In August 1922, Benito Mussolini’s Fascists crushed a general strike by force. But on the barricades of Parma, the working class imposed a stunning military defeat on the Blackshirts — a victory that inspired enduring resistance against the Fascist government.
Italian workers in a factory, circa 1920–30. (Touring Club Italiano / Marka / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The story of Italian Fascism’s rise to power has often been told as if it was an unstoppable force. In this account, Blackshirt violence — tolerated, if not outright aided, by the royal authorities, culminating in the March on Rome and Benito Mussolini’s appointment as prime minister in 1922 — easily defeated a labor movement whose leaders were either sectarian or inept.
However, historians’ work points toward a more complex picture of Italy in the years after World War I. Not only because in 1919–21 the Fascist movement turned into a fierce defender of the bourgeois order — winning it the support of landowners and industrialists. But also because across much of Italy, workers and farmhands did keep the struggle alive.
From the cities to the countryside, many communities did not bow to Fascist violence; instead, the so-called “subversive working-class” movement — with its various strands of Socialists, Communists, anarchists, and revolutionary syndicalists — held firm. In summer 1922, Mussolini’s men controlled much of northern Italy’s Po Valley region already, through a campaign of intimidation, beatings, arson attacks, and punitive expeditions. Yet the workers’ unions, joined in the Alleanza del Lavoro (“Labor Alliance”), were still able to launch a vast general strike throughout Italy on August 1, 1922.
Meant as a mass response to Fascist brutality, the union mobilization called on the authorities to enforce workers’ established rights. Yet, this belated call to action faced with rising Fascism reflected the fragmentation of the labor movement, not only in its leadership — divided on how to deal with this bloody phase of the class struggle — but also geographically. Workers in some cities were ready to respond vigorously to the Fascists, whereas in others their forces had already been hobbled by Blackshirt attacks. But no one seized the initiative as much as the Fascist Party itself, unleashing its armed squads against the strike.
The general strike of August 1922 ended in a complete rout in most of Italy. Camere del lavoro (labor halls), Case del popolo (popular meeting places), workers’ clubs, cooperatives, and democratic newspapers were devastated; labor activists were beaten and killed, and hundreds of leftist-led local administrations were forced to resign. The old reformist leader Filippo Turati called this “the Caporetto of the workers’ movement” calling to mind the Battle of Caporetto of 1917 — Italy’s bitterest defeat in World War I.
Yet even in this context — wholly to the advantage of fascist reaction and the repression enacted even by the pre-fascist, liberal authorities — in some cities workers did resist. Here the strike turned into open revolt and armed confrontation. The most striking cases occurred in Ancona, Bari, Civitavecchia, Genoa, Livorno, in some working-class districts in Rome (including San Lorenzo), but above all in Parma, where the working-class neighborhoods’ resistance against invasion by the Blackshirt squads ended with an extraordinary victory for the anti-fascists.
The days of fighting on the “barricades of Parma” in August 1922 would become legendary. It was an experience on which anti-fascist leaders based their future strategizing, looking to a series of favorable circumstances that came together here but were lacking in other cases.
In Parma, the working-class neighborhoods’ resistance against invasion by the Blackshirt squads ended with an extraordinary victory for the anti-fascists.
Positioned between Milan and Bologna, via Emilia, Parma was at the time a medium-sized city of around sixty thousand inhabitants, but also important to connections throughout the Po Valley region. Rooted in agriculture, its industrial base remained slight. The subaltern classes took on many forms, with the “thousand trades” of an urban proletariat made up of day laborers, factory workers, porters, railwaymen, bricklayers, laborers, and artisans in the smallest of workshops.
It was a multifaceted world that found its unity in neighborhood communities; the city’s makeup drew sharp boundaries between the rich, bourgeois historic center and the lowly districts where workers and the poor lived in dilapidated housing. There were two more populous working-class areas: the vast Oltretorrente district, clearly distinguished from the “city of the lords” by the river Parma and its bridges; and two other smaller neighborhoods, on the borders of the historic center and close to the railway line and the emerging industrial zone, the Naviglio and Saffi.
The “popolo dei borghi,” as the people of these outlying areas were called, had already drawn attention since the early years following Italian unification in 1861, when furious riots and clashes with the king’s soldiers had set its streets ablaze several times. Then in the early twentieth century, revolutionary syndicalist leaders found fertile ground here, with the people’s support for direct action by workers and street riots with barricades defending neighborhoods. Even in the early post–World War I period, when the labor movement became increasingly fragmented into its various components — syndicalists, Socialists, and Communists — the common subversive spirit of the urban proletariat did not go away.
In 1921–22, as the Fascist assaults multiplied, this desire among workers for a joint struggle in response found its spokesman in Guido Picelli. Of modest background, and decorated for military valor for his role in World War I, he led an association of war veterans close to the Socialist Party. He had also been behind the Red Guards, an armed militia ready to defend strikes and trade union headquarters.
Elected a member of parliament in May 1921, in the capital Picelli came into contact with the nascent Arditi del Popolo movement, a network of workers of all political persuasions, bent on responding to fascist violence with armed force. The organization was soon boycotted by the Socialists, whose leadership wanted to sign a “pacification pact” with the Fascists, hoping to rein in their aggression. But even Amadeo Bordiga’s leadership of the Communist Party, inclined toward armed groups focused on the party’s own organization, regarded the Arditi del Popolo with suspicion — accusing it of subordinating revolutionaries to undisciplined, “petty bourgeois” elements. Only in some cities, including Parma, did the party allow Communist militants to join the Arditi del Popolo, provided the leaders were “reliable.”
In Parma, the Arditi del Popolo numbered about three hundred men. Many were veterans, others had been molded by postwar conflicts; almost all of them were young, workers, or farmhands. They were, in short, a small proletarian army, strongly rooted in working-class neighborhoods and determined to defend themselves against the Fascists but also against the police if they helped them. Rejecting the policy of “pacification,” for more than a year Picelli’s militia answered the Blackshirt squads blow by blow. Just before the 1922 strike, while the city’s Fascists were few in number and poorly organized, the Arditi del Popolo patrolled their neighborhoods and developed a defense plan for every eventuality.
In Parma, the Arditi del Popolo numbered about three hundred men. Many were veterans, others had been molded by postwar conflicts; almost all of them were young, workers, or farmhands.
Even the powerful revolutionary union led by Alceste De Ambris (still some twenty thousand members strong) did not give in to the siren song of the Fascist Party, despite their common support for Italy’s intervention in World War I. Rather, it consistently chose the fight against Mussolini’s squadrism, setting up its own anti-fascist defense network with the Filippo Corridoni Legion.
This was the situation in August, when the strike completely shut down the city and columns of Blackshirts began to arrive from the countryside, but especially from neighboring provinces such as Cremona, Mantua, Piacenza, Reggio Emilia, and Modena. Contemporary reports speak of seven to ten thousand Fascists arriving. They were initially commanded by Fascist MP Michele Terzaghi, but soon, given the insignificant results, his party’s leadership sent Italo Balbo, one of the most important leaders of squadrism in the Po Valley.
Having occupied the center of the city, the Blackshirts attempted assaults on the workers’ districts. But the Arditi del Popolo of Oltretorrente and Naviglio-Saffi responded by erecting barricades, digging trenches, and organizing observation points, patrols, and communications. They were soon joined by revolutionary syndicalist militants and even many from the People’s Party, a Catholic-inspired formation. Thus, fighting on the barricades were socialists, communists, anarchists, syndicalists, republicans, and Catholics, in the name of an anti-fascist unity built on a shared class belonging.
Orders were no longer issued by union leaders but by the command of the Arditi del Popolo, while the strike turned into an open revolt, self-organized from below. This sidelined both the traditional leaderships of the labor movement (the secretariats of the Camere del Lavoro and the parties) and the royal authorities. While the armed resistance was under a military command — that of Picelli and his Arditi — the mobilization spontaneously swept along the entire working-class population, who helped barricade the streets, set up canteens and infirmaries, and carry directives and ammunition from one point of the city to another. And so, while around Italy as a whole the strike prompted a wave of Blackshirt violence, in Parma the resistance grew more tenacious by the day.
The Fascists repeatedly attacked Naviglio and Saffi, the areas most exposed to the enemy, and thick musket discharges rumbled through the streets and over the bridges of Oltretorrente. Rounds of gunfire alternated with short truces as the civilian and Church authorities sought forms of pacification. Fearing that the situation would degenerate into a bloodbath, the prefetto [local representative of the Interior Ministry] decisively moved to contain the two opposing fronts. In a few cases, officials sympathized with the fascists and left the way open to them, but in many others the prefetto’s orders were respected and squadrist aggression was reined in. Here, too, events in Parma proved unusual, given how used the Fascists were to finding favor with police officials and army officers.
Unable to break through the workers’ barricades, the Blackshirts launched a rampage in the city center, destroying some railworkers’ clubs, the headquarters of the democratic newspaper il Piccolo, the offices of the Catholic trade union, and a dozen offices and homes of lawyers and local notables. The Fascist expeditionary force had killed six people; dozens were injured on both sides.
However, on the afternoon of August 5, after a last raid was repulsed, the fascists decided to demobilize. In those hours, news came from Rome that the national government had decreed a state of siege for some cities, including Parma: at midnight, powers would pass from prefectures to army commands. For Balbo and the Fascists, this was an unhoped-for opportunity to claim a nonexistent success. On August 6, the last Fascists left Parma while great celebrations erupted in the popular districts.
The echo of that extraordinary victory spread far beyond the city (even the New York Times reported on it) and became a focus of attention for the entire anti-fascist movement. In the years of Mussolini’s dictatorship, that victory became an epic tale to be whispered about in bars and workers’ districts. In the early 1930s, when the newspapers reported Balbo’s two transoceanic flights between Italy and America, the wry joke “Balbo, t’è pasè l’Atlàntich mo miga la Pärma” (“Balbo, you have crossed the Atlantic Ocean but not the creek through Parma”) began to spread among workers. The pride of the victory of August 1922 had not only not gone away, but gave strength to first the underground anti-fascist movement and then the partisan struggle of 1943–45.
Picelli the Communist
The epic tales about the anti-fascist battle in Parma often focused on its leader, the “commander” of the barricades, Picelli. Shortly afterward, he formally joined the Communist Party, for which he was reelected an MP in 1924. Persecuted by the Parma Fascists, who did not forgive the beating he had handed them, he had by then moved to Rome.
In 1926, when the Fascist regime erased the remaining margins of liberty, he was arrested along with other Communist leaders, including Antonio Gramsci. Sentenced to five years of police confinement spent on the islands of Lampedusa and then Lipari, he backed the positions of the new Communist leadership, which affirmed its dominance over Bordiga’s left of the party at the Lyon Congress in 1926.
When the newspapers reported Italo Balbo’s two transoceanic flights between Italy and America, the wry joke ‘Balbo, you have crossed the Atlantic but not the creek through Parma’ began to spread among workers.
Upon the end of his sentence, in November 1931, he moved to Milan. From there, through contacts with the Communist organization, he illegally emigrated to France, where he gave lectures among important communities of Italian workers.
Expelled from France and set on the move through various European countries, he arrived in Moscow in 1932. He spent just over four years there, almost all of it working as a laborer in the large ball bearing factory named after Lazar Kaganovich. For about a year he also taught young Italian Communists military tactics and guerrilla strategies at the International Lenin School. His great aspiration was to enroll in a Soviet military school but, despite the Italian Communist Party’s support, his repeated requests were rebuffed, probably because he did not know Russian.
Even assignments to the Comintern, probably in the field of political-military activity, never became full-time activities. He continued his job in a factory, though there the Party committee accused him of “factionalist” behavior. This led to an investigation from which he emerged unscathed, thanks in part to the positive judgment of the Italian Communists, which even recommended him to become a member of the Soviet party.
Tried by these hardships, Picelli asked to return to political activity in France and then, once the Spanish Civil War broke out, to go to that country to fight in defense of the Republic. With Palmiro Togliatti’s approval — and through the intercession of Dmitry Manuilsky, representative of the Soviet Party at the Comintern summit — he was then able to leave Moscow in mid-October 1936.
Once in Paris, disagreements arose with the Communist Party’s foreign center, which felt it could not accept his proposals for military action without the endorsement of the Spanish government. Picelli’s impulsive nature and desire to return to combat immediately led him to approach the “maximalist” Socialists and, through them, the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity), which offered him the position of captain in its militia.
In Barcelona, after just a few days’ presence at the Lenin Barracks, controlled by the POUMistas, he was contacted by Communist militants, who persuaded him to go to Albacete and resume his post in the International Brigades and the Communist Party, while also making a self-criticism of his “stupid” conduct. Appointed battalion commander, he trained several hundred Italian volunteers. In mid-December 1936, to cover the gaps suffered by the Garibaldi Battalion of Italians in Spain, Picelli was given the task of leading three hundred volunteers to be committed to the Twelfth International Brigade. The commander of the Garibaldi Battalion, the Republican Randolfo Pacciardi, entrusted him with leading a company and appointed him his own deputy.
All the information we have tells us Guido Picelli died as he lived — openly and courageously fighting the rise of fascism.
Picelli participated in the fighting in the Mirabueno area, demonstrating his courage and leadership skills. On January 5, 1937, at the head of two companies, he captured the top of El Matorral hill, from where the Italian fighters were to give support from the flanks to the Polish battalion struggling to win the strategic position of San Sebastian from the Francoists.
Leading his men in combat, Picelli was hit from a Francoist position and killed. The announcement of his death was entrusted to Giuseppe Di Vittorio, the future general secretary of the Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL) trade union, Italy’s largest. Commemorated by the Popular Front parties in Madrid, the funeral was held in Barcelona, organized by the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC), a party that had united Catalan Communists and Socialists. A large crowd accompanied the coffin.
A few years after his death, anti-communist circles began to spread the idea that Picelli had been killed by Soviet intelligence or by the Italian Communists themselves. Julián Gorkin, a former POUM leader who was later expelled from this party and enlisted in the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, became a spokesman for this thesis.
In 1953, it was Valentín González “el Campesino,” who toured Italy in support of the Christian Democrat election campaign and revived with much fanfare the thesis of a “Trotskyist” Picelli who had been eliminated by the Communists in the rear rather than having fallen in combat. Over the decades, this theory has been revived on several occasions, more for reasons of political polemic than out of a desire for historical knowledge. To date, in fact, no direct or indirect testimony of Garibaldian volunteers present on the hill of El Matorral on the day of Picelli’s death or documents in the Comintern archives and accessible to researchers today have brought elements to support the “conspiracy” thesis.
All the information we have tells us Picelli died as he lived — openly and courageously fighting the rise of fascism.Original post