19. The Red Brigades: sons and daughters of ‘68?

Alberto Melucci has referred to red terrorism as ‘paradoxically both the most radical result and the most radical antithesis of the new "class movements”’. It is a paradox that commentators have too easily dismembered into one of its constituent parts; they have thereby interpreted ‘68 as the Pandora’s Box of modem Italy, or have written off red terrorism as quite extraneous to the social movements. It is the paradox, however, which is central. Without analysing the ambiguities and the polysemic elements of the subculture created by the social movements of 1968-9, it is impossible to make sense of both the coexistence and the conflict that characterized the relationship between the social movements and the first of the major armed organizations, the Red Brigades, during the course of the 1970s.

In the early 1970s the coexistence between the movements and the armed organizations was often amicable. In the late seventies, however, separation and antagonism characterized the relationship between the majority in the social movements and the project of the armed organizations. An outline of this development is useful in understanding how the Red Brigades represented a residual form of politics which, while being unequivocally oppositional, was fundamentally at odds with the idea of social movements that took root in 1968-9. Or, to put it another way, it was the very radicalness - the total nature of the Red Brigades’ opposition to the dominant order - which made them regressive.

The Formative Years: From Sabotage to Assassination

The Red Brigades announced their formation in a leaflet, dated 20 October 1970, in which they described themselves as ‘autonomous’ workers’ organizations . . . ready to fight the bosses and their lackeys on their own ground as equals’. The founder members had all been active in the movements of the previous two years; Renato Curcio, for example, who was the leading theorist among them, had edited a political review at Trento University. Their decision to take up arms was seen by them as a break with, but also a maturation of, developments in social conflicts. Early documents emphasize the limits of the Hot Autumn struggles; they are described as disorganized, localized and largely subordinate to the capitalist system (‘it is not possible to bargain with the bosses for socialism’). The blame for the non-revolutionary outcome of the workers’ action is laid at the door of the ‘revisionists’ (the Communist Party and others), who were said to have contained the movements within the bounds of legality. It is this ‘legalism’ which is identified again and again by the Red Brigades as the principal weakness of the opposition forces. Respect for the law is seen as a crippling handicap in the presence of a capitalist class which unleashes state violence whenever threatened. The bloody events of Avola, Battipaglia, and the Piazza Fontana bombing seemed to provide irrefutable evidence of this analysis. Yet, in the eyes of the Red Brigades, the working class had shown itself ready to use violence during the mass mobilizations and in everyday clashes with management.

The idea of ‘proletarian violence’ was by no means exclusive to those choosing to engage in armed struggle. It was widely canvassed within the social movements. Moreover, violent action was a significant, if largely symbolic, aspect of clashes with the police or with foremen. ‘War’ metaphors abounded in the language of the Left. The Red Brigades could, therefore, legitimately claim to be drawing on a tradition and not just a movement’s spontaneous outbursts of rage. Their proclaimed aim of building proletarian counter-power in the factories, which entailed ‘dismantling the hierarchies of command’, was a basic element in the operaist politics shared with other political groupings of the ‘extra-parliamentary left’, such as Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua. Furthermore, the Red Brigades had ideas about ‘proletarian justice’ which were common to the Marxist-Leninist tendencies in the movement. This meant that ‘the people’ had to create its own standards of justice in its struggle against the dominant laws, and that the ‘enemy’ had to be subjected to its jurisdiction. The cardinal ideas of proletarian justice were not the Red Brigades’ inventions; they were present in the social movements. But, as will be seen by looking at the Red Brigades in action, they combined what were disparate elements in the activities of the social movements to produce a systematic terrorist strategy.

The Red Brigades’ first target was the Pirelli rubber company in Milan, which had been in the eye of the storm of industrial conflict. In December 1970 the contract for the sector was once more due for renewal. Inside the Biccoca plant some former members of the CUB had formed a grouping calling itself Collettivo Politico Metropolitano. It was on militants on the inside that the guerrilla actions relied for reports on the shopfloor situation, the listing of potential targets, the distribution of leaflets, feedback and recruitment. It seems that the trade union and Communist Party had regained control of the plant after the crisis in their authority in 1968-9, but there remained bitter and frustrated activists on the Left. A publication by a group of these within the factory council warned against the danger of concluding from the worsening repression that ‘fascism is knocking at the door’, and that ‘we in the name of the working class must accept the level of struggle imposed by the bosses and turn to proletarian violence’.

It was among these kind of militants, who were highly politicized and with experience of daily skirmishes with management, that the Red Brigades won support. Alessandro Pizzorno outlines the consequences of what he refers to as an ‘excess of militancy’, which became a particular problem with the formation of the right-wing Andreotti government in February 1972, and the exclusion of activists from posts within the factory as councils. Pizzorno writes that the latter had

a bitter taste in the mouth left over from their hopes in 1969-70. Therefore, they either remain on the margins, or they continue to work autonomously exposed to the danger of making their political and trade-union commitments extremist. The sudden brake put on the development of conflict provokes an uncontrolled rush forward.

The first activities of the Red Brigades were geared to this factory-based conflict. It is possible from early communiques to reconstruct the main features of their actions. Seven of these related to actions at Pirelli between November 1970 and April 1971. Communique 1 listed the names of the bosses’ agents (servi del padrone); thus, Ermano Pellegrini ‘has the job of keeping files on political activists, and every day sends a report to the personnel manager, and is in contact with the commissioners of police’; ‘Brioschi, Ercole Carlo. Personnel secretary in cable division - champion scab’. These ‘spies’ are said to ‘deserve pillory’, and Giovanni Nasi, ‘inventor of the Pirelli piece-rate system’, ‘deserves to be abolished along with his piece-rates’; ‘for every comrade they hit at during the struggle, they must pay the price’. Communique 2 called this the principle of ‘for one eye - two eyes, for a tooth - the whole face’. The names, addresses and telephone numbers of the ‘enemies’ are provided with the obvious invitation to workers to make threatening calls and write abusive letters. In Communique 5 the best way of fighting for the contract is said to be ‘using the only arm available by making the struggle more incisive and violent’. The actual actions, however, consisted of destroying the cars of managers held responsible for sacking a leading militant, and of setting fire to a warehouse of tyres. Otherwise, there is extensive incitement to sabotage in Communique 7 which detailed the ‘intelligent’ use of nail and spanner in disrupting production.

The purpose of the Red Brigades’ actions was spelt out in the publication Sinistra Proletaria. It seems that the principle objective was to educate the workers and to make them see that the state was an organ of class repression which could only be fought with arms:

It is time to move ahead to a general confrontation in order to establish the principle among the proletarian masses in struggle that ‘no one has political power unless, they have military power’; to educate the proletarian and revolutionary Left to the need for resistance and partisan actions; to unmask the oppressive and repressive power structures that divide the class.

However, the scale of terrorist actions remained localized, and they were designed to supplement ongoing workers’ struggles.

In March 1972, the Red Brigades carried out their first kidnapping (although ‘kidnap’ is a strong word for twenty minutes in the back of a van). The victim was a manager of Sit Siemens. He was photographed with a placard around his neck with the following inscription: ‘Milan 3.3.72, Macchiarini, Idalgo, fascist manager of Sit Siemens, tried by the RB. The proletarians have taken up arms, for the bosses it is the beginning of the end.’ Another placard attached to the manager who had now been dumped in the road declared: ‘Red Brigades - Hit and run - No one will go unpunished - Strike one and educate one hundred - All power to the armed people.

In the early 1970s there were important actions around housing (squatting, tenants’ strikes), which continued the grassroots politics developed in 1968-9. However, the Red Brigades did not succeed in making any links with them, despite an obvious interest in extending their activities outside the factories. They were especially attracted by the resistance to evictions, which brought disobedience of the law to the forefront:

A the law is the instrument of capital .. . it is against this unjust violence that the people will exercise its just mass forms of violence, as it has already started to do in many areas of Milan, Turin, Rome and Naples.

However, the Red Brigades concentrated their energies on the industrial proletariat, and had little time for the urban sub-proletariat, who were the chief protagonists of the housing actions.

Until April 1974 the targets of the Red Brigades remained constant. In June 1973 they kidnapped a manager of Alfa Romeo in Milan, and then in December a Fiat personnel manager. In addition, they attacked ‘yellow union’ personnel and property. The kidnappings were for longer periods, and involved the interrogation and trial of the victim. The Red Brigades consciously cultivated an alternative jurisdictional ritual, and put the existing legal system ‘on trial’ when in April 1974, they kidnapped a judge, Mario Sossi, in Genoa. The terrain of struggle, they now claimed, reached the ‘centre of the state-organized counter-revolution’. Sossi was found guilty of crimes against the proletariat but was released unharmed. However, two years later, the kidnapped procurator Coco was executed.

The escalation of operations, which reached their highpoint with the kidnapping and assassination of Aldo Moro in the spring of 1978, turned the Red Brigades into an important political factor. Apart from their military ‘professionalism’, they showed remarkable ability in manipulating the media to communicate their messages; communiques roneoed and left in public places, or the graffiti with the RB symbol had previously been seen by few people; now, they were read by newscasters and appeared on the front page of newspapers.

Over the years there has been debate about whether changes in the terrorists’ objectives reflect a generational turnover, so that some have contrasted the ‘Robin Hood’ idealism of the founding figures to the cold- blooded ruthlessness of their successors. There has also been speculation about the origins of the phenomenon, including suggestions that a grande vecchio or old partisan figure was the mastermind. Clearly, many mysteries remain, and the story is a complex one in which individual . biography as well as broader historical developments play a part. The purpose here is the more limited one of identifying the continuities and breaks between the Red Brigades and the social movements from which they came.

The Meaning of Political Violence

In many respects, the political ideas and organization adopted by the Red Brigades were yet another minor variant of the Marxist revival of the late 1960s. For them, the Chinese model was an especial source of inspiration, but that was common enough. The radical difference between the Red Brigades and others lay in the fact that they alone based their notion of leadership and revolutionary action in the systematic use of violence. As Luigi Manconi has observed:

For the Red Brigades the use of violence is the only form of struggle, the programme, the strategy, the mainspring and the verification of class consciousness.

In the social movements, violence was just one of the many means of protest, and was normally a secondary feature, Usually, the greater the support for a strike, occupation or demonstration, the less the need to use coercion. Violence was also given meaning by the context in which it took place. What the Red Brigades attempted to do was, firstly, to imitate what they took to be popular forms (the threatening letter, punitive actions), and then to substitute them by more professional and military actions (kidnappings, assassinations) carried out ‘in the name of the masses’. Yet the Red Brigades’ assumption of a vanguardist role did not alienate the considerable ‘area of sympathy’ which surrounded them up to the time of the Moro case. Indeed, their daring exploits won them admiration, especially among contemporaries who had taken part in the social movements of the late sixties (even though the Left press regularly A condemned terrorist actions as the work of Fascists or agents provocateurs). In a sense, figures like Renato Curcio and his comrade-in-arms Mara Cagol had chosen to live out what others had only fantasised; they had sacrificed personal ambitions and safety for the cause. The rescue of Renato from prison, Mara’s death in a shoot-out with the police, the treachery of the infiltrator, the ex-monk ‘brother Girotto’, and the kidnapping of hated managers and judges - all these fired imaginations fed on the ‘class struggle epic’. Nor is there reason to suppose that assassinations provoked popular revulsion. For a period, the ‘justice’ administered by the Red Brigades was attributed a providential role. They were the ‘avenging angels’, who punished corrupt oppressors. Manconi argues convincingly that the Red Brigades’ perception of this

has led them to stress the connotations of legitimacy and justice in their actions - trials/counter-trials; state prisons/people’s prisons; army of the bourgeoisie/ army of the proletariat .... From this flows the whole macabre and grotesque ritual of the "trials’, ‘interrogations’ and ‘sentences’, of a judicial procedure which imitates and inversely mirrors that of the state apparatuses.

The Red Brigades’ capacity to attract sympathizers and capture the imagination needs to be related, it should be said, to the state’s continued paralysis or deliberate inactivity in the face of social protest. The divide between the paese reale and the paese legale, between represented and representatives (the first violent expression of which was post-unification banditry), was exploited to the extent that the terrorists could lay claim to a measure of popular support not forthcoming for the government itself. The actions of the authorities in the wake of the Piazza Fontana bombing were a turning-point in this respect. An article by Franco Ferrarotti in 1970 pointed unequivocally to the dangers:

Violence is always basically the response - inarticulate, desperate and often counter-productive - to grave inadequacies on the part of the authorities. It reveals a loss of contact, communication and identification between the top and the bottom of the social system, and to the exploitation by those above of those beneath them. The official holders of constitutional power should be ~ thankful for violence. It is their alarm-bell .... It is right to consider alternative solutions such as pacificism or non-violent resistance .... But their effectiveness depends on the existence of a common trust and respect for the rules of the game.

However, the politicians and authorities paid little attention to the alarm- bell, and showed an often arrogant disregard for the ‘rules of the game’, while speaking of their belief in parliamentary democracy. The Piazza Fontana bombing was the first of a long series of cases involving conspiracy and corruption in high places for which no one was found guilty and punished.

Government repression, the ‘strategy of tension’ involving fascist bombings, the inadequacies or absence of reforms created conditions favourable to terrorist initiatives, Norberto Bobbio has observed how the development of secret government was parallelled by the growth of clandestine organizations:

I call crypto-government the ensemble of actions performed by terrorist political forces that operate in the dark with the various secret services . . . or at least without their opposition. The most disturbing episode of this kind in recent Italian history is undoubtedly the Piazza Fontana massacre. After more than ten years the mystery has not been revealed . . . the darkness has not been lifted . . . I limit myself to recalling the suspicion . . . that state secrecy has been used to protect anti-state secrecy .... The degeneration of the Italian democratic system began there . . . if the existence of arcunum imperii remains a hypothesis, it is not a hypothesis but a tragic reality to have experienced the return, unthinkable a few years ago, of arcane seditionis in the form of terrorism. Terrorism is an exemplary instance of occult power present through- out history. One of the founders of modem terrorism, Bakunin, proclaimed the necessity of an ‘invisible dictatorship’. Whoever joins a terrorist group is forced to go underground, wear a mask, and exercise the same art of lying so often described as one the prince’s stratagems. He, too, scrupulously follows the maxim that power is more effective the more he knows and sees without being seen.

However, the formation of the Red Brigades cannot be adequately explained as a reaction to state action. The short-lived and desperate history of the Gruppi Armati Partigiani (GAP), which tried to recreate a partisan organization to fight an expected coup d’Etat, was an aberration. The Red Brigades might have grown as a consequence of the state’s incompetence, wilful neglect or instrumental exploitation of terrorism, but they were, from the beginning, an offensive not a defensive organization. Their project was conceived in the light of the immense potential for revolutionary transformation that the social movements appeared to reveal. It is necessary, therefore, to examine more closely the chemistry which produced terrorism out of movements from which terrorist organizations were absent.

‘68 and the Elements of a Regressive Political Culture

The relationship between the political culture of ‘68 and the formation of red terrorism has been the subject of extensive debate in Italy. One of the most interesting contributions is that of Nando Dalla Chiesa, who tries to explore the contradictory ideas and practices which led to political outcomes of radically different kinds. Dalla Chiesa suggests six headings under which the problems can be usefully examined. These are the sovereignty of ideology over theory; the myth of the revolution ‘around- the-comer’, democracy as a formal problem; the anthropomorphic vision of capital; the disdain for human life; and the mystique of violence.

Firstly, there is the question of ideology - ‘the triumph of dogmatism’. Dalla Chiesa writes:

This element of the political culture is the prior and necessary condition on which the other elements develop . . . and what makes them susceptible to ' terrorist developments.

Although the experience of ‘68-9 cannot be reduced to its sloganizing, nevertheless, ‘ideologism’ played a determinant role in structuring the realities of social conflict. The thriving personality cults were the crudest manifestation of a tendency, to make society’s image conform to the readings of Marx, Lenin and others. This had placed limits on the freedom to construct political alternatives and created a climate within organizations which was inimical to debate and discussion. The ideologues of the Red Brigades were among the most sectarian and fundamentalist in this respect. They recited the writings of Chairman Mao and Lenin ad nauseam, and their own tracts made claims and pronouncements (supported with citations from the classics) as if from on high. The slogans around the neck of the kidnapped Idalgo Macchiarini were taken from Guevara and Lenin. For all their claims to novelty and originality (within the Communist tradition), the Red Brigades were exponents of ossified orthodoxies.

Secondly, the myth of incipient revolution common to the generation of ‘68 had important effects, not only in motivating action, but in producing acute disillusion many months later. It gave priority to the efficiency, speed and timing of political action, and hence the subordination of means to pressing ends. The notions of the ‘militarization of power’ and the need to face capital ‘on an equal footing’ were an extreme version of a widespread fetishization of organization within left-wing organizations. But the Red Brigades interpreted the idea of ‘class war’ literally. For them, the civil war was not to be awaited; it was to be anticipated in the present by undertaking urban guerrilla action. The Red Brigades saw their task as anticipating the future by making the use of force a choice to be taken now rather than later. History taught the necessity of arming the struggle in its earliest stages. For the Red Brigades, history could be analysed as a series of transitions from spontaneous to organized violence through to civil war. So, while ‘the revolution’ was not just ‘round the corner’, the unfolding of the historical process meant that the moment of reckoning could be counted on.

Thirdly, the political culture of ‘68 contained negative conceptions of democracy, which became the commonsense of many thousands of activists, especially on the extra-parliamentary Left. Although the social movements of ‘68-9 saw remarkable experiments in political participation and unleashed radical democratic forces in Italian society, the existing democratic institutions (parliament, elections) were normally seen as either a formal sham or a palliative. Direct, participatory democracy was counter-posed to bourgeois democracy. For the Red Brigades, democracy was just a mask disguising the real exercise of power, and hence the need to strip it away. Such an attitude to decision-making also militated against open internal discussion.

The anthropomorphic vision of capital and the state is the fourth element identified by Dalla Chiesa as part of the political culture of ‘68 which combined with others to produce red terrorism. The identification of capital with the capitalist (often pictured with a black hat and money bag), and of domination with the dominators, was part and parcel of a traditional socialist propaganda, which was revived during the struggles of 1968-9. As Dalla Chiesa points out, analyses were particularly contradictory when they combined a reductive economism (capitalism as the ‘objective’ operation of a set of laws), with ‘conspiracy theory’ in which Agnelli and Pirelli were seen to pull the wires of Italian capitalism. Instead of using Marxist theory to show that the capitalist was not personally responsible for a capitalism of which he himself was victim as well as beneficiary, power was identified with the powerful. Thus the term servi del padrone (bosses’ lackeys), which was so often used in Red Brigade communiques, by detailing the functions carried out by management personnel and state officials served to confirm their ‘objective’ guilt. The first targets of the Red Brigades tended to be figures with reputations for fascism or anti-unionism in the workplace, and right-wing judges hated within the extra-parliamentary Left. Therefore, their ‘guilt’ had a subjective dimension in that they had been over-zealous in carrying out their functions. However, the subsequent inclusion of known democrats as targets confirmed the ‘objective’ nature of the enemy.

The political culture of ‘68 was contradictory on the question of the value of human life and the relationship between politics and morality. There was a wave of protest against injustice and inhumanity in the world; its targets were not only imperialist war, but the everyday exploitation in the factory which resulted in heavy casualties (significantly, deaths through industrial accidents were referred to as omicidi bianchi - white murders), and the toll of backwardness in the south. At the same time, slogans, songs and writings expressed a desire for revenge, and a disdain for the value of the lives of oppressors and exploiters; a favourite quotation from Mao’s sayings was: ‘The death of a worker weighs heavily like a mountain, while that of a bourgeois weighs as lightly as a feather.’ The killings at Avola and Battipaglia in 1968-9 provoked mass revulsion and anger which were infused with these sentiments. What is particularly significant is that responses to exceptional events crystallized into widely-held opinions. The threshold of the acceptability of taking lives in revenge was lowered. This can be seen in the theorization of political violence within the student movement, and subsequently within the extra- parliamentary Left, but it was also an aspect of popular thinking. Workers had little time for worrying about injuries suffered by foremen and managers at the hands of the ‘red handkerchiefs’ at Fiat; these were jokingly referred to as ‘industrial injuries’.

The Red Brigades’ class view of the value of human life was, therefore, not peculiar to them. Yet they took it a stage further by purging such views of their spontaneous and contingent character, and by making them the basis for an alternative ethic. The idea of the total autonomy of the proletariat from bourgeois morality coincided with a politics in which the ends justified the means. In this schema, lives became commodities to be exchanged; the act of pardon and the act of execution were to be judged only in terms of political criteria. However, the language of the Red Brigades’ communiques contains epithets that liken the victims of their actions to animals (pigs). The very term servi del padrone is used to disenfranchise and exclude from the human community those that are ‘servile’. Marxist-Leninism is then bolstered with references to the Old Testament morality of ‘an eye for an eye’, while bureaucratic language is used to categorize class enemies.

The exaltation of violence, the last element of the political culture of ‘68-9 under consideration, was intimately related to the others but was the one which was crucial for the justification of armed action.

Political violence was propagated in the movements not only by the publication of writings by Fanon, Sartre and Latin American authors, but in the leaflets, songs and images that accompanied the social conflicts. The clashes of Valle Giulia between students and police in Rome entered the mythology of the student movement, and the popularity of the song . Violenza showed a bloodthirsty vein in the protest. Violence was not only accepted as unavoidable, but it was frequently considered baptismal and cathartic. Numerous slogans expressed these ideas. Yet violence in the political culture of the movements was more a matter of words than deeds, and it is too simplistic to assume that the one leads to the other. When violence did take place it was likely to be a by-product and resulted from mass activity, not the pre-planned action of a self-selected minority.

In fact, the Red Brigades were at first criticized for their elitism, rather than for their use of violent means as such. For example, the ‘sincere revolutionary vanguards’ were criticized by some Pirelli workers,

because they show through the propaganda of terrorism that they have no faith in the masses, and in attempting to substitute them through exemplary actions, they can only provoke further repression.

However, the line of demarcation was not always so clear. When the chief of police in Milan, Luigi Calabresi, was murdered because he was held to be responsible for the death of the anarchist, Guiseppe Pinelli, in December 1969, a paper closely identified with protest movements declared: ‘His death is the result of an act with which the exploited can identify.’

The Red Brigades began by exalting ‘mass violence’; the early attacks on property, the threatening of managers and even the first kidnappings sought to imitate things that had been spontaneously carried out by workers. The Red Brigades were attracted to those struggles distinguished for their violence, and studied historical and contemporary examples, but the actions which overtly expressed an idea of popular justice especially interested them. A particular incident that recurs in early Red Brigade documents is the so-called ‘pillorying’ (gogna) of Fascists at Trento in 1970, whereas three years before future members of the organization drove down to Cutro in Calabria where peasants had occupied land, seizing and burning down the municipal buildings. On the one hand, they were searching for a tradition that had been forgotten or censored so as to re-awaken a sleeping historical consciousness. On the other, they wanted to find modern equivalents relevant to the metropolitan capitalist situation. The notion of creating ‘proletarian justice’ was not widely propagated within the social movements of 1968-9 when people showed a preference for breaking rather than making laws. Its immediate roots were in Maoism (and its Stalinist antecedents); for example, the Cultural Revolution’s trials and self-criticism provided models. It was through the pursuit of ‘people’s justice’, the implementation of which was in the hands of the ‘armed party’, that the Red Brigades shaped their conception of violent revolution. In doing so, they moved away from the shared political culture of 1968-9. The idea of political violence which attracted the protagonists of the social movements was more likely to be explosive, elemental and passionate - in brief, romantic. The use of violence was, however, considered secondary. For the Red Brigades, by contrast, violence had a quite different status; it was the primary and determining form of struggle. In this sense, the Red Brigades became a fully and exclusively terrorist organization.

In part, the Red Brigades’ conception of the primacy of violence was founded on a disdain for human -life, and this served largely to lower the threshold at which it was thought acceptable to kill. The most critical elements in the political culture of ‘68 which combined to make terrorism a legitimate form of action were the weak sense of democracy and the ideological dogmatism. The military and vanguardist vision of the struggle for hegemony meant that politics could ultimately be superseded by force; ideological dogmatism not only facilitated the choice of armed struggle, but was its necessary condition of existence. It cemented the organization together and excluded the possibility of other political choices.

Dalla Chiesa’s analysis is largely orientated to uncovering the roots of red terrorism in a diffuse political culture. He is careful to stress that it was not a simple relationship, but a contradictory one:

conflict is the crucible in which the cultural mix [giving rise to terrorism] is brought together, and yet it is also the most solid barrier against the transformation of those elements into a coherent political project. The decline and containment of conflict, the crushing supremacy of political over civil society, and the collapse of utopianism - all these serve to free those cultural elements . . . the mass movements are therefore, because of their historic characteristics, simultaneously cradle and antidote to terrorism.

However, Dalla Chiesa overplays the elements of continuity. What remained contradictory and complex in the social movements was drastically transformed and simplified by the Red Brigades.

The sharpness of the discontinuity between the armed organization and the social movements is highlighted by the decision to go underground. Clandestinity, as Luigi Manconi has argued, represented the critical step in the formation of terrorist organizations; it was the ruptural point and point of no return.

The choice of clandestinity was, of course, inspired by an ultra- vanguardist conception of political action (in the case of the Red Brigades it was made after a heated debate inside the Collettivo Politico Metropolitano, in which the majority condemned the idea for taking power out of the hands of the masses). However, once decided upon, clandestinity brought with it a whole set of consequences. It entailed a way of life that was, de facto, cut off from the everyday experience of most people. The need for secrecy and invisibility meant that activists had to hide their political views, and avoid open political discussions. Thus, they deprived themselves of the means of testing and verifying political hypotheses and projects by discussing them with those (the working class) they purported to represent. While other political organizations had to measure them- selves in terms of the support and participation they were able to win and mobilize, the Red Brigades were only indirectly subject to such pressures. The conditions of underground life functioned as a material basis for the construction and elaboration of a version of reality which did not allow for refutation or questioning. It underpinned a logic which increasingly drove the Red Brigades to impose their own reality, and to make the world conform to their view of it.

The process whereby certain forms of political radicalism which aspire to emancipate people from injustice, regress and come to reproduce some of the worst features of the society they oppose has long preoccupied thinkers. The decline and crisis of movements, the replacement of dialogue by repression on the part of the state, the rise of irrationalism - these are just some of the explanations put forward for the rise of terrorism. Usually, the reasons given by those with sympathies for the Left tend to stress the role of external circumstances, while those more to the Right emphasize the psychological. It is, therefore, interesting to note that in Italy in the late 1970s and early eighties many analyses of the development of red terrorism have looked at the individuals involved without automatically pathologizing them. The terrorists are shown to be not ‘monsters’ but, for the most part, rational human beings who made a political choice; a choice, moreover, which made sense (that is, was comprehensible) to peers in the social movements.

Nonetheless, the red terrorist option, with its life of clandestinity and military activity, required setting oneself apart from the movements, by internalizing strict codes of behaviour and a claustrophobic morality. For example, life inside the Red Brigades obliged women to adopt male codes. It meant getting rid of ‘feminine’ attitudes and, not surprisingly, the feminist movement was regarded as petty bourgeois. The Red Brigades spoke of their choice as one imposed by the system and as ‘objectively’ necessary. Moreover, their actions, which were predicated on the idea that the social order was repressive and authoritarian, functioned to fulfil their prophesies. Their total opposition to the society in which they lived, paradoxically, made them its prisoners.

If red terrorism was partly a product of the social movements of 1968- 9, it was also their antithesis and a negation of their main impulses. The movements of the late sixties and, as will be seen, of the seventies, brought with them a rich cabaret of unexpected behaviour and experimentation, and an unleashing of individual energies. They were significant and innovatory precisely to the extent that they did not fit ideological schemas. Faced by their challenge, the Red Brigades turned away and looked for images conforming to their eschatology and desire for purity. The present and everyday realities, so important to the new movements of the seventies, were sacrificed on the altar of the past in the name of a future utopia in which society would be a planned, harmonious whole without pain and disorder. History, fortunately, does not move in such ordered ways, and the crisis of the Red Brigades in the early 1980s marks the end of a peculiarly tragic attempt to ‘make the ghosts of the past walk about again’.


Juan Conatz
Mar 17 2012 22:43

This is pretty good. Does anyone know of any other critiques of the Red Brigades? There isn't a whole lot of English language material on them in the first place...

Marina Urquidi
Jul 9 2015 08:26


I am currently translating into English a book called "Revolutionary Violence" written by a French sociologist, Isabelle Sommier. It was first published in 2008 and was translated into many languages, not including English. Publisher will be Amsterdam University Press and it will probably be released at the end of this year (2015, translation is due in October). In this book, Sommier analyzes the connections between the 1968 movements and the armed movements of the 70s and 80s, usually seen as some sort of freak out-of-nowhere occurrences. Her study focuses on France (Action directe), Japan, Italy (Red Brigades and others), Germany (Red Army Faction), and the USA (Weathermen).

You posted your question a long time ago, but you might be notified smile.

Jul 9 2015 22:53
Marina Urquidi wrote:

I am currently translating into English a book called "Revolutionary Violence" written by a French sociologist, Isabelle Sommier. It was first published in 2008 and was translated into many languages, not including English. Publisher will be Amsterdam University Press and it will probably be released at the end of this year (2015, translation is due in October). In this book, Sommier analyzes the connections between the 1968 movements and the armed movements of the 70s and 80s, usually seen as some sort of freak out-of-nowhere occurrences. Her study focuses on France (Action directe), Japan, Italy (Red Brigades and others), Germany (Red Army Faction), and the USA (Weathermen).

You posted your question a long time ago, but you might be notified smile.

hey, thanks for this, that sounds really interesting.

We would be keen on hosting any extracts of that which you/your publisher would see fit to let us have, and we would of course include links to purchase the full text from you, so please consider this!