The Italian left and the factory councils: 1919-1920

by Luca Tavan • Published 20 August 2021

The Biennio Rosso, or “Two Red Years” in Italy from 1919-1920, were a key link in the chain of revolutions that swept the world after World War I. A mass workers’ movement in the northern industrial centres attempted to launch a decisive struggle against the capitalist class. In the rural south, land occupations by peasants upended centuries-old social relations. The war and social upheaval it generated pointed to the burning need for a new regime capable of overcoming capitalist exploitation, as the revolutionary Antonio Gramsci recognised in August 1920:

The war has plunged society into such a state of barbarity and demoralisation, heaped so many ruins upon ruins and let loose such a flood of meanness and cowardice, that only a youthful and energetic class, a class that is rich in the spirit of discipline and sacrifice, like the working class, will be able to restore order. Only through its example and through its ability to command, by holding State power firmly in its own hands, will it be able to give back to the apparatus of production and exchange the capacity to feed, clothe and house our people.[1]

In this period of crisis and hope, the October revolution in Russia appeared like a lightning flash. October clarified what political form this new power would take: a form of council democracy based on the mass organisations of the workplace, known in Russia as the soviet. The workers’ councils in Russia showed that it was possible to smash the alienated and bureaucratic state apparatus and engage the majority of the exploited population directly in the administration of society.

Trotsky’s founding Manifesto of the Communist International made it clear that the Bolsheviks considered this innovative political form to have universal relevance:

To strengthen the Soviets, to raise their authority, to counterpose them to the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie – this is today the most important task of the class-conscious and honest workers of all countries… Through the medium of the Soviets, the working class will be able to come to power most surely and easily.[2]

But moving beyond these pronouncements to assimilate the lessons of the Russian Revolution was a difficult task, one which put all sections of the revolutionary left in Italy to the test. Harder still was applying the insights from this high point of class struggle to the different conditions they found themselves in. How can workers’ councils emerge in countries dominated by large, legal trade unions? Was industrial organisation alone enough, or did the working class need to forge an alliance with other social strata? Perhaps most importantly, what relationship should the councils establish with the workers’ existing political organisations? The Italian Socialist Party (PSI), as the largest and most prestigious organisation on the left, cast a shadow over every strategic debate.

This article represents an attempt to rescue the memory of the Biennio Rosso from a series of distortions. The factory council movement and occupations of 1919-1920 were eventually transformed by the Stalinised Communist Party (PCI) into its foundational myth. Antonio Gramsci, one of the period’s most important thinkers, had his political thought edited and warped posthumously to give intellectual ballast to the reformist project of the post-war PCI. In more recent decades, Gramsci has been recast in a number of new roles – as the intellectual antecedent of postcolonial theory, as an anthropologist, and philosopher of linguistics. These interpretations, informed by a generation-long period of political defeat, see Gramsci as a tool for contemplation, rather than a source of revolutionary insight.

Since the 1970s, an alternative current has emerged attempting to rediscover Gramsci’s militant political activity in the Biennio Rosso in order to reclaim him from the parliamentary socialists and armchair academics. This has done much to connect Gramsci’s later work to the lessons he learned during the factory council movement, and set the experiment in workers’ democracy which shook Italian society where it belongs, in the context of the revolutionary wave of 1917-1923.

But in rightfully reclaiming Gramsci as part of the revolutionary Marxist tradition, the complexities and inadequacies of his early politics have often been overlooked. A revolutionary theorist and organiser of such magnitude deserves sincere and ruthless criticism. I will attempt to establish Gramsci’s real relationship with the factory council movement, and challenge the myth that the councils were a product of Gramsci’s unique genius. The factory councils emerged out of a dialectical interaction between radical intellectuals looking for the basis to build a proletarian state, and workers organically driving towards the creation of new institutions in their struggle to defend their living standards and class independence in the struggle against a war which threatened to consume everything.

Gramsci’s role in the council movement was contradictory. On the one hand, it illustrated the need for revolutionaries to intervene into the day-to-day battles of the class, as Gramsci’s small L’Ordine Nuovo group played an important role in catalysing and giving coherence to workers’ struggle. On the other hand, it revealed serious limitations in Gramsci’s understanding of “dual power”. Gramsci took to heart the radical democratic impulse of the Russian Revolution and its focus on the emancipatory role of the working class. But his conception of the councils failed to fully grasp the primacy of politics in the revolutionary process. Under his leadership, they failed to develop beyond workplace organisations to form the embryo of a socialist state.

Another objective of this piece is to engage more seriously with the politics of Amadeo Bordiga, a central leader of a rival tendency that developed simultaneously alongside Gramsci’s “council communism”. Much of the revolutionary Marxist tradition has failed to engage seriously with Bordiga’s conception of social change and his theory of the party. In most histories of the heroic period of the Communist movement, Bordiga has been restricted to a walk-on role as one of Lenin’s foils during the debate on parliamentary participation at the Second Comintern Congress. But he was a hugely consequential figure within Italian Communism, who attempted to carve out an anti-reformist political tradition from as early as 1912. After 1917 Bordiga saw himself as the most strict applicant of “Leninism” to Italian conditions. But his role during the Biennio Rosso would reveal differences with the Bolsheviks which ran deeper than the tactical question of parliamentary participation.

I will also look at the relationship between radicals in the Socialist Party and the revolutionary syndicalists who were organised outside of it. Too often attempts to understand the development of revolutionary politics in the Biennio Rosso have focused solely on the factional divisions that emerged in the PSI during the radical upsurge. But the syndicalists, organised through the USI union federation and numerous local working-class institutions, represented a mass force which argued forcefully against the Socialist Party’s reformism and more than once put their words into action. Radicals in the Socialist Party attempted to establish a political relationship with them, but largely failed to influence syndicalist militants positively in the direction of Marxism. This failure represents one of the great missed opportunities of the period.

The working class and the war

The First World War shook Italy’s unstable political structure and produced a profound radicalisation. At the front, 615,000 Italians were killed, half a million disabled and a million wounded. Peasant conscript soldiers, forced to risk their lives for scraps of territory they’d never heard of, returned to Italy radicalised. Demonstrations emerged frequently against military conscription and domestic political repression, and spontaneous protests against food shortages quickly took on a political dimension. Before the war had even broken out, working-class resistance to militarism posed a serious challenge to the Italian state and its imperialist objectives. In June 1914, the shooting of anti-militarist demonstrators in Ancona sparked a general strike. The movement spread rapidly, with barricades going up in all the major cities. In the Emilia region, a workers’ republic was declared as state power effectively collapsed. It took brutal force for the authorities to restore order.[3]

Alongside these brave but doomed uprisings, deeper shifts were taking place in Italian society which would lay the foundations for the Biennio Rosso. The productive demand generated by the war led to a massive expansion of the working class in the northern “industrial triangle” of Turin, Milan and Genoa. In Turin alone, the number of factory workers doubled during the war years, to reach 150,000.[4] Automobile production rose from 9,200 in 1914 to 20,000 in 1920. The value of FIAT’s capital rose from 17 million lire to 200 million, while the industrial colossus Ansaldo employed 111,000 workers with a capital of 500 million.[5] A labour shortage gave workers in core industries enormous leverage, which translated into increased confidence and willingness to struggle.

At the same time, war production massively intensified the oppression of workers at the point of production. “Committees for industrial mobilisation” were created to institute martial law in the factories. Workers were tied to their jobs under threat of imprisonment, or deployment to the trenches. Strikes were outlawed, and all disputes were forcibly arbitrated through the committees.

Rather than fighting this shackling of the workers’ movement, the leaders of the FIOM, the metalworkers’ union which represented the vast majority of those working in war industries, chose to collaborate. This allowed the union leaders to have more of a say in the management of the plants – at the cost of sacrificing the living standards and organising rights of their members. A breach opened up between the FIOM officials and their rank and file.

To create a pressure valve for discontent, the union leaders encouraged the spreading of “internal commissions”, bodies similar to shop stewards’ committees in Britain or Australia. The commissions were bodies made up of leading unionists who had responsibility for representing the grievances of the workforce to management.

Initially, the internal commissions were highly constrained by the trade union leaders. They would present an official union “list” of five trusted workers to mass meetings, which would simply be ratified. Their vision for the commissions didn’t go beyond helping to enforce negotiated agreements. But the commissions also had a formally independent existence, which created space for workers who wanted to use them to promote class struggle. Increasingly, radicals began looking toward the commissions as one of the few spaces for intervention in the repressive climate of the war. By early 1916, workers were organising to exert rank-and-file control over their representatives, as one young FIAT engineer recounts:

In the course of their agitation the workers would nominate a commission to put demands to management. At the end of the negotiations the commissions reported back and workers would examine the part each representative had played… Thus there grew a process of creating a recognised workplace leadership.[6]

The war thus heightened the tensions between militants and moderates, revolutionaries and reformists in the union movement. It also sharply exacerbated the divisions in the political organisations of the workers’ movement – the most important of which was the Italian Socialist Party.

The Italian Socialist Party

Formed in 1892, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) was the first attempt to build a socialist workers’ party throughout Italy. In line with the model of the Second International parties, the PSI was a broad organisation. But unlike the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), it was highly ideologically heterogenous. Arfé has summarised its worldview as a combination of “souped-up republicanism, adjusted corporatism, diluted anarchism, and a lively but rather woolly faith in the socialist destiny of humanity… [S]uch faith was the moral and ideological bond capable of holding together the new team and forging it into a single body”.[7] The party’s ideological wooliness was combined with a loose-knit structure allowing the utmost autonomy for local groups.

The first tendency to take clear form on a national basis was the reformist wing of the party. Italy’s Rome Congress in 1900 took place at the height of the SPD’s Bernstein debate. Turati, the intellectual leader of the reformists, refused to join Bernstein’s project of revising the fundamentals of Marx’s theory of history. But the political strategy he advocated was strikingly similar: the workers’ movement would achieve the transition to socialism peacefully and gradually, through the framework of parliament.

Numerically, the reformists always remained a minority in the party, but their strength came from implantation in important bureaucratic institutions. The reformists dominated the PSI’s intervention into the town councils, the trade unions and its parliamentary grouping, which by 1913 had 52 elected deputies. The development of an openly reformist tendency within the workers’ movement was intentionally fostered by a wing of the Italian state. Giovanni Giolitti, the prime minister for an almost uninterrupted period between 1900 and 1914, ruled Italy on behalf of a small cast of liberals, who played Socialists, Catholics and Nationalists off each other through endless coalitions, attempting to integrate and incorporate all.

The culmination of the reformist socialists’ collaboration with Giolitti came in 1911. When the Italian state intervened aggressively into what is now Libya to snatch territories from the decaying Ottoman empire, the Socialist parliamentary group gave support to Giolitti’s government in exchange for an expansion of the vote. Giolitti gloated that the PSI had “sent Karl Marx up into the attic”.[8] The brutality of the war – this was the first time that aerial bombardment was ever used on an occupied population – split the party. One group of MPs supported the war, while the party leadership and the General Confederation of Labour declared a general strike against it. While the strike was unsuccessful in its aims, the Libyan crisis polarised the socialist movement and gave spur to development of an open revolutionary tendency within the PSI. In 1912, at the Congress of Reggio Emilia of the Socialist Party, the left organised itself as the Intransigent Revolutionary Fraction.

Amidst these mounting battles between revolutionaries and reformists, Amadeo Bordiga, a young engineer, came to prominence in his native town of Naples. His first crusade was against the electoral opportunism of the PSI, which he later said “has an infamous history everywhere and always, but which reached a peak of pathological infection in Naples in the early twentieth century”.[9] The Naples branch of the PSI was organised on the basis of permanently shifting alliances with different designated “progressive” forces completely alien to the workers’ movement: from anti-clerical agitators to bourgeois republicans. Bordiga and his close comrades denounced the branch leadership in April of 1912, forming the “Karl Marx revolutionary socialist circle”, with the aim of giving the Socialist Party’s practice a solid Marxist foundation. At the party’s youth conference that year Bordiga and his followers emerged as the clear leaders of the extreme left. By 1914 they had articulated an alternative program based on class independence and clearly revolutionary objectives, and re-entered the Naples branch to reorient the party. While Bordiga energetically challenged the reformist leadership of the PSI, his conception of a revolutionary alternative left much to be desired. His opposition to the gradualism of the reformists engendered a dismissive attitude to the day-to-day struggles which are an essential transmission belt for workers developing revolutionary ideas. His opposition to their parliamentary cretinism led him to wrongly conclude that socialism and democracy existed in diametric opposition. This engendered a dangerously dismissive attitude toward the limited democratic rights that existed for workers in Italy, which would ultimately culminate in his indifference and passivity in the face of the fascist threat in the early 1920s.

Between the revolutionaries and reformists were the “Maximalists”, led by Giacinto Menotti Serrati, which dominated the party leadership. Serrati’s group criticised the reformists from an apparently radical Marxist position. Their politics were characterised by extreme revolutionary rhetoric, and a workerism which ignored the needs and demands of other oppressed classes in Italian society. Beyond their radical verbiage, however, they usually failed to practically distinguish themselves from the reformists, focusing on agitation for democratic reforms and pouring endless energy into election campaigns. This faction would later be identified as “centrist” by Communists in the PSI, for Serrati’s unwavering commitment to unity with reformist forces.

The syndicalist opposition

In this maelstrom of debate in the PSI, another current would emerge, eventually breaking with the established traditions of the socialist movement: syndicalism. The first syndicalist leaders were Socialist Party intellectuals who revolted against the increasing reformist integration of the PSI leadership.

Their politics took shape as part of an international current in the workers’ movement. Syndicalism found expression in a variety of organisational forms, from the CGT in France to the IWW in America. The main themes that they emphasised were opposition to parliamentarism, direct action and revolutionary trade unionism.

Ralph Darlington argues that syndicalism was in part “a reaction to the deterministic conception of Marxism that dominated most of the labour parties of the Second International which saw history as governed by iron economic laws and excluded any genuine role for human consciousness and activity in shaping society”.[10] But if syndicalism grew out of a rejection of the passivity and parliamentary fixation of the Second International parties, it generally failed to provide an alternative framework and strategy for social change. As the French syndicalist Pouget emphasised: “What sets syndicalism apart from the various schools of socialism – and makes it superior – is its doctrinal sobriety. Inside the unions, there is little philosophising. They do better than that: they act!”[11] The hostility of the reformist leaders to their arguments meant that the Italian syndicalists soon had to find a new home. In 1906 they were driven out of the mainstream union federation, the CGL. By 1908 they had been expelled from the PSI.

After their expulsion, the first generation of syndicalist organisers set about attempting to root themselves in Italian working-class life. With their emphasis on wildcat strikes and insurrectionary struggle they had the greatest success in places where the aggressiveness of employers and the state made explicitly reformist trade unionism unviable. The first wave of successful syndicalist organising took place in the rural Po Valley, where the reformist agricultural union, the Federterra, was unable to gain employer recognition. The country’s railway networks and the arsenal at La Spezia, where strikes were expressly forbidden by law, also became syndicalist strongholds.

The syndicalists primarily organised their activities through the Chambers of Labour (Camere del Lavoro), local workers’ centres which served as the focal point for the activities of different unions, co-operatives and workers’ associations. Because of the often localised nature of workers’ struggle, the Camere regularly acted more effectively than the official union bodies. Participation in the Camere reinforced the syndicalists’ emphasis on local autonomy, as opposed to centralised organisation. In 1912 the syndicalists formed the USI, a rival union federation, and by 1913 it had half the membership of the reformist CGL. The syndicalists represented a healthy reaction to the PSI’s growing parliamentary cretinism and the class collaborationism of the union leaders. But they were severely limited by their single-minded focus on direct action and neglect of both political organisation and serious strategising. Localised militant struggle alone would never be enough to confront the intransigence of united employers, obstinate reformist trade union bureaucrats and a repressive state apparatus.

Italy’s first national general strike in 1904 was led by the syndicalists, and put their leadership to the test. A mass strike emerged spontaneously after a police massacre of miners in Sardinia. The hesitancy of the Socialist Party allowed the syndicalists to take the lead and generalise the strike through the Camere. In Milan, a city virtually under workers’ control, mass debates took place in a sports stadium about the future of the strike movement. The Socialists proposed a three-day demonstrative strike, while the syndicalists called for an indefinite struggle until the fall of the government. In such a polarised climate, this amounted to a call for a revolution. While the syndicalists’ approach was admirable and superior to that of the PSI, no preparations had been made for such a struggle. With key sections of the workforce still working and no sign of mutinies in the army, the government simply had to wait for the strike to collapse.[12]

Another unsuccessful strike in 1912 cost the syndicalists their foothold in Turin. Against the moderation of the CGL union leaders, they again crudely counterposed their demand for an unlimited general strike. Again, the workers who followed their lead were isolated, and after a long struggle returned to work on humiliating terms.[13]

These and other similar experiences discredited the syndicalist leaders and bolstered the authority of the reformist union bureaucrats for years to come. The syndicalists presented a bold and principled opposition to the reformists, but had not developed a realistic strategy for winning the majority of workers to revolutionary politics.

The Socialist Party in crisis

The outbreak of World War I created a crisis for the European left. The Italian Socialist Party refused to join other parties of the Second International in openly supporting the war. All factions agreed unanimously to send delegates to the Zimmerwald conference, and Serrati defied the Italian censors by publishing the grouping’s anti-war manifesto in the pages of Avanti![14] But when it came to moving beyond proclamations, the leadership took a fundamentally passive approach, summed up by their formulation “neither support nor sabotage”. As one Avanti! article on the tasks facing the left put it: “Study, yes, for today we can collect the materials necessary for action tomorrow. But action today, on concrete and immediate questions? No, no, no!”[15]

This position of calculated ambiguity was shattered by the war and its aftermath. In 1915 the Italians abandoned their neutral posture and invaded Austria, creating new and unavoidable tensions within the socialist movement. These divisions were exacerbated by news of a revolution in Russia. The Russian Revolution was greeted with more enthusiasm in Italy than perhaps anywhere else in the world. “Let’s follow Russia” was a popular song amongst radicalised soldiers returning from the front. In August 1917, an official delegation of Russian Mensheviks had been sent to Italy to secure international support for the ruling Provisional Government and a continuation of the war. To their dismay, they were greeted in Turin by enthusiastic cries of “Viva Lenin!”[16] Serrati rushed to affiliate the PSI to the Communist International, the new centre of world revolution established by the Russian Bolsheviks. The PSI was the first mass party to join.

Meanwhile the reformist wing of the PSI hailed US President Woodrow Wilson’s diplomatic efforts. As nationalist fervour raised its head, the reformist Turati inched toward open support for the war effort. Turati ardently warned against any attempt to replicate the Russian experience: “Any attempt at violent revolution…can have only two possible results: either the bloody suppression of the revolt, or in the most favourable case – a purely superficial transformation of the political structure. Reforms are the only great and sure path”.[17]

The Socialist Party was paralysed by these divisions, which arose in the context of rising struggle. The monumental riots of August 1917 provided a glimpse of what was to come. Workers walked out on strike when bakeries failed to open due to supply shortages. Mario Montagnana, a worker in the Dietro-Fréjus plant described the scene: Instead of entering the factory, we began a demonstration outside the gates, shouting “We haven’t eaten. We can’t work. We want bread!” When the factory owner assured them a delivery of bread was on its way and urged them to return to work, “[t]he workers were quiet for a moment. They looked at each other as though they were tacitly conferring. Then all together shouted: ‘To hell with the bread! We want peace! Down with the profiteers! Down with the war!’ And they left the factory en masse”.[18]

The August events were a consciously anti-war insurrectionary movement. According to one historian, “The strikes…were reminiscent in many ways of those in Petrograd in February. Women and youth had a vital part in them, trying to fraternise with the carabinieri and shouting, ‘Don’t fire at your brothers’”.[19]

The PSI showed itself incapable of leading this monumental rebellion. On the 23rd an assembly of PSI and union leaders met, ostensibly to provide some leadership to the movement. After a day of furious discussion, both reformist and “revolutionary” PSI leaders concluded that they had little to offer. They issued a vaguely worded flyer praising workers for their resistance to the “stupidity and provocations of the authorities”, assured them that the movement was “in good hands” and asked workers to avoid acts of “useless violence”.[20] Without any direction, the revolt was easily contained in Turin, and suppressed with brute force. Participants estimated the number of dead at 400, with a further 2,000 wounded. Eight hundred and eleven socialist and anarchist leaders were arrested, and hundreds conscripted to fight at the front.[21]

By 1919 Italy was caught in a “strike frenzy”. That year saw 1,663 industrial strikes, involving more than a million industrial workers, three times the 1913 figures. Strikes continued to increase in 1920. Peasant strikes and land occupations also exploded, from 97 in 1913 to 189 by 1920.[22] The dramatic increase in struggle prompted workers to join the existing organisations of the left en masse. The PSI increased its membership almost tenfold – from 23,000 in 1918 to 200,000 in 1920. The CGL union grew from a quarter of a million members to two million.[23]

For all their differences, every wing of the PSI took a passive approach to spontaneous workers’ struggles. The reformist Turati justified incorporation into the state and collaboration with employers. Every new electoral gain, every new contract signed with employers heralded another step toward socialism. The ostensibly more radical Serrati asserted “We, Marxists, interpret History, we do not make it, we move in time according to the logic of facts and things”[24]: revolutionary rhetoric could be combined with passivity in practice.

Bordiga tended to recreate the same logic. He argued that the most important task was for revolutionaries to maintain a “pure” political line, avoid involvement in day-to-day struggles, and hold faith that the future revolution would sweep revolutionaries like himself into the leadership of the workers’ movement. While Bordiga modelled himself as a “Leninist”, he failed to understand one of Lenin’s key insights – that struggles for reforms under capitalism played a crucial role in the development of revolutionary consciousness.

In a country marked by periods of intense militancy, there was no organised revolutionary tendency that could grasp the link between existing struggles and the objective of working-class revolution.

Gramsci’s Marxism

Antonio Gramsci was to become the most consequential Marxist thinker of the Biennio Rosso. Gramsci was able to pursue a genuinely creative, flexible and novel project of building workers’ power in Italy in large part due to his independence from the stifling and dogmatic traditions of Italian socialism. Gramsci developed his ideas quite independently of the main tendencies of Second International Marxism in Italy.

Antonio Gramsci was born on the southern Italian island of Sardinia, one of the most economically underdeveloped areas in the country. His early politics were a combination of class hatred and southern nationalism. He later recalled:

What spared me from becoming a completely lifeless rag? The rebellious instinct I felt against the rich as a young boy… This instinct extended to all the rich who oppressed Sardinian peasants, and so then I thought it was necessary to fight for the national independence of the region: “Throw the continentals to the sea!” How many times I repeated those words.[25]

Gramsci joined the PSI’s youth federation in 1914. His activity in the party was overwhelmingly in the field of cultural discussion and criticism, a common preoccupation for more moderate members of the youth organisation. Gramsci saw cultural struggle as a key means for breaking workers from individualism and raising the horizons of their activity:

[E]very revolution has been preceded by an intense labour of criticism, by the diffusion of culture and the spread of ideas amongst masses of men who are at first resistant and think only of solving, day by day, hour by hour, their own immediate economic and political problems for themselves, without ties of solidarity with the others who find themselves in the same conditions.[26]

In 1917 he founded, outside of the official structures of the party, the “Club of Moral Life”, in an attempt to create a practical alternative to the passivity and empty rhetoric of the Maximalists. But his conception of socialist education was abstract and moralistic. According to Coutinho, one of the main texts discussed by the Club were the moral maxims of Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius![27]

A dramatic turn in the class struggle would soon rip Gramsci from the lofty heights of “proletarian culture”, and force him to confront the burning questions faced by the workers’ movement. Gramsci was suddenly thrust into prominence in the Turinese labour movement in traumatic circumstances. The repression of the August 1917 bread riots saw virtually the entire local leadership of the PSI jailed, and Gramsci was made editor and sole journalist of the party’s local paper. His first piece, written in August 1917, hailed the still-unfolding Russian revolution as a proletarian act that opened up the historical possibility of socialism. Gramsci’s politics in this period contained a streak of voluntarism, the belief that revolution could be made as an act of will. In his article “The Revolution Against Capital” he wrote:

The Bolshevik revolution is based more on ideology than actual events… The Bolsheviks renounce Karl Marx and they assert, through their clear statement of action, through what they have achieved, that the laws of historical materialism are not as set in stone, as one may think, or one may have thought previously.[28]

While somewhat crude, Gramsci’s formulation was a reaction against the stifling determinism that infected so much of the PSI. Gramsci’s burning imperative was to find a means to translate the revolutionary energy of Russia into a roadmap for international revolution through proletarian self-activity.

In May 1919, Gramsci and his small group of collaborators formed a new journal, L’Ordine Nuovo. Its initial content reflected the grouping’s old culturalist inclinations. Gramsci later acerbically described it as a “journal of abstract culture, abstract information, with a strong leaning towards horror stories and well-meaning woodcuts…a mess, the product of a mediocre intellectualism”.[29] But Gramsci already had one eye turned away from the horror stories and theatre reviews. He was busy enmeshing himself in new literature circulating through Europe: accounts of the practical experience of the British shop stewards’ movement and the Hungarian and German Revolutions, and Lenin’s State and Revolution, recently translated. Soon, Gramsci would perform an “editorial coup d’état” and convert L’Ordine Nuovo into a publication dedicated to the creation of soviets in Italy.

The origins of the councils

Calls to respond to the crisis in Italian capitalism by “doing as they did in Russia” echoed across the revolutionary left in Italy. For most, this meant founding soviets as new organs of workers’ democracy. In March of 1919, Alfonso Leonetti wrote for the paper of the youth wing of the party that the creation of soviets was the “surest guarantee of the movement toward socialism”. He chose to call this article “At the Dawn of a New Order”.[30]

But how to move from rhetoric into a program of practical realisation? The question begs a comparison with Trotsky’s classic account of how the soviet emerged in Russia:

The Soviet came into being as a response to an objective need – a need born of the course of events. It was an organisation which was authoritative and yet had no traditions; which could immediately involve the scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organisational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self-control – and most important of all, which could be brought out from underground within twenty-four hours.[31]

In Russia factory organisation and trade unions were constantly suppressed. Workers were only able to construct mass organisations in the context of revolution. In Western Europe, by contrast, there were strong traditions of trade unionism and mass legal workers’ parties. The process of the councils’ emergence was far more painstaking, as radicalising workers attempted to find a way to break out of the shackles imposed by their own trade union officials and reformist leaders, who favoured containment and class collaboration.

The internal commissions became the focal point of the attempt to build soviets in Italy – it is from their structures that the factory council movement would spring. By the beginning of 1919, the entire organised working class in Turin were debating the role of the commissions.

The reformist wing of the PSI and the trade union officials wanted the commissions to be bodies for pursuing class collaboration. They viewed the commissions as one vehicle for their program of a pluralist democracy, where workers would be accepted into the institutions of the liberal state alongside parliament, the police and other bourgeois institutions. At the FIOM’s Rome Congress in November 1918, the union spokesman Colombino proposed that the commissions “become permanent organs of ‘workers’ control’, dealing with all problems of wages, discipline, etc. under the guidance and leadership of the Unions”.[32] The reformist strategy for the internal commissions scored an apparent victory in early 1919. The Turin metalworkers’ contract granted the eight-hour day and large pay increases, but also institutionalised the commissions and radically circumscribed their role. Members of the commissions would be forced to meet outside of work hours, and unions were forced to undertake a three-stage arbitration process before they were allowed to strike.[33]

This corporatist and “institutionalised” vision of industrial relations united various oppositional currents in outrage. The Sindicato Metallurgico, the syndicalist rival to the FIOM, denounced the 1919 Turin agreement as “little more than a penal code”.[34] Two leading Turinese radical Socialists, Parodi and Boero, began drawing closer to Garino and Ferrero, the city’s most prominent syndicalist leaders. They formed a “provisional committee” to combat the reformist leaders of the FIOM. They pledged to defend the right to strike, refuse collaboration with the war industry committees, and strengthen the internal commissions.[35] A wide variety of schemes were developed for the commissions on the radical left. The Russo-Polish technician Aaron Wizner, a Luxemburgist employed at FIAT, had pointed Gramsci to the internal commissions as an “Italian equivalent of Soviet style self-government” at the beginning of 1919.[36] It was this climate of ferment and ideological discussion around the role of workers’ industrial organisations in general and the internal commissions in particular that generated the movement for workers’ councils. Contrary to the Stalinist narrative, this drive was not the personal genius of Antonio Gramsci, but was made possible by an organic attempt by workers – inspired by patchy but exciting news filtering through from Russia – to break out of the bureaucratic straightjacket imposed by the FIOM bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly Gramsci’s intervention through his journal LOrdine Nuovo which was key in shaping the creation of the councils and giving them a systematic worldview and strategy. In a series of articles published from June 1919 onward, Gramsci attempted to answer the burning question, as he saw it: “How can the immense social forces unleashed by the war be harnessed? How can they be disciplined and given a political form that has the potential to develop smoothly into the skeleton of the socialist state in which the dictatorship of the proletariat will be embodied?”[37] Gramsci argued, breaking with dominant thinking on the PSI’s left, that the party alone was incapable of leading the working class to power. The PSI was incapable of organising the whole of the working class, because to do so would mean throwing its doors open to “the invasion of new supporters, not yet accustomed to responsibility and discipline”,[38] thereby liquidating its politics and abandoning its historic task of leadership. In an article written in October 1919, Gramsci went further, arguing that the traditional trade union structures were also limited, as a “type of proletarian organisation specific to the period of history dominated by capital”.[39] The purpose of the unions was to bargain over the value of labour power, a function that “only makes sense within a regime of private property”.[40]

While the power of the ruling class lay in its control over capital, the centre of working class power was in the factory, which Gramsci described as their “national territory”. Organising the factory was a precondition for working-class political power: “The factory council is the model of the proletarian state. All the problems inherent in the organisation of the proletarian state are inherent in the organisation of the council”.[41] A new institution was necessary, modelled on the Russian soviets, which could educate the working class and prepare them to take power. The internal commissions had the potential to become this institution, but only if they were transformed:

The workshop commissions are organs of democracy which must be freed from the constraints imposed on them by the bosses, and infused with new life and energy. At the moment these commissions have the task of curbing the power the capitalist exerts within the factory, and they perform an arbitration and disciplinary function. In the future, developed and improved, they should be the organs of proletarian power, replacing the capitalist in all his useful managerial and administrative functions.[42]

Gramsci’s proposals had an electrifying impact. In August, the workers’ representatives at FIAT-Centro, the largest factory in the country, dissolved the internal commission and called for the election of a council. Workers at FIAT-Brevetti developed the model that would be followed: only union members could stand for election, but all workers were given a vote. The councils were independent of official union structures, and aspired to embrace the entirety of the working class. By October 26, more than 50,000 were organised in councils across Turin, by the end of the year more than 150,000. Again, it is important to emphasise that while Gramsci’s political leadership catalysed the development of workers’ councils, his proposals only had resonance because they related to the experience and needs of the workers’ movement at a moment of extraordinary class struggle. In an open letter to council delegates on the role of his paper’s program, Gramsci acknowledged this, stating that L’Ordine Nuovo “only had value because it helped to give concrete expression to an aspiration that was latent in the consciousness of the working masses. This is why we were so rapidly understood; this is why the transition from discussion to realisation was effected so rapidly”.[43]

The development of councils

The first several months of the council experiment were characterised by seemingly unimpeded advance. At the end of October 1919, the first general assembly of the factory council deputies drew up a program for the councils. The program declared itself “an exposition of the concepts which underpin the rise of a new form of proletarian power… Its purpose…is to set in train in Italy a practical experiment in the achievement of communist society”.[44] The tasks of the deputies outlined in the document fell broadly into three categories: the defence of the rights of workers, education, and the preparation for seizure of power in the factories.

On 1 November this grouping of deputies succeeded in taking over the leadership of the local FIOM branch in a stormy meeting. Next, they won the leadership of the Turin PSI and the local Camere to the project.[45] L’Ordine Nuovo reached its maximum circulation in the following edition. An article by Pietro Mosso on 22 November urged: “Make your council active, make it yours!”[46]

However, while the councils quickly drew into action the vanguard of the working class in the north, and their program of the councils expressed the highest aspirations, they never reached the level of asserting an alternative political authority to the capitalist state. They suffered from two critical limitations.

Firstly, they remained largely restricted to the task of asserting control over production on the factory floor. But while private property prevailed and political power remained in the hands of the capitalist state, it was impossible for workers to liberate themselves completely. The councils therefore had to be extended, like the soviets in Russia, to encompass political as well as industrial organisation. Attempting to assert control of production could exert contradictory pressures on the workers involved. One the one hand, it could advance the struggle by impressing upon them the need to take control of the broader administration of society and fight for political power. On the other hand, it could lead workers down the dead-end of advising management on how to improve production.

This danger was evident when the bosses at FIAT demanded productivity be increased to compete with American output levels. The rank and file reflexively rejected this proposal and a series of mass meetings angrily denounced them. But they were calmed by Boero and Garino, two leaders of the council movement, who argued that the power of the working class grew from their mastery of production and so they couldn’t refuse attempts to increase output.[47] But, even with councils running the factory floor, these increases in productivity would still flow to the bosses in the form of profits. As things stood, the council leaders were unwittingly holding back an incipient strike movement against capitalist profiteering.

The intervention of the L’Ordine Nuovo group acted to reinforce the illusion, which motivated Boero and Garino, that controlling production was enough to challenge the capitalist class for power. They wrote:

The working masses must take adequate steps to acquire complete self-government, and the first step along this road consists in disciplining themselves, inside the workshop… Nor can it be denied that the discipline which will be established along with the new system will lead to an improvement in production… So to those who object that by this method we are collaborating with our opponents, with the owners of the factories, we reply that on the contrary this is the only means of letting them know in concrete terms that the end of their domination is at hand.[48]

The other major limitation of the council movement is that with few exceptions it never became generalised outside of the big metalworks in Turin. Only Turin had both the large-scale production and traditions of independent rank-and-file organisations that encouraged the council process. To generalise the councils across the country and lay the genuine foundations of a proletarian state required an ability to transcend Turin’s particular social conditions and evolve a strategy that could link its vanguard to the rest of the working class and the oppressed.

To rally the social forces necessary to challenge the old order; workers in Italy needed institutions capable of taking up the demands of other oppressed classes and social groups. The ability of the soviets in Russia to act as a political tribune of the oppressed, not just as economic institutions to control factories, was key to the success of the revolution. This political approach allowed workers’ councils to win the loyalty of mutinying soldiers, rebellious peasants and religious and national minorities – building a coalition under the leadership of revolutionary workers that destroyed the capitalist state.

In Italy, there was a huge gap between the struggle in the northern factories and the social turmoil sweeping the rest of the country. Peasant land occupations were sweeping southern and central Italy on a massive scale. Fascist gangs began roaming the countryside and making their first attacks on Socialist Party headquarters. But these struggles were isolated from the council movement.

Overall then, the Italian councils marked a step forward in the construction of workers’ power, but as institutions were marked by the weaknesses of the class that generated them. The Italian councils were hobbled by their economism – the fact that they were limited to the supervision of production; and their sectionalism – their inability to extend their reach beyond the big battalions of the industrial working class and influence the rest of society. The councils nevertheless maintained an impressive authority and mobilising power among Turinese workers, as evidenced by their role in the 3 December general strike. In response to a reactionary nationalist attack on the Italian parliament, the council leaders could claim: “Without any preparation whatsoever, the factory councils were about to mobilise 120,000 workers, called out factory by factory, in the course of just one hour”.[49] But by the end of 1919, even the anarchist Garino, one of the most fervent advocates of the council movement, was forced to admit that with the exception of organising demonstrations, the councils were failing to go beyond the tasks of the old internal commissions.

The PSI and the councils

The impasse of the council movement brought the question of political organisation to the fore.

Only a nationally organised revolutionary party could generalise the councils across the country, and in the process fight to overcome their limitations.

At their Bologna conference in October 1919 the PSI had shown superficially promising signs, pledging itself to the replacement of the capitalist state by workers’ councils, and officially adhering to the program of the Third International.[50] But Serrati, the undisputed leader of the PSI’s directorate, refused to move beyond verbal attacks on the reformists. Turati and his followers were allowed to remain in the party, pledging to act as a counterweight to the “foreign influence” of Bolshevism. Serrati paid lip service to the centrality of the council system: “The regime of the Soviets, of the councils of workers, is already a fact, not only in Russia, but everywhere”.[51]

But the test of politics is practice, not rhetoric or lofty resolutions passed at conferences. When confronted with the reality of an emergent council movement, all major tendencies in the PSI recoiled in horror. Turati’s reformists saw the potential for the councils to pose a direct challenge to the trade union bureaucracy and parliamentarians. Serrati’s Maximalists were outraged at the idea that non-union workers could vote for representatives: he derided this as “anarchism”. As an alternative to relating to the real movement of workers struggling to figure out the political form of their emancipation, the PSI leaders held a national council meeting in January 1920, in which the left-maximalist Bombacci was tasked with presenting legalistic plans for soviets, to be established by a future Socialist government.

Bordiga was by this point the undisputed leader of the different Communist groupings in the PSI, cohered through his newspaper Il Soviet. This meant he had an enormous amount of responsibility to give a lead to the council movement. Instead, he disavowed them. He based his hostility to the movement on the idea that workers’ control of production was a reformist illusion so long as the capitalist state prevailed. Bordiga correctly identified the limitations of the current movement: if the councils did not fight for and win political power, they would also be unable to exercise true economic power in the workplace.

But Bordiga made no argument as to how revolutionaries could help lead the powerful movement already built by militant workers, in order to develop it into a revolutionary challenge to the state. Bordiga failed to understand that workers’ power is something that emerges organically through the class struggle. Instead he thought the institutions of working-class government would be decreed from above after the Communist Party’s seizure of power. “Tomorrow’s soviets will have their genesis in the local sections of the Communist Party”, Bordiga wrote. “These sections should make ready the elements that, immediately after revolutionary victory, will be offered to the vote of the proletarian electoral mass, in order to create the local delegates’ councils.”[52]

Bordiga therefore shared with Serrati, Turati and Bombacci a fundamental assumption of Second International Marxism: that the rule of the working class meant the rule of the party. His attempt to apply “Leninism” to Italian conditions relied almost exclusively on campaigning inside the PSI to rectify its reformist errors and build a genuinely “Communist” Party.

Bordiga failed to grasp the role that workers’ self-activity played in developing the consciousness of the class, increasing its organisation and cohesion, and impressing upon them the ultimate need to seize state power. For Bordiga, partial struggles only wasted the energy of the working class. The most important thing was to wait for the “final push” which would result in the overthrow of capitalism:

The working class will conquer the factories – it would be too slight and uncommunist for each workshop to do it – only after the working class as a whole has taken political power… All these constant vain efforts that are daily exhausting the workers must be channelled and fused together, organised into one big comprehensive effort that strikes directly at the heart of the bourgeois enemy. Only a communist party can and must exercise this function.[53]

This reflected the difference in Bordiga’s and Gramsci’s conceptions of the revolutionary process. Togliatti, one of Gramsci’s close collaborators in the period, later summarised the debate in this way: Bordiga believed the party would base itself on “foreseeing a future moment when it will be called upon to lead the working class in the final assault for the conquest of power” whereas in Gramsci’s view it should accompany the class in “all the intermediate positions it goes through”.[54]

Gramsci’s great strength was his drive to relate the goal of working class political power to the real movement of workers in struggle. But his attempt to learn the lessons of the Russian Revolution was the mirror image of Bordiga’s. Heavily influenced by the French syndicalists he read, Gramsci saw the development of a “conciliar” theory of workers’ revolution, as expressed in Lenin’s State and Revolution, as the main contribution of the Bolsheviks. He neglected the other key lesson: the need to build a mass interventionist revolutionary workers’ party to advance the process of self-organisation in the councils and lead them to victory.

In his first articles on the factory councils, Gramsci posed the workers’ councils as the force that would shake the PSI out of its bureaucratic inertia and transform it into a genuine revolutionary party. In August 1919 he declared that the only change necessary to the party’s 1892 program was a clause on the councils.[55] This was a fatal error. The appearance of workers’ councils on the scene does not resolve the strategic political questions for the socialist movement – it only poses them more starkly. The task of combating reformist political forces – in particular the trade union bureaucracy over rank-and-file workers – remains urgent.

Gramsci grappled with the question of the party from a defensive position. The councils had already come under attack from all sides of the PSI and reached a point of crisis. Gramsci later recalled this as his greatest failure in a letter to a comrade:

During 1919-20, we committed very serious errors which we are now paying for in full. For fear of being called arrivistes and careerists, we did not form a faction and try to organise it throughout Italy. We did not want to make the Turin factory councils into a directive centre which could have exercised an immense influence on the whole country, for fear of splitting the trade unions and being prematurely expelled from the Socialist Party.[56]

In January 1920 Gramsci was calling for a renewal of the Socialist Party. But to build a revolutionary tendency which could have led the councils to victory would have meant actively looking beyond the horizons of the Socialist Party, rather than seeking to renovate it. The most active and ardent proponents of the council movement were all either outside the Socialist Party, or fundamentally hostile to its political perspectives.

In Turin many of the most enthusiastic supporters of the councils were syndicalist activists influenced by anarchist and libertarian ideas. They were hostile to the notion of party organisation but enthused by the prospect of laying the foundations for a new industrial democracy. Gramsci worked closely with many of these individuals, including the influential worker leaders Garino and Ferrero, who played an instrumental role in the early assemblies of council commissars.[57]

Important ideological differences existed between the syndicalists and Marxists in the council movement. The anarchist Garino emphasised his disagreement with the notion of a collective “dictatorship of the proletariat”. He recalled a conversation in Gramsci’s office on the topic, in which he declared: “all the rest I can agree with you, dear Gramsci, but on this point no. Even collective dictatorships little by little can transform themselves into dictatorships of groups of men and therefore restrict freedom… If tomorrow in Italy a dictatorship is established, call it what you want, the first to be shot will be us because we are against the Political state”. [58]

This anarchist rejection of the necessity of working-class political power as a complement to control over the productive process was utopian. They had no viable strategy to defend the council movement from the sabotage of employers and the violence of the capitalist state. But while Gramsci could offer perfectly orthodox Marxist doctrinal criticism of anarchism’s limitations, he had no alternative strategy for the councils. To convince the syndicalist leaders of a Marxist project and worldview, it would have been necessary to demonstrate in practice the importance of the councils moving from the terrain of economics to politics: taking up questions and organising social forces outside of the factories.

The Bolsheviks proved in 1917 that it was possible to rally activists from other political traditions to your strategy in a period of revolutionary upheaval. They were able to forge a revolutionary alliance with leftward moving Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks because they had built an organisation which emphasised its differences with more moderate currents and argued for a strategy which could take the situation forward, summarised by their slogan: “All Power to the Soviets”. The Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee, which organised the insurrection in October, was even headed by a Left Social Revolutionary, Lazimir, who later joined the Bolshevik party.[59]

But Gramsci had no strategy capable of transcending the current practice of the councils, and moving toward a seizure of power. Rather than emphasising the fact that the revolution still had many tasks to complete, L’Ordine Nuovo tended instead to reinforce the syndicalist illusion that workers’ control of production, isolated from a struggle for state power, could bring about a socialist society.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to relating to the syndicalists was Gramsci’s unwillingness to break decisively with the political framework of the Socialist Party. As he came increasingly under attack from the reformist leadership, Gramsci attempted to defend his position in the party and prove his Marxist bona fides by ramping up his criticisms of the syndicalists. His major intellectual overture to them, the “Address to the Anarchists”, written on the eve of the April 1920 general strike, struck an appalling tone. The article began by saying: “The Italian anarchists are very touchy because they are very presumptuous: they have always been convinced that they are the guardians of the revealed revolutionary truth”.[60] It went on to defend the PSI as the only genuine embodiment of the proletariat: “The Socialist Party has always been the party of the Italian working people: its errors and shortcomings are those of the Italian working people itself”.[61]

Recruiting key syndicalist militants to the construction of a new revolutionary Marxist party which could challenge the reformist leaders of PSI would have taken a protracted struggle. Practical collaboration and honest, intense ideological discussion would have been necessary. But Gramsci failed to adequately appreciate that these well-intentioned but muddled militants were already far closer to a revolutionary socialist position than the waverers, blow-hard centrist rhetoricians and seasoned cynical bureaucrats who dominated the leadership of the PSI. This is the orientation that Trotsky urged at the Second Congress of the Comintern, when he emphasised that the syndicalists “not only wish to fight against the bourgeoisie”, but unlike the reformists “really wish to tear its head off”.[62] Trotsky’s approach allowed him to win important leaders of the French syndicalist movement like Alfred Rosmer to communist politics. In Italy, conversely, virtually no significant syndicalist worker-leaders were convinced of the project of forming a revolutionary Communist Party.

Increasingly isolated within the reformist prison of the Socialist Party, Gramsci drew closer in March to the local supporters of Bordiga in Turin, and together they drafted an “Action Program” – which outlined two key tasks: “1) solving the problem of arming the proletariat; 2) arousing through the province a powerful class movement of poor peasants and small-holders in solidarity with the industrial movement”.[63] This program represented a genuine grappling with the limitations of the councils, but without an organisation to carry out this perspective, it remained an abstract aspiration.

Tragically, Gramsci and his collaborators were grasping toward a solution to the problems of the councils just as the ruling class was gearing up for a series of major confrontations. There would be little time to put his new perspective to the test.

The April strike and the factory occupations

In April, Turinese workers were locked out by their employers in what came to be remembered as the “clock hands strike”. What began as a trivial dispute about the implementation of daylight savings time spiralled into a confrontation in which the metalworks bosses demanded the complete dissolution of the councils. Their ambition was nothing less than ending the situation of “dual power” that prevailed in the factories. The intransigence of the employers meant that workers had no choice but to generalise the struggle. The resulting strike brought out 500,000, and drew in millions behind it. Riccardo Bachi stated: “In its extension it was certainly the most notable movement of solidarity one can recall in Italy. All the factories were closed. Only the most important public services continued to function, in a reduced measure. The municipal guards and customs officers struck, as well as the tram workers, the railroad workers, the post and telegraph workers”.[64]

While the strikers fought bitterly to defend the councils, the PSI newspaper Avanti! refused to print their appeals for assistance. Turin was surrounded by machine guns, cannons and 50,000 troops – but in the end, the ruling class had no need to resort to open warfare. Isolated and demoralised, the strikers returned to work after a month. The last bulletin of the strike committee admitted defeat: “In view of the failure to extend the movement for workers’ control throughout Italy, the divisional commissars recognise that the industrialists, supported by the armed force of the bourgeoisie, have once again imposed their will”.[65]

At the height of the general strike, April 19-21, the PSI met in Milan. The conference had been abruptly moved from Turin because, as Gramsci bitterly observed, “a city in a general strike was not adapted to Socialist discussions”.[66] When the delegates refused to authorise the extension of the strike beyond the Piedmont region, Gramsci denounced the leadership for its bureaucratism and passivity: “The Socialist Party watches the course of events like a spectator; it never has an opinion of its own to express…it never launches slogans that can be adopted by the masses, lay down a general line, and unify or concentrate revolutionary action”.[67] Disgracefully, Bordiga joined the Maximalist leadership he despised in disavowing the strike, affirming his suspicion of spontaneous workers’ struggles.

While Gramsci’s L’Ordine Nuovo group threw themselves into the strike, and furiously denounced the betrayal of the PSI leadership, they made a crucial mistake. For the duration of the strike, they suspended their publication, so as to put all their energy into the struggle. This deprived the movement of a space in which to discuss and promote revolutionary perspectives precisely at the moment when they were most needed.

On the other hand, the syndicalists of the USI played an instrumental role in organising the April struggle. They led successful strikes which shut down railways and ports to halt the transport of troops sent to crush the movement. They also issued clear national appeals for solidarity, urging: “Workers, help! Help! Proletarians of Italy, railwaymen, seamen, peasants, don’t be sparing with your solidarity for the Turin comrades. Don’t let the army converge on Turin. Don’t be accomplices to a massacre”.[68] The syndicalists struggled tenaciously, but militant action by a minority was not enough to win.

The defeat of the April struggle struck a decisive blow to the relationship between the syndicalists and Gramsci’s L’Ordine Nuovo. A debate between the CGL and the L’Ordine Nuovo group dragged the syndicalists into the mix. The reformist Bianchi likened L’Ordine Nuovo’s claim of Socialist Party betrayal to a syndicalist mentality. In response Gramsci’s group responded with an explosive attack, not on Bianchi, but on the syndicalists! Pastore, writing in L’Ordine Nuovo, claimed disingenuously that the supposed syndicalist support for the April struggle was a mirage, and that their appeals for solidarity through the anarchist paper Umanità Nova had not added a single striker to the movement.[69]

The April strike was the decisive test for the factory councils, a test which they failed. After the return to work, the CGL leader D’Aragona negotiated terms which capitulated to virtually all the employers’ demands.[70] The councils were severely limited in their functioning, and the council commissars were discredited for their inability to successfully lead the struggle to its conclusion.

Severely injured, but hobbling on with their spirits not completely diminished, the Turin workers would shortly stumble into the final climactic strike of the Biennio Rosso: the September occupation of the factories. The occupations began when a months-long contract negotiation between the major employers in the north and the metalworkers’ unions exploded in September 1920 amidst an atmosphere of extreme social tension.

Working-class living standards were being savaged by wartime inflation. Metalworkers were frustrated with conciliatory union leaders. The capitalist class were united in their desire for action against workers. The industrialist Rotigliano, later a supporter of Mussolini, said to the metalworkers’ representatives: “There will be no concessions. Since the end of the war, we’ve done nothing but drop our pants. Now it’s our turn. Now we’re going to start on you”.[71]

At the very end of August, bosses at the Romeo plant in Milan shut the gates on their 2,000 employees. In response workers occupied 300 factories across the city. Metalworks bosses ordered a national lock-out, and a tidal wave of factory occupations occurred. Half a million workers raised red and black flags over their factories, armed themselves, and prepared for a decisive struggle for control of production.

Like the April strike, the factory occupations were initiated on defensive terrain. The FIOM leaders utilised the occupation strategy in order to pre-empt a lock-out by employers, and attempt to escape an all-out strike. Angelo Tasca noted: that “which is often represented as a culminating point of a revolutionary fever, was in its origin a simple substitute for the strike weapon, which had become too difficult to use; it was a low-cost method to enforce a new collective labour contract. The leaders of the FIOM had chosen the line of minimum force”.[72]

Nevertheless workers weary from years of war, economic instability and struggle were determined to settle scores with the bourgeoisie and hold the factories for as long as possible. Paolo Spriano wrote: “these hundreds of thousands of workers, with arms or without, who worked and slept and kept watch in the factories, thought the extraordinary days they were living through ‘the revolution in action’”.[73]

The meaning of workers’ control varied across the major industrial centres. In Turin, with more than a year of experience in self-organisation, the factory councils progressively took on more elements of control. At FIAT-Centro, the council met permanently and established commissions to take stock of inventory and raw materials, to organise transport and create an armed red guard. Virtually every metalworks was involved in producing weaponry for the movement’s self-defence. Much to the consternation of polite society, the soviet emblem was raised over the Tabanelli auto factory in Rome, and the movement spread as far as Naples.[74]

The explosion of workers’ self-organisation scared the bourgeoisie. Some factory councils found they were able to secure loans from commercial banks to purchase raw material and fuel. Bankers were hoping to curry favour with workers in case they successfully seized power!

Many councils demonstrated workers’ self-discipline and vigilance. Alcohol was strictly forbidden and theft of equipment was punished severely by the factory councils. This was driven both by a desire to win popular support for their occupations, but also a profound sense that they were attempting to model a new, moral society inside the factory walls.

On the other side, there was festivity and enthusiasm, a genuine atmosphere of euphoria. Gramsci underlined the historic nature of the event: “The social hierarchies are broken, historic values overthrown”.[75]

However, he warned, the occupation of factories was not the same thing as a political seizure of power. “It indicates the extent of the proletariat’s power”, he said, but “it does not in or of itself produce any new, definite position. Power remains in the hands of capital; armed force remains the property of the bourgeois state”.[76] How this political seizure of power would be carried out, however, was never clarified by the Turin revolutionaries. Gramsci did not yet have a conception of how to move from council organisation to an overthrow of existing society. His theory of revolution was missing an understanding of the process of insurrection – the organised dismantling of the institutions of capitalist repression and administration.

When a delegation of industrialists demanded the state intervene to wrest the factories back, Prime Minister Giolitti asked ironically: “And will you permit me to begin by bombarding your factories?”[77] Giolitti’s alternative strategy allowed the ruling class to gain the upper hand. Rather than confront the occupations head-on, Giolitti decided to wait them out, and put his hopes in the desire of the Socialist leaders for compromise.

From September 9, representatives of the CGL union federation and PSI met in Milan to attempt to find a way out of the conflict. The reformist union leaders called the bluff of the PSI directorate, offering their resignations and pledging loyalty to the course of revolution, if the PSI were willing to lead it. Faced with a situation which marked a decisive break from normality, a working class under arms and half a million in control of their factories, the PSI leaders retreated. They decided to put the question of revolution to a vote.

Two motions were put to the national membership of the CGL. One, moved by the union bureaucrats, called for recognition of union participation in management, the most right-wing form of “workers’ control”, in which union leaders are given some of the privileges of capitalist bosses. The other motion, moved by representatives of the Socialist Party, called for the immediate socialisation of the means of production. The socialisation proposal lost narrowly by 591,245 votes to 409,569.[78]

This process was a farce. The PSI leaders had no intention of leading an insurrection, and breathed a heavy sigh of relief when their motion failed. They had done nothing to win support for the occupations outside of the northern industrial centres, and made no preparations to see the struggle through.

While sections of the ruling class were disconcerted by union claims for participation in management, Giolitti convinced them that it was the best way to regain control and restart production. CGL representatives, politicians and factory owners boarded the same train to a summit to negotiate terms. On the train the prefect of Milan, seated next to an industrialist who had shot dead two workers two nights earlier, pointed to the union leader D’Aragona and declared “You see him? He’s the saviour of Italy”.[79]

By November, it was clear that the workers’ movement had suffered a fatal blow. A wave of fascist terror began to sweep the country, while the capitalist class went on an offensive against the unions, and it became clear that the revolutionary period had come to an end. As Quintin Hoare writes:

It was in the autumn of 1920 that fascist squads began to carry out raids on behalf of the landowners of North and Central Italy against both the socialist and Catholic peasant associations, and against socialist­controlled municipalities such as that of Bologna or socialist papers such as the Trieste daily Il Lavoratore. And it was also during this period that a number of industrialists began to pour funds into Mussolini’s organisation.[80]

The capitalist class had weathered the “Two Red Years”, and were waiting for the moment in which they could exact their revenge.

The lessons of defeat

The council experiment was exhilarating proof of one of the essential claims of Marxism: the organic capacity of workers to find new ways of organising that point towards a liberated society. The Biennio Rosso was a period in which workers struggled to transform their social conditions and overcome exploitation, at the same time transforming themselves. As Gramsci reflected, years after the defeat of the councils:

It was really necessary to see with one’s own eyes old workers, who seemed broken down by decades upon decades of oppression and exploitation, stand upright even in a physical sense during the period of the occupation – see them develop fantastic activities; suggesting, helping, always active day and night. It was necessary to see these and other sights, in order to be convinced how limitless the latent powers of the masses are, and how they are revealed and develop swiftly as soon as the conviction takes root among the masses that they are arbiters and masters of their own destinies.[81]

But the councils, no matter how dynamic and libertarian, proved incapable of sidestepping the reality of organised reformism in the workers’ movement. At every stage of their development, the Socialist Party and CGL served to contain, rather than encourage, the council experiment. From the earliest debates within the internal commissions, the reformist union bureaucrats had viewed any move toward workers’ self-activity and class independence as a threat to their project of a pluralist democracy in which their organisations were engaged in permanent collaboration with the employers. The Maximalist leadership of the PSI, despite their verbal revolutionism, were unwilling to break with the traditions of unity which tied them to the party’s reformist bureaucracy. When a real revolutionary crisis challenged them to move beyond rhetoric and organise a struggle for power, they stepped back from the abyss.

Though there was no shortage of confident revolutionary agitators, organisers and intellectuals in Italy during the Biennio Rosso, none offered a clear path forward for confronting the dominance of the PSI and seizing the potential of the movement.

The anti-party syndicalists, while bravely rejecting the collaborationist attitudes of the reformists, were unable to develop a strategy for advancing the councils. Their utopian belief that democratic factory organisation alone was capable of defeating the capitalist state reinforced the limitations of the council movement.

While Gramsci was eventually able to develop a more rounded appreciation of the limitations of the councils, and a program for their deepening, he had no political organisation through which to pursue this project. As an individual relying on a small grouping of intellectuals and a publication to influence events, Gramsci was powerless, caught between the twin poles of syndicalism and reformism. If Gramsci had combined his agitation for councils with a political battle against anti-revolutionary currents in the workers’ movement, there was a chance they could have broken out of their isolation and developed a more serious challenge to the capitalist class. At the very least, more workers could have drawn clarifying lessons from the experience of defeat.

The abandonment of the workers’ councils and factory occupations by the PSI directorate finally sealed the divorce between the revolutionaries and reformists in the party. Gramsci, who had been so hesitant to open up a breach during the Biennio Rosso, was finished with the Socialist Party after September. His invective against the PSI, which littered the pages of L’Ordine Nuovo in late 1920, has been described by Gwynn Williams as one of the “great hates” of all time.[82]

But it was Bordiga, who had argued insistently on the need to split from the reformists from as early as 1912, who dominated the process of cohering a revolutionary opposition. In 1920, he wrote: “nothing does so much as a good split… One will know in this way exactly who is a communist and who is not: there will be no confusion on this score”.[83] When revolutionaries finally walked out of the PSI at the Livorno Congress in January 1921, they paid a heavy price, taking only a minority of the party’s members with them. The Communists received 58,783 votes at Livorno, as against 14,695 for the reformists and 90,028 for Serrati’s centrists.[84]

Gramsci’s failure to translate his political ideas into an organised current meant that Bordiga’s sectarian and destructive politics dominated the new revolutionary left. The formation of the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) was a victory for Bordiga’s vision of the revolutionary party as an isolated “army of the pure”. While thousands flocked to the new PCI, with its claim to the heritage of the Russian Revolution, the party’s early history was dismal. Throughout the early 1920s it was characterised by an implacable hostility toward those workers who had remained in the Socialist Party, and a classically Bordigan passivity in the face of the rising fascist threat.

While he initially acceded to Bordiga’s sectarian leadership, Gramsci also began to articulate an alternative conception of a revolutionary communist party. Through a period of reflection on the failure of the councils, and the assimilation of the experience in the Communist International, Gramsci was able to make important contributions to the revolutionary tradition. Gramsci broke with Bordiga’s conception of the party in 1924, and articulated his disagreements:

We have not thought of the party as the result of a dialectical process in which the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the organisational and directive will of the centre converge, but only as something floating in the air which develops in itself and for itself, and which the masses will reach when the situation is favourable and the revolutionary wave has reached its height, or when the party centre thinks that it must start an offensive and lowers itself to the masses to stimulate them and carry them into action.[85]

Upon taking leadership of the party in 1924, Gramsci imbued the organisation with the most undeniably positive attribute of his early political career: his understanding of the need to be guided by an activist spirit. The conquest of a majority of the working class wasn’t something to be passively awaited, but actively won through struggle.

At the same time, Gramsci was forced to come to terms with his earlier economism. In 1919, Gramsci had invoked revolutionaries to “study the capitalist factory as a necessary form of the working class, as a political organ, as the ‘national territory’ of workers’ self-government”.[86]

By the mid-1920s, he had come to the realisation that in order to rule, the working class must extend its leadership beyond the walls of Turin’s factories, to embrace all oppressed and exploited social strata. Gramsci’s 1926 essay, Some Aspects of the Southern Question, urging the working class to forge an alliance with impoverished peasants, was the culmination of this development.

“For the proletariat to become the ruling, the dominant class, it must succeed in creating a system of class alliances which allow it to mobilise the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois state”. This means the working class championing the interests of other oppressed layers by “incorporating these needs into its revolutionary transitional program; and incorporating them among the objectives for which it is struggling”.[87] But in order to rule, the proletariat “must throw off all traces of corporatism and all syndicalist prejudices and incrustations”.[88] This line in particular reads not just as a diagnosis of the limitations of the Italian workers’ movement, but a self-criticism. Gramsci’s essay on the southern question marked a coming to terms with the “corporatism” and “syndicalist prejudices” of his own past political practice.

The revolutionary currents in the process of formation during the Biennio Rosso were tragically crushed between the twin pillars of fascism and Stalinism. Many of the greatest factory council militants were destroyed in the orgy of counter-revolutionary violence unleashed by Mussolini’s squadristi in the early 1920s. Pietro Ferrero, the syndicalist leader, was hounded by fascist gangs and forced into a local Chamber of Labour which had been converted into a makeshift prison, where he was beaten and killed. Such was the climate of fear and repression that only five men and eleven women attended the funeral of a revolutionary militant who had influenced thousands.[89] The newly-formed Communist Party was decapitated by the fascist regime. Its leadership was arrested, assassinated or driven into exile, while its activists were forced underground. The fascist prosecutor who sentenced Gramsci to imprisonment declared: “We must stop this brain from functioning for twenty years”.[90]

While the fascists dedicated themselves to destroying those activists who were the living embodiment of the Biennio Rosso, the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia was committed to preventing the revival of their legacy. After Mussolini’s defeat, the Stalinised leadership of the PCI canonised Gramsci as the patron saint of its new strategy of “progressive democracy”. Though it arrived draped in Marxist verbiage, this was nothing more than a reheated version of the old Socialist Party’s parliamentary cretinism and class collaboration. Gramsci’s words were mobilised in service of a bureaucratic reformism that would have repulsed him. The experience of the Biennio Rosso came full circle with the reimposition of reformist hegemony in the workers’ movement.

The defeat of the council movement was total. But with only a few dazzling exceptions, the history of the communist movement has been defined by its defeats. If we can glean crucial lessons from this inspirational, yet ultimately tragic period about the nature of workers’ power and the necessity of revolutionary organisation, then the sacrifice of those brave fighters won’t have been in vain.


Arfé, Gaetano 1977, Storia del Socialismo Italiano, Oscar Studio Mondadori.

Behan, Tom 2003, The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, Bookmarks.

Bordiga, Amadeo 2020, The Science and Passion of Communism. Selected Writings of Amadeo Bordiga (1912-1965), ed. Pietro Basso, Brill.

Cammett, John, 1967, Antonio Gramsci & the Origins of Italian Communism, Stanford University Press.

Coutinho, Carlos 2012, Gramsci’s Political Thought, Historical Materialism.

Darlington, Ralph 2008, Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism, Ashgate Publishing.

Davidson, Alastair 1975, “Gramsci and the Factory Councils”, Australian Left Review, 1, 46.

Davidson, Alastair 2016, Antonio Gramsci: Toward an Intellectual Biography, Brill.

Dunnage, Jonathan 2002, Twentieth Century Italy: a Social History, Routledge.

Ferro, Marc 1989, The Great War 1914-1918, Military Heritage Press.

Fiori, Giuseppe 1990, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary, Verso.

Gluckstein, Donny 1985, The Western Soviets. Workers’ Councils Versus Parliament, 1915-1920, Bookmarks.

Gramsci, Antonio 1971, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, International Publishers.

Gramsci, Antonio 1977, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, Lawrence and Wishart.

Gramsci, Antonio 1978, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, Lawrence and Wishart.

Gramsci, Antonio 1994, Gramsci: Pre-Prison Writings, Cambridge University Press.

Gramsci, Antonio 2014, A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926, Haymarket Books.

Levy, Carl 1999, Gramsci and the Anarchists, Berg Publishers.

Neufeld, Maurice 1961, Italy, School for Awakening Countries: the Italian Labour Movement in its Political, Social, and Economic Setting from 1800 to 1960, Cornell International Industrial and Labor Reports.

Santucci, Antonio 2010, Antonio Gramsci, Monthly Review Press.

Spriano, Paolo 1975, The Occupation of the Factories, Amsterdam University Press.

Trotsky, Leon 2007, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume 1, Pathfinder Press.

Trotsky, Leon 2008, History of the Russian Revolution, Haymarket Books.

Trotsky, Leon 2016, 1905, Haymarket Books.

Williams, Gwynn 1975, Proletarian order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Italian Communism, 1911-1921, Pluto Press.

[1] Gramsci 1977, p.232.

[2] Trotsky 2007, p.41-2.

[3] Behan 2003, p.16.

[4] Gluckstein 1985, p.163.

[5] Spriano 1975, p.44.

[6] Quoted in Gluckstein 1985, p.171.

[7] Arfé 1977, p.15.

[8] Behan 2003, p.11.

[9] Quoted in Bordiga 2020, p.15.

[10] Darlington 2008, p.19.

[11] Quoted in Darlington 2008, p.18.

[12] Behan 2003, p.14.

[13] Levy 1999, p.49.

[14] Cammett 1967, p.40.

[15] Quoted in Gluckstein 1985, p.168.

[16] Cammett 1967, p.40.

[17] Quoted in Gluckstein, 1975 p.175.

[18] Quoted in Cammett, 1967, p.52.

[19] Ferro 1989, p.201.

[20] Cammett 1967, p.54.

[21] Cammett 1967, p.54.

[22] Neufeld 1961, p.57.

[23] Dunnage 2002, p.48, p.50.

[24] Coutinho 2012, p.6.

[25] Santucci 2010, p.47.

[26] Quoted in Coutinho 2012, p.9.

[27] Coutinho 2012, p.10.

[28] Gramsci, “The Revolution Against Capital”, Avanti!, 24 December 1917.

[29] Gramsci 1977, p.293.

[30] Williams 1975, p.90.

[31] Trotsky 2016, p.90.

[32] Quoted in Levy 1999, p.131.

[33] Levy 1999, p.133.

[34] Levy 1999, p.134.

[35] Gluckstein 1985, pp.173-4.

[36] Levy 1999, p.135.

[37] Gramsci 1994, p.96.

[38] Gramsci 1994, p.98.

[39] Gramsci 1994, p.116.

[40] Gramsci 1994, p.117.

[41] Quoted in Cammett 1967, p.82.

[42] Gramsci 1994, p.98.

[43] Gramsci 1977 p.94.

[44] Quoted in Williams 1975, p.124.

[45] Williams 1975, pp.138, 141.

[46] Williams 1975, p.140.

[47] Gluckstein 1985, p.189.

[48] Quoted in Gluckstein 1985, p.188.

[49] Quoted in Gluckstein 1985, p.194.

[50] Cammett 1967, p.69.

[51] Quoted in Davidson 1975, p.41.

[52] Quoted in Coutinho 2012, p.19.

[53] Bordiga 2020, p.133.

[54] Quoted in Gramsci 2014, p.30.

[55] Williams 1975, p.147.

[56] Quoted in Williams 1975, p.145.

[57] Levy 1999, p.147.

[58] Quoted in Levy 1999, p.208.

[59] Trotsky 2008, p.685.

[60] Gramsci 1977, p.185.

[61] Gramsci 1977, p.185.

[62] Trotsky 2007, p.134.

[63] Quoted in Gluckstein 1985, p.202.

[64] Quoted in Cammett, 1967, p.100.

[65] Quoted in Cammett 1967, p.101.

[66] Quoted in Cammett 1967, p.101.

[67] Gramsci 1977, p.191.

[68] Quoted in Gluckstein 1985, p.206.

[69] Avanti!, Piedmontese edition, 6 May 1920, p.1.

[70] Gluckstein 1985, p.208.

[71] Williams 1975, p.238.

[72] Spriano 1975, p.58.

[73] Spriano 1975, p.21-2.

[74] Spriano 1975, pp.61-2.

[75] Spriano 1975, p.66.

[76] Gramsci 1977, p.192.

[77] Cammett 1967, 116.

[78] Cammett 1967, p.119.

[79] Williams 1975, p.265.

[80] Gramsci 1971, Introduction, p.xlv.

[81] Gramsci 1978, pp.419-20.

[82] Williams 1985, p.279.

[83] Quoted in Davidson 1975, p.146.

[84] Bordiga 2020, p.47.

[85] Davidson 2016, p.225.

[86] Gramsci 1971, p.292.

[87] Gramsci 1994, p.316.

[88] Gramsci 1994, p.320.

[89] Levy 1999, p.226.

[90] Quoted in Fiori 1990, p.231.

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