Posts Tagged ‘The Franchise’

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.

Radical Balladry and Tunes for Toilers: The Agitator

May 22, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

Over the past few days I’ve been posting the sheet music to various radical folk tunes and songs as examples of the long tradition of working class radical popular music and poetry. On Tuesday I posted the music from Robin Williamson’s collection of British fiddle tunes for ‘The Rights of Man’ hornpipe, celebrating the work of the 18th century American revolutionary, Tom Paine, who was born in Thetford. Yesterday I put up ‘The New Poor Law and the Farmer’s Glory’, from Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England, which I assume attacked the establishment of the workhouses in 1832 by the new Liberal government. Today it’s the turn of ‘The Agitator’, again from Palmer’s book. As with yesterday’s tune, I’m afraid I didn’t note the words at the time. The title suggests it comes from the early 19th century during the period of intense Chartist agitation, when working men campaigned for the extension of the franchise to all men over 21 and the reform of parliament so that working men could enter it. There were two aspects to the campaign. One consisted of peaceful meetings and the compilation of petitions to parliament. Much less peaceful were the ‘physical force’ Chartists, who saw revolution as the only solution to the problem of creating democracy in England. Here’s the tune.

Agitator Tune

As with the ‘New Poor Law and the Farmer’s Glory’, this issue is still very relevant today. There is still a problem with the under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in parliament. Despite the introduction of equal suffrage and the payment of MPs, parliament is still dominated by the upper and middle classes, who have increasingly turned away from working class and very much legislate in their own interests. The aristocratic background of Cameron and Clegg, and the cabinet they lead is very much an example of this. Parliament needs to be reformed and made more representative of the working class. Now.

What UKIP Won’t Tell the Voters: The Fascistic Illiberalism at the Heart of the Party

April 27, 2014

NigelFarage

Nigel Farage, Fuhrer of UKIP, whose policies allegedly include the removal of the vote from the unemployed and the sterilisation of the disabled.

I’ve reblogged another of Mike’s pieces from over at Vox Political, Does UKIP’s Euro election poll lead really reflect the People’s view? In it, Mike analyses some of the comments about UKIP posted on the Vox Political Facebook page. He concludes that UKIP’s electoral lead in the Euro elections is driven by disillusionment with the existing parties, rather than an outright endorsement of UKIP in itself. It’s a protest vote, caused by fears over mass immigration from eastern Europe. The article’s well worth reading for a glimpse into how people really feel about UKIP in their own words, rather than what UKIP’s own publicists and mainstream media commentators tell you.

I’ve remarked on how it is extremely suspicious and highly sinister that UKIP does not mention its domestic policies, preferring to concentrate instead exclusively on the issue of the EU and immigration. When you do find out about them, they’re horrifying. They have been described as ‘Tories on steroids’ because they advocate the complete destruction of the welfare state and privatisation of the NHS. One of their policies, for example, is the removal of the worker’s right to paid annual leave.

But if one of the commenters on Mike’s Facebook page is to be believed, that’s the very least of it. The party has other policies that verge dangerously close to the Far Right. Bette Rogerson posted the following about them:

“Why would you vote for a party that says it hates Europe, but at the same time takes lots and lots of money from the European parliament? Why vote for a party whose members advocate policies like less tax for the wealthiest, cutting of maternity leave and forcible sterilisation of the disabled? Why vote for a party who wants to take the vote away from the unemployed? Is your job really that secure? Lastly but not least, why vote for a party which claims it wants British jobs for the British and then hires an Irish actor to model as a poor Briton whose job has been taken away by a foreigner?”

Various Conservative politicians and mouthpieces, like the Daily Mail, have also attacked maternity leave on the grounds that its an expensive burden for business. At times this has verged into attacks on women working, as the requirement to supply paid leave for women to have children and raise a family, according to the Tory Right, makes employing women prohibitively expensive. Thus it sometimes forms part of an attack on feminism and just about every attempt to give women access to jobs outside the home since the Equal Opportunities campaigns of the 1970s.

The really frightening stuff, however, if Bette Rogerson is correct, are the demands to sterilise the disabled and deny the vote to the unemployed. The sterilisation of the disabled was a major part of the eugenics campaign in Britain and America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was based on fears that the ‘dysgenic’ – the mentally and physically handicapped – would outbreed the sane, intelligent and able-bodied, and place an unbearable burden on the rest of society. By the 1920s, about 22 American states had passed legislation providing for the sterilisation of the ‘unfit’. It became a central part of the Nazi programme when they took power, with the Nazis themselves boasting that they had introduced nothing new in this regard. In propaganda films like I Don’t Want To Be Born the Nazis promoted the abortion of disabled children. Their eugenics programme finally culminated in the organised murder by the SS of mentally handicapped individuals taken from Reich mental asylums under the direction of Hitler’s doctor.

As for the removal of the vote from the unemployed, this seems to be another throwback to the 19th century. The extension of the franchise enacted by Disraeli in the 1870s gave most working men the vote. But not all. The franchise was still connected to property and the payment of rates. Martin Pugh in his book, British Fascism between the Wars, points out that the idea of universal suffrage based on the rights of the individual, was rejected as ‘too abstract’ and French in origin. He makes the point that the undemocratic nature of the franchise, which also excluded women until 1918, was partly one of the factors that turned the Conservative Right towards Fascism. Large sections of the establishment were afraid and disliked the extension of the vote to all of the great unwashed, particularly groups connected with the Raj and the colonial bureaucracy. That makes sense. The British government of India was a European elite of official and bureaucrats ruling a vast sub-continent without any kind of democratic accountability to the millions they governed. They clearly took the same attitude towards their Indian subjects back with them to their fellow countrymen in the British working class.

More recently, Right-wing politicians and polemicists have also criticised the extension of the liability for jury duty beyond the traditional restrictions based on property qualifications. According to them, Roy Jenkins’ removal of the property qualification in the 1960s was one of the causes of the rising crime rate in the 1970s. Those with a proper investment in bricks and mortar were more socially responsible, according to these Right-wingers, and more aware of criminals as a threat to society than those without such property, who were consequently much more irresponsible regarding the proper punishment crims deserved. This was the point made by one such Tory writer, whose book was reviewed in the Financial Times in the 1990s. UKIP’s supposed policy to exclude the unemployed from the franchise does sound similar to this complaint.

Workfare: It’s almost Nazi forced labour under the Tories. Under UKIP, it would be the real thing.

And lastly, apart from the threat to democracy posed by the denial of the vote to the unemployed, simply for being without a job, it also turns the unemployed themselves into helots – state slaves – under the Work programme. I’ve criticised the government’s welfare to work programme, along with Johnny Void and many others, for constituting a form of slavery. At the moment one of the major factors stopping it from being real slavery is that those on the Work Programme still possess the franchise. They are, in theory, still electorally free. This would deny them that freedom, and so make them virtual serfs of the government and the private industries, to whom they would be rented out under the Welfare to Work rules. And needless to say, it would also provide a strong incentive for government and big business to shed more paid jobs, in order to create an army of state serfs denied the franchise and forced to work for a pittance in Jobseekers’ Allowance, rather than a living wage.

This is how the free citizens of the Roman Empire became the feudal serfs, labouring on the estates of the nobility in the Middle Ages, folks. See the relevant chapter on the decline of the Roman empire in R.H.C. Davies, Europe in the Middle Ages.

If this is all correct, and these are UKIP’s domestic policies, then Farage and his stormtroopers are dragging us back to the worst and most exploitative aspects of 19th century capitalism. It’s not quite Fascism, but very close. Oswald Mosley, the Fuhrer of the British Union of Fascists, in his autobiography, My Life, sneered at the concept of freedom under liberal democracy. For him, such freedom meant only the freedom for the poor and unemployed to sleep on a park bench. Mosley himself was a terrible man – a vicious racist and anti-Semite, who fancied himself as the British Mussolini or Hitler. But If this is correct about UKIP, then under Farage you wouldn’t even have the freedom to do that.