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The red years: 1919-20
By Martin Thomas
The Russian workers’ revolution of October 1917 and the end of World War 1 in November 1918 were followed by a wave of economic turmoil and working-class radicalisation across Europe, and especially in Italy.
Strikes, many of them victorious, surged in early 1919. The Italian Socialist Party (PSI) was led by declared revolutionaries, known in the jargon of the time as “maximalists”, and adhered to the Communist International as soon as it was founded in March 1919. The PSI increased its membership many times over; so did the main union confederation, the CGL, led by Socialists, and the smaller syndicalist and anarchist confederations, USI and UAI. Peasants seized land.
Right-wing nationalists were also active. On 15 April 1919 they set fire to the office of the PSI paper Avanti. From September 1919 to December 1920, the city of Fiume (since 1945 in Croatia, but then mostly Italian-populated, and pre-war in the Austro-Hungarian empire) was ruled by a nationalist militia.
But the main trend was to the left. In June-July 1919, food-price riots spread from the north-west, near Genoa, across the north, and in some areas the local camere di lavoro (equivalent of trades councils) took power: one historian reckons that as “the most insurrectionary moment of the post-war crisis”. On 20-21 July, a would-be international general strike in solidarity with the beleaguered Russian soviet republic and the about-to-fall Hungarian soviet republic was large in Italy though it failed elsewhere.
In summer 1919 even the most ardent left-wingers in the PSI thought further preparation was needed before a revolutionary uprising could succeed.
Amadeo Bordiga, a distinctive figure on the left of the PSI since 1912, called for the formation of a properly communist party by the expulsion of the reformists who, though a small minority in the PSI, dominated the PSI parliamentary group and the CGL leadership: “Separating us from that is a short period, which can and should be overcome with the implementation of a specific program of action, but can not be skipped with miraculous advances” (Platform for the Communist Faction, July 1919).
In Turin, a new PSI left group, separate from Bordiga, was emerging around a new weekly, Ordine Nuovo, launched on 1 May 1919 and sustained by funds won in the local labour movement by Angelo Tasca. Its editor, Antonio Gramsci, wrote on 12 July that “in the present conditions of proletarian organisation”, a revolutionary uprising could achieve no more than “a purely formal correction of the democratic state”. “The forces of the democratic state and of the capitalist class are still immense” and could be sapped only by “a preparatory period involving organisation and propaganda”.
Both Bordiga and Gramsci, in their different ways, stressed the need to build a more solid basis of working-class organisation so that an Italian revolution could avoid the fate of the Hungarian soviet republic of March-August 1919, and the Bavarian soviet republics of April 1919, both soon overthrown and followed by white terror.
From 21 June 1919 Ordine Nuovo campaigned for the replacement of the “internal commissions” — rather bureaucratic consultative bodies in the factories, effectively appointed by the trade union officials — by factory councils elected by all the workers, workshop-by-workshop.
It cited the soviets in Russia, the shop stewards’ committees in Britain (which, unknown before then, had emerged during World War 1) and the activity of the IWW in the USA, as models.
Ordine Nuovo’s campaign succeeded. From the end of August 1919, councils spread through all the big factories of Turin, which, unlike all other Italian cities, was dominated by large, modern metal works. In the main Fiat factory, for example, 250 delegates were elected, with an executive subcommittee of five. In late 1919 the Turin PSI and Turin’s unions were won to support of the councils.
Ordine Nuovo had argued for the councils to be only a beginning, and then to link up with other groups in neighbourhood soviets and a national congress of factory councils. Those extensions did not happen. The PSI nationally discussed and even adopted elaborate plans for the creation of soviets (councils), but in token, bureaucratic form.
Meanwhile the PSI leaders had focused on the parliamentary elections of 15 November. They outstripped all other parties, with 32% of the vote. 21% of the vote went to the Popolari, a Catholic party founded only in 1919 (the Church had previously favoured abstention from voting) which combined conservatives with so-called “white Bolsheviks”. As for decades, the government was still formed by a cabal of liberal politicians based on networks of influence and patronage rather than real political-party organisation, but they were now a minority in parliament.
At the first session of parliament, the PSI deputies walked out in protest at the presence of the king. They were attacked by nationalists. A wave of protest strikes swept Italy.
The PSI had held its congress on 5-8 October. In early 1919 Bordiga had come out for abstention from elections; that must have helped marginalise him at the congress, where he won only 5% of the votes, with 95% going to the “maximalists” and the reformists keeping quiet. (The abstentionism was a reaction to the PSI majority’s electoral focus, rather than a principle for all times and places. Bordiga dropped it after summer 1920). Angelo Tasca from the Ordine Nuovo group voted with the “maximalists”. Later Gramsci would write: “In 1919-20 we made extremely serious mistakes”; he and his friends had not been confident enough to “form a faction and organise it throughout Italy”.
By January 1920 Antonio Gramsci agreed with Bordiga on the need to carve out an actively-revolutionary communist party from the revolutionary-talking PSI. He called for the creation of “communist groups” in workplaces and unions, and mapped out priorities: bring together the factory councils into a city workers’ council; spread factory councils across Italy and call a national congress; arm the workers; organise worker-peasant links. He disagreed with Bordiga’s line of abstaining from elections.
From 17 February, factory occupations erupted in the Genoa area, near Turin, and in Naples.
They were led by syndicalists (activists who believed in making revolution by trade-union action alone, without political-party activity), who deployed the occupations as a tactic in wage battles, to forestall lockouts. Troops evicted the occupiers after two to four days.
Ordine Nuovo (13 March) hailed “a new fact in the history of class struggle”, but warned against syndicalist illusions. “The workshop is revealed as a cell of an organism that still has a formidable power of resistance”, concentrated in “the supreme body of the bosses’ society: the state”. Bordiga was cooler. In general he argued that “strikes are the great practice exercises for the socialist political revolution” (Il Soviet, 6 July 1919), but he described the occupations as typifying “endless and useless adventures that are daily exhausting the working masses” (Il Soviet, 22 February).
In March 1920 the edgy industrialists resolved on a counter-offensive against the factory councils. 50,000 troops were drafted into Turin. The bosses picked on a small dispute about clocks being changed to daylight-saving time to sack some delegates and then declare a general lock-out when the unions called for sit-in strikes in response.
After two weeks, the metalworkers’ delegates decided to concede. The bosses then demanded an end to activity by the factory councils in work hours. The workers responded with a general strike in defence of the factory councils, which spread beyond the metalworks to every other sector and to rural workers in the surrounding countryside.
The PSI and the CGL leaders refused to spread the struggle. It was not the right time for a general confrontation, they said. Syndicalists around Genoa and elsewhere struck, but by 24 April the Turin workers were forced to admit defeat. The factory councils survived, but much weakened.
In May Gramsci sharpened his call for the creation of a new party out of the PSI; but his comrades on Ordine Nuovo, Tasca, Togliatti, Terracini, moved towards the PSI mainstream. In the 24 July elections for the Turin PSI committee, he was isolated.
In June 1920 soldiers mutinied at Ancona (on the east coast: against being sent to Albania), and the mutiny triggered a flurry of local uprisings. The same month the metalworkers’ union federation FIOM presented wage demands. Rising prices were making working-class life impossible. The bosses stalled. FIOM and the syndicalists of USI, reckoning that with order books thin the bosses would welcome a strike, called a work-to-rule from 21 August.
On 30 August Alfa-Romeo, in Milan, locked out its workers. This sparked the climactic confrontation. Within days factory occupations spread across Italy, and beyond the metalworks, partly triggered by other bosses’ lockouts. In Turin, the occupations dominated the city.
Many workers felt that at last, if not by their choice, the decisive confrontation had arrived. The first Sunday of the occupations, 5 September, saw huge assemblies in the factory, with songs and speeches.
The factory councils took control. Production was continued, partly in order to lay the basis for later demanding pay for the days of occupation (which in fact was largely won), partly to show that the workers could run the factories without the bosses. The occupations were widespread enough, and support from railworkers was strong enough, to maintain supplies. Strict order was kept in the factories, with a ban on alcohol. Factories armed their own “red guards” to protect them. When rumours spread of a military attack on the factories, working-class women (the factory workers were mainly men) rushed to the factory gates, with their children, to stand in defence. “Communist kitchens” fed the people.
Gramsci hailed the occupations: “Social hierarchies have been smashed and historical values turned upside down. The ‘executive’ classes, the ‘instrumental’ classes, have become the ‘controlling’ classes”. He urgently demanded city-wide soviets and strengthening and coordination of the red guards. He had no party organisation to drive those demands into the movement.
The PSI leaders put out a typically windy manifesto (6 September), calling for “proletarians in uniform” to resist their officers and peasants (engaged in land occupations at the same time, but without any link) to rally. “Take over the communes, the lands, disarm the carabinieri, form your battalions in unity with the workers... For the day of justice and liberty is perhaps at hand!” The “perhaps” said it all. Gramsci did not argue that the occupations could lead directly to revolution, but they could win “real guarantees” for the factory councils (14 September).
Bordiga himself was outside Italy, on his way back from the Second Congress of the Comintern in Moscow. According to one historian, his paper Il Soviet “throughout September... managed never even to mention the occupation in its editorials”.
Lenin’s comment at the Third Congress of the Comintern was unfair to Gramsci: “Did a single Communist show his mettle when the workers seized the factories in Italy? No. At that time, there was as yet no communism in Italy; there was a certain amount of anarchism, but no Marxian communism”. But Gramsci could do little to “show mettle” with only 18 organised co-thinkers.
The PSI and CGL called a conference on 10-11 September. Togliatti, representing Turin, was asked by the CGL leaders whether Turin would take the lead in an insurrection. No, he replied: after the betrayal of the April general strike by the PSI and CGL, the surrounding countryside had turned hostile. The CGL leaders offered their resignations: the PSI leaders said no.
The PSI leaders moved a motion at the conference, probably counting on its defeat, which called for the CGL formally to hand over the dispute to the PSI, “to lead it towards the maximum solution of the socialist programme”. 590,000 delegate votes, against 410,000, defeated that motion in favour of a CGL leadership proposal to continue the dispute for “union control”. The PSI leaders announced that, since this was now an “economic” dispute, they would leave its running to the CGL.
Pressured by the government, the industrialists agreed to negotiate with the CGL. On 19 September a deal was struck: a wage rise, pay for the period of the work-to-rule, no victimisations, local negotiations over pay for the period of the occupations. The deal included agreement to work out proposals for legislation for union control in industry; nothing came of that but talk.
On 24 September the metalworkers voted to accept this deal, though many abstained. After local battles over pay for the period of the occupations, which the workers mostly won, work had resumed everywhere by 30 September.
Many of the Turin metalworkers, the strongest section of the occupation movement, went back to work feeling betrayed. Gramsci reported their mood as “disillusioned and threatened with dissolution”.
But elsewhere workers marched out with red flags flying. PSI leader Serrati was even jubilant: “the bosses surrender”. There was no general or crushing sentiment of defeat. Bordiga, just back from Moscow, shrugged: “We must postpone the struggle to overthrow the bourgeois regime to a more opportune moment”.
Nor did the bosses feel triumphant. Just a few days after the return to work, Agnelli, the boss of Fiat, formally proposed to transform the giant corporation into a cooperative: the workers refused.
Yet soon the workers were on the defensive, pushed back again and again. Escalating economic crisis and layoffs were part of it. We can guess, also, that many workers felt that now they had tried everything — uprisings, votes in elections, strikes, factory councils, occupations, red guards — and nothing prevailed.
As the veteran Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta had said in early 1920: “If we let the favorable moment pass we will have to pay later in tears of blood for the fear that we now instill in the bourgeoisie”. Or Gramsci: “The present phase of the class struggle in Italy is one that precedes: either the conquest of political power on the part of the revolutionary proletariat... or a tremendous reaction on the part of the property classes and governing caste” (Ordine Nuovo, 8 May 1920).
Within a couple of months, Mussolini’s previously-small fascist movement was smashing up union buildings and socialist newspaper offices, and beating or killing left-wing activists, in a sweep which started with fascist gangs going out from cities in the North to destroy union organisation in the surrounding countryside, and spread wider and wider. The police and the army stood by, approvingly.
The Turin factory councils, weakened by mass lay-offs, were destroyed by a lock-out from 5 April to 2 May 1921, enforced by military occupation of the factories. Then in October 1922, the fascists came to power. Only the PSI and the Communist Party — finally separated from the PSI in January 1921 — voted against the law which, with armed fascists lining the walls of the parliamentary chamber, Mussolini put through to rig himself a parliamentary majority. The liberal politicians who had ruled Italy for decades thought they had done their bit, and voted for Mussolini.
They had indeed done their bit. The veteran prime minister, Giovanni Giolitti, responded cannily to the September 1920 factory occupations. On holiday when they started, he continued his holiday, and then took a scheduled trip to France. Anxious ministers told him they would resign if he went to France; well, he replied, that was a pity, but he was going.
Fiat boss Agnelli travelled to Giolitti’s holiday home to ask him to send troops to break the occupations. No, said Giolitti, he wouldn’t put troops where they could be shot down from the high walls of the factories. He could and did put troops into the city centres. And, he told Agnelli, he could break the occupations.... if Agnelli really wanted him to use cannon to bombard the Fiat factories. “No, no, no”, replied the distraught Agnelli.
Mobilising like-minded bourgeois opinion, particularly bankers, Giolitti sat out the occupations and then pressured the industrialists into negotiating. Then in 1921 he would form an electoral bloc with Mussolini’s fascists.
As Gramsci had noted back in July 1919, even with bourgeois civil society in Italy thoroughly in turmoil, the capitalist state’s reserve power remained. And the workers never developed an organisation adequate to undermine it.
“Not very different from Russia”
Gramsci’s comment best-known today is from his later Prison Notebooks: “In the East, the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relationship between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed”.
It has been extrapolated from to suggest that in Russia, in 1917, it was right for workers to make a revolution and smash the bourgeois state, but in modern Europe socialist politics can only be a milder business of burrowing bit by bit at the structure of civil society.
The extrapolation is radically wrong, and so was Gramsci’s original comment. In Russia, the state machine had been broken up by the revolution of February 1917. The workers’ revolution of October 1917 denied that state machine a chance to reconstitute itself, rather than running up against it when it was in full vigour.
And in Italy, when civil society trembled, a sturdy state structure saved the day for the bourgeoisie.
In 1919-20 Bordiga saw a sharp difference between “East” (Russia) and “West” (Italy). His policy of abstaining from elections in Italy, though he reckoned the Bolsheviks had been right to contest such elections as they could in Russia, was based on that difference. Gramsci, by contrast, argued that “historical conditions in Italy were not and are not very different from those in Russia” (Ordine Nuovo, 2 August 1919).
Of all countries in the world, Italy was arguably the closest to Russia in its combination of rapidly-grown large-scale modern industry in some cities with great stretches of almost-medieval peasant poverty. Italy’s agriculture, overall, was not more productive than Russia’s. Coal consumption per head, a good index then of industrialisation, was 300kg in Russia and 270kg in Italy.
Italy was much more urbanised than Russia, with a bigger urban petty bourgeoisie and more people who lived in towns but worked on the land.
It had been a more-or-less liberal democracy since unification in 1860-70, when the rest of Italy was brought under the constitution of Piedmont.
The industrial centres of Turin, Milan, and Genoa were less central to Italian life than St Petersburg and Moscow in Russia. Less-industrial Naples, Rome, Palermo, Florence, Venice, Bologna were as large, or larger.
Italy’s rural structures were more varied, ranging from peasants scratching an almost medieval existence in the south to relatively productive (and sometimes unionised) sharecroppers, owner-farmers, and rural workers in the north.
Emigration to and remittances from the USA and Argentina were important in the South. Many southern villages were more connected with New York than with any city in Italy. When unemployment in the USA rose to 17% in 1921, and it introduced tight restrictions on immigration (May 1921), that sharpened pressures in rural Italy.
Gramsci denounced the PSI’s traditional focus on Northern workers and sometimes peasants, and its neglect of the South. But he had few developed ideas of an alternative, and, isolated in Turin, no means of implementing them.
Frustrated and angry, he scorned the urban petty bourgeoisie as “a servile, abject horde of hirelings and lackeys” and offered the people of Rome this prospect: “As a city, Rome has no role whatsoever in Italian social intercourse; it represents nothing. Rome will be subjected to the iron laws against parasites that the workers’ state will enact” (Ordine Nuovo, 17 January 1920).
In the writings of Bordiga available today, it is hard to find much at all about the petty-bourgeoisie, urban or rural. The meticulous care with which he explained that the future workers’ councils would disenfranchise even those workers who had a little property income (though he wrote “such cases are not infrequent among us”) was ill-calculated to win over a minority or neutralise a majority (Il Soviet, 14 September 1919).
Party, councils, revolution
Gramsci wrote of “the idea of workers’ liberty being realised in practice initially in the factory council” (Ordine Nuovo, 28 August 1920).
This need not be interpreted in terms of the syndicalist flourishes which sometimes got into his polemics, and which he himself contradicted: “the occupation of the factories... cannot be seen as an experience of communist society” (Avanti, 2 September 1920).
The essential thought here is that the precondition for the moment of working-class winning of state power is a process, often slow, in pre-revolutionary times fast, of building workers’ democratic organisation which can subsist to some degree within bourgeois society and which also forms the basis, in the chief pores of economy and society, for future working-class rule.
In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky describes how in the final overthrow of the Provisional Government and the taking of power by the Soviets “demonstrations, street fights, barricades — everything comprised in the usual idea of insurrection — were almost entirely absent”. They were absent because of “the preceding crowding-out [by the soviets, led by the Bolsheviks] of the government” and because the small group who seized the Winter Palace “had behind them in the workers’ districts and the barracks an overwhelming majority, consolidated, organised, disciplined”.
That “crowding-out” cannot be a peaceful, gradual slide from 40% of workers’ power, then to 49%, and then to the magic 51%. (Some such “gradual revolution” seems to have been in the minds of the reformist PSI leaders in 1919-20). As Gramsci warned again and again, the factory councils would have to extend into city-wide soviets with red guards, a national network of factory councils, and an alliance with the peasantry, or be crushed.
But workers’ revolution is not a jump from a standing start, or a mere crescendo of demonstrations and strikes. It has to be based on deep-rooted organisation. Gramsci’s motto is a restatement, for the working class, of Hegel’s declaration: “Freedom does not exist as original and natural. Rather must it be first sought out and won; and that by an incalculable medial discipline of the intellectual and moral powers” (Philosophy of History, §43).
Bordiga’s criticisms of Ordine Nuovo on the factory councils had some justice. Before January 1920, the implied message of Gramsci’s articles was the factory council movement would of itself renew the PSI.
Some of Gramsci’s articles in Ordine Nuovo were syndicalist, “factory-ist”: “the factory council is the model of the proletarian state” (Ordine Nuovo, 11 October 1919).
Though Bordiga didn’t spell it out, a focus on factory councils at the expense of locality-based workers’ councils must have meant an almost exclusive focus on male workers (the big majority in the metalworks) and a neglect of working-class women.
Giacinto Serrati, the “maximalist” leader of the PSI in 1919-20, was a sincere revolutionary despite his strategic inadequacies, and would end up in the Communist Party from 1924. He was for the dictatorship of the proletariat (workers’ rule), but equated it with “the conscious dictatorship of the Socialist Party”. He also accepted a dichotomy between “political” and “economic” struggles, codified in a PSI-CGL accord of 1918 which said that the CGL would decide on economic struggles and the PSI on political.
That left Serrati, not opposing the stormy workers’ battles of 1919-20, but wishing they took place in a more orderly and cautious way, feeding neatly into the growth of the PSI.
Gramsci rejected the equation. The party is a voluntary organisation, not a structure of the whole working class. German Social Democracy, said Gramsci, had made the same equation as Serrati and thus “shackled the revolution, domesticated it” (Ordine Nuovo 27 December 1919).
Councils would sometimes have anarchist, syndicalist, or popolari majorities, at least initially (Ordine Nuovo, 29 November 1919). The party must win its majority, not have it by decree. “The party and trade unions should not project themselves as tutors or as ready-made superstructures for [the factory council movement]... They should project themselves as the conscious agents of its liberation from the restrictive forces concentrated in the bourgeois State” (Ordine Nuovo 5 June 1920).
Ordine Nuovo’s theories, so Gramsci wrote, were “nothing other than a translation into Italian historical conditions of ideas developed by comrade Lenin... and the ideas of the American Marxist Daniel De Leon” (Ordine Nuovo, 28 August 1920).
The American communist John Reed wrote that Lenin had told him that De Leon (fl.1890-1914) was “the only one who had added anything to socialist thought since Marx”. De Leon’s contribution was to create a precise (though, in De Leon’s own version, mechanical and unrealistic) scheme of the integration of political and economic struggle, and of how day-to-day economic struggle, or rather the organisation building up from it, fed into political revolution.
Industrial unions should be built up, argued De Leon, so that eventually they would have a structure sufficient to “lock out the capitalist class”. “Where the General Executive Board of the Industrial Workers of the World [the revolutionary union movement in the US at the time] will sit, there will be the nation’s capital” (The Socialist Reconstruction of Society).
Political agitation and electioneering was necessary to enable the growth of the union movement and to clear the political obstacles to its economic rule. “Without political organisation, the labour movement cannot triumph; without economic organisation, the day of its political triumph would be the day of its defeat”.
Gramsci, drawing on Lenin, and with some fumbling, corrected De Leon. Unions, even industrial unions, inevitably built around labour-market bargaining, would inevitably tend to have a limited membership, a membership mostly inactive in normal times, and a layer of officials geared to bargaining. The comprehensive, responsive, broad organisation of the working class really able to “lock out the capitalist class”, if supplemented by political action tackling the state, would have to be factory councils and soviets.
Gramsci had a clearer picture than De Leon of the action of the permanent, unelected capitalist state machine, able to sustain capitalist power even when the factories have been seized by the workers, as in Italy in September 1920 or in Catalonia in 1936-7.
He thus moved towards understanding the need to build a revolutionary socialist party, sufficiently compact, alert, quick-moving, determined, disciplined, and well-embedded in the workplaces and neighbourhoods that in time of mass revolutionary working-class organisation “below” and political breakdown “above” it can take the initiative to create a workers’ government and to break up the old state machine.
Italy 1919-20 was an object lesson in the historic imperative for revolutionary socialists to build such a party, or at least a strong initial framework for it, in advance of the times when bourgeois normality breaks down.
In summer 1920, when Gramsci had clearly formulated what was need for a revolutionary socialist party in Italy, and had temporarily been abandoned by his chief former Ordine Nuovo comrades as they swayed towards the “maximalists”, his own group in the PSI, which he called the “communist education group”, had just 18 members.
Bordiga had been a left oppositionist in the PSI since 1912; but he did not form his communist faction until October 1919, and then had only 67 section delegates at the PSI congress out of well over 1000.
Both those small groups, Gramsci’s and Bordiga’s, had much to learn (including from each other) before they could form even the skeleton of an adequate revolutionary socialist party.
A cardinal difference between Italy and Russia is that before the start of Russia’s “red years”, there was already an organised, compact, ready-for-action revolutionary socialist party, the Bolsheviks — small but not tiny, well-embedded, and well-trained.
The Bolsheviks were initially overwhelmed to some degree by a huge influx of newly-active people who went first to the milder, easier-option socialistic parties, the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries. The Bolsheviks went through many crises and blunders in 1917. The party almost had to remake itself. Leon Trotsky would argue later, in Lessons of October, that this is a general rule for revolutionary socialist parties in revolutionary times.
But the Bolshevik party could remake itself, quickly enough and without falling apart. That made the difference. And it was due to the work done before the crisis, much of it in adverse times where all their best efforts could achieve no more than to hold a small group together and keep it on the right track.
Revolutionary socialist victory in “red years” can be made or unmade by what has been done, or what has not been done, in the previous colourless years.