A new wave of neo-fascist sentiment has been emerging in recent years in Europe, endangering the basis of Western democracy.
Just think of the Ukraine, where the Communist Party has been banned, or Hungary, where the President Viktor Orban built an anti-migrant wall along the Serbian border (and is about to build a new one). Or Poland, where the parliament recently approved an illiberal law designed to limit the autonomy of the judiciary, subordinating it to the diktats of the justice minister.
In the past few weeks, the danger from neo-fascism has risen considerably in Italy. The Italian government, however, does not always seem able to pick up on this social phenomenon and adequately address the threat.
In Particular, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), with the most parliamentary seats, is losing the political struggle on the issue of immigration against the right. The latest immigration law, advocated by PD interior minister Marco Minniti, introduces some severe restrictions on migrants in Italy.
Also, PD secretary Matteo Renzi recently stated: “The reception of migrants is not a moral duty for us; rather, we have to help potential migrants in their countries of origin.”
Needless to say, Renzi’s words have been strongly criticised by the radical left and received much appreciation from right-wing parties. In particularly, from the far-right Northern League (LN) and Forza Italia (FI), who have claimed to be the first to support these policies.
They are right, Renzi has merely imitated the slogans of LN leader Matteo Salvini.
Therefore, it is partly due to the PD’s ambiguity on these issues that the right-wing parties and neo-fascist groups are now lifting their heads and enjoying a remarkable degree of popular consensus.
For instance, a few weeks ago, neo-fascist group Casa Pound broke into the town halls of Rome (run by the populist 5 Star Movement – M5S) and Milan (run by the PD), causing havoc during the respective city councils. Apparently, the aim of the neo-fascists was to protest against some local and national policies, but their actions resulted in far greater visibility on a national scale.
That is exactly what neo-fascists need to spread and legitimate their heinous ideology: to be presented by the national media as a resolute anti-system force — as a real and viable alternative to the status quo.
That is where they draw strength from; otherwise, they would only be a local phenomenon with no political relevance.
Instead, today many Italian people still believe that fascism could be a good response to current social and political conditions. For this reason, both Italian and European institutions should think about the root causes of this tendency — and admit their responsibility.
It is possible to identify both historical and political reasons for this deplorable revival of fascism in Italy.
After World War II and Italy’s war of liberation, political freedom was restored after the fascist regime brought the country to its knees.
On June 2, 1946, there was a referendum on whether liberated Italy should be a monarchy or republic, with 54% of Italian people (and women for the first time in Italy’s history) voting for the republic. The parliament then proclaimed a new Constitution, which is still in force today and is possibly the most progressive and democratic Constitution in the Western world.
That year, Palmiro Togliatti, the then-Communist Party leader and justice minister, granted an amnesty for all the political crimes committed by the fascists during the regime. This measure was strongly criticised by many Communist Party members and some anti-fascist resistance fighters.
However, the so-called Togliatti Amnesty may well have been the best thing to do in that historical moment, as it represented a powerful signal in support of democratic change. The real purpose of the liberation war was not to perpetuate social hatred, but to give freedom back to Italian people.
Rather, the Italian left’s historic mistake was in not building a stronger anti-fascist consciousness on a national scale. Italy never came to terms with its fascist past. Never deeply confronting the issue of fascism, it confused forgiveness with forgetting and underestimated the crucial importance of historical memory.
Historical memory is neither a rhetorical exercise nor a mere formality; it is a practice that constantly needs to be kept alive by political education and active participation.
This lax approach towards fascism that has historically characterised most of the Italian left has undoubtedly facilitated the revival of fascism in recent decades, from the armed terrorist groups (active in the 1970s and ’80s) to the current neo-fascist groups, no longer armed but equally dangerous.
State of play
Today, several neo-fascist groups are active throughout Italy. Their strengths are their close contact with the poor suburbs (too often neglected by the national government) and a semblance of political sense.
Neo-fascist militants present themselves as ordinary people, attentive to people’s real problems, accusing the government of neglecting Italian people for the benefit of migrants. “Italians first” is one of their favorite slogans and, taking advantage of the serious problems many face, they manage to pass off their ideas as “good sense”.
On Italy’s streets, it is sadly not hard to find people who, in good conscience, think that fascism was better than the current political class. They believe that, as things stand today, only a dictatorship can really “fix things”. This is an alarming sign and ignoring it would be a terrible mistake.
People are increasingly supporting nationalist and reactionary agendas, as this type of politics seems the only concrete and immediate answer to their problems. The fascists, as well as the right-wing and the populist parties, have always been masters at exploiting people’s fears for their own benefit, especially in times of crisis.
Italy’s parliament is being affected by this new reactionary wave. A few weeks ago, all the right-wing parties, together with M5S, firmly opposed the Ius Soli (“Law of the soil” in Latin. This bill grants Italian citizenship to children from migrant families born on Italian soil and children of immigrants who have spent a minimum of five years in the Italian school system.
This opposition has postponed the bill’s approval. It is unlikely to be passed in the near future.
In order to prevent neo-fascists from growing stronger, the PD government presented a bill outlawing the promotion of fascist ideology. The bill aimed to reinforce the existing crime of “apologies for fascism”. Again, the right teamed up with M5S against the bill. Both LN and MSS claimed the PD proposal represents the “death of liberty” and that ideas have to be respected and cannot be put on trial.
This clearly shows how dangerous it can be to confuse forgiveness and forgetting: there is now a serious risk of reinstating the worst of the ideologies, justifying it with a nonsensical and ahistorical “freedom of thought”.
The Italian left needs to reflect on its mistakes with regard to fascism. It is not enough to increase the penalties for promoting fascism. This may be needed at this point in time, as there is an urgent need to stem the neo-fascist phenomenon, but it can only serve as temporary and extraordinary measure.
The left must no longer ignore its educational role. It must not abandon its task of forming a strong, anti-fascist social conscience. Also, it has to build a new consensus among the working class and put the struggle against social and economic injustices at the heart of its political action.
Right now, it is important to use any means necessary against the worrying advance of neo-fascist groups. But if this action is not accompanied by a long-term political project, it will have the opposite effect. It will allow the fascists to present themselves as the victims, granting them further legitimacy.