Federica Dadone takes a look at the Italian far right today, its postwar history, and why Italy is so extremely vulnerable to movements and parties with fascist politics.
Is Italy experiencing a ‘return of fascism’ or has it always existed, only more visible and respectable today? It may sound like a contradiction to claim that the far right in Italy is coming back and, at the same time, never really left, but both things are true. It is a matter of different waves, responding to different circumstances.
In the last 15 years, the far right has been on the rise across Europe. Xenophobic parties have gained votes and electoral legitimacy, as social movements support them and mainstream parties move to the right, co-opting fascist narratives so that they are elevated to the forefront of public discourse.
Meanwhile, violent acts motivated by racial reasons have skyrocketed, as well as far-right terrorist attacks. This did not begin when Donald Trump was elected President of the USA, or Matteo Salvini became Minister of Internal Affairs in Italy.
This begins (or, rather, restarts) at the end of the Second World War, going back to small fascist groups that survived in almost every country, even Germany and Italy. The far right after 1945 has experienced successes and losses, it has changed to adapt to new circumstances, while still maintaining its identity: a core of nationalism, nativism, sovranism, racism, and xenophobia, connected to explicitly neo-nazi or neo-fascists movements, preaching violence and anti-democracy.
Three waves of fascism
There have been three ‘waves’ of the far right in Europe after World War II, and some analysts say that today we are at the peak of a fourth wave, which we are still struggling to understand.
The first wave is the ‘nostalgic’ one: survivors of old fascist regimes created new movements after the war. In 1946, Giorgio Almirante, former leader of the Fascist Party and the Salò Republic, founded the Italian Social Movement (MSI).
The second wave happened in the Fifties (especially in France and Scandinavia). Its populist, anti-politics, and anti-taxes rhetoric engaged especially with small farmers and business owners.
The third wave has had the biggest electoral success (to this day, at least), and includes the exploits of Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) in France and Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party (FPO) in Austria.
One of the key factors in FN’s success was the clean-up of its explicitly fascist image: the new narrative, adopted by Le Pen, was about defending France’s traditional identity against immigration, multiculturalism ,and modernity, mixed in with neoliberal economic measures and sciovinista ('chauvinist') welfarism. All the other European far right movements, with huge successes, copied that approach.
While Europe moved to the right, in Italy the trend was in the opposite direction. In the 90s, Gianfranco Fini transformed the old MSI into National Alliance (AN), a ‘modern, democratic’ right-wing party, conservative and socially acceptable, and far removed from fascist nostalgia.
With AN seizing the centre ground, a vacuum was created for the far right, which small movements tried to occupy: Fiamma Tricolore, Forza Nuova, CasaPound (whose slogan is ‘Italy to Italians’). These small parties have had successes (peaking in 2008), but never managed to compete with AN.
The Northern League/Lega Nord
Simultaneously, the party that was best at pushing the third wave of the far right in Italy was Umberto Bossi’s Northern League, coming from a very different background to the other groups.
Created as a regional northern movement in the 80s, it became increasingly radical (championing nationalism, welfare only for Italians, the fight against the EU, multiculturalism, anti-Islam, and anti-LGBT rights). Its leaders openly talked about walking pigs on land designated for mosques, and having armed groups to ‘welcome’ migrants on Italy’s shores.
The current secretary of the rebranded League (no longer exclusively Northern), Matteo Salvini, only brought this radicalisation to its completion, backgrounding the party’s secessionist demands and making its message even more extreme by banging the drum of security and anti-immigration. This allowed them to absorb post-fascist groups and make gains in the South of Italy, which was virgin territory for the League.
Its success in the elections of 2018 allowed it to form a government in 2019 with the Five Star Movement (M5S), another populist movement that gathered, among more general support, many former right and far-right voters. According to some political analysts, this represented the peak of the far right’s ‘fourth wave’.
These years have seen an economic crisis that allowed for the rise of the League, together with far-right movements in France, Austria, Germany, Scandinavia, Poland, and Hungary. It is still hard to define what the characteristics of this fourth wave are: a social turn (protection for disadvantaged categories, as long as they are white and non-migrants), or hostility towards globalisation, sovranism, euroscepticism, claims about fake news, Russian interference, use of social media? It will be clearer in a few years, at least if this wave recedes like past ones.
What is certain is that we are in the middle of a cycle of success for the far right, in Europe, and in Italy especially, where public discourse (and Parliament) has consistently moved rightward. Far-right ideas and values are more visible because they have found legitimacy in acceptable movements that are not explicitly fascist, and parties (such as the League and the populist Five Star Movement), considered to be ‘moderate right’ or ‘neither right nor left’.
In truth, these parties bring fascist ideas to the forefront of politics in Italy, in Parliament, and in the media, normalising them for broader society. This means that ever more people are exposed to racist, homophobic, and discriminatory notions, and that they are not so ashamed anymore to expose themselves and publicly advocate such values.
The growth of racism in Italy
The epidemic of racism that plagues Italian society, exacerbated by a general ignorance about, and a failure to address, Italy’s colonial past in Africa and the Balkans, has been fertile ground for terrorist attacks, violent actions, and crimes perpetrated in the name of far-right ideology. In February 2018, in Macerata, Luca Traini, a right-wing terrorist, shot and wounded six people of colour in a drive-by attack, all African migrants.
This intersects with the inability of mainstream media to understand the trend of far-right popularisation: while racist attacks are not identified as terrorism, but treated as isolated incidents, mainstream media bears responsibility for becoming a megaphone to xenophobic and aggressive rhetoric spread by politicians, permitted to shout hateful beliefs on TV and newspapers almost unchallenged.
Every so often a police operation uncovers some secretive small group trying to form a neo-nazi national party (such as the ‘Black Shadows’ operation at the end of 2019 in Sicily). When this happens, the media chooses to focus on just this ‘black international movement’ as if it is the only worrisome phenomenon associated with the far right, further sanitising more insidious, mainstreamed examples of far-right ideology.
Beyond the media’s failures, a compact, decisive resistance has not yet emerged to counterbalance this far-right trend. Left parties have been almost wiped out from Parliament, with the only one remaining, the Democratic Party, now an empty shell of centrist, liberal politics, lacking charismatic leadership and therefore crumbling.
The absence of a left block on the political scene reflects a society where, after years of economic crisis, austerity, and general job and economic uncertainty, the social movements (trade unions and feminists, anti-racist and anti-capitalist groups) struggle to form a united block. This has been the case since the aftermath of the 2001 G8 meeting in Genoa.
While there is no united front against the far right, in the past few years there have been some isolated groups still filling up the streets to oppose the far-right threat. These have mobilised at League meetings or against the Five Star Movement, which became popular ten years ago with its ‘Fuck you days’ against the political establishment, identified as the main enemy of the Italian people.
There have also been episodes of resistance. Italy is home to many anti-racists, anti-discrimination activists, feminists, LGBT+ groups, anarchist organisations and movements that despite all the difficulties (especially when it comes to a lack of money and public support) keep safeguarding public spaces. They are present and active on the ground.
Italian POCs ('persons of colour') are finally breaking into the public discourse and challenging the institutional, mainstream racism by getting their voices heard on social media and independent media.
Right before the Book Fair in Turin in 2018 (one of the main cultural events in Italy), a lot of publishing houses and writers went public with their decision not to attend, because a far-right and openly fascist publishing house had bought a space at the event. This sparked a weeks-long public debate on how much culture is political, the rise of neo-fascism in Italy, the raising of the tolerance bar on these topics, and how the far right did not contribute a valid ‘opinion’, but rather offered only hate and violence.
In 2019, after the fall of the League and M5S government (replaced by a Democratic Party and M5S government), the ‘Sardines’ movement was born in reaction to the League’s electoral campaign for the local elections in Emilia-Romagna, a traditionally leftist region in central Italy. Despite them initially being quite locally bound to Bologna, they spread in a disorganised but constant way over Italy, finally filling up the streets again with Italians who do not identify as on the right or with far-right values.
It is still too early to make any substantive claims about this spontaneous movement, especially because it does not have a clear identity beyond opposition to Salvini’s persona (and, by extension, the League). Ironically, it only started when Salvini and his party were not even in government anymore.
The Sardines' self-appointed leaders are likable, but strikingly lack any structural political analysis (their manifesto is sadly empty of meaning beyond some generic ‘democratic values’). Only in the past few weeks they have showed up at talent shows, met the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, to talk about their idea for an Erasmus programme to exchange people between the South and North of Italy, and proposed a baffling DASPO (a banning order for sports events) for people who perpetrate hate speech on social media.
The Sardines’ leaders are easy targets, but still, the fact that so many different people came together in opposition to the League’s rhetoric means that there is still fertile ground in Italy to build a united resistance to fascism, possibly one that is also internationalist and connected to the other European resistance groups.
It is also true that it is not up to the Sardines to build one, and their inadequacy only makes the absence of believable political leaders more obvious. This failure of political representation is what makes Italy vulnerable to continued far-right predation.
Federica Dadone is an Italian socialist living in Britain and active in Mutiny.