Ted Grant

The Italian revolution and the tasks of British workers

Written: August 1943
Source: Reprinted in The bulletin of Marxist studies, spring 1986, pp. 13-16.
First published: Workers’ International News, Vol.5 No.12, August 1943

The dismissal of Mussolini marks a new epoch in the development of the revolution and the decay and disintegration of imperialism on the continent of Europe. In order to appreciate the trends of development in the Italian peninsula, it is necessary to understand the causes which led Italy to take the road of fascist barbarism first among all the countries in Europe, and is now the first country in the war to turn towards revolution.

Italy has always been one of the most backward of the great powers. The pesantry as in Russia has been burdened by the impositions of the great landowners; the impoverished proletariat, even before the last war, built up a powerful socialist movement as a means of conducting the struggle against the bourgeoisie. Italy's participation in the last war was essentially that of a second rate power, and though nominally on the side of the victors, Italy's gains in the last war were negligible. The weakened Italian bourgeoisie faced with the ruin of the Italian economy, attempted to load the burdens of "reconstruction" as they had those of the war, onto the shoulders of the Italian masses.

It was as a reply to this offensive of the bourgeoisie that the masses of Italian workers and peasants launched the counteroffensive with brilliant success. The years 1918-20 marked the period of "anarchy" for Italian capitalism. The working class, and following them, the peasantry, forced tremendous concessions from the ruling class. By September 1920, the workers had seized the factories and industries, and the peasants had occupied the land. The real power was no longer in the hands of the capitalists, who were paralysed with fear, but in the hands of the working class. What was necessary was a Bolshevik Party to draw the conclusions for the masses from this and guide the workers to the conquest of power.

The reformist leadership of the working class was incapable of drawing the lessons. Blind and impotent, they betrayed the movement and guided it back into the channels of "constitutionalism". Thus they prepared the way for the destruction of the working class movement.

Fascism in power loses social base

The bourgeoisie, which had been scared out of its wits by the movement of the workers, temporarily gave them some concessions. But the economic crisis continued. The Italian bourgeoisie, without reserves, without rich colonies and with a weak economic base, could not hope to compete with the more powerful bourgeoisie of the Entente on the world market. Consequently, they were compelled to intensify the exploitation of the Italian masses on pain of collapse and extinction.

The heroic attempts of the proletariat to find a way out on the path of the Socialist Revolution had been blocked by the sabotage of the reformist leadership. The bourgeoisie looked for a solution to the intolerable crisis in which "law and order" could be established. The economic crisis was further intensified in the post-war collapse. The middle class found itself completely ruined and rendered desperate. Large sections had followed the lead of the workers in supporting the Socialist Party in the post war revolutionary wave. The core of the petty-bourgeoisie could have been won with a bold policy on the part of the proletariat.

But in sheer despair, the petty bourgeoisie began to look for another solution. It was thus that the fascist movement arose as an expression of the desperation of the middle class. The big industrialists financed Mussolini liberally. Fascism began to organize its bands of crazed petty bourgeois and lumpen proletariat for the purpose of physically annihilating the leaders and the organizations of the proletariat. These bands of cutthroats roamed over Italy attacking workers' co-operatives, unions, Socialist municipalities etc, under the protection of the bourgeois police. In 1922 Mussolini was placed in power by the landowners, industrialists, Church and monarchy, as the sole means of preserving their interests.

The first few years of his rule saw him precariously attempting to establish his domination.

The murder of Matteotti[1] provoked a wave of indignation throughout Italy and the working class only needed a revolutionary lead to overthrow the Fascist regime. Still the Socialists clung to "legal" methods. Mussolini survived the crisis and proceeded systematically to destroy the organizations of the working class. The disillusionment and demoralization of the working class at the betrayal of their organizations led them to a position of prostration and apathy. Fascism firmly entrenched itself in power.

But once in power, Fascism begins to lose its middle class base. The impoverishment and ruin of the petty bourgeoisie is not halted, but on the contrary, receives a new impetus by the victory of Fascism. The counter-revolutionary delusions of the petty bourgeoisie are soon dispelled by the cold reality of the totalitarian state and the support for Fascism ebbs away. The Fascist regime loses its social basis completely and becomes an ordinary military-police bureaucratic dictatorship. That was the position of Mussolini's dictatorship. Yet it has endured for more than two decades!

The secret of the long period of Fascist rule lies not at all in the strength of the regime, but in world events on the one hand, and, the apathy and torpor of the Italian masses, who had lost all perspectives with the betrayal of their organizations. The victory of Hitler, the defeat of the French and Spanish workers, the further decay and collapse of the working class movement, the strengthening of reaction on a world scale, could not but further demoralize and plunge the Italian working class into gloomy indifference and lack of faith in the future.

But the crisis which overshadowed the regime, forced the Italian bourgeoisie, to attempt outward expansion to save themselves from being overthrown. The Abyssinian adventure [2] and the war which Mussolini waged against the Spanish workers, were symptoms of the desperation of Italian Fascism. Far from solving anything, they merely increased the misery of the workers and peasants, and increased the pressure on the regime. After the fall of France, the Italian capitalists eagerly seized the opportunity which they imagined had been presented, to secure a rich Empire on the cheap.

But the calculations of the bourgeoisie were completely falsified by events. Never in history had an army fought with less, morale and less belief in their cause than the army of Fascist Italy! The coarse witticisms of the British ruling class against "cowardly" Italians are completely beside the mark. The Italian army, like that of Czarist Russia, is composed mainly of peasants. Exploited and oppressed by the landlords, beaten and tyrannized by the Fascist thugs, their thoughts of the "enemy" were not against the armies opposing them, but of the landlords in the villages who lived well by battening on them, while their women and children hungered and even starved. They thought of the burdensome taxes to keep up a bloated ignorant fascist militia. They did not have the will to fight. Mussolini could not even defeat the Greeks! In Africa the Empire disappeared while the Italian soldiery surrendered by the tens of thousands with only the semblance of resistance. Twenty years of Fascism had rotted the regime from top to bottom. There was not a live element in the whole of its apparatus, either in the army or the means of suppression at home. Moreover, Italy as a backward and only semi-industrialized country did not possess the technique for modern wars as her twin Fascist Germany had the fortune of possessing in unrivalled technology' and first rate industrial equipment. All these factors combining, the defeat of Italy became inevitable.

Trotsky, with infallible foresight and a profound understanding of the masses and of the historical process, in analyzing the problems of the revolution in the fascist countries had shown that it would require some sharp shock to rouse the masses from their lethargy and stupor, to take the road of mass opposition and mass struggle against the totalitarian regimes; a shock which could be provided by military defeats or the victory of the revolution in one of the democracies.

The defeats of the regime were a final revelation of its bankruptcy; its corruption and decay provided the means for the re-awakening of the Italian proletariat. The molecular process of recovery and revival had been proceeding apace behind the outward facade of strength and stability of the regime. The relationship of forces began to change within the country. For the first time mass strikes had been taking place in the towns against the unbearable increase in the cost of living, the peasants had begun to move in a series of minor revolts against the landlords and the unbearable tax impositions of the Fascist officials, and mutinies in the army were an ominous indication of the spirits of the troops. As early as the war against Greece, there were reports of units taken prisoner, singing the "Bandiera Rossa". [The Red Flag - an Italian workers' song]

Only the Trotskyists understood the processes

The bourgeoisie and the landowners could feel the ground trembling under their feet. As always in modern society, the approach of revolution was heralded by tension within all strata of society, within the ruling class as well as the workers, within the petty bourgeoisie as well as in the ranks of the fascist bureaucracy and the state apparatus. The pressure from below produces fissures and uncertainty, quarrels and differences within the erstwhile solid ranks of the ruling class. They begin to seek a way out of the impasse, a means of escaping the rising tide of revolt which threatens to engulf them. From regarding the "Leader" as their savior from the masses they begin to regard him as the author of their ills whose "mistakes" have landed them in an impossible situation. Abuse of the ruler and his immediate clique of collaborators are replaced by conspiracies and discussions of a coup d'etat, of a palace revolution, which by a timely movement from above will prevent and nip in the bud, a movement from below. The existing relations between the classes have become unbearable and the situation cannot last. The ruling class seeks for some means of saving themselves. They cannot reconcile themselves to the doom which they feel is impending and will overtake them unless they can forestall it by some means.

Thus it was in Czarist Russia before the February Revolution. Thus it was in Fascist Italy before the fall of Mussolini. Even a better analogy perhaps, was the removal of Primo de Rivera, the military dictator in Spain, by Alfonso in an effort to save the monarchy [3]. Tomorrow we will observe the same process in Hitler's Germany. But all these moves in the ruling class, far from preventing the revolution, dialectically, are the means of precipitating it. The movement from above produces a mighty echo in the movement from below. Thus it was that Mussolini was flung aside by the ruling class in Italy in order to avert their overthrow. Thus as always in history; they have merely opened the first chapter in the Revolution.

Whatever the fate of the Italian revolution may be, in passing, it has dealt the death blow to the cowards and renegades from the labour movement, ex-"Marxists" such as James Burnham in the United States and CA Smith in Britain, and the whole tribe of petit bourgeois intellectuals and sceptics who have regarded the proletariat and the struggle for socialism with irony and scepticism. This short sighted professional rabble regarded the outward varnish of fascism as the development of a new form of society with a new ruling class, neither bourgeois nor proletarian! To them the inert attitude of the proletariat in Italy and Germany which bowed its head passively in face of the Fascist tyranny was proof of the incapacity of the proletariat and proof of a new society.

Incapable of understanding the dialectics of the development of society, they regard with irony, condescension and contempt, the strivings of the proletariat. As in the case of CA Smith this was merely a bridge to justify desertion to the camp of the bourgeoisie. But they were not alone. The traitors of Stalinism and the labour bureaucracy, attempted to justify their own treachery by unloading the blame for the passivity of the masses onto the "incapacity" of the proletariat and the lack of ripeness for the Socialist Revolution, which they have put decades hence. How pitiful is Stalinism, which dissolved the Comintern on the eve of the fall of Mussolini, how pitiful are the Vansittartistic labour bureaucracy and Stalinism which unload the blame for Hitler onto the shoulders of the German proletariat which "tolerates" Hitler. In reality it is the unending defeats of the past two decades, caused by the self-same "leaders" and their present policies, which has lain like a pall over the proletariat of the whole world and produced the mood of frustration and despair, of demoralization and disintegration, of lack of belief in itself and its own future. It is this indeed, which has led to the prolongation of the war and its continuance for four nightmare years before the first movement of the proletariat. All these forces and moods were merely the result of the reaction which they themselves had called forth.

Alone of all tendencies in the labour movement, the Trotskyists maintained faith in the working class and themselves.

Even at the darkest depth of reaction they maintained the banner of International Socialism, of the International Revolution and retained their faith and confidence in the proletariat. And this was not accidental either. They had analyzed and foreseen the reasons for the defeats and understood the basis of the turn towards reaction and naturally understanding the causes which did not lay in the proletariat but in the leadership of the proletariat, they could carry on with the sure confidence given by an understanding of Marxism. All other tendencies were blind.

They had caused the defeat and were incapable of understanding the way out of the impasse.

The crisis in Italy came to a head with the invasion of Sicily. The unprecedented lack of support of the regime, was revealed from the fact that even on their "own" soil the Italian soldiers demonstrated no great eagerness to fight. Their resistance was ho more energetic and hearty than that on the shores of Africa across the seas. Despite the exaggerations of Allied propaganda, it seems clear that the alien invaders were regarded with no great hostility in Palermo and other towns. Surely a rare occurrence in history! Anything, anything could not be worse than Mussolini, was the attitude of the inhabitants of this island. The regime was so rotten and so loathsome to the broad masses that they did not regard it as much better than that of a foreign conqueror. To this catastrophe had Mussolini's braggadocio and bombast reduced Italy! An emptiness and feeling of terror must have gathered round the hearts of the ruling class in Italy.

The denouement was not long in coming. In fear of the movement of the masses and realizing that for Italian Imperialism the war was irretrievably lost, the ruling class sought to save something from the wreckage. From Germany, already hard pressed and, facing the virtual certainty of defeat in the future, they could expect no more aid than would reduce Italy to the status of France or the satellite Balkan countries even in the event of problematic victory. And with the certainty that the "democratic" allies would extract ever greater penalties and tribute in that event. Mussolini was of no more use to them. They feared the invasion of the Allies. They feared their mightier "partner". In frantic panic, trapped in insuperable contradictions, the ignoble ruling classes of Italy contemptuously cast Mussolini onto the scrapheap of history.

But the bourgeoisie have lost all perspective for the morrow. The monarchy and the General Staff imagined that they could drop Mussolini and carry on as before, graciously offering Mussolini's hide to the masses as a scapegoat for their crimes. Surely Badoglio's proclamation of martial law will rank in history as the perfect example of the illusions of a regime which has been condemned by history to destruction. The dismissal of Mussolini was followed by a declaration of stringent martial law. But the decree merely remained on paper. Badoglio did not have the resources to carry it out despite the illusions of the General Staff.

The fall of Mussolini acted like an electric shock to the Italian workers. When the news came over the wireless, moved by a common impulse, hundreds of thousands rushed into the streets in the black-out to demonstrate their relief and their joy. The process that Trotsky had visualized would develop in Italy to mark the fall of fascism, had begun. (As the news trickled through, one could not but allow one's thoughts to dwell on the Old Man and to marvel at his unerring instinct and profound understanding which could develop in advance almost exactly the stages through which the revolution would pass.)

After 20 years of fascism the proletariat, now hardened by terror and persecution, has stepped on to the arena reinvigorated and fresh, like a giant awakening from a long sleep. Mass strikes in all the industrial cities, Milan, Turin, Genoa, etc, broke out in 24 hours. The railways in the whole of Northern Italy were paralyzed within a few days. The jails were stormed by the workers and the political prisoners were set free. The fascist headquarters in the large towns have been sacked and the fascist printing presses, seized by the workers in Milan and other areas. Anyone wearing the insignia of fascism in Italy on the day after Mussolini's disappearance stood in danger of being lynched. Fascism vanished overnight. The belated decree dissolving the fascist party merely took cognizance of a fact that had already been irrevocably established by the workers and the soldiers themselves. Symbolically in Milan, which once again has proudly taken the lead as "Red Milan", short shrift was given by the indignant workers to the murderer of Matteotti. In other areas too, the most hated of the fascist bosses have been dispatched by the workers. In Turin "two millionaire fascists" have been executed by the workers. Streets in Milan have been renamed in honour of Matteotti and other working class leaders murdered by the fascists. The attempt to use the soldiers against the demonstrating crowds in Milan has resulted in the soldiers going over to the side of the workers.

Reformists and Stalinists prepare betrayal

Overnight the working class has demonstrated its vitality and strength as though fascism had never existed. Workers committees have been set up in the factories in the industrial towns. Even the Stalinist Daily Worker, following on the news published in the bourgeoisie press, is compelled to report:

"The radio [Swiss] reported that a Citizens' Committee, consisting of representatives of industrial workers, soldiers and peasants has been created in Milan, centre of the industrial north...

"A majority of the troops of the Milan garrison are reported to have sworn allegiance to the Committee. The banned Communist paper La Roscossa and the liberal paper La Mundo were republished on Saturday - produced in former fascist printing offices.

"Similar moves were reported by the radio in Turin, Varese, Brescia and Vercelli.

"In Brescia - according to the Swiss broadcast-workers have been armed from the army arsenal and have established a Workers' Militia, which took over the police authority-with little interference from the police."

What are these "Citizens Committees" if not Soviets, which the cowardly and treacherous Stalinists are afraid to avow at the present time? These are living proofs that the Italian Revolution has begun.

Whatever the vicissitudes of the Italian revolution in the next period the lie has been given to all the faint hearts and deserters, to all the cowards and sceptics. The wonderful resilience and buoyancy, the tremendous powers of recuperation and recovery of the working class, the only through and through progressive class in modern society, has been demonstrated. The victories of reaction are shown to be built on shifting sands. After every defeat, the proletariat recovers from its wounds and rises again with even greater force to vanquish the enemy.

All these events have been crowded into the short space of a single week! The first stage of the revolution has seen the whole of industrial Italy on the march. For the moment the peasants are quiet. It will take some time for the meaning of the events in the towns to penetrate into the villages. But once he begins to understand, the peasant will turn against his enemies. The fall of fascism will be interpreted by him, not only as the fall of the fascist official but as the beginning of the end for the landlord whom the officials represent. The peasants will begin, in isolated areas, sporadically to seize the land. Against the taxes and the landlord! These will be the rallying cries of the peasants.

All the factors that make for the Socialist Revolution in Italy are crystallizing out. The working class are forming their Soviets and Workers' Militias. The soldiers (mostly peasants in uniform) are moving over to the side of the workers. The peasants will move forward. The middle class in the towns are turning towards the workers for a lead. All the objective conditions for a socialist revolution are present. And the taking of power by the Italian workers would instantly provoke the overthrow of Hitler and inaugurate the Socialist Revolution throughout Europe. All the conditions? No. The subjective conditions for the revolution are not yet present. Instinctively and almost automatically the Italian working class has taken the correct steps on the road to workers' power. But the Socialists and Stalinists are already preparing to betray the movement by turning it into the channels of bourgeois "democracy".

Meanwhile, the "Allies" regard with not unmixed feelings the developments in Italy. Churchill's speech is a revelation of the fears and forebodings of the ruling class in the face of the revolution. His reference to, the difficulty of conquering a country mile by mile and the necessity to avoid rule through concentration camps and firing squads does not come from any tenderness towards the Italian workers but of fear of such measures. The old fox of the ruling class remembers with dread the fiasco of intervention against the Russian Revolution after the last war. He wishes if possible, to avoid the same experience again. The ruling class is preparing a deal with the monarchy and the possessing classes in Italy. They hope, by a military occupation to nip the revolution in the bud before it has time to develop.

Whatever the developments in the next period, even if the military events should move more swiftly than the political developments in the Italian peninsula, Europe and the world will never be the same again. The fall of Mussolini is merely the rehearsal for the fall of Hitler. The news reports from Switzerland state that Mussolini's fall was greeted by demonstrations of the Italian workers in Berlin who burned pictures of Mussolini and all the symbols of fascism on bonfires. And what is important was the reaction of the German workers. In the factories which employed the Italians, they solidarised with them and joined the demonstrations, adding to the bonfires, portraits of Hitler and the Nazi flag. The police took no active steps against them. This is just a symptom of the situation in Germany which must break out in revolution.

But it is not only a question of Germany. The whole of European society has developed explosive potentialities during the war. The contradictions which have been piling up for more than two decades have reached their extreme limit; it requires merely one or two more sharp shocks to set the contradictions detonating in revolution. The news of Mussolini's fall immediately had its repercussions throughout Europe. Tremendous strikes have been announced in Portugal. Franco held emergency meetings of his cabinet as he felt the ground under his feet shake. Boris of Bulgaria waited fearfully to see if the revolts would begin. The Balkan countries are rotten-ripe for revolution. But it is not a question of this or that country. It is the whole continent of Europe that waits only for some beginning to burst forth in revolt from end to end.

The swaying fortunes of the war have produced the fantastic situation when with the defeat of Germany, there will not he a single belligerent country in Europe which to all practical purposes, will not he defeated. In 1918 the ruling class precariously balanced the smaller powers in the Balkans against one another. Though shaky, the Italian army, and the French especially, remained props of "law and order", which could offset the countries in which revolution broke out. Today Giraud in north Africa and the Turks are being built as armies of counter-revolution. But these are weak reeds to lean on. With the collapse of the Nazi armies, there will not be a single army in Europe upon which the imperialists can rely for the purposes of counter-revolution. It is out of the question that the Red Army could be used for this purpose. Indeed the coming revolution in the West would be the beginning of the end for Stalin and the bureaucracy. It could mean the beginning of the political revolution in Russia as well. To smash the revolution the British army would not be a reliable instrument, but would be liable to crack in the process. Only American imperialism has a fairly stable base and a backward army on which to rely. But for how long in the red-hot atmosphere of Europe? The American army would also disintegrate and decompose. We are on the verge of a revolutionary wave in Europe which will last for years and which will affect the whole world by its grandiose sweep.

'Spanish' warning to Italian workers

It is on this background that the situation in Italy must be viewed. Even in the worst event-that of defeat of the revolution and military occupation, this is but the first uprising in Europe. An Allied or a German occupation of Italy might temporarily smash the movement. But to invade in a war and to intervene against a revolution are two different tasks. The Stalinists and Social-democrats will attempt to guide the movement into Popular Front channels in the interests of Allied imperialism. The Spanish tragedy is the warning of where such policies will lead the Italian working class.

The Italian masses have placed themselves at the head of the revolutionary upsurge of all Europe. The honour which fell to the Russian proletariat in the last war falls to them today. But Russia had a Bolshevik Party and a Bolshevik leadership. This alone guaranteed victory. It will be the task of the advanced workers in Italy to forge such a party in the fire of events. Tens of thousands of the heroic militants who continued the struggle against fascism despite everything are really Trotskyists, though the majority may never have heard that name. They will find the way to the program of International Socialism.

With the fresh breeze of the revolution blowing from across the Mediterranean, a new enthusiasm and a new resolve must pervade the activities of the advanced workers in Britain. Our tasks are complicated. Britain is one of the keys if not the key, to the revolution in Europe. The main task of the revolutionaries now consists in aiding the Italian workers by fighting against intervention against the revolution in Italy. To read the press of vile Stalinism on the Italian situation cannot but arouse a sense of disgust in any conscious Socialist worker. Against these traitors! For the revolution in Italy! No intervention by British Imperialism must be the rallying cry for the working class.

Transcriber's notes

[1] Giacomo Matteolti (1885-1924): A Socialist deputy in the Italian Parliament who was murdered by fascists in June 1924.

[2] The Abyssinian adventure: Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia (or Ethiopia) in October 1935, the first step in his plans for a "Second Roman Empire". In 1939 Italy annexed Albania.

[3] Primo de Rivera: Ruled Spain from the military coup of 1923 to January 1930 when he resigned as the pressure of the masses grew. This, however, did not save King Alfonso XIII who fled into exile following the Socialist and Republican municipal election victory in April 1931, heralding the beginning of the Spanish revolution.