Carlo Tresca writes on revolutionary wave sweeping Italy in 1920, the Bienno Rosa, and the role of legendary anarchist Errico Malatesta in the risings.
‘Malatesta In Italy’ by Carlo Tresca from The Liberator. Vol. 3 No. 4. April, 1920.
IN the last week of February, the executive committee of the Italian Socialist Party met in Florence, and passed a fateful resolution presented by Bombacci, leader of the left wing element. This resolution provided that the party send out organizers all over the country to begin immediately the formation of Soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants, in preparation for the revolution.
Turati and his still-powerful group of parliamentaires opposed such extreme action, and are still opposing it. They do not think a revolution can be successful in Italy now. But the one fact that every realistic thinker in Italy knows to-day is that there will be a revolution soon, whether the leaders will it or not. And as usual only the extremists have the courage to recognize this fact, and prepare boldly for what is coming. Whether it will be wholly successful or not ‘is beyond their predictions. But there is a workers’ revolt coming, and they mean to be of it and in it; to steady it with true revolutionary ideas, to guide it in its proper economic channels, to make of it, at the very least, another advance in the international social revolution.
It must be remembered that Italy has been suffering from the evils of war since 1912, when she won Tripoli from Turkey at the cost of 100,000 workers’ lives. The masses gained nothing by this victory; they learned a fruitful lesson then in the bankruptcy, high taxes, and unemployment that followed the imperialist triumph of their country. In 1913 their deep disillusionment manifested itself in a remarkable wave of revolt that began’ with a number of strikes in Angona-“the Red Province.” The military forces were used to crush the strikers, and all working-class Italy rose in protest.
During the “red week” that followed, 500,000 workers abandoned their tools, and not a wheel turned in the whole nation. The barricades went up in scores of cities; republican governments were established in many. provinces: hundreds were killed in the clashes between monarchists and red republicans. But the revolt, unorganized and unprepared for, had taken the leaders by surprise, and they could not hold it together for more than one historic week.
Enrico Malatesta was the soul and centre of this spontaneous outbreak of the people. When the strike subsided, this grand old. veteran who is loved as no other man is loved by working-class Italy, was again forced into exile. The government flung troops along every frontier to watch for him, but, disguised as a monk, he escaped into France and from there went to London, where he lived until his recent return to Italy. After his departure, the Italian revolutionists settled into a period of organization and agitation, and built up a great Socialist and labor movement that withstood even the shock of the new war into which the Italian diplomats, corrupted by French gold, thrust the nation in May, 1915.
With the exception of a negligible minority, every radical element was solidly against the late war. Nothing effective could be done during the war period, however, and it was only in the spring of last year, after the armistice came into force, that the masses were goaded again by the miseries of another “victory” into a revolutionary anger. The memorable high-cost-of-living riots were the first unmistakable symptoms that Italy had begun its revolution. The masses showed a conscious knowledge of the causes of their distress. They raided warehouses and shops, but did not destroy the food and other goods confiscated, as unorganized mobs would. The Chamber of Labor in each town and village received the various commodities, instead, and distributed them to the poor. Facciamo come in Russia!” “Let us do as in Russia,” was the slogan of the uprising, displayed on the signs carried by the masses surging through the streets of the Italian cities and towns.
The officials of the Socialist Party and the Confederazione del Lavoro called a general strike at this time, for the people were demanding it. But the strike was called off by the same officials in a few days. The government made a few grandstand arrests of small shopkeepers, (the large landowners and industrial barons being innocent, of course); and the masses resigned themselves to paying the same dizzy prices for food again. Their uprising seemed to have brought them nothing.
There followed the general strike of July 21-22, to protest against the blockade on Russia. It was the most successful ever held in Italy, despite the fact that a day before it was to happen the government placarded Italy with posters saying that in France and England the workers had voted to desert the plan. But there was no more tangible result.
Soon after this strike came the campaign for the elections, described by the “Liberator” correspondent in the February number. “We are going to Parliament only to destroy it,” said the Socialist candidates. “Your vote means the Revolution.”
Lenin was the most popular name in the campaign. and Lenin means Soviets and revolution in Italy. Hundreds of ballots were turned in at the booths on election day, with “Lenin” written in for deputy. The Socialist party, controlled by its maximalist element, stood on a thoroughly revolutionary platform. The masses were given the impression throughout the campaign that this was the last election of its kind, that it was in reality no election at all, but the preliminary to the revolution.
And then came the opening of parliament in December, when two of the Socialist deputies were attacked and beaten up by a band of royalist enthusiasts. The Socialist party immediately called another general strike, and the country was aflame in a moment. The workers in every city responded to the call, some not even waiting for the official word. The barricades went up again; there was fighting. In Mantua the workers burned down the prison and released all its inmates. For three days the city was under their control. And then the Socialists, frightened by what had resulted from their call, sent deputies into all the provinces to plead with the workers to return to the factories. In the more conservative Socialist press a furious attack was made on the strikers at Mantua, who were called “criminals” for having burned the prison.
Disillusionment with the Socialist deputies has been the result of all these things. “In Florence,” wrote a worker to my newspaper, II Martello, “the crowds came to the Chamber of Labor with arms in hand to answer the call of December 2. We were ready for the revolution, and thought that was what the call meant. Then came Deputy Caroti to advocate calm. The people, shaken and confused by his plea, returned to the factories on December 4. We are all convinced now that our Socialist deputies have come to like their jobs too well and will never be the ones to lead us to the revolution.”
The Chamber of Labor at Bologna voted soon after this strike never to go out on another general strike unless it was for the revolution. And at the syndicalist congress held in Parma late in December it was voted by the representatives of 300,000 workers that the next general strike be called only for the purpose of setting up the Soviet form of government in Italy.
Another result of this disappointment of the workers with their Socialist deputies was the cry that went up from all over Italy for the recall of Malatesta from his exile in England. Great mass meetings and, demonstrations were held, and Nitti was at last forced to yield to the demand of the masses for the leader who could be counted on to bring them to revolution.
England granted Malatesta his passports, but the French officials refused to permit him to pass through France, and so this 70-year-old veteran of the class war added another adventure to his long and thrilling career by stowing away in a ship for Genoa. Three hours before he reached there word was flashed that he was on board, and the workers of the city immediately proclaimed a holiday. More than 50,000 of them came down to the docks and greeted Malatesta as no king of Italy was ever greeted. The same thing happened in Turin and Milan and other cities on Malatesta’s tour through the country. The workers surged out in joy to greet the leader who at last would tell them what they wanted to hear. For in all his speeches, then and since then, Malatesta urged the unity of Socialists, syndicalists and anarchists for the purpose of immediately overthrowing by force the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
The government is powerless to touch him. During the railway strike in February, which the workers won, Malatesta addressed huge meetings in Florence. There were riots and street fighting there, but the government was fearful of arresting Malatesta. It waited till he had left the city, and tried to abduct him at Tombolo, a small station on the line. The train crew immediately notified the Chamber of Labor at Liverno and Pisa, and a general strike was proclaimed at once. The government was forced to release Malatesta immediately, and even begged him to go to both those cities to show the aroused people that he was free.
Malatesta has gone directly to the workers, over the heads of the labor and Socialist officials, as is shown in the following dispatch printed in the New York Times:
“MILAN, March 3.-Because of violent opposition of the anarchist element to the joint order, issued by the socialist and labor organizations for a return to work, the general strike which began suddenly yesterday afternoon still continues. The tramwaymen have had to desert their cars, and thousands of work people have been forced to march out of great factories.
“Several arrests were made this evening. A determined attack was directed on the Labor Chamber headquarters by an anarchist mob 1,000 strong.
“The agitation is headed by the revolutionary veteran, Malatesta, who after last year’s amnesty returned to Italy from his long exile in London.
“At a monster meeting in the Napoleon Arena today Malatesta urged upon the workers the necessity of taking forcible possession of the big industrial establishments in their own interests.”
All over the country the masses are showing by specific acts that Malatesta and Bombacci, of the Socialist Left, really represent their views. The peasants have begun spontaneously to expropriate large estates throughout Italy. And that is the ominous warning bell of every revolution. In the last month, even in Calabria, the most backward state in the most backward part of Italy, there have been peasant uprisings. In Caraffo, Brancheleone, Casnigana, Stoli and San Agita di Bianco there has been wholesale confiscation of the lands of the nobility. In the factories the workers have begun breaking down the centralized conservatism of their General Federation of Labor by means of a strong shop steward and shop committee movement. Malatesta’s arrival on the scene was the clearing of the decks for action. His influence with the masses is incalculable, and his influence is all for revolution. In a recent interview published in L’ Avanti, Malatesta was asked whether an article in another newspaper saying that he was against the Bolsheviki was true.
“Are you a Bolshevik?” he was asked.
“In my revolutionary thinking I wish to go further than the Bolsheviki,” he replied. “I am a Bolshevik in this however: I believe in the Soviets as organizations of the producers for their mutual interests, and I believe in immediate revolution.”
This grand old man has led a life of revolutionary activity. He has been exiled, imprisoned and shot at, but he has never flagged in his simple devotion to the ideal. He is a count by birth, and comes from an old family owning estates near Naples. When a young student he fell under the influence of another young aristocrat revolutionary, Pisacane, and was a delegate to the First International, where he sided with Bakunin in the split with Marx. He is near seventy now, but his small frame has worn well, and he is more active than hundreds of younger men. His long life may soon be crowned by the vision of an Italy freed from her idlers and parasites, her diplomats and, oppressors, an Italy struggling toward the attainment of the anarchistic ideal of free workers producing only under the compulsion of their instincts of social solidarity.
Malatesta dresses plainly, like a workingman. His face and manners radiate affection and tolerance, and he charms his bitterest enemies into friendship by the unmistakable rich goodness of his nature. His leadership of the Italian masses is not based on any of those brilliant gifts that are associated with a leader. Malatesta is not a fiery orator nor is he a writer of outstanding brilliance. His gifts lie in the simplicity with which he can explain the knottiest economic problems to the peasants and workers, and in the feeling he gives them that he is really one of them, simple and suffering, and ready to share all the travail and dangers of a revolution.
*Our correspondent in Italy, who sent us this portrait says “Bombacci is one of the leaders of the radical Maximalist faction of the party. He is the right hand man of Serrati, though in character the direct opposite. He has the look and manners of a prophet. Is wholly a man of emotions, an old-school orator and virulent interruptor in Parliament. Bitterly hated but everywhere respected by the bourgeoisie as an incorruptible fanatic.”
The Liberator was published monthly from 1918, first established by Max Eastman and his sister Crystal Eastman continuing The Masses, was shut down by the US Government during World War One. Like The Masses, The Liberator contained some of the best radical journalism of its, or any, day. It combined political coverage with the arts, culture, and a commitment to revolutionary politics. Increasingly, The Liberator oriented to the Communist movement and by late 1922 was a de facto publication of the Party. Max Eastman would sell the paper to the Party and In 1924, The Liberator merged with Labor Herald and Soviet Russia Pictorial into Workers Monthly. An essential magazine of the US left.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/liberator/1920/04/v3n04-w25-apr-1920-liberator-hr.pdf