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Germany and Italy Two Cases


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Germany and Italy

Two Cases


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 support the war. Even after Italyentered the war in May1915 the  PSI  voted  against  the  war  credits.  As  the  war’s  end  approached,  the movement  rejected  government  proposals  for  economic  reconstruction. Likewise, the PSI vetoed the demand for a constituent assemblyas another form of collaborationism. Instead, partyeyes were on Russia. In September

1918,  the  partyreaffirmed  its  maximum  program  of  socialist  revolution. Then, on 7–11 December, fortified bythe central European revolutions of the previous month, the PSI Directorate called for the immediate “institu- tion of the Socialist Republic and the dictatorship of the proletariat.”16  This was  the  party’s  declared  goal  over  the  next  two  years.  It  fought  the  No- vember  1919  elections  on  that  basis  and  had  no  interest  in  using its par- liamentarystrength  as  a  springboard  into  government.  In  contrast  to  the SPD, therefore, the PSI never backed a reformist program of parliamentary stabilization.  It  was  onlyin  the  summer  of  1922  that  Filippo  Turati’s re- formists declared for a politics of coalition—18 months after the PSI had split, after Fascism had alreadybroken the movement.

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 Valleycomplemented the industrial triangle of Turin-Milan- Genoa.  In  Bologna  province,  nearlythree-quarters  of  the  rural  electorate voted for the PSI in 1919. The keywas the imposing presence of the Fed- erterra,  the  agricultural  laborers’  union,  which  by1920  had  some  nine hundred thousand members. The Federterra rested on an interlocking sys- tem of its own local leagues, the camera del lavoro, the cooperatives, So- cialist local government, and public works contracts, subsidies, and credits, in  which  PSI  branches  might  playlittle  formal  role  outside  the  Socialist town  councils  themselves.  Bylate 1920  this rural  hegemonyhad brought

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 him. The issue was renewal versus secession:  winning  the  partyto  a  “communist”  perspective,  which  could require  expelling  the  reformists  or  launching  a  new  partyto  the  left.  It proved insoluble. When the PSI Congress finallymet in Livorno on 15–21

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



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 specificallyItalian form and in the general bias of council-based activity, also stalled the PSI Directorate’s capacity for action. A  rolling  revolutionarychain  reaction  might  have  been  imagined, similar to  the  November  revolution  in  Germany.  But  bringing  such  a  movement to  climax  required  decisive  intervention  bythe  Directorate,  and  here  the well-ensconced  autonomies  of  the  movement’s  local  cultures  were  a  hin- drance  rather  than  a  help.27   This  was  exacerbated  bygeographyand  the physical separation of the labor movement’s strongholds from the political and administrative capital in Rome. Bycontrast with Berlin (and Petrograd or Budapest), Rome was no magnet for radicalism. The PSI’s centering in Milan, Turin, and Emilia made it much harder to bring insurrection to the portals  of  state  power.  In  effect,  storming  the  latter  would  have  required the  PSI’s  own  “march  on  Rome,”  an  infinitelymore  complicated  matter than if the movement was centered in the capital city.

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 committed to the parliamentaryarena, the broad socialist electorates of 1919 might not have dispersed.  Either way, lasting  popular enthusiasm for democracy was not created. As the success of Benito Mussolini’s Fascists and the limited resil- ience of the Weimar Republic after 1929–30 both confirmed, the costs were huge.

i  left  the  international  initiatives of European socialism in early1917, stymied in  Stockholm.  The  northern  neutrals  vainly confronted the anti-Germanism of the British, French,  and  Belgian  socialists,  hoping  to  re- vive  the  pre-1914  Second  International.  The Zimmerwald movement looked for a renewal of revolutionarypolitics but without breaking irrevocablywith  the past.  Both  were focused on   Russia,   where   the   Left’s   revolutionary prestige  had  increasinglybecome  the  stan- dard.

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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