6 – Italy
“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”
Antonio Gramsci, Italian revolutionary
Italy’s revolutionary story is one that might stand alongside that of Germany in the role of cautionary tale. If anything, it represents the same broad outline as that seen to the north but sped up, progressing from devastation to revolt to crackdown in just three years. Italy was not in the same terrible state as Germany at the end of the First World War, but it was far from a functioning nation. The Italians had been on the winning side, after all, and the fighting had largely been confined to the northern regions that bordered Austro-Hungary. Socially, however, the nation was on its knees.
The revolutionary spirit that had consumed Russia and was spreading through Germany had also hit hard in Italy, where the factories of Turin and Milan were paralysed by industrial action. Elsewhere on the peninsula, unemployment was sky-rocketing and emigration was seeing thousands leave every year for the United States and South America, particularly from the impoverished south. Soldiers returning from the front found themselves without jobs or food.
The leftist activists in Italy were inspired by the same ideals as their Soviet and German counterparts, but also offered radical new ideas about how society could and should be organised. Anarcho-syndicalism was a major ideological driver and pushed for workers to occupy their factories and expropriate the contents, while more Marxist oriented groups, particularly those organised around Antonio Gramsci, created factory councils (similar to Soviets) to democratically run workplaces.
The left was rampant in the northern industrial cities, but the far-right was also growing rapidly. Ideologically there were significant left-ish sections within the Fascists – leader Benito Mussolini claimed to be fusing socialism and nationalism, though his practice in government does little to bear this out – alongside the more characteristic expansionist nationalism and conservative traditionalist values.
The clashes between fascist groups and the communist and anarchist groups was usually centred around industrial disputes, where bosses would often recruit far-right thugs to smash strikes and demonstrations. With the state flailing and unable to cope with the power of the left, they enlisted the fascist Blackshirt gangs to help control the socialists.
At height of the Biennio Rosso, the so-called “two red years” of 1919-1921 in which the far left paralysed Italy, there were thousands of strikes, hundreds of factory occupations and millions of people on the streets. By the end, the internal fighting between the trade union movement, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and the various anarchist groups had failed to take advantage. The door was open and the fascists marched straight through it.
The PSI had been the biggest party at both the 1919 and 1921 elections, but was outnumbered by liberal politicians who managed to form a government. The extra-parliamentary opposition, from both right and left, fought with the government and each other before Mussolini, the leader of the Fascist Party, staged his now infamous March on Rome and forced the government to hand him power. By 1924, Mussolini was the sole dictator of Italy, Gramsci was in prison and the backlash against organised workers in Italy was in full flow. It would not be until the end of the Second World War that fascism would fall in Italy.