Anti-militarist United Fronts and Italy’s “Red week”, 1914
southern africa |
opinion / analysis
Wednesday September 03, 2014 15:34 by Jonathan Payn - International Labour Research and Information Group jonathan at ilrig dot org dot za
Part 2 in a series of articles on the concept and history of the United Front
The United Front tactic – aimed at uniting masses of workers in action and winning Communist leadership for the working class – was adopted as policy by the Communist International (Comintern) in 1921 and will be discussed later in this series. However, there are important examples of working class unity in action which predate Comintern policy and bear relevance to the united fronts discussion. One often-cited example is the united front to defend the gains of the February Revolution from a military coup in Russia in 1917, which will be discussed in the next article in this series.
Before looking at this, however, there is another example of proletarian unity in action – that didn’t seek to win Communist leadership – which warrants attention; that of a revolutionary worker-peasant alliance. This conception of united front action found expression in Italy’s anti-militarist “red blocs” and it is to these that we now turn.
First published in issue 87 of Workers World News
• Part 1: NUMSA and the ‘United Front Against Neoliberalism’
• Part 3: The 1917 Russian Revolution and United Front
• Part 4: United Working Class Action and the Workers’ Council Movement in Germany, 1920-1923
Prelude to Rebellion
In the early 1900s, there was strong worker and peasant opposition to Italian colonialism and military involvement in Eritrea, Abyssinia and Libya, and to the repression of the Italian working class by the state’s armed forces. Workers and peasants saw that, although soldiers came mostly from the working class and peasantry, the military and its colonial adventures only served the interests of the ruling class in its search for new markets and new sources of cheap labour and raw materials as well as to suppress local working class struggles.
However, divisions emerged in the Italian socialist movement between its rank-and-file and the Italian Socialist Party’s (PSI) reformist leaders, who rejected revolution – represented by anarchists, Bolsheviks and syndicalists – in favour of a gradual electoral transition to socialism. Shortly before Italy invaded Libya in 1911, the PSI’s youth wing, the Italian Socialist Youth Federation – which rejected “reformism” – met with syndicalist youth organisations and agreed to co-operate in anti-war efforts. This co-operation, extended to anarchist youth as well, laid the basis for an anti-militarist united front or “red bloc”.
1914 “Red Week”
By 1914, a twenty thousand-strong united front of workers and peasants from different political tendencies was organised against militarism. On Constitution Day, June 7 1914, this anti-militarist front organised a national demonstration against militarism and war. Fearing this front could lay the basis for a revolutionary “Red bloc” the government ordered troops to suppress the protests. Clashes between troops and anti-militarists erupted leaving three workers dead.
The proletariat took to the streets in response and rebellion engulfed the country. Before the dominant General Confederation of Labour (CGL) had responded the Italian Syndicalist Union and Chamber of Labour called a general strike. Dock and rail workers asserted their power in a crippling wave of protests and 50 000 workers marched in Turin in “iron ranks of class solidarity” when the CGL joined the call.
Although the socialist leadership had been divided over the call for a general strike the masses embraced it with revolutionary fervour. Barricades sprang up in the northern industrial centres. Self-governing communes were declared in smaller towns and government officials forced to flee. About a million people participated and for ten days the city of Ancona was under the control of rebel workers and peasants.
The uprising, called the “Red week”, differed from previous uprisings in extent and intensity – it spread across the country from north to south, in cities and countryside, and was offensive rather than defensive in nature. Many workers and peasants believed that revolution was possible and pushed to realise it.
Betrayal and Collapse
However, the reformists restated their view that socialism wouldn’t be achieved by the masses’ revolutionary impulses and rejected the need for a revolutionary rupture. They believed that the working class was not ready for socialism, that its “impulsiveness” was harmful and that socialists should “educate and civilise” the proletariat in order to prepare it for a gradual transition to socialism.
On seeing the situation develop into a potentially revolutionary uprising that they could not contain the CGL called off the strike after two days – over workers’ heads and without consulting the PSI or other working class formations. In doing so they gagged the most conscious and rebellious working class militants and the revolutionary movement collapsed. Although ten thousand troops were needed to regain control of Ancona and in Marcas and Romagna anarchists, revolutionary socialists and Republicans maintained their posts in the streets, side-by-side, for a few days more.
However, not everyone shared this view and some socialists did believe that the masses were ready for and capable of revolution and that this was how socialism would come about.
Errico Malatesta, an anarchist leader of the uprising, pleaded with workers not to obey the CGL’s order to end the strike; believing instead that the monarchy was collapsing and that revolution was indeed possible. For revolutionaries like Malatesta socialism would be achieved not through class compromise and elections, but through a working class revolution from below. Through the self-activity and self-organisation of the masses. For them socialists should encourage and stimulate this working class self-organisation and self-activity in preparation for the revolution, which would be cultivated by constant use of the strike weapon, culminating in a revolutionary general strike.
For these revolutionaries, the lesson of the Red Week is that the working class can be revolutionary and that it is strongest on its own terrain; outside and against the state. Rather than being harnesses to and held back by electoral parties it should organise independently as a class, across ideological lines, to overthrow the state and capitalism and replace them with directly democratic organs of working class self-governance.
After the Red Week uprising had been suppressed Malatesta declared, “Now... We will continue more than ever full of enthusiasm, acts of will, of hope, of faith. We will continue preparing the liberating revolution, which will secure justice, freedom and well-being for all.”
Our History of Struggle: the 1980s “Workerist-Populist” Debate Revisited Dec 09 0 comments
Today the terms “populism” and “workerism” are widely thrown about in South African political circles. Often, these terms and others (“syndicalism,” “ultra-left,” “counter-revolutionary,” “anti-majoritarian” …) have no meaning: they are just labels used to silence critics. SA Communist Party (SACP) leaders do this often. But in the 1980s, “populism” and “workerism” referred to two rival positions battling for the soul of the militant unions.
These debates, thirty years on, remain very relevant: let us revisit them, and learn. Today’s radical National Union of Metalworkers of SA (NUMSA) was part of the “workerist” camp, while its key rival, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was identified with “populism.” The early battles over the direction of the Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU) still echo today, although there is no longer a clear “workerist” camp.
The 1976 Struggle and the Emancipation of the Future Dec 06 0 comments
The massacre of South African school children in 1976 – for protesting for instruction in their native languages and for a proper curriculum – continues to be remembered and to influence us today. It showed the brutality of the apartheid state and it left scars still felt by people today.
The challenges faced by youth today are different to that experienced in 1976. This does not mean everything has changed. We need to look to history to learn about and not to repeat mistakes made. But we also look to history to provide us with inspiration. We need to revisit the spirit of the youth of 1976 and copy their courage – to overcome these issues facing our young people today. We need to be the change that we want to see.
Remembering and Learning from the Past: The 1976 Uprising and the African Working Class Jun 17 0 comments
This year  marks the 30th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa, which marked the start of the fall of apartheid, and inspired activists worldwide. African working youth played a leading role, and their sacrifices showed us that ordinary people can make a difference to the injustices of our world. Revolutionaries should commemorate this struggle, but also learn from its failings.
Get Rich or Lie Trying: Why ANC Millionaire Julius Malema posed as a Radical Mar 06 0 comments
This article aims to explain, from an anarchist / syndicalist perspective, the rapid rise and fall of Julius Malema, the controversial and corrupt multi-millionaire leader of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) “youth league” (ANCYL). It is demonstrated that Malema’s posturing as radical champion of the black poor was simply a means to an end: rising higher in the ranks of the ANC, in order to access bigger state tenders and higher paying political office.
The larger political implications of the Malema affair are also considered, especially the role of the ANC – as a vehicle for the accumulation of wealth and power by the rising black elite, which is centred on the state.
Ninety Years of Working Class Internationalism in South Africa Sep 19 0 comments
For decades, nationalism – African or Afrikaner – has been the dominant ideology in South Africa. It has drawn the working class into unity with the bosses, and divided workers from their fellow workers. It has promised freedom and delivered oppression; it has promised bread and delivered starvation. Nationalism can play a progressive role when in opposition to an oppressive regime, but in power, it invariably becomes a weapon against the working class. The pogroms of May 2008 are the latest disaster to arise from nationalism. [Ελληνικά]
CPSA veteran Alan Lipman's biography online Apr 10 allied to ZACF (southern Africa) 0 comments
The Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation (ZACF) of southern Africa is proud to present an online version of Alan Lipman's autobiography.