers thus remained in the hands of the private owners and industrialists, who held them long before the Fascist seizure of power. These proprietors continued to use them to influence the government’s economic policy and secure favours from the regime.

Pre-Fascist Staff Retained under Fascism

There was also some continuity with the pre-Fascist press, in that the regime permitted newspapers and magazines to retain their previous, non-Fascist staff, provided they did not produce material criticising the regime or its policies. Indeed, Mussolini appears to have intended to present some degree of political pluralism. He allowed the trade union newspaper, Il Lavoro, to resume publication in Genoa after it had been closed down. Il Lavoro was the paper of a group of CGL leaders that had capitulated to the regime, and continued to employ a number of well-known opponents of the regime. Mussolini appears to have kept it going in order to appeal, unsuccessfully, to the working class.

Press Office as Institution Common to Thatcher’s Britain and Fascist Italy

While the control of the press by the Italian Fascists was extreme, there is some comparison to the situation in today’s early 21st century Britain. Following Mrs. Thatcher and Bernard Ingham, subsequent British administrations have employed a Press Office like Mussolini and Cesare Rossi. Favourable coverage by the press has been seen as vitally important. From Blair onwards, the government has been sensitive to projecting a positive image through press barons such as Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre of the Mail. These industrialists have similarly been active, like the right-wing press baron Alfred Hugenberg in Weimar Germany, to build up massive media empires presenting their view of current events with an eye to influencing government policy. One former member of Blair’s cabinet said that Murdoch was a quiet presence at all the premier’s cabinet meetings, meaning that Blair was constantly concerned what Murdoch’s reaction to his policies would be.

Grant of Newspapers and Broadcasters by British Governments to their Supporters

Like Mussolini, Mrs Thatcher and subsequent prime ministers also have been active to ensure that particularly important newspapers were owned and acquired only by their supporters. Mrs. Thatcher made sure that the Times and other newspapers were bought by Rupert Murdoch, rather than the left-wing, and corrupt, Robert Maxwell. Blair and his cronies also waved through the acquisition and merger of various satellite firms by Murdoch despite concerns that this set up a dangerous monopoly, concerns that were also raised when Richard Desmond, the owner of the Express, purchased Channel 5. Mrs. Thatcher also acted to support the press barons in their destruction of the print unions, when the press finally moved out of Fleet Street after centuries of occupation.

‘Death on the Rock’ and Thatcher’s Closure of London Weekend Television

Equally significantly, Thatcher acted to close down a TV company that did not follow her line on the killing of a group of IRA terrorists in Gibraltar. According to Private Eye, the Prime Minister was angered by the World in Action documentary, Death on the Rock. The IRA squad in question had travelled to Gibraltar in preparation for an attack on the British army there. The documentary presented evidence that the security services had had the squad under surveillance the whole time they were preparing for their attack. It stated that there had been numerous occasions where the terrorists could have been stopped and arrested without, or with minimal bloodshed. This was not done, and the entire squad was shot dead in what appeared to be an extra-judicial killing. In short, rather than straightforwardly protecting the servicemen and women stationed on the Rock, the SAS had acted as a Death Squad. Lady Olga Maitland said as much a few years later in her biography of Thatcher, when she declared that the purpose of the exercise was to send a sharp message to the IRA.

This is a strong and highly contentious claim. Now the IRA and the other terrorist groups in Ulster were responsible for acts of horrific violence against innocent civilians and members of the security services that left hundreds killed or mutilated, and showed little remorse or compassion for their victims. Most Brits supported the armed services in their campaign against them. There is, however, a line in such military campaigns that cannot be crossed by a democratic regime governed by human rights. This is what prevents nations with a proud democratic tradition, like Britain, from descending into arbitrary government and gun law like the South American Right-wing dictatorships. World in Action argued that this line had been crossed. World in Action was produced by London Weekend Television, which as a result lost its broadcasting license. This was granted instead to their competitors, Carlton, whom Thatcher obviously felt could be relied on to produce more positive coverage.

Conclusion: Increased Government Control of Media and Decreasing Political and Social Freedom in Post-Thatcher Britain

The result is that the freedom of the press in contemporary Britain is far more fragile than it appears. Mussolini was unsuccessful in gaining absolute control of the press, but was also concerned to present the semblance of pluralism. Press diversity in contemporary Britain is also coming under increasing pressure. Newspapers and magazines are increasingly owned by a very few proprietors, who see to it that their monopolies are protected and expanded by the governments of the day. In return, they support a Right-wing agenda that demands further privatisation, the suppression of working class political organisations and the curtailment of welfare benefits and the eventual dismantlement of the welfare state. Finally, broadcasters that present evidence of flagrant government violations of human rights will be penalised and closed down. Perhaps the difference is that in Mussolini’s Italy, it was a case of private industrialists aiding an extreme Right-wing state. In post-Thatcher Britain, it’s an extreme Right-wing state aiding its industrialists. The gap between freedom and tyranny is increasingly a fine one.

Sources

‘Press’, in Philip V. Cannistraro, ed., Historical Dictionary of Fascist Italy (Westport Connecticut, Greenwood Press 1o9i82) 437-40.

Adrian Lyttelton, The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919-1929, 2nd Edition (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1987) 394-400.

Colin Richmond, ‘Propaganda in the Wars of the Rose’, History Today, July 1992, 42:12-18.

‘Toadying the Line’, reviews of Margaret Thatcher: The First Ten Years, Lady Olga Maitland (Sidgwick & Jackson); Margaret Thatcher: The Woman Within, Andrew Thomson (W.H. Allen), in Francis Wheen, ed., Lord Gnome’s Literary Companion (London: Verso 1994) 224-5.