How the Italian Communists Fought the Rise of Fascism

Founded 100 years ago today, the Italian Communist Party immediately faced a violent wave of repression, killing hundreds of militants. As policemen, business elites, and even liberal politicians swung behind Benito Mussolini, no party resisted the Fascist threat more than the Communists.

"The Forces Behind Fascism," 1922 cartoon from l'Almanacco Comunista.

A hundred years since the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was founded, its birth remains controversial. In recent months, a torrent of books and articles have damned this “original sin” — accusing the Communists of splitting the Left in the face of fascism and halting the advance of the reformist left.

It’s easy to understand why the PCI still casts a shadow over Italian politics. The leading force in the World War II–era resistance, it became the West’s largest Communist Party, by the 1950s boasting some two million members. It remained the main opposition party until its demise in 1991, and former members continue to play a prominent role in the “center-left,” even as most of them turned toward liberalized social democracy.

Given such changes, the revolutionary assumptions on which the PCI was originally based are widely scorned. Massimo D’Alema, Italy’s first ex-Communist prime minister, this week claimed that the PCI was “always a reformist party.” He voiced a common center-left stance dismissing the party’s 1921 split from the Socialists as a mistake, while venerating subsequent leaders like Antonio Gramsci as reformist “democrats.”

Such claims have roots in the PCI’s own history. In the buildup to World War II, leader Palmiro Togliatti recast it as a patriotic force standing for a broad popular interest, united by anti-fascism. Mounting this turn, its exile press attacked founding leader Amadeo Bordiga for failing to resist the initial rise of Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship, and counterposed him to Gramsci — a martyr for anti-fascists after his death in 1937.

Today, this narrative is recast in liberal outlets in platitudes about the need for political moderation — and the dangers of a “dogmatic” leftism unable to see who the real enemy is. Yet rarely do such portrayals actually tell us about the fight the Communists did wage against fascism in 1921–22 — or, still less so, what reformist social-democrats or the country’s political and business establishment were doing. Yet this history, too, is essential to understanding the origins of the West’s largest Communist Party.

Failing to Recognize the Danger

The Italy that emerged from World War I was wracked by social conflict. It had ended up on the winning side in the war, alongside Britain and France, but its own military fortunes had been mixed and over five hundred thousand lives were lost. The return to peace, combined with a shock reorientation of the economy to civilian production, crushed small business and left millions unemployed, many of them young men brutalized by the last four years of war.

In 1919–20 there was an upsurge in labor militancy, with strikes, factory occupations, and rural uprisings together known as the biennio rosso. In several towns, workers took over production and created armed “red guards.” In Turin’s engineering plants, striking workers revived the prewar factory committees — bodies which communist paper l’Ordine Nuovo identified with the workers’ councils of the Russian Revolution.

Led by Gramsci, Togliatti, Angelo Tasca, and Umberto Terracini, l’Ordine Nuovo sought to capture the energy of the Turin proletariat, but also to find a way out of the crisis in the Socialist PSI. Allied to the General Confederation of Labour (CGL) union, this party had deep roots in the labor movement and peasant and consumer cooperatives, but remained largely a patchwork of local groups headed by a parliamentary fraction, and lacking any overall strategy.

In November 1919’s general election, the PSI took 32 percent of the vote — becoming the largest party for the first time. But while reformists like Filippo Turati sought to influence liberal governments (the means by which male universal suffrage had been granted in 1912), the PSI’s electoral program was an abstract “vote for socialism” rather than a specific set of measures. Typical of this was a call for parliament to decree the creation of local soviets.

This situation — a rising revolutionary threat, without concrete outcome — provided the basis for Fascism’s rise. Its initial social base was among the under-pressure middle classes, but leaders were often of more professional stock, from military officials to students. While an electorally insignificant force, Blackshirts especially built their power as hired muscle for landowners and industrialists seeking to smash the labor movement.

The Fascists had no centralized party until fall 1921. But militarily, they were effective in coordinating their forces, as armed militias roved from town to town to crush isolated opponents. Even as the PSI reached its greatest electoral popularity — taking 2,162 of 8,059 municipalities in November 1920, including Milan, Bologna, Verona, and Vicenza — its response to Fascism remained disorganized.

Palmiro Togliatti.

Striking was the case of Ennio Gnudi, the twenty-seven-year-old rail worker elected mayor of Bologna. When he took to the balcony to salute the crowd on November 21, 1920, gunfire broke out, as Fascist squads assaulted Gnudi’s supporters. With police and the Royal Guard also opening fire, ten Socialists and a nationalist councilor were killed. Gnudi was deposed after just one hour in office, and the central state imposed an unelected commissar in his place. He was later elected as a Communist MP.

Fascist paramilitaries had already established close ties with the state’s “forces of order.” On July 21, 1920 their squads had destroyed PSI paper Avanti!‘s Rome offices, and when they attacked its Turin headquarters two months later, Avanti! reported the attackers were mostly Royal Guards, led by a sergeant, together with others in civilian clothes. Police and army officers not only turned a blind eye to Fascist attacks, but actively coordinated with them.

Yet with a “red scare” climate in liberal and conservative press, the Socialists were constantly accused of plotting an armed coup. “Weapons searches” were a common pretext for armed Fascists to ransack the offices of consumer cooperatives and trade unions, as they worked to smash labor movement infrastructure in socialist heartlands like Emilia-Romagna. The PSI’s press responded weakly, calling on members not to be “provoked.”

Indeed, when the PCI-PSI split was consummated in January 1921, the continuity PSI insisted that this was a dividing line between the parties. On May 22, 1921 Avanti! published an article titled “Don’t resist!” celebrating the story of Christ and exhorting Socialists to “turn the other cheek.” Insisting that the Socialists’ success must rely on education and peaceful work building up associations, not “forcing things” by taking up arms, Turati declared that if rejecting violence was cowardly “we should be brave enough to be cowardly.”

Communist Split

The removal of Bologna’s mayor was but one instance of a murderous Fascist onslaught against Socialist administrations and labor movement structures across Italy. A national PSI congress in that city in October 1919 declared support for the Comintern. But the PSI was unlike the centralized Bolshevik party, and the Comintern’s main interlocutor in Italy, Giacinto Serrati, remained committed to its alliance of reformists and revolutionaries.

Until the Comintern’s Second Congress in Moscow in July-August 1920, Russian leaders were weakly informed on events in Italy and relied on Serrati’s insights. But the crisis in the PSI, unable to rise to the dramatic social conflict, encouraged local groups of communists to seek allies abroad. Most notable were Turin’s l’Ordine Nuovo and the Naples-based Il Soviet around Bordiga, who made it to Moscow for the Second Congress on his own initiative.

While the PSI’s proclaimed internationalism was often romantic, some militants had a better understanding of the civil war that threatened to reach also Italy. Francesco Misiano, a contributor to Il Soviet, spent ten months in a Berlin jail in 1919 after taking part in the Spartacus uprising. From November 1919 an MP, at an April 1920 PSI national council meeting, he insisted on the need to focus on military preparation and active defense against fascism.

That summer, divides in the party sharpened. Especially decisive was the issue of whether to expel the reformists. This was a condition set down by the Comintern’s Second Congress, but rejected by Serrati’s “Unitari,” who refused to break with the bulk of the PSI’s parliamentary group. Bordiga’s own Abstentionist-Communist Fraction opposed electoral participation in general, though its meetings also integrated those (like Misiano and Gramsci) who wanted to expel the reformists but use elections for propagandistic ends.

When the split came in January 1921, it was all too late: the great class movements of 1919–20 had waned, the revolutions in Germany and Hungary had already been beaten back, and the ever-mightier Fascists were already forming joint electoral lists together with liberals and conservatives (the National Blocs of the November 1920 local elections). But the newborn Communist Party also insisted that it was born of the need to build centralized organization — “and take to the same terrain the bourgeoisie is now fighting on.”

Toward Illegality

The new party — built around Bordiga’s Fraction, Turin’s l’Ordine Nuovo group, and currents upholding older “maximalist” ideas — began from a position of weakness. It did not capture the old party’s apparatus or main press organs, as its French sister party had in December 1920, though it did seize control of local newspapers such as Il Lavoratore in Trieste, a major center of communist organization thanks to its large Serbo-Croat-speaking population. It also retained a smattering of local councils and MPs.

The fifty-nine thousand votes for the Communist resolution at Livorno did not translate into that many members; Blackshirt attacks were only intensifying, and in smaller centers new branches often had to be built from scratch. The PCI won the Socialist youth en bloc, and despite its lack of union leadership roles was near-entirely made up of blue-collar workers. A survey of the “intellectuals, teachers and lecturers and lawyers” in its ranks, one year into existence, found that these professions accounted for just two hundred of its forty-five thousand members.

Recognized as the leading force in the party, Bordiga was often in the minority within its composite leadership. Despite his firm objections to all electoral work, criticized by Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism, in May 1921 the party did take part in the general election. It secured a disappointing fifteen MPs, on just one-fifth of the Socialists’ vote; several branches publicly proclaimed that they were only standing out of obedience to Comintern instructions, or else found pretexts not to stand.

Yet a central problem for the newborn party was the need to mobilize against Fascist violence. In Florence on February 26, Fascist squadristi (Blackshirts) destroyed the offices of Socialist paper La Difesa, and the next day they murdered Spartaco Lavagnini, editor of the Communists’ own organ in that city, l’Azione Comunista. These murderous attacks sparked a rail strike and several days of popular rebellion, in which Fascists flanked by police also destroyed the city’s main trade union offices.

The combination of paramilitaries and “forces of order” fed the PCI’s sense of a united bourgeois offensive, not least as National Blocs united Fascists with liberals and conservatives even at election time. For Bordiga, society was hardening into just two camps — the Communists versus the counter-revolution, including social democrats. Yet what this tended to overlook was the possibility that the Fascists would also crush bourgeois-democratic forms, rather than simply serve as an instrument of capitalist reaction.

Amadeo Bordiga, 1950.

Yet faced with the pressing anti-communist offensive, the PCI was hardly passive. Indeed, the PCI was the only party that did fight Mussolini’s street forces on any kind of consistent basis, despite its lack of means. Created in spring 1921, its Ufficio I (office for illegal work) headed by Bruno Fortichiari built a clandestine organization across Italy. It instructed members in military technique and conveyed them thousands of bombs and rifles, often captured in the aftermath of the revolutions in Hungary and Germany.

For Bordiga, but also fellow leaders like Togliatti and Terracini, the decisive point of this work was to defend the party’s own organization: given their catastrophist perspective of revolution (and the very real disasters actually unfolding), they put no emphasis on defending democratic rights and institutions in the abstract. They instead imagined that the existing political structures would endure precisely because of anti-communist violence, as bourgeois liberals integrated Mussolini into parliamentary institutions.

Arditi del Popolo

Such an illusion was commonplace among almost all political forces. In July 1921, liberal premier Ivanoe Bonomi barred Communists from the armed forces, but not Fascists — leading Gramsci to call him “the main organizer of Italian fascism.” Four weeks later, Bonomi brokered a “Pacification Pact” between the Socialists and the Fascists, promising an end to the latent civil war. But with local Fascist leaders across central-northern Italy immediately rejecting the Pact, it served only to disarm the Socialist side.

The Pact was important for distancing the Socialists from the Arditi del Popolo (AdP), a non-party, anti-fascist defense organization which had arisen from earlier “proletarian defense formations” in the first half of 1921. Bordiga in particular disowned AdP. Attacking its anarchist and republican leaders, he insisted that militants could only obey one command — the PCI’s own. Yet in major cities, PCIers often joined the AdP as a distinct force or even flouted party instructions and took a leading role (as in Rome).

AdP was the most important expression of militant anti-fascism in this period: its week-long defense of Parma from ten thousand squadristi in August 1922, at a moment when Blackshirt dominance was almost complete around Italy, was the greatest single pitched battle of the period. This particularly owed to the leadership of Guido Picelli, a dissident Socialist elected MP with the local Communists’ tacit backing in May 1921. He would himself join the PCI after the Fascists achieved state power.

Sectarian impulses were no mere “Russian” imposition. Comintern officials were critical of the PCI’s failure to take a lead in shaping AdP and called on it to seek united fronts with the Socialists. But for Bordiga, this risked blurring the political lines of the only recently achieved Livorno split. The PSI was, at least, an unreliable ally: a “legalitarian strike” called by both parties from July 31, 1922 was unilaterally called off by the reformists at the first sign of Fascist counter-attack, leaving local instances of armed resistance isolated.

When the Blackshirts marched on Rome in late October 1922, the apparent “coup” was mere theatrics: Mussolini arrived in a more leisurely fashion, in a sleeper carriage, and the king appointed him prime minister without any resistance from within the state. Ufficio I leader Fortichiari instructed his local Communist organizers to prepare for an armed intervention, if fighting should break out between the Fascist paramilitaries and the state’s own “forces of order” — but such self-defense by liberal institutions never came.

After 1922

The PCI proclaimed its revolutionary mission at a time of retreat for Communist Parties across Europe and rising Fascism at home. Yet the party that did most to fight the Blackshirts can hardly be accused of doing nothing but issue militant rhetoric. As historian Luigi Cortesi describes, the class-against-class spirit of the Livorno split did tend to collapse all capitalist and fascist reactionaries into a single opponent — but faced with the violent ruling-class offensive, there was plenty of evidence to confirm such a view.

Contemporary discussions of fascism often suggest that it is a danger that creeps up on us slowly. Yet we should not so lightly excuse those who helped the first fascists to power. In fall 1922, four liberal former prime ministers voted Mussolini’s first government into office, even though they had seen Fascists murder hundreds of worker militants and torch Socialist-run town halls around Italy. Fascism had many further crimes in store — but it was already perfectly clear what it was capable of.

Appointed prime minister at the head of a National Bloc uniting liberals and conservatives, Mussolini launched a renewed offensive against the Communists, with the over a thousand arrests in February 1923 breaking much of Ufficio I’s organization. Yet only in June 1924, with the murder of reformist socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti, did the other democratic parties take a firm stand against the hardening regime, as they boycotted parliament, an anti-fascist bloc known as the Aventine Secession.

Their anti-fascism came only after the labor movement was neutered and thousands forced into exile. Yet Communists could pride themselves on a real record of mobilization against the Fascists. Allied to a revolutionary faith in the future, the battles they had fought in the 1920s would help them keep the flame of resistance alive over coming decades. In many cases, their isolation within Fascist society hardened their class-war intransigence — a politics that Togliatti fought to break during the Popular Frontism of World War II.

The party that re-emerged in 1943 was much unlike that of 1921. Rejecting “class separatism,” it would become a truly mass force, with a much more diverse social base and less clearly revolutionary aims. With the Italian ruling class throwing off Mussolini in the face of US invasion, the PCI instead made a space for itself within the limits of parliamentary democracy. This was no longer the party of Livorno — but nor could it have existed, if not for the battles the party had fought in the face of Fascism’s first rise.