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How the Counter-Revolution Triumphed in Italy, 1920-1922

(January 1944)

From Fourth International, Vol.5 No.1, January 1944, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In September 1920 Italy was on the verge of revolution. A brief history of this period follows:

The Federation of Metal Workers, which was soon joined by other unions, including even the Catholic organizations and the nationalist Italian Labor Alliance, presented the demand for a 35% wage increase to meet the sky-rocketing prices, and set about to introduce the 8-hour working day by the self-action of the workers. Although the movement embraced from the very outset more than 500,000 workers, the Italian capitalists flatly rejected the demands.

The Metal Workers Federation then issued a call for a nationwide general strike and summoned the workers to seize the factories in the event of a lock-out. Despite this final warning, the capitalists answered with lock-outs. The metal workers then proceeded to occupy more than 300 enterprises in the Milan area alone.

The ruling class and its then reigning Giolitti government were impotent. The troops could not be relied upon; the government did not dare call them out. The movement rapidly spread to the metal workers of all Italy who were joined by the workers in other industries. Everywhere factories were seized, around them barricades were erected and machineguns mounted by the workers. The peasants began dividing the landlords’ estates. Capitalism appeared doomed in Italy. Left without any resources in their own class, the capitalist could rely now only on their labor agents.

On September 9, 1920 the Executive Committees of the Socialist Party and the General Confederation of Labor, controlled by the Socialist Party, met in joint sessions but could arrive at no decision. The question was then referred to the plenary sessions of. the national committee of the General Confederation of Labor. In other words, the leaders of the Socialist Party had in effect abdicated; but there was no revolutionary leadership to replace them. The vital issues of 1921 were settled in Italy within the highest trade union body.

Gennari (later one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party) insisted, in the name of the Socialist Party on giving unlimited support to the movement which had already passed beyond the limits of economic demands and was actually being transformed into a social revolution. D’Aragona, the then General Secretary of the Confederation of Labor and one of the leaders of the reformist right wing in the Italian SP, demanded that the struggle be confined to economic demands; and agreed, as a last resort, only to the introduction of workers’ control of production.

The revolutionary elements were in the ascendancy in the ranks, but in the top leadership arch-conservatives and vacillators predominated. The resolution submitted by D’Aragona received the support of the social patriot Turati, and of Serrati, who at the time held a centrist position. With the support from the centrists, the labor lieutenants of Italian capitalism triumphed: D’Aragona’s resolution received 591,245 votes as against 409,569 votes for Gennari’s resolution.

As a result of this close vote the leadership of the 1921 movement definitively passed into the hands of the reformists who met with Premier Giolitti and on September 15, 1920 formally renounced all further struggle. They struck a bargain, telling the workers that they must remain content with a promise of workers’ control and other concessions, all of which remained on paper.

Betrayed and beheaded, the revolutionary movement of 1920 was quickly dissipated. The workers were compelled by their reformist leaders to surrender all their conquests, to return the enterprises to the capitalists. This plunged the Italian masses into dejection and apathy. The road for reaction was cleared. In the absence of an experienced revolutionary leadership capable of executing an orderly retreat In the face of this terrible defeat through capitulation, the triumph of reaction in Italy was guaranteed in advance.

The panic-stricken Italian bourgeoisie, saved in its last extremity by the treachery and cowardice of the reformists, regained its confidence and staked everything on the fascist gangs. By the end of September 1920 the revolutionary advance was at a standstill; November already witnessed the first major assaults of the fascists against the workers’ organizations (the seizure of Bologna). In the months that followed, the fascists proceeded systematically to destroy the Italian labor movement. At the end of 1922 the power passed into the hands of Mussolini, thus sealing the victory of counter-revolution in Italy, and stabilizing capitalism there for another two decades.


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