Works of Frederick Engels 1894

The Future Italian Revolution and the Socialist Party

Source: MECW, Volume 27, p. 437;
Written: January 26, 1894;
First published: in Italian, in the Critica Sociale, February 1, 1894;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

The situation in Italy is, in my opinion, as follows.

Having come to power during and after national emancipation, the bourgeoisie was neither able nor willing to complete its victory. It did not sweep away the remains of feudalism, nor did it reorganise national production on modern bourgeois lines. Incapable of enabling the country to share in the relative and temporary benefits of the capitalist regime, the bourgeoisie imposed on it all this regime’s burdens and disadvantages. Not content with that, it has rendered itself intolerable and contemptible in the extreme and for ever through its disgraceful financial swindles.

Working people — peasants, tradesmen, agricultural and industrial workers — thus find themselves crushed, on the one hand, by old-fashioned corrupt practices, not merely the legacy of feudal times but also dating from antiquity (mezzadria, the latifundia of the south, where cattle are replacing men) and, on the other., by the most voracious fiscal policy which the bourgeois system has ever devised. We might well say, with Marx, that we “like all the rest of Continental Western Europe, suffer not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside of modern evils, a whole series of inherited evils oppress us, arising from the passive survival of antiquated modes of production with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms, we suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif!

This situation is heading towards a crisis. Everywhere the productive mass is in a state of ferment; in places it is rebelling. Where will this crisis lead us?

Obviously the socialist party is too young and, because of the economic situation, too weak to hope for the immediate victory of socialism. Nationwide, the rural population far outnumbers that of the towns; in the towns there is little large-scale developed industry, and consequently few typical proletarians; the majority are made up of tradesmen, small shopkeepers and déclassés, a mass floating between the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It is the small and middle bourgeoisie of the Middle Ages in decline and disintegration; for the most part they are future, but not yet actual, proletarians. Only this class, constantly facing economic ruin and now provoked to despair, will be able to supply both the mass of fighters and the leaders of a revolutionary movement. It will be backed by the peasants, whose geographical dispersal and illiteracy prevent them from taking any effective initiative, but who will nonetheless make powerful and indispensable auxiliaries.

In the event of more or less peaceful success, there will be a change of government: the “converted” republicans, Cavallotti & Co., would take the rudder; in the event of revolution there will be a bourgeois republic.

What part should be played by the socialist party with regard to these eventualities?

Since 1848 the tactics which have most often ensured success for the socialists have been those of the Communist Manifesto: in the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, the socialists always represent the interests of the movement as a whole.... they fight for the attainment of the immediate aims in the interest of the working class, but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement. — Thus they take an active part in each of the evolutionary phases through which the struggle of the two classes passes, without ever losing sight of the fact that these phases are only so many stages leading to the great goal: the conquest of political power by the proletariat as a means of social reorganisation. They have their place among the combatants for any immediate advantage which can be obtained in the interest of the working class; they accept all these political and social advantages, but only as advance payments. Therefore they consider every revolutionary or progressive movement to be heading in the same direction as their own; their special mission is to drive the other revolutionary parties forwards and, should one of these parties be victorious, to safeguard the interests of the proletariat. These tactics, which never lose sight of the great goal, spare the socialists the bouts of. disillusionment to which the less clear-sighted parties are invariably subject — whether pure republicans, or sentimental socialists who mistake a mere stage for the final outcome of the march forwards.

Let us apply this to Italy.

The victory of the disintegrating petty bourgeoisie and the peasants may thus lead to a government of “converted” republicans. That would give us universal suffrage and much greater freedom of action (freedom of the press, assembly, association, abolition of the ammonizione, etc.) — new weapons which are not to be despised.

Or a bourgeois republic with the same people and a few Mazzini supporters. That would widen our freedom of action and field of action even more, at least for the moment. And the bourgeois republic, said Marx, is the sole political form in which the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie can be decided. Not to mention the repercussions this would have in Europe.

The victory of the present revolutionary movement cannot, therefore, be achieved without strengthening us and placing us in a more favourable environment. Thus we would be committing the greatest of errors should we wish to abstain, if in our attitude to “akin” parties we sought to limit ourselves to purely negative criticism. The time may come when we shall have to co-operate with them in a positive fashion. When will this time come?

Obviously it is not up to us to prepare directly a movement which is not exactly that of the class which we represent. If the radicals and republicans believe that the time has come to take to the streets, let them give free rein to their impetuosity! But we have been deceived all too often by the grandiose promises of these gentlemen to let ourselves fall into the trap once again. Neither their proclamations nor their conspiracies should affect us. If we are obliged to support every real popular movement, we are also obliged not to sacrifice in vain the scarcely formed core of our proletarian party or to allow the proletariat to be decimated in sterile local riots.

if, on the contrary, the movement is truly national, our men will be there before the order can be given, and it goes without saying that we shall take part. But it must be understood, and we should proclaim it aloud, that we are taking part as an independent party, allied for the moment with the radicals and the republicans, but entirely distinct from them; that we have no illusions about the result of the struggle, in the event of victory; that for us this result, far from satisfying us, will only be a stage that has been won, a new base of operations for further conquests; that on the very day of victory our paths will diverge; that from that day hence we shall form the new opposition vis-à-vis the new government, not a reactionary opposition but a progressive one, an opposition of the extreme left which will be pressing for new conquests beyond the territory already gained.

After the joint victory we might be offered a few seats in the new government, but always in a minority. This is the greatest danger. After February 1848 the French socialist democrats (of the Réforme, Ledru-Rollin, L. Blanc, Flocon, etc.) made the mistake of occupying such seats. As a minority in the government they voluntarily shared the blame for all the foul deeds and betrayals perpetrated by the majority of pure republicans against the workers; whilst the presence of these gentlemen in the government completely paralysed the revolutionary action of the working class which they claimed to represent.

In all this I am merely giving my personal opinion, because I have been asked for it, and also with the greatest diffidence. As for the general tactics; I have experienced their effectiveness throughout my life; they have never let me down. But as for applying them to the state of affairs in Italy, that is quite a different matter; that must be decided on the spot and by those who are in the midst of events.

Frederick Engels