Resistance in Rome: how class struggle erupted in World War II

Submitted by AWL on 10 March, 2015 - 5:25 Author: David Broder

The year before last, President Napolitano gave an address on the anniversary of the Liberation of Italy, remarking “When the country is at a crucial juncture, and in times of crisis, memory is fundamental”. He insisted the coalition administration he’d appointed the previous day would “need courage, resoluteness and a sense of unity, all of which were decisive to winning the Resistance battle”. Cynics might suggest that this coalition of the Democratic Party, neoliberal technocrat Mario Monti and Silvio Berlusconi embodied a rather different idea of courage and unity than the partisans.

This identification of the Resistance with “national unity” is a mainstay of both official commemorations and mainstream historiography. But my research follows in a tradition instead focusing on competing Resistance forces’ efforts to impose their stamp on postwar Italy. For example, Cesare Bermani’s work on the continuity of state, namely the Italian ruling class’s attempt to abandon Fascism better to conserve the fundamentals of the Italian establishment.

Such an analysis was central to the 1970s extraparliamentary Left view that Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti’s Salerno Turn, aligning the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale with ex-fascists and the King in the name of fighting the Germans, had paralysed working-class opposition to these conservative efforts, ushering in decades of Christian-Democratic rule. Yet while it blamed the PCI leadership for failing to exploit Italy’s rulers’ wartime crisis, rarely did it examine how grassroots communists tried to organise for revolution.

That is precisely what my research is about. Taking the case of Rome’s largest partisan formation, Bandiera Rossa, I want to talk about the Resistance-era transformation of Italian communism. While Communist Parties all over Europe were emerging from clandestinity in 1943–5, nowhere as in Italy was communist strategy so hotly contested by competing centres of authority.

Simply put, this was because Mussolini’s crushing of the Left in 1926 cut short the Stalinisation process turning Communist Parties in other countries into hierarchical parties on the Soviet model. Communists remaining in Italy across Mussolini’s twenty-year rule were almost completely cut off from the international movement, while Comintern-affiliated Italian Communist leaders in Paris or Moscow had no base in their own country.

Yet by the time these hierarchs started returning to Italy, long-isolated militants had already begun setting up communist organisations of their own, without instructions from exiled cadres. Take the example of Scintilla, a clandestine circle formed in Rome soon after Italy joined the war in June 1940, and which was at the origin of Bandiera Rossa. Named in homage to Lenin’s Iskra, its prominent members included the tailor Filiberto Sbardella, secretary of the Rome camera del lavoro during World War I; Orfeo Mucci, a carpenter and son of an anarchist bakers’ leader; Raffaele de Luca, a Socialist mayor in 1920; and Communist florist Agostino Raponi.

Scintilla, which produced a newspaper from August 1942, rather mechanically assumed that if Fascism was capitalism’s ultimate rearguard action, as early 1920s Comintern policy had it, then its defeat in war meant revolution.

Paris-based PCI leaders instead advocated cross-class national unity in the name of maximum mobilization for the Allied war effort. This popular frontism had a history in France and Spain in 1934 to 1939: it sought to encourage the democracies to ally with the USSR against Nazi Germany, by showing that the Communists were not trying to seize power and thus dispelling anti-communism in the West. Such a strategy had not been applicable to Italy in the Mussolini period; it was literally foreign to communists on the Italian peninsula.

So setting up a cell in Rome around the end of the Spanish Civil War the PCI preferred not to rely on the long-isolated comrades of yesteryear, but rather created an anti-fascist student circle trained in Croce and Gentile rather than specifically Marxist ideas. These new cadre drawn from regime student organisations did not much impress Scintilla; Filiberto Sbardella was shocked that PCI students ‘tied to aristocratic circles and the Savoy monarchy’ told them that ‘we had no right to debate their directives but only to accept and implement them’.

Scintilla were not Trotskyists — a label they angrily rejected– but were chastened by their first brush with the PCI’s now Stalinist organisational norms. Ironically, their objections to the ‘national unity’ policy fed on the cult of Stalin. If socialism had triumphed in Russia and was now almost single-handedly defeating Nazi Germany, then European revolution could not be far away. And since the Mussolini regime claimed to be resisting the imminent Bolshevisation of the continent, and labelled all opposition communist, Fascist propaganda only fed this mythology of the Soviet state. Of course this kind of triumphalism also affected the PCI; Rome PCI organizer Agostino Novella would complain in December 1943 that he was struggling to get his comrades to believe that the popular front was not a mere ruse, a prelude to seizing power.

The palace coup against Mussolini on 25 July 1943, followed by the German invasion on 10 September re-establishing Fascist rule in the North and Centre of Italy, turned these rival vanguards into the leaders of partisan movements resisting the German occupation.

While the Amendola student group and returning exiles founded a new Rome PCI federation, Scintilla morphed into Bandiera Rossa, linking up with other clandestine circles committed to a class-against-class policy. Bandiera Rossa stood apart from the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale that united Communists with Socialists, liberals and Christian Democrats in a patriotic cause. As the 5 October 1943 first issue of Bandiera Rossa’s newspaper put it, “We fight not for a nation but for the proletariat, much as we do not fight against Germans but against Nazism and fascism as the ultimate expression of bourgeois-capitalist dictatorship. Our only fatherland is the world; our only enemy, capitalism, whatever mask it wears.”

While the Communist and Socialist leaders were joining in a CLN alliance whose president, Ivanoe Bonomi, had in 1921 attempted to suppress the Arditi del Popolo, leading figures from that anti-fascist militia were now taking prominent roles in Bandiera Rossa. In addition to veteran communists it also rallied most of Rome’s organised anarchists, as well as Socialists like the sons of murdered MP Giacomo Matteotti. This strong start in 1942–43 uniting the historic currents of the Roman left, as well as its military officers’ role in coordinating resistance to the Wehrmacht on 10 September 1943, provided Bandiera Rossa with the necessary organizational basis to draw in hundreds of disbanded soldiers and others evading conscription by Mussolini’s new regime. As of November 1943 Bandiera Rossa thus had about 3,200 members, as against 2,500 for the official Communist Party in Rome.

Bandiera Rossa’s strong local roots were also its limitation insofar as it never expanded beyond the Lazio region. Though politically similar groups existed in other cities, not least Stella Rossa in Turin.

However, unlike that organization it failed to negotiate a merger with the official PCI, having insisted that the Communist Party first abandon the CLN alliance. Its paper thus explained on 22 October 1943, “the L’Unità communists and we are distinct organisations but not in two different parties: we shall meet on the via maestra, the higher path of revolution”. Yet without ever taming its glorification of Stalin, Bandiera Rossa did over time develop deeper critiques of the PCI, for instance the claim that “the bureaucracy ruling the party empties its cause of its social content” or attacking its insistence on the need for workers to rally behind national reconstruction even under capitalism.

This related to the social context of the Roman Resistance. Though Italy’s capital and largest city, Rome had no big factories, weakening the significance of the industrial working class to the Resistance mobilisation.

And Bandiera Rossa’s conception of class politics was not the PCI’s productivist popular-front model — where industrial workers would become a truly “national” unifying force by driving economic reconstruction — but a more flatly class-against-class approach based on mobilizing the excluded and dispossessed. Moreover, because Rome was not a centre of German war industry, the occupying regime largely abandoned the population of its borgate slums. Never part of the Fascist national community, during the German occupation these populations faced chronic food and power shortages, and had to fend for themselves.

Indeed, the borgate areas were Bandiera Rossa’s power base — tramdriver Tigrino Sabatini even half-jokingly spoke of a partisan republic of Torpignattara and Certosa, the south-eastern neighbourhoods where they took over the police stations. A great deal of their activity was devoted to food distribution, such as expropriations masterminded by anarchist tailor and former Palermo Arditi del Popolo leader Gabriele Pappalardo. Other efforts to meet Romans’ immediate needs included squatting public buildings to house the dispossessed; mass-producing false papers for draft resisters and Jews; and, together with other anti-fascist employees at state statistics agency ISTAT, a doctored census reporting that 90% of the Roman population were women.

While the German army was of course fully able to control this territory, it largely abandoned the population while making occasional raids to deport workers to the Reich’s war industry and smash centres of Resistance organizing. After all, German tanks and supplies heading down the Via Casilina or Appia to the front were particularly at risk of attack from partisans based in these areas. Aside from its borgate activity Bandiera Rossa also had some workplace-based groups coordinating with its armed bands. Take the incident where Bandiera Rossa partisans derailed a German petrol tanker train and then members of its seventy-strong fire brigade unit hurried to the scene of the crash, hosing water onto the blaze in order to fuel the inferno.

At the moment of the Allied landings at Anzio, 35 miles south of the capital, in January 1944, Bandiera Rossa seemed to be making headway in the accumulation of cadres and weaponry, as it prepared for insurrection at the moment the Germans withdrew. There was a constant exchange of branches and members between Bandiera Rossa and the PCI, but more importantly a split in the Socialist party. Its Rome military commander Carlo Andreoni left the CLN that same month, criticizing a body lacking any unity of principle and instead advocating a “Free Republic of Italian Workers”. His new “Movimento Partigiano” now collaborated with Bandiera Rossa, as did small Christian-Socialist and republican circles.

Yet the Allied landings were a false dawn: and over the next five months Bandiera Rossa was hit hard by Nazi repression and then its own political disorientation. A further problem for the group was that while even in November 1942 — when ex-Vichyites in power in Algiers ditched to the Allied side — Scintilla had understood that there would be a battle within the Resistance camp between conservative, ruling-class forces and revolutionary ones, it tended to overemphasise the importance of the Resistance in general, as if being a group of a few thousand armed men bigger than the other partisan forces meant that it had any serious possibility of leading a revolutionary insurrection.

As we have described, unlike Left-Communists paralysed by their unwillingness to aid the Allied camp, Bandiera Rossa was very militarily active in the occupation period. This invited heavy reprisals: between September 1943 and the liberation of Rome in June 1944 some 186 Bandiera Rossa members were killed – a third of total Resistance casualties in Lazio. This figure included 68 deaths at the Fosse Ardeatine massacre of 24 March 1944, most of whose 335 victims were jailed partisans.

Just days after that Nazi atrocity, on 1 April 1944 news reached the Roman communists that Palmiro Togliatti had returned to Naples with a new PCI strategy. With this so-called Salerno Turn, the CLN parties entered government under ex-Fascist general Pietro Badoglio and the King, for the sake of maximum war mobilisation. Rather than the CLN setting itself up as an alternative to the historic Italian state, it now directly participated in its reformation. Yet it would be inaccurate to portray this as the moment when Togliatti abandoned turning Resistance into revolution; indeed groups like Bandiera Rossa had since September 1943 predicted that this was the logical extension of the PCI’s ‘national unity’ policy, since they were already allied to other conservatives.

Historiographical debates have focused on whether Togliatti decided this new policy himself – with a specifically Italian, Gramscian vision of transitioning to socialism by hegemonising cross-class alliances – or dictated by Moscow. In the Cold War years, when the PCI had to vaunt its patriotic Resistance record, it denied that the Kremlin had dictated its positions. Yet the same was not true during the war, as we see in the self-critiques the Rome federation PCI leaders wrote in April 1944 rationalizing Togliatti’s position and denouncing their own past sectarian approach toward the King and Badoglio. These documents are very telling.

The Rome PCI organisers assumed that Togliatti’s position was indeed determined by Moscow, and that they had been mistaken not to see Soviet diplomatic recognition of the royal government as a signal to change their policy.

Typically of Togliatti’s apparatus, they outlined their arguments in terms of tactical choices rather than appeals to Marxist orthodoxy — but they did identify Soviet foreign policy goals with advancement of the revolution in Italy. So they portrayed the Salerno Turn as “the USSR’s first move on the ‘Italian terrain’ in its diplomatic offensive against the Anglo-Americans conservative policy”. Why? Because the Western Allies thought “they could isolate the CLN by resting on the authority of the King and Badoglio” thus dividing the “live forces of the nation” and allowing imperialism to take over Italy. In opposition to this, the PCI should ally with even ruling-class elements who sought “to save their own economic power from Anglo-American imperialist exploitation”. If the most conservative parts of the state and army were prepared to stand up for an independent Italian imperialism, a thorn in the US’s side in its own sphere of influence, then all the better for the USSR.

We might imagine that Togliatti’s initiative would have encouraged a leftist opposition in the PCI. Many Communists hated to ally with the Fascist King, and some branches split. Yet the largest dissident currents — Bandiera Rossa in Rome and Stella Rossa in Turin — were weakened. The CLN parties were now in government, while they were marginalized; and it was clear that Togliatti’s strategy, not their own, had Soviet approval. Bandiera Rossa weakly insisted that Yugoslavia showed that Stalin would give the Communists alone diplomatic recognition, if they proved in action that they were the only real Resistance force. Aside from the relative ineffectiveness of the Italian partisan movement as compared to Tito’s forces liberating large swathes of territory, this analogy was false insofar as in Yugoslavia there was no Anglo-American occupation, and in Italy unlike in the Balkans there were few military confrontations between Communist and royalist partisans.

Shattered by Nazi repression, and now having lost any hope of breaking the PCI from the CLN, Bandiera Rossa’s plans to rise up and seize power when the Germans withdrew from Rome lay in tatters. It became increasingly clear that when the Anglo-Americans came it would be the state they backed, and not partisan militias, to establish control. This would be no repeat of the end of World War I when the chaotic collapse of defeated states like Russia, Germany and Hungary had allowed for revolutionary upheavals.

The Allies’ arrival in Rome at the start of June 1944 was a liberation for those who had long suffered Nazi violence, deportations and starvation, if not a total change in working-class conditions. Yet the new authorities were also careful to keep control of the unruly partisans. Most conspicuously, the re-establishment of the historic Italian state saw the criminalization of much of the Resistance’s activity, notably including occupation-era expropriations and the squatting of public buildings. Haughty British intelligence operative Antony Ellis described Bandiera Rossa as “principally recruited from the criminal classes”, lamenting that they had tricked New Zealander and Canadian troops into trafficking them fuel and weapons. As soon as the Anglo-Americans arrived they banned Bandiera Rossa’s newspaper as well as the Armata Rossa militia it had sponsored, indeed jailing some among its leaders for failing to disarm their men.

To put it simply, with Bandiera Rossa’s insurrectionary strategy defeated and its activities radically restricted by the Allies, most members accepted the invitation to join the official PCI; few of its most prominent organisers were allowed to do so.

Naturally I am not saying that Rome’s borgate population were all conscious dissident communists, even the few thousands in Bandiera Rossa. Obviously plenty of individual decisions to join this or that partisan group had all sorts of accidental reasons — friends, family, timing, etc. But what I do want to show is that class struggle was not just a spur to joining a generic CLN-led Resistance, but exceeded its narrowly patriotic framework. And that the establishment of a parliamentary Republic was not the beginning and end of partisan aspirations.

And as opposed to accounts speaking vaguely of a Red Resistance or postwar arguments that the PCI could have done more, I want to root such a discussion in the activity of grassroots communists who were actually a force on the ground during the occupation.

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