Thursday, August 16, 2007

Communist Party Clubs: Factory Cells and the Red Aid Movement:


Science & Society, Vol. 70, No. 4, October 2006, 480–508

Factory Cells and the Red Aid Movement:
Factory and Neighborhood Forms
of Organization and Resistance
to Fascism in Turin, 1922–1926


ABSTRACT: The Italian labor movement was seriously damaged
by fascism’s rise to power. Attempts by the Italian Communist
Party (PCI) to resurrect its organizational structures and lead
resistance to fascism were based on traditional working-class
spheres of organization: the factory and the neighborhood. The
PCI resisted over-reliance on either point of production or neighborhood
organization. Rather, it showed adroit tactical flexibility,
in shifting its primary emphasis depending on changing circumstances,
in this period. A case study of Turin affords insights
into how the factory vs. neighborhood issue was played out in
theory and practice in a key Italian city. An examination of the
factory cells and Red Aid organization in Turin shows that the
working-class response to communist organization and fascism
was informed by non-sectarian traditions of neighborhood collectivism
and resistance.

attempted to repair the damage inflicted on its organizational
structures by the rise of fascism, which culminated in the fascist
seizure of power in October 1922. In Italy, Turin was the center
par excellence of heavy industry, especially engineering and automobiles.
From a Marxist perspective Turin was home to the most
technically advanced and politically conscious proletariat in the
country. The recalcitrant opposition of the city’s labor movement
and working class to fascism and capitalism between 1920 and 1922
FACTORY CELLS AND RED AID 481 enhanced Turin’s importance to the PCI* as a center of organization and resistance.

One of the most dynamic aspects of the Turin labor movement
was its ability to revitalize itself at times of crisis by falling back on
earlier forms of organization and action. The PCI’s attempts to reorganize
its institutions and mobilize resistance to fascism and industrialists
in Turin, and elsewhere, were centered on spheres that provided a historical reference point in pre-fascist days: the factory and the neighborhood:
Every city has its own structure, it is a living organism, gathered round some
propulsory centers, endowed with a development and a history — the history
of the human multitude that sways along the streets, toils in factories
and in the office, that nests in the great agglomerate houses. . . . Around
the factories, the clubs, the meeting places, the family homes there is, together,
a network of relations that could, that must be tight once again, because from this must emerge the fighting abilities of the besieged proletarians.
(ON, 1922, 3.)

The literature on the Italian labor movement traditionally focused
on political party and trade union organization, tending to approach
the factory and neighborhood as separate areas of investigation (Arfé,
1965; Tasca, 1965; Spriano, 1967). This approach runs the risk of evaluating
resistance in the language and terms of earlier periods of mass
political party and trade union membership and revolutionary aspirations.

As a result, important expressions of working-class solidarity and
opposition to fascism have been overlooked. In particular, the campaigns
for political victims and the Red Aid movement (Soccorso Rosso)
have largely been reduced to anecdotes. This constitutes a glaring
omission from the historiography of working-class organization and
resistance in Italy. Moreover, the importance of community-driven
forms of sociability and solidarity to the success of political and factory
organization is also likely to be understated. This article builds on more
recent literature, which shows the crucial importance of not separating
the factory from the neighborhood in studies of the Italian workingclass
and fascism. This key factor is exemplified by the case of Turin
(Sapelli, 1976–77; Jalla and Musso, 1981; Revelli, 1980–82; Levy, 1999).
* We use “PCI” rather than “PCd’I” throughout to refer to the Partito Comunista d'Italia, the name
of the Communist Party of Italy in the period with which this article is concerned. — Ed.


The question of working-class resistance to fascism is of renewed
importance in the light of newer revisionist (Gribaudi, 1987; Berta,
1998) and cultural history studies (Gentile, 1996), which challenge
the notion of neighborhood collectivism.1 The revisionist and cultural
history studies broadly argue that younger workers in particular
rejected traditional working-class forms of sociability and organization
in favor of consumerist individualism and fascist mass organizations,
rituals, symbols and spectacles. According to these studies, this
development led to the erosion of neighborhood collectivity and
resistance and to a significant degree of working-class consensus in
favor of the charismatic leadership of Mussolini and Fascism. This
article, however, will show how a culture of sociability, solidarity and
resistance to authority had deep roots in Turin’s working-class neighborhoods,
was passed on through the generations and continued to
resonate under fascism (cf. Levi, 1985; Levy, 1999).

Historians have identified an alternative subculture or tradizione
sovversiva (subversive tradition) preceding and acting outside of the
official reformist socialism that appeared in the last decade of the 19th
century in Italy (Andreucci, 1981; Levy, 1989, 44–45; 1999, esp. 6–
13; Abse, 1995, 158–161). The more rebellious and violent culture
of sovversivismo, founded on the traditions of 19th-century anarchist
and republican artisan groups and peasant communities, was characterized
by sentiments of localism, anti-statism, anti-militarism and
anti-clericalism. It was also founded on “a belief in the legitimacy of
violence in the winning of economic disputes or the struggle for
political power” (Abse, 1995, 159). One of its most important tenets,
autonomy from, and resistance to, authority of whichever hue, colored
social relations in working-class districts and helped provide an
ideological framework for the independent proletarian culture.
The working-class neighborhood acted as a cultural space in
which collective identity and action were fostered and networks of
sociability and solidarity were created. This development encouraged
the persistence of pre-socialist ideologies and the survival of preexisting
communitarian social structures and traditions in workers’
neighborhoods during the transitional period of rapid industrialization
and urbanization from the later 1890s (FIAT was established in

1 For a convincing critique of the cultural history studies on Italian fascism, see Abse, 2000.

The growth of socialism in Turin after 1900 was based on two
institutional forms: the factory shop-floor internal commissions and
the workers’ political clubs based in working-class neighborhoods.
Carl Levy (1999, 32–46) has built on earlier work by Paolo Spriano
(1960, 236–264) in identifying the emergence of a new generation
of young socialists and anarchists from 1910 onwards, who were raised
and/or living in the same workers’ suburbs, employed in the same
factories or sharing common political and social aspirations, who
associated and debated together in the same local clubs and societies.
These traditions encouraged workers from different left political
currents, along with non-political workers, to unite to help each
other withstand state and, later, fascist repression. While political and
trade union alliances were fragile in this period, at the grassroots level
the traditions of sociability and solidarity continued to encourage
non-sectarian factory and neighborhood organization and agitation.
Working-class districts fostered spontaneous forms of sociability,
based on the physical separation of the neighborhoods from the city
center, consolidated by communal balcony walkways and hygiene services
within the closed spaces of the courtyards. Workers’ clubs offered
more than simply political organization. The clubs, many of which were
grafted on to pre-existing wine circles, social clubs and mutual-aid societies,
provided a venue for political meetings, educational classes and
recreational activities, such as music and dancing, card playing and
organized excursions to the countryside, seaside and mountains. Although
this was a male-dominated arena, women participated socially
and politically in the life of the clubs. Some neighborhoods contained
one or a few such clubs and attracted membership from among both
politicized and non-politicized residents.

While informal and formal networks of social relations fostered
continuous forms of communication and a spirit of familiarity, comradeship
and solidarity, these could also lead to tensions. Income
differentials, political rivalry, place of origin, personal dislikes and
irritations and disparities in the levels of assistance given to neighbors
act as a brake on over-romanticizing the working-class community.
Nonetheless, the crucial point lies in its ability to overcome such
tensions at times of crisis.

My focus on the social and organizational traditions of the Turin
working class affords insights into the PCI’s attempts to reorganize its
structures to withstand fascist and capitalist repression, once Mussolini
became head of government in October 1922. A case study of Turin
enables us to examine the broader picture of factory and neighborhood
organization, as these were played out in theory and practice
in a key Italian city. Through an analysis of the factory cells and Red
Aid organization in Turin I will examine a key question: to what extent
was the PCI able to transcend sectarian divisions to mobilize resistance?
Moreover, my research offers an opportunity to test a key
theme of this study: how far the responses of workers and their families
to fascism, and to the PCI, were informed by a specifically nonsectarian
tradition of neighborhood collectivism.

The PCI adopted a combined, flexible approach to factory and
neighborhood organization, varying its emphasis on the primacy of
one or the other locale, depending on changing circumstances. While
in theory many Communists supported the complete transfer of the
Party’s organizational base to the factory, this process quickly showed
that ongoing concessions to neighborhood forms of organization
would be required. This article shows that communist organization
worked best when factory and neighborhood forms complemented
each other and when it adhered to traditional tenets of working-class
sociability and solidarity.

From Community Politics to Factory Politics

The Legalitarian general strike, August 1–3, 1922, was called by
the Alleanza del lavoro (a national committee of proletarian trade
unions, excluding the Communists, who decided to abstain from the
alliance), to pressure the second Facta government in formation to
adopt an anti-fascist composition and line and restore order and legality
to Italy. The failure of the August general strike led to fascism
conquering hitherto resistant key industrial cities, including Milan,
Genoa (Liguria) and Livorno (Tuscany), but not Turin. The fascist
offensive against the political, economic and social institutions of the
labor movement in Turin, in the days after the Legalitarian strike,
was carried out with renewed vigor following the fascist seizure of
power. This culminated in the Turin massacre of December 18–20,
1922. While the real figure is believed to be higher, the official number
of deaths as a result of the Turin massacre was 11, with many
others injured (Carcano, 1973; Sonnessa, 2005).


In December 1922, at the fourth congress of the Comintern in
Moscow, Communist leaders responded to news of the fascist seizure
of power in Italy by inciting the Italian proletariat to begin a united
and violent struggle to the bitter end against Mussolini and fascism.
The Mussolini-led coalition government, including liberals, nationalists
and members of the Catholic Popular Party (PPI), exploited the
Comintern’s appeal as a pretext for the mass arrest of sovversivi, especially
Communists, third internationalist socialists and anarchists
(Spriano, 1967, 243; Natoli, 1982, 321–322).

Turin’s symbolic position as the center of a proletarian elite and
as a Communist stronghold of Italy meant that the new wave of arrests,
house searches, violent intimidation, and attacks on labor organizations
and press would be widespread there. At the beginning of April
1923, the Communist Provincial Federation of Turin admitted the
extent of the damage to the Communist movement in the city in the
first months of the year. The federation’s report showed the Turin
section had lost its newspaper (the influential Ordine Nuovo), 20 neighborhood
workers’ clubs, the Chamber of Labor, the AGO (Confederation
of Trade Leagues) and two-fifths of its party membership, above
all its best militants, many of whom were in prison, had emigrated, or
were beaten into submission or dead (Agosti, 1980, 40–41).

The wide-scale damage to the PCI’s territorial base in Turin led
many Communists to campaign for the abandonment of neighborhood
institutions. However, the PCI’s planned transformation of its
organizational base to the factory was a piecemeal process. While
there existed a strong push from the rank-and-file for a common antifascist
organization within Turin’s factories, to replace the damaged
neighborhood networks, significantly, a high degree of equilibrium
between factory and neighborhood organization was never abandoned.

The PCI’s response was based on its historical understanding
of the factory–neighborhood nexus in Italian industrial cities such
as Turin; the PCI had resurrected and grafted its organizational forms
onto both pre-existing factory and neighborhood groups.

Key Communist organizations in this period included the factory
cells and the Soccorso Rosso. The PCI’s ability to adjust to changing
circumstances by shifting its primary organizational base from the
neighborhood to the factory in this period was made easier by historical
precedents in Turin. Aldo Agosti states:

The factory groups had not been completely destroyed by the employers’
offensive of 1921 and provided the first shoots of the communist recovery
in Turin and elsewhere. With the destruction of the district workers’ clubs
the territorial structure of the PCI had been almost completely thrown into
disorder. Therefore, the slow, difficult work of reconstruction took the factory
as its beginning, utilizing a structure that in Turin had always held a
certain vitality, that of the Communist factory groups. (Agosti, 1980, 42.)
By the second half of 1923 the PCI appeared resurgent: many of
its sections were reconstructed and contact between the periphery and
center was re-established; more inter-regional secretaries were employed
to smooth communication and membership numbers increased.

Communist-inspired factory groups began to spring up between May
and June 1923, first in Turin, then in Rome, Trieste (Trentino–Alto
Adige), Venice, Biella (Piedmont), and in Liguria (Natoli, 1982, 323).
Clear signs of a resurgence of factory-based organization, trade union
activity and resistance to employers and fascism can be traced from these

The left’s victories in internal commission elections in Turin,
from 1923, undoubtedly acted as a spur for a revival of Communist
organization in the factories (FIOM, box 9). Concurrent with the first
signs of renewed trade union activity was a rise in the number of
Communist Party sections and members, especially in the northern
regions. By July 1923 the federations of Turin, Biella, Alessandria
(Piedmont), Cuneo (Piedmont), Genoa, and Novara (Piedmont)
numbered 71 sections and 1,101 members (Natoli, 1982, 328).

Between 1923 and 1925 Communists and Socialists were unable
to produce durable alliances in the political sphere. In the general
election of April 1924 the PCI, Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and Unitary
Socialist Party (PSU) presented separate lists of candidates. During
the political crisis that followed the fascist kidnap and murder of
the PSU Deputy, Giacomo Matteotti, in June 1924 (see Spriano, 1967,
381–404; Lyttleton, 1973, 237–268), the PCI abandoned the Aventine
opposition (see Morgan, 1995, 75–78) in protest at the refusal of other
non-fascist political parties to support a general strike call.

Only in Turin did Communists continue to participate on the
same platform as the Aventine opposition, the name given to the
secession of non-fascist parties from parliament in protest at the fascist
murder of Matteotti (Spriano, 1967, 391; Basso, 1975, 108).


However, even Turinese Communists were forced into a unilateral
call for a 24-hour strike, while other left currents, and most workers,
adhered to the socialist-led General Confederation of Labor’s (CGL)
call for a ten-minute suspension of work (MI, 1924a; LS, 1924, 2).
Importantly, the non-sectarian composition and unitary appeal
of the factory cells helped to smooth over residual political tensions
between Communists and other left currents. Though Communist
and Socialist political leaders remained mostly divided during 1923,
a steady rapprochement between Communist and Socialist trade
unionists was significantly aided by the experience and growth of the
factory cells. By spring 1924 the socialist-led National Metallurgical
Workers’ Federation (FIOM) and Communist trade union leaders in
Turin were able to reach an electoral accord for the internal commission
elections, in which FIOM secured overwhelming victories.

The ongoing debate on the virtues of factory versus neighborhood
organization created tensions within the communist movement. At
stake was the strategy to employ to gain a foothold among the working
class and to provide resistance to fascism and to the industrialists. Many
Communists championed the theory of class struggle at the point of
production, in the factories. In contrast other militants advocated the
primacy of neighborhood organizing and an appeal to class consciousness
by means of other strategies, such as defense of political victims.
Ultimately, the PCI showed adroit tactical flexibility in shifting its primary
emphasis, depending on changing circumstances, in this period.
The PCI’s combined, flexible approach to organization helped provide
workers and their families with the organizational means to find
shelter from fascist and employer repression.

A lively debate on the organization of the Party took place between
1923 and 1924. Using the PCI archives, Claudio Natoli has
shown that, at least in general, the factions were split along generational
lines, between the adult and youth sections. Neighborhood
forms of sociability and solidarity remained the dominant focus for
many older Communists. Encouraged by the continued ability of
militants to hold meetings in and around their neighborhoods, they
campaigned for reorganization of the Party on a territorial basis and
against its wholesale transfer to the factory. The preference of older
workers for the community organizations and younger workers for
the factory cells may be explained by the greater likelihood of older
Communists to have been born into or raised within pre-industrial
social settings. Ultimately, the dispute was overcome by means of a
compromise: neighborhood organization was maintained, though a
parallel formation of Communist factory groups was developed (Natoli,
1982, 328; Canteri, 2004, 76–78).

The PCI’s executive committee debated the question of organization
on March 5, 1923. A strong difference of opinion emerged
between the Party’s adult section and the leaders of the youth federation.
Giuseppe Berti, representing the youth federation, proposed
that all organizational forms be centered on the workplace, in factory
cells. Luigi Repossi led the opposition to the proposal to transform
Party organization. Opposition centered on two broad counts:
the concern that the high number of unemployed Communists, and
the hostility directed towards Communists in the workplace, made
factory organization a dangerous option. Moreover, the adult leadership
of the PCI continued to show unease at the creation of organisms
separate from the Party itself (Natoli, 1982, 328).

In an interview in the PCI’s newspaper, L’Unità, in September 1924,
a communist factory cell organizer alluded to the divisions along generational
lines and admitted the extent of the resistance to the proposed
wholesale transfer of the Party’s organizational base to the factory:
Sincerely, I do not believe the elimination of organization by place of residence
could occur quickly or easily. In particular, older comrades put up a
certain resistance to the transfer of all political activity inside the factory.
The majority of the work of transformation has been carried out by new
members, those coming from the factory groups and therefore with greater
training in this type of work. (L’U, September 27, 1924, 2.)

Conversely, the experience of Communist factory groups in Turin
suggested that the transition from a territorial to a factory base could
occur more quickly and less divisively in this city than elsewhere. The
Comintern sent the Turin Communist militant, Luigi Longo, back
to Turin, with the precise task of forming factory cells. The first factory
cell created in this period was at the Emanuel factory in the
Barriera di Nizza workers’ district. Symbolically, the cell took the
name of one of the Communists murdered in the Turin massacre,
Evasio Becchio (Canteri, 2004, 77).

The Communist factory groups soon showed they could become
a true class organization. Though it was Communists who organized
FACTORY CELLS AND RED AID and led the factory cells in Turin, membership was increasingly open to all workers regardless of political faith. A less sectarian attitude towards cooperation with other left currents was confirmed at the fifth
congress of the Comintern in June 1924. The congress decided to
exclude the more intransigent, abstentionist faction of the PCI, led
by the Party’s leader, Amadeo Bordiga, from the Italian Party’s executive.
The PCI’s new executive, led by the leaders of the Turin
Ordine Nuovo group, Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, were
more supportive of non-sectarian initiatives aimed at incorporating
non-communists into party organizations. Gramsci led the Party until
his arrest in October 1926 (Spriano, 1967, 362–380).

By the end of 1924 the growth of the factory cells had exceeded
most expectations. Data supplied by the inter-regional secretary of
Piedmont–Liguria showed that cells had been formed among metallurgical
workers, tram workers, railway workers and state employees
(Agosti, 1980, 45; Natoli, 1982, 329). In June 1923 there existed 20
factory cells with a total of 150 members in Turin, of whom 30% were
PCI members. At the end of 1924 there were 57 factory cells, totaling
600 members, of whom 500 had swelled the ranks of the PCI; by
November 1925 the number of cell members was 850 (Agosti, 1980,

The increase in membership was made possible by efficient organization
and the active encouragement of non-sectarian participation.
The membership numbers of the city’s factory cells and the
Turin section of the PCI corresponded closely, providing some evidence
for the Turin provincial committee’s claim, in a report of September
1924, that the transformation of the Party’s organizational
base was almost complete (L’U, September 23, 1924, 2).

The incorporation of workers from all left currents around the
factory cell movement enabled Turin’s Communists to re-assert an
organizational and mobilizing influence on workers. The factory cell
organizer interviewed by L’Unità in September 1924 described the
distribution of tens of thousands of leaflets in the workplace as one
of the most important early activities of cell militants. Workers were
reached by leaflets clandestinely placed in workplace washrooms and
in drawers under workbenches (L’U, September 27, 1924, 2). Moreover,
the factory cells were active in campaigns during the April 1924
general election, the day of commemoration for Giacomo Matteotti
in June 1924 and in support of the internal commissions. Factory
groups also distributed leaflets in support of political victims and
collected large sums of money for the Red Aid organization. Between
mid-1923 and mid-1924 factory groups in Turin collected over 25,000
lire for political victims and over 10,000 lire for the Communist press.
In these ways Turin’s Communists placed themselves at the vanguard
of working-class organization and in opposition to both fascism and
the industrialists.

Nonetheless, on November 22, 1924 the prefect of Turin, Secondo
Dezza, if underestimating the growth of the workplace cells, reported
that the factory groups remained embryonic in development.
Dezza reported that Communists in Turin continued to be organized
primarily on a territorial basis, corresponding to traditional
neighborhood workers’ clubs. Dezza based his evidence on interrogations
carried out on a number of recently arrested Communists
(MI, 1924b). Although the men may have deliberately tried to deceive
the authorities, a leaflet produced by the executive committee
of the Turin PCI in November 1924 offered some support for
Dezza’s findings: the executive committee admitted the transformation
of its organizational base to the factory was not yet complete
(MI, 1924c).

Though the factory cells gradually became the Party’s primary
organizational base in the city between 1923 and 1924, the neighborhood
remained a concrete and necessary link for the development
and cohesiveness of Communist organization. The Comintern, the
initial promoter of the PCI’s transformation of its primary organizational
base to the factory, continued to champion the territorial tasks
of the factory cells. The Comintern’s executive showed an understanding
of the grassroots situation, calling on factory and neighborhood
cells to work together. The Functioning of the Workshop Cells resolution,
published in Lo Stato Operaio in April 1924, stated:
Other than the particular and precise workshop tasks, the factory cells still
have territorial tasks in the place of residence, since the workers, where they
live, also have needs and fulfill different social functions: accommodation,
hygiene, teaching, entertainment, elections etc. The most important of these
tasks refer to:
1) Political organization and action, different campaigns (elections,
accommodation, cost-of-living); provisions of prime necessity goods for the
families of workers and clerks.
2) The diffusion of the Communist press, the recruitment of new Party
members, agitation and propaganda, the work of education in the neighborhood,
the enlisting of sympathizers in workers’ demonstrations and general
3) Agitation in neighborhood homes; information on the political opinion
of neighbors, on political life, fascist activity, arms deposits etc.
4) Action among women and children.
All territorial tasks also concern the neighborhood cells. Their actions
must be carried out under the direct control of the zonal committee and
must concur with that of the workshop cells. (LSO, 1924, 2.)
In October 1924 the executive committee of the Turin section
of the PCI broadened out the April 1924 Comintern resolution to
respond to the realities of the grassroots situation. More street cells
were introduced to augment the links between the Party, factories
and neighborhoods, while the creation of village cells and joint worker
and peasant committees was aimed at maintaining links between the
city and the outlying and rural areas of the province (MI, 1924d;
Agosti, 1980, 56).

Communist–Socialist Schisms, Industrialist Offensives,
and a Return to the Primacy of Neighborhood Organization
Between 1924 and 1925 an electoral alliance between Socialist
and Communist trade unionists again enabled FIOM to secure overwhelming
victories in internal commission elections in almost all
factories in the city. Fascist unions made an impact in only a small
number of factories where industrialists colluded with fascists to stop
the left from presenting lists of candidates (FIOM, box 13; Musso,
1998, 398–399). Nonetheless, the dualism of the Communist strategy
in the trade union sphere, oscillating between an alliance with
Socialist trade union leaders and tactics designed to usurp their control
of the national and local sections of FIOM, undermined political
and trade union unity. The transfer of the Party’s primary base to
the factory was key to the Communist plan to dominate workers’ trade
union and shop-floor organizations. Increasingly, from spring 1924,
Communist leaders appealed to workers directly, over the heads of
the socialist leaderships. On April 17, 1924 Lo Stato Operaio published
the Comintern executive committee’s resolution on the tasks of the
factory cells: To eradicate the influence on factory workers, of political parties harmful to the working class. The factory cell must conduct an energetic struggle in
the factory against members of other political parties, socialist parties or the
so-called workers’ parties. (LSO, 1924, 2.)

In Turin, the factory cells remained committed to incorporating
all workers into the communist organization, continuing a longstanding
tendency to support non-sectarian organization and participation.
The Turin factory cells’ statute, while remaining intransigent
on the question of Communist leadership, principles and discipline,
encouraged grassroots participation regardless of political faith:
“Other than Communists, sympathizers who accept the principles and
who undertake to follow the orders and discipline of the Communist
Party can participate in the groups” (MI, 1924e).

Whereas in the past some non-Communists may have been repelled
by the PCI’s insistence on control, the commitment to nonsectarian
participation and the destruction of their own organizations
influenced a more ready acceptance of Communist leadership and
discipline. However, renewed bouts of infighting aggravated latent
tensions within the labor movement. At the beginning of April 1925
FIOM brought what many Communists considered was a premature
end to a strongly backed metallurgical strike in Lombardy and Piedmont
(Uva, 1970; Sonnessa, 2002, 359–363). The strike had provided
the Communist factory cells with an opportunity to increase their
influence on workers of all stripes; Agosti (1980, 62) argues that it
was the pressure mounted by the factory cells that forced FIOM’s
leadership to extend the dispute to Turin. The strike received the
support of an overwhelming number of workers in Turin. On March
18, the prefect of Turin reported that 60,000 workers had joined the
strike in the city and expressed grave doubts as to his ability to control
the dispute (MI, 1925a).

Communist–Socialist tensions led to bitter internecine battles and
marred the campaigns for important elections in Turin in spring
1925: the FIAT mutual aid council of administration elections and
FIOM executive council elections. The former elections took place
in April, producing the first direct confrontation between Communist and Socialist currents since the beginning of the trade union
accord of 1924. The Socialist list, aided by the backing of the national
and local leaderships of FIOM, won a narrow victory, by 8,741 votes
to 8,729 votes (MI, 1925b; AV, April 3, 1925, 1; L’U, April 9, 1925, 2;
Agosti, 1980, 63–64).

The PCI’s alternative to the shop-floor internal commission, the
agitation committee, empowered by the growing influence of the
factory cells, continued its challenge to the Socialist leadership of
the Turin section of FIOM in the executive council elections of late
April 1925. Communists and Socialists again presented separate lists
of candidates. Communist support for the democratic nomination
of candidates by the workforces, rather than nomination by committee
as proposed by the Socialists, gained the support of a rising number
of workers, albeit at the expense of trade union solidarity and
tactical coherence. The FIAT internal commission elections, held on
May 23, 1925, confirmed the growing influence of the Communists
on the shop floor, while simultaneously providing a definitive break
in the united front strategy (MI, 1925c; L’U, May 24, 1925, 3; AV, May
26, 1925, 1). Importantly, solidarity was still possible at the grassroots
level in this period. At FIAT steelworks workers succeeded in presenting
a unitary list of candidates under the FIOM banner for the
internal commission elections at this factory (LS, May 25, 1925, 3).
Nonetheless, at the leadership level Communists and Socialists remained
largely divided.

Without the Communist–Socialist united front accord, workers
and their organizations were more susceptible to industrialists’
offensives. Communist groups were marginalized to a shopfloor level
of influence. Though this provided Communists with a nucleus of
grassroots leaders and support, the breakup of the united front meant
they lacked an organic link to the Socialist-controlled CGL and both
the national and local FIOM leaderships (Castronovo, 1977, 297–298;
Musso, 1998, 402). Between June and September 1925 a heightened
anti-Communist offensive targeted the factory cells movement, leading
to numerous arrests and dismissals (PCM, 1925b; MI, 1925d).
Moreover, non-fascist trade union representation was banned by
government legislation between October 1925 and April 1926: the
Palazzo Vidoni accord of October 1925 and the Syndicalist Laws of
April 1926 (PCM, 1925a; Aquarone, 1965, 121–122, 133–136; Musso,
1998, 403–406).

The definitive break in the united front, the abolition of free
trade unions and the new wave of politically motivated arrests and
dismissals seriously weakened the Turin labor movement during the
second half of 1925. Mass sackings led to 6,000 workers, including
4,000 at FIAT, being dismissed from Turin’s factories between the
latter months of 1925 and spring 1926. These included the entire
FIAT mutual aid administrative council, most shop-floor union leaders
and suspected militants (MI, 1925e; Bigazzi, 1979–80, 907–908;
Agosti, 1980, 67). Trade union membership showed a sharp fall: by
August 1926 the membership of the Turin section of FIOM, which
had numbered 25,979 at the beginning of 1920 and 22,000 in autumn
1921, would number only 300, while almost all of the other trade
unions in Turin existed more in name than in reality (FIOM, Box 9;
Agosti, 1980, 65–66).

The PCI and Communist militants in Turin responded to the
renewed repression of the factory base during the second half of 1925
by redirecting their primary focus towards community-based structures.
Importantly, anti-fascist association had remained possible
within working-class neighborhoods and its environs. Meetings continued
to be held in the back rooms of bars, trattorias and cellars, in
homes made available by political comrades and anti-fascist sympathizers
and in the surrounding countryside, where many militants had
links with outlying villages, through either family and social ties or
politics. Numerous examples of clandestine meetings held in workers’
neighborhoods and outlying areas can be found (MI, 1925f;
Guidetti Serra, 1977; Levi, 1985).

The increasingly hostile climate in the political arena and the
factories led to a critical re-evaluation of its organizational structure
by the PCI. The end of the liberal state and beginning of the Fascist
dictatorship in January 1925 increased the need for a balanced
organizational structure connecting the workplace and the community.
One of the important dynamics of the Soccorso Rosso movement
was its ability to coalesce, and at times transcend, the community
and factory spheres. The whole working class, concerned with the
day-to-day protection of its families and homes, remained responsive
to campaigns in support of political prisoners and class victims.
These responses resonated with the traditions of neighborhood

The Red Aid Movement (Soccorso Rosso)

In Turin, Red Aid groups were the successors to earlier forms of
political victims’ organization, such as the political prisoners’ aid fund
(Cassa di soccorso per carcerati politici) formed in 1890 and a mutual aid
society for the unemployed (Società di mutuo soccorso per casi di disoccupazione)
formed on December 1, 1899. The political victims’ movement,
under the guise of providing badly needed material and emotional
assistance to political comrades and allies, family and neighbors, was,
arguably, the best example of a less overtly confrontational, though
deep-rooted and resolute resistance that characterized working-class
responses to fascism in power. This section will examine the Red Aid
movement in relation to the traditions of working-class culture and
solidarity; the politics of the Communist movement; the importance
of neighborhood and factory organization to anti-fascist resistance;
and the role of women in the working-class neighborhood and labor

The issue of political victims represented a long-standing and
widely supported expression of popular protest and solidarity and was
harnessed, rather than invented or controlled, by the official labor
organizations. Importantly, Communists were forced to adhere to the
non-sectarian traditions of the political victims’ movement in order
to lead it. Communists, Socialists and anarchists all took leading roles
in the campaigns in support of political victims (AV, March 23, 1921,
2; UN, 1921, 3). The tradition of support for political victims, therefore,
allows us to recast the relationship between the official labor
movement and the wider working class by demonstrating how the
Turin working class response to class-based organization was shaped
by the experiences of an independent proletarian culture rather than
simply by political affiliation or ideology.

While a political victims’ organization, centrally based at the
Chamber of Labor, had existed and functioned successfully in Turin
before the fascist seizure of power, its origins were strongly rooted in
the community. For example, the long strike in support of a reduction
of working hours from eleven to ten hours in 1904, led the Turin
working class, with women at the forefront of initiatives in the neighborhoods,
to organize financial assistance and the supply of bread
for workers in the textile factories (Levi, 1979, 503).

In 1915 a workers’ protest against Italian intervention in the First
World War led to a police invasion of the Turin Chamber of Labor
and numerous arrests. In response, a committee of aid to political
victims (Comitato per l’aiuto alle vittime politiche) was formed (Levi, 1979,
503). In succeeding years, the members of workers’ circles in Turin
continued these pre-war initiatives. As shown by the testimony of a
Borgo San Paolo militant, Odilla Bioletto, political victims’ committees
were set up to assist stricken families in Turin, providing them
with monthly financial subsidies (Levi, 1979, 505). The numbers in
need of assistance continued to grow, especially at times of political
and industrial crisis.

In spring 1921 major industrial disputes, begun at Michelin and
FIAT and quickly extended to all other metallurgical factories in the
city, had left shop-floor unions seriously weakened, large numbers
of militants sacked and wages reduced. 17,000 workers, almost 10,000
in the dominant metallurgical sector alone, were fired between April
and August 1921 (BMULS, 1921a). In an attempt to gain wider support
for the workers’ factory agitations, shop-floor unions, led by
Communists, Socialists and anarchists, resurrected pre-war forms of
protest, by linking industrial disputes to social issues such as the campaigns
in favor of political victims, the unemployed and poor housing
conditions (BMULS, 1921b; LS, March 23, 1921, 5; LS, March 24, 1921,
4; ON, 1921, 3). Between late 1920 and 1922 initiatives were especially
tied to the question of the hundreds sentenced or still awaiting trial as
a result of offences relating to the workers’ Occupation of the Factories
in September 1920 (FCd’A; LS, June 20, 1922, 1).

The persistence of non-sectarian traditions of sociability and
solidarity, inherent in the Red Aid movement, strongly influenced
the politics of the Communist leadership. The Soccorso Rosso was part
of the International Red Aid organization, which in the United States
took the name International Labor Defense. The Comintern and PCI
intended to use the Soccorso Rosso to provide support for victims of
the reaction against communism. However, in common with the factory
cells the Soccorso Rosso was also an instrument intended to win
over non-Communists to PCI organizations. Appeals to workers and
their families on social issues, such as political prisoners and other
class victims, provided an immediate resonance, transcending political
sectarianism in a way that calls for workers’ control of industry
and revolution failed to do. In this way Communists provided an
organizational form to traditional working-class expressions of collectivity
and solidarity.

One of Soccorso Rosso’s most important roles between 1924 and
1925 was to smooth the transfer of community-based political victims’
groups on to the PCI’s factory structure. This tactic formed an integral
part of the Comintern’s structural reform, aimed at reconstructing
the Party’s organizational base. The PCI’s Ufficio 1, led by Bruno
Fortichiari, organized the Party’s clandestine organization and activities
and helped to provide a response to some of the problems related
to the Party’s reorganization. Importantly, the restructuring of
PCI organization, through the factory cells, quickly showed the need
for ongoing concessions to the neighborhood.

The PCI’s Ufficio 1 transformed neighborhood organization in
Turin. The number of territorial sectors into which the city was divided
was increased, from four to six and then to nine. Each district leader
was invested with control of workers living in their sector, even if that
worker was already a member of a factory cell. Moreover, the ongoing
need for contact with workers employed outside the factories remained
essential for the success of the Party’s clandestine operations. The problems
faced by the organization of workers employed in factories where
a cell did not exist, workers in small workshops or the countryside and
the unemployed were partly overcome by a series of organizational
measures introduced in the second half of 1925. Importantly, these
measures included the further development of street and village cells.
The experience of the Soccorso Rosso shows how neighborhood
and factory organization coalesced to provide the means to resist
fascism. The Red Aid movement’s success in providing organized
forms of resistance to fascist repression was underpinned by its organic
link to the traditional concerns of the whole working-class
population. Its ability to utilize factory and neighborhood bases made
these forms of organization and opposition harder to suppress. While
Red Aid sections were intended to be independent rather than an
appendage of the factory cells, the exigencies of the period meant a
level of crossover was unavoidable and indeed necessary. For example,
the Communist Youth Federation’s trustee to the Lenin factory cell
at FIAT Centro, Giuseppe Barbagli, was an important Soccorso Rosso
activist at this factory (MI, 1925g).

The development of organizational forms of resistance to fascist
repression was significantly aided by the accelerated growth of the
Red Aid movement in Turin between April and May 1925; 500 new
members enrolled and 15 more groups sprang to life in this period.
The Turin section’s June–August 1925 bulletin published a list of groups
in the city; though a majority were based in the factories, groups were
also formed at the Turin Co-operative Association, among gas and
postal and communications workers and in numerous neighborhood
streets. Groups were also formed in Turin province, at Volpiano,
Gassino, Chivasso, Brandizzo and Chieri (BSRI, 1925a).

The donations received by the central Turin committee showed
that the organization and activity on behalf of the Red Aid movement
went far beyond the above-mentioned sources and was continuing
to grow. Money was received from almost every factory in the city,
either from factory cells or from groups of workers; from provincial
groups, tram and railway workers, co-operative associations, women’s
groups, waiters; from student groups and individual donors (BSRI,

Unsurprisingly, the funds collected were insufficient to cope with
the huge demands placed on the Soccorso Rosso. Financial aid was
provided for: prisoners and their families; widows; the wounded and
invalided; those recently released from prison; families made destitute
for political or class reasons; the unemployed; legal assistance;
newspapers and propaganda literature. The figures for the first eight
months of 1925 showed an imbalance in favor of outgoings, 48,052.45
lire, which was almost twice as high as subscriptions, 24,501.15 lire
(BSRI, 1925c).

Nonetheless, at a time of cost of living rises, job losses and wage
cuts, increased fascist repression and the many other worker organizations
desperately seeking funds, the raising of 3,000 lire a month
showed the importance the Turin working class attached to the issue
of political victims. Moreover, activity on behalf of the Soccorso Rosso
placed its members and their families in danger from fascist and
police repression. Workers confronting fascism risked loss of work,
beatings, imprisonment and torture. Crucially, a focus on collections
and support for anti-fascist prisoners and their families demonstrated
that financial and emotional assistance would be provided, while victims
would be remembered and honored.

The national Soccorso Rosso leadership praised some groups for
their level of organization and donations while others were criticized
for a lack of solidarity (BSRI, 1925d). Despite inconsistencies among
individual groups, Turin, along with Milan, Genoa, Florence, Alessandria,
Mantova (Lombardy), Foggia (Puglia), Bari (Puglia) and
Taranto (Puglia), was one of the sections that the central committee
considered to be working well (BSRI, 1925e). In April 1925 the Chief
of Police’s report on the national Red Aid movement confirmed the
growth suggested by the bulletins of the Turin section. In March 1925
the organization’s membership was not less than 100,000 and the
central committee had to print 150,000 membership cards to satisfy
growing demand. By December 1924 there existed 51 provincial
committees, 25 sub-committees and 117 groups in Italy (MI, 1925h).
The rapid growth of the movement during 1925 led the Chief of Police
to consider Italy a “national territory ploughed by the invisible
grains of a vast organization, whose task is to stimulate and strengthen
minds to resistance” (MI, 1925i).

The ongoing need for material and emotional assistance for
political victims coalesced with the PCI’s wider recruitment and antifascist
program. The campaigns to bring to justice those responsible
for the December 1922 Turin massacre formed an important part of
the Soccorso Rosso program. Red Aid Week in December 1924 was held
to coincide with the second anniversary of the massacre. A wreath of
red carnations was laid on each spot where the victims were killed.
The police, sensitive to the open display of anti-fascism that lay behind
this commemoration, hastened to remove the wreaths (BSRI,
1925f). Such activities stimulated an already deep sense of class injustice,
solidarity and anti-fascism. These sentiments were conveyed
by a Communist prisoner, in a letter to the Turin Soccorso Rosso in
spring 1925: The bloody reaction serves only to revive in us the firm conviction of the class struggle. Dearest comrades, the comfort we feel knowing we are remembered
and surrounded by the most affectionate care on your part, is infinite.
(BSRI, 1925g.)

The Turin working class’ response to the fascist ban on May Day
celebrations showed again the organic link between political victims,
the working-class community and the labor movement. While thousands
of workers defied fascist, police and industrialist intimidation
to abstain from work on May 1, 1925, most did not. Nonetheless, many
of those workers who went to work remained adversaries of fascism;
their thoughts directed towards relatives, friends, neighbors, political
comrades and workmates who had suffered as a result of the fascist

A recurrent theme in the oral histories of the Turin working class
is the memory of fascist violence and repression (see Carcano, 1973;
Guidetti Serra, 1977; Levi, 1985; Passerini, 1987). Recollections of fascist
violence against the working class often went beyond the group of
eyewitnesses and contemporaries: those who had no personal memory
of the Turin massacre of December 1922 evoked the events in interviews
(Passerini, 1987, 68). Relatives and neighbors passed on such
stories, fomenting anti-fascist sentiment among the new generations.
There existed a silent, though resolute, anti-fascism, cognizant
of the Italian state’s historical repression of workers and their families.
A letter from a Communist prisoner to the Turin Soccorso Rosso
read: Crossing the walls of the prison on Friday May 1, fateful day of the International, the thoughts of Communist and anarchist comrades will be with you!
We will unite on that day to remember all martyrs, all comrades in prison,
all those who are in exile and those who are free battling with strong hearts
for the triumph of the International. Despite everything we are ever strong
and ever ready for sacrifice. (BSRI, 1925h.)

One of the most significant slogans of the Soccorso Rosso read:
“Workers Remember! One of the First Duties of Proletarian Solidarity
is to Aid Political Victims.” The Turin section’s June–August 1925
bulletin stated that, while it is a Communist initiative, the Red Aid
organization would provide assistance to all without discrimination:
The Soccorso Rosso was created on the initiative of Communists. . . . The census
of victims dates back to before the war and all without discrimination
receive the assistance of the Soccorso Rosso. (BSRI, 1925i.)
A Turin factory cell newspaper praised the success of the Red Aid
movement in attracting support from across the working class and
peasant constituencies, holding it up as a yardstick for united front
aspirations in the political and trade union spheres (L’Incudine, 1925,
2). The resonance of the issue of political victims among the wider
working class, rather than narrower party or trade union politics, was
demonstrated by the key role of women in the movement. The testimonies of contemporary Turinese women show how they excelled in the campaigns for political victims and often discovered or cemented participation in wider politics through the Soccorso Rosso (Guidetti Serra,1977, esp. 39, 102–103, 206–207). From the beginning, women playeda pivotal role in providing material and emotional support to imprisoned
or unemployed family, friends, political comrades and neighbors.

Maria Barbero joined the pro-political victims’ movement during
the Occupation of the Factories in September 1920. In 1925 she
and her husband linked the factory and neighborhood activities of
the Red Aid organization. Her husband, a worker at FIAT Centro,
carried out Red Aid activities within the factory while she carried out
her work in the neighborhood: I knew, at least a little, all of the families of the neighborhood that had someone in prison or away from home and from then on I always participated in the Soccorso Rosso. Preparing food, taking it to the Nuove [main Turin prison], at one time my brother was there, at another time my brother-in-law. (GuidettiSerra, 1977, 214–215.)

The Soccorso Rosso tapped into the traditional neighborhood activities
of working-class women. The reciprocal exchanges of childcare,
domestic duties and nursing in times of sickness and old age were accentuated
by the demands placed on families with members in prison,
hospital or the cemetery. Emotional support and material assistance
tended to fall within the reach of female activity in the neighborhood.

The organization’s central leadership advised its constituents to appoint
at least one woman onto each local committee. Turin, along with Milan,
Florence, and Rome where women’s political party groups had existed,
achieved this goal by summer 1925 (BSRI, 1925j). The June–August
1925 bulletin of the Soccorso Rosso stated:
Assistance to political victim organizations has a deep-rooted tradition of
female activity in Turin. While the reaction raged more fiercely and militants
were forced to conceal their organization and propaganda activity,
communist women lavished, with astonishing political intuition, with admirable
organizational good sense, with exceptional intelligence and courage,
assistance on their affected brothers. (BSRI, 1925k.)

Despite this partisan appraisal of aid organization and provision,
it was not simply Communists, male or female, who created or carried
out the practice of assistance to political victims. The working-class
response to Communist organizations was not simply one of political
faith, particularly at times of crisis. Soccorso Rosso was, first and
foremost, an organism in which aid could be provided more effectively
and solidarity could flourish.

The political and legal activities in favor of pressing for amnesties
and funding legal aid for prisoners, though important and necessary,
were arguably, on an everyday level, less vital to the well-being
of prisoners than other forms of emotional and material support.
Provision of meals, clothing and books for prisoners, feeding their
children, and offering shelter to those escaping fascist repression were
features of this form of assistance (BSRI, 1925l; Levi and Montagnana,
2000, 20; Guidetti Serra, 1977, 103). Women, Communist or otherwise,
were at least as active in this process as men.

In the repressive political climate of the period women visiting
men accused of “plotting to overthrow the State and its institutions”
were also less likely to be suspected of sharing the presumed “revolutionary”
ideas of the prisoner. Vasco Pratolini’s 1960 novel, Cronache
di poveri amanti, centered on a working-class artisan street in Florence
during the first years of the fascist regime, suggests — in concert with
many official documents — how women’s roles in this form of antifascist
activity were played out from the mid-1920s on. Gesuina, married
to a Communist, Ugo, was able to escape the police surveillance
placed on her husband to run messages back and forth to other militants,
distribute newspapers and collect money for the Red Aid movement
(Pratolini, 1960, 368).

Under fascism, female relatives remained the most consistent
visitors to prisoners and the most likely to provide support to their
and other families, often upholding non-sectarian traditions of solidarity.
The PSI member, Clelia Montagnana, the sister of the noted
Turinese Communists, Rita, Mario and Elena Montagnana, remained
in close contact with other anti-fascists in Turin, collecting funds,
distributing newspapers and visiting the families of political victims,
often taking their children on walks or to the cinema and theater (Levi
and Montagnana, 2000, 42–43).

The survival of the subversive traditions and organizations under
fascism is evinced by the experiences of the Red Aid movement. New
generations of anti-fascists continued the work of older relatives,
militants and neighbors in support of the victims of fascism and those
fighting the regime. The Turin working class, with women again to
the fore, continued to collect funds and clothing and provide food
and shelter for anti-fascists, for the international brigades during the
Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939 and the anti-fascist partisans from
1943 (Guidetti Serra, 1977, esp. 39 and 206–210).


The concessions made to the neighborhood sphere, even at the
height of the PCI’s plans to transfer its organizational base to the
factory, clearly demonstrated the inherent importance of the workingclass
district. Importantly, in Turin the PCI and its militants resisted
over-reliance on either point of production or community struggles.
While primacy was afforded to one sphere or the other depending
on changing circumstances, neither factory nor neighborhood organization
was abandoned.

In Turin Communist-led factory and political victims’ groups
provided workers and their families with the organizational structures
to withstand fascist and industrialist offensives. However, it was the
Communists’ adherence to working-class social traditions that helped
transcend some of the tensions within the labor movement. The factory
cells and the Soccorso Rosso encouraged a response in which participation
was informed, to a large extent, by a specifically non-sectarian
tradition of working-class culture, found in Turin’s worker districts.
Neighborhood collectivism and an instinct for survival at times of
crisis, rather than simply political ideology, characterized the attitude
of workers and their families to Communist organization and to the
reality of fascism.

However, Turin should be considered a limited case. While the
PCI suffered heavy falls in political and trade union membership and
strength, Turin was able to maintain a number of its factory cells,
albeit operating in a restricted form. Undoubtedly the reorganization
of the Party’s base through the cells system, both factory and
territorial, helped it to survive. The number of factory cells in Turin
in summer 1926 was 43; in 1925 there had been 51. Significantly the
number of street cells showed a reverse trend between 1925 and 1926,
rising from 16 to 24. Though the total number of cells in the city
remained at 67, in these two years, the important factor to notice is
the numerical swing in favor of the street cells (Agosti, 1980, 66–67).

Building on the traditions of non-sectarian association, united
front initiatives between left, democratic liberal and Catholic currents
were revived in the factory and neighborhood after 1926. The continued
activity in support of Red Aid and factory cell groups, expressions
of discontent with the fascist regime scrawled on trams and
washroom, factory and city walls and the parodies of fascist songs and
slogans showed that many of the old subversive traditions had survived
(Sapelli, 1976–77, 150–160; Maida, 1991, 400–422). However
imperfect, the survival of traditional networks of sociability and solidarity,
in workers’ districts and the factories, offered militants a base
in the months leading up to and beyond the Exceptional Laws of
November 1926, which condemned the labor movement to complete
illegality (Agosti, 1980, 66).

More passive, though deep-rooted and resolute, forms of autonomy
from and resistance to fascism characterized the Turin working-class
response to Mussolini’s regime, until the opportunity to silence fascism
and strike back against the industrialists exploded in mass anti-fascist
strikes in March 1943. The survival of class-based forms of association
and organization under fascism and the re-emergence of sovversivismo
in the 1940s, both characterized by the activities of new generations of
Turinese workers, cannot be explained adequately by the revisionist
and cultural history studies.

History Department
Goldsmiths College
University of London
New Cross
London SE14 6NW
United Kingdom

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