3. b) Anarchism in the Italian Factory Councils

Submitted by libcom on October 29, 2005

Anarchism in the Italian Factory Councils

The Italian anarchists followed the example of events in Russia, and went along with the partisans of soviet power in the period immediately after the Great War. The Russian Revolution had been received with deep sympathy by the Italian workers, especially by their vanguard, the metal workers of the northern part of the country. On February 20, 1919, the Italian Federation of Metal Workers (FIOM) won a contract providing for the election of "internal commissions" in the factories. They subsequently tried to transform these organs of workers' representation into factory councils with a managerial function, by conducting a series of strikes and occupations of the factories.

The last of these, at the end of August 1920, originated in a lockout by employers. 1 ll~ metal workers as a whole decided to continue production on their own. They tried persuasion and constraint alternately, but failed to win the cooperation of the engineers and supervisory personnel. The management of the factories had, therefore, to be conducted by technical and administrative workers' committees. Self-management went quite a long way: in the early period assistance was obtained from the banks, but when it was withdrawn the self-management system issued its own money to pay the workers' wages. Very strict self-discipline was required, the use of alcoholic beverages forbidden, and armed patrols were organized for self-defence. Very close solidarity was established between the factories under self-management. Ores and coal were put into a common pool, and shared out equitably.

The reformist wing of the trade unions opted for compromise with the employers. After a few weeks of managerial occupation, the workers had to leave the factories in exchange for a promise to extend workers' control, a promise which was not kept. The revolutionary left wing, composed of anarchists and left socialists, cried treason, in vain.

This left wing had a theory, a spokesman, and a publication. The weekly L'Ordine Nuovo (The New Order) first appeared in Turin on May 1, 1919. It was edited by a left socialist, Antonio Gramsci, assisted by a professor of philosophy at Turin University with anarchist ideas, writing under the pseudonym of Carlo Petri, and also of a whole nucleus of Turin libertarians. In the factories, the Ordine Nuovo group was supported by a number of people, especially the anarcho-syndicalist militants of the metal trades, Pietro Ferrero and Maurizio Garino. The manifesto of Ordine Nuovo was signed by socialists and libertarians together, agreeing to regard the factory councils as "organs suited to future communist management of both the individual factory and the whole society."

Ordine Nuovo tended to replace traditional trade unionism by the structure of factory councils. It was not entirely hostile to trade unions, which it regarded as the "strong backbone of the great proletarian body." However, in the style of Malatesta in 1907, it was critical of the decadence of a bureaucratic and reformist trade-union movement, which had become an integral part of capitalist society; it denounced the inability of the trade unions to act as instruments of the proletarian revolution.

On the other hand, Ordine Nuovo attributed every virtue to the factory councils. It regarded them as the means of unifying the working class, the only organ which could raise the workers above the special interests of the different trades and link the "organized" with the "unorganized." It gave the councils credit for generating a producers' psychology, preparing the workers for self-management. Thanks to them the conquest of the factory became a concrete prospect for the lowliest worker, within his reach. The councils were regarded as a prefiguration of socialist society.

The Italian anarchists were of a more realistic and less verbose turn of mind than Antonio Gramsci, and sometimes indulged in ironic comment on the "thaumaturgical" excesses of the sermons in favor of factor': councils. Of course they were aware of their merits, but stopped short of hyperbole. Gramsci denounced the reformism of the trade unions, not without reason, but the anarchosyndicalists pointed out that in a non-revolutionary period the factory councils, too, could degenerate into organs of class collaboration. Those most concerned with trade unionism also thought it unjust that Ordine Nuovo indiscriminately condemned not only reformist trade unionism but the revolutionary trade unionism of their center, the Italian Syndicalist Union. [25]

Lastly, and most important, the anarchists were somewhat uneasy about the ambiguous and contradictory interpretation which Ordine Nuovo put on the prototype of the factory councils, the soviets. Certainly Gramsci often used the term "libertarian" in his writings, and had crossed swords with the inveterate authoritarian Angelo Tasca, who propounded an undemocratic concept of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" which would reduce the factory councils to mere instruments of the Communist Party, and who even attacked Gramsci's thinking as "Proudhonian." Gramsci did not know enough about events in Russia to distinguish between the free soviets of the early months of the revolution and the tamed soviets of the Bolshevik State. This led him to use ambiguous formulations. He saw the factory council as the "model of the proletarian State," which he expected to be incorporated into a world system: the Communist International. He thought he could reconcile Bolshevism with the withering away of the State and a democratic interpretation of the "dictatorship of the proletariat."

The Italian anarchists had begun by welcoming the Russian soviets with uncritical enthusiasm. On June 1, 1919, Camillo Berneri, one of their number, had published an article entitled "Auto-Democracy" hailing the Bolshevik regime as "the most practical experiment in integral democracy on the largest scale yet attempted," and "the antithesis of centralizing state socialism."

However, a year later, at the congress of the Italian Anarchist Union, Maurizio Garino was talking quite differently: the soviets which had been set up in Russia by the Bolsheviks were materially different from workers' self-management as conceived by the anarchists. They formed the "basis of a new State, inevitably centralized and authoritarian."

The Italian anarchists and the friends of Gramsci were subsequently to follow divergent paths. The latter at first maintained that the Socialist Party, like the trade unions, was an organization integrated into the bourgeois system and that it was, consequently, neither necessary nor desirable to support it. They then made an "exception" for the communist groups within the Socialist Party. After the split at Livorno on January 21, 1921, these groups formed the Italian Communist Party, affiliated with the Communist International.

The Italian libertarians, for their part, had to abandon some of their illusions and pay more attention to a prophetic letter written to them by Malatesta as early as the summer of 1919. This warned them against "a new government which has set itself up [in Russia] above the Revolution in order to bridle it and subject it to the purposes of a particular party . . . or rather the leaders of a party." The old revolutionary argued prophetically that it was a dictatorship, with its decrees, its penal sanctions, its executive agents, and, above all, its armed forces which have served to defend the Revolution against its external enemies, but tomorrow will serve to impose the will of the dictators on the workers, to check the course of the Revolution, to consolidate newly established interests, and to defend a newly privileged class against the masses. Lenin, Trotsky, and their companions are certainly sincere revolutionaries, but they are preparing the governmental cadres which will enable their successors to profit by the Revolution and kill it. They will be the first victims of their own methods.

Two years later, the Italian Anarchist Union met in congress at Ancona on November 2-4, 1921, and refused to recognize the Russian government as a representative of the Revolution, instead denouncing it as "the main enemy of the Revolution," "the oppressor and exploiter of the proletariat in whose name it pretends to exercise authority." And the libertarian writer Luigi Fabbri in the same year concluded that "a critical study of the Russian Revolution is of immense importance . . . because the Western revolutionaries can direct their actions in such a way as to avoid the errors which have been brought to light by the Russian experience."