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Albert Goldman

Was There A Revolution In Italy?

(December 1943)

From Fourth International, vol.5 No.1, January 1944, pp.11-14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In Morrison’s column in The Militant of September 25, wherein he tried to explain why the Italian revolution failed to develop, Morrison said: “A revolutionary situation brought to the highest tension by the fall of Mussolini passed without a revolution.” I was surprised when a comrade protested against this statement on the ground that it is incorrect to say that there was no revolution in Italy. My surprise became astonishment when other comrades also stated their belief that there was a revolution in Italy.

The resolution adopted at the last Plenum of the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party, and published in the December issue of Fourth International, does not seem to have settled the question. For I and others, who go on the assumption that there was no revolution in Italy, accept the resolution as well as those comrades who insist that there was a revolution in Italy.

Does the difference arise as a result of a disagreement as to the course that events took in Italy? This can hardly be the case, although the discussion on the question may bring out a difference of opinion as to the actual course of events. It is most likely that we all agree on the facts and that our differences are terminological in character, arising as a result of different meanings given to the term “revolution.” Even if that is all that is at issue, it is necessary that we discuss the question so that the problem is clearly understood. It is true that at times a terminological difference can lead to different political conclusions, as was shown in the case of our struggle against those who insisted that the Soviet Union is not a degenerated workers’ state but a bureaucratic-collectivist state. I see no possibility of any difference in political conclusions arising as a result of a different interpretation given to the events in Italy. Nevertheless, to avoid the confusion that must inevitably result if some insist that there was a revolution while others contend that there was no revolution in Italy, it is important to discuss the matter.

As a result of the defeats of the Italian army, the workers, peasants and soldiers were filled with bitter resentment towards the Mussolini regime. Above all they wanted an end to the war. Beginning with March of this year the workers in the industrial centers went out on strikes and staged huge demonstrations. A serious revolutionary situation was developing.

The Overthrow of Mussolini

The Italian ruling class was confronted with the central problem of finding the best means to avoid or suppress a revolution. It could not depend upon its own army to save it from revolution for the simple reason that the army also was infected by defeatist and revolutionary ideas. The Italian revolution could be suppressed by the use of the German army. But this meant continuing the war on the side that offered very little chance of victory.

The dominant section of the Italian ruling class, represented by Badoglio and the King and even by some in the higher ranks of the fascist hierarchy, had arrived at the conclusion that the winner in the war would not be Hitler but the democratic imperialists. To make peace with the latter meant losing less than to continue the war on the side of Hitler until he was defeated. All factors dictated the necessity of an attempt to avoid an uprising of the masses by either making peace with the Allies or actually shifting to their side.

Mussolini had first to be removed both to avoid a revolutionary uprising and to make peace overtures to the Allies. Roosevelt and Churchill would find it somewhat difficult to deal with Mussolini because that would have made it too obvious to the masses of the “United Nations” that the war has nothing to do with any struggle against fascism. Whether Mussolini was removed after negotiations for peace with the Allies were commenced, or whether Badoglio and the King understood that Mussolini had to be removed before overtures could be made is not important. The Italian dictator had to leave the scene to permit the capitalists to attempt solving their very serious problems.

The removal of Mussolini followed the pattern of a typical palace revolution where one section of the ruling clique eliminates its leader and replaces him with someone else from the same clique. The Plenum resolution correctly speaks of the fall of Mussolini as a coup d’etat. Churchill and some right-wing liberals dignify the ousting of Mussolini by calling it a revolution, but their purpose in doing so is to get the support of the masses for the Badoglio regime.

Arising as a result of the defeats suffered by the Italian army, the revolutionary situation existing prior to the fall of Mussolini reached a point of white heat with his fall. The masses were set into motion on a huge scale and were held back from revolution only by the presence of the German army and by the hope of the masses that Badoglio would succeed in making peace with the Allies.

The Revolutionary Possibilities

Would the German army have succeeded in suppressing a revolt of the masses? It is idle to speculate. But it must be remembered that unarmed or poorly-armed masses have no chance against a well-armed and disciplined army. From that correct proposition reformists draw the conclusion that a revolution is impossible, forgetting that a conscript army is composed of the same human material as the masses and is also seized with a revolutionary spirit during a revolutionary situation and is affected by the revolutionary action of the workers. The proof of this proposition can be found in the fact that the Italian army as such could not be relied on to fight against the Italian workers. At any rate the Italian masses did not go ahead with their revolution partly because they did not want to come into conflict with the German soldiers who have not yet been seized by the revolutionary spirit.

One needs only to consider the situation of that section of Italy where the German army has control to realize that the Italian masses can do nothing against an undefeated German army that follows the orders of its officers. In the industrial heart of Italy where the revolution was most powerful, the German army is in complete control. Had the Italian masses acted quickly, immediately after the fall of Mussolini, they could have established a workers’ government and organized an army to fight the German army. But for such quick action a powerful revolutionary party having the support of the masses was indispensable. Under the fascist regime such a party was unable to develop.

Aside from the fact that the Italian masses faced the German army, they also hoped that Badoglio would succeed in giving them peace. The successor of Mussolini very cleverly proposed the kind of peace that the masses longed for – one that provided for the complete neutrality of Italy, with the German army leaving and the Allied armies not coming in. Such a peace was of course impossible. As a matter of fact peace for Italy, so long as the war was going on, was a fantasy. Only a struggle for peace was possible and such a struggle could be waged solely by a workers’ government basing itself on the European revolution and winning support from the English and American workers.

The most significant action of the workers and one which most accurately reveals their attitude in the period immediately following the fall of Mussolini is the half-hour strikes which they staged every day. It was a daily reminder to Badoglio that he was tolerated only for the purpose of obtaining peace.

With the unconditional surrender of Badoglio and the invasion by the Allied forces, Italy, as was expected, became a battle-ground and the revolutionary situation was arrested. There was no test between the forces of revolution and those of reaction. That test must now wait for another day.

Where and when, then, was there a revolution in Italy? I use the term not in the general sense of a fundamental change but only in the sense which it has when one refers to the February or October revolution in Russia or the November revolution in Germany. In the sense, that is, of a fundamental change of regime, directly resulting from a struggle of the masses. There is no necessity to discuss the difference between a political and social revolution nor need we discuss revolution as a process, because these questions are not germane.

Obviously one can speak of the “revolution in Italy,” meaning either the forces existing in the social structure driving towards a revolution or the coming revolutionary change. In the same sense do we speak of the European revolution. But this is something different from making the flat statement that there was a revolution in Italy.

Revolutions in recent times are characterized not only by the fact that fundamental changes in the regime take place as a direct result of the struggle of the masses, but also in that the power is actually transferred into the hands of the masses, in the first instance. If the workers are not sufficiently conscious of their own interests they turn the power over to those who are considered representatives of the people but who, in practice, serve the interests of the capitalist class.

In the Russian revolution of February 1917, the workers, supported by the peasant soldiers, overthrew the Czarist autocracy but turned over the power which they had in their hands to the socialist (Menshevik) intellectuals who in turn gave it to the Provisional Government representing the Russian capitalists.

There is a tendency to equate the Badoglio regime to the Provisional Government of Russia after the revolution of February 1917. A very superficial analogy. In Russia, after February 1917, Soviets were immediately organized and governmental power was lodged in them. But since they were under the leadership of Menshevik and Social-Revolutionary compromisers, the power of government was transferred to the Provisional Government. Had the Italian workers overthrown Badoglio, established Soviets and placed compromisers in the leadership, who in turn would have permitted people like Sforza to rule, we would have had a situation similar to the one that existed in Russia following February 1917.

The Italian masses were on the verge of overthrowing the Badoglio regime and had this happened it is not excluded that Workers’ Councils would have retained the power. Although a new generation of workers has grown up under the fascist regime, a generation that has no knowledge of the October revolution, a large section of the working class includes within its revolutionary consciousness an understanding of the Bolshevik idea of having the Workers’ Councils exercise government power. It is quite possible that, under the leadership of this layer of the Italian workers, the preliminary stage of a bourgeois democratic regime can be and would have been skipped over. The failure of the Italian revolution to develop leaves that problem unsettled.

The fact remains that at no time after the palace revolution removed Mussolini did the masses or their representatives dictate or direct who should be in the government and what it should do. The ousting of Mussolini set the masses into motion on a large scale but they did not overthrow the government and take power into their own hands.

It may, however, be contended that in addition to successful revolutions there are unsuccessful ones, the best example being the Russian revolution of 1905. Can it be said that there was an unsuccessful revolution in Italy?

To say that the Russian revolution of 1905 was not successful is only partly true. As a result of the political general strike in October 1905, the Czar was compelled to grant a Duma with a fairly liberal election law. The power was not altogether taken away from the autocracy but there was a sufficiently fundamental change in the regime, coming as a direct result of the struggle of the masses, to justify using the term revolution to describe the events. Moreover, the 1905 revolution also includes an attempt by the workers to destroy the autocracy altogether and to gain power for themselves. The October general strike was only part of the revolution. In December there were armed insurrections in Moscow and elsewhere. In other words, there was a test of strength between the workers and the regime, and the workers were defeated. The fundamental characteristic of an unsuccessful revolution is a conscious attempt on the part of the workers to overthrow the government and establish a different government.

The seizure of the factories by the Italian workers in September 1920 can be considered an unsuccessful revolution. For it was not simply a sit-down strike to achieve economic demands. It was an act of workers who consciously aimed at taking over the factories permanently. There was no revolutionary party to assume the leadership of the masses, and the reformist leaders persuaded the workers to evacuate the factories.

At no time was there any decisive test of strength between the Badoglio regime and the workers. The key to the nature of the situation during the fifty days between the fall of Mussolini and the invasion of Italy by the Allies can be found in the half-hour daily strikes. The Italian workers were mobilized and ready to act. Anxious above all to have peace but unwilling to have the Allies take possession of Italy, they gave Badoglio a chance to achieve peace. The half-hour strikes indicated that the masses were ready to act and would act if Badoglio did not give them the peace they wanted. Before they had a chance to act, the unconditional surrender was announced and the invasion was on. With the transformation of Italy into a battlefield the masses had to retreat.

A revolution is characterized by the independent action of the masses, but not every time the masses act independently do we have a revolution. Demonstrations of the masses, no matter how large and imposing, even when they bring about changes in the existing government, are not necessarily revolutions. In Russia, between February and October 1917, the workers and soldiers staged several huge demonstrations resulting in governmental changes but it occurred to no one to call these changes revolutions. The demonstration that took place in Petrograd in July 1917 was an armed one and undoubtedly exceeded anything that occurred in Italy after Mussolini’s fall. It was characterized by Lenin as something less than a revolution and more than a demonstration, showing how careful Lenin was in designating the nature of important actions of the masses.

Some comrades may feel that since fascism in Italy was destroyed and since, in general, it was expected that fascism would be destroyed as a result of a proletarian revolution, there must therefore have been a revolution in Italy. That would constitute reasoning not on the basis of actual events but on the basis of doctrine, a type of reasoning alien to the spirit of Marxism.

When Lenin, upon his return to Russia from exile, presented his April theses advocating the taking over of power by the Soviets, leading Bolsheviks accused him of going contrary to his theory of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. He answered them in the words of Goethe that “theory is grey but green are the facts of life.” As we all know, Lenin at no time minimized the importance of theory. He meant to indicate that a Marxist must base his theories on the facts of life and not on any doctrine previously propounded.

Forecasts and Reality

It is almost certain that in the writings of Trotsky and other comrades who wrote on the subject assertions will be found that fascism will be destroyed only by a proletarian revolution. It happened, however, that a combination of factors led to the destruction of fascism in Italy without a proletarian revolution. Only superficial people and charlatans will seize upon an error in predicting a concrete event as an indication that the basic line is incorrect. Our basic line is that fascism as a threat to the proletariat will be destroyed only by a proletarian revolution. That does not mean that under certain circumstances, in a particular country, the capitalists themselves will not move to get rid of fascism. Our basic line means that capitalism has reached a stage when, in the last analysis, the alternative confronting mankind is either fascism or socialism.

The ease with which the capitalists, represented by Badoglio and the King, were able to overthrow Mussolini is explained by the fact – which Trotsky indicated – that the fascist regime had been transformed into a military-police dictatorship. It is inconceivable that the Italian capitalists could have ousted or would have wanted to oust Mussolini in the early days of fascism when it had a powerful mass base.

Fascism comes to power on the basis of a mass movement composed largely of lower middle class elements and de-classed proletarians. It loses that base when it becomes evident that it will not and cannot fulfill its demogogic promises of the days when it was making a bid for power. It must then rely solely on the military and police machine that it creates while in power; and the leader of the regime can then be overthrown by a palace revolution. Mussolini, in the later stages of his rule, was practically in the same position as a dictator of any of the Latin-American countries.

In ousting Mussolini and in proclaiming the end of fascism the Italian capitalists conclusively verified our basic doctrine that fascism as a government is not established on the basis of a new social system but is simply a form of government resorted to by the capitalists to destroy all vestiges of democracy in order to save their social system. When to retain fascism means the probable loss of their wealth and power the capitalists will not hesitate to get rid of it. The theories which proclaimed fascism as a new social system have been proved false.


It is obvious that the revolution in Italy has begun. I use the word “has” because the revolution has not been crushed by the invasion of the Allies; it has only been interrupted. When recently the students at the University of Naples shouted for the elimination of the monarchy against the liberal speakers who favored a regency, they thereby indicated that the masses are ready for revolutionary action. And one must remember that the masses are far to the left of the republican students. If the German army is driven out of Northern Italy, where the Italian industrial workers are concentrated, we can confidently expect that they will not be satisfied to remain under the rule of the Allied armies.

But to say that “a revolution has begun” is not the same as saying “there was a revolution.” Trotsky, writing about the sit-down strikes in the French factories, at the time Blum became Premier, asserted that the French revolution had begun. No one now speaks or writes as if there was a revolution in France in 1936.

It is best to be accurate in characterizing an event even if inaccuracy does not lead to any serious consequences. It certainly avoids confusion. It is best to say that the Italian revolution began and to avoid saying that there was a revolution in Italy.

December 15, 1943

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