Italy: The First Phase of the Revolution

(August 1943)

Source: Fourth International, Vol. 4 No. 8, August 1943, pp. 227–229.
Transcribed: Ted Crawford.
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Military catastrophe, one of the classical conditions of revolution, has brought the Italian proletariat to its feet after 21 years of prostration under fascist repression. In this sense the Italian workers have been galvanized by an external event. But defeats in war are one of the acid tests of a social order and of the attitude of the masses toward it. Fascism claimed to demonstrate its superiority above all in war. But superiority is evidenced not only in times of success but in adversity as well. The decisive element in war, when the contending powers are at all comparable in fighting forces, is the morale of the common soldier; especially is this true after initial defeats. Even crushing defeats such as the French Army sustained in the first week of the blitzkrieg need not have meant final defeat; now, said Trotsky in those days, the question of French morale will be decisive; the lack of that morale was a sufficient indictment of the decomposing bourgeois democracy of France. The fascists then did not fail to underline the connection between the military collapse and the character of French society Now that connection is to be seen in Italy where the very first defeats in North Africa sufficed to destroy even the semblance of morale.

Contrast this with the magnificent morale of the Red Army after the terrible defeats of 1941–1942.The test of war has proven the superiority of the social order established by the October revolution, and proven it under the adverse conditions of the stifling regime of Stalin. The collapse of morale of the “democratic” French Army and the fascist Italian Army is an index to the lack of inner resources of capitalism both in its democratic and fascist forms. What is happening in Italy is the mirror of the future of Hitler’s Army.

The First Week’s Events

We should fail to understand the real course of events if we should assume that the dismissal of Mussolini was part of a comprehensive plan of Italy’s ruling summits. On the contrary, their conduct has been marked by panicky improvisation. No doubt they had thought of throwing Mussolini overboard in the future in the event of final defeat both to facilitate negotiations with the Allies and as a sop to the masses of Italy. But it is clear that the moment of dismissal came suddenly, as a negative reaction to a Hitler-Mussolini proposal for the next military steps (apparently abandonment of southern Italy). While rejecting this plan, the ruling summits had not arrived at one of their own, either for resistance or for capitulation. Nor did they have a plan for utilizing the dismissal as a sop to the masses. On the contrary, they presented it as a mere change of Prime Ministers and cabinets: a laconic announcement stated that “His Excellency Cavaliere Benito Mussolini” had “tendered” his “resignation” and short proclamations by the King and Badoglio said nothing about Mussolini and fascism.

When this news Sunday was followed by gigantic mass demonstrations in Rome and the principal cities, lasting through the night, with rejoicing at Mussolini’s fall already coupled with demands for peace, Badoglio could think of nothing more to do Monday than issue a manifesto devoted entirely to detailed instructions for repressing the demonstrations. It is characterized by the provision that “It is absolutely forbidden to hold any meeting in public of more than three persons ...” Obviously those who issued such an order had no inkling that it could not be enforced; any administrator knows that an order which is successfully disobeyed is infinitely worse than silence in the face of disorders. Tuesday and Wednesday there were mass demonstrations of workers singing the Internationale and carrying red flags, strikes, killings of fascists, storming of fascist headquarters and houses, meetings of outlawed political parties, and at least one assault on a prison (in Milan) to release political prisoners. Only after all this came the announcement, Wednesday nighb of the dissolution of the Fascist party. Thursday There were demonstrations in Milan and Turin (at least) with placards demanding peace; and the first reported order to demonstrators (in Milan) to disperse under threat of soldiers armed with submachine guns – but with the order to fire never given in the face of the fact that “the demonstrators had allowed it to be understood from their attitude that they wanted this test of power.” Friday thousands of workers successfully stormed the Cellari jail in Milan and released 200 political prisoners, soldiers refusing to obey an order to fire upon them; and the movement spread to Genoa where port workers were marching under red flags. In the face of all this the Badoglio regime could only think of sitting tight at home and broadcasting to other countries that the demonstrations were “entirely misunderstood” abroad: “They are merely expressions of patriotic enthusiasm, loyalty to the House of Savoy and confidence in the new government.” This is the muttering of people overwhelmed by events.

The Class Nature of Fascism

This faltering planlessness of the Italian bourgeoisie deprived it of its one opportunity to confuse the picture of its real relations with fascism. The King and the army hierarchy could have staged a palace revolution “overthrowing” Mussolini and immediately issued a manifesto outlawing the Fascist party, freeing political prisoners, voiding anti-Jewish laws, legalizing political parties and trade unions, newspapers, meetings, etc. This maneuver would have made it possible for Roosevelt and Churchill and the labor lackeys to support the Italian capitalist regime with some show of plausibility.

As it actually transpired, however, the circumstances of Mussolini’s departure have provided the international working class with an irrefutable proof of the nakedly capitalist nature of fascism. The transition from fascism to “anti”-fascism took the form of a mere change of cabinets. That is, a change within the existing framework of the state. According to a law adopted December19, 1928, the power to name a new Prime Minister was vested exclusively in the Fascist Grand Council, with the Crown merely approving its choice. Yet the Crown did not even have to violate this law in order to name Badoglio; instead, the Fascist Grand Council, by overwhelming majority, voted to ask the King to name the new government i.e., voted to dissolve itself! This arrangement throws the most glaring light on the fact that fascism is an instrumentality of capitalism, to be utilized or dispensed with as the interests of the social order of private property require. The democratic rights which the masses are wresting for themselves in the streets and factories of Italy, and which the Italian bourgeoisie will tomorrow formally recognize, are seen to be the achievement of the masses themselves.

Thus Mussolini’s dismissal provides a definitive answer to the debate of over two decades concerning the nature of fascism. It is the answer which Trotsky taught the vanguard workers throughout these dark years: “For the monopolistic bourgeoisie, the parliamentary and Fascist regimes represent only different vehicles of dominion; it has recourse to one or the other, depending upon the historical conditions.

The Real History of Fascism

Class loyalty reaches across the battlefronts: the US press and radio are expending millions of words absolving Italian capitalism of responsibility for fascism, taking their cue from General Eisenhower’s July 29 declaration that “We commend” the House of Savoy for ousting Mussolini. Let us take as an example the long editorial in the August 1 New York Times, and examine its two principal falsifications of the history of Italian fascism.

1. Not capitalism but revolution is to blame for fascism:

“From a historic perspective it represents a nationalistic counter-revolution against the international revolution of Communism, and wherever Communism rears its head Fascism is bound to appear.”

It is true that the Italian proletariat was part of the great post-war revolutionary wave; the Socialist Party grew from 50,000 members in 1914 to 216,000 in 1919, the trade unions from 320,000 to 2,250,000, and under pressure of the masses the Socialist Party voted adherence to the Third International and trade union leaders participated in the Congress of the Red International of Labor Unions. Peasants seized land and the workers, climaxing a series of great struggles, occupied the factories in September 1920.

What was the situation of the Fascist party during this revolutionary wave? As yet it had no mass base. Mussolini did not dare as yet to attack workers’ headquarters. At this stage the petty-bourgeois masses either followed or sympathized with the advancing workers, and awaited the transformation of society. In a word, fascism was no danger during the stormy rise of the Italian workers’ movement.

It was not the fascists who derailed that movement. It was the reformist leadership of the Socialist Party and the trade unions. Instead of going on to seize power, they turned back, evacuated the factories in return for paper concessions, and left the masses without hope of a radical change.

Only then was Mussolini able to recruit masses of petty bourgeoisie and lumpen-proletarians who still wanted a change and were deluded by the pseudo-socialism of the fascists. There was no longer danger of a revolution (the Communist Party was only being formed at this time) but Big Business and the landowners decided to use precisely the opportunity of the retreat of the workers’ movement to smash it altogether. They provided the funds, the army provided arms, and the church hierarchy sanctioned collaboration of the Catholic “Popular Party” with the fascists under the slogan “restoration of public order and the suppression of socialism.” In November 1920 came the first fascist assault (in Bologna) on the disoriented, disappointed and passive workers, and two years later the “march” on Rome.

At the Fourth World Congressof the Comintern, December 1922, after Mussolini became Prime Minister, Zinoviev put the situation succinctly:

“The reformists declare that they wish to spare the workers the unnecessary sufferings of the revolution. Well, the revolution has not taken place, but many of the workers have fallen as victims.”

Likewise in Germany the fascists were not a serious force during the revolutionary wave of 1918-1923; not until the world crisis began in 1929 and the Social Democratic and Communist parties again had their chance to lead the masses to overthrow capitalism but failed to do so; not until then did the petty bourgeois masses turn to the Nazis. This transition is indicated by the votes for the Nazis: 809,000 in 1928, and 6,401,000 in September 1930.

One of Trotsky’s greatest contributions to Marxist theory, in the very last article he wrote, formulates this process as a social law:

“Both theoretical analysis as well as the rich historical experience of the last quarter of a century have demonstrated with equal force that fascism is each time the final link of a specific political cycle composed of the following: the gravest crisis of capitalist society; the growth of the radicalization of the working class; the growth of sympathy toward the working class and a yearning for change on the part of the rural and urban petty bourgeoisie; the extreme confusion of the big bourgeoisie; its cowardly and treacherous maneuvers aimed at avoiding the revolutionary climax; the exhaustion of the proletariat, growing confusion and indifference; the aggravation of the social crisis; the despair of the petty bourgeoisie, its yearning for change, the collective neurosis of the petty bourgeoisie, its readiness to believe in miracles; its readiness for violent measures; the growth of hostility toward the proletariat which has deceived its [the petty bourgeoisie’s] expectations. These are the premises for the swift formation of a fascist party and its victory.” [1]

2. Having falsely blamed the revolutionary wave, rather than its decline, for the victory of fascism, the Times goes on to concede the fascist connection with Big Business – but concedes it only to convey the thought that the capitalists lived to regret it:

“But though it found support from both the army and Big Business as a means of splitting the revolutionary movement of the Communists, fascism soon declared itself a law unto itself, and proceeded to seize power by means of violence exercised by gangs of thugs tolerated by the authorities. It ended up as a totalitarian party, which took over the whole state, established a one-party, one-man rule and proceeded to take control of the army, the workers and all business.”

We can list only a few of the deliberate falsifications of the Times. The gangs did not “seize power” by violence. The present King named Mussolini as Prime Minister, a step urged by the heads of the Banking Association and the Federation of Industry. From 1922 until 1926 Mussolini ruled in a coalition with the parties of Big Business and during this period the gangs and the state extirpated the workers’ organizations. As he succeeded in this task, Mussolini also rid himself of the plebeian masses of the Fascist party who were demanding carrying out of his anti-capitalist promises. During 1923 tens of thousands of fascists who had taken part in the march on Rome were expelled; a second purge took place in 1925-26;a third in 1928 when the federation of fascist “unions” was dissolved. The fascist “squadrons of action” were incorporated into the state militia in 1923, and the next year staffed with army officers while plebeian elements were weeded out. The fascist youth organization, the Opera Balilla, lost its autonomy and become a military organization controlled by the army and under army regulations. By these means Mussolini subordinated the fascist movement to the capitalist state, and not the other way around as the Times pretends. As the years passed the petty-bourgeois masses lost their illusions about what fascism would do for them and dropped away, The original plebeian elements were replaced by the upper classes.

The nature of this process was formulated by Trotsky in 1932: “Fascism, become bureaucratic, approaches very closely to other forms of military and police dictatorship.” The dictatorship leans increasingly less on the original plebeian masses and ever more on the traditional repressive forces of the capitalist state, the army and the police, control over which was never lost by Big Business.

Indeed, is not this fact made obvious by Mussolini’s dismissal? As an editorial the day afterward in the conservative New York Sun of July 26 put it rather indiscreetly: “For who can fire a dictator? Not a weak king. Not a non-existent parliament. Only a stronger dictator can do it. So the Allied world will have searching questions to ask concerning those who have taken charge of Italy.” But the Sun and the “Allied world” hastily dropped these searching questions, for to answer them would be to confess that the “stronger dictator,” the army and police of the capitalist state, were always Mussolini’s master.

The capitalist nature of fascism, proved by Trotsky over and over again, was never admitted by the labor lackeys of capitalism, nor will they admit it now in spite of the decisive proof of the Italian events.

One can understand their present “theories” about fascism best in the light of their previous ones. Both the Italian and German Social Democracy and the liberals conjured it away by dismissing it as a “post-war psychosis.” In emigration, they did all they could to blind the European proletariat to the danger. Nitti wrote in 1926: “Any fascist enterprise in the countries which have reached a high degree of economic civilization would only be a vain experiment ... In Germany the democratic parties and the republic are solidly established.” Don Luigi Sturzo assured the workers in 1927 that “a March on London, Paris or Berlin” was impossible. The German Social Democrats, through their theoretician Decker, proclaimed in 1929: “Fascism, in its Italian form, corresponds to Italian conditions. The organized strength and highly developed political education of the German working class, as well as the relative weakness of the non-proletarian masses in Germany in comparison with Italy, make such a brutal crushing of democracy impossible in our country ...” Stalin’s theoretician, Martynov, echoed the same theory in July 1929 at the Tenth Plenum of the Comintern: “Fascism of the pure type will be our chief enemy only in backward and semi-agricultural countries.” Contradicting this theory but nevertheless coupled with it was the Stalinist designation of the German governments preceding Hitler as “fascist” and of the Social Democracy as “social-fascist.” [2]

When these theories collapsed, the Social Democrats and Stalinists invented different but equally false theories. They joined in advocating the Popular Front to save democracy. It saved French capitalism from the revolutionary wave of June 1936, while the decomposition of French democracy continued until the “democrat” Reynaud handed over power to Petain. In Spain the Popular Front, repressing the masses in order to save private property, and serving as accomplice to the “non-intervention” maneuvers of Paris and London, made possible the victory of Franco.

Now the Stalinists, Social Democrats and liberals justify support of the war as a “fight against fascism.” To do so they must ignore the fact that the same capitalist class, under varying historical conditions, can rule by fascism or by democratic forms. To admit that fact would be to admit that democracy is in no way an issue in the conflict between the imperialist powers.

The Next Stage in Italy

The counter-revolutionary consequences of these reformist theories of fascism will soon become visible in Italy (and in Germany). The counter-revolution will be waged under the slogan “Down with fascism.” The capitalist and reformist definitions of a fascist will be so formulated as to absolve the pillars of the fascist regime during the past 21 years – the monarchy, the church and army hierarchies, and to absolve, above all, the capitalist class. Only the revolutionary Marxist party will summon the workers and peasants to put an end to the capitalist system which bred fascism and which was served by fascism and which will again resort to fascism.

The revolutionists will have the truth on their side, confirmed by the living experience of the Italian and German masses. The very first week after Mussolini’s dismissal the Italians masses demonstrated that they have recovered their will to struggle and are determined to decide their own destiny in a way that will forever put an end to fascism and capitalist ware. Nevertheless, the revolutionary developments of the first week cannot be taken as indicative of the uninterrupted tempo to come. Nazi armies are inside Italy, US-British forces are about to enter. Military occupation will inevitably slow the revolutionary tempo. But afterward the occupation will become a new source of revolutionary ferment, as it did in Nazi occupied Europe. A foreign yoke is even more intolerable than a domestic one. Nor will it be lightened by the AMGOT policy of ruling through the Italian provincial and local officials. Even in Sicily, where the masses had not risen, the August 2 New York Times reports: “The real anti-Fascists here do not like that so much. Apparently they had expected the whole Fascist set-up to be swept away, but that is impossible and will be so throughout Italy.” The masses who have been killing Fascist officials will certainly look upon AMGOT as a device for crushing the revolution and perpetuating the hated officialdom. The Italian masses will face occupation just after they have risen to their feet and feel their own strength, in contrast to the discouraged and apathetic condition of the workers in France at the time the Nazis marched in.

At the beginning of the war, Trotsky wrote the Manifesto of the Fourth International on The Imperialist War and Proletarian Revolution. For four years we have had the imperialist war. Now, the first stage of the proletarian revolution is beginning, as the Italian events demonstrate. Trotsky was murdered by Stalin before he could see his prediction come true. On the third anniversary of his death we are already permitted to see that his revolutionary optimism was based on the most scientific analysis of the course of events.

August 2, 1943


1. [Bonapartism, Fascism and War,] Fourth International, October 1940.

2. The references for these quotations will be found in the concluding chapter of Daniel Guerin’s Fascism and Big Business.


Last updated on: 21 August 2015