La « Garde rouge » raconte

Cover of the book - published by Les nuits rouges

The centre of gravity of the workers’ committee movement in Italy in the late '60s to late '70s was the Milan area, and it was the committee of Magneti Marelli in the Crescenzago factory which was the most advanced expression of the committees in this region, and thus in the whole country. This book by the Italian historian Emilio Mentasti examines the whole history of the committee from its birth during the economic crisis of 1973 to its dissolution under the blows of judicial repression and industrial restructuring.

Unfortunately, there is no English edition available as yet...

Preface to the French edition

Every revolutionary assault by the proletariat confronts a new situation. But the weight of the past, the experience of previous defeat, obviously plays a crucial role in the course of events. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the attempts of yesterday is therefore vital for the movement of today. Amongst these attempts, the latest to date is constituted by the cycle of autonomous workers’ struggles which shook Italy between 1968 and 1979. This cycle is remarkable for:

  • its duration: it began with the foundation of the Unitary Base Committee at Pirelli in Milan, in February 1968, and ended in Turin, on 14 October 1980, when the “demonstration of 40,000” managers and white-collar employees of FIAT went out to support their employer in the face of the strike against redundancies. That makes it more than twelve years;
  • the forms of organisation that the workers created for themselves, which enabled them to push forward and lead strikes and, for a long time, to be as influential as the Italian Communist Party (PCI);
  • its “class composition”. The movement affected all industries (first of all the big factories), from chemicals and electronics, to metal working, engineering, and, most definitely, car manufacturing. It mobilised all categories of workers, from the least skilled to the most skilled, from technicians (in the case of Montedison in Porto Marghera or Sit Siemens in Milan) to engineers (such as at IBM in Vimercate, close to Milan) ;
  • its reaffirmation of the centrality of the factory. Starting from the concrete reality of exploitation, the movement opposed itself not only to the despotism of the factory but called into question the wage hierarchy and the differences in treatment between blue- and white-collar workers. It imposed control over the pace of work and went as far as questioning wage labour itself.;
  • its political centralisation built up from the shop floor, founded on the refusal of delegation and the active participation of the greatest number;
  • its propagation outside the factory. Very quickly it took on questions of housing, transport, energy and means of subsistence by organising the self-reduction of prices and the seizure of housing. The workers’ groups coordinated themselves and centralised themselves by local area and then on a regional level, as happened for the last time in Milan in 1977.

The movement in Italy went through several stages. The first, in 1968-1969, began with the strikes at Pirelli and Borletti (Milan) and blossomed in the “Hot Autumn” of 1969. It was a time of great optimism as the appearance of an autonomous workers’ initiative caused consternation on the part of the bosses, unions and parties. However, this period ended on 12 December 1969, the day of the bombing at the Bank of Agriculture on Piazza Fontana in Milan, which caused 12 deaths. This attack showed that the state, or at least a fraction of its apparatus, was ready to use all possible means to stop the movement.

The movement was also original at the time because the nuclei of workers were formed following the intervention of young external militants (at Montedison in Porto Marghera, for example) or/and from splits in traditional parties, the PCI, PSI and PSIUP (at Pirelli in Milan, for example).

Calling into question the traditional methods of struggle and organisation of the institutional parties and unions, the workers’ groups gave themselves their own theoretical tools, helped by the “outsiders”. On occasions of important days of struggle, which they had often driven forward, groups in the factories would, on their side, push for the creation of national political groups1 , the first attempts at centralisation on the level of the country, organised around agitational newspapers2.

The second period (1971-73) ended with the defeat of the occupation of the FIAT Mirafiori factory.

The third period (1975-77) was marked by the end of the political groups3, the revival of workers’ committees and the entry into struggle of workers from small and medium-sized workplaces in the most important industrial areas of northern Italy. It is in this period that the activity of the workers’ committee of Magneti Marelli took place. But the context had changed. It had become distinctly less favourable to the workers. The bosses had regained the offensive, and, progressively, the control of the factories. The crisis of 1973 helped them and allowed them to restructure by means of mass redundancies, factory closures, and a wage freeze.

The political groups became a break on workers’ autonomy. Incapable of embodying and organising the political centralisation of the movement, they dissolved themselves or changed their nature. So, once again, starting from the terrain of base organisation, the worker left took up the red thread of its struggle. The centre of gravity of this was the Milan region, the industrial capital of Italy where there already existed the Autonomous Assembly of Alfa Romeo, the CUB (Unitary Base Committee) at Pirelli, the committee of SIT-Siemens, along with many other autonomous workers’ organs. But it was the workers’ committee of Magneti Marelli in the Crescenzago factory which would be the most advanced expression of the committees in the Milan region and thus in the whole country.

The vigour and duration of the Italian revolutionary movement went far beyond that of the French May ‘684, even if it is slandered today and largely ignored, even in Italy. Despite this, some rare researchers and historians are trying to rehabilitate the period and, beyond this, all the experiences of workers’ autonomy. The work of Emilio Mentasti is within this framework. This work is made difficult by the subject itself and by the fact that the sources consist almost entirely of leaflets, pamphlets and posters from the period, in a style which is often repetitive and impenetrable, and which, despite our efforts, risks making the translated text equally dense.

Nevertheless, the great moments of the life of the committee are (very) precisely described: the strikes for wages and against the pace of work, supported by processions through the factory; strikes aimed at supporting the canteen workers and the cleaners; the street battles during the hot days of April 1975; the determination to allow sacked members of the committee to enter the factory every day, starting from 10 September 1975, and continuing for ten months; the confrontations around the court in Milan; the “workers’ patrols” organised to support the workers in small workplaces; the self-reductions in the shops; and finally, the demonstration on 18 March 1977 called by the Coordination of Workers’ Committees which united 20,000 proletarians in Milan, as many as were on the official union demonstration on the same day.

The committee progressively dissolved itself in 1979 under the blows of repression. The factory where it was born, lived and fought, has been demolished. But the description of this experience seems to us to be useful and necessary to all those who understand the inevitability of the struggles to come. Perhaps soon...

Antoine Hasard

Introduction by the author

Workers’ history has benefited from a considerable revival in interest following the extraordinary experience which culminated in the “Hot Autumn” of 1969. In the 1960s and 1970s, the working class appeared as a force which struggled consciously for itself, as a “class for itself” and not just as a “class in itself”. According to a widely held opinion, it had to “make the state”, that is to say it was credited with being able to lead Italy better than the political class of the era, by way of its moral rectitude and spirit of “sacrifice” given by the “value” which it attached to work. Or, it represented the irreplaceable kernel of the socialist revolution, capable of basing itself on the ideals of communism to create a freer and more just society, by way of its “autonomy” and “refusal of work”.

Other currents which took very divergent positions as to the final objective also arrived at the conclusion that the real actor in any reformist or revolutionary transformation in Italy had to be the working class.

Yet, in the course of the 1980s, when the defeat of the workers was completed, the lights went out and all the attention which had been focused on these questions suddenly fell away again. In fact, research, articles, books and documents on workers’ struggles from the end of the Second World War to the end of the 1970s have become rare. It is true that the 1980s and 1990s, a period of successive defeats in the factories, were hardly inspiring. The interest in revisiting the historic transitions cannot be appreciated without understanding that this period, with its thrilling struggles in the factories (which ran from the beginning of the 1960s to the end of the 1970s), was one of upheaval at all levels of Italian society.

What are the reasons for this disinterest? I think that we have to see a desire to hide a movement of the “people at the bottom” which produces concrete results, but also the difficulty in recognising that the reformist and radical parties of today are not capable of repeating this experience or of learning from it. Today these parties who consider themselves to be parties of the (working) “class” only defend their own position. They arrogantly proclaim themselves its representatives, without wanting to recognise that, when the working class takes the lead, the first to be ejected from their position are, quite rightly, its “old representatives”.

We have to take up the thread of workers’ history again out of respect for its actors (the workers themselves) and also because it can help us better understand what we are and how we have arrived at the present situation. It is therefore essential to start from documents produced at the time and particularly those from the active participants in struggles. It is important to understand how they organised themselves, what the slogans and immediate objectives were, but also the longer term aims and the eventual political errors, and to appreciate the importance of various practices in this phase of upheaval which affected workplaces, unions and society.

One of the most fascinating experiences of this period was that of the Workers’ Committee of Magneti Marelli, a factory situated in Crescenzago, between Milan and Sesto San Giovanni, which, starting from 1975, was one of the sites of Italian “workers’ extremism”. It has an exemplary character because its protagonists confronted all the worker, union, political and organisational problems of the era.

  • This experience is situated in a fundamental historical period, a few years after the “Hot Autumn”. The economic crisis has become explicit and it is obvious to the bosses that they have to restructure the industrial system and restore order in the factories. The strength of the workers is still important but their cohesion is weakening on the level of their demands. Torn between the “historic compromise” and the revolution, the workers very often choose not to be interested in the question. It is therefore the moment where Italy finds itself in the midst of full-blown industrial restructuring, in the course of a period of extremely difficult transition, that the Workers’ Committee is formed. It clearly demands egalitarianism and the refusal of the delegation which had characterised the recent past, and considers that the working class can organise itself in an autonomous way.
  • At this time there were many other experiences of autonomous organisation in the factories, but few among them had the strength of the Marelli Committee, which could cause the re-election of Baglioni to the Factory Council, even though he stood accused by the courts of being a partisan of armed struggle. In the Milan region, only the Autonomous Assembly of Alfa Romeo could claim to exercise a similar major influence on the events going on inside the workplace. To find a comparable example it would be necessary to go back to the days of the Unitary Base Committee (CUB) of Pirelli in 1968.
  • In these years of the 1970s, the unions and the PCI wanted to regain absolute control of the factories. They wanted to impose the “historic compromise”, without tolerating any organised presence other than the official structures. They violently attacked those who opposed the restoration of order in the factories, accusing them of lacking political experience and preventing them from exercising the slightest trade union activity (they could not participate in factory assemblies, in strikes, in publishing or distributing leaflets). They subjected them to measures of intimidation and physical aggression, denounced them to the judicial authorities and the management and expelled them from the base union structures and the Factory Councils. These methods were used whenever worker “extremists” tried to develop a political and union activity. It is obvious that the relations between the two components of the social movement were most often translated into violent confrontations and a total incompatibility, but the fact that the Marelli Committee succeeded in functioning despite the extremely hard clashes with the union structures, and sometimes had a more important influence than the unions amongst the workers, confirms the extent to which the members of the Committee were implanted inside the workplace.
  • The Workers’ Committee of Marelli also embodied “the complete workers’ organisation”. The workers gave themselves an instrument (the “Red Guard”) that was in a position to respond in a general fashion to the needs of proletarians in the factory and in the surrounding area. It was a question of showing that the working class had no need of union or political superstructures which imposed choices or means of action which escaped the direct control of the workers.
  • The involvement of workers in struggles also took on another exceptional character: their participation and the quality of their intervention illustrated the decisive role of women in the workers’ struggles of this era.
  • During this period, it seemed that workers’ struggles had to leave the factories because the contradictions touched the whole of society: there’s no point in obtaining a substantial wage rise, or an improvement in rights within the factory, if prices immediately rise exponentially, if the right to housing is put into question or if other workers are exploited in place of those who have won a victory. Strongly interested in this aspect of things, the Workers’ Committee intervened in the neighbourhoods close to the factory, serving as an example to a whole series of workplaces (including small and medium-sized ones) heavily hit by the process of restructuration. These workplaces, which had to face massive lay-offs and site closures, were also concerned with other questions not linked directly to the factory, such as the rising cost of living. For this reason, right from the beginning, the Committee took many initiatives: patrols against overtime; pickets in front of small workplaces where the workers had a harder time confronting the boss; responses to fascist provocations and police repression. Strongly present in the housing occupations of Sesto San Giovanni, they organised the self-reduction of prices in the supermarkets in working class neighbourhoods, forcing the managers not to excessively increase their prices, and opened the factory canteen to workers who occupied their places of work.
  • The Committee was conscious of its role as the locomotive of workers’ struggles. It therefore participated in the launching of the Milan Workers’ Autonomous Coordination which was created at the end of 1976 and openly opposed the official union organisations. The Coordination gathered together all the “extremist” workers’ groups of the Milan region. In a position to launch general strikes and to organise demonstrations without the unions, it represented one of the most advanced experiences of the autonomous movement of that time.
  • The Committee got involved in the debate on proletarian justice and the necessity of arming the workers. Some of its representatives were arrested after a clandestine military training session. In the courtroom they proclaimed the possibility of responding to the bosses’ attacks as a workers’ right. They were certainly not the first to defend such positions, since the Red Brigades had already chosen armed struggle. What’s more, large layers of the movement had already had recourse to violence, which they justified by reason of circumstances, or as the fruit of a precise strategic choice. It must however be stressed that inside Magneti no armed brigade was ever formed, even if some workers were prosecuted on the basis of this accusation.
  • The Committee also had the honour of participating in the review Senza Tregua (Without Stopping), some of whose participants went on to form the fighting communist organisation Prima Linea. The Marelli Committee, along with the other workers’ committees which supported Senza Tregua, formed the best of the movement which got down to the job of constructing the “workers’ poles” of a future revolutionary organisation.

The first part of this book is devoted to the history of Magneti Marelli. It illustrates the evolution of the restructuration undertaken during the 1970s, and stresses that the company was one of the first Italian factories to introduce “scientific management”. It also shows how Fiat (boss and main customer of the factory) had the decisive influence on decisions about production and also those concerned with the management of the work force. This work is the result of a great deal of detailed research.

The second part sets out an overview of the struggles undertaken by the workers of Magneti Marelli de Crescenzago between the end of the Second World War and 1972.

Finally, the third part retraces the history of the Workers’ Committee of the factory from its creation to its end.
To carry out this work I consulted the Gallinari collection of the Biblioteca Pannizzi de Reggio Emilia, which has archives of leaflets, bulletins and journals of the Workers’ Committee, as well as numerous books on the history of the workers’ movement, works cited in the notes.

  • 1. The three groups were: Avanguardia Operaia, founded in December 1968 around the experience of the CUB in Milan; Potere Operaio, founded in August 1969, principally around the experience of the workers’ assembly of Porto Marghera; Lotta Continua, founded in October 1969 around the worker-student assembly of FIAT in Turin.
  • 2. All this is set out in detail in “La Fiat aux mains des ouvriers. L’automne chaud de 1969 à Turin” by D. Giachetti and M. Scavino. Les Nuits Rouges, n°22, Paris 2005.
  • 3. Potere Operaio dissolved itself in summer 1973 ; Lotta Continua broke up in summer 1976 but its death was already pronounced at the Rome Congress in January 1975 when the workers’ groups left; Avanguardia Operaia degenerated into trade unionism and electoralism.
  • 4. So we can see the idiocy of the “concept” of “the creeping May” as a way to describe the movement in Italy.
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Posted By

Dan Radnika
Aug 30 2011 19:25

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Harrison
Jun 29 2012 22:28

Does anyone know of any plans to translate / publish this in English?

emilio
Mar 8 2013 11:44

Hi everyone,
I'm Emilio Mentasti, the author of the book "La Guardia rossa racconta" ("Garde rouge raconte" in french edition).
This summer I red your interesting blog, so I thinked was possible to translate my text in english, but you know my language is italian!!!!
So, I translated the book in english but now I need someone (english mother language) who wants to read, proofread, suggests me etc... After this, it will be possible to reach someone for printing.
Can someone help me?

Harrison
May 3 2013 23:23

Hi emilio I would be interested in proofreading this for you, I sent you a private message about a month ago. Please message me using the private message function on this forum!

I speak only English, and no italian unfortunately...