The battles against Italian fascism in 1921-22 erupted as spontaneous self defence against the terror tactics of Mussolini’s squads. Many of the left at the time dismissed these brave struggles. The reformist Socialist Party preferred to think that they could beat Mussolini at his own parliamentary game and paid for their error dearly. The new Italian Communist Party (PCI), instead of jumping in feet-first where workers resisted fascism, stood on the sidelines finding errors with those who fought back. The cost of failing to join the struggle on the streets was the victory of fascism.
Tom Behan’s marvellous account restores these working class acts of resistance to their rightful place in history. What he describes was erased from official left accounts for a long time.
The tragic defeat of the militant occupation of the factories in the ‘Red Years’ from 1919 to 20 paved the way for Mussolini. Behan explains that even in this situation united action against the fascists could have turned them back. The centrepiece of his book is the Arditi del Popolo. Arditi means literally the ‘daring ones’ and the original arditi had been the assault troops founded in the First World War. Later some of these followed the nationalist D’Annunzio and joined Mussolini’s fasci. Others became anti-fascists and in 1921 in Rome they formed the Arditi del Popolo. The movement’s first manifesto declared that they were subversives committed to opposing tyranny. They were made up of socialists, republicans, anarchists, revolutionary syndicalists and Catholics. It was a military grouping aimed at fending off fascist attacks but it had close connections with the working class. In Rome, for example, donations came from builders, railwaymen and post office workers.
The Arditi del Popolo (ADP) were extremely well organised. They repelled a fascist attack in Sarzana, on the Ligurian-Tuscan border, in the summer of 1921 with methods which showed that a band of fascists were no match for collective class action. Railway workers alerted the town to the arrival of the fascists and they were run out of town by armed agricultural workers. The ADP drove back the fascists again in Parma the next year under the leadership of Guido Picelli. Picelli, a Socialist Party member who had resolutely opposed the war and was secretary of the local trades council, understood far better than the party he belonged to that the fascist threat was not just another attack from a right wing government but a fundamental shift that threatened the very existence of working class organisation. ‘We can only win if we are united!’ was his rallying cry.
When 20,000 fascists under Balbo descended on Parma, Picelli and the ADP took them on. Guns were distributed, and pickaxes, iron bars and tools used to dig up the cobblestones and carts and benches piled up to make barricades. Workers were allocated shifts, and food rations and meals prepared centrally. The resistance ran like clockwork. Even the fascist Balbo was forced to concede that ‘for the first time fascism found itself facing a well organised and well trained adversary–equipped, armed and prepared to fight to the finish’.
Picelli’s ADP organisation and political understanding exposed the weakness of the policy of abstentionism by some of the left. The PCI saw unity with the social democrats as a sellout instead of a necessity. Bordiga, the obstinate defender of this position, believed that the newly founded party had to be the puri and the duri–the purest and hardest.
This sectarian view of the fortress party blocked all unity with anyone outside the party. Instead the PCI told its members to keep away from the PSI and the ADP and issued the ridiculous call to go on the military offensive with a members-only military organisation. The Communist squads remained weak and ineffective while many PCI and PSI members followed their instincts and fought alongside the ADP.
Tom Behan’s book is an important read for anyone who wants to understand how to oppose fascism. He describes the tragic lessons of sectarianism clearly, with wonderful detail and in clear, forthright language. By the same stroke his descriptions of resistance to fascism, like Bertolucci’s film 1900, bear proud witness to the incredible resilience of workers in the face of both terror and poor leadership. Thereby he points to a different set of politics and one which will stand us in good stead today.
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