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Day May 16, 2018

My Experiences in 1968 in Working-Class Turin

For me, the most significant experience of the social, political and cultural movement emerging from the struggles culminating in ’68 and, even more so in ’69 (the working-class “hot autumn”!) was essentially permeated with the methodology learned in my decisive encounter with the newspaper Lotta Comunista, its developed Marxist approach and my subsequent involvement with, and then commitment to, that group, which was active, if not hegemonic, in both worker struggles and student agitation. That organization, moreover, both in Turin and elsewhere in the industrial triangle in northern Italy, was absolutely not a major force in the student agitation characteristic of those years. The group was a small minority and, I should add, it established itself in Turin relatively late, as compared to other cities such as Genova and Milan. Practically speaking, my contacts with the group Lotta Comunista were, at least for me, and especially at first, somewhat by chance, through reading the newspaper, which a young militant from Savona distributed in Turin, as did other activists in the cities of the “industrial triangle,” as well as in student demos and in the university canteens. All of this took place against the backdrop of the French May and similar oppositional movements in the rest of Europe. To these were added, in Italy itself, and especially in Turin, the period of university “occupations” at the Palazzo Campana, already in 1967. In the LC newspaper, the references to Marx and to Lenin, as well as to the history of the organized workers’ movement, were explicit and rigorous. In a context in which the theoretical and cultural triad was centered on the three main sources (known in slang as the “three MAs, Mao, Marcuse and Marx”), not to mention Freud, Jung and Reich, as well as the feminist dimension of “women’s liberation” and the questioning of the traditional family and its “authoritarian” and patriarchal practices, I and others wound up concentrating on the “bearded philosopher of Trier.”

I came from a “backward” social situation, by comparison with the industrial and avant-garde scene in Turin, but there had nonetheless been a rather complex experience of student agitation in the Torremaggiore high school in Foggia province, against the local fascist riffraff of rich kids, and I sympathized with the demands of the agricultural workers, for which my hometown was a famous center and of which I was proud. Torremaggiore was, in fact, and still is famous as the birthplace of (the Piemontese and Pugliese!) Nicola (Fernando) Sacco, the friend and comrade of another Piemontese, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the two anarchist immigrants in the United States sentenced to the electric chair in Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1920s, during a ferocious campaign against the “reds,” and especially Italians, the “wops,” the undocumented people of that time, and of whom I myself am a distant offspring. It was, into the postwar period, a center of agricultural workers who carried out land occupations, during which two workers, Lavacca and Lamedica, were killed by the police. I commuted to that high school from Turin (where my family had moved, and where I spent school vacations), and every year I returned to Torremaggiore to study, after a rough experience of one year of immigration, made unbearable because of the racism against southern Italians that pervaded Turin and the high school of the Turin aristocracy where I unfortunately enrolled. That was in 1961–62, the year of the “invasion of southerners” and of the centennial of Italy’s paradoxical and ironic “unification”; it was also a year of the culmination of renewed worker struggles, sharper in Turin than in other parts of Europe. This was a Turin which, following its enlargement by waves of migrants, was at the time inclined to certain forms of racism, ethnocentrism and chauvinism against the southern “terroni,” who were increasingly concentrated in the dilapidated ghetto areas of the historical center and in peripheral ghettos.

The Turinese and Piedmontese insulted us with jeers such as “go back where you came from,” “soap eaters,” and “Mau Mau.” In the previous year, 1960, large worker demonstrations, with several people killed, in Genoa and then in Reggio Emilia, had provoked the fall of the Tambroni government, which was supported by the fascists of the Movimento Sociale. Turin’s population, already in the post–World War I period, had been swollen by the waves of these migrant flows, which peaked precisely in the years of the so-called “economic boom,” when urban expansion transformed this “working-class city” into a “metropolis” living the myth of “affluence.”

In the preceding decade, in 1951, during the postwar period of reconstruction of hardship and poverty, Turinese immigration was still coming from the north, and particularly from the Veneto (Polesine, Ferrara and especially the Po basin after the 1951 flood) as well as from the surrounding countryside and mountains, Turin’s population numbered 719,300, but in 1961, when my family arrived there, it had reached 1,025,822 and, ten years later, 1,167,968. In twenty years the city had grown by 62 percent, in a daily flow of people symbolized by the “sun train,” which ran in 23 hours from Sicily to Turin, bringing primarily people from Puglia, Calabria, Lucca, Sicily and Sardinia. According to the census of 1971, Turin had 77,589 Sicilians, 106,413 Puglians, 44,723 Calabrians, 35,449 Campanans and 22,813 Luccans. Turin was thus becoming a “southern city as big as Palermo.” Numerous wall posters trumpeted terrible (to me, as a “terrone”) and frightening announcements such as “We don’t rent to southerners,” or “No entrance for dogs, street vendors and southerners,” which have been collected in the impressive study of Goffredo Fofi, about whom more later.

I had, age 16, directly witnessed the “events” of the Piazza Statuto. (This was in July 1962, after the assault on the headquarters of the uil trade union and confrontations with paving stones of the “May ’68” type, and with police in small trucks chasing workers and clubbing them on the steps of the Court of Appeals, across from where I lived with my family.) I knew nothing, and it seemed like scenes from a war. Thus began the long series of housing occupations on the Via Verdi, across from the liberal arts building, followed by various other locations, which extended into the 1970s, all told a decade of migrant inflows of labor power bound for the monoculture of fiat and elsewhere. Because history, in such situations, changes only its form but never the substance, there began the battle of parties and sects and churches, contending in the periodic political and administrative elections, with promises of favors of various kinds.

Following my definitive return from Puglia to Turin, as the city became the capital of the automobile industry and of fiat, I began studying philosophy, while also working in the market of the Porta Palazzo and selling caps at soccer matches. Shortly thereafter, the occupations of the Palazzo Campana began, and I participated, in mid ’68, at the Palazzo Nuovo, in the sociology courses and seminars of Prof. Luciano Gallino, an intelligent and far-sighted industrial and labor sociologist, who was already active at the company of Adriano Olivetti in Ivrea. There, the Sociology Institute included researchers and scholars who had previously collaborated on the journal Quaderni Rossi, such as Liliana Lanzardo and Vittorio Rieser. There was also a whiff of the cultural fashion for the Frankfurt School, whereas Marxism had little presence in the academic world. There were study groups self-managed by the students. The Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks), based on the operaismo of Mario Tronti, Tony Negri and others into the 1970s, took up themes and methodologies central to the development of the Italian working-class movement; in the six issues of the journal appearing from 1961 to 1965, the analysis was theoretically buttressed by a reading of Marx (Rainero Panzieri, the founder, who died at 43 in 1964, was a translator of Marx). The collaborators produced reports and were involved in organizations, such as the first one by Danilo Montaldi, Report on the Immigrants (1960); Workers’ Inquiries continued with Southern Immigration to Turin, organized by Goffredo Fofi in 1964, which already had a central importance for the whole cycle of struggles of 1962, with the confrontations on the Piazza Statuto, which continued over the following decade, in the midst of the restructuring of capitalism; after the fall of 1980, there were the “61 layoffs” at fiat, the march of the so-called 40,000 white-collar workers against a five-week blue-collar strike that shut the factory, and the 23,000 laid-off workers, again from fiat. When, with a group of comrades in various cities, we left Lotta Comunista, we went back to that method of political work from 1968, with the journal Inchiesta Operaia (Workers’ Inquiry), which we also saw as a way to organize the class, and then with the Bollettino delle lotte operaie e proletarie (Bulletin of Worker and Proletarian Struggles). But this is already another story.

Turning back to the mid-1960s, the latter were fat years for collectors of ground rent, a cyclical process in situations of rapid development of markets for commodities and labor power, a period of big deals set against the backdrop of a housing shortage. I saw Turin swelling up like an overflowing river. We lived in dumps, offered at apparently slightly lower rents, also because they were often owned by religious bodies, such as the Mauritian Order, and entire family units were crammed in like pigeons; it was a life of decay, where we moved among a thousand unbearable odors with heads lowered, so as not to hit them on the beams of the skylights, along with the typical terrors of “clandestinity” and the threat of expulsion.

I was only a socialist in terms of ideas, but not yet organized. The head of the Italian Socialist Party was Lelio Basso (who had sympathies for Rosa Luxemburg) and there were other people slightly out of place there, such as the Luxemburgist Riccardo Lombari, the so-called Italian Lenin. I found the pro-Russian attitude of the pci to be strange, and it came to symbolize for me the most opportunistic Stalinism and nationalism enforced through the union. Already in high school I was a passionate Gramscian on the cultural level; I followed various journals such as Astrolabio, and finally, in its last days, Quaderni Rossi, whose founder, Rainero Panzieri, was also a socialist sui generis. But as soon as I understood the electoralist horse-trading in which all the institutionalized socialist formations were involved, at the same time that the student movement was exploding and the movement of university occupations was taking off, I threw over all those basically parliamentary politics, which, thereafter, appeared to me as merely one variant of the repressive apparatus of capital and the state. The only possible political activity for me became revolutionary militancy against the system.

I briefly became an observer, without real involvement, in informal spontaneist groups of various persuasions, and especially in an “experimental” non-violent group in Turin influenced by Aldo Capitini, a Perugia philosopher known as the Italian Gandhi, also the chief editor of the journal Azione Nonviolenta, whom I knew personally, and for whom I wrote several notes on the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia and on the “Prague Spring,” which culminated in Jan Palach’s self-immolation in January 1969, protesting censorship. I came to understand the power balance and the relationship between nato and the Warsaw Pact, and the bipolar equilibrium of Yalta.

I was also curious about the social battles of another non-violent reformer, Danilo Dolci, when these movements were attracting many members, especially in April 1968, when the black civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated. Even the Catholic priest don Lorenzo Milani was expressing unease about inequality, which culminated in the questioning of all authority and privilege (“rich kids”), and who founded the Barbiana School with proletarian students, who then collectively wrote a book Letter to a Professor (May 1967), which became a model and guide for the whole phase of student opposition to class-based selection in schools. This sympathy for “opposition,” which presented itself as “global” even in the Catholic world, was due to the fact that many young people, myself included, while being convinced atheists, did not disdain sympathies for certain forms of sociability coming from movements within the church, which in Italy have always had a social component that is unabashedly working-class and hostile to ecclesiastic hierarchies.

Don Milani had written another disruptive and important text L’obbedienza non è più una virtù (1965) (Obedience Is No Longer a Virtue), with obvious anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical and anti-fascist content; it counter-posed “doubt, disobey, resist” to the fascist conceptual triad “believe, obey, fight.” In addition to Don Milani, there was also the case of Don Zeno Saltini, the founder of the Community of Nomadelfia. His sympathies extended to certain armed forms of “non-violence” such as that of the Latin American priest Camillo Torres.

However, and always with a theoretical and practical openness to social revolution, at a moment when, both on the Italian domestic scene of workers’ struggles and on the level of international relations, emotions and superficiality characterized movement and street mobilization politics, and the multiple proliferation of the so-called extremism of the little leftist groups, whether spontaneist such as Lotta Continua, or in Maoist, anarchist or Guevarist theorizations, I felt the need to understand things I felt were larger than myself, and to read about the phenomena which followed one another at a dizzying rate, from the war in Vietnam to the Sino-Soviet artillery exchanges on the Ussuri River, to the Latin American guerrillas, the struggles of the ex-colonial countries, the explosion of struggles of black people in America and their complex evolution from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, the case of Rudi Dutschke and the German sds, and above all the Prague Spring, and more to come. In that context of contrasts and different stances between those who supported the anti-colonial movements, those who limited themselves to an anti-American attitude, and those who went so far as to identify certain forms of nationalist struggle with socialism, I was very taken with the vast and profound geopolitical vision of Lotta Comunista’s statement on The General Outlines of Italian Capitalism, which was distinguished by its economic analysis and its very serious and austere style, when set against the fiery but empty writing of those years. The Gramscianism I had already developed in high school was deepened, and I worked on the north-south disjuncture in Italy, and on the agrarian and southern questions, in order to understand the functioning of capitalist production.

The objective of the handfuls of cadres of Lotta Comunista was, at that time, to select militant student movement activists for future working-class struggles, including the struggles “predicted” by what they called “Marxist science,” and verified by the powerful immigration which had already produced the struggles of the Piazza Statuto in the early ’60s, and which I, barely 16, had seen in the police clubbings there (see above).

My meetings with the activists of Lotta Comunista, and with some more knowledgeable comrades, as well as individually with still others, became more intense. There were meetings, as well as group participations in social struggles, debates with other political groups, discussions on the positions of the newspaper, consultations shifting from one comrade to another as the problems posed became complicated, and finally meetings with their leader Arrigo Cervetto, whom obviously no one knew by name. Cervetto, moreover, was never seen or touted publicly, unlike so many leaders of that time. He was actually a shy person, and did not like visibility, or any myth of himself, or the spectacular posturing of so many small-time politicians today, to the point that, on top of the hundreds and hundreds of very useful articles he wrote, and the dozens and dozens of public lectures, seminars and party schools, any reconstruction of his political trajectory must include the memories of those who had the occasion, and in my case the pleasure, of knowing and dialoging with him, as someone who, in this way, seriously developed the role of political educator in a way that no one after him has managed.

Our first meetings also continued in trattorias in Genoa and sometimes touched on topics of my own interests, which I had studied at the university with the sociologist Luciano Gallino, on capitalist development of agriculture, on the relationship of city and country, the capitalist development of the relationship between the Italian North and South, “unequal development” and not “underdevelopment” as was touted in the famous journal Monthly Review and by a raft of scholars who were defined as “underdevelopmentists.” With Cervetto, we learned not to confuse socialism with state capitalism, at a time when political fashion was deeply influenced by Maoists, Castroists and Guevarists. Together we read and studied Bruno Rizzi and then Tony Cliff. The “southern question” was at that time a political platform, with roots going back to the Italian Risorgimento, and which influenced the various theories then under discussion, from Gramsci (Writings on the Mezzogiorno and the Prison Notebooks) to Rosario Romeo (Risorgimento e capitalismo) to Gerschenkron on the “advantages” of “economic backwardness” both for Italy and for Russia. In the academy at this time, until a few years later, no one mentioned Bordiga. In contrast to the activists of the student movement and the little left groups, we were distinguished by the fact that we passed around, and had at home, texts by Marx and Engels, something rare for all the other groups.

I came to understand the idealist limits (from Gentile and Sorel) of Gramsci. I had to read various pages of Marx as a framework to weigh the positions of different political groupings, especially on their interpretations of the dialectic and on the relationship between structure and superstructure. At that time, Cervetto was useful for a generation of militants who were coming to know materialism and Marxism, and I was in awe of the clarity with which he showed his knowledge of the arguments and readings on which was I then laboring. Pedagogically, he let people talk, and gradually he opened up my horizons on Trotsky’s theses on “combined and uneven development” (I then discovered on my own that Trotsky in turn had taken these theses from Parvus).

Cervetto proposed that I make an intervention at a conference in the student center of Genoa on unequal development in capitalism, with a particular focus on agriculture and on the Puglia region I knew well, using a Leninist framework, different from the under-developmentalist theses and the “neo-capitalism” then in fashion. We studied these phenomena in light of the theory which Cervetto defined as “unitary imperialism,” which included Italy’s “laggard” imperialism. To fight against imperialism, it was necessary to take up Karl Liebknecht’s slogan against his own imperialism, “the enemy is at home.” It goes without saying that at the congress, I presented a typewritten report annotated by Cervetto himself. I think the point of such conferences, beyond their specific content, was to train cadres in public speaking, and it was an interesting experience for me, from which I learned, for example, not to read a text but to speak off the cuff. From then on, I used the texts solely as outlines.

All in all, what made for the force of the cadres recruited in that generation was the care and rigor in the theoretical formation of militants, as professional revolutionaries on the Bolshevik model. I should specify that the term “professional” was intended neither in the social or bureaucratic sense, but in the sense of a direction for one’s own life, of revolutionary militancy as a life choice and not as a place for inconclusive chatter. There were not, in fact, hierarchies or leaders, but only tasks to be carried out, for which, in every aspect of the organizational work, there were not “leaders” but “comrades with responsibilities,” which became a praxis of dialectical responsibility to a center made up of the provincial committee, and all committees in turn answered to a national committee.

Cervetto used to distinguish this form of centralism (which he called “dialectical” instead of “democratic,” as in the mainstream Marxist tradition) from the bureaucratic centralism of the opportunist and Stalinist groups, and also from the formal centralism of A. Bordiga, known as “organic” centralism. In reality, after a careful study of the democratic centralism of the Bolshevik Party, we have to admit that there were substantial differences between Bolshevik centralism and Cervetto’s. The latter conceived of a stricter discipline; posts were not elected but chosen centrally, and whereas the Bolshevik Party accepted internal fractions and majority votes, Lotta Comunista was decidedly hostile to fractions and did not make choices by voting.

I am not talking about what that organization has become, in which almost twenty years later I no longer recognize myself. In the 1970s, study, in particular, was undertaken in the workers’ circles. I myself oversaw numerous seminars and study groups, as well as relations with workers and students. We not only studied the works of Marx and Engels (Dialectics of Nature, Origins of the Family, Anti-Dühring) but also the history of the workers’ movement, German philosophy from Kant to Hegel, but even Clausewitz! Over time, this activity progressively degenerated into a kind of Marxist scholasticism, with “courses in Marxism” of dubious quality, similar to the catechism of the church, sometimes even presented like education courses for teachers. But I was already out of there…

The development over time of Lotta Comunista went through different phases, from as early as ’68 onward, but in substance it went in two directions; on one hand in the factories, and on the other hand in its broader outreach, without disdaining, in the early period, interventions in the crisis of class-based school selection, from which the “68ist” (“sessantottino”) movement unfolded. In the factories, especially in those of higher capital and labor power concentration such as fiat, themselves enlarged by the development of the assembly line and the coming of the “mass worker” (operaio massa), the struggles were continuous from the early ’60s onward, compounded by the general climate of social, student and youth contestation in which demands for higher wages tended to supersede differences in individual treatment and merit increases for workers, and were thus not based on percentages but on equal pay for all. There were demands about the quality of work and job safety, through the reduction of time of exposure to risk, and thus for the reduction of the work week to 40 hours with the same pay (the main slogan was “higher wages, less work”) and thus the demand for more free time and also a limit on overtime. There also exploded the problem of the conditions of the many “worker/students” and “student/workers,” with demands for easier and cheaper access to studies and exams (our slogan for working-class kids was “free schools for workers’ children,” “free books and transportation for workers’ children”). There was an explosion of a new role for workplace assemblies in the factories and while on the clock.

Over time the old union representatives from the period of the skilled working class (and of the worker aristocracy) were pushed aside and the new democracy of delegates and factory councils was affirmed. National contracts by category were replaced by workplace negotiations taking account of specific local situations. The activity of militants was not only distributing newspapers and leaflets outside workplaces, but where there was a militant or sympathizer on the inside, attempts were made to develop “Leninist factory nuclei” with various agitational newspapers, together with propaganda (such as Il Filo Rosso dell’ENEL, etc.), and the distribution of the national paper. Outside workplaces, workers’ circles were developed in different parts of town. Naturally the more workers’ circles there were, the more functions they could carry out. With the passing of time and the ebb of workers’ struggles, in fact, the better attended circles with more people and better results nonetheless underwent a “strategic retreat,” aimed at “concentrating” forces, closing down the small and medium-size circles to make way for other ones as the occasion arose, as militants became ready to take on responsibility and the roles they were assigned.

Beginning in the 1980s, the workers’ circles were expanded to other European countries where the task was essentially spreading Marxism and our publications in other European languages. Publishing activity expanded and developed, creating the series Panta Rei, and other initiatives. The great publishing achievement emerging from Lotta Communista remains its rescue of the Italian edition of the translation of the Complete Works of Marx and Engels (and Lenin) which had been started and then dropped by Editori Riuniti, the cp publishing house. Today, in fact, 200 years after Marx’s birth, Edizione Lotta Comunista is producing, in fifty volumes, the Complete Works of Marx and Engels (of which eleven are previously unpublished material), filling a void left by Editori Riuniti, which had suspended their publication. La Stampa, the Turin newspaper which is the mouthpiece of fiat, and which the workers in the 1960s called “the liars” and “the bosses’ voice,” has been reviewing this initiative to publish the works of Marx and Engels, with a flattering comment: “a publishing house far from the clamor of the media, animated by a single unitary passion as well as a philological acuity unexpected in a group of revolutionaries. The publisher takes its name from a movement which is the sole survivor among so many groups of the extra-parliamentary left of the 1960s, which has since that time expressed a fidelity to Marx and Lenin, and hostility to Stalinism, and with no sympathies for Castroism and Maoism.”