Italian Syndicalism and Fascism

According to Bob Black (in Anarchy after Leftism, page 64), the "Italian syndicalists mostly went over to Fascism" and references David D. Roberts 1979 study The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism to support his claim. Peter Sabatini in a review in Social Anarchism makes a similar statement, saying that syndicalism's "ultimate failure" was "its transformation into a vehicle of fascism." [Social Anarchism, no. 23, page 99] What is the truth behind these claims?

Looking at Black's reference we discover that, in fact, most of the Italian syndicalists did not go over to fascism, if by syndicalists we mean members of the USI (the Italian Syndicalist Union). Roberts states that:

"The vast majority of the organised workers failed to respond to the syndicalists' appeals and continued to oppose [Italian] intervention [in the First World War], shunning what seemed to be a futile capitalist war. The syndicalists failed to convince even a majority within the USI . . . the majority opted for the neutralism of Armando Borghi, leader of the anarchists within the USI. Schism followed as De Ambris led the interventionist minority out of the confederation." [page 113]

However, if we take "syndicalist" to mean the intellectuals and "leaders" of the pre-war movement, it was a case that the "leading syndicalists came out for intervention quickly and almost unanimously" [page 106] after the First World War started. Some of these pro-war "leading syndicalists" did become fascists. To concentrate on a handful of "leaders" (which the majority did not even follow!) and state that this shows that the "Italian syndicalists mostly went over to Fascism" staggers belief. What is even worse, as we will show below, the Italian anarchists and syndicalists were the most dedicated and successful fighters against fascism. In effect, Black and Sabatini have slandered a whole movement.

What is also interesting is that these "leading syndicalists" were not anarchists and so not anarcho-syndicalists. As Roberts notes on page 79, the "syndicalists genuinely desired -- and tried -- to work within the Marxist tradition." According to Carl Levy, in his account of Italian anarchism, "[u]nlike other syndicalist movements, the Italian variation coalesced inside a Second International party. Supporter were partially drawn from socialist intransigents . . . the southern syndicalist intellectuals pronounced republicanism . . . Another component . . . was the remant of the Partito Operaio." ["Italian Anarchism: 1870-1926" in For Anarchism: History, Theory, and Practice, page 51]

In other words, the Italian syndicalists who turned to fascism were, firstly, a small minority of intellectuals who could not convince the majority within the syndicalist union to follow them, and, secondly, Marxists and republicans rather than anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists or even revolutionary syndicalists. Anyone familiar with the history of syndicalism knows that not all syndicalists have been anarchists. There have been Marxist syndicalists too (such as Daniel DeLeon and Bill Haywood in America and James Connelly in Ireland) as well as revolutionary syndicalists who considered revolutionary unionism as a theory in itself. Anarchist supporters of syndicalism are anarcho-syndicalists and it is hardly fair to use Marxist-syndicalists to discredit "syndicalism" (given that the syndicalism in question is anarcho-syndicalism).

According to Carl Levy, Roberts' book "concentrates on the syndicalist intelligentsia" and that "some syndicalist intellectuals . . . helped generate, or sympathetically endorsed, the new Nationalist movement . . . which bore similarities to the populist and republican rhetoric of the southern syndicalist intellectuals." He argues that there "has been far too much emphasis on syndicalist intellectuals and national organisers" and that syndicalism "relied little on its national leadership for its long-term vitality." [Op. Cit., pages 77, 53 and 51] If we do look at the membership of the USI, rather than finding a group which "mostly went over to fascism," we discover a group of people who fought fascism tooth and nail and were subject to extensive fascist violence.

Red Years

To understand the rise of fascism we must look at the near revolution which occurred in Italy after the end of the First World War. In August, 1920, there were large-scale stay-in strikes in Italy in response to an owner wage cut and lockout. These strikes began in the engineering factories and soon spread to railways, road transport, and other industries, with peasants seizing land. The strikers, however, did more than just occupy their workplaces, they placed them under workers' self-management. Soon 500,000 "strikers" were at work, producing for themselves. Errico Malatesta, who took part in these events, writes:

"workers thought that the moment was ripe to take possession once [and] for all the means of production. They armed for self-defence. . . and began to organise production on their own. . . . It was the right of property abolished in fact. . . it was a new regime, a new form of social life that was being ushered in. And the government stood by because it felt impotent to offer opposition." [Life and Ideas, page 134]

During this period the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI) grew in size to nearly one million members and the influence of the Italian Anarchist Union (UAI) with its 20,000 members grew correspondingly. As the Welsh Marxist historian Gwyn A. Williams points out "Anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists were the most consistently and totally revolutionary group on the left. . .the most obvious feature of the history of syndicalism and anarchism in 1919-20: rapid and virtually continuous growth. . .The syndicalists above all captured militant working-class opinion which the socialist movement was utterly failing to capture." [Proletarian Order, pages 194-195]

Daniel Guerin provides a good summary of the extent of the movement:

"the management of the factories. . .[was] conducted by technical and administrative workers' committees. Self-management went quite a long way. . .the self-management system issued its own money. . . Very strict self-discipline was required. . . [and] very close solidarity was established between factories. . . . [where] ores and coal were put into a common pool, and shared equitably" [Anarchism, page 109]

Over the occupied factories, flew "a forest of red and black flags" as "the council movement outside Turin was essentially anarcho-syndicalist." Railway workers refused to transport troops, workers broke into strikes against the orders of the reformist unions and peasants occupied the land. Such activity was "either directly led or indirectly inspired by anarcho-syndicalists." [Williams, Op. Cit., pages 241 and 193]

However, after four weeks of occupation, the workers decided to leave the factories. This was because of the actions of the Socialist party and the reformist trade unions. They opposed the movement and negotiated with the state for a return to "normality" in exchange for a promise to extend workers' control legally, in association with the bosses. This promise was not kept. The lack of independent inter-factory organisation made workers dependent on trade union bureaucrats for infoormation on what was going on in other cities, and they used that power to isolate factories, cities, and factories from each other. This lead to a return to work, "in spite of the opposition of individual anarchists dispersed among the factories" [Malatesta, Op. Cit. p. 136]. The local syndicalist union confederations could not provide the necessary framework for a fully co-ordinated occupation movement, as the reformist unions refused to work with them; and although the anarchists were a large minority, they were still a minority.

Black Years

This period of Italian history explains the growth of Fascism in Italy. As Tobias Abse points out, "the rise of fascism in Italy cannot be detached from the events of the biennio rosso, the two red years of 1919 and 1920, that preceded it. Fascism was a preventive counter-revolution . . . launched as a result of the failed revolution. . . made up of cost-of-living riots, strikes, land seizures and factory occupations that followed the Armistice." ["The Rise of Fascism in an Industrial City", page 54, in Rethinking Italian Fascism] The term "preventive counter-revolution" was originally coined by the anarchist Luigi Fabri.

As Malatesta argued at the time of the factory occupations, "[i]f we do not carry on to the end, we will pay with tears of blood for the fear we now instil in the bourgeoisie." Later events proved him right, as the capitalists and rich landowners backed the fascists in order to teach the working class their place. Tobias Abse correctly argues that the "aims of the Fascists and their backers amongst the industrialists and agrarians in 1921-22 were simple: to break the power of the organised workers and peasants as completely as possible, to wipe out, with the bullet and the club, not only the gains of the biennio rosso, but everything that the lower classes had gained . . . between the turn of the century and the outbreak of the First World War." [Op. Cit., p. 54] This attack on organised labour involved the destruction of USI affiliated Camera del Lavoro (local trade union councils) along with those of the social democratic trade union. Given this violence and that the USI had nearly one million members, if we accept Bob Black's claims that "Italian syndicalists mostly went over to Fascism" then, logically, we must draw the conclusion that the Fascist violence was (in part) being directed by the syndicalists against themselves! Of course, this was not the case.

In fact, rather than becoming fascists we discover that the USI was at the forefront of the struggle against Fascism. Even in the dark days of fascist terror, the anarchists resisted the forces of totalitarianism. "It is no coincidence that the strongest working-class resistance to Fascism was in . . .towns or cities in which there was quite a strong anarchist, syndicalist or anarcho-syndicalist tradition" [Tobias Abse, Op. Cit., page 56].

Arditi del Popolo

The anarchists participated in, and often organised sections of, the Arditi del Popolo, a working-class organisation devoted to the self-defence of workers' interests. The Arditi del Popolo organised and encouraged working-class resistance to fascist squads, often defeating larger fascist forces (for example, "the total humiliation of thousands of Italo Balbo's squadristi by a couple of hundred Arditi del Popolo backed by the inhabitants of the working class districts" in the anarchist stronghold of Parma in August 1922 [Tobias Abse, Op. Cit., page 56]).

The Arditi was the closest Italy got to the idea of a united, revolutionary working-class front against fascism, as had been suggested by Malatesta. This movement "developed along anti-bourgeois and anti-fascist lines, and was marked by the independence of its local sections." [Red Years, Black Years, page 2] Rather than being just an "anti-fascist" organisation, the Arditi "were not a movement in defence of 'democracy' in the abstract, but an essentially working-class organisation devoted to the defence of the interests of industrial workers, the dockers and large numbers of artisans and craftsmen." [Tobias Abse, Op. Cit., page 75]

However, both the socialist and communist parties withdrew from the organisation, The socialists signing a "Pact of Pacification" with the Fascists in August 1921. The communists "preferred to withdraw their members from the Arditi del Popolo rather than let them work with the anarchists." [Red Years, Black Years, page 17] As Abse notes, "it was the withdrawal of support by the Socialist and Communist parties at the national level that crippled" the Arditi [Op. Cit., page 74]. The leaders of the authoritarian socialists preferred defeat and fascism than risk their followers becoming "infected" by anarchism. Thus "social reformist defeatism and communist sectarianism made impossible an armed opposition that was widespread and therefore effective; and the isolated instances of popular resistance were unable to unite in a successful strategy." [Red Years, Black Years, page 3] Therefore:

"The anarchists' will and courage were not enough to counter the fascist gangs, powerfully aided with material and arms, backed by the repressive organs of the state. Anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists were decisive in some areas and in some industries, but only a similar choice of direct action on the parts of the Socialist Party and the General Confederation of Labour [the reformist trade union] could have halted fascism." [Red Years, Black Years, pages 1-2]

After helping to defeat the revolution, the Marxists helped ensure the victory of fascism.

Syndicalism and Italian Fascism

As can be seen, far from "mostly" going over to fascism, the Italian Syndicalist Union (and so the vast majority of self-proclaimed syndicalists) was at the forefront of resisting fascism and experiencing fascist violence. Bob Black's reference to support his claim is discovered to be lacking in substance, referring as it does to a few pre-war Marxist-syndicalist intellectuals and "leaders" who could not convince the majority in their own organisation of their new found nationalism and left it. Far from showing that the "Italian syndicalists mostly went over to Fascism," it, in fact, shows the opposite -- the syndicalists who later became fascists could not convince the majority of the USI of their ideas. The USI, rather than embrace nationalism, remained true to its syndicalist principles and resisted fascism. Like the anarchists, the syndicalist organisation experienced repression and, ultimately, destruction, at the hands of the Fascist gangs. Hardly what would be expected if they "mostly went over to Fascism."

Rather than show a failure of revolutionary and anarcho-syndicalism, the events in Italy provide yet more evidence of the failure of Marxism as a revolutionary theory. Not only were the syndicalists who became fascists mostly Marxists, the Socialist and Communist Parties helped defeat both the revolution and the resistance to fascism. Unfortunately, rather than look at the actual history of the rise of Italian Fascism and its relation to syndicalism, Bob Black (and others) seem intent on slandering a whole movement based on the actions of a handful of so-called "leaders."


Anarchism: From Theory to Practice, Daniel Guerin, Monthly Review Press, 1970

Anarchy After Leftism, Bob Black, CAL Press, Columbia, 1997.

For Anarchism: History, Theory and Practice, David Goodway (Ed.), Routledge, 1989

Malatesta: Life and Ideas, Vernon Richards (Ed.), Freedom Press, London, 1984

Proletarian Order: Antonio Gramsci, factory councils and the origins of Italian Communism, 1911-1921, Gwyn A. Williams, Pluto Press, London, 1975

Red Years, Black Years: Anarchist Resistance to Fascism in Italy, ASP, London, 1989.

Rethinking Italian fascism: capitalism, populism and culture, David Forgacs (Ed.), Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1986


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