Italy 1920: When workers seized the factories

September marks the 90th anniversary of a mass movement of factory occupations in Italy which put the continuation of capitalism in question. Yet the September movement failed to overthrow the capitalists’ rule and its demise paved the way for the rise of fascism.

“IN SEPTEMBER 1920 the working class of Italy had, in effect, gained control of the state, of society, of factories, plants and enterprises… In essence the working class had already conquered or virtually conquered”. Leon Trotsky, at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, November 1922.

Armed workers were occupying the factories and peasants were seizing the land. The Italian Socialist Party (PSI) was 200,000 strong. In the words of Lenin, the PSI had been “the happy exception” of the parties affiliated to the Second International in opposing the first world war. In March 1919 it voted to affiliate to the Communist International and support the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. And yet, the September movement, which marked the final stage of the biennio rosso (two red years), failed to overthrow the capitalists’ rule, and its defeat paved the way for the rise of fascism.

Today this movement is in danger of becoming the ‘forgotten revolution’, including within Italy itself. Mass political organisations like the PSI are no longer in existence and Marxists are faced with the difficult task of building new parties with roots in the working class. But the prolonged crisis of capitalism now underway and the struggles it will unleash will inevitably throw up new political forces, with reformism and centrism once more assuming a mass form. It is for this reason that, 90 years on, the Italian revolution deserves the same attention as other more familiar ‘failed’ revolutions.

The September movement, in fact, began as an economic struggle over wages in the engineering /metal working sector. Prices were escalating – in June 1920 they were 20% higher than three months earlier. The bosses had accumulated enormous profits during the war but, in a move which will strike a chord with workers today, were looking to offload the post-war economic crisis onto the working class. Not only did the engineering bosses refuse to concede the 40% wage rise demanded by the metalworkers’ union FIOM (an autonomous section of the main union federation CGL), but when negotiations broke down and the workers implemented a ‘go slow’ they were locked out of the factories, beginning with 2,000 at the Romeo plant in Milan.

The FIOM responded by immediately calling for the occupation of 300 Milanese factories. This was seen by the union leaders as a purely defensive move which would be cheaper than organising a strike. They were completely taken aback by the extent of the struggle which ensued. Accumulated anger exploded. Factories were seized in the industrial heartlands of Turin and Genova, and beyond in Florence, Rome, Naples and Palermo. From engineering the tidal wave of occupations engulfed chemicals, rubber, footwear, textiles, mining and countless other industries. Eventually half a million workers were involved, both unionised and unorganised. Red (socialist) and black (anarchist) flags flew over the occupied factories. Armed ‘Red Guards’ controlled who could enter and leave. Workers themselves maintained order, banning alcohol and punishing workers who broke discipline.

A Fiat factory assembly

The movement went furthest in Turin, Italy’s ‘Petrograd’, becoming a popular mass movement involving 150,000 workers. At Fiat Centro (or ‘Fiat soviet’ as it was known) workshop ‘commissars’ controlled defence, transport and raw materials. Workers in Turin were organised in factory councils coordinated through the camere di lavoro (a kind of trades council) and workers’ committees took responsibility for production, credit and the buying and selling of goods and raw materials.

Formally the capitalists and their political representatives in the government were in command, but in reality they were paralysed. As the national newspaper Corriere della Sera bluntly put it, the workers had complete control of the factories. Here was a clear example of the ‘dual power’ stage of a revolutionary process: where who controls society is in the balance and will be decided either by the potentially revolutionary forces completing the revolution and overthrowing the old regime, or by the formerly dominant class defeating the movement and re-establishing its control.

The Turin factory councils movement

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT can only be understood in the context of earlier developments, particularly in the immediate post-war period. The employers had deliberately provoked the September movement, consciously locking out the engineering workers with a view to dealing a decisive blow to the working class. “There will be no concessions”, said the bosses’ representative to Bruno Buozzi, leader of the FIOM. “Since the end of the war, we’ve done nothing but drop our pants. Now it’s your turn. Now we’re going to start on you”. (1)

As had been the case in many European countries, the war, and the victory of workers and peasants in overthrowing capitalism and landlordism in Russia, had given rise to an explosive situation in Italy. In 1917, semi-insurrectionary movements shook the north of the country and peasants and land labourers were rebelling in the south. But it was in 1919 that the movement intensified and became more generalised. The first major battle of the biennio rosso was fought by the metalworkers, who in the spring of 1919 took strike action and won the eight-hour day. In June and July, soaring price rises provoked another insurrectionary movement in the north. In many areas citizens committees (embryo soviets) had complete control over prices. In the spring of 1920, the temperature of struggle was rising further with spontaneous strikes breaking out over unbearable economic and social conditions. The curve of strike action was inexorably rising – in 1918 there were 600,000 strikes, in 1919 fourteen million and in 1920 sixteen million.

Industrially, Turin was the most important Italian city and it was here that, from the capitalists’ point of view, the most dangerous movement developed. In the factories, workers were organised in commissioni interne. These were contradictory bodies which began life in 1906 as grievance committees concerned with disciplinary and arbitration matters. They were dominated by union officials and viewed by sections of the capitalist class as organs for class collaboration – a means of drawing workers into participating in decisions regarding their own exploitation in the workplace.

But during the war, the commisioni exploded and became the focus of a battle between rank and file workers and the employers over who exercised control in the factories. A crucial role in this movement was played by l’Ordine Nuovo, a newspaper founded in Turin in May 1919 by Antonio Gramsci and three other socialists. Inspired by the Russian Revolution, l’Ordine Nuovo called for the democratisation of the commissioni interne and the establishment of consigli di fabbrica (workers’ councils) elected by all workers, not just those who were unionised. The workers’ councils would not only exert workers’ control in the workplaces but would become organs for workers’ power in society as a whole.

The idea of workers’ councils spread like wildfire throughout the city. All over Turin, in every major industry, elections took place for ‘workshop commissars’ – at its peak the council movement involved 150,000 workers in the city. The capitalists, however, were clearly not going to sit back and accept indefinitely what had in effect become permanent dual power in the factories. “There can be only one authority in the factories”, stated the manifesto of the Turin Industrial League. “The workers’ councils in Turin must be implacably crushed”, declared leading Italian industrialist Gino Olivetti.

In March 1920, as elections were taking place in every workplace to renew the commissioni interne, the employers took the offensive, announcing a city-wide engineering lockout. A battle ensued, not over economic grievances but over workers’ control and recognition of the factory councils. In April, the strike by metalworkers spread to chemicals, printing, building and other sectors with half a million workers, virtually the whole of the Turin working class, involved. Four days later the movement went beyond the confines of the city to the Piedmont region. Spontaneous solidarity was organised in Livorno, Florence, Genova and Bologna, but the union leaderships refused to extend the strikes and, like the Paris Commune in 1871, the Turin factory council movement remained isolated, cut off from the rest of the country. Unlike the collapse of the Paris Commune, thousands of workers did not lose their lives but the agreement which ended the strike was in effect a defeat. Whilst formally recognising the consigli di fabbrica, it deprived them of any real control in the workplaces.

After the ‘April days’ the employers were emboldened to go further onto the offensive and take the workers on. It was pay-back time. Eleven thousand industrialists from 72 associations were organised in a centralised body, the Confindustria, which held its first national conference that year. They were united in opposing the workers’ demands. But as the scope of the September occupations and their revolutionary potential became clear huge fissures erupted in the capitalists’ united front facade. The ‘hawks’, who included Agnelli the owner of Fiat, pushed for the government to take a tough line and smash the occupations by force. Another wing, however, feared that if the army and state forces were used against the workers in the factories this would further inflame the situation and threaten to engulf the whole capitalist system. The prime minister Giolitti, who had been elected three months previously, took the line of the ‘doves’, choosing to stay in his holiday home in Bardonecchia and, as Gramsci warned, wait in the hope of wearing down the working class “to the point where it will itself fall to its knees”. (2)

When Agnelli went to ask for government intervention Giolitti offered to bombard Fiat and “free it from the occupiers”. “No, no”, cried Agnelli. Giolitti himself clearly explained the ruling class’s dilemma: “How could I stop the occupation? It is a question of 600 factories in the metallurgical industry. I would have had to put a garrison in each of them… To occupy the factories I would have had to use all the forces at my disposal! And who would exercise surveillance over the 500,000 workers outside the factories?… It would have been civil war”. (3) The ruling class was impotent, the ball was now in the workers’ court.

Attacking with words…

THE EFFECT OF the post-war radicalisation on the workers’ organisations had been as explosive as the movement itself. At the end of the war, the CGL (the union linked to the PSI) had around 250,000 members – two years later two million workers were enrolled in its ranks. By the summer of 1920, the anarcho-syndicalist union USI (which rejected ‘politics’) could claim 800,000 members, and the Catholic trade union CIL went from 162,000 in 1918 to one million in 1920. The growth of the PSI was no less spectacular: 24,000 members in 1918, 87,000 in 1919, and 200,000 in 1920. In November 1919, the party scored a stunning electoral victory winning over 1.8 million votes and, with 156 MPs, became the strongest parliamentary force. It also controlled 2,000 local councils (nearly a quarter of the total).

Giolitti was gambling on the trade union leaders being able to hold back the tidal wave of occupations and prevent a revolutionary insurrection. In April, the national leadership of the CGL and the FIOM had been hostile to the factory council movement, which represented a threat to their control over the working class, and they resisted any attempts to spread the struggle beyond Turin. In September, their main preoccupation was to maintain control of the movement, limit the demands of the occupation to economic ones, and prevent any challenge to who actually controlled society.

What about the PSI? The party declared itself in favour of the revolution and correctly described the period as ‘revolutionary’. The workers controlled the factories, not the capitalists; the ruling class was riven with divisions and the state was paralysed. This was a struggle for power. But whereas revolutionary movements often begin spontaneously without any clear direction, carrying the revolution through to its conclusion – to the working class (and peasants) taking power from the ruling capitalist class and building a democratic workers’ state – requires a conscious movement guided by a revolutionary party with a clear programme, strategy and tactics. This the Bolsheviks had clearly demonstrated just three years before.

Hundreds of factories were occupied but the workers, especially in Turin, were calling for the factory councils to be extended. Initiatives developed from below but in many areas each factory occupation was separate and workers concerned only with their own ‘local’ issues. The rural workers and peasants were also in ferment, rising up, striking, demonstrating and seizing land and the landowners’ estates: in 1920, 900,000 rural workers joined the CGL. However, these uprisings were mostly in isolation from the workers in the factories. There was a burning need for the occupations to be spread to every industry, and for the workers’ councils to be broadened out beyond individual workplaces, and coordinated on a local, regional and national level. At the same time, the formation of committees of peasants and rural labourers (Italy was still overwhelmingly a rural country) linked to the workers’ councils could lay the basis for a revolutionary government of workers’ and peasants.

The PSI wrote rousing articles in its press about plans for the formation of soviets; it issued revolutionary declarations exhorting peasants to support the strikers, and it called on the ‘proletarians in uniform’ to join the workers’ struggle and resist orders from their superior officers. At the Second Congress of the Communist International – held during July-August 1920 – the party’s representatives talked about the imminent revolution. On 10th September, the PSI’s national directorate announced it intended to “assume responsibility and the leadership of the movement to extend it to the whole country and the entire proletarian mass”. (5) On paper, a revolutionary programme, but one that was never taken beyond the printed word into action. The national leadership of the PSI was what Lenin termed ‘centrist’, revolutionary in words, but unable or unwilling to draw the necessary practical conclusions from their revolutionary phraseology.

Gramsci explained that the whole of the PSI had joined the Communist Third International but without really understanding what it was doing. Much of the party was still dominated by the reformists or ‘minimalists’, so-called because they adhered to the party’s ‘minimum programme’ of immediate and democratic demands, while ignoring or paying lip-service to the ‘maximum programme’ of the socialist revolution. The very existence of a ‘minimum’ and ‘maximum’ programme with no bridge between the two helps to explain why the PSI reacted the way it did in September. Led by Turati and Treves, the minimalists were overwhelmingly concerned with gaining electoral support and positions in parliament and local councils. Reforms for the working class were to be secured through parliament rather than through class struggle, which, when it did occur, was to be restricted to ‘safe’ economic channels which posed no threat to the capitalist system. The reformists main base was, unsurprisingly, in the parliamentary party and in the CGL which had been set up by the PSI in 1906.

Alongside the reformists, and in a majority in the leadership of the party, were the ‘maximalists’ led by Serrati. They defended the maximum programme of socialist revolution, but in typical centrist fashion, Serrati’s main consideration was to maintain party unity at all costs ‘for the revolution’, even if this meant making concessions to the minimalists. So, he and the other centrist leaders ignored Lenin’s advice to expel the reformists and constitute a unified party around a clearly defined communist programme. In addition, there were the communists grouped mainly around Amadeo Bordiga, and the supporters of Gramsci.

Another characteristic of centrism is prevarication and indecision. During the ‘April days’, the leadership had passively sat back allowing the factory council movement to be isolated in Turin and consequently defeated. This in turn gave confidence to the ‘minimalist’ wing inside the party, and lead to an increase in support for the anarchists outside. The PSI’s immobilism during April was a foretaste of what was to happen in September. It was entirely unprepared for the storm which raged across the country. As Trotsky explained, the organisation most frightened and paralysed by the September events was the PSI itself. (5)

“The central organisation of the party has not thought it worthwhile so far, to express a single opinion or launch a single slogan”, wrote Gramsci in August. (6) In fact, despite its numbers the PSI had no real organised base in the factories. In 1918, the party had signed a ‘Pact of Alliance’ with the CGL, marking out two artificially separate spheres of influence. The PSI was to lead ‘political strikes’ and the CGL ‘economic strikes’. Of course, as the September occupation clearly showed, there is no clear distinction between the two, with a strike which begins over an economic issue (in this case wages) rapidly assuming a generalised and political character. But this false strategy meant that the party was on the side-lines, a spectator and cheerleader for the occupations rather than a revolutionary party guiding the movement towards the conquest of power as the Bolsheviks had done. The PSI could print abstract proclamations and manifestos calling for soviets, but concretely it was doing nothing to promote them amongst the workers themselves, and therefore allowing the reformist trade union leaders, who were doing everything possible to derail the revolution, to hold sway.

This abstract propagandist approach was also evident in the party’s attitude to the peasants and rural workers. In rousing revolutionary rhetoric it called on them to support the workers in the factories: “If tomorrow the hour of decisive struggle strikes, the battle against all the bosses, you, too, rally! Take over the communes, the lands, disarm the carabinieri, form your battalions in unity with the workers, march on the great cities, take your stand with the people in arms against the hireling thugs of the bourgeoisie! For the day of justice and liberty is perhaps at hand”. (7)

But the party’s influence in the rural areas, particularly the south, was minimal. Serrati had effectively accepted that workers were ‘socialist’ and peasants ‘Catholic’, making no real attempt to recruit the radicalised rural southern masses. At its second Congress, he rejected the Communist International’s agrarian policy on the grounds that it was not relevant to Italy. A journalist for Corriere della Sera summed up the PSI’s approach when he wrote that “the socialist leaders want to attack the regime only with words”. (8)

…when concrete action was needed

BY THE SECOND week in September the occupations were spontaneously spreading but sections of urban workers were becoming tired and impatient, waiting in vain for someone to take action and give a lead. The situation of dual power could not continue indefinitely, the time for decisive action had been reached. On 9th September the directive council of the CGL met with some of the leaders of the PSI. At that meeting the leader of the CGL, D’Aragona asked the Turin socialists point blank “are you ready to move to the attack, yourselves in the van, where to attack means precisely to start a movement of armed insurrection?” “No” replied Togliatti ( a future leader of the Italian Communist Party). (9) The workers occupying the factories were armed, and in Turin a military committee had been organising since April. But, the workers were for the most part in isolated fortresses, separated from each other and, as Togliatti himself pointed out, the military preparations that were taking place were purely defensive.

In October 1917, the armed insurrection – the taking control of strategic positions such as telecommunications and transport, and of key state institutions and forces – was prepared as a defensive struggle, in defence of the revolution against the counter revolutionary forces. But, as Trotsky explained, the mass insurrection itself, “which lies above a revolution like a peak on a mountain chain of events”, is an offensive act which can be “foreseen, prepared and organised in advance” under the direction of the party. An insurrection can be spontaneous and overthrow an old power but taking power “needs a suitable organisation, it needs a plan”. (10) The first task is to win over the troops, which the Bolsheviks had managed to do before the insurrection, which explains its almost bloodless nature.

In Italy in September 1920, the PSI wrote in radical language about the hour of ‘decisive struggle’ being near, but did absolutely nothing to prepare for it: there was no coordination of the arming of the workers; no concrete approaches to the rank and file of the armed forces to form their own democratic committees and support the revolution; just lofty pronouncements, and, of course, no plans for the formation of an alternative, workers’ government.

Workers of Fiat take over the factories

As has already been mentioned, on 10th September the national directorate of the PSI voted to extend the movement. That same evening the CGL leaders called the PSI leadership’s bluff. At a joint meeting of the two organisations they resigned and D’Aragona offered to hand control of the movement to the party: “You believe that this is the moment for revolution”, he said. “Very well, then. You must assume the responsibility… We submit our resignation… you take the leadership of the whole movement”. (11) And what did the PSI leaders do? In a tragic game of revolutionary ‘pass the parcel’ they referred the issue to the national council of the CGL! “When the comrades who led the CGL submitted their resignation”, said Umberto Terracini, a co-founder with Gramsci and Angelo Tasca of Ordine Nuovo, “the party leadership could neither replace them nor hope to replace them. It was Dugoni, D’Aragona, Buozzi, who led the CGL; they were at all times the representatives of the mass”. (12) And so, the centrists, who hours earlier were supposedly preparing to extend the revolution, in reality were clueless about what to do next. With no clear programme, strategy and tactics they inevitably capitulated and handed total control to the reformists who did have a plan – to avoid revolution at all costs.

“The party directorate had lost months preaching the revolution”, wrote Tasca, but “it had foreseen nothing, prepared nothing. When the vote in Milan gave the majority to the CGL theses, the party leaders heaved a sigh of relief. Liberated now from all responsibility, they could complain at the tops of their voices about the CGL’s betrayal. Thus they had something to offer the masses whom they had abandoned at the decisive moment, happy in the epilogue which allowed them to save their face”. (13)

The CGL resolution, which turned a revolutionary struggle into a purely trade union one, won the vote at the national council. It called for union control to be recognised and a joint commission of employer and trade union representatives was set up to look into the question. When the FIOM organised a referendum to vote on the final agreement to end the occupations it was overwhelmingly accepted, with no opposition organised within the union against it.

Capitalist reaction was mixed. Agnelli was so depressed by the whole affair that he offered to turn FIAT into a co-operative, saying “how can you build anything with 25,000 enemies?”. (14) The union leaders refused his offer. A section of the capitalists, however, were up in arms about the issue of workers’ control. But the ‘moderates’ understood that after nearly a month of occupations the workers would not accept anything less. As the journalist Einaudi succinctly put it, “reason and sentiment counsel the industrialists to give way on control, to put an end to a ‘state of affairs’ which cannot long continue without the state decomposing and disintegrating”. (15) The commission, in fact, never issued a single proposal and ‘workers’ control’ was buried as economic crisis gripped Italy the following year and tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs, including many of the militants who had been most active in the occupations.

The agreement which ended the occupations was not initially viewed as a defeat by many sections of workers (and was not presented as such the trade union and PSI leaders). The economic gains – substantial wage rises, paid holidays etc – were impressive for a trade union struggle. But, of course, the movement had the potential to be much more than that, and it was only over the next few months, as the economic crisis began to bite and the fascist gangs were mobilised against the workers, that the full extent of the defeat hit home.

COULD THE COMMUNISTS have done more to shape events? The Second Congress of the Communist International, which actually met as the movement was underway, had very scant information about what was going on Italy. It was only on the 21st September, as the occupations were about to be demobilised, that the International issued a manifesto calling for the formation of councils of workers and soldiers, and for armed insurrection for the seizure of power. Gramsci was not present at the Congress, but Lenin praised his document for the renewal of the PSI as the best on the Italian situation. Yet, by September Gramsci had little influence within the party and over the movement. The Ordine Nuovo group, which had always been politically heterogeneous, had disintegrated in the summer and Gramsci was now isolated. Looking back some time later he was to write of the serious mistakes that he had made, and paid for. In particular, the failure to form an organised current in the party with support in the whole of the country. The group, in fact, never really developed any roots outside of Turin, and when the Italian Communist Party was finally formed in January 1921, the ideas of Bordiga overwhelmingly dominated those of Gramsci.

Bordiga’s group was national and much better organised, but politically ultra-left. It campaigned for the formation of a ‘pure’, rigid, disciplined communist party, and, in an over-reaction to the electoral opportunism of the reformists in the PSI, advocated astensionismo, the non-participation of the party in elections. The fact that in September the Bordigists’ paper Il Soviet did not carry a single editorial on the occupations speaks volumes for its abstract and sectarian approach to Marxism which Lenin attacked in his pamphlet, Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder. After the September events, Bordiga formally renounced abstentionism and, along with Gramsci, supported the building of a mass communist party. However, his ultra-leftism and sectarianism – his opposition ‘on principle’, for example, to the tactic of the united front – continued to permeate the young Communist Party of Italy, particularly in its attitude to the PSI (which maintained the support of the majority of delegates when the party split) and the Arditi del Popolo, popular militias set up to fight the fascists.

Within a few weeks of the occupations ending the landowners were unleashing the fascist squadristi in Emilia. The September revolution and the onset of severe economic crisis had convinced a section of the capitalist class that they could not go on as before. They could no longer rely on the capitalist state in its existing form and the workers’ resistance had to be crushed. With the working class weakened and demoralised after the defeat of the movement, big business and finance capital began to finance the fascist thugs who, in the two years before Mussolini’s eventual call to power in October 1922, launched a brutal offensive against the working class, involving violent attacks on workers’ organisations and the murder of activists. The Italian workers were to pay an extremely high price for the mistakes of their leaders in the biennio rosso, with fascist rule lasting for 20 years.

Today in Italy, following the transformation of the Communist Party into a ‘New Labour’-type capitalist party in the early 1990s and the subsequent decline of Rifondazione Comunista over the last decade, there is no mass left. But many of the political characteristics of the period 1919-1920 still remain. The false division between industrial and political struggle; the predominance of electoralism over mass struggle; abstract propagandism and an inability to connect directly with the working class. An understanding of this critical period in Italian history will be useful for a new generation of fighters not just in Italy but internationally.

(1) Gwyn A Williams, Proletarian Order, Pluto Press,1975 p238

(2) Paolo Spriano, The Occupation of the Factories, Pluto Press, 1975 p72

(3) Paolo Spriano op cit p56

(4) Gwyn A Williams op cit p257

(5) Lev Trotsky, Scritti sull’Italia, Controcorrente, 1990 p29

(6) Paolo Spriano op cit p34

(7) Gwyn A Williams op cit p251

(8) Paolo Spriano op cit p93

(9) Gwyn A Williams op cit p256

(10) Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, volume three, chapter six, The Art of Insurrection

(11) Paolo Spriano op cit p90

(12) Gwyn A Williams op cit p258

(13) Paolo Spriano op cit p93

(14) Gwyn A Williams op cit p267

(15) Paolo Spriano op cit p110

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September 2010