A missed revolutionary opportunity

The Comintern Third Congress discussion on the 1920 Italian factory occupations

Introductory note

As the Communist International’s Third Congress convened in Moscow in June–July 1921, the powerful working-class upsurge that had shaken Italy months earlier was fresh in delegates’ minds and posed a backdrop to their debates.

The September 1920 occupation of the factories in Italy is a lesser-known revolutionary experience of the post–World War I years, yet its impact was no less significant. By starkly posing the question of which class should run the economy, the occupations legitimized a new form of proletarian struggle—expressed in part through the tactic of the sit-down strike that was widely utilized during the 1930s. Possessing the potential for working-class victory, the defeat of this movement instead opened the door to the rise to power of Benito Mussolini and Italian fascism.1

The defeat was not inevitable, however. During the years after the end of World War I, Italy was the scene of rising class struggle. Within Italian society as a whole, a widespread perception existed that socialist revolution was approaching.

During these years, conscious Italian workers in

their vast majority looked to the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). The leaders of the main trade union federation, the General Confederation of Labor (CGL), belonged to this party.

The PSI had earned respect within the left wing of the world socialist movement for its opposition to World War I and as one of the organizers of the Zimmerwald Movement. It was among the first parties to declare support for the October Revolution in 1917. When the Communist International (Comintern) was founded in March 1919, the PSI was a charter member. Yet the party was incapable of fulfilling the hopes and aspirations that revolutionary-minded workers and youth had deposited in it.

Although it was a member of the Comintern, the PSI was far from being a genuine revolutionary party. It was instead an all-inclusive umbrella organization led by a majority current around a centrist leader, Giacinto Serrati. The centrists used quite revolutionary rhetoric but did not back it up with any kind of program of action. The party also contained an openly reformist current led by Filippo Turati, as well as a Communist left wing. A live-and-let-live atmosphere prevailed within the party, in which prominent members did what they pleased with little guidance or interference from the ranks. The Comintern’s congresses and leadership bodies had campaigned to transform the PSI’s character, starting with the expulsion of the Turati-led right wing. The Serrati leadership resisted all such calls.

September 1920 put the party to the definitive test. It failed. The events came out of a struggle by the metal workers’ union for wage increases to meet a sharp rise in the cost of living. The employers flatly refused to grant even the most minimal of the workers’ demands. Faced with this, the union responded with work slowdowns. Thinking they would teach workers a lesson, the capitalists then declared a nationwide lockout. This was a huge miscalculation.

On September 1 metal workers throughout Italy began occupying their plants. Factory councils were created to organize production under workers’ control. Armed “red guards” provided protection against possible attacks by the police and right-wing forces.

The action soon spread beyond metal workers to encompass other sections of the industrial proletariat. All told, some half million workers took part in the occupations. Inspired by the workers, peasants too joined in with land occupations. Effective appeals were made to soldiers as fellow workers in uniform to refuse to obey any orders to attack the factories. The capitalist class as a whole, and its government led by Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti, were paralyzed with indecision.

A revolutionary situation was unfolding, posing the question of a fight for state power. But the labor federation refused to see the struggle as anything other than just another important union battle. On September 10, at the height of the occupation, the CGL’s national directive council stated: “The objective of the struggle shall be the recognition by employers of the principle of union control over industry. This will open the way to those major gains which will inevitably lead to collective management and socialization, and thus organically solve the problem of production.”2 For its part, the PSI leadership—though it had been issuing fiery rhetoric—abdicated any responsibility, leaving the whole matter in the CGL’s hands.

The Italian capitalists, desperate to get their factories back, were willing to sign anything provided they could get workers to leave them voluntarily. An agreement was eventually reached granting workers an immediate pay increase, a substantial hike in the minimum wage, cost of living bonuses, increased overtime payments, paid holidays, and compensation for laid-off workers. A measure of union control of production was also agreed to.

The PSI leadership joined in the chorus proclaiming this an incredible victory for the workers. Waxing lyrical, Serrati declared: “The principle of sacred private property has been violated. For twenty days the red flag flew over the factories, and armed workers went on working and producing in defiance of the exploiters. Now the bosses surrender. They pay increases. They pay arrears. They pay annual holidays. And they bend before the government’s order to re-employ all workers without victimizing those who took part in the movement.”3

In other contexts, such an agreement would certainly have constituted an overwhelming workers’ victory. But in a situation where workers held the means of production in their hands, giving up the factories in exchange for empty promises simply amounted to surrender. The defeat of the movement led to widespread demoralization within the working class. Fascists stepped up their recruitment and carried out an escalating wave of attacks against the organized workers’ movement. They were able to seize power two years later and crush the unions entirely.

The results of September 1920 sharpened the debate within the PSI between the Communist left and the Serrati-led center. The Communist forces were themselves divided. The main current, the Communist Abstentionist Faction, led by Amadeo Bordiga, had a decidedly leftist orientation. Other currents included that of Antonio Gramsci and Umberto Terracini in Turin, which then also shared some of these leftist leanings.

The Communists concluded that the PSI should be immediately split. By the time the PSI held its congress in Livorno at the end of January 1921, a de facto split had in fact already taken place.4 Following the vote (98,000 mandates for Serrati’s centrist faction, 58,000 for the Communists, and 14,000 for the reformists), the left-wing faction walked out and formally established the Italian Communist Party.

The excerpts below are from remarks to the Comintern’s Third Congress by Karl Radek, Gregory Zinoviev, and Leon Trotsky. They are taken from To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921.5

Mike Taber and John Riddell

Karl Radek6

Let me briefly call to mind the course of events. The movement began in the Italian metal factories. It embraced the broad masses of metalworkers, and the metalworkers’ union felt compelled to set itself at the head of the movement. The movement expanded to encompass factories that deliver semifinished goods or raw materials for the metal industry. It leaped over to the chemical industry and to a large number of other industries, creating a climate in which the most deprived layers of the proletariat came into action. The metal, textile, and chemical workers occupied the factories, throwing the factory owners out on the street. The masses of homeless proletarians came into motion, and a movement of the homeless, linked to that of the workers, occupied the villas and palaces of the rich, housing their wives and children there. And the movement jumped off into rural districts from Sicily to southern and central Italy. The peasants set out with red banners, occupied the great estates, and formed red guards. And in such a situation, where the working class is advancing into a major struggle, where the villages are stirring, the initial and decisive question for us to ask is: what is the nature of this movement? Based on these facts alone, we can only conclude that this is a great revolutionary mass movement. The workers are seizing capitalist society by the throat. They are laying hands on what is most holy to capitalism: its factories, its moneyboxes.

Serrati, on the other hand, said that this was purely a trade-union movement. Think it over, comrades: Was this a purely trade-union movement, given that hundreds of thousands of workers occupied the factories, sought to raise the productivity of labour—and there are hundreds of examples of that—and succeeded in organising the sale of what they produced? Was it a trade-union movement when it broke open the capitalists’ cash boxes, gathering these resources into a common fund, which in turn was used by the metalworkers’ union to issue currency and by the consumer cooperatives to distribute food? Was it a trade-union movement, given that it involved nothing less than the workers’ attempt to take possession of the roots of capitalist power, the factories? The situation thus created cannot be better portrayed than through the words spoken by the Italian prime minister, Giolitti, on 26 September. He said:

And so the factories were occupied. According to the government’s critics, two courses were possible. Either I should have prevented this, or, if I did not act promptly enough to prevent it, I should have had the factories cleared by force.

Prevent it? We are talking about six hundred metalworking factories. In order to prevent the occupation, assuming I had acted with such lightning speed as to arrive before the occupation, I would have had to post garrisons in the factories, about a hundred men in the small ones, and several thousand in the large ones. In order to occupy the factories, I would have had to employ the entirety of the armed forces at my disposal. And now, who would have kept watch over the five hundred thousand workers outside the factories? Who would have protected public safety in the country?

I was being asked to exercise unattainable foresight or to take an action which, if I had carried it out, would have placed the state’s armed forces in a situation where they were besieged and would no longer have any freedom of movement. I felt able to set aside this option.

Was I then supposed to use armed strength to clear the factories? Obviously, I would then have to launch a struggle, an open battle, in a word, launch a civil war. And this after the General Confederation of Labor had given a solemn undertaking that it renounced any political goals for the movement, that this movement would be kept within the framework of an economic struggle. I trusted the General Confederation of Labor then, and it showed itself to be worthy of this trust, because the broad masses of workers adopted its proposals.

If we had taken refuge in violence, if we had sent in the army, the Royal Guard, and the gendarmes against the five hundred thousand workers—do the critics have any idea of what I would then have been leading the country into?

This statement by Giolitti—a very clever representative of Italian capitalism, perhaps their most clever—tells us everything. Five hundred thousand workers were engaged in revolutionary struggle; the government was powerless; and the trade-union bureaucracy, trusting the government and trusted by it, broke off the struggle and began negotiations in full knowledge that everything they would achieve thereby would be no more than a piece of paper once the workers had given up the factories.

Comrades, the Italian confederation [of labour] is headed by people who came here as Communists and were, until recently, members of the Communist International. And this confederation concluded an agreement with the Italian Socialist Party. They acted jointly. So what happened? The syndicalist and anarchist workers took part in the struggle. The Italian party knew that the trade-union bureaucracy would strangle the struggle, but that these workers wanted to struggle. It did not insist that representatives of these workers be invited into the joint negotiations. The large organisations of railwaymen, seamen, and dockworkers were outside the confederation. The party did not insist that representatives of these organizations be drawn into the struggle. It wanted to win the majority. It proposed to continue the struggle. The trade-union bureaucracy responded, “We will halt the struggle and gain workers’ control of production.” The party let itself be voted down, submitted, and gave up.

What was the result, comrades? Today I asked the Italian comrades what happened with workers’ control of production in Italy. Even though the government had signed a promise to introduce control of production by law if the workers would give up the factories, it did not introduce a single piece of paper about this in parliament. Comrades, when the struggle was broken off, the reformist papers celebrated this granting of workers’ control as a great victory. They said that finally the two forces of labour and capital would work together: labour would supervise capital, to ensure it does not steal; the capitalists would supervise the workers, to ensure that they work. That would even re-establish the value of the currency, which was very low.

But once the workers went back into the factories, the Whites began their savage campaign against the workers. They began to attack workers’ organizations, one after another. The editorial offices of party papers in Genoa, Milan, Rome, and Brescia were destroyed one after another. In Bologna they fired on the workers. Thousands of workers were jailed. The government proceeded intelligently, singling out those whom the Socialist Party had left outside the family of those in struggle—the anarchists and syndicalists, whose leaders were arrested en masse.

The great struggle of the working class ran aground because, in the face of this great revolutionary tide, the Italian Socialist Party had only one thought: May God let the cup of leadership in a revolution pass from my lips. Comrades, we do not know whether it was possible to win power in this struggle, but we know that a great deal could have been won. Two things, to begin with: genuine control of production, not in order to strengthen the capitalist state’s currency, but in order to weld the workers together solidly in a broad proletarian organization against the capitalist state; and the arming of the workers. If the Italian working class, in struggle for these goals, did not succeed in winning power, it would nonetheless have carried out a great battle against capitalism under the leadership of the Communist Party. During this battle, it would either have won important positions for future struggles or, in the worst case, if it were defeated in this battle, it would have emerged enriched in experience and in knowledge about how to struggle.

The Italian party evaded the struggle. It excuses this by saying that its influence has grown nonetheless, and that in the elections it still received a great many votes. Yes, the revolution, the maturing of conflicts drives the workers to us, even if we make enormous mistakes. But when we make such mistakes, the workers do not win either insight in the road forward or confidence in their strength. They vote for you because who else is there to vote for? The capitalists? But the proletariat’s sense of power is diminished. Important opportunities go to waste, in which victory or partial victory might have been possible. And what is the result? Capitalism consolidates. Before the Italian elections, Oda Olberg, an Italian-German reformist, who has been commenting attentively and astutely on the Italian movement for decades in Vorwärts, wrote, “The bourgeoisie feels quite differently now, because the Italian party has shown that it fears the struggle.”

Gregory Zinoviev7

A year ago, the Italian working class was enthusiastic, prepared to struggle, and better organized than anywhere else. The bourgeoisie was dejected. Both the soldiers and the peasantry, in great number, were sympathetic to the proletariat. Then came the magnificent movement in September, in which the Italian workers discovered a new form of struggle by occupying the factories. The bourgeoisie was completely disorganized. Giolitti himself said that in September there was nothing he could do. When he was asked, why did you not send in the army in September in order to clean out the factories, he responded: It was not in my power to do that. I had to start by utilizing homeopathic remedies; only later could I resort to surgery. With the help of Serrati and his comrades, he first suppressed the movement with homeopathy, and now he has switched over to surgery. The Fascists are excellent surgeons. They are butchering the Italian working class very conscientiously and thoroughly.

The party, and especially Serrati, are to blame for having allowed a favorable conjuncture in the struggle to pass them by, objectively delivering the working class over to the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie was granted a year of time in which to recover its health, organize itself well, and make the transition from homeopathy to surgery. During this time, the working class was corrupted and broken apart.

Leon Trotsky8

The fundamental reality is the great crisis of last September, which produced the present state of affairs. Even a review from afar of the political situation leaves one with the impression and even the conviction that in the years following the war the Italian proletariat entered on a decidedly revolutionary course. The broad working masses understood everything written in Avanti and everything stated by the speakers of the Socialist Party as a summons to the proletarian revolution. This propaganda struck a responsive chord in the workers’ hearts and awakened their will, resulting in the September events.

Judging the party from a political standpoint, one can only conclude—for this is the only possible explanation—that the Socialist Party of Italy conducted a policy that was revolutionary in words, without ever taking into account any of its consequences. Everybody knows that during the September events no other organization became as flustered as the Socialist Party of Italy, which had itself paved the way for these events. Now these facts are proof that the Italian organization—and we should not forget that the party is not only a continuity of ideas, a goal, and a program but also an apparatus, an organization, which through its ceaseless action creates a guarantee of victory—in the month of September this organisation was the scene of a gigantic crisis for the proletariat and the Socialist Party of Italy itself.

What conclusions did the Italian proletariat draw from these events? It is very hard to estimate this, given that a class that breaks with its party immediately loses its sense of orientation. But the party: what conclusions has it drawn from this experience? For three years following the War, each and every comrade who came from Italy would tell us: “We are ripe, indeed overripe for revolution.” Everyone there knew that Italy was on the eve of the revolution. When the revolution broke out, the party proved bankrupt. What lessons were drawn from these events? What was done?

Did they say, “We were unprepared because our organization was composed of elements that were completely incompatible and that acted to paralyze each other. To create certain conditions, insofar as this depends on our will, one must have the will to create them”? This, Comrade Lazzari, is the crux of the matter; one must have the will to revolutionary victory. Only if this will exists can one then engage in discussion and undertake to analyze, because strategy is indispensable, and it is impossible to gain victory through a powerful will alone. Strategy is indispensable, but above all else one must have the will to revolution and to its victory.

  1. One of the best accounts is Paolo Spriano’s The Occupation of the Factories (Pluto Press, 1975), from which this chronology is taken. A good short summary of the events can be found in Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).
  2. Spriano, 89.
  3. Spriano, 109.
  4. For an account of the November 28–29, 1920, Imola conference of the Communist Faction that registered this de facto split, see Paolo Spriano, Storia del Partito comunista italiano: 1. Da Bordiga a Gramsci (Turin: Giulio Einaudi Editores, 1967), 99–104.
  5. Historical Materialism book series, 2015. A Haymarket Books paperback edition was published in February 2016 and is reviewed by Jen Roesch in this issue of the International Socialist Review.
  6. To the Masses, 417–20.
  7. To the Masses, 193.
  8. To the Masses, 374–75. Trotsky’s speech is also included in The First 5 Years of the Communist International vol. 1 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), 262–68.

Issue #78

July 2011

Slavery and the origins of the Civil War

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking