In Italy, revolutionary turbulence was still more impressive than in Ger- many. It grew from the consequences of the war economy, from popular hopes for the postwar future, from the favorable circumstances of massive union expansion, and from the dialectic between popular militancyand established labor leaderships stretched to the limits of their representative capacities. Italyalso replicated manyof the Russian conditions: the timing and speed of industrialization since the 1890s; high levels of capitalist con-
centration; industry’s geographical concentration in the northern triangle of Turin-Milan-Genoa; the state’s forward role in the economy; and the extremes of development and backwardness inside the country. Both Ger- manyand Italypassed through revolutionarycrises after the First World War, but whereas in Germanythe left’s defeat led to the consolidation of a parliamentaryrepublican regime, in Italyit brought the Fascists to power. How do we explain this difference?15
The Italian Socialists were more intransigent, more united, and more left-wing. The PSI stood out among west European socialist parties for refusing to
the PSI voted against the war credits. As the war’s end approached, the movement rejected government proposals for economic reconstruction. Likewise,
1918, the partyreaffirmed its maximum program of socialist revolution. Then,
During the “red two years” of 1919–20, the Italian Left had a remark- able upsurge of support. The PSI’s membership soared, as did the unions’, whether in the CGL, the syndicalist USI, or the freshly founded Catholic Unions. This popular upsurge occurred in a general atmosphere of social confrontation—massive strike waves in industryand agriculture, direct ac- tion in the factories, local food and price actions, land occupations, and constant displays of collective strength in rallies, marches, and processions. It produced powerful concentrations of local and regional strength.
The PSI dominated the north. Nationally, it did better in cities than rural areas. But the northern countryside was just as red: the agriculture of
the lower Po Valleyand its economyunder Socialist control, putting the dominant classes under a deeplyhumiliating state of siege.
This rural Socialism luxuriated in its new public power, savoring the taste of class revenge. In Ferrara, the PSI provincial administration took over the castle, painted Viva il socialismo in luminous paint, draped it with red flags, made it the headquarters of the camera del lavoro, and, to the horror of their fellow resident, the prefect, threw it open to all manner of working-class meeting and celebration.17 In this climate of manifest class confrontation, in which union boycotts and attacks on blacklegs were mixed with cost-of-living riots, attacks on the police, and general taunting and intimidation of the bourgeoisie, manyrural agitators were deliberately escalating tensions for purposes of revolution. This was a combative, ex- uberant socialism, in which even the PSI Directorate’s revolutionaryMax- imalism lagged behind the direct-action militancyof the rank and file. The PSI’s electoral success depended directlyon identifying with social struggles that the SPD in Germanyhad bitterlyopposed. In the 1920 local elections the Socialists were most successful where agricultural militancywas most intense: in Rovigo theywon all 63 communes; in Mantova, 59 out of 68; in Bologna, 54 out of 61; in Reggio Emilia, 38 out of 45; and so forth.
Faced with this uncompromising revolutionism, the Italian bourgeoisie could be forgiven for expecting insurrection. But in practice the Maximalist leadership lived permanentlyin the gap between word and deed: “The de- clared objectives were always uncompromisingly extreme, and verbal vio- lence, with its proclamation of subversive intentions, its insults, and threats against adversaries and the established institutions, reached a veryhigh pitch.”18 Nor was there anyshortage of local activism. But whenever a general insurrectionaryopportunityarose, the Maximalists hung resolutely back from the brink. This was true of the massive cost-of-living distur- bances in June–July1919, true also of the Piedmont general strike of 13–
24 April 1920, and true again in late 1920, when factoryoccupations con- joined with another climactic struggle of the Federterra and the 5 Novem- ber local elections. In a joint meeting on 9–11 September, the question of converting the factoryoccupations into a national revolutionarychallenge was referred bythe PSI leadership to the CGL National Council, which rejected the idea byonly591,245 to 409,569 votes.19
Maximalism’s bizarre mixture of verbal intransigence and strategic pro- crastination remains perplexing. The narrow e´litism and antipopular vio- lence of the prewar Italian state, successivelyoverlaid bythe wartime po- larization and the popular utopianism of the peace, also played their part, as did the shibboleth of unity, which militated against alienating a sizable, more cautious part of the movement. But Maximalism also came from the Second International’s automatic Marxism, the Kautskyian faith in History and objective process. Onlythe extreme left groupings of the party, the emergent communist factions around Gramsci and Amadeo Bordiga who
embraced Bolshevik voluntarism, escaped this inherited culture. The Max- imalists themselves justified their inaction bythe international conjuncture, waiting for radicalizations elsewhere.20 But the ingrained assumptions be- hind this rationalization, the entire idiom of classical social democracy, were more important: “We, as Marxists, interpret history; we do not make it.”21 The revolution was always just around the next corner.
Maximalist failings were an object lesson in how not to conduct a rev- olution. Theyfed expectations without resolving them. Theyfanned a mood of revolutionaryexcitement but refused to shape it into a revolu- tionarychallenge. Theyfashioned socialism into a barrier against the bour- geois world and from behind this ideological stockade released a fusillade of rhetorical provocation. But when the masses took them at their word and acted, theycounseled discipline and patience. Understandably, this bred resentment. Bylate 1920, the movement was directionless and de- moralized, racked byrecriminations, and generallyfalling apart. The Fas- cists beckoned as an agencyof counterrevolutionarypacification. Localized paramilitaryactivityhad been brewing since early1920 and now spread violentlyin organized form. Class struggle abruptlyleft the land of pos- turing, rhetoric, and symbols for the world of guns, beatings, and milita- rized terror. Schooled in the protocols of a much-maligned liberal polity, Socialists had no answer to this systematic political violence. Without the advantages of legality, shocked by a brutal assault on the premises of the labor movement’s popular-democratic ethos, the PSI’s local hegemonies crumbled. It became “a revolution of blood against a revolution of words.”22
One lesson of Maximalist failings, then, was organizational: the need for revolutionaryleadership, a
Bolshevik party. This was Bordiga’s posi- tion, and during 1920 Gramsci joined
secession: winning the partyto a
“communist” perspective, which could require expelling the reformists or launching a
new partyto the left. It proved insoluble. When
January1921, the partysplit three ways: 98,028 votes for the Unitarian Communist motion, 58,783 for the Communists, and 14,695 for the So- cialist Concentration. The Communists immediatelyleft, forming the Com- munist Partyof Italy.23
DILEMMAS OF REVOLUTION:
PARLIAMENTS, FACTORIES, AND STREETS
Italian Socialism encapsulated the Left’s dilemmas in the postwar revolu- tionaryconjuncture. The obstacles to socialist revolution, in Italyno less than Germany, were formidable. But among them was a failure of revo- lutionaryleadership, which “faded awayat the moment of truth.”24 One of the worst consequences of this was the isolation of the urban revolu-
tionarymovement—from the middling strata, from the expanding small- holding peasantry, from the burgeoning ex-servicemen’s movement, and from anyeffort at cooperating with progressive groupings of the bour- geoisie.25 BySeptember 1920, this isolation was a fact. But during 1919 things were more fluid, and the PSI’s failure to speak for the multiform yearnings and discontents of that time had its roots in Maximalism.26
Localism, both in its
A rolling revolutionarychain reaction might have been imagined, similar to the November revolution in Germany. But bringing such a
to climax required decisive intervention bythe Directorate, and here the well-ensconced autonomies of the movement’s local cultures were a
drance rather than a
help.27 This was exacerbated bygeographyand the physical separation
If an Italian October was unlikely, how should we conceptualize the radical Left’s realistic agenda? There were two other models of socialist action in 1917–23. One came from Germanyand Austria, where a social democratic party’s commanding position in government opened a path for democratizing state and societyand for decisivelytipping the balance of socioeconomic power in the workers’ favor, even inside the limits of the capitalist system. The other was common to much of western and northern Europe, where the radical climate created bythe Russian and central Eu- ropean revolutions and the peculiarities of the postwar conjuncture allowed labor movements to exert unique pressure on nonsocialist governments. Reforming social democrats and union leaders enjoyed passing political leverage, often from a new base in coalition governments, as in Sweden and the Low Countries.
In theory, both models promised lasting increments of legitimacy and corporative power for working-class movements, with solid institutional foundations for further gains. In practice, the ebbing of the revolutionary threat between the autumn of 1920 and the spring of 1921 combined with the end of the postwar boom to undermine labor’s temporarybargaining power and restore conservatives’ confidence. What should have been the transition to a new social democratic era became the prelude to a restabil- izing of capitalism. Nonetheless, these partiallyrealized chances are a useful framework for considering the Italian case.
There were two obvious occasions for radical parliamentaryinterven- tion bythe PSI. The first was the PSI’s victoryin the November 1919 elections. These elections were “a ‘historic opportunity’ for the renewal of
Italian public life through the implementation of reforms that could have eliminated, or at least substantiallyreduced, the distance still separating the masses from the life of the state.” Aside from wartime restructuring of the economy, the popular mobilizations in town and country, and constitu- tional reform, the legislature also experienced an infusion of new blood
(304 of 501 deputies were new), and procedural innovations strengthened partygovernment. This was a major turning point in the Italian polity, when the traditional power bloc, whose constancysurvived the earlier re- forms of 1882 and 1912, was finallydislodged.28 The PSI potentially claimed enormous parliamentaryleverage as a result, either from within government or from a nonministerial position of parliamentarysupport. The second occasion came at the height of the political crisis of the factory occupations in September 1920. Bythat time, Maximalist intransigence had narrowed the room for parliamentarymaneuver, but keyliberals saw bring- ing the PSI and CGL into government as the best chance for stability, and a last opportunityagain opened up.
In both cases, the Left’s best hope was in joining—and helping to shape—a broader democratic bloc. Such a bloc was a possible basis for further-reaching socioeconomic reforms. Once the high tide of popular mil- itancyhad passed and the Fascists were on the march, it could also enable democratic defense. Italyand Germanyproduced complementaryhistories in this respect. The SPD claimed impressive strength in the parliamentary arena but lacked strategic vision, building its republican coalition around the most moderate possible consensus; the PSI abandoned coalition build- ing to pursue extraparliamentarymobilization but produced, ironically, the best blueprints of reform. If the SPD was stuck in the most cautious version of a coalition, sacrificing democratic energies to the narrowest constitu- tionalism, in a counterrevolutionaryperspective of law and order, Italian reformists had the opposite problem, a coherent and ambitious program but without anyaccess to power. This was the tragedyof the two revolu- tionarymovements. A successful non-Bolshevik Left needed the best of both worlds: radical yet democratic extraparliamentary energies mobilized and channeled through the parliamentaryprocess.
Of course, neither the SPD nor the PSI completelycontrolled their sit- uations but contended with ebullient and unmanageable popular move- ments, whose militancyand hopes set the agenda as much as followed it. But in 1918–19 the masses were primed for a lead, and both parties enjoyed remarkable loyalty from their working-class supporters until the dialectic of disillusionment and radicalization set in. If reformist socialists had de- veloped the courage of their convictions and instead of demonizing Bol- shevism or dismissing the agencyof ordinarypeople had built bridges from their parliamentarystrength to the grassroots democracyof the councils and the activism of the streets, the gap between national leaderships and the socialist rank and file might not have widened. Conversely, if the German insurgents of 1919–21 (whether council communists, syndicalists,
KPDers, or USPD left) and the Italian Maximalists had
dispersed. Either way, lasting popular
As the success of
i left the international initiatives of
Thus on the eve of the Bolshevik revolu- tion the Left’s politics were veryamorphous. The basic split between antiwar opposition and “ministerial socialists” backing the war was clear enough, as was the latter’s prag- matic vision of postwar reforms. But the ter- rain between the militant reformism of a Phi- lipp Scheidemann or Albert Thomas and the single-minded revolutionism of a Lenin re- mained indistinct. Even Lenin couldn’t bring his own partyentirelybehind the demand for a Third International, and non-Bolshevik sup- port was small. The choice Lenin offered the Zimmerwaldists—“to remain a temporary shelter for revolutionarysocialists and war- wearyopportunists, or become the basis of a Third International”—was one most Italian, Swiss, French, and German Zimmerwald sup- porters wouldn’t make.1 But this reluctance to burn bridges was not just fuzzy-headedness and cold feet. It reflected fundamental differ- ences over democracy, national particularities, and vanguardism, which had no easyresolu- tion and dogged the Third International’s historyin years to come. Where most Zim- merwaldists awaited the revival of mass
revolutionary agitation from below, Lenin insisted on superior organization and a strong lead.
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