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The Loss of Hegemony and the Necessity of Fascism

Fascism will always be a minority movement1

From Italy’s unification up through the end of World War I, the landed property class
maintained complete hegemony over their territories through a system of clientele politics and
restricted suffrage. The form of hegemony differed by region in accordance with the social
relations of production. In the South, the propertied class maintained law and order internally,
without state assistance. Agriculture here was based on semi-feudal relations, which pre-dated
unification. The situation differed in the North and northernmost-Center regions where the pre-
unification relations of production were replaced by modern capitalistic wage labor free from
such bonds. As such, the northernmost propertied class was vulnerable to outside agitation,
which made them, as opposed to their southern kin, dependent on state intervention. This paper
aims to demonstrate that the northern landlords collaboration with the Fascists stemmed from
their diminishing hegemony over the economic and political spheres of their territories, coupled
with their diminishing clout within the central government. Fascism was a strictly northern
phenomenon, a successful attempt by the propertied class to regain their former stature.
Prior to 1861, the Italian provinces formed a tenuous “patchwork” of unevenly developed
regions consisting of modest industrial production to the north and great landed estates to the
south (Jones 14). Antonio Gramsci once claimed that the unification of Italy in 1861, the
Risorgimento (Resurgence), was in fact, a move to shore up these “structural weaknesses” found
throughout the peninsula (Morton 69). The consolidation of power brought about through the
Risorgimento was paved by an uneasy alliance between the northern commercial interests of
Piedmont and the semi-feudal latifundists of the south (Elazar, “Hegemony” 236). To create and
maintain its hegemony in the central state, the Liberal Party “absorbed” and “assimilated” its
opposition through a centrist policy of trasformismo (Morton 98), “chronically shifting
coalitions” designed to incorporate as many interests as possible into a broad central alliance
(Elazar, “Hegemony” 237). Trasformismo marginalized dissent, but at the expense of
establishing a system of clientele politics whereby the central state was now dependent upon its
provincial elites to provide parliamentary deputies favorable to the reigning coalition (Elazar,
“Class” 306). Provincial elites were the backbone of this system, providing agreeable deputies in
Mussolini, following the Fascist Party’s defeat in 1919 (Seton Watson 572).

exchange for Liberal concessions (Elazar, “Hegemony” 238). The specific nature and content of
these concessions however, varied provincially with the predominate form of production found
throughout each region.
Italy’s provinces can be delineated into three distinct geographic regions of agricultural
production: North, Center, and South2. The level of hegemony exerted locally by elites within
each region was also predicated on their social relations of production (Elazar, “Hegemony”
242). The most dominant form of provincial hegemony exerted over the peasantry was found in
the latifundist South; here, the peasantry experienced “almost absolute economic and personal
subjugation” (Elazar, “Hegemony” 243). Peasants were bound to the latifundia through “semi-
feudal” bonds (Elazar, “Violence” 468) and perpetual debt (Elazar, “Hegemony” 243). The
latifundia perpetuated their own rule by guaranteeing a Liberal majority in parliament, which
they accomplished through electoral manipulation. At its most extreme, anti-Liberal opponents
were “threatened, bludgeoned, besieged in their homes, leaders of the opposition were thrown
into prison” (Elazar, “Hegemony” 238). The corruption was so extensive that in Sicily, “the price
of votes was quoted openly in the newspapers, and private armies were allowed to intimidate
voters by every means up to and including assassination” (Elazar, “Hegemony” 239). In
exchange for their patronage, the latifundia of the South were given complete autonomy over
their provinces while their interests in parliament were secured through their clientele relations
(Elazar, “Hegemony” 244).
Compared to the peasantry of the South, the mezzadria (sharecroppers) of central Italy
fared much better. Social relations of hegemony still existed, albeit in a paternal matrix. Unlike
his latifundist counterpart who was characterized as an “absentee landlord” (Elazar, “Hegemony”
243, Snowden 82), a landlord in central Italy lived on his property and took an active interest in
his peasants’ wellbeing, often providing for them in times of crisis (Snowden 15). On the other
hand, he also “exercised the right to regulate the private life of his partner” (Snowden 11). In
theory, the landlord and mezzadro were equals, partners in both the production and yield of the
harvest; the landlord provided the tools, seed, and the land while the mezzadro provided the labor
(Snowden 8). This was the “official” view, which “veiled” much of the mezzadria’s true
domination (Elazar, “Hegemony” 245, Snowden 16). In reality, the landlord owned the entire

The North consisted of thirty-two provinces within the primary regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, and Emilia. It also
contained the prosperous Po Valley, home to Italy’s industrialized agriculture and manufacturing. Fourteen
provinces throughout Tuscany, Umbria, and Marches composed the Center, while the remaining twenty-five
provinces including the islands of Sardinia and Sicily were located in the South (Elazar, “Violence” 468).

“means of production – the land, the peasant cottage, the seed, the fodder, the tools and
machinery of cultivation, and the work animals” (Snowden 9). The mezzadria was required to
purchase these in addition to his contribution of labor (Elazar, “Hegemony” 245), often at
inflated prices (Snowden 10). Additionally, the debt accumulated over a peasant’s life was
“passed from one generation to another, thus creating an enduring system of debt peonage”
(Elazar, “Hegemony” 245). The mezzadria however, were deeply bonded to their land, which
they succeeded to their heirs (Snowden 15, emphasis mine). A peasant’s entire life was lived and
worked on the podere, a small family farm partitioned from the lord’s larger estate, thus the
ultimate subjugation of the mezzadria resided in the lord’s right of eviction (Snowden 9).
Unlike the traditional latifundia and mezzadria landlords, the northern agrari
(commercial landlords) were a “new breed” of proprietor (Elazar, “Hegemony” 247).3 By
applying modern, progressive, industrial techniques like mechanized farm equipment and
chemical fertilizers (Snowden 23) to traditional agricultural production, the agrari forged a new
commercial agriculture based on highly profitable industrial crops like sugar beets and hemp
(Elazar, “Hegemony” 246).4 This commercialization of agriculture had also produced a new
breed of peasant. Coming from industry and speaking the modern language of capitalism, the
agrari owned sprawling estates that operated on the basis of profit maximization. As such, they
“employed mainly wage labour, mostly migrant day labourers,” braccianti, who “were usually
… employed on a seasonal basis” (Elazar, “Hegemony” 246). In point of fact, the farther north
one traveled throughout the Italian peninsula, the more elastic were the bonds between lord and
peasant. The rationalization behind this relationship was that “the former personal bond between
owner and (worker) had frequently become a mere ‘cash nexus’” (Snowden 23), susceptible to
outside agitation from Socialist and Syndicalist trade unions (Elazar, “Class” 306), which had
been organizing workers against their employers among the northern provinces since the late
nineteenth century (Elazar, “Hegemony” 246).
By the turn of the century, the North had become a battlefield of class struggle pitting
Socialist and Syndicalist trade unions against the agrari’s own trade federations. In 1907 the
agrari “established the first Inter-provincial Landlords Federation – which soon became ‘the
most potent class organization in the Po valley’” (Elazar, “Hegemony” 248). Notwithstanding

The agrari of the North were predominately commercial and industrial magnets who turned their business acumen
and profit into land reclamation projects sponsored and subsidized by the government (Elazar, “Hegemony” 247).
While the Po Valley, Italy’s most profitable agricultural region, accounted for only 13% of its total arable land, it
yielded one-third of its total agricultural output in 1910 (Elazar, “Violence” 468).

these militant anti-Socialist associations, the agrari of the North were still vulnerable to Socialist
agitation and more importantly, still very much dependent on the central state for intervention.
Unlike the latifundia who exerted their hegemony in the absence of state intervention, it was
precisely from intervention that the agrari of the North derived their authority and maintained
their dominance. In exchange for their support in parliament, the Liberal Party rewarded the
agrari through the prefecture. Prefects were the central state’s eyes and ears in the provinces;
they also enjoyed state-sanctioned authority over locally elected provincial administrations
(Elazar, “Class” 306). In 1898, the agrari of Bologna “demanded and received” state
intervention in putting down workers’ agitations; in response to their demands, the prefect of
Bologna “dispatched troops against the workers, closed their labour organization and arrested the
strikers” (Elazar, “Class 306”).
The agrari maintained their hegemony over the workers throughout the early part of the
twentieth century; however, by 1914 their dominance started to wane. World War I brought a
temporary reprieve while the agrari re-grouped under the restrictive policies of the IM
(Industrial Mobilization). Designed to ensure workplace discipline during the war (Tomassini
and Frost 63), the IM severely limited worker agency in their negotiations with management
(Tomassini and Frost 83). Policies implemented under the IM were extended to Italy’s
agricultural production and by extension, into the contractual relations between the braccianti
and the agrari. It was the situation following the war, when the artificial “bonds” of the IM were
removed, that severely challenged the agrari’s dominance.
Life did not return to the pre-war normalcy anticipated by the masses. In fact, the living
conditions following the war were even more abysmal than they had been throughout it. Between
1913 and 1919, the cost of living increased four-fold, then doubled again from 1919 to 1920.
Unemployment reached a high of 512,260 in 1921, up from 102,156 just the year before (Lewin
and Elazar 603). And for those employed, wages failed to keep up with the cost of living. Had
life returned to its pre-war condition, the agrari’s hegemony would have remained relatively
intact, but widespread riots and civil unrest following the war carried over into worker agitation.
At the war’s conclusion there had been a total of 313 strikes involving 158,711 strikers. In 1919
however, that total increased 850% to 1,864 strikes encompassing an impressive 1,498,686
workers. And while the pace of strikes actually slowed between 1919 and 1920, the absolute
number of strikes and participants rose to 2,054 and 1,903,865 respectively; the bulk of which,
resulted in “complete or substantial concessions to worker demands” (Lewin and Elazar 603).

The formerly impenetrable veil of agrari dominance had been pierced and the Socialist
trade unions were quick to capitalize on the agrari’s post-war weaknesses. By monopolizing the
labor market through union membership, the Socialist trade unions made a number of inroads
into the agrari’s former domain. Two of the most important concessions made to the unions
governed the number of workers required per acre of farmland, (the imponibile di mano
d’opera), as well as a system of assignments that guaranteed an equal distribution of work (the
collocamento di classe) (Snowden 49). The “rights” of capital had been supplanted. Management
was on the defense.
Building upon their earlier successes in 1919, the unions pushed for even more
concessions the following year. The most impressive, effective, and damaging of these strikes
were the Great Agricultural Strike and the Occupation of the Factories. The Great Agricultural
Strike began in February 1920 as sharecroppers and agricultural workers went on strike
demanding a more favorable renegotiation of their existing contracts and “the right to impose
their conditions of work on the employers” (Lewin and Elazar 606). The strike, which lasted
more than six months left in its wake “human victims, ruined crops, and deep rancor” (Lewin
and Elazar 606), and cost the landowners over 120 million lira (Squeri 330). The strike was a
huge success; however, under their new contracts, sharecroppers received 60% of the harvest,
recognition of Socialist-controlled trade unions, and most importantly, the right to control their
own labor (Lewin and Elazar 606). The Occupation of the Factories began later that year, in
September, just two months prior to the local elections and at the height of the industrial strikes.
“(I)n terms of duration, number of workers involved, and consequent damages,” the Occupation
was “unprecedented … (involving) more than half a million workers in the metal, chemical,
rubber and ship-building industries” (Lewin and Elazar 605).
Both strikes dealt a serious deathblow to management and to the hegemony of the agrari
of the North and North-Central provinces. Once, they had exerted complete control over the local
economy as well as the local political machinery, but after the Occupation, the stranglehold of
the old oligarchy seemed irreparably damaged. Traditionally, the agrari could rely on
intervention from the central state to suppress worker agitation; however, the Liberal Party was
still reeling in the aftermath of World War I and showed little interest in propping up the old
guard. At one point during the Occupation a representative of industry requesting state
intervention even demanded that the Premier, “bombard the workers in the factories which they
had occupied; to which (the Premier) said, with his courteously ironic smile, ‘Would you be

willing for me to begin the bombardment with your own factory?” (Sforza 359). The old
oligarchy of the North was demoralized.
Organized strikes were a northern phenomena as workers’ agitations were virtually
unheard of in the South. Peasants in the latifundist South “had no collective organization”
(Elazar, “Hegemony” 244), and as such, their uprisings were sporadic and unorganized, and
easily put down. Furthermore, the neglect of the South appeared to be conscious decision on the
part of the Socialist Party as they believed the rural peasantry did not “constitute a ‘real’
proletariat” (Lewin and Elazar 610). Unlike the agrari of the North, the latifundia of the South
did not rely on state intervention to maintain their hegemony as neither the Socialist Party nor the
Socialist trade unions made inroads into either their economic or political domains (Elazar,
“Hegemony” 244). This discrepancy in the level of hegemony exerted locally between the
northern agrari and southern latifundia becomes readily apparent in the electoral politics just
prior to and after the war.
Historically, the old elites’ political hegemony was solidified through “severe
restriction(s) on suffrage,” based upon “extensive literacy and property qualifications” (Elazar,
“Hegemony” 236). These restrictions excluded the masses from participation in the political
arena while guaranteeing men of property an exclusive voice in parliament. Suffrage was
extended in 1913, and under this relaxed suffrage the Socialist party won 17% of the vote and 74
seats in parliament (Davis 196). The real strength of the Party, though, was demonstrated by their
showing in the local elections of 1914. Here, the Socialists made substantial inroads into the old
oligarchy’s political terrain by winning an unprecedented 400 communes and more importantly,
by electing Milan’s first Socialist administration and mayor (Levy 175). Once again, the war
would bring a temporary reprieve for the old landed elites; however, the stage had been set for an
inevitable showdown between the Socialists and the old oligarchy at the war’s conclusion.
To alleviate some of the social unrest following World War I, Italy instituted universal
male suffrage and proportional representation marking the “entrance of the masses to the
historical stage” (Lewin and Elazar 602). The Socialist Party was well adept at converting
workers’ economic struggles into political gain. In the 1919 national elections, Italy’s first freely
held election under universal male suffrage, the Socialist Party received a third of the vote and
156 seats in parliament (Lewin and Elazar 608), while the Occupations of the following year,
“provided a major impetus for the Socialist victory in the Administrative elections” of 1920
(Elazar, “Violence” 474). Here, the Socialists won 25 or Italy’s 69 provincial councils and 2162

of its 8059 communal governments. Their greatest support, however, came from the former
agrari strongholds in the North and northern-Central regions (Squeri 328).
With the introduction of universal male suffrage, the northern agrari lost a great deal of
their ability to bring in the vote for the Liberal Party, and as a consequence, lost a great deal of
its clout in the central government. Once again, this loss of hegemony was only experienced by
the northern landlords as opposed to the southern latifundia, which maintained its hegemony in
the absence of Socialist encroachment. In the latifundia South, Liberals received the majority of
votes in 21 of its 22 provinces. In only one southern province, Caltanisetta, Sicily, did the
reigning Liberal Party receive fewer votes than Socialists (Elazar, “Class” 307). This situation
was reversed in the North and Center regions where the Socialists took 80% of the vote in
Emilia, 50% in Tuscany, 32% of Lombardy’s, and 30% of Umbria’s. In some of the reddest
provinces, the “red baronies,” the Socialist Party nearly won complete control, including all of
Ferrara’s and Rovigo’s communes and 54 of Bologna’s 61 communes (Squeri 328).
The Liberal government had a new constituency to cater to. This also cut into the
former’s hegemony. In the aftermath of universal male suffrage and the growing popularity of
the Socialist Party, the government “took extensive measures against the propertied class,”
including, “an increased taxation of wealth; compulsory accident insurance, employers’
participation in old age and disability insurance; capital levy, increase of death duties, higher
taxation of high incomes … and special measures to reduce tax evasion” (Elazar, “Violence”
475). The old oligarchy found itself alone against a growing Socialist menace “underscored by
what it regarded as the patent failure of the government to defend the rights of property”
(Snowden 53). In the absence of state intervention, the agrari of the North and Center provinces
turned to the fasci (fascists) to regain control of their interests, both economically and politically.
The latifundia, secure in their position of dominance, had no such need, and no such motivation.
Following their defeat at the polls in 1920, the agrari, “set up an internal system of
taxation among its members on behalf of the (fasci) – the famous ‘resistance fund’ – and
liberally supplied it with funds” (Snowden 56). With these funds the most powerful agrari
founded local fasci branches within their provincial capitals.5 Within weeks of the agrari’s
defeat, a wave of fascist “murder, assault, and intimidation” was unleashed to “destroy every
vestige” of Socialist influence (Snowden 56). The agrari’s plan was a traditional two-pronged
carrot and stick approach. Those who joined the Fascist syndicates were guaranteed employment,

For an extensive list of the aristocracy that formed, led, or joined the fasci unions see Snowden 57-58.

better pay, and offered “articles of first necessity at prices … below the market level” (Snowden
65). Additionally, there was a real chance of improving one’s life under the Fascist syndicates.
“Land to those who work it!” became the Fascist call (Snowden 82, emphasis mine). This call
was backed by the agrari who ensured the Fascist Syndicates had enough land to “give” away.
In March of 1921, the fasci made two distributions of 4,000 and 3,000 hectares apiece, instantly
“(transforming) disgruntled wage labourers into lessees and tiny proprietors” (Snowden 82). Not
everyone joined voluntarily, though. Those who did not were forced to join the syndicates “at the
point of a gun” (Elazar, “Class” 309). Whole Socialist leagues “passed ‘en mass’ into Fascist
syndicate(s)” (Elazar, “Class” 309). After securing the labor market the Fascists turned their
attention to the local Socialist administrations, overthrowing the 25 provincial governments won
by the Socialists the year before. Fascist violence and takeovers were distinctly a northern
phenomena and virtually non-existent in the South, where the latifundia and Liberal Party
maintained their strength (Elazar, “Class” 311).
At the end of the day, the combination of Fascists violence and benevolence halted the
Socialist Party and trade unions’ intrusion into agrari’s economic and political domains, thus
bringing both labor and local power back under their control. The agrari’s collaboration with the
Fascists was a calculated move to restore the hegemony they had been hemorrhaging since the
expansion of suffrage before World War I. The post-war economy exasperated the situation as
widespread riots were focused by Socialist trade unions into target-specific strikes. The
introduction of universal male suffrage gave the Socialists another weapon in their struggle
against the agrari as they were able to translate these strikes into political gain. Traditionally, the
agrari would have confronted such challenges head-on with the aid of the central state; however,
with the introduction of universal male suffrage, the state had another constituency to cater to.
This breach of faith by the central state led the agrari to seek an alliance with the Fascists and
underwrite their movement.