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International Socialism, June/July 1969


Andrew Sayers

The Failure of the Italian Socialist Movement


From International Socialism (1st series), No.37, June/July 1969, pp.15-23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


‘Leaders and institutions can retreat. Individual persons can hide. But the working class will have no place to retreat to in the face of fascism and no place to hide.’

Italy in 1914

In some ways Italy in 1914 resembled Russia. Although it was largely a peasant country, elements of a highly developed capitalism were concentrated in the North in the triangle Turin-Milan-Genoa. A latecomer on the industrial scene, Italian industry had been able to adopt the most advanced techniques in its leading sectors. This development had, however, been achieved through protectionism and the economic exploitation of the South. Italian industry had traditionally relied on the State for its security both in terms of trade barriers and financial rescue in case of crisis. Yet, in the period between 1910 and 1915 industrial output accounted for only 25.6 per cent of gross national domestic product [1], and in 1911 only 11.2 per cent of the population, of which 3.4 per cent were women [2], were employed in industry. Regional differences were extremely high and in the South poverty was incredible. Unemployment figures are unavailable, but the proportions of the problem can be assessed by the emigration figures. Between 1901 and 1910 602,669 Italians emigrated, between 1911 and 1920, 382,807 in spite of the war deaths. [3]

The Socialist Party

The Socialist Party was the only modern political party in Italy at this period. Even after the expulsion of the reformists the Socialists got 52 seats in the elections of 1913 and collected about 17.7 per cent of the popular vote. Its members numbered over 50,000. [4]

Allied to the PSI was the CGL (General Confederation of Labour), founded in 1906, which in 1912 was dominated by the reformists and had 400,000 members of whom 160,000 were farm labourers. [5] The autonomous Sindacato Ferrovieri (Railwaymen’s Union) had a highly developed organisation, and the same applied to the FIOM (Italian Federation of Metal Workers). The revolutionary syndicalists who broke away from the CGL in 1912, founded the USI (Union .of Italian Syndicates) in 1914) which soon had 90,000 members. [6] In addition various types of co-operatives were formed throughout Italy. In 1909 547 producers’ co-operatives were in existence among farm labourers, and in 1910, 1,704 consumers’ co-operatives were in operation. [7]

In a few Northern industrial cities a highly conscious and political proletariat was developing and giving to the whole movement a revolutionary direction. In the countryside of Northern and Central Italy, the Socialist reformists had built impressive organisations, controlled hundreds of local administrations and helped relieve the often extreme poverty. [8]

These outstanding achievements hid, however, the inadequacies of Italian Socialism in this period. The leadership of the movement was largely reformist and a drag on the spontaneous activity of the most conscious elements of the class which followed localised anarchist and syndicalist traditions.

Government strategy

The Italian parliament was dominated by a narrow caste of ‘liberals’ and ‘democrats’ representing the coalition of Northern industrialists and Southern landowners. The aim of the most notable prime minister, Giolitti was to ‘democratise’ Italian society by playing off Socialists, Catholics and Nationalists against one another so as to integrate all of them. It was to this end that he launched the Libyan colonial war of 1912. But this backfired. On the one hand it increased the strength of the nationalists; on the other it produced an intense opposition to the war among the working class that led to the expulsion of the pro-war right wing from the socialist party – years before this was to happen anywhere else in Europe.

Ancona’s Red Week

This intense proletarian opposition to the Libyan adventure had not died down by 1914. Indeed, as the ‘Red Week’ of that year was to prove, the anti-war feeling if anything had increased.

In June during an anti-militarist demonstration at Ancona addressed by the anarchist Errico Malatesta the demonstrators were shot upon by the carabinieri, the militarized police, and three died and fifteen were wounded. A general strike was declared the next day, but the leadership was split and undecided. The masses, however, responded enthusiastically. ‘In Turin, on the very morning of the 8th before learning of the decisions of the national organizations, the Turin metal workers abandoned work. The first ones to leave the factory were the 500 Lancia workers, then those of Fiat centro, then the others. In the afternoon the strike became solid.’ [9] The next day over 50,000 workers took to the streets. In the afternoon fights broke out between soldiers and demonstrators throughout the city. Two workers were killed. [10]

But the struggle was not isolated to Turin. Bologna and Ancona raised the red flag, and other towns declared themselves independent communes. A republic was declared in Romagna, and most of the authorities went into hiding. A group of rebels near Ravenna forced General Agliardi of the regular army to surrender his sword. [11]

The CGL, however, called the strike off without even consulting the PSI. Even then over 100,000 soldiers had to be called up to restore order.

Already before 1914 the Giolittian compromise that had held together a heterogeneous ruling class was breaking down. The year before Giolitti had been replaced as prime minister by the more right wing Salandra.

The war further deepened the divisions within the ruling class coalition, while also widening the gap between it and the working class. The mass of the Italian population were opposed to any intervention in the war. This included not only the workers, but also the parliamentary majority and sections of the bourgeoisie. At the outbreak of war Italy was supposed to be bound by treaty obligations to go to the support of Austria. However, the cabinet wriggled out of these and declared for neutrality. Parliament was not recalled to ratify the decision, and power to rule by decree was effectively taken by the Cabinet and Court. Ten months later these decided to enter the war – but on the side of the Entente. The numbers of those actively favouring the war were small. The clique around the king and Salandra, the prime minister, saw it as a chance to increase the national territory. In this they were supported by the nationalists – chiefly petty bourgeois elements who saw it as a chance for personal advantage that could be presented as a continuation of the ideals of the Risorgimento – and the most backward sections of industry. Against the war were the majority of parliamentary deputies, including Giolitti, and virtually the whole of the working class. The few socialists, led by the editor of the party daily, Mussolini, who supported intervention were immediately expelled and henceforth regarded as traitors.

The War Period

In a country already shaken by class war the arbitrariness of the decision to participate in the war had a tremendous effect. According to Ivanoe Bonomi, minister during the war: ‘Italy’s intervention alienated the socialist proletariat from the state and drove it into implacable opposition.’ [12]

The war itself was waged in an atmosphere of civil war. Things were not helped by the fact that the army was totally unprepared. At the outset of war the only plans available were those drawn up in the event of a war against France! The war which was supposed to last only a few months settled down to a long trench war of attrition. The hatred by the soldiers of the officers was intense. It was a common saying at the time that the enemy was not the Austrians in front but the High Command at the back. [13] Most of the conscripts were fighting against their will and the number of deserters, defeatists, mutineers, and of soldiers who inflicted wounds on themselves to escape active duty was enormous. All in all 15 per cent of the conscripts were sentenced. [14] Thus the class warfare continued right into the trenches. [15]

The civilian population suffered heavily as well. Real wages fell badly [16], and there were food shortages and restrictions and military discipline was imposed in the factories. The gravest incident took place in Turin where on August 22, 1917 after an initial protest strike for the lack of bread, riots soon developed. On the 23rd the movement spread and what had started as a limited spontaneous movement became a general opposition to the war. The situation became insurrectionary and barricades were set up all over the town. The army had to be called in and tanks and machine guns had to be used. Order was restored only on the 28th, and not before 41 deaths had been recorded and the trade union and socialist leaders had been arrested.

What support there was for the war was at first of an idealistic nature and very much a middle class phenomenon until October 1917 when the army suffered a major setback. The front broke at Caporetto and thousands of prisoners were taken. It was only through a tremendous effort that the Austrian invasion was halted before the plains of Lombardy were reached. From this point onwards the war took on some elements of popular support. In the trenches as well there was increasing commitment. This growth of popular involvement in the last year of the war was a complex phenomenon. On the one hand the news of the Russian revolution heightened the class war, and strengthened the determination to change the existing order once the war was over. On the other hand, the war became in a real sense a national effort. The feeling was that the sacrifices that were being made in the trenches were part of the price that had to be paid in order to be able to settle the score in the future.

With tremendous courage and sacrifice the front was held. The year after a counter-attack was launched and the Austro-Hungarian empire was put in total disarray. The victory took the name of the small town Vittorio Veneto, and a separate armistice was signed.

When the war ended 650,000 Italians had been killed compared with 6,000 for the whole of the wars of unification between 1848 and 1870. The cost of the war had been 148 billion lire, that is, twice the sum of all government expenditure between 1861 and 1914.

The Immediate Postwar

The Italian ruling classes who had hoped to solve their problems with the war found the country at the end of it on the brink of revolution.

The economic difficulties were enormous, unemployment was great, and with the traditional outlets of emigration restricted and the difficulty of changing from a war to a peace economy, the problems were considerably worsened. State expenditure exceeded receipts by more than three times, and the dollar which had stood at 6.34 lire in 1918 rose to 18.47 in 1920. [17]

The soldiers who had been kept in the trenches partly out of a sense of duty and partly out of promises of social reform were now expecting change. Had not Lloyd George said: ‘The post war world is to be a new world ... After the war the workers must be inexorable in their demands,’ [18] and Salandra had proclaimed: ‘Yes the war is a revolution ... Let no one think that a peaceful return to the past will be possible after this storm.’ [19]

It was for this new world that the soldiers had fought out the last year of the war, and now they wanted change. The peasants, especially those of the South, went back home asking for land. The workers were looking at the achievements of the Russian Revolution for an example. The intellectual bourgeoisie was also deeply shaken.

The lower middle class soldiers had become petty and middle rank officers during the war. They had been instrumental in the victory since the old military caste had proven totally incompetent. They had acquired a new dignity and a position both respected and of privilege which they were not prepared to give up easily.

All three categories found nothing but disappointments and broken promises in the aftermath of the war.

Not only was land distribution not forthcoming, but as war production ground to a halt many workers were sacked, and new employment was not available, neither for them nor for the demobilised officers. To aggravate things the gap with the rich had actually increased, for some people had done extremely well out of the war. Government contractors had often made fortunes, and many farmers had found that the protected market and the inflation which had relatively decreased the burdens of rents and mortgages had allowed them to do well also. So the peasants started moving onto large estates and taking over the land throughout Italy. [20] The workers started a wave of strikes against the bosses and flocked into a Socialist Party which raised its membership from 50,000 to 200,000 and the CGL which surpassed the two million mark.

Strike wave followed strike wave. Amongst the most important were those against increases in the cost of living, in support of Berlin’s ‘Red Week’, in commemoration of Rosa Luxemburg, one to disassociate the Italian proletariat from the aggression by the Great Powers against the Russian Revolution, those for the eight hour day which was won. in 1919, and for the recognition of the factory councils. Clashes between demonstrators and authorities increased. Tension became extreme in June 1919 with a revolt at Ancona when soldiers, supported by the working class of the town, refused to embark for Albania. In Leghorn following an incident during a football match when a spectator had been shot dead by the police, the whole town rose up in arms and declared itself an independent Soviet. The whole of Italy was out on the streets. ‘I was impressed,’ wrote a minister, ‘that to muster sufficient forces to face the storm it was necessary to send for carabinieri and police from other districts, which were thus left unprotected. I have often wondered what the government would have done if the revolt had broken out simultaneously throughout the peninsula.’ [21]

The Socialist Party

If these movements were spontaneous in that what sparked them off was unplanned, they were nonetheless the result of an intense subversive propaganda which the PSI had conducted. Indeed on this level the Party had genuine cause to be proud. It had been the only party of any belligerent country to remain neutralist throughout the war, and had taken part in the congresses of Zimmerwald and Kiental. It had supported the Russian Revolution from the outset even when the events were unclear because of lack of information. By publicising the Russian Revolution, it had made a revolutionary solution the logical and necessary development of the Italian situation for the masses. In March 1919 it had joined the Third International, and at the national party congress in October 1919 in Bologna it had called for the setting up of Soviets throughout Italy and for the overthrow of bourgeois democracy.

All this revolutionary spirit was evident, however, only on the level of propaganda because when it came down to the facts the Party showed a total lack of organisation and direction. If it had opposed the war, it had been unable and unwilling to call for a general strike to prevent it. The many explosions which took place were applauded by the leadership but also left to collapse, and in the last analysis they were looked upon with what was almost acute embarassment. The ‘Maximalist’ executive, in order to avoid ‘creating false hopes’, postponed all action until the ‘approaching revolution’ arrived, taking no steps to create it. They expected power to fall into their laps.

They called for abstract Soviets without realising the peculiar forms that the organisations of the class took in Italy. Only the group around Gramsci in Turin paid any attention to the concrete development of organs of working-class power. Gramsci stressed the importance of the ‘factory council’ for whose recognition strikes were taking place all over Italy. Tasca (who later, under the pseudonym Rossi, wrote one of the best histories of the rise of fascism) claimed that ‘the communes and the Chambers of Labour were the second power which was rising against the state and which might take its place [22], these were the Italian Soviets formed by the far reaching traditions of municipal life and by the recent history of the working class movement ... Because the revolution was Italian and popular in form, the "revolutionaries" who wanted "Soviets everywhere", passed it by without recognising it.’ [23]

The universal desire for change had expressed itself in a call for a constituent assembly. This, and the demands for a republic, and for common ownership of the land, could have been the essential step of the first stage of the revolution. But it could not come into being without action from the party which controlled the masses. The socialists, however, removed the constituent assembly from their programme although ‘There was never any reunion or a meeting ... without talk of a constituent assembly. The phrase was passed from zone to zone and was impressed on the minds of the demobilised troops... It was everything, and it was nothing; or better, it could have been everything and it came to nothing.’ [24]

The war had been fought mainly by peasants and the lower middle classes while the workers had stayed at home and continued production, which had, of course, created some resentment. The situation was made worse by the fact that workers had been able to defend their economic situation relatively better than other categories. All this, however, would have been of little importance in the postwar period if the PSI had been able to give all discontented elements a concrete socialist perspective as the only solution. The call for a constituent assembly could have been a powerful weapon since it was a demand common to all. It could have been a transitional demand and the first step towards a strategy of class alliances which the Party so badly needed. After all, the first congress of the veterans’ organisations had drafted a programme which included, for example, nationalisation of the land.

The Socialists, instead, proudly raised the cry ‘Alone against all’ and tended to carry their opposition to the war into the postwar period as an opposition to those who had fought in the war. Often anti-war propaganda became anti-soldier propaganda. [25] The result was that large numbers of peasants joined the Catholic party, the PPI, which was founded in 1919, and over a million peasants joined the Catholic unions. Large numbers of discontented officers turned to the right.

When it came to it, the PSI proved to be little more than a huge electoral machine. And in this respect they did well, gaining 155 seats in the elections of 1919. [26] But their basic ambiguity was insoluble. Their policy of total opposition in Parliament [27] could be reconciled only with a revolutionary practice outside, and this practice was totally absent.

The Growth of Reaction

At the end of the war the bourgeoisie had been deeply divided and in the grip of a real crisis of confidence. The Russian revolutionary events had made a deep impression on everyone, and the socialist forces seemed unbeatable. Whole segments of the ruling classes were scared by the impressive wave of strikes and revolutionary noises, and they were almost resigned to what they saw as their inevitable destiny.

But slowly they started to regain their confidence and nerve. The failure of the PSI to integrate the veterans was exploited by a wave of heated nationalist propaganda. This was helped by the fact that at the peace conference the Italian delegation had found itself playing a minor role. It could be pointed out that while France and Britain were dividing the German colonies and the Turkish Empire between them, Italy had been refused even Fiume, a town with a predominately Italian-speaking population on the Yugoslav coast. It wasn’t difficult to rally some of the veterans around the nationalists by claiming that after having won the war they were now in danger of losing the peace. And once they had been rallied it was easy to turn them against the socialists who were still conducting their sterile polemics.

Nuclei of anti-socialist forces started being formed, gathering momentum as they realised that the socialists made a lot of noise but had little bite.

Mussolini too jumped on the bandwagon, and in Milan on March 23, 1919 he founded the first fascist cell, the ‘fascio di combattimento’. At the end of the hostilities he had found himself abandoned by big capital since his help was not needed any more once the war was over. He was also left behind by the revolutionary wave that was sweeping the country. With characteristic opportunism, since he was uncertain what side was going to win, he tried to have it both ways. The first fascist programme was intensely nationalistic and rabidly anti-socialist, but it was also anti-capitalist and revolutionary. Luckily for him the bourgeoisie saw the revolutionary rhetoric for what it was, just an attempt to fool the masses, and they gave him their support. [28] Some mixed up revolutionaries were taken in, and they had to be thrown out later on, but on the whole most of the recruits were ex-officers and the backbone of the movement were the ‘Arditi’. [29] Soon the fasci spread to many other towns, anti-bolshevik leagues were formed in some of the main centres, and actions started against the socialists.

When the dustmen in Rome went on strike, teams of students and other volunteers took their place. When in the same town in July trams were brought out decorated with red flags to celebrate a successful strike, the flags were torn and the drivers beaten up. The most serious incident took place in Milan, however, where a nationalist demonstration called to counter a socialist general strike attacked the offices of Avanti! and set fire to them. These were and remained sporadic and isolated instances while the socialist offensive was at its peak, but they became more and more frequent as the first defeats appeared, and once the tide had turned, it could not be stopped.

The strikes against the increases in the cost of living were the high tide of the socialist offensive. In Emilia, Romagna, Tuscany, and the Marches there were all the elements of a popular insurrection with frequent fraternisation between demonstrators and troops. Shops were looted all over Italy, and power was held in most places by the Chamber of Labour. But the PSI gave no political direction and merely explained through Avanti! that the problem could not be solved by looting!

The results were inevitable. When the masses saw that their agitation gave no results, they began to be demoralised. The general strike of July 20-21 1919, which was called to show support for the Russian revolutionaries fighting against the great powers, had been built up to the point where everyone was expecting it to be the start of the socialist offensive. Yet, when the strike took place, both the hopes of the most advanced segments of the class and the preoccupations of the bourgeoisie were out’ of proportion not only to the will of the leaders of the strike but also to the mood of the masses. The strike was compact but had little enthusiasm and even the rallies were poorly attended.

Because so much had been expected, the disappointment felt by the masses was all the greater and the rejoicing and desire for revenge felt by the bourgeoisie all the more spiteful.

The Fiume Incident

While the forces of reaction were tentatively trying to re-group to repel the socialist danger, the authority of the state took another hard blow, this time from the right.

The intense nationalist propaganda which had been encouraged by the government in an attempt to curb the socialists by using the nationalists took its toll. On September 12, 1919 d’Annunzio ‘solved’ the ‘Fiume problem’ by taking the city over with some units of the regular army and some volunteers. D’Annunzio was a poet and a megalomaniac who had written that: ‘man must be his own star, a law unto himself, and the avenger of this law,’ and the whole adventure which lasted for over one year was little more than a farce. But it was also an ominous event. The government was totally unable to do anything about the situation or about the insubordination in the army until December 1920 and this gave an impetus to those forces of reaction which were regrouping to seek a solution outside parliament. The exercise with its charade of uniforms, Roman mythology, its balcony speeches, and organised crowd delirium was taken over stock and barrel by the fascists, and in this sense the occupation of Fiume constituted a dress rehearsal for the Fascist coup.

The Occupation of the Factories

The period that followed the taking of Fiume was a period of transition in which the proletarian forces and the ruling classes faced each other with neither able to determine the solution to the crisis. The PSI scored a resounding victory at the elections, strikes took place in Piedmont for the recognition of the factory councils, and a military mutiny broke out in Ancona. On the other hand a national employers organisation, the General Confederation of Industry was formed on March 7, 1920 and on August 18 the landowners’ equivalent General Confederation of Agriculture was also set up. Thus there could now be a national response from capital to the localised and erratic efforts of the workers.

The period when the situation was fluid and when anything could have happened was drawing to a close. The occupation of the factories was an expression of this position of stalemate, and the outcome could have been decisive for either side.

The occupation started almost by mistake. The FIOM had been negotiating for over three weeks for a wage increase to keep up with rising prices. The negotiations broke down since the employers’ negotiators explained that they intended to set an example and not give an inch. The metal workers union decided to counter by calling for stay-in strikes. It was to suppress a lightening strike that Alfa Romeo cleared its works and shut out its workers. The FIOM was now in a dilemma, and not realising the significance it decided to call for the occupation of the factories merely as a substitute for a failed strike.

The FIOM leadership had no idea what the consequences of their call to occupy would be. The movement spread to the whole of Italy at times even anticipating the orders of the leaders. In Turin and in some other towns the workers moved into other types of factories as well.

The factory councils took the lead, especially in Turin which had already been the scene of strikes for their recognition. It was in Turin as well that a group of young socialist revolutionaries headed by Gramsci had done an intense work of education and propaganda at the rank-and-file level, and the proletariat of Turin led the struggle.

Red armed guards were created for the protection of the factories and production was kept up wherever possible with the help of the railwaymen who brought what raw materials were available. During the occupation, however, documents were found in the offices of the Turin factories which proved that employers blacked trouble makers and had organised a system of espionage. This helped to change the nature of the strike which soon became a fight for control.

It was up to the PSI and the GCL to take up the fight politically. The employers were terrified and dissolved the negotiating team which had provoked the movement. A more accommodating committee tried to reach a compromise, and some business leaders pleaded with the trade union leaders for assurances in case of a revolutionary outcome in exchange for their ‘neutrality’. Several members of the ruling classes approached the right wingers of the PSI to tell them that the time had come for them to take power. Mussolini also took fright and stated that the fascists had no intention of assaulting the occupied factories. One word would have been sufficient signal for a general insurrection, but it did not come.

The leaders of the unions and of the party realised they had placed themselves in a difficult position. The whole country was expecting an insurrection, but they had prepared nothing, and indeed, they didn’t really want it. When the National Council of the GCL and the executive of the PSI met in Milan, a farce took place. By a treaty of alliance signed in 1918, the GCL had left the leadership of political strikes to the PSI. In Milan while the factories were occupied, the two groups of leaders discussed at length whether the strike was political or not. The GCL offered control of the movement to the PSI knowing that they had no wish to take responsibility for it. The party declined the offer, and a motion was passed that called for ‘increased control’ by the unions in the factories, begging all the political questions.

As the movement began to die out the government intervened to mediate an agreement. The reformists set up an ambiguous referendum, and the strike was called off.

At the time, the strike was not seen as a victory by the factory owners [30] who were instead seeking revenge on the government for not having intervened more energetically to protect their interests. The Liberal government which had refused to enter the battle until the last moment, had quite clearly been extremely clever in allowing the strike to be strangled by its leaders, but the industrialists weren’t of the same view, and their determination to find solutions outside of their own bourgeois legality increased. The collapse of working-class morale that these betrayals by their own leaders had provoked allowed the bosses to counter-attack with extreme brutality.

The Explosion of the Fascist Terror

The administrative elections that took place on November 7, 1920 gave the PSI control of 2,162 communes out of 8,059 and 25 provinces out of 69. [31] The bourgeois parties fought nearly every election on a ‘national bloc’ platform [32] and managed to limit the socialist successes in several important centres, including Turin. Despite this, the PSI had once more demonstrated its strength and the bourgeoisie, beaten again within its own legality, decided to go decidedly outside it.

The first outbreak of violence took place in Emilia where significantly the socialists had won 233 communes out of 280. [33] Beginning with Bologna and Ferrara, two of the strongest socialist agrarian centres, the fascists began a series of provocations and punitive .expeditions aimed at socialist leaders. People were killed and terrorised.

It was at this moment, while the reaction was growing, that the PSI congress was held in Leghorn. The party as constituted was obviously totally ineffective. The co-existence in the same party of a reformist wing headed by Turati and a revolutionary majority made it impossible to follow coherently either a revolutionary practice or a parliamentary role. Lenin thus advised Serrati, the party leader, to ‘expel the reformists from the party and then support a Turati government.’ [34] This would have ensured, that the Communist wing could have performed a revolutionary role if a revolutionary situation had presented itself again while a socialist-controlled government would have been able to fight the fascists and defend basic constitutional freedoms for the proletariat.

The Maximalist majority was incapable of any decisive action, however, and while they continued to mouth revolutionary slogans, they refused to expel Turati. This avoided a split to the right, but it could not stop one to the left, and the extreme left of the party founded the Italian Communist Party, the PCI.

Thus the whole strategy collapsed. The PCI was necessarily small in size and ineffective while the reformist minority was still trapped in the PSI by the Maximalists majority. It was a tragedy for ‘while unity was broken, there still triumphed a coalition held together more by sentimental than political reasons which resulted in practice in the unity of those who disagreed and the split of those who agreed.’ [35] But the insufficiencies of the split could have been remedied if the PCI after having separated had formed a defensive alliance with the PSI. Unity of action would have been preserved and in time the Maximalists could have been pulled out of the PSI. But the communists, dominated by the group around Bordiga, reacted against Maximalism with an ultra-leftism that rejected any unity of action with the socialists. The response of the masses was immediate. 100,000 workers did not renew their membership to either party, and the number of strikes fell 80 per cent during the first quarter of 1921 compared with the same period the year before. Mussolini remarked, ‘within the last three months the psychology of the working masses has been profoundly modified.’ [36]

Helped by the socialist split the fascists renewed their attacks. Typically, in Trieste the socialists and communists had entered into open conflict for possession of the local paper. The fascists ‘resolved’ the conflict by smashing the press and setting fire to the building.

Once again most of the fascist violence was concentrated in the agricultural region of Emilia where all the co-operatives and Chambers of Labour of the triangle Bologna, Ferrara, and Piacenza were systematically destroyed. The number of workers’ leaders killed could not be counted. As fascism became firmly entrenched in some areas by the reign of terror, others started following their example. In July 1920 there had been 108 fasci, by the end of the year there were more than 800, and by November, 1921 2,300. [37] Soon the fascist squads were covering the whole of the country and even daring to act in some of the strongholds of the socialist industrial working class such as Turin, Florence and Genoa.

The fascist squads had all the advantages. They were mostly led by officers who had much military experience and manned by layabouts who could easily be moved at any time. Their mobility to concentrate large numbers of men from all over Italy while workers were tied to their jobs was a tremendous asset. It meant that they could launch surprise attacks at will. For the frequent assassinations the fascists could gather a hundred or so men round the house of the victim and then proceed to the ‘execution’ before help could arrive. When they met some resistance, they merely collected more men from even further away and proceeded to punish the ‘guilty’.

If the workers could not stop the fascist onslaught, the State could. The lorries full of armed men that ran up and down the country were, after all, easily recognisable, if nothing else by the columns of smoke they left behind. But the ‘liberal’ state chose to help the fascists. Nitti had strengthened the carabinieri and the police and formed a special body, the Royal Guards, 25,000 strong for the protection of the State. These were never used. On the contrary, with the army they actively helped the fascists, either by supplying weapons or vehicles or by disarming the socialists before a fascist attack. Sometimes they even took part in fascist ‘actions’.

Giolitti’s minister of war sent out circulars announcing that officers in the process of being demobilised were going to be sent to the major centres with orders to join the fasci for which they would receive four-fifths of their pay. The Minister of Justice sent a letter to magistrates inviting them to shelve their records of fascist crimes. After fascist provocations only socialists were normally arrested and if a fascist was held by mistake, he was soon released. ‘Socialist municipalities including those of Bologna, Modena, Ferrara, Perugia and hundreds of smaller ones were dissolved by ministrial decree in the interest of public order.’ [38]

While the state was supporting the black shirts in the country, Giolitti’s plan was to weaken the power of the socialists in parliament thus compelling them to enter a coalition with him out of fear of fascism. To this end he dissolved parliament and held new elections. But the aim was not yet to destroy the working-class organisations entirely.

The End of Resistance

The elections were fought again on a ‘national bloc’ list which now included some fascist candidates as well. The fascists did all the ‘electioneering’ killing dozens of people on polling day alone. Nonetheless the Giolitti plan failed since the socialists won 123 seats and the communists 15. [39]

Once again the choice that the socialists had to make was simple: revolution or support of a government of the left. They chose neither.

At the same time whole sections of the urban bourgeoisie began to feel that they had utilized the fascists sufficiently. The revolutionary challenge had been rebuffed. Continuing right wing violence could only cause further dislocation. Besides the democratic privileges of the liberal bourgeoisie might be threatened. For a few months constitutional ‘normalcy’ seemed to have returned.

Mussolini in turn seemed content to become a relatively successful constitutional politician. He signed a ‘pacification’ pact with the socialists in August 1921. But this caused a split in the fascist ranks. If effective the pact would have done away with the power of the fascist squads. These ignored the pact, forced Mussolini to resign briefly, and intensified their violence. In this they were encouraged by agrarian and some industrial interests. But the main bourgeois interests at first seemed to have been worried by this renewed violence. At Modena the Royal Guards had actually fired on the fascists and killed several. At the same time, although opposed by the communists and ignored by the socialists, ‘arditi del popolo’ or popular defense units had begun to appear and won several local victories over the squads.

But this period of bourgeois ‘constitutionalism’, which caused confusion and disarray among the fascists, did not last long. At the end of 1921 an economic crisis developed. Industrialists began to worry about the residual influence of the workers’ organisations. After a political crisis the government moved to the right. The fascists overcame their split, and the efforts of the squads were intensified.

The PSI was still unable to respond to the situation. When the parliamentary party voted to ‘support a ministry that would guarantee the restoration of law and order’, its action was disavowed by the executive – which did not, however, organise real extra-parliamentary resistance.

Because of the failure of the party to find any solution to the crisis, the trade unions met and formed the Alleanza del lavoro (Alliance of Labour) to resist the fascist menace and to fight against the bosses. It was doomed to failure, however, since it had no political organs and did not attempt to organise armed resistance. Even on the economic plane it found it more and more difficult to fight because of the increased unemployment due to the economic crisis. [40]

While the workers were trying unsuccessfully to organise themselves, the fascists began to receive the support of those big industrialists who had sat on the fence up to now. The economic crisis obviously made anyone who promised strong government and a possible military expansion very attractive. The fascists now began to take over local councils and whole towns. It was as a response to one such action in which the whole of Ravenna had been devastated that the Alliance of Labour called a general strike of protest. It was a pacifist protest against armed aggression, and of course it failed. It was solid, ‘an act of faith, which showed how much the workers were better than all their leaders put together.’ [41] But the fascists launched a counter-attack, and, claiming to act as the defenders of order, they invaded the towns of Milan, Genoa, and Leghorn which they had previously been unable to control. Only in Parma the ‘arditi del popolo’ managed by house to house fighting to repel the invasion.

The workers’ movement was smashed; nothing could now stop the fascist takeover.

The March on Rome

After the defeat of the general strike, Mussolini decided that the time had come to take power. At a fascist meeting in Naples on October 24th he announced: ‘either they hand us power or we will descend on Rome to seize it.’ [42] In reality the State had ample means of defense as the army leaders assured Facta. But a State that had aided the fascists in the assassination of over 3000 socialists and trade unionists could not really be expected to defend itself from a fascist coup.

The whole operation became a mere farce. While the fascist forces grouped in four localities a few miles from Rome, the command was taken by a quadrumvirate (Bianchi, Balbo, de Bono, de Vecchi) based in Perugia. The Prime Minister arranged for the defense of the capital and declared martial law. When the decree was brought to the King, however, he refused to sign it, and Facta simply revoked the order.

The revocation of the state of emergency was a God-send for the fascists since the operations were not going smoothly at all. The blackshirts that had been assembled were well below the expected number and to complicate things there were few means of transport, no tents, no food, and the whole of Italy was under torrential rain. The quadrumvirate was also completely cut off from the operations from the start.

Mussolini must not have felt too confident about the adventure since instead of joining the ‘troops’, he stayed the whole time in Milan at a convenient distance from the Swiss border. But his faith in the resilience of liberalism was excessive. On the day that martial law was lifted he received a telegram that gave him the task of organising the next cabinet. He left for Rome in a sleeping car, dressed in field uniform, and at the station a dozen or so hastily convened blackshirts covered in mud joined him. From there they made their ‘triumphant’ way to the king. The farce was not over yet, however. The next day Mussolini ordered his blackshirts into Rome to create the impression that power had been taken by force. They arrived by train after a delay due to the need to repair the railway lines they had themselves interrupted – when they still thought that the army might be sent after them!

The Fascist Dictatorship

After obtaining power, Mussolini was still in a somewhat precarious position. There were only four fascist ministers in his government and in the whole of Parliament only 35 fascist MPs. Yet when parliament met, Salandra noted that the benches of the extreme right were becoming very crowded, as ‘liberal’ MPs began to undergo mass conversions. Parliament also accorded Mussolini extraordinary powers ‘despite (or because of) his threat to use force otherwise.’ [43]

Mussolini also made sure to consolidate his support in the country. The local and state police forces and administrations were staffed with fascists, and the party militia was made a state militia, which had the advantage of retaining a private police and of putting it on someone else’s payroll. One of the first laws to be passed was the halving of death duties and the dissolution of the commission on war profits. Mussolini also abolished a law introduced by Nitti on the distribution of land, and one introduced by Giolitti on the registering of bonds that made tax evasion difficult.

On March 23, 1923 a fusion took place between the fascists and the independent nationalists. The one time atheist Mussolini also made a deal with the Vatican. In exchange for support for a Catholic university and for the Catholic banks he demanded support from the pulpit. The agreement went through.

Once he was sure of his support, Mussolini decided to secure a majority in Parliament. An electoral reform was presented, the so-called ‘trick law’, which gave two-thirds of the seats to the party or coalition that obtained the largest number over 25 per cent of the votes. The ‘liberal’ MPs voted themselves out of a job. The PPI disapproved of the reform yet they only abstained. The fascists formed a bloc containing some liberals for the elections which were held in the usual reign of terror. The Communists had proposed a coalition of the opposition, but no agreement was reached, and the fascists easily obtained their two-thirds majority. Yet when an election was held a few days afterwards for the factory council in FIAT, the FIOM got 631 votes and the fascist syndicate only 38. [44]

There was only one halt in this uninterrupted progression towards dictatorship. After the social democrat Matteotti had dared to get up in Parliament to accuse the fascists of having manipulated the elections, the blackshirts abducted and assassinated him. When the fact became known, there was a great revulsion throughout the country. Demonstrations were held and crowds cheered them on, calling for the end of fascist rule. The democratic groups in Parliament retired to a separate meeting place, the Aventino, to show their opposition to the regime. The fascists became worried; Mussolini shut himself up out of sight, and rank-and-file fascists threw away their party badges.

A decisive action might have been sufficient to overthrow the government, but the exiled parliamentary opposition was mostly composed of the ‘liberals’ whose complicity had allowed the fascists to take power. They refused the PCI’s proposals, drawn up by a new leadership under Gramsci, either to call a general strike or to declare itself an anti-Parliament. However much the liberals disliked the fascists they feared the masses more. They looked instead to the King in the hope he would dismiss Mussolini, and provided him with evidence of Mussolini’s involvement in the assassination. But the King had himself handed power to the fascists in 1922 and totally agreed with Mussolini.

After a few months the fascists introduced a law limiting the freedom of the press in order to restrict even the tame propaganda that the opposition produced. By January, 1925 they had regained their nerve completely, and Mussolini openly accepted responsibility in Parliament for the assassination daring the opposition to reply. But by then the fight was over. The fascists abolished the factory councils and trade-union freedoms on October 2. On Febrauary 4, 1926 the elective local councils were dissolved, and on November 6 a law for the defense of the State was passed and all opposition declared illegal. Gramsci and other PCI MPs were arrested and a few days afterwards when the remaining opposition MPs tried to re-enter Parliament totally defeated, they found that their posts had been abolished. On November 25 a special tribunal for the defence of the State was set up and the death penalty introduced to deal with cases of treason. On January 4, 1927 the GCL was disbanded. The transition to dictatorship was complete.


The peculiar development of Italian society made working-class revolution a real possibility despite the relatively small size of the working class. Because of the weakness of Italian capitalist development the bourgeoisie was divided into opposed and competing factions and could only rule through a series of unstable and shifting alliances, in particular with the land-owning interests of the South. This prevented any organic bourgeois development and transformed the South into a more or less colonial area. The northern proletariat even if tiny therefore assumed a crucial importance. The heterogeneity of the ruling group meant that the proletariat was the only potentially hegemonic social force since its programme for a socialist transformation of society alone could provide the basis for the liberation and organic unity of all social groups. Thus the proletariat could become the focus round which could gather not only both the agrarian masses of the north and the lower middle classes, but also the southern masses in their fight against ‘colonial’ oppression. [45]

The post war crisis presented the opportunity to form a system of class alliances for a revolutionary transformation of Italian society. The failure of the revolutionary proletariat to do so and its consequent defeat were due ‘to the political, organisational, tactical, and strategic failures of the workers’ party.’ [46]

Despite its size, its mass following, and its propaganda, the Socialist Party never developed as a cohesive national force. In the localities party membership grew with little or no relationship to the national party. Most of its achievements – whether insurrectionary or reformist – were localised and owed little to the national leadership of the party.

This meant that although the party could be the sum total of the spontaneous traditions of the class, it did not integrate these into a total national strategy. This failing was aggravated by the co-existence in the PSI of quite divergent reformist, maximalist and communist elements. One of the results was that while it could fan the flames of class antagonism, the party could not lead the working class to take power.

By the time the Communist Party was formed in 1921 the working class offensive was over, but it would have been possible for the PCI to have led successful defensive actions by the workers and thus prepared the ground for a new offensive. Up until 1924 Mussolini’s regime was still weak, but to have made any impact on it the PCI would have had to form united fronts with reformist and centrist organisations. Any such strategy was rejected by the most influential group in the Party, led by Bordiga. These refused to differentiate between fascism and other forms of bourgeois rule, including that of reformist social democrats. They did not see that the reformists depended for their position in bourgeois society upon the localised institutions of the working class while the fascists were destroying these. This meant that they were incapable of intervening to take the initiative away from the dithering socialist leaders. The PCI seems to have played virtually no distinctive role in the defensive actions that took place such as the general strike or the ‘arditi del popolo’. Not until Gramsci, who alone had some comprehension of what the fascist development meant, became leader of the party in 1924 did the party begin to have any influence on the course of events, but by then it was too late.

Fascism was not ‘just one other form of bourgeois rule’ but a mass mobilisation of the lower middle classes against all forms of working-class organisation. This was not possible while the working-class movement was on the upsurge. All the bourgeoisie could do was hold its breath and hope for the best; the fascist movement was practically non-existent. Once the working class was demoralised after the occupation of the factories, the bourgeoisie could move into action, exploiting the frustrated hopes of the petty bourgeoisie, not merely to seek revenge against revolutionaries but to destroy even reformist elements of working-class organisation. It took the Italian working class twenty years to recover.

The failure of the Italian communists to understand what was happening was natural given the immaturity of their party and the novelty of the historical experience. Yet the price to be paid was immense. And the same mistakes were to be repeated ten years later, in Germany.

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1. Shepard.B. Clough, The Economic History of Modern Italy, App. table 7, p.372.

2. Ibid., App. table 13, p.378.

3. Ibid., App. table, p.381.

4. Compendio delle statistiche elettorali italiane dal 1848 al 1934.

5. Clough, op. cit., p.155.

6. Ibid., p.155.

7. Ibid., p.153.

8. Denis Mack Smith, Italy, A Modern History, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, p.299. ‘In Emilia and Romagna ... the landless braccianti ... had developed co-operatives in order to obtain from the mezzadri (tenant farmers) more employment and better terms. Socialist trade unions here and there were winning virtual monopoly of agricultural labour, and municipal employees might even be paid in credits at the co-operative shop.’

9. Paolo Spriano, Torino operaia nella grande guerra 1914-1918, Turin: Einaudi, 1960, p.61.

10. ‘Vermilion flowers of blood had bloomed on the straight pavements of our city ... black tides of rough men descended onto the boulevards, citizens filed past the lowered shutters of the small, pale war supporters, gnawed by compressed anger and fear. Thus we commemorated our dead with the blood of our best, and with the promise of a better tomorrow.’ Antonio Gramsci, Scritti giovanili, Turin: Einaudi, 1958, p.18.

11. Mack Smith, op. cit., p.301.

12. A. Rossi (Angelo Tasca), The Rise of Italian Fascism 1918-1922, New York: Howard Ferting, 1966, p.6.

13. Emilio Lussu, Un anno sull’altipiano, Einaudi, 1945

14. Enzo Forcella, L’Espresso, 10 November 1968

15. Ibid., ‘Soldier BD, 23 years old,... was condemned to 5 years of military imprisonment for having written a letter to his own father containing the following phrase: In Italy there are a bunch of exploiters, but they will answer for it one day at the end of this f— war.’ And TM of Florence, tram driver condemned to life imprisonment for having ... often preached among the soldiers of his unit ... that the people had not wanted the war ... that it was time to end it at any costs, that they should do what they had done in Russia where soldiers had revolted, and that thus if the Austrians were to come, he would let them pass, because it was the same thing to be Austrians or Italians ... it also followed that TM organised a collection to help the socialist newspaper Avanti! that notoriously advocated peace at any cost.’

16. Taking 1930 index: 100, real wages fell to 85.0 in 1916; 73.1 in 1917; 64.6 in 1918. Clough, op. cit., App table, p.382.

17. Mack Smith, op. cit., p.332.

18. Rossi, op. cit., p.70.

19. Ibid., p.70.

20. ‘When the peasants overran several estates of the Agro Romano, soldiers of a regiment famous for its heroism were seen cheering on the invaders who were wearing their medals.’ Ibid., p.20.

21. Ibid., p.19.

22. In Bologna during the strikes against the cost of living the tradesmen took the keys of the shops to the Chamber of Labour while the Socialist administration enforced price control. Ibid., p.20.

23. Ibid., p.28. For Gramsci’s arguments against Tasca see L’Ordine Nuovo 1919-20 (Turin 1955), p.146. This is translated in a slightly garbled form in The Modern Prince (London 1957), p.22.

24. Pietro Nenni, Storia di quattro anni, (1918-1922), Einaudi, 1946, p.7.

25. Emilio Lussu, Marcia su Roma e dintorni.

26. The fascists stood only in Milan and got, no one elected. They polled 4,000 votes to the PSI’s 170,000. Paolo Alatri, Le Origini del fascismo, Editori Riuniti, 1956, p.107.

27. The policy of total opposition can best be explained by the words of Lazzari: ‘The negative function in Parliament is the most positive one for the masses, who are warned in this way about the obstacle which is in bourgeois institutions to the realisation of their conquests.’ Nenni, op. cit., p.73.

28. Mario Missiroli, Il Fascismo e la crisi italiana, Cappelli, 1921, p.19.

29. The arditi (literally the brave ones) were a special body of shock troops in the Italian army. They were a privileged group and found it impossible to return to normal life after the war. Their doctrine of exaltation of force and death became very much the creed of the fascist action squads. Their black uniform was also adopted by the fascists, thus the black shirts.

30. Paolo Spriano, L’Occupazione delle fabbriche, Einaudi 1964, p.146. Agnelli himself was so demoralised that he wanted to turn FIAT into a co-operative.

31. Nenni, op. cit., p.118.

32. The PPI decided to form another list, but the Vatican disapproved so that in a few large towns the PPI joined the bloc as a result of pressure from Rome. Rossi, op. cit., p.83.

33. Fascismo e antifascimo 1918-1936 (Lezioni e testimonianza), Feltrinelli, 1962, p.35.

34. Rossi, op. cit., p.88.

35. Nenni, op. cit., p.127.

36. Rossi, op. cit., p.90.

37. Rossi, op. cit., p.128.

38. Rossi, op. cit., p 129.

39. Mack Smith, op. cit., p.345.

40. The number of unemployed rose from only 102,156 in 1920 to 512,260 in December, 1921 and to 606,819 in January, 1920. Rossi, op. cit., p 185.

41. Rossi, op. cit., p.218.

42. Nenni, op. cit., p.220.

43. Mack Smith, op. cit., p.374.

44. Fascismo e anti-fascismo, historical table.

45. Gramsci, Tesi di Lione, in Rinascita, Quaderni II, Editori Riuniti, 1952. This provides probably the best single analysis of the various factors that produced the particular configuration of class forces that enabled the fascists to take power, and of the tasks confronting revolutionaries once this had happened.

46. Ibid.

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