At the height of the strikes and factory occupations that marked Turin’s biennio rosso (‘two red years’, 1919–20) a series of songs circulated among the workers. I will focus on two of these songs – La guardia rossa and Miśeria, miśeria – to listen to the particular stories they tell about the experiences of the city’s labouring classes: the ways in which the songs functioned as vehicles of political expression and solidarity, and as loci of memories of past labour and strife. Both songs survived in the memories of workers and their families long after the biennio rosso, as oral and written testaments to a moment when it seemed that revolution might be possible. The crucial point, however, is that while both were expressions of a local political milieu and neighbourhood-specific, working-class sentiment, they also gestured to a broader network of internationalist solidarity. It is the tensions and convergences between localism and internationalism that I want to explore further – a ‘local internationalism’, perhaps, that prompts us to pay attention to the broader political potential of small-scale communities, as well as to the situatedness of political ideologies during a period often framed in terms of national retrenchment and transnational exchange.Footnote 60
I use the term ‘internationalism’ here in tandem with transnationalism. While I am interested in the traversal of people and ideas beyond and through nation states – often seen as the preserve of the transnational – I am also concerned with the specificities of and interactions between national ‘delegations’ of worker solidarity.Footnote 61 Moving beyond the endlessly rehashed slogan of workers of the world uniting, I will construct a more intricate and nuanced picture of a somewhat unofficial and overlooked interwar cultural effort at international collaboration that played out in a particular local context.Footnote 62 Internationalist solidarity here was something very different from the ‘peace and security’ of the League of Nations’ founding covenant; rather, this somewhat Marxian solidarity was about the disruptive collectivity of worker activism.
The purpose of this article is to offer contrary shades to the more commonly espoused narratives of internationalism in the interwar years. The story told in workers’ songs is one of a leftist Italy on the cusp of the country’s political move to the far right – and also a side-lining of nation at the moment when Italy was supposedly obsessed with nationhood;Footnote 63 of an internationalism that looked East, to the Soviet Union, rather than to Western Europe and the USA, as was the focus of organizations such as the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) considered elsewhere in this round table; of a vernacular music a world away from the Austro-German, art music repertoire dominating the ISCM festival programmes; and of ad hoc, small-scale and local institutions (workers’ clubs and leagues) that also shared larger transnational and international ideals and aspirations. In other words, my focus here is on the local-internationalist tensions played out away from the official banners of a ‘musical League of Nations’, instead existing in precisely the kind of marginalized activity overlooked by state-sponsored organizations.Footnote 64 Homing in on local clubs and leagues in one provincial city also sidesteps the usual institutional touchstones in histories of the Left and their musical manifestations – the work of the Comintern’s International Music Bureau, socialist festivals and musical olympiads.Footnote 65 What I reclaim here is an often-overlooked form of internationalist sensibility, but one seemingly crucial to the lived experience of the interwar years.
Arguing for localism in the spaces and sentiments of proletarian song goes against the usual foregrounding of internationalism in histories of the Left. Conversely, an emphasis on the local has often been seen as reactionary, a gesture to an idealized past in which communities were supposedly fixed and homogeneous, devoid of outsiders. However, as geographer Doreen Massey has noted, ‘“place” and “community” have only rarely been coterminous’, nor has the latter been homogeneous; similarly, the point in what follows is that the local spaces of musical interaction were sites of encounter and exchange, fixed and fluid points in much larger networks.Footnote 66 The performance of a song in a particular club or tavern gave a local frame that in no sense denied that the moment might also engage with international political affinities. In other words, I pit the lived, sonic experience of daily political life in one city, Turin, against the more abstract, shared sense of political solidarity across regional and national borders. Ad hoc forms of both local and international sociability – what I call a ‘street sociability’ – were cultivated by this music-making.Footnote 67 The workers were themselves a heterogeneous, ever-shifting body and the city spaces they occupied were constantly changing to accommodate them. Place is always a process.Footnote 68
One branch of Turin’s local music culture was anchored in socialist-supported workers’ clubs and leagues.Footnote 69 Such organizations housed choirs and bands comprised of workers, groups that were grounded in the everyday experiences of a northern Italian industrial city while also fostering a more abstract and international sense of socialist and worker solidarity. Their musical activity spilled out onto the city’s streets, with songs sung in piazze, in taverns and during strikes. The body of song from which our examples are taken subsequently came to be dubbed ‘social song’ (canto sociale), expressive vehicles for this experience of solidarity.Footnote 70 The genre tended to focus both on the hardships of daily life and on moments of insurrection – strikes, demonstrations and labour disputes – that marked the emergence of Italian worker activism, often with reference to proletarian internationalism. Attending to these songs opens up the working-class spaces in which these hardships and insurrections were experienced and shared: factories, streets and neighbourhoods, as well as spaces developed for newly increased leisure time – the osterie (taverns), piòle (roughly equivalent to the British pub), workers’ clubs and leagues.Footnote 71 The late 1910s and early 1920s were a time when the corsi (paths) and piazze of Turin’s public spaces were still inhabited: they were social and political spaces, not just those for passing through.Footnote 72 Places for leisure pursuits were seen as facilitating the birth of a modern, industrial proletariat, allowing for communal drinking, dancing and singing, as well as the sharing of political sentiments. Such was the importance of these meeting places that there came to be a known (even causal) connection at the time between the tavern and the strike, between wine and politics.Footnote 73
The street and the drinking table were stages for the performance and fostering of affinity among the relative strangers who inhabited the recently industrialized city. This was still a time when people lived, worked and pursued leisure within the confines of a single neighbourhood.Footnote 74 As Franco Castelli notes, ‘In the common perception of its inhabitants, every workers’ neighbourhood [borgo] comes to be seen as a country, a world of personalized relationships, a “little community” whose memory is often idyllically tinged, both for the characters of a suburban landscape still steeped in rural nature, and for the characteristic solidarity of the collective life in the proletarian neighbourhoods.’Footnote 75 The borgo became the local realm, the lived experience of the city and a community, even if in reality its population was ever-shifting and its physical boundaries porous. It was the power of the idea of the self-contained district that encouraged sociability, the demarcations of neighbourhoods and social spaces facilitating intimate interaction and solidarity.Footnote 76
Where do La guardia rossa and Miśeria, miśeria fit into this Turin sonic panorama? Both songs were recorded some decades later by members of Cantacronache, a Turin group of left-wing song collectors, musicians and intellectuals active in the late 1950s and early 1960s.Footnote 77 There were two (interconnected) sides to Cantacronache’s activities. One was their consolidation of a new type of song which, in its political engagement, distanced itself from the commercial canzonette emerging from the Festival di Sanremo and, in its social activism, from the contemporary avant-garde; the other was their recuperation of workers’ songs (mainly of a socialist and anarchist inclination) from earlier in the century: reviving old songs was a way of reconnecting with past politics – of solidarity through oral history. These recuperated songs were not ‘destined only for the archive’, as they put it, but rather were central to a programme of creativity and productivity.Footnote 78 Soon after its formation, members of the group set about interviewing and recording people who had been involved in the singing of proletarian song in Turin in the decades around the turn of the century.Footnote 79
The shoemaker Carlo Sacchetti recalled one such song, La guardia rossa (‘Ecco s’avanza uno strano soldato’), for two of the central members of Cantacronache, musician Sergio Liberovici and lawyer Emilio Jona.Footnote 80 They recorded that the song was written in 1919 by Spartacus Picenus (a pseudonym for Raffaele Offidani), a well-known, Turin-based author of more than 100 political songs that circulated widely in workers’ culture between the end of the First World War and the aftermath of the Second. According to Sacchetti, the words of the 1919 version are as follows (the song exists in numerous other incarnations):
|Ecco s’avanza uno strano soldato
vien dall’Oriente non monta destrier
ha man callose il volto abbronzato
è il più glorioso di tutti i guerrier
|Here comes a strange soldier
he comes from the East, not on mounted steed
he has calloused hands and a tanned face
he is the most glorious of all warriors!
|Non ha pennacchi né galloni dorati
ma sul berretto e scolpita nel cuor
porta una falce e un martello incrociati
son gli emblemi del lavor
|He has no feather hat or golden stripes,
but on his cap and carved in his heart
he bears a hammer and sickle.
They are the emblems of labour
|Viva il lavor!
|Long live labour!
|È la guardia rossa
che la marcia alla riscossa
che scuoterà la fossa
la schiava umanità
|He is the red guard
who marches to the rescue
and frees from the grave
|Giacque vilmente la plebe in catene
sotto il tallone del ricco padrone
dopo millenni di strazi e di pene
l’asino alfine si cangia in leon
|The people lay in chains
under the heel of their rich master,
but after millennia of torture and pain
the donkey finally changes into a lion
|E sbrana furente il succhion coronato
toglie al nababbo l’or che rubò
e lo condanna al lavoro forzato
perché mai non lavorò
|He tears into the crowned parasite,
he strips the nabob of the gold he stole
and condemns him to hard labour
because he has never worked,
|È a guardia rossa …
|He is the red guard …
The ‘red guard’ here refers to two things. First, it suggests the Bolshevik paramilitary volunteer groups that comprised primarily factory workers and peasants, and who helped establish Soviet control in the period between the October Revolution in 1917 and the consolidation of the Red Army in 1918.Footnote 81 Second, the term refers to the Italian proletarian protest groups (guardie rosse) who led strikes and occupations during the biennio rosso in Turin; in 1921 these groups were subsumed into the militant anti-fascist Arditi del Popolo. The song’s lyrics thus gesture to both international and local contexts via a utopian story of socialist salvation: the red-guard soldier, hardened by war and toil, has arrived to rescue the ‘enslaved’ worker.
Using the age-old technique of contrafactum (setting new texts to pre-existing melodies), the text was originally set to a well-known French waltz, Valse brune. According to the ethnomusicologist Roberto Leydi, this version was sung by Italian representatives at the First Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow in 1919.Footnote 82 On hearing the anthem, Lenin supposedly professed surprise at the idea of red guards marching to a waltz. What is noteworthy here is the migration the song had undertaken in such a short time: from the workers’ culture of Turin to a Russian congress attended by Lenin himself. The version sung by Sacchetti, however, was set to a different melody, by an unknown composer, and was the setting that became most widely known.Footnote 83 In this form, it was to become the official anthem of the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) and an enduring anthem of the Left. From Liberovici and Jona’s transcription, it is evident that the lyrics’ triumphalism is matched by its musical setting as a political anthem. The simplicity, march-like rhythms and melodic repetition emphasize the music’s subservience to its political message and its capacity to be collectively sung – an envoicing of shared political dissent. Indeed, Sacchetti reports that he learnt the song from his father, also a shoemaker, who most likely encountered it through his participation in socialist (later communist) artisan leagues and taverns, or during his imprisonment in the 1930s for anti-fascist activities. In terms of the geographies of its performance, then, the song migrated between informal spaces, such as the shoemaker’s workshop and prison cells, to the relatively formal spaces of Turin’s socialist leagues and workers’ clubs as the song increasingly became an anthem for the Italian Left.
Information about Miśeria, miśeria was recounted to Liberovici and Jona by Felice Carando.Footnote 84 Carando was a worker and political militant who belonged to the Turin club Circolo Socialista Oltre Po’ and had signed up with the Arditi del Popolo in the early 1920s to fight against the fascists. In contrast to La guardia rossa, Miśeria, miśeria is in Piedmontese dialect and, unusually for the repertoire collected by Cantacronache, was found only in Turin. According to Carando’s testimony, the song was widespread in the city during the biennio rosso. The text is richly complex and again exists in numerous versions;Footnote 85 Carando recorded the version he was familiar with as follows:Footnote 86
la dote ünica che i duma ai nòstri fiöi
a piöu fa frèid a fiòca
nui miśeri a l’uma niènte ch’an cuàta
the unique gift we give to our children;
it’s raining, it’s cold, it’s snowing,
we poor have nothing to cover ourselves
|La miśeria a j’è pür sèmpre
ch’an guida fin a la mòrt
|Poverty is always there
it guides us through to death
|Mal nütrì da lunga data
sucialismu völ salvene
tüti quant iscrit an lega
capital fuma mürì
|We the long-term malnourished,
socialism wants to save us,
with everyone enrolled in the league
capital we may destroy!
|La culpa l’è nòstra
a l’è nui che ś’lu vuruma
l’è nui chi travajuma
par manten-i al lüssu a lur
|It’s our fault
we are the ones who want it
it is we who work
to maintain the luxury for them.
|Diśimpiegà sensa ’n tòc ’d pan
l’idea an guida
cumbate ’l prèivi e ’l capital
|Unemployed without a piece of bread
let’s go let’s go
the idea guides us,
to fight the priest and capital
|L’àn fam l’àn fam
e i cit a ciamu
’dco lur al pan
’dco lur al pan
|They are hungry,
the children ask
they ask for bread
|Carlu Marx Carlu Marx
a l’à dilu
a l’à dilu al mund inter
uverié uverié ünivi
la vitòria av suridrà
|Karl Marx, Karl Marx
he said it to the whole world,
workers, workers unite!
and victory will smile upon you
l’idea an guida
cumbate ’l prèivi e ’l capital
Let’s go, let’s go
the idea guides us
to fight the priest and capital
The lyrics interweave the miserable plight of the workers with a Marxian dialectic on capital, an explicit reference that Liberovici and Jona note as new in the repertoire.Footnote 87 They identified Miśeria, miśeria as belonging to a corpus of songs they called ‘cantate operaie’ – a phrase hard to capture adequately in translation; in one sense it means something like ‘workers’ cantatas’, but probably here means something more like ‘workers’ singalongs’. They recognized this subgenre as a Turin phenomenon: a form of song forged by the city’s working classes to give expression to their political experiences in the tumultuous early decades of the century. Melodies were borrowed from a wide range of repertoire, transposing and rearranging snippets of Neapolitan song, operetta, Risorgimento song, political anthem, folk music and even nineteenth-century opera – in some cases, that is, musical cultures far removed from the radical Left and the working classes – as a satirical or parodic accompaniment to socialist and communist content.Footnote 88 These songs formed a diverse and fragmented repertoire, but one united in its use of choral forms and in its commitment to ideals of internationalism, workers’ pride and solidarity.
We find these features in Miśeria, miśeria. The repetitive refrains suggest the possibility of an alternation of soloist and chorus, a pattern also suggested by Carando’s mode of performance and the accompanying transcription. In Liberovici and Jona’s recording, Carando delivers the verses in a free-flowing, aria-like manner, while the refrains are more fixed and chorale-like.Footnote 89 Moreover, his trained voice, with subtle vibrato and even operatic inflections, suggests that he probably belonged to a workers’ choir. The song seems geared for performance at cultural events hosted by workers’ clubs, although Carando’s claim for the song’s ubiquity in Turin suggests it was potentially heard beyond the club. Most clubs had their own choirs and often their own political anthems (normally written by workers). The potential for group singing fostered a sense of camaraderie, but also offered a means of self-expression and possibilities for political action: Miśeria, miśeria is reflexive, while also suggesting a path forward.
We have, then, two contrasting songs: one has continued to be well known up to the present, the other has enjoyed sporadic resurgence; one is in Italian, the other in dialect; one is more straightforwardly a political anthem, the other a complex assortment of genres. But they share common features: both songs contain suggestions of a route out of worker desperation, a sense of political activism; and both enshrine their political climates for posterity. Building on the anthropologist Ernesto de Martino’s notion of ‘progressive folklore’, that is, of cultural activity among the lower classes energizing them against the political elite (through strikes, occupations and so on), Liberovici and Jona viewed these songs not as mere decorations of daily life, but rather as crucial instruments of expression and action.Footnote 90
Central to the instilling of political expression and activism in those who sang and listened to these songs was the forging of a collectivity among workers, the recognition of themselves as a political force. In this sense, the shared aesthetic experience of singing and listening to La guardia rossa at the tavern table or Miśeria, miśeria in a workers’ club was a musical counterpart to the factory occupations taking place simultaneously. In February 1919, metalworkers – organized and supported by the Federazione Italiana Operai Metallurgici (FIOM) – had successfully gone on strike for an eight-hour working day. The moment of victory was also marked by the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) winning its largest ever share of the vote in the general election that year, sending the Liberal government into crisis. The electoral success suggested not only an increasingly powerful working class demanding change, but also demonstrated the ways the PSI had infiltrated worker culture. Unionism was crucial, with most workers belonging to syndicates (camere del lavoro) that were controlled by the socialists.Footnote 91
While many on the Left tried to harness the unrest of the biennio rosso and to galvanize the workers into more organized units, divisions among the newly empowered socialists thwarted progress. Indeed, the grassroots militancy of these years served only to exacerbate these divisions.Footnote 92 Since its founding in 1892, the PSI had been ambivalent about popular militancy. Under the leadership of Filippo Turati and his reformist wing, the party had originally defined itself against the Bakuninian anarchism that was a growing feature of Italian proletarian activity in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The PSI, in a way that rendered it idiosyncratic compared with many other European socialist parties at the time, had parliamentary ambitions, with an attitude of integrationism rather than antagonism towards the Liberal government.Footnote 93 The outcome was to create a schism between the party and its worker base, most of the latter supporting the more revolutionary and anarchist factions of the party. These divisions came to a head in the biennio rosso, with popular militancy not supported or co-opted by the official leadership of the PSI. The result was an inward-looking party, more preoccupied with its own fractious politics than with trying to forge international connections or combat an emergent fascist threat.
Our two songs register this hesitancy between workers and socialism, between the realities of local conflict and party politics.Footnote 94 La guardia rossa celebrates the local paramilitary groups crucial to the occupations, putting itself at odds with the official PSI line. Miśeria, miśeria, conversely, may be in dialect, but it adopts a more pedagogic and elitist tone in its musical and textual complexity: the impression is of urban socialist intellectuals adopting the patois of workers who still bore their rural origins. But both songs are ‘sound documents’, to borrow Andrea F. Bohlman’s term: aural and written traces of using music to voice dissent against the political status quo.Footnote 95 The communal listening and singing thus fostered were an affirmative sounding of collectivity, of social and political solidarity among a certain sector of the public; but they were also thoroughly local affirmations that could open up as many divisions within that sector as they sought to overcome.
This localism was also marked by Turin’s idiosyncratic socialism. Partly as a consequence of the PSI’s failure to build on the workers’ momentum, local factions began to take shape, away from the party’s Milanese headquarters. In Turin, a group emerged that clustered around the journal L’ordine nuovo, launched in May 1919 with Antonio Gramsci as its figurehead.Footnote 96 The group also responded to the particular exigencies of the Turin proletariat, centred on the Fiat plant and metalworking factories.Footnote 97 The Ordine Nuovo (as they became known) pushed for the creation of factory councils: inspired by the Soviet model, these were populated through worker elections, with the belief that they could become the building blocks of larger political structures.Footnote 98 Gramsci believed that the revolution needed to come from the workers themselves, that they needed to unite to realize their own autonomy and potential – and that factory councils afforded a means of organizing this potential. To come to this realization, the people had to be on side, not simply dictated to from above; revolution had to start from the point of production, in the factories and in other workers’ spaces. Furthermore, Gramsci argued, cultural activity was also needed to raise worker consciousness, to lift discontent on the factory floor and in the borgo into the political arena. Yet Gramsci seemingly overlooked the significance of song, which had emerged as a crucial mode of activist expression and political awareness.Footnote 99
Thus, if the PSI displayed certain idiosyncrasies in the international arena in its pursuit of compromise and political power, the Turin-based Ordine Nuovo bore an individuality in relation to the central Milanese arm of the party. The unstable nexus between party, workers, unions and locally organized councils came to a head in April 1920: half a million Turin workers went on general strike over rights to form factory councils and control of the production process. The government supported the employers, with thousands of troops deployed in the city streets. The strike was quickly quashed, in large part because the PSI failed to intervene in support of the workers. The PSI and the trade unions had by this point abandoned the factory councils, something that resulted in further hostility between the party and the Turin group. The disjuncture or antagonism between local, national and international concerns registered in song was thus mirrored in socialist politics of the time.
Continued strike action in Turin in September of that year only served to exacerbate these tensions. The outcome was a series of failed compromises: the government’s encouragement of the PSI and union leaders to negotiate a compromise horrified the industrialists, furthering their move to the Right. The PSI met in Milan during the occupations to consider pursuing revolution – a notion that was rejected. The workers’ revolutionary ideals were quashed;Footnote 100 by early 1922 the Left had been almost entirely eradicated from the political landscape, when only a few years previously it had been the central protagonist. Our songs, as they were sung a few years earlier, are yet to witness this moment of disillusionment for the Turin workers, instead being full of the possibility of revolution. They are nestled at the heart of the insurrectionary moment, an embodiment of the political culture of the Italian labour movement during the high point of the biennio rosso. In the political tensions sounded, however, they foretell what was to come, serving as nodes in a larger political flow.Footnote 101
More important still, song served as a popular urban mode of communication on the eve of the dominance of mass communication networks: the late story of ‘popular’ music before mass media. It was this sense of song as a means of political communication across spaces, creating a sense of worker solidarity and awareness of themselves as a political class, that led Liberovici and Jona to assume that the songs seemingly instilled in their singers and listeners the recipe for a socialist state. They drew a point of comparison between the ‘cantata operaia’ as a newly formal way of giving musical expression to the workers’ plight and socialism’s work to manage the proletarian uprisings of these years. However, as one listens to the way local inflections take shape in these songs, the localism of these political expressions starts to suggest a more complex picture, one in which the relationship between song, socialism and workers’ culture is more uneasy and unsettled.
The versions of La guardia rossa and Miśeria, miśeria echoing in Turin’s proletarian neighbourhoods during the biennio rosso thus encompassed a wide field of cultural reference, but gestured in specific directions: to the growing self-awareness of the labouring masses and their position in northern Italian industrial society; to issues of internal strife within the various factions of the Italian Left; to ideas of international worker solidarity via the Bolshevik Revolution and Marx. The impression that emerges from the songs and the working-class culture they formed a part of is one of linguistic variation, Russian-inspired politics and localism. Focusing on the singularity of the Turin proletariat’s musical mediation of interwar politics is not to rehearse the oft-invoked clichés of Italian exceptionalism and regionalism. Rather, every case is both typical and exceptional: an emphasis on the specifics of place is not to close off a nation or region as fixed and homogeneous. The point is instead that these songs are both self-consciously local and international, as are the places in which they were sung. Localities, after all, should always be set within larger contexts. The street sociability contained in workers’ music-making demonstrates a late, overlooked flourishing of public life in workers’ culture, but also a localized sphere of encounter that could lead to more internationalist political affinities.
This case study of music and political action, on the cusp of fascism and the dominance of mass media, complicates narratives of an inherent rapport between workers’ songs and socialism, the Left and international allegiance.Footnote 102 Indeed, the songs share affinities with proletarian protests that are at some remove from – perhaps even at odds with – the primary political organizations of the Left.Footnote 103 Examining one ‘moment’ of subaltern song allows us to anchor the sonorous flow and political fidelities of the interwar period, while simultaneously exposing the internationalist ramifications – a moment of song, limited by its sonic duration, floats into the ether but still connects with those uttered elsewhere.