ITALY TODAY is in a state of political degeneration and social fragmentation. Media billionaire Silvio Berlusconi swept back into power in the April 2008 general election at the head of a renamed right-wing coalition, the People of Liberty (PdL), that once again linked his own populist Forza Italia party to Alleanza Nazionale, led by former fascists. Forza Italia and Alleanza Nazionale have recently united to form a single party that dominates the current political scene. And Berlusconi can usually rely on the support of the openly racist Northern League, which doubled its share of the vote in 2008 from 4.5 percent to 9 percent.
What once counted as the “opposition,” the center-left Democratic Party (PD), can barely be said to exist: a recent national convention was mainly characterized by hesitation and confusion, and the PD did poorly in June 2009 elections for the European Union (EU) Parliament and for local and regional administrations. About all the “opposition” currently has going for it are the scandals surrounding the prime minister’s sleazy private life. Meanwhile the Berlusconi government is busy scapegoating immigrants, aligning itself with the most reactionary elements in the Vatican, cutting funds for housing and education, passing a law that places new legal limitations on the rights of workers to strike, and granting immunity to Berlusconi himself and his cronies when they are convicted of corruption.1
The difference between Italian politics today and the scene forty years ago could not be greater. In the course of 1969, millions of workers went on strike—primarily in the industrialized north of Italy but eventually in other areas, including the severely underdeveloped south.2 And the political character of many of these strikes was radical. New forms of working-class struggle emerged and were not only supported by, but in some cases integrally linked to, a militant student movement. In Turin that summer, workers at the giant Fiat Mirafiori plant, with the significant involvement of revolutionary Marxist organizations, formed a student-worker assembly that held meetings in a lecture hall at the University of Turin. On July 3, 1969, Fiat workers and their student allies defiantly intervened in a one-day national strike under the slogan “Che cosa vogliamo? Tutto!” (“What do we want? Everything!”). There were, not surprisingly, major battles with the police—in which the Turin protesters more than held their own.3
What happened to the revolutionary political energy and potential released in those heady days of 1969? Why did the international explosion of radicalism traditionally associated with 1968 last so much longer in Italy than in other European countries and in the United States—and have such far-reaching consequences at all levels of Italian society? The current anniversary of Italy’s “Autunno Caldo” (“Hot Autumn”) offers an important opportunity for exploring these and a range of related questions. The contradictory context of this anniversary is itself significant: the Italian left may be devastated at the moment by the onslaught of Berlusconi’s corrupt right-wing populism, but the effects of the most serious economic crisis since the 1930s will inevitably provoke anger and resistance from many ordinary working people—including some of those either taken in by or resigned to Berlusconi’s oligarchic opportunism. Activists in Italy—and not only in Italy—may be increasingly ready to rethink the lessons of the entire period leading up to and following the struggles of 1969.
Background: Historical points of reference
To understand the major developments in what historians such as John Foot have characterized as “Italy’s ‘long May’”—“quite easily the most radical, interesting, and, in the end, violent of all the world’s ‘1968s’”4—it is helpful to be familiar with some of the distinctive features of twentieth-century Italian history.
Among European countries, modern Italy has long been a dramatic and distinctive case of what Leon Trotsky called “combined and uneven development.”5 During the decades of the nineteenth century when it was finally becoming a single nation, Italy was in many respects a backward country. Industrialization finally came to Italy in the 1890s, almost a century later than in England, Germany, and the United States, but it came in ways that accentuated Italian uneven development. When Antonio Gramsci came to study on a scholarship at the University of Turin in 1911, he found an industrial society profoundly different from the rural traditionalism of his native Sardinia and from the southern two-thirds of the Italian peninsula.6
Industrial development in the north of Italy stood in shocking contrast to a predominantly rural south where many agricultural workers subsisted as peasants or sharecroppers under pre-capitalist forms of socioeconomic relations. The “southern question,” as Gramsci called it, was a major factor in Italian political life—long before the 1950s, when large numbers of workers from the backward south began to move north to take industrial jobs in Turin, Milan, and Genoa.7
In the industrialized north, intense class conflict and organized working-class resistance emerged on a mass scale less than a decade after the founding of such capitalist empires as Fiat (automobiles) and Pirelli (tires and other rubber products). Soon after his arrival in Turin, Gramsci became an activist in the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), founded in 1892 and by 1914 a mass party in control of city governments in Milan, Bologna, and elsewhere across the north. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, together with sharply divided reactions to Italian participation in First World War and building anger against exploitation in Italian industry, produced an explosion of organized class struggle in 1919–1920 that came to be known as the bienne rosso (“two red years”). When reformists in the PSI leadership allowed striking workers in Turin to be isolated and defeated in April 1920, Gramsci and his revolutionary comrades founded a weekly newspaper, L’Ordine Nuovo(“The New Order”), that was above all focused on relating to the “factory council” movement that sprung up spontaneously in one workplace after another.
But a majority in the PSI, including most of its 156 members elected to Parliament in 1919 and the trade union leadership, remained cautiously reformist. So in 1921, responding to Lenin’s call for revolutionary Marxists around the world to organize parties of their own separate from the reformists, Gramsci, Palmiro Togliatti, Amadeo Bordiga, and their comrades formed the Italian Communist Party (PCI).8 This was a critically important development—but unfortunately it came too late to determine the direction of Italian politics. Although the new PCI recruited some 43,000 members by the end of 1921, Mussolini and the Partito Nazionale fascista (PNF) were already using organized street violence to enforce their ideology of extremist nationalism and racism. The impasse of the workers’ movement—left in the lurch by a PSI leadership whose verbal radicalism covered a passive reformism—opened the door to the fascists. The failure of the bienne rosso demoralized the working class, and the nearness of workers’ power frightened the ruling class. The fascists marched on Rome in October 1922, and Mussolini was invited by King Victor Emmanuel III to form a new government. By 1923 the fascists could claim a membership of 800,000. Communists and other leftists were attacked, killed, and driven into exile. The entire Italian left was devastated for twenty years. By the end of the 1930s, 2.6 million Italian citizens had become fascist party members.9
This crucial historical sequence—the eruption of revolutionary struggle from below in 1919–1920, the split in the PSI and the formation of the PCI, the brutal triumph of Fascism leading to Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany in Second World War—would have enormous and multi-faceted consequences for later Italian politics. These consequences were extremely important in the late 60s and 70s, and they still figure in Italian political culture today.
The final phase of Second World War in Italy, from late 1943 through the end of the War in 1945, was in fact a civil war, fought between fascists and anti-fascist “partisans” as the Italian peninsula was invaded first by Hitler’s army, then by American-led Allied forces. Politically, one of the key developments within the anti-fascist “partisan” struggle was the role played by Italian communists, who after twenty years were able either to return to Italy from abroad or, for those who managed to survive undercover in Mussolini’s Italy, to engage in open political activity.
When the Italian state re-established itself in the immediate post-War period, first by the election of a constituent assembly and a referendum in June 1946 to decide whether the country was to be a monarchy or a republic (the vote for a republic won, 54 percent to 46 percent), then by a vote in 1948 to approve the constitution of the First Republic, the Italian Communist Party played an influential role. By this time, following Gramsci’s death in a fascist prison in 1937 and under Togliatti’s leadership (Togliatti was based in Moscow from 1934–1944 and played a key role in Stalin’s Comintern), the PCI had become thoroughly Stalinized. The leadership pursued a strategy of deliberate doppiezza (duplicity): while allowing the rank-and-file to believe that the party was still committed to “socialist revolution,” Togliatti emphasized moderate reform, accepted the continuation of the monarchy, and in April 1944 became vice president of a government headed by Pietro Badoglio, who had been appointed Marshal of Italy by Mussolini in 1926 and had led the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. The PCI continued to be part of immediate postwar governments and was importantly involved in the adoption of the 1948 constitution. By the late 1940s the PCI had become the biggest communist party in Europe: in 1948 it had a formal membership of 2.3 million, and from 1945 onward its members ran the city governments of Bologna and many other central Italian cities. In the elections of 1946 the PCI won 4.3 million votes.10
But PCI participation in the national government was already threatened, in large part because of U.S. influence. Determined to counter the influence of the Soviet Union and of “communism” wherever it could following the war, the United States conducted covert operations to discredit the PCI, then pressured Italian politicians to exclude the communists when a new government was formed following the 1948 general election. This election was a disaster for the PCI and a triumph for the new center-right party that would control the Italian state for the next forty-five years, the Christian Democrats (DC). As John Foot puts it, “The PCI became the permanent and ‘untouchable’ political opposition” in a system “in which the opposition was not ‘permitted’ to govern, in a world dominated by the Cold War.”11 The Christian Democrats—sometimes in coalition with the far right, sometimes in coalition with the reformist left—exploited their ties to the Catholic Church, their mastery of an intricate web of corruption and favoritism, their steady support from big Italian capitalists, and their willingness to do the bidding of the U.S. military and secret services to dominate Italian party politics through the end of the 1970s.
Though Italy’s “Hot Autumn” came more than a year after the great international upsurge of political radicalism in 1968, it is essential to look at Italian events during the more famous year and trace the emergence of political forces that would come to a full boil in 1969. It is also essential to see Italy’s 1968 within the context of even broader economic and political developments. There was, first of all, the postwar “economic miracle” of the 1950s and early 1960s, a period of high economic growth around the world that brought Italy much more fully into the world of capitalist production and consumerism. This was also the first great period of internal Italian migration: during one ten-year phase of the “economic miracle” some 10 million Italians moved from one region to another, many of them from the south to cities in central and northern Italy. These basic economic and social changes led to major transformations in Italian culture: print and electronic media, advertising, education, habits, and styles of daily life were all profoundly affected.12
The 1960s in Italy began on a tide of rising expectations and of widespread dissatisfaction with outmoded social forms and cultural assumptions. In this environment the Christian Democrats found themselves no longer able to govern from the traditional right: beginning with the new government formed in the summer of 1963 and continuing for almost ten years, they became the strongest party within a series of center-left coalition governments that included the socialists and other smaller parties such as the radicals and the democratic socialists. Expectations of and disillusionment with these center-left governments—all of which continued to comply with U.S. political and military objectives during the period of the Vietnam War—contributed critically to the rise of militant activism in Italy that would consolidate itself and flourish in 1968 and especially 1969.
The center-left coalition governments of 1963–1972 were themselves, in part, a response to mass protests against the right. The Christian Democrats formed a government in the spring of 1960 with the support of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) and the monarchist party. When the MSI attempted to hold its annual convention that July in Genoa, protests broke out with such intensity that the police had to insist that the MSI convention be postponed.13
There were related protests against the Christian Democrat-fascist alliance in Reggio Emilia and in Sicily, provoking brutal police violence and producing such outrage across the country that the government was forced to resign. A bit further into the decade, in 1962 and 1963, the number of strikes spiked dramatically, and for the first time recently arrived workers from the south joined forces with northern workers in significant numbers.
Militant student activism was already emerging in Italy at the beginning of the 1960s. Its “material bases,” as Ginsborg shows, “are to be found in the education reforms of the 1960s.”14 Public school enrollment doubled between 1959 and 1969, mainly because compulsory secondary school education was introduced in 1962. But conditions in the schools were terrible: too few classrooms, a shortage of textbooks, inadequately trained teachers, old-fashioned curricula. By the late 60s many more students were going on to university. Students from technical schools were allowed to attend university for the first time in 1961, and after 1965 an entrance exam was no longer required for university admission. So by 1968 some 450,000 students were in the universities, compared to 268,000 in 1960. Conditions for most of these students were abominable. Nothing had been done to provide adequate faculty, library, or classroom resources for them. University campuses built to accommodate 5,000 students were, by 1968, jammed with 30,000 (Bari), 50,000 (Naples), and 60,000 (Rome). A substantial number of the new university students were working-class—and except for a few scholarships awarded to students of outstanding academic achievement, there was no government financial aid. “The decision to allow open access to such a grossly inadequate university system,” Ginsborg concludes, “amounted simply to planting a time bomb in it.” The government promised additional reforms, but few of them were effectively carried out.
Serious student protests first erupted in 1967—interestingly, in private Catholic universities in Trento and Milan—and then spread to the big public universities. In November 1967 students occupied the Faculty of Letters building at the University of Turin.15 Soon universities in southern Italy were involved, as were secondary schools. In February 1968 the movement reached a critical moment with the occupation of the University of Rome. Roman students, like those all over Italy, were demanding rejection of the so-called “bill for university reform” (“Gui bill”) being discussed in parliament, which reintroduced limits on university admission and imposed mindless restrictions on diploma and degree programs. Students were also defying a government ban on demonstrations.16 In March, when the police aggressively forced students to leave buildings on the main campus, leaders of the movement decided to “recapture” the Faculty of Architecture building located within the Villa Borghese, a vast park in the north-central part of Rome. This time, when the police mounted a charge with teargas and truncheons, the student protesters fought back fiercely, sending forty-six policemen to the hospital. The “Battle of Valle Giulia,” as it came to be called, was a major event, as Alessandro Portelli shows in The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue. It came to be seen, says historian Jonathan Dunnage, “as a kind of collective initiation in conflict with the state.”17 And despite many injuries inflicted on the student protesters—and nothing but denunciation from the PCI leadership, we can add—they had won the battle: the police had been forced to allow the occupation to continue.18
Student and worker militancy in Italy was sharply energized by events in France in May of 1968, when hundreds of thousands of students occupied universities in Paris and other cities. Although the full momentum of the Italian student protests was not sustained through the summer and into the latter months of 1968, they transformed the political awareness and confidence of an entire generation of young Italians. Only a minority of student protesters were working-class, but most middle-class students were also facing restrictions and hardships and understood very clearly that authoritarianism and corruption in the university system reflected a fundamentally exploitative social order. So when organized struggle among Italian workers began to intensify following the election of yet another center-left government in May 1968, student activists were eager to get involved.
Even before the May election, organized worker resistance was building. In March the unions called a national strike in support of higher pensions—and were themselves surprised at the response: 300,000 metalworkers turned out in Milan and were joined by a large group of white-collar workers. On April 19 in the Marzotto textile factory at Valdagno in the hills outside Venice some 4,000 workers, many of them women, marched through the town and demanded that the Christian Democratic town council pressure the company to improve conditions for their employees.19 Ginsborg summarizes the conditions provoking this radical activism as “the rigidity of the northern labour market, the alienation of the unskilled and semi-skilled workers, the anger of the southern immigrants.”20 (In Italy, someone who moved from the south to the north of their own country was an “immigrant”!) Confidence and determination within the working class continued to build across the country through the summer and fall—as did willingness on the part of the capitalist ruling class to crack down. In December 1968 police killed two striking workers in Avola, Sicily. Several days later two more strikers were killed by police at Battipaglia, near Naples.21 Violent class conflict had come to all parts of the peninsula.
Two additional points need to be made about developments in 1968. The working-class struggle that emerged during this year was in important respects outside and independent of the programs of the three main trade union confederations: the CGIL (led by the PCI), the CISL (Catholic), and the UIL (right Social Democratic). As Chris Harman says, Italy was on the verge of “an explosion which the unions could not control.”22 Committed as their leaders were to cooperating with the more advanced and “progressive” sections of Italian capitalism, the unions were largely unsuccessful in directing the energy and initiative of the new militants. In addition, the PCI, the largest communist party in Europe, was dismissed by many worker and student militants “as an ‘integrated opposition,’ incapable of fighting the system.”23 The PCI won 26.9 percent of the national vote in the May 1968 election, with a gain more than double that of the Christian Democrats with their 39.1 percent—but its reformist political stance, entrenched leadership structure, and close relationship to the union bureaucracy gave the PCI little credibility with many of the newly radicalized workers and students. Members of the PCI youth organization “were often treated with derision in student assemblies.”24 1968 ended with a growing political ferment from below that was largely independent and usually mistrustful of the established organizations of the Italian left.
Both these points are illustrated in the struggle at the Pirelli Bicocca plant in Milan in June 1968. The revolutionary Marxist group Avanguardia Operaia (Workers Vanguard) played a key role in shaping the course of events at Pirelli. Avowedly Leninist in orientation, with former orthodox Trotskyists and radicals from the Milan student movement among its leaders, Avanguardia Operaia strongly supported the initiative by both blue- and white-collar workers in forming a Comitato Unitario di Base (CUB, “unitary base committee”) to extend and intensify a fight within the rubber industry that had been going on since late 1967.25 Avanguardia Operaia saw the CUB as a revolutionary alternative to the factory committees organized through the reformist trade unions. Despite their confusing support for Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China, which was represented as a mass revolt from below against entrenched privilege, Avanguardia Operia was successful in drawing many worker and student militants towards a revolutionary Marxist alternative.
Following developments at Pirelli Bicocca, “base committees” began to form at other factories in Milan, then in Turin and other cities, often in open defiance of the unions and the PCI. These CUBs included many unskilled and semi-skilled workers (operai comuni), and they began to demand that such workers be promoted automatically to higher designations after a specified period of time on the job. They also demanded wage parity for workers at the same skill level north and south. As this kind of solidarity between northern and southern workers grew more sustained, trade union leaders began to adopt wage parity as a demand of their own. Workers across Italy argued for wage increases based on their actual needs and the cost of living, not on company profits.
The emergence of CUB in the struggle at Pirelli and elsewhere in Lombardy was a clear sign of rising sign working-class militancy, initiative, and confidence. Out of the CUB came new strategies of organization and action. Mass assemblies, in which individual workers were encouraged to participate, became the main forums for planning and making decisions. Wildcat strikes, “hiccup strikes” (a work force would alternate periods of work with periods on strike), “chess-board strikes” (different parts of the workforce would strike briefly, at different times)—these and other tactics grew out of a new culture of struggle from below in which ordinary workers took initiative and set the terms on which they put pressure on their bosses.26 At the same time, however, in the absence of a national working-class party that could provide a comprehensive long-term perspective and leadership, the CUB model was often counterposed to efforts by workers still loyal to the unions who were forming their own factory councils with elected delegates. Spontaneous worker militancy was important, but in the months and years ahead it would not in itself be enough to mount a decisive challenge to Italian capitalism and to those in the PCI and the union bureaucracy bent on reforming rather than transforming the system.27
1969: The struggle intensifies
The number of Italian workers on strike increased from 3.2 million in 1968 to some 5.5 million in 1969. As a point of comparison, some 10 million workers had gone on strike during the third week of May 1968 in France, a more extensively industrialized country with a higher percentage of unionized workers. But in Italy, worker militancy lasted much longer: in 1969 alone more than 520 million worker-hours went to strikes. On November 19, 20 million Italians turned out in solidarity for a nationwide general strike.28 More important than these numbers themselves, impressive though they are, were continuing developments in political organization and strategy inside the workers’ movement. The rise in worker militancy the previous year was beginning to show concrete results: there were modest but substantial gains around the issue of pensions (in February the government passed a new law guaranteeing 74 percent of the average of the last several years’ salaries to everyone who had worked for forty years) and wages (in March state-owned industries, then smaller businesses, and finally large corporations agreed to level out regional wage differences). When national contracts in two of the big metal and mechanical workers’ unions came up for renewal in 1969, some 300,000 workers debated the terms in 2,300 assemblies all across Italy. As for the strikes themselves, most were initiated by the unions, as in 1968. But as Joanne Barkan observes, in 1969 the “actions of the rank-and-file quickly outstripped the unions’ tactics. The workers prolonged strikes beyond the time periods set by the unions, and they broadened the demands…. In some case, the workers initiated strikes without the unions’ input.”29
This was essentially the case in the great battle that erupted in May 1969 at Fiat Mirafiori in Turin. The struggle at Fiat was, in the words of Sidney Tarrow, “the ‘point of arrival’ of a movement” that had begun the previous year.30 The stakes were high: Turin was “the heart of Italian capitalism,” and Fiat Mirafiori, with a workforce of 50,000, had a distinctive kind of national visibility. The unions were unusually weak at Fiat, and the radical left had been watching carefully during the winter and spring as contract negotiations among skilled unionized sectors of the workforce dragged on. Sixty percent of Fiat’s workforce was from the south, and when police killed protesting workers in Sicily in December 1968, the unions called a successful half-hour work stoppage. There was a strong turnout from Fiat workers for two national strikes in early 1969—one over pensions, the other over regional wage differentials that kept pay levels in the south below the national average.
In April 1969, when police again killed several southern demonstrators, skilled workers in Fiat’s Auxiliary departments began to take action around piecework rates. They organized a series of “internal marches” through the factory that disrupted production line routines and began to create solidarity among different groups of workers. Gradually more and more unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the assembly and paint shops took part; by late May these workers were calling for substantial across-the-board wage increases and blocking production in their divisions. “Conflict leapt from shop to shop,” says Tarrow, “following the route of the internal marches.”31
It was at this point, when unskilled assembly line workers were already rejecting the unions’ more cautious approach, that revolutionary militants began to intervene in the struggle at Fiat Mirafiori. For several months small groups of students from the University of Turin had been handing out leaflets at the factory gates and talking to workers going off shift. In May, members of a Marxist group called Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power) that had been active in the late 1960s in the industrial area near Venice arrived in Turin, along with student militants from Rome, Milan, and Turin itself who had joined Potere Operaio and were contributing to a new journal called La Classe (The Class). Also part of this formation were Marxist intellectuals from Turin who had contributed earlier in the decade to the journal Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks).32
The dominant political perspective among these activists wasoperaismo (“workerism”), an approach that placed exclusive emphasis on workers’ struggle at the point of production and on what was called “class composition,” “the relationship between the material structure of the working class and its behavior as a subject autonomous from the dictates of both the labor movement and capital.”33 The most influential theorists of operaismo were Mario Tronti and Antonio Negri (the latter a professor at the University of Padua). Fiat workers were at first skeptical of the intellectuals and students in Potere Operaio. But as one young worker from the south, Alfonso Natella, is quoted as saying: “What the fuck, I’ve got nothing to lose, I’ll go and see what these turds have to say.” The workerist focus on higher wages and slower work rhythms seems to have made sense. Natella went on to say: “At times we had failed to understand each other or agree because each of us was used to speaking in a particular way… Finally, however, in deeds, in the fact that we had made the struggle, we could all speak in the same way. We discovered that we all had the same needs, the same necessities, and that is was these that made us all equal in struggle.”34
What was eventually to become the largest revolutionary organization intervening in the Fiat struggle did not even exist prior to the summer of 1969. Adriano Sofri, a leader from the Tuscany group of Potere Operaio based in Pisa, arrived in Turin with a group of comrades and began to attract his own following among student militants. Their meetings at a bar outside the Mirafiori plant came to be called “worker-student assemblies,” and they adopted the slogan “la lotta continua” (“the struggle continues”), echoing a rallying cry from the May 1968 uprising in France (“la lutte continue”). When the meetings got too big for the bar, they moved to a hall at a nearby hospital.35 Soon the group began producing a weekly paper called Lotta Continua. Sofri’s charismatic leadership was pivotal. Following the events of 1968 he had broken with the Leninist current in Potere Operaio and opposed efforts to establish a national revolutionary organization with an elected leadership, arguing instead for a more diversified orientation towards “the revolutionary needs of the oppressed masses.”36 As Tarrow puts it, the appeal of Lotta Continua “was less economistic and more subjective” than that of Potere Operaio: “Alongside wages, the group aimed at other production-line issues, and—outside the factory—at the problems of immigrants, housing, and other groups, which it linked more or less generically to the proletariat.”37 Sofri argued, under the slogan of “socializing the class struggle,” that Lotta Continua should make its presence felt not only in the factory but in working-class neighborhoods and among immigrants and other oppressed groups in Italian society.
Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio would compete for influence at Fiat throughout the summer and into the fall of 1969. An indication that Lotta Continua’s broader approach was yielding results came on July 3, when a demonstration of several thousand workers from factories in Turin including Fiat set out from the gates at Mirafiori to protest high rents and housing conditions. The official union slogan for this general strike was “stop the rent increases,” but workers on the march came up with their own famous chant (quoted earlier): “What do we want? Everything!” When both the local and the national state police tried to break up the demonstration, the workers threw up barricades along a major roadway and fought the police into the night in what would come to be called the “Battle of Corso Traiano.” In the days and weeks following this event, mass meetings were held at Fiat and other Turin workplaces. Fiat responded late in the summer by suspending 7,000 workers—but even this did not stop the momentum. On September 25 an estimated 50,000 engineering workers took part in a national demonstration.38 Over the remaining months of 1969 more than 1.5 million workers struck in various cities over a range of issues. The one-day general strike in November called by the unions over the housing question was, as noted earlier, a huge success. A new national contract signed in December by the metalworkers unions seemed to represent, Ginsborg says, “a significant victory for the trade unions and for the new militancy.”39
Other social movements in Italy also gathered momentum and won important gains during the “hot autumn” of 1969. There were organized movements to reform the antiquated and corrupt Italian legal system, to improve conditions in Italian prisons, and to provide better housing and transportation to a rapidly expanding urbanized workforce. A serious and determined feminist movement began to take shape in Italy during this year, sometimes in critical relationship to the mainly male-dominated worker and student movements and to revolutionary Marxist groups such as Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio.40 At many levels, Italian society seemed to be moving towards fundamental and lasting change.41
But there were political limitations and weaknesses within the freshly energized Italian left that would make sustaining the momentum of the “Hot Autumn” very difficult. By the end of 1969, four significant Marxist organizations to the left of the PCI had emerged, each with a primary base in a particular region or city: Potere Operaio in the Veneto, Lotta Continua in Turin, Avanguardia Operaio in Milan, and in Rome a group of dissident Marxist intellectuals from within the PCI itself.42 The student movement in France and Italy and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1968 provoked a talented group within the PCI to express their dissent by founding a new magazine, Il Manifesto. The founders included five members of Parliament and three members of the PCI central committee, all of whom were promptly expelled. Unlike the other revolutionary socialists who helped shape the events of 1969, the Il Manifesto intellectuals, as Harman says, “saw a move to the left among the existing activists of the Communist Party and the unions as the key to revolutionary development in Italy.”43 Though the Il Manifesto group had less influence in the workplaces than the other three Marxist organizations, it became an important link between the PCI left and the newly radicalized workers and students.44 But neither it nor Lotta Continua nor Potere Operaio nor Avanguardia Operaia had the developed organizational strength and political clarity necessary to galvanize the militancy of workers, students, and other activists into a force that could seriously challenge the Italian state.
After the dramatic confrontation in July between demonstrators and police, the worker-student assembly in Turin had called a national conference to debate the next steps. According to Steve Wright, participants in the conference concluded that a “new revolutionary organization was needed, one capable of ‘discovering, generalizing and transforming the political contents emerging from workers’ struggles” into a decisive plan of action.45 In his history of Lotta Continua, Luigi Bobbio indicates that what was needed was a return to the lessons of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party.46 As the “Hot Autumn” drew to a close, workerist faith in “spontaneous” struggle on its own was beginning to be challenged by a revival of the Leninist emphasis on building a working-class vanguard party. But none of the existing Marxist groups was able to lead convincingly in this direction.
Lotta Continua itself had only just come into existence as an organization, and while at the height of the struggle it would claim a national membership of some 50,000, a realistic assessment of its actual size would be closer to 8,000 to 10,000. Its newspaper came to have a print-run of 65,000, but Lotta Continua was never cogently committed to the project of building a revolutionary Marxist party that could advance the new worker militancy and connect it with the other emergent social movements of 1968–69. It offered a broader version of the workerist politics advocated by Potere Operaio, infused with an emphasis on Third World struggles and an admiration for the spontaneous voluntarism of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. Prior to the intervention at Fiat, as we have seen, Sofri strongly opposed the building of a national revolutionary organization, arguing instead that the revolutionary left should “enter into relation with the new vanguards thrown up by the struggle and in the first place by the students.”47 Lotta Continua’s paper would reflect its movementist approach to this project: it avoided detailed political and theoretical analysis, instead often featuring “demagogic headlines and provocative picture stories.”48
Lotta Continua’s most serious strategic and tactical mistake was that in its championing of CUB-style autonomous worker committees Sofri and his comrades opposed new union-sponsored councils of elected delegates. Though the unions at Fiat had been cautious and conservative, in other Italian workplaces “the councils of delegates came out of both militant shop-floor currents and from the left wing of the unions.”49 In the early 70s these councils would take the lead in organizing plant-level strikes. “By 1972 there were 8,101 of the new factory councils, with 82,923 delegates.”50 In opposing the delegate councils, Lotta Continua “opposed the contract negotiations that would lead to the stunning union victories of the Hot Autumn”; the group “rejected participation in the councils of delegates just as these were rapidly being diffused as the unions’ grassroots representative institutions.”51 Although the union leadership would eventually channel worker militancy back into a strategy of collaboration with Italian capitalism, from 1969 until 1972 the factory councils were an important expression of a rank-and-file move to the left. Lotta Continua had cut itself off from a major assertion of organized working-class power.
As for Potere Operaio, it was outflanked by Lotta Continua in the Fiat struggle and never really gained traction as a national organization. By 1972 it had transformed itself into a much broader and looser group called Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy), in which the earlier tendency to idealize the spontaneous struggle of the “mass worker” came to be linked, especially in the writing of Toni Negri, to a highly theoretical postmodernist redefinition of all social conflict as “proletarian.”52 As it further evolved in the years that followed, “autonomism” would abandon the priority of class struggle altogether and encourage the view that “any form of self-activity is as good as any other, and if… allowed to develop freely can constitute a ‘swarm’ or ‘multitude’ of different challenges to the present system that can destroy its hold.”53 The prominence of Negri and Autonomia Operaia in the 1970s would become symptomatic of the defeat of the most significant political potential of Italy’s “Hot Autumn.”
Inspiring though it was—and still is—Italy’s “Hot Autumn” came to an end in a tragic event that forecast many of the darker developments of the 1970s and beyond. On December 12, 1969 a bank in Milan’s Piazza Fontana was bombed: Sixteen bank customers were killed and eighty-eight injured.54 On the same day two bombs exploded in Rome, injuring eighteen. The police immediately accused “anarchists” of the attacks and arrested two people: Pietro Valpreda, a professional dancer, who subsequently spent three years in jail awaiting trial and was finally declared innocent in 1981, and Giuseppe Pinelli, a railway worker, who mysteriously “fell” to his death a few days after the bombing from a fourth-floor window in the office of Milan police commissioner Luigi Calabresi. Six years later the courts ruled that Pinelli had also been completely innocent. Eventually evidence came to light indicating that the Milan and Rome bombings had been orchestrated by a neo-fascist group intent on creating fear and discrediting the militant left.55 One of the neo-fascist organizers of the attacks, Giovanni Ventura, had close ties with Colonel Guido Giannettini of SID, the Italian secret service—who was himself active in the neo-fascist MSI party. Investigative journalists subsequently brought to light an entire network of contacts between the secret service and far-right organizations.56
It was clear to everyone that Italy’s great upsurge in left activism was provoking a dangerous backlash from the right, including right-wing forces within the Italian state.
The 1970s: Hard-won victories, bitter defeats
The protest movements of the late 1960s continued in Italy well into the following decade and, in some cases, succeeded in extending their social and geographical reach. This was especially true of the new militancy among workers, which was pushing the big trade union confederations to adopt more left-leaning and assertive stances. In May 1970, a year after the burst of worker radicalism at Fiat Mirafiori in Turin, the center-left government approved a Workers’ Charter (Statuto dei Lavoratori) that ratified many of the gains fought for during the “Hot Autumn”: the right to a job with a decent wage, the right to assemble, the right to unionize, the right to basic job safety, the right to legal appeal against unfair firings. Ginsborg summarizes: “Italy at last had a labor law which was not altogether one-sided in its articles and application.”57 A less substantial but still notable achievement came in October 1971 when Parliament finally passed a watered-down version of a fair housing law.
Italian workers weren’t done asserting their new confidence and determination. A sharp decline in Italian economic output in 1971 put them more on the defensive, but strike activity continued at a high level: in 1972, 4.5 million workers participated in workplace conflicts of one kind or another. The number rose to 6,133,000 the following year. By 1972 there were 4,291 factory councils in the metalworking industry, representing 1,055,592 workers.58 In June 1972 “a new wave of struggle spearheaded by the chemical workers” culminated in a “huge national demonstration of the metal workers’ union in Calabria, showing the muscle of the workers’ movement in the south.”59 The gains were not all within the industrial sector: the number of teachers in the communist-led CGIL confederation rose from around 4,000 in 1968 to more than 90,000 at the beginning of 1975.60 This suggests that despite the conservatism and passivity of the PCI itself during the upsurge in militancy, unions loyal to it were able to “ride the tiger” of struggle from below.61
But the early 1970s also saw a concerted effort by the political right to regain lost ground. At the level of mainstream national politics this effort was reflected in the aftermath of the spring 1972 general election, when the Christian Democrats under Giulio Andreotti formed the first center-right government in many years. Though this government did not formally include the neo-fascist MSI, which had absorbed the monarchist party and won 8.7 percent of the total vote, and though it only lasted until June 1973, it was a significant attempt by the capitalist ruling class to regain the upper hand.62 More decisive developments on the political right were well underway, however, behind the façade of respectable government and outside the realm of electoral accountability.
Far-right elements in the Italian military and secret service had for some time been planning a counter-attack on both the reformers and the revolutionaries of the 1960s. There had been a failed military coup attempt in 1964 and another in 1970, both carried out with the knowledge, if not the direct support, of U.S. and NATO intelligence.63 These clumsy moves by the right stand in contrast to the much more sinister and effective “strategy of tension” that developed in response to the political struggles of the late 1960s. John Foot characterizes the “strategy of tension” in these broad terms: “Right-wing elements within the security forces, working with NATO agents and Italian neo-fascists, began to implement a strategy based on events in Greece [where in 1967 a right-wing military coup was justified as the only way to stop the “communist threat”]. Disorder would be created, and blamed on the left, in order to create the conditions for a military coup.”64 The Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan was the first major deployment of the “strategy of tension.” Other right-wing attacks followed in Peteano (north of Venice, 1972; three members of the Carabinieri, the Italian state police, were killed), in Milan again (1973; four people killed), in Brescia (1974; eight anti-fascist activists killed), and—most notoriously of all—in the Bologna train station on August 2, 1980, when eighty were killed and more than 200 injured. Although these attacks never produced the coup that was their ultimate objective, they did sow seeds of panic, revenge, and political confusion that, in the course of the decade and beyond, took a severe toll on viable left-wing struggle.
The most dramatic and ultimately destructive effect of the “strategy of tension” on the activist left came with the formation of the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse) in 1970. The founders (Renato Curcio, Mara Cagol, and Alberto Franceschini) had been active organizers in the protests of 1968 and 1969. But they became convinced that with the Piazza Fontana bombing of December 1969, nothing short of an immediate and underground violent response could counter Italy’s neo-fascist terrorists and their ruling-class supporters. Initially active mainly in Milan, Turin, and the north-central city of Reggio Emilia, in 1972 the Red Brigades carried out acts of industrial sabotage and the kidnapping of a factory foreman. Increasingly they questioned the seriousness of commitment to armed struggle on the part of such revolutionary groups as Lotta Continua and Avanguardia Operaia.65 By 1974 the Red Brigades were involved in more high-profile kidnappings designed mainly to extract ransoms. In March 1978 they planned the kidnapping of Christian Democrat Prime Minister Aldo Moro. In May, Moro’s dead body was left in the trunk of a car on a street in Rome, under circumstances related to negotiations between the Red Brigades and the Italian government that still remain mysterious.
The turn to underground terrorism—and particularly its appeal to some militants on the left infuriated by neo-fascist attacks and impatient with the real but still limited gains of the worker and student movements—needs to be understood in relation to the politics of both the Communist Party and the Socialist Party during this period. The PSI had been a key member of the center-left governments since the early 1960s. The PCI, though steadily successful in national elections, was still excluded from the governing coalitions. Following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1968, it was also increasingly burdened by its loyalty to Moscow. So beginning in 1973 the new PCI leader, Enrico Berlinguer, began laying the basis for the so-called “historic compromise,” put into effect in 1976 following negotiations with Moro and the Christian Democrats. Moro’s role in bringing about the “historic compromise” was a major reason for his being targeted by the Red Brigades. During the late 1970s, the PCI declared its willingness to cooperate with the Christian Democrats—to “defend Italian democracy” against radical violence and to work for “realistic” reforms. Already dismissed by many among the new generation of left militants for being merely the reformist wing of a corrupt capitalist system, the PCI now seemed hopelessly disconnected from the vital struggles from below. This also pushed some militants in groups such as Lotta Continua, which by the mid 1970s had finally overcome an earlier sectarian tendency to dismiss all efforts to work with the PCI or the CGIL unions, into supporting the isolated violence of the Red Brigades.66
The political consequences of these developments were disastrous. Harman’s summation is sadly accurate: “The growth of [left-wing] terrorism frightened individual politicians, industrialists and police chiefs—but it was a godsend to the ruling class as a whole. In the early 1970s they had had to manufacture a ‘strategy of tension’ to drive the leaders of the working class parties and the unions into their hands. Now what claimed to be a section of the revolutionary left was doing that work for them.”67
Even as some revolutionary militants were drawn into supporting Red Brigades terrorism, the most influential organizations to the left of the PCI were moving in an opposite direction and adapting to “historical compromise” politics. Abandoning its emphasis on building a “mass worker vanguard,” Lotta Continua approached 1975 regional elections with the slogan “The Communist Party to the government,” arguing that a new reformist regime would offer “maximum space” for revolutionary struggle and organization. Still embracing Maoist versions of voluntarism and spontaneism—and increasingly reliant on a top-down Stalinist model of party leadership—Lotta Continua and Avanguardia Operaia failed to develop as organizations based on democratic centralism and on a principled analysis of the severe capitalist crisis that struck the global economy in 1974–75.
A critical turning point for the Italian left came in the general election of 1976. Despite high hopes, the PCI vote went up only slightly from 1975 regional elections, to 34.4 percent, not nearly enough to dislodge the dominance of the Christian Democrats, who dropped slightly but still led overall with 38.7 percent. A joint election slate called Democrazia Proletaria—put forward by Lotta Continua, Avanguardia Operaia, and Il Manifesto, committed to the formation of a broad left coalition government—did disastrously, winning only 1.5 percent, about a fourth of what the neo-fascists polled.68 The result was a government of the “historic compromise” that left the Christian Democrats in charge, the communists in the role of a now loyal opposition, and the militant left completely shut out. In Bobbio’s view, the 1976 election “was the first explicit defeat of the generation of ’68.”69 Many Italian militants had come to believe that there were no options except the dead-end of Red Brigades’ terrorism or the separate struggles of “autonomist” politics.
Despite the increasingly polarized and polarizing failures of organized left politics in Italy during the 1970s, the struggles coming out of the “Hot Autumn” continued. The fight for women’s rights and, from 1974 to 1978, for the legalization of abortion, were intense. And in February 1977 a new student revolt was sparked by an attempt by neo-fascists to intimidate students and faculty at the University of Rome. When thousands of protesters responded by marching on the Rome office of the national neo-fascist MSI party, the police reacted by firing on the demonstrators. The role of the PCI following this encounter, however, was sadly characteristic of the politics of “historic compromise”: Luciano Lama, a major PCI union leader, came to the university and harangued the students for being immature trouble-makers. Later the same day, when riot police stormed the campus with teargas and truncheons, a large crowd of PCI onlookers stood by and applauded. In the weeks that followed, student protesters had to contend with further police charges and with isolated neo-fascist shootings. A national demonstration of 100,000 in Rome was fired upon by police, and a nineteen-year-old high school student was killed. In Bologna, long a PCI stronghold, party members supported the police when they attacked a student demonstration, occupied the university, and shot a student member of Lotta Continua.70
Although the 1977 protest movement involved tens of thousands of students and drew support from feminists and other activists across Italy, it was isolated from the broad mass of workers as it had not been in 1969. As the decade drew to a close, the Italian left would continue to splinter and dwindle. Despite the claims of autonomists to the contrary, revolutionary Marxism virtually ceased to exist as an organized and plausible political reality.
Conclusions: Italy’s “Hot Autumn” and the future of revolutionary socialism
It is important to acknowledge the inspiring political openings forged by Italian workers and students during and following the upsurge of 1968–69. This moment in Italian history demonstrates that thousands of activists can move towards revolutionary socialism in a short period of time, and that they can do so by creating their own democratic forms of struggle from below.
It is equally important to see in the Italian experience just how far in the direction of brutal repression the capitalist ruling class, both national and internationally, is willing to go when it senses a serious threat to its dominance.
As for the militant movements themselves, Ginsborg is right to argue that “the strategy and actions of the revolutionary groups which emerged in 1968–9 were an inadequate response to the demands for political leadership that were coming from the students’ and workers’ movements,” that the revolutionary groups were in many respects “sectarian, dominated by Third World models of revolution and unable to draw realistic conclusions.”71 It was these weaknesses that enabled the unions to co-opt and control some of the more radical gains of the struggle, and that allowed many workers to remain loyal to the traditional left parties.
But Ginsborg has matters backwards when he goes on to say that, “the long-term trends in Italian society were diametrically opposed to the social and political projects of the generation of ’68.” It was precisely to oppose and reverse the “long-term trends” of capitalist society that workers and students took to the streets, took over their workplaces, and literally put their lives on the line to fight for a society completely different from the one around them. Ultimately the fundamental principles and practices of revolutionary Marxism—of socialism from below built through the formation of a vanguard party rooted in the working class and committed to democratic centralism and to united-front coalition politics—were not established deeply or broadly enough to overcome the forces and interests arrayed against them. Today, more than ever, the Italian left needs to relearn the lessons of its own powerful but disrupted and deflected history.
- For recent accounts of the current Italian political situation, see Yurii Colombo, “The Return of Berlusconi,” International Socialist Review 59 (May–June 2008); Ahmed Shawki’s interview with Yurii Colombo in Socialist Worker (13 May 2008); William Keach, “Berlusconi is back,” International Socialist Review 60 (July–August 2008); Alan Maass’s interview with Cinzia Arruzzia in Socialist Worker (10 September 2008); and Rachael Moshman, “Rebellion of Italy’s Students,” Socialist Worker (5 November 2008). See also Perry Anderson, “An Entire Order Converted into What It Was Intended to End,” London Review of Books (26 February 2009).
- Paul Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; first published by Penguin, 1990), 314.
- Ibid., 316.
- John Foot, Modern Italy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 8.
- For clarifying recent discussions of Trotsky’s theory of “combined and uneven development,” see Paul D’Amato, “The Necessity of Permanent Revolution,”International Socialist Review 48 (July–August 2006) and Adam Turl, “Permanent Revolution Today,” International Socialist Review 53 (May–June 2007).
- For a compact account of the early development of Pirelli, Fiat, and other major industrial companies in the north of Italy, see Foot, 134–37.
- For Gramsci’s “Some Aspects of the Southern Question” (unfinished article, October 1926), see text from Selections from Political Writings (1921-1926), trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare, http://www2.cddc.vt.edu/marxists/archive/gramsci/1926/10/southern_question.htm.
- Foot, 178–79.
- Ibid., 189–90.
- Ibid., 180–81.
- Ibid., 180.
- See Jonathan Dunnage, Twentieth-Century Italy: A Social History (New York: Longman, 2002), 171; Ginsborg, 300; Foot, 31–2, 138–9.
- Dunnage, 168–69.
- Ginsborg, 298–99.
- Ibid., 302–04.
- Robert Lumley, States of Emergency: Cultures of Revolt in Italy from 1968 to 1978 (London: Verso, 1990), 66.
- Dunnage, 172, and Alessandro Portelli, The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 183–98.
- The director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was closely associated with the PCI, wrote a poem denouncing the students as “spoilt rich brats.” (Ginsborg, 307)
- Ginsborg, 311–12.
- Ibid., 309.
- Dunnage, 173; Ginsborg, 337.
- Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After, 2nd ed. (London: Bookmarks, 1998; first published 1988), 194.
- Ginsborg, 304–5.
- Ibid., 305.
- See Harman, 203.
- Ginsborg, 315.
- On the tension between the CUBs and the unions, see Joanne Barkan, Visions of Emancipation: The Italian Workers’ Movement Since 1945 (New York: Praeger, 1984), 72–5, and Steve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 117–19.
- Harman, 192; Barkan, 75–6; Dunnage, 174.
- Barkan, 68–69.
- Sidney Tarrow, Democracy and Disorder: Protest and Politics in Italy 1965-1975(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 266.
- Ibid., 267.
- Harman, 200–01; Tarrow, 268–70; Wright, 110–25.
- Wright, Chapter 3. Characterizing the “thematic of class composition” as “the most novel and important” element in operaismo, Wright nevertheless goes on to quote Sergio Bologna’s doubts about this “ambiguous” concept: “It is a picklock that opens all doors” (“Otto tesi per la storia militante”) (Primo Maggio 11 , 610).
- Ibid., 121.
- Tarrow, 268.
- Harman, 200. See also Tarrow, 266: “Sofri’s branch of Potere Operaio Toscano broke from both its spontaneist and Leninist wings… In the long run, the strategically-relevant outcome was the refusal to reject the movementist heritage of 1968 for either workerism or Leninism.”
- Tarrow, 269.
- Lumley, 211.
- Ginsborg, 318.
- Ginsborg, 367; Tarrow, 317; Dunnage, 181–85.
- Ginsborg, 313.
- Wright, 126.
- Harman, 202.
- In the 1970s Il Manifesto became the first daily newspaper of the Italian revolutionary left since Gramsci’s L’Unità in 1924–25, the latter having been shut down by the fascists.
- Wright, 124.
- Wright, 125, citing Luigi Bobbio, Lotta continua: Storia di una organizzazione rivoluzionaria (Roma: Savelli, 1979), 39. See also Lumley, 259–60: “The revival of Leninism… was but another symptom of a cultural shift away from ideologies of spontaneity and towards those of organization.”
- Adriano Sofri, “Avanguardi e masse,” Giovane Critica, 19 (1968), translated and quoted in Harman, 201.
- Tarrow, 271.
- Ibid., 273.
- Harman, 194.
- Tarrow, 273–74.
- On Negri’s career, political imprisonment, and influence see Alex Callinicos, “Toni Negri in Perspective,” International Socialism 92 (2001).
- For further discussion of “autonomism” see Harman, 209, 212–13 and Harman, “Autonomism for the People?”, Socialist Review (December 2003); Paul D’Amato, “The powerlessness of anti-power,” International Socialist Review 27 (January–February 2003); Claudio Katz, “Problems of Autonomism,” International Socialist Review 44 (November-December 2005). Also useful for the development from operaismo to autonomia is Patrick Cuninghame’s “An Analysis of Autonomia—An Interview with Sergio Bologna,” http://libcom.org/library/analysis-of-autonomia-interview-sergio-bologna-patrick-cunninghame.
- Foot, 57.
- A new and controversial 704-page book by journalist Paolo Cucchiarelli, Il segreto di Piazza Fontana (Milano: Ponte all Grazie, 2009), argues that the anarchist Valpreda was duped by fascist terrorists into detonating one of the two bombs that exploded in the Milan bank.
- Ginsborg, 333–34.
- Ibid., 328.
- Ibid., 320.
- Harman, Fire Last Time, 196.
- Ginsborg, 320.
- Lumley, 257–58.
- Ginsborg, 335–36.
- Ginsborg, 334 and Dunnage, 170, 186.
- Foot, 57, offers a useful detailed summary of the attacks carried out under the “strategy of tension.”
- Dunnage, 187–89.
- Adriano Sofri and two of his Lotta Continua comrades were convicted in 1988 of participating in the 1972 assassination of Luigi Calabresi, the Milan police commissioner involved in the death of Giuseppe Pinelli following the Piazza Fontana bombing. They were sentenced to twenty-two years in prison. Toni Negri was arrested in 1979 for cooperating with and providing political support for Red Brigades terrorism, despite substantial evidence of his innocence. Callinicos argues that Negri’s writings in the early 1970s did contribute to an environment in which isolated acts of “proletarian violence” substituted for organized armed struggle and resistance by the working class.
- Harman, Fire Last Time, 214.
- See Foot’s chart, 202, of general election results 1953–1992, and Harman’s discussion of the 1976 election as the “turning point,” Fire Last Time, 207–08.
- Bobbio, Lotta continua, 175, translated and quoted in Harman, 209.
- Harman, 211.
- Ginsborg, 340, 343.