Unity at Any Cost

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Review of 'Violence and the Great Estates in the South of Italy' by Frank Snowden, Cambridge University Press £18.99

Puglia, the southern heel of Italy, is being touted as the new Tuscany in the travel sections. Don't let that put you off going! But there are still Pugliese alive who remember when swathes of the region were engulfed in what was effectively a civil war.

The region was the one area of Italy's south where fascism gained a degree of popular support, limited severely to the upper and middle classes. The reason is interesting. It is common to see Italy for much of its modern history as being divided between a modern capitalist north and a feudal, backward south. It remains true that the south of Italy is home to dreadful rates of poverty and unemployment, among the worst in western Europe. But in Puglia this is not the legacy of the region's feudal past. Instead it was a product of Italian unification achieved largely in 1861.

The new Italian state rushed through legislation allowing capitalist landlords to buy up the common lands and sheep runs (previously protected by law) which covered much of inland Puglia. The new region was given over to producing wheat and to a lesser extent wine for the northern cities.

This shift paralleled what was happening in the west of the US with carpetbagging entrepreneurs snapping up land and removing access to the inhabitants, sparking popular resistance and a 'crime wave' as people continued to hunt, fish, gather wood and graze animals on the land. The full weight of the Italian state was deployed against them.

What was created was not a region of peasants, but of proletarian agricultural labourers who lived in appalling conditions in the towns setting out each morning to walk miles to where they worked. The countryside was dominated by giant estates or latifundia.

Wages and conditions were appalling. Starvation was common, with people dying of malnutrition in the streets at the times of bad harvest. Workers were laid off in the winter months. Children were employed in the fields too and subject to terrible forms of humiliation and violence which scarred them for life.

As a result landlords lived under virtual siege. From early on, in addition to using the police, they employed thugs to keep workers in line and to carry out reprisals against troublemakers.

Frank Snowden has produced a devastating account of the horrors inflicted by the new agro-capitalists but he has also done a moving job in charting the marvellous story of resistance that developed among Puglia's agricultural workers, in particular how it developed from spontaneous forms of resistance - riots, violent reprisals, theft and poaching - to new forms of collective opposition such as area-wide general strikes and land seizures.

This is a story of naked civil war in which the two sides were more or less pitted directly against each other. In this region there was little in the way of a middle class, with what there was dependent on the agro-capitalists. They could rely on the priests, who were hated, the police, organised crime and paid thugs plus their own kith and kin who readily took to arms.

The workers responded by looking to the most radical ideas available - those of syndicalism. This was in response to the failure of the national trade union federation and the Socialist Party, which increasingly looked to the Italian state to bring change and went as far as denouncing the violence of the Pugliese workers. They tended to share the outlook of the agro-capitalists who looked at southern peasants and workers as being 'inferior' natives to be treated like the Arabs in Italy's Libyan colony.

In contrast Snowden shows the sophistication of the Pugliese labourers. In 1904, 5,000 workers demonstrated against the hated church when priests threatened damnation on those who voted socialist (the syndicalist unions always sought to win control of the town halls from the bosses). The crowds chanted, 'Long live Giordano Bruno', the 16th century heretic burnt to death in Rome by the Inquisition.

In times of good harvests the labourers' unions won victories through their solidarity. In bad times they were thrown backwards in defeat. Always they faced the violence of the ruling class with a string of massacres, assassinations and beatings.

The turning point came following the First World War. For Italy the war was a disaster. The majority of workers and peasants opposed its entry on the side of Britain and France in 1915. The majority of the conscripts sent to fight in glacial conditions in the Alps were peasants and the majority of them were from the south. The failure of Italy's liberal state to prosecute the war and then to deal with the post-war explosion of strikes in occupations on the land and the factories radicalised the upper classes. In 1921 and 1922, following their counterparts in central Italy and the Po Delta, the agro-capitalists of Puglia turned to Mussolini and fascism. It was a continuation of their traditional method of repression, but this time in a more concentrated and venomous form.

The workers fought back in ways which would shame many of their comrades in the north but in the absence of any national response to fascism by the workers movement they succumbed.

This summary does not do justice to Snowden's account and to his analysis. That shows why modern Italy remained scarred by decades of civil war that echoes down today in the land of Tony Blair's mate Silvio Berlusconi.