Antonio Gramsci 1921

The Turin factory council movement

First Published: L'ordine nuovo, 14 March 1921; Internazionale comunista, 1920;
Translated: for by Michael Carley’

One of the members of the Italian delegation, lately returned from Soviet Russia, recounted to the Turin workers that the stage to be used to welcome the delegation from Kronstadt was emblazoned with the following inscription: “Long live the Turin general strike of April 1920.”

The workers heard this news with much pleasure and great satisfaction. The major part of the members of the Italian delegation sent to Russia had been against the April general strike. They held in their articles against the strike that the Turin workers had been victims of an illusion and had overvalued the importance of the strike.

The Turin workers thus learned with pleasure of the act of sympathy of the Kronstadt comrades and said to themselves: “Our Russian communist comrades have better understood and valued the importance of the April strike than the Italian opportunists, thus giving the latter a good lesson.”

The April strike

The April movement in Turin was in fact a great event in the history not just of the Italian proletariat, but of the European, and we can say, in the history of the proletariat of the whole world.

For the first time in history, there was an example of a proletariat which engaged in struggle for the control of production, without having been forced into action by hunger or unemployment. Furthermore, it was not just a minority, a vanguard of the working class which undertook the struggle, but the entire mass of the workers of Turin took to the field and brought the struggle, heedless of privations and sacrifices, right to the end.

The engineering workers struck for one month, the other sectors for ten days.

The general strike of the last ten days spread throughout all of Piedmont, mobilizing around half a million industrial and agricultural workers, and thus involved about four million of the population.

The Italian capitalists drew on all their strength to suffocate the Turin workers’ movement; all the means of the bourgeois state were put at their disposal, while the workers kept up the struggle alone without help or from the leadership of the Socialist Party, nor from the General Labour Confederation. Indeed, the leaders of the party and of the confederation discouraged the Italian workers and peasants from any revolutionary action through which they intended to show their solidarity with the Turin brothers, and to give them effective aid.

But the Turin workers did not lose spirit. They withstood all the weight of the capitalist reaction, they maintained their discipline until the final moment and remained after the defeat faithful to the flag of communism and of the world revolution.

Anarchists and syndicalists

The propaganda of the anarchists and syndicalists against party discipline and the dictatorship of the proletariat had no influence on the masses, even when, because of the treachery of the leaders, the strike ended in a defeat. The Turin workers swore instead to intensify the revolutionary struggle and to conduct it on two fronts: on one side against the victorious bourgeoisie, on the other against the treacherous leaders.

The consciousness and revolutionary discipline, which the Turin masses demonstrated, have their historical base in the economic and political conditions in which developed the class struggle in Turin.

Turin is a centre of a purely industrial nature. Almost three quarters of the population, which counts half a million inhabitants, is made up of workers: petit-bourgeois elements are a tiny quantity. In Turin there is however a compact mass of white collar and technical workers, who are organized in unions and are affiliated to the Camera del Lavoro. During all the large strikes, these were at the side of the workers, and have thus, if not all, at least the major part, acquired the psychology of a true proletariat, in struggle against capital, for the revolution and communism.

Two armed insurrections

During the imperialist war of 1914—18, Turin saw two armed insurrections: the first insurrection, which exploded in May 1915, had the objective of blocking the entry of Italy into the war against Germany (on this occasion the Casa del Popolo was looted); the second insurrection, in August 1917, took on the character of armed revolutionary struggle, on a large scale.

The news of the March revolution in Russia was greeted in Turin with indescribable joy. The workers wept when they heard the news that the power of the Tsar had been overturned by the workers of Petrograd. But the Turin workers did not let themselves be taken in by the phraseology of Kerensky and of the Mensheviks (...). When in the July of 1917 the mission to Western Europe of the Petrograd Soviet arrived in Turin, the delegates Smirnov and Goldemberg, who presented themselves before a crowd of fifty thousand workers, were greeted with deafening cries of “Long live Lenin! Long live the Bolsheviks!”

Goldemberg was not over-satisfied with this welcome; he could not understand in what manner Comrade Lenin had acquired such popularity amongst the Turin workers. And it need not be forgotten that this episode took place after the repression of the Bolshevik revolt of July, when the Italian press raged against Lenin and against the Bolsheviks, denouncing them as brigands, plotters, agents and spies of German imperialism.

Since the start of the Italian war (24 May 1915) the Turin proletariat had made no mass demonstrations.

Barricades, trenches, barbed wire

The imposing rally which had been organized in honour of the Petrograd Soviet marked the beginning of a new period of mass movements. Not a month passed, when the Turin workers did not rise with arms in hand against imperialism and Italian militarism. The insurrection exploded on 23 August~1917. For five days the workers fought in the streets of the city. The insurgents, armed with rifles, grenades and machine guns, managed to occupy some areas of the city and attempted three or four times to possess the centre where the government institutions and military commands were located.

But the two years of war and reaction had weakened the previously strong organizations of the proletariat, and less well-armed workers were defeated. In vain they hoped for support on the part of the soldiers, who allowed themselves to be taken in by the insinuation that the revolt had been stage-managed by the Germans.

The people erected barricades, dug trenches, surrounded some districts with barbed wire and electric current and held back for five days all the attacks of the troops and the police. More than five hundred workers fell, more than two thousand were seriously injured. After the defeat the best elements were arrested and deported and the proletarian movement lost revolutionary intensity. But the communist feelings of the Turin proletariat were not extinguished.

After the war

After the end of the imperialist war the proletarian movement made rapid progress. The working masses of Turin understood that the historical period opened by the war was profoundly different from the epoch preceding the war. The Turin working class understood immediately that the Third International is an organization of the world proletariat for the direction of the civil war, for the conquest of political power, for the institution of the proletarian dictatorship, for the creation of a new order in economic and social relations.

The problems of the revolution, economic and political, formed the object of discussions in all the workers’ assemblies. The best forces of the worker vanguard gathered to distribute a communist weekly, “l'Ordine Nuovo.” In the columns of this weekly, the various problems of the revolution were discussed; the revolutionary organization of the masses which should win the unions to the cause of communism; the transfer of the union struggle from the meagre corporatist and reformist field, to the terrain of revolutionary struggle, of control of production and of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even the question of factory councils was subject to the order of the day. In the workplaces of Turin there already existed small workers’ committees, recognized by the capitalists, and some of them had already engaged in struggle against the bureaucracy, reformist spirit and constitutional tendencies in the unions.

But the major part of these committees were not creatures of the unions; the lists of candidates for these committees (internal commissions) were proposed by union organizations, which preferred to choose workers of opportunist tendencies who would not annoy the bosses, and would have smothered any mass action at source. The followers of “Ordine Nuovo” proposed in their propaganda in the first place that the formation of candidate lists should take place amongst the workers and not at the top of the union bureaucracy. The tasks which they assigned to the factory councils were the control of production, the arming and military training of the masses, and their political and technical preparation. They needed no longer carry out the old function of guard dogs who protected the interests of the dominant classes, nor of holding the masses back in their actions against the capitalist regime.

Enthusiasm for the councils

The propaganda for the factor councils was greeted with enthusiasm by the masses; in the course of half a year factory councils were established in all the engineering factories and workshops, communists won a majority in the engineering union; the principle of the factory council and of control of production was approved and accepted by the majority of Congress and by the major part of the unions belonging to the Camera del Lavoro.

The organization of the factory councils is based on the following principles: in each factory, in each workshop, there is established an organism on the basis of representation (and not on the old basis of the bureaucratic system) which realizes the strength of the proletariat, the struggle against the capitalist order or exercises control over production, educating the whole working mass for revolutionary struggle and the creation of the worker state. The factory council must be formed according to the principle of organization by industry; it must represent for the working class the model of communist society, at which it will arrive through the dictatorship of the proletariat; in this society there will not exist divisions of class, all social relations will be governed according to the technical requirements of production and of the corresponding organization, and will not be subordinated to an organized state power. The working class must understand all the beauty and nobility of the ideal for which it struggles and sacrifices itself; it must take note that to reach this ideal it is necessary to pass through a number of stages; it must recognize the necessity of revolutionary discipline and of the dictatorship.

Every company divides itself into sections and each section into trade teams; each team performs a fixed part of the work; the workers of each team elect a worker with a fixed and conditional mandate. The assembly of delegates of the whole company forms a council which elects from among itself an executive committee. The assembly of political secretaries of the executive committees forms the central committees of the councils which elects from among itself an urban study committee for the organization of propaganda, the development of work plans, the approval of projects and proposals of particular companies and of individual workers, and finally for the general direction of the whole movement.

Councils and internal commissions during the strike

Some tasks of the factory councils have a purely technical and strictly industrial character, such as for example, the control of technical personnel, the dismissal of employees who show themselves to be enemies of the working class, the struggle with the management for rights and freedoms, the control of the production of the company and of the financial operations.

The factory councils quickly set down roots. The masses willingly welcomed this form of communist organization, they aligned themselves with the executive committees and energetically supported the struggle against capitalist autocracy.

Even though neither the industrialists, nor the union bureaucracy, wanted to recognize the councils and committees, they obtained notable success: they crushed the agents and spies of the capitalists, formed links with the white collar and technical workers to have information of financial and industrial character; in the affairs of the company they concentrated in their hands the disciplinary power and demonstrated to the disunited and divided masses what it is to direct management of workers in industry.

The activity of the councils and of the internal commissions showed itself more clearly during the strikes; these strikes lost their impulsive, chancy nature and became the expression of the conscious activity of the revolutionary masses. The technical organization of the councils and of the internal commissions, their capacity for action was so well developed, that it was possible to obtain in five minutes the suspension of work by fifteen thousand workers in forty two sections of Fiat. On 3 December~1919, the councils gave tangible evidence of their capacity to lead mass movements in grand style; under the order of the socialist section, which concentrated in its hands all the mechanism of the mass movement, the factory councils mobilized without any preparation, in the course of one hour, one hundred and twenty thousand workers, organized by company. One hour later the proletarian armada swept like an avalanche into the city centre and swept from the streets and the squares all the nationalist and militarist filth.

The struggle against the councils

At the head of the movement for the construction of factory councils were the communists belonging to the socialist section and to the union organizations; there took part also the anarchists, who tried to counterpose their bloated phraseology to the clear and precise language of the Marxist communists. The movement met tenacious resistance from the union bureaucrats, from the leadership of the Socialist Party and from “Avanti!.” The polemic of these people was based on the difference between the concept of factory council and that of Soviet. Their conclusions had a purely theoretical, abstract, bureaucratic character. Behind their high-blown phrases there was hidden the desire to avoid the direct participation of the masses in revolutionary struggle, the desire to keep control of the mass union organizations. The elements of the party leadership always refused to take the initiative of a revolutionary action, unless there was established a plan of coordinated action, but they never did anything to prepare and develop this plan.

The Turin movement did not manage, however, to break out of the local area, since the whole bureaucratic mechanism of the unions was set in motion to ensure that the working masses of the rest of Italy did not follow the example of Turin. The Turino movement was mocked, scorned, slandered and criticized in every way.

The bitter criticisms of the union organisms and of the leadership of the Socialist Party freshly encouraged the capitalists who were no longer held back in their struggle against the Turin proletariat and against the factory councils. The conference of industrialists, held in March 1920 in Milan, developed a plan of attack; but the “mentors of the working class,” the economic and political organizations took no notice of this fact. Abandoned by everybody, the Turin proletariat was forced to take on alone, with its own forces, national capitalism and power of the state. Turin was flooded by an army of policemen; around the city cannon and machine guns were positioned at strategic points. And when all of this military apparatus was ready, the capitalists began to provoke the proletariat. It is true that faced with these most serious conditions of struggle the proletariat hesitated to accept the challenge; but when it was clear that the conflict was inevitable, the working class courageously came out of its positions and tried to bring the struggle to a victorious end.

The national socialist council of Milan

The engineering workers struck for a whole month, the other workers for ten days; industry in the whole province was stopped, communications paralyzed. The Turin proletariat was however isolated from the rest of Italy; the central organs did nothing to help it; but they did not publish even one manifesto to explain to the Italian people the importance of the struggle of the Turin workers. “Avanti!” refused to publish the manifesto of the Turin section of the party. Everywhere, the Turin comrades were called anarchists and adventurers. At the time, the national council of the party was to have come to Turin; the meeting was instead transferred to Milan, because a city “in thrall to a general strike” seemed poorly suited as a theatre of socialist discussions.

On this occasion the men called to lead the party demonstrated all their impotence; while the working masses in Turin courageously defended the factory councils, embodying the power of the proletariat, in Milan there was chatter about projects and theoretical methods for the formation of councils as a form of political power to be won by the proletariat; there was discussion of the means of organizing the gains not made and the Turin proletariat was abandoned to its destiny, the possibility of destroying already-won workers’ power was left to the bourgeoisie.

The Italian proletarian masses showed their solidarity with the Turin comrades in various forms; the railway workers of Pisa, Livorno and Florence refused to transport troops headed for Turin, the dock and marine workers of Livorno and Genoa sabotaged the movement of the ports; the proletariat of many cities went on strike against the orders of the unions.

The general strike in Turin and Piedmont ran into the sabotage and resistance of the union organizations and of the party itself. It was however of great educational importance because it demonstrated that the practical unity of workers and peasants is possible, and pointed up the urgent necessity of struggling against all the bureaucratic mechanism of the union organizations, which are the most solid support for the opportunistic work of the parliamentarians and the reformists seeking the suffocation of every revolutionary movement of the labouring masses.