Gramsci: the Turin years

Issue: 114

Megan Trudell

Since the mid-1970s academics have rarely considered Antonio Gramsci’s revolutionary activism. The emphasis has been on ‘a more subtle and academically assimilable Gramsci’,1 a figure whose later work is separated from his political development in the Italian city of Turin in 1919 and 1920, known as the biennio rosso—the ‘two red years’. For example, Wolfgang Haug writes, ‘Simply to put together Gramsci’s “somewhat utopian vision” from the early twenties with his incomparably more experienced, far-reaching, and, at the same time, cautious reflections from prison would yield an incoherent concoction’.2

This is a serious misrepresentation. The strike wave and factory occupations in Italy in those years shaped Gramsci’s thought throughout his life, including, as Chris Harman’s article explains, the notebooks he wrote in prison. Gramsci’s later work was dedicated to understanding the processes he had been intimately involved in, and drawing lessons from them. There is no divide between his theory and practice—his theory was developed and matured out of his attempt to discuss and analyse the past practice of the Turin working class and the response of socialists.

War and transformation

The First World War was deeply unpopular in Italy. The country had been unified in 1860, but was far from united. Most of the inhabitants, who were mainly peasants, did not speak Italian at the time of unification. They were denied political representation in the new liberal state and were impoverished by its economic policies, which exacerbated the divisions between the relatively wealthy north and the extremely poor centre and south of the country. Industrialisation led to a growing urban middle and upper class in the north, but industrial workers and agricultural labourers faced poor conditions and low wages; in 1911 more than half the southern population was still illiterate, and diseases such as malaria were rife.3

Italy’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies in May 1915 widened social divisions. The war was fought for Trieste and the Trentino, areas which meant nothing to peasant soldiers from southern Italy; the rich profited, while the poor suffered rising food price and shortages. Workers who stayed in the factories faced legislation to ban strikes, increased intensity of work and military discipline.4

From mid-1916, when social protest began to rise again after the disorientation of the first war years, it took place on changed terrain. The demands of wartime had rapidly accelerated the growth of industry. The expansion of engineering, chemical and other industries strengthened combative sections of the industrial ruling class. This class accrued enormous profits during the war: steel production rose from 5.2 percent of total manufacturing to 10.8 percent between 1914 and 1917, and engineering from 21.6 to 31.8 percent. The Fiat company’s capital leapt from 17 million lire in 1914 to 200 million lire in 1919, that of steel and engineering concern Ansaldo from 30 to 500 million, and engineering firm Ilva from 30 million in 1916 to 300 million two years later. This huge growth was concentrated in factories in the ‘industrial triangle’ of Turin, Milan and Genoa.5

The expansion of industry generated an explosion in the size of the working class, qualitatively altering the scale and nature of social conflict. Agriculture had dominated the pre-war economy, accounting for 59 percent of the working population in 1911. Now the rapid expansion of industry drew workers into the cities—the workforce of Milan increased fivefold between 1915 and the end of 1916; Fiat’s workforce grew from 4,300 in 1914 to over 40,000 in 1918. There were over 900,000 workers in war industries by the end of the war.6 The demands of wartime production gave the new workers, mainly women and former peasants, increased leverage and confidence expressed in growing militant activity against the impact of the war on living standards.

Frequent demonstrations in the countryside against conscription, requisitioning and food shortages increasingly assumed a political dimension, often leading to violence against the police and wealthy citizens. Many of the protests joined forces with strikes in the towns, which were often led by women workers who could not be punished by being sent to the front. Strikes were often encouraged or even provoked by soldiers, who wrote letters urging their families to protest at the low wages and inadequate food supplies, and to demonstrate against the war.7

In August 1917 a general strike began in Turin after police killed two people during a protest over bread shortages. It quickly became a powerful expression of a potentially revolutionary anti‑war movement. According to Marc Ferro, ‘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 [armed police] and shouting, “Don’t fire at your brothers”.’8 The Turin rising was brutally repressed. Troops armed with machine guns killed over 50 people and wounded 800.9 Over 1,000 demonstrators, mainly Fiat workers, were sent to the front, and the war zone in north east Italy was extended to include the provinces of Genoa and Turin, and as far south as Sicily.

The human costs of the war were high: Italy mobilised 5.25 million men. At least 615,000 were killed, half a million disabled and a million wounded. Workers, peasants and soldiers greeted the end of the war with hope for the future and a sense that their sacrifices would be rewarded. Following a military disaster at the 1917 Battle of Caporetto, the government promised soldiers land after the war, and restitution to workers for the sacrifices made during the conflict. Instead they were faced with further suffering, unemployment and shortages as economic crisis set in and inflation rose dramatically. Industrialists tried to claw back profits as wartime production declined and landowners tore up agreements with agricultural workers.

The 1917 Revolution in Russia had a tremendous impact in Italy: news of the overthrow of the Tsar, of soldiers deserting, and of workers and soldiers forming their own democratic organisations had an electric effect on a country battered and exhausted by war, domestic repression and hardship. Bitterness and anger at employers and the state combined with the inspiration of revolutionary example, leading to widespread battles in agriculture and industry. Rural workers pushed for higher wages and tried to force employers to provide full employment and to pay for new machinery and crops. Workers fought for and won the right to an eight-hour day and increased wages. In the context of declining profits, these were revolutionary demands.

Gramsci had been a student in Turin since 1911 and lived through the war years, the 1917 events and the expansion of industry in the city. His analysis of the impact of the war on the Italian economy and the relative weight of its social classes is indispensable for understanding the biennio rosso revolt and the fascist reaction that followed. The war had a profound impact on the condition and psychology of all classes, the whole of Italian society was militarised and people’s lives were utterly transformed. Gramsci described the importance of these changes and the consequent challenge to socialists:

Four years of war have rapidly changed the economic and intellectual climate. Vast workforces have come into being, and a deeply rooted violence in the relations between wage‑earners and entrepreneurs has now appeared in such an overt form that it is obvious to even the dullest onlooker. No less spectacular is the open manner in which the bourgeois state…shows itself to be the instrument of this violence.10

The sharpening of class struggle meant that ‘a new class consciousness has emerged; and not only in the factories, but in the trenches as well… This consciousness is at an elementary level—no doctrinal awareness has yet touched it. It is raw material waiting to be moulded. And it must be our doctrines which do the moulding’.11 The old socialist suspicions of peasant backwardness should be left behind and ‘the cities must be welded to the countryside’. Four years in the trenches ‘radically changed the peasant psychology…selfish, individual instincts were blunted; a common, united spirit was fashioned; feelings were universalised… Links of solidarity were forged which would have taken decades of historical experience and intermittent struggles to form’.12

For Gramsci there was a moment of revolutionary opportunity opened by the war, which had restructured production and transformed mass consciousness.

The ‘biennio rosso’

In 1919 there were 1,663 industrial strikes, compared to 810 in 1913. Over one million industrial workers struck that year, three times the 1913 figure. The trend continued in 1920, which saw 1,881 industrial strikes. Peasant strikes also rocketed, from 97 in 1913 to 189 by 1920, with over a million taking action.13 The demobilisation of soldiers was delayed, adding to the unrest. The government was frightened of releasing hundreds of thousands of angry armed men, given widespread unemployment and the cessation of the traditional outlet of emigration. Across the country militant veterans often led the land seizures.

Social unrest sharpened the right wing opposition. In September 1919 the nationalist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio seized the port of Fiume with a band of mercenaries and held it in defiance of the Allies and the Italian government. Landowners and industrialists, furious at the erosion of their profits, were often frightened for their lives and turned to armed veterans for protection. Rumours of military coups against the state abounded. The fascists—though still a marginal force—were beginning to flex their muscles against the workers and peasants in and around Trieste. Gramsci located the base of this movement in the mass mobilisation of sections of the middle class by the state during the war.

The widespread desire for economic improvement and hope for change also generated enormous growth in the organisations of the left. The Italian Socialist Party (PSI) increased its membership almost tenfold—from 23,000 in 1918 to 200,000 in 1920—while the main CGL union federation grew from quarter of a million members to two million during the biennio rosso.14 In November 1919 the PSI and the Catholic‑based Italian Popular Party gained in the general election at the expense of the nationalists and fascists. The PSI won 156 seats with nearly two million votes, taking control of 2,800 local councils—a quarter of the total—and opening over 2,000 branches.15

Unfortunately, the party could not match up to the aspirations of its supporters. The PSI had opposed the war, unlike most of the socialist parties linked to the Second International, but it did so on a passive basis of ‘neither support nor sabotage’. The party had failed to play a leading role as social conflict increased from 1917 (the escalation in struggle from this year was on such a scale that some historians believe 1917 and 1918 should be taken with the ‘two red years’ to make four: the quadrennio rosso).16

The PSI was dominated by three main currents: reformists, including Filippo Turati and Claudio Treves, who controlled the CGL union federation, the parliamentary group and most local councillors; the Maximalists, who formed the official leadership of the party from September 1918, led by Giacinto Serrati, who controlled the paper Avanti and the party centre; and the abstentionist wing, led by Amadeo Bordiga, with a national network of supporters and significant support in the party’s youth section.

Paradoxically, the party had been ‘weakened rather than fortified by its…great increase in membership’.17 Aside from organisational challenges, it took a complacent attitude, assuming the revolution was now inevitable. According to Angelo Tasca, the party had a ‘parasitic psychology, like that of a future heir sitting at the bedside of the dying man (the bourgeoisie) and thinking that to try and shorten his agony just isn’t worth the trouble’.18

The exception, the one strand of the party that engaged with the struggles and understood the need to draw them together, was in Turin. The working class concentrated in Fiat’s huge factories was a powerful force. The growth of industry had ‘attracted the cream of the Italian working class’ to a city that would come to be regarded as ‘the Petrograd of the proletarian revolution in Italy’.19

In May 1919 PSI members Gramsci, Palmiro Togliatti, Tasca and Umberto Terracini launched the journal L’Ordine Nuovo in Turin. As Gramsci scathingly described it later, it began as a ‘journal of abstract culture, abstract information, with a strong leaning towards horror stories and well-meaning woodcuts…a mess’.20

Gramsci was interested in the question of soviet democracy raised by the Russian Revolution and wanted to investigate organisations in the Italian working class that could potentially play the role of embryonic soviets or workers’ councils. He was convinced that such councils had to be in place before a revolutionary situation arose, that they were key components of the revolution, not just structures for organising production in a post‑revolutionary society.

L’Ordine Nuovo carried its first article on the subject on 21 June 1919. In ‘Workers’ Democracy’, Gramsci argued that working class institutions contained the embryo of a socialist state: ‘To link these institutions, coordinating and ordering them into a highly centralised hierarchy of competences and powers, while respecting the necessary autonomy and articulation of each, is to create a genuine workers’ democracy here and now.’ His argument was inseparable from an attempt to reorient the PSI and the CGL towards direct engagement with workers: ‘For the great mass of workers, the exercise of the social power of the party and the [CGL] is achieved indirectly, by prestige and enthusiasm, authoritarian pressure and even inertia.’ However, the ‘workshop with its internal commissions, the socialist clubs, the peasant communities—these are the centres of proletarian life we should be working in directly’.21

Gramsci had an instinctive grasp of the concrete process of dual power that was missing from discussions in the PSI. Soviets, which first emerged during the 1905 Revolution in Russia, were recreated in the course of the February 1917 Revolution, eight months before the October insurrection and the seizure of power. The soviets had grown in confidence and assumed increasing power and influence during that year. For Gramsci, Italy was experiencing similar revolutionary conditions, inseparable from the international crisis of capitalism, and he recognised the need for workers to form their own organisations in advance of the moment of insurrection as a crucial element in the development of class consciousness during the process of revolution.

He argued that the internal commissions in Italian workplaces, which were analogous to British shop stewards’ committees, could be transformed into such organs of workers’ power: ‘The internal commissions are organs of workers’ democracy which must be freed from the limitations imposed on them by the entrepreneurs, and infused with new life and energy’.22

L’Ordine Nuovo’s concentration on the transformation of the internal commissions into factory councils met with a tremendous response from Turin workers. By August ‘the internal committee at Fiat‑Centro, the largest plant in Turin, resigned and called for the election of a council including a “commissar” from each industrial division of the plant’.23 Gramsci described how his group was invited ‘to speak in study circles and at big factory meetings; we were asked to factory committees to discuss with shop stewards and union delegates… The problem of how to develop the factory committees became the central problem, the idea of L’Ordine Nuovo. It came to be seen as the key problem of a workers’ revolution, as the problem of attaining “freedom” for the workers. For us and for our followers, L’Ordine Nuovo became “the paper of the councils”.’24

By October 1919, 50,000 workers across 30 plants were organised into councils, rising to 150,000 workers by the end of the year. The Turin section of Fiom, the metal workers’ union, adopted the principle of the factory councils in November.

In an open letter to factory council delegates, Gramsci acknowledged the role the paper had played: ‘In its pages, not only has the question been examined from a theoretical and general point of view, but we have brought together and analysed the results of experiences in other countries.’ That work, however, 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’.25

Gramsci believed it was necessary for institutions to exist that could organise the entire class, through which the class could educate itself and come to realise its revolutionary potential. He argued that changes in production during the war gave rise to the material conditions that made the formation of soviets possible. He pointed to the increasing autonomy of workers as factories got larger and more mechanised, and to the ‘proletarianisation’ of technicians, clerks and secretaries, which meant these sections could be won to unity with manual workers. The same process that made workers less dependent on technicians reduced the latter to ‘the status of a producer, linked to the capitalist via the naked and savage relationship of exploited to exploiter. His mentality sheds petty bourgeois encrustations and becomes proletarian, revolutionary in outlook’.26

L’Ordine Nuovo produced a programme for the councils in October 1919 outlining the principles of direct democracy. Delegates to the councils were to be elected by all workers, unionised or not, in each section. Only unionised workers could be delegates, however, owing to the need for protection against subversion and the need for factory councils to be involved in union questions. An executive committee was elected by delegates to take over from the old internal commission.27 Delegates’ tasks were concerned with three main areas: ‘defence of the rights of labour, preparation for the seizure of power in the factories, and education of workers’.28

Despite their success, the factory councils were opposed from all sides, including within the PSI. Turati and the reformists considered the idea of councils that included non-unionised workers to be a form of anarchism; Serrati also opposed the inclusion of non‑unionised workers and argued that the ‘only possible dictatorship of the proletariat is a conscious dictatorship of the Socialist Party’.29 Bordiga counterposed the need to build a Communist Party to the encouragement of the council movement, seeing the latter as purely economic in function and reformist, while the priority was to win political power. As long as the ruling class held power, the only ‘representative organ embodying the general revolutionary interests of the proletariat’ could be a Communist Party of dedicated revolutionaries.30 In a January 1920 letter to the Communist International, Bordiga described the councils as purely concerned with internal factory business, proposed setting up political soviets, and opposed Communist participation in parliamentary or municipal elections.31

What all three critiques had in common was a top‑down approach to the revolutionary process and workers’ struggle. Either the PSI or a new ‘pure’ Communist Party would lead the revolution, and the revolution would be conducted from above on behalf of the mass of workers and peasants.

Gramsci’s response was to vigorously defend and promote the essence of Marxism—the self-activity of the working class as the heart of the revolutionary process—against those who claimed to lead the class according to Marxist principles. He argued that Turati’s narrow reformism and faith in capitalist democracy meant that, for him, ‘parliament stands in relation to the soviet like the city to the barbarian horde’. For Communists in the party, however, revolutionary experiences in Russia, Germany and Hungary demonstrated that ‘the socialist state cannot be embodied in the institutions of the capitalist state’ and that ‘merely to change the personnel in these institutions is hardly going to change the direction of their activity’.32

Against Bordiga, Gramsci attacked the idea that these organs of direct democracy and workers’ control could be established from the outside: ‘As long as soviets do not exist, the cry “All Power to the Soviets” is inane and indeed could actually damage the fortunes of the revolution, by discrediting the soviet movement itself’.33

Such notions failed to understand the dynamic of the revolutionary process: ‘The revolution is not a thaumaturgical [magical] act, but a -dialectical process of historical development. Every industrial or agricultural workers’ council that arises around the work unit is a point of departure for this development.’ The role of communists was to fight to extend and link the councils and to argue with workers within them to try to win a majority to revolutionary ideas. ‘If the foundations of the revolutionary process are not rooted within productive life itself, the revolution will remain a sterile appeal to the will, a false mirage—and chaos, disorder, unemployment and hunger will swallow up and crush the finest and most vigorous proletarian forces’.34

Gramsci was adamant that the party could not substitute for working class self‑organisation, that the revolutionary process lay in overturning the social relations at the point of production—in the factories. Therefore, although the party was a key agent of the revolutionary process, it was through the factory councils that this process would find its organisational expression. The factory councils ‘obey their own inner laws of development and, in so far as they respond to a vital need of the proletariat, in so far as they represent the historical expression of forces and desires existing in the factory working class, they are vital and alive’.35

Gramsci was clear that the uneven consciousness of workers required communists accepting ‘the electoral challenge’ in order to ‘create a unity and elemental form’ within the class and ‘bind it to the activity of the Socialist Party’. For him, the factory councils were a crucial area of struggle, but not the only one. However, he stressed that the masses must not be deluded into believing ‘that it is possible to overcome the present crisis through parliamentary and reformist action’; communists entered elections ‘strictly in order to create the conditions for the triumph of the proletariat… embodied in the system of councils, outside and against parliament’.36

Gramsci at times underemphasised the role of the revolutionary party in this process. This was due to his mistrust of the revolutionary capabilities of the PSI rather than any ‘spontaneist’ tendencies. His conception of the factory councils’ role was bound up with his frustration at the PSI and the urgent necessity to reorient the party. ‘Every day’, he wrote in January 1920, ‘sees the party lose contact more and more with the broad masses in movement…[the party] has fallen prey to a crisis of political infantilism and is today the most crippling of the social weaknesses of the Italian nation’.37 He feared that this passivity would lead to increased influence in the working class of reformism and anarchism.

In the course of arguing—correctly—against those who would stifle the movement by trying to force it into pre‑existing organisations, Gramsci did not draw the logical conclusion of an organisational break with the PSI until the immediate revolutionary crisis had passed. However, Gramsci’s writings on the relationships between the party, the working class, the unions and the factory councils are all concerned with the role of revolutionaries in developing and extending ‘communist’ consciousness among the most advanced workers at the time:

By forming themselves into permanently organised groups within the trade unions and factories, the communists need to import into these bodies the ideas, theses and tactics of the Third International; they need to exert an influence over union discipline and determine its aims; they need to influence the decisions of the factory councils, and transform the rebellious impulses sparked off by the conditions that capitalism has created for the working class into a revolutionary consciousness and creativity.38

For Gramsci, the party was failing to engage with the movement because of the reformist current within it. In January 1920 he wrote:

The party’s activity has been confused with the action of the parliamentary group…it is obvious that: (1) The party’s leading bodies are being manipulated more than ever by the opportunists and reformists; (2) The impotence of the Maximalists’ actions is due to the fact that they have no firm and concrete conception of the stage through which the class struggle is passing, and no method that would enable them to counterpose a permanent activity of their own to the permanent activity carried out by the reformists and opportunists within the highest institutions of the proletarian movement.39

Through the extension of the factory councils nationally, the PSI could reconnect with the mass of workers and begin to fight for leadership in the concrete struggles erupting across Italy.

Throughout 1919 and 1920 these arguments were characterised by a powerful sense of urgency. The pace of events was the ‘best indication of the fact that we are living in a revolutionary period: one senses that something new and different could crop up at any moment’.40 The inflexibility of the party and unions in the face of such flux made them incapable of relating to workers’ developing consciousness, undermining the chances of revolutionary success, unless they could be transformed or replaced: ‘The Socialist Party must renew itself if it is not be overwhelmed and crushed by events which are almost upon us. It must renew itself, for its defeat would signify the defeat of the revolution’.41

Gramci’s sense of urgency was justified. The paralysis of the PSI provided employers and the state with breathing space. At the high point of the Italian movement in March 1920, industrialists came together to form a centralised organisation, Confindustria, determined to destroy the factory councils. In August a landowners’ organisation was established in response to the land occupations and rural strikes. The government created a Royal Guard of 25,000 men, bolstered carabinieri numbers to 160,000 and increased police powers. These forces killed about 100 workers and peasants between October 1919 and May 1920.42

In April 1920 in Turin, half a million workers joined a general strike provoked by employers. The dispute rapidly became a battle for ‘control of the production process through the factory councils’.43 The state backed the employers and, fearing insurrection, turned Turin into an ‘armed fortress’. Fifty thousand troops were stationed in the city, ‘gun batteries stand ready on the hills…armoured cars are roaming the streets; in the suburbs reputed to be particularly rebellious, machine guns are trained on the houses, on all bridges and crossroads, and on the factory gates’.44 After 11 days the strike was defeated, largely because the PSI leadership refused to support the Turin workers and to spread the action beyond the Piedmont region.

Following the April strike, Gramsci reported to a PSI national meeting, emphasising what was at stake:

The present phase of the class struggle in Italy is the phase that precedes: either the conquest of political power on the part of the revolutionary -proletariat and the transition to new modes of production and distribution…or a tremendous reaction on the part of the propertied classes and governing caste.45

The PSI, he argued, failed to understand the real processes and was incapable of connecting and directing the various struggles:

The Socialist Party watches the course of events like a spectator; it never has an opinion of its own to express, based on the revolutionary theses of Marxism and the Communist International; it never launches slogans that can be adopted by the masses, lay down a general line and unify or concentrate revolutionary action.46

It was, he believed, urgent and ‘essential that the party should immerse itself in the reality of the class struggle…to be in a position to give real leadership to the movement as a whole’.47 Gramsci had a subtle and complex analysis of the changes wrought on the classes in Italian society that exposed the mechanical and sectarian approach of all three main currents in the PSI. For Gramsci, changes in social composition required new ways of relating as a party to the political challenges of the immediate post‑war years.

The PSI had a suspicious attitude to the peasantry and was incapable of relating to the new Christian‑based Italian Popular Party, which many peasants looked to. This inability to relate to the peasantry, to soldiers and to sections of the middle classes, all of whom were moving into struggle—often with confused ideological motivation that spanned political Catholicism, democratic reformism, and nationalism—meant that the party underestimated the genuine, albeit sometimes contradictory and confused, potential to forge revolutionary unity.

For Gramsci, this was a grave mistake. He was convinced that the peasantry, especially in southern Italy, could only be liberated from economic misery through alliance with the northern working class but that unity had to be ‘on a conscious and fully-agreed basis’ rather than simply a coincidence of struggles.48 He argued for a non-sectarian approach to the Catholic organisations. He saw that the left of the Italian Popular Party could organise in rural areas where the PSI could not and that, through action against the landowners, peasants could be won to an acceptance of the leadership of the urban working class—on the understanding that only workers’ control could raise levels of agricultural and industrial production, and end rural unemployment and poverty. He therefore stressed the importance of factory councils carrying out propaganda in the countryside to try to forge links between the various struggles.

During the summer of 1920 the debates on the nature of the councils began to divide the Communist groups within the PSI. In May disagreements between Gramsci and Bordiga on the councils, electoral strategy and Bordiga’s desire to lead a Communist split from the PSI intensified. Gramsci polemicised against Bordiga’s abstentionists, arguing that ‘no political party can be constituted on such a restrictive basis. It requires wide contact with the masses.’ Bordiga was, he said, leading people into ‘irrelevant hallucinatory trances’ in his insistence that ‘no socialist should go to the polls’.49 Gramsci was correct in most of these debates, but his stress on Communists winning influence within the PSI and his antipathy to Bordiga meant that he mistakenly resisted the formation of a Communist Party until late in 1920.

The debate with Bordiga was followed by disagreements within the L’Ordine Nuovo group, especially with Tasca, who urged that the factory councils should be linked to the unions under the CGL leadership. Gramsci’s view was that this misunderstood the different historical conditions which gave rise to unions—as defence organisations for workers under capitalism—and factory councils, which were representative ‘working class institutions of a new type’ generated by workers groping towards a sense of their own power in international revolutionary conditions.50

Gramsci’s stress on the capacity and initiative of workers themselves, rather than on the ‘leadership’ of trade union bureaucrats, the PSI or a ‘pure’ revolutionary party, was a necessary corrective to top‑down, elitist politics that mirrored each other from the opposing viewpoints of reformism and ultra‑leftism. In constructing its own representative and democratic structures, he insisted, the working class ‘rediscovers itself, acquiring consciousness of its organic unity and counterposing itself as a whole to capitalism’, and the relationship of the party and the unions to those structures should flow from that reality. ‘The party and trade unions should not project themselves as tutors or as ready made superstructures for this new institution, in which the historical process of the revolution takes a controllable historical form’.51 The disunity within the L’Ordine Nuovo group impeded the process of creating a national network of support. Later Gramsci described this failure as a ‘serious error’.52

The factory occupations

In August 1920 the Fiom metal workers’ union called for action after employers terminated contract negotiations in Milan. The Alfa Romeo company responded by locking workers out. Workers then occupied the plant and 280 others around Milan. On 1 September Turin workers joined the occupation movement, swiftly followed by workers in the majority of heavy industry plants in Italy and many smaller factories. ‘Wherever there was a factory, a dockyard, a steelworks, a forge, a foundry in which [metal workers] worked, there was a new occupation’.53 Production continued, now under the supervision of the factory councils. An estimated 100,000 workers in other industries followed the metal workers’ example. Spriano’s history of the occupations tells how ‘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”.’54

The Piedmont edition of the PSI newspaper Avanti, which shared L’Ordine Nuovo’s position on the factory councils, declared, ‘The Turin workers were right in April 1920: the Turin workers were truly in tune with history; they were in the furrow of world revolution. Today it is acknowledged there can be two authorities in the factories…such is the great pedagogic effectiveness of the gun in the workers’ hand, the factory in the hands of the working class’.55

Piero Gobetti, a liberal who knew and respected the L’Ordine Nuovo group, described the movement as ‘spontaneous and directed to other than material ends. This is a true and proper attempt to realise not collectivism but a labour organisation in which the workers, or at least the best of them, will be what the industrialists are today… We stand before a heroic fact’.56

Gramsci emphasised the significance of the action: ‘Social hierarchies have been smashed and historical values turned upside down’—the working classes have ‘taken leadership over themselves and found in their own ranks their representatives: men to invest with the power of government; men who will take upon themselves all the functions that turn an elemental and mechanical aggregate into an organic whole, a living creature’.57

However, the occupation of factories was not the same thing as a political seizure of power. Though ‘it indicates the extent of the proletariat’s power, 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’.58

Prime minister Giovanni Giolitti, not daring to attack the occupations, put his faith in the PSI and union leaders’ amply demonstrated desire for compromise. His approach enraged the industrialists but provided a way for the PSI and CGL leaderships to defuse the struggle. CGL leader Ludovico D’Aragona outlined three options to a meeting of union and PSI leaders: to restrict the occupation to the metal workers’ economic interests, to broaden it to demand workers’ control of industry or to prepare for insurrection. He offered to hand leadership of the movement to the PSI if it wanted to fight for more than the immediate economic demands. But the PSI leadership, for all its ‘Maximalist’ revolutionary words, was not prepared for that. Instead it insisted on a referendum of the entire CGL union -membership over whether to push for a revolution. The revolutionary proposal was lost by 591,245 to 409,569—due to the votes of conservative agricultural workers and Fiom’s abstention (worth 93,623 votes). PSI secretary Egidio Gennari concluded: ‘The pact of alliance [between the PSI and CGL] states that for all questions of a political character the party directorate may assume the responsibility for the direction of the movement… At this moment, the party directorate does not intend to avail itself of this privilege’.59

The PSI leadership thus formalised its opposition to the councils and its adherence to a bureaucratic and elitist approach, ignoring the Third International’s advice to attempt to link the occupations with the land -seizures and strikes and challenge for state power. The industrialists conceded the ‘principle’ of workers’ control—which they subsequently dropped—and took back the factories in the last week of September. Tens of thousands of workers who had believed revolution was on the agenda returned to work demoralised, just as rising unemployment was weakening their capacity to defend themselves against further attacks from employers. There was a radical alteration in the balance of class forces. Industrialists, landowners and sections of the state were embittered by the outcome of the war and the weakness of the liberal order, and frightened by the power of the social movements. They could now unleash their anger and frustration. Their receptiveness to the political alternatives of reactionary forces, especially the fascists, saw the latter grow rapidly in size and influence in the last months of 1920.60

The Turin experience was crucial in forming Gramsci’s theory and subsequent political preoccupations. The only way Gramsci can be presented as a ‘gradualist’ is to sever this experience of Italy’s revolutionary moment and its impact and ‘resolution’ from his later work. But such one‑sided views deprive his theoretical writings of their historical roots, and therefore of their meaning and continued value.

Any full consideration of Gramsci’s political life unequivocally shows the direct living link between his practice as a revolutionary activist and the theoretical understanding he developed in the most difficult and isolating of circumstances. His concerns in the L’Ordine Nuovo articles continue to resonate through his later work and remain an indispensable resource for revolutionaries today.


1: Carl Levy, ‘A New Look at the Young Gramsci’, in Boundary 2, volume 14, number 3, spring 1986, p32.

2: Wolfgang Fritz Haug, ‘Rethinking Gramsci’s Philosophy of Praxis from One Century to the Next’, in Boundary 2, volume 26, number 2, summer 1999, p102.

3: Paul Corner, ‘State and Society, 1901‑1922’, in Adrian Lyttleton (ed), Liberal and Fascist Italy (Oxford, 2002), p21.

4: Giovanna Procacci, ‘Popular Protest and Labour Conflict in Italy, 1915-18’, in Social History, volume 14, number 1, January 1989, p37. See also Paul Corner and Giovanna Procacci, ‘The Italian Experience of “Total” Mobilisation’, in John Horne (ed), State, Society and Mobilisation in Europe during the First World War(Cambridge, 1997), p229.

5: Paolo Spriano, The Occupation of the Factories: Italy 1920 (London, 1975), p43.

6: Statistics from Paul Corner, as above, p19; Vera Zamagni, The Economic History of Italy 1870-1990 (Oxford, 1993), p225; and Giovanna Procacci, ‘Popular Protest’, as above, p34.

7: Giovanna Procacci, ‘Popular Protest’, as above, p46.

8: Marc Ferro, The Great War 1914-1918 (New York, 1989), p201.

9: Ambassador Rodd to Balfour, 26 August 1917, Public Records Office, FO 371/2947/170394. See also Giovanna Procacci, ‘Popular Protest’, as above, p48.

10: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920(London, 1977), hereafter PW, p57. Some of these writings are available from the Marxist internet archive.

11: PW, p57.

12: PW, pp84-87.

13: Maurice Neufeld, Italy, School for Awakening Countries: the Italian Labour Movement in its Political, Social, and Economic Setting from 1800 to 1960 (New York, 1961), p547.

14: Jonathan Dunnage, Twentieth Century Italy: a Social History(London, 2002), pp48, 50.

15: Paolo Spriano, as above, p25.

16: Giovanna Procacci, ‘Popular Protest’, as above.

17: Giuseppe Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary(London, 1990), p126.

18: Guiseppe Fiori, as above, p126.

19: PW, p313. Available online.

20: PW, p293.

21: PW, pp65-67.

22: PW, p66.

23: John Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (Stanford, 1967), p77.

24: Guiseppe Fiori, as above, p120.

25: PW, p94.

26: PW, p164.

27: John Cammett, as above, p80.

28: As above, p81.

29: Quoted in Guiseppe Fiori, as above, p125.

30: PW, p221.

31: PW, p211. Available online.

32: PW, p76.

33: PW, p88.

34: PW, p93.

35: PW, p324.

36: PW, p129.

37: PW, p154.

38: PW, p268.

39: PW, p158.

40: PW, p137.

41: PW, p157.

42: John Cammett, as above, p97.

43: Giuseppe Fiori, as above, p129.

44: As above, p128.

45: PW, p191.

46: PW, p191.

47: PW, p192.

48: PW, pp140-1.

49: Guiseppe Fiori, as above, pp130-131.

50: PW, p262. Available online.

51: PW, pp263-264. Available online.

52: John Cammett, as above, p108.

53: Paolo Spriano, as above, p60.

54: As above, pp21-22.

55: PW, p344.

56: John Cammett, as above, p114.

57: PW, p340.

58: PW, p327.

59: Quoted in John Cammett, as above, p119.

60: John Cammett, as above, p121.