Everyone “knows” that Fascism is an ideology of the extreme right, and Communism is an ideology of the extreme left. Benito Mussolini’s fascist state was bankrolled by big business and the Catholic Church to suppress the democratic demands of the workers in the wake of the First World War. Except that isn’t actually true:
… Mussolini was every bit as much as man of the Left as contemporaries such as Eugene V. Debs. He was what would later come to be known as a “red diaper baby” (meaning the child of revolutionary socialist parents). As a young man, Mussolini himself was a Marxist, fervently anticlerical, went to Switzerland to evade compulsory military service, and was arrested and imprisoned for inciting militant strikes. Eventually, he became a leader in Italy’s Socialist Party and he was imprisoned once again in 1911 for his antiwar activities related to Italy’s invasion of Libya. Mussolini was so prominent a socialist at this point in his career that he won the praise of Lenin who considered him to be the rightful head of a future Italian socialist state.
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When the Italian Fascist movement was founded in 1919, most of its leaders and theoreticians were, like Mussolini himself, former Marxists and other radical leftists such as proponents of the revolutionary syndicalist doctrines of Georges Sorel. The official programs issued by the Fascists, translations of which are included in Norling’s book, reflected a standard mixture of republican and socialist ideas that would have been common to any European leftist group of the era. If indeed the evidence is overwhelming that Fascism has its roots on the far Left, then from where does Fascism’s reputation as a rightist ideology originate?
[. . .]
During its twenty-three years in power, Mussolini’s regime certainly made considerable concessions to traditionally conservative interests such as the monarchy, big business, and the Catholic Church. These pragmatic accommodations borne of political necessity are among the evidences typically offered by leftists as indications of Fascism’s rightist nature. Yet there is abundant evidence that Mussolini essentially remained a socialist throughout the entirety of his political life. By 1935, thirteen years after Mussolini seized power in the March on Rome, seventy-five percent of Italian industry had either been nationalized outright or brought under intensive state control. Indeed, it was towards the end of both his life and the life of his regime that Mussolini’s economic policies were at their most leftist.
After briefly losing power for a couple of months during the summer of 1943, Mussolini returned as Italy’s head of state with German assistance and set up what came to be called the Italian Social Republic. The regime subsequently nationalized all companies employing more than a hundred workers, redistributed housing that was formerly privately owned to its worker occupants, engaged in land redistribution, and witnessed a number of prominent Marxists joining the Mussolini government, including Nicola Bombacci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party and a personal friend of Lenin. These events are described in considerable detail in Norling’s work.
It would appear that the historic bitter rivalry between Marxists and Fascists is less a conflict between the Left and the Right, and more of a conflict between erstwhile siblings on the Left. This should come as no particular surprise given the penchant of radical leftist groupings for sectarian blood feuds. Indeed, it might be plausibly argued that leftist ”anti-fascism” is rooted in jealously of a more successful relative as much as anything else.