Republic Day is celebrated on June 2nd each year to commemorate the referendum result back in 1946 which abolished the monarchy and set in motion the drawing up of a constitution for the First Italian Republic.
In Como there was the traditional gathering of all the representatives from civic entities and associations for a ceremony starting with the raising of the republican tricolor followed by recognition of those citizens from the Province receiving civic awards and the distribution of copies of the constitution to all those reaching 18 years and thus now able to vote. In spite of the numerous crises and obvious shortcomings or errors of the Italian political class since the Second World War, there is every reason to be exceedingly proud of the achievements of the solid anti-fascist alliance established from 1943 onward which worked collaboratively across political party lines firstly to overthrow nazifascism and then to draw up that first constitution for a democracy based on universal suffrage.
That anti-fascist alliance achieved two major milestones back on June 2nd 1946. The first was the referendum in which the majority elected to abolish the monarchy since as an institution it had done little to protect the country from the disaster caused by the fascist regime. The second was to vote for a constituent assembly whose one objective was to define a new constitution for the newly-born republic.
The assembly maintained the cross-party collaboration to deliver a constitution approved with a massive majority and enacted on 1st January 1948. In the space of the three years following the anti-fascist alliance born after the Nazi occupation of Northern Italy in September 1943, the partisan and worker organisations had restored pride to a country that had suffered brutal oppression and had been reduced to bankruptcy with mass unemployment and widespread poverty. That pride stemmed from the actions of the armed resistance supported by a heroic civil population and a vanguard of workers who had the foresight to plan for a life after fascism by weakening the Nazi war economy whilst also ensuring that the industrial infrastructure was not destroyed by the retreating German Army.
The class of industrial owners had mostly been compromised by their collaboration with the nazifascist regime even though many of them like the Agnelli family of FIAT fame had started to hedge their bets when they saw the tide turning after the Battle of Stalingrad. However the workers’ organisations, which had all been suppressed during the fascist regime, arose again following the allied advance in the south and it was out of the trades union movement that the three emerging political parties – the Socialists (PSI), the Communists (PCI) and the Catholics (DC) – signed the Pact of Rome in June 1944. This pact secured the impetus and coherence behind the Committee for National Liberation (CLN) and its campaigns of armed and civil resistance in the north. The key role of the communists in this resistance with their ability to organise shop floor action as well as sustain their Garibaldi Brigades of partisans is perhaps the best known party in this triumvirate. Much less is known of some of the other players in the resistance such as the Royalists or, more significantly, the Catholics. The recently formed Catholic political organisation (Christian Democrats) was one of the three signatories to the Pact of Rome and it was the majority party within the Constituent Assembly established on June 2nd 1946 to produce the new constitution having won 207 seats whilst the Socialists gained 115 and the Communists got 104.
How the Catholics managed to come out of the war in such a strong position with a solid base both within the bourgeoisie but, more significantly for the resistance, within a radicalised working class, is partly down to the ability of a particularly skillful political and trades union organiser who happened to be from Como – Achille Grandi.
Achille Grandi’s Early Years
Achille was born the first of four children to Romualdo and Olimpia Cavadini in Como in August 1883. Como was primarily an industrial town in that period which had experienced a massive growth in the silk and textile industry from the 1860s onwards. However those working in the mills had a very hard life with working days of over 12 hours, with little concern for worker safety and only the basic local forms of representation to try and negotiate better terms from the factory owners. In addition, during the period when Achille was growing up, the local spinning industry was suffering a downturn due to competition from France causing wage reductions and redundancies amongst the spinners. Achille’s family was poor. His father was unemployed for long periods and he himself was forced to leave school aged eleven to take up work in 1894 in a Como printing factory. He was not a strong boy and he soon started to suffer from the principle health risk in printing works – lead poisoning.
Given his religious upbringing and the direct experience of the hardships caused by the spread of industrialism with all the advantages accruing to the capitalist class with not a single aspect of social legislation passed to improve working conditions, it was no surprise that Achille was inspired by the Rerum Novarum issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. This encyclical highlighted the need for the church to define and implement a social policy recognising the rights of workers to form unions to ameliorate their work conditions and denouncing unfettered capitalism alongside atheistic socialism. Achille took inspiration from this and joined the early local union known as the Federation of Workers which was however aligned to the increasingly socialist-oriented ‘Camera del Lavoro’ but there was no other syndicalist option at that time. He then sought to educate himself on the catholic social doctrine laid out by Pope Leo as well as get training on trades union and co-operative organisation through his local church at the Circolo Popolare Cattolico di San Bartolomeo.
From Como Diocese to Local Politics
At only 18 years old Achille became a member of the Como Diocese Committee and six years later he became a salaried member of the Diocesan Management. This salary proved very convenient since he had had to give up his job in the print factory due to the effects of the lead poisoning. His role was as ‘segretario propagandista’ making use of his organisational and communication skills across activities that ranged from education, women’s rights to assisting immigrants from the south but his main focus was on political and union work.
His difficulties in getting on with the socialist-led union – the Camera del Lavoro – led him into developing a Catholic alternative known as the Lega Cattolica di Lavoro directed at improving working conditions. Whilst he always tried to work alongside the socialist-run unions, he often ran into issues preventing effective collaboration. Socialist doctrine was based on Marxist theory of class conflict whilst Achille believed that collaboration between the classes would best improve workers’ conditions. By 1908, Achille was able to establish the first national catholic trades union known as the Sindacato Italiano Tessile (SIT -Textile Workers Union). The socialists also formed their first national union in the same year – the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro (CGL).
Catholic attitudes to politics had always been problematic in Italy ever since Pope Pius IX excommunicated all members of the newly-formed Italian government which had sequestered the Papal States and moved its capital from Turin to Rome in 1871. However Pope Pius X recognised in 1904 that attempts by Catholics to further the church’s social doctrine as laid out by Leo XIII would also require participation in politics in order to protect whatever gains they made. He therefore gave a tacit approval for church members to enter into politics. Achille also appreciated how political activity was crucial to securing whatever social advances the unions were able to negotiate. So he entered politics as a Como town councilor in 1908, thus becoming one of the first Catholics to enter politics without the threat of papal excommunication. However his entry into politics was to reveal a marked difference between his social-christian approach and the more cautious attitudes of the Diocese. These differences led finally to total disagreement which led on to his dismissal from his Diocese role in 1913. In spite of these differences. Achille always maintained his course of keeping faith with the church whilst also continuing to fight for social justice.
Move to Monza
After his dismissal from the Como Diocese, Achille immediately got an offer to move to Monza to take up the post of Secretary of the Monza branch of the Lega Cattolica del Lavoro and as director of another worker organisation known as the Opere Cattoliche Monzesi. He still held firm to his Leo XIII-inspired ‘third way’ attitude that social injustices, disorder and conflict stemmed from the dechristianisation of society either due to the rationalist liberalism of the rich or the anticlerical socialism of the poor. The Rerum Novarum of 1891 remained his inspiration and fueled his belief that trades unionism could bring the two industrial sides together.
After The Great War
The brutality and inhumanity of the war led to a Marxist revolution in Russia and the death of the ruling liberal elite in Italy. Out of the social confusion with the growth of the socialists, a Catholic political party (the Partito Popolare Italiano – PPI) was born for the first time under the leadership of Don Luigi Sturzo in 1919. Achille was one of the founder members. He was also made President of the national Textile Workers Union (SIT) and was also a founding member of the first national general catholic union – The Confederazione Italiana dei Lavoratori (CIT).
In 1919 he was returned as a member of parliament for the list representing Milan in elections that could have seen the first progressive workers government take control if the Socialists had only been prepared to collaborate with the PPI or if the Socialists’ Trades Union (CGL) had collaborated with the Catholics’ CIT. However the Marxist doctrine of the CGL at that time was fixated on the notion of class conflict whilst the CIT saw inter-class collaboration as the best route to social justice. Later Marxist thinkers such as Gramsci or Togliatti might have been more sympathetic to the PPI and the CIT but it was not to be in those early days of class conflict.
in the 1920s Italy never had recovered economically after the Great War and, faced with ever greater economic turmoil matched by growing industrial unrest, the emerging fascist party took the opportunity to provoke and exploit social disorder so as to present themselves as the authoritarian answer to Italy’s issues. Unfortunately the socialists were out-manoeuvred and many Catholics who had previously supported the PPI were attracted to the appeal the fascists made to restore social order. The majority of the party thus voted in favour of Mussolini’s government in 1922 but Achille Grandi was one party member who voted against. He was henceforth seen as a potential enemy of the state and kept under police surveillance from that time on.
In 1922 Achille became Secretary General of the Confederazione Italiana dei Lavoratori (CIL), the national catholic trades union. In the same year Pope Pius XI took over as Pope from Pope Benedict XV. Achille’s trades union was now under attack on two fronts. Firstly Pope Pius XI was not comfortable with the church’s involvement in politics and in social welfare matters. He sought to focus all Catholic laity activity within one organisation, Azione Cattolica, and then to get Azione Cattolica to focus only on spiritual concerns. The PPI thus became increasingly irrelevant and Achille focused ever more of his attention on the CIL union and on trying to forge closer links with the other unions. However, as the fascist hold on power increased, their level of threat and intimidation to the unions increased. Finally in 1925 the fascists declare that the only union that could legally represent workers was the fascist union. Azione Cattolica were happy to accept this but Achille was not. He now had to decide how to react to the imposition of the fascist totalitarian regime and his choice, like many others, was to adopt what has been called ‘internal exile’, that is preferring to go back into obscurity rather than continue a public life of humiliating compromises. So he returned to work in a print shop but retained secret links with some of his former trades unionists such as Giovanni Gronchi, also from Como (from Montano Lucino to be precise) who in later years was to lead the left wing of the post-war Christian Democrats and serve as President of the Republic from May 1955 to May 1962.
Years of Obscurity
Achille’s wife, Maria, recalled how Achille would often meet up with ex-union colleagues such as Giovanni Gronchi during that hard period of fascist oppression to discuss what to do after fascism collapsed. They all appreciated that fascism was doomed to ultimate failure but Achille also regretted how fascism was only able to prevail in those early years of the 1920s due to the failure of the progressive parties and organisations of the left to coordinate an effective opposition. The same realisation obviously occurred to the socialists, and of greater significance now, also to the Communists who had established an effective power base within the factories and amongst the workers in cities like Milan and Turin – and who, after the Nazi occupation in September 1943, provided the political inspiration and leadership behind the largest group of armed partisans, the so-called Garibaldi Brigades.
The Anti-Fascist Alliance
In July 1943, the king dismissed Mussolini’s government and the majority of Mussolini’s ministers failed to support him. Fascism was for a brief period over and the government was put into the hands of an ex-fascist army general, Badoglio, who was as an inept a politician as he was a soldier. However an armistice with the allies was signed which immediately provoked the Nazi occupation of the northern part of Italy and the restoration by Hitler of Mussolini as head of the puppet Socialist Republic of Italy (RSI). In the meantime Pope Pius XI who had been discouraging the catholic laity in organising for anything other than spiritual reasons, died in 1939. Achille could now re-emerge from obscurity and in fact Badoglio invited him in July 1943 to take up the position of Commissioner for the Confederation of Agricultural Workers. (Due to the history of failure to revise feudal land tenure rights, agricultural workers formed one of the most militant sections of the Italian working class at that time.)
The lifting of the ban on trades unionism was soon to lead to the historic signing of the Pact of Rome in June 1944 when representatives of the Socialists (Emilio Canevari), the Communists (Giuseppe Di Vittorio) and Achille for the Christian Democrats signed the agreement to work together in support of the Committee for National Liberation (CLN) to defeat fascism. Achille had finally seen his faith in collaboration over conflict confirmed. The other significant outcome of the Pact of Rome was the formation of a single national trades union representing all workers irrespective of any political doctrine – the CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana dei Lavoratori). This cross-party collaboration within a single trades union was to endure until 1948, well after the establishment of the Republic and the enactment of the new constitution. With this new union in place, Achille recognised there was a need for a specifically catholic workers organisation to give catholic unionists a solid understanding of the church’s social doctrine so as to allow them to articulate their views within the consolidated union’s forums. Hence he became a founding member and the first president of ACLI (the Christian Association of Italian Workers) – an organisation still going strong to this day. He was then elected to parliament in the elections of 1946 as a Christian Democrat but was to die only two months later at the age of 63 in his home in Desio, a town close to Monza and just north of Milan.
Achille Grandi was to see his faith in cross-party collaboration come to fruition within the singularly effective anti-fascist alliance established in 1944. Not only was he a central player in setting up that alliance, but his pragmatic approach, partly in denial of the Marxist dialectic of class conflict, was also effectively adopted by the Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti on his return from Russia. Later, as peacetime progressed, some Communists may rightly have come to question whether such a degree of collaboration with the capitalist class was always tactically appropriate but few can doubt its initial success. From 1943 until the setting up of the Republic, the three main parties worked together to restore pride in the country and put it back on a path to recovery from the degradation and bankruptcy of the war years. For me, not only do I find inspiring the collaboration forged within that anti-fascist alliance, but also the story of Achille himself, his tenacity in self-educating and directing his gifted organisational talents and the fact that there were at least some channels back then for some talented but socially disadvantaged people to progress.
Nowadays the Republic Day celebrations may appear somewhat anachronistic, an excuse for local dignitaries and state functionaries to don sparkling dress uniforms for another opportunity for self-congratulation, but the heart of this celebration lies in history and, specifically in the sacrifices and efforts made by those of Achille’s generation in rescuing the country from the depths of degradation and inhumanity inflicted during the fascist era. To quote the anti-fascist University professor and politician Piero Calamandrei:
‘If you want to go on a pilgrimage to the place where our Constitution was created go to the mountains where the partisans fell, to the prisons where they were incarcerated and to the fields where they were hanged. Wherever an Italian died to redeem freedom and dignity, go there young people and ponder because that was where our Constitution was born.’
The Constitution that Achille contributed towards has essentially survived to this day with some elements revised and others, unfortunately, never fully implemented but the one lasting legacy codified in its pages is the Italian State’s commitment to anti-fascism, and long may that last beyond the span of living memory.