Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


Arditi del Popolo

Eros Francescangeli
Arditi del Popolo – Argo Secondari e la prima organizzazione antifascista (1917–1922)
Odradek, Rome 2000, pp. 319

THERE often are periods in history that may perhaps be quite brief, but the weight of which continues to be felt long after they come to an end. In Italy, such was the period from 1919 to 1922. The first two years have become known as the biennio rosso (the two red years), which saw a revolutionary working-class upsurge fuelled by inspiration from the Russian Revolution, culminating in the occupation of the factories in the industrialised North. The next two years witnessed the growth of Fascism and the ever-increasing violence with which Mussolini’s squads would finally manage to silence all the working-class organisations in Italy.

However, this period should also be remembered thanks to another very important historical event, one which is, however, very little known even in Italy today: the birth and ascent of the very first and most successful mass and class-based military organisation opposed to Fascism. Francescangeli, a young Trotskyist historian, has had the great merit of making this story known with this thoroughly researched book.

The Arditi del Popolo, whose name roughly (and not very happily) translates as ‘the people’s shocktroops’, were active in Italy for a mere two years, but, on the one hand, represent yet another great missed opportunity in the history of the working class, and, on the other, still have many lessons that can be learnt and can benefit all Marxists today wishing to engage with the class, to bring about revolutionary outcomes.

The Arditi del Popolo were born of the deeply felt discontent among Italian soldiers in the aftermath of the First World War, when it soon became starkly clear that Italy, too, was not destined to be ‘a land fit for heroes’. At the very beginning, the Arditi d’Italia, as they were originally known, were born as élite corps charged with particularly daring and dangerous missions, and as such they comprised largely petit-bourgeois elements, often highly contradictory in their views, influenced by Futurism and opposed on the one hand to the established order, which they perceived as cowardly and conformist, and equally hostile to the working class, whom they saw as having little appetite for the conflict, and apathetically waiting to reap the benefits of the toil and suffering of the army in the trenches. However, while after the war a number of the Arditi did join Mussolini’s Fascist squads, the bulk of these highly-trained military men quickly realised that the ideals they were fighting for would not be realised: no new Italy was going to rise from the ashes of the old society. Rather, parliamentary compromise, political games and, generally, mediocrity, as they saw it, were set to stay, while economic and living conditions were everywhere rapidly deteriorating. The combination of all these factors, together with an instinctive repulsion faced with the cowardly methods employed by Mussolini’s thugs against individuals and organisations of the opposition, gradually helped to raise the consciousness of these men, who began to embrace more and more the plight of the Italian working class, thus contradicting the myth according to which all soldiers must by definition also be right-wing.

Some statistics can easily explain why the Arditi del Popolo were far from an élitist group of few individuals looking to make ‘symbolic gestures’. In the summer of 1921, the Arditi came to number approximately 55,000 members and 54 branches distributed throughout Italy. In their first and only national show of strength, about 3,000 Arditi paraded in full military attire in Rome, within an anti-Fascist demonstration numbering 50,000.

But the numerical membership is only half of the story. Its composition is far more important: the Arditi del Popolo were clearly a proletarian organisation, and included large numbers of railway workers, manual workers in general, metal workers, agricultural and shipyard workers as well as dockers, builders, printing workers, public transport workers and peasants. These people came from different political backgrounds (p. 66). They were not only socialists or Communists, indeed many of them were anarchists. Yet their common ground was, simply, the basic need to oppose Fascism as a class enemy. The most important factor to consider is that the Arditi del Popolo were essentially born out of the need for people to defend themselves physically, let alone politically, against the orgy of bloody Fascist violence which had begun to engulf Italy. This need for self-defence began to be more and more vital from the first months of 1919. There was simply no choice: either you managed to escape with your life, or the Fascists would kill you; witness the veritable bloodbath that the Italian working class and its organisations were to endure from then on.

This point was not at all lost on the Italian workers, who enthusiastically cooperated with the Arditi del Popolo in all their military operations, lending them their full support, and recognising them as ‘their’ defence force. Because the Arditi were comprised of highly-trained military men, they were to prove extremely problematic to Mussolini and his party, which was, after all, still in its infancy. A complete list of the Arditi’s operations in Italy goes far beyond the scope of this review (Francescangeli devotes the second part of his book to a very detailed region-by-region account of this), yet in their brief existence the Arditi proved victorious in several crucial battles against the Blackshirts, most notably in Sarzana in July 1921, and in Parma in August 1922.

In Sarzana, a largely agricultural town on the Tuscan-Ligurian border, 600 Fascists were sent on a punitive expedition to quell the opposition of a militant and historically highly-politicised peasant class. Yet, despite their superior numbers and military resources, the Fascists had to flee Sarzana in a hurry, leaving 18 dead and several wounded behind. This victory was possible, not only thanks to the Arditi’s military experience and tactical skills, but also to the high level of popular support they enjoyed wherever they engaged the Fascists, which allowed them to fight virtually house-to-house, and to rely on the highest loyalty from the population.

Faced with this embarrassing defeat, the Fascist party almost split. Its more intransigent wing wanted to escalate violence and repression, while Mussolini, fearful of engendering a mass and combative opposition, favoured compromise and an agreement with the largest working-class party, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), and the trade union organisations. Mussolini had his way, but not before being forced to resign, in an attempt to avert an internal coup and to ensure his very political survival.

The battle of Parma took place barely two months before Fascism took power in Italy, yet the outcome could not have been more disastrous for the Blackshirts. Mussolini’s men were by now furious with the Arditi, who, despite being largely on the decline by now, still refused to go away, and – whenever they managed to find the necessary resources to engage the Fascists – still enjoyed a clear military superiority. In their biggest single punitive expedition, 20,000 Blackshirts descended on Parma, a large agricultural and small industrial town in the more prosperous Northern part of the country. The Arditi and the entire population of Parma rose to the challenge, in what was to become a full-scale four-day street battle. Popular participation was virtually universal, and a large number of women lent their support to the struggle. Moreover, the Italian royal army, the carabinieri, did not fight at all, as their commanders feared the possibility of fraternisation between their soldiers and the people of Parma. In the end, the Fascists suffered 40 dead and 150 wounded. They hastily retreated, and even their chief-in-command, Italo Balbo, admiringly commented on the Arditi’s feat: ‘Women and young boys take part in the action … Workers operate in shifts. Military discipline … War discipline ..… Many workers wear their ex-soldiers’ uniforms … Women from the local population take bread, wine, fruit, lard, potatoes to the anti-Fascists’ kitchens …’ (p. 136)

It should be clear therefore that the Arditi del Popolo were far from being a small and isolated group, but enjoyed the support of a class that had been quick in recognising the life-and-death nature of the struggle against Fascism and the absolute need for some form of self-defence. Moreover, the fact that the Arditi were primarily a military élite meant that, on purely military and practical grounds, they were repeatedly able to stop and defeat Fascist squads on the ground, at a crucial time when the latter still needed to establish themselves, and were thus far from invincible.

While it can be argued that the Arditi possessed serious limitations with their limited political horizons and that the Italian working class was still reeling from its heavy defeats in the factories, nothing can excuse the final crucial term of this equation, the single factor that ultimately decided the demise of the Arditi del Popolo and, with it, of any chance of working-class self-defence: the rôle played by the trade unions and the parties of the Italian working class.

The leadership of the PSI had long embraced reformism and parliamentary politics, and believed that the state, far from conniving with Fascism (as was clearly the case), would act as a buffer and stop Mussolini in his tracks using its machinery, the legislative system and so on. Turati and his party had essentially a view of royalty and parliament which dated back to the first ‘genteel’ times of liberal, enlightened socially-minded gentlemen conversing in elegant salons. Fascism was but an extremist aberration; rational politicians could always legislate against its worst excesses. Mussolini, therefore, found no difficulty in getting the PSI and the trade unions to sign a peace pact in August 1921. In exchange for ‘assurances’ from the Fascist party that the worst violence would now be curbed and that the Italian state would have a mediating rôle that the signatories of the pact would readily respect (this was based on the deeply flawed assumption that the state at the time was a neutral entity with respect to Fascism). It goes without saying that Mussolini had no intention of keeping his word. Not only did violence escalate, Turati and his party agreed to renounce all forms of organised workers’ defence, actively discouraging any form of direct involvement (or ‘provocation’, as they put it), and openly denouncing the Arditi del Popolo as an organisation alien to the working class and its interests: ‘The Socialist Party declares its dissociation from the organisation and the work of the “Arditi del Popolo” …’ (p. 82) This was to prove disastrous for the Arditi in this crucial stage of their development, for it isolated them and made them much more vulnerable to state repression, as they now openly became a criminal organisation.

But the Arditi were to find no better treatment at the hands of the Italian Communists. The Partito Comunista d’Italia (PCd’I) was born of a split with the PSI in January 1921. Despite Gramsci expressing his sympathies on several occasions for the Arditi, and giving them column space on his Ordine Nuovo newspaper – ‘Are Communists against the movement of the Arditi del Popolo? Quite the opposite: they aspire to the arming of the proletariat, to the creation of a proletarian armed force able to defeat the bourgeoisie …’ (15 July 1921, quoted by Francescangeli, p. 91) – in the end he too had to be ‘tactical’ in his support, due to the political supremacy enjoyed by the then leader of the party, Amadeo Bordiga. So Gramsci wrote four days later that the Arditi del Popolo ‘have an objective which is not political but contingent, and cannot achieve what they’re aiming for if the working class, as a class and as a party, does not join the fray’ (quoted by Francescangeli, p. 98).

For the emerging Communist Party, Fascism was, just like Social Democracy, merely another form of bourgeois counter-revolution. Faced with a ‘revolutionary’ international situation, Fascism was to be seen as the final, useless push of a bourgeoisie by now on its deathbed. Totally discounting the mass aspect of Fascist reaction, which was able to take with it the discontented petit-bourgeoisie, the PCd’I underestimated the need for self-defence (pp. 89–90). Bordiga’s attitude towards the Arditi displays an utter lack of understanding of the dynamics of revolutionary politics and a very unhealthy sectarianism, which in fact attracted sharp criticism, both from Lenin and the Third International, especially on the question of the united front.

Bordiga opposed the Arditi because they were not members of the Communist Party. The leader of the Arditi was Argo Secondari, an ex-army lieutenant who, despite his great military skills, did not seem to have clear political allegiances, and who, despite welcoming within the Arditi ranks everyone who wanted to fight Fascism, was totally opposed to the creation of internal political factions. Faced with the terror that the working class was enduring daily under the blows of the Fascists’ clubs, many people and, crucially, many grassroots members of the PCd’I and the PSI rightly thought that it was correct to join forces with anyone opposed to Mussolini. Indeed, the only political force which understood this and quickly embraced and continued to support the Arditi to the bitter end was the Italian anarchist movement (on the libertarian contribution to the struggle, see Marco Rossi’s excellent Arditi, non gendarmi! Dall’arditismo di guerra agli arditi del popolo 1917–1922, Pisa 1997, p. 189).

Bordiga was extremely suspicious of the Arditi, whom he regarded as shady characters at best, or Fascist agents at worst. Francescangeli quotes at length from the PCd’I’s documents of the time, and it is really instructive to follow the curve of Bordiga’s closure against the Arditi, in the face of the growing support from his party grassroots. So, in July 1921, in the pages of Il Comunista, Bordiga emphasised that ‘a revolutionary military enrolment must be based on the party … so Communists cannot and should not take part in such initiatives proposed by other parties or, at any rate, originating outside their party …’ (p. 100). Later in the same month, faced with its members’ unwillingness to follow party lines, the PCd’I belatedly established its own Squadre comuniste d’azione in direct competition with the Arditi, specifying that ‘no member of the party or its youth federation can become part of other similar organisations …’ (p. 100). Finally, at the end of July, in the pages of the Ordine Nuovo, the party outlined clear disciplinary actions. So, because ‘the Arditi del Popolo seemingly wish … to bring about a proletarian reaction to the excesses of Fascism, with the aim to establish once more “order and the normality of social life” [while] Communists … want to continue the proletarian struggle up to the victory for the revolution … we cannot but deplore those Communist comrades who have forged contacts with the organisers of the “Arditi del Popolo” in Rome to offer their services and ask for directives. If this should happen again, the most severe measures shall be adopted.’ (p. 101)

In August, all those insisting on having relations with the Arditi were to receive official warnings. And although some party branches disobeyed the party line, in general most, albeit reluctantly, fell into line with the leadership’s instructions (p. 102).

Lenin himself criticised the leadership of the PCd’I on several occasions, because of their clear isolationism. He referred to the anti-Fascist demonstration in Rome in July 1921 as a great show of strength of the working class, although, unfortunately, at the time Lenin believed that the Italian party had organised and supported that demonstration (p. 103).

By now it should be clear that, had the PCd’I and the PSI supported the Arditi and joined forces with them, then the ‘restricted’ political horizons of the Arditi too could be greatly widened, and, in all probability, thanks to the many highly capable cadres these parties had, revolutionary politics could have gained the upper hand among the Arditi.

All this was when trade union branches were being burned to the ground, party branches destroyed, printing presses smashed up, political activists prosecuted, beaten up and killed, and when the working class was terrorised into submission.

Perhaps Francescangeli summarises perfectly the lessons to be drawn from the Arditi del Popolo, when he says:

Having subordinated the political to the military is perhaps the greatest weakness of the arditi-popular organisation, but – as we have seen – between 1921 and 1922, very few of the ‘theorists’ of the workers’ movement in Italy were able to see Fascism for what it really was. And among them, only a very small minority attempted to point to a way out of the crisis. A theory which does not produce an ensuing praxis is just as unsatisfactory – if not more so – than a praxis which is not supported by a rigorous analysis. (p. 164)

Yet this lesson seems far from understood even today. In the aftermath of Genoa in Italy, and on the wave of the upsurge in trade union and working-class activity and struggles which Italy is currently witnessing, and for which Genoa has acquired a highly symbolic status, faced with the increasing polarisation provoked by Berlusconi, Fini, Bossi & Co, there are still those in the Bordigist tradition who, rather than working together with the class and within the class, see it fit to denounce the anti-capitalist movement, still in its infancy, as a petit-bourgeois deviation from the ‘real’ struggle, and refuse point blank to engage with it and try to influence its best elements to more revolutionary positions. Doubtlessly they would have seen many ‘deviations’ in the Arditi del Popolo too in 1921. Yet the class knew instinctively who to trust and who to turn to in its hour of need. And they will know as well the next time around.

Barbara Rossi

Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011