Phil Edward’s book “More work! Less pay!” is a challenging but very rewarding study of a key period in Italian politics during the 1970s, when a long wave of extraordinary radicalism swept the country. Best remembered now for the violent terrorism of Brigate Rosse the movement was much broader than that, involving factory occupations, graffiti, mass shoplifting, squatting. Furthermore, at its peak there were hundreds of thousands broadly sympathetic to this radical challenge.
While the murders and kidnappings were certainly a characteristic of the time, “political violence” also took the form of damage to property, arson, breaking windows and attacks on drug dealers and far right activists – by 1977 the neo-fascist MSI had been decisively driven from the streets as the culmination of years of militant campaigning.
Both the armed struggle groups and the rebellious direct action groups of the movement self-legitimised their own violence by contrasting it with the violence of the state, and police collusion with far right terrorism. Randall D Law’s recent history of terrorism shows that this argument had some credibility, with far-right violence mirrroring that of the left: “According to one calculation, there were over 14,500 politically motivated attacks from 1969 to 1994 producing over 1800 casualties. Unlike West Germany in the 1970s, where terrorists entertained fanciful dreams of creating a revolutionary crisis, Italy during this period was arguably close to one already.” Fascist street violence was augmented by methodically planned outrages like the bombing of Milan’s Piazza Fontana in 1969 which left seventeen dead and eighty-eight wounded.
Italian politics provided two historical narratives that informed the developing crisis. Mussolini came to power in the 1920s through a protracted period of violent destabilisation of the state by his Fascio Italiani di Combattimento whose squadristi embraced an ethos of violence, excitement and camaraderie; therefore the high level of political violence in the 1970s created a not implausible apprehension for many in the democratic left that there might be a fascist outcome; secondly the tradition of armed struggle against fascism and the state had a long heritage, as early as 1928 Ottavio Pastore had proposed a military campaign within the Partido Comunista d’Italia; and in 1930 the Comintern in Moscow produced a manual on guerrilla warfare. In 1943 the exiled Communist leader Togliatti broadcast by radio to call for armed struggle, and the party began organising paramilitary Gruppi di azione patriottica who argued “for taking up the rifle to drive out the foreign invader”. Political violence, both from left and right, therefore had a low entry threshold. Those on the left who identified an increasing authoritarianism in the Italian republic as being proto-fascist could draw upon historical parallels from within living memory of guerilla warfare.
The focus of Phil’s book is on the cycle of rebellion between 1972 and 1977, which embraced four interrelated movements, the “area of autonomia”, the “Proletarian youth movement of 1975-6”, the “movement of 1977”, and the armed struggle milieu. Autonomia was a country wide movement of innovative and confrontational industrial action. The youth movements squatted buildings to create social centres, and organised “proletarian patrols” to assault drug dealers, to vandalise sweatshops, and collective underpayment of bills.
One of Phil’s objectives is simply to document the scale and radicalism of the diverse and overlapping movements. Whereas an innovative social movement that involves a constructive engagement and overlap with the mainstream might be historically remembered as a progressive phenomenon with a deviant fringe; one that is rejected in total may be lost to obscurity. With the partial exception of the Red Brigade murders and kidnapings the large scale rebellion in Italy is largely now forgotten.
In order to understand the period of crisis, and the political responses to it, Phil provides an account of the earlier cycle of rebellion, between 1966 and 1972, where innovative methods of struggle, and novel demands were prosecuted, but were later adopted by the trade unions and the Communist Party, enriching and reinvigorating the tactical repertoire of the mainstream left.
A particular strength of Phil’s book is the consise and persuasive account of the development of the Communist Party in the first republic, and how it evolved from partisan armed struggle to the compromesso storico . Togliatti had made a significant contribution to communist theory in understanding that the capitalists and middle classes had been pulled into supporting the fascist squadre due to their alarm at the weakening economic situation, the social turmoil and fear of socialism. It was therefore necessary for the Communist Party to advance positive political proposals offering a solution to the nation’s problems, and building a broad alliance around these proposals.
To exacerbate the crisis of capitalism in the absence of such a national-popular alliance was objectively to aid fascism (Of course, the fact that in Italy in the 1920s syndicalist revolutionary Marxists, like Sergio Pannunzio and Filippo Corradini, had become the main ideologues of fascism gave this argument further credibility.)
While Togliatti’s position of building long term cross class alliances could sound conservative, his conception of the relationship between progressive democracy and socialism was more radical. He proposed a series of structural reforms that could be undertaken by a coalition between the communists and progressive members of the capitalist class. These would involve land reform, industrial restructuring and nationalisation; which would undermine the social base of fascism and provide a more favourable context for future left advance. The goal of far reaching structural reforms would keep the party leadership from accepting a reformed capitalism as an end in itself.
Phil quotes Togliatti from 1956:
“On its own a nationalisation may not mean much … But things change when this or other measures taken against monopoly capital are an integral part of a continuous action of a constant struggle … by big political mass organisations with the support of a large section of public opinion in order to impose … an economic policy which would be of advantage of the workers as of the middle strata”
Togliatti’s via italiano however suffered from a problematic formalism. The mass catholic party, Democrazia Cristiana at its inception had the potentiality to be a progressive partner within the anti-fascist constitutional settlement, including as it did a Christian left around figures like Giuseppe Dosseti. However, the trajectory of the DC swiftly closed that door, and the PCI suffered from a mythologisation that the resistance, and the immediate post-war coalition, were a successful model of an unfinished project.
The privileged and indispensable position offered to DC by the PCI theory disarmed the capability of the communists to develop a transformative political project in the face of the perpetual exclusion from government. Consequently they were trapped in a dilemma where they offered more and more concessions to Christian Democracy which weakened and disappointed their own mass popular base among workers and peasants; the communists continually stressed their own discipline and self-restraint in pursuit of an illusory anti-fascist alliance. Meanwhile Christian Democracy had long ago abandoned any idealism and had immersed themselves in corruption and maintenance of their position in power at all costs.
Togliatti’s death in 1964 opened a period of wide debate within the party, and the emergence of a new left wing. This meant that the party was well positioned to positively engage with the wave of radicalism, synthesising an acceptance of the innovative tactical repertoires of direct action with a rejection of its political philosophy. In effect the PCI acted as a “gatekeeper” allowing social movement to enter and transform the mainstream, while marginalising their most extreme elements. The gatekeeper role can be seen by the state amnesty negotiated for those who had committed criminal acts during the “Hot Autumn” of 1969, which rewarded those breaking from the revolutionary radicalism, while marginalising those who stayed loyal to it.
The winner of the inner party struggles was Enrico Berlinguer, who had considerable skill in arbitrating between the left and right. However, as I have observed before in the case of Harold Wilson, the diplomatic skill of coalition building within a political party is paradoxically ill-suited to the more robust demands of prosecuting the interests of that party in contention against other social forces. This paradox is even more tragic when we note that resolving the inner party struggle can improve the short term electoral prospects.
Under Berlinguer’s leadership, and especially following the coup in Chile in 1972, the PCI adopted an increasingly belligerent attitude to the new social movements, framing the argument in terms of them being irrational, nihilistic and proto-fascist. At the same time, the PCI was enjoying electoral success and membership growth; combining both a strategy of institutional engagement and political legitimacy, and also providing a constructive entry into the mainstream for those radicalised by the revolt of 1969.
However, the terms of Berlinguer’s strategy meant that it was incapable of similar engagement with the second, and more violent cycle. The PCI had adopted a distinctive Catholic inspired rejection of individualism, libertarianism and materialism which made it particularly unsuited to relating to the youth movements; they were pre-disposed to see the social crisis as favouring fascism; and the ideological space for the Communist Party to contain within it different possibilities had been closed by Beringuer’s victory.
This social conservatism of the PCI meant that it itself became a target of innovative youth rebellions like the Dadaist “Metropolitan Indians”, and at a more sinister level the PCI became identified with the authoritarian executive power of the state by armed struggle groups like the BR. The “Resolution on Strategic Direction” issued by BR in 1978 suggested that they saw no differentiation within the institutions of the state and its ideological pillars of support; and that the armed struggle was designed to strip away the illusion that capitalist rule was governed by consent. There was therefore a continuum between the social movements and the armed struggle groups, both in terms of ideology, but also violent tactics, as militants autonomists might beat up bosses or scabs in pursuit of industrial struggle, or destroy property. The armed struggle groups were seen as part of the movement even by those who rejected that violent repertoire.
The second cycle of rebellion however received no constructive engagement with the mainstream; its participants were offered no route out of the cold, due to the intransigent hostility of the PCI in its gatekeeper role. All of those who accepted the potential legitimacy of armed struggle were anathematised, not only those who participated within it. It was insufficient merely to not be violent yourself, it was also necessary to condemn those who were violent, and condemn those others who did not condemn violence loudly enough. Tactical innovations, like social centres in squatted buildings, were labelled as unacceptable merely by association with the broader movement that contained within it a violent minority, rather than being inherently unacceptable.
This left only two options for those engaged in the rebellion, either demobilise completely, or further identify with the armed struggle agenda. The PCI’s hostility had a crushing impact on the broader radicalism, but briefly led to a diffusion and greater intensity of armed struggle among an increasingly marginalised minority. However, the outcome was also disastrous for the PCI, seen as too conservative by young radicals, but too left wing to be accepted as a party of government.
For those actually engaged in armed struggle, there was now no going back. Phil quotes one participant: “to go right to the end was the only chance for redemption I had, from a moral point of view, both from the violence I produced and the violence I suffered”
Although Phil does not make the explicit connection, the modern problem of Jihadi terrorism has many parallels. The current climate of Islamophobia seeks not only to delegitimise political violence, it also seeks to delegitimise those who share overlapping political and social objectives with the Jihadis, even those who utterly reject violence themselves and seek to work through conventional democratic channels. The danger is by this demobilisation of democratic pursuit of those objectives, the credibility is enhanced of those who argue that terrorism is the only option available; and those who are already on the periphery of terror will be consolidated on that trajectory.
Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972–77
Phil Edwards is Lecturer in Criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University
hb 9780719078736 01 July 2009 £60.00
See also Crooked Timber