The Italian Long ’68

Reasons of age prevented me from actively participating in the social explosion of ’68. At the time I was only an adolescent, more interested in kids’ games and in the onset of emotional turbulence than attracted by the electric atmosphere around me. Further, I grew up in a small town which historically had been dominated by the temporal power of the Church, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, the consequences of which were still in evidence in the 1960s. I vaguely perceived that things were rapidly changing, without being able to make much sense of the news on tv. There had been the assassination of President Kennedy and then, in ’68, of his brother Robert, and of Martin Luther King. I had been struck earlier by the enormous demonstrations of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, while Italian media maintained the silence of the tomb on the Vietnam War and on the big us demonstrations opposing it. For me, 1969 was the year of man’s first trip to the moon. Images of the French mobilizations in ’68 also seemed to come from another world. My arrival in high school, and the student strikes there, were not enough of a push to get me involved in the movement, which by then had come to my town. My participation was completely passive and I saw the strikes as a good opportunity to skip classes.

Nonetheless, the passing years and my growing hostility to everything representing authority pushed me further toward what was happening around me and around the world, and especially to understand why. Thus, during the summer vacation, after my third year of high school, I borrowed some books from some of the more active students and began to read randomly. I was unable to understand the first texts they recommended, especially Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, and they depressed me. Then I got ahold of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, and I was totally swept away reading it. More and more, what was happening around me, and the real structure of our society, seemed understandable. Above all, I saw a clear need to take part in the movement which, four years after ’68, was still very strong in Italy. Thus, when school reopened, I began to participate more seriously in student struggles, but although I tried to keep up to date reading the daily newspapers of the far left at that time, I felt completely inadequate to make a significant contribution. I looked to the older students in the last year of high school as the natural leaders, because of their experience and their knowledge.

I was put off because my technical school, which had 1,500 students, only participated with limited delegations in unitary demonstrations with other schools. Most of the students, exactly like me in previous years, went on strike mainly to have a day’s vacation from classes. So, one morning during a strike, as I was getting more and more fed up with the way things were going, I approached one of the students guiding the procession, hoping to get more decisive and solid answers. Since I was very impatient, and was obviously bothering him, he at a certain point handed me the megaphone and told me to try to get other students to participate in the march. After being briefly taken aback by this unforeseen development, I began to aggressively harangue the crowd, addressing the more active students, convincing them to organize monitors, to block the sidewalks and to take over the head of the march, calling on the others to follow them. On that day, for the first time, 90 percent of the students from my school participated, and when we linked up with marches from other schools, our contingent, to everyone’s surprise, was the biggest. This event, caused more by impatience and common sense than by any real political experience, turned me suddenly into one of the more visible leaders, not only of my school, but of the whole student movement in the town. I had gotten into this situation out of a certain discomfort rather than from any enthusiasm, because I felt completely unprepared for this kind of role. But it turned out to be a positive challenge, because I, always a very lazy reader, began to devour books and journals to overcome my obvious lack of political education. Further, I began to participate in different kinds of meetings organized by collectives and political groups, which at that time were sprouting like mushrooms, to get a better idea of the positions of the different political tendencies. But from all this, my confusion only increased, rather than diminished. Everyone claimed to base their outlook on the theoretical fathers of communism, and to be their most faithful adherents, but every group pointed to a different path to follow. Although I was living in a small city in southern Italy, all the most representative political tendencies of that time were present. Moreover, the university students, who returned periodically from the big cities where they were studying, brought with them the latest twists and turns in the national political debate and, above all, communicated to us the effervescent climate they were experiencing.

Nonetheless, I had chosen my camp and, like so many others, once I had overcome generic juvenile rebellion, my political commitment was thereafter based, above all, on a conviction of the need to overcome a society divided into antagonistic classes and to put an end to social relations based on profits and capitalist exploitation. Not that the reasons for my rebellion had disappeared, but all those aspects, from authoritarianism to the patriarchal family, seemed rather to be consequences of the dominant social relations characteristic of capitalism. Or more precisely, as became clearer to me later on, they were old forms of oppression, revitalized and brought up to date by bourgeois domination to reinforce control over all other social classes. At any rate, while I still saw the need to continue fighting against these secondary manifestations of capitalist oppression, I was henceforth convinced that, without a basic struggle attacking the roots of the dominant social relations, it would not be possible to definitively overcome them. This is a conviction that, still today, remains the main motivation for my choice to be a militant.

The main problem to confront was understanding the real conditions, and who could be the key force for the radical change to which the whole young generation involved in the struggles of ’68 aspired. I think that this problem, above all, was the decisive one in the discussions and political actions of an entire generation of militants. This was the big problem, to which people came up with such diverse solutions, and which determined the subsequent successes of so many militants’ choices.

Let us attempt to trace out the main outlines of how this question was posed in Italy in ’68 and later years.

One of the characteristics of the Italian ’68 was the diffusion of a myriad of political organizations, some of which had existed earlier, though they were completely turned upside down by the waves of struggles in those years. The explosion of the years ’68–69 did not quickly ebb away, as happened in other European countries, but rather was consolidated in the formation of various political groups which were joined by the most active and sensitive elements in the movement. In this way, the spontaneity and generic anti-authoritarian rebellion characterizing the first phase was partially lost, but this at the same time gave a relative continuity to the movement itself, though in a competition which often led to standoffs between the various organizations. Among the most active elements in the movement, there was a diffuse consciousness that the issues raised in the struggles of ’68 implied a confrontation on a whole other level with the existing powers and institutions, if they were to be resolved. Moreover, the most radical part of the movement was made up primarily of students, whereas the working class and the world of labor in general, while involved in those years in a level of action and struggles quite as deep as those of the students, remained in its overwhelming majority within the ranks of the reformist parties and the institutionalized trade unions. In particular the cgil, the union linked to the Communist Party, adopted a very elastic strategy to deal with the radicalism expressed by the workers. When dealing with individual factory struggles, which were often quite intense, the cgil did not counter-pose itself to them, but often supported them, while attempting to progressively rein them in. Even the establishment of Factory Councils, elected by all workers and not merely those who were union members, which were also an important step forward relative to the old forms of trade-union representation, went in the same direction. Relative to the spontaneity and “assemblyism” which characterized the first phases of the movement of factory struggles, the formation of the councils was precisely an attempt to channel and discipline these energies, in order to better control them. Moreover, the very radicalism of the workers’ struggles and the workers’ aggressive role wound up winning important results for the great mass of proletarians, both in terms of wages and working conditions, as well as in the welfare state and workers’ rights.

One of the triggers for the general struggle of workers in ’68 had been precisely the government’s attempt to cut pensions. These gains, which reached their climax in ’75 with the agreements on the “sliding scale” (scala mobile, the automatic adjustment to equalize wages with inflation, which was then very high), reinforced for the majority of workers the illusion that henceforth there would be an era of continuous and progressive improvement of working and living conditions from which there would be no turning back. There was widespread belief in a consolidation and extension of these gains, including winning political control by the workers’ own party to take over the government, but not that it was necessary to radically change the dominant social relations. This explains why the various revolutionary tendencies in Italy, during and after ’68, despite their significant mass following, never really took root in the working class. Some of the most combative workers joined those organizations, and had the trust of the people where they worked, but this was almost always limited to factory committees or, at the most, within the unions, without leading to large-scale adhesion to the organizations and programs of these factory vanguards. The tendencies of the revolutionary left generally explained this phenomenon by the influence of the reformist organizations on the masses of workers, which by their political weight and their bureaucratic-ideological apparatuses were able to contain the revolutionary breakout of which the proletariat was presumed capable. But this was only part of the reality, which concealed a self-consoling logic and, at bottom, a relative condescension towards the workers themselves, who were seen as a mass of people who could be maneuvered at will. In fact, it was certainly true that the reformist organizations were doing everything possible to channel the radical impulses of workers’ struggles into institutional paths, in order to keep them within the logic of preserving the capitalist system, however improved, but it was also true that the workers did not aspire to overcome the dominant relations of production. Even when some of them were inclined to socialism or communism, what they had in mind was capitalism with a human face, one more just and more egalitarian. They mainly imagined a society where most property was in the hands of the state. All in all, their model was the ussr, perhaps a bit improved, because by then it was obvious that, especially in terms of consumption, the workers of the so-called socialist countries were not better off than those in the west. But a society in which wage labor, the market and exchange based on value were abolished was completely beyond their horizons. And this was not because no one had been able to explain all this well, or to propagate such ideas with the necessary efficacy and clarity, or to translate such a perspective into a credible program of political objectives. For the Italian proletariat, which had recently suffered the consequences of a destructive war on its own doorstep, which had known the poverty and hunger of the first years of the postwar period, the economic boom of the 1960s was a tremendous step forward in terms of the levels and quality of consumption, of access to social services, and even for job prospects. It was of course true that many proletarians had to emigrate from the south to the north of Italy, or even to other countries, to find work, but this had never before been possible and such workers had previously survived in the poverty of their own places of origin. All in all, the 1960s saw the spread of a relative well being, even if it were bought at the price of harsh exploitation. The phase of development underway in the imperialist metropolises, and the favorable balance of forces in the labor market, gave workers greater contractual power in limiting their own exploitation, but at the same time produced a sense of inclusion and of belonging to the existing society in which they could demand more consideration, but certainly not subvert it from top to bottom. Further, in a society divided into classes like our own, there has never been a revolutionary turnover during a relative expansion of the dominant relations of production and the relative improvement in the living and working conditions of the oppressed.

Nonetheless, the powerful actions of the factory workers, which lasted into the mid-1970s and beyond, was the real motor underpinning the extension of ’68 in Italy. The student upsurge could never have lasted as long without this diffuse and continuous movement of struggles shaking the factories. Its effects reverberated on other sectors of the proletariat and on other social strata as well. Those years in fact saw the development of powerful struggles over housing, especially in the large cities, which were concretized in the occupations of free living spaces, or in the demand for laws on equal rents, calculated according to income and not by the laws of ground rent. In the Italian south, movements of the unemployed arose, especially in Naples, expressing a radical combativity never seen before in these social sectors. In healthcare, in schools and in public transportation, there were important cycles of struggles, not merely over wages and working conditions, but posing directly the form and quality of the services provided to all citizens, and above all to proletarians. The feminist movement also benefitted from this general effervescent climate. In fact, women who had in recent years had had better access to productive labor, were the protagonists of factory struggles and naturally found the strength to raise demands about their own gender condition and double oppression. The effects, in terms of results, were not lacking. In a clerical country such as Italy, where the power, including political power, of the Catholic Church was decisive, during a four-year period laws were passed that finally legalized divorce, in ’74, and then granted the right to abortion in ’78. The church itself was shaken by pushes for renewal and social activism, both by some priests and by some believers and their organizations. There was the phenomenon of worker priests, who chose to share the conditions of the most exploited people in society, or to go spread the gospels in the most rundown peripheries of the large cities. Many Catholic organizations transformed their own social missions, to defend the rights of workers and the poor, going beyond their previous charitable and pietistic character from earlier decades. To a certain extent, there was even a political tendency of Catholics for Socialism, whose members were active in the ranks of the radical New Left organizations.

In the army of that period, which was still based on mandatory conscription, and which was thus the authoritarian institution par excellence, the arrival of so many young people who had been involved in workers’ and student struggles introduced the phenomenon of generalized subversion there as well. Struggle organizations were created, leading to highly significant outbreaks of mass insubordination. With the support of outside activists, there was an attempt to give continuity to organizations in the conscript army, including through the printing and spread of a clandestine rebel press specifically aimed at the military. But frequent turnover and heavy repression made everything more difficult. Personally, during my period as a draftee, I participated in at least three strikes in the mess hall and was involved in three support committees in the city where I was stationed. Even categories such as doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers and magistrates were caught up in this climate of renewal, giving rise to professional organizations for the defense of those most oppressed by existing social relations, and beginning to criticize from within these institutions that embodied domination and class oppression. Finally, though this was not a secondary phenomenon, this climate also affected intellectuals and artists, bringing about a temporary change in culture at every level. There was an exceptional increase in research and elaboration in every field; from the adoption of themes from Marxism and communism, to anthropological and sociological studies, to law and urban studies, to prisons and mental institutions, every aspect of social life and institutions was involved in radical critique. But perhaps the most vital and meaningful effects took place in the areas of moral values, customs and interpersonal relations. Here as well, the church was an enormous obstacle and Italy was clearly arriving late in these areas, relative to other countries. A bigoted, patriarchal and moralistic ideology still dominated, which claimed to dictate what was permitted and what not, giving rules for behavior to be rigidly applied. 1968 and the following years were a real revolution in the way people dressed, in the rejection of every kind of formal comportment, in the questioning of hierarchy in the family, in sexuality and in emotions.

In this climate of general effervescence, the various revolutionary political parties born of the impact of ’68 believed that it was enough to push the mobilizations even further, giving organization to the movement, and thus weaken the economic and political power of the bourgeoisie to the point of imploding its power and opening the way to socialist transformation. But the Italian ruling classes, though often divided among themselves, reacted with real shrewdness to the situation, in the shared perspective of throttling the movement or at least dismantling its subversive abilities. On one hand, they played the card of massacres, with the bombs set off in Milan in ’69, then in Brescia and on the Italicus train in ’74, while they prepared for a coup. This strategy was unleashed by important parts of the state apparatus and by men of the state institutions, with the support of activists from the extreme fascists, who were also used for continuous thuggish aggressions against activists and public mobilizations. On the other hand, on the institutional level, the bourgeoisie opened the doors of the government to the moderate left, in particular to the Socialist Party, by pushing through some reforms, of which the most significant was the Statute of Working People, in order to convince the majority of the proletariat that by the parliamentary and electoral road it was possible to obtain progressive improvements without having to go into the streets. In fact, this strategy of collaboration by one section of the bourgeoisie involved the Communist Party itself, which was seeking to benefit from the movement on the electoral level to increase its negotiating power, but at the same time projecting an image as a responsible and democratic force, one capable of managing the interests of Italian capitalism more effectively, and of guaranteeing control of the streets.

Confronted with this dynamic, the organizations of the radical New Left split. Some supported the idea of adopting the Chilean model, which had brought Allende to power by forging a government of the left-wing forces together with the support of the revolutionary parties and with street mobilizations as the basis for a further revolutionary breakthrough. Others denounced the vague and dangerous nature of this electoralist project, pointing not only to the failures of the Chilean experiment leading to Pinochet’s coup, but also that in the event of success, the solid support of the Communist Party would produce a government preserving the bourgeois order and definitively disciplining the movement, preparing the way for even more reactionary strategies.

The culmination of this discussion resulted from the political elections of 1976, when the Communist Party reached the peak of its influence while still remaining the second party in terms of votes, whereas Democrazia Proletaria, which was something of a cartel of various left-wing tendencies, came in with a miserable 1.5 percent of the votes. This led to a government of “national unity” because, in fact, if the Communist Party did not participate directly in the government, it still made up part of the majority. Disappointment ran very deep in the rank and file of the organizations of the radical left. Lotta Continua, which was one of the strongest parties of the New Left, decided to dissolve itself immediately after the elections, in light of the failure of its own strategy, but the other political formations, which had also supported the electoral project, saw important losses of members, some of whom withdrew from active politics, while others evolved to much more radical positions. In particular, the tendency of Autonomia Operaia, which was not really a political party but a vaguely defined radical political grouping around the positions of Italian workerism (operaismo, one of the precursors and protagonists of ’68, giving rise to Potere Operaio), dissolved in ’73. The other tendency strengthened by the disappointments in the electoral road, and by some exemplary military actions carried out in those years, was the Red Brigades. The further radicalization of some political milieus fed into the explosion of mobilizations in ’77, a relatively spontaneous movement, with different expressions in the various cities where it developed. What tied together this last cycle of struggles was the refusal of work and the right to live a decent life, satisfying collective and individual needs, outside of and against any capitalist logic. The other characteristic element was very intense, and sometimes military, confrontations with the repressive apparatuses of the state. But in reality, even if new waves of young people were involved in this movement, it was mainly made up of recycled political militants who saw and presented themselves as a social subject, without any unitary defined political project. The militarization of confrontations thus strengthened the appeal of the Red Brigades, as well as of the other armed groups which had emerged in interim period, and who were definitely better equipped to take on this level of activity. But all this made it possible for the bourgeoisie to unleash much more repressive actions, even more forcefully after the kidnapping of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades. The latter were practically annihilated in a series of military confrontations, and by the renunciations of some of those arrested, but above all because the social and political conditions for long-term urban guerrilla warfare were lacking in an imperialist country such as Italy. The milieu around Autonomia Operaia was in turn hard hit by the repressive action of the state referred to as the “inquiry of April 7, 1979” (in fact, a nine-year campaign against Autonomia, lasting until 1988, during the “years of lead” that began after the Moro kidnapping). The most visible figures from Autonomia were accused of plotting against the state and of being the real leaders of the Red Brigades, and thus threatened with the most severe sentences. Those who managed to avoid this crackdown escaped abroad, but in fact the Autonomia milieu never recovered from the harsh blows of this repression. But even in this case, the state did not react with repression alone, but also in the same years undertook certain measures to expand youth employment, especially Law 285, which led to the hiring of hundreds of thousands of young people for public works, and also for socially useful jobs, undermining broad swaths of support for the radical left.

With the struggles of ’77 and the repression that followed, one can say that the social ferment begun in Italy in ’68 had exhausted itself.

In my own case, after being involved for several years in the political project leading to the formation of Democrazia Proletaria, based on very radical positions, together with other comrades, we decided to build a new political organization which would continue to actively participate in proletarian struggles. At the same time, I was in a position to begin a critical reflection, not merely on the experience of ’68, but also to draw up a balance sheet on the various political and theoretical tendencies of Italian and of international communism.

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