Payn, “Anti-militarist United Fronts and Italy’s ‘Red week’, 1914” (2014)

Anti-militarist United Fronts and Italy’s “Red Week”, 1914

Jonathan Payn

First published in issue 87 of Workers World News

Part 2 in a series of articles on the concept and history of the United Front.

The United Front tactic – aimed at uniting masses of workers in action and winning Communist leadership for the working class – was adopted as policy by the Communist International (Comintern) in 1921 and will be discussed later in this series. However, there are important examples of working class unity in action which predate Comintern policy and bear relevance to the united fronts discussion. One often-cited example is the united front to defend the gains of the February Revolution from a military coup in Russia in 1917, which will be discussed in the next article in this series.

Before looking at this, however, there is another example of proletarian unity in action – that didn’t seek to win Communist leadership – which warrants attention; that of a revolutionary worker-peasant alliance. This conception of united front action found expression in Italy’s anti-militarist “red blocs” and it is to these that we now turn.

Prelude to Rebellion
In the early 1900s, there was strong worker and peasant opposition to Italian colonialism and military involvement in Eritrea, Abyssinia and Libya, and to the repression of the Italian working class by the state’s armed forces.

Workers and peasants saw that, although soldiers came mostly from the working class and peasantry, the military and its colonial adventures only served the interests of the ruling class in its search for new markets and new sources of cheap labour and raw materials – as well as to suppress local working class struggles.

However, divisions emerged in the Italian socialist movement between its rank-and-file and the Italian Socialist Party’s (PSI) reformist leaders, who rejected revolution – represented by anarchists, Bolsheviks and syndicalists – in favour of a gradual electoral transition to socialism. Shortly before Italy invaded Libya in 1911, the PSI’s youth wing, the Italian Socialist Youth Federation – which rejected “reformism” – met with syndicalist youth organisations and agreed to co-operate in anti-war efforts. This co-operation, extended to anarchist youth as well, laid the basis for an anti-militarist united front or “red bloc”.

1914 “Red Week”
By 1914, a twenty thousand-strong united front of workers and peasants from different political tendencies was organised against militarism. On Constitution Day, June 7 1914, this anti-militarist front organised a national demonstration against militarism and war. Fearing this front could lay the basis for a revolutionary “Red bloc” the government ordered troops to suppress the protests. Clashes between troops and anti-militarists erupted leaving three workers dead.

The proletariat took to the streets in response and rebellion engulfed the country. Before the dominant General Confederation of Labour (CGL) had responded the Italian Syndicalist Union and Chamber of Labour called a general strike. Dock and rail workers asserted their power in a crippling wave of protests and 50 000 workers marched in Turin in “iron ranks of class solidarity” when the CGL joined the call.

Although the socialist leadership had been divided over the call for a general strike the masses embraced it with revolutionary fervour. Barricades sprang up in the northern industrial centres. Self-governing communes were declared in smaller towns and government officials forced to flee. About a million people participated and for ten days the city of Ancona was under the control of rebel workers and peasants.

The uprising, called the “Red week”, differed from previous uprisings in extent and intensity – it spread across the country from north to south, in cities and countryside, and was offensive rather than defensive in nature. Many workers and peasants believed that revolution was possible and pushed to realise it.

Betrayal and Collapse
However, the reformists restated their view that socialism wouldn’t be achieved by the masses’ revolutionary impulses and rejected the need for a revolutionary rupture. They believed that the working class was not ready for socialism, that its “impulsiveness” was harmful and that socialists should “educate and civilise” the proletariat in order to prepare it for a gradual transition to socialism.

On seeing the situation develop into a potentially revolutionary uprising that they could not contain the CGL called off the strike after two days – over workers’ heads and without consulting the PSI or other working class formations. In doing so they gagged the most conscious and rebellious working class militants and the revolutionary movement collapsed. Although ten thousand troops were needed to regain control of Ancona and in Marcas and Romagna anarchists, revolutionary socialists and Republicans maintained their posts in the streets, side-by-side, for a few days more.

Alternative Ending
However, not everyone shared this view and some socialists did believe that the masses were ready for and capable of revolution and that this was how socialism would come about.

Errico Malatesta, an anarchist leader of the uprising, pleaded with workers not to obey the CGL’s order to end the strike; believing instead that the monarchy was collapsing and that revolution was indeed possible. For revolutionaries like Malatesta socialism would be achieved not through class compromise and elections, but through a working class revolution from below. Through the self-activity and self-organisation of the masses. For them socialists should encourage and stimulate this working class self-organisation and self-activity in preparation for the revolution, which would be cultivated by constant use of the strike weapon, culminating in a revolutionary general strike.

For these revolutionaries, the lesson of the Red Week is that the working class can be revolutionary and that it is strongest on its own terrain; outside and against the state. Rather than being harnesses to and held back by electoral parties it should organise independently as a class, across ideological lines, to overthrow the state and capitalism and replace them with directly democratic organs of working class self-governance.

After the Red Week uprising had been suppressed Malatesta declared, “Now… We will continue more than ever full of enthusiasm, acts of will, of hope, of faith. We will continue preparing the liberating revolution, which will secure justice, freedom and well-being for all.”