Book Review: Sawdust Caesar.

1:16 AM Justin Bread 0 Comments

Sawdust Caesar: The Untold History of Mussolini and Fascism (1935)


1935 marked the ninth year of the Fascist regime and the thirteenth since the March on Rome. Within those years, Benito Mussolini was quite successful at amassing international admirers across the political spectrum. Men who would later be instrumental in Mussolini's downfall had high praise for the man and the system he built in Italy.

1935 also marked the publication of a scathing criticism of Fascism at a time when Fascist propagandists and sympathizers dominated American media. The Hearst media empire in America openly praised the Fascist machine and paid Mussolini $1-a-word for articles on a range of subjects. Meanwhile, Father Coughlin's syndicated radio show outright advocated a Fascist-style economy to nearly thirty million Americans every week. The publication of Sawdust Caesar came at a time when the world situation began to drastically deteriorate and Fascism's bubble of American support would finally burst.

Sawdust Caesar brought the story of Mussolini's brutal rise to power to an American audience for the first time unfiltered. George Seldes, the author, was no amateur historian who examined Fascism from a distance. In fact, he was present at many key turning points and not only interviewed Mussolini, but also briefly befriended him (Mussolini later tried to kill him) and was called a dear colleague by, the then Socialist journalist, Mussolini. Seldes was stationed in Germany as the Chicago Tribunes' foreign correspondent and reported on Italy extensively throughout the 1920's.

Seldes' book is a grand expose intended for an American audience of the 1930's. There is a great deal in this book that we now know and accept as historical fact and reading it today may lead to a bit of confusion over the subtitle "The Untold History of Mussolini and Fascism." At the time however, almost none of this was known or even publicly acknowledged. The 1926 Matteotti crisis never reached an American audience largely because the Leopold and Loeb story had  become a genuine media circus. The overt censorship the Fascist state imposed on both domestic and foreign journalists also prevented stories detrimental to Fascism's public image from breaking out into Europe. The news that Mussolini may have personally ordered the killing of Matteotti only reached Europe directly as a result of Seldes' work for the Chicago Tribune and his willingness to break censorship rules.

Despite being a genuine expose, Sawdust Caesar was at its core a reply to Fascist censorship and an attack on Mussolini's admirers. While telling the story of Fascism, it is strewn with the written words of various biographers who unobjectively accepted the official state version of events and demonstrates the absurd contradictions and falsifications. Officially, Mussolini was a man who bowed to the King, knelt before the Pope, and fought in the trenches for his country. The truth, however, was that until 1914 Mussolini was a man who vowed to kill the King, ransacked churches, and fled to Switzerland to avoid conscription.

In many current American histories written about Fascism there is a tendency to overlook Mussolini's radical period. As a result, people find it hard to accept the fact that Fascism was a deviation from socialism, and many Italian socialists embraced it. Here Seldes provides significant documents in the appendix detailing the early radicalism of the Fascist movement, as well as the Labour Charter which outlined the role of collective labor in the Corporate State. These documents were not readily available to 1930's America and much of the American Left accepted the Stalinist interpretation that Fascism was simply an extreme form of Capitalism built by the wealthy. Trotsky later pointed out that this was absurdly inaccurate, and that Fascism was a middle class movement.

Corporatism was initially intended to be the heir of Italy's failed Communist movement. Mussolini declared by 1921, when the Socialist and Communist parties split, that the masses had disowned Bolshevism. In 1926, Italy began developing the Corporate State. The development of Corporatism in Italy and its repeated failures is examined extensively by Seldes and he touches on a variety of sources, including official Fascist reports as well as Fascist sympathizers. Seldes points out that Corporatism failed to improve the plight of Italy's workers and that wages had been declining well before the 1929 world Depression.

Although Seldes does a great job supplying statistical data to point out Fascism's failures, he doesn't provide much context in respect to the world situation. Carl T. Schmidt's books do this very well, pointing out that Italian migrant labor was increasingly being forced out of much of Europe and the U.S. as a result of the Depression. This caused a massive strain on the Italian economy and was not necessarily a result of Fascist economics.

With the failure of Fascist Corporatism, Seldes correctly predicts that the decline of Italy's economy would inevitably lead to imperialism. By the time Sawdust Caesar was published, Italy had invaded Ethiopia. With a spectacular national debt, high income tax, and no more foreign loans, Italy resorted to imperialism and exploitation. One year later, Italy joined Germany in supplying military aid to the Spanish rebellion.

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