The impact of the Bolshevik Revolution and the aftermath of the First World War transformed Western and Eastern Europe after 1918 into a storm-zone of unrest that has never since been equalled. A wave of political and industrial insurgency unfurled across the continent: this was the time of the insurrection in Berlin, the Soviet in Munich, the Commune in Budapest, the general strike in Vienna, the rising in Vratsa and Plovdiv, and the factory occupations of Turin. For a few brief years, the whole capitalist order seemed on the verge of a revolutionary overthrow. The most spectacular episodes of this international upheaval were the revolt in which Luxemburg and Liebknecht were assassinated, the adventure from which Dimitrov escaped, and the debacle of proletarian power which made Lukács an exile for thirty years. But the mass struggles which were richest in theoretical developments were those of the young working class of Turin, whose age and composition so closely resembled that of the proletariat of Petrograd (Fiat/Putilov). Antonio Gramsci, editor of L’Ordine Nuovo from 1919 to 1920, was its spokesman. Gramsci’s early writings on workers’ councils, trade unions, political parties and the State are a product of the great revolutionary turmoil of Northern Italy after 1918.footnote1

Gramsci was 28 when, together with Palmiro Togliatti, he captured control of the newly-founded weekly L’Ordine Nuovo. He immediately published, on June 20th 1919, an editorial calling for the creation of Factory Councils in Turin. Its title—Democrazia Operaia—was already a programme. Gramsci urged the transformation of the limited ‘internal commissions’ which had existed in Turinese industry since Italy’s entry into the First World War, into democratic workers’ councils embracing all the workers in every plant. The response to his appeal was immediate and enthusiastic: within six months, by December 1919, 150,000 Turinese workers were organized in Councils. There have been few occasions in socialist history when a theoretical initiative by an intellectual worker (Gramsci was not a political leader at this time) has been so massively and instantaneously adopted by industrial workers. The Factory Councils were composed of commissars elected from each work-team in the plant. They were like the representatives of the Paris Commune—revocable by referendum at any moment.

Democratic control by the workers themselves of their own councils was explicitly conceived as a counterforce to the restricted and bureaucratized Italian trade unions. The fundamental task of the Councils were to build workers’ power in the factories and to foster a revolutionary culture of producers preparatory to national victory by the proletariat. The Councils soon showed their vitality and combativity as weapons of class struggle.

In March 1920, the Italian employers reconstituted the General Confederation of Industry (Confindustria) to mobilize for the repression of the working class movement: its secretary, Olivetti, declared that the Councils must be destroyed. Troops were deployed to encircle Turin. A month later, a dispute over daylight saving time (changing clocks) at a Fiat works was seized by the employers as a pretext to proclaim a lockout. They then demanded the reversion of the Councils to the old status of internal commissions, as a condition of settlement. Confronted with this clear bid to smash the basis of mass militancy in the city, the Turin Chamber of Labour, the engineering workers’ union (fiom) and the Socialist Party (psi) declared a general strike. 500,000 industrial and agricultural workers stopped work and the whole of Piedmont came to a standstill. But the national leadership of the psi and the Confederation of Labour (cgl) refused to give any assistance to the strike, which thus remained trapped in its provincial stronghold. After eleven days, the Turinese working class was forced to admit defeat, and work was resumed. The Factory Councils were not, however, abolished as the employers had planned.

Four months later, battle was engaged again, this time on a yet grander scale. On August 16th the engineering workers’ union in Milan ordered a work-to-rule when the employers broke off wage negotiations. This was a new weapon in Italy. The employers reacted violently. The lead was given by the Alfa-Romeo plant which ordered a lock-out in reprisal. The workers immediately occupied the factory: everywhere in Milan fellow-workers followed their example. Two days later, on September 1st 1920 the big metallurgical plants in Turin were occupied; then the movement spread to most of Italian heavy industry, and some sectors of light industry. Turin rapidly became the vortex of the movement, which assumed the character of a general challenge to capitalist society as a whole. The Factory Councils controlled production within the factories, while protecting the plant from counter-attack by organizing Red Guards. Great efforts were made to maintain output. Armed workers in Turin clashed with the city’s security forces. The question of power had clearly been posed on a national scale.

At this climactic moment of social crisis and mass working-class upsurge, the cgl passed responsibility for all decisions to the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party thereupon abdicated, requesting the cgl to poll its members as to whether they opted for negotiations or an immediate move towards revolution. A referendum was organized, which predictably endorsed the official cgl policy of negotiations (by a narrow majority). An economist settlement was reached with the employers, by the mediation of the Prime Minister Giolitti, who even insisted on the introduction in Parliament of a bill ratifying the ‘principle’ of workers’ control.footnote2 Another referendum in the unions was then organized to secure endorsement of the settlement. Between September 25–30 the occupations ceased. The Italian working class, deliberately abandoned by its political party for a hypocritical electoralism at the supreme hour of its struggle, had suffered a catastrophic defeat. The Italian bourgeoisie had now witnessed its ardour and power, but had been left intact; the immense social fear that resulted produced fasicism. Mussolini’s movement became a major political force immediately after the end of the occupations.

The parallel between the fate of the great wave of occupations in Italy and that of the recent occupations in France needs no emphasis: it is cruelly evident. Gramsci’s writings in these critical years assume a special reverberation after the events of May 1968. They deserve close study throughout the revolutionary Left. Gramsci’s thought had not matured by 1920. It will be seen that there are important errors in his writings of this period. But they form a matchless document of the mass struggles of the time, and raise some of the central issues for a contemporary Marxist theory of the socialist revolution in the West. These essays were the practical-critical preliminary to the mature Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks: the rupture formed by the later work occurs within a theoretical space already traced by them.