For nearly a month in September 1920 over 400,000 Italian metalworkers occupied the factories, particularly in the industrial centres of the north, Turin, Milan and Genoa.
Like many other events in working-class history this has become something of a myth, and generations of left-wingers have been convinced that this was a “revolutionary situation” in which the workers were on the brink of overthrowing capitalism but were “betrayed” by their leaders. An examination of the facts shows that this certainly was not the case.
In August 1920 the Italian metalworkers union (FIOM), faced with a rising cost of living, put in a claim for a wage increase. The employers, badly hit by the slackened demand for iron and steel caused by the end of the war, categorically refused. The union then declared a go-slow. The employers responded with a lock-out and the workers, backed by the union, occupied the factories.
There they stayed for three weeks until the government and others brought pressure to bear on the employers to give in. The workers got their wage increase (plus a vague and useless promise of “union control”) and voted at a conference—later confirmed in a referendum—to resume normal working.
In other words, this was a simple—and successful— trade-union action aimed at getting a wage increase It was not an attempt to overthrow capitalism. If it had been, then the government would not have maintained the neutrality it did and certainly would not have brought pressure on the employers to settle.
The fact that the government did not intervene or behalf of the employers is to be explained by a conflict of sectional interests within the Italian capitalist class. Before the war, Italy had been ruled by politicians representing the bourgeoisie in the strict sense of the term: the “middle class” (merchants, small traders, etc.) of the towns. They tended to be liberal and anti-clerical in their politics, and were led on the political field by Giovanni Giolitti.
Around the turn of the century, however, in the northern cities of Turin, Milan and Genoa a more modern type of capitalist appeared: the big industrialists, who tended to favour expansionist nationalism This conflict came to a head over the attitude Italy should adopt during the first world war. The traditional bourgeoisie favoured keeping out, and even tended to be pro the Central Powers, Germany and Austro-Hungary. Indeed their bank, the Banca Commerciale Italiana, was partly financed by German capital. Their view did not prevail. Italy entered the war on the British and French side, and Giolitti resigned as prime minister. During the war the northern industrialists made huge profits which they used to try to take over the Banca Commerciale. The attempt failed but it showed that the conflict existed.
It was Giolitti who was again prime minister in September 1920, and it is because the interests of the section of the Italian capitalist class he represented were not the same as those of the northern engineering employers and steel magnates, that the State was neutral during the factory occupation. It was even alleged that the Banca Commerciale helped to finance the metalworkers in this struggle and had threatened to withdraw credit to the employers if they didn’t submit to the union’s conditions.
All this was known at the time. For instance, the article “Socialism and the Fascisti” in the SOCIALIST STANDARD for April 1923 dealt with the subject and quoted from other sources, the Nation (New York) and the Western Clarion (Vancouver), and these supported the conclusion that the Italian metalworkers won their economic struggle because of a conflict of interests within the Italian capitalist class.
So there was no revolutionary situation. Of course there was such loud and empty talk of “revolution” and the executive of the reformist Italian Socialist Party (PSI) even met to consider whether or not to launch the revolution (as if it were up to them!) but finally decided, under pressure from its trade-union wing (CGL), not to.
This decision was attacked by various leftists of the day as a “sell-out”, but the evidence shows that it was the only sane thing to do. Any attempt by the workers to transform the economic struggle into an insurrection, even if they had wanted to, would have been easily crushed. After all, workers armed mainly with revolvers, muskets and pikes (yes, pikes!) could stand no chance against the forces of the State.
Indeed when the CGL met to consider the possibility of armed insurrection they were told by the Turin delegation that
“Fiat-Centro which seems to be one of the best supplied (with arms) has only 5,000 rounds of machine-gun ammunition . . .” (Quoted in The Occupation of the Factories: Italy 1920 by Paolo Spriano, page 86).
and although Antonio Gramsci, later leader of the Italian Communist Party, repeatedly denounced the leaders of the PSI and CGL he admitted privately that
“. . . with a working class which mostly saw everything rosy and loved bands and ballads more than sacrifice, a counter-revolution would have inexorably swept us away.” (Spriano, page 134.)
Mere working-class discontent or mass action does not constitute a revolutionary situation. The social and political situation will only become revolutionary when the immense majority of the working class, having come to understand and want Socialism, become revolutionary-minded. That was not the case in Italy in 1920 and unfortunately has never yet been the case anywhere else.