Unions in Italy and Germany during the Age of Fascism
It might be surprising to some, but both Italian Fascism and German National Socialism were closely related to and supportive of trade unionism. Historically, both French and Italian fascism emerged out of a major trade union movement known as “revolutionary syndicalism” (syndicat means trade union in French), which first came into prominence in France in the early 20th century. It was spearheaded by Georges Sorel, a French Marxist, who advocated street violence and thuggery during general strikes to overthrow capitalism. In his own words, Sorel wrote that violence is acceptable if “enlightened by the idea of the general strike.”
But Sorel was no ordinary Marxist. As one of the intellectual heavyweights behind revolutionary syndicalism, Sorel was an inspiration to both Marxists and Fascist alike, including Benito Mussolini, who referred to him as his mentor. Mussolini idolized Sorel, claiming: “What I am, I owe to Sorel.” And Sorel returned the favor, calling Mussolini “a man no less extraordinary than Lenin.”
Mussolini’s affinity with trade unionism is obvious; he was not only a leader of the Italian Socialist Party, but according to historian Denis Mack Smith, a hard-core Marxist, who “once belonged to the Bolshevik wing of the Italian Socialist party.” Interestingly, Mussolini was for about six years both a Marxist and a Fascist leader. He founded the Fascist Revolutionary Party in 1915, supported Lenin’s October Revolution in Russia in 1917 and called himself the “Lenin of Italy” in the 1919 election. In other words, Mussolini was what I call a “Fascist-Marxist.” Not until around 1921 did he begin to pull away from Marxism, mostly due to Lenin’s unpopularity over the economic collapse of Soviet Russia’s economy that had caused massive unemployment.
The revolutionary syndicalist movement was well steeped in the ideology of Italian fascism. According to Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell, a leading authority on Fascism, “most syndicalist leaders were among the founders of the Fascist movement,” where “many even held key posts” in Mussolini’s regime. In fact, Marxist-inspired “Italian revolutionary syndicalism became the backbone of fascist ideology,” which means that a large sector of the trade unionism birthed fascism—to be later known as Fascist Syndicalism.
As a union organizer and agitator who instigated strikes and violent riots against Italy’s invasion of Ottoman Libya in 1911–1912, Mussolini sought an economic policy that was “productivist” instead of “distributionist” to fulfill Karl Marx’s prophecy that a nation needed “full maturation of capitalism as the precondition for socialist realization.” Marx argued that only an advanced industrial system could provide the productive capacity for the proletariat to bring about their historical worker-state destiny. In other words, to progress to a fully socialized worker state, Italy required a high level of industrialization, which, during Mussolini’s time, was stuck in a mostly rural, poor and underdeveloped condition. To increase industrial capacity, Mussolini permitted Edmondo Rossoni, a well-known revolutionary syndicalist leader, to head Italy’s General Confederation of Fascist Syndical Corporations in an effort to equalize worker and employer power under a corporate syndicate structure. Rossoni and his Fascist syndicalists believe in “fusing Nationalism with class struggle” and that workers should eventually take control of all industrial factories, once they had “mastered the requisite competence to take command.” Mussolini’s opinions towards fascist unionism had a similar ring, saying: “I declare that henceforth capital and labor shall have equal rights and duties as brothers in the fascist family.”
National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazis)
What about the National Socialist movement in Germany? The Nazis not only courted workers and unionism, but they even put “Workers” into their official party name—National Socialist German Workers’ Party. They appeared so pro-worker that the foreign press during the 1920s simply referred to Hitler and his socialist party as the “National Socialist Labor Party.” The National Socialists went out of their way to get workers support. In some cases, the Nazis even allied with the Communist Party of Germany, demanding better wages for workers. Hitler’s “brownshirts” and red-flagged Communists marched side by side through the streets of Berlin in 1932, and violently destroyed any busses whose drivers had failed in participate in the worker’s strike. In fact, the biggest voter contingency for National Socialist candidates came from German factory workers.
Soon after Hitler became chancellor he declared May Day of 1933 a paid national holiday and threw elaborate celebrations with songs, speeches, marches and fireworks. The Nazi’s slogan for this people’s community celebration was “Germany honors labor.” The prospect of national unity with the Nationalism socialist seemed so high that even the German Free Trade Unions encouraged their members to participate in the activities.
After Hitler rose to power, the National Socialists became the quintessential worker state, eager to identify Germany as a “proletarian nation” that would struggle against “plutocratic nations.” After all, Hitler repeatedly lauded the virtues of labor, pronouncing in the Völkischer Beobachter that “I only acknowledge one nobility—that of labour.”
Despite slews of pro-worker platitudes by the socialist dictatorship, the reality was that the state was now calling all the shots. In the case of trade unions, Lenin, Hitler and Mussolini did not just outlaw labor unions under their regime; they nationalized them as would any good socialist. Of course, such nationalization would be in accordance with orthodox Marxist doctrine which demanded state ownership and control over all independent organizations. But they were even more draconian. They made membership in the union mandatory. As noted by Italian historian Gaetano Salvemini “In Italy and Germany the official unions have been made compulsory by law, while in the United States, the workers are not legally obligated to join the company unions but may even, if they so wish, oppose them.”
Hitler and Mussolini were simply imitating Lenin, who had earlier closed down all independent labor associations, factory committees and worker cooperatives, banned strikes, walkouts, and lockouts. Lenin even forced workers to work a slavish 80-hour week. After the Bolsheviks banned all labor unions, one unionist “described the unions as ‘living corpses.’” Any Russian worker who participated in general strikes was arrested, imprisoned or shot. Under Lenin’s regime, workers had no real representation or bargaining rights and were treated like industrial serfs who were chained to their factories. Although Hitler and Mussolini followed Lenin’s nationalizing craze, their treatment of workers did not mimic their Russian counterparts.
Of all the fascists, Hitler was vigilant in keeping many of his promises to labor. Under the newly created German Labor Front (DAF), the Nazis set high wages, overtime pay was generous, and dismissal of workers by employers was difficult to execute, but inflation and stricter labor laws eroded much of that advantage. Headed by Robert Ley, the German Labor Front preferred nationalized enterprises over privately owned companies since it held a bias against liberal capitalism. But its main mission was also to satisfy workers enough to prevent rebellion against both industrialists and the national socialist state.
In any event, following the Nazis’ “Socialism of Deed” ideology, all sorts of revolutionary new social and entertainment programs were provided to German workers via the “Strength through Joy” (Kraft durch Freude, or KdF), considered the world’s biggest tour operators. The KdF program, which was designed to provide affordable leisure activities, included such amenities as subsidized domestic or foreign vacations, parks, ocean cruises, construction of worker canteens that provided subsidized hot meals, factory libraries and gardens, sport facilities and swimming pools, adult education courses, periodic breaks, orchestras during lunch break, tickets to concerts and operas, no-cost physical education, gymnastic and sports training. The DAF-subsidized holiday vacations were so popular that by 1938 over 10.3 million Germans signed up.
But the debt was piling up. After years of Keynesian-style deficit spending for expensive labor and welfare perks, along with military spending, National Socialist Germany was at the brink of bankruptcy. Many historians, such as Götz Aly, argue that as Germany’s economy faltered, Hitler was forced to resort to military adventuring just to prop up his dying, bankrupt economy. The failing economics of socialism and coercion resulted in a horrific war that compelled the Nazis not only to plunder conquered nations, but to rob and liquidate minorities in order to pay for Nazi Germany’s exploding deficits.
Despite all of the special programs lavished on German employees and citizens, the DAF was still considered the most corrupt of all institutions under Hitler’s administration. Obviously, to mandate union membership and compel workers to pay union dues without recourse is a recipe for abuse and corruption. This is exactly what happened to the Nazis. Soon after Robert Ley took command of the German Labor Front in 1933, he freely embezzled union funds for personal use, despite an exorbitant salary. He lived high on the hog with a luxurious estate, a handful of villas and a fleet of cars. Ley was arrogant, often drunk, and prone to womanizing. He ran his department like a personal fiefdom, ordering around his subordinates and workers. He even secured bribes from party officials, politicians and industrialists to meet his high standard of living. Sounds familiar?
Many American unions, especially those of government employees, mirror the exact policies and tactics of Fascist syndicalism, giving employees little representation, especially as to where and how their dues are spent. Whether in Nazi Germany or America, when the state forces workers to pay a union bribe just to work in an industry, tremendous power has been transferred from the individual employee to a coercive collectivity—nothing short of how the fascist-socialists emasculated their workers. And this is where the distinctly American idea of freedom of choice has been abandoned to the violent thuggery and corruption that has shadowed many labor movements.
Sadly, today’s unionism is actually no different from yesterday’s Fascist syndicalism, where union bosses were officially granted a monopoly of power sanctioned and backed by governmental laws. Someday the American public will wake up and recognize these dreadful similarities, but will it be too late?
L.K. Samuels is author of In Defense of Chaos: The Chaology of Politics, Economics and Human Action, and a forthcoming book on the political spectrum. Much of this matter comes from his new book, which has over 1,000 footnotes by many of the leading experts on fascism. Website: www.lksamuels.com.