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International Socialism, November 1975


Robert Lumley

Proletarian Order


From International Socialism, No.83, November 1975, pp.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Proletarian Order
Gwyn Williams
Pluto Press, £2.70 paperback, £6.60 hard.

The Occupation of the Factories
Paolo Spriano
Pluto, £2.00 paperback, £5.50 hard.

‘Everything goes normally’, reported the prefect of Milan on 4 September, ‘the workers continue to arm themselves and to reinforce the defences.’ Five days later, the workers at Fiat-Centro, maddened by the discovery of a management blacklist sent a telegram to the central committee of agitation in Milan:

‘The workers of Fiat-Centro intend to negotiate only on the terms of the abolition of the ruling and exploiting class. Otherwise immediate war to total victory.’

No wonder that Agnelli, owner of Fiat, offered to surrender the works to his employees, saying ‘How can you build anything with 25,000 enemies?’ This was the September of 1920 – the year of the occupations which make up Spriano’s study, and which Gwyn Williams regards as the make-and-break point for the Italian working class in the post war epoch.

In many ways the situation seemed as revolutionary as Russia in 1917; the bourgeois order was falling apart, workers throughout the North were running the economy without the bosses, the peasants started land occupations in the South ... But, instead of a revolutionary attempt we watch the Socialist Party ‘lead’ the workers to defeat. The theory and practice of Bolshevism did not simply arrive on a plane from Petrograd; it was learnt in the bitter defeat of the September occupations.

Williams deliberately begins his study in 1911; it enables him to analyse the dramatic resurgence of Italian capitalism and to locate the formation of the socialist movement in it.

Italy’s economy combined both the most modern car industry in Europe, with a workforce of thousands, and the most backward agriculture, based on a semi-feudal society – all within a national political system less than a century old. Only through this peculiar structure can one understand the strength of the anarchist union, the USI, which claimed 800,000 members in 1920, the isolation of Turin (’the Petrograd of the Italian proletarian revolution’) and all the twists and turns of Gramsci’s thinking from his adherence to anarcho-syndicalism to his own discovery of Leninist ideas. Where Spriano tends to find order in this chaos, to the extent of ‘forgetting’ the crucial role of anarchists in the occupations, Williams revels in it (and significantly dedicates his book to ‘Pietro Ferrero, metal worker and anarchist’). But Williams does not glorify Italianness and sees it as a notion that was central to the reformism of the 2nd International whose traditions the Socialist Party clung to even after joining the 3rd. It opened up the democratic road of the minimal programme which Williams sees now in the Italian Communist Party, and prevented the development of a revolutionary strategy capable of combining all the strata of society under the leadership of the proletariat

Bordiga, according to Williams, came to this fundamentally Leninist position as early as 1912. He denounced all electoralism – ‘The Socialist Party’s task is not a patient process of reconstruction of the disintegrating organisations of the present society; it is the process of demolition of the present organisation of society in its entirety.’ And he was the first to see that the PSI was one of those ‘disintegrating organisations’. Then his opposition to the war was consistently and thoroughly internationalist, and led him to demand absolute adherence to the 3rd International when the centrists called for special dispensation for the Italians.

Throughout the muddle and confusion Bordiga’s clarity is startling, and Williams pays tribute to this revolutionary, who has been eliminated from socialist history by Stalinist historians. But then Bordiga’s very correctness came from a dogmatism made possible by his relative isolation from the most advanced areas of working class struggle. The man with the strictest definition of the proletariat found himself in Naples, the European capital of the sub-proletariat, and failed to recognise the great inventiveness of the Turin workers, makers of the factory councils.

Gramsci has been treated by hagiographers as if he formulated the factory council in his head. Williams not only refutes this idealism (ideas propelling history from outside), but examines the fascinating interaction between the events as they are ‘made’ by the workers themselves and as they are given a theoretical shape in Gramsci’ s writing in Ordine Nuovo. His study is of particular interest to active socialists to-day precisely because the relationships between the various organisations of the class – the trade unions, the co-operatives, the factory councils and the party – were lived through by the workers of Turin as a critical series of conflicts and compromises which raised the minutest problems – the moving of supplies between factories – as part of the general problems of democracy and leadership in a revolutionary moment.

In the critical period 1919-20 Gramsci failed to come to terms with the need to build a revolutionary faction in the PSI and made the fundamental error of seeing the councils as the working class in power when the rest of the state apparatus remained unchallenged. But whilst Bordiga dismissed the councils, saying that they should only be constructed after the seizure of state power, Gramsci developed the idea of the combined struggle through the party and the councils. Because Gramsci regarded capitalism as a totality of structures – economic, political, cultural – he saw the need for struggle which would overcome the division between politics and economics central to reformism and take on the system at all levels.

In The Governing Party And The Governing Class of March 1920 Gramsci wrote:

‘A workers’ government cannot exist if the working class is not capable of becoming, in its totality, the executive power of the workers’ state ... Therefore the workers must train themselves in social management and acquire the culture and psychology of the ruling class ... The factory councils have been the first form of this historical experience.’

Only in Lenin’s State And Revolution is there an equivalent to this. Gramsci, for all his inadequac’es (usually idealist strains traceable to his failure ever to master Marx’s economic theory) raises and deals with questions which the working class is facing today, internationally. Gramsci learnt from the British shop stewards’ movement, we can learn from the Italian workers.

Williams aimed to write Proletarian Order ‘in the hope that it will prove of service to the British working class and Marxist movements’. It certainly is not a piece of dusty erudition. His immense respect for the workers who lived through the battles only to fall victim to fascism is equalled by his desire to do them justice through hard but fraternal criticism.

When the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were taken on a guided tour around Italy by the PSI they were greeted with cries of ‘Viva Lenin’, and yet the reformist-cum-centrist policies of the CGL (general union with a membership of two millions in 1920-21) and of the PSI had mass support. Williams does not join the anarchists who blamed defeat simply on a treacherous leadership, and points to the gap between the revolutionary militants and the majority of workers in September 1920. Social democratic consciousness – summed up in the determinism of Serrati’s statement ‘Do you really think that Turati and D’Aragona (PSI reformists), the new Joshuas, can stop the revolutionary sun from rising’ – was widespread. And Williams indicates in his final chapter, The Holy Ghost of Italian Communism, that the present PCI continues to foster this consciousness. Williams is concerned not only with the great creativeness of the workers in struggle, but with their backwardness also. This makes Proletarian Order into a major work of Marxist history which explores the relationship of theory and practice with a fine perception. Spriano’s Occupations is more limited in scope, but similarly a masterpiece on which Williams relies heavily for 1920. Order both for your library anyway, and dig deep to buy the Williams.

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