Monday, September 13, 2010

It was workers who defeated Mussolini

Alexis Vassiley
Socialist Alternative

Book Review: The Italian Resistance: Fascists, Guerrillas and the Allies.
Tom Behan, Pluto Press 2009.

Between 1943 and 1945 a mass political and military movement led by the working class and headed by Communists freed Italy from fascism. Incredible though this may seem to non-Italian readers, it is historical fact. The Italian Resistance: Fascists, Guerrillas and the Allies –unfortunately the late socialist Tom Behan’s last book – magnificently draws out the central role played by the working class in defeating fascism.

It was workers who went on strike in Nazi-occupied cities, risking death or deportation to Germany. It was workers who took to the mountains to become partisans (guerrillas) in their tens of thousands. It was workers who marked the final day of liberation, April 25 1945, with insurrections in the three cities that make up the industrial triangle in Italy’s north: Turin, Milan and Genoa. It was workers, motivated by the desire for a better, socialist world, who fought Italian fascists and German Nazis to the death and won. German Field Marshals surrendered not to Allied troops, but to Communist industrial workers.

From September 1943 to April 1945, Italy was split in two, with the Allies controlling the South and the Nazis occupying the North (governed by Mussolini’s puppet Salo Republic). In the North, partisan brigades took to the mountains and engaged the enemy in guerrilla warfare. This was backed up by sabotage, “terrorism,” strikes and anti-fascist propaganda in the cities.

Behan, following the historian and former partisan Claudio Pavone, describes three wars being fought simultaneously: a “patriotic” war against the Nazi occupation, a civil war of anti-fascists against fascists (both Italian) and a class war of workers against bosses.

Not surprisingly the Italian establishment of today does not like to highlight the class and civil wars. But it needs to be remembered that the bosses collaborated with fascism, and in many cases were actually Fascist Party members. The working class on the other hand bore the brunt of fascist repression, with their trade unions and political parties crushed and suffering horrific living conditions to pay for the war effort. Likewise, the fact that the struggle against fascism was a political one in which Italians were not united, but rather divided along class lines, is important.

Three left-wing parties, The Italian Communist Party (PCI), the Socialist Party, and the Action Party provided 80-85 per cent of partisans. The Socialist Party was possibly the smallest of the three, and had a largely reformist orientation. Yet intriguingly a grouping within the party had “a clear commitment to classical Marxist principles,” according to Behan. Frustratingly, Behan devotes only two pages to the Action Party, which made up 20 per cent of the Resistance, which he describes as being “more unwilling [than the Communist Party] to compromise on questions of principle” and for this reason attracted many radicals to its ranks.

However, the Communist Party was far and away the dominant grouping in the Resistance. The party’s contradictory role is important to understand. On the one hand, their ability to maintain a clandestine organisation under fascism proved crucial. They provided leadership, organisation and sheer numbers to the movement (at one point they ordered all of their organisations to send 25 per cent of leading and rank-and-file members up to the mountains).

The party membership was undoubtedly motivated by socialist principles. Yet their two-stage theory of change (national liberation first, “progressive democracy” second) and willingness to subordinate policy to Moscow meant that the hopes and dreams of the partisans were not realised. A historic opportunity to fundamentally change Italian society was lost.

Disgracefully, after the war fascists were not even purged from the state apparatus but given amnesties by a Communist Minister of Justice while former partisans were often jailed for wartime activity.

The PCI’s unprincipled pragmatism, during the war and after, was driven by Moscow’s desire not to anger the Allies –who after all did not like the idea of hundreds of thousands of Communists with guns liberating themselves. The tension between the partisans and the Allies is a central theme of the book, and also gets a dedicated chapter. The Allies hung the partisans out to dry when their help was most required and put politics above military strategy, preferring a weak left-wing Resistance to a strong one.

Behan questions the extent to which (if at all) the partisans needed the Allies. Naples liberated itself. Partisans liberated Florence. And insurrections liberated Milan, Genoa and Turin. Contrary to popular myth, it was the Resistance (suffering far more casualties than a conventional Army), which freed Italy, not the Allies.

The Italian Resistance has a chapter on the role of women in the Resistance, both as combatants (there were female commanders and all-female units) and in a crucial supporting role. There is also an interesting chapter on the partisan republics – liberated zones in the mountains lasting weeks or even months – where new, more democratic ways of organising society flourished.

Behan eloquently describes “how a society which seemed extremely stable and controlled, destined to continue in the same way forever, suddenly exploded from below with mass activity, such that for a brief period everything seemed possible.”

To end with his words, the Resistance was “a struggle from below,” marked by “self-activity, generosity, improvisation and comradeship,” “a subversive and inspiring example that even the most powerful enemy can be defeated.” That is what makes this tale of a time when at least 300,000 ordinary Italians became political actors and forged history required reading for anyone who wants to fight for a better world.

We note with sadness Tom Behan’s recent passing. An obituary can be found here.

Also see Modena City Ramblers.

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