Trade Union Scissions in Italy (XVIII)


It is not easy to put some order into the notions and positions relating to the relationship between political parties and political tendencies and the economic labour movement in Italy, as well as the repercussions they have on the gatherings and dissolutions of trade union confederations at the national level.

In the struggles of the national bourgeois Risorgimento, the groups of workers, where they existed in an embryonic state, were allied with the patriots and tended towards the most decided positions: Garibaldian, Mazzinian, anticlerical. When bourgeois unity was achieved, according to the social development existing in the various regions, associations and workers' societies were formed in which, for some, the craftsmen mixed with the proletarians, and for others, the paternalism of the political leaders of the new parliamentary regime prevailed.

The most advanced groups appeared with the first members of the International in 1867-71; the sections (some very strong as in Romagna, Tuscany and also in Campania) experienced the effects of the struggles between Mazzini, Bakunin and Marx, and in the end the majority was formed by the libertarian trend to which, when the difference in function between political associations and economic organisations became clear, the first real unions, although anarchists, supporters of individualism and many in Italy, distrust not only the party formation but also the union organ formation.

These are some of the most significant events in the beginning of trade union history, the development of which is of major interest and which enable us to achieve a very important contribution on the part of the political movement and the socialist party to the organisation of the Italian working classes in industry and on the land. It is because we must never forget that if, in Italy, the spread of industry differs enormously from one region to another and if, later, it reaches, only in a small part of the country, a weight comparable to that of other neighbouring European nations, there exists, spread from north to south and despite local disparities, a proletariat of pure agricultural workers who have proven themselves in the class struggle as understood in the clearly Marxist critical sense (i. e. by playing the role of protagonist and not as a secondary or temporary ally of a more revolutionary class) and who have a powerful tradition of fighting against the capitalist bosses and the bourgeois state; it is the cowardice, foolish and pervasive nature of the current leaders who reduce this tradition to "jacqueries", against the ghost of non-existent nobility, of serfs of the glebe, hungry for property and not socialism, who would therefore need to conclude democratic-liberal alliances for the conquest of bourgeois reforms. Even worse when this ghostly project of struggle is presented as revolutionary.

It was therefore alongside the Socialist Party and thanks to its propagandists, who were at the same time organisers - not yet civil servants - of trade unions, that the first leagues were born. They naturally involved workers of all parties and faiths on the basis of their professional activities in factories and on farms. And no less naturally they came to be known as red leagues and socialist leagues (they were so named by their friends and enemies); the party's headquarters often had the same address as their seats, which also hosted political propaganda conferences: electoral propaganda was only an occasional aspect, especially since fellow candidates had few risks of actually getting on the ballot.

The bourgeois, the benevolent and the priest all in fact excommunicate the workers' demand to obtain, by the sole force of their union, less odious economic conditions, because they succeed in discovering socialist propaganda and because they then have the feeling that it is directed - and is - against all religious, national and liberal orthodoxies.

This is not an apology for a romantic era of socialism, but rather an enumeration of factual points in order to understand the evolution of the capitalist regime and the reactions it provokes in the workers movement, since the latter cannot avoid the repercussions on its forms of organisation and its tendencies.

It was later that other parties than the socialist party entered the trade union arena with objectives not only of competition but also of social counter-attack. It was especially in Romagna that the leagues and Camere del Lavoro were born, which we called yellow as opposed to socialist and red. At the basis of the diversity of political tradition and ideology, there is a social differentiation: the Republicans organised the big tenant farmers of Romagna, who, with their gusseted wallets equipped with thirty-two compartments, went from market to market to sell and buy cattle at a thousand gold lira as if they were match boxes, then made gargantuan banquets out of pastas and drinks in restaurants with rooms and stables. The workers had to fight for their meagre daily wages and it was against their Camera del Lavoro decorated with the emaciated portrait of Mazzini that they led the strikes, while the struggles between the two parties were often settled by beating them with sticks if not worse. Following the example of those of the rich and red Imola, it is in vain that the day labourers could go in search of the literary baron; they could at most find Count Tonino Graziadei at his home, but they would then have come across one of the few who would have read and understood Marx in Italy by chance. Understanding is not following, but it is always something as rare as it is sympathetic.

In the Veneto, on the other hand, very fractional ownership dominated and the priests prevailed there. When the pulpit or the Catholic circle, barely less dark and silent than the sacristy, was no longer enough, a white Camera del Lavoro was created. It is not easy to say whether it brought together trade unions, mutual associations or farmers' cooperatives to buy fertilisers, since sometimes it had its badge in common with the one of the Catholic Bank. The good believer saves for the other life but also for this valley of tears. It was then the time of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum. Foresight is the backbone of the petty-bourgeois economy and that of the priests, but it is the beast of our Marxist economy, is it not Tonino? However, Ivanovo Vosnessensk's depot statistics beat those of San Donà di Piave...

At this stage, there were three trade union confederations in Italy: red, yellow and white, each with a different weight according to the region. Let us continue to examine the case with the simplicity that characterises us, we who are poor and monochromatically limited. And if you want to call the latest one black, it's the same for us.

The crisis so often recalled of the separation of revolutionary trade unionism was, in large part, a reaction to the right-wing degeneration of the socialist movement. The latter had a double aspect: parliamentary and confederate. The party as such, with its best militants and within its own leadership, was crushed under the double pressure of the parliamentary group and the hierarchy of confederation leaders, these two forces being also oriented towards a legalistic and conciliatory form of action at the end of which it was easy to see economic collaboration with the bosses and political cooperation with the bourgeois ministries. Trade union leaders and deputies asserted their autonomy from the party for a good democratic reason, namely that there were far fewer party members than those who were economically organised on the one hand and political voters on the other hand. The extreme reformism of Bonomi and Cabrini developed a real "reformist trade unionism" which, while considering that its field of action was no longer in the street but in the office of the industrialist and the prefect's cabinet, considered itself free from the influences of the party and even those of the socialist parliamentary group, yet also right-wing, thus depreciating - a symptom common to all the revisionism of radical Marxism - the action of the party as opposed to purely economic action.

The Sorelian or revolutionary trade unionists, supported by the anarchists, relied on the disgust of the masses at the excesses of the apathetic method prevailing in the workers' leagues and in the party, which was too devoted to electioneering, and put their favourite slogans of direct action, consisting in imposing themselves before the employers without the intervention of parliamentarians and State officials, and the general strike as a means of solidarity between the different sections of workers, into the frontlines. The organisations belonging to this trend emerged from the General Confederation of Socialist Labour, but in reality dominated by the reformists even though they were a minority in the party, and founded the fighting Italian Trade Union, protagonist of unforgettable workers' struggles. The Railway Workers' Union, as powerful as it was rich in class traditions, while condemning confederal reformism, stood outside the two national organisations.

Here comes the gale of war. The Confederation of Labour, still led by right-wing elements of the Socialist Party, resisted without splitting in opposition to the war but refused to declare a general strike on the days of patriotic drunkenness on May 1915. The Trade Union Council did not withstand this well and broke into two parts: the interventionist union of De Ambris and the union opposed to the war of the libertarian Armando Borghi. The names are only used to reduce the broth.


When fascism, which was actually the current to which the most right-wing supporters of Bissolati and Bonomi corresponded to the most, on the one hand, and the pseudo-left-wingers of interventionism, on the other hand, appeared, whether republican-Nennian or union-deAmbrisian, it also tried its hand at the union field since it founded its own unions by playing the tune of the struggle against employers according to the national agreement, among other things in the interesting speech given by Dalmine. It was not for nothing that it succeeded in convincing significant representatives of these currents, since it recruited a Michele Bianchi who, in the Italian trade unionist broth, played a more important role than parsley, as well as reformist type carrots such as Rigola, Calda and those from Problemi del Lavoro. Fascism was the one and only true possible heir to reformism, that is, our own bête noire as Marxist archaeologists.

The fascist unions presented themselves under many trade union labels, tricolour as opposed to red, white and yellow, but the capitalist world was now a monopolist world and they transformed themselves into a state union, a compulsory union that encircled workers in the structure of the dominant regime and destroyed in fact and in law any other such organisation.

This great new fact of the contemporary era was not reversible; it is the key to trade union development in all the great capitalist countries. The parliamentarians of England and America were mono-unionists and the trade unions in their hierarchies served governments as well as Russia.

The Victory of the Democracies and the return to Italy of characters who were more like castor oil distributors than those to whom it was dispensed were not a reversion of fascism, which was much more progressive than others (and you will note in passing, Tonino, that we, mono-Marxists etc., the more we call someone progressive, the more we would like to see them hang).

If the historical Italian situation had been reversible, that is, if the dumb position of the second Risorgimento and the new struggle for the Nation and Independence, a war horse more than ever used even by the Stalinists, had had some basis, the tactic of founding a single confederation with the Reds and Yellows, with whites and blacks, would not have existed for a single minute, and the masses would not have supported this bestial order contained in the Moscow Encyclical of Easter 1944 without the influence of the historical factors of strength for which we will take, if we must give it a name, Mussolini's.

If the historical Italian situation had been reversible, that is, if the dumb position of the second Risorgimento and the new struggle for the Nation and Independence, a war horse more than ever used even by the Stalinists, had had some basis, the tactic of founding a single confederation with the Reds and Yellows, with whites and blacks, would not have existed for a single minute, and the masses would not have supported this bestial order contained in the Moscow Encyclopaedia of Easter 1944 without the influence of the historical factors of strength for which we will take, if we must give it a name, Mussolini's.

The successive splits of the General Italian Confederation of Labour with the departure of the Christian Democrats, then the Republicans and the right-wing Socialists, even if they lead today to the formation of different confederations and even if the constitution allows freedom of trade union organisation, these splits will not interrupt the social process of enslavement of the union to the bourgeois state, and they are only one phase of the capitalist struggle to remove the solid basis for a truly autonomous workers union structure from the future class revolutionary movements.

In a defeated country where the local bourgeoisie is deprived of the autonomy of its state, the effects of the influences of the great foreign state complexes that punch at each other on these lands cannot hide the fact that even the Confederation that remains with the social-communists of Nenni and Togliatti is not based on class autonomy. It is not a red organisation but it is a tricolour organisation stitched onto the Mussolini model.

The history of the trade union "renaissance" of 1944 is proof of this with its tricolour ribbons and drops of lustral water on the workers' flags, with its low demands of National Union, of anti-German war, of new Liberal Risorgimento, with its still current demand for a ministry of national concord; all these directives which would have made a good red organiser vomit - even if he were of a pure Reformist tendency.


[1] Italian: "Chambers of Labour"; local trade union organisation.

[2] Fascists making their opponents swallow castor oil: Bordiga here means that the so-called antifascists are more neo-fascists than victims of fascism.

Battaglia Comunista No. 21, 25 - 01 June 1949
Translation by Libri Incogniti

(Italian Version)


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