A Summer in Italy, 1929 (Part 11)

The signora tells me this story. A fascist accosted a girl on the street. She replied with an epithet meaning dirty. He said “We will see who is dirty, you or me!” So he made her drink castor oil, put her in a truck & drove around town until it had effect. Then when she was sufficiently sporea he threw her out in the street, across town from where she lived.1

Detail from a birth announcement card.
The date on Robert jr.’s birth announcement includes “Anno VII”, the year of the “Era Fascistica”.

Writing about Fascism

It had been Binkley’s intention from the start to use the Italian trip to write about fascism for the New Republic, where Bruce Bliven encouraged him to take up the subject in preference to the worn-out topics of prohibition or war guilt he proposed.2 At this point, when Italy was the only fascist state and the Nazis were still on the lunatic fringe of the German nationalists, fascism was more ridiculous than threatening to progressive Americans. The pomposity and the absurd claims of cultural and economic renewal had not yet made themselves felt as portents of something serious, and the thuggery of Mussolini’s blackshirts and Hitler’s brownshirts seemed to resemble the gangsters of Chicago more than a legitimate political movement. The political potential was sufficiently confused that the Nation still supported Mussolini’s corporatist state.3 There was nevertheless a lot of interest in Fascism: a friend among the junior faculty at NYU wrote to Binkley: “Fascism has been a source of steady interest to me, and you are, I think, the first person to write me about it from the very spot.”4 What was still new was an established Fascist regime, free from political opposition and able to show its real intentions.
The Binkleys expected to find support for Mussolini to be thin and forced, and from the moment they crossed the frontier from France they watched for signs of popular resistance and fascist hypocrisy. In August Binkley went so far as to apply to interview Mussolini, as he wrote to a friend:

Today I put in an application at the Embassy for an appointment to meet Mussolini. I am not “tuft-hunting” as the English say, but would like to see what Mussolini says about the problem of criticism as an aid to government. If he says that he is in favor of constructive criticism, but opposed to destructive criticism, I shall shoot myself and give all my money to the poor.5

They were pleased when they found evidence of opposition. Binkley noted an anti-fascist remark from Dr. Scarafia, the book-dealer in Florence who could source back runs of socialist periodicals (see part 4): “now one can hardly think, and can certainly do nothing.”6 He chafed under the controlled press in Rome, and on leaving Italy he bought French newspapers from across the spectrum of political opinion as soon as he could:

I jumped off the railway coach at Dijon and bought three newspapers – Socialist, conservative & gov’t – and how freely I breathed. It was just a gesture – but it seemed to make one freer. Maybe it’s just theoretical. I really liked Italy. But how much better I like France.7

The theme of their interest in Fascism was therefore freedom of speech, and that is what Binkley wrote about for the New Republic as soon as he was back in the U.S. The article appeared the following February as “Free Speech in Fascist Italy”8

Free Speech in Fascist Italy

In the Fascist system the control of the press is openly accepted as a function of the government. The result is a well disciplined journalism that will swing at the word of command from extreme Francophobia to a visionary enthusiasm for Latin solidarity. The key-words of the Fascist philosophy–discipline, hierarchy, Italianity, etc.–are rung into the discussion of every problem. In this control there is no reign of terror. It is no longer necessary to send out the squadristi to flog recalcitrant editors, because there are no more recalcitrant editors.9

If there is no opposition press left in Italy, where should we look for the exercise or restriction of free speech? Binkley proposes two areas: common social interactions, and the licensed discussion of government policies. In the first category he reports on songs, jokes, and graffiti on washroom walls. He is reminiscent of the European documentalists in his willingness to extend the scope of documentary evidence to include the very informal:

The only written means of communication which remains accessible to them [opponents of Fascism] is the public lavatory. Here, and here only, is it possible to see written out “Morte al Duce,” “Vive Matteotti.” … The written documents are the privy walls. And of these, it is interesting to note, one of the most heavily inscribed in the whole city of Rome is to be found at the Royal University.10

Gestures too are documents of resistance:

There is a way in which the Fascist salute, the Roman gesture with arm extended forward, can be brought around with a full swing to bring the hand to the mouth in a pantomime of eating. “They have good appetites, the Fascisti,” is the accompanying remark.11

In his description of oral criticism of the regime, he used a popular song:

Non te rabiare!
La vita e breve,
Cio non si deve
E la ricetta
E piu perfetta
Per arrivare
A lunga eta.

(Do not fly into a rage. Life is short, and don’t forget it. This is the most perfect recipe for attaining old age.)

What hostility do the Fascisti read in this song? Some declare that the warning “life is short” is addressed to them as a hint that their regime will be transitory; others, with better reason, object to the phrase about flying into a rage. It seems to mock the noblest attitudes of the party, and make a sport of righteous indignation. The song is everywhere acknowledged to have political significance. And yet one often hears its lilting melody rising from some courtyard or from the back of a shop.

Binkley refers to two questions that had become the subject of public debate in Italy, permitted by the regime. The first settled the role of the Fascist trade unions by eliminating the fiduciari di fabbrica (essentially shop stewards). The labor unions supported them, and pressed ahead with elections, while the syndicates of employers opposed them. Over the summer of 1929 the two sides pressed their cases in Lavora Fascista on the one side and the conservative Tribuna and Giornale d’Italia on the other. The conclusion was presented as a compromise, “after lively discussion”, though in effect it established that the unions were nothing more than organs of the state.12 Binkley was impressed with the contest between the factions of capital and labor within Fascism: “The debate went on in the light of day, with real blows given and taken.”13 But it was all constrained within the postulates of Fascism: no criticism of the party or the regime was involved.

The second area of public debate was the reception of the draft penal code issued in 1927, which was still under discussion in 1929. It had been circulated to practitioners and academics for criticism, and the resulting suggestions had been compiled into eight volumes, which were under review in a second round. Though there were vigorous legal challenges to the proposed laws, they were again presented within the framework of Fascist rhetoric.

There were Fascist supporters who recognized the value of genuinely critical debate, but who held that that can only be possible when the generation that had been raised under Fascism had grown to maturity. This brought the question around to education, where Binkley found parallels with the questions of the value of secondary education in America with which he was engaged:

Thus, the Fascist problem of the control of opinion approaches our own. Is it possible so to fortify the minds of a generation that it can be exposed to “subversive” literature without consequences harmful to the public interest? If we exclude criticism of the fundamentals of our philosophy — be it a philosophy of democracy, or of private property, or of what you will — the philosophy dissolves into a patter. If we admit criticism, we may be compelled to see it change — or grow.14

This anticipates his line of argument for academic freedom in “History for a Democracy” a few years later:

A myth that will not stand criticism must ultimately be protected by force. And an interpretation of history that one is not permitted to doubt and criticize becomes ipso facto an interpretation that one cannot sustain and prove. A history that will nourish the spirit of democracy must be one that leaves its investigators free to follow wherever the evidence leads them, whatever may be their conclusions regarding men, events, and institutions. Even if it should be discovered that the heroes of democracy were villains, and that the institutions of democracy did not function as the well-wishers of democracy would have preferred — even then, the historian must be free to reach and publish his conclusions.15

When he wrote that in 1936, Binkley was forced to take fascism more seriously than he had in Rome; in 1929, it was still enough of a joke that when he left Rome he could ask Frances to buy “a black shirt or a fascist cap” as a souvenir, “and then try to get the fascist distinctiva” (there’s no evidence that she did).16

His experience of the restrictions on freedom of speech in Italy inoculated Binkley against any sympathy he might otherwise have felt for the goals of early fascism, such as the Nazi repudiation of war guilt. Back at Smith College in the winter after their return to the US, Binkley was ready to close the door on Italy:

Next week I am to debate in the Northampton Progressive Forum on Fascism. I will take sides against Fascism. Everybody says it will mean I can’t get back to Italy if I do, but there are many other places to go than Italy.17

  1. Doc. 778: FWB to RCB, 1929-10-30. This means of terrorizing the opponents of fascism is well attested: e.g. Michael R. Ebner, Ordinary Violence in Mussolini’s Italy (Cambridge UP, 2010), p.32.

  2. Bliven to RCB, 1929-05-13, in CWRU Archives, folder 3HB5-2-10.

  3. John Patrick Diggins, Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America, New edition (Princeton UP, 1972), pp. 232-33.

  4. Doc. 1393: Ross to RCB, 1929-08-03.

  5. Doc. 2050: RCB to Carl Wilhelmson, 1929-08-20. The joke about the predictability and emptiness of Mussolini’s answer may have been related to a running gag among Binkley’s Stanford circle: his friend Mervyn Crobaugh introduced his suggestions for “Barnwoggler’s Invention” sardonically with: “Criticism, we have agreed, never helps, unless it is helpful criticism. In other words, let us be constructive at all costs.”

  6. Doc. 1382, 1929-07-07, a page of notes about the public attitude to fascism, in which the remark is attributed to “S. at Florence”, which must be Scarafia.

  7. Doc. 331: RCB to FWB, 1929-09-13.

  8. New Republic 61.792 (1930): 291-3 (pay link).

  9. Ibid., p.291.

  10. Ibid., p.291.

  11. Ibid. p. 291.

  12. Arnaldo Cortesi, “Capital and Labor Dispute in Italy,” New York Times, August 4, 1929; “Cronaca Sociale,” Rivista Internazionale di Scienze Sociali d Discipline Ausiliarie, Nuova serie, 3, no. 3/4 (October 1, 1929): 262-3.

  13. “Free Speech”, p. 292.

  14. Ibid., p.293.

  15. “History for a Democracy”, H9.

  16. Doc. 327: RCB to FWB, 1929-09-12.

  17. Doc. 2646: RCB to his parents, 1930-02-20.