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1927 Debate on American Democracy versus Italian Fascism

SOMETHING LIKE A HEAD-ON COLLISION between Fascism and American democracy seems to some observers to be approaching. Here is our Department of Labor being asked to exclude Count Di Revel, President of the Fascist League of North America, on the ground that his swearing to the Fascist oath makes him an undesirable alien; and a naturalization official in Baltimore is asserting that the Fascist oath is sufficient ground for refusal of citizenship. All this is likely to be thrashed out in Congress in the coming session, the New York World hears. In the meanwhile there comes from an unexpected source the assertion that the very existence of Mussolini's government is a direct challenge to American democracy.

The vigor and efficiency of Italy under Mussolini have so often been praised by American business men that it is rather startling to find one of the most representative among them suddenly firing a broadside into the political theories upon which Fascism rests. Nevertheless, Julius H. Barnes, former head of the United States Chamber of Commerce, does that very thing in The Nation's Business. The Italian Premier, it will be recalled, recently challenged any country to show so favorable a development as Italy has done under the Fascist regime. Mr. Barnes accepts the challenge. He maintains that the United States has made more progress in material efficiency, under what we sometimes think is a blundering scheme of government, than Italy has made under a dictatorship. True, the American business man admits that Italy has made considerable headway under Fascism, but one gathers from his article that he believes the price paid by the people of Italy has been too great. "Only time will show," says Mr. Barnes, "whether in the compelling force of an imposed autocracy there has been taken from a great people something of the individual character and individual conviction which make a firmer foundation for a modern State." In his opinion:

"The real trial in social and political theory in the world to-day is between the American theory of a free government and a free people, based on the universal vote—a theory justified by each year of superior progress in America—and the new autocracy of Mussolini.
"America can meet, point for point, in the realm of material achievement, this challenge of Mussolini, by comparison not only with Italy under that regime, but as well with any other people in the world.
"The test of stability in any government is its effectiveness in furthering the welfare of its people. So we may measure the service of America to its people, with its theory of universal citizenship, against the claims of accomplishment by Fascist dictatorship.
"With Mussolini, government is itself the arbiter and director of private enterprise, even tho he recognizes that the driving power of individual initiative must in some way be enlisted. He prescribes the rules of labor. He directs the practises of employers. He leaves little or nothing to individual judgment, and he has no belief whatever in that faulty but aspiring human judgment which learns by its own failures and strengthens itself thus for new endeavor. His theories challenge as well our whole conception of the opportunities and responsibilities of modern business.
"If there is to be a period of trial and the demonstration of experience, then the business community of America should understand the challenge that exists to-day between these two systems, and resolve to justify the theories of freedom on which the American republic has rested for its century and a half. American business believes that the highest type of citizenship and the most lasting form of government develop under the right to make its own mistakes, to repent, to correct, and to rise from each successive failure to ultimate achievement."

"This reply to Mussolini's challenge is well timed," thinks the Washington News. Mr. Barnes, explains the New York Herald Tribune, believes the American system is as satisfactory, as efficient, and more desirable than the Italian. But—

"What is rather strange is that the Fascist experiment has been given so little study for what it is—a novel form of State organization as much opposed to our own as that of Russia, and one which, if it should permanently succeed, would pose before the rest of the world problems of social organization almost as grave as those advanced by the Communists."

In the opinion of the Philadelphia Public Ledger:

"Such an answer to Fascism as that of Mr. Barnes strips it of its pretensions and leaves it exposed in all its ugliness. If the sacrifice of political and economic freedom does not bring even material progress comparable to that enjoyed under our system of individual liberty and responsible government, what excuse has it for existence? It may have served to carry Italy past a crisis, but what of the crisis it is creating for Italy by its inexorable stifling of private effort and the natural craving for freedom?
"An illuminating example of the limited magic of Fascism was displayed not long ago in the attempt to force the lira back to par. Mussolini announced that he was going to revolutionize the exchanges. The lira began to rise—and stopt. All the Fascist horses and all the Fascist men couldn't put it where it was before the war. Then a second announcement was made, not by Mussolini, but on behalf of the Minister of Finance. This announcement stated that the Minister had abandoned the idea and that the Government would endeavor to keep the exchange rate at about the existing level. Fascism had run up against economic law."

According to the Springfield Union, this "battle of the lira" is causing considerable restiveness and economic distress in Italy. It seems that, under the Mussolini regime:

"Bankers are obliged to lose the money of their depositors to help industrial enterprises that the Government has injured by its monetary policy. Industrialists are obliged to keep their factories open, tho they are losing money by it. Shopkeepers and landlords are obliged to reduce prices and rents. The farmers must pay very heavy taxes and sell certain products at undercost prices. Mussolini threatens the common people with 'domicilio coatto' (forced residence), and the bankers and industrialists with 'nationalization of the production,' that is to say, nationalization of industries as in Russia, unless they obey him.
"Of the entire population of Italy, the only persons who can possibly have benefited from the revalorization of the lira are the small savers and State bondholders. But they can not have benefited much because of the extremely high cost of living. One can buy in Brussels with 119 gold francs as much food and goods as in Milan with 150 gold francs.
"Economic experts believe that this industrial and commercial crisis will become graver during the fall and winter, with perhaps an outbreak of public opinion against the regime occurring in the spring."

On the other hand, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle is imprest with the reports of an eminent American economist, H. Parker Willis, who has been in Italy studying conditions:

"To Mr. Willis, Fascism seems to be permanently established. It was a crucial experiment which substituted a despotic authority for an inefficient form of parliamentary government in which some twenty warring groups made government impossible. It faces great problems, economic and political, and unrest is increasing. But its critics have nothing constructive to offer; and it has made such undeniably great improvement in conditions since the time when the structure of Italian society was crumbling into anarchy."

As for the Barnes question 'Is it not better to blunder now and then, so long as the blunder be made by free people, than to escape by the edict of government?" the Providence News has this to say:

"Are we really any freer in this country than are the Italians under Mussolini? We like to think we are, of course, and it may be that we are. But take the steel workers of western Pennsylvania, for instance. Are they freer than they would be if the Steel Trust were compelled by law to negotiate all disputes with its workers? At times it is very difficult to define freedom, but we are all agreed that a great people should have the sort of government it wants, Italy evidently wants the Fascist regime, and, by all accounts, wants it because the Mussolini method has brought the people of the country prosperity, freedom from grafting bureaucrats and an amazing vision, of their own future."

Source: The Literary Digest, October 15, 1927