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Biennio Rosso / Red Biennium
Two Red Years (1919-1920)

The October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia awoke hopes that Italy could replicate such events. Historians are still debating the extent of such expectation and on the role that parties and labour unions played in feeding, directing or moderating these hopes. The two red years (1919-1920) is the nomenclature for the period of Italian history immediately following the Great War. Peasant protests, food riots, workers' demonstrations, occupations of land and factories in some attempts at self-management occured mainly in the north. The unrest also spread out to rural areas of the Po Valley and were accompanied by strikes, picketing and violent clashes. With the nationalist movements and extreme right, the government initially showed great uncertainty, allowing them to give birth to illegal and dangerous actions. They believed the real danger was represented by the Socialists, who in the elections of 1919 had reached 32% of the votes. They were more concerned about the labor unrest that swept over the years 1919-1920, which defined this biennium red.

The armistice found the Italian parliamentary system moribund and unable to organize a lead against the spreading communist movement which, strongly inspired by the Russian revolution, made active preparations to "follow the lead of Russia". The Third International openly spun its webs of propaganda and intrigue throughout the nation. The red flag floated over offices of Communist trades unions and Socialist cooperatives. Municipalities and communes were captured by the Communist parties, and land owners and factory owners were passively settling into acquiescence of their fate.

In 1919 the morale of Italy was shaken to its foundations. To the economic prostration consequent on a war that had drained the meagre resources of the State, there was added the bitter disappointment that, though the war had been won, the nation had reaped little of the fruits of victory. Italians watched with a sense of envy and disillusionment the assignment of mandates and the extension of zones of influence by the other victorious Allies, while they themselves had still to settle as best they could the fate of the Adriatic, for which they had principally entered the war. The masses were deeply discontented. The cost of living had gone up by 300-400 per cent., while wages had not risen in proportion. Every day brought fresh proofs of callous profiteering and of gross scandals by contractors in high places. Lodgings were unobtainable in the town districts, or could only be had at fancy rents. Bread was of the poorest possible quality, while many articles of ordinary consumption, such as butter and sugar, had all but disappeared from the retail market. Embitterment was intensified by the lavish display of wealth by the new rich and by the growing output of articles of luxury, while the barest necessaries of life were lacking.

In these abnormal conditions Bolshevist propaganda found a ready response. Russia became the hallowed symbol of the social millennium in the popular imagination. The Red flag took the place of the national colors; and the Soviet emblem of the hammer and the sickle gained an almost fanatical significance. A little over two years ago contempt for the Army and all national institutions was frequently displayed in public in the industrial centres of Italy. The Army itself was rapidly being won over to the Revolution; and the Nitti Government was obliged to hasten demobilisation in order to avoid a catastrophe like the Russian.

September 1919 saw Fiume seized by D'Annunzio and a wave of martial irredentalism and patriotism swept the nation, inflaming the bourgeoise with courage to resist their enemies, the Communists. Quite naturally the bourgeoise were reactionary, anti-labor, patriotic and anti-defeatist. Joining up with Fasci patriots they destroyed the local branches of the Socialist party, the trade unions and the cooperatives wherever the Red flag had flown. An illegal militia was formed. Fascism thus became a definitely patriotic, nationalistic movement, and the bourgeoise were its most zealous supporters. In their opposition to the Communists that were about to destroy them as in Russia, they found in patriotic Fascism a winning ticket.

It was in these circumstances that the elections of Nov. 16, 1919, were held. A considerable portion of the supporters of constitutional government abstained from the polls. The Socialists on the other hand were compact. The different shades of Socialist opinion-Reformist, Official, and Extremist-made common cause, and launched a political campaign which bore quick fruit on ground well watered by widespread discontent. The Socialist seats in Parliament were more than doubled-the total number of Socialist deputies elected was 156-while the newly formed Popular or Catholic Party, which stood for radical and Christian, as opposed to revolutionary, social reform, secured a firm footing in the Chamber at ita very first appearance on the electoral lists. It was evident, as soon as the results of the elections were known, that traditional party government by a Liberal majority with a Democratic Opposition, or the reverse, was impossible; the support of either the Socialist or the Popular Party was indispensable. The Socialists resolutely refused to participate in the government of the country, the Official wing, with Bolshevist tendencies, far outnumbering the Reformists who advocated Socialism by constitutional means.

Labor, though less organised and less united than it had been at certain periods before the war, had recruited to its ranks large masses of turbulent characters, more inspired by vague anarchical sentiments than by any ideas of a disciplined revolution. The cry for immediate direct action against the established order came from every part of Italy. The workers, in addition to demanding higher wages, demanded more participation in decisions. The bosses responded with a lockout of the factories.

Towards the end of August 1920 there began that process of occupation of factories by the workers and the seizure of land by the peasants which astonished the whole world by the suddenness and ease with which it was carried out, but which the Italians, who took in the situation from close quarters, accepted with a kind of fatalistic resignation. In the eyes of unthinking partisans of Labor, the millennium had come.

Then, in September 1920, around 400,000 workers occupied the factories and tried to go it alone to work. Engineers and technicians, however, nearly all sided with the owner and did not occupy the factories, which soon lacked raw materials. Money began to dry up. In particular, the liberal ruling class planned to use the most powerful of far right movements, the fascism of Mussolini, as a means to curb the socialists and the labor movement. Industrial peace was temporarily restored by the meeting in Rome between the delegates of masters and men on Sept. 20, 1920.

During this period, the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI) grew to 800,000 members and the influence of the Italian Anarchist Union (20,000 members plus Umanita Nova, its daily paper) grew accordingly. Welsh Marxist, Gwyn Williams says clearly in his book Proletarian Order that the "Anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists were the most consistantly.revolutionary group on the left.The syndicalists above all captured militant working-class opinion which the socialist movement was utterly failing to capture." Anarchists were the first to suggest occupying workplaces. The famous anarchist Errico Malatesta wrote in Umanita Nova in March 1920 "General strikes of protest no longer upset anyone.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".

Three causes militated against the Russian method of establishing a proletarian dictatorship in Italy. First and foremost, the proletariat itself is not sufficiently educated to assume power and to maintain it with any hope of success. Secondly, a deep cleavage separates the brain-workers from the manual workers, rendering any kind of collaboration between the two altogether out of the question. Lastly, even if the dictatorship be firmly established, the geographical and economic position of Italy is such that the ostracism of capitalistic States would stifle it in a few months. These reasons against the adoption in Italy of the methods of the Moscow International have been strengthened by contact with their results as exemplified in Russia. On his return from that country, Serrati frankly confessed on every public occasion that he was not ready to sacrifice Italy's cultural and economic development on the altar of Moscow. A large number of the more intellectual leaders saw things in the same light; and, as Lenin and Zinovieff became more aggressive in their despotic demands, the Serrati group drew into its fold many eminent men from the left Socialist wing.

The reasons for the failure of this revolutionary movement are now obvious. The archpriests of the Third International heap the coals of blame upon the head of G.M.Serrati, one of the extreme leaders of the Socialist Party - a bearded, spectacled man who reminded some of an emaciated Karl Marx. In so doing they revealed an adolescent conception of Italian conditions quite at variance with their own emphasis upon immutable and impersonal economic determinism. The liberals thanked Premier Giolitti for his statesmanlike restraint, and his refusal to aggravate the situation by the use of armed force; and certainly his pacific resistance now appears to have been fully justified, and his insight into the psychology of his people singularly acute. But the Socialist leaders know bitterly that other reasons explain the collapse of the proletarian experiment.

Certain more deeply-rooted and enduring factors operated to make most of these human agents but mere bobbing corks on the stream of events. First of all, Italy is not a geographical, national, political or industrial unit. Lombardy, Piedmont, Liguria and the Po Valley - Italia Settentrionale - is sharply divided from the rest of the country. Its characteristics, climate and products are those of Central Europe. Its people are born of the melting pot. Mariotti, half a century ago, termed its tall, blond, serene-eyed inhabitants " the Lombard wolves, or the Boeotians of Italy." Physically and temperamentally they constitute a distinct type.

In Northern Italy and Tuscany are to be found the manufactories. Milan is the industrial capital of the country - a Handetetadt - and in more ways than one, for the Germans and Swiss once played a large part in its development. The rest of Italy, from Rome south, including the island possessions, is pre-eminently agrarian and pastoral.

These conditions produce corresponding political phenomena. If Italy were chartered - red for the Socialists and Communists, yellow for the Catholic Party (Partito Popolare), and blue for the Constitutionalists, Liberals and Conservatives - from Rome south the country would be quite bluish, with dots of yellow; to the north-except in the annexed areas - largely red and yellow, deepening to almost sanguinary intensity in Milan.

Thus revolution in Italy would mean, not merely a dictatorship of the proletariat, but a dictatorship of the factory workers of Lombardy. The peasantry, even of Northern Italy, is more Catholic than Socialist. The one noteworthy exception is in the province of Emilia. But though the mass of the peasants there claim to be Socialist, their unique, co-operative " colonies " afford one of the most constructive and commendable examples of voluntary labor association in the world. Revolution would press heavily upon the Italian peasants, who comprise the largest indu crial group and produce the bulk of the national wealth. The mass of the peasantry were against confiscation of property, and, in case revolution had been carried through, would sooner or later have opposed a solid front against the Milan dictatorship.

The next largest element in the Italian population was the small mercantile class. The ideal of the average poor man of Italy - if he cannot emigrate - is to rake together enough money to open a tiny shop which will gradually expand, while not heavily taxing mentality or energy, and which will permit of many hours of idle guitar-thrumming or easy garrulity. The small merchants and traders were not eager for revolution. They would have been the first to suffer, and would have been more harshly dislocated than any other social group. As one passes down the constricted streets of any city or town and glances into these kerosene-lighted, dusty cubbyholes, with their meagre stocks of fruit or stationery, where the whole family congregates, perhaps even sleeps, and the crawling babies clutch at the dresses and trousers of the customers as though to detain them for another five minutes of vivacious gossip-one vividly realizes the impenetrable silent opposition these individualistic units offered to the on-rolling phalanxes of revolution.

The immediate factor, however, in averting revolution was the actual industrial situation, and the inevitable realization by the workers themselves that they could not run the factories. Oddly enough, the most active opposition to the new movement did not come from the wealthy industrial groups. Their attitude was: "Go ahead and run the factories." They knew that the acute shortage of coal and iron made this an impossibility. At the time of the "occupations," industrial conditions were fast approaching an impasse; the first wave of the industrial depression that has since smothered the world was making itself felt.

The workers - in actual possession of the factories - faced the fact that they could not continue operations without raw supplies, which, once the revolution had taken place - even had the great powers imposed no blockade - would have been even less obtainable. The workers' Government would have been without credit or purchasing power; industry, which has survived in Italy, through the treaty stipulations regarding coal, would have collapsed. The ravenous city dwellers would have been forced into a military raping of agricultural products in order to survive.

Zinoyiev and other Russian leaders argued in connection with their accusations of Serrati that the contagion of revolution would have quickly spread to France and England. But the Italian workers, scanning the horizon, saw no alacrity on the part of labor in those countries to follow their example. All this led to a prompt willingness to compromise on the Controllo act - a law that would have created advisory workers' committees in each factory, but was never put in force - hastened the secession of the Socialist Party from the Third International, and had since completely altered the party's tactics.

Most of the violence during the last months of 1921 and the early months of 1922 was unnecessarily provoked by the Fascisti, who were as doctrinaire in their way as the Communists. Many a town heard on clear nights the echo of marching feet across deserted piazzas and beneath medieval arches, and that bloodquickening song, "Giovanezza," or the old Roman battle-cry, ""Eja, eja, alala!" Most of the Fascisti were young men - the average age was given as 23 or 24 - and this propensity for night prowling and night violence is, in part, an unavoidable legacy of the war, of marches beneath the black windy sky and long wakeful hoars in the star-lit trenches; in part, a primeval passion for the dark, the restless wakefulness of overwrought nerves, and the call that the mystery of warm south nights makes to every living creature.

The popular mind believed that the Fascisti smothered the general revolutionary movement of 1921. In reality the idea of immediate revolution had been abandoned before the Fascisti intervention in internal affairs had passed beyond the stage of sporadic, unco-ordinated violence.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:00:48 ZULU