Biennio Rosso
Part of the Revolutions of 1917–23
Armed workers occupying factories in Milan, September 1920
Caused byThe economic crisis in the Aftermath of World War I, with high unemployment and political instability
MethodsMass strikes, worker manifestations as well as self-management experiments through land and factory occupations
Resulted inThe revolutionary period was followed by the violent reaction of the fascist blackshirts militia and eventually by the March on Rome of Benito Mussolini in 1922.


Factories manned by the Red Guards in 1920

The Biennio Rosso (English: "Red Biennium" or "Two Red Years") was a two-year period, between 1919 and 1920, of intense social conflict in Italy, following the First World War.[1] The revolutionary period was followed by the violent reaction of the fascist blackshirts militia and eventually by the March on Rome of Benito Mussolini in 1922.


The Biennio Rosso took place in a context of economic crisis at the end of the war, with high unemployment and political instability. It was characterized by strikes and mass worker demonstrations, as well as self-management experiments through land and factory occupations.[1] Tension had been rising since the final years of the war, and some contemporary observers considered Italy to be on the brink of a revolution by the end of 1918.[2]

The population was confronted with rising inflation and a significant increase in the price of basic goods, in a period when extensive unemployment was aggravated by mass demobilization of the Royal Italian Army at the end of the war. Association to the trade unions, the Italian Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano, PSI), and the anarchist movement increased substantially. The PSI increased its membership to 250,000, the major socialist trade union, the General Confederation of Labour (Confederazione Generale del Lavoro, CGL), reached two million members, while the anarchist Italian Syndicalist Union (Unione Sindacale Italiana, USI) reached between 300,000 and 500,000 affiliates. The anarchist movement was boosted by the return from exile of its prominent propagandist Errico Malatesta in December 1919.[3][4]


In Turin and Milan, factory councils – which the leading Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci considered to be the Italian equivalent of Russia's soviets[5] – were formed and many factory occupations took place under the leadership of revolutionary socialists and anarcho-syndicalists.[6] The agitations also extended to the agricultural areas of the Padan plain and were accompanied by peasant strikes, rural unrests, and armed conflicts between left-wing and right-wing militias.

Industrial action and rural unrest increased significantly: there were 1,663 industrial strikes in 1919, compared to 810 in 1913. More than one million industrial workers were involved in 1919, three times the 1913 figure. The trend continued in 1920, which saw 1,881 industrial strikes. Rural strikes also increased substantially, from 97 in 1913 to 189 by 1920, with over a million peasants taking action.[7][8] On July 20–21, 1919, a general strike was called in solidarity with the Russian Revolution.[9]

In April 1920, Turin metal-workers, in particular at the Fiat plants, went on strike demanding recognition for their 'factory councils', a demand the PSI and CGL did not support. The factory councils more and more saw themselves as the models for a new democratically controlled economy running industrial plants, instead of purely as a bargaining tool with employers.[2] The movement peaked in August and September 1920. Armed metal workers in Milan and Turin occupied their factories in response to a lockout by the employers. Factory occupations swept the "industrial triangle" of north-western Italy. Some 400,000 metal-workers and 100,000 others took part.[2][10] On September 3, 185 metal-working factories in Turin had been occupied.[11]

The PSI and CGL failed to see the revolutionary potential of the movement; had it been maximized and expanded to the rest of Italy, a revolutionary transformation might have been possible. Most Socialist leaders were pleased with the struggles in the North, but did little to capitalize on the impact of the occupations and uprisings. Without the support and quarantined, the movement for social change gradually waned.[2]


By 1921, the movement was declining due to an industrial crisis that resulted in massive layoffs and wage cuts. In contrast to the passive demeanor of the PSI and CGL, employers and the upcoming fascist did react.[2] The revolutionary period was followed by the violent reaction of the Fascist blackshirts militia (the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento) with the support of Italian industrialists and landowners.[12][13][14] And eventually by the March on Rome of Benito Mussolini in October 1922.[2][10]

Fascist austerity imposed from 1922 to 1928 resulted in workers' gross wage share tumbling back to 1913 levels by 1929, reversing the gains made during 1919–1920, when, according to political economist Clara Mattei, "average Italian nominal daily industrial wages quintupled (around a 400 percent increase) compared to their prewar levels" by 1921.[15] A 1924 article published in The Times lauded the imposition of austerity: "the development of the last two years have seen the absorption of a greater proportion of profits by capital, and this, by stimulating business enterprise, has most certainly been advantageous to the country as a whole."[15]

A quantitative sociological study of the period by analyzing newspaper news in the period[16] clearly demonstrates the evolution of violence acts between the social groups involved.

See also


  1. ^ a b Brunella Dalla Casa, Composizione di classe, rivendicazioni e professionalità nelle lotte del "biennio rosso" a Bologna, in: AA. VV, Bologna 1920; le origini del fascismo, a cura di Luciano Casali, Cappelli, Bologna 1982, p. 179.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Pelz, Against Capitalism, pp. 126-28
  3. ^ Biennio Rosso (1919–1920) in: Ness, Immanuel (2009). The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, Blackwell Publishing, ISBN 978-1-405-184649
  4. ^ Di Paola, Pietro, 1966- (4 September 2013). The knights errant of anarchy : London and diaspora of Italian anarchist diaspora (1880-1917). Liverpool. p. 203. ISBN 978-1781385647. OCLC 864395167.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Bellamy & Schecter, Gramsci and the Italian State, p. 29
  6. ^ Obinger, Herbert; Petersen, Klaus; Starke, Peter (21 June 2018). Warfare and Welfare: Military Conflict and Welfare State Development in Western Countries. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-108509-3.
  7. ^ Gramsci: the Turin years, by Megan Trudell, International Socialism No. 114, April 2007
  8. ^ Neufeld, Italy: school for awakening countries, p. 547
  9. ^ 1918-1921: The Italian factory occupations and Biennio Rosso at
  10. ^ a b A Marxist History of the World part 76: Italy’s 'Two Red Years', Counterfire, May 20, 2012
  11. ^ Bellamy & Schecter, Gramsci and the Italian State, pp. 51-52
  12. ^ Snowden, Frank (1989). The Fascist Revolution in Tuscany 1919–1922. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 122–125. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511599590. ISBN 978-0-511-59959-0.
  13. ^ Squeri, Lawrence (1990). "Who Benefited from Italian Fascism: A Look at Parma's Landowners". Agricultural History. 64 (1): 18–38. ISSN 0002-1482. JSTOR 3743180.
  14. ^ Adamson, Walter L.; Vivarelli, Roberto (1992). "Storia delle Origini del Fascismo: L'Italia dalla grande guerra alla marcia su Roma". The American Historical Review. 97 (2). doi:10.2307/2165821. ISSN 0002-8762. JSTOR 2165821.
  15. ^ a b Mattei, Clara E. (2022). The Capital Order: How Economists Invented Austerity and Paved the Way to Fascism. University of Chicago Press. pp. 79–80, 275–277. ISBN 978-0-226-81839-9.
  16. ^ Quantitative Narrative Analysis (Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences). Roberto Franzosi, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 2010.

Further reading