Legalitarian Strike

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Legalitarian Strike

Italy 1922

Synopsis

In the face of repeated fascist attacks and violence against trade unionists and left-wing militants (the so-called phenomenon of fascist squadrismo), the Italian Alliance for Labor, a coalition of the major Italian trade unions, decided to call for a general strike on 1 August 1922. In a climate of political instability in which the consensus was fragmented into a myriad of different parties, both the government headed by Ivanoe Bonomi and the one formed by Luigi Facta after the 1921 general election had proved passive and unable to stop the fascists. The organizers' intentions were to use the strike to restore legality (thus the title, "legalitarian strike") against the atmosphere of threat and intimidation that the fascists had been spreading before and after the general election. In fact, the strike was a failure and opened the way to power for Benito Mussolini, who, after the fascist "March on Rome," became prime minister in October later in the same year.

Timeline

  • 1907: At the Second Hague Peace Conference, 46 nations adopt 10 conventions governing the rules of war.
  • 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
  • 1917: In Russia, a revolution in March (or February according to the old Russian calendar) forces the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. By July, Alexander Kerensky has formed a democratic socialist government, and continues to fight the Germans, even as starvation and unrest sweep the nation. On 7 November (25 October old style), the Bolsheviks under V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky seize power. By 15 December, they have removed Russia from the war by signing the Treaty of Brest Litovsk with Germany.
  • 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over Communist movements worldwide.
  • 1922: Great Britain establishes the Irish Free State as a dominion of the British Empire.
  • 1922: With the centuries-old Ottoman Empire dissolved, Mustafa Kemal, a.k.a. Atatürk, overthrows the last sultan and establishes the modern Turkish republic.
  • 1922: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) is formed.
  • 1922: Published this year James Joyce's novel Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land will transform literature and inaugurate the era of modernism.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1927: Charles A. Lindbergh makes the first successful solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic, and becomes an international hero.
  • 1932: When Ukrainians refuse to surrender their grain to his commissars, Stalin seals off supplies to the region, creating a manmade famine that will produce a greater death toll than the entirety of World War I.

Event and Its Context

Fascist Violence During the Bonomi and Facta Ministries and the Constitution of the Alliance for Labor

The Italian general election held in May 1921 elected a conspicuous number of fascist deputies for the first time and was a surprising success for the Fascist National Party (FNP) leaders. Together with the liberal democrats headed by Giovanni Giolitti, the political force that had governed Italy in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the fascists had formed the National Blocks. Giolitti's aim for this alliance (which was approved with several reservations within its own party) was twofold. First, he hoped that the National Blocks would put a stop to the growth of the Fascist Party by placing its candidates on the same ballot with more experienced and respected liberal politicians so as to diminish their chances of being elected. Second and more important, the Blocks represented a vast coalition of moderate and conservative forces that could appeal to the Italian bourgeoisie against the threat of the two main mass parties: the Italian Popular Party (PPI, of Christian-Democratic inspiration) and the Socialist Party. Yet the results went against Giolitti's expectations. The Socialist Party lost 34 seats but maintained a large parliamentary group of 122 deputies, many more than Giolitti had expected. In addition, the PPI gained seven deputies, increasing from 100 to 107 seats. The National Blocks took 275 seats, but the elected deputies for the Blocks were extremely heterogeneous and thus difficult for Giolitti to control. The fascists managed to elect 45 deputies, a striking result considering that this was the first political outing for many of their candidates. Two constituencies elected Benito Mussolini, and the fascist strategy to concentrate their votes on certain candidates paid off: the number of fascists elected to Parliament was almost double the number that Giolitti had expected in his more pessimist forecasts. The electoral campaign had been characterized by the intimidation and violence of fascist squads or squadrismo against socialist militants and trade union members. The Fascist Party was clearly entering its second phase: this was its offensive stage, following a period in the margins of the Italian political life after the humiliating results of the 1919 election.

In this climate of political fragmentation, King Vittorio Emanuele III appointed Bonomi as prime minister. His government was supported by a diverse coalition formed by parts of the National Blocks (on whose lists Bonomi himself had been elected) and by the PPI. The Bonomi ministry represented a serious moment of crisis for Italian institutions and was unable to face and to counteract effectively fascist violence, which continued almost undisturbed. Bonomi made several decisions designed to contain the aggressions of the squads, including restrictions on gun licenses and on the circulation of vehicles that were not allowed to transport groups of people. He also gave full powers to the prefetti (the local chiefs of police) to ban political organizations whose names and actions suggested that they were, in fact, military groups. Yet these measures had very limited success. In most areas, the behavior of the authorities was designed to keep the fascists in line and to use them against the communists where they were more active.

Less than six months after its formation, the Bonomi ministry was progressively embattled because of its own internal divisions and the opposition of the socialists. Several forces were trying to oppose the slow but determined rise in power of the fascists. On 9 February 1922 the railway section of the General Confederation of Labor (CGL, whose majority was linked to the Socialist Party) started negotiations with other labor forces to reach a common platform from which to counteract the violence of fascist squads. The talks ended on 20 February with the constitution of the Alliance for Labor, a political organization that included the CGL, the Unione Italiano del Lavoro (UIL), the Italian Anarcho-Syndicalist Union (USI), and the National Federation of Harbor Workers. Under the ideological and political direction of the socialist members of the CGL, one of the main goals of the alliance was, in the words of the socialist leader Pietro Nenni, "the alliance of proletarian forces, which aims to the restoration of civil liberties and common rights together with the defense of the general rights obtained by the working classes, both on economic and moral grounds."

The demise of the Bonomi ministry coincided with the birth of the alliance. This was already a defeat for the newly constituted alliance, whose socialist trade unionists were trying to persuade socialist deputies to support Bonomi in exchange for a program of restoring civil liberties. In spite of the opposition of Luigi Sturzo, one of the PPI's most charismatic leaders, the liberals, led by Facta, and the PPI supported the new government led by Facta. From its start, the Facta government was therefore a weak one. During his first two months as prime minister, Facta did not face serious crises. However, in May 1922 the beginning of the agricultural season and the first divisions within the ruling parties persuaded the fascists to intensify their campaign of intimidation throughout Italy. The aim of the fascists was clearly to erase the socialist organizations that were still resisting as well as to preempt any agreement between leftist labor organizations and Catholic and republican ones. There was a new dimension to this renewed fascist offensive. Thousands of armed militants would occupy villages and towns and then proceed with the methodical destruction of all working-class organizations. Facta proved completely unable to face this political cleansing.

The Legalitarian Strike

In June the CGL and the reformist minority of the Socialist Party tried unsuccessfully to push the more extremist and uncompromising majority of the party (the massimalisti) to open negotiations with Facta. The majority refused, following the same behavior that had led to the end Bonomi's ministry. In July the government resigned while the country fell prey to the violence of fascist squads. With the persistent clamor for and the imminent formation of a government open to the extreme right and to the fascists, the socialists decided to appeal to the masses. They hoped that the PPI and the other democratic forces would refuse to support any kind of government that was not openly antifascist. In July the Alliance for Labor declared several regional strikes that emanated more from the workers' frustration than from a coherent political plan.

The different working-class organizations were facing a vast crisis. The violence of the fascists had taken them by surprise, and in several areas it had successfully cut their links with the masses. Therefore, the situation was not particularly favorable for a general national strike. Yet the parliamentary group of the Socialist Party, including its reformist deputies, approved a motion on 28 July to support any type of action that aimed to restore the defense of freedom and the right to political organization. This was the beginning of the general strike, or "legalitarian strike" as socialist leader Filippo Turati called it. The same evening, the socialist-led Chamber of Labor in Rome declared that if the Alliance for Labor had not called for a general strike, they would have parted from it. On 1 August the Alliance proclaimed the general strike in defense of "political and trade-union rights, threatened by the rising reactionary factions," without specifying its duration. Even antifascist politicians judged the strike as a negative move, and Catholic working-class organizations refused to participate in it. Sturzo defined it as a "deadly moral and political mistake." Historians have been even harsher. In his much debated multivolume study on Mussolini, Renzo De Felice claimed that the 1922 general strike was the crucial event that defeated the already beleaguered Italian democracy, eliminating the last obstacles on Mussolini's way to power.

The strike ended the political negotiations for the creation of a new government. Facta received the task of forming his second ministry, which practically became a copy of the first one. However, the most important political consequence of the strike was to stop the detachment of the Italian bourgeoisie from fascism. The Italian bourgeoisie were looking with increasing concerns at the phenomenon of the squadrismo and its violence. Yet the general strike called by the alliance rekindled in the middle classes the anxiety about a "red" revolution, and fascism became once again the only possible means to eliminate the left from the political scene. The Fascist Party did not lose this chance to act as savior of the nation: on 1 August its leaders ordered all of the party's militants to be ready to be called to end the strike. They issued a 48-hour ultimatum, after which, their note claimed, they would replace the government in the protection of its citizens. Faced by this challenge, the alliance backed off and declared the end of the strike on 2 August. The fascists, however, were on the offensive and occupied several important working-class institutions and a number of important Council Houses (such as Milan's). The left was more divided than ever. Its leaders accused each other of causing the strike to fail, which produced a feeling of frustration in the working masses and pushed them toward the Fascist Party. The failure of the legalitarian strike represented the failure of Italian democracy. It was the necessary premise of the March on Rome, which would take place in October and would end with the appointment of Mussolini as prime minister.

Key Players

Facta, Luigi (1861-1930): The last prime minister of the Italian democratic era before the advent of fascism, Facta was the head of two weak governments that proved ineffectual in preventing the establishment of the fascist regime.

Mussolini, Benito (1883-1945): After starting his political career in the Socialist Party, from which Italy was expelled for its interventionist stance in World War I, Mussolini was the founder of the Fascist Nationalist Party and the organizer of the March on Rome. He proclaimed himself dictator in 1925, and his regime lasted until 1945. His reign was known as the ventennio fascista (20 years of fascism).

Turati, Filippo (1857-1932): Italian socialist leader belonging to the reformist current of the party. Turati advocated the gradual rise in power of the working classes rather than a proletarian revolution of a Soviet type.

Bibliography

Books

De Felice, Renzo. Mussolini il Fascista: La Conquista del Potere, 1921-1925. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 1966.

Giudice, Gaspare. Mussolini. Turin, Italy: UTET, 1969.

Veneruso, Danilo. La Vigilia del Fascismo: Il Primo Ministero Facta Nella Crisi Dello Stato Liberale in Italia. Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 1968.

—Luca Prono

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Legalitarian Strike

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