Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3
The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini
TOM Behan’s study is part of the renewed political and cultural debate on the history of the Arditi del Popolo. For a number of years now, the Arditi, the very first Italian anti-Fascist organisation, has been the subject of new historical research, as demonstrated in the works published by Ivan Fuschini, Marco Rossi, Eros Francescangeli (whose Arditi del Popolo was reviewed by Barbara Rossi in the last issue of Revolutionary History) and Luigi Balsamini. This interest is further enlivened by this latest volume, mainly written for a British audience, which retraces the development of social struggles in Italy from the Great War to the events of October 1922, with the March on Rome and the appointment of Benito Mussolini, leader of the Partito Nazionale Fascista, to the head of the Italian state.
After an introductory chapter dealing with the specific features of the Italian workers’ movement, Behan’s engrossing book starts analysing the merits of the workers’ and peasants’ struggles in the Italian Biennio Rosso of 1919–20, when in the aftermath of the October Revolution and the traumatic experience of trench warfare, the Italian proletariat also began to fight for better working and living conditions. It was then that socialist, trade unionist and political organisations started to find a wider consensus, increased their mobilising capabilities and took on a novel radical character, both in their slogans – ‘Fare come in Russia!’ (‘Let’s do what the Russians did!’) – and in the struggle on a practical level, such as the demonstrations by manual workers, the armed clashes against the Royal Constabulary and the factory occupations in September 1920. The Italian ruling class was quick to react, however, and the ‘great fear’ of revolution pushed to bourgeoisie – especially the big landowners – to finance the Fascists and their squads (the Fasci di combattimento) in their punitive and ‘anti-Bolshevik’ actions. The Fascist movement was created in March 1919 as an heterogeneous movement, in an attempt to keep anti-bourgeois nationalist feelings allied with the more anti-socialist conservative circles, and it showed its true face as a staunch defender of the established order. In their beatings of striking workers, arson attacks against union branches and workers’ papers, assaults against left-wing municipal offices and murders of several trade unionists, the Black Shirts were often actively encouraged by the state machine, with tacit agreement or even concrete support with weapons, resources and men: ‘police forces would not only lend weapons to Fascists, turning a blind eye to their attacks – they also fought alongside Fascists in attacks on the left’ (p. 47). The Italian liberal state regarded Fascism as the ‘healthy force of our nation’, a political movement which was indispensable to defeat proletarian organisations and put an end to their ‘insolence’ towards bourgeois power.
But the growth of Fascism was far from irresistible, as the political and military experience of the Arditi del Popolo shows. Born in June 1921 after a split in the Arditi d’Italia, an alliance representing veterans in the Italian army shock-troops, the Arditi del Popolo association began life in Rome under Lieutenant Argo Secondari, an anarchist, to counter Fascist aggression using the latter’s means of a military organisation, war-like tactics and swift deployment, in order to provide the workers and their organisations and demonstrations with an armed defence. This anti-Fascist movement spread rapidly throughout Italy, uniting workers and leading figures in various parties and of differing shades of political opinion. Communists, anarchists, socialists, republicans, revolutionary syndicalists and sometimes even Catholics set up ‘arditi’ units in the workers’ districts of many Italian cities: ‘Socially the organisation was predominantly working-class, with a very high proportion of railway workers.’ (p. 62)
The actions of Arditi del Popolo made history in Italy thanks to a few massive mobilisations and battles, like the march in July 1921 in Rome’s Botanic Gardens, when over 2,000 Arditi organised a military parade and engaged in some fighting against the police, and again in the town of Sarzana, where 600 Fascists on a punitive action were successfully repelled, with the death of 18 Black Shirts and about 30 injured.
But in August 1921, just a few weeks after its establishment, the new association met a new obstacle to its growth: the ‘peace pact’ signed between the Italian government, the Fascists and the Socialist Party (PSI). With this move, the PSI distanced itself from this proletarian defence movement, and gave the repressive machine of the state its chance to disrupt the ranks of the Arditi del Popolo. It was only in a few cities that the organisation was able to sustain the onslaught and contain Mussolini’s violence against the workers. This happened in Parma during several days in August 1922, when the popular districts of the city, led by Guido Picelli and ‘his Arditi’, erected barricades and blockades, and managed to repel for five whole days an assault by thousands of Black Shirts who descended on Parma in their largest military operation before the March on Rome.
In the last chapters of his book, Behan rightly shows how it was the mistakes made by left-wing parties rather than state repression that undermined the strategy of the Arditi del Popolo. On the one hand, the Communist Party led by Amadeo Bordiga ordered their members to withdraw from the movement and to establish instead exclusively ‘communist’ squads; this strategy failed to take seriously the danger of an authoritarian turn on the part of the ruling class, and rejected the line of the Third International which favoured a ‘proletarian united front’. On the other hand, the PSI’s reformist leadership and the trade union movement asked from their members a pacifist and lame stance, while waiting for the ‘flash in the pan’ of Fascism to subside; in this case too their passive trust in the laws and institutions of the liberal state betrayed a profound lack of understanding of the phenomenon of the Fascist squads and their activities:
It is obvious that the ADP represented a clear alternative to the inadequacies of both PCI and the PSI. And it was an alternative that many rank-and-file communists and socialists instinctively wanted to be part of. The tragedy for all concerned was that the communist and socialist left never came together around an enlarged ADP to form a united front against Fascist attacks. (p. 108)
Behan’s book analyses in depth this particular issue and shows that even within the leadership of the PCI opinions and views differed. Bordiga’s sectarian directives contrasted with the position taken by Antonio Gramsci, who, in line with the analysis elaborated by the Third International, looked with interest at this ex-soldiers’ movement, from the point of view of both the Arditi’s determined armed resistance against Fascism, and its proletarian composition. But even Gramsci, and with him the editorial board of the Ordine Nuovo in Turin, was not immune from contempt for the PSI, thus demonstrating the enduring effect of the divisions of the Biennio Rosso and the split in the Communist Party in 1921. But at times, in some cities and when faced with Fascist violence, the PCI’s grassroots instinctively went beyond the short-sighted sectarianism of their leaders. The anti-Fascist victory in Parma is very symbolic in this sense: young communists there entered the ranks of the Arditi del Popolo with their party squads. They then worked together with the Arditi for over a year and built the armed defence for Parma in August 1922. But this united front during the ‘days of Parma’ was an isolated experience, and at the end of October 1922 Mussolini was finally able to form his first government. The Fascists’ rise to power, achieved with the support of the ruling classes and the monarchy, marked the start of a new phase in Italian and international history: within the space of a few years, this new totalitarian regime became the reference and model for Hitler’s Nazis and more generally for other reactionary states in the twentieth century.
Tom Behan does not shy away from exposing the political errors made by the workers’ movement in the early 1920s, and he uncovers their historic reasons, with a final and explicit reference to the current political situation, where he suggests that many useful lessons can and should be drawn by modern anti-fascist movements from the experience of the Arditi. For while it is true that neo-fascists can be defeated in the first instance, as a result of workers’ united action, in the long run we can only defeat fascism if we also defeat the capitalist society that harbours and supports it.
Updated by ETOL: 21.10.2011