05. The end of respectability: the student movement in the universities

Crisis of the Old Organizations
Both legislation on education and counter-proposals coming from the left failed to take into account the opinions of the students themselves. Students were treated as the objects of pedagogic practices and the passive recipients of knowledge. Students in the late sixties rebelled against this paternalistic approach to their problems and asserted their own needs and identities. This rebellion took the form of a social movement which expressed new demands, but not before the older forms of representation had proved incapable of channelling and interpreting student activism.

The first protests against government educational policies emerged from within the student organizations connected to the main political parties. The most radical organization was the Unione Goliardica Italiana (UGI) which grouped together adherents of the PCI and PSI; the Intesa represented the Catholic students and had links with the Christian Democrats. From 1948 to 1968 these organizations took part in the Unione Nazionale Rappresentativa Italiana (UNURI), which was an officially recognized body within the universities and spoke for student interests. In 1963 it negotiated grants with the government. The ethos of these organizations derived from the world of the political and cultural elite; the preamble of UGI’s charter read:

The university spirit is composed of culture and intelligence. It is love of liberty and consciousness of one’s responsibilities .... And lastly it is the veneration of the ancient traditions handed down by our free universities.

The politics of the active university students reflected those of the national parliament. UGI and Intesa stood for election to the Organismi Rappresentativi (OORR), which acted as forums of debate. The elections to the OORR in 1964-5 still showed the predominance of conservative opinions among students; UGI received an average 17 per cent of the vote, which was little more than the fascists and just under half that of Intesa.

However, there were signs of change in student politics. During the strikes of 1960-63 large contingents of students participated in the mass demonstrations, and in 1963 all the architecture faculties of Italian universities were occupied. Above all, mobilization against the Gui bill had national dimensions and a high level of participation, culminating in a march in April 1965. This bill for university reform proposed to limit student intake to the universities and to establish three types of course from one year diplomas to the full degree course. It was attacked by UNURI as unjust, and a committee for the ‘reform and democratization of the university’ was set up in cooperation with lecturers to oppose the bill.

The architecture faculties were especially lively centres of student politics in the mid sixties. This seems to have been due to their keen and critical interest in the Centre-Left experiment, for which planning and building programmes were touchstones. At the Polytechnic’s faculty in Milan, study groups analysed the political functions of architecture and criticized courses and learning methods. In particular, students demanded the coordination of subjects into coherent programmes of study, the integration of research and teaching, and the introduction of collective . study. The emphasis was on education as process rather than product. Radical students connected the role of the institution to national politics. Thus, the Centre-Left was increasingly criticized for its failures to ` introduce urban planning and to improve working-class housing, and the Gui bill was criticized for the way it threatened to separate research from teaching and ‘technicize’ the study of architecture. In 1967 opposition to the government turned into a fifty-five day occupation at the Milan faculty. This in many ways anticipated future student actions. An environment was created which was ‘functional to collective living, debate and shared work’; all major decisions were taken by the general meetings rather than by UNURI; commissions were set up to examine political and .. educational issues with the participation of some lecturers. The authorities ended by conceding to demands for seminars and for greater choice of courses.

Events in Milan, however, were eclipsed by student actions in Pisa which brought the crisis of UGI to a head, and radicalized opposition to the government. The Pisan students put themselves on the political map by stepping up the campaign against the government’s reform proposals. In February 1967 they disrupted a conference of university heads, who were meeting in Pisa, occupied some buildings and clashed with police. Throughout the events the official student bodies were bypassed by the activists, and decisions on action were taken at open general meetings. But what made the Pisan students’ initiatives especially important for the development of the movement was their theorization of a new approach to student politics. The ‘Pisan Theses’ became one of its most influential manifestos.

The Theses applied an ‘operaist’ analysis inspired by the Quaderni Rossi to the student situation. They maintained that the transformation of a free market into a planned capitalism required more highly qualified labour power to meet the needs of advanced technological production, as outlined in the government’s Pieraccini plan. Therefore students, who were now defined as the future qualified workers, were no longer a privileged elite, but were ‘objectively’ members of the working class. The political problem, according to the Pisan argument, was to create awareness among students of their real class position, and that this could best be achieved by fighting for student wages. The struggle would bring students and workers together against the common enemy - capitalism and the state.

Although the demand for student wages was not widely taken up, the Pisan approach had a strong appeal, especially among dissident Communist and Socialist aligned students. Like the Marxist heresies of the mid sixties from which they originated, the Pisan Theses promised a certain ideological purity in their militant refusal of parliamentarianism and reformism. At the Rimini conference of UGI in May 1967 the Pisan Theses formed the basis of a current of opposition to the leadership coming from the PSIUP and the left wing of the PCI. The narrow victory of the leadership in the voting of the motions turned out to be pyrhhic; the failure to respond positively to the growing radicalization among students sealed the fate of UGI, Intesa and UNURI. Attempts to provide new organizational solutions fell on deaf ears; the idea of a student’s union in 1967 of a constituent assembly in early 1968 and finally of an ‘organiza- tion of Communist university students’ in March 1968 all remained a dead letter. By the end of 1968 all the organizations had formally dissolved themselves.

The fate of the para-party student organizations, however, served to conceal the degree to which the new generation of activists was formed within them. Like many of the reviews and political groupings, to which it was closely related, the new wave of student opposition to parliamentary reformism took the form of Communist heresies. This is very evident in the case of the Pisan student movement, which was dominated by the operaist theories which emanated from the Quaderni Rossi grouping at nearby Massa, and which was among the first to get actively involved in industrial disputes, making links directly with workers rather than through the unions. This early association of student politics with workers’ struggles and the popularity of the proletarianization thesis gave the Italian movement its most distinctive character, and had lasting effects on its orientations. However, this approach also tended to obscure the problems faced by students themselves, and it was not until these were addressed that the movement was able to take mass forms.

Student Identity and the Politics of Violence
In the winter of 1967 and the first quarter of 1968, student agitation in the universities grew to national proportions. In November the universities of Trento, Turin and Genoa and the Cattolica of Milan were occupied, and in December the movement spread to the south with the occupation of Naples university. In January 1968 thirty-six universities were occupied. The common denominator of the movement was opposition to the Gui bill under discussion in parliament, but, as Rossana Rossanda writes: ‘the students were first of all against the logic that had produced the bill, the political, academic and social mechanisms that generated it.’ At a student movement conference in Milan in March 1968, Mauro Rostagno outlined the nature of the conflict in progress:

The new type of mass social struggle reveals the nature of the new type of social system; it is a social system that tends to destroy independent areas of activity, subjecting them to a centralized, rigid and planned control. Distinctions between the superstructures and structures, between economy and politics, between the public and private no longer make sense .... Study, work, consumption, free time, personal relations . . . all of them enter into a scheme of inputs and outputs that allow conflict but will not tolerate antagonism.

The new conflict involved all spheres of life and helped forge a student identity and politics. This process will be examined in this chapter in relation to the themes of political violence, and fashion, which provide important insights into the movement’s image of itself in its formative period. (Analyses of the movement at the Catholic and State universities of Milan in the following sections will give a more concrete and detailed picture of its development.)

The student movement’s antagonism to the state had been a major source of its unity ever since the Centre-Left government had tried to reform the universities. Anti-reformism was almost an article of faith. However, it became more vivid, immediate and impelling when students and police joined battle in Rome on 20 March, 1968. Student defiance of a ban on demonstrations was met with tear-gas and truncheon charges. That was no novelty; the difference on this occasion was that the students fought back and drove the police off the streets. La Sinistra wrote:

The fight against ‘academic’ and ‘societal’ authoritarianism is now visibly unified; the whole state apparatus is behind the academic structures not only culturally but physically. The truncheon reinforces professorial concepts, the water-cannon speaks for parliamentary majorities, and the old-style exam stands behind the blanket of tear-gas.

The battle of Valle Giulia was a turning point for the student movement. Guido Viale writes:

The government and the movement, from this moment, found themselves face to face as protagonists of a conflict with national dimensions .... The government did not miss another opportunity to force showdowns with students and workers. And the students responded by forming ‘defence organizations’ (servizi d’ordine) to keep control of the streets. At Pisa, a few weeks later, a student demonstration, which ended by occupying the railway station, was organized and well-equipped; everyone wore the same crash helmets as the Japanese and German students.

On 25 March 1968 Milan had its ‘Valle Giulia’. Students at the Catholic University, who had been locked out by the authorities following their eviction from the premises, decided to reoccupy the buildings near Sant’Ambrogio. Previously conflict had always been non-violent; on the one hand, the police treated students with the respect they traditionally paid to the middle classes and the commissar of police maintained an understanding with student leaders. On the other hand, the students themselves used passive resistance and tried to win public sympathy for their cause. However, on this occasion, these rules of the game were broken as both sides resorted to violent means. Although the majority of the six thousand student demonstrators came to protest peacefully, the politicized activists were determined to reoccupy even if this meant a battle. Mario Capanna, one of the leaders, delivered a dramatic speech and ultimatum to serried ranks of police guarding the university gates, saying: ‘We are giving you ten minutes to leave the premises that you are illegally occupying, or we will have to evict you’ (‘Vi diamo dieci minuti per sgomberare’). The students, in other words, were assuming the role of the police and claiming the right to restore order. The police replied to the provocation with violent charges. The kid gloves were taken off, and the peaceful demonstrators, along with the more militant ones, were severely beaten and terrorized. Sixty students were imprisoned, and forty-eight were charged with serious offences. So, in the wake of Valle Giulia, the terms of student-police conflict changed dramatically. For students, the police became a hated enemy, against whom it was legitimate to use force; whilst the police lost all respect for people they regarded as figli di papa (the spoilt children of the privileged), and willingly taught them a lesson.

Guido Viale’s analysis, according to which the government went out of its way to provoke confrontations, needs, however, to be given more precision. Distinctions have to be made between and within the different state apparatuses which were neither uniformly conservative nor completely controlled from above by the executive. It seems that the Centre-Left government had little to gain from violent showdowns with the student movement, and preferred compromises; following the Valle Giulia events it ordered the release of all those arrested and encouraged the university rector to negotiate with the movement. However, within the state’s repressive apparatuses, conservative and right-wing opinion favoured the use of force to put down disorders. In the heat of events, the latter were able de facto to impose their policies of strong policing, and then to oblige the minister of the interior to defend their actions. The toll of deaths and injuries due to police charges, tear-gas canisters and use of firearms escalated as a consequence, especially from the beginning of 1969. At the same time, it should be noted that the student movement as a whole did not make distinctions between the good intentions of ministers and the actions of the police in Italy. Rather, the bloodshed appeared to confirm analyses of the state, according to which it was an instrument of class rule which was fundamentally repressive. The words of one of the movement’s most popular slogans, ‘Smash the state, don’t change it’ (‘Lo Stato si abbatte non si cambia’), reflected this view. The logical consequence of such thinking about the state was the evolution of theories and strategies within the student movement which made political violence a central problem. Pacificism was pronounced dead by common consent; as graffiti put it ‘revolutionary pacificist is like a vegetarian lion.’ Student activists learnt how to make Molotov cocktails as part of their trade, and readers of La Sinistra could find diagrams and instructions to help them. The idea of violent and armed struggle appeared in the movement’s songs and slogans. A list ofthe most popular slogans in the movement, compiled by the magazine L’Espresso’, shows how dominant the theme of violence had become by the end of 1968.

Revolution, yes - revisionism, no (Rivoluzione si - revisionismo no)

Workers’ power - arms to the workers (Potere operaio - armi agli operai)

Power comes out of the barrel of the gun (Il potere sta sulla canna del fucile)

The Vietcong win because they shoot (Vietcong vince perche’ spara)

Violence in return for violence (Violenza alla violenza)

Two, three, lots of Vietnams two, three, lots of Valle Giulias (Due, tre, molti Vietnam due, tre, molte Valle Giulia)

War, no - guerrilla action, yes (Guerra no - guerriglia si)

Furthermore, the most popular song of the student movement was La Violenza. A verse celebrates clashes with the police: ‘Today I have seen a demonstration - smiling faces, fifteen-year-old girls and workers along- side the students’, then ‘l saw armoured cars overturned and burning, and many, many, policemen with broken heads’ (tanti e tanti baschi neri con le teste fracassate). The chorus-line makes clear that ‘whoever wasn’t there this time, won’t be with us tomorrow’. La violenza, la violenza, la violenza e la rivolta; chi non c’era questa volta non sara con noi domani).

The violence practised by the student movement in its formative stages can be referred to as ‘expressive behaviour as defined by Pizzorno, in that the conflicts with the authorities tended to be ends in themselves and often did not rely on processes of negotiation because their true objective was the constitution of a new identity. But violence was exalted within the political culture of the student movement for several reasons. Firstly, violence, real and symbolic, made it easy to distinguish friends and foes. It drew lines of battle, and enforced alignments. It was a litmus test showing the difference between revolutionaries and reformists. Violence, it was thought, showed the state’s apparatus in its true colours (in La Sinistra’s words, it exposed the ‘truncheon behind the professorial concept’). Secondly, violence had a shock effect that was conceived by the movement to be therapeutic. It not only distanced the students from the bourgeois values of their families, but served to root them out from the inside. Notions of legality, it was thought, had to be overcome, otherwise nothing would change. Thirdly, violence created solidarity: ‘Whoever wasn’t there this time, won’t be with us tomorrow.’ It was a test that required people to prove themselves. Che Guevara’s ‘new man’ had to be created in the heat of battle, and to be like Guevara meant following him down the violent road for, in the words of a ‘68 slogan: ‘Guevara non parla, spara’, (Guevara doesn’t talk, he shoots). Violence meant ‘putting yourself on the line’, and so ‘being taken at your word’. It was a test of trustworthiness ‘now’, in a moment of crisis, and the anticipation of ‘tomorrow’s’ society of fraternity. Moreover, the act of collective violence was an intense physical and emotional experience that summoned up total commitment to the group on the part of the individual. Lastly, violence was group power in action, and the means of its extension. The broken heads of the police showed what could be done if only the oppressed fought back. It was only the beginning, but it was also the prefiguration of future revolt and insurrection. Violence was conceived of as a detonator that multiplied itself and generalized struggles, starting with ‘two or three’ and growing into ‘many’ revolts.

The theme of political violence was crucial to the student movement’s development, but it would be misleading to take it literally by removing it from its proper context. It was by no means the only or predominant political focus, and was more verbal and symbolic than physical and organized. It was, above all, a means of self-differentiation in its extremest form. In this respect it can be compared to the use made of fashion by the student movement, which served to epater le bourgeois, and to assert a common identity.

The Politics of Student Dress
The first shock waves to pass through il Milano perbene (well-heeled Milan) were generated by Italian ‘beatniks’. Their tent-village New Barbonia (New Bumsville) on via Ripamonte provoked hysteria at the Corriere della Sera, whose headlines on the Milan pages played on the fears of the readers for the safety of their children: ‘The Longhairs of New Barbonia Even Celebrate Sacrilegious Weddings’; ‘Provos and Longhairs Threaten A "March on Milan" Tomorrow’. A description of their eviction stresses the danger they represent to public health: ‘Police, waste-disposal services and health officers finally managed to clean up, spraying some .. , 500 litres of disinfectant over the area’. The beatniks’ long hair, in particular, was used to conjure up images of dirt, primitivism, and sexual depravity.

The beatniks were part of a bohemian world which, in Milan, found its centre of gravity in the Brera district and its headquarters in the Bar Giamaica. For them, lifestyle and appearance were at one with their anti- bourgeois, anti-institutional ideas. However, their brand of shock tactics was an extreme form of a more generalized use of clothing and appear- ance for expressive purposes. There was an extraordinary coincidence between the rise of the movement and the mass purchase of new items of clothing. The rapidity of the changes in appearance can be seen by looking at photographs taken in 1967 and in 1968. Photographs of the Architecture Faculty occupation in Milan in early 1967 show clean-shaven male students dressed in jackets and ties. Their dress is of sombre hue - browns and dark greens - and little that is sartorial distinguishes them from the rest of the city’s middle class. Pictures taken a year later show a very different image of the student. This time the Cuban-style beard is in fashion, many men and women students are wearing blu-jeans (as they are known in Italian), men are not wearing jackets, unless they have a military look with cap to match. Some have red handkerchiefs tied around their neck, but the tie has been dispensed with. The colours are brighter. A similar comparison of ‘before’ and ‘after’ can be made with the class photographs of a city liceo; that of 1967 is formal and everyone has a neat appearance, whilst in the 1968 picture the young students look scruffy and wave their clenched fists at the camera.

For demonstrations the movement developed its own sort of uniform. In winter, everyone wore khaki Eskimo jackets, trousers and long scarves. The common rationale given for wearing this clothing was that it was practical; the Eskimo had lots of pockets and was tough, warm and water- proof, and the scarves were useful for masking the face and for protecting the eyes against teargas. However, this does not explain how a certain wardrobe and repertoire of hairstyles and gestures developed within the movement. To do so, it is necessary to look at the emergence of its image of itself, and its attempt to define itself in the eyes of the world. The dress of the Italian student movement was marked by the desire to project a political self-image. Style took on political connotations, in that the activists often wore their clothes as if they were carrying a banner. Commitment was worn on the sleeve for all to see. Politics was no longer invisible to the eye, a private matter of conscience to be guessed at by the curious stranger; it was made public for all to see. Whilst in previous political movements people had worn emblems, carnations for instance, usually the class connotations of appearance were already sufficiently identifiable; workers, for example, frequently attended demonstrations in their overalls. For students, however, it was vital to dress differently in order to distinguish themselves from the middle classes from which most of them came. In fact, it was almost obligatory not to dress in a traditional manner in the student ambience to avoid being taken for a Fascist.

The new appearance cultivated by the student movement was experienced as an immense release from the constraints of dull respectability. Young men experimented by wearing bright colours, which had long been denied them. For women, the new fashion of the natural appearance released them from the pressures to use make-up and wear high heels (many wore trousers and did not wear a dress again for several years). For the men it led to the cultivation of the wild and unkempt look, especially on the more libertarian fringes. The movement, in addition, encouraged a certain theatrical imagination, which perhaps explains the temporary vogue for Carbonaro-style mantles that evoked romantic images of revolt. However, the movement also created models of what a comrade should look like, and implicitly invested them with moral values. In fact, this will to set up new standards, as well as the willingness to criticize the dominant codes, differentiates the relation of fashion to a social move- ment from other forms of fashion. Thus, it was not like those fashions described by Alberoni in which: ‘every individual, although behaving in the same way as the others, is, in reality, concerned only about himself’ because the style for the student movement was a means of ‘participating in a wider solidarity’. Then, unlike deviancy, there was not only a conscious breaking of the hidden rules governing appearance, but an alter- native set of norms. Interestingly, in Milan a strange man known as Sacha took particular pleasure in attending student demonstrations and occupations dressed in the height of elegance in a blue suit with shirt and cravat, or wearing a smoking jacket. His deviant imagination could be satisfied only against the backdrop of a student generation that had turned its back on middle-class fashions. Although there were some who delighted in cutting a fine figure, the moment for doing so had largely passed (such a moment was Feltrinelli’s return to Italy from Bolivia at the beginning of the previous year dressed with Cuban flourishes); now it was more important to share a common identity.

The student movement dealt with the question of fashion in largely negative terms. Appearance and clothes became issues in as far as they represented the consumerism, wealth and ostentation that the movement opposed. Thus, before the Christmas of 1968, students picketed the department store Rinascente, not only in support of the striking shop- workers, but to oppose Christmas consumerism. Earlier in the month they attacked the opening night of La Scala in protest at the luxury and finery exhibited by the Milanese bourgeoisie. A strong streak of puritanism ran through the movement, which also reflected a masculine ethos according to which expenditure on clothes and appearance was fundamentally wasteful. It was basically thought that clothes should be practical and economical, and that appearance should be natural. The utopian idea informing the new fashion was that in an ideal society there would be a rough-and-ready equality; dress would really be of little importance in judging and distinguishing people. It was an artifice that had to be minimized in order to achieve a collective identity. The movement’s idea of clothing and appearance, in other words, was an aspect of a naturalistic aesthetic which aspired to make the relationships between people trans- parent. Ultimately, the movement condemned the very idea of fashion, and would have liked to have abolished it as seemed to have been done in China.

A Moral Panic
By the first months of 1968 the student movement in Italy had radically transformed the student image and identity. Students looked and behaved differently from the sons and daughters of the middle class who had gone to the liceo and the university before them. Over the period 1968-9 students became both hate-figures and fashion-setters in the eyes of the media-consuming public. Liberal progressive opinion, represented by the weeklies L’Espresso and Panorama, was given pictures of an exotic and exciting world and of struggles against the conservative establishment. L’Espresso specialized in guides and maps designed to help the reader decode the movement’s signs (the insignia of different political organizations, their origins, and so on). By contrast, Il Corriere della Sera, the Milan-based daily, thrilled and shocked its readers in turn with stories about student outrages. Whilst L’Espresso tried to make the phenomenon comprehensible, the Corriere dwelt on its incomprehensible features. The campaign of the Corriere della Sera had all the characteristics of what Stan Cohen has called the ‘moral panic’:

Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereo-typical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteri- orates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic is passed over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in a way society conceives itself. In England the ‘folk devils’ studied by Cohen in the late sixties were mods and rockers; in Italy, the reds were traditionally the devils, but in 1968 students assumed the role, provoked a panic about the infiltration of Communism and permissiveness into Italian institutions. The Corriere della Sera usually referred to movement activists as ‘the Chinese’ (i cinesi) a term which conjured up the red menace and the yellow peril in one. Its coverage of student politics gained a certain notoriety for its sheer vituper- ation. However, it was not only the right which condemned the movement. The moral panic was mainly felt by the political and religious establish- ment and traditionalist middle class, but it also cut across political cultures. One of the most notable statements directed against the move ment came from Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was a Communist Party sympathizer. In June 1968 he wrote a poem expressing his loathing for the figli di papa:
Now all the journalists in the world are licking your arses… but not me, my dears. You have the faces of spoilt brats, and I hate you, like I hate your fathers .... When yesterday at Valle Giulia you beat up the police, I sympathized with the police because they are the sons of the poor.

In the same month Giorgio Amendola, a leading member of the PCI, described the student movement as a re-edited version of irrationalism and infantilist, anarchist extremism. He called for a fight on ‘two fronts’, which meant counterposing the patrimony ‘accumulated by us over tens of years of hard struggles’ to dangerous student extremism.

In 1968 it is possible to speak of a moral panic of which the students were the principal protagonists. They aimed to shock and disgust sections of public opinion and they succeeded. But unlike the folk devils studied by Cohen who delighted in infamy without pretending to destroy society, the student movement was a movement and not a set of deviant activities. It aimed to subvert the existing institutions, and, if possible, to bring about revolutionary changes. By themselves students were powerless, and their actions provoked a moral panic of limited proportions. But when they joined forces with the workers’ movement that panic became more general; it became a ‘crisis of hegemony’.