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"The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism" is a scholarly study of a layer of Italian intellectuals who started out as revolutionary syndicalists and then evolved towards fascist positions. During Mussolini's regime, they formed a somewhat heterogeneous "left" wing of the fascist movement, which could be called "national syndicalist" or "neo-syndicalist", emphasizing the corporatist and seemingly pro-worker character of fascism. The book is incredibly detailed, and hardly for the general reader. I happen to know a few things about revolutionary syndicalism, but the author lost me when deep-diving into the factional disputes within the Italian fascist movement. But sure, if you want to take the plunge...
I did notice a few interesting things.
I always assumed that Italian syndicalists were influenced by Georges Sorel's irrationalist philosophy. Roberts claims that it was the non-syndicalist Mussolini who emphasized this side of Sorel's thinking. The revolutionary syndicalists (such as Labriola) were rationalists, and hence more interested in the earlier, constructive side of Sorel: the notion that socialism is at bottom a moral project, that the working class is the bearer of the new morality, and that the "syndicates" or socialist labor unions can take over and regenerate society. They weren't interested in "myths", nor did they have a narrow insurrectionist or catastrophic view of the socialist transformation. The author claims that the syndicalists, despite their "petty bourgeois" class background, had a very modern conception of the Italian future. They envisaged a unified Italy with modern industry and free trade (sic), not some kind of semi-anarchist decentralized artisanal idyll.
According to Roberts, the Italian revolutionary syndicalists (who were mostly of middle class origin) gradually lost faith in the revolutionary character of the working class. The Italian workers had been co-opted by the corrupted, democratic republic through the reformist Socialist Party, and became just another interest group around the trough of the protectionist state. Therefore, the workers couldn't function as a new revolutionary "elite" (the syndicalists believed in Pareto's elite theory). A new elite and a new revolutionary concept must therefore be found. However, industrial workers could still play a role as part of a broader alliance of all productive classes, which would include engineers and even "the captains of industry".
The syndicalists reached the conclusion that a war might "wake up" the Italian people and turn it towards modernity. Some syndicalists supported Italy's colonialist war with the Ottoman Empire over Libya. During World War I, the syndicalists opposed Italian neutrality (Italy did join the Allies in 1915). However, the syndicalists didn't support the predatory "proletarian nations" theory of Corradini, instead picturing the war in liberal or Social Democratic terms as a conflict between modernizing democracy and German autocracy! They even criticized those who supported war for irrationalist reasons, such as the Futurists. Even so, since most Italian workers probably opposed Italian intervention in the war, the syndicalists became more and more isolated from the socialist labor movement. Meanwhile, Mussolini had also expressed support for Italian participation in the world war...
The final break between ex-revolutionary syndicalism and the traditional left came after the war, during the "Red Biennium" 1919-20 when socialist-minded workers occupied factories and formed soviets. Rather than seeing this as a splendid example of the revolutionary capacity of the working class, the neo-syndicalists saw it as an immature attempt to mimic the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, which was doomed to failure anyway. The opposition of the workers to the war, and their perceived hostility to modernization, were other arguments used to dismiss them. Instead, the neo-syndicalists joined with Mussolini (whose fascist movement was initially pseudo-leftist) or discovered D'Annunzio, the poet-adventurer whose short-lived "republic" at Fiume was based on corporatist, neo-syndicalist principles (at least on paper).
When violence between socialists and fascist storm troopers erupted all over Italy, the neo-syndicalists sided with the latter, but simultaneously used the violence to force workers into joining fascist labor unions set up by the neo-syndicalists themselves as an instrument for a hoped-for fascist "revolution". Initially, the fascist unions weren't all sham - as late as 1925, they actually organized major strikes. However, the increasingly conservative Mussolini subsequently incorporated these unions into the fascist state structure. Interestingly, Roberts claims that the Italian fascist regime was never really corporatist. The corporative, quasi-syndicalist structures advocated by the neo-syndicalists were either non-existent or easily controlled by the state bureaucracy. The national syndicalists finally settled down as a kind of "loyal opposition" within the system. (A few went into exile, but still called for national syndicalism rather than anti-fascism!)
"The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism" raises a lot of interesting questions (and perhaps a few eye brows). If fascism can have a "leftist" wing, how "rightist" is fascism, exactly? Aren't there similarities between Mussolini (seen by the left as reactionary) and, say, Peron in Argentina (often seen by the left as progressive)? Isn't Peronism actually a kind of national syndicalism? Isn't the fascist theory of "proletarian nations" similar to some forms of Maoism? And are the trains really running on time in modern, liberal Italy...?
Although David D Roberts's book is probably mostly of interest to really advanced students of political science (early 20th century Italian political science, to be exact), I nevertheless give it four stars.