Mussolini to Meloni: Understanding How Europe Found Its Way To ‘Neo-Fascism’
"In the absence of a left-wing alternative, they are the only force that presents itself as ‘anti-system’ (i.e. against mainstream parties), although, as Meloni's moves show, they are anti-system only in rhetoric"
“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism” – with these words Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels begin their Communist Manifesto. However, at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, there is a different spectre hovering over Europe: that of (neo)fascism.
So far this year, eight European Union countries have held elections for central government bodies: Portugal (parliament), Malta (parliament), Hungary (parliament, and also presidential, but indirectly – as all the competencies of the president in Hungary are symbolic, so they are not important elections), France (president and parliament), Slovenia, Sweden, Czech Republic (one-third of the senate, so the elections will not change the government) and Italy (parliament). In all these elections, the far-right forces made gains.
The most significant successes of the far-right include the Portuguese party CHEGA! (“Enough”), which won 11 seats (in the previous elections in 2019, they won only one seat). Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election, in the second round, obtained 41.5% (almost 3 million votes more than in 2017), and her party National Rally won 89 seats (in 2017, they won only seven). Sweden Democrats, a party founded in the 1980s by neo-Nazis, won 20.5% of the vote making this the second largest party in the Swedish parliament (for the first time ever).
And then there is the far-right bloc in Italy, which won 237 seats out of 400.
In principle, Europe has been in a permanent crisis since 2008, which favours the popularity of far-right and fascist forces. And as the eminent Marxist Aijaz Ahmed rightly noted, “the real story in Europe is the rise of a fair-right”
At the very beginning, we have an important thing to understand. As Samir Amin wrote: “Fascism is not synonymous with an authoritarian police regime that rejects the uncertainties of parliamentary electoral democracy. Fascism is a particular political response to the challenges with which the management of capitalist society may be confronted in specific circumstances.”
In his outstanding essay “Neoliberalism and Fascism” (to which I refer in order to fully understand why the neoliberal system generates crises which become the basis for the growth of the power of fascist movements), Prof. Prabhat Patnaik notes that in order for neo-fascist forces to come to power, three conditions must be met:
(1) the existence of a crisis – i.e. a crisis in capitalism that people would like to overcome,
(2) all traditional bourgeois – i.e. non-fascist – political formations are unable to provide any way out of a given economic situation, in the sense of pursuing a set of economic policies that may lead to overcoming the crisis, and;
(3) the Left is for some reason unable to take the initiative.
It would seem that the risk of the return of fascist, semi-fascist, proto-fascist or neo-fascist forces in Western Europe is impossible, because, as it is commonly said in European media or schools: the West headed by the USA – while the USSR is often ignored or even equated with Nazi Germany, although it played the most important role in defeating Hitler – defeated fascism once and for all.
In reality, almost immediately after the surrender of the Third Reich, the US government as part of Operation Paperclip, proceeded to help fascists by offering them asylum overseas with a changed identity, so they could start a “new life”. In Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb from 1964, which is a satire of the risk of a nuclear war between the USSR and the US, the title character of Dr. Strangelove, a nuclear weapons expert, is a German Nazi who has begun a new life working for US government. So, as the reader can see, these are not some unusual revelations, because almost 60 years ago this policy of “leniency” towards fascists was already known.
US-supported anti-communist efforts and the relativisation of fascist forces also resulted in a large shift of the political discourse in Europe (not only the EU) to the right. Not only did the centre-left move towards the centre, but also the European right had to move closer to the far-right
In West Germany, after World War II, the prosecution of Nazi criminals almost immediately ceased, and many of them were incorporated into the structures of the new state – they headed the army or police of West Germany (e.g. Adolf Heusinger, who later even became the chairman of the NATO Military Committee). A total of 25 cabinet ministers, one president (Walter Scheel) and one chancellor (Kurt Georg Kiesinger) of the Federal Republic of Germany – as postwar Germany is officially known – had been members of Nazi organisations.
Portugal’s fascist regime of António de Oliveira Salazar was a very close ally to the West (Portugal was one of NATO’s founding members), and the fascist Spain of General Francisco Franco hosted US military bases on its territory. Faced with the possibility of the takeover of power in Greece (a NATO member state) by the communists, the CIA organised a coup in 1967, as a result of which power was taken over by a Junta of the Colonels, not too different from the regimes in Portugal and Spain.
Italy cannot be forgotten either. In 1948, with World War II over and the fascist government of Mussolini having been defeated, parliamentary elections were held. In this process, US interference in favour of the right-wing Christian Democrat government (who also had war survivors in their ranks), carried out by the CIA and the US Embassy in Rome was downright obvious. And so, the Americans financed the Italian right-wing election campaign, even going so far as such disgusting acts as using money stolen by fascists from Jews murdered during World War II.
In the event of a victory for the Popular Democratic Front, led by the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the National Security Council (the organisation tasked with coordinating US national security policy among the armed forces, the State Department and the CIA) recommended US agencies to escalate their anti-communist operations “by all feasible means.” In particular, the directive called for measures to be taken “to minimise the effects” of the communist electoral victory and for financial and military aid to be given to the “anti-communist Italian underground.” Such actions would lead to either a bloody civil war or a coup. However, the threats alone were enough, and the Popular Front lost the elections (although they still got an impressive 30% of the votes).
For the next decades in Europe, communism was the chief enemy of the mainstream, and fascism was downplayed by everyone. Today the media portrays, for example, the Ukrainian Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera not as a fascist, but as a “nationalist.” Similarly, the neo-Nazi battalion Azov is not a group of white supremacists, but “a group of Ukrainian patriots and nationalists.” Even the “moderate left”, the Social Democrats and Socialists, who drifted easily towards social-liberalism and supported the neoliberal system in 1980/1990, openly waged an anti-communist campaign. The consequence of such actions and the relativisation of fascist forces also resulted in a large shift of the political discourse in Europe (not only the EU) to the right. Not only did the centre-left move towards the centre, but also the European right had to move closer to the far-right.
A good illustration of this shift is the position of Denmark’s ruling Social Democratic Party, which came to power with strong anti-immigration slogans and its government (allegedly progressive) in 2021 proposed to limit up to 30% of “non-Western” residents in Danish “disadvantaged areas.”
Therefore, the anti-capitalist left in the European Union today is marginal and incapable of carrying out its program. Even if moderately anti-capitalist forces such as Podemos in Spain or SYRIZA in Greece manage to enter the mainstream or even gain power, they eventually capitulate to pressure from EU officials. This, of course, has consequences in terms of a rapid decline in public support for these parties and the emergence of a ‘disenchantment with the left’ effect (as European voters see that the anti-capitalism of these parties is ultimately rhetoric and not a real alternative).
Many countries face the general instability of the political scene that has held power for decades. In France, for example, the Socialist and Republicans (formerly UMP) parties have been relegated to the background. Additionally, in the parliamentary elections the party of President Macron – La République En Marche! – did not win the majority. It is also unable to form a coalition, which makes it difficult for Macron to rule in his second term. In Bulgaria, on 02 October, there will already be four parliamentary elections in just one-and-a-half years. In Slovakia, in early September, the right-wing government lost its parliamentary majority after two years in power. The situation is so bizarre that you cannot even convene a parliamentary session there, because the opposition boycotts them, which means that there is no quorum – such a situation may, of course, mean early parliamentary elections. Additionally, the Prime Minister of Slovakia stated that: “Increase in prices of gas would “kill” the country’s economy unless it received billions of euros of support from Brussels […] and he would be forced to nationalise the country’s power supplies if this was not forthcoming.”
The aforementioned fascization of political discourse was extremely visible in the presidential elections in France. It is a fact that the left, led by Jean-Luc Melenchon (JLM), achieved significant success (in the first round of the election he obtained 22% of the vote and took third place, and Marine Le Pen then gained only 1 percentage point more) and for some time attracted the attention of the media. However, due to the fact that JLM did not get into the second round, a real game was played between Macron and Le Pen. And it was a festival of extremely reactionary slogans: both candidates competed in racist and chauvinist declarations. Macron at one point suggested that he had to fight “Islamo-leftism” by implying (absurdly) that discourse was dominated by Islamists and universities dominated by communists. In the public space, for example, student anti-discrimination organisations were attacked, calling them “anti-white racism.”
Meloni has already announced the liquidation of the Reddito di Cittadinanza, which is an aid for the poorest, unemployed Italians to the amount of €500. Her party’s program promises the maintenance of brutal neoliberalism, further welfare cuts and austerities
Since the aforementioned 1948, which shaped the Italian political system, Italy has been struggling with quite a lot of political instability. After that year, Italy has had 44 prime ministers, that is, on average, one government has been in power about 1.5 years. However, the real political crisis began in 2011, when Silvio Berlusconi (three-time Italian prime minister) resigned. It was then that the new government failed to form and the president was forced to form a technocrat government (which was supported by the majority of the parties in parliament from left to right). When the centre-left won the elections in 2013, it had as many as three prime ministers – Enrico Letta’s government collapsed only after a year as a result of internal conflicts in the Democratic Party (social-liberal). The very popular 39-year-old Matteo Renzi was the new prime minister, who directed PD towards the centre and the ‘third road’ (like Blair in the UK or Clinton in the US). However, in 2016, Renzi resigned when the draft constitutional referendum on the dissolution of the senate, which he supported, lost (60% of Italians voted “NO”). And until the end of term of office, Paolo Gentiloni was the prime minister.
The 2018 elections were won by the anti-system Five Star Movement (M5S). However, they did not obtain an independent majority and had to form a coalition. They joined the far-right League Party led by Matteo Salvini, who became Minister of the Interior. As the head of this ministry, Salvini implemented his aggressive anti-immigration policy, pushing many North African immigrants back to the Mediterranean Sea, which for many of them meant certain death.
The evolution of the League is extremely interesting and important. Because it was a party that was founded in 1991 as a separatist group called the Northern League. This party demanded the separation of the north of Italy from the rest of the country, because, as they argued, “they will not keep the poor south (Sicily),” the central government referred to as “the great Roman thief” etc. When Salvini became party leader in 2013, he changed its course. It changed its name to the League (removing the “North”) and adapted its non-immigrant agenda to the whole country. However, after a year, the coalition collapsed and the M5S abandoned the League and created their coalition with the centre-left. This government, however, also collapsed after 1.5 years in power. That is why the president appointed a banker, the former head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, as technocrat prime minister. His government was also unable to reconcile the interests of all parties after a year, so early elections were called.
A few days before the elections, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that “we will see the result of the vote in Italy. If things go in a difficult direction, we have tools, as in the case of Poland and Hungary (blocking EU funds).” This, however, only helped the right, which build a part of their campaign based on Italian sovereignty – also from the EU. Of course, the anti-EU narrative is not unfounded in Italy – today Italians are poorer than 20 years ago.
The current ruling coalition consists of four parties: the largest being Brothers of Italy headed by the future Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the League led by Salvini, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the small party Us Moderates. The Brothers of Italy traces its roots directly to the Italian Social Movement (MSI) party, founded in 1946 by members of Mussolini’s then-outlawed National Fascist Party.
Some on the left have become enthusiastic about Meloni’s victory, as the Internet circulated a viral video from a few years ago, in which she criticises France and Macron’s imperialist policy towards Africa, including the destruction of Libya. However, these people are forgetting one thing: i.e. how cynical the neo-fascist politicians (such as Meloni) are. Currently, she declares her unwavering support for NATO (which she criticised in this video), and also promises to continue sending weapons to Ukraine (which is opposed by her two coalition partners – Salvini and Berlusconi, who are known for their close relations, including business relations, with Russia).
In 1964, the outstanding Polish Marxist Michał Kalecki wrote a great essay “Fascism of our times,” in which he pointed out that the new fascist movements, unlike those of 1920s and ‘30s, no longer promote extreme economic interventionism (which, however, did not threaten capitalism), following the example of Nazi Germany. On the contrary, they support a policy of laissez-faire which aims to deregulate markets almost completely. This should be remembered because Mussolini himself said that fascism is simply that form of rule in which government unites with ‘corporations.’ The announced economic policy of the future Italian government does not differ from this.
Meloni has already announced the liquidation of the Reddito di Cittadinanza, which is an aid for the poorest, unemployed Italians to the amount of €500. Her party’s program promises the maintenance of brutal neoliberalism, further welfare cuts and austerities. In addition, Meloni operates an anti-immigration policy (even promising a “sea blockade” so that immigrants from North Africa cannot reach the Italian coast), as well as strong social conservatism – including opposition to LGBT rights. She even revived the slogan from Mussolini’s time, “God, family, homeland.”
The popularity of such neo-fascist movements is growing across the EU. Even in the largest economy of the EU, Germany, the popularity of the neo-fascist AfD is growing rapidly. Germany also has a huge problem with the neo-Nazi groups inside its own army and police. In the absence of a left-wing alternative, they are the only force that presents itself as ‘anti-system’ (i.e. against mainstream parties), although, as Meloni’s moves show, they are anti-system only in rhetoric because they continue to uphold neoliberalism, and, even more, to radicalise it.
Of course, the nature of European neo-fascist, quasi-fascist, semi-fascist, etc. movements varies from country to country. Some like Brothers of Italy or Sweden Democrats are adherents of Atlanticism. As strong supporters of NATO, they are not a threat to the present world order, led by the United States. However, other groups such as the German AfD and Marine Le Pen, are often opposed to NATO. In my opinion, this is due to the situation inside these countries. Germany and France are the EU’s largest economies and can therefore rely on their own national bourgeoisie. They are so convinced of the independence of national economies from the global financial system (managed by Wall Street and the City of London) and their potential, that they do not have to fit into the current world order like their Italian or Swedish counterparts.
There is a very bleak future ahead of Europe, especially the European Union. Today’s European neo-fascist movements are successful even if they do not take power – because they shift the political discourse even further to the right. And today, they are no longer ‘outsiders’ but a political mainstream.