On the Guardian newsblog the other day the amusingly named Sarah Left had an eyecatching introduction to her article:
The Queen shook the hand of a fascist today, and I don’t mean Harry in full party dress.
The hand in question is that of Gianfranco Fini, Italy’s foreign minister and the leader of the neo-fascist National Alliance party. Unite Against Fascism (UAF) today organised a picket of Fini’s meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, alongside a state visit of the Italian president.
“At a time when the extreme right is making breakthroughs across Europe and the fascist British National party is attempting to make a national breakthrough in Britain, members of the monarchy should be distancing themselves from fascists,” UAF contends.
A similar argument has been put forward in our comments boxes with widespread reference to Fini as a ‘fascist’ and the suggestion that he is an Italian version of Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, who hides his fascism behind a smart suit.
His smart suits not withstanding, I think it is a serious mistake to label Fini as a fascist. Obviously not because I have any sympathy for his right-wing politics but because to mislabel him and to fail to understand the changes within the Allianza Nazionale party ignores what has been a significant victory against fascism in Italian politics.
I asked one Italian leftist friend what he thought of the issue. “Fini is many things but not a fascist, not even a little bit. It should tell you something that not even (the far left) Rifondazione Comunista call him a fascist anymore”.
Fini’s visit to London coincided with the shameful decision of Fini’s wife Daniela and two AN MP’s to raise funds to pay the fine of Paolo Di Canio, the Lazio footballer who was fined this week for the fascist salute he gave during the Rome derby in January.
Signora Fini’s wife’s stupidity does indeed tell us something about the contradictions within the Allianza Nazionale.
She is playing to the party’s old base – right-wing southern Italians with a nostalgic attitude towards the Mussolini era. Lazio fans fit into that base very well. So does Di Canio.
It is a base that Mr Fini himself certainly wasn’t playing to when he announced a policy that I would be interested to see Sarah Left and others describe as “fascist”.
Fini called for immigrants in Italy, who do not yet have Italian citizenship, to be given the vote as an attempt to strengthen integration into Italian society.
I would be interested to see if Michael Howard would endorse such a policy? Actually I’d be interested to see if any British party leader would make such a call.
As a result of taking such a position a group of fascist nostalgists, led by Alessandra Mussolini, Il Duce’s grand-daughter, split from AN to form a far right group which is now in alliance with Fiamma Tricolour – themselves a fascist group who left AN several years ago in protest at Fini’s earlier moves to the centre-right. I rather suspect that was Fini’s aim. He was able to distance himself not just from the more xenophobic elements in his own party but also from the genuinely extremist Lega Nord (Northern League).
Fini has refused attempts from the Front Nationale in France to forge a Europe-wide alliance calling FN leader Jean Marie Le Pen a “fascist”. Funny insult for a supposed fascist to use.
In fact Gianfranco Fini is a conservative politician, a nationalist who plays the anti-immigration card when it he suits him. He would fit comfortably into the right-wing of the British Tory party.
But it is impossible to put Italian rightists (or leftists) neatly into UK categories.
Just as the communists were kept out of power by the post-war domination of the Christian Democrats so was the MSI who came from fascist origins.
What Fini, a street activist for the MSI in his youth, has managed to do is move part of the MSI into the mainstream of Italian politics in order to forge an alliance with Berlusconi.
To do that he had to accept the post-war anti-fascist settlement and cut AN’s direct links with Italian fascism. He did this in a speech which marked the formal break with the MSI past, when he said: “Anti-fascism was an essential moment in Italy’s return to the values of democracy.”
He also said: “In comparison with the MSI, the Alliance represents not only an evolution of the right, but a new identity, based on an unequivocal condemnation of all forms of totalitarianism, including that of the fascist period. … The new party is not a new face for the MSI; it is something substantially new.”
Fini has also made two visits to Israel which he has used to make absolutely clear his views on Italy’s fascist past.
”We must denounce the pages of shame in our past history. We must do so in order to understand the reason why laziness, indifference, complicity, and cowardice made it possible for great numbers of Italians, in 1938, to do nothing against the notorious racial laws promoted by Fascism.”
And while visiting Yad Vashem, the Museum of the Holocaust, he spoke of ”absolute evil.” When asked if this absolute evil included Italian Fascism, Fini responded, ”Of course – everything we have seen together in our pilgrimage in Yad Vashem is part of it.” In addition, during a visit with prime minister Sharon, he issued this warning, ”We must not to try relegate history to the museums . . . racism and anti-Semitism are not behind us; they do not belong to a historical period that is over and done with, but rather they still exist in various disguised forms .
Not everyone in Fini’s party shares his view of that past but it is clear that Fini cares more for the increasingly loosely aligned centre-right voting segment than he does for nostalgists in his party.
As well as making clear repudiations of Italy’s fascist past and calling for votes for non-citizen immigrants, Fini has taken up other positions that run contrary to the fascist tradition in Italy. He is pro-European Union and pro-US – neither of which fit easy with the claim that he is still a fascist. After September 11, AN posters across Italy declared ‘Solidarity with the United States’ – Italian fascists despise the US for obvious historical reasons.
He is also explicitly in favour of capitalism and the free market. Again this is a break not only with old style Italian corporatist fascism but also the later post-war concept of the ‘social right’ which believed in large scale state ownership and nationalisation etc.
AN also supported the liberation of Iraq, a position that I am not aware of any of Europe’s genuine fascists taking. The BNP were certainly opposed to the war and Le Pen also took the same line.
Fini is an ex-fascist who cut his teeth politically in the youth section of the MSI, which was the post-war successor party to Mussolini’s fascists. But to describe him as a fascist today is akin to describing Alan Milburn as a “Trotskyist” or John Reid as a “communist”.
There is a dangerous ultra-right party in the Italian government – it is called the Lega Nord (Northern League) who use crude BNP style propaganda and have ministers in the Berlusconi government.
There are also nostalgists for the past in Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s party, and the unsavioury Italian Prime Minister himself raises a whole host of other questions and concerns.
It is hard to imagine a government in Italy without the involvement of people who were once associated with anti-democratic ideologies. When the left were briefly in power in the mid-1990’s, the government included people with Stalinist backgrounds and the coalition even included some Communist politicians yet to fully break with their past positions.
There does remain a threat from the far-right in Europe. Italy has a host of groups, including the sinister Forza Nuova as well as the various grouplets around Signora Mussolini, who are genuine heirs to wartime fascism. The rise of the National Democrats in Germany, the Freedom Party in Austria and the BNP in parts of England need to be combatted.
But, as we have pointed, regularly on this site, there are also dangerous violent reactionary movements that don’t wear the swastika and crop their hair short. There are individuals, hostile to liberal democracy, who are given handshake welcomes in London, people who hold anti-semitic, chauvanist, homophobic and misognist views that I am sure Gianfranco Fini would find repugnant but who meet with little protest.
There are movements in Iraq who are following the classic fascist tactic of seeking to crush the labour movement by intimidation and murder and who some ‘anti-fascists’ actually give their support to.
And repulsive as Paolo Di Canio’s salute at the Stadio Olimpico was to any anti-fascist it bares no comparison with the crimes of actually existing fascism.