Socialist Worker

The strikers were complete masters

Issue No. 1713

Occupation of the factories-Italy 1920

The strikers were complete masters

"THE factories yesterday evening presented a singular spectacle. One reached them through crowds of women and children, coming and going with dinner for the strikers. Entrances were strictly guarded by groups of workers. Not the ghost of an official or police officer in sight. The strikers were complete masters of the field. Whoever passed in a car or cab was subjected to control as if he were crossing a frontier, control exercised by vigilance squads of workers and their enthusiastic companions."

So wrote the editor of Milan's most important newspaper on 31 August 1920. He was describing the takeover of the city's Alfa Romeo plant. Within days every factory in Italy was occupied, in what turned out to be one of the most significant class battles of the 20th century.

Half a million workers were involved in the movement. There were occupations wherever there was a factory, dockyard, steelworks, forge or foundry employing metal workers. In most factories workers tried to keep production going, intent on showing they did not need bosses and foremen to order them about.

The occupation committees arranged to supply each other with components and raw materials. Railway workers obeyed the instructions of their union, ignored their bosses and made sure occupied factories got fuel, iron and steel. The head of the railways in Turin complained, "What's taking place here is a takeover of the railways. They say they are the bosses these days."

In many places workers took steps to defend themselves against expected attacks from government troops and police. The government official in charge of Turin wrote of the workers, "The conviction is growing among the most exalted elements that the moment of triumph for their ideals is approaching. The security forces and troops available here to oppose them are limited."

The official for Milan complained he only had enough troops and police to hold a fifth of the city against any "influx from the countryside and the factories now in occupation." The government received a report that "the occupiers have machine-guns. They claim to have armed a tank, built for the state at Fiat."

One Turin paper even reported workers who had been military pilots in the First World War flying planes over the city and dropping leaflets. Many employers expected the government to use armed force to smash the occupations immediately. The head of Fiat, Agnelli, asked the prime minister, Giolitti, to do so. The prime minister replied:

"We are in a position to agree immediately. At Turin there is the regiment of mountain artillery. At dawn tomorrow, Fiat will be bombarded and liberated from the occupiers." "No! No!" Agnelli replied, terrified of losing his factory.

Giolitti later told the Senate, "To prevent the occupations I would have to put a garrison in each...600 factories in the metallurgical industry...100 men in the small, several thousand in the large. To occupy the factories I would have to deploy all the forces at my disposal! And who would exercise surveillance over the 500,000 workers outside the factories? It would have been civil war."

His attitude exasperated the heads of big business who screamed for more decisive action. But the bosses were also close to admitting complete defeat. One leading figure, Albertini, told another, "The only thing left is to resign and to give power to the CGL [the main union]. They must be told you are the masters now."

Such people feared the occupations were turning into a revolution. But it did not happen. The workers were ready, but their organisations were to let them down. The Italian working class and socialist movements had been weak until the First World War.

But the entry of Italy into the war in 1915 created conditions which led to a new militancy sweeping through the cities. Prices shot ahead of wages. Workers were forced to work longer hours under worse conditions, and basic foods were in short supply.

By the summer of 1917 there were already strikes and riots in Turin. The bitterness increased with the end of the war late in 1918. Prices continued to soar. Men returning from the war could not get jobs. In the countryside peasants began to seize land from the big landowners. Soldiers mutinied rather than be sent to fight a new war in Albania.

There was a growing feeling that Italian workers should follow the example of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and set up a state of their own based upon workers' councils. The centre of workers' agitation was Turin. There was a sort of shop stewards system-called the Workers' Commissars -in some factories.

These compelled the employers to grant the eight-hour day, and then fought factory by factory to stop people having to work harder to pay for it. A young revolutionary socialist intellectual, Antonio Gramsci, found a growing circulation for his magazine Ordine Nuovo, which reported these struggles and argued that the Workers' Commissars should be transformed into genuine workers' councils.

The leaders of the Socialist Party and the main union organisation began to use very left wing language. They too hailed the Russian example, but the Socialist Party failed to live up to the militancy that existed below them. In the spring of 1920 the employers decided on a coordinated offensive. This began with an attempt to destroy the Workers' Commissars, using troops to drive protesting workers out of Turin factories.

Workers responded with strikes, shutting down the whole city. But union and Socialist Party leaders refused to call solidarity action elsewhere and the country's most militant workers were forced back to work defeated.

This did not stop a continued build-up of anger elsewhere. By August metal workers across Italy were united in their determination to get a wage increase to catch up with prices. The employers were just as determined to prevent this and made it clear they would lock out workers who struck. The trade union leaders were caught.

They could not simply turn their backs on the feeling of their members. But they did not want confrontation. They called for work-ins because they believed these would reduce the mood of militancy.

INSTEAD THEY found that huge numbers of workers believed the revolution had started and wanted to see it through to the end. But union and Socialist Party leaders refused to do anything that would bring the movement into a real assault on a divided capitalist class.

Union leaders said to the Socialist Party, "You believe this is the moment for revolution. Very well, then. You assume responsibility." The Socialist Party leaders refused the offer. This provided the union leaders with an opening to end the occupations. They called union delegates to a conference and asked if they wanted them to organise a revolution. Not surprisingly, most delegates did not have any confidence such people could lead a successful revolution and voted, very narrowly, against the idea.

The employers heaved a huge sigh of relief. Bosses brought the occupations to an end by promising big wage increases. They knew they could break those promises as rising unemployment gave them the whip hand in any future strikes or lockouts.

The employers also knew the most militant workers would be demoralised. Mass movements of people against exploitation and oppression are not like electric currents that can be switched on and off. Beyond a certain point, if they don't break through, they begin to fragment and ties of solidarity fall apart as everyone is forced to worry about their own individual future.

This is tragically what happened in Italy in 1921 and 1922. The greatest workers' movement Italy had seen was followed by a vicious, concerted employers' offensive. This did not simply use victimisation, sackings and police harassment, but also encouraged attacks on workers' organisations by groups of armed thugs, the Fascists of a certain Benito Mussolini.

Barely two years after the occupation of the factories his movement took over the Italian government and set up the world's first Fascist state. The tragedy was not inevitable. Italy's workers were ready to establish a new society of their own in 1920. What was lacking was a revolutionary socialist organisation prepared to agitate among them for action in a quite different way to the official leaderships.

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Sat 9 Sep 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1713
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