International Communist Party English language press
On the Thread of Time
Trade Union Splits in Italy
(Sul filo del tempo, Le scissioni sindacali in Italia, Battaglia Comunista no.21 of 1949


It is not easy to tidy up a little the notions and positions on the relations of political parties and tendencies with the economic workers’ movement in Italy, and their repercussions on the regrouping and dissolution of trade union confederations on a national basis.

In the struggles of the national bourgeois Risorgimento, the workers’ groups where they existed embryonically were allied with the patriots and tended towards the strongest positions: Garibaldian, Mazzinian, anticlerical. Once liberal bourgeois unity was achieved, workers’ associations and societies were formed according to social development in the various regions, in which, on the one hand, artisans mingled with proletarians, and on the other, the paternalism of the political leaders of the new parliamentary regime prevailed.

The most advanced groups woke up with the first adherents to the International in the years 1867‑71 and in the sections, some very strong as in Romagna, Tuscany, and even Campania, there are reflections of the struggles between Mazzini Bakunin and Marx with the prevalence of the libertarian tendency, to which in fact we owe, when the functional difference between political associations and economic organisations began to become clear, the first real trade unions, despite the fact that anarchists tending towards individualism, not a few in Italy, mistrusted not only the formation of parties but also that of trade union bodies.

These are the few hints of trade union prehistory, the development of which would be of the utmost interest, that allow us to arrive at the extremely important contribution of the political movement and the socialist party in the organisation of the Italian industrial and agrarian working classes. In fact, it must never be forgotten that while the spread of industry in Italy varies greatly from region to region and only in a minor part of the country does it later become of comparable weight to that in other neighbouring European nations, there exists distributed from north to south, albeit with local unevenness, an agricultural proletariat of pure labourers whose behaviour in the class struggle understood in the clearly Marxist critical sense i.e. as a protagonist and not as a secondary and transitory ally of a more revolutionary class, has a powerful tradition of battle against the capitalist bosses and the bourgeois State; only the rampant cowardice of today’s leaders degrades it to jacqueries of serfs hungry for property and for socialism against the ghost of a non‑existent baronetcy, which should be defeated by demo‑liberal alliances for the conquest of bourgeois reforms. Worse still, when this phantom scheme of struggles is presented as revolutionary.

Alongside the socialist party and through the work of its propagandists, who are at the same time organisers – not yet officials – trade unions, the first leagues arise. They naturally associate workers of all parties and beliefs on the basis of their work in factories or on farms. No less naturally they are, and are accordingly called by friends and foes alike, red leagues and socialist leagues; their headquarters often house the party headquarters and political propaganda conferences are held, of which electoral propaganda is only an occasional aspect, especially as the comrades running for office are in little danger of escaping rejection.

In fact the bourgeois, the priggish pedant and the priest excommunicate at the same time the workers’ claim to obtain by the mere force of their union a less miserable economic treatment, and how much they come to understand about socialist propaganda, which they feel – and is – launched against all national and liberal religious orthodoxies.

It is not a question here of apologising for a romantic time of socialism, but of aligning contributions of facts for the understanding of the evolution of the capitalist regime and the reactions to it of the workers’ movement, which in its organisational forms and tendencies cannot avoid its repercussions.

It was later that parties other than the socialist party entered the trade union arena with intentions not only of competition but of social counter-attack. Especially in Romagna leagues and Chambers of Labour sprang up, which we called yellow as opposed to the red socialist ones. At the basis of the different tradition and political ideology there is a social differentiation: the republicans organise the fat sharecroppers of Romagna with an accordion wallet with thirty‑two compartments and who go from market to market selling and buying cattle for a thousand lire gold as if they were matchboxes, eating and drinking Nibelungen‑like meals and drinks in trattorias with accommodation and stabling. The workers have to contend with them for their meagre daily wages, and against their Chamber of Labour emblazoned with the emaciated portrait of Mazzini they conduct strikes, while often the struggles between the two parties are settled with blows and worse. In vain would the labourers, for example from the rich and red Imola, go in search of the baron of literature, they might at most find Count Tonino Graziadei at home, but they would come across one of the few in Italy who had read and understood Marx. Understanding is not following, but it is still a rare and pleasant thing.

In Veneto, on the other hand, fractional ownership dominates and priests prevail. When the pulpit is no longer enough and the Catholic club barely less dark and silent than the sacristy, we see the white Chamber of Labour founded. Whether it brings together trade unions, mutual societies or farmers’ consortia to buy fertiliser is not easy to say, sometimes it even has the same nameplate as the Catholic Bank. The good believer saves for the other life but also for this valley of tears. This is the time of Rerum Novarum. Welfare is at the heart of the priestly, petty-bourgeois economy and is the black beast of our Marxist economy, is it not, Tonino? But the deposit statistics of Ivanovo Vossnessensk beat those of San Donà del Piave…

At this point in Italy there are three trade union confederations, albeit with different regional weight: red, yellow and white. Let’s continue to examine this with the simplism of us poor and limited monochromatics. If you want to call the last one black, it goes the same way.

The oft‑referenced crisis of the detachment of revolutionary syndicalism was largely a reaction to the rightward degeneration of the socialist movement. This had two aspects: parliamentary and confederal. The party as such, with its best militants and in the same leadership, was overwhelmed by the double force of the parliamentary group and the hierarchy of confederal leaders, two forces equally oriented towards a legalitarian and conciliatory form of action, at the end of which it was easy to see economic collaboration with the bosses and political collaboration with the bourgeois ministries. Trade union leaders and deputies asserted an autonomy from the party for a good democratic reason, that party members were numerically far fewer than the organised economic on the one hand, and political voters on the other. The extreme reformism of Bonomi and Cabrini developed a true ’reformist syndicalism’ which, although it considered the industrialist’s office and the prefect’s office to be its field of action instead of the square, kept itself free from party influences and even from those of the undisputably right‑wing socialist deputation, thus devaluing – a symptom common to all revisionisms of radical Marxism – party action over purely economic action.

The Sorelian or revolutionary syndicalists flanked by the anarchists exploited the masses’ disgust at the excesses of the quietist method prevailing in the workers’ leagues and in the party that was too dedicated to electoral facts, and put in the forefront their favourite slogans of direct action, i.e. the imposition on the bosses without intermediaries of parliamentarians and State officials, and the general strike as a means of support between categories. From the socialist General Confederation of Labour, but actually dominated by reformists even though they were a minority in the party, came the organisations of the aforementioned tendency, and they founded the combative Unione Sindacale Italiana (Italian Trade Union Union), the protagonist of not-to-be-forgotten workers’ battles. The strong and no less rich in classist traditions Railwaymen’s Union, while reprobating confederal reformism, kept out of the two national organisations.

The tide of war. The CGL, still led by right‑wing elements of the socialist party, resisted without split in its opposition to the war, although refusing to proclaim a general strike in the days of patriotic drunkenness in May 1915. The Unione Sindacale suffered a bad split, and we had two of them: the interventionist one of De Ambris, the anti‑war one of the libertarian Armando Borghi. Names are used to thicken the broth.


When Fascism appeared, which in essence was the same current to which the very right‑wing Bissolatians and Bonomians on the one hand, and the pseudo-left-wing interventionists, both Repunennian and SindadeAmbrisian, on the other, responded well, it also tried its hand in the trade union field. It actually founded its trade unions, insisting on the struggle against bosses in view of a nationwide agrrement, as in the interesting Dalmine speech. Not for nothing did it convince not insignificant exponents of those currents, framing a Michele Bianchi who had played a part in the Italian trade unionist broth as a relevant ingresient, and the reformist carrot Rigola Calda and the others of the Problemi del Lavoro. Fascism was the only real possible heir to reformism, the pet peeve of us archeoMarxists.

Fascist trade unions appeared as one of the many trade union labels, tricoloured against the red yellow and white ones, but the capitalist world was now a world of monopolies, and they developed in the State union, in the forced union, which organizes workers in the framework of the dominant regime and destroys in fact and in law every other organisation.

This great new fact of the contemporary era was not reversible, it is the key to trade union development in all the great capitalist countries. The parliamentarian England and America are single union countries and the trade unions in their hierarchies serve the governments as much as in Russia.

The Victory of the Democracies and the return to Italy of the castor‑oil users rather than its victims, pre‑March on Rome characters, was therefore not a reversion of Fascism, which was much less regressive than they were (but in the meantime note Tonino that we monomarxists etc. the more we call someone a progressive the more we would like to see him liquidated).

If the Italian historical situation had been reversible, i.e. if it had any basis in the foolish position of the second Risorgimento and the new struggle for the Nation and Independence, a horse more than ever ridden by the Stalinists themselves, the tactic of founding a single confederation of reds and yellows, whites and blacks, would not have had a minute’s existence, and without the influence of the factors of historical force, to which, if one had to give a name, that of Mussolini must be taken, the masses would not have undergone this beastly order brought about by the Moscow encyclical in Easter 1944.

The successive splits of the Italian General Confederation of Labour with the detachment of the Christian Democrats and then of the right‑wing republicans and socialists, even as they lead today to the formation of different confederations, and even if the constitution admits freedom of trade union organisation, will not interrupt the social progression of the union’s subjugation to the bourgeois State, and are but a phase in the capitalist struggle to deprive future revolutionary class movements of the solid basis of a truly autonomous workers’ union framework.

The effects, in a defeated country with no State autonomy possessed by the local bourgeoisie, of the influences of the large foreign State complexes punching in on these no-man’s-lands cannot mask the fact that even the confederation that remains with the social-communists of Nenni and Togliatti is not based on class autonomy. It is not a red organisation, it is also a tricolour organisation sewn on the Mussolini model.

The history of the 1944 trade union ’Risorgimento’ proves this, with its tricolour ribbons and sprays of lustral water on the workers’ flags, with its low orders of National Union, of anti‑German war, of a new Liberal Risorgimento, with its claim, still in place, of a ministry of national concord, directives that would have made a good red organiser – even one of solid reformist tendency – vomit.