Although Nicholas Farrell's biography of Mussolini has received a number of savage of reviews it is a rollicking great read. The book, however, possesses two great virtues: it presents most of the pertinent facts and it corrects the image of Mussolini presented in the popular media of a buffoon and a monster. On this issue, Farrell of course runs head long against conventional wisdom which holds fascism to be a movement based in the bourgeoisie and to hence constitute the polar opposite of communism. Farrell is right to argue that Mussolini was not an anti-semite and made every effort not to hand Jews over to the Nazis for extermination. Rather Farrell, in his "Source Notes" on page 478 implies that his book is a précis of Renzo de Felice's eight volume biography of Mussolini which is not available in translation. The charm of Farrell's book is how he adds his own love and knowledge of European culture to his biography of a political figure.
The book starts off fondly describing Italian youths making pilgrimages to Mussolinis hometown so they can give the fascist salute to his statues and gets worse from there. There is a case to be made that Mussolinis reputation has been overly tarnished through his association with Hitler and that he had some good qualities and wouldnt have been nearly so bad on his own.
Nicholas Farrell, author of Mussolini: A New Life, his controversial revisionist biography of Il Duce, is a journalist, born in England but now resident in Italy. First, Farrell argues that Mussolini was not so bad, and even was a relatively successful Italian ruler compared to those who came before and after. After all, if Mussolini was a leftist, then what is a conservative like Farrell doing defending him? Moreover, Mussolini had a point when he charged Britain and France with hypocrisy for opposing Italian expansion in Africa despite their own vastly larger African colonies, acquired only a few years earlier, sometimes with comparable brutality (e.g. the Boer War). However, given that Mussolini had been in power a decade and a half without enacting such laws, and changed his mind only after allying with Hitler, it seems likely that this was the decisive factor. The real reason was that:Jews had come to epitomise Mussolinis three enemies: Communism, the bourgeoisie and anti-fascism. Farrell reports:More than 10,000 Jews, about one-third of adult Italian Jews, were members of the PNF in 1938 (p303).Thus, Jews were overrepresented among Fascists by a factor of three (Italy's Jews from Emancipation to Fascism: p44). That the Italian dictators dislike of them reflected not biological but purely spiritual factors was scant consolation for those Jews expelled from their jobs on account of their Jewishness, even if the criteria for qualifying as a Jew was less inclusive, and more open to exemptions and corrupt interpretation, than in Germany. However, Farrells claim that Mussolini did much to save Jews from Hitler seems unwarranted (p363). The most Farrell manages to prove is that Mussolini was far less anti-Semitic than Hitler faint praise indeed! However, despite Farrells attempted rehabilitation, Mussolinis conduct of the war does indeed seem inept from inception. However, on witnessing Germanys dramatic defeat of France, Mussolini wanted to get in on the spoils, and suddenly signed up for the war, right about the same time Hitler had already won it and hence had no need of him. Then, chagrined that Hitler kept invading foreign powers without consulting his ostensible ally, Mussolini decided to do the same himself, invading Greece, and thereby seeking to shift the focus of the war towards the Mediterranean, where his own territorial ambitions were naturally focused. Moreover, the delay to the proposed invasion of the USSR that Germanys intervention on Italys behalf in Greece necessitated, has been implicated as a key factor that ultimately doomed Operation Barbarossa, and hence led, ultimately, to the fall of both Hitler and Mussolini. Farrell is successful in explaining why Mussolini did what he did in WWII given what he knew at the time and the circumstances in which he found himself. Leaving the Left What then of Farrells second claim: Was Mussolini really always a socialist? Mussolinis journey from the Left began when he advocated Italian involvement in WWI, contrary to the doctrine of the Second International. He came to believe in the power of nationalism, and, like the pre-Hitler DAP in Germany, sought to combine socialism with nationalism. Mussolini also came to believe that, just as the Bolshevik Coup in Russia would never have occurred without Lenin, so socialism in Italy would require an elite revolutionary vanguard. Explaining the Fascist adoption of the black Arditi flag, he explains, Red was the colour of the enemy Socialism (p80), yet on the next page claims, Fascism was anything but right-wing and the first Fascist programme was very left-wing (p81). On this view, the Socialists might be the enemy of Fascism precisely because both movements were left-wing and hence competed in the same political space and sought to attract the same core constituency. Mussolinis eventual return to his leftist roots comes, Farrell tells us, only much later with the establishment of the Italian Social Republic. Like Mussolini himself, Fascism began on the Left. As early as 1920, Farrell acknowledges:Most of the Fascists of the first hour especially those of left-wing origin had gone and fascism moved right (p95).While fascism was initially anticlericalist and associated with Syndicalism and the Futurist movement, it ultimately came to be associated with Catholicism and traditionalism. Fascism ultimately came to mean whatever the regime stood for at that particular time, something that both changed over time and never represented a coherent ideology as much as pragmatic realpolitik. Farrell proposes an even more provocative analogy in his Preface:Whereas communist ideas appear terminally ill, the Fascist idea of the Third Way lives on and is championed by the standard bearers of the modern Left such as New Labour in Britain (pxviii).He never expands on this single throwaway sentence. Both Fascism and New Labour claimed to represent a Third Way. However, what they meant by this phrase was quite different. As for Farrells comparison between Fascism and New Labour, this, one suspects, reflected little more than a marketing and publicity campaign of Farrells own. Ten years on, the claim already seems strangely anachronistic, as New Labour has itself gone the way of Fascism, into the dustbin of history, to be replaced, in the Labour Party at least, with unreconstructed Old Labour socialism. As George Orwell wrote only a year or so after the defeat of both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy:The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable.
Probably Farrell isn't such a Mussolini devotee as some want us to believe.
It's a well-written book, but, unfortunately, it lacks a lot. Basically, the author spent the description of the 30s blaming England (and a little less, France) for the alliance of Italy with Germany - it is never Mussolini's fault, even when invades countries that are members of the League of Nations.