Milan Barricade Fights

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Milan Barricade Fights

Italy 1898


The early 1890s have been referred to as the Black Years in Italy because of the serious industrial and agricultural problems that confronted the country during that period. In the late 1890s economic conditions gradually began to improve. Grain shortages and higher bread prices that resulted from the Spanish-American war in 1898, however, became the focal point of discontent for workers and the population at large. During that year demonstrations took place in most of the large cities, particularly in the industrialized North, as part of a campaign to eliminate the tax on milling grain into flour. As the often violent demonstrations spread, the government began using force to suppress them. The most dramatic confrontation took place in Milan during May 1898, in what was called the Events of May (or, in Italian, Fatti di Maggio), when over a four-day period the military carried out a campaign to eliminate the demonstrators.


  • 1878: Thomas Edison develops a means of cheaply producing and transmitting electric current, which he succeeds in subdividing so as to make it adaptable to household use. The value of shares in gas companies plummets as news of his breakthrough reaches Wall Street.
  • 1883: League of Struggle for the Emancipation of Labor is founded by Marxist political philosopher Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov marks the formal start of Russia's labor movement. Change still lies far in the future for Russia, however: tellingly, Plekhanov launches the movement in Switzerland.
  • 1888: Serbian-born American electrical engineer Nikola Tesla develops a practical system for generating and transmitting alternating current (AC), which will ultimately—and after an extremely acrimonious battle—replace Thomas Edison's direct current (DC) in most homes and businesses.
  • 1891: French troops open fire on workers during a 1 May demonstration at Fourmies, where employees of the Sans Pareille factory are striking for an eight-hour workday. Nine people are killed—two of them children—and 60 more are injured.
  • 1894: Thomas Edison gives the first public demonstration of his kinetoscope film projector, in New York City.
  • 1898: United States defeats Spain in the three-month Spanish-American War. As a result, Cuba gains it independence, and the United States purchases Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain for $20 million.
  • 1898: Chinese "Boxers," a militant group opposed to foreign occupation of their country, are organized.
  • 1898: Marie and Pierre Curie discover the radioactive elements radium and polonium.
  • 1898: Bayer introduces a cough suppressant, derived from opium, its brand name: Heroin.
  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1904: The 10-hour workday is established in France.
  • 1908: An earthquake in southern Italy and Sicily kills some 150,000 people.

Event and Its Context

During the 1880s and 1890s, Italy experienced accelerated growth in economic development and social urbanization, with an accompanying labor shift from agriculture to industry. These rapid developments brought about poor living conditions, massive housing shortages, and miserable employment conditions within the growing industrial cities of Italy, especially in Milan, which had become the largest Italian industrial city in the 1880s.

Before 1870 the only type of labor organizations permitted in Italy were mutual aid societies (Societa di Mutuo Soccorso). These local societies were widespread throughout industrial cities but were limited in providing help to members during times of distress, including sickness and unemployment. One such organization was the Consulate of Skilled Workers (Consolato Operaio), which was a collection of societies within the Lombardy region (surrounding Milan). In 1881 radical group members formed the Confederation of Lombardy Workers (Confederazione Operaia Lombarda), which actively placed pressure on management to improve working conditions.

Later Industrial Milan: 1877 to 1890

Beginning around 1877, considerable expenditure of domestic investment and foreign capital occurred in industry and construction within Milan as the factory system expanded. Milan, along with other industrial cities, saw increasing numbers of semiskilled and unskilled workers replacing the highly skilled craftsmen of the past. Even though the cost of living was declining, the proletariat began to take action against the widening social, economic, and political power exerted by the propertied class. Employers saw many conflicts and strikes as they continued to introduce new piece-rate systems, lower wages, and longer hours into their operations.

These economic conditions of the late 1870s favored the development of a moderate socialist movement in Italy. During this period the real beginnings of trade unions and worker political activities became established in Milan and across the industrial North.

Many Italian historians view the period from the 1880s through the 1890s as a crucial turning point for labor organizations as the older traditional craft organizations gave way to the new resistance leagues (leghe di resistenza), which were based on resisting oppressive employer trends involving mass production of goods. One of these leagues was the Milanese Italian Workers' Party, which was founded in 1882 by the Milan Consulate (Consolato di Milan), which itself was part of the Confederation of Lombardy Workers. The party was formed as a way to coordinate the activities of the numerous workers' leagues and associations that existed in Milan and in the Lombardy region. Its goal was to achieve direct representation for working people.

By the end of the 1880s, a new proletariat composed of industrial workers and laborers had mostly replaced the traditional Milanese workforce of artisans and craftsmen. This new worker class took over the leadership of the city's labor institutions, and its political viewpoints and values were represented in the programs of the Milanese Workers' Party.

Industrial Unions: 1891 to 1897

The new industrial unions that began to form at the end of the 1880s joined and sometimes took over the resistance leagues. These unions were based on the French labor market (bourse du travail) and were called the Chambers of Labor (Camera del Lavoro). The moderate socialist Osvaldo Gnocchi-Viani became the most active proponent in favor of the establishment of industrial unions in Italy. The first Chamber of Labor was organized in Milan in 1889 in response to a growing need for a class-conscious Italian labor movement. By 1893, with 14 local chambers already in existence, the first national congress of Chambers of Labor convened. By the end of the nineteenth century, more than 50 Chambers of Labor were operating with a membership of about 150,000 workers. Besides coordinating functions within local organizations, the chambers operated as an employment service and promoted education, organization, and labor dispute settlement. Many Italian labor historians describe the Chambers of Labor as a dynamic element of Italian trade unionism, one that played an important role in the history of the labor movement.

In the 1890s several crises arose that set the stage for the Milanese fighting of 1898. One such crisis was the fragile growth that Italy experienced in the 1880s, which was based on a banking system that was underdeveloped and highly speculative. As a result, from 1893 to 1894 a series of banking scandals and failures disrupted the Italian economy, raising concerns about Italy's capacity for industrialization.

Contributing to the country's crisis was a government attitude that the growing social and economic unrest in the labor market could be controlled and eliminated by force. After Francesco Crispi left office January 1891, Marquis Antonio Starrabba Di Rudinì took over from 1891 to 1892. The first ministry of Giovanni Giolitti followed from 1892 to 1893. In December 1893 Crispi returned to power and remained in office until March 1896. From that time until June 1898, the second Di Rudinì ministry governed Italy. General Luigi Pelloux succeeded Di Rudinì and governed until June 1900. Each leader used his coercive powers to control the laboring class.

At this same time the Italian labor movement was changing from a party focused exclusively on labor issues to one that emphasized both political and labor advocacy. The congress of the Italian Workers' Party met in Genoa on 14 August 1892 in response to continuing unemployment and high food prices that had prompted numerous worker demonstrations. It represented different types of workers' groups, including the recently organized Chambers of Labor. The dominant leaders of the congress were Filippo Turati of the Socialist League of Milan (Lega Socialista Milanese) and Giuseppe Croce of the Workers Party in Lombardy and Piedmont. The first resolution was to designate the Workers' Party as the Socialist Party of Italian Workers, which was renamed the Italian Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano) in 1895. The Socialist Party was given the authority to improve the condition of the working classes through a campaign of political power, and the labor unions took on the job of improving hours, wages, and factory regulations. Because the word "election" was not specifically mentioned, revolutionary members felt that the use of violence and force was an acceptable means to their goals.

The Socialist Party was the central organization in the labor movement of the 1890s, as it fought to expand labor's role in Italian politics at the expense of the exclusive elites (such as landholders). Filippo Turati and Anna Kuliscioff based the party's ideology and political strategy on that of the Socialist League, which they had founded in Milan in 1889. Their brand of socialism was based on democratic and humanitarian traditions within socialism that provided them with the ability to gain broad support from both the Italian middle and working classes.

Discontent Spreads

The immediate cause of the crisis of the 1890s was the collapse of the industrial sector. Italy's adoption of high protective duties and tariffs on manufactured and agricultural products in 1897 worsened the collapse. The result was commercial recession, widespread bank failures, and heavy unemployment. When food prices rose dramatically following a poor harvest in 1897, protests spread quickly throughout Italy.

Workers no longer accepted conditions and events without protest. They could read, write, and think for themselves. Even though they were eating better food and buying more goods, workers were growing angrier about and less tolerant of the miserable conditions that persisted. Workers associated the government with burdensome taxes, depreciating currency, adverse trade imbalances, bank scandals, rumored political alliances with terrorist groups, and the siphoning of tariff monies to people in power.

The government did nothing to alleviate the near-starvation conditions that existed in Italy, especially in the rural South. The socialists exploited this condition, emphasizing that the government did not rescue the country from the unexpected rise in grain prices. By the end of 1897, renewed riots continued to show that the government was not curing or alleviating its social and economic problems. The climax of this upsurge of unrest took place in Milan from 6 to 9 May 1897. These four days are often considered the beginning of the violent times that led to the fights in Milan called the May Events (or Fatti di Maggio) in 1898.

January to April 1898

The Spanish-American war in 1898 continued to escalate grain prices. From January to April 1898, people in the regions of Marche, Apulia, and Sicily rioted. The protestors voiced their anger against grain dealers, who had raised wheat prices, and mayors and members of the communal councils, who had imposed additional taxes on flour.

In 1898 rural Italians began to pour increasingly into Milan (and other industrial cities) to look for work. These rural immigrants upset the city's social equilibrium. Additionally, the Milanese poor held justified grievances against the wealthier classes. Although the city furnished its people with excellent administration, local taxes burdened them excessively. Added to this, the city planned to expand its boundaries into the growing industrial suburbs. This contributed to worker unrest in those areas and spawned protests against the extension of Milan's heavy taxes on basic commodities to suburban areas.

By the end of April 1898, violence had spread. Crowds stormed bakery shops in Forlì, located in the southeastern region of Emilia-Romagna. Citizens fought with police near Ravenna (north of Forlì) and at Piacenza and Parma, both southeast of Milan. In response, the government alerted 80,000 reservists.

Barricade Fights in Milan: May 1898

On 5 May 1898 the police in Pavia (located south of Milan) fired into a group that had assembled to protest price increases in bread and killed a student, the son of a radical deputy from Milan. When the news reached Milan, the Socialist Party printed inflammatory handbills, which were distributed by a group of Pirelli plant workers. When the police interfered and arrested three of them, other workers intervened. The police, then outnumbered, withdrew to their barracks with one of the arrested men. Excitement escalated in the next several hours after authorities refused to release the man. Union leaders asked the workers to halt their aggression, but they refused. Additional workers gathered at the Stigler plant, and then advanced toward police barricades where soldiers, added as reinforcements, had positioned themselves. The police and soldiers eventually fired into the crowd, killing two workmen and wounding 14. A policeman also was killed before a rainstorm stopped the first round of violence.

On the next day, 6 May 1898, protesting workers from various factories stormed the streets. When cavalrymen rode toward them, demonstrators converted streetcars into barricades, and others broke windows and threw tiles from rooftops. The government declared martial law and ordered a military occupation to stop what it described as a revolution. More troops rushed to Milan. For three days, soldiers and police searched out demonstrators, sometimes killing them. On 9 May an artillery officer mistook beggars for rebels who had come for soup at a local monastery. Soldiers battered down the monastery walls in search of the protestors. The soldiers even pulled at the monks' beards, assuming they were disguised militants.

Afterwards: June to December 1898

The Milanese occupation was followed by the arrest of those held responsible for organizing the disorder, which included most of the leaders of the Socialist Party as well as leading Catholic opponents of the government. The activity in Milan was seen as the dramatic culmination of violent protests in other areas. The government pursued its repressive policy by shutting down the headquarters of any group suspected of having any responsibility for the demonstrations. Thousands were arrested and special military tribunals imprisoned more than 600. The government censored all newspapers and publications and forced the dissolution of unions and cooperatives.

Key Players

Turati, Filippo (1857-1932): Turati was an Italian political leader and an advocate of a moderate, nonviolent form of socialism. Turati cofounded the Italian Socialist Party in 1892. In 1926, threatened by the growing fascist movement, he fled the country, escaping in a boat to Corsica. From there, he traveled to Paris, where he spent the remainder of his life as the head of an antifascist coalition.



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Haimson, Leopold H., and Charles Tilly. Strikes, Wars, and Revolutions in an International Perspective: Strike Waves in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Roberts, David D. The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

—William Arthur Atkins