Recent historiographical developments emphasized the destabilizing role of bourgeois interest groups in Italy on the eve of WWI, showing how postwar developments were in continuity, not rupture, with the social and political dynamics prior to the conflict. In this long-term approach, what emerges powerfully is the role of agrarian organizations in the Po Valley, which, from 1920, would be infested by fascist squadrism. Dynamics that herald the formation of certain cultures and forms of political action are already present in the fifteen years preceding the war and involve organizations and groups that can be defined as non-state actors.

Despite the conventional image of the Belle Époque (conventionally 1871-1914) as an age of progress and optimism, the years leading up to the war were a period of great uncertainty and insecurity. In response to the problems and fears caused by the rise of the "New World," there are clues hinting at postwar developments—the collapse of liberal regimes in Europe and the rise of extreme right-wing movements which would lead to the rise of authoritarian regimes beginning in the 1920s. Many countries, such as Italy, did not experience the trauma of military defeat, institutional change, or ethnic conflict, but experienced forms of paramilitarism and high rates of nationalist and fascist-style political violence.1 It is also important to analyze the organizational and social forms of groups that were key actors in Italian political life between the end of the 19th century and the entry into the war in 1915.

This will be explored in the context of the emergence of the agrarian bourgeoisie in the Po Valley as an antagonistic actor to state policies, thereby contextualizing the development of systems of interest, representation, and paramilitary bodies posing as non-state alternatives to legitimate and lawful institutions. These dynamics are part of a broader process of reaction and delegitimization of democratic institutions, which exploded in Europe in the early postwar period. In the Italian case, such claims of reaction and delegitimization of democratic institutions were adopted by the fascist movement, with the first vanguard of agrarian squadrism between the last years of the 19th century and 1922 with particular focus on the case of the agrarians of Emilia.

In the years between the beginning of the twentieth century and World War I, parliamentary life was dominated by Giovanni Giolitti.2 This period was marked by unprecedented economic progress. The start of the industrial revolution stimulated the emergence of new proletarian and bourgeois classes allowing for the rise of mass political and social movements, from which the main protagonists of 20th-century Italian politics would emerge. The so-called "Giolittian system" was characterized by its ability to aggregate vast parliamentary majorities, and parliament was considered the place of mediation between different political positions and interests. Giolittism is a phenomenon that transcends Giolitti's political personality since it involves the political class as a whole. In this context, key partners in a reformist and modernization program were the socialists. The socialist political turn had begun after the Rome congress in September 1900, chiefly characterized by the need for the country's development in a democratic direction facilitated by a non-intransigent relationship to the government (should it come up with an adequate program of democratic reforms).3 As we shall see, this system was not without criticism and difficulties.

Po Valley Agrarians

To understand the role of non-state actors, such as the Emilia agrarians in Belle Epoque Italy, it is necessary to have some idea of the social and economic context that characterized Emilia, one of the most advanced agricultural areas on the continent. Considering this, it is clear why the high rate of social conflict in the period 1890-1914 is primarily linked to the agrarian world. Large estates were often owned by the so-called "absentee landowners"—part of the old latifundia aristocracy. They were usually involved in Italian political and economic life at a local, provincial, and national level. Marquis Giuseppe Tanari, for example, in addition to owning farmland, held the offices of mayor and parliamentary deputy in Bologna. During this period, much of the estates owned by the old notables were taken over by commercial leaseholders, who were the major players in the agricultural reclamation and modernization enterprises of northern Italy. Historian Anthony Cardoza points out how the latter:

"Shared few of the gentlemanly pretensions and paternal sentiments of the agrarian old guard; they were essentially "agricultural industrialists" in the business of maximizing profits by increasing production, lowering costs, and selling their crops in the most lucrative markets."4

In addition to the rural classes, there were also sharecroppers, permanent laborers (permanent wage earners), and seasonal laborers (farmhands), the latter of whom:

"[...] constituted the poorest class of agricultural workers, the one most prone to unemployment; they were paid daily piecework, but during a year they worked an average of 50 and 60 days [...] 15 liras per day."5

The ranks of the laborers, beginning in the late 19th century, grew larger and larger, aided by competition from North America, Argentina, and Russia, which forced landowners to decrease the amount of land put under cultivation, fall back on less costly crops, and cut labor costs, turning many sharecroppers into laborers. In 1901, the National Federation of Land Workers (Federterra) was born; at its first congress, held in Bologna in November of that year, it decided in favor of a policy of socialization of land and production, sparking opposition from sharecroppers and small landowners, who then walked out of the organization.

Traditionally accustomed to the passivity and subjugation of the workers, the local elite reacted with horror and indignation to the emergence of labor leagues and the upsurge of strikes. They were branded as acts of "repression and economic violence" that violated the "fundamental norms of reason, custom, [and] law."6 The response of agrarian employers to this perceived threat was a refusal to recognize or negotiate with the representatives of the leagues: rejecting mediation, importing scabs (non-unionized workers) and, in the most extreme cases, abandoning crop fields. In the last decade of the 19th century, conservative political leaders in Rome tended to share the concerns of the Po Valley's wealthy classes. At this stage, government authorities began showing their willingness to respond to the landowners' requests for intervention. In practice, their policies resulted in increasingly open collusion between agrarian employers and the police in countering strikes and persecuting the leagues. To the landowning classes, the hostile and anti-national nature of the socialist movement made the requests of State support legitimate:

"We represent no small part of the state, and since soldiers are at its service to defend it from external enemies, why should we not use them to fight an enemy attacking it from within?"7

This kind of intervention only solidified the intransigence of landowners and merchants; bolstered by the support of government officials, employers had little incentive to organize, change their labor policies, or compromise with the demands of the leagues. However, this climate of cooperation was destined to be short-lived. Even after the authoritarian attempt at the turn of the century (1898), the wave of unrest that swept the Po Valley—the combined result of the development of workers' organizations and the permissive policies pursued by Giolitti—had the character of an epochal caesura.8 For a generation of landowners accustomed to the unconditional support of institutions, Giolitti's new neutrality came as a shock. The agrarians, seemingly powerless to curb the spread of the "red" leagues, seemed to have no choice but to surrender to the workers' demands. The reaction of the landowning classes was a mixture of panic, indignation, and hostility toward a government and state that had betrayed their interests, opening wide, as they saw it, the door to anarchy and chaos. One of Bologna's leading moderate newspapers, Il Giornale dell'Emilia, supported the agrarians' discontent, saying that Giolitti (along with the government) was "the guiltiest of all."9 The following 1901 uprisings opened a new era of social conflict between workers and owners in the Bolognese countryside.

The revival of the red leagues was also evident in the 1904 elections, where the socialists managed to win as many as 6 of the 8 constituencies. This newfound strength of the leagues both in the countryside and at the polling station caused great alarm among the landowning classes, exposing their disorganization and inefficiency in political and anti-union strategy. Recent economic and political successes challenged traditional power, and the emergence of a popular front posed an increasingly important danger. Absentee landlords and tenant farmers began to set aside their differences to collaborate on a systematic, long-term strategy. Bologna's agrarian elite was beginning the difficult transition from the old world of local notables to a new system of institutional arrangements, based on interest group organization and collective action.

The architect of Bologna's new agrarian generation was Enrico Sturani, a lawyer and journalist for Il Corriere della Sera, who shared the interests and aspirations of the new agrarian bourgeoisie. Sturani's programmatic vision was a compromise between the economic interests of the commercial farmers and the political and social concerns of the moderates, seasoned with a corporatist vision that elevated class cooperation to the guiding principle of the associations. In line with this principle, they sought to bring together owners, tenants, sharecroppers, and workers into a single, hierarchically ordered "agrarian sector," within which the various categories could resolve their differences and share "an orderly and peaceful unity guided by a common purpose."10 However, as early as 1907, differing views in bargaining methods within organized labor began to create the first divisions, revealing the crisis of traditional agrarian ownership in favor of the new commercial agricultural leverage.11 Before long, the great economic crisis of 1907 would interrupt the golden age of Italian economic expansion, hitting industry and agriculture hard. Emilia's agrarians faced renewed pressure from the labor movement.

Many individuals were inspired by the story of Alfredo Benni, one of the province's leading tenant farmers. However, by June 1907, organized laborers began to boycott Benni's estate in the municipality of Budrio due to his hostility at any attempt initiated by the leagues to engage in negotiations and establish agreements. An important element (which will be expanded upon later) is the use of private security forces.12 Police reported that armed squads accompanied the non-unionized workers (scabs) and guarded the fields of Benni's estate. In a letter to the prefect, Benni and his associates claimed they were involved in a "civil war" with organized labor and felt fully justified in "providing a vigorous defense of our unquestionable rights and protecting their loyal workers."13 Benni and like-minded people constituted the vanguard of a new agrarian insurrection movement in the Po Valley that raged, not only against the socialist labor movement, but also against the interests of the old notables and the political mediation of the traditional parties. There was a pressing need for an effective organizational counterweight to the wealth of the industrial world and organized labor. In response, a new interest group and class consciousness burgeoned among commercial farmers that transcended provincial boundaries; their goal was to find an alternative to the inadequate and traditional channels of interest representation, both on the local and national level.

The agrarian insurrection movement was an expression of the changing balance of power among provincial elites and acted as a response to the increasing rigors of economic competition and political lobbying. As Emilio Gentile points out, the rise of the new middle classes, formed as a result of the industrialization and modernization of the country, was not seen—neither by Giolitti and the liberal ruling class, nor by the democratic parties—as one of the key issues for political development. The middle classes found themselves relegated to a subordinate political status vis-à-vis both the large industrial bourgeoisie and the organized proletariat.14 The rise of the unintegrated middle classes was to be one of the major factors of instability in the Giolittian system and one of the strongholds of anti-Giolittism; anti-Giolittism became anti-parliamentary because the Giolittian parliament, remaining tied to the rural and clientelistic world of 19th-century Italy, was seen as an obstacle to the political rise of the emerging elites, and did not represent the classes that had appeared on the economic and social scene in recent decades.

The absence of a modern bourgeois party and the dominance of a few parliamentary leaders tended to alienate the agrarian interests from the ruling political class. They were pushed toward authoritarian solutions to problems of production labor relations and political representation—a phenomenon which became increasingly evident in the last years of the decade and before the war.15 Emblematic of this climate is the position of Parma Agrarian Association president Lino Carrara who, at a congress in 1907, asserted that the class cooperation program no longer corresponded to the harsh realities of the northern plains and that moderate agrarian leaders had failed to achieve their primary goal: convincing the leagues to renounce class conflict.16 He was echoed by his Bologna counterpart Sturani with an alarming warning about a socialist movement that was proceeding to expropriate industry and private property. Sturani and Carrara broadened their attack to include the entire structure of provincial notables' circles, which had always been political mediators of Po Valley land interests. In their view, such informal arrangements were hopeless anachronisms in an era of mass politics. Both the rhetoric and the proposals reflected a new corporatist and authoritarian vision of labor relations, production, and interest representation. The two called for an exclusive, disciplined, and "warlike" association composed of a small core of men prepared for any contingency.18 In addition to financial initiatives, such as the establishment of an insurance fund for farmers damaged by boycotts, there were also plans for special combat units to be used once conflicts with the leagues broke out. Carrara favored the formation of teams of non-unionized workers or "free workers" who could be sent to problem areas to complete essential farm work and reduce the impact of strikes. Carrara also called for an armed "interprovincial volunteer corps" that would guard the fields and thwart any attempts by striking workers to block work. These initiatives reflected the perceived "civil war" climate: "Hit by boycotts, we will respond with lockouts; we will respond to violence with violence. The working class will be strong, but the boss class is just as strong.19" The agrarians' statements in the Resto del Carlino of June 1910 are interesting in this regard:

"Thus, our anti-socialism will also appear clearly justified; anti-socialism that ignores fear, that is not a merely political statement because it is something 'better and more:' it is opposition to an attempt that is an attack not only on property but also on everything we hold most dear and traditional. Property and freedom.[...] For us, property is the institution that responds most immediately, most instinctively to the nature of man who, by aspiring to it, forms and tempers his personality.[...] That is why we affirm the necessity that our class must take the lead in the social movement by making the workers understand that only in the solidarity between capital and labor can there be common salvation.[...]"20

It can be seen in this fragment how core elements of post-war developments — militant anti-socialism and political intransigence, corporatism, need for social pacification led by bourgeoisie — were already present.

Then, again, in June 1912, the prefect of Bologna reported increasing labor unrest throughout the lower plains, which he attributed to the resolutely reactionary stance of the agrarian association. The main obstacles to social peace in the countryside now came from employers who:

 "Provoked conflicts by all means to prevent the customarily friendly negotiations between capital and labor, which they regard as signs of weakness and compromise. [...]"21

The new era of employers' associations was led by men who no longer valued mediation, but "an intransigence that reveals the desire, perhaps the necessity, for confrontation,"22 with organized labor and state authorities. This reflected the intention to seek in themselves, and not in the state or government, the means to defend their interests.23 Thus, at a time when the economic elites of other European countries had begun to develop the new institutional arrangements that would create a conservative consensus in the 1920s, the commercial farmers of northern Italy had embarked on a path that led to the intensification of social conflict and political polarization.

For example, the war in Libya, and the political debate that ensued, highlighted the increasing radicalization and political polarization of the prewar period in the twilight of the Giolittian period.24 The debate around this conflict reflected the government's inability to intervene effectively on the issue of class conflict,25 and the ways it subsequently pushed agrarian and industrial organizations toward nationalism with strong anti-Parliamentary overtones. Patriotism with anti-Socialism was a central theme of the pro-war demonstrations organized by employers' associations. From the offensive against organized labor, criticism of certain policies resulted in direct confrontation with government authorities. The confrontational charge against institutions is most evident in the L'Agraria Bolognese, who possessed a willingness to challenge "anyone who attend[ed] to [their] rights, whether they be socialists, municipal administrations, or the state." Reports on the eve of WWI further exemplified the deep dissatisfaction of large sectors of agriculture and industry with the liberal political class and the entire Italian parliamentary system26. The alignment of these interest groups with the Italian Nationalist Association marked a crucial change in attitudes and political objectives on the part of the most intransigent sectors of the agrarian-industrial bloc. On the heels of World War I, the Nationalist Association was rapidly emerging as the new "opinion party" of the productive bourgeoisie with an ideology that would strongly influence authoritarian developments after World War I.

Private Militia

The city of Bologna had a militia of private citizens, the Pattuglie Cittadine, established in 1827 as a civic association to support these authorities. Members of the Patrols were defined by the quaestor as honest citizens performing spontaneous and willing service.27 Their main duties were to patrol the streets at night, assist the police in preventing crime, ensure safety, and protect the property of the inhabitants of Bologna.28 The first major intervention as the city patrols was the repression of social conflict during the general strike of May 1906. 600 men, led by members of the patrols, paraded through the city streets armed with guns and sticks, forcibly opposing the strikers. The Patrol also attempted to invade and destroy the offices of the Chamber of Labor. However, they were blocked by police forces.29 At the same time, Catholic City Councilor Domenico Nardi urged citizens with gun permits to go out into the streets:

"within certain limits ask the shopkeepers to reopen their stores; make good vigilance. If there is to be broken glass there may also be broken heads... It is no longer time for talk, but for action"30.

The Citizen Patrols also had a role during the riots related to Red Week; once again, civilians were involved in anti-socialist and anti-revolutionary counter-demonstrations. Strikers claimed that during the demonstrations, incited by Federterra and the CGL, they had been attacked by armed members of the Nationalist Party under the connivance of the police.31 At the same time, institutional forces feared that they were showing signs of weakness within police forces and State institutions. The Giolittian prefect, referring to the support of the Patrols in major city riots, saw this as "an anticipation of civil war and a manifestation of the weakness of the authorities" and did not consider "such forms of pitting citizen against citizen, almost as a prodrome of civil wars, to be permissible."

However, the most complex and violent case after 1908 is that of Parma. In 1914, during the insurrectional uprisings of Red Week, Parma, too, was shaken by violent riots in which forces of law and order and various bourgeois linked to the Parma Agrarian Association were involved. The intervention of civilian militias was also pivotal in the case of Parma. Since 1908, the owners' front had been reinforced and consolidated under the ideological banner of nationalism.  During the violent clashes near the Chamber of Labor, the police commissioner reported that, behind the infantry, there was also a large group of young bourgeois with firearms, protesting with several "free workers" linked to the Parma's Agraria, who were unwilling to mediate. Although the commissioner tried to prevent the nationalists from breaking the police cordon to clash with the strikers, the strikers "manifested intentions of substituting themselves for the public force that was too sluggish because it did not shoot."32 The involvement of the Agraria was well understood by the authorities. The Agrarians wrath was aroused by the demeanor and hesitancy of the authorities in repressing the unrest. They saw it as a symbol of the weakness of the institutions. The authorities were opposed by the intransigence and confidence of those who instead felt they could, by their own means, put an end to the social conflict. The chronicle in Il Presente speaks to the gravity of the situation, stating that:

"it was something more than an armed and authorized repression [...] it was instead officers and bourgeois acting individually supplanting the public force and the public security authority."33


The events of Red Week sparked deep anxieties and concerns in conservative and reactionary sectors of society, which resulted in further distrust in the repressive capabilities of the state. As in 1908, the Agraria had manifested its subversive charge against the Giolittian system, and armed gangs represented part of a broader strategy that, on several levels, aimed to expose the government's inability to defend the interests of landowners from the damage wrought by workers' strikes.34 Pressed from the right and the left, state authority saw its room for maneuver increasingly narrowed. The police were forced to abandon all attempts to mediate with the protesters in order to prevent the alleged weakness of the authorities from producing a delegitimization of the authorities themselves. Repression, once the clash was radicalized, became the only possible strategy to avoid giving a free hand to non-state violence.35 From this perspective, the strategy of integration of socialists promoted by the Giolittian system only exacerbated the subversive iterations of bourgeois reaction. Attempts to widen the public sphere and responses to the challenges of the country's economic and political modernization seemed to deepen the social gaps in a society where political confrontation took the form of a class struggle, now shared by both sides.

Important segments of society came to view organized private violence as a plausible and legitimate alternative to the challenges presented by mass labor movements, the ineffective liberal system, the maintenance of order, and the rapid and impressive social and economic changes that characterized the decades before the war. For employers opposed to mediation, direct action was not, however, the only solution. As we have seen, for these movements, the defense of public order was part of the defense of a broader social order; protecting "public normality" in this way meant preserving "the entire social organization."36 In a period when the monopoly of violence and modern police structures are distinctive features of the State, organized and private forms of violence represent a departure from the traditional sovereignty system by providing an alternative to state governance and challenging the state's monopoly of violence.

About the Author

Nicola Scroccaro is a Master's graduate of Bologna Alma Mater Studiorum where he focused on contemporary and cultural history. Previously he attended the University of Padua and Universitat de Barcelona. He is originally from Treviso, Italy.


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