The first "Combat Group" (Fascio di Combattimento) was founded on 23rd March 1919 by 118 assorted war veterans (especially the "Arditi" or shock assault troops); Futurists and ex-Leftists like Mussolini himself, who had "gone nationalist" during the war. Their programme had many "socialistic" and "syndicalistic" elements. At its birth Fascism was thus able to present itself as a radical, revolutionary movement to sweep away the status quo by any means necessary.
But by 1921 there should have been no illusions. Mussolini's organisation would have collapsed by the summer of 1920 had its potential for anti-working class direct action not been recognised. It was the landowners of northern and central Italy who welcomed the formation of squads of urban blackshirts to go out into the countryside and smash the peasant leagues and Left organisations. Soon money and support was flowing in from urban industrialists as well.
This Fascist movement was mostly middle or lower middle class: ex-officers and NCOs; white collar workers, students and the self-employed in the towns; the sons of tenant farmers, small land owners and estate managers in the countryside (ever been to a pub on a Young Farmers night?). Furthermore the police and military both turned a blind eye and provided covert assistance, encouraging ex-officers to join and train the squads; lending them vehicles and weapons and, if necessary, intervening to save their bacon (no pun intended).
The decisive involvement and support of these bourgeois elements has a simple explanation. Fascism in Italy was a "preventive counter-revolution". The Fascist squads were used to stop a working class revolution taking place and to wipe out all the reformist gains of the unions and the parliamentary movement. The rural and urban capitalists, and those who felt under threat from rising working class power, were badly scared by the events of 1919 and 1920 - the so-called "two red years". These years were marked by the cost-of-living riots, strikes, land seizures and factory occupations.
With the mass factory occupations in September 1920 a defining moment was reached. Things had gone so far that turning back was not a real option. As Errico Malatesta predicted: "If we do not carry on to the end, we will pay with tears of blood for the fear we now instil in the bourgeoisie". But there was a loss of nerve, not among those occupying the factories, but among the leaders of the Socialist Party (PSI) and the CGL union. Instead of expanding the industrial struggle and linking it directly with the various community and rural struggles, they negotiated a deal and ordered their members back to work. And at the moment that the momentum was lost the rattled bourgeoisie were given their moment for revenge. The fascist squads were to be the instrument of that revenge.
So in one sense Fascism's success began with the failure of the working class to consolidate and press forward. And much of the blame for that must fall on the reformist Left. As usual the bosses showed a far greater grasp of the fundamentals of class warfare. As soon as they had the chance to put the boot in they didn't distinguish between the "reasonable" trade unionists and socialists, who had settled for concessions in terms of hours, wages and conditions and the "extremists" calling for the smashing of capitalism.
And so from the autumn of 1920 Fascism's reign of terror began - at first in rural areas then, with increasing confidence, in the industrialised cities of the North. The favoured tactic was for squads to target individuals or to concentrate squads together and then launch punitive raids, spreading general terror and inflicting specific damage on "red" targets, particularly organisational buildings. Piece by piece the structure of the socialists; unions and peasant leagues was shredded. And yet it was demonstrated on numerous occasions that the fascists could be beaten - that when it came to it they were no match for determined and organised resistance.
The problem was that the Socialist Party, as the largest Left grouping, had one foot under the table with the capitalist state. So they consistently called on the state to deal with Fascism. And of course, because they placed themselves within the frame of legalism, state power and "democracy", they had to condemn all violence as illegal including that of anti-fascists. This "fatal combination of revolutionary rhetoric and reformist practice" actively hindered the development of mass working class resistance. And the potential for such resistance was by no means an illusion.
In Livorno, for example, a town in which the Socialist Party had got over 51% of the vote in the 1919 elections and which had a strong anarchist presence, there was continuous unrest throughout 1920. There were strikes in January and April and then again in May, following a riot by anarchists and football supporters in Viareggio, which resulted in such widespread rioting in Livorno that 1000 Carabinieri and Royal Guards had to be brought in to control the streets. During the factory occupations in September the workers only reluctantly agreed to withdraw after pressure from the FIOM union.
The first significant Fascist incursion was on the 10th November when Fascists and soldiers tried to seize the town hall, following the example of successful disruptions of socialist councils elsewhere. However, as news of the raid spread, power workers turned out the lights and the working class districts mobilised en masse to march into the centre and reclaim it. Then again on the 16th February 1921 the Fascists attempted to break a strike by operating the trams. But they met mass resistance, with one tram load being attacked by over 400 people.
Street fighting in March 1921 resulted in the death of one local Fascist. In response, the Fascists mounted a revenge raid on the Borgo dei Cappuccini, a working class area with a very militant history. Suffice to say the Blackshirts had to run for it when the entire neighbourhood mobilised against them. Again, on April 13th (1921), during the elections, they led an attack on one of the Camero del Lavoro (union centre). This was responded to by strike action on the 14th and the surrounding of a Fascist squad in the Barriera Garibaldi. Police, Carabinieri and Royal Guard were unable to restore order, so the army had to be sent in, with the strike and street fighting continuing on throughout the next day (15th). On the 17th May another Fascist attempt to take the streets was defeated by a mass mobilisation.
As can be seen the general militancy of the working class in the industrial towns remained high. Moreover, militant socialists, communists, anarchists and republicans were organising together in anti-fascist groupings with a clear strategy of taking the Fascists on at their own game. Thus in April in Livorno a Comitato di Difensa Proletaria (Workers Defence Committee) was formed, uniting the four political groups, the centres of the CGL and USI unions; the railway workers union and the LSS (Lega Studentesca Sovversiva ). The same month also saw a related anti-fascist organisation spreading rapidly and spontaneously through militant working class areas. Known as the "Arditi del Popolo" the organisation originated in Rome and was set up by demobbed soldiers. It was to provide a direct working class response to the armed Blackshirt gangs. These "Arditi" developed from the tradition of mass resistance / insurrection and were, in effect, an armed militia of the "Workers Defence Committees" etc. But let us immediately put this into context, for the success of this militia in towns like Livorno depended on:
"...their organic connection with the mass movement ... demonstrated by their ability to melt back rapidly into the crowds in working class areas when pursued by the Fascists and the security forces, and the back up they received as a relatively small number of armed men, from the large number of men and women who were willing to throw anything that came to hand out of the windows of their dwellings on to the Fascists in the street below, or giving such practical assistance ... as helping to block the streets".
Nationally the Arditi del Popolo movement was marked by its autonomous structure, i.e. the independence of its local sections. In some areas groups were defined in terms of locality or workplace; in others by political affiliation (e.g. communist, anarchist etc.). In just one region we see them with some 300 militants at Pisa; 500 at Piombino and 800 at Livorno - and these are just the "shock troops" of the wider class resistance.
In Piombino the Arditi del Popolo "battalion" first saw action on July 19th 1921 after an assassination attempt on a socialist. The fascists meeting place was attacked and fascists rounded up from their homes and work places. When the Royal Guard intervened to prevent this they too were overwhelmed and disarmed. The workers held the streets for several days before the forces of law and order could regain control.
However, events at Sarzana in the same month drew particular attention to the resistance being mounted by the Arditi . The fascists had mounted a punitive expedition against the town on June 12th 1921 but had met with such determined resistance that they had to surrender and their leader Renato Ticci was put in custody, for his own safety, by the local authorities. Consequently several fascist gangs assembled to try and free him and teach the people of Sarzana a lesson.
However, on 21st July, when 500 fascists arrived at the railway station they had the unusual (for them) experience of being fired on by a detachment of a dozen Carabinieri and soldiers. As if this unexpected turn of events wasn't bad enough they then came under armed attack from the Arditi, supported by other Sarzana workers, who had not gone to work that morning in anticipation of the attack. As their casualties mounted the fascists were forced to flee into the countryside. But they were not safe even here, with the Arditi on their heels and the peasants of the area taking an active role in their pursuit and capture. Over 20 fascists were killed, although unofficial sources put the figure much higher. The fascist "chief of staff" for this expedition later commented:
"The squadre, 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".
Even Mussolini was worried by this willingness to take the fascists on and win. But once again, just as a defining moment was reached in the struggle, the Left caved in. Whilst thousands of socialist militants were involved in fighting the Fascists, the official organs of the Socialist Party were busy denouncing or hindering the Arditi del Popolo. Worse still they had been trying to arrange a truce with the Fascists since March 1921! Their predicament was clear - they were being methodically wiped out, especially in the rural areas. Yet a non-aggression treaty was no answer since by this time Fascism could clearly be seen as a class enemy, in the pay of the bosses, implacably hostile to even reformist socialism. But a "Pact of Pacification" was duly signed on August 2nd and, as a condition of that pact, the Socialist Party and the CGL disowned the Arditi del Popolo and ordered their members to withdraw from its ranks!
A second blow was not long in coming, care of the Italian Communist Party (a distinct entity from the start of 1921). The party leadership was at first equivocal about the Arditi del Popolo, despite the fact that many rank and file communist militants had involved themselves enthusiastically. Now the PCI called into question the class credentials of the movement and instructed their members to have nothing to do with it and to form their own "pure" communist squads behind which the working class should unite. Pure absurdity since that class had already spontaneously evolved its own broad organisations of defence, which the PCI was now undermining. Suffice it to quote Gramsci:
"(the) tactic ... corresponded to the need to prevent the party members from being controlled by a leadership that was not the party leadership".
In effect these acts of class treachery fatally weakened the movement, reducing it to some 5,000 militants, mostly anarchists / anarcho-syndicalists. Not that resistance was going to end just because some wanted to stick their heads in the sand or play political games. But with the parliamentary Socialist Party busy condemning militant and armed resistance, the forces of the state, already in clear collusion with the fascists, could take an even more proactive role.
So, in Piombino, following the death of a local anarchist on September 3rd in a fire fight with Royal Guards and Fascists, the authorities launched a series of raids during the night, arresting and detaining some 200 comrades. The fascists immediately seized their opportunity and attacked and burned the Socialist Party offices. However, their advance was checked by an anarchist patrol, who were soon reinforced by groups of workers. And, as in Sarzanza a few months earlier, the fascists had no choice but to surrender to the police in order to escape a severe dose of working class justice.
The Fascists did not try to take Piombino again until April 25th 1922. Yet again they were beaten back by the Arditi. Indeed it was not until the 12th June that they were able to make a definitive assault, with the support of Royal Guards from Pisa. Even so it took a day and a half of heavy fighting before they were able to storm the offices of the USI and the printing press of the anarchist paper Il Martello and thus complete their conquest of the town.
Nationally the coup de grace came with the calling of a general strike against Fascism, the "strike for legality" of 31st July to 2nd August 1922. Although action was demanded by the rank and file, the strike was presented by the reformist leadership as a demand for parliament to defend constitutional liberties. As with all such demands the presumption was that liberal democracy was anything other than a convenient facade. In reality the opportunity to build real resistance had already been thrown away. The rural areas were lost and although workers in the major industrial cities responded the will to resist had been all but broken. The Fascists made sure to assist. Public service and railway workers remained at their posts - with fascist pistols trained on them.
With the collapse of the strike the Fascists attacked, massing their numbers to deal with the last outposts of resistance. Livorno succumbed to a force of 2,000 armed squadristi moving in from the surrounding region. The working class districts no longer had the energy or organisation to sustain the kind of street fighting they had maintained throughout 1921. As Mussolini was to boast, in "48 hours of systematic, war-like violence" the industrial towns of northern Italy were taken.
We can but salute those who fought to the end - the socialists and communists of Turin and the anarchists / Arditi del Popolo in Parma, where for five days a couple of hundred armed militants supported by the local community faced down and totally humiliated thousands of fascists, led by Italo Balbo. In the end the fascists had to withdraw and the army was sent in to finish off this last bastion of resistance.
It is not for us to say what might have been. The story speaks for itself. From the experience of the first anti-fascists let us learn: working class communities showed that the fascists could be beaten. The most effective form of anti-fascist organisation was a national "united front" of autonomous sections which found its consensus in the undiluted militancy of direct physical resistance and which drew its real strength from a revolutionary class consciousness and from deep roots in local communities and their ongoing struggle - for which anti-fascism was neither a substitute nor an optional extra.