1943: The Italian proletariat opposes the sacrifices demanded for the war

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Throughout the history of the workers’ movement and the class struggle imperialist war has always been a fundamental question. This is no accident; war is the distillation of all the barbarism inherent in this society. It shows that now we have arrived at the historic decadence of capitalism this system is unable to offer humanity any possibility of development and even poses a threat to its very survival. Because it demonstrates to the full the barbarism of which the capitalist system is capable war is a powerful factor towards the development of consciousness and the mobilization of the working class. This reality has been demonstrated during the two global conflicts that have taken place this century.

The proletariat’s response to the first world war is fairly well known. However the episodes of class struggle which took place during the second world war in Italy in particular are not so clearly recognised. When bourgeois historians and propagandists make reference to them it is to try and demonstrate that the strikes of ’43 in Italy were the beginning of the “anti-fascist” resistance. As this year is the fiftieth anniversary of these events the unions in Italy have taken the opportunity to breath new life into this mystification with their nationalist and patriotic “commemorations”.

This article is dedicated to refuting this lie and to reaffirming the capacity of the class to respond to imperialist war on its own terrain.

1943: the Italian proletariat opposes the sacrifices demanded for the war

As early as the second half of 1942 when the outcome of the war was as yet undecided and fascism seemed to be firmly in power there were sporadic strikes against rationing and for wage increases in the large factories in the north of Italy. These were just the initial warnings of the discontent within the ranks of the proletariat produced by the war and all the sacrifices demanded in its name.

On 5th March 1943 the strike at Mirafiori in Turin began. Within a few days it had spread to other factories and involved tens of thousands of workers. The demands were very clear and straightforward: increased food rations, salary increases and... an end to the war. In the next few months the unrest spread to the large factories in Milan, to the whole of Lombardy, to Liguria and other parts of Italy.

The response of the fascist government was that of stick and carrot: they arrested the workers most in prominence but they also made concessions on the more immediate demands. Mussolini suspected that the anti-fascist forces were behind the strikes, nevertheless he could not allow himself the luxury of allowing the workers’ protest to grow. In fact his suspicions were unfounded. The strikes were completely spontaneous, they came from the workers themselves and out of their discontent with the sacrifices demanded for the war to the extent that “fascist” workers also participated in the strikes.

What was typical of this action was its class nature which at an historical level gave the strikes of 1943-44 their own typical, unitary character even when compared to the general movement that was conducted together with the national liberation committees[1].

Availing myself only of my prestige as an old union organiser I confronted thousands of workers who resumed work immediately in spite of the fact that the fascists proved to be completely passive in the work-places and unfortunately in some cases actually fomented the strikes. This is something that impressed itself upon me enormously” (statement of under-secretary Tullio Cianetti, quoted in Turone’s book page 17).

It was not only the fascist hierarchy who were impressed by the action of the workers, it was the whole of the Italian bourgeoisie. They saw in the March strikes the rebirth of the proletarian spectre, a far more dangerous enemy than their adversaries within their own battle camp. These strikes made the bourgeoisie aware that the fascist regime was no longer adequate to contain the workers’ discontent and they made ready to replace it and reorganize their “democratic” forces.

On 25th July the King dismissed Mussolini, had him arrested and gave Marshal Badoglio the task of forming a new government. One of the first concerns of this government was to rebuild “democratic” unions in order to create new vehicles to channel the workers’ demands because in the meantime they had created their own organs to lead the movement and were therefore out of all control. The Minister for the Corporations (they were still called that!) Leopoldo Piccardi let the old socialist union leader Bruno Buozzi out of prison and offered him the post of commissioner of the union organisations. Buozzi asked for and got the Communist Roveda and the Christian-Democrat Quadrello as deputy commissioners. The bourgeoisie’s choice was well considered; Buozzi was well-known for his participation in the 1922 strikes (the occupation of the factories) in which he demonstrated his bourgeois loyalties by making every effort to counter the potential growth of the movement.

But the workers did not know what to make of bourgeois democracy and its promises. They distrusted the fascist regime above all because they were no longer able to bear the sacrifices demanded of them for the war. The Badoglio government asked them to go on bearing them.

In the middle of August ’43 the workers of Turin and Milan went on strike demanding once more an end to the war and even more forcefully than before. The local authorities again responded with repression but what proved to be more effective was the trip north made by Piccardi, Buozzi and Roveda to meet the workers’ representatives and convince them to go back to work. Even before they had rebuilt their organisations the unionists of the “democratic” regime began their anti-working class dirty work!

Caught between repression, concessions and promises the workers returned to work and waited on events. These changed rapidly. By July the allied forces had landed in Sicily, on 8th September Badoglio signed an armistice with them, fled south with the King and called on the population to continue the war against Nazi fascism. After a few demonstrations of enthusiasm a disorderly demobilization ensued. A lot of soldiers threw away their uniforms and went home or into hiding.

The workers were unable to rise up on their own class terrain but they were not talked into taking up arms against the Germans and returned to work, prepared to put forward their immediate demands against the new bosses in north Italy. In fact Italy was split into two: in the south there were the allied forces and a show of legal government, the north on the other hand was again under the command of the fascists, more precisely the German troops.

Even without the participation of the people the war in fact continued. The allied bombings of north Italy were intensified and with them the living conditions of the workers worsened. So in November-December the workers took up the struggle again. This time they met with even harsher repression; besides the threat of arrest there was the even more serious danger of deportation to Germany. The workers put forward their demands courageously. In November the workers of Turin went on strike, a large part of their demands were accepted. At the beginning of December the workers of Milan went on strike, they too received a combination of promises and threats from the German authorities. The following episode is significant. “At 11.30 general Zimmerman arrived and made the following threat: those who did not resume work were to leave the building; those who did so would be declared enemies of Germany. All the workers left the building” (from a clandestine paper of the Italian PC, quoted by Turone page 47). In Genoa on 16th December the workers went onto the streets but this time the German authorities used force: there were confrontations that resulted in deaths and injuries. Equally harsh confrontations continued throughout Liguria for the rest of December.

This was the turning-point; the movement had been weakened in this way and also because Italy was divided in two. The Germans were in trouble on the front and could not allow production to be interrupted any longer. They confronted the proletarian danger resolutely (also because the same danger was beginning to emerge within Germany itself in the form of strikes). Finally the character of the movement began to be distorted; it lost its spontaneous, class nature. This was also thanks to the efforts of the “anti-fascist” forces that tried to turn the workers’ protest into a struggle for “liberation”, a task that was made easier by the fact that many of the most advanced workers who fled to the mountains to escape the repression were there recruited by partisan bands. In fact strikes were still taking place in the Spring of ’44 and ’45 but by this time the working class had lost the initiative.

The strikes of 1943; a class struggle, not a war against fascism

The propaganda of the bourgeoisie tries to present the whole strike movement from ’43 to ’45 as an anti-fascist struggle. The few elements that we have put forward show that this was not the case. The workers were struggling against the war and the sacrifices demanded from them in its name. In order to do so they fought against the fascists when they were officially in power (in March), against the government when it was no longer fascist - that of Badoglio (in August), against the Nazis when they were the real bosses in the north of Italy (in December).

What however is true is that right from the start the forces of “democracy” and the bourgeois left with the CP at its head tried to rob the workers’ struggle of its class character in order to divert it onto the bourgeois terrain of the patriotic, anti-fascist struggle. To this end they focused all their efforts. The spontaneous character of the movement caught them by surprise so the “anti-fascist” forces were obliged to run after it trying to mix their “anti-fascist” slogans into those of the strikers while the strikes were actually taking place. Their local militants were often unable to do so and were criticised by their party leaders because of it. The leaders of these parties were so caught up in their bourgeois logic that they were either unable or had difficulty understanding that for the workers the battle is always against capital regardless of what form it takes: “let’s recall what trouble we had in the early days of the liberation struggle getting workers and peasants to understand the situation when they had no communist background (sic!), when they understood that it was necessary to fight against the Germans as well but said ‘it doesn’t make a lot of difference to us whether the Italians or the Germans are our bosses’” (E. Sereni, head of the Italian CP at the time in “The government of the CL” quoted by Romolo Gobbi: Workers and the Resistance, page 34) [2]. No, Signor Sereni, the workers understood quite clearly that their enemy was capitalism, that it was this they had to fight against in whatever form it took. Likewise you, as bourgeois as the fascists you were fighting, understood that this was the real danger that threatened!

We are certainly not among those who deny the necessity of a political struggle in the process of the proletariat’s self-emancipation. The problem is what politics, on what terrain, within what perspective. The “anti-fascist” struggle belongs wholly to the politics of patriotism and bourgeois nationalism. It in no way puts into question the power of capital. On the other hand the smallest demand for “bread and peace” if pursued to its conclusion (and this was what the Italian workers were unable to do) contains in embryo the perspective of the struggle against the capitalist system which is unable to give this peace or this bread.

In 1943 the working class again showed its anti-capitalist nature...

“Bread and peace” a simple and immediate slogan that made the bourgeoisie tremble and put its imperialist plans at risk. Bread and peace was the slogan that animated the Russian proletariat in 1917 and  was the departure point for the revolutionary path which resulted in its taking power in October. In fact it is well-known that in the strikes of  1943 there were also groups of workers who called for the formation of soviets. It is also acknowledged, sometimes even in the historical reconstructions of the “anti-fascist” parties, that a significant proportion of workers saw participation in the resistance as anti-capitalist rather than patriotic.

Moreover the bourgeoisie’s fear was justified by the fact that there were also strike movements in Germany in the same year (1943) and later in Greece, Belgium, France and Britain [3].

With these movements the working class returned to the social scene and threatened the power of the bourgeoisie. It had already done so - victoriously - in 1917 when the Russian revolution forced the combatants of the first world war to end the war prematurely in order to present a united front against the proletarian danger which was spreading from Russia to the whole of Europe.

As we have seen, the strikes in Italy accelerated both the fall of fascism and Italy’s withdrawal from the war. This action of the working class during the second world war reaffirmed the fact that it is the only social force able to oppose war. Unlike petit-bourgeois pacifism which holds demonstrations to “ask” capitalism to be less bellicose, when the working class acts on its own class terrain it puts in doubt the very power of capitalism and therefore its capacity to pursue its warlike ventures. In potential the strikes of ’43 contained the same threat as 1917: the perspective of the proletariat’s revolutionary development.

Revolutionary fractions of the time seized on this possibility (which they overestimated) and did all they could to encourage its development. The Italian fraction of the communist left (which published the review Bilan before the war) overcame the difficulties it had experienced at the beginning of the war and together with the newly formed French nucleus of the communist left it held a conference in August 1943 at Marseilles. The basis for the conference was the analysis that the events in Italy had opened up a pre-revolutionary phase, a corollary of this was that it was the moment to “transform the fraction into the party” and to return to Italy to oppose the attempts of the false workers’ parties to “gag the revolutionary consciousness” of the proletariat. In this way they began working around the defence of revolutionary defeatism and in June 1944 this led the Fraction to distribute a leaflet to the workers of Europe enroled in the various armies at war calling on them to fraternize and struggle against capitalism whether democratic or fascist.

The comrades who had stayed behind in Italy also reorganized themselves and on the basis of an analysis similar to that of Bilan founded the Internationalist Communist Party. This organisation also began a revolutionary defeatist activity; it opposed the patriotism of the partisan groupings and made propaganda for the proletarian revolution [4].

Fifty years on it is impossible to remember the work and enthusiasm of these comrades (some of whom lost their lives in the process) without a sense of pride. Nevertheless we have to recognise that the analysis they defended was wrong.

...but war is not the best situation for the development of the revolutionary process

The struggles that we have mentioned, particularly those in Italy in 1943, are undeniably the proof of the proletariat’s return to its own class terrain and the beginnings of what was potentially a revolutionary process. However the result was not the same as in the movement against the war that took place in 1917. The movement in Italy in 1943 did not succeed in putting an end to the war as did the one in Russia followed by Germany at the beginning of the century. Nor did it manage to develop to a revolutionary outcome (which was the only thing that could also have put an end to the war).

The reasons for this defeat are many; some of them are general, others are specific to the situation in which events unfolded.

In the first place although it is true that war pushes the working class to respond in a revolutionary way this is more particularly the case in the defeated countries. The working class of the victorious countries usually remain more firmly under the control of the dominant class’ ideology; this works against international extension which is indispensable to the survival of proletarian power. Moreover if the struggle manages to force the bourgeoisie to make peace it robs itself at the same time of the exceptional conditions which gave rise to the struggle. In Germany for example the revolutionary movement which led to the armistice of 1918 suffered greatly in the period after it was signed because of the pressure exerted by a significant number of soldiers who returned from the front with only one desire: to return to their families and take advantage of the peace that had been so ardently desired and won at so high a price. In fact the German bourgeoisie had learnt the lesson of the Russian revolution. In the latter instance the continuation of the war by the provisional government which succeeded the Czarist regime after February ’17 was effective in nourishing the revolutionary insurrection in which the soldiers played a prominent part. For this reason the German government signed an armistice with the Entente powers on 11th November, two days after mutinies among the war fleet in Kiel had begun to take place.

Secondly these lessons from the past were put to good use by the bourgeoisie in the period preceding the second world war. The dominant class only went to war once it was sure that the working class had been completely subdued. The defeat of the revolutionary movement in the 20s had plunged the proletariat into deep confusion; mystifications about “socialism in one country” and the “defence of the socialist fatherland” were then heaped onto demoralization. This confusion enabled the bourgeoisie to engineer a dress rehearsal of the world war in the form of the war in Spain where the exceptional combativity of the Spanish workers was derailed onto the terrain of the anti-fascist struggle. In the meantime Stalinism also succeeded in dragging significant battalions of the rest of the European proletariat onto the bourgeois terrain.

Finally during the war itself, when the working class began to act on its own class terrain in spite of all the difficulties it had encountered, the bourgeoisie immediately took counter-measures.

In Italy where the danger was greatest the bourgeoisie as we have seen lost no time changing its regime and after that its alliance. In autumn ’43 Italy was divided in two; the south was in the hands of the allies, the rest was occupied by the Nazis. On the advice of Churchill (“Italy must be left to stew in its own juice”) the allies delayed their advance towards the north and so achieved two things: on the one hand they left the job of repressing the proletarian movement to the German army; on the other they gave the “anti-fascist” forces the task of diverting the movement from the terrain of the anti-capitalist struggle to that of the anti-fascist struggle. This operation succeeded in almost a year and from then on the activity of the proletariat was no longer autonomous although it continued to make economic demands. Moreover in the eyes of the proletariat the war was continuing because of the Nazi occupation; this was a substantial part of the propaganda of the anti-fascist forces. The idea that the partisan war was a popular struggle is largely a myth. This was a real war, organized for real by the allied and anti-fascist forces and the population was enroled in it by force (or by ideological pressure) as it is in any war. However it is also true that leaving the Nazis the job of repressing the proletarian movement and making them responsible for the continuation of the war encouraged a growing hatred of them and the consequent reinforcement of the propaganda of the partisan forces.

In Germany, armed with its experience of what can happen in the period immediately after a war, the international bourgeoisie acted systematically to avoid a repetition of events similar to those of 1918-19. In the first place shortly before the end of the war the allies carried out the mass extermination of the population of the workers’ quarters by means of the unprecedented bombardment of large cities such as Hamburg or Dresden. On 13th February 1945, 135,000 people (twice as many as at Hiroshima) perished in the bombing. As military objectives there were worthless (moreover the German army was already thoroughly routed): in reality their aim was to terrorize the working class and prevent it from organizing itself in any way. Secondly the allies rejected outright the possibility of an armistice on the grounds that they had not occupied the whole of German territory. They were anxious to administer this territory directly as they were aware of the danger that the defeated German bourgeoisie would be unable to control the situation on its own. Lastly once the latter had capitulated and in close collaboration with them the allies hung onto their war prisoners for many months in order to avoid the explosive mix that might have resulted if they had encountered the civilian population.

In Poland during the second half of 1944 the Red Army too left it to the Nazi forces to carry out the dirty work of massacring the insurgent workers in Warsaw: for months the Red Army waited a few kilometres away from the city while the German troops crushed the revolt. The same thing happened in Budapest at the beginning of 1945.

So having been warned by the experience of 1917 and on the alert after the initial strikes of the workers, the bourgeoisie throughout Europe did not wait for the movement to grow and strengthen. By means of systematic extermination and the work of the Stalinist and anti-fascist forces to derail the struggles they managed to block the proletarian threat and prevent it from growing.

50 years after 1943 the proletariat must draw the lessons

The proletariat did not succeed in putting an end to the second world war or developing a revolutionary movement. But as is true for all proletarian battles the defeats can be transformed into weapons for future struggles if the working class draws the lessons correctly. And it is the role of revolutionaries to be the first to draw out these lessons and identify them clearly. Such a work means particularly that using a profound assimilation of the experience of the workers’ movement they must not remain imprisoned in past schemas as is still the case today for most of the groups of the proletarian milieu such as the Partito Comunista Internazionalista (Battaglia Comunista) and the various chapels of the Bordigist movement.

Very briefly these are the main lessons that it is important to draw from the experience of the proletariat over the last half century.

Contrary to what revolutionaries of the past thought, generalized war does not create the best conditions for the proletarian revolution. This is all the more true today when the existing means of destruction make a potential global conflict so devastating that it would make any proletarian reaction impossible as it would result in the destruction of humanity. The lesson that the working class must draw from its past experience is that to fight against war today it must act before there is a world war, afterwards it will be too late.

The conditions for the outbreak of another world war do not yet exist. On the one hand the working class is not mobilized in such a way as to allow the bourgeoisie to unleash a world war, the only outcome it can conceive to its economic crisis. Secondly although the collapse of the eastern bloc has set in motion a tendency towards the formation of two new imperialist blocs we are still a very long way from the actual constitution of such blocs and without them there can be no world war.

This does not mean that there is no tendency to war or that no real wars are taking place. From the Gulf war in ’91 to the one in Yugoslavia today and bearing in mind all the conflicts throughout the globe there is enough to show that the collapse of the eastern bloc has not opened a period of the “new world order” but rather a period of growing instability that could only lead to a new world war (unless society is submerged and destroyed beforehand by its own decomposition) if the proletariat does not take the lead with a revolutionary movement. The consciousness of this tendency towards war is an important factor that reinforces this revolutionary potential.

Today the most powerful factor that contributes to the growing consciousness of capitalism’s bankruptcy is the economic crisis, a catastrophic crisis which is insoluble within a capitalist framework. These two factors create the best conditions for the revolutionary development of the working class struggle. But this development is only possible if revolutionaries themselves are able to leave behind the old ideas that belong to the past and adapt their intervention to the new historic conditions.


[1] Sergio Turone, History of the Unions in Italy  published by Laterza.

[2] Romolo Gobbi, Workers and the Resistance. Although flawed by the councilist-apolitical approach of its author this book demonstrates well the anti-capitalist and spontaneous character of the movement in ’43. It also demonstrates well the nationalist and patriotic nature of the Italian PC in this movement by using abundant quotations from the archives of the PC.

[3] For more details of this period see: Danilo Montaldi, "Essay on communist politics in Italy", Quaderni Piacentini edition.

[4] For an account of the activity of the Communist Left during the war see our book, "The Italian Communist Left 1927-52", available from our address.

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