The New York Times reports that Italian students and teachers are protesting the inclusion in high school graduation exams of an essay question about “terror and repression in totalitarian systems,” which the question defines as “communism, Nazism, and fascism,” highlighting communism. The exams come from the education ministry of Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing government, which includes the neo-fascist National Alliance.

Berlusconi, who owns or controls six of Italy’s seven TV networks, is a sinister and cartoonish billionaire who named his right-wing party “Go Italy” (the slogan of a soccer team he owns) and has made red-baiting his stock in trade. His government has also been mired in corruption scandals. The dismantling and division of the Italian Communist Party and the general weakening of the Italian left in the 1990s enabled Berlusconi to come to power, just as Benito Mussolini used the retreat and division of Italian socialists and communists in the early 1920s to establish a fascist dictatorship with the support of Italian capitalists and rural estate owners.

An Italian student is quoted in the Times saying, “I didn’t do the one [question] on the dictatorships because it seemed skewed and based on a distorted historical vision. …We have to do something.”

One thing all anti-fascists can do is join in condemning the Berlusconi government’s attempt to indoctrinate Italian students with anti-communist propaganda in place of real history.

Italian communists and socialists were the core of the 20-year resistance to Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. After the war, the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) emerged as the second strongest party in the country. It was the leading force in the trade union movement and in the arts and sciences. Much of what the Italian people gained in wages, benefits, and social services can be attributed to the PCI and the broad Italian left.

For 45 years, the U.S. government did everything it could to keep the PCI and the Italian left from coming to power through elections. It used CIA alliances with Mafia gangsters, economic warfare, military threats, integration of Italy into NATO, and support for coup plans when the PCI increased its electoral strength in the 1970s.

The “totalitarian” theory became a major prop of American cold warriors, who portrayed communists and the Soviet Union as comparable to fascists and Nazi Germany. Now the Berlusconi government is trying to justify its anti-democratic and anti-working class policies by dredging up this lie.

The exponents of the “totalitarian” theory to fight communists after World War II never wanted to fight fascists before the war. They had no trouble using Nazi criminals, like Klaus Barbie, wartime Gestapo chief of Lyons, France, or Reinhard Gehlen, head of Hitler’s counter-intelligence service, as agents in their postwar anti-communist crusade. Throughout the cold war period, the U.S. government allied itself with the fascist-like apartheid government of South Africa and with military dictatorships.

Anti-communist union leader James Carey’s 1945 comment – “In this war we fought with the communists against the fascists. In the next war, we will fight with the fascists against the communists” – was a much better guide to what the cold war was about than the proclamations of John Foster Dulles and other cold warriors that the “free world” was fighting “communist totalitarianism.”

The idea of a total state comes from Italian fascists and was picked up by German and other fascists. It is the idea of an all-powerful party and leader organizing society around racist and chauvinist principles, in the interest of ruling classes. Whatever errors, abuses, and crimes took place in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, they had nothing to do with the totalitarian idea and were distortions and betrayals of the Marxist-Leninist principles of internationalism, democratic participation of the masses in all areas of life, and socialist law. When personality cults and repression manifested themselves, they were byproducts (although not excusable) of attempts to develop socialism in a context of capitalist economic, political and military encirclement.

But militarism and racism were the very essence of fascist states, central to their aim of solving the general crisis of capitalism by terroristic destruction of all working-class and democratic forces and by wars of aggression.

Berlusconi and his education ministry are using “anti-totalitarianism” to support the anti-communist politics of the fascists who established the “total state” idea to begin with. Hopefully, the Italian people can drive him and his anti-democratic government from office.

Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University. He can be reached at