Italy September 1920: The Occupation of the Factories

The Lost Revolution

By Fernando D'Alessandro

This month marks 80 years since the rise of Fascism in Italy. The Fascists were able to rise to power because the workers had faced a terrible defeat during the struggles of 1920. This article explains why that movement went down to defeat and draws the lessons for today.

In the autumn of 1920 all the conditions for socialist revolution existed in Italy. The working class was prepared to struggle to the end, the petit bourgeois - especially the peasants - were leaning towards the working class in their attempt to find a solution to their problems, and the ruling class was divided over which way to go forward.

However, in spite of all these favourable conditions there was no revolution. This was due to one factor alone: the leadership of the labour movement. The Socialist Party leaders, who still defined themselves as Marxists in words, had in reality abandoned the revolutionary ideas of Marxism. At the crucial moment when the workers could have taken power these "leaders" blocked the road to revolution. The workers could have won over the peasants and the middle classes to their cause. But this was not to be.

Economic crisis

The economic conditions were such that all the exploited layers of society were on the move. The production of wheat in 1920 had fallen to 38 million quintals compared to the 52 million prior to the First World War. The production of maize had fallen from 25 to 22 million quintals. Forty per cent of the balance of trade deficit was due to the imports of foodstuffs. Industrial production had also fallen: by 15% in mining, by 40% in the engineering industry, by 20% in the chemical industry.

In the same period the lira collapsed. The exchange rate with the dollar went from 6.34 lira at the end of 1918, to 13.07 in 1919 and 28.57 at the end of 1920. This led to a huge increase in inflation. The coal price index reached the figure of 1666 in 1920 (1913=100) and that of cast iron stood at 1036.

Fuel supplies were scarce. Italy was in need of 800,000 tonnes of coal per year, but Britain was only supplying it with 300,000. The public debt was soaring. It stood at 74,496 million lira in 1919 and 86,432 million in 1920.

All these factors were forcing the workers and peasants on to the road of struggle against the bosses and the landlords. There was a wave of strikes, land occupations and raids on bakeries on the part of the hungry masses.

There had been a huge development of heavy industry during the First World War, due to arms production, and this led to a sizeable increase in the industrial proletariat. But the end of the war opened up a period of economic crisis that affected the jobs of huge layers of the working class. This situation led to a flowering of working class and peasant organisations.

Mass influx into the Socialist Party and the Trade Unions

This was reflected in the parliamentary elections of November 1919. The PSI (Italian Socialist Party) got 30%, and 1,834,000 votes, and elected 156 Members of Parliament. (The catholic Popular Party, based on the peasantry managed to elect more than 100 Members of Parliament.) The PSI also took control of 2800 local councils (24% of the total) and its overall membership rose to over 200,000. Only two years earlier the party membership had stood at only 60,000.

By 1920 a total of 3,800,000 workers and peasants were organised in the various unions. This was five times the pre-war figure! The majority of these were organised in the PSI led union federation, the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro (CGL, General Confederation of Labour) which had 1,930,000 members in September 1920. Only two years earlier in 1918 it had a mere 250,000 members. There had been a mass influx into what was the traditional mass trade union organisation of the working class. The second largest union federation was the catholic Confederazione Italiana del Lavoro (CIL, Italian Confederation of Labour), with its 1,823,491. However it must be stressed that more than half the CGL membership was made up of industrial workers, while 80% of the CIL membership was rural.

This mass influx into the PSI and the trade unions is a clear example of what Marxists have always maintained. When the normally inert masses rise up and begin to move politically they turn to the traditional mass organisations. In the period prior to 1918 the CGL on more than one occasion had stifled the movement.

In 1917 in Turin hundreds of workers had been massacred during raids on the bakeries. Instead of using its position to spread the movement the role of the CGL leaders was to get the movement to calm down. This kind of behaviour on the part of the CGL leaders had led to a split in 1912, with the anarcho-syndicalists breaking away to form the USI. When the real mass movement developed in 1918-20, the masses ignored the USI. Although it attracted some workers, the overwhelming majority went straight to the CGL.

This is just one historical example, among many, of how the masses move. We must not forget these lessons of history; otherwise we risk repeating the same sectarian mistakes that have been made many times over in the past.

As more and more workers took part in struggle, the balance of forces was swinging in favour of the working class. In February 1919 the engineering workers won a shorter working day: 8 hours with no loss in pay. But the workers did not stop there. In the summer of 1919 the FIOM (the CGL's metalworkers' section) was involved in a struggle in Lombardy, Liguria and Emilia (three regions in the north of Italy) over the minimum wage and the cost of living index. They were demanding that this be increased in line with the constant increase in the price of basic goods.

This strike lasted for two months. Through bitter struggle the workers managed to force the bosses to sign an agreement. But in many cases the bosses did not apply the conditions of the agreement, which meant that a new clash was inevitable the following year, in 1920.

The Factory Councils

The year 1920 was the high point of the class struggle in Italy in the years following the First World War. In the spring of 1920 there was a first wave of factory occupations. In April in Turin there was the struggle for legal recognition of the Factory Councils which had sprung at the end of the war. This struggle, led by the engineering workers, lasted for a month. And for ten days the whole of the working class was out in support of the engineering workers.

The events that unfolded around this struggle were already a warning of the future defeat, which the working class was to face later in the year, in September. The only political group to come out in support of the Factory Councils was that of the Turin Socialists organised around the journal of Antonio Gramsci, the 'Ordine Nuovo'. No other trade union or left leaders understood the nature of the Factory Councils. The CGL and FIOM leaders accused them of being anarcho-syndicalists. Serrati (leaders of the majority centrist wing of the PSI) together with Bordiga, (who was to become the first secretary of the Communist Party the following year) accused them of Economism and corporativism. The Factory Councils were in fact embryonic Soviets and could have developed along the same lines as in Russia in 1917.

However, because there was no support from the leadership of the labour movement nationally, this first big movement of the workers in Turin was isolated and went down to a heavy defeat.

The bosses were still not satisfied. The conditions they had imposed on the workers were not enough for them. On August 10-13, 1920 an inter-regional commission of the industrial bosses met. At that meeting they issued a statement addressed to the trade unions in which they declared that, "given the conditions facing industry, no demands for economic improvements [for the workers] can be accepted."

The provocations of the bosses

Rotigliano, a lawyer, - who later joined the Fascists - provoked the workers with the following statement: "Negotiations are pointless. The industrialists are against making any concessions whatsoever. Since the end of the war they have been constantly forced to pull their pants down. Now we have had enough, and we are going to start with you."

The reply of the FIOM was to call a special congress of the federation in Milan for August 16-17. Delegates from the CGL and members of the PSI executive were also present. This congress unanimously voted a resolution calling for "obstructionism" to be applied in all the engineering factories and shipyards starting on August 21.

Obstructionism involved the following measures: 1) reduce production to minimum levels; 2) no one to move away from his place of work; 3) no one to use tools not suitable for the job at hand; 4) to take as long as possible to do any repair work; 5) to refuse to do any work which is not part of one's terms of employment; 6) wait until the machine has come to a complete standstill before doing any cleaning work or lubrication; 7) if the company sacks anyone for applying these measures take him into work anyway; 8) if the company declares a lockout the workers should occupy the plant.

All the conditions were ripe for a major offensive on the part of the workers. The bosses would not have had sufficient forces of repression to crush the movement. The police forces revealed their own paralysis when on August 18, Taddei, chief of police in Turin, fearing a violent confrontation, sent the following memo to the Minister of the Interior (Home Office): "we only have 800 policemen on foot and 35 on horseback with which to contain the 72,000 metalworkers". Similar warnings were sent by the chiefs of police in Genoa and Milan.

Weakness of the state

On the eve of this major confrontation with the workers the capitalists were divided. Testimony to this were the attempts on the part of Corradini (Minister of the Interior under-secretary) and Labriola (Minister of Labour) to get the bosses to back off. The bosses' government feared a head-on confrontation with the working class. But the bosses themselves were counting on the weakness of the trade union leaders.

Labriola appealed to the workers: "call off the obstructionism and I will get the bosses to go back to the negotiating table…" It was on this basis that Bruno Buozzi (right wing Socialist leaders of the FIOM) agreed to suspend the obstructionist measures. Buozzi, however, did not understand that the deep crisis of capitalism and the heightened tensions between the classes did not permit for negotiations to go ahead. The workers could not accept the conditions of hunger and misery! Thus the bosses brushed Labriola to one side.

Faced with the intransigent position of the bosses the workers responded by applying the obstructionist measures even more severely. In many instances this brought about a considerable drop in production. On August 24 production at the Romeo factory in Milan came to a complete standstill. In one week production at the FIAT-Centro was reduced by 60%.

The occupation of the factories begins

While the bosses were preparing to react to obstructionism on the part of the workers, the branches of the FIOM were preparing to occupy the factories. On the morning of August 30 the 2000 workers of the Romeo plant found the gates locked and the factory surrounded by troops. The FIOM responded by calling on its members to occupy the 300 engineering factories in Milan.

The Corriere della Sera [one of the main Italian bourgeois journals] described the situation in its August 31 edition: "the strikers had full control of the situation. Anyone coming in or out by car or by coach was checked as if they were crossing a border. The checks are carried out by teams of vigilantes made up of workers and enthusiastic friends."

Between September 1 and 14 the engineering workers occupied factories the length and breadth of Italy, not only in the traditional industrial heartlands of Milan, Turin and Genoa, but also in Rome, Naples, Florence, Palermo. All the factories, steelworks, foundries, ironworks, all the plants that involved metalworking were occupied.

The bosses were powerless to do anything. Giolitti, the Prime Minister, declared, "I would have had to use all the police forces I had at my disposal to take control of the factories! And who would have held back the 500,000 workers outside the factories? …force the workers out with the use of force? This would have meant civil war!"

Over 400,000 workers occupied the factories and soon this became 500,000 when in several towns non-engineering plants were also occupied. At the FATME plant in Rome the workers had raised a banner which read, "He who does not work shall not eat; honesty and work is our aim; we do not want wealth in gold but freedom."

It is absolutely clear that the whole working class saw as the aim of this struggle the abolition of capitalist exploitation and not simply a wage increase of 2 or 3 lira. A typical example was the statement of September 3 of the factory council at the Diatto Frejus company: "New and great events are being prepared for the future of the proletariat. As we prepare for victory our motto is unity, unity, unity!"

Red guards appear in Turin

The working class was also preparing defensive measures. In Turin they organised the Red Guards under the control of the factory councils. They started to organise the running of industry. All the conditions existed for the setting up of a workers' state. The engineering workers were not the only ones who were ready for struggle. We have an example from Milan. In order to continue production under the workers' control they needed oxygen tanks. The FIOM thus ordered the occupation of the Oxygen and Other Gases Company. This was promptly carried out by the workers.

In the regional Piedmontese edition of the Avanti (organ of the Socialist Party) of September 4, 1920, we read the following: "The struggle of the engineering workers opens up a new era of the class struggle which will end up with the workers taking over the management of the whole of production."

But while the workers were showing a determination to struggle to the end, what was the reaction of the political and trade union leaders of the labour movement? On September 4 the chief of police in Milan sent a telegram to the Minister of the Interior in which he stated that: "The workers who are occupying the engineering plants are continuing to arm themselves and to strengthen their means of defence. The workers in other industries are putting pressure on their leaders to spread the movement. I have involved Buozzi and other leaders to resist these pressures. Turati was requested by me to intervene to bring the dispute to an end." [Note Buozzi was the leader of the FIOM and Turati was a historical figure in the Socialist Party, who had become leader of its right wing.]

Thus on September 5 the FIOM announced it was prepared to accept a wage increase of 5 lira instead of 7! Turati, Treves, D'Aragona and Buozzi (leaders of the CGL and Socialist Party) were obsessed with the idea of keeping the movement under control. They feared that the movement could spread and that the trade unions could lose control.

The compromising role of the "leadership"

These so-called "leaders" still thought there was room for "negotiations" with the bosses and that the conditions for socialist revolution did not exist. They stressed the power of the state. But we have seen from the statements of the chiefs of police and of Giolitti that the state was paralysed and the bourgeoisie did not know what to do. These "leaders" stressed the weakness of the labour movement. But its only real weakness was to be found among its leaders who refused to spread the movement to the whole of the working class nationally. The fact is that the other sections of the working class would have come out to help the engineering workers if only their leaders had called on them to do so.

These same leaders were telling the workers that they could not count on support from the middle classes and the peasants. The opposite was true. For months there had been bitter struggles with the peasants occupying the land of the feudal landlords in many provinces in the south.

The peasants were also moving

For example on September 5 the chief of police of Palermo reported that 300 peasants in San Giuseppe had occupied the feudal lands of Bommarito and Quastalla. He added that the movement, apparently of an economic nature, was led by members of the Popular Party. The chief of police of Potenza reported that in Matera 600 peasants, who had recently been demobbed, were demanding that land be given to them and that they were threatening more occupations if these demands were not met.

If the leaders of the labour movement had simply declared that the aims of the working class were not only to expropriate the capitalists but also the feudal landlords and that this land should be handed over to the peasants, they could have won these away from the Popular Party.

In March 1920 Gramsci stated the following: "… the Socialists do not fear the impetuous advance of the Popular Party… The Popular Party is to the Socialists what Kerensky was for Lenin…" What Gramsci meant was that the Popular Party based itself on the peasants but was not prepared to carry out the struggle to the end for the peasants. This meant the PSI could have won over these middle layers thus removing the Popular Party from the scene. The problem is, how could the leaders of the labour movement struggle for the interests of the peasants if they were not even prepared to the lead the struggle of the working class?

No centralised leadership of the Factory Councils

The fundamental problem was that the Factory Councils were organised on a local basis, but lacked a national centralised co-ordinating committee. Locally the workers were organising through the Factory Councils, but on a national level it was the CGL that still played the leading role. And the leaders of the CGL were reformists. This meant that they were incapable of winning over the petit bourgeois layers, especially the peasants, to the side of the working class. They refused to call for the expropriation of large scale industry, the banks and the big landlords.

This meant that the revolutionary movement began to ebb. The workers were beginning to get tired. Without seeing the prospect of victory in sight the workers could not be expected to keep up the tempo of struggle. They could not simply stay out on strike indefinitely. They had to feed and clothe themselves and their families. Food supplies had to be maintained. Production had to be organised. The workers were instinctively beginning to pose the question of power. In a trade union conference the workers of the Liguria region called for the occupation of the factories in every sector of industry. They knew the movement either had to spread to the whole of the working class or it would face defeat.

On September 9 the National Council of the CGL met. At that meeting a question was put to the representatives of the Turin branch of the PSI (Socialist Party): "Are you in a position to launch the first attack, where by attack we mean the beginning of an armed insurrectionary movement?" The Turin Socialists correctly replied: "We cannot attack on our own: for this to take place we would need a simultaneous action involving the countryside and above all it would have to be organised on a national level."

There then followed an incredible playing with words on the part of the trade union leaders. They justified their own inaction with the fact that the Turin workers had said that on "their own" they would not be able to challenge the power of the bosses. The logic of these cowardly trade union "leaders" was that if the Turin working class could not do it, then the whole of the Italian working class could not do it!

So on September 10 the National Council of the CGL declared that "the aim of this struggle is to get the bosses to recognise the principle of trade union control over the factories." No revolution, just trade union control!

The great betrayal

On the evening of September 10 the National Council of the CGL held a joint meeting with the National Executive of the PSI. The CGL leaders put this option to the PSI leaders: if you want to carry out the revolution we will stand to one side, we will leave the leadership of the CGL in your hands. But the Executive of the PSI refused to accept the offer. On September 11 the two options, revolution proposed by the PSI or workers' control proposed by the CGL, were put to a ballot. The CGL proposal won by 590,000 votes to 409,000.

This was an incredible betrayal on the part of the PSI leaders. The vote itself was a bureaucratic manoeuvre, for it did not consult the whole of the working class, but purely the membership of the CGL! Unions such as the railway workers, the seafarers and the dockers (and the members of the breakaway USI) were not allowed to participate in the vote as they were not part of the CGL confederation, but independent unions.

The fact remains that the PSI did not have to go through such a ballot anyway. An old long established agreement between the CGL and the PSI stated that the leadership of the political struggle belonged to the PSI. But the PSI Executive refused to take up this responsibility. They were in fact using the ballot as an excuse.

Angelo Tasca (one of the future founders of the Communist Party) eloquently described the feelings of the PSI leaders: "When the CGL position got a majority, the leaders of the party gave a sigh of relief. Having been freed from any responsibility they could now shout at the top of their voices about the betrayal of the CGL. At the same time they could still present themselves as offering something to the masses, who they had actually betrayed at the decisive moment, happy with the thought that they had saved their faces."

After those events, Nenni, a future leader of the PSI, explained that that joint meeting "had liquidated the political solution [i.e. the revolution] with the co-operation of the party executive, which had wanted to lose." (my emphasis)

The role of the Centrists

In 1920 the PSI was still formally a member of the Communist International. However on September 21 the Executive Committee of the Communist International published an appeal to the workers of Italy. It appealed to the workers to take power, to carry out an armed insurrection, to purge the party, and to set up councils of workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors.

Unfortunately the Avanti (official organ of the PSI) did not publish the appeal, (although it must be said that due to the very slow means of communication between Moscow and Italy it arrived very late after the movement had died down). This behaviour reflected the constant vacillations of the Centrist ("Maximalist") leaders of the PSI. In the period building up to 1920 these leaders had refused to recognise that the reformist wing of the party would have played a crucial role in putting a brake on the movement in the decisive moments of the struggle.

From then on Giolitti, the Prime Minister, was able to intervene as mediator between the contending parties. The CGL limited its demands to calling for joint management of the factories between the bosses and the workers. These manoeuvres were tiring the workers out. At its weakest points the movement began to break. The leaders of the CGL and the PSI proved that they were incapable and unwilling to give the workers the revolutionary leadership they deserved.

On September 15 Giolitti imposed his solution of so-called 'joint trade union and bosses management'. On September 17 the FIOM called for a ballot. This was held on the 25 and the government proposal was accepted with 127,000 votes in favour, 44,000 against and with many workers not taking part in the vote at all. Within five days, on September 30, the occupation of the factories had come to an end.

In the following year, at the CGL congress, D'Aragona, the general secretary, was to boast about the role they had played during the occupation of the factories: "It [the CGL] was forced many times to intervene and assume the leadership, to moderate and solve conflicts provoked either by the individual industrial federations or by the workers in the factories."

During a speech in the Senate on September 26, Giolitti declared that he had always had confidence in the CGL and that it had deserved the faith he had placed in it! Here we have the problem in a nutshell: the role of the leadership!

Conditions for revolution were ripe

The objective conditions for revolution were ripe. The workers were ready to struggle. The peasants were in ferment and could have been won over. The ruling class was paralysed. But there was no revolutionary, Marxist, leadership. The reformist wing still dominated the CGL and inside the PSI the "Maximalist" wing (a more scientific term would be 'Centrist') was not prepared to break with the reformists.

The tragedy was that when the crucial moment was reached, there was no organised revolutionary faction within the PSI and the CGL that could have taken over the leadership. The PSI had been set up as a Marxist party, and it had created the CGL. But over the years the leaders had adapted to bourgeois society and this was expressed in their moving to the right and accepting the idea of gradual change within the confines of the capitalist system. In 1920 no such compromise was possible. It was either a question of the workers taking power or the bosses crushing the labour movement.

It is a fact that the openly reformist wing had actually been reduced to a minority of the party by 1920. They could easily have been removed. The Communist International had been posing this problem for some time.

Between 1918 and 1920 the membership of the Socialist Party had grown from 60,000 to about 200,000. This reflected the radicalisation of those two revolutionary years. The pressure of the masses was pushing the party to the left. That explains why the so-called Maximalists had taken over the leadership.

The leader of the Maximalists was Serrati. In his speech at the second congress of the Communist International held in July 1920 he declared that: "We do not need to talk of Turati [leader of the right wing of the PSI] all the time… what we have to do is organise the revolution." In words these centrist leaders spoke of revolution, but in practise they offered a left cover for those same leaders who were to play such a crucial role in betraying the workers in September. By allowing the reformist to maintain their positions of influence within the party they helped prepare the ground for defeat.

Defeat prepares the road for reaction

This defeat brought the contradictions within the PSI to a head. A few months later in January 1921 the party split at its national congress, with around one third of the delegates abandoning the hall and deciding to found a new party, the Communist Party of Italy. Thus the revolutionary communists emerged from the inner struggles within the old Socialist Party, and not from some sectarian grouplet on the fringes of the movement.

This showed that the vanguard of the class had understood the nature of its own leaders and saw the need for revolutionary leadership. Unfortunately this came too late to change the events of 1920. We will not go into the nature of the new party and its leadership under Bordiga here. Suffice it to say that although the leaders of the newly founded Communist Party were genuine revolutionaries, they suffered from what Lenin described as the "Infantile Disorder" of ultra-leftism. Anyone who wishes to understand this should read Lenin's 'Left-wing Communism, Infantile Disorder'.

The defeat of the Factory Occupations, thanks to both the reformist and centrist leaders marked a dramatic change in the situation. It was a terribly demoralising defeat. This strengthened the hand of reaction and prepared the conditions for the coming to power of the Fascists two years later. Without the defeat of the working class in 1920 the Fascists would never have been able to come to power.

The events in Italy in 1920 are a precious historical lesson for us today. Those events showed the real nature of the bourgeois state. They revealed how undemocratic the so-called "bourgeois democrats" like Giolitti really were. But above all they demonstrated that when capitalism enters a deep crisis there are no halfway measures, there is no "third way" or "reformist road". It is a question of "either… or…" In the crucial moment, when all the conditions for revolution have matured, either the working class is capable of offering a programme that can win to its side all the exploited layers of society and unite them in the struggle for the revolutionary socialist transformation of society, or the moment is lost as the leaders look for impossible compromises with the bosses and the movement goes down to a terrible defeat and the initiative passes to the hand of reaction.

Since September 1920, unfortunately history is full of other such disasters for the labour movement, China 1926, Germany 1933, Spain and France 1936, Chile 1973…

Antonio Gramsci once said that "history is a teacher without students." This is definitely true of today's leaders of the labour movement, as they still insist on the "third way", the "progressive democratic bourgeoisie", etc.

It is up to the workers and youth of today to learn from the lessons of the past in order not to repeat them in the future.

October 9, 2002

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