Like Germany, Italy was on the brink of revolution in the summer of 1920, after the strains of imperialist war had levered open deep fractures in an unstable social order.
During Italy’s Biennio Rosso (the ‘Two Red Years’ of 1919 and 1920), the country came close to resolving its tensions through socialist revolution. That this did not happen was to have dire consequences. The Left’s failure became the Right’s opportunity: Mussolini’s Fascists seized power in 1922.
The roots of the Italian crisis lay in the unfinished bourgeois revolution of 1796-1814. This had been a revolution from above in which the main agent of change had been Napoleon’s army of conquest.
The French overthrew the old regimes and installed republican governments led by Italian liberals. Later, as the French Republic morphed into the Napoleonic Empire, they replaced these with dynastic regimes ruled by members of the Bonaparte family.
Feudalism was abolished and careers opened to the middle classes. But a combination of foreign rule and lack of land reform limited the appeal of the new regimes.
Absolutist governments were restored in 1814, but they could not return society to 1795, and they faced opposition from the new social forces unleashed by the French Revolution. Italian politics was therefore dominated throughout the 19th century by the unfinished business of the bourgeois revolution.
Four issues were paramount. First, Italy was divided into several separate states, and economic development was hampered by the lack of a single national market under a unified state authority.
Second, partly because of national division and consequent weakness, Italy continued to be dominated by foreign powers – in the first half of the 19th century, by Habsburg Austria.
Third, the bourgeoisie was almost entirely excluded from power by regimes based on absolute monarchy, the Catholic Church, and aristocratic landowners. The demand for liberal constitutional reform was a demand for bourgeois political empowerment.
Fourth, unlike in France, there had been no peasant revolution in Italy. The formal abolition of feudalism had not lead to large-scale land redistribution. Italy remained a traditional society of landowners and peasants in which the mass of the people were desperately impoverished – physically, intellectually, and culturally.
Because of these tensions, Italy experienced four revolutions in 40 years – in 1820, 1831, 1848, and 1860. The first three were defeated. The last achieved national unity and independence. But it did not resolve ‘the social question’.
The Risorgimento (‘Rebirth’) that gave rise to the modern Italian state was played out between 1859 and 1870. It was made possible by a combination of Piedmontese ambition, Franco-Austrian rivalry, and revolutionary insurrection in southern Italy.
The Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia, under its semi-constitutional monarch Victor Emanuel and its liberal prime minister Count Cavour, had emerged as a dynamic centre of economic development. On the basis of this, the Piedmontese ruling class, in their own interest, laid claim to a wider political leadership of the Italian national cause.
The Piedmontese formed an alliance with France and defeated the Austrians in a war in northern Italy in 1859. This upended the entire balance of power across the region. The Austrian-backed absolutist rulers of the minor Italian states fell like dominoes. New liberal governments in Lombardy, Parma, Modena, Emilia, Romagna, and Tuscany voted to fuse with Piedmont.
In May the following year, the veteran revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi landed in Sicily at the head of 1,000 red-shirted volunteers. His aim was to detonate a revolt against the absolutist regime which ruled Naples and Sicily.
Before the year was out, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (as it was known) had ceased to exist, and the whole of southern Italy became part of the new unified state.
In 1866, Piedmont’s alliance with Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War secured Venice and Venetia. In 1870, Napoleon III’s defeat at Sedan removed the Pope’s main protector, and Italian troops entered the Papal States and annexed them to the Kingdom of Italy.
But there was no social revolution. As early as August 1860, in an effort to win over southern landlords, some of Garibaldi’s men had fired on peasant rebels. Soon, there was full-scale war across much of the south, as the peasants attempted to end their poverty by seizing uncultivated land, and the landlords drove them back by recruiting the private armies that would soon morph into the mafia.
State-backed mafia terror would keep the peasantry in poverty for a century. In the late 19th century, three-quarters of the income of peasant households was spent on food, but many still had insufficient to eat. Two million suffered from malaria every year. Most Italian villagers were illiterate and lived in priest-ridden ignorance.
But national unification kick-started an industrial revolution. Between 1861 and 1870, the length of railway track almost trebled. Between 1896 and 1913, industry grew at a rate of 5% a year, the fastest in Europe at the time.
Milan, Turin, and other north-western cities became industrial centres. There were waves of strikes, militant unions, radical agitation, and the emergence of a strong Socialist Party. Universal manhood suffrage and a series of social reforms were granted in an effort to incorporate this new and powerful working class.
Nationalism and imperialism were also deployed to undercut the appeal of socialism. Italy embarked on colonial wars in Ethiopia (1896) and Libya (1911-1912). Then, in May 1915, it entered the First World War.
Despite recent economic development, Italy lacked the industrial base to underpin its imperial ambitions. Bismarck once remarked that Italy had a large appetite but rotten teeth. The war imposed massive strains on Italian society and brought its deep-rooted social tensions to crisis point.
A majority of Italians opposed the war when it started and continued to oppose it for as long as it lasted. Unfortunately, the Socialist Party – which included both reformists and revolutionaries – failed to give a clear anti-war lead. Its slogan was ‘Neither support nor sabotage’. (Lenin’s had been ‘Down with the imperialist war’.)
Italy lost half a million dead in the First World War. The misery of the trenches was matched by bread shortages and hunger on the home front. Mass strikes broke out in the Turin factories in August 1917, and there were mass desertions from the army in October and November 1917.
The ancient poverty of the villages, the new exploitation of the factories, and the carnage and privation of the war combined to produce the Two Red Years.
Summer 1919 saw a three-day general strike in solidarity with the Russian Revolution. Spring 1920 saw Turin metal-workers on strike demanding recognition for their camere del lavoro – the ‘factory councils’ which leading revolutionary Antonio Gramsci saw as the Italian equivalent of Russia’s soviets.
The movement peaked in August 1920. Engineering workers in Milan occupied their factories in response to a lockout by the employers. An occupation movement then swept the ‘industrial triangle’ of north-western Italy. Some 400,000 metal-workers and 100,000 others took part.
The occupied factories were treated like military bases. They were defended against the police, and arms were stockpiled inside them. The Italian working class had had enough: the mood among workers was insurrectionary.
The government was paralysed. The Prime Minister admitted to the Senate that he lacked the forces to suppress the movement. So he made some concessions and cut a deal with the union leaders. The Socialist Party was not prepared to challenge this decision. Reformists dominated the apparatus of both unions and party.
Had a large, well-rooted revolutionary party led an insurrection in August 1920, it is likely that the Italian working class could have taken state power and pulled the mass of peasants and the rural and urban poor into action behind it. The primary reason this did not happen was a subjective one: lack of revolutionary clarity, organisation, and direction.
The price paid was very high. The retreating proletarian movement was soon to be overwhelmed by an advancing fascist one.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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