Fascismo: Reform or Reaction: The Development of Italian Syndicalism


ONE of the most striking features of public life in Italy is the prevalence of syndicalism as an adjunct to politics. We have here a condition of affairs which does not exist elsewhere; for there is no other country wherein each political party in the national representative assembly looks for its mandate, wholly or partly, to a specially organized following among the working classes. This fact is of fundamental importance in any serious study of current affairs in Italy; for it underlies the whole trend of the Fascist movement and looks to-day as if it must inevitably become the controlling factor in the future policy of the Fascist Government.

All these followings, with the exception of those under the Fascists, used to be explicitly revolutionary in character and purpose. The revolution was to be effected by means of a concerted national strike and the simultaneous expropriation of farms and factories. Pending the advent of this extra-parliamentary coup-d’état, Italian labor leaders discountenanced the policy of a progressive series of remedial measures for the social and economic betterment of the working classes. Italian labor leaders did not seriously pretend to champion the workman’s cause within the established political order. They gave him a tessera, which was in effect a promissory note entitling him to a share in the revolutionary millennium which was to be delivered at a future date.

The holder considered that the note fell due in 1920. The opportune moment for the revolution had arrived. The diplomatic defeat inflicted on the Italians at the Peace Conference had completely undermined public confidence in the traditional ruling classes. Strikes were a matter of daily occurrence, not for the purpose of securing increased wages or better workingconditions, but merely on the slightest pretext that could be found, such as the appearance of a military uniform in a railway carriage, or the forwarding of a consignment of ammunition from a factory. Bands of farm laborers seized the lands on which they worked. Tenants refused to recognize the right of a proprietor to his rent. Postal services became thoroughly disorganized. Passengers’ goods were openly confiscated in transit. In some centres of northern and central Italy Socialist coöperative stores monopolized the right of distribution. A labor coupon was often indispensable for the purchase of the necessaries of life.

This was revolution in a guerrilla form. Obviously it could not effect the general purpose dreamed of by the leaders. As a matter of fact, it was largely not due to their immediate inspiration or initiative. Demobilization, the sudden unleashing of the bonds of discipline under which the masses had been held during the war, dislocation of labor as a result of the withdrawal of government orders from factories, the topsy-turvy intermingling of new classes that had not yet found their respective social cadres, the insolence of war wealth, the callous abandonment of ex-service men on the part of an ineffably futile Government, repudiation of pledges, the sting of the diplomatic defeat suffered at Versailles, war sorrows and deprivations on the part of those who had given the country of their best — the accumulation of all these bitter experiences raised a spirit of revolt that spread like wildfire among the masses. Everybody felt the necessity of protesting against something or somebody. Even the most patriotic of those who had fought and suffered in the war could not at times withstand the temptation of asking themselves whether it had been worth while or whether, after all, the Socialists might not have been wiser in their generation than those who had counseled intervention in 1915.

According to the Maximalist element of the Socialists, the revolutionary dawn had arrived. It needed only the word of command for a decisive attack to overthrow the whole bourgeois state. By the opening of September some factories in Piedmont had already been invaded. It was the signal for the general advance. The Maximalist element prevailed in the Socialist councils. The strike was proclaimed, and during the first weeks of September the bulk of the metallurgical factories were occupied.

The grand offensive ended in complete disaster. The experiment of factory control on the part of employees lasted scarcely a month. Technical heads of departments and skilled foremen left the works. The machine hands and manual laborers had had no technical training or administrative experience. They knew nothing of the ways and means whereby raw materials could be provided. They had no organization for the commercial disposal of whatever goods they might manufacture. Though internal councils of control were established, in accordance with plans that had been matured on paper decades ago, this did not solve the strike trouble. In one of the principal Roman factories, for instance, the manual workers demanded an increase of wages. This being refused, they sent a two hours’ ultimatum to the Factory Council and proclaimed a strike. The net result of the grandiose experiment throughout the country was that, after the experience of a month, the white flag floated above the factories and the old régime was reinstated.

The psychological effect on the masses was tremendous. It broke their faith in the Maximalist theory of class warfare and in the effectiveness of labor organizations based on that theory. Moreover, the failure of the factory invasion stultified the whole Socialist position; for it proved that, even if the revolution were to be accomplished, labor would still need expert management of capital and technical guidance, not only in the actual industry but also in commerce, before it could operate the patrimony of the capitalist. It was this general conviction that took the heart out of the Socialist domination of the working classes. The old order had broken down and the way was open for a new system of industrial organization.


It is important to bear this chronological order of events in mind for the purpose of understanding the Fascist syndicalist movement which followed in the wake of the Socialist débâcle. But in order to discover its deeper sources, we must, in the first place, ask why it was that syndicalism of a revolutionary type had become so prevalent in Italy.

The answer will be found in the fact that the arrival of Italy among the modern industrial and commercial nations of Europe had been delayed for generations. Thirty years ago the Italian workman was still, morally and materially, the bound vassal of his employer. Neither on the one side nor on the other was there a consciousness of the dignity of labor as a social function, or of the more material idea of labor as free merchandise in the open market. Only with the advancement of the industrial revival, which set in thirty years ago, did Italian labor begin to be dimly conscious of its value as a national asset. It formed the overwhelming bulk of the population, with no solid middle class to stand between it and the ruling caste. On the part of the latter there was no serious attempt at democratic administration. The ruling caste, whose political organ was the Liberal Party, surrounded itself with a massed array of bureaucratic servitors; and thus in the minds of the working classes the whole paraphernalia of government became invested with the padronal idea.

If the government of the country had been in the hands of the aristocracy, so that some traditional bond would have existed between it and the laboring classes, the attitude of the latter might have been different. But only a small fraction of the old aristocracy had actively interested itself in the risorgimento, or in the subsequent national government. The political coterie that had championed the cause of the House of Savoy maintained itself in power by dint of interminable bargaining for the patronage of the grande bourgeoisie, — a rather meagre element in Italy, — and by paying a philanderer’s court to the petite bourgeoisie. The latter, being ex officio of a servile temperament, was content to fetch and carry for its patrons, in return for the bestowal of a cavalier’s cross or the appointment of a son or relative to some minor official position.

In such circumstances it was inevitable that non-Liberal political parties should turn to the proletariat for support and that those who organized labor under pressure of the industrial revival should have placed the wholesale scrapping of the bureaucracy in the forefront of their policy. It is well to note, in addition, that the present position of the Savoy monarchy is the result of a compromise between Garibaldian revolutionaries and Piedmontese politicians. The compromise quickened rather than quelled the revolutionary spirit that had been enkindled in the heart of the proletariat by the appeal of Garibaldian and Mazzinian ideals. Therefore their revolutionary policy gave the Socialist labor organizers the political kudos of having inherited the Garibaldian tradition. This was exploited to its utmost — so much so that no other political party operating in the same sphere could have avoided being drawn into the revolutionary vortex of the Socialist organizers. This is the explanation of how it came to be that the Popular Party, though confessedly Catholic, found itself, by force of circumstances, in the Socialist train.

The pith of the Socialist labor policy was the deferment of remedial measures pending the revolution. The political question must be solved before the economic question could be taken in hand. That was the strategic key of the whole position. If by any unforeseen combination of circumstances the economic question were solved through other means, and exploitation of the economic inferiority of their protégés were thus rendered impossible, the Socialists faced inevitable defeat.

The war brought the solution of the economic problem in its train. The strength of the middle classes dwindled under the economic burden; that of the proletariat increased. The result was that an upward exodus took place in the case of the latter, to meet the downward exodus of the former; and thus a new democracy was created. In Italy that democracy has a conservative trend, for the following reason.

Over two thirds of the Italian people live by agriculture. Female labor on the land is an invariable tradition of the countryside. Therefore conscription did not rob the agrarian districts of manual labor to the same serious degree as in other countries. The high cost of living, which was keenly felt by the bourgeoisie, redounded to the enrichment of the peasantry. Labor was at a high premium, owing to the increased national demand for foodsupplies and the crisis precipitated by the submarine blockade. High wages and exemption from military service were the rule in the industrial centres.

Now, the Italian workman, whether in field or factory, is one of the most thrifty individuals in Europe. In the case of the industrial employee the family savings are generally deposited in the bank, sometimes invested in house property or in the purchase of small plots of cultivable land wherever workmen’s dwellings are situated on the outskirts of towns and cities. This latter phenomenon is particularly prevalent, owing to the large percentage of small industrial plants established in little country towns and villages. The rural laborer invariably keeps a nestegg at the savings bank, with the ultimate idea of securing property in his own right. To this end he is generally assisted by the accumulated savings of his relatives; for you will generally find in the villages and hamlets throughout Italy that the bulk of the inhabitants are interrelated and will club together when economic opportunities or necessities arise.

For landed proprietors on a medium or large scale the war brought a totally different message. Labor, taxes, seeds, machinery, live stock, and so forth made staggering demands on the landlord’s purse. Revenue could not keep pace with overhead expenses. Property was becoming a burden. Social unrest and the prospect of war disasters constantly disturbed the landowner’s dreams. Therefore it needed no extraordinary amount of persuasion to force him to sell, or to cede the land either on a percentage basis of profits or on lease.

The Socialist revolution was obviously being forestalled by the advancement of the solution of the economic problem. The peasant generally becomes conservative when he finds himself with a vested claim in the land. His political orientation henceforth is not toward a revolution. It tends rather toward a consolidation of the status quo; and for this purpose he becomes directly interested in the political management of affairs. Considering that out of a total of 1,926,861 enrolled in the ‘ red ‘ syndicates 889,0001 represented rural labor, and taking this in conjunction with what has been just said of the ‘white’ syndicates, it is not difficult to see how seriously the transformation of which I have spoken must have affected the strength of the Socialist and semi-Socialist labor policy. That is the fundamental social-economic explanation of the ultimate failure of the strikes of 1919-1920.


At this juncture it was that Fascism began to gather strength as a political movement. Hitherto it had been only a sporadic crusade against the Communist vilification of the war and those who had fought in it. The old bourgeoisie, with its stunted political consciousness and its sold knocking against its ribs under the terror of the Socialist revolutionary braggadocio, plucked up courage and ran to the walls on receiving news that the Black Shirts were marching to its aid. The new bourgeoisie, especially the rural section, which had a fairly sound sense of political values, as the result of its apprenticeship in the Socialist school, immediately recognized the possibility of finding through Fascism a political solution of its own problem in accordance with the economic solution which the war had brought about. It was on the shoulders of this combination that the Fascists were borne into power.

Once the reins of government were in its hands, Fascism forthwith turned toward the consolidation of its position by inaugurating an intensive campaign for the reorganization of labor on a national basis. This is the underlying motif of the whole Fascist policy during the past twelve months. But it is hardly noticed by the Roman newspaper correspondents who find their principal copy in the shifting scenes of the political drama.

The Fascists, however, know that their supporters are looking to their bread rather than to their Circenses. Signor Mussolini realizes that his success or failure must ultimately depend upon how far his legislative and administrative policies correspond to the demands of that realistic section of the nation which seriously interests itself in national production. He has called Bologna ‘the strategic key of every situation,’ because it is the agricultural capital of the valley of the Po, which is the most productive district in Italy. He knows that the art of political showmanship will butter no parsnips in the valley of the Po; and therefore he has denied himself the facile triumph which he might have had at any time during the past twelve months had he chosen to appeal to the polls. An appeal to the polls in such circumstances would not have resulted in returning to Parliament the type of deputy which the new conditions demand; for probably not even yet has the Fascist labor movement been sufficiently expanded and systematized to warrant a selection of candidates from among its syndical élite. Fascist syndicalism is therefore the kernel of the present political situation.

The movement is of interest even outside of Italy. The working owner, whether in the manual, technical, or administrative sphere, is its central pivot. It is not a labor organization in the traditional sense of being based on class distinction, but rather in the more comprehensive sense of an organic functional collaboration between the various categories actively interested in the economic welfare of the country. By establishing a vital connection between parliament and the syndical confederation, Fascism hopes to eliminate the professional politician and thus solve the problem of industrial unrest, which is at the core of practically all the national difficulties in Europe.

The new syndical movement was formally launched at Ferrara in October, 1921. In the following January a definite corporative constitution was decided upon at a meeting held in Bologna, where the organization was officially registered as La Confederazione Nazionale delle Corporazioni Sindacali. It is interesting to note that these two cities had formerly been the citadels of ‘red’ labor. The founders, and those who came in on the ground floor, as it were, of the new Confederation, represented the new middle class which the war has created. In June,

1922, the first National Congress was held in Milan, at which half a million members were represented. On June 30, 1923, the second National Congress assembled in Rome. It was officially stated by the Secretary, at the inaugural session, that the membership of the Confederation then exceeded 1,500,000. Since that time another half-million has been added; so that the present total exceeds that reached by the ‘red’ syndicates in September 1920, when the Socialists were at the zenith of their power. Over eighty per cent of those enrolled in the new association are secessionists from the ‘red’ and ‘white’ groups of syndicates.

The Socialist Confederation felt so seriously the loss thus incurred that it decided on radical measures for the purpose of consolidating the following which has still remained faithful in the industrial centres of Lombardy, Liguria, and Piedmont. On August 24,

1923, a special convention was called for this purpose, to meet at Milan. The result of its deliberations was that two thirds of the delegates voted in favor of a resolution which formally renounced all future connection with the Socialist political party. The other leading clauses of the resolution repudiated the principle of international affiliation and declared the Confederation ready to follow the national policy of the Fascist Government. This furnishes a striking index of the extraordinary moral influence which the new organization has had on the policy of its competitors.

The cardinal teachings of the Fascist Confederation are expressed in the following paragraphs, selected textually from the body of the statutes: —

Under the title of Confederazione Nazionale delle Corporazioni Sindacali is hereby constituted, throughout the whole territory subject to the Italian State, an association which unites under the symbol of the Italian flag, without distinction of sex or religion, citizens of every class and category who are engaged in manual or intellectual labor.

. . . The Confederation affirms that syndicalism is no longer a specific institutional fact confined solely to ‘labor’ classes and categories. The example of the latter has given a dynamic syndical impulse to other classes, as a result of which, syndical organization has definitely become an institutional fact of the whole population. As such it is incorporated and identified with the Nation, the supreme synthesis of the material and spiritual values of the race.

The Confederation affirms that the development of production presupposes and implies an increment of capital for the purpose of investment in the ever increasing bulk of new inventions and labor contrivances; but this increment must not result from a diminution of wages where these are consonant with industrial conditions and the general cost of living.

The Confederation affirms that the evolutionary increase of production and the constant addition of new labor-devices implies the multiplication of productive categories, a progressive increase in the bulk of the middle classes, and a correspondingly wider distribution of wealth and prosperity. This implies that proletariat élite are thereby placed in a position wherein it is possible for them to acquire directly the ownership or the management of the means of production, thus rendering themselves socially and technically indispensable.

The Confederation affirms that classification of society is a necessity, inasmuch as it corresponds to respective functions inherent in the graduated scale of duties which is indispensable in a rational organization of labor and production. Therefore classes grow in number according as the functions of organized society become multiplied to meet the demands of an economic régime wherein an intensive degree of production has been evolved. Progressive economic evolution, therefore, will never be possible if graded classification be abolished; for this would mean a retrogression and arrest of social functions in the sphere of labor.

The Confederation affirms that the dynamic law of civilization does not consist in a struggle between classes, that is to say, between social functions; much less in collaboration between classes, which would mean a confusion of functions. It consists rather in the lotta delle capacità [struggle for the triumph of fitness], that is to say, in a struggle on the part of inferior classes toward an increase in technical ability, so that they may eventually be capable of discharging the functions of higher grades, according as the latter become worn out or fail to maintain the requisite standard of excellence demanded by their respective categories.

The final paragraph discloses one of the most interesting features of the organization. Here we have the creation of gruppi di competenza, bodies of experts attached to the various syndicates, and, instead of using political propaganda, the new masters say, in effect, to their pupils: —

‘It is vain to hope for salvation through the thaumaturgical power of a political bouleversement. This truth was brought home to you by the experience of the invasion of the factories. We do not come to you from Lenin, or Trotsky, or Karl Marx, but from our common motherland of Italy where syndicates flourished and prospered, to the welfare of the community and the individual, centuries before the name or the language of Marx was articulate on men’s lips. To go forward to-day, you must go backward. You must take up the broken tradition of Latin syndicalism where it was left in the twilight of the Renaissance. From there you will find that it stretches back in an unbroken series to the Roman syndicates, the Collegia Romana, whose power and prestige are monumentalized in the mammoth skeleton of the Roman Empire that has not even yet been buried in the soil of Europe.2 Syndicalism accounts for the Colosseum and St. Peter’s, for the roads and harbors of the ancient Roman world, for the glory and wealth of Genoa and Venice and Florence. This is the ideal which we would revive. The syndicalism of those days was essentially a labor school wherein advancement was the guerdon awarded for work and study. There is no utopia in the ballot-box; the Kingdom of Utopia, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is within you. Each man must work out his own economic salvation. The blackboard and the lecture-screen and the model workshop must take the place of the red flag as the vexillum of your faith.’

So far as concerns individual members, the specific purpose of Fascist syndicalism is, therefore, instructional. Naturally, the defense of the workman’s just claims is not neglected; but this is a sub-function. The dominating principle is that of technical collaboration. This is one of the reasons why a decentralized territorial system of regimentation has been adopted; for otherwise it would be impossible to ensure continuity of apprenticeship, or to organize technical training on a basis that would correspond to the opportunities and demands of particular localities. Moreover, seeing that a devolutionary scheme in favor of the workman, for the gradual acquirement of a vested interest in the enterprise wherein he is engaged, is one of the features of the organization, it is necessary to have a certain amount of local stability in each syndicate.

The provincia, which corresponds to the county in English-speaking countries, is taken as the basis of local autonomy wherever this is practicable. In cases such as seamen’s and railroad-men’s unions, where the county obviously could not be taken as the territorial unit of distribution, an alternative system is adopted. For functional purposes, however, this alternative system follows the rule laid down for the counties. Each county has a syndicate for every category of employment within its boundaries. In this connection the word ‘employment’ is taken to include all grades actively interested in any enterprise. Therefore intellectual labor of every type, whether on the part of proprietors or their managers, comes within the ambit of the Confederation. Directors, managers, and technical heads of departments form the first syndicate. Office-staffs, salespeople, and the like, constitute the next; and so on, down to the category of purely manual labor. One county syndicate has no direct relation with other county syndicates of the same category, or with syndicates of different categories within the same county. Each county syndicate must deal independently with its own labor problems, as regards wages and so forth.

In the new régime, therefore, the principle of the national strike is banned. This is held to be in the interests of the workmen as well as of the community. The national strike is not of its nature an effective weapon against the greed or tyranny of employers; for employers can afford to wait when they find themselves automatically banded together by the sudden cessation of the national industry in question. In the case of localized strikes the effect is otherwise; for then the united capitalist front is broken and recalcitrant employers are more easily brought to book. Provision is therefore made for local strikes, on the part of county syndicates acting autonomously. But they will have to go carefully. The Government is at present engaged on a scheme of legislation which will give juridical recognition to the new syndicates, thus raising them to the status of responsible legal bodies bound by their contracts. This is true both for employers’ syndicates and for those of employees. Labor contracts, to be binding in law, must be sanctioned by the corporation to which the contracting syndicates belong; and as these contracts will not be sanctioned except on the advice of gruppi di competenza, acting impartially on both sides, there can be no question of injustice or duress on either side.


We come now to the corporation. This is the coördinating centre of the whole system. Therefore its function is distinct from that of the syndicate. The latter is constituted on the horizontal lines that separate one category of employment from another, whereas the corporation is constructed on the vertical lines that divide the whole bulk of national production into a series of specifically distinct industrial groups. Each branch of national production has its special corporation, wherein all the county syndicates of the industry in question are represented on the basis of one delegate for every autonomous syndicate. Masters and men meet in the corporation, though not in the syndicate. The former is, therefore, the national parliament of a particular industrial branch. Its scope is concerned with discussion of general problems affecting the industry as a whole, and the enactment of measures calculated to facilitate and forward its well-being. The function of the corporation being essentially technical and juridical, it does not deal with local administrative problems of labor and employment, except as the supreme court of appeal in case of disputes; but it deals with the social welfare of labor as a whole, considered as a dynamic factor in the prosperity of the specific industry which the corporation represents.

The administrative function of the corporation is entrusted to four principal departments. Each of these has a departmental county branch attached to the syndicates; so that there is a perfectly articulated organic system reciprocating between the periphery and centre of the whole organism.

We are here confronted by a highly developed organization on a comprehensive scale. The laborer is no longer left with his grievance on the doorstep of the Constitution, to howl his antiphony of threats and prayers; he is received into the national family and given his just place according to his birthright. The impact of the war has served to bring out what was already a latent force struggling for free play.

In 1913, for instance, British tradesunions had a membership of 3,965,000. In 1920 they reached the grand total of 8,024,000.3 In France the membership of the Confédération Générate du Travail reached about one million in 1913. Seven years later the number had increased to 2,700,000.4 Within the same period German unions increased from five to seven millions; and Italian from 900,000 to about three and a half millions. At this rate of progress it would be unreasonable to suppose that syndicalism could remain outside the State without seriously affecting the authority of State institutions.

Italy has been the first of the belligerents to attempt a comprehensive solution on a national basis. It has this important recommendation in its favor, namely, that it has already been tried with signal success. In choosing the principle of technical instruction as the pivot of their scheme, the Italians have gone to the core of Latin syndicalism as practised in Roman times and in the Middle Ages. The curve of economic prosperity in the history of the Republic and the Empire, from the middle of the third century, B.C. to the time of Constantine, runs pari passu with the rise and fall of professional training in the Collegia Romana.

It is interesting to point to the inspirational source of the present Italian movement. The dream of the Fascist organizers is to revive the old corporations and adapt them to modern demands. They would reconstruct Italian polity on an economic basis, grouping all elements engaged in national production into syndical units and regrouping these units into representative bodies called corporations. Of these representative bodies they would make the central pivot of political power. Already the parliamentary parties are in an advanced state of liquidation. Even Fascists themselves are seriously canvassing the formal dissolution of the Fascist National Political Party; so that the syndical corporations would eventually be the sole organic link between the central government and the nation. The idea is that by a process of natural selection in the activities of the syndicates and corporations an industrial élite will rise to the surface and keep renewing its worn-out elements by a steady upward exodus from the lower strata. According as this élite has experience of governing in the syndicates and corporations, its members will be chosen for the National Parliament, and thus it is hoped that the professional politician may ultimately be eliminated.

  1. See the Official Organ, Baltaglie Sindacali, Sept. 11, 1920.
  2. See Mommsen, De collegiis et sodaliciis Romanorum.
  3. See Labour Gazette, December, 1920.
  4. See Gide: Les Institutions de Progrés Social; Paris, 1921.