Napoleone Colajanni. The Great War and the Russian Revolution



In this essay the author studies the influence of Russian revolutionary events on the democratic interventionist Napoleone Colajanni’s institutional and political activity, during and after WWI. From the analysis of his written work, published in many magazines, emerges Colajanni’s enthusiasm for the February Revolution and his condemnation of the October Revolution. He considered the latter anti-democratic and authoritarian, because of its application of Bolshevik ideology, and also that it had influenced Italian reformism to adopt maximalist positions. From this derived his efforts to conjugate socialism and democracy, even if before his death Colajanni showed some appreciation for the first steps of Fascism.

General Information

Keywords: the national ideology, intercultural communication, political activity, Colaianni, D'Annunzio

Journal rubric: Intercultural Communication and Problems of Globalization: Psycho-, Socio- and Ethnolinguistics

Article type: scientific article


For citation: Faraci E.G. Napoleone Colajanni. The Great War and the Russian Revolution [Elektronnyi resurs]. Âzyk i tekst = Language and Text, 2017. Vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 69–82. DOI: 10.17759/langt.2017040108.

Full text

At the outbreak of WWI Napoleone Colajanni, in his mature age, was an intellectual and a politician ranking among the most prestigious exponents of Italian and European democracy. From his anti-colonial positions, during the Libyan war, he had gradually moved to interventionist positions, following Mazzini’s teachings which, together with positivism and socialism, were the basis of his political and cultural training. Born in 1847 in Castrogiovanni, nowadays known as Enna, he was the protagonist, in his time, of many important historical events (among which were the banking scandals, the “Fasci siciliani” and the Italian crisis at the end of the 19th century), though it must be remembered that WWI represented an important experience for many of Colajanni’s contemporaries too [1].

Recent studies have emphasised his belonging to the current of democratic interventionism. By contrast with the revolutionary syndicalists, who supported violence as a generator of political movements, and were convinced of the necessity for war in order to impose Italy as a European power, democratic interventionists had their roots in pacifism and in the principle of nationality. For members of this current, joining the war meant not the pursuit of imperialist aims and the conquest of a position of power, but rather achievement of the goal of national unity and the fulfilment of the Slavic populations who lived within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires [2].

The principles of interventionism, however, involved a tension between their original fulfilment and the possibility of a compromise with the nationalist ideology of the ruling classes. According to a pioneering essay on the topic by Giuliana Procacci, the democratic interventionists did not have political autonomy because the liberal moderates and the government viewed them with suspicion and distrust [3]. Salandra’s policy and, in the main that of the Italian army’s chief of staff, was in favour of a traditional war, with no reference to Garibaldi’s version, aiming at the stengthening of Italy as a great power in Europe and the Adriatic, and at an internal liberal-conservative policy.

This trend was consistent with Arno J. Mayer’s pattern, who among the interventionists, distinguished between groups favouring “law enforcement” and “the forces of the movement”. According to the American historian, the first were favourable to traditional diplomacy and the downsizing of revolutionary impulses, while the second, who were liberal-radical and socialist, insisted on the democratization of international relations and a policy of internal reforms [4]. As far as Italy was concerned, by contrast with other countries, the first were unable to obtain the support of “the forces of the movement” and, in particular, of the Socialist party, which testified along pacifist lines. The only ones who participated in the political truce were the minor forces of the republican democracy, those on the radical Socialist left such as Salvemini, Bissolati and Colajanni. The orientation of the Italian government was not in line with the European order desired by the democratic interventionists.

As soon as the war began, the representatives of this group put forward their demands for a national government, with a program which had to be incorporated into this «open democracy» and a strengthening of the "truce" without the political hegemony of the «forces of order». At the same time, they requested the establishment, inspired by the French model, of parliamentary oversight committees [5]. Of course, the establishment of a leftist government in support of the war would necessitate overcoming the fractures among all the democratic forces (including the Socialists and the "giolittiani"), which otherwise would have been subordinate to the right interventionist wing belonging to Salandra and Sonnino [6].

Colajanni, from the outbreak of the conflict, supported democratic interventionism in favour of the self-determination of populations, and the affirmation of nationalities. The first debate on these issues was held in the House of Representatives on March 1, 1916. Heading the opposition to the government was the leader Leonida Bissolati, who spoke not just to represent the Socialist reformist group, but also to represent the Radicals, Democratic Constitutionals and Republicans. Until this moment, the government had not lost the necessary votes of confidence, but the failure of the Strafexpedition, in June 1916, caused the Salandra government to fall [7]. The crisis was described by Colajanni who, recognizing the gravity of the moment, did not fail to register the lack of political ductility on the part of Salandra, and his lack of respect for the various parliamentary currents [8].

There followed the formation of the Boselli government, with the presence of three reformist socialists (Leonida Bissolati, Ivanoe Bonomi and Giuseppe Canepa) and a republican (Ubaldo Comandini), who were called upon to carry out social assignments. Belonging to the new government, which was born with the cooperation of non-homogenous political forces, were Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, Minister of the Interior, who promoted a policy of reconciliation with the opposition, and Sidney Sonnino as Foreign Minister, a symbol of continuity with the original right wing project, while Bissolati was the chief supporter of the line, inspired by Wilson, of self-determination [9] . It was not easy to hold these different positions together. There were to be significant disagreements, in 1917, on domestic politics and in 1918 (with Orlando's government) on foreign policy. For the moment, the new government received Colajanni's trust, and he also welcomed the entry of a republican in the new team [10].

The Italian experience was different from what was happening in England, which saw the convergence of forces that were originally socialist with liberal-radical exponents, around a democratic foreign policy agenda that was hostile to traditional power policies [11]. During the war, many democratic interventionists harmonized these principles with the necessity to maintain order and lead a fight against the so-called «internal enemies», which were conducting unpatriotic actions. The February Revolution, in Russia, greatly influenced their policy. Through a study of Colajnni's analytical positions, it is possible to observe the construction of the "myth" of the Russian revolution. At the same time as the Bolshevik’s seizure of power in Russia, by contrast, the Sicilian deputy became more intolerant and more closed to the "forces of order" position.   

When the first news of the February Russian Revolution arrived in Italy, the interventionists began to fear that the new regime could take sides in favour of peace, but were reassured by the statements of the new Russian foreign minister, P.N. Miliukov, on the continuation of the conflict [12].  There was, therefore, an exaltation of the Russian February because, with the collapse of autocracy, the main motive used by the central empires to enter the war was missing. Colajanni, speaking in the House of Representatives, in March 1917, argued that Russia, with the recent revolution, had accomplished its 1789. He insisted on the analogy between the Russian experience and what had happened in Italy in May 1915. In both countries, a dynamic minority, which understood the popular will in favour of the war, had defeated anti-patriotic forces [13].

Meanwhile, the US participation in the conflict aroused hopes and enthusiasm, which were equal and sometimes superior to the pressure of events in Russia. Wilson's idea for a peace without winners or losers was greeted with jubilation by democratic interventionists, who saw their conception of war in favour of self-determination confirmed, opposing the nationalistic and liberal ideas of Sonnino. By now, it was believed that the US anti-German intervention had become a war in the cause of peace. In his journal, Colajanni showed his enthusiasm, stating that the war was not only the crusade of all democracies against tyranny, but also the instrument for popular liberation, recognising, in Wilson's principles, Mazzini's creed and the end of all diplomacies [14].

In early summer, the attitude of the Italian interventionists towards Russia changed. One contribution to this change came from the government crisis, which was resolved with the resignation of Miljukov, and made clear not just the Soviets’ power but also the power of the peasant masses and the growing anti-war attitude. After the halting of the Italian offensive on the Karst plateau, responsibility was vehemently attributed to Russian military defection. From the left, the interventionist press vented its disappointment, in contrast with its initial hopes. It was said that Russia’s February had ceased to exist, because of a weak and inefficient government. Colajanni wrote that Russia «was no longer a state, or a nation, or a living organism» [15].

The Sicilian deputy followed the evolving events in Russia with both enthusiasm and confidence. When, at the beginning of July, came the news about the resumption of Russian’s military operations in Galicia, his newspaper criticised its own previous positions. Then, following the German counter-offensive and the successive insurrection in Petrograd, disappoint and pessimism were expressed. Colajanni connected the Russian defeat to the revolutionary action of the Leninists. The repression of uprisings and the measures taken by Kerensky's government were no longer enough for the resumption of the military offensive. The Russian myth was to serve as a warning against those who had wanted to leave people free to express dissent against the war [16].

This issue was now on the agenda, and was made necessary by the various cases of indiscipline and insubordination by soldiers at the front, as well as the agitations against the war, especially in industrial regions. After the insurrection of Turin, in August 1917, the government initiated a repressive policy. Faced by internal and international facts (in Russia, the failed coup by General Kornilov), some sectors of the ruling class began to push for a new government able to introduce a moderate policy, without resorting to the strongest form of interventionism. The first negotiations were beginning in this direction when, on October 24, 1917 the news about the defeat of Caporetto arrived in the capital [17].

Once the Russian front had collapsed, the Austrian and the Germans had been able to overwhelm the Second Italian Army. To this defeat contributed the deep despair and fatigue of the troops, an issue that united all the belligerent countries. Although in the following weeks Cadorna's responsibilities emerged, the anti-socialist campaign started again with violence. The whole interventionist class, including Colajanni, called for a strong government, for the control and repression of «internal enemies», especially after hearing the news from the October Revolution [18]. The new regime, according to the republican deputy, had strengthened German militarism without keeping its promises of liberation of the Russian population and safeguarding the national identities of Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine [19].

After the Caporetto disaster, and following Boselli's resignation, the Orlando government was established, which enjoyed widespread support in parliament. Once the most dramatic moment for the military and political destiny was past, the uncompromising line began to find consensus in liberal and democratic sectors. To contrast the affirmation of neutralistic positions, on December 9th 1917 a new parliamentary group was formed, made up of interventionists of various backgrounds: conservatives, nationalists and democrats. Thus was born the "Fascio parlamentare di difesa nazionale" (158 members in the House and 98 in the Senate), with the goal of controlling the fortunes and orientation of the government [20].

Colajanni joined this new parliamentary group. This decision, in harmony with his support for a policy of national recovery, marked a definitive change in his attitude toward the left, which had been accused of wanting to disperse the sacrifice of combatants and the huge efforts needed to achieve victory. A stimulus in this direction was represented above all by his conviction of the need to strengthen the bond between men and parties willing to fight against the Russian Revolution, and the spread of Bolshevik ideas among the workers. The Russian experiment and the tenacious will of the socialists to introduce Communism in Italy became targets for the Sicilian deputy, who in the last years of his life fought to avert the threat of a communist revolution [21].

Colajanni, despite his membership of the "Fascio parlamentare", did not waver from his Mazzinian ideals on European order and the Adriatic question. He was not convinced by excessive claims over the Adriatic coast, which would have fueled Slav irredentism within Italy and nationalism in Italy and in the East. With a sense of realism, the Sicilian deputy supported Fiume's Italian nationalism and approved the compromise established by the Rapallo treaty which, for nationalists and fascists was the basis of the myth of the "mutilated victory". His criticism of Mussolini's and D’Annunzio’s irredentist aims were not enough to move him away from fascism, which he respected as a tool to pacify the country [22].

The vicissitudes of Russia, which Colajanni looked at through the "filter" of anti-Bolshevism, contributed to this maturation in his beliefs, which were not always linear and definitive. In some writings from this period, in commentaries on the theories and the commitment of the Bolsheviks, began his relentless struggle against the socialists and Italian republicans attracted by Leninism [23]. Despite the fact that he lacked direct knowledge of the Russian situation, Colajanni tried to collect news and information necessary to support his project, revealing the bad intentions of the Communists’ supporters. The main goal was to compel the socialists to break with the Bolshevik regime, which was moving in a completely opposite direction from their principles.

According to Colajanni, the Bolshevik Revolution had corrupted origins, because unlike the French Revolution, it had been born from a group of men without the support of the whole population. In this regard, he reconstructed the events of the Constituent Assembly, which could be construed as a coup by the communists, considering the backwardness of the Russian people. On the economic side, he noted the resounding failure constituted by the growth of public debt and inflation, which had led to the practice of barter and the worsening of working conditions. Unlike other European Countries, Russia had not experienced rural exodus and a process of urbanization, while the rising mortality rate exceeded the birth rate. Misery and hunger gripped Russia, and this was not attributable to the embargo that the capitalist countries had introduced, but to mistaken policy choices [24].

Colajanni analysed the organization of power introduced by the Bolshevik government, which was focusing on the war in order to provoke revolutionary feelings in other nations. The Bolshevik government was a military regime, worse than that of Prussia. The regime had strengthened the bureaucracy, which involved the growth of scandals, arbitrariness and corruption. From the early measures taken, it could be inferred that the Bolshevik Revolution had nothing positive to recommend it. In the agricultural field, the regime had abolished the “mir” (the collective properties, distributed regularly to the families of the village) and divided the land into small lots to give to peasants. The Sicilian deputy, with these considerations, tried to show that the Bolshevik project had no original characteristics, but was instead a caricature of capitalism and Caesarism, which did not fit within notions of liberal democracy [25]. 

Colajanni, who had realised a close link between democracy and socialism during his political formation, now totally accepted the path of socialism and evolutionism, which were both also supported by sections of Marxist culture. His referent was Karl Kautsky, who believed that the proletariat dictatorship was an intermediate state between capitalism and socialism and not a dictatorial government based on a single party. Colajanni, accepting the criticism of the German socialist, condemned the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the abolition of universal suffrage in Russia [26].

Kautsky and Colajanni, having the same vision of Russian history, approved the February Revolution, but thought that the Bolshevik one had been a mere coup, a sort of exception to the laws of the evolution of societies. Colajanni believed, in fact, that communism could be realized in a mature capitalist regime, and not in a backward country like Russia. Therefore, bolshevism seemed to him a terrible economic decline and a threat to democracy that would lead to barbarism. Colajanni stated that capitalism was responsible for many sins and manifestations of selfishness, but it would be unforgivable «to deny its benefits, especially in the field of production, whose extraordinary increase had contributed to human progress and the elevation of the proletariat» [27].

In his commitment to the defence of democracy during WWI, Colajanni distinguished himself in the fight against the socialists and against Bolshevik fellow republicans, taking up the same themes against internal enemies. As far as the socialists were concerned, he urged Filippo Turati, who followed the reformist line, not to give in to the dominance of the maximalists and their Bolshevik line [28]. He then turned to the socialist leadership which, with its influence on the masses, could play an effective propaganda role «to reveal the whole truth about Russia’s Bolshevik conditions» [29]. Within the republican Party, he looked with sympathy towards Fascism. Starting from 1920, the government began to demystify Mussolini’s filo-Republican trend and forge a revolutionary party close to the socialist positions. Colajanni, at this point, dissociated himself from this policy line, fearing that it could benefit bolshevism [30].

      Colajanni, through these means, aimed to defend the ideals of political and social democracy, while bitterly criticizing the Italian Bolsheviks and underlining his esteem for reformist socialism. The move from opposition to a defence of the Italian governments, in the last decade of his life, was apparently contradictory, since the Sicilian deputy considered bourgeois and capitalist order a cornerstone of civilization against despotism and Bolshevik dictatorshi.


  1. Cfr. M.S. Ganci (a cura di), Democrazia e socialismo in Italia. Carteggi di Napoleone Colajanni: 1878-1898, Milano 1959; M. Colonna, Politica ed economia in Napoleone Colajanni, Catania 1983; N. Colajanni, Scritti politici, introduzione a cura di S. Fedele, Messina 1989
  2. J.Y. Frètigné, Biographie intellectuelle d’un protagoniste de l’Italie libérale: N. C. (1847-1921): essai sur la culture politique d’un sociologue et député sicilien à l’âge du positivisme (1860-1903), Roma 2002.
  3. Cfr. E.G. Faraci, Napoleone Colajanni e la Prima guerra mondiale. Dall’anticolonialismo all’interventismo, in «Storia e Politica», VIII, 2016, 3, pp. 567-607; J.Y. Frètigné, Dall’ottimismo al pessimismo: itinerario politico e intellettuale di Napoleone Colajanni dalla svolta liberale al fascismo, Roma 2006, pp. 135 ss.; G. Sabbatucci, Il problema dell’irredentismo e le origini del movimento nazionalista in Italia, in «Storia contemporanea», 1970, pp. 467-502.
  4. G. Procacci, Gli interventisti di sinistra, la rivoluzione di febbraio e la politica italiana nel 1917, in «Italia contemporanea», 1980, gennaio-marzo, n. 138, 49-83.
  5. A.J. Mayer, Political Origins of New Diplomacy, New Haven 1959; R. Vivarelli, Storia delle origini del fascismo. L’Italia dalla Grande Guerra alla marcia su Roma, vol. I, Bologna 1991.
  6. Cfr. F. Bock, Un Parlamentarisme de guerre 1914-1919, Paris 2002; Id., Parlamenti, potere civile e potere militare: Germania, Francia, Italia e Regno Unito, in S. Audoin-Rouzeau, J.J. Becker (a cura di), La Prima guerra mondiale, Torino 2007, pp. 190 ss.
  7. V. De Caprariis, Momenti di storia italiana del ‘900, a cura di T. Amato e M. Griffo, Messina 1986, p. 126.
  8. D. Veneruso, La Grande guerra e l’Unità nazionale, Torino 1996.
  9. N. Colajanni, La crisi, in RP, 15 giugno 1916.
  10. P. Melograni, Storia politica della Grande Guerra, Bari 1971.  
  11. N. Colajanni, Il nuovo Ministero. I repubblicani al governo: da Barzilai a Comandini, in RP, 30 giugno 1916.
  12. A.J. Mayer, Political Origins of New Diplomacy, cit., pp. 44-58; J. Joll, Le origini della Prima guerra mondiale, Roma-Bari 1985, pp. 5 ss.
  13. G. Petracchi, Diplomazia di guerra e rivoluzione. Italia e Russia dall’ottobre 1916 al maggio 1917, Bologna 1974, pp. 54 ss..
  14. Camera dei deputati, Discussioni, 16 marzo 1916, pp. 13064-65.
  15. N. Colajanni, La civiltà contro la barbarie, in RP, 15 aprile 1917.
  16. Id., Il grande insegnamento che viene dalla Russia, in MES, 17 giugno 1917.
  17. Id., Dal disfattismo russo al socialismo italiano, in MES, 5 agosto 1917.
  18. G. Procacci, Gli interventisti di sinistra, la rivoluzione di febbraio, cit., pp. 67 ss.
  19. N. Colajanni, I socialisti e la concordia nazionale, in RP, 30 novembre 1917.
  20. Id., Il grande tradimento russo, in RP, 15 dicembre 1917.
  21. E. Gentile, 1988, Il fascio parlamentare di difesa nazionale, in Il Parlamento italiano 1861-1988, vol. IX, Milano 1988, pp. 114-116.
  22. J.Y. Frètigné, Dall’ottimismo al pessimismo, cit., pp. 200 ss.
  23. E.G. Faraci, Napoleone Colajanni e la Prima guerra mondiale, cit. 606-607.
  24. N. Colajanni, La Russia tra la tirannide leninista e la tirannide tedesca, in GDS, 3/4 agosto 1918; id., Il pericolo russo, in GDS, 6/7 febbraio 1919; id., Il primo fallimento del bolscevismo, in GDS, 19/20 agosto 1919; id., Le delizie del regime bolscevico, in RP, 31 ottobre 1919; id., Ciò che la Russia potrebbe dare all’Italia!, in GDS, 13/14 novembre 1919; id., Il fallimento del regime comunista, in RP, 31 ottobre 1920; id., Come si fanno le elezioni in Russia, in GDS, 16/17 aprile 1921.
  25. N. Colajanni, Nella Russia del bolscevismo. Il fallimento di una rivoluzione, in NA, 16 aprile 1922, pp. 161 ss.
  26. Id., La Rivoluzione russa. Appunti e giudizi, in NA, 16 aprile 1922, pp. 66 ss.
  27. Id., Nella Russia del bolscevismo, cit., p. 165.
  28. Id., La Rivoluzione russa. Appunti e giudizi, cit., p. 71.
  29. Id., Il Partito socialista. La sua potenza, articolo manoscritto inedito redatto nel gennaio 1921 e destinato al «Giornale d’Italia». Si conserva presso la Biblioteca comunale di Enna (Scaff. 46, palc. 2, n. 91).
  30. Ibidem.
  31. Id., Repubblicani, bolscevizzati e fascisti, in RP, 15 aprile 1921. Cfr. anche S. Fedele, I repubblicani di fronte al fascismo (1919-1926), Firenze 1983.

Information About the Authors

Elena G. Faraci, PhD, Researcher at the Department of Political Science and Social Sciences, Università degli Studi di Catania, Catania, Italy, e-mail:



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