Italy: Battles in the Third International

Comintern Italy 1920

The following article by our Italian comrades explores the political debates between the leadership of the Comintern and the leaders of its Italian section. The political errors of these leaders, and the subsequent degeneration of the Comintern, contributed to the historic defeats and tragedies that befell the Italian working class from the 1920s onward.

Read the original in Italian

The first four congresses of the Third International (Comintern) were characterized by several heated discussions between the leadership of the International, and that of the Italian section. These focused around key topics of debate within the International, namely: how to build a Communist Party, and how to fight reformist and ultraleftist tendencies.

The fight against reformism in the two red years—when the socialists betrayed the revolution

In the summer of 1920, the second congress of the Comintern established the “21 conditions” for membership to the International. These theses were drafted by Lenin with the intent of stimulating the building of revolutionary parties in Western Europe. It was hoped that these parties could, as the Bolsheviks did in Russia, intervene in the workers’ movement, the trade unions and among the oppressed peasantry, in an organized and coordinated way.

The general political outlook in Europe at the time of the second congress was summarized by Karl Radek (one of the leaders of the Comintern):

The second congress of the Communist International is taking place at a time in which we can say with absolute certainty that the world revolution can no longer be halted.1

It was the necessity of carrying out the revolutionary tasks of the moment that necessitated fundamentally breaking with the reformists and the opportunists (Condition 7). This included demanding the expulsion from the Communist parties of those members who would not adhere to the theses of the International (Condition 21).

In the Comintern’s perspectives, the revolutionary processes that were unfolding in Germany and Italy at the time meant that the seizing of power by the working class in these two countries was an imminent possibility. It is for this reason that Comintern put pressure on the Italian Socialist Party (the Psi) to strictly adhere to the 21 conditions.

In fact, even though the Psi affiliated to the Comintern in October 1919, its main leaders, Giacinto Menotti Serrati and Costantino Lazzari, did not take decisive action toward the expulsion of the reformist tendency of Filippo Turati. Through its political activity, this tendency was sabotaging the Psi’s ability to lead and coordinate the revolutionary processes that were taking place in Italy.

The Psi had been the only Socialist party in Western Europe to maintain a critical position toward the First World War.2 This later facilitated the Italian socialists joining the ranks of the Third International.

Trotsky explains the peculiar position in which the Psi found itself by looking at its history and the attitude of the Italian society toward the war. On the one hand, the Psi had already experienced a split in 1912, when part of the right wing of the party was expelled because of their outright chauvinist support of the colonial wars in Libya and the imperialist policies of Giovanni Giolitti (then Prime Minister of Italy).3

On the other hand, because a large section of the Italian bourgeoisie was against active participation in the world conflict, Italy officially entered the war only nine months after the other countries did. According to Trotsky, these conditions later contributed to delaying the emergence of explicit divisions between the reformist and the revolutionary wings of the Psi.4

The policies of the Psi leadership were, however, more and more approaching a position of direct contradiction with the revolutionary movements taking place in Italy. The strike wave of the previous year fed directly into a new movement in the spring of 1920. Trade union membership was rapidly growing, and factory councils, especially in Turin, were established as a preliminary form of workers’ power.

The situation is well illustrated by the so-called “strike of the clock hands” (sciopero delle lancette) in Turin, which was provoked by the forced adoption of the Daylight Savings Time in the city factories. The strike developed quickly into a political strike that posed the question of workers’ control over production and clearly demonstrated the strength and the unity of the working class in the city.

Eventually, the strike was defeated, partly due to the ambiguous position taken by the Psi. Though support was formally given to the striking workers, the Psi leadership surrendered to the pressure of the reformist leaders of the CGL (Confederazione Generale del lavoro, the Trade union confederation), which accused the local trade unions of a “lack of discipline.” It did not work to build for a general strike that could have actually supported the struggle of the workers in Turin.

The ineffectual behavior of the Psi, which, during the insurrectionary movements in Turin, was busy with its national congress in Milan, is described by Antonio Gramsci:

While the working class in Turin was bravely defending and organizing factory councils, the first form of workers’ democracy, in Milan the Psi was blabbing about projects and theoretical methods for the building of Councils that would have then provided the core of workers’ power. They were debating on how to properly organize things that didn’t yet exist, while the proletariat in Turin was left alone and isolated.5

During the congress, the National Council of the Psi rejected the motion presented by Gramsci and his group, Ordine Nuovo (“New Order”) of extending and generalising the Turin strike movement to the rest of Italy. While the Turati and the right went as far as claiming that the only solution to the crisis was joining the government of Francesco Saverio Nitti, the maximalists around Serrati and Lazzari (i.e., the majority centrist tendency of the Psi) did not accept Gramsci’s motion for fear of provoking a split.

According to Lenin, the propositions advanced by the Turin section of the Psi (which was built around “Ordine Nuovo” and led by Gramsci) were essentially correct and corresponded “fully to the principles of the Third International.”6

Unfortunately though, the debates that occurred at the second congress of the Comintern did not manage to shift the position of the Psi leaders. Indeed, they showed clearly that they interpreted affiliation to the Comintern primarily as a formal act. While Lenin, Trotsky and the leaders of the Bolshevik Party argued for the reorganization of the communist parties along solid political and organizational lines, Serrati and Lazzari kept on answering that it was impossible for them to expel the reformists, as long as the latter would maintain party discipline. They would argue that Turati and his reformists, by not joining Giolitti’s cabinet, were maintaining party discipline. In the maximalists’ opinion, this meant that they were not really translating their policies into action, and their opposition to the Comintern’s policies was justified by them as “freedom of criticism” inside the Psi.

What the maximalists did not understand is that the political role of Turati’s tendency was exactly that of influencing the Psi political line from a minority position. On the one hand, the Psi was making great proclamations about the experience of the Russian Revolution; on the other hand, nothing was being done, in practice, to prepare for the Italian revolution, for fear of “splitting the party.”

Communication between Russia and Italy was at the time made difficult by the civil war that was raging in the former. The lack of adequate information meant that, even after the second congress, Lenin still believed that the maximalists were about to expel the right wing from the Psi. Only Gramsci was coming to terms with the need to organize a truly revolutionary tendency in Italy, drawing the correct conclusions from the defeat of the Turin strike and the isolation faced by his Ordine Nuovo group. With this in mind, Gramsci attended a meeting of the Soviet, the abstentionist tendency organized around Bordiga in Naples, and proposed a unification. However, Bordiga refused to renounce his abstentionist position,7 and so the organization of a revolutionary tendency inside the Psi was further delayed.

But the main reason for the lack of a centralized, revolutionary party that would oppose itself to the practices of the reformists is to be found in the continuous oscillations of Serrati and the maximalists. At the decisive moment, in September 1920, this led to the defeat of the occupation movement that marked the end of the Italian “biennio rosso, the two red years. In reality, the perennial indecisiveness of the maximalists was a symptom of their lack of belief that any revolutionary perspective was actually possible in Italy. According to the theoretical analysis of the maximalists, the role of a party was not leading the working class in the struggle for power with a revolutionary program, but waiting on the events while focusing on building their own party apparatus.

Biennio rosso settembre 1920 Milano operai armati occupano le fabbriche Image PD US
The continuous oscillations of Serrati and the maximalists led, in September 1920, to the defeat of the occupation movement that marked the end of the Italian “biennio rosso.” / Image: PD-US

As Serrati stated:

The role of the Socialist party is not, in my opinion, that of leading the struggle in the streets, but that of preparing the forces of the socialist groupings […] In this work of preparation for the revolution the Italian socialist party is probably the most well prepared. We have a dense net of branches, trade unions and cooperatives….8

The differences between Serrati’s line and that of Lenin and the Comintern are especially visible on this point. The attitude of the maximalist leaders was probably closer to that of the “Two-and-a-Half International”: a federation of socialist organizations that resigned from the Second International following its collapse during the First World War. They held the opportunistic belief that, given the economic, cultural and political differences of Western Europe, the “road to socialism” would be different in different countries. The conclusion that they drew from this was that it was possible to achieve socialism without a revolutionary program, and without the need of breaking with the bourgeoisie state.9

As a result of these policies, the Italian proletariat was left without a militant leadership that could provide them with an effective revolutionary strategy. In September 1920, the class struggle peaked when the metalworkers went on strike and occupied the majority of their factories throughout the country. Production in these plants was now being organized under the direct control of the factory councils. The bosses demanded that the movement be repressed by the calling in of the army. At the bosses’ request, the government replied that, given the scale of the occupation movement, the only feasible option was bombing the plants, starting with the Turin Fiat factory. All eyes turned toward the leaders of the workers’ movement. But, at the decisive moment, the Psi faltered due to its lack of a revolutionary program. Instead of coming up with a strategy that would have pushed aside the reformist and openly sabotaging policies of the Cgl, the Psi simply proclaimed that “the final conflict was now coming.” But nothing was actually getting done in practice.

Trotsky explained that the Italian working class was closely following the agitation and the slogans of the socialists. It was drawing the logical, revolutionary conclusions from them, pushing for the occupation and control of the factories. However the tactic of the Psi was abstract and superficial, it lacked strategic objectives: what was the aim of the movement? Would the Psi lead the workers’ movement to an insurrection and the seizing of political power, like the Bolsheviks did in Russia? Unfortunately, a concrete response to these questions was never given by the Psi leaders and the workers’ movement was left politically beheaded. On September 20, the workers, abandoned and left alone in the fight by their own organization, were finally forced to demobilize. The Giolitti government happily handed out a few formal concessions concerning the authority of the factory councils, but the economic and political power of the bourgeoisie was left fundamentally untouched.

The defeat of the occupation movement showed in practice that the Psi pretension of independence from the Comintern’s 21 conditions was just a reflection of their own opportunism and lack of revolutionary perspective. This was the conclusion that was eventually taken by Gramsci and Bordiga. In October 1920, they merged their two groups together and started building a communist faction inside the Psi, which would be prepared to give the lead in a new revolutionary situation. In January 1921, they formally split from the Psi at the Livorno congress (“Livorno split”) and gave birth to the Communist Party of Italy (Pcd’I).

The fight against ultraleftism: the debate on the united front tactic

The political approach of the Pcd’I was, from the beginning, at the center of several comradely—but heated—debates at the Comintern congresses. The “Italian question” was explicitly on the agenda of the two following congresses of the International: at the third congress in 1921, and the fourth in 1922.

The tactical and political line of the Third international was summarized by the words of Lenin toward the Italian communists: “Split away from Turati, and then make an alliance with him.” Splitting away from the reformists and organizing the revolutionary forces was, in fact, just the first of the issues that the Italian communists had to tackle on the road to revolution. It is not enough to have a revolutionary organization, you also need to win over the majority of the working class.

The balance of forces at the time was well summarized by the congress of the Psi that immediately preceded the “Livorno split.” Turati’s motion obtained only 14,000 votes, while the communists’ one obtained 58,000. However, the maximalists received 98,000 votes. They still held significant authority over a sizable majority of the party delegates. However, the leading group of the Pcd’I, at the time solidly in the hands of Bordiga’s tendency (which was more homogenous and organized than Gramsci’s “Ordine Nuovo”) made the ultraleftist error of confusing the mood of the vanguard with that of the wider working class. It built its policies on the wrong perspective that Psi was now destined to disappear. Even Ordine Nuovo at the time of the split was stating: “Let Turati have the corpse of the Socialist Party and let him use it as a stool for his senile ambitious. Onward communists!”

However, the April elections of 1921 demonstrated that the masses still had illusions in the Psi. The latter obtained 1.5 million votes, while the Communist Party only got 290,000. In spite of the tremendous defeat of the Autumn of 1920, the Italian working class was not yet ready to abandon its traditional party, the Psi. This fundamentally was due to two reasons. First off, at the time of the election, the Pcd’I was an extremely new force—the building of the party wasn’t preceded by a period of systematic, centralized and nationally coordinated internal factional struggle. Therefore, the leaders of the Pcd’I were still unknown to a large portion of the working class.

In Russia, well before 1917, the process of the building of a solidly organized Marxist party with a truly revolutionary program and strategy had begun in 1903, when the Bolshevik faction was built inside the Russian Social Democratic Party, in opposition to the reformist Menshevik tendency. The existence of a properly organized revolutionary faction inside the Psi would have probably put the Italian communists in a better position in September 1920 and in the coming months. Conversely, the Pcd’I represented a truly revolutionary faction, but it was still far too small for the revolutionary tasks that it was aiming to solve. However, the leadership of the Pcd’I interpreted the “Livorno split” as a purely formal act that would have solved all the problems of the Italian communists by itself. They did not themselves pose the task of developing tactics to reach and win over the many workers that were still looking toward the Socialist Party.

Filippo Turati 1920 Image public domain
The passivity of the Communists meant the initiative passed to Turati and his reformists. / Image: public domain

At the same time, the Psi was contesting its expulsion from the Comintern. Socialist delegates were sent to the third congress (June-July 1921) with the aim of overturning the decision that was taken at the previous congress. While the rank-and-file Psi members were not yet ready to abandon their own party, they were already pushing beyond the policies of their leaders, and were forcing them to orientate toward the Third International, which held a great amount of authority in the eyes of the Italian workers. This opened up a great opportunity for the Italian communists to carry on with the tactic of the united front, which was first proposed at the third congress. By creating a united front of action with the social democrats, the communists could show to the masses, in practice, that their own program and strategies closely reflected the needs and the interests of the working class, and all the oppressed layers of society. On the other hand, because of their reformist nature, the socialist leaders would not have been ready to carry out the fight for socialism to the finish, clearly showing to the masses that the communists were the only ones that had “a concrete path and that the Psi did not know what to do.”10

The main slogan of the third congress was: “To the masses.” But this was interpreted by the Pcd’I leaders as if only concerning the trade union field. Bordiga’s understanding of a united front was reduced to forming a trade union front ready to fight against wage cuts, rising unemployment and the fascist offensive. He did not envision a political front between working-class parties.11 This was very different from the essence of the united front tactic that was proposed by Lenin and Trotsky, who on this matter faced the opposition even some Bolshevik leaders (as Zinoviev and Bukharin).

A resolution titled “Theses on Tactics and Strategy,” passed at the third congress, includes the following:

In Western Europe and the United States, where the working masses are organized in trade unions and political parties, spontaneous movements are therefore for the time being quite infrequent. Given that fact, Communist parties are obliged to attempt, by mustering their strength in the trade unions and increasing their pressure on other parties based on the working masses, to enable the proletariat’s struggle for its immediate interests to unfold on a unified basis.12

The political situation around which the third congress was taking place was very different from that of the previous year. The revolutionary processes that developed quickly at the end of the war did not succeed in overthrowing capitalism, and the forces of bourgeois reaction were on the move. A new period of political stability, albeit precarious, was opening up. The task of the communists was to strengthen their own organizations while putting forward a program that could openly challenge the reformists. During the preparation for the third congress, Trotsky engaged in a discussion with Umberto Terracini, the Pcd’I delegate to the congress. The latter stated that the Pcd’I refused to undertake common action with the Psi, because it was convinced that an open fight between the socialists and the communists would eventually force the masses to “open their eyes” and join the ranks of the communists. To this, Trotsky answered:

Now then, the workers who do not join our party and who do not understand it (that is precisely the reason why they do not enter it), want to have the possibility to fight for the piece of daily bread, for the bit of meat, etc. They see before them the communist party, the socialist party, and they do not understand the reason why they have parted company […] they say: give us the possibility of conducting the fight for our daily needs. We cannot answer them: But we have separated in order to prepare your great future, your great day-after-tomorrow! They will not understand this, because they are completely absorbed by their “today.” If they were able to grasp this, to them, entirely theoretical argument, they would have joined our party.13

The Pcd’I’s refusal to follow the united front tactic also led the party leadership to underestimate the fascist threat that was looming over Italy. While the Comintern considered the fight against fascism “the most important political fight that can be fought only by following the lead of the masses and under a united front of action,”14 Togliatti reduced fascist violence to “nothing more than a new form of bourgeois dictatorship […] After organizing itself as a party, fascism will have its slice of cake at the bourgeoisie democracy feast. They will all just find an agreement among themselves.”15 Bordiga himself claimed that “fascists and social democrats are just two sides of the same coin: our enemy of tomorrow,” and that “if the white reaction will succeed in strangling the social democracy, then it will prepare better conditions for its own quick revolutionary defeat.”16

Fundamentally, in the Pcd’I’s opinion, the Psi was still to be considered the main enemy, and their attitude toward fascism was closely dictated by their refusal to build a united front. The second congress of the Pcd’I went as far as claiming that, in the eventuality that a social democratic government were attacked by the fascist forces, the communists should not show any form of solidarity toward the socialists. Otherwise, they claimed, the effect would be of fostering confusion in the working class and delaying the “revolutionary march.”17

The ultraleftism of the leaders of the Pcd’I, unable to answer to the demand for workers’ unity in the face of the advance of the bourgeois reaction, led the communists to make a decisive mistake when it came to deciding on the line of conduct towards the “Arditi del Popolo” (The People’s Daring Ones): a spontaneous and mass anti-fascist movement, which arose in various cities.

The class character of the “Arditi del popolo” was mostly proletarian, yet the Pcd’I forbade its rank-and-file members from organizing themselves together with workers that “were not ideologically communists.” Instead, the Pcd’I went on creating its own defense force. As a result, the communist fighters were divided from the wider working class.

The Comintern strongly criticized the ultraleftist attitude that the Pcd’I showed in the situation:

It is clear that at its beginning this was a mass proletarian organization, with some petty-bourgeois members, spontaneously rebelling against the fascists’ terror. Where were the communists? They were too busy pointing their magnifying glass to the movement so as to decide if it was Marxist enough; close enough to their party program. The Pcd’I should have vigorously entered the Arditi’s movement. They should have rallied up the workers around themselves and, through that, won the support of the petty-bourgeois members […] The communist party must be the brain and the heart of the working class. There shouldn’t exist a working class movement that is deemed to be low or to impure by the Party […] Your young Party must rely on every chance it has to establish direct contact with the working masses and live alongside them. It is better to make mistakes alongside and together with the working masses, than alone inside the restrict circles of the party leaders, while holding on to our chastity as a guiding principle.18

The passivity of the Communists meant the initiative passed to Turati and his reformists. / Image: public domainEven the so-called trade union united front was never actually a reality in practice. Inside the Cgl, the communists, when together with the maximalists, had the overall majority. They could have used their position to call for a general strike against fascism. But their constant preoccupation with distinguishing themselves from Serrati led the communists into passivity.

The initiative passed to Turati and his reformists. They proclaimed the so-called “sciopero legalitario”: a general strike called in opposition to fascist violence, with the explicit aim of joining the bourgeois government. For this reason, the Cgl refused to organize a militant defence against fascist squadristi violence, and the strike ended in a terrible defeat for the working class. The report of these events that the Pcd’I presented at the fourth congress of the Comintern was again full of ultraleftist mistakes, which followed from their mantra so much the worse, so much the better“Nobody listens anymore to the maximalists, finally the yellow dictators have no power anymore among the workers’ movement.”19

While expressing their satisfaction with the collapse of the Psi, which was not provoked by a rise of the Pcd’I, but rather by the fascist reaction, the leaders of the Pcd’I failed to notice that that same reaction was about to dismantle the whole of the organized working-class movement in Italy. These leaders thus bear their share of responsibility for this historic tragedy.


[1] K.Radek, Il II congresso dell’Internazionale comunista, in L’Ordine Nuovo, anno II, n. 10, 17 luglio 1920.

[2] Tuttavia, la posizione del gruppo dirigente del Psi fu molto differente da quella dei bolscevichi che, riconoscendo correttamente lo scontro di classe in atto nella guerra e il suo carattere imperialista, si impegnarono in un lavoro di propaganda ben riassunto nello slogan “trasformare la guerra imperialista in guerra civile.” Al contrario, l’orientamento del Psi era “né aderire, né sabotare” che, oltre a non riconoscere il ruolo e le responsabilità della borghesia italiana, finì per rendere il partito completamente inerme e immobile di fronte agli eventi.

[3] Si tratta della corrente di Bissolati e Bonomi, principali fondatori del Partito socialista riformista italiano e fautori della tesi dell’interventismo democratico.

[4] L. Trotskij, La questione italiana al III congresso dell’Internazionale comunista, in Scritti sull’Italia, Massari Editore.

[5] A. Gramsci, Il movimento torinese dei Consigli di fabbrica, in Internazionale Comunista, anno I, n. 14, novembre 1920.

[6] Lenin, Sul movimento operaio italiano, Editori Riuniti.

[7] L’astensionismo strategico è una tattica che afferma l’inutilità e la dannosità dell’uso delle elezioni e del lavoro parlamentare per la costruzione del partito rivoluzionario dei lavoratori.

[8] G.M. Serrati, Il dovere dell’ora presente, in Comunismo, anno II, n. 1, 1-15 ottobre 1920.

[9] La mozione dei massimalisti al XVII congresso del Partito socialista italiano, che precedette la scissione comunista, riporta: “Il Partito socialista dichiara che accetta i ventuno punti di Mosca e quanto alla loro esecuzione intende siano interpretati secondo le condizioni ambientali e storiche del paese.”

[10] L. Trotskij, Lettera alla delegazione del Pcd’I, in Scritti sull’Italia, Massari Editore.

[11] A. Bordiga, Il fronte unico, in Il Comunista, 28 ottobre 1921.

[12]Tesi sulla tattica del terzo congresso dell’Internazionale comunista, in Assalto al cielo. Documenti e manifesti dei Congressi dell’Internazionale Comunista (1919-1922), Giovane Talpa Editore.

[13] L. Trotskij, A proposito del fronte unico, in

[14] L’Ordine Nuovo, 26 marzo 1922.

[15] P. Togliatti, Il fascismo partito politico, in L’Ordine Nuovo, 25 settembre 1921.

[16] A. Bordiga, Tra le gesta fasciste e la campagna elettorale, in Rassegna comunista, n. 2, 15 aprile 1921.

[17]Tesi sulla tattica, in Ordine Nuovo, 3 gennaio 1922.

[18] P. Spriano, Gli arditi del popolo, in Storia del Partito comunista italiano. Vol. 1. Da Bordiga a Gramsci, Einaudi.

[19] Relazione del Partito comunista d’Italia al quarto congresso dell’Internazionale comunista, in Lo Stato Operaio, anno II, n. 6, 6 marzo 1924.

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