This work was carried out by Research Group 626 at Counter Attack which put together an introduction for this issue.

Notes on the Experience of the Military Formations in the Italian “Civil War” of 1919-221

Research Group 626

Immediately after the armistice, the problem of containing the restless spirit of the soldiers, whose discipline was relaxing day by day, appeared as a problem for the Government of Italy, while the population was pervaded by a new mentality, a rebellious vitality, which but the lack of leadership would have culminated in insurrection.

Depots and billets being scattered throughout the peninsula, the mingling of the soldiers in civilian life with the ardour of those who had been nothing but war machines for many years, created a serious situation for which the government was unprepared. It was a period marked by the eruption of brawls between soldiers and carabinieri everywhere (Naples, Trieste etc), and by more serious incidents like Pietralata2, the uprisings over the cost of living and the revolt of Ancona3, and which culminates in the factory occupations.

The public security services had to be transformed. Prior to the war some thousands of men, police and carabinieri fulfilled the ordinary functions of patrol and sentry duty. In more serious cases, units of soldiers intervened. Parma in 19048, Romagna and Marche in 19145, Turin in 1915 and in 19176 proved that this form lacked the homogeneity and unity required for an efficient intervention by the armed forces. The dualism between police, carabinieri and the armed forces slowed the implementation of repressive measures, disconnecting the movement [of implementation-trans].

The new state of affairs was such that it was necessary to consider the use of the Army as off limits in many dangerous situations. In the first place, the high command was directly assigned to the problem of public security and then hierarchically all the dependent military commands. Loyal troops were selected. Select brigades (Sassari etc), carabinieri, the Royal Finance Guard [Regia Guardia di Finanza] and Cavalry and Artillery Units. A small army for public security was organised within the Army. The Kingdom was divided into sectors smaller than the usual army corps and the major cities were also subdivided into sectors. Every sector was placed under a responsible mobilised command which had access to units in full combat readiness in its own location.

These units were deployed in a network of surveillance and security: carabinieri, police, guard units. The network of repression (units in service, the mass of the reserve: the brigades and divisions of the mobile army, selected [units]).

Student officers, in school, were ordered to constitute Groups of 50, under the command of the most senior in their grade and to consider themselves always at the disposal of the local Military Command. Machine guns were held in readiness at all times in secure bourgeois houses. The general dispositions for service were: permanently secure the most important points with large units (municipal public buildings, railway and street junctions, forts, magazines etc.). The carabinieri themselves, the finance [guards] were regrouped into commands of lieutenants and garrisoned companies, by abolishing many small stations and dispersed brigades. They were assigned machine guns and stockpiles of bombs and cartridges.

Artillery batteries were stationed in the city centres. Large reserve units (brigades and divisions) were situated at communications junctions. The criteria taking precedence throughout this organisation was: not to disperse the minimal forces available in a task of preventative repression for which they would be insufficient. The Government dedicated its moral forces to this: the ability of prefects and local officials to handle local issues, the agility of the state in pretending to yield to the masses on political issues; espionage and corruption. In case of uprising hold the strategic points, those morally strategic for their political more then their material importance.

Yielding in the face of overwhelming force, retreating in such a way as to amass the armed forces, and not leaving units or men isolated. Encircle the zone where insurrection has broken out through the convergence of neighbouring sectors. Isolate it from the rest of the Kingdom in such a way that it cannot send or receive emissaries. Attempt to negotiate or play for time. When it is possible to move to repression through the accumulation of these reserves, it is done quickly, energetically, and carried through to the end.

The bourgeoisie also applied this principle militarily, awaiting full force for the rematch, ceding terrain to the masses, retreating to the furthest lines, playing for time and preparing the counter attack. An absolute inertia, securing some large depots and magazines with categorical orders to defend them.

The people were allowed to act. The authorities intervened with thoroughly concealed political action to channel the looting first into the formula of 50%, then left it to completely die down. The Chambers of Labour [Camere del Lavoro] did not fail to aid such governmental action with their own men. If this action had not succeeded and the generalised looting had taken a revolutionary character, not the Army but the small mobile army for public security would have certainly intervened when necessary to put everything into play. Meanwhile demobilisation produced major gaps in the troops and increased the number of malcontents in the country. Socialist demagoguery without constructing organisations of struggle, did polarise all these malcontents and gave ideological content to the desire for a clash.

Disconnected and almost dispersed elements began to prepare small factors for the armed struggle. The class struggle between proletarians and capitalists defined itself. Nitti in government then created a special police organ which although having all the characteristics of an army was no longer directly dependent upon the military caste. With the immediate threat of renewed war removed following the Versailles Treaty, the Government shifted to the liquidation of the Army: men and materials.

The contingents of the Carabinieri (65000) and the Finance Guards (35000) were increased, the Royal Guard was organised (45000), and the espionage services were put on a broader basis with 12000 investigative agents. 18 mobile battalions of Carabinieri and 20 of Royal Guards were also formed (complement of the battalion-750 men, 28 officers, one or two machine gun sections, an automobile section). The Finance Guards are also regrouped into battalions (the action against the Albona miners7); the Royal Guard obtained cavalry squadrons. Officers and petty officers of these three bodies attended courses on aviation, artillery and other specialisations. The distribution of Mobile Battalions in the country was implemented in such a way as to have small masses for manoeuvre available in the locations with greatest ease of movement.

The proceeding tactical dispositions were renewed without substantial modifications. The forces were regrouped around the Interior Ministry and removed from the Army High Command. The technical organ of command is constituted by the group of generals appointed to lead the Royal Guard. The Government stipulated by decree that even a modest provincial brigadier can, for reasons of public order, use radio telegram and communicate directly with the Interior Ministry, bypassing the whole hierarchy.

The bourgeoisie, especially the proud military caste was startled by this situation. It began to illegally mobilise its own elements in military formations. It favoured the Fiume action hoping to thereby create a need for the partial mobilisation of the Army.

The masses tend towards insurrection. But, rich with youthful, enthusiastic elements and even practised in the elementary norms of war, they lack coordination. The socialist party did not think to form an organisation, which in that moment, with minimal effort would evaluate the problem and resolve it: control and study of efficiencies, the general and particular situation, armament and the norms applied by the armed forces of the state. The tactical and strategic values of centres, streets, regions and means of transport. The real effectiveness of men and arms; of the worker and peasant masses, of the army units into which it was possible to penetrate; arming of the proletariat. Organisation and leadership. There was good will to this effect, both above and below; what was lacking was a clear vision and centralisation of efforts. In every moment in which external events caused violent emotions (massacres, the beginning of disturbances in some regions etc), the masses had no definite idea of what they must do, nor did they have any framework upon which to support action. Hence the necessity of massing to understand, seek leaders and obtain slogans. The proletariat was armed individually through the soldiers, due to the abundance of poorly guarded war material and the hasty liquidation of leftovers from the war. But the efficiency of such armament was not comprehensive. Ammunition was minimal and insufficient. The emergence of technical elements in terms of both men and standards of leadership was slow and deficient, hindered by the acquiescence with which the bourgeoisie seemed to greet its own death. Therefore, military leaders were not valued.

The spontaneous germination of proletarian uprisings resulted in a situation where at the beginning all are in solidarity and trembling with enthusiasm, but with the commencement of the struggle this dies down from weariness and the diminution of combatants, it is exhausted on the second or third day with the lack of reserves, of fresh men to arrive in the field when the white guards launch the counter attack. There are no preestablished communications channels, nor does one action come with a series of orders to be implemented when the other is carried out. This makes the work of isolation easy for state forces in the insurgent zones.

A lack of leaders, of weapons, of ammunition, of communications channels, of reserves and of action plans, incorrect criteria which crystallise the struggle around a single objective (the Chamber of Labour, the district, the municipality), instead of tending to immediately expand past the periphery, here are the principle organisational defects on the worker side in the armed struggle, up until the third quarter of 1920. The Ancona uprising was typical of all this and its origins, development and consequences paint all these defects in vivid colour. And that they were of such severity as to be revealed from the beginning every time there is a return to street fighting without sufficient preparation, is demonstrated by the fact that after a few days the Government is able to suffocate that insurrectionary attempt, despite the participation in it of soldiers with modern weapons and some officers on the side of the proletariat.

To all this was added the treasonous activity of social democracy and of the Government functionaries, who sought to calm spirits in the bitterest moments with every possible flattery, in order to then unleash wrath against the defeated.

There had just taken place the sharpshooters revolt [rivolta dei bersaglieri], which chased the officers from the barracks, the forces of public order retreated 15 to 20 kilometres away where the area remained peaceful, into headquarters disturbed by nobody. The rebels seized five forts. A mixed revolutionary Committee was elected. Many elements not led by the new authority, which should have imposed itself by an initial act, seeing the enemy vanish, believed everything was over and gave themselves up to joy. The defenders of the forts cut the telegraph wires and made no attempt to establish any link between themselves. Throughout Italy the first news of the events came by rail.

Great anxieties and waiting games were everywhere.

The leadership of the socialist party did not know how to interpret the movement. The brave departed from major nearby cities to gather news and report back. Meanwhile on the third day two small gunboats began to bombard the forts from the sea. A group of gunners responded with cannons from the forts. A trainload of Royal Guards reaches the station but is for the most part killed or wounded. A second train stops because it finds the railway bridge has been blown up. Then, a force of around a battalion begins a circumvention of the city, seizing one of the forts themselves. From that point, other additional forces go into action, all advancing in flanking columns, supported from one position after the other which they gradually retake with intense machine gun fire.

Regarding the factory occupations, Giolitti indirectly set forth the military critique when he said in parliament a year later: “Did you want me to besiege the force possessed by the workers of these factories?”. Considered tactically many factories by virtue of their position could constitute chains of forts, points along vast lines for the paralysis of the state. But not all would need to be occupied and outside of them would be conserved a mass for manoeuvre in order to sweep the terrain and merge the lines, in a few days eliminating a great number of adversaries by encirclement.

The occupation of the factory was a great moral factor of the worker enterprise, a good base for the armed struggle.

The workers were heroic everywhere. Armament had now reached a level which could be considered a good start. Ammunition however was extremely scarce. Organisation and communications functioned regionally, not nationally, and there were local leaders with an essentially military character.

The proletarians in arms define themselves as the red guards. They did a good job of sentry duty and patrol, running disciplined to arms in moments of danger.

The agrarian masses waited confidently, ready to launch land occupations on a broader scale, which for some time had been carried out here and there almost everyday. The criteria guiding the workers was that of defending the factory. Every factory had defensive barriers [reticolati], sentries, militia and commanders (often a former officer extraneous to the personnel of the factory itself). Where the density of facilities was sufficient the defence is combined in such a way that the one protects and supports the other. In Turin a small unit of experts as well as aiding the occupiers with military expertise, also researched a plan for moving to the offensive against the state. A serious lack of ammunition will be discovered, but it will not be abandoned [the plan-Trans] except on account of the treason of the Confederation.

Italian Translation

The state followed even more restrictive defensive criteria. Amidst the difficulties created by the railway workers who stopped the convoys, it concentrated its own forces even more. It was careful to order the creation of new very large and strong groupings massing units in the primary positions. Patrols and squads were detached from these large areas on tours of reconnaissance. Some industrial districts in major centres were left completely in the hands of the workers, for the whole period of the occupation.

The military commanders were of the opinion that the workers' area tended to expand during the struggle, therefore they gave all their forces the task of encircling and limiting it. They feared that the workers would create large scale enveloping lines which would gradually advance from town and city tending to link up, cutting off communications and separating area from area, unit from unit. Breaking these lines, encircling them instead, not leaving their own units isolated, dominated manoeuvre as much as possible. Maintaining the rail and road network, its most important nodes, intact and unobstructed, these were the concerns of the military leaders.

In the factory occupations five hundred thousand workers stood in arms against a little more than one hundred thousand military [personnel] for over a month (the two hundred thousand men of the regular Army were passive and uncertain). The tactics of the two were so strictly defensive that hardly any fighting took place, with only a few dozen deaths and injuries.

The occupation of the factories and all the agitation of that period accelerated the creation of fasci. Fascism had already been constituted in small units among the agricultural land owners of North Italy [Alta Italia], who intended with such formations to defend their property from peasant invasions which the law failed to sufficiently secure them against. Some military elements viewed the constitution of fasci among conservative forces with sympathy and volunteered their expert support. The movement had a purely military character, it was almost secret, leery, and frightened to reveal itself. It remained localised. They were squads of aristocrats, of young landowners who took heroic names, and who in their districts were driven by hatred for the masses who were going to expropriate them, fearful of the action of a government which in their opinions no longer defended the interests of their class, which was a democracy, and who therefore sought to have a force at their own disposal. As said, the military element was prominent. The factory occupations, this tremendously calm beginning of revolution removed the last scruples in the government.

The working class suffered a setback with the intrigue of Gioletti once again and the men of the state fearing a new development accepted the white guard body desired by the bourgeoisie. The Duca d'Aosta certainly also for personal reasons is the zealous master of the units being formed. He carries out a tour of local celebrations of the victory of the Piave. At each event prepared with this method, a handful of fascists are assembled and a pennant is assigned to them. Fascist action starts to begin. With initial actions of a very modest scale, in the countryside, small disconnected clashes and reprisals.

A group of youths had been detached from the Italian subversive movement in 1915. Many supported intervention in the war for profit alone.

Among them, Mussolini with his journal excelled. He was an enemy of the leading men of the socialist movement, out of hatred and ambition. In the eyes of the bourgeoisie he already possessed one anti-proletarian badge of honour: the arson of Aventi in 1919.

In the period preceding the administrative elections of 1920 Mussolini and many renegades decisively orient towards the reaction. Indeed, they audaciously take political leadership.

They intuit that with fascism they will be able to accomplish their ascension to mastery of the state. They endeavoured to enlarge its basis till it became a formidable force, immensely strengthening squadrismo through recruitment, ensuring its ascendency through corruption and the penetration of all branches of the bureaucracy, the armed services and the judiciary. They audaciously outlined a plan of action in the grand style and began to carry it out. The urban and industrial bourgeoisie was convinced of the need to organise a reactionary force and began a levy for immense sums so as to put a substantial capital at the disposal of nascent fascism. As good Marxists in reverse they understood how to manoeuvre the anti-proletarian forces in such a way as to obtain the polarisation around it of not only many bourgeois strata but also semi-proletarian forces (war refugees, unemployed etc); putting at the basis of squadrismo that most impoverished, passive and lazy part of the proletariat, which as Marx has said is always more ready to ally with reaction, allowing itself to be bought. The Fasci on account of the origins and prudence of their leaders had a military character. The first organisation was the following: the dues paying members belonged to a Fascio (section), they paid a fixed monthly quota (dozens, hundreds, thousands of lira); the members of the action squads. The Fascio was led by a political secretary. At his side was a military commander upon whom depended the heads of the action squads (the smallest in Rome, for example of three members each). The numerical relation was around nine tenths the first and one tenth the second. When it is necessary for action, the action squads, paying well, also recruit additional elements from the underworld, picking them up in remote cities and transporting them to the site of action (for example quite a few Roman gangsters, anti-fascists in Rome, had been squadristi in Liguria for a more or less prolonged period).

The first completely fascist operation was the conquest of the lower Po between November 1920 and January 1921. The choice of Emilia was not made by accident. In taking possession of Emilia they meant to strike one of the most lively centres of socialism, wedged between the North and the Centre of Italy. In Bologna the resentment of the agrarians was stronger than elsewhere, due to the violent means by which their privileges were attacked. Therefore, bourgeois sympathy for violent repression was more forthcoming. On November 4th in Rome there was the military ceremony of presentation of the regimental banners to the King. In socialist circles one had the feeling that on that day there would be a national launch of anti-proletarian action, rumoured to include the arson of chambers of labour and cooperatives in its program. That D’Annunzio would disembark on the coast of the Peninsula. That the initial action would be against the Ministry and Parliament. That aside from Fiume Legionaries, fascists, combatants and arditi would take part etc. This was the public reflection of a program which had been established by the leaders of the reaction, suffocate socialism, crush the proletariat, and take possession of the state. But in order to accomplish this it was necessary to construct a military organisation (fascist legions), coordinate an action (the fascist party) and wage a guerrilla war which will cost the two sides hundreds of millions (subsidies, payment for squadristi, destruction of proletarian property), more than twenty thousand men killed and thousands and thousands of injured.

The socialist sections on November 4th, mobilised in order to put themselves on a defensive footing. In Rome the federal secretary summoned the members to the district offices through the newspaper. Those who due to a lack of cohesion with comrades (those who had sensed the danger and had immediately advertised secret district meetings outside of the usual locals) go to the district offices and are arrested.

In Bologna the Committee put a guard over the Chamber of Labour surrounding it with whatever weapons could be gathered and 96 comrades, some transported by truck from Imola. They wait for three days with courage. But without a reconnaissance service advanced into the heart of the city around offices or probable meeting points of fascists. The only provision is for the occasional detachment of a scout patrol. The leader of this decisive and fiery group is not a modest military leader who feels all the responsibility of the action to be carried out and gives his experience and will for its resolution, but a deputy, a talker, busy in a thousand affairs full of official posts and buffoonery. In the Chamber of Labour he has his domestic furniture, his wife and his children. This leads him more to reflection than to cheer and enthusiasm with the resolute intentions of the defenders. When the armed defence of the Chamber of Labour was shown to be a matter close at hand and not bragging for show, this man lost his head and demanded police intervention by telephone.

The defenders had accomplished a first act of force, stopping a tram in the vicinity on which fascists were roaming and obliging them to disembark. Then followed an assault by a patrol of the fascist vanguard (ex arditi, alpine troops, etc led by the lieutenant Pappalardo) against the main gate,which was repulsed with revolver shots. After this episode, the Honourable Mr Bucco closes the gate and deposits the weapons in his home. Meanwhile the Royal Guard surrounded the building and two hours after the battle (lasting almost an hour) came to arrest the defenders. A few days later the newly elected Socialist municipal council were supposed to take their seats in the Palazzo d'Accursio; the fascists announce that they will impede this and issue a manifesto in which they advise women, children and the elderly to stay at home that day. The socialist section elects a leader for defence. Grenades were brought to the Palazzo manufactured by groups of youths in the districts. All this has the defect of improvisation. The commanders were not experienced nor did the men have the time to educate themselves. The plan of defending the Palazzo and patrolling the square preventatively closes socialist action within the circle of state forces assigned for service during the ceremony. No order is given for nor preventative link established with the periphery. Just the first unit of around 30 fascists in random order with a rush breaks the cordon of cavalry; the socialists who had responded poorly to the instructions received broke ranks driven by the frightened crowd. Shots were fired and some grenades thrown from within the square. Another 500 fascists came up running, surrounded, and the Royal Guard began firing into the square.

The socialist action had no development and was surprised in its blindside without any preventative measures.

In the following days the advice of the timid prevails, suspending any action while the emboldened fascists began the chain of individual assaults and punitive expeditions, protected by the prefect and the functionaries.

The local element was overcome by agitation, from other cities groups of workers demanded to be invited onto the front of the struggle, but nobody wanted to coordinate this force. Imposed in Bologna the fascists irradiated into the province. One or more truckloads of armed men swept into workers districts and villages, especially under cover of night. They divide into teams, torching the club, the association, the cooperative, killing, wounding and fleeing immediately, returning to their headquarters and dispersing to their homes.

The proletarians lack communications and false alarm follows false alarm. When the brigands arrived, the defence was unprepared, tired and insufficient. In this period and region the fascists have this form: group of commanders-action squad, groups of a few men hired in other provinces and maintained for action by big landowners in an almost clandestine way; fasci of the cities and small towns which collected all the reactionary forces, organising resentment and opinion, against the worker organisations, organisers and masses. These people do the work of espionage, investigation and reporting on what the proletarians do, think and say, the young elements of the fasci also incorporate them in squads serving on a large scale in the punitive exhibitions.

The type of action was: identify the target, determine possible resistance, jump in with an adequate force and win. For the operation the squadristi have weapons, ammunition and trucks etc on hand from the military authorities. If an unexpected resistance routs them, then a larger exhibition is carried out, state forces legally intervene.

The bourgeoisie is never too tender with its own squadristi whom it treats with contempt on account of their low cost. In many episodes it has employed them only for provocation, calmly leaving them to be massacred. Throughout its struggle against the proletariat the bourgeoisie has kept open an account where the men fallen on both sides are marked as assets. Indeed one malcontent less is more pleasing than a worker, good livestock when he returns to docility. When the squadristi loses the law has good pretext for intervention and speculating on the deaths, carries out repression with weapons and the codex.

Moral propaganda for fascism was provided by Il Popolo d'Italia, and in a pompous, violent and criminal form, by the bourgeois press in general, which begins with a generic appeal to counter-attack; artfully altering all the facts with a single objective, illustrating the tyranny of the Bolsheviks, the ruin to which they have led the country, the need to ward them off. The critique of socialist doctrine was advanced with false affirmations and paradoxical lies. Russia was described as an inferno occupied by beasts. The war and the victory are celebrated as two sacred and sublime moments which it is necessary to reconsecrate with a gory human sacrifice. The combatant is described not as the peasant and the worker, who brought to the battlefields and the trenches his stoic courage, his humble spirit and his lice but as the ghost of a frowning hero who curses to madness the remakers of the country. Processions, parades, banners and above all songs. Beautiful, ugly, fresh air, stale air. Cash in circulation, sourced from the treasuries of the capitalists and from that of the State. And the mood was one, act, resort to force to fight Bolshevism. The club is given renewed adoration by a savage cult of cannibal epileptics. The socialist counter propaganda on the other hand lacked unity, clarity and foresight, it was uncertain, ineffective, contradictory and lacking in virility. The leaders did not perceive how much reality there was in the reactionary tendency. Instead they ceased the previous, maximalist, bourgeois baiting language, to take a humble tone, as the persecuted. In the episode and in the polemics about it they lose sight of the whole. From Bologna, fascist action spreads to the Ferrarese [area], there is intense propaganda, produced with vast resources throughout Tuscany.

In Ferrara, the most audacious socialists organised the defence, guarding public locations; repulsing for the first time the fascist assault on the Chamber of Labour, the palazzo della giunta and the socialist municipality. The action is so bloody for the fascists, their defeat so terrible, that they cannot hope for a rematch. They cry about a Bolshevik ambush (they will continue to use this trick whenever they are trounced). The state intervenes with mass arrests breaking worker resistance. Moreover, the government supports the fascist action by enforcing the disarmament of the two Emilian provinces. This means that it is only the proletariat in its modest rooms ransacked, beaten and broken by police and carabinieri, which is to give up its arms. In this way the state collects 5000 rifles, thousands of revolvers, daggers, bayonets, ammunition, grenades, shells in great quantity. The fascists have their depots in lord’s villas, in military storehouses etc, and therefore remain armed with intensified arrogance. Their local force now numbers many thousands of men, the portion of the bourgeoisie and of imbeciles consenting to their methods is now numerous.

While the bigwigs of the party go AWOL, small groups of heroic workers, relying on centres not attacked by fascism which gradually grow more distant, despite the gangs, the deaths, the arrests and the indictments, begin an audacious guerrilla [struggle] under the banner of the communist party, which inflicts frightful losses on the shopkeepers, on the bourgeoisie and on the agrarians, who have resumed their function of social parasitism with zest, protected by the local fasci, to whom they give lodging, votes, praise, and occasionally manpower when they can act a little cocky without risk. In Imola the most combative elements of the Italian Socialist Party are constituted in a communist fraction by September. On January 21st in Livorno, the unity with dead weight, with the opportunists of the Party was finally broken. The birth of the communist party was a great promise to the proletariat of Italy, which was then loyally kept. But the reaction was already too strong. The geographic unity of the masses (and therefore strategic unity), was already broken in Ferrara and Bologna; the Po valley gradually fell.

The bourgeoisie deploys its creatures in the daily clashes, but does not itself wear down the forces and the men of the proletariat, who on the contrary pay in person, every day losing people who die, people who are able to strike but are immediately after imprisoned or forced into flight.

In March, there is a preparation of public opinion, of men of action, of weapons and coordination with authority, penetration into the spirit of local carabinieri and Royal Guards, command and communications, complete information on worker forces, on leaders etc. In many parts of Tuscany the fasci began the first action in grand style, the conquest of this region.

In its two months of life, the men of the young C.P have worked in Tuscany. There are numerous sections in the cities, good sections in the countryside. A strong sympathy of the worker and peasant masses for communism. The joyful maximalist spirit with a tint of Rodomonte, hardly constructive, could not be destroyed by a blow, but was sufficiently organised to make it constructive8. The armament of the sections was initiated, some principles of regional coordination having been established.

On the 27th [of February] in Florence the fascists held a grand procession, after which they divided into squads and began to provoke the workers by forcefully removing badges, scarfs etc9. The armed forces were mobilised, increased in number and patrolled the area without intervening. The workers began to respond. A grenade was even thrown into a fascist procession. The workers groups follow the most elementary combat norms: counter-attacking the fascists when they appear in the neighbourhoods. The fascists on the other hand, attempt a tactic of irradiation; in assault units from centre to periphery. They accomplish their actions as the advance patrols of a small army of manoeuvre, which has its main body in the carabinieri units and Royal Guards amassed at strategic points. Not until the clashes generalised and all the combative worker masses, with their few weapons, were committed, did the forces of public order go on the offensive in support of the fascists.

The battle lasts four days, and extends to the province and adjacent provinces. While it rages, units [manipoli] of fascist executioners hunt down the communist leaders, already known for a long time in their persons and routines, and eliminate them (Spartico Lavagnini, 1st of March)10.

The force used modern combat equipment. For example, the town of Scandicci was seized by armoured car and with the help of a battery of 75s11. Empoli-Signa-Prato held their own, and were taken with difficulty. The fascists were housed in the barracks and armed. Squads of fascists, carabinieri and royal guards rushed to the points of greatest resistance.

More than once, bicycle runners preceded them on the street, spreading the alarm among the peasants, who welcomed them with volleys of fire, coming together quickly in appropriate places. In total, there were 20 deaths, 150 injuries and 1500 arrests. These official figures were certainly well exceeded in reality.

The fascists set up camp in Tuscany. But before they can be called its masters, they must still fight for several months, losing men and committing brutalities and abuses. Here and there, despite the continual aid and protection of the armed forces, and the support of local bourgeois strata, they experienced losses, defeats and humiliations.

Prefects and police commissioners Jesuitically declare that they cannot guarantee the lives of citizens blacklisted by the fasci. Hundreds of carabinieri acting in plain clothes lead the fascist squads and form their greatest backbone. In Pisa, a general commanding a division, orders the artillery to break down the Chamber of Labour which resisted for a night. In May, as in other regions, the Tuscan proletariat resumes the struggle against the fascists in a more lively way.

Fascist action over the course of 1921 in the successive conquest of regions, follows the method of local level attack[colpo di spalla locale]; it is based on an exact assessment of the main defect of the socialist party, first educator of the Italian masses: federalism and regionalism.

The party does not have a centralised form, a solidarity so educated that the whole responds to every blow given to one of its parts. The leaders, one by one trusted in their petty bourgeois, local social democratic positions, so balanced as to protect them from any entry into their constituency, their municipality. In such a situation, the relatively small force of fascism had a good field of play.

The environment and the authorities work morally, the action squads come to provoke. The workers are subjugated. Clashes, deaths, injuries. State intervention, arrests, disarmament. Fascist terror, punitive expeditions. Defections. Formation of the local fascio, corruption of functionaries in its favour. Convictions, bans, assertion of the reaction. The majority of the fascist operational body passes to action in another region. Partial and general musters of the fascists according to the effort they must exert. The workers are imbued with maximalist simplification. Full of faith and audacity they say: they will not come here. And they cherish the old pistols and rifles, the scant ammunition which they have brought individually from the front, or have purchased by skimping on bread. At the first provocation, all descend into the street. The struggle is identified with the clash. The reserves to be provided for the following stages of the fight are not prepared. The combatants themselves have nobody who will replace them when they fall or are locked up. They remain easily isolated, broken up and overrun. The besieged have nobody to aid them. And the reaction triumphs with ease. But in the ranks, after a few weeks, the spirit of struggle is reignited in the best, they are no longer embarrassed by the mentality of defending a proletarian inheritance which is now destroyed, striking with method, learning the silent guerrilla which exhausts the enemy and aggravates him. If this state of affairs battle hardens the proletariat on the one hand, it corrodes it on the other, because in the ambush and the reprisal proletarians lose sight of the action of the masses and of the whole for the class struggle.

From March to September 1921, the fascist military evolution proceeded alongside the political one. While the local squads terrorise the agrarian population in the invaded provinces and around these polarise all the most cynical exploiters of the peasantry, a high command is constituted and prepares ever more complex plans of expansion and domination.

Minister Bonomi cannot reverse course in a moment when the proletariat is still strong, the new CP could immediately retake all the lost ground, and continues to give government consent to fascist action. He also allows greater active participation of military personnel in the fascist movement. Fascism systematically develops the following forms of action: Fascist propaganda among officers, NCOs, Royal Guards, carabinieri and Finance Guards. Development of a major action in Alessandria in order to advance to Turin: of another towards Liguria: of a third onto Alto Veneto and Trieste; and a fourth for the valley of Tevere, Umbria and Orvieto.

The members of the very young Communist Party (which received 300 thousand votes in the elections), pay in person, organising the worker resistance. They issue the agenda (July 21st) of military formations, of armament, of a response. But fascism already disposes of too much territory and is too empowered. While the proletariat is demoralised by reformists who advise humility (the Turati appeal, May) and worse still make pacification agreements (August) it increases in strength and activity. It carries out major shows of strength, 10, 15, 20 thousand squadristi, who move into action in a coordinated plan. The city which resists best with some beautiful moments is: Parma, which encircled for months, holds out. The assault against Parma is launched at night. The workers defend the city. Armoured cars intervene, with deaths and injuries.

From Tortona, taken in an encirclement which tightens everyday, spirited youths move to a counter attack on neighbouring centres, striking the fascists. The proletariat of the city supports them, it threatens and carries out energetic street actions in their support, three months are required to subdue them. In Pordenone action develops as follows: an improvised police raid in April (along the line of Piave, these proletarians were armed). Fascist rally in the Sacile area. Fascist patrols, which move to an assault on the city, the workers withdraw to the Terre district, their neighbourhood. Resisting with arms from the trenches, repelling and crushing the fascists after a day of furious fighting. Then the military authority intervenes with many troops, and the workers surrender. The city is militarily occupied, with arrests and disarming. Submission accomplished, the fascists intervened with the support of the prefect and the command, burning, destroying, beating and killing. The fascists tyrannise the invaded area for months but the local proletariat awakens. In Chiusi the workers return to arms and go into battle (3 deaths and numerous injuries). The fascists push new points towards Rome and Civitavecchia, receiving a hard lesson (one dead, 24 injuries). In Romagna the fascist Platania is killed.

Turin is the critical worker centre of Italy, and militarily as well it is the strongest and best organised.

As much as resentment and fatigue was engendered in the masses by the wasted heroism of the factory [occupations], the city gave pause to those who sought to crush it. The Government began by replacing all the military units and the most democratic functionaries, preparing sufficient forces to contain and crush any serious uprising of the population. Meanwhile the fascists attack in force from Alessandria towards Turin. Punitive expeditions go into Bra, Casale etc. Challenges and threats are made to the worker population of Turin. The program of provocation in order to attempt armed suffocation is clear. The local fascists are committed to street skirmishes, launching ambushes and foolish provocations at night. On April 28th, more than 100 fascists protected by other patrols and by law enforcement, assaulted and burned the Chamber of Labour (at 3 in the morning). The internal defence organised for months, precisely because the wait is too prolonged, and because it is isolated at the centre of the attack, does not respond sufficiently and is overwhelmed. This action seeks to provoke the proletariat so as to obtain a pretext for legal terror. The Turin proletariat resists its impulse for immediate reprisal, giving evidence of an uncommon political cool and sensibility.

On May 5th in Viterbo on the road to Rome, the entire population led by young communists of the capital, opposed the formation of a local fascio and intervention by fascists from other cities. In arms for the defence of its municipal liberty.

The communist party remains faithful to its commitments towards the proletariat. As in the period of the armed struggle, it goes beyond political action, displaying special care in military organisation. On July 21st, the call for the formation of young adult squads was issued, with the nomination of leaders, of trustees, the formation of zones, technical education, etc.

Alongside this activity, some elements chose to develop a more constructive operation of study, information, collection and penetration into the army, the warehouses and arms factories of the State, on their means etc; a third action is carried out in the league of wounded, disabled and veterans of war, because this assumes the military-technical character which the experience of the mass of its membership must give it. Therefore it is a centre not of demands but of force, and it is the chosen force of the working class for the armed struggle. There was agitation around this program for more than four months. Until it ceases to be public and becomes illegal (the Socialists having kept the directive Council of the league under their control).

On August 1st a formation called the Arditi del Popolo emerges in Rome, and given the way the its leaders say they want to wage the struggle, the executive of the Communist Party issues a warning for the workers. Suddenly one day, still in Rome, the leaders of this arditi send messengers to the Communist sections in the province bearing an order to come to the city in force where military units are ready to launch a revolt. Hundreds of revolutionaries set off, and arriving they find nobody to collect them or are arrested. The day before anarchist elements had imposed the proclamation of a general strike on the confederal chamber of labour. The federation and the communist section were not informed except indirectly and at the last moment. Despite this, the groups connected among them were mobilised and as great a possible force was collected around these, seeking to centralise it under a single command. This awaits the preparation of the events of which the communists had been informed, and which, being based on mere conjecture, did not occur.

On August 7th the CP issues an advisory to its membership, warning them that the program of the Arditi del Popolo, enunciated by its leaders, is to reestablish the order and normalcy of social life, in obedience to the leaders of the Arditi and outside of, and above all the parties etc12. It further warns that these leaders, such as Argo Secondari are linked by dual ties of kinship and interest with Giolitti, therefore it invites its own members to work for the military organisation of the class, the communist one, and not allow themselves to be dragged onto a mistaken path.

In October, the fascists continued their assaults, with sackings in regions where they had been imposed for months. And often they still meet their match. In Poggio Teneste, outside Florence, their squads are routed and the real carabinieri are compelled to rush to their defence.

For the congress it prepares in Rome, the fascist party formalises its personnel. The PNF has its political oligarchy which in order to expand and rule needs to assert itself more cohesively. It has its military hierarchy, with which it incorporates thousands of the displaced, the men of social decomposition, ready to sell themselves to reaction, when it needs them. Its financial base is strengthened by capitalist gold. (for example the ship owners of Genoa give a million because they want to break the dockworkers' organisations)13. [...]

The party is national. Its military hierarchy is established alongside its political hierarchy. It establishes the equalisation of the military ranks of the fascist militia with those of the leaders of the fascist party. The political secretary, the head of the militia. The political secretary of the region, the commander of the cohort. The provincial secretary, the commander of the Legion etc. The members of the party are divided into contributing members and effective members. The latter are subdivided : into triari (reserves) and principi (action squads). The principi make up the manipoli commanded by centurions, centuries, legions and cohorts. The triari have the same formations but are not obliged to participate actively in drills and in actions. Every century has its own banner and a heroic nickname (often boastful).

The baptism of the fascist militia is unsatisfactory. The seven or eight thousand black shirts gathered in Rome on the occasion of the Congress, to which every representative comes accompanied by a group of regimented colleagues, are put in their place by the workers after the initial fascist bullying. They proclaim a general strike. Trains which carry fascists are stopped and attacked outside of the city. The communist neighbourhoods groups are at the head of the worker resistance. Real battles are prepared in the workers districts with sufficiently effective means, patrols of young workers drive towards the centre, paralysing the police and compelling the fascists to disappear from circulation. After a night of anxiety in the Mausoleum of Augustus where they were holding the Congress, the black shirts quickly departed the city, accompanied by Royal Guards and carabinieri for their defence. There are 6 dead, 200 wounded, numerous arrests, but the proletariat celebrates its modest yet heroic victory. The fascist evil pours into Umbria, the gangs in flight to Orvieto kill and wound and threaten Rome from afar.

In May 1922, they took the funerals of the Roman Toti riflemen, killed in the war as a pretext, gathering in force in the city. Communist workers in the San Lorenzo district attack the procession, routing it without surprise, with a resolute, rapid and effective tactic. Police with armoured cars, rage against the defenceless population, killing, wounding and arresting 500 workers. The communist tactics play out as follows: small groups linked with the command centre by spotters. Three gathering points preset for the moment of action, a few minutes of fire, all disappear, and return to gather anew in a new distant point, always in a scattered order, report what has occurred, and are ordered to carry out a new action. The layer of spotters and links is immediately reestablished, with a new retreat and new gathering point. Such criteria were adapted beginning in 1921. The personnel formation was made up of a small number of military experts, three of which filled a command function. They selected the heads of the groupings (from twenty to thirty of the districts). Every grouping had its three, four, five and six squads selected by authority. Every organiser was made aware that in the moment of action they must be able to lead ten or twelve workers.

This organisation has moments of flourishing and crises, but it's lessons are useful. The core of experts forms a means of cohesion and clarification. The heads of the group every fifteen days hold a gathering along the lines of a military report, in which they report to the command on the work of surveillance, control and training accomplished and what difficulty and objections were encountered. After a general overview by the commander, the work orders for the next fifteen days are distributed. To practically rehearse the functioning of cohesion and discipline improvised nocturnal gatherings were implemented selecting small units throughout the city according to a preestablished plan. A number of workers between two or three thousand turned out for the inspections, who silent and peaceful, possibly armed without knowing if they would be engaged in combat or not, would come to make themselves available. Such organisation also functions in various strikes. Accomplishing the mobilisation of force in an inconspicuous way, their connection with the single centre continues.

The communist military organisation is able to accomplish a modest and simple but coherent activity. It obtained weapons. It methodically surveilled depots, barracks, fortresses and military factories.

In the province, fascism descends from Abruzzo into the Aniene valley where communist Tivoli holds its own till the middle of 1922. In the Terve valley Orte resists. Civitavecchia, Viterbo put up a dam to the infiltration along the Tirrena coast. In Romagna instead, on the margins given the long series of local political struggles, fascism penetrates through the republican elements like water in a sponge. But to penetrate the heart of Romagna, an immense action is necessary. In 1922, more than ten thousand fascists were brought from Bologna and from Ferrara, a force which aimed for Ancona, advanced by way of the Ravenna-Forli line, from north to south.

Only the treason of the republicans, who after allying with the workers passed to the fascists, allowed them to advance rapidly and assert themselves.

Romagna gave squads of braves, and was the theatre of a constant struggle, vibrant with reprisals and executions. Fascist and communist elements living in the same locality are struck one by one by the other, with hatred and without pity.

In 1922 squadrismo reached its maximum expression. Having increased immensely in number it has lost discipline. The first “desperate” aristocratic squads are gone, they “have been absorbed”. Their elements are withdrawn and absorbed by commands. The tactic is no longer that of a handful of the most bold, who with impetuosity and action to the limit, conquer or fall. Large gatherings with a number of politically and materially heterogeneous elements, which impose themselves mainly by force of numbers and upon which the authority of the leaders must be energetically imposed, and which despite this bring to mind the villainy of black gangs which followed the small armies of the XVI Century on their own account. Simple strategic plans, of pressure advanced by the shortest line. Columns which rapidly converge and amass. Departing from the base point of the gathering and turning onto the target. The base is where the reserve slowly converges and in a secure area outside of any risk of counter-attack and surprise. The target is clearly identified, the assault operation is laid out in detail. A retreat is preset in case of failure. The fascist arms depots are always those of the Army itself. But every fascio has a small store in the ample cellars in the mansions of its richer members, the worker masses have their own ill maintained arms in the homes of the poor; after the factory occupations especially in Piedmont, large consignments of rifles and machine guns were concealed among the peasants. But the inversion of the situation has led to a mushrooming of snitching and fear; much military material is discovered and abandoned as a result, still more is thrown in rivers or buried in the ground without precautions.

The political oligarchy which rules in fascism feels the need to assert itself more solidly than before.

Its military hierarchy adheres to the framework when there is a need for thousands of displaced subproletarians, the men of social decomposition, always ready to sell themselves to the reaction. Its finances are strengthened by capitalist gold; the shipowners of Genoa alone give one million to destroy the dockworkers organisation.

Therefore the test attacks on the government, on the question of Prefect Mori, on the provincial council of Trento, and the German municipalities of Alto Adige (gathering in Trento of twenty thousand fascists of Verona, of Polesine, from Lombardy etc). Fascism aims for power.

Fascism has corrupted the armed bodies and the officers of the Army. It mobilises its forces. Removing the prefects with a simultaneous action in various cities where these are not its creatures it sends fifty thousand men to march on Rome. The influx takes three routes. By the Valle dell'Aniene, road and rail, by the Valle del Tevere, road and rail, by the Valle Tirrena, road and rail.

The three gathering points are Mentana-Monterotondo-Tivoli-S.Marinella. The general command is located in Perugia. In the face of this display of force the government is surrendered to the fascists by the King. Only some workers isolated in sublime rage, heroically give their lives in heroic protest. They are communists, from particularly overrun provinces, for some time refugees in Rome.

Arriving in government the fascist oligarchy seeks to stabilise its rule. It senses that the main threat to its power could arise from the spirit of vicious anarchy with which it has led the lowest elements of society into violent political action. Therefore it accomplishes the following operations in the military or semi-military area: dissolution of all squadrismi, beginning with its transformation or better attempted transformation into a national organisation controlled by the government, disciplined and selected, dissolution of the nationalist, liberal, D’Annunzian etc squads.

(due to the weakness of the government, squadrismo had reached proportions which could be defined in terms of who is most or better armed among the different parties. The nationalists have 30000 blue shirts, some thousands of khaki shirts, the constitutionals, other hundreds of red shirts,[also] the republicans, down to the mania for black and red shirts which arose among young communists...).

In the implementation of this program, the fascist government also wrecks havoc on its own followers with decrees, manifestos and arrests. The Royal Guard is dissolved, officers are reduced in number in the cadre, the mobile battalions of the carabinieri are abolished.

In order to systematise the forces of squadrismo and to have a more disciplined and completely submissive force, the fascist government creates its own force: the MVSN14.

And this is a major politico-military force destined to be the exclusive instrument of the new oligarchy. It is under the orders of the head of state to which the general command is directly subordinated. Recruitment is voluntary, all those physically capable between the ages of 17 and 50, and already having joined the fascists, and after some time the nationalist militia are also admitted.

Archivio Centrale dello Stato

Ufficio Primo del PCd'I (1924?)


  1. Original text available here All footnotes have been added by the translator.  

  2. A failed raid on the Rome fortress of Pietralata. Spriano, Paolo, Storia del Partito Comunista Italiano. Da Bordiga a Gramsci, Einaudi, 1997, 236. Trans. 

  3. A military uprising beginning in Ancona in June 1920, occasioned by a refusal to deploy to Albania. 

  4. Refers to the intervention of the armed forces against a strike of agricultural workers led by revolutionary syndicalists. See Sykes, Thomas R., Revolutionary Syndicalism in the Italian Labor Movement: The Agrarian Strikes of 1907–08 in the Province of Parma, International Review of Social History , Volume 21 , Issue 2 , August 1976 , pp. 186-211. For a discussion of pre-war socialist agitation within the armed forces see Del Carria, Renzo, Proletari senza rivoluzione: 1, Edizioni Oriente 1970, pp 398-401. Trans. 

  5. A reference to the so called Settimana rossa of 1914. For a summary see ibid, pp 445-61. Trans. 

  6. In Turin in May 15th-19th 1915 confrontations between workers and pro-war students developed into a general strike and armed clashes (Proletari senza rivoluzione: 2, Edizioni Oriente 1970, pp 22-23). For the well known August 1917 Turin uprising see ibid pp 34-50. Trans. 

  7. For the Albona uprising see Scotti, Giacomo i Luciano Giuricin. "La repubblica di Albona e il movimento dell'occupazione delle fabbriche in Italia." Quaderni, vol. I, br. 1, 1971, str. 20-179.

  8. Rodomonte a character in the classic poems Orlando innamorato and Orlando furioso known for his strength and pride. 

  9. Del Carria, Renzo, Proletari senza rivoluzione: 2, Edizioni Oriente 1970 168. 

  10. Lavagnini was a Communist leader assassinated by Fascist militants on February 27th, 1921. ( March 1st here probably refers to the mass repression in Empoli following the killing of nine marines and carabinieri by armed workers. See Del Carria, Renzo, Proletari senza rivoluzione: 2, Edizioni Oriente 1970 169-70. 

  11. 75mm artillery pieces. 

  12. The text of the advisory can be found here

  13. The latter part of this paragraph seems to be repeated and rephrased later in the document. Here it trails off with an incomplete sentence. “Perciò dopo gli assalti di prova al Governo per la questione del fref... [sic].”. 

  14. Milizia volontaria per la sicurezza nazionale