Issue 243 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
14 July 1948
Italians don't celebrate the end of the Second World War on Remembrance Sunday or on VE day, but on 25 April. This was the day when working class insurrections gained control of most major cities several days before the arrival of the Allies. American and British soldiers arrived to find shops open, transport running and local councils running the city--whilst Nazis and Italian fascists had surrendered. One memorable moment occurred in Turin, when a German field marshal surrendered to a car worker.
The anti-fascist resistance movement had been led by the Communist Party (PCI), but their leaders only wanted 'national liberation' from the Nazis and the creation of a parliamentary democracy, not revolution. They managed to convince their members and supporters to at least give democracy a try. However, many people wanted revolution, and PCI leaders were able to stop things going further by, with a nod and wink, telling their rank and file that maybe one day they would need to get the guns out again to beat the class enemy.
So a militant working class was temporarily 'disarmed' from its desire to take on the whole system of capitalism. However, many people did not 'disarm' militarily because they didn't trust their bosses, who until yesterday had supported fascism. Due to its radical membership the PCI was desperate to prove to the Allies and big business that it was a normal parliamentary party. So it voted for special privileges for the church, and the PCI leader Togliatti, as justice minister in a coalition government, passed an amnesty in 1946 for virtually all known fascist war criminals.
The PCI also agreed to a wage freeze while prices doubled. But after two years, with the beginning of the Cold War, Togliatti's strategy was in tatters after the PCI was suddenly booted out of the government coalition in 1947. Soon anti-fascists, many of them still unemployed, were being put on trial. Such was the climate of hysterical anti-Communism that many PCI members thought their party was about to be declared illegal.
It was in this atmosphere of growing working class frustration that PCI leader Togliatti was shot four times and almost killed on 14 July 1948. A spontaneous general strike immediately gripped the country--as soon as the news came over the radio, trains stopped at the next station, trams and buses at the next stop. Shops pulled down their shutters, printers walked out of right wing newspapers, gas and electricity workers shut off the supplies, and barricades were thrown up on the approach roads to all the major cities. All of this activity was spontaneous and occurred in a few hours.
Workers got out the guns they had kept hidden since 1945. Even some local PCI leaders made speeches in favour of essentially revolutionary action. Workers were already putting these words into action anyway. Venice was isolated from the mainland by barricades. In Turin the boss of Fiat and 16 other managers were taken as hostages by armed workers, and in Genoa armoured cars were stopped and taken over by demonstrators. Police prisoners were taken to the local PCI branch. In most northern cities the police and army stayed in the barracks. Officers in particular were worried that conscript soldiers would join the demonstrators if ordered out onto the streets. By the evening the working class were briefly in control of the cities, yet that morning they had left home for a normal day's work!
Surely this was the moment, many workers thought, for the PCI to finally give the word to start the revolution. But the word never came from the PCI leadership. One ex partisan leader in Rome waited in his offices for two days and nights for a phone call that never came. On the contrary, the PCI insisted that everybody obey the law and end the occupations and barricades.
Shocked, confused and disoriented, over the next few days workers drifted back to work. The amount of arms later seized by the police indicated how serious workers had been about the need to seize power by any means necessary: 28 cannons, 202 mortars and grenade launchers, 995 machine guns, 49,640 grenades, 564 tons of explosives and 5.5 million rounds of ammunition.
Once the danger had passed, the Italian working class suffered terrible repression: 7,000 people were immediately arrested, and over the next two years a total of 62 people were shot dead during demonstrations and 15,429 Communists were given prison sentences. Furthermore, the PCI was out of government for the next 50 years.
Italian workers still have to learn the same lesson today: the importance of distinguishing between the radical words of left wing leaders and their consistently parliamentary actions.
These 'July days' illustrate two further points: that workers have tremendous power and imagination when they all move together. But they also show that the best conditions to launch a revolution are those in which there is an organisation and leadership which has been arguing and preparing for it long before the sudden and unexpected arrival of a 'long awaited moment'.