(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from Fascism and Big Business, one of Pathfinder's Books of the Month for June. It is a comprehensive study of fascism as it evolved in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. First published in French in 1936, Fascism and Big Business shows how fascism, far from being an aberration in mass psychology, arose from the specific conditions of the capitalist system in crisis.
The excerpt printed here is from chapter eight of the book, entitled, "Fascism in power: Taming the proletariat." It reviews how the trade unions and other working-class organizations were the central targets of the fascist movements in Italy and Germany, and that their attacks on the workers movement began long before the political victory of the fascists. Copyright © 1973 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY DANIEL GUERIN
The industrialists have attained their ends: at last they have at their command the "strong state" they wanted. Through a series of economic and social measures, the fascist state will try to check the decline of their profits and make their businesses pay once more.
This action is directed first and essentially against the working class. The fascist state begins by creating conditions that will permit the slashing of wages. This means the destruction of labor unions, the end of their representation inside the factories, the abolition of the right to strike, the nullification of union contracts, and the reestablishment of the absolute rule of the employers in their businesses.
But this is only the first part of the program. In addition, it must prevent any future independent groupings in the working masses. Hence the fascist state puts all its authority at the service of the employers. It herds the workers into organizations where they can be policed, with leaders appointed from above—organizations which the members have no way of controlling, and which only by the sheerest imposture style themselves the workers' "representatives." The state severely punishes every attempt to strike; henceforth to fight the boss is to rebel against the state. To forestall all labor conflicts, it exercises compulsory "arbitration"—that is to say, it disguises the employers' wishes as arbitrative decisions, and anyone contesting these decisions is considered an enemy of the state. Finally, it sanctions with its authority whatever wages the industrialists are pleased to pay those they exploit. Not to accept these wages is to disobey the state.
The destruction of the labor unions in Italy began considerably before the taking of power, which makes it necessary to retrace some of our steps. Fascism first attacked the agricultural unions, as the most vulnerable. It wrecked the offices of the "Red Leagues" and cooperatives of the agricultural workers and assassinated the labor leaders responsible for these organizations. At the same time, fascist "unions" were founded under the patronage of the big landowners. "How were these fascist unions born?" Mussolini asked later, and replied: "Birth date: 1921. Place: the Po valley. Circumstances: the conquest and destruction of the revolutionary fortresses." Every means of pressure was brought to force workers to enroll in the fascist "unions." The landowners gave work only to laborers who belonged to the fascist unions and made contracts only with tenant farmers who belonged to them; the banks gave credit only to farmers who were members of the fascist organizations. "Fascist" unemployed were brought from great distances, escorted by "squadra." As soon as they arrived in the district, "the local landowners ignored the union employment offices and tore up the union contracts with no fear of strikes, for the immigrant unemployed…were there to replace local labor. In this way the 'Red' unions were smashed." In certain centers, where the socialist and cooperative ideas were firmly rooted, the resistance was stubborn and lasted for years. But gradually the farm workers, condemned to die of hunger if they did not yield to the demands of their employers, resigned themselves to entering the fascist "unions," either individually or in groups. "They bundled up cards, membership lists, and flags," Gorgolini has related, "and went in a troop to deposit them at the headquarters of the nearest Fascio."
It was chiefly after the conquest of power, however, that fascism dared attack the unions of industrial workers. After the March on Rome, the local Fasci almost everywhere succeeded in getting hold of the lists of union members, whom they gathered together and advised, under threats of violence, to join the fascist "unions." Those who were found to carry "Red" union cards were beaten up, persecuted and boycotted. Bosses hired, and employment offices accepted, only the workers who had fascist "union" cards. Frequently the industrialists themselves enrolled their employees in the fascist "unions" and deducted the membership dues from their wages. Rossi, in his book on the Birth of Fascism, tells how the management of the great Terni steel plants helped fascism destroy the "Red" union. After July, 1922, the mills were closed down for lack of orders. The "Red" union had received assurances that they would re-open September 1. But on that date they were still shut down. Then the fascists invaded the city, called the Socialists "liars" and "cowards" and set fire to the two labor exchanges. This operation completed, the management reopened the steel mills. Thereafter it would deal only with the fascist "unions."