A. Bordiga

The Labour Movement

The Meeting of the National Council
of the Italian C.G.L. at Verona

(2 December 1921)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 1 No. 13, 2 December 1921, pp. 106–108.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive

The session of the National Council of the C.G.L. (General Federation of Labour) took place at Verona from the 5th to the 8th of November. After the General Congress this council is the most important body of the C.G.L.; it consists of representatives of all the local trade councils (in Italy every province has its Labour Council) and of all the National Unions. In contradistinction to the Congress the National Council does not consist of delegates directly elected by the local organisations but of officials of the Labour Councils and Unions. These officials do not even consult the committees of the separate local Unions before their appearance at the National Council.

This time the meeting of the National Council was of especially great importance. The calling of this council had been demanded by the Communist Trades-Union Committee three months ago; by means of an open letter, which was accompanied by a mandate of the Executive Committee of the Party, it put forward a proposal of proletarian action against the offensive of the employers and the various Italian trade-union organizations (Confederation of Labour, the Syndicalist Union and the Railwaymen’s Union) were asked to call their National Councils in order to consider the communist proposal and to form a united Committee of Action with a view of carrying into effect. The purport of the proposal was the establishment of a united front of all the workers’ organizations in order to combine the various partial local struggles, which resulted from the offensive of the employers, to put forward definite important demands and to attain these demands by a national general strike of the entire working class. The open letter of the Communist Trade-Union Committee contained the following demands: an eight-hour working day; recognition of the existing rate of wages; proper assistance to the unemployed; control of the workers on questions of dismissal from employment; the rights and liberty of organisation.

In view of the urgency of these proposals the calling of the National Council and not of the General Congress was demanded, and at the same time began an intensive agitation amongst the masses in favour of the action proposed by the communists. From August till now a large number of meetings of workers have expressed themselves in favour of the proposal of the communists, which, however, did not find support from the leaders of the organisation. The syndicalists and anarchists of the Syndicalist Union also greeted it with little enthusiasm, while the Railwaymen’s Union (which is being led by an anarchist-socialist coalition) expressed approval but only in words and not by deeds; the socialists of the General Federation of Labour brutally declared themselves against the proposal. At first the trade-union leaders entirely ignored the Communist Trade-Union Committee. They were, however, compelled soon to give up this policy, as in the masses the dissatisfaction with the negative attitude of the C.G.L. was constantly growing. The Executive then issued their own proposal which consisted in a demand to the government to establish an Inquiry Commission in order to inquire into the condition of industry and as to whether the demands of the capitalists for a reduction of wages are justified. The manifesto which was issued by the C.G.L. and the Socialist Party in connection with their proposal, by recognizing the eventual award of this Inquiry Commission, actually recognizes the principle that the wages of the workers may be reduced if the profits of capital decreases.

This ridiculous anti-socialistic formula just as the proposal for a Commission of Inquiry itself caused attacks from the communists whose energy increased in view of the growing support of the masses. In the meantime in various places the situation became more tense as a result of the attempts to reduce wages. In many branches of industry notice was given of the existing agreements and wages were reduced; in the textile, metal and chemical industry struggles commenced. At the end of October the metal workers in the Trieste province and in Liguria were on strike, while in the province of Piedmont and in Lombardy a strike was threatened. Apart from that, all over Italy the wool-weavers were striking and in various places there were movements of lesser importance. The dissatisfaction among the workers was growing and the communists were able to greatly strengthen their position in the National Council of the F.I.O.M. (Federatione Italiana Operai Metallurgici – Italian Metal Workers’ Union) 45,000 against 65,000. Their representatives were also elected to the Committee of Action of the metal workers. A strike in that important branch of industry was approaching; while the government accepted the proposal of the C.G.L. to establish an Inquiry Commission, the employers opposed it because they wished a fight.

The leaders of the trade union were compelled to call together the National Council for the 5th of November. Short notice was given in order that the conference should consist only of officials; in view of the short notice it was impossible for the organizations to meet beforehand; all sorts of excuses were used in order to ignore entirely the actual following of the parties (as recorded by the numbers of votes), the more so as in a number of organizations, also in those where the socialist influence predominates, voices were heard against the Executive Committee and in favour of the communists.

In Lombardy notice was given of a strike of metal workers to begin on Monday the 1st of November, which actually amounted to a strike on a national scale. On Sunday, a day before that, the government and the reformist leaders developed feverish activity. At last they succeeded in obtaining from the em­ployers concessions which, notwithstanding the opposition of the communists led to an understanding. Thus, the strike which ought to have commenced on Monday was declared off. The settlement, according to which the status quo had to be maintained in the works of Lombardy up to December 31st, meant in reality a silent acceptance of the Commission of Inquiry and of the famous principle, that wages have to be cut down if it is proved that the capitalists find themselves in a difficult position. This agreement, further, broke up the national front of the metal workers as it prevented the struggle in Lombardy, while in Liguria, Trieste and other parts of the country the strike continued. The agreement was to be ratified at a meeting of the metal-workers of Milan, but the meeting ended in a free fight between the communists and socialists. By superhuman efforts, the reformist leaders, those agents of the government, who believed a campaign of the Communists to be imminent, succeeded in stopping the movement of the workers of the chemical industry by an agreement which became the subject of heated discussions.

Such was the situation when the conference at Verona commenced. There were about 200 delegates present, amongst them about 60 of the communist opposition. Between the two parties a distinct division became apparent. The communists attacked the trade-union leaders on questions of principle. The latter put forward their best speakers in their defense and openly expressed hatred of the communists and their desire to expel them from the C.G.L. if the communist trade-union organizations would not be strong enough to defeat such intentions.

At the conference the communists were animated by the strict discipline which distinguishes our minority in the C.G.L. They took their directions from the Communist Trade-Union Committee enlarged by a representative of the Party Committee, thus all its actions were consequent and clear. The socialists were held together by their fear and dislike of the communists. The Socialist Party, which is united with the C.G.L. by an “alliance”, was not represented. At the end of the meeting a telegram of the Party Executive was received stating that the party was not represented as Serrati was abroad. The whole of the socialist press, however, especially Avanti!, was at the disposal of the trade-union leaders in their campaign against the communists. The struggle from the very outset centered not so much on questions of principle as on questions of the respective influence of the two groups. The communists protested frequently against the systematic wire-pulling used by the trade-union leaders.

In order to appraise correctly the voting at this conference it is necessary to take into consideration the following:

  1. The voting took place on the basis of the membership of 1920. That means a number of votes was assumed which in the meantime had decreased by half. This was directed against the communists as the votes recorded for them came from really existing organisations, which had been conquered by the communists during 1921 and had adopted their proposal while hundreds of thousands of non-existing numbers were taken to be in favour of the caucus because it could not be proved that they had been voting against the decisions of the C.G.L. Such a proof for the communists was the only means of retaining their votes and even this did not always succeed. It will suffice to instance the case of the Agricultural Workers’ Union. It has a membership now of only about 200,000 yet a vote was recorded for 800,000 members. (This enormous decrease in membership is to he explained by the effect of the Fascisti activities in the rural districts). The communists had a minority which would have formed a big percentage of the 200,000 if really existing organizations that only affiliated in 1921 had been allowed to vote.
  2. In accordance with the rules, the votes were recorded in a peculiar manner. One and the same organization is twice represented on the National Council – once through the Trade Councils and the second time through the industrial unions. The metal workers’ branch of Milan, for instance, votes first as part of the Milan Trade Council, then as a part of the National Metal Workers’ Union. Therefore the votes recorded – those of the trade, councils as well as those of the National Unions are divided by two. Should all organizations be represented, if for instance the votes of the Milan Metal Workers should be of equal weight in the Trades Council and in the National Union, it would be of no consequence whether the Trade Councils or the National Unions record their votes, the result would scarcely differ. However – the advantages of trade-union “Democracy” are well known! The opposition against the trade-union leaders makes itself strongly felt in the local organization, the trade Councils, but it does not succeed in penetrating into the sanctum sanctorum of the National Unions; thus the latter form a strong reserve of votes in favour of the Trade Union bureaucracy.
  3. The communists have been denied the right to represent many organizations especially the minorities of trade-unions and Trades Councils, where often the number of the communist votes is almost equal to that of their opponents.
  4. The votes of all organizations which had not discussed the communist proposal – mostly as a consequence of the leaders’ obstruction – was quietly counted as recorded for the socialists.

Thus the vote taken at Verona was absolutely fictitious. Should one correctly appraise the real strength of the two groups, the result would appear more favourable to the communists. This, however, is not being done and people satisfy themselves with the fictitious figures which show that the communists received 417,000 and the socialists 1,326,000 votes. In order to come to a correct conclusion one has to take into consideration the fact that had the votes of the Trades Councils been counted, the communists would have received 500,000 against 200,000 of the Socialists. Had only the votes of those actually affiliated in 1921, who number about 1,000,000, been recorded there would have been a ratio of 460,000 to 600,000, since the socialists have lost many more votes than the communists. This means that, at a properly organized congress, where all minorities would be represented and those organizations which had not made up their minds as to the issues at stake were excluded, the communists could prove that the majority of the organized workers are behind them. Should that be attained, the machinery of dictatorship of the trade union bureaucracy would be destroyed.

The communists demand that a general congress be called, because they do not recognize the vote taken on the question of the international which showed a majority for Amsterdam; they did not participate in it as they consider that only the general congress has the authority to decide this question.

The Communist Party has issued a manifesto announcing that they will increase their efforts to conquer the trade unions, since the conference at Verona has proved that the position of the communists in the trade unions is a very strong one.

By means of a ever-growing net of communist groups and Communist Trade-Unions Committees controlled by the party the latter will manage to attain control of the General Federation of Labour, and thus to create a proper basis of representation instead of the present one which affords the trade union leaders possibilities for all sorts of machinations.

At the Congress, the struggle now going on in every trade union organisation will be continued; it will bring new victories to our party. The party will put forward the following program for communist trade union activity: affiliation to Moscow, – the closing of the ranks of the proletariat, i.e., the creation of an united proletarian front against the increasing offensive of the employers. Quite apart from the Congress, which the trade union leaders are trying by all means to delay, clear signs are noticeable of an increasing indignation of the masses against the opportunism of the leaders.

As regards the policy of the Communist Party towards the trade unions it fond a clear expression in the resolution put forward by the communists at the Verona conference.

This resolution reads:

“Whereas, the employers, in all their political and economic manifestations, are developing a plan for the destruction of the proletarian class organization, which to the governing class seems the only way out of the present situation and a means to keep up their political and economic domination, and to prevent the opposite revolutionary solution towards which the proletariat id driven in its attempt to defend its vital interest and in the development of its economic struggles, and

“Whereas, the readiness to replace the economic struggle of the working-class organizations by an award of a commission in which the representatives of the employers, the government and the yellow trade unions are more numerous than the representatives of the proletarian trade unions, means the retreat before the employers’ offensive and the forsaking not only of the class-struggle but of the very existence of working-class organization, all the more so as such action would include the recognition of the principle that a reduction of wages is justified if it corresponds to a decrease of the profits of capital, and

“Whereas, the resistance of the trade unions to the demands of the employers can not lead to a real proletarian victory if the struggle is being carried on in every locality and industry separately, and

“Whereas, the progress of the struggles now going on, even where they led to a truce which does not protect the workers against the reprisals of the employers, which compromises the struggle by the wrong policy of deciding each case on its merits and by the silent recognition of the harmful principle of reducing wages according to the position of the industry, shows clearly that these struggles are only the opening of a further intensification of the capitalist attacks against the gains of the proletariat,

“Be it resolved, that the National Council of the General Federation of Labour declares after a careful analysis of the serious situation in which the Italian proletariat finds itself, that it is the task and duty of the proletarian organisation to direct all its energy towards the defense of a number of demands which are of vital importance to the working class and mean real proletarian gains, and the maintenance of which is essential to the very existence of the organisation. These demands are:

  1. An eight-hour working day,
  2. Actual recognition of the existing agreements of industrial and agricultural workers and no reduction of wages which is not justified by a reduction in the cost of living;
  3. Maintenance of the unemployed and their families; all costs accruing therefrom to be born by the employers and the state;
  4. Inviolability and recognition of the right of organization;
  5. Control by the organization of promotions and dismissals, and,

“Be it resolved, that the National Council declares that these demands can be attained only by a united front of the workers of all callings and of all unions, by concerted action and by combining all struggles and wage movements in order to meet the employers’ offensive by a general strike of the entire working-class. This Council therefore resolves to elect a Committee of Action, which must immediately communicate with the representatives of all other proletarian organizations of Italy with a view of coordinating and leading the movement in accordance with the principles embodied in this resolution in order to combine the separate struggles of the workers, to direct them against the employers’ offensive and thus to accomplish the complete development of the proletarian forces.”

A few words in conclusion. In the struggle between the communists and the trade-union bureaucracy which consists of the ultra-reformist elements of the right wing of the Socialist Party, the left wing, which at the Milan Congress obtained a majority, has lost all its importance. Only a few followers of Serrati are not yet prepared to play the part of servants to reformism and have refrained from voting. They, i.e., the “maximalists”, who are not prepared to obey every order of D’Aragona & Co. hardly obtained 18,000 votes out of 1,800,000 (In our opinion the actual collaboration finds its expression not so much in a possible socialist-bourgeois ministry of tomorrow as in the policy oft he C.G.L. which already quite openly stands on the platform of the solution of present industrial and capitalist crises).

This fact is very instructive to many people who think that a large part of the Italian masses can be gained by a policy of splitting the Socialist Party and of uniting with its left wing. The Socialist Party of Italy is only a shadow as compared with the reality of that “Party of Labour” which has been founded by the C.G.L. and its clique of leaders.

Last updated on 14 January 2021