Issue 99 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 2003 Copyright © International Socialism
In August 1922, just ten weeks before Mussolini seized power, one of the biggest ever confrontations in history took place between fascists and anti-fascists. Led by a Socialist Party MP, Guido Picelli, the local branch of the Arditi del popolo (People's Shock Troops), a national anti-fascist organisation created in June 1921, had managed to bring together the many different strands of the Italian left.
For six days 20,000 armed blackshirts threw themselves against the working class of the central Italian town of Parma. This was the only city which had so far held out against fascist attacks, primarily due to strong local traditions of unity.
For a long time Parma was one of the main centres of Italian syndicalism. The local trades council had as its leader some of the most 'apolitical' leaders of the period: Michele Bianchi, Filippo Corridoni and Alceste De Ambris. Apart from a few towns in the lower Parma area, over many years of struggle the Socialist Party had neither managed to extend their influence throughout the area, nor to break workers and peasants from the anarchoid propaganda of syndicalist leaders.
The situation changed only after the Great War. Following the betrayal of those who had supported intervention, the majority of the Parma working class joined the official trades council and moved towards the Socialist Party. The syndicalists, who were by now divided into two factions (pro-war interventionists and the anarchist USI), only had a small number of organised workers behind them. Immediately after the Livorno congress of January 1921,2 a significant number of workers and peasants joined the Communist Party. A small number of peasants in the upper Parma area joined the Catholic Popular Party, which in Parma had a major leader in Giuseppe Micheli, then minister of agriculture.
These divisions did not reflect the will of the masses, who always had a strong sense of unity. They had been artificially created and maintained by social democratic leaders and old syndicalist activists, who looked upon unity as the end of their policy of alliances with open and sworn enemies of the working class. Their efforts to sabotage all attempts from below to create a single working class organisation were such that Amilcare De Ambris (secretary of the syndicalist trades council and currently a fascist) and Alberto Simonini (reformist socialist secretary of the official trades council) were sometimes beaten up by organised workers.
Parma has a population of about 70,000 and is divided in two by the river of the same name: the largest half is called 'new Parma' and is inhabited mainly by the bourgeoisie, while the other half, 'old Parma', or Oltretorrente, has a largely working class population.
The working class of Parma has a history of erecting barricades which goes back to the 1898 revolt and perhaps even further. The agricultural strike of 1908, which lasted for months throughout the province, was one of the most important peasant struggles in Italy.
The economic structure of the province of Parma is made up of large, small and medium landholdings, with tied tenants, sharecroppers and day labourers. The city and its suburbs are characterised by artisan workshops and light industry-engineering works, shoe factories, perfumes, sugar, pasta factories and preserves.
Locally fascism never managed, either through propaganda or agitation, to develop and dominate as it has done in other areas. The Arditi del popolo, which had arisen in 1921 due to the initiative of workers from different political backgrounds, in opposition to the wishes of many of the leaders of political and trade union organisations, managed to keep the blackshirts in check for over a year, both in the city and the countryside, through an incessant array of defensive and offensive action.
This movement differed slightly in Parma compared to other areas due to its greater discipline and its technical application of the tactics of armed street fighting. The command structure of the Arditi del popolo had foreseen a huge 'punitive expedition' a long time beforehand, and apart from preparing people mentally, also developed a defensive plan and obtained the necessary means to face and repel the enemy. Squad leaders were selected from workers with military experience, and had the task of training other men, while those charged with special services were called upon to keep in contact with soldiers stationed in Parma in order to obtain weapons and ammunition.
The Labour Alliance, created due to the pressure of the masses, called a 'legalitarian' national general strike for 31 July 1922. But the central committee of the alliance, under the influence of social democrat leaders, called it off and ordered people back to work as soon as Mussolini threatened reprisals.3 Events then moved very quickly. Overall the Arditi del popolo, without a party which mapped out a political line and revolutionary objectives to be reached, had exhausted its offensive potential in straightforward counter-attacks against the fascists. In Emilia, Veneto, Liguria and Tuscany, where working class resistance had been greatest, a vacuum had been created among workers due to numerous losses. Linking defensive actions became difficult and areas were repeatedly terrorised by the enemy's armed gangs; the masses were frequently forced to retreat. But fascism's victory was not yet complete. There was still one place in Emilia that was resisting--Parma.
The first contingents of blackshirts arrived on the night of 1-2 August, in lorries which had come from all over Emilia, Veneto, Tuscany and the Marches. They were armed with brand new rifles, pistols and hand grenades, together with a huge amount of ammunition. They were experienced fighters, tried and tested in the tactics of 'punitive expeditions'.
They assembled around the station, and the following consuls were at the head of the columns: Arrivabene, Barbiellini, Farinacci, Moschini, Ponzi and Ranieri. The commander-in-chief of the expedition, which quickly rose to a total of 20,000 men, was Italo Balbo.4 Signorile, the police chief of Parma, after having told the local committee of the Labour Alliance that he could do nothing to stop the blackshirts assembling, withdrew his men from the two police stations in the Oltretorrente area, thus giving them a free hand.
As soon as the news spread of the fascists' arrival, the local leadership of the Arditi del popolo immediately called a meeting with squad leaders and gave them instructions to build barricades, trenches and barbed wire defences using any material available. At dawn, when the order was given to get the guns out and launch the insurrection, working class people took to the streets--as bold as the waters of a river bursting its banks. With their shovels, pickaxes, iron bars, and all sorts of tools, they helped the Arditi del popolo dig up the cobblestones and tram tracks, digging trenches, erecting barricades using carts, benches, timber, iron girders and anything else they could get their hands on. Men and women, old people and young people from all parties and from no party were all there, united in a single iron will--resist and fight.
In just a few hours the working class areas of the city started to look like a major battle zone. This area was divided into four sectors: Nino Bixio and Massimo D'Azeglio in Oltretorrente; Naviglio and Aurelio Saffi in 'new Parma'. The number of squads in each sector was in direct proportion to its size: 22 in Oltretorrente as a whole, six in Naviglio and four in Aurelio Saffi. Each squad was made up of eight to ten men, and their weaponry was made up of model 1891 rifles, muskets, army pistols, automatic revolvers and SIPE hand grenades. Only half of these men had a rifle or musket. All the entrances to squares, roads and alleyways were blocked by defensive structures, and at spots viewed as being tactically important, positions were reinforced by barbed wire and mines were laid. Church towers were transformed into numbered watchtowers. Throughout these fortified zones power passed into the hands of the Arditi del popolo command, which was made up of a small number of workers which had been elected by the squads earlier. These workers were allocated various responsibilities: defence and organisation, provision of food, and first aid. Shop owners and the middle class sympathised with the rebels, and provided them with food and a variety of other goods.
The fascists opened fire just before 9am. Attacks and counter-attacks continued along the front line throughout the day, without producing any substantial changes in the situation. During the night there was some shooting and minor sorties by enemy detachments, which were identified in the Naviglio through the use of flares.
The following morning Balbo attacked at the head of a detachment of blackshirts from piazzale della Pilota. Crossing Verdi Bridge they attempted to break through the lines of the Arditi del popolo. But as soon as they caught sight of the first barricades they understood the very grave danger they would have faced if they took another step, so they gave up and retreated. Immediately afterwards the fascists opened fire again from the right side of the river; and from open positions tested our lines with angry fusillades in an attempt to break through. But the defenders of the 'workers' citadel', laying on the ground on the left bank and always under some kind of cover, calmly returned fire and took careful aim-frequently managing to hit a very visible enemy.
Simultaneously, in 'new Parma' offices of professionals who were known to be socialists were ransacked. But the fiercest attacks took place against the Naviglio area which, due to its shape, was the most difficult to defend. After several hours of fighting this entire sector was almost surrounded--blackshirts advanced in tight formations from via Venti Settembre, determined to score a decisive victory. At that crucial moment only one response was possible--come out and counter-attack. Indeed the Arditi del popolo leapt up from their positions singing Bandiera Rossa, and ran towards the enemy. They were heavily outnumbered and one of them, Giuseppe Mussini, a worker, fell dead. But they didn't stop. Their singing grew louder and the bullets flew from the rifles which were burning in their hands. The fascists were shocked to see this handful of heroes, and imagined that there were who knows how many fighters and weapons waiting behind the barricades, in the trenches and inside houses, so they fell back even beyond Barriera Garibaldi.
On the third day things worsened again in the Naviglio area. The fascists blocked all routes through to Oltretorrente, all links were severed. All homing pigeons were quickly used up. Finally, after a lot of difficulty, a female worker managed to get through to the Arditi del popolo command in 'old Parma' and deliver a message she had hidden in her hair:
Two more deaths: Ugo Avanzini and Nino Gazzola. Our dispatch rider has been wounded. There is no food, and ammunition is almost exhausted. We urgently need bullets for rifles and revolvers, otherwise we will be forced to retreat to Oltretorrente tonight. We await orders: Sector commander.
The woman returned with as much ammunition as she could carry hidden in her clothes, along with the following reply: 'Our orders are to hold your ground even if it means dying. We have faith in you. We'll find a way of gettting you food and ammunition as soon as possible: Workers' defence command.'
We needed to deny our adversary even the smallest of victories, given that the first symptoms of demoralisation were beginning to show. Orders were obeyed to the letter and we kept our positions. Later on communication was re-established with Naviglio, which received ammunition and wheat taken from the local windmill. Operations also began to improve in the Oltretorrente--the requisition and distribution of food, first aid points, field kitchens, patrols, the relaying of information, and the reinforcement of defensive positions. Women took a very active part in all of this, turning up everywhere to lend a hand and to give encouragement.
In the meantime the authorities had handed power over to the army, which contacted the local committee of the Labour Alliance, ie leaders of the Socialist Party and pro-war and official trade unionists. As these individuals had been unable to openly block the masses' decision to go to the barricades, so as not to be exposed for what they were, they felt they had been deprived of authority and placed into the background, and therefore agreed to negotiate a compromise, committing themselves to persuade workers to stop their resistance. A socialist lawyer named Pancrazi and police commissioner Di Sero were the link between these individuals and the army commander, General Lodomez.
The outcome of all this manoeuvring emerged on day five when the army, believing that Socialist Party and trade union leaders represented the masses, or at least were able to influence them, sent a battalion of soldiers into Oltretorrente to dismantle the barricades and trenches, and told people that the fascists would withdraw if people disarmed. But here they found a different kind of authority, effectively that of the masses, in the shape of the Arditi del popolo command. Nobody had thought it necessary to speak to them but they couldn't be ignored.
Here was their reply: 'The trenches mustn't be touched, as they are a legitimate means of defence for workers and their communities against 20,000 blackshirts who have come here from all quarters.'
The officers protested, saying that they had their orders, but workers didn't back down--they had their orders as well! The mood of the soldiers was such that it dissuaded the officers from making a big fuss. After two hours the battalion was withdrawn. Attempts at a compromise had failed, as did this attempt to disarm the workers.
In the early hours of day six we were informed from reliable sources that the fascist leadership had decided to launch a major attack against Oltretorrente at 3pm. Although we were unable to discover their plans in detail, in any event the command believed that the enemy would focus their efforts on a breach to the left of our lines. It was here that we faced the greatest risk of being outflanked--through the park which runs along the built-up area of Oltretorrente, which could be accessed from the ring-road to the north of the city.
One of the general rules of war, and therefore of street fighting, is to never leave the initiative to your enemy. And in a situation in which you discover their intentions and the plan of attack, you must foil them by attacking earlier, forcing them to change their entire strategy through a determined and unexpected action.
Unfortunately we were not able to take the offensive as we did not have enough rifles and ammunition, which had been severely depleted over three days of resistance. It was impossible to get any last minute help from the surrounding countryside, as the fascists had sent patrols into the most notorious areas in order to stop any link-ups with the city.
However, a massive defence plan was agreed using anything available, which would have involved every one of the enemy in all kinds of fighting to the end. After having called a meeting of the squad leaders, the Arditi del popolo command made a rapid inspection of the entire area. The morale of the masses was very high--it almost seemed as if the news of the blackshirts' imminent attack had fuelled courage and enthusiasm even further. In armed combat, one of the most important elements of success is belief in victory. And it was interesting to observe that everybody had an absolute 'belief'--no one had the slightest doubt. Bombs were prepared in houses, along with clubs studded with razor blades, knives and nails, as well as acid bombs. A 17 year old girl waved an axe from the windows of her hovel and shouted out to her comrades in the street, 'If they come I'm ready for them!' Containers full of petrol were distributed to women because, according to our defence plan, if fascists managed to get into Oltretorrente, fighting would then take place on a house by house, alleyway by alleyway, street by street basis. No quarter would be shown--inflammable material would be thrown at the fascists, and our positions would be burned and totally destroyed.
The Arditi del popolo squads were divided into groups of three or four men and deployed in the following fashion: ten along the river bank covering Caprazuzza, Mezzo and Verdi bridges; twelve along the northern flank--stationed on roofs and attics so as to be able to fire on the park. Every worker who had either a firearm or any kind of offensive weapon was deployed in groups at various points, ready to run to where they were needed. Our lookouts followed all the enemy's movements very carefully.
The first shots rang out at about 2pm, on the right hand side of the river, and were aimed at Nino Bixio with enfilades at two other areas. A few hours earlier Ulisse Corazza, an artisan and Popular Party councillor (the Catholic party), had presented himself to a squad leader with his own musket, and asked to take part in the fighting alongside the Arditi del popolo. He suffered a serious head wound from a rifle shot, and died a few minutes later. However all of this was intended to deceive the defenders as to the real goals of their plan of attack, as detachments of blackshirts had simultaneously moved on the left of Oltretorrente and had advanced into the park, heading for the city wall. This wasn't a surprise, as the Arditi del popolo had expected such a move. So fusillades immediately rang out as planned, thus causing the enemy the greatest number of losses possible with the minimum use of ammunition. Although their pressure and aggression were initially very strong, little by little they weakened and a few hours later ceased altogether. The exhortations of their commanders made no difference--it was impossible to advance under the fire of working class snipers. Slowly, using bushes for cover, the blackshirts fell back to their original positions. During the night the fascists limited themselves to a few nuisance shots which had no effect at all.
On the morning of 7 August our observers noticed columns moving from one point of the outskirts to another in a confused and disordered fashion. This was something new; but it wasn't possible to immediately understand what was about to happen. The following information reached Oltretorrente: 'The blackshirts are very unhappy about their losses. Orders given by their leaders are not always obeyed. Panic is spreading.' This disorder began to increase steadily, until it became generalised. The fascists, who were by this stage no longer in military formation, were roaming about in all directions in a great rush--with no command structure--jumping onto trains that were leaving, onto lorries, bicycles, or going on foot. This wasn't a retreat, but the scattering of large groups of men who clambered aboard any means of transport they found, or who ran through the streets, or into the countryside, as if they were frightened of being chased.
Once the news of the fascists' departure spread, the working class population on both sides of the river rushed into the streets, some carrying weapons, and improvised huge marches in an indescribable explosion of enthusiasm--red flags were hung from the windows in 'old Parma'. The news of the working class's victory spread rapidly in the surrounding area, where terrified local landowners abandoned their houses and ran away towards Cremona, as they had heard that the Arditi del popolo were coming.
The military authorities were worried; they were concerned that as a result of the blackshirts' defeat the movement could spread out from the city to surrounding areas. This was exactly what the Arditi del popolo command intended, and at that very moment messengers were sent out with an appeal to the working class organisations of Milan and La Spezia. Therefore a state of siege was proclaimed--and the dismantling of trenches and barricades was ordered to be finished by 3pm. The command considered the new situation which the authorities had created, and realised it was materially impossible to stop the army--made up of two local infantry regiments with machine gun and armoured detachments, together with a cavalry regiment and considerable artillery--from gaining control of Oltretorrente, Naviglio and Aurelio Saffi.
At 3.10pm Colonel Simondetti, after firing a blank from one of the two cannons on Mezzo Bridge, advanced with armoured cars, machine guns and soldiers, occupying all the working class areas and ordering his troops to clear the streets.
Balbo's forces had disintegrated--they were nowhere to be seen. On the fifth day a large-scale 'punitive expedition' against the working class of Parma had become a disaster. The blackshirts suffered 39 dead and 150 wounded, while the defenders suffered five dead and several wounded.
Two and a half months later, shortly before the March on Rome, the fascists again discussed the situation in Parma. In his book Diario 1922, published two years ago , Balbo spoke of a meeting which took place in Rome with Mussolini, and of another of the whole Fascist Party leadership:
One of the issues we still need to settle is Parma. This is the last stronghold of anti-national forces, and acts as both a sanctuary and as moral support for Italian subversion. Mussolini agrees with the plan of action I outlined to him... Any action against Parma must precede any move towards an insurrection.
Fascist leaders believed that mobilisation for the March on Rome could have encountered some serious difficulties if working class resistance in a strategic point of Emilia Romagna had not been liquidated beforehand. Yet no second attack against Parma was ever attempted. new developments led to sudden changes--fascism, heavy industry and the monarchy had come to an agreement over the so called March on Rome.5
With hindsight, one can make the following points as regards the events recounted above:
(1) Until this point political and military problems and the theory of civil war had either been undervalued or even totally ignored; yet today we are obliged to treat it as an absolute necessity.
(2) As regards the outcome of this armed revolt, the Italian working class experienced an enormous success with the revolt in Parma--urban fighting won in conditions of great numerical and military inferiority.
(3) Even if the Arditi del popolo had managed to pull the mass of working class people into armed resistance, what was lacking was the preparatory work among soldiers who, given their mood and specific situation, could have been persuaded to show active solidarity with the proletariat. Similarly insufficient and negative were linkages with the surrounding provinces, which broke down in the most difficult moments of the struggle: a co-ordinated peasant movement would have enabled us to have immediately launched an offensive.
(4) The local trade union and social democratic leaders were completely unmasked. Through the use of demagogic language, they hid their real objective of following the needs of the bourgeoisie. While they hypocritically talked about anti-fascism and the masses' interests, in practice they were betraying these interests by blocking and hampering the spontaneous formation of a united front from below--thus playing into the hands of the fascists. Apart from our technical preparations, the reason behind our success was above all the fact that the working class of Parma had been able to free itself and place its false leaders--the 'enemy within' the working class--to one side, thus confronting fascism with its own strongly united forces.
(5) Our party, which was then affected by extremism, failed to understand the nature of the Arditi del popolo and tried to stop our members from individually joining their ranks. In that period the masses were either part of the Arditi del popolo or were their sympathisers. The theories of Bordiga,6 a typical example of a petty bourgeois mentality, had led the party into opportunism and isolation. Through individual communist participation in the Arditi del popolo squads, the party would have been able to influence the whole organisation and to have won the leadership. With detailed preparatory work and membership of reformist trade unions and the army, the party would have been able to direct the movement towards a series of precise objectives, pulling the rest of the masses towards armed insurrection through the Arditi del popolo, stopping the growth of reaction in Italy and changing the course of history.
Translated and annotated by Tom Behan.
Originally published in Lo Stato Operaio (Workers' State), October 1934, an Italian Communist Party journal published in exile in Paris. Picelli joined the Communist Party in 1923, and later served five years in fascist jails before emigrating. He died in 1937, fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
The founding congress of the Italian Communist Party was held in the Tuscan port of Livorno in January 1921.
This strike, called in 'defence of political and trade union freedoms', was prepared in a hurried and half-hearted fashion. Apart from Parma, it was a disaster for the left, leading to another wave of fascist attacks.
Balbo was probably the main organiser of fascist 'punitive expeditions' in central Italy, and later became a minister in Mussolini's government.
Picelli is referring to the ruling class's decision to make Mussolini prime minister, which the fascists celebrated in their 'March on Rome' at the end of October 1922.
Amadeo Bordiga (1889-1970) was leader of the Communist Party from 1921 to 1924, and was expelled in 1930. He took a hostile attitude to the Arditi del popolo, and argued for much smaller and ineffective military squads-made up only of party members.