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Rozsa, George Gregory 1

Red Storm Rising

Revolutions are not made by first summoning an assembly in order to discuss

whether one should or should not make a revolution1

As late as October 1920, Italy appeared to be spiraling down the path of Bolshevism,
which had gripped all of Europe following the fall of Russia in 1917. The Socialist Party was
preaching a revolutionary rhetoric, calling on workers to “(forcibly) overthrow … the bourgeois
state and (inaugurate) the dictatorship of the proletariat” (Elazar, “Union” 609). The threat of
revolution was bolstered by the conservative press’ daily accounts of Bolshevik advances (Squeri
325). Even the government took pains to prepare for the inevitable “Bolshevik peril” as
contingency plans were drawn up in anticipation of soldier defections to the revolutionary cause
(Mondini 457). Historian Gaetano Salvermini, however, described the mental state of post-war
Italy as a patient suffering from neurasthenia, who “mistakenly believed that there had been a
great danger of revolution” (Squeri 326). By October 1922, these fears had dissipated. Mussolini
was marching on Rome – the danger had passed. In the span of two short years Italy had gone
from one political extreme to another. Questions surrounding the origins of Italian fascism and
its subsequent takeover of Italy spark lively academic debate to this day, and generally fall under
one of three competing theories: class, rational choice, or civil society.2 While these theories
disagree on the motivations of the actors involved, they share one common premise: fascism’s
greatest success and support came from former Socialist strongholds, where as Juan Linz
proposed, “the labor movement held on to a maximalist revolutionary rhetoric” (Brustein 652).
In order to understand the origins of Italian fascism, one must first understand the socialist threat
it rose to counter. This paper examines the rise of revolutionary socialism and the threat it posed
to the hegemony of the existing power structure.
Revolutionary socialism was a product of maximalist thought and ideology, which held
that workers’ direct action and militancy through trade unionization was the principal force
behind revolutionary change. They differed from reformists who “saw the struggle for socialism
in evolutionary rather than revolutionary terms … that the class struggle should be fought

As cited in Seton Watson and Christopher (565) concerning one striker’s growing frustration with union leaders’
concessions during the Occupation of the Factories in Turin, 1920.
Class theories focus on alliances, predominately of a weak bourgeoisie and a strong agrarian class against the
working proletariat. Rational choice theories emphasize the material self-interests of rational voters, while civil
society theories differ in that they pay particular attention to the way in which a society’s civic associations tend to
foster democracy or the lack thereof (Wellhofer 91).
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through the institutions of the bourgeois state” (Davis 188). This disposition towards
collaboration led to a paradoxical alliance in 1901 between the reformist-led Partito Socialista
Italiano (Italian Socialist Party, PSI) and the progressive wing of the Liberals, Democrats, and
Radicals, an alliance, which the maximalists saw as a betrayal of their revolutionary socialistic
ideals. Over the next two years they battled reformists for leadership of the PSI, eventually
taking control of the Party in 1903. To stem the PSI’s influence of revolutionary socialism from
seeping into organized labor, the reformists established the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro
(General Confederation of Labor, CGL), Italy’s first national trade union (Davis 194). The
tenuous relationship between the maximalist-led PSI and reformist-led CGL was down-right
hostile at times. During the Libyan War of 1911, reformists came under attack from both
conservatives outside of the Party and from maximalists within it. Turin and Milan had become
“theaters of major industrial struggle,” within the maximalist camp. Maximalists who supported
intervention channeled this newly formed labor militancy into a general strike and used their
growing influence to oust the reformists from the Party.
World War I brought a temporary reprieve to the infighting between the reformists and
maximalists as both the PSI and CGL stood steadfastly and openly against the war. Italy was the
only major country to enter the war “without being able to count on the support of (its) most
important working class party” (Tomassini and Frost 62). As a result, industrial production was
placed under the protection of the Industrial Mobilization (IM), a newly formed administrative
branch of the Ministry of War designed to ensure workplace discipline (Tomassini and Frost 63,
emphasis mine). Despite its opposition to the war, the PSI pledged, “Neither support nor
sabotage” (Procacci, Protest 34), not that workers could strike under the stringent rules of the IM,
where “leaving one’s place of work was forbidden,” tantamount to desertion and punishable “by
the extremely harsh military penal code” (Tomassini and Frost 63). Under the IM, wages and
contracts were frozen; however, Regional Committees for Industrial Mobilization were formed
to settle labor disputes and to ensure a reliable level of production. These committees in effect
legitimized the forthcoming factory councils, which developed soon after the war (Tomassini
and Frost 83). Consequently, the IM “had a significant modernizing effect, contributing to the
formation of a new working class … a very strong cohesive element, encouraging working-class
solidarity” (Tomassini and Frost 68), which would manifest itself in the working class militancy
in the years following the war.
During the war, the reformists had regained their position of power, but the war and more
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significantly, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had galvanized the maximalists, who now
urged for the “proletarianization of rural workers, the collectivization of land, and the promotion
of revolution” (Wellhofer 102). After reclaiming the Party’s leadership in October 1919, they
established the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and promoted the creation of a socialist state
(Procacci, Interventionism 167), which would “obstruct and paralyze the experiment of social
democracy” through direct worker-action and strike activity (Lewin and Elazar 609). The Party’s
manifesto explicitly denounced collaboration with bourgeois institutions and dictated that the
proletariat “be incited to the violent seizure of political and economic power,” which must then
“be handed over entirely and exclusively to the workers’ and peasants’ councils” (Lewin and
Elazar 609).
The maximalists took their cue from Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. Marx identified, “an
authentic expression of worker’s discontent” in strike activity, “a form of direct struggle between
workers and capitalists in the sphere of production (Lewin and Elazar 598). Trotsky also saw
strikes as the embodiment of “the first form of workers’ collective struggle …” and as such, a
viable “indication of class-consciousness and militancy” (lewin and Elazar 595). Lenin, more
importantly, witnessed the revolutionary transformation of previously non-revolutionary workers
through their collective action (Lewin and Elazar 598). Strike activity was the key to
revolutionary change; therefore, it became the modus operandi of both the maximalist Socialist
Party and its reformist-led trade union, the CGL. They were both greatly assisted by the abysmal
living conditions in the aftermath of the war, which saw wave after wave of riots following
widespread food and energy shortages. Between 1913 and 1919, the cost of living increased
four-fold, then doubled between 1919 and 1920 alone. Wages failed to keep up with inflation
and the number of unemployed rose from 102,156 in 1920 to 512,260 by the end of 1921. These
conditions underwrote the Italian “diciannovismo (‘1919sim’) … the biennio rosso… the
‘revolutionary yearning for a change,’” which saw the number of strikes increase from 313 in
1918, involving 158,711 strikers to 1,864 in 1919 encompassing an impressive 1,498,686
workers (Lewin and Elazar 603).
The PSI was well adept at converting workers’ economic struggles into political gain.
Following the war the PSI campaigned effectively for electoral reform, which once enacted in
1919, granted universal male suffrage and proportional representation thus increasing Italy’s
electorate from 8.6 million in 1913 to 11.2 million by 1920, marking the “entrance of the masses
to the historical stage” (Lewin and Elazar 602). As a result of this mass participation of these
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newly enfranchised voters, the PSI received over a third of the votes cast, approximately 1.8
million, and 156 seats in parliament; however, due to its maximalist line against participation in
the bourgeois state, the PSI refused to seat their elected deputies, effectively nullifying their
newly won political clout at the national level. As C. J. S. Sprigge expressed, what in fact the
Socialists accomplished “was not ‘revolution’ but … abstention” (Lewin and Elazar 608).
Notwithstanding their abstention from politics in the bourgeois arena, the PSI and CGL
continued making stabs at the bourgeois heart in the economic sphere. While the pace of strike
activity slowed between 1919 and 1920, the absolute number of strikes rose to 2054 involving
1,903,865 strikers (Lewin and Elazar 603). The most impressive, effective, and damaging of
these were the Great Agricultural Strike and the Occupation of the Factories of 1920.
The Great Agricultural Strike began in February 1920 as sharecroppers and agricultural
workers went on strike demanding a more favorable renegotiation of their existing contracts and
“the right to impose their conditions of work on the employers.” The strike, which L. Salvatorelli
and G. Mira described as an “exasperating struggle,” lasted for over six months and left in its
wake “human victims, ruined crops, and deep rancor” (Lewin and Elazar 606), and cost the
landowners over 120 million lira (Squeri 330). The strike, however, was a huge success for the
Federterra, the National Federation of Land Workers who organized it. Under their new
contracts, sharecroppers received 60% of the harvest, up from 50% the year before, recognition
of Socialist-controlled trade unions, and most importantly, the right to control the local labor
market through the imponible della mano d’ opera, which dictated how many employees the
landlord had to employ per acre of farmland, and the collocamento di classe, which centralized
labor assignments effectively guaranteeing an equal distribution of work (Lewin and Elazar 606).
In September 1920, just two months prior to the local elections and at the height of the
industrial strikes, metallurgical workers of Turin, led by the Federazione Italiana operai
metallurgica (FIOM, the Federation of Metallurgical Workers) and supported by Antonio
Gramsci, initiated what was to become known as the Occupation of the Factories, the magnitude
of which, “in terms of duration, number of workers involved, and consequent damages – were
unprecedented …” and at their height “involved more than half a million workers in the metal,
chemical, rubber and ship-building industries” (Lewin and Elazar 605). Where the PSI sought
political gain from the workers’ strike activity, Gramsci saw potential for real change among the
social relations of production and championed a more revolutionary role for the unions.
Eventually, “the PSI embraced the strike, which it saw as a phase in the revolutionary struggle”
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(Lewin and Elazar 609); however, the revolutionary potential of the occupations was not
universally embraced as Donald Bell notes, “It is clear from local press accounts that the
Occupation was not viewed by most working-class leaders in terms of potential revolution, but
remained distinctly within the trade union bounds” (7).
Others disagreed. R. Fransozi believed that the occupations brought Italy to the verge of
civil war (Lewin and Elazar 605), and even though Federico Chabod saw them as the
denouement of the Socialists’ revolutionary drama, Lawrence Squeri notes that both Chabod and
Renzo DeFelice felt they had left a lingering paranoia of revolution, which lasted long after the
moment had passed (326), sort of a “state of anticipation,” which Paolo Spriano saw as a “a kind
of dress rehearsal for revolution” (Squeri 327). What made the occupations distinct from
previous strike activity was its spontaneous and co-coordinated nature. Prior to the occupations,
strikers in both Milan and Turin “carried out (their strikes) separately and in a certain sense in
competition with each other” (Levy 185). As late as April 1920, during the demonstrations in
Turin, Carl Levy notes that Milanese workers refused to strike in solidarity even as the city was
being besieged by the military authorities (185).
“The factory occupations,” according to Elazar, “provided a major impetus for the
Socialist victory in the Administrative elections of 1920.” The Party won on a truly “radical
platform … (that) called for the collectivization of the land and industrial workers’ participation
in factory management,” which they deemed as a necessary precursor to a “second Bolshevik
revolution in Italy” (Elazar 474). The PSI won a total of 25 of Italy’s 69 provincial councils and
2162 of the countries 8059 communal governments. Their greatest support, however, came from
the northern and central regions where large commercial estates employed wage-laborers. In
Emilia, the socialists’ captured 80% or 223 of its constituent 280 communes, over 50% of
Tuscany’s, 32% of Lombardy’s, and 30% of Umbria’s. In some of the reddest provinces, the
“red baronies,” the PSI nearly won complete control, all of Ferrara’s 21 communes, all of
Rovigo’s 63 communes, and 54 of Bologna’s 61 communes (Squeri 328).
Unlike their victories in the 1919 national elections, “the Socialist victories of 1920 were
immediately disturbing” to the conservatives because the “(v)arious threats that had always
loomed on the far horizon now seemed ready to materialize” (Squeri 330). Following their
impressive victories in the local elections, Frank Snowden also noted that “the League of
Socialist Communes declared: ‘The Socialist administrations intend to represent the working
class exclusively,’ in accordance with ‘the new communist law’ that places the needs of the
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community ‘absolutely above the right of private property’” (Elazar 474). The conservatives had
a reason to fear as Squeri observes that few provincial capitals were in the hands of socialist
administrations prior the 1920, but those that were had municipalized the gas and electricity
industry and operated “municipal ovens, mills, pharmacies, and ice factories as well as retail
outlets for food, cool, and firewood” (331). Socialist-run cooperatives posed an additional threat,
selling milk, meat, and bread cheaper than private enterprises (Lewin and Elazar 606). Both
Socialist-run municipalities and cooperatives posed threats to private industry in the form of
“unwelcome competition;” however, their primary concern came over “confiscatory taxation”
(Squeri 331).
Wartime sanctions and post-war recession had a detrimental effect at the communal level
leaving budgetary deficits, which could only be made up through increased tax revenue. While
the maximalist program approved of tax hikes well above statutory limitations, the maximalist
press was explicit, “Local power would serve the class struggle and further the interests of the
proletariat” (Squeri 331). Bologna’s maximalists proposed to socialize housing and water to
alleviate shortages of each while paying for them through “forced-gifts” from local banks.
Ferrara’s program went even further to include “the creation of a proletarian militia,” which
would take over and ensure the transfer of power from the prefectures and parliament once the
uprising had begun (Squeri 331). The conservative press bolstered bourgeois fears by
proclaiming the Socialists would force huge loans from the middle class and warned that they
“would ruin depositors by seizing the assets of municipal banks.” This self-fulfilling prophecy
was realized in Modena as “worried depositors withdrew savings from local banks” (Squeri 333).
At the same time these radical changes were taking place, Italy’s Liberal government,
representing the dominant class, ‘constantly gave in’ to the Socialists’ demands (E474)
Premier Giolitti took extensive measures against the propertied class and enacted a series of pro-
labour reforms.12 These included an increased taxation of wealth; compulsory accident
insurance, employers’ participation in old age and disability insurance; capital levy, increase of
death duties, higher taxation of high incomes, expropriation of war pro. ts, and special measures
to reduce tax evasion. Giolitti also reduced state subsidies to industry and nominated a special
commission of deputies and senators to ‘investigate and revise’ the state’s war contracts with
owners of heavy industry But perhaps the most signifcant act was Giolitti’s official recognition
of peasant leagues and labour unions. He refused to interfere on behalf of the agrari beset by
strikes, or to aid the industrialists during the Occupation of the Factories. (E 475)
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