Anarchists in the Italian Factory Occupations

Republished with permission.
Source: The Anarchist Library


After the end of the First World War there was a massive radicalisation across Europe and the world. Union membership exploded, with strikes, demonstrations and agitation reaching massive levels. This was partly due to the war, partly to the apparent success of the Russian Revolution. This enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution even reached Individualist Anarchists like Joseph Labadie, who like many other anti-capitalists, saw “the red in the east [giving] hope of a brighter day” and the Bolsheviks as making “laudable efforts to at least try some way out of the hell of industrial slavery.” [quoted by Carlotta R. Anderson, All-American Anarchist p. 225 and p. 241]

Across Europe, anarchist ideas became more popular and anarcho-syndicalist unions grew in size. For example, in Britain, the ferment produced the shop stewards’ movement and the strikes on Clydeside; Germany saw the rise of IWW inspired industrial unionism and a libertarian form of Marxism called “Council Communism”; Spain saw a massive growth in the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. In addition, it also, unfortunately, saw the rise and growth of both social democratic and communist parties. Italy was no exception.

In Turin, a new rank-and-file movement was developing. This movement was based around the “internal commissions”(elected ad hoc grievance committees). These new organisations were based directly on the group of people who worked together in a particular work shop, with a mandated and recallable shop steward elected for each group of 15 to 20 or so workers. The assembly of all the shop stewards in a given plant then elected the “internal commission” for that facility, which was directly and constantly responsible to the body of shop stewards, which was called the “factory council.”

Between November 1918 and March 1919, the internal commissions had become a national issue within the trade union movement. On February 20, 1919, the Italian Federation of Metal Workers (FIOM) won a contract providing for the election of “internal commissions” in the factories. The workers subsequently tried to transform these organs of workers’ representation into factory councils with a managerial function. By May Day 1919, the internal commissions “were becoming the dominant force within the metalworking industry and the unions were in danger of becoming marginal administrative units. Behind these alarming developments, in the eyes of reformists, lay the libertarians.” [Carl Levy,Gramsci and the Anarchists, p. 135] By November 1919 the internal commissions of Turin were transformed into factory councils.

The movement in Turin is usually associated with the weekly L’Ordine Nuovo (The New Order), which first appeared on May 1, 1919. As Daniel Guerin summarises, it was “edited by a left socialist, Antonio Gramsci, assisted by a professor of philosophy at Turin University with anarchist ideas, writing under the pseudonym of Carlo Petri, and also of a whole nucleus of Turin libertarians. In the factories, the Ordine Nuovo group was supported by a number of people, especially the anarcho-syndicalist militants of the metal trades, Pietro Ferrero and Maurizio Garino. The manifesto of Ordine Nuovowas signed by socialists and libertarians together, agreeing to regard the factory councils as ‘organs suited to future communist management of both the individual factory and the whole society.’” [Anarchism, p. 109]

The developments in Turin should not be taken in isolation. All across Italy, workers and peasants were taking action. In late February 1920, a rash of factory occupations broke out in Liguria, Piedmont and Naples. In Liguria, the workers occupied the metal and shipbuilding plants in Sestri Ponente, Cornigliano and Campi after a breakdown of pay talks. For up to four days, under syndicalist leadership, they ran the plants through factory councils.

During this period the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI) grew in size to around 800 000 members and the influence of the Italian Anarchist Union (UAI) with its 20 000 members and daily paper (Umanita Nova) grew correspondingly. As the Welsh Marxist historian Gwyn A. Williams points out “Anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists were the most consistently and totally revolutionary group on the left ... the most obvious feature of the history of syndicalism and anarchism in 1919–20: rapid and virtually continuous growth ... The syndicalists above all captured militant working-class opinion which the socialist movement was utterly failing to capture.” [Proletarian Order, pp. 194–195] In Turin, libertarians “worked within FIOM” and had been “heavily involved in the Ordine Nuovo campaign from the beginning.” [Op. Cit., p. 195] Unsurprisingly, Ordone Nuovo was denounced as “syndicalist” by other socialists.

It was the anarchists and syndicalists who first raised the idea of occupying workplaces. Malatesta was discussing this idea in Umanita Nova in March, 1920. In his words, “General strikes of protest no longer upset anyone ... One must seek something else. We put forward an idea: take-over of factories... the method certainly has a future, because it corresponds to the ultimate ends of the workers’ movement and constitutes an exercise preparing one for the ultimate act of expropriation.” [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 134] In the same month, during “a strong syndicalist campaign to establish councils in Mila, Armando Borghi [anarchist secretary of the USI] called for mass factory occupations. In Turin, the re-election of workshop commissars was just ending in a two-week orgy of passionate discussion and workers caught the fever. [Factory Council] Commissars began to call for occupations.” Indeed, “the council movement outside Turin was essentially anarcho-syndicalist.” Unsurprisingly, the secretary of the syndicalist metal-workers “urged support for the Turin councils because they represented anti-bureaucratic direct action, aimed at control of the factory and could be the first cells of syndicalist industrial unions ... The syndicalist congress voted to support the councils... Malatesta ... supported them as a form of direct action guaranteed to generate rebelliousness ...Umanita Nova and Guerra di Classe [paper of the USI] became almost as committed to the councils as L’Ordine Nuovoand the Turin edition of Avanti. [Williams, Op. Cit., p. 200, p. 193 and p. 196]

The upsurge in militancy soon provoked an employer counter-offensive. The bosses organisation denounced the factory councils and called for a mobilisation against them. Workers were rebelling and refusing to follow the bosses orders — “indiscipline” was rising in the factories. They won state support for the enforcement of the existing industrial regulations. The national contract won by the FIOM in 1919 had provided that the internal commissions were banned from the shop floor and restricted to non-working hours. This meant that the activities of the shop stewards’ movement in Turin — such as stopping work to hold shop steward elections — were in violation of the contract. The movement was essentially being maintained through mass insubordination. The bosses used this infringement of the agreed contract as the means combating the factory councils in Turin.

The showdown with the employers arrived in April, when a general assembly of shop stewards at Fiat called for sit-in strikes to protest the dismissal of several shop stewards. In response the employers declared a general lockout. The government supported the lockout with a mass show of force and troops occupied the factories and mounted machine guns posts at them. When the shop stewards movement decided to surrender on the immediate issues in dispute after two weeks on strike, the employers responded with demands that the shop stewards councils be limited to non-working hours, in accordance with the FIOM national contract, and that managerial control be re-imposed.

These demands were aimed at the heart of the factory council system and Turin labour movement responded with a massive general strike in defence of it. In Turin, the strike was total and it soon spread throughout the region of Piedmont and involved 500 000 workers at its height. The Turin strikers called for the strike to be extended nationally and, being mostly led by socialists, they turned to the CGL trade union and Socialist Party leaders, who rejected their call.

The only support for the Turin general strike came from unions that were mainly under anarcho-syndicalist influence, such as the independent railway and the maritime workers unions (“The syndicalists were the only ones to move.”). The railway workers in Pisa and Florence refused to transport troops who were being sent to Turin. There were strikes all around Genoa, among dock workers and in workplaces where the USI was a major influence. So in spite of being “betrayed and abandoned by the whole socialist movement,” the April movement “still found popular support” with “actions ... either directly led or indirectly inspired by anarcho-syndicalists.” In Turin itself, the anarchists and syndicalists were “threatening to cut the council movement out from under” Gramsci and the Ordine Nuovo group. [Williams, Op. Cit., p. 207, p. 193 and p. 194]

Eventually the CGL leadership settled the strike on terms that accepted the employers’ main demand for limiting the shop stewards’ councils to non-working hours. Though the councils were now much reduced in activity and shop floor presence, they would yet see a resurgence of their position during the September factory occupations.

The anarchists “accused the socialists of betrayal. They criticised what they believed was a false sense of discipline that had bound socialists to their own cowardly leadership. They contrasted the discipline that placed every movement under the ‘calculations, fears, mistakes and possible betrayals of the leaders’ to the other discipline of the workers of Sestri Ponente who struck in solidarity with Turin, the discipline of the railway workers who refused to transport security forces to Turin and the anarchists and members of the Unione Sindacale who forgot considerations of party and sect to put themselves at the disposition of the Torinesi.” [Carl Levy, Op. Cit., p. 161] Sadly, this top-down “discipline” of the socialists and their unions would be repeated during the factory occupations, with terrible results.

In September, 1920, there were large-scale stay-in strikes in Italy in response to an owner wage cut and lockout. “Central to the climate of the crisis was the rise of the syndicalists.” In mid-August, the USI metal-workers “called for both unions to occupy the factories” and called for “a preventive occupation” against lock-outs. The USI saw this as the “expropriation of the factories by the metal-workers” (which must “be defended by all necessary measures”) and saw the need “to call the workers of other industries into battle.” [Williams, Op. Cit., p. 236, pp. 238–9] Indeed, “[i]f the FIOM had not embraced the syndicalist idea of an occupation of factories to counter an employer’s lockout, the USI may well have won significant support from the politically active working class of Turin.” [Carl Levy, Op. Cit., p. 129] These strikes began in the engineering factories and soon spread to railways, road transport, and other industries, with peasants seizing land. The strikers, however, did more than just occupy their workplaces, they placed them under workers’ self-management. Soon over 500 000 “strikers” were at work, producing for themselves. Errico Malatesta, who took part in these events, writes:

“The metal workers started the movement over wage rates. It was a strike of a new kind. Instead of abandoning the factories, the idea was to remain inside without working ... Throughout Italy there was a revolutionary fervour among the workers and soon the demands changed their characters. Workers thought that the moment was ripe to take possession once [and] for all the means of production. They armed for defence ... and began to organise production on their own ... It was the right of property abolished in fact ...; it was a new regime, a new form of social life that was being ushered in. And the government stood by because it felt impotent to offer opposition.” [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 134]

Daniel Guerin provides a good summary of the extent of the movement:

“The management of the factories ... [was] conducted by technical and administrative workers’ committees. Self-management went quite a long way: in the early period assistance was obtained from the banks, but when it was withdrawn the self-management system issued its own money to pay the workers’ wages. Very strict self-discipline was required, the use of alcoholic beverages forbidden, and armed patrols were organised for self-defence. Very close solidarity was established between the factories under self-management. Ores and coal were put into a common pool, and shared out equitably.” [Anarchism, p. 109]

Italy was “paralysed, with half a million workers occupying their factories and raising red and black flags over them.” The movement spread throughout Italy, not only in the industrial heartland around Milan, Turin and Genoa, but also in Rome, Florence, Naples and Palermo. The “militants of the USI were certainly in the forefront of the movement,” while Umanita Nova argued that “the movement is very serious and we must do everything we can to channel it towards a massive extension.” The persistent call of the USI was for “an extension of the movement to the whole of industry to institute their ‘expropriating general strike.’” [Williams, Op. Cit., p. 236 and pp. 243–4] Railway workers, influenced by the libertarians, refused to transport troops, workers went on strike against the orders of the reformist unions and peasants occupied the land. The anarchists whole-heartedly supported the movement, unsurprisingly as the “occupation of the factories and the land suited perfectly our programme of action.” [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 135] Luigi Fabbri described the occupations as having “revealed a power in the proletariat of which it had been unaware hitherto.” [quoted by Paolo Sprinao, The Occupation of the Factories, p. 134]

However, after four weeks of occupation, the workers decided to leave the factories. This was because of the actions of the socialist party and the reformist trade unions. They opposed the movement and negotiated with the state for a return to “normality” in exchange for a promise to extend workers’ control legally, in association with the bosses. The question of revolution was decided by a vote of the CGL national council in Milan on April 10-11th, without consulting the syndicalist unions, after the Socialist Party leadership refused to decide one way or the other.

Needless to say, this promise of “workers’ control” was not kept. The lack of independent inter-factory organisation made workers dependent on trade union bureaucrats for information on what was going on in other cities, and they used that power to isolate factories, cities, and factories from each other. This lead to a return to work, “in spite of the opposition of individual anarchists dispersed among the factories.” [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 136] The local syndicalist union confederations could not provide the necessary framework for a fully co-ordinated occupation movement as the reformist unions refused to work with them; and although the anarchists were a large minority, they were still a minority:

“At the ‘interproletarian’ convention held on 12 September (in which the Unione Anarchia, the railwaymen’s and maritime workers union participated) the syndicalist union decided that ‘we cannot do it ourselves’ without the socialist party and the CGL, protested against the ‘counter-revolutionary vote’ of Milan, declared it minoritarian, arbitrary and null, and ended by launching new, vague, but ardent calls to action.” [Paolo Spriano, Op. Cit., p. 94]

Malatesta addressed the workers of one of the factories at Milan. He argued that “[t]hose who celebrate the agreement signed at Rome [between the Confederazione and the capitalists] as a great victory of yours are deceiving you. The victory in reality belongs to Giolitti, to the government and the bourgeoisie who are saved from the precipice over which they were hanging.” During the occupation the “bourgeoisie trembled, the government was powerless to face the situation.” Therefore:

“To speak of victory when the Roman agreement throws you back under bourgeois exploitation which you could have got rid of is a lie. If you give up the factories, do this with the conviction [of] hav[ing] lost a great battle and with the firm intention to resume the struggle on the first occasion and to carry it on in a thorough way... Nothing is lost if you have no illusion [about] the deceiving character of the victory. The famous decree on the control of factories is a mockery ... because it tends to harmonise your interests and those of the bourgeois which is like harmonising the interests of the wolf and the sheep. Don’t believe those of your leaders who make fools of you by adjourning the revolution from day to day. You yourselves must make the revolution when an occasion will offer itself, without waiting for orders which never come, or which come only to enjoin you to abandon action. Have confidence in yourselves, have faith in your future and you will win.” [quoted by Max Nettlau, Errico Malatesta: The Biography of an Anarchist]

Malatesta was proven correct. With the end of the occupations, the only victors were the bourgeoisie and the government. Soon the workers would face Fascism, but first, in October 1920, “after the factories were evacuated,” the government (obviously knowing who the real threat was) “arrested the entire leadership of the USI and UAI. The socialists did not respond” and “more-or-less ignored the persecution of the libertarians until the spring of 1921 when the aged Malatesta and other imprisoned anarchists mounted a hunger strike from their cells in Milan.” [Carl Levy, Op. Cit., pp. 221–2] They were acquitted after a four day trial.

The events of 1920 show four things. Firstly, that workers can manage their own workplaces successfully by themselves, without bosses. Secondly, on the need for anarchists to be involved in the labour movement. Without the support of the USI, the Turin movement would have been even more isolated than it was. Thirdly, anarchists need to be organised to influence the class struggle. The growth of the UAI and USI in terms of both influence and size indicates the importance of this. Without the anarchists and syndicalists raising the idea of factory occupations and supporting the movement, it is doubtful that it would have been as successful and widespread as it was. Lastly, that socialist organisations, structured in a hierarchical fashion, do not produce a revolutionary membership. By continually looking to leaders, the movement was crippled and could not develop to its full potential.

This period of Italian history explains the growth of Fascism in Italy. As Tobias Abse points out, “the rise of fascism in Italy cannot be detached from the events of the biennio rosso, the two red years of 1919 and 1920, that preceded it. Fascism was a preventive counter-revolution ... launched as a result of the failed revolution” [“The Rise of Fascism in an Industrial City”, pp. 52–81, Rethinking Italian Fascism, David Forgacs (ed.), p. 54] The term “preventive counter-revolution” was originally coined by the leading anarchist Luigi Fabbri, who correctly described fascism as “the organisation and agent of the violent armed defence of the ruling class against the proletariat, which, to their mind, has become unduly demanding, united and intrusive.” [“Fascism: The Preventive Counter-Revolution”, pp. 408–416, Anarchism, Robert Graham (ed.), p. 410 and p. 409]

The rise of fascism confirmed Malatesta’s warning at the time of the factory occupations: “If we do not carry on to the end, we will pay with tears of blood for the fear we now instil in the bourgeoisie.” [quoted by Tobias Abse, Op. Cit., p. 66] The capitalists and rich landowners backed the fascists in order to teach the working class their place, aided by the state. They ensured “that it was given every assistance in terms of funding and arms, turning a blind eye to its breaches of the law and, where necessary, covering its back through intervention by armed forces which, on the pretext of restoring order, would rush to the aid of the fascists wherever the latter were beginning to take a beating instead of doling one out.”[Fabbri, Op. Cit., p. 411] To quote Tobias Abse:

“The aims of the Fascists and their backers amongst the industrialists and agrarians in 1921–22 were simple: to break the power of the organised workers and peasants as completely as possible, to wipe out, with the bullet and the club, not only the gains of the biennio rosso, but everything that the lower classes had gained ... between the turn of the century and the outbreak of the First World War.” [Op. Cit., p. 54]

The fascist squads attacked and destroyed anarchist and socialist meeting places, social centres, radical presses and Camera del Lavoro (local trade union councils). However, even in the dark days of fascist terror, the anarchists resisted the forces of totalitarianism. “It is no coincidence that the strongest working-class resistance to Fascism was in ... towns or cities in which there was quite a strong anarchist, syndicalist or anarcho-syndicalist tradition.” [Tobias Abse, Op. Cit., p. 56]

The anarchists participated in, and often organised sections of, the Arditi del Popolo, a working-class organisation devoted to the self-defence of workers’ interests. The Arditi del Popolo organised and encouraged working-class resistance to fascist squads, often defeating larger fascist forces (for example, “the total humiliation of thousands of Italo Balbo’s squadristi by a couple of hundred Arditi del Popolo backed by the inhabitants of the working class districts” in the anarchist stronghold of Parma in August 1922 [Tobias Abse, Op. Cit., p. 56]).

The Arditi del Popolo was the closest Italy got to the idea of a united, revolutionary working-class front against fascism, as had been suggested by Malatesta and the UAI. This movement “developed along anti-bourgeois and anti-fascist lines, and was marked by the independence of its local sections.” [Red Years, Black Years: Anarchist Resistance to Fascism in Italy, p. 2] Rather than being just an “anti-fascist” organisation, the Arditi “were not a movement in defence of ‘democracy’ in the abstract, but an essentially working-class organisation devoted to the defence of the interests of industrial workers, the dockers and large numbers of artisans and craftsmen.” [Tobias Abse, Op. Cit., p. 75] Unsurprisingly, the Arditi del Popolo “appear to have been strongest and most successful in areas where traditional working-class political culture was less exclusively socialist and had strong anarchist or syndicalist traditions, for example, Bari, Livorno, Parma and Rome.” [Antonio Sonnessa, “Working Class Defence Organisation, Anti-Fascist Resistance and the Arditi del Popolo in Turin, 1919–22,” pp. 183–218, European History Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 2, p. 184]

However, both the socialist and communist parties withdrew from the organisation. The socialists signed a “Pact of Pacification” with the Fascists in August 1921. The communists “preferred to withdraw their members from the Arditi del Popolo rather than let them work with the anarchists.” [Red Years, Black Years, p. 17] Indeed, “[o]n the same day as the Pact was signed, Ordine Nuovo published a PCd’I [Communist Party of Italy] communication warning communists against involvement” in the Arditi del Popolo. Four days later, the Communist leadership “officially abandoned the movement. Severe disciplinary measures were threatened against those communists who continued to participate in, or liase with,” the organisation. Thus by “the end of the first week of August 1921 the PSI, CGL and the PCd’I had officially denounced” the organisation. “Only the anarchist leaders, if not always sympathetic to the programme of the [Arditi del Popolo], did not abandon the movement.” Indeed, Umanita Nova “strongly supported” it “on the grounds it represented a popular expression of anti-fascist resistance and in defence of freedom to organise.” [Antonio Sonnessa, Op. Cit., p. 195 and p. 194]

However, in spite of the decisions by their leaders, many rank and file socialists and communists took part in the movement. The latter took part in open “defiance of the PCd’I leadership’s growing abandonment” of it. In Turin, for example, communists who took part in the Arditi del Polopo did so “less as communists and more as part of a wider, working-class self-identification ... This dynamic was re-enforced by an important socialist and anarchist presence” there. The failure of the Communist leadership to support the movement shows the bankruptcy of Bolshevik organisational forms which were unresponsive to the needs of the popular movement. Indeed, these events show the “libertarian custom of autonomy from, and resistance to, authority was also operated against the leaders of the workers’ movement, particularly when they were held to have misunderstood the situation at grass roots level.” [Sonnessa, Op. Cit., p. 200, p. 198 and p. 193]

Thus the Communist Party failed to support the popular resistance to fascism. The Communist leader Antonio Gramsci explained why, arguing that “the party leadership’s attitude on the question of the Arditi del Popolo ... corresponded to a need to prevent the party members from being controlled by a leadership that was not the party’s leadership.” Gramsci added that this policy “served to disqualify a mass movement which had started from below and which could instead have been exploited by us politically.” [Selections from Political Writings (1921–1926), p. 333] While being less sectarian towards the Arditi del Popolo than other Communist leaders, “[i]n common with all communist leaders, Gramsci awaited the formation of the PCd’I-led military squads.” [Sonnessa, Op. Cit., p. 196] In other words, the struggle against fascism was seen by the Communist leadership as a means of gaining more members and, when the opposite was a possibility, they preferred defeat and fascism rather than risk their followers becoming influenced by anarchism.

As Abse notes, “it was the withdrawal of support by the Socialist and Communist parties at the national level that crippled”the Arditi. [Op. Cit., p. 74] Thus “social reformist defeatism and communist sectarianism made impossible an armed opposition that was widespread and therefore effective; and the isolated instances of popular resistance were unable to unite in a successful strategy.” And fascism could have been defeated: “Insurrections at Sarzanna, in July 1921, and at Parma, in August 1922, are examples of the correctness of the policies which the anarchists urged in action and propaganda.” [Red Years, Black Years, p. 3 and p. 2] Historian Tobias Abse confirms this analysis, arguing that “[w]hat happened in Parma in August 1922 ... could have happened elsewhere, if only the leadership of the Socialist and Communist parties thrown their weight behind the call of the anarchist Malatesta for a united revolutionary front against Fascism.” [Op. Cit., p. 56]

In the end, fascist violence was successful and capitalist power maintained:

“The anarchists’ will and courage were not enough to counter the fascist gangs, powerfully aided with material and arms, backed by the repressive organs of the state. Anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists were decisive in some areas and in some industries, but only a similar choice of direct action on the parts of the Socialist Party and the General Confederation of Labour [the reformist trade union] could have halted fascism.” [Red Years, Black Years, pp. 1–2]

After helping to defeat the revolution, the Marxists helped ensure the victory of fascism.

Even after the fascist state was created, anarchists resisted both inside and outside Italy. In America, for example, Italian anarchists played a major role in fighting fascist influence in their communities, none more so that Carlo Tresca, most famous for his role in the 1912 IWW Lawrence strike, who “in the 1920s had no peer among anti-Fascist leaders, a distinction recognised by Mussolini’s political police in Rome.” [Nunzio Pernicone, Carlo Tresca: Portrait of a Rebel, p. 4] Many Italians, both anarchist and non-anarchist, travelled to Spain to resist Franco in 1936 (see Umberto Marzochhi’sRemembering Spain: Italian Anarchist Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War for details). During the Second World War, anarchists played a major part in the Italian Partisan movement. It was the fact that the anti-fascist movement was dominated by anti-capitalist elements that led the USA and the UK to place known fascists in governmental positions in the places they “liberated” (often where the town had already been taken by the Partisans, resulting in the Allied troops “liberating” the town from its own inhabitants!).

Given this history of resisting fascism in Italy, it is surprising that some claim Italian fascism was a product or form of syndicalism. This is even claimed by some anarchists. According to Bob Black the “Italian syndicalists mostly went over to Fascism” and references David D. Roberts 1979 study The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism to support his claim. [Anarchy after Leftism, p. 64] Peter Sabatini in a review in Social Anarchism makes a similar statement, saying that syndicalism’s “ultimate failure” was “its transformation into a vehicle of fascism.” [Social Anarchism, no. 23, p. 99] What is the truth behind these claims?

Looking at Black’s reference we discover that, in fact, most of the Italian syndicalists did not go over to fascism, if by syndicalists we mean members of the USI (the Italian Syndicalist Union). Roberts states that:

“The vast majority of the organised workers failed to respond to the syndicalists’ appeals and continued to oppose [Italian] intervention [in the First World War], shunning what seemed to be a futile capitalist war. The syndicalists failed to convince even a majority within the USI ... the majority opted for the neutralism of Armando Borghi, leader of the anarchists within the USI. Schism followed as De Ambris led the interventionist minority out of the confederation.” [The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism, p. 113]

However, if we take “syndicalist” to mean some of the intellectuals and “leaders” of the pre-war movement, it was a case that the “leading syndicalists came out for intervention quickly and almost unanimously” [Roberts, Op. Cit., p. 106] after the First World War started. Many of these pro-war “leading syndicalists” did become fascists. However, to concentrate on a handful of “leaders” (which the majority did not even follow!) and state that this shows that the “Italian syndicalists mostly went over to Fascism” staggers belief. What is even worse, as seen above, the Italian anarchists and syndicalists were the most dedicated and successful fighters against fascism. In effect, Black and Sabatini have slandered a whole movement.

What is also interesting is that these “leading syndicalists” were not anarchists and so not anarcho-syndicalists. As Roberts notes “[i]n Italy, the syndicalist doctrine was more clearly the product of a group of intellectuals, operating within the Socialist party and seeking an alternative to reformism.” They “explicitly denounced anarchism” and “insisted on a variety of Marxist orthodoxy.” The “syndicalists genuinely desired — and tried — to work within the Marxist tradition.” [Op. Cit., p. 66, p. 72, p. 57 and p. 79] According to Carl Levy, in his account of Italian anarchism, “[u]nlike other syndicalist movements, the Italian variation coalesced inside a Second International party. Supporter were partially drawn from socialist intransigents ... the southern syndicalist intellectuals pronounced republicanism ... Another component ... was the remnant of the Partito Operaio.” [“Italian Anarchism: 1870–1926” in For Anarchism: History, Theory, and Practice, David Goodway (Ed.), p. 51]

In other words, the Italian syndicalists who turned to fascism were, firstly, a small minority of intellectuals who could not convince the majority within the syndicalist union to follow them, and, secondly, Marxists and republicans rather than anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists or even revolutionary syndicalists.

According to Carl Levy, Roberts’ book “concentrates on the syndicalist intelligentsia” and that “some syndicalist intellectuals ... helped generate, or sympathetically endorsed, the new Nationalist movement ... which bore similarities to the populist and republican rhetoric of the southern syndicalist intellectuals.” He argues that there “has been far too much emphasis on syndicalist intellectuals and national organisers” and that syndicalism “relied little on its national leadership for its long-term vitality.” [Op. Cit., p. 77, p. 53 and p. 51] If we do look at the membership of the USI, rather than finding a group which “mostly went over to fascism,” we discover a group of people who fought fascism tooth and nail and were subject to extensive fascist violence.

To summarise, Italian Fascism had nothing to do with syndicalism and, as seen above, the USI fought the Fascists and was destroyed by them along with the UAI, Socialist Party and other radicals. That a handful of pre-war Marxist-syndicalists later became Fascists and called for a “National-Syndicalism” does not mean that syndicalism and fascism are related (any more than some anarchists later becoming Marxists makes anarchism “a vehicle” for Marxism!).

It is hardly surprising that anarchists were the most consistent and successful opponents of Fascism. The two movements could not be further apart, one standing for total statism in the service of capitalism while the other for a free, non-capitalist society. Neither is it surprising that when their privileges and power were in danger, the capitalists and the landowners turned to fascism to save them. This process is a common feature in history (to list just four examples, Italy, Germany, Spain and Chile).



Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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