By Chris Harman
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L’Ordine Nuovo: paper of the Italian revolution

This article is over 20 years, 7 months old
Our series on socialist newspapers continues with the Italian paper L'Ordine Nuovo
Issue 1875

‘The workers loved L’Ordine Nuovo because in it they found something of themselves, the best part of themselves, because in it they sensed their own inner striving: how best can we be free? How can we become ourselves?’ So wrote the 28 year old Italian revolutionary socialist Antonio Gramsci in August 1920.

He was talking about the weekly paper launched in the city of Turin by himself and three other young intellectuals in May the previous year. They had launched the paper at a time of unparalleled upheaval in Italy. Right across Europe, the First World War had caused a horrendous death toll and immense hardship for the lower classes. There were huge strikes and clashes between workers and the forces of order nearly everywhere.

In Russia a revolutionary socialist government based on workers’ and peasants’ councils had been in power for 18 months. In Italy the biggest ever wave of strikes swept the country at a time when peasants were occupying landed estates and soldiers were refusing to go to fight another war in Albania and demobilised conscripts were mutinous. Among workers there was widespread expectation of socialist revolution.

The new paper caught this mood. It contained reports on what was happening in Russia from US journalist John Reed and the English writer Arthur Ransome. It printed accounts of the workers’ movement in France, Germany and Britain (from Sylvia Pankhurst) as well as articles by Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and Zinoviev.

It also carried discussions on party conferences, on election results and on revolutionary strategy and tactics. But L’Ordine Nuovo’s real strength came from something else.

It became the focus for discussion among the city’s workers about how to give concrete form to the sort of organisation they needed to take control of society-on how to build workers’ councils which would unite the whole of the working population against the ruling class and its state. This was something the established leaders of the working class organisation were refusing to do.

Italy had a socialist movement that was strong and growing stronger. It had also moved very much to the left. Whereas ten years earlier the Socialist Party’s leaders had been reformers committed to a narrowly parliamentary approach, now its language was revolutionary. But they would not translate such words into deeds.

L’Ordine Nuovo grew as it provided a genuinely revolutionary approach in Turin, the most important industrial city in the country. Its sale in its first few months of existence was only about 3,500 a month.

But then Gramsci and his colleagues grasped something central. The workers in Turin’s factories were increasingly relying in their everyday struggle not on relatively remote full time union officials, but on local elected representatives, the members of what were called ‘factory commissions’.

These, they saw, provided the basis for setting up organisations that would unite the whole working class, first of all in Turin, and than across Italy.

In a situation when revolution was openly discussed, these factory-based organisations could provide the mechanism for uniting the working class to carry it through. In article after article Gramsci and the others made the point. Workers already knew how to elect people they could trust-and how to rescind their election the moment they betrayed that trust.

The secret to creating something in Italy like the soviets in Russia lay in deepening and expanding that experience. The articles found an echo among those workers who had been putting most effort into building the struggle and most thought into working out how to move on from fighting capitalism to overthrowing it.

On 1 November L’Ordine Nuovo reported how a meeting of delegates from 25 factories representing 50,000 workers discussed putting the ideas into practice. The next week its sales shot up to 10,000 as it carried the programme of the first assembly of Turin factory councils.

Gramsci was not a brilliant public speaker. But in the months that followed he was in constant demand to go into the factories, to put the case for building soviets in Italy to groups of activists. He often did three meetings a day as well as editing the paper and writing numerous articles.

The efforts of L’Ordine Nuovo were not enough to break the debilitating influence of the old parliamentary methods on Italian socialism. When the decisive battle came with the occupation of virtually all of Italy’s factories in the summer of 1920, the trade union leadership treated it as a routine industrial dispute – to be ended through a half-baked compromise with the employers.

And the socialist leadership, for all their revolutionary talk, did nothing. The bitterest of defeats followed, as rising unemployment damaged workers’ morale, and two years later the king handed power to the fascist Mussolini. In the aftermath, people looking back saw that the movement built around L’Ordine Nuovo had shown a way forward – one that, if generalised across all Italy, could have led to victory.

The fascist dictator certainly recognised that Gramsci had been his greatest adversary, ordering his jailing so as to ‘stop that brain from functioning’.

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