1918-1922: The Arditi del Popolo

Arditi del Popolo
Arditi del Popolo

A history of the people's militias who fought Italy's fascists covering the birth, growth and decline of the world's first anti-fascist group, the Arditi del Popolo.

Submitted by Steven. on September 12, 2006

By the end of World War I, the working class
in Italy were in a state of revolutionary ferment. Not yet ready
for the conquest of power themselves, workers and peasants by
1918 had won a variety of concessions from the state: an improvement
of wages, the eight-hour day, and a recognition of collective

By 1919, however, a new radicalism had descended
upon the labour movement. In that year alone, there were 1,663
strikes across the peninsula, while in August the newly formed
shop stewards’ movement in Turin (the forerunner to the
workers’ councils) underlined the growth of a new vibrant
militancy that drew its strength from the autonomous capacity
of workers to organise themselves along libertarian lines and
which had “the potential objective of preparing men, organisations
and ideas, in a continuous pre-revolutionary control operation,
so that they are ready to replace employer authority in the enterprise
and impose a new discipline on social life”.*

In the countryside, the peasantry opened up
a second front against the state by occupying the land that had
been promised them before the war. The Visochi decree of September
1919 merely validated the co-operatives that had already been
set up while the ‘red leagues’ assisted the formation
of strong unions of day labourers.

However, 1919 also marked the initial signs
of capital defending itself against the growing onslaught. A meeting
of industrialists and landowners at Genoa in April sealed the
first stages of the ‘holy alliance’ against the rise
of labour power. From this meeting were drawn up plans for the
formation, in the following year, of both the General Federation
of Industry and the General Federation of Agriculture, which together
worked out a precise strategy for the dismantling of the labour
unions and the nascent councils.

Alone, however, the industrialists and landowners
could not undertake the struggle against the labour movement.
The workers themselves had to be cowed into submission, had to
have their spirit of revolt broken on the very streets they walked
and the fields they sowed. For this, capital turned to the armed
thuggery of fascism, and its biggest thug of all: Benito Mussolini.

Formation of the fascist squads

Immediately following the end of the war, there was a
veritable flowering of anti-labour leagues: Mussolini’s
‘Combat Fasci’, the Anti-Bolshevik League, ‘Fasci’
for Social Education, Umus, Italy Redeemed, etc. At the same time,
members of the war volunteer corps, on being demobilised, organised
themselves into an elite force of 20,000 shock troops and were
immediately put to use by the anti-labour movement.

This movement mostly comprised the middle
or lower middle class. Ex-officers and NCOs, white collar workers,
students and the self-employed all allied themselves to the fascist
cause in the towns, while in the countryside the sons of tenant
farmers, small landowners and estate managers were willing recruits
in the war against the perceived Red Menace. The police and the
army both actively encouraged the fascists, urging ex-officers
to join and train the squads, lending them vehicles and weapons,
even allowing criminals to enrol in them with the promise of benefits
and immunity. Arms permits, refused to workers and peasants, were
freely handed over to the fascist squadrons, while munitions from
the state arsenals gave the Blackshirts an immense military advantage
over their enemies. Ultimately, by November 1921, the various
hit squads were welded together into a military organisation known
as the ‘Principi’, with a hierarchy of sections, cohorts,
legions and a special uniform.

The Arditi del Popolo

To compensate for the shortcomings of the Socialist Party
(PSI – Partito Socialista Italiana) and the main trade union,
the CGL, militants of various tendencies, anarcho-syndicalists,
left socialists, communists and republicans formed, in June 1921,
a people’s militia, the ‘Arditi del Popolo’
(AdP), to take the fight to the fascists.

While politically diverse, the AdP was a predominantly
working class organisation. Workers were enlisted from factories,
farms, railways, shipyards, building sites, ports and public transport.
Some sections of the middle class also got involved, including
students, office workers and other professional types.

Structurally, the AdP was run along military
lines with battalions, companies and squads. Squads were made
up of 10 members and a group leader. Four squads made up a company
with a company commander and three companies made up a battalion
with its own battalion commander. Cycle squads were used to maintain
links between the general command and the workforce at large.

In spite of its structure, the AdP remained
elastic enough to form a rapid reaction force in response to fascist
threats. AdP behaviour was dictated by whatever political group
held sway in a particular locale, although most sections were
allowed virtual autonomy over their actions.

These sections were quickly set up in all
parts of the country, either as new creations, or as part of already
existing groups like the Communist Party of Italy (PCdI –
Partito Comunista d’Italia), the paramilitary ‘Arditi
Rossi’ in Trieste, the Children of No-One (Figli di Nessuno)
in Genova and Vercelli, or the Proletarian League (Lega Proletaria
– linked to the PSI). Overall, at least 144 sections had
been set up by the end of summer 1921, with a total of about 20,000
members. The largest sections were the Lazio sections with about
3,300 members, followed by Tuscany, 18 sections, with a total
of 3,000 members.

The AdP very quickly built up its own cultural
identity with individual sections proudly flaunting their own
logos and images of war. While the AdP as a whole was easily recognisable
by a skull surrounded by laurel wreath with a dagger in its teeth,
and the motto ‘A Noi’ (To us), the Directorate’s
logo was a dagger surrounded by an oak and laurel wreath. The
‘ivetavecchia’ meanwhile didn’t leave much to
the imagination when choosing their banner – an axe smashing
the fasces symbol! Although they didn’t have, nor want,
their own uniform, the average AdP member preferred to dress in
black sweaters, dark-grey trousers, with a red flower in their
buttonholes. Their songs were direct and confrontational as they
themselves were:

“We curb the violence

of the mercenary fascists

Everyone armed on the cavalry

of human redemption

This eternal youth

is renewed in the faith

for the people who demand equality and freedom.”

The fascist offensive

The Italian anarchist, Errico
, commenting on the massive
factory occupations in northern Italy
in September 1920 which
involved 600,000 workers, predicted “If we do not carry
on to the end, we will pay with tears of blood for the fears we
now instil in the bourgeoisie”. His words were to be prophetic,
as both the PSI and CGL, instead of expanding the struggle from
the factories into the communities, collaborated with the state
to return the workers to their jobs. It was from this moment onwards
that the state moved on the offensive and Mussolini’s ‘revolutionary
action’ squads were supplied with enough arms to take to
the streets.

Until the formation of the AdP, the fascists
had things mostly their own way. Starting off with an attack on
the town hall in Bologna, the fascist squads swept through the
countryside like a scythe, undertaking ‘punitive expeditions’
against the ‘red’ villages. Following their success
there, they began attacking the cities. Labour unions, the offices
of co-operatives and leftist papers were destroyed in Trieste,
Modena, and Florence within the first few months of 1921. As Rossi
writes, they had “an immense advantage over the labour movement
in its facilities for transportation and concentration…The
fascists are generally without ties…they can live anywhere…The
workers, on the contrary, are bound to their homes…This
system gives the enemy every advantage: that of the offensive
over the defensive, and that of mobile warfare over a war of position.”**

However, by March 1921, there were growing
signs of working class defence structures being put in place.
In Livorno, when a working class district (Borgo dei Cappucini)
came under attack by the fascists, the whole neighbourhood mobilised
against them, routing them from the town. In April, when the fascists
launched an assault on one of the union centres (Camero del Lavoro),
the workers held strike action on the 14th and surrounded the
fascist squad, only for the army to rush to the fascists’
defence. By July, the working class had created their own armed
militia – the Arditi del Popolo.

Arditi del Popolo in action

The AdP first saw action in Piombino on 19 July 1921,
when they attacked a fascist meeting place and rounded up the
fascists inside. When the Royal Guard tried to intervene, they
too were forced to surrender. The AdP held the streets for a few
days before the sheer size of police numbers forced them to withdraw.

In Sarzana, they went to the aid of the local
population that had managed to capture one of the fascists’
most important leaders, Renato Ticci. When a squad of 500 fascists
attempted to rescue Ticci, the AdP were there to force to force
the fascists into the countryside. 20 fascists (probably more)
were killed and their squadron leader commented: “The squad,
so long accustomed to defeating an enemy who nearly always ran
away, or offered feeble resistance, could not, and did not know
how to defend themselves.”

Sell out

However, just as the AdP was building up the momentum
on the streets, they were betrayed by the PSI who were more interested
in signing a pact of non-aggression with the fascists; this at
a time when the fascists were at their most vulnerable. Socialist
militants were forced by their leadership to withdraw from the
AdP, while the CGL union ordered its members to leave the organisation.

One union leader, Matteotti, confirmed the
sell out in the union paper Battaglia Sindicale: “Stay at
home: do not respond to provocations. Even silence, even cowardice,
are sometimes heroic.”

The communists went one step further by forming
their own pure ‘class conscious’ squadrons thus decimating
the movement further. According to Gramsci, “the tactic…corresponded
to the need to prevent the party membership being controlled by
a leadership that was not the party leadership”. Quite soon,
only 50 sections of 6,000 members remained, supported both by
the anarcho-syndicalist Unione Sindicale Italiana (USI) and the
anarchist Unione Anarchica Italiana (UAI).

A number of these sections went into action
again in September in Piombino when the fascists, who had burned
down the offices of the PSI (the same organisation that had sold
them out a month before), were intercepted by an anarchist patrol
and forced to flee. Piombino was soon to become the nerve centre
of the defence against fascism, defending itself a further fascist
onslaught in April 1922, before finally succumbing after one and
a half days of fierce fighting, when the fascists, aided by the
Royal Guard, were able to capture the offices of the USI.

In July 1922, the reformist general strike
to defend ‘civil liberties and the constitution’ marked
the final disaster for the labour movement, as the work stoppages
were not, and could not be, accompanied by aggressive direct action.
The fascists simply ran public services with scabs and made themselves
masters of the streets. With the strike’s collapse, the
fascists mustered their forces to deal with the last remaining
outposts of resistance, one of which, Livorno, succumbed to a
force of 2,000 squadristi.

* L. Williams - Proletarian Order (1975)

** A.Rossi - The Birth of Fascism (1938)



10 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Reddebrek on June 16, 2013

PDF version here http://www.mediafire.com/view/i0ht7a8vcj0xbwa/1918-1922_The_Arditi_del_Popolo.pdf