Revolution and counter-revolution in Italy (1919-1922)

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There is a whole theory which, beginning from a national framework, attempts to study modern Italy with reference to the imbalance, the uneven development between the industrial north and the Mezzogiorno, an area characterized by agricultural production based on a system of great landed estates and tenure, a region which at the beginning of the century produced an income less than a half of that of the northern provinces. This is the thesis of that notable pupil of B. Croce; that pro-interventionist of 1914; that revisionist who decreed that October had invalidated the analysis of Marx; in other words, A. Gramsci, now the darling of the ‘New Left'. Their hagiography tries to present him as the most powerful and original marxist thinker outside Russia.1

On this question, marxism is quite clear: if the southern land system, trapped in a semi-feudal straight jacket, constituted one of the main sources for emigration, while the reservoir of wealth in the alluvial plain of the Po was the object of particular care and attention on the part of capitalism this is fundamentally a result of conditions on the world market, and of the international division of labour which derives from it. To illustrate this we can say that the depopulation which resulted from emigration from the southern provinces corresponded to the world crisis and the agricultural depression at the end of the last century. The adoption of protectionism was one of the first acts of Italian capitalism, favouring the landowners of the plain of the Po and supplying the absentee proprietors with an assured income. The discovery of large numbers of sulphur beds in Louisiana led to the ruin of Sicily, which had for a long while been the sole producer of sulphur extracted from its sub-soil.2

Italian capitalism emerged at a time when the division of the world had already been practically completed. All that fell to this latecomer, deprived of a capitalist birthright, were the scraps which the major powers didn't want to be encumbered with - not because they were philanthropically inclined, but because they had to take into consideration a colonial budget which inevitably weighed heavily on the metropolitan centres of capital. But still Italy continued tirelessly to demand new sphere's of expansion in order to elevate herself/ to their level. In a conjunctural situation unfavourable to Italian imperialism were nurtured the seeds of nationalism which defined Italy as "the proletarian among nations". In this, Mao found his predecessors in the persons of Crispi, Corradini or Mussolini, another helmsman, who using the language of Dante, called himself ‘Duce'.

At a time of growing imperialist rivalry, Italy got down to building a war economy with the hope of using it for policies of territorial conquest. In this way Italy prepared for the conquest of a part of those zones rich in the main sources of raw materials so cruelly absent in the metropolitan economy itself. This also meant that the Italian workers, unlike their English, Belgian, French or Dutch class brothers, did not partici­pate in any way in the sharing out of imperialist booty.

The development of certain industries, in particular metallurgical, chemical, aeronautical, and naval construction industries, progressed successfully enough to impress even, the most blase experts of the older imperialist bastions. The Italian war effort, which also led to an extension of the railway from 8,200 kilometres in 1881 to 17,038 in 1905, won the unanimous acclaim of all the engineers, financiers, scribes and politicians who visited the peninsula at that time.

Owing much of its development to the influx of French capital invested in massive quantities in the Italian economy after 1902, and to aid supplied by Swiss and German banks, Italy built powerful hydro-electric centres in the north of the country. This enabled the state to make up for the insignificant extraction of coal in the Aosta Valley and to electrify the railway lines, which in turn allowed for the transporta­tion of cannon-fodder to the arena of military operations later on ... but in doing so, the state had to reckon with some formidable uprisings of soldiers and railwaymen's strikes, which were declared illegal. During the course of this brief period of economic recovery, the seat of political power passed out of the possession of the Sardinian and Genoan ship-owners and merchants - Commerce between Italy and the Ottoman Empire grew by 150% between 1896 and 1906 - into the hands of the industrialists of Lombardy and Piedmont.

The difficulty of finding unoccupied extra-capitalist territories thus led to the development of a vast war economy. In the first years of the century, military expenses continued to devour over a quarter of the budget. From May 1915 to October 1917, the monthly production of machine-guns rose from. 25 to 800, that of cannons from 80 to 500, that of shells from 10,000 to 85,000 per day. Although in May 1915, Italy had almost no trench-mortars, she was in possession of 2,400 on the eve of Caporetto. At the end of December 1914, Italy was able to line up one and half million men.

However, while Parliament was voting for orders of material from heavy industry and for defence credits, in the majority of industrial centres the mass of workers, either in blue-collars or in uniform, were taking to the streets to demand bread and work. Not one town escaped from being paralysed by the general strike; not one industrial centre escaped invasion by the mounting revolutionary wave. In Naples, the year 1914 began with a riot against rent increases; in March the cigar makers of state tobacco factories began a long strike which lasted two months. As brave as ever, the proletariat of Italy reacted with class violence to the murder of its fighters. On 7June, during the ‘Red Week', it seized control of Ancona where it immediately abolished taxation; it did not protest platonically against the disciplinary squads in the army by signing some kind of ‘Appeal of One Hundred', but by taking power for itself. In Bologna, in Ravenna, the ‘Red Republic' was proclaimed; the general strike spread to the whole peninsula,, irremediably dividing Italy into two camps. Salandra, called to power to mop up the colonial war in Libya, had to use 100,000 troops to restore order.

Let us pay.homage to the anarchist militants who gave their lives in this struggle, thus "rightly mocking the bourgeois pedants who calcu­lated the cost of this civil war in dead, wounded and money". (Marx)

The struggle against the war

Monarchical and democratic Italy had entered the war to reconquer the African countries lost after the total military disaster of Adowa against the Abyssinian armies in March 1896. She tried to establish her rights over Libya, rights which had been encroached upon by a series of Franco-English treaties, and also to gain sole posses­sions in the Red Sea area. The outbreak of World War I - fought to divide the world between the imperialist powers, - and not as a struggle for ‘liberty' as the social democratic lie would have it -appeared to the Italian ruling class as a means to annex for itself the irredentist regions under Austrian control: Trentino, the outlet of Trieste, Istia and Dalmatia - and, under French administration, Corsica and Tunisia. More than a million Italian-speaking residents were to re-discover the hospitality of the mother country.

The workers and peasants of Italy were only spared for one year the desolation and suffering of this conflagration, which Italy had to enter in order to avoid being forever relegated to second rank, a fate she had been trying to escape since her formation as a nation. The late entry of Italy into the world war expressed not only the difficulties the bourgeoisie found in getting the workers and peasants to swallow the interventionist bait, but also its own hesitation in choosing between the offers made by Austro-Germany and those made by the Allies, That is why Rome's diplomacy con­sisted of playing a double game of parallel underhand deals. To the Austrians, Italy laid claim not only to Trentino but also to the right to extend her frontiers to the western shores of the Isonzo, the power to take over Trieste and Carso, the Curzola islands at the centre of the Dalmatian coast, and finally, the establishment of Italian preponderance over Albania. The Entente was to be more generous: on entering the war on their side after a delay of one month, Italy was to receive the Upper Adige, Trentino, the Julian Alps, Trieste and Albania, plus assurances about the Turkish zone of Adalia, (Antalya) and the confirmation of her ccupation of the Dodecanese. England also consented to give Italy a loan of 50 million pounds (1.25 billion lira).

Thus Italy sold herself to the highest bidder - it was irrelevant whether this happened to be the Entente or Germany to which Italy had maintained links since 1882. As the game got serious, the Germans sent the Reichstag Social Democratic Deputy, Sudekum, - according to Lenin a social chauvinist entirely devoid of scruples - to persuade Italy to respect her political and economic commitments to the signatories of the Triple Alliance. For its part the French government gave the Socialist Deputy, Cochin, the job of buying through the good offices of Mussolini, Italy's military cooperation. .But Austria found Italy's demands excessive and hence unacceptable, which only illustrates that the Central Empires saw Italy as being only ‘relatively valuable'. Austria refused to cede any of the Habsburg territories, refused to allow Italy to occupy them, or to extend them beyond the southern part of Trentino. Thus, on 26 April 1915, Sonnino, signed the Pact of London, and 4 May, Italy denounced the Triple Alliance.

The trip made by Cachin and Jouhaux to ensure Italy's entrance into the fray was to prove profitable to French imperialism. French money was added to the subsidies which the pro-interventionist industrialists of FIAT, ANSALDO, and EDISON doled out to the newspaper, Popolo d'Italia. In the columns of this publication, Mussolini exalted "the war of liberation", which "must above all efface the ignoble myth that Italians do not fight; it must wipe out the shame of Lissa and Custozza, it must show the world that Italy is capable able of waging a war, a great war. We say it again, a great war." (Popolo d' Italia, 14 January 1915)3

Those who, in the interests of the bourgeoisie, wrote about the scenes of enthusiasm, ‘the glorious May days' among the Italian masses, were lying. At the same time such scribblers obscured the role of Social Democracy in a war fought for the economic and political domination of spheres of• investment for finance capital. In reality, there was no working class marching willingly to the slaughter with flowers in their rifles and the national anthem on their lips. Neither the proletarians nor the peasants, to whom the war had been sold as their own private affair, believed in the patriotic harangues directed at them by the offices of the state, or in the promises of a better future once the enemy had been vanquished.

At first contact with the rather less glorious realities of the war, defeatist sentiments revived, and young socialists and anarchists became devoted, body and soul, to the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war. The only difference between the two was that the former knew that such a transformation was conditioned by the fact that capitalism had arrived at the final phase of its contradictions as a system of production, while the latter thought that they could accomplish this task by the strength of their will alone. But both of them carried out the elementary duties of socialism during the war - propaganda for the class struggle.

The years of hostilities were characterized by a ground-swell made up of strikes against the disastrous consequences of the war economy, of demonstrations of soldiers in garrison towns, and of uprisings of agricultural workers. Throughout the duration of the imperialist conflict, there was a ceaseless outbreak of serious social disturbances. The workers demanded an immediate peace and general demobilization so that they could go home. The army hesitated, and the soldiers deserted their posts in thousands. Towards the end of October 1917 the dawn of the civil war rose over the carnage of the Isonzo; the front disinte­grated in a battle zone of prime importance, The conclusive display of lack of ardour for the war on the part of the Italian soldiers was the collapse of the front at Caporetto. In successive waves, 350,000 men threw down their arms and backpacks, abandoning the battlefield in the face of the Austro-German advance, whose front line was making use of poison gas. The Italian reservists sent to stop the offensive and arrest deserters refused, in turn, to hold the line.

This defeat for the reactionary Italian bourgeoisie opened up wide perspectives for the eventual progress of the revolution. The Caporetto debacle shook the whole Italian governmental machine: the road to revolution had definitely been cleared. From the murdered breasts of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the charnel-houses of Galicia, through rivers of blood to the trenches of the Isonzo, the cry of revolutionary defeatism was at last triumphant. Thousands of miles away, revolutionary workers, soldiers and sailors were seizing control of the Winter palace in Petrograd.

The break-down of the Italian army, the total disorder undergone by the organs of the state, opened up a profound political crisis, from which there could be no recovery. Italian dependence on the Entente grew more acute as Generalissimo Foch and the Supreme English General, Robertson, imposed profound changes on the Italian High Command.

After the disintegration of the Second Army, which left the enemy one day's march from Venice, the bourgeoisie combined exaltation of patriotic zeal win the King's solemn appeals to all men of law and order. At all costs the bourgeoisie had to form a united front against ‘Bolshevik subversion', because they understood that if the war machine stopped, "the mass of workers in the arms factories would be unemployed: hunger and cold would make them unite with the masses deserting from the army. There would be a revolt, then the revolution."4 For the central trade union, the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Rigola declared, "When the enemy is trampling on our soil, we have but one duty - to resist!" They were indeed the allies of the whole bourgeois bloc and the bookkeepers of imperialism.

Up and down the peninsula, government propagandists poured out revenge­ful discourses in an attempt to stir up vindictiveness against the ‘Caporettist Poison', to revive the morale of the population, and to stimulate the sectional consciousness of the working class. The patriotic slogan, "Resist, Resist, Resist" cost the state more than 6 billion lira to disseminate. How to swell the morale of an army which was demonstrating its refusal to be butchered? Simple: reorganize the army with a pinch of democratization, regular leave and higher pay. Nitti, the Finance Minister at that time, set up the National Society of Servicemen with the aim of facilitating the acquisition of land by the peasants after their demobilization.

The internationalist militants convicted of high treason were subjected to ferocious reprisals, dragged in front of court-martials.-and sent to the front line. They had not just hoped for the defeat of their government, but had also prepared themselves for the new tasks of the hour: the reconstruction of an International. At that time the anarchists with Malatesta at their head knew that war was permanently gestating in the capitalist social organism; that it was the consequence of a regime based on the exploitation of labour power, that all wars from that point on would only be imperialist wars. And so both socialists and libertarians had to taste the chastisements of democracy. While they were being hunted down and martyred, several deputies of the Socialist Party had already begun to participate in the work of certain parliamentary commissions, making great strides towards their complete fusion with the kingdom, which they hoped to see climb to the highest rungs of the imperialist ladder.

Gorter quite rightly expressed the idea that the bourgeoisie, thanks to its own decomposition, was able to identify similar putrefaction, and could immediately grasp the profound corruption of Social Democracy. From the beginning of hostilities, the Partito Socialista Italiano (Italian Socialist Party), had, above all else, tried to avoid anything which might turn Italy away from neutrality. If necessary, they were prepared to use the general strike to ensure it! The Italian socialists' love of neutrality led them to meet the Swiss socialist delegation at Lugano in October 1914. That particular mountain gave birth to a mouse: a message of peace and concord was launched to the world; attempts were made to renew contacts with the neutralist minor­ities of the Socialist Parties; a fraternal caution (sic) was addressed to the comrades in the countries at war, to encourage the struggle for an armistice; it was decided to apply pressure to the belligerent governments to make them act peaceably. The whole of Italian maximalism, which held in its hands the destiny of the PSI was there. The neutralist position adopted by the PSI (which could not have been more ambiguous) it should be remembered, was shared by the industrial and commercial milieu led by Giolitti and the Vatican, as protector of the Austrian Catholic Empire.

The tactic of the PSI consisted solely in holding back the class struggle throughout the duration of the war under the cover of the hypocritical slogan, "Neither sabotage nor participation!", which in fact meant trampling upon the most fundamental principles of international class struggle. Just like the socialists of neutrality, Benedict XV issued his famous circular inviting the Powers to negotiate an honourable peace without annexations or indemnities. In a word, understanding with a justified fear that the war would give rise to the proletarian revolution, the PSI in its ambiguous struggle against the war was, quite simply, struggling against the revolution.

In spite of its efforts build the Sacred Union, the Italian bourgeoisie had not managed to smother the class struggle. During the summer of 1917, in the second year of total war, Turin was covered with barricades. On 21 August, because of the lack bread and pro­visions, (although the prefect had decided to distribute flour to the bakers), the workers of several factories stopped work to form a procession to the Labour Ministry; but they came up against the forces of order who had arms at the ready. From this moment on, pushed on by its own dynamic, the strike demonstrated that it was not just a ferment for the amelioration of living conditions. It quickly trans­formed itself into a frontal struggle, since, after fraternizing with the soldiers of the Alpine regiment, the poorly armed workers fought for five days against crack troops, withstanding machine gun batteries and tanks. So great was the Turin uprising that-calm - and a precarious one at that - was not restored until after a wave of repression which left fifty dead and 200 wounded.

Towards the end of 1916 in order to prevent the outbreak of wildcat strikes at a moment when war production had to function at its full output, the bourgeoisie had instituted Committees of Industrial Mobilization. Without any hesitation, the unions had agreed to collaborate in the construction of this state capitalist bulwark; municipalities with a ‘red' reputation, notably Bologna, Reggio D'Emilia, and Milan, undertook to humanize the war, and in a fine display of charity began to dress the wounds of war: aid and supplies were given to the families of soldiers, etc. The Internal Commissions, composed exclusively of workers under the supervision of their union branch, had the task of defusing tension on the shop floor. They became permanent institutions which, among other things, were granted the right to deal with problems of no less importance than those concerning the relationship between wages and output or the firing of workers. It was these openly collaborationist structures, set up in every factory after February 1919, which the Ordinorists (the milieu around Gramsci's New Order review), were to regard as a basis for ‘revolu­tionary praxis', the ‘embryonic soviets' of the proletarian dictator­ship, the means par excellence of the autonomous organization of the class at the point of production. As for the class, it had to fight and fight again this organ far the self-regulation of capital.

The majority socialists were not alone in following the nationalist policies of their bourgeoisie. The Sorelians and anarcho-syndicalists (or at least an important contingent) did the same; the militants (once so combative) who rallied round their bourgeoisie, could no longer be counted on. Didn't the veteran, A. Cipriani, declare that if it weren't for his seventy-five years, he would be in the trenches of ‘democracy' fighting ‘German militarist reaction'? It was the same scenario as that surrounding the capitulation of Social Democracy at the moment of its great historical test, the outbreak of the war; but repeated almost simultaneously on the other side of the Alps. Such a general collapse of the International led its defenders to say to Rosa Luxemburg that Social Democracy had put itself at the service of the bourgeoisie because from 4 August 1914 to the signing of the peace, "the class struggle could only profit the enemy". In Italy as well, these organizations were to ask the workers to refrain free striking, to put off the class struggle so as not to undermine the strength of the democratic state and in so doing compromise the chances for a quick peace. While such deceitful propositions were being made, the profits of Italian heavy industry were growing like mushrooms after the rain and the piles of corpses were forming mountains. Meanwhile, anarchist and Sorelian groups were raising the fasci for "the European Revolution against barbarism, against German militarism and treacherous Roman Catholic Austria".

Example after example could be given. The rallying of whole sections of Social Democracy around the bourgeoisie at the outbreak of war, and the ultra-chauvinist attitude of these organizations was a world­wide phenomenon with its roots found in the definite change in the period of capitalism and not, as the subjective explanation would have it, in the personal treachery of the leadership. Decades of development undergone by the PSI had not left the original programme undamaged. On a material level that organization had become all-powerful, with its control of 223 of 280.cmmunes in Emilia, its hundreds of trade unions, peasant leagues, co-operatives and labour exchanges. But this ‘earthly' power was to act as a dead weight on the proletariat: the extremely important historical mission of reformism had come to an end.

Obviously, the passing of Italian Social Democracy into the bourgeois camp did not suddenly happen from one day to the next. Already in 1912, when as a counter-part for abandoning designs on Morocco and Egypt, Italian imperialism was authorized by the Anglo-French to set its sights on Tripoli and prepare the conquest of the Dodocanese and of Rhodes, the Party, then twelve years old had been split over the colonial question. Considering that the establishment of 2 million Italians from the mainland in the desert zones of Tripoli and Cyrenaiea would provide an exceptional opportunity to release an important number of the unemployed, and also to regain hold of this ancient colony of Rome, the Socialist Deputies, Bissolati, Proceda and Bonomi - whom we shall meet again later on - declared themselves to be convinced partisans of Italian expansionism. In the Near East, the Balkans, and the Seychelles, Italy had to take charge of the relief of that ‘Sick Man of Europe' - Ottoman Turkey. This splendid bunch of politicians proclaimed from the heights of the parliamentary tribune and from the platforms of public meetings that the socialists could not simply abandon the monopoly on patriotism to the enemies of the Right, And with all the irony of history it was the future ‘Duce' who forced the expulsion from the Party of the war-mongering elements, the Freemasons, as "class enemies" for their immoderate attachment to the cause of reformist democracy and their sympathy for class collaboration.

Thus the Party had to amputate these gangrenous limbs and set up a new leadership capable of defending class positions on the colonial question. Against the partisans of colonial conquest, the Left insisted, "Not a man, not a penny, for the African adventures!". Alas, the expansionist tendencies within the workers' movement had deeper roots than could be appreciated by those who had brandished the hot knife in the hope of a quick recovery. When in July 1900 at Monza, the anarchist worker, Bresci, arose gun in hand to revenge the proletarian fighters of Milan of 1898, the socialist journals appeared with the usual ostentatious signs of mourning. But the socialists were weeping for Umberto Ist, the butcher king. Thus we could say that during World War I, the Italian Party signed a new truce with the House of Savoy, and by tacit agreement placed its cause, to put it bluntly, in the lap of the state. Thus, instead of calling for class struggle against militarism, for international solidarity, it maintained that in the wake of the necessary sacrifices imposed by the national cause, a long period of capitalist prosperity would open up allowing for an accompanying retinue of social reforms to be instituted. All that was required was a government based on the popular will the masses in order to leave all the vulgar tumult in the streets well behind, and proceed towards vast, very vast reforms.

More than ever before the state would subsidize insurance funds for industrial accidents, regulate conditions of employment for women and children, extend the weekly day rest to new strata of the working class, facilitate the participation of wage-earners in the profits of their enterprises. In this way, the measures of social legislation taken during 1905-1906, at the time of a brief economic stability in Italy, would be fortified and enlarged. The kingpin of the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie, Giolitti, lent his support to the soporific speeches of the Parliamentary Socialists, and affirmed the necessity to move "to the left, always further to the left".

However, at the end of the war, the Italian social situation hardly measured up to the idyllic picture painted by the bourgeoisie and its Social Democratic lackeys.

A Catastrophic Situation

The ending of hostilities on 4 November 1918 did not confer great new conquests on the imperialist powers. Once the war had finished, the Entente showed itself to be very stingy in doling out the compensations it had promised. Taking maximum advantage of the imprecision of Article 13 of the Fact of London, France refused to cede the whole of Dalmatia to Italy, preferring instead that Fiume, following the example of Danzig, be made a ‘free city' under the tutelage of the League of Nations. Moreover, England and France authorized the Greek troops of Venizelos to occupy Smyrna instead of the Italians and the possibility of Italy obtaining a mandate over ex-German Togoland was completely ruled out. Despite the acquisition of new frontiers to the north and east, the conquest of the Adriatic side of Istria and the port of Zadar along with a narrow hinterland around the town, plus a few small islands, the protectorate over Albania and Italian sovereignty over the Dodocanese, none of this solved the problem of outlets for the Italian economy.

The disappearance of her powerful Austrian rival - which had to cede to Italy practically the whole of its merchant fleet - and her replacement by a handful of buffer states, did not spare Italy from having to face up to the greatest historic crisis since the attainment of national unity.

For big capital, heavy industry had constituted an ever-growing sphere of accumulation: not only could Italy guarantee its production of weapons and projectiles, but also exported vehicles and aeroplanes to her allies. On the way it had encountered the ‘pacifist' hostility of the traditional industries which had preceded it in the genesis of Italian capitalism. It had to reconvert to peace time production when the hour of reconciliation dawned, when commercial competition replaced the open brutality of war. The solution which presented itself to the magnates of trusts, such as ANSALDO, BREDA, MONTECATINI, etc. was to pack up and go elsewhere, because it had become too difficult to valorize the enormous amounts of capital invested to the point of hypertrophy in the industries of ‘national defence'. The production of cast iron fell from 471,188 tons in 1917 to 61,381 in 1921 and during the same period steel production fell from 1,333,641 tons to 700,433. FIAT which had assembled 14,835 vehicles in 1920, only put together 10,321 one year later. In addition, the trade deficit increased by nearly 5% in relation to 1914; America reduced immigration from 800,000 in 1913 to less than 300,000 in 1921-1922; England cut its coal exports by one third.

As the vice of the crisis began to tighten visibly, the new government presided over by Nitti arose; its task was, above all else, to rebuild the ruins of war. The whole of Italian foreign trade had to be rebegun - a job beyond the real capacities of the country, since at that point the public debt had run to some 63 billion lira, two thirds of which was derived from war costs.

Through fiscal pressures, the creation of extra taxes and above all through wage-gouging, the state had made the labouring classes bear the weight of the war; the Italian taxation apparatus had become one of the most onerous in the world. Nitti's cabinet, which combined the same policies, took the following fiscal measures on 24 November 1919:

- an 18% tax on capital revenues

- a 15% tax on mixed capital and labour revenues

- taxes on wages staggered frem 9-12%

At the same time, he introduced new taxes aimed at curbing consump­tion. What made the situation worse for Italian capital was its lack of raw materials, and fuel. The rhythm of production broke down, the number of unemployed grew; the possibilities of emigration, through which 900,000 workers and peasants had been siphoned off in 1913, began to evaporate. The Italian bourgeoisie was unable to readapt the national economy to the new needs of the world market because their rivals were in a better position to impose rule over it. The public debt grew by one thousand million lira every month; as Nitti wrote in a letter to his electors in October 1919, it was one of the seven plagues of the country. Italy owed 14.5 thousand million lira to her allies.

The ‘mutilated victory' made it impossible to implement the policies of national reconciliation which the social-patriot Cachin had carried out with the subsidies of the French government. At the beginning of 1920, 320 people died in the aftermath of the strikes.

The struggle preceding the occupation

It is not really possible to understand the mass strikes which swept over Italy without locating them within the framework of the general crisis of capitalism which began in 1914, and also within the prole­tarian eruption which was the response to this crisis throughout most of Europe. Like their counter-parts in Russia, the upheavals in Italy were simply a moment in the world revolution which was born out of the misery and unspeakable horrors spawned by militarism. Hungry, bloodstained Italian workers rose up like a volcano for bread and for the chance to go home. Since 1913, their real wages had fallen by 27% and the war had cost the proletariat 651,000 dead and 500,000 mutilated.

First in Romany then in Luguria, in Tuscany and down to the toe of the Italian boot, the starving masses began to attack the food shops. At this point the trade unions clearly played out their role as the guard dogs of the system. Seized by panic, the shopkeepers, who had been hoping to be able raise prices by hoarding goods, entrusted the keys of their sacrosanct boutiques to the trade union bosses. In return, the latter assured them of a protection which the state was unable to provide, since at that moment it did not have at its disposal sufficient forces to intervene wherever the safeguarding of private property demanded it. The strikes became so powerful that the state was forced to import grain and to impose ‘political bread prices' supported by subsidies which cost it six thousand million a year. When in June 1920, Nitti's third ministry decided to get rid of these price restraints it immediately provoked so much trouble that he was forced to offer his resignation. The fear of a revolu­tionary upheaval was well-grounded that Parliament rejected proposals to increase the price of bread again and again. The bourgeoisie had to wait for the reflux of the revolutionary tide in 1921 before it could go on the offensive, and then it was the neutralist, the man of the ‘left', Giolotti, who tackled the job of getting rid of price restraints on bread.

In the countryside, occupations of landed estates began. These were essentially movements of demobilized soldiers, who had finally lost confidence in the state's promise to divide up the land.

In Italy, all the propositions about the agrarian question put forward by the reformers of the liberal era or by certain enlightened elements in the Catholic Church were really just frauds. The idea of creating agricultural associations to gather together all the little parcels of land into one communal co-operative -enterprise had sprung up among the philanthropists of the post-Risorgimento period. There had been a great deal of enthusiasm for this proposition, which aimed to tie the future of the peasants to a system of common cultivation, in which harvests would be shared out in proportion to the contribution of each peasant in land, cattle, and materials. The small farmers who suffered the most under the regime of landed property, put their hopes in the free associations pro posed in its turn by the Social Democracy.

In this way the cooperative associations got underway amid general enthusiasm, whether from the farmers who saw in them a remedy to their material poverty or from the socialists who saw them as transitional forms of production which had the potential of progres­sively leading towards the realization of socialism. They ought to have thought again when they saw the state itself setting up rural communes, and the Catholic clergy organizing agricultural co-operation in regional dioceses. But already the minimum programme of reforms to be obtained within capitalism had played out its role. By its own practice, limited to the particular national conditions of Italy, by its very manner of operating, Social Democracy became more and more the representative of capitalism. The solution to the agrarian problem was no longer seen to lie in the socialization of the land, ("the land belonging to no one, the fruits will go to everyone" (Babeuf)), but in the liberation of the sharecropper bent double working the parcel of land to which he dedicated all his energies. It could thus be resolved, according to Social Democracy, without the proletariat having triumphed in its historic struggle to organize the satisfaction of human needs on a basis free of commodity relations; there was for them, no need for the land and the instruments of labour to pass into the hands of society as a whole.

Under intensive cultivation, the plain of the Po yielded an output of grain of between 15 and 19 hundredweight per hectar of land, and sometimes even 27 to 30 hundredweight. Here the Socialist Party had organized the day-labourers into agricultural co-operatives. The watchword of the managers of these enterprises had been - increased productivity, in order to compete with the co-operatives of the Catholic Popular Party. In Bologna, Ravenna, and Reggio d' Emilia, where the co-operative movement began, the trade unions controlled the whole economic life of their provinces and - a great victory for the workers, this - decided the prices of the produce which they distributed through the medium of the co-operatives. In this fashion, the Italian working class was supposed to be able to peacefully expropriate the bourgeoisie by persuading it that its power was of no further use. This at least was the tactic of the Socialist leaders, who were proud of their ability to administer the concrete proof of the fact that their programme was no idle dream.

Referring to Owen and the Rochdale pioneers, Lenin said this about the co-operativa ideal: "They dreamed of realizing the socialist democratic control of the world without taking into account a vital factor: the class struggle, the conquest of political power by the working class, the overthrow of the rule of the exploiters". This was exactly the case with the Italian leaders who proposed to move towards new social relations by making them immediately practicable.

Co-operatives could not solve anything because socialism cannot dig itself in amid the relations of production of the old society and so become a new economic force. Throughout the whole territory of Italy, where competition made itself felt very keenly especially in grain and maize production, the agrarian struggle grew very intense. But as this hopeless struggle could not hold back the decline of the small producer and also met with violent state repression, the only way out was through emigration to the American metropolis and the coffee-producing regions of Brazil.

The preparations of the bourgeoisie for civil war

Hardly three months had passed since the formation of Parliament (16 November, 1919) when the Nitti ministry, which had in another connection launched the slogan "Produce more, consume less!", decided to set up an auxiliary police force, the Royal Guard. This new armed detachment, tens of thousands strong, was to be equipped from head to foot in order to uphold bourgeois ‘order' which was itself becoming more and more shaky, Even before fascism let loose the brown terror, hundreds of workers were to fall beneath the bullets of the Royal Guard. Needless to say, this ‘democratic' reinforcement of the state apparatus gave a great deal of satisfaction to the bourgeoisie. On 20 April, troops fired on strikers at Decima, leaving nine workers dead in the streets; the commemoration of the 1st of May was marked by fifteen death; on 26 June, there were five killed in an uprising at Ancona directed against the deployment of Italian troops to occupy Albania. Under the leadership of the anarchists, the revolt extended to the Marches and Romany. In Mantua, workers and soldiers invaded the railway station, tore up the rails to block the trains of the Royal Guard and also those carrying arms and munitions for the war against the Soviets, manhandled all the officers and attacked the prison which they burned down after liberating the inmates. In one year, from April 1919 to April 1920 the machine guns of ‘democracy' made mincemeat of 145 workers and wounded another 444 in all regions of Italy. But each time the dead were strewn on to the streets, the workers continued the struggle by proclaiming the general strike: among postal workers, railway workers, in Milan. All of which, were doubly disavowed by the PSI and the CGIL, whose representatives, elected by universal suffrage, were more occupied in leaving the inaugural sitting of the new Parliament shouting "Long live the Republic!". In the Puglia region, the agricultural day-labourers fought to obtain payment for time they had worked; there were six dead on the side of the day-labeurers and three among the land owners.

The fall of the Hohenzollern, the consecutive collapse of the Austro-German Empire, the world revolution flaring up in eastern and Central, Europe, added to the ferment of a more and more feverish Italy. Not only did the Italian proletariat concretize its solidarity with the Russian and Hungarian Soviets through the general strike; it was the only working class to sabotage in its own country the armed intervention of the Allied powers in favour of Kolchak.

The more the movement of proletarian struggle developed, the more the ruling class felt the need to arm itself. In March 1920, the industrialists regrouped themselves into a General Confederation of Industry and signed in Milan an agreement wherein each contracting party would commit all its forces to the liquidation of ‘Italian Bolshevism' and in. particular the militants who had kept to the one and only class position during the imperialist war: revolutionary defeatism. Not without reason, the defenders of ‘order' saw in them the kernel of the revolutionary party which was calling the proletariat to struggle against His Majesty's Government, to regroup under the banner of the civil war for the overthrow of the bourgeois democratic dictatorship. On 18 August, the General Confederation of Agriculture was set up on the same model, attracting to its programme all forms of large, middle, and small-scale agricultural exploitation, all those interested in putting an end to the occupations of the land. All of them wanted the heads of the ‘Caporettists', the ‘reds', who were seen to be paid agents of the enemy. Every means of preventing communst propaganda from getting on the road was to be used shamelessly. We will see the role of these organizations in the coming to power of fascism later on.

The factory occupations

In August 1920, the harbinger of what was to become the movement of factory occupations was obstructionism. This was generally applied in response to any lock-out by the bosses, as a consistent tactic which, according to the strategy of the Federazione Italiana Operai Metacheccanici was to replace the strike which had been used to the point of obsolescence. One of the favourite propaganda arguments of the delegates was to say that the crisis was much less serious than the bosses pretended. Since the national economy could withstand an increase in wages - because commodities had an outlet in the reconstituted market.- the workers had to force open the gates of the factories in order to keep production going. Not less than 280 metallurgical enterprises in Milan were occupied and put under workers' management, which gave the trade unionists the hope that the Socialists would soon be participating in government.

In this situation, the trade unionists were the most adept propagandists for the ‘gradualist economy'. According this idea, the workers would prove through their own sense of responsibility that they scrupulously respected the now ‘communal' property, that out of proletarian discipline they would agree to tighten their belts and get down to work. In order to be able to produce more cheaply -than under the employers' control, the working class had to arm itself with technical and administrative know-how, thus replacing the technicians who had left their workplaces on the orders of the old administration. In a certain way, the working class was called to govern a state which had to closely reflect the real economic structure of the country.

Immediately the Left began to struggle against this ideology of self-management, which instead of posing the problem at a central political level was imprisoning and emasculating the movement within each separate factory:

"We want to prevent the absorption by the working class of the idea that it is enough to develop the Councils solely to take hold of the factories and eliminate the capitalists. This would be an extremely dangerous illusion .... If the conquest political power has not taken place, the Royal Guard and the carabinieri will see to the dissipation of all such illusions, with all the mechanisms of oppression, all the forces which the bourgeoisie wields through its apparatus of political power." (A. Bordiga)

This vigorous and prophetic warning against the illusions of self-management came up against the propaganda of Ordino Nuovo which put all its emphasis on workers' control and on the technological education of the proletariat as a means of allowing the proletariat to manage the factories. In the factory the worker could attain a communist conception of the world, and from there go on to overthrow the bourgeois economic-political system and replace it with the Workers' Councils state. The Council system was superior to the trade union and party form because it made every worker in the enterprise, from the technician to the lowest underling, an ... elector to the Workers' Commissions (Report to the Executive Committee of the Communist International, July 1920); and what is more, this elector expressed himself not through a show of hands but through the petit-bourgeois form of the secret ballot. Faced with the grandeur of their task, ought not the workers suppress their egoistic impulses and accept new productive innovations, since these could serve to augment their productive capacity, and thus their importance to the nation? The workers had to stop blundering about as they had been doing for the last few years. Now they could achieve something tangible, now they had to run the factories under the broadest workers' democracy uniting all from the reformists to the anarchists. There really was no break in continuity when, shortly afterwards this group as the standard-bearer of the Stalinist counter-revolution was called upon to apply the measures of Bolshevization within the young Communist Party.

Once again the Left had to reaffirm its total opposition to these educational exercises so dear to the old parties of the Second International as well as to the young Ordino Nuovo; as for the PSI, it was busy advertising a ‘menage a trois' through its flag which simultaneously displayed the hammer, the sickle, and the book. It was also firmly set on parliamentarism since in the middle of a revolu­tionary explosion, the Socialist Party decided to participate in Parliamentary elections and advised the workers to participate in them en masse (16 November, 1919), convinced that the recently adopted method of proportional representation would ensure it a comfortable majority. And indeed with 1,840,000 votes behind them the Socialists gained 156 representatives in Parliament, and a few months later won 2,800 communes. Lenin was well pleased with the ‘excellent work' this represented in relation to the international ­situation, hoping that it would also serve as an example to the German Communists (letter to Serrati, 29 November, 1919). The Communist International saluted the result as a great success. What did the socialist mayors and deputies do to justify all this acclaim? They did what they had been doing before the war they set about the construction of public works, the constitution of trade unions and co-operatives - in short, they administered the affairs of the city. Thus Italy was to complete the national revolution left unfinished by the Risorgimento, but under the guiding hand of the Socialists. They wanted to have their cake and eat it - the Constituent Assembly and the Soviets, the dictatorship of the proletariat and the electoral struggle. As the Left said - at the hour of decision, the bourgeoisie was defending itself from the proletarian revolution by playing the card of democracy.

The very first factory occupation took place under the banner of the Italian tricolour. It happened in .the small town of Dalmine, at the initiative of a fascist-controlled union, the Italian Association of Labour, with the warm encouragement of Popolo d'Italia which wrote:

"The Dalmine experience has a very great value: it shows that the proletariat has the ability to directly manage the factory."

On reading these lines, followed by others no less revealing, political parties, trade unions, and leftists made use of similar phrases as those of their friendly enemy to salute workers' management. Mussolini visited the locality in person to encourage with his voice and gestures the workers' resistance to the ‘employers' abuses'. The workers at Gregorini-Franchi had continued for three days to ensure the proper functioning in all departments of the enterprise, as a response to the management's refusal to concede the five day week. For Mussolini, the working class was worthy of succeeding the bourgeoisie in the management of production since it had abandoned the traditional strike, which was so bad for the nation.

One year later, this first occupation was followed by more of a series of ephemeral attempts at workers' management: at Sestri-Ponente on the outskirts of Genoa on 18 February 1920; at the ANSALDO Shipyards in Viareggio the next day; at Ponte Canavese and Torre Pellice on 28 February; in the wood-processing factories of Asti on 2 March; in the Miani-Sivestri mechanics workshops in Naples on 24 March; in the Spadaccini enterprises in Sesto m 4 June; at the ILVA iron and steel trust in Naples, 10 June.

These regularly repeated occupation-strikes, brought with them an organizational form, the Workers' Council, which united the majority of the workers, independently of their political convictions, in the struggle against capitalism. However, because this movement never found enough strength to go beyond the confines of control of isolated factories towards a confrontation with the state, because its protagonists became intoxicated with ephemeral and artificial evidences of the immediacy of its success, it decayed on the spot. That is why the bourgeoisie was able to get its property back without firing a single shot. To get rid of the occupiers it used the FIOM which on several occasions had declared that its objective was simply workers' control over production, that it had no intention of going any further, that it would evacuate the factories once this right had been recognized by Parliament. The directors of the Banca Commerciale assured the FIOM of its benevolent neutrality; the prefect of Milan offered to smooth relations between industrialists and trade unionists; Mussolini visited the secretary of the FIOM, Buozzi, to tell him that the occupations had the full support of the fascists; the director of Corriere della Sera rushed to ‘comrade' Turatti to advise the Socialists to enter the government; the president of FIAT and AGNELLI expressed the desire to give the trade unions a greater role to play.

However, the numerous examples of feverish preparations in the use of arms, of the setting up of combat groups, shows that the most conscious fraction of the class had decided, not to go on running the factories as the CGIL was advising, but to fight with guns in their hands. At FIAT, Turin, the leaders stood in the way of the groups who had transformed lorries into armoured cars equipped with machine guns for a sortie into the town. Once the arms introduced into or built in the factories were discovered and seized by the police, the FIOM had a free hand to sign "its greatest concordat", the recognition of the Workers' Commissions. In the end, the time came to negotiate the defeat of the workers with the Confindustria. The CGIL accepted the reduction of working time for all categories of workers and employees. This was still presented as a great victory against ‘egoism', since poverty is nothing if it is shared out fairly among its victims, as a sign of solidarity among the workers! The result of the compromise was that all the workers found their wages considerably reduced.

Now that the fruit was ripe, the bourgeoisie was able to intervene with complete confidence. Instead of making the mistake of using open repression - which the Confindustria and the Confragricultura wanted - Giolitti acted as a man who knows what he is doing, as an adroit defender of the long term interests of capitalism. There were two choices in front of him: either to use the forces of repression to crack the whip over the metallurgical workers of Fiedmont, the typographical workers of Rome, the sailors and dockers of Trieste, up to and including the rather less stubborn school­teachers - or to wait for hunger to take its toll. And Giolitti kept his cool: ho counted on this, and on the work of the unions in undermining the struggle. Taking full advantage of his experience in the face of previous social disturbances, his tactic once again was to allow the movement to develop and then to recede on its own. Who could say that he would have had so much success if he'd had recourse t systematic repression?

The political balance sheet

The Factory Committees proved that the proletariat could neither assert itself on the economic terrain nor lay claim to society as a whole by beginning from the occupation of the factories, even though this might make some changes in property and administrative forms. The expropriation of the capitalists will only be accomplished by a proletarian revolution. Thus the proletariat must therefore constitute itself into a political party, not within the bourgeois horizon of the nation, but internationally. From the very beginning of its revolutionary activity, it must work towards the formation of the World Party, whose essential character is not measured by economic accomplishments, but by the proletariat's armed destruc­tion of the state*. When the problem is posed in this way, we are in a position to understand why the Paris Commune - which, due to the undeveloped level of the productive forces in capitalism's ascendancy, was able to decree very little in the way of social change - was a genuine proletarian revolution, 'the first in history.

Only the Left, which had begun its work as a fraction in the struggle against frontism (the policy of Socialists giving support to the Italian bourgeoisie), orientated itself towards the denunciation of the cult of electoralism - only the Left emerged from all this confusion with its head held high. Again and again it incited the Italian proletariat as a whole to go beyond the old leaders who were completely imbued with their dangerous methods of collaboration. Alone and against all the rest, it called upon the most conscious and combative elements of the proletariat to break out of the prison of the factory gates, to constitute themselves into a class-party, since it was precisely by para­lyzing itself on the fragmented terrain of the isolated factory that the Italian working class was digging its own grave. Against the numberous currents who held out the bright prospect of the class being able to seize control of the means of production and exchange without first destroying the bourgeois state apparatus, it insisted that:

"According to the genuinely communist conception, workers' control over production can only be realized after the smashing of bourgeois power if control of the functioning of each enterprise passes to the proletariat as a whole united in the Council-state. The communist management of production in all its branches and units of production will be carried out by the rational collective organs representing the interests of all the workers associated in the work of building Communism." (Theses of the Abstentionist Communist Fraction of the Italian Socialist Party, May 1920)

The Left (and this was its most urgent revolutionary task) had the courage to confront the prevalent taboo of the expropriatory general strike, and to place its emphasis on the political priority: the constitution of the proletariat into a party. While the striking workers were being cajoled into bending diligently over their work-benches, into learning the value of capital used in production, into finding ways of raising their output, the Left was posing the only real problem, without detours or democratic quibbles: "Are we going to take power or take the factories?". The enunciation of this simple truth made Gramsci and his team froth at the mouth. Your party is a sectarian, hierarchical conception of the revolution, whereas ours is a unitary, generous, and libertarian vision - such was the reposte of the worshippers of unity whose one morbid fear was a split in the Socialist Party. And the unity they revered was unity with Seratti's unitary maximalist majority which wanted to make Parliament and the Communes into active bases for revolutionary propaganda; unity with the reformists around Turatti, the adversary of the Turin councils and the Communist International; unity with the trade unionists purified of their extreme-right elements. Thus the name of the party's daily - Unita. Reassuring overtures were even made to the Catholic intellectuals organized in the Popular Party:

"In Italy, in Rome, there is the Vatican, the Pope. The liberal state had to find a system of equilibrium with the spiritual power of the Church; the workers' state will also have to find one."

The efforts of the Left towards the constitution of a purely communist party, beginning from the renunciation of electoral participation, were in the eyes of Gramsci, nothing but a "hallucinated particularism"; what he wanted was the revival of the PSI, which "from being a petit-bourgeois parliamentary party must become the party of the revolutionary proletariat". The ‘Nine Points' published in Ordino Nuovo under the heading ‘For a renovation of the PSI' corresponded to the wishes of the leader­ship of the Communist International: progressive purge of the right wing, yes - a split, no. Before Livorno Lenin had declared:

"To lead the revolution and to defend it, the Italian party must still make a certain move to the left (without tying its hands) and without forgetting that later circumstances could easily demand a few steps to the right."

The move to the left having been made at Livorno, the circumstances of the struggle against the reactionary offensive demanded "a few steps to the right"; at the IVth Congress of the Communist International the fusion of the Italian Communist Party and the PSI was drawn up.


Revolution Internationale

Note *

When the author refers to the proletariat "constituting itself into a party" he is using this phrase in the way Marx used it: to describe the general process whereby the proletariat organizes itself around its historic programme. This does not mean that the proletariat and the actual communist party can every be identical, since the latter is a conscious fraction of the class, and cannot substitute itself for the class as a whole.

The footnotes to this text will appear in the third issue of this review which will contain the second part of this article.


1 See the introduction written by the Trostkyist, P. Broue, to Leonetti's book, Notes Sur Gramsci, EDI, Paris, 1974, p.7.

2 E. Malatesta, the hero of Benevento adventure of 1877, was one of the revolutionary elements conscious of the gravity of the situation: "If we let the moment pass, we will pay in tears of blood for the fear we have put into the bourgeoisie."


3 Lissa and Custoza were battles lost against the Austrians in the first war for Italian independence of 1866, which also marked the return of Venice to the Kingdom of Italy.


4 Letter of Lieutenant-General Oscar Raffi, commander of the army corps, to Giolitti, the day after Caporetto, 5 November, 1917.

Heritage of the Communist Left: