by Adriana Dadà


The Preventive Counter-Revolution

The end of the great wave of struggle that had culminated in the factory occupations added to the repercussions in Italy of the international economic crisis to create the conditions for the defeat of any revolutionary hopes that anarchists had had during the Biennio Rosso. At the same time, the wounds produced by the war in the capitalist world were healing, while it was becoming ever-clearer that there would be no further spreading of the Russian Revolution in its Bolshevik version. At this point, the anarchist movement (which had provided, both in Italy and elsewhere, a not irrelevant contribution to the blocking of episodes of armed counter-revolutionary intervention) was losing the reserve which it had thus far maintained for the sake of unity of the left, and began to voice its dissent regarding the management of and the road to revolution and to protest against the persecution of anarchists in Russia. The basic criticism lay in the degradation of the soviets, proclaimed by the Bolsheviks as the basis of revolutionary action and the instruments of the new order, but which were instead suffocated by the "dictatorship of the proletariat". This, in practice, was a dictatorship of the communist party which, with its centralizing apparatus, crushed the truly democratic structures. This was the line taken by Fabbri in his "Dittatura e rivoluzione", written in August 1920 but, significantly, only published the following year (99). So it was that the 3rd Congress of the UAI (in Ancona, November 1921) confirmed "its enthusiastic solidarity with the Russian revolution and its firm intention to rise in its defence against any reactionary attempt to destroy it by governments of other countries", while declaring however that it "in no way recognized the so-called communist government of Russia as the representative of the revolution" and expressing "its heartiest solidarity with the anarchists of Russia who are being denied all freedom and who are imprisoned and persecuted for the [...] crimes of publishing, meeting, organizing and propagating their ideas" (100).

But the debate on the conduct of the Bolsheviks and the Anarchists on the dictatorship of the proletariat would only later have any sort of notable influence on attempts to revise strategy. In the years from 1920 to 1925, instead, attention was fixed on the re-emergence of State repression and on the spread of fascism which was unleashing armed acts of aggression against the workers' movement, destroying the organizational structures which the masses had devoted untiring energies into building. The more dedicated militants were being assassinated or forced out of their home towns into exile or temporary refuge elsewhere. Already in October 1920, that is to say practically immediately after the abandoning of the factories, the offices of Umanità Nova in Milan were twice subjected to searches. The police arrested some of the best-known members of the UAI and the USI, such as Malatesta and Borghi, for "conspiracy against the State". Preparations for the trial dragged on for a long time as the prosecution struggled to find a plausible charge on which to prosecute and the trial did not begin until July 1921 (101). The prisoners began a hunger strike in March, which led to a series of solidarity protests and strikes led by the USI. The unease created by the arrests and by police measures drove some individualists into isolated action. On 23 March 1921, a bomb at the Diana Theatre in Milan, designed to hit the police chief, missed its target and killed around twenty people (102). The resulting shock in public opinion led to the most violent repression, while fascist squads ransacked the offices of L'Avanti! and of Umanità Nova (which in May had to move to Rome where it was able, with some difficulty, to continue publication until December 1922)(103) and began a vicious hunt for "subversives".

Anarchists have long debated the episode and it is still difficult to establish to what extent infiltrated agents provocateurs were involved in the attempt on the life of the police chief. "If E. Malatesta had not been arbitrarily detained in prison for such a long time", declared one of the men sentenced for the slaughter, "the bombing would never even have been thought of" (104). And though Malatesta (who, together with his comrades, had immediately suspended the hunger strike) totally disagreed politically with the bombers, while demonstrating a certain comprehension from a human point of view, the position of others was much more severe.

"Let it be perfectly clear", wrote Fabbri, "that given the choice between the bourgeois judges and the prisoners, between the accusers and the accused, we will defend the latter - in full accord with our function as defenders of the downtrodden and the weak, but we defend them for superior reasons of humanity and justice, as irresponsible victims and not as defenders of an idea. We defend them and help them, but we by no means celebrate them" (105).

The affair contributed to some extent to weakening the anarchist movement and, more generally, the whole workers' movement, exposing its weaknesses which were already to be seen with the first signs of repression. The convention of popular forces which was quickly called in Florence in order to promote protests and active solidarity with Malatesta, Borghi and the other prisoners, brought no results (Serrati even went so far as to describe the arrest as a "sporadic episode")(106), demonstrating the inability to reach agreement, even on common defence, among the parties and organizations of the Italian left, their incomprehension and their unreadiness to face up to the reaction and fascism. For anarchism in particular, this shortcoming was closely linked to the basic fact that "it had not been able to develop a strategy for the revolutionary transition which would place it in a position to lead the masses" (107). Certainly, as we have already seen, the Bologna congress had established certain points, a number of partial policies. And in fact, the supporters of that strategy had involved themselves in the class struggle which, during the Biennio Rosso, was at its height in exactly those areas where they were concentrated - and it was no coincidence. But just as these actions, though widespread over some while, failed to lead to a more generalized revolt, the Italian anarchist movement too (fooled by a false theoretical unity and unity of purpose which undermined any chance of debate or organizational growth within the UAI) was unable, as a political movement, to work out a strategy which could face the various stages of development, based on experience and political development. This insufficiency did not escape Malatesta, who remarked on it with great clarity in January 1920:

"On the streets, in action, the masses are with us and are ready to act; but at the moment of truth, they allow themselves to be sweet-talked, becoming disheartened and disillusioned; we always find ourselves defeated and isolated. Why? [...] Because we are disorganized, or not organized enough. The others have the means to transmit news, be it true or false, quickly and everywhere, and they use these means in order to influence opinion and direct any action in whatever way they want. By means of their leagues, their sections and federations, by having trusted elements in every area, safe houses, and so on, they can launch a movement when it serves their purposes and halt it when the goal is reached [...] The situations I have described will certainly be reproduced in Italy and in the not too distant future. Do we really wish to find ourselves in the same unprepared state, powerless to successfully oppose the manoeuvrings of tricksters and to obtain the best possible results from any revolutionary situation?" (108).

But the project of an alliance of leftist forces, built mainly from the grassroots at local level, was matched by an inefficient synthesis between the various anarchist currents, founded on a "pact" and a "programme" which should have served to unify through a common appeal to the principles, but which instead were avoidable and avoided thanks to the autonomy of individuals and groups. Undoubtedly, experiences and the rapid worsening of the situation were an incentive to overcoming the contradiction. The Milan nucleus, which was gathered around the journal Il Demolitore stated in 1922 that

"the Unione Anarchica Italiana [...] must not limit its work to studying the situation and carrying out the modest task of 'correspondence commission'. It must hold (if it really wants to be strong) under its control everything that regards the anarchist movement, its day-to-day expressions, its press, its oral propaganda, its manifestoes to the proletariat, its labour action, international relations, periodicals, its relations with the other vanguard parties, absolute control of the direction of every delicate organism and, above all, responsibility".

And it rightly attributed the functional shortcomings of the organization to the presence of

"two distinct currents which block each other out: on the one hand the pro-organization anarchists who, though convinced of the need for solid political and labour organization, make tremendous efforts to free themselves from the fear of denominations and from the terror of having to be (and about time, too) nothing more than disciplined militants; on the other hand, the individualists struggling along from day to day on the margins of the two manifestations of anarchism - communist and terrorist" (109).

Nevertheless, the dark years of total resistance to fascism were not best suited to a process of profound revision. Thus, the anarchists faced the test with the policy of the single revolutionary front, with the various leftist parties each bringing their own specific elements; engaging (with no great success) in action designed to unite, with appeals to the need for "direct agreement between all the active elements, over and above the official organizations" (110), and urgently appealing to the proletariat for an "organized resistance" (111), of which they felt themselves to be the vanguard; promoting the formation of the Arditi del Popolo (seen as the military application of the FUR) who, despite the diffidence of the PSI and the Partito Comunista d'Italia (Communist Party of Italy - PCdI), tried to react blow for blow. They were the protagonists of episodes of armed opposition both to the fascist squads and to the armed forces and police and also arms raids on military barracks, but paid a high price in deaths and jail sentences (112). They were, however, fully aware of the need not to become isolated and to fight with the masses: if the fascist attack represented the reaction of capitalism, "the need of the leading elements in modern society to defend themselves" (113) against the proletariat which had continued to grow after the Great War, it was becoming indispensable for the resistance to be massive and for the defensive phase to become an offensive, a revolution which could overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish a new society.

Ultimately, Fascism was able to win easily simply because of the deficiencies of the Italian left. And in the eyes of many anarchists, these deficiencies were added to in no small way by the absence of any appropriate strategy by the anarchist party and above all by the lack of revolutionary initiative during the Biennio Rosso (114). But Fabbri looked further than most and realized that the success of the adversary and especially the way this success was consolidated depended a great deal on international factors. As he wrote in December 1923:

"The worst reaction is predominating all over Europe, and this is the principal reason why the Italian reaction is so strong; this is the most important reason why Italian fascism has cause to hope that its triumph can be longer-lived than would be the case if it depended solely on its material strength and the conscience, the state of mind and the spirit of the Italian people [...] The miserable state of freedom in Italy depends much more than is thought on the whims of plutocrats in Paris, London and Washington" (115).

Next section: A Re-Think On Strategy



99. L. FABBRI, Dittatura e rivoluzione, Ancona 1921 (most recent edition Cesena 1971). For an anarchist historiography of the Russian Revolution, see: VOLIN, La révolution inconnue, Paris 1947 (English edition: The Unknown Revolution, Detroit/Chicago 1974); P. ARCHINOFF, Historia del movimento machnovista, Buenos Aires 1926 (English edition: P. ARSHINOV, The History of the Makhnovist Movement (1918-1921), London 1987); N. MAKHNO, La Révolution Russe en Ucraine (mars 1917-avril 1918), Paris 1954, 3 vols.; La rivolta di Kronstadt, Florence 1971.
100. "Umanità Nova", 8 November 1921.
101. See: T. TAGLIAFERRO, Errico Malatesta, Armando Borghi e compagni davanti ai giurati di Milano. Resoconto stenografico del processo svoltosi il 27, 28, 29 luglio 1921, Milan 1979.
102. On the Diana affair, see: V. MANTOVANI, Mazurca blu. La strage del Diana, Milan 1979.
103. See: L. BETTINI, op. cit., pp. 289-291.
104. G. MARIANI, Memorie di un ex-terrorista, Turin 1953, p. 46.
105. Mentioned in E. MALATESTA, Vittime ed eroi, in "Umanità Nova", 24 December 1921 (now in E. MALATESTA, Scritti cit., I, p.312).
106. L. FABBRI, Prefazione cit., p. 20.
107. E. SANTARELLI, Il socialismo anarchico cit., p. 180.
108. E. MALATESTA, Movimenti stroncati cit.
109. T.T. [T. TAGLIAFERRO], Il senso della realtà, in "Il Demolitore", Milan 14 February 1922.
110. E. MALATESTA, Il dovere dell'azione, in "Umanità Nova", 25 June 1921 (now in E. MALATESTA, Scritti cit., I, pp. 97-98).
111. E. MALATESTA, La guerra civile, ibid, 8 September 1921 (now in E. MALATESTA, Scritti cit., I, pp. 217).
112. On anarchist resistance actions against the reaction and fascism, see: A. TASCA, Nascita e avvento del fascismo (1918-1922), Bari 1965, passim; R. VIVARELLI, op. cit., passim; A. BORGHI, La rivoluzione mancata cit., passim; Un trentennio cit., passim.
113. L. FABBRI, La controrivoluzione cit., p. 13.
114. See: L. FABBRI, La controrivoluzione cit., passim; A. BORGHI, ½ secolo cit., passim.
115. L. FABBRI, La reazione europea e l'Europa, in "Il Martello", New York, 22 December 1923.