The First World War precipitated an international revolutionary crisis. That the climax had already occurred in the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917 was far from apparent during the immediate post-war years.
The Russian Revolution inspired millions to challenge their own rulers.
In Italy — as elsewhere — the metal industry was key. It was the storm centre of the “biennio rosso” — the two red years that followed the end of the war in 1918.
Large-scale capitalist development was limited to the northern industrial triangle of Turin, Milan and Genoa.
Turin, a modern engineering centre, attracted “green” labour from the backward agricultural regions of southern Italy.
Working in a car factory catapulted people from semi-feudalism into industrial capitalism.
Workers went through massive upheaval and militant struggle during the First World War and their radicalism was whetted by news of the Russian Revolution.
In August 1917 Turin erupted in food riots initiated by working class women. They were expected to queue for hours to collect food rations and work 12 hours a day in the factories.
Riot turned into walkouts when the women made the crucial link with workers’ industrial power.
The state killed 50 demonstrators and jailed 800. When workers saw that physical confrontation had failed, action in the factories acquired new significance.
In Turin, as elsewhere, revolutionary socialists made an impact way beyond their numbers. Spontaneous militancy had brought the city’s workers towards independent rank and file organisation.
This was based on the internal commissions — shop floor committees, which arose as the voice of rank and file opposition to the war effort.
Under the influence of Antonio Gramsci and the other revolutionaries organised around the journal, L’Ordine Nuovo, the internal commissions in Turin developed into committees of factory delegates.
Gramsci’s emphasis on building factory councils came from his conviction that only with new, non-parliamentary institutions could the working class transform society.
L’Ordine Nuovo became popular. It lifted the movement beyond the narrow horizon of trade unionism to pose the question of workers’ power.
Gramsci synthesised the limited information about the soviets that had come out of Russia, the workers’ council movements in Germany and the achievements of the Turin working class.
His identification of workshop organisation with socialism was a fantastic breakthrough.
The culmination of the biennio rosso came in September 1920, when the employers rejected a wage claim submitted by FIOM, the metalworkers’ union.
Some 400,000 metal workers struck and occupied every engineering factory throughout Italy. Other groups of workers joined the strike.
The occupations led to a state of virtual dual power in centres like Turin, where workers formed squads of armed red guards confronting the forces of the Italian state.
Despite their revolutionary leadership, the Turin workers went down to defeat because the national movement remained under the control of the reformists.
At the end of September, the trade union and Socialist Party leaders finally ended the occupations.
The bosses had been scared by the threat of revolution but the failure to finish them off proved costly. The ending of the occupations drove the bosses towards Mussolini’s fascists and paralysed the movement. Two years later the fascists took power.
The experience of 1920 convinced Gramsci of the need for a mass revolutionary party.
He had grasped the real essence of working class power.
He wrote, “ We say that the present period is revolutionary precisely because we can see that the working class in all countries is tending to generate from within itself, with the utmost vital energy, proletarian institutions of a new type — representative in basis and industrial in arena.
“The working class tends with all its energy and all its will power to found its own state ”
For Gramsci the soviet was not an artificial institution imposed from above.
It grew out of the mass struggles of workers—“the product of a real historical situation and an achievement of the working class itself”.