“Comrade Balabanoff! There is someone here I would like you to meet!”
Angelica turned around to face the voice. It was Franco, one of her colleagues on the Central Committee of the Italian Socialist Party.
“Good evening! How are you!” He gently kissed her on the cheek. With him was a young man rather shabbily dressed, looking somewhat down and out.
Angelica had seen thousands like him. No work and few prospects.
Her life had been so different. Born in Ukraine in 1878, she was the youngest of 14 children, 7 of whom had died before she was born. Her family was very well to do and she wanted for nothing except a mother’s love.
Her mother was a tyrant insisting that the poor peasant household servants bow and scrape, even before the children. Angelica still cringed with embarrassment thinking of grown men humiliating themselves before her because they needed to make a living. Needed the work.
As she got older, Angelica vowed to make it her life’s work to change things. Rebelling against her mother, she left home at 18 to study at the Universite Nouvelle in Brussels, Europe’s most radical institution of higher learning. There she met and studied with George Plekanoff, founder of democratic socialism.
She continued her studies in Italy, fell madly in love with the country and made it her adopted home. She had risen quickly in the Italian Socialist Party and soon was a member of the Central Committee. She spoke five languages fluently and was always in demand as a speaker.
The party sent her to Switzerland in 1901 to organize Italian textile workers, mostly women who had been recruited as a docile and cheap workforce. She had her work cut out for her.
Here in Switzerland she sharpened her skills, made friends and influenced people. Tonight she was giving a lecture to a group of the textile workers, mostly women with a sprinkling of men and the unemployed.
Angelica spied the down and out young man sitting quietly in the back, never saying anything.
Now she looked at him more closely. She guessed he was four or five years younger than her. Ruggedly handsome, lithe and muscular with smoldering dark eyes. His hair was parted and neatly combed. His clothes were pressed if somewhat threadbare. There was something about this young man which piqued her interest.
“Franco” she whispered to her colleague “Who is that young man in the back? I want to meet him” Franco smiled at her. “I didn’t think socialist women were interested in men!”. Angelica smirked. Franco continued. “Yes I know. He might be able to help you shepherd all of these textile women along the socialist path. What we don’t do for the party!”
Franco returned with the twenty something. “Angelica, this young man needs work. Is there anyway we can help him find something before he starves to death?”
“Are you Italian?” Angelica asked. “Si si. Sono Italiano.” came the reply
“E qual e il tuo nome?” And what is your name?
“Benito. Benito Mussolini”
Angelica quickly asked if he was socialist and probed with several questions trying to determine his level of education and political awareness. He had much to learn.
“Where are you staying?” Benito was living on the streets.
Angelica took the young Benito under her wing. He had been a vagrant begging for loose change. Angelica groomed him, taking him off the streets. She introduced him to Nietsche, Hegel, Marx. Mussolini would become a socialist party rising star. Years later the two of them would edit the party newspaper Avanti!
Franco would later laugh. “Benito is Angelica’s socialist project!”
Most thought Benito and Angelica were a couple. Benito however was quite the ladies man, fathering a daughter with the woman he would later marry and fathering a son with one he didn’t.
The halcyon days and nights in Switzerland came to an end and both returned to Italy to build socialism, both continuing to edit Avanti!.
One morning over breakfast, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Angelica was stunned to read Benito’s editorial in the paper – demanding that Italy enter the war on the side of Britain and France. She quickly dressed and headed for the office and a confrontation.
The Socialist Party is for peace! Immediate peace! Why should we fight in a war of Princes and royal families? What is in it for the workers besides death? Why should the son of a cobbler kill the son of a farmer?” Angelica raged at Benito who smiled and then laughed at her.
“Your socialism is for women!!”, he thundered. My socialism is for men…..men of action!!. Italy needs a strong hand and my socialism will give it to them!!”
Stunned, Angelica returned home filled with anger and anguish. Benito was her creation. She had created this monster. With the steely determination of a socialist revolutionary she made her plan.
At the next meeting of the Central Committee of the party she rose and bitterly denounced Benito for supporting the war. The vast majority of socialists supported her. Benito smiled at her and walked out. Mussolini was drummed out of the Italian Socialist Party at Angelica’s instigation. He would have his revenge.
In 1917 Angelica would travel to Russia and serve as Secretary to the Comintern however she was soon disappointed with the direction of the revolution under Lenin. Angelica was a “Menshevik to the bone“, never a Bolshevik. After Kronstadt she and Emma Goldman would both leave the USSR knowing the revolution had been lost.
Years later after crushing the Italian socialists, Mussolini would quip “Angelica made me everything I am today. If not for her I would be a mediocre school teacher!”
Mussolini was not a forgiving man to his enemies and certainly not to Angelica. She was forced to flee Italy with the rise of fascism, spent the war years in New York, became friends with Norman Thomas and wrote a book denouncing Mussolini as a traitor to socialism.
After the war Angelica returned to her beloved Italy and became the grande dame of European socialism, remaining an active leader in the Italian Socialist Party. She refused to align with the Communists or the Christian Democrats and remained true to democratic socialism until her death in 1965.
Today there are streets named after her in Rome as well as a school specializing in music and art. She would have liked that. Nothing is named for the man she mentored.
Angelica never married. And she never told weather or not she once loved Benito Mussolini.