Mussolini could not kill the co-ops

David Thompson looks at how the co-op movement was able to survive the fascist regime in Italy

In April 1945, during Mussolini’s final days, he was hunted from town to town until he was seized, summarily executed and hanged publicly.

He survived his capture by just 24 hours – but his two decades in power gave him a long time to hone his murderous strong-arm tactics, which he used to rid himself of his enemies.

Italy’s co-operative movement was among those to suffer his attacks: as beacons of democracy, self-help and communal economy – aligned with socialist, communist, Catholic or republican groupings – they were a strong voice with values that fascism targeted to wipe out by force.

Whether it at the hand of Blackshirt Fascisti squadristi street gang) or later, the courts, police and army, the co-ops of Italy were destroyed by the brutal regime. At rallies such as in Udine in 1921, Mussolini called for his followers to “demolish the entire social-democratic superstructure”.

Everything the co-operatives owned was seized turned over to the Fascisti government. Rome or Death: The Story of Fascism, a contemporary account from 1923 by US writer Carleton Beals, depicts physical intimidation and the systematic destruction of democracy and civil society– with scores of pages recording the violent takeover of co-ops, with many of their leaders murdered, beaten or intimidated.

Not even the Catholic co-ops were safe. One notorious case was the Blackshirt assassination in 1923 of Fr Giovanni Minzoni, a popular priest who organised co-ops in Emilia Romagna and was an early member of Catholic social action party Partito Populari Italiano (PPI).

Also targeted was Fr Luigi Sturzo, secretary general of the PPI, who saw rural co-ops as a tool to bring Christian dignity and community to the people and spoke strongly against fascism at the party’s national conference in 1923. Mussolini pressured the Vatican to remove him as head of the PPI; fearing for his life, Fr Sturzo fled Italy in 1924, seeking exile in London and later the USA.

Fr Sturzo is seen as a father of the long-governing post-war Christian Democratic Party in Italy – and the Church now has him on the path to sainthood. Just a year after Mussolini’s execution, on March 27, 1946, he signed the editorial of the first issue of Co-operative Italy, published by sector body ConfCooperative. ”My wish is that Cooperative Italy is not only the title of the weekly that reaffirms the idea and practice of co-operation between Italians, but the sign for the future of our country,” he wrote.

After the war, three national co-operative federations re-started; ConfCooperative to serve the Catholic-aligned co-ops, Legacoop to serve the socialist and communist aligned co-ops and the smaller AGCI to serve the secular and republican aligned co-ops; all three have worked to build better co-ops – and when they unite on an issue, they have a platform which obtains political support across most political parties.

To put right the eradication of co-ops during the Fascist years, the three federations came together in 1946 to reassert their practice and promise. Together, at the start of national reconstruction, they supported adoption of co-ops directly into the new constitution. “The Republic acknowledges the social function of co-operation as a form of mutual aid devoid of all private speculative intent. The law promotes and encourages the expansion of co-operation by means of the most suitable means, and provides suitable checks designed to guarantee its character and purpose.”

Piero Calamandrei, a revered professor of law, spoke about the massive impact of World War II on the formation of the Italian constitution. “If you want to go on a pilgrimage to the place where our constitution was created, go to the mountains where 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.”

In 1947, the Basevi Law was adopted to regulate the affairs of co-ops and formed an important element in the success of the movement – including housing co-operatives, as it legalised the implementation of indivisible reserves. This allowed co-operatives to transfer the totality of their surpluses to a reserve. Exempt from corporate tax, these reserves have been the main source of capital for co-ops.

The new Constitution reaffirmed that co-operatives were an economic and social form to be protected and supported by the state – a status unique to Italy, with parliament later adding more ground-breaking laws to stimulate co-op development.

  • In 1985, the the Marcora Law was passed, allowing redundant workers to use their accumulated unemployment benefits to buy their old firm as a co-op. This has seen many firms saved as co-ops, and protected numerous jobs.
  • In 1991, a law gave legal standing/tax status to a new form of social and service co-operative. These co-ops were encouraged to provide services in health, social welfare and public service. Today, they employ over 400,000 people, serve over five million clients and achieve a turnover of €9bn.
  • In 1992, a law was passed that requires every co-op in Italy to contribute 3% of net profits to a national co-op development fund. There are now two national co-operative funds: Coopfond affiliated with Legacoop, (€440m) and Fondosvillupo affiliated with ConfCooperative (€120m).

The co-operative movement that Mussolini could not kill

  • 70,000 co-ops in Italy
  • 13 million members of Italian co-ops
  • 1.3 million employees/worker owners (not including co-op insurance companies)
  • 137,000 employees/worker owners of co-operatives in 1951
  • 7% of all Italians work at/for a co-op
  • 136.5 Billion Euro’s Turnover (not including co-op banks and insurance companies)
  • 8% of Italian GDP
  • 1 out of 3 Italians buys goods or services from a co-op
  • 1 out of 5 Italians are members of a co-op
  • 1 out of 8 Italians uses a social/health co-op
  • *2017 statistics from the Alliance of the Italian Cooperatives. A combination of the statistics of AGCI, ConfCooperative and the Legacoop.

My links with Italian co-operatives

At the invitation of Walter Briganti of Unipol (an insurance company majority owned by several Legacoop-affiliated co-ops), I visited co-ops in Rome and Bologna in 1978. I have returned to Bologna and Emilia Romagna on three times, visiting co-ops, meeting leaders and speaking with Legacoop and ConfCooperative. Always at the back of my mind was the over 20-year history of Mussolini’s attack on the sector.

In September of 2018, our family went on holiday to Lake Como and, as I always do, I built a mini co-op tour into the trip; the area has numerous co-ops of consumers, workers, beekeepers, olive orchards, dairy farmers, fishermen, social services, health care and a local guides’ co-op – Cooperativa Turistica Imago. Its website,, offers several tours including one to the locations where Mussolini was captured, imprisoned and executed. These activities all took place on the northwestern shore of Lake Como.

Cooperativa Turistica Imago guides also run the End of the War museum at Dongo, a commune in the province of Como. The female guide we met that day  took time to explain all the details of Mussolini’s capture and execution. I followed her instructions about Mussolini’s trail location-by-location.

It seemed fitting that it was a co-operative which led me to Mezzegra neighborhood near Tremezzo, the spot where Mussolini was executed. Even more fitting was the fact that Cooperativa Turistica Imago was a fresh type of service co-op created under the new 1991 co-operative laws of Italy. And just a few streets away from the spot where Mussolini was executed is Cooperativa Social Azalea.

The site of Mussolini’s execution, Villa Belmonte, Giulino de Mezzegra, Lake Como

Created in 1985, it is a social co-op with 25 working members who create employment for youth with difficulties and for the disabled. What a different world these new co-operatives seek to build. Italy’s co-operators are to be commended for building a thriving, expansive movement from the ashes of fascism.

I sailed away that afternoon on the Lake Como ferry with my faith in humanity once again restored. The Italy of the present day and the peaceful future is that which spurs co-operatives to join in building a better and more fulfilling society.

I am forever grateful to the Italian co-operators who did not let Mussolini kill their spirits or their co-ops. With all their organisational infrastructure, policies, objectives, reciprocity and strategies, the Italian co-operatives are probably the best national model of co-operative development in the world.



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