Source: Published in Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/472-toward-the-united-front), pp. 403-423
Translation: Translation by John Riddell
HTML Markup: David Walters for the Marxists Internet Archive, 2018
Copyright: John Riddell, 2017. Republished here with permission.
Dear comrades, I regret that unusual circumstances affecting communication between our delegation and our party prevent me from having access to all the source material on this question.
There is a written report from Comrade Togliatti, but I do not have it here; in fact, I have not had a chance to read it.
With regard to the precise statistical data, I must refer comrades who wish detailed information to this report, which will surely arrive soon and will be translated and distributed here.
I have just received new information from a representative of our party’s centre who arrived in Moscow yesterday evening and informed us regarding the most recent fascist attacks on Italian comrades. I will take up this news in the last part of my report.
Given what Comrade Radek said here yesterday in his talk regarding the Communist Party’s response to fascism, I must also take up another side of the question.
Our Comrade Radek criticised the stance of our party toward the question of the fascists, now the dominant political issue in Italy. He criticised our position – our so-called position – as being that we want to have a small party and judge all issues solely from the point of view of the party’s organisation and its immediate role, without addressing the great political questions.
Since time is short, I will try not to be brief. In discussing the Italian question and our relationship to the Socialist Party we will also have to take up the question of the new situation in Italy created by fascism. Let me go directly to my report, beginning with the origins of the fascist movement.
What you might call the immediate and outward origin reaches back to the years 1914 and 1915, the period leading up to Italy’s entry into the World War. It began with groups supporting this intervention, which included representatives of different political currents.
There was a right-wing current including Salandra, representing owners of heavy industry, who had an interest in war. In fact, before they came out for war on the Entente side, they actually had favoured war against the Entente.
In addition, there were currents of the left bourgeoisie: the Italian radicals, left-wing democrats and republicans whose tradition demanded liberation of Trieste and the Trentino. And thirdly, the intervention movement also embraced some elements of the proletarian movement: revolutionary syndicalists and anarchists. And this grouping also included an individual of particular importance, Mussolini, the leader of the Socialist Party’s left wing and the director of Avanti.
By and large, the middle group did not take part in the fascist movement and was reabsorbed into traditional bourgeois politics. What remained in the fascist movement were the far-right groups plus those from the far left: ex-anarchists, ex-syndicalists, and ex-revolutionary syndicalists. In May 1915, the country was dragged into the war against the will of the majority of the population and even of parliament, which found no way to resist this sudden political coup. This was a big victory for these political groups. But when the war ended, their influence dwindled – in fact, they were aware of this even during the war. They had imagined the war as a very simple undertaking. As people saw that the war was dragging on, these groups completely lost their popularity, which to be frank was never that great.
When the war ended, these groups’ influence became minimal. During and after the period of demobilisation, toward the end of 1918, during 1919, and the first half of 1920, amid the generalised discontent generated by the results of the war, this political tendency was completely ineffective.
Nonetheless, there is a political and organisational connection between the movement that then seemed almost extinguished and the powerful movement now deployed before our eyes. The fasci di combattimento [fighting bands] never went out of existence. Mussolini remained leader of the fascist movement, whose paper is Il Popolo d'Italia [the Italian people].
In the elections at the end of October 1919, the fascists were utterly defeated in Milan, where their daily paper and leadership was located. Their vote total was extremely small, yet they continued their work.
Thanks to the revolutionary enthusiasm that had taken hold of the masses, the revolutionary socialist current of the proletariat became much stronger after the war. There is no need for me to go into the causes for that here. Nonetheless this current did not know how to utilise this favourable situation. In the final analysis, this tendency withered away completely because all the favourable objective and psychological conditions for strengthening a revolutionary organisation were not matched by the existence of a party capable of utilising this situation to build a stable organisation. I do not claim, as Comrade Zinoviev has done, that the Socialist Party could have made the revolution in those days. But at the very least it could have succeeded in endowing the revolutionary forces of the working masses with a solid organisation. It was not capable of carrying out this task.
We therefore had to witness the decline of the popularity previously enjoyed by the socialist current in Italy, with its consistent antiwar stance. And in this crisis of Italian social life, to the degree that the socialist movement made one mistake after another, the opposite movement, fascism, began to gain strength. In particular, fascism succeeded very well in taking advantage of the crisis that now gripped the economy and whose effects were increasingly felt by the proletariat’s trade union organisations.
At the most critical moment, the fascist movement gained strength from D'Annunzio’s expedition to Fiume, which endowed it with a certain moral authority. Although D'Annunzio’s movement was distinct from fascism, that event led to the rise of its organisation and armed strength.
We have referred to the conduct of the proletarian socialist movement, whose mistakes were repeatedly criticised by the International. These mistakes led to a complete reversal in the attitude of the bourgeoisie and other classes. The proletariat was divided and demoralised. As the working class saw victory slip through its hands, its mood shifted radically. It can be said that in 1919 and 1920 the Italian bourgeoisie had somewhat come to terms with the fact that it would have to witness the victory of the revolution. The middle class and petty-bourgeoisie were inclined to play a passive role, following in the wake not of the big bourgeoisie but of the proletariat, which was on the edge of victory.
But now the mood changed fundamentally. Rather than witnessing a proletarian victory, we see instead how the bourgeoisie is gathering its forces for defence. As the middle class saw that the Socialist Party was not able to organise itself to get the upper hand, they gave expression to their dissatisfaction. They gradually lost the confidence they had placed in the proletariat’s determination and turned toward the opposite side. At this moment the bourgeoisie launched the capitalist offensive, capitalising above all on the mood of the middle class. Thanks to its very heterogeneous composition, fascism was able to solve this problem; indeed it was even able to rein in somewhat the offensive of the bourgeoisie and capitalism.
Italy is a classic example of the capitalist offensive. As Comrade Radek explained here yesterday, this offensive is a complex phenomenon, which must be examined not only in terms of wage reductions or extension of the hours of work, but also in the general arena of the bourgeoisie’s political and military campaign against the working class.
In Italy, during the period of fascism’s development, we have experienced every form of the capitalist offensive. From its very beginnings, after a critical discussion of the situation, our Communist Party indicated to the Italian proletariat its tasks in unified self-defence against the bourgeois offensive. It drew up a coherent plan for the proletariat’s mobilisation against this offensive.
In order to examine the capitalist offensive as a whole, we must analyse the situation in general terms, particularly with reference to industry, on the one hand, and agriculture on the other.
In industry the capitalist offensive took advantage above all of the economic conditions. The crisis had begun, and unemployment was spreading. A portion of the workers had to be laid off, and it was simple for the employers to throw out of the factories the workers who led the trade unions, the extremists. The industrial crisis enabled the employers to reduce wages and to place in question the disciplinary and moral concessions they had previously been forced to grant the workers of their factories.
At the outset of this crisis, the employers formed a class alliance, the General League of Industry, which organised this struggle and directed the campaign in each separate branch of industry.
In the major cities, the struggle against the working class did not begin with the immediate use of force. In general, the urban workers were in large groups; they could readily gather in large numbers and offer a serious defence. The proletariat was above all driven into trade union struggles, which under the conditions of acute economic crisis had unfavourable outcomes. Unemployment was growing steadily. The only way to successfully withstand the economic struggles unfolding across industry would have been to transfer activity from the trade union domain to that of revolution, through the dictatorship of a genuinely Communist political party. But the Italian Socialist Party was not such an organisation.
During the decisive confrontation, it was not able to shift the activity of the Italian proletariat into a revolutionary framework. The period in which Italian trade unions had won major successes in improving working conditions now gave way to one of defensive strikes by the working class. The trade unions suffered one defeat after another.
In Italy the revolutionary movement of agricultural classes, especially rural wage workers and also layers that are not fully proletarianised, has great importance. The ruling classes had to utilise a weapon of struggle to counter the influence that Red organisations had won in the countryside.
In a large part of Italy, namely the plain of the Po, which is economically the most important, the situation looked surprisingly like a local dictatorship of the proletariat or at least of the rural workers. The Socialist Party had won control of many municipalities at the end of 1920 and instituted a municipal tax policy directed against the agricultural and middle bourgeoisie. We had flourishing trade union organisations there, plus significant cooperatives and many branches of the Socialist Party. And even where the movement was led by the reformists, the rural working class took a revolutionary stand. The employers were forced to pay taxes to the organisation, a certain sum that would provide a sort of guarantee that the employer would respect the contract imposed on him by trade union struggle.
The situation was such that the agricultural bourgeoisie could no longer live in the countryside and was forced to retreat to the cities.
The Italian Socialists committed certain errors, especially with regard to the acquisition of land and the tendency of poor tenants after the war to purchase land in order to become smallholders.
The reformist organisations forced these tenants to remain, as it were, slaves of the movement of rural workers. That enabled the fascist movement to gain solid support here.
In agriculture there was no crisis of vast unemployment, which would have enabled the landowners to wage a victorious counteroffensive on the level of trade union struggles.
It was in this situation that the expansion of fascism began, based on use of physical violence and armed force. Its base was the rural landowning class, and it also utilised the dissatisfaction aroused among the middle layer of agricultural classes by the organisational errors of the Socialist Party and the reformist leaders. Fascism based itself on the overall situation: the steadily growing discontent of all petty-bourgeois layers, the small merchants, the small landholders, the discharged soldiers, and the former officers, who, after the role they had played in the war, were disappointed by their current status.
All these elements were utilised, organised, and formed up into contingents. And then this movement tackled the task of destroying the power of Red organisations in the Italian countryside.
The method utilised by fascism is quite distinctive. Fascism assembled all the discharged soldiers who could not find their place in society after the war and put their military experience to work.
The first step was to form its military detachments not in the big industrial cities but in the localities that can be viewed as centres of Italian agricultural districts, like Bologna and Florence. They found support here from the municipal authorities, of which more later. The fascists had weapons and transport, enjoyed immunity from the law, and made use of these favourable conditions even in districts where they were numerically still smaller than their opponents. To begin with, they organised ‘punitive expeditions’. Here is how this was done:
They overran a specific small territory, destroyed the headquarters of proletarian organisations, forcibly compelled the municipal councils to resign, if necessary wounding or killing the leaders of their opponents, or at least forcing them to leave the region. The workers of this locality were not in a position to mount resistance against these contingents, armed and supported by the police and pulled together from all parts of the country. The local fascist group, which previously had not dared challenge the strength of the proletarian forces in that area, could now win the upper hand. Peasants and workers were now terrorised and knew that if they dared mount any kind of campaign against this group, the fascists would repeat their expedition with much stronger forces, against which no resistance was possible.
In this way, fascism won a dominant position in Italian politics, marching across the land, one district after another, according to a plan that can very easily be traced on a map.
Its starting point was Bologna. A socialist city administration was installed there in September and October 1920, accompanied by a big mobilisation of Red forces. There were incidents: [city council] sessions were disrupted by provocations from outside. Shots were fired at the benches of the bourgeois minority, perhaps by agents provocateurs. This occurrence led to the first big fascist attack. Reaction was now unleashed, carrying out destruction, arson, and acts of violence against leaders of the proletariat. Aided by the government, the fascists took control of the city. These events on the historic day of 21 November 1920 launched the terror, and the Bologna municipal council was never able to return to office.
Spreading out from Bologna, fascism followed a path that we cannot describe here in all its details. We will say only that it expanded in two geographical directions: firstly to the industrial triangle of the Northwest: Milan, Turin, and Genoa; secondly to Tuscany and the centre of Italy, in order to surround and threaten the capital. It was clear from the outset that the same factors that had blocked the emergence of a large socialist movement in southern Italy also prevented the growth of a fascist movement there. So little is the fascist movement an expression of the backward sector of the bourgeoisie that it appeared initially not in southern Italy but precisely in the area where the proletarian movement was most developed and the class struggle was most evident.
Given these facts, how should the fascist movement be understood? Is it a purely agrarian movement? That was not at all what we meant when we explained that the movement grew up primarily in rural areas. Fascism cannot be described as an independent movement of any specific sector of the bourgeoisie. It is not an organisation of agrarian interests opposed to those of industrial capitalism. Let us note that even in districts where fascist actions took place only in the countryside, it built its political/military organisations in the big cities.
By participating in the elections of 1921, the fascists obtained a parliamentary caucus. But at the same time, independently from fascism, an agrarian party was formed. In the course of further events we saw that the industrial employers supported fascism. A decisive step in this new situation was the recent declaration of the General League of Industry, which proposed that Mussolini be asked to form a new cabinet.
But even more significant in this regard is the phenomenon of the fascist trade union movement.
As I said, the fascists knew how to profit from the fact that the socialists never had an agrarian policy, and that certain forces in the countryside, who were not clearly part of the proletariat, had interests counterposed to those of the Socialists.
The fascist movement had to employ every instrument of brutal and savage violence. Yet it was able to combine this with the use of the most cynical demagogy. Fascism attempted to build class organisations of the peasants and even the rural wage workers. In a certain sense it even opposed the landowners. There were examples of trade union struggles under fascist leadership that were quite similar in their methods to those of the earlier Red organisations.
This movement, which uses compulsion and terror to create fascist trade unions, is not in any way a form of struggle against the employers. On the other hand, it would also be wrong to conclude that fascism is a movement of the agricultural employers as such. In reality fascism is a large and unified movement of the ruling class, capable of turning to its advantage and making use of every means and all particular and local interests of different groups of agricultural and industrial employers.
The proletariat did not succeed in unifying in a united organisation for a common struggle to take power, subordinating to this goal the immediate interests of small groups. It was not able to resolve this problem at the proper time. The Italian bourgeoisie seized on this fact and set out to do this in its own right. And this is an enormous problem. The ruling class built an organisation to defend the power that it holds, pursuing a unified plan for an anti-proletarian, capitalist offensive.
Fascism created a trade union movement. What was its purpose? To conduct a class struggle? Never! The fascist trade union movement was built with the slogan that all economic interests have the right to an association, be they workers, peasants, merchants, capitalists, great landowners, and so on. They can all organise around the same principle. The actions of all professional organisations must be subordinated to national interests, national production, national prestige, and so on.
This is class collaboration, not class struggle. All interests are welded together in a so-called national interest. We know well what such national unity means: the absolute and counter-revolutionary preservation of the bourgeois state and its institutions. In our opinion, the creation of fascism can be put down to three main factors: the state, the big bourgeoisie, and the middle classes.
The first of these factors is the state, which played an important role in Italy in the creation of fascism. Reports of the Italian bourgeois government’s crises, occurring in quick succession, give rise to the belief that the Italian bourgeoisie posses a state apparatus that is so precarious that a single blow would suffice to overthrow it. That is entirely wrong. The bourgeoisie was able to build up the fascist organisation precisely to the degree that the state apparatus stabilised.
During the period immediately following the war, the state apparatus experienced a crisis. Its obvious cause was demobilisation: all the forces that had been engaged in the war were suddenly thrown onto the labour market. At this critical moment the machinery of state, which up until then had been busy delivering all the means of struggle against the external foe, had to change into an apparatus to defend its power against internal revolution. For the bourgeoisie this posed an immense problem, which could not be resolved either technically or militarily through an open struggle against the proletariat. It had to be dealt with politically.
This was the period of the first left-wing governments after the war, when the political current led by Nitti and Giolitti was in power. It was precisely this policy that made it possible for fascism to secure its subsequent victory. First there had to be concessions to the proletariat, and then, at the moment when the state apparatus had to be consolidated, fascism appeared on the scene. When the fascists criticise these governments for cowardice against the revolutionaries, this is pure demagogy. In reality the fascists owe their victory to the concessions and democratic policy of the first postwar governments.
Nitti and Giolitti made concessions to the working class. Certain of the Socialist Party’s demands were met: demobilisation, a liberal internal regime, and amnesty for deserters. These various concessions were made in order to win time to restore the state on a solid foundation. It was Nitti who created the ‘Guardia Regia’, that is, the Royal Guard, which was not exactly a police agency but rather had an entirely new military character. One of the reform Socialists’ major errors was in not seeing the fundamental nature of this challenge, which could even have been countered on constitutional grounds by protesting the fact that the state was creating a second army. The Socialists did not grasp the importance of this question, viewing Nitti as someone that one could work with in a left government. This is yet more evidence of how incompetent this party is to develop any understanding of the course of Italian politics.
Giolitti completed Nitti’s work. His war minister, Bonomi, supported fascism’s first stirrings. He placed himself at the disposal of the movement then taking shape and of the demobilised officers, who, even after their return to civilian life, continued to draw the greater part of their wage. He placed the entire state apparatus at the disposal of the fascists, providing them with all the means needed to create an army.
When the factory occupations occurred, this government understood very well that with the armed proletariat taking charge of the factories, and the revolutionary upsurge of the rural proletariat headed toward taking the land, it would be an enormous error to launch into battle before the counter-revolutionary forces had been organised.
The government prepared the organisation of the reactionary forces that would one day smash the proletarian movement. In this it drew support from the manoeuvres of the treacherous leaders of the General Confederation of Labour, who were then members of the Socialist Party. By conceding the law on workers’ control, which was never implemented or even voted on, the government succeeded at this critical moment in rescuing the bourgeois state.
The proletariat had taken control of the factories and the land. But the Socialist Party showed once again that it was incapable of resolving the problem of unity in action of the industrial and agricultural working class. This error enabled the bourgeoisie to soon achieve unity on a counter-revolutionary basis, a unity that put it in a position to triumph over the workers both of the factories and in the countryside.
As we see, the state played a most important role in the fascist movement’s development. After the governments of Nitti, Giolitti, and Bonomi came the Facta government. This government provided a cover giving fascism full freedom of action in its territorial offensive. During the August 1922 strike, major battles took place between the workers and the fascists, who were openly supported by the government. Let us take the example of Bari. Although the fascists mustered up all their forces, they were unable during an entire week of fighting to defeat the workers of Bari, who retreated to their homes in the old city and defended themselves arms in hand. The fascists had to retreat, leaving a great many of their forces on the field of battle. And how did the Facta government respond? During the night it had the old city occupied by thousands of soldiers, hundreds of state police, and soldiers of the Royal Guard, who advanced to the attack. A torpedo boot stationed in the port aimed its fire on the houses. Machine guns, armoured cars, and artillery were brought up. The workers, surprised while they slept, were defeated, and their headquarters was taken. That happened throughout the entire country. Wherever it was evident that the workers had forced fascists to retreat, the government intervened, shooting workers who resisted, and arresting and sentencing workers whose only crime was self-defence, while fascists who had demonstrably committed despicable crimes were systematically set free by the authorities.
So much for the first factor, the state.
The second factor in fascism is, as I have said, the big bourgeoisie. The big capitalists of industry, the banks, commerce, and the big landowners, have a natural interest in the founding of an organisation of struggle that defends their offensive against working people.
But the third factor also plays a very important role in constituting fascist power.
In order to create an illegal reactionary organisation beside the state, forces must be recruited that are different from those that the high ruling class can find in its own social milieu. This is achieved by turning to the layers of the middle class that we have mentioned and advocating their interests, in order to ensnare them. That is what fascism set out to do, and it must be admitted that they succeeded. It recruited forces from the layers that are closest to the proletariat among those discontented because of the war, among petty bourgeois, middle-level bourgeois, merchants and traders, and above all among intellectual bourgeois youth. In joining up with fascism, they find again the energy to lift themselves morally and cloak themselves in the toga of combating the proletarian movement, achieving an exalted patriotism in the interests of Italian imperialism. These layers provided fascism with a significant number of supporters and enabled it to organise militarily.
Those are the three factors that enabled our opponents to confront us with a movement that knows no equal in brutality and savagery, and yet is a solid movement with a leader of great political dexterity. The Socialist Party was never able to grasp the meaning of the enemy organisation springing up in the form of fascism. Avanti had no understanding of what the bourgeoisie was preparing as it seized on the disastrous errors of the proletarian leaders. It did not want to mention Mussolini, fearing that emphasizing his role would serve as an advertisement.
We therefore see that fascism does not represent any new political doctrine. But it has a powerful political and military organisation and an influential press, which is managed with much journalistic skill and eclecticism. But it has no ideas and no programme. And now that it has taken the helm of state, it faces concrete problems and has to address the organisation of Italy’s economy. Once it passes over from its negative to its positive efforts, it will show signs of weakness, despite its organisational talent.
We have examined the historical factors and the social reality out of which the fascist movement took shape. We must now address the ideology that it adopted, along with the programme it used to win the various forces that are following it.
Our analysis leads to the conclusion that fascism has added nothing to the traditional ideology and programme of bourgeois politics. All things considered, its superiority and its specificity consist of its organisation, discipline, and hierarchy. Aside from this exceptional and militaristic exterior, it possesses nothing but a reality full of difficulties that it is unable to overcome. The economic crisis will constantly renew the causes of revolution, while fascism will be unable to reorganise the social apparatus of the bourgeoisie. Fascism does not know how to go beyond the economic anarchy of the capitalist system. It has a different historical task, which lies in combating political anarchy and the organisational anarchy of political groupings of the bourgeois class.
Different layers of the Italian ruling class have traditionally formed political and parliamentary groupings that, although not based on firmly organised parties, struggle against each other and compete to advance their particular and local interests. This leads to manoeuvres of every kind in the parliamentary corridors. The bourgeoisie’s counter-revolutionary offensive requires that the forces of the ruling class unite in social and governmental politics. Fascism meets this requirement. By placing itself above all the traditional bourgeois parties, it gradually deprives them of content. Through its activity, it replaces them. And thanks to the blunders of the proletarian movement, it has succeeded harnessing to its plan the political power and human material of the middle classes. But it is incapable of developing an ideology and a specific programme of administrative reform of society and state that is any better than that of traditional bourgeois politics, which is bankrupt a thousand times over.
The critical side of the fascist’s supposed doctrine is of no great merit. It portrays itself as anti-socialist and also anti-democratic. As for anti-socialism, fascism is clearly a movement of anti-proletarian forces and must take a stand against all socialist or semi-socialist economic forms. However, it does not succeed in offering anything new in order to shore up the system of private ownership, other than clichés about the failure of communism in Russia. It says that democracy must give way to a fascist state because of its failure to combat the revolutionary and anti-social forces. But that is no more than an empty phrase.
Fascism is not a current of the bourgeois Right, based on the aristocracy, the clergy, and the high civilian and military officials, seeking to replace the democracy of a bourgeoisie government and constitutional monarchy with monarchical despotism. Fascism incorporates the counter-revolutionary struggle of all the allied bourgeois forces, and for this reason it is by no means necessarily compelled to destroy the democratic institutions. From our Marxist point of view, this situation is by no means paradoxical, because we know that the democratic system is only a collection of deceptive guarantees, behind which the ruling class conducts its battle against the proletariat.
Fascism expresses simultaneously reactionary violence and the demagogic adroitness that the bourgeois left has always been able to use in deceiving the proletariat and guaranteeing the supremacy of big capitalist interests over the political needs of the middle classes. When the fascists go beyond their so-called criticism of liberal democracy and reveal their positive, ideological notions, preaching an excessive patriotism and drivel about the people’s historical mission, they are fashioning a mythology whose lack of serious foundations will be evident as soon as it is subjected to true social criticism, which exposes the land of illusory victories that bears the name Italy.
As regards influencing the masses, we see here an imitation of the classical stance of bourgeois democracy. When it is asserted that all interests must be subordinated to the superior interest of the nation, that means that class collaboration is upheld in principle, while in practice the conservative bourgeois institutions are supported against the proletariat’s efforts to free itself. That is the role that liberal bourgeois democracy has always played.
What is new in fascism is the organisation of a bourgeois ruling party. Political events on the floor of Italy’s parliament have awakened the belief that the bourgeois state apparatus has entered a crisis so profound that one blow from outside would be sufficient to break it. In reality the crisis is merely one of the bourgeois methods of government, which arose because of the impotence of the traditional groupings and leaders of Italian politics, who were not able to conduct the struggle against revolutionary forces at a time of acute crisis.
Fascism created an organism that was capable of taking over the role of heading up this country’s machinery of state.
But when the fascists move from engagement in their struggle against proletarians to elaborating a positive and specific programme for the organisation of society and administration of the state, basically they have merely repeated the banal themes of democracy and social-democracy. They have not created their own consistent system of proposals and projects.
Thus, for example, they have always maintained that the fascist programme will lead to a decrease in the bureaucratic state apparatus, beginning at the top with a reduction in the number of ministries and then carrying forward in all domains of administration. Now it is true that Mussolini did decline the prime minister’s personal railway car. But he otherwise increased the number of ministers and governmental under-secretaries, in order to find posts for his praetorian guard.
As for the question of monarchy or republic, fascism made various republican or enigmatic gestures, only to opt for pure loyal monarchism. Similarly, after a great outcry about parliamentary corruption, fascism has taken over entirely the practices of parliament.
Fascism showed so little tendency to adopt the features of unalloyed reaction that it allowed broad scope for trade unionism. At its Rome congress of 1921, where fascism made almost comical efforts to specify its doctrine, an attempt was made to portray fascist trade unionism as the primacy of the intellectual categories of labour. But this supposed theoretical conception has long since been refuted by ugly reality. The fascist trade union organisations are based on naked force plus the monopoly over job opportunities that the employers are offering in order to break the Red organisations. However, it has not succeeded in extending its reach to the categories of work demanding greater technical specialisation, which give the worker an advantage. It achieved success only among the agricultural workers and some of the less qualified categories of urban workers, such as the longshoremen, for example. It did not succeed among the more advanced and intelligent sector of the proletariat. It did not even give an impulse to the trade union movement among office workers and tradesmen. Fascist trade unionism has no serious theoretical foundation. The fascists’ ideology and programme contain a tangled jumble of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideas and demands. Its systematic employment of violence against the proletariat by no means prevents it from scooping up opportunism from Social Democratic sources.
One indication of that is the stance of the Italian reformists. For a time their policies were guided by anti-fascist principles and the illusion that they could build a bourgeois-proletarian coalition government against the fascists. Now they are joining up with the victorious fascists. This rapprochement is not at all paradoxical. It was encouraged by many circumstances and was predictable, based on many indications. Consider for example the D'Annunzio movement, which was linked to fascism, and nonetheless made the attempt to win the support of proletarian organisations on the basis of a programme derived from the Fiume constitution that was supposedly based on proletarian or even socialist principles.
I should mention a few other things that I consider quite important to the fascist phenomenon, but I lack the time. The other Italian comrades will be able to expand on my remarks when they take the floor. I have also left out everything relating to the feelings and sufferings experienced by Italian workers and Communists, because that did not appear to me to be essential to the question.
I must now take up the most recent events in Italy, regarding which the Congress expects a precise report.
The most recent events
Our delegation left Italy before the most recent events and was at first rather poorly informed about them. Yesterday evening a delegate of our Central Committee arrived and gave us a report. I can assure you that this is an accurate report on the facts we have received regarding the recent events in Italy, which I will now present to you.
As I said earlier, the Facta government afforded the fascists the broadest freedom of action to carry out their policies. Here is an example. The fact that each successive government has included strong representation from the Italian Catholic-peasant Peoples Party did not prevent the fascists from pursuing their struggle against the organisations, leaders, and institutions of this party. The existing government was a total sham, whose only activity consisted of promoting the territorial and geographic drive of the fascists toward power.
In reality the government was preparing the ground for a fascist putsch. Meanwhile, a new governmental crisis broke out. Demands were raised that Facta resign. The most recent elections had produced a parliament in which the party representation was such as to prevent the bourgeois parties from constituting a stable majority in their traditional ways. It was customary to say that Italy was ruled by a ‘huge liberal party’. But that was not a party at all, in the usual meaning of the word. Such a party never existed and was not formed as an organisation. It was just a mishmash of personal cliques of this or that politician of the North or South, plus cliques of industrial or rural bourgeois, run by professional politicians. These politicians, taken together, formed in fact the core of every parliamentary coalition.
Now the moment had come when fascism had to change this situation, if it was to avoid a severe internal crisis. An organisational question was also involved. The needs of the fascist movement had to be met, and the organisation’s costs paid. These material resources had been supplied on a massive scale by the ruling classes and, it seems, by governments abroad. France had given money to the Mussolini group. A secret session of the French cabinet debated a budget that included significant funds passed on to Mussolini in 1915. The Socialist Party came upon documents of this type, but it did not pursue the matter, thinking that Mussolini was washed up. On the other hand, the Italian government always made things easier for the fascists, as for example in enabling large groups of fascists to use the railways without paying. Nonetheless the enormous expenses of the fascist movement would have caused great difficulties, had they not made a direct bid for power. They could not wait for new elections, even though they could be sure of success.
The fascists already have a strong political organisation with three hundred thousand members; they claim it is even larger. They could have won by ‘democratic’ means. But they were in a rush to bring things to a head.
On 24 October there was a meeting of the fascist National Council in Naples. This event, trumpeted by the whole bourgeois press, is now claimed to have been a manoeuvre aimed at distracting attention from a coup d'état. At a certain moment the congress participants were told to stop deliberations; there was something more important to do. Everyone was told to go back to their district, and a fascist mobilisation began. That was 26 October. In the capital there was still complete calm.
Facta had stated that he would not resign until he had convened parliament one more time, in order to observe the usual procedure. Nonetheless, despite this statement, he presented the king with his resignation.
Negotiations began regarding formation of a new government. The fascists marched on Rome, the focus of their activity. They were especially active in central Italy and Tuscany. Nothing was done to stop them.
Salandra was asked to form a new government, but he declined because of the attitude of the fascists. It is very probable that the fascists, if not appeased by Mussolini’s appointment, would have risen up like brigands, even against the will of their leaders, plundering and destroying everything in the cities and countryside.
Public opinion was somewhat aroused. The Facta government stated that they would declare a state of siege. This was done, and a major clash was expected between the government’s forces and those of the fascists. Public opinion waited through a long day for this to happen; our comrades were highly sceptical regarding this possibility.
The fascists did not encounter serious resistance anywhere during their advance. And nonetheless, there were some circles in the army disposed to counter the fascists. The soldiers were ready to take on the fascists, while most of the officers supported them.
The king refused to sign the declaration of a state of siege. That meant accepting the fascists’ conditions, which had been printed in the Popolo d'Italia, namely: ‘Mussolini should be asked to form a new ministry, and this will provide a legal solution. Otherwise, we are marching on Rome and will take control of it’.
Some hours after the state of siege had been lifted, it was learned that Mussolini was headed for Rome. Measures had been taken for military defence; troops had been assembled; the city was surrounded by cavalry. But the agreement had already been finalised, and on 31 October the fascists triumphantly entered Rome.
Mussolini formed a new government, and whose composition is well known. The fascist party, which has only thirty-five seats in parliament, has the absolute majority in this government. Mussolini is not only the head of the council of ministers but also holds the portfolios for internal and external affairs. Members of the fascist party divided up the other important portfolios and made themselves at home in most of the other ministries.
Since there had not yet been a full break with the traditional parties, the government included two representatives of the socially inclined democrats – that is, left bourgeois forces; as well as right-wing liberals and a supporter of Giolitti. The monarchist forces were represented by General Diaz in the ministry of war and Admiral Thaon di Revel in the ministry of the navy.
The People’s Party, which is very strong in parliament, concluded a skilful compromise with Mussolini. On the pretext that the party’s leading body could not meet in Rome, responsibility for accepting Mussolini’s proposals was thrust onto a semi-official gathering of parliamentary deputies. Nonetheless, they succeeded in persuading Mussolini to grant some concessions, and the newspapers of the People’s Party were able to state that the new government did not propose any major changes in the electoral system or parliament.
The compromise embraced even the Social Democrats. For a time it seemed that the reform-socialist Baldesi would take part in the government. Mussolini was sufficiently adroit to relay the offer to Baldesi through one of his lieutenants. When Baldesi declared he would be glad to accept this post, Mussolini stated that the offer had been a personal initiative by one of his associates, for which Mussolini took no responsibility. And thus it was that Baldesi did not get to join the cabinet.
Mussolini did not accept a representative of the reformist General Confederation of Labour on the grounds of opposition by right-wing forces within his cabinet. But Mussolini is of the opinion that this organisation should be represented after all in his ‘broad national coalition’, now that it is independent of any revolutionary political party.
We see in these events a compromise between the traditional political cliques and the different layers of the ruling class – the great landowners and the financial and industrial capitalists, who lean to support of the new government created by a movement that has secured the support of the petty-bourgeoisie.
In our view, fascism is a method to secure the power of the ruling classes by utilising every means available to them, including even making use of the lessons of the first proletarian revolution, the Russian revolution. When faced by an economic crisis, it is not enough for the state merely to maintain its power. It needs a unified party, a unified counter-revolutionary organisation. Through its contact with the entire bourgeoisie, the fascist party represents in a certain sense what the Communist Party is in Russia thanks to its relationship to the proletariat, that is, a well-organised and disciplined body that leads and supervises the state apparatus as a whole. The fascist party in Italy has placed its political commissars in almost every significant post in the branches of the state apparatus. It is the leading body of the bourgeois state in the period of imperialist decline. In my view, that is an adequate historical explanation of fascism and of the recent developments in Italy.
The first actions of the new government show that it does not intend to alter Italy’s traditional institutions.
When I predict that fascism will be liberal and democratic, I do not of course mean that conditions will be favourable for the proletarian and socialist movement. Democratic governments have never given the proletariat anything other than declarations and promises. For example, Mussolini’s government guarantees that it will respect freedom of the press. But it did not refrain from adding that the press must be worthy of that freedom. What does that tell us? It means that the government will pretend to respect freedom of the press, while permitting its fascist military organisations to strike out against Communist newspapers whenever they choose, as has already happened in the past. We must also note that the fascist government is making certain concessions to the bourgeois liberals. Little confidence should be placed in the Mussolini government’s assurances that it plans to convert its military organisation into sport clubs, or something of the like. However, we do know that dozens of fascists were taken into police custody because they had resisted Mussolini’s order to demobilise.
What is the impact of these events on the proletariat? It found itself in a situation where it could play no significant role in the struggle and had to behave almost passively.
As for the Communist Party, it always understood that a victory of fascism would be a defeat for the revolutionary movement. We had no doubt about the fact that we are not at present in a position to take the offensive against fascist reaction, and had to assume a defensive posture. The question is therefore chiefly whether the Communist Party’s policies succeeded, in this framework, in protecting the Italian proletariat to the greatest extent possible.
If instead of a compromise between the bourgeoisie and fascism there had been an outbreak of a military conflict, the proletariat could perhaps have played a certain role in establishing a united front for a general strike, and achieving some success. But in the given situation, the proletariat did not take part in the actions. Although the unfolding events had enormous significance, we must also bear in mind that the change on the political stage was less abrupt that it appeared, since conditions had become more and more acute before fascism launched its final attack. The only example of a struggle against the government and fascism was in Cremona, where six persons were killed. The proletariat fought only in Rome. The revolutionary worker contingents had a clash with the fascist bands. There were some wounded. The next day, the Royal Guard occupied the workers’ district, robbing them of all means of defending themselves, and the approaching fascists shot the workers down in cold blood. That is the bloodiest episode that took place during these struggles in Italy.
When the Communist Party proposed a general strike, the General Confederation of Labour disarmed the Communists, calling on the proletariat to ignore the dangerous directives of the revolutionary groups. A report was spread about that the Communist Party had dissolved; this was at a time when our newspapers were unable to publish.
In Rome, the bloodiest episode for our party was the seizure of the editorial offices of Comunista. The print shop was occupied on 31 October, just at the moment the newspaper was to appear, while one hundred thousand fascists held the city under occupation. All the editors managed to slip out through side doors, except for the editor-in-chief, Comrade Togliatti. He was in his office, and the fascists came in and seized hold of him. Our comrade’s conduct was frankly heroic. He boldly declared that he was editor-in-chief of Comunista. He was quickly put up against the wall, in order to be shot, while fascists drove back the crowd. Our comrade escaped only thanks to the fact that the fascists got news that the other editors had fled over the roof and rushed up to capture them. All this did not prevent our comrade from speaking a few days later at a rally in Turin on the occasion of the anniversary of the Russian revolution. (Applause)
But what I have just reported is an isolated event. Our party organisation is in rather good shape. The fact that Comunista is not appearing results not from a governmental decision but because the print shop does not want to publish it. The difficulties in publishing were economic, not technical.
In Turin the Ordine nuovo building was occupied, and the weapons stored there were seized. But we are printing the newspaper at another location.
Also in Trieste the police seized our paper’s print shop, but this paper too is coming out underground. Our party is still able to function legally, and our situation is not that bad. But we do not know how things will develop, and I must therefore be cautious in speaking of our party’s future situation and activity.
The comrade who has just arrived is a leading worker in one of our important local party organisations. His has an interesting point of view, also shared by many other militants, namely, that we will now be able to work better than was the case before. I do not say that this opinion is a well-established fact. But the comrade with this viewpoint is a militant who works directly with the masses, and his opinion has great weight.
As I said, our opponents’ press has spread the false report that our party has dissolved. We have published a denial and established the truth. Our central political publications, our underground military centre, our trade union centre are working actively and their relationships to other regions have been restored in almost every case. The comrades who stayed in Italy never lost their head for a moment, and they are doing all that is required. Avanti was destroyed by the fascists, and a few days will be needed to enable this paper to appear once more. The Socialist Party’s central headquarters in Rome was destroyed and all its private files burned, right down to the last piece of paper.
Concerning the position of the Maximalist Party [SP] regarding the polemic between the Communist Party and the General Confederation of Labour, we have not seen a declaration of any kind.
As for the reformists, it is clear from the tone of their newspapers, which are still appearing, that they will unite with the new government.
With reference to the trade unions, Comrade Repossi of our trade union committee believes that it will be possible to continue our work.
That completes the information that we have received, which dates from 6 November.
I have spoken at length. I will not take up the question of our party’s position during the course of fascism’s development, and instead reserve that for other points on the congress agenda. We only want to address here the prospects for the future. We have said that fascism will have to cope with the dissatisfaction created by the government’s policies.
Nonetheless we know very well that when a military organisation exists alongside the state, it is easier to cope with dissatisfaction and unfavourable economic conditions.
Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, that was true in a much deeper sense, because historical development is on our side. The fascists are excellently organised and firm in their views. Given this, it can be foreseen that the fascist government will be far from unstable. You have seen that I have in no way exaggerated the conditions under which our party has struggled. We cannot make that into a matter of sympathy.
Perhaps the Communist Party of Italy has made mistakes. It can be criticised. But I believe that at the present moment the comrades’ conduct demonstrates that we have accomplished a great task, the formation of a revolutionary party of the proletariat, which will provide the basis for an uprising of the Italian working class.
The Italian Communists have the right to ask for your respect. Their conduct has not always met with approval. Yet they believe they cannot be reproached for anything with regard to the revolution and the Communist International.
5. The ‘unusual circumstances’ flowed from Mussolini’s assumption of power on 31 October 1922.
6. Trieste and the Trentino were territories with a substantial Italian population that had been retained by Austria-Hungary after the process of Italian unification of 1859 – 70; both were awarded to Italy in 1919.
7. Possession of the city of Fiume, on the northern Adriatic, had been disputed at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference by Italy and newly constituted Yugoslavia. While negotiations continued, in September 1919, an Italian nationalist militia detachment led by D'Annunzio seized the city. Fiume retained de facto independence until 1924, when the territory was divided between Italy and Yugoslavia.
8. The massive strike wave of September 1920 in Italy. It was brought to an end by a manoeuvre by Giolitti, the prime minister, who proposed an agreement supposedly to institutionalise workers’ control of the factories. The agreement, approved by unions and employers, served to demobilise the strike movement but was not implemented.
9. An ad hoc Labour Alliance (Alleanza del lavoro), composed of the trade union federations, called a general strike on 1 August 1922 for ‘the defence of political and trade union freedoms’. Only two days were allowed for preparations, and the action was hampered by sectarianism among left parties. The strike failed and gave way to a sweeping fascist offensive against labour organisations, backed by the army and police. However, in Parma and Bari, where united fronts had been achieved locally, workers won striking victories over fascist attackers.
10. The workers’ successful defence of the old city in Bari, and also their simultaneous and decisive victory in Parma, flowed from the achievement of fighting unity of anti-fascist forces, including the Arditi del Popolo (People’s Commandos) – a unity rare at that time.
11. Both the German and Russian texts for the preceding words translate as ‘broad scope for syndicalism’. This is an apparent mistranslation of Bordiga’s remarks, which were delivered in French, and would have used the word ‘syndicalisme’ – ‘trade unionism’.