Introduction to the revolutionary left in Italy - Jim Kaplan

A primer on the where the Italian movement of 1973 came out of and a description of some of the different groups involved.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 25, 2012

In the last decade a revolutionary movement has emerged world-wide to the Left of the Communist Parties. In Italy that movement has attained a political force, an organizational presence, and a theoretical coherence greater than those of any of its counterparts in the West. Most important is the depth of its break from the reformist program and the mediating practice of the Communist Party, from the classic tradition of the Popular Front.

A new Popular Front was exactly what the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was preparing itself for at the beginning of the '60s. A successful anti-fascist mobilization in 1960 had broken the last Cold War cabinet of the Center-Right, that of Tambroni. Detente offered the prospect of new and expanded trade with Eastern Europe, already beginning with a major Italy-Soviet [?] deal in 1960. And the Left party and trade union organizations had begun to regain strength after the fragmentation and decline of the Cold War. The Communist-Sociallst labor confederation, the CGIL, exhibited new power in the triennial contract negotiations of 1963. Because the option of the Right had been defeated, because the option of the Left promised trade expansion, and because the working class was growing stronger, the PCI expected an opening for itself to Cabinet power.

The Communists’ conclusive argument for their inclusion in the Government was that only the PCI could fulfill Italy's potential for accelerated economic growth. The Communists could mediate not only the international opening to the East but also the domestic revival of Italian working class action. The terms of exchange would be industrial peace in return for guaranteed regular wage increases and modernized state welfare services. Even the “concessions” could be attractive to the most advanced industrialists. Moderate wage increases could be passed along to consumers by oligopoly corporations, but not by smaller companies in competitive industries. The resulting elimination of weaker companies could accelerate the process of industrial concentration necessary for the international goals of corporations like FIAT in auto, Pirelli in rubber, Montedison in chemicals, ENI in petroleum, and Italsider in steel. These firms would in their turn benefit from the increase in state power which an expanded welfare system would require. In the interest of the big capitalists, the state would expand its capacity to invest in economic infrastructure and subsidize the development of the major Italian multinational firms; to co-ordinate the modernization of Italian capitalism despite objections from backward petty-bourgeois interests facing extinction; to transform itself into an effective and useful “state as planner", even "state as boss". With all this gain for Italian big business, the Communist Party saw simultaneous gains for the Italian working class: the elimination of the petty bourgeoisie, the class base of reaction and fascism; and the advance of income and welfare services guaranteed by economic prosperity. `

The revolutionary Left saw that the Communist Party was seeking reforms not as a spur toward revolution, but as a substitute for it. By seeking to involve the working class in the process of capitalist accumulation, the PCI linked the interests of the proletariat to those of the bourgeoisie. It thus became a vehicle for "instrumentalizstion" - Italian equivalent to the American term "co-optation”. How this came about became a key subject of debate. The nascent Maoist tendencies blamed PCI politics on the triumph of "revisionist 1deo1ogy" resulting from 'revisionist misleadership" at the top of the PCI. Rather than this facile explanation, an alternative analysis came from a journal named Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks). It focused on historical changes in the working class itself to account for changes in its political organization.

The Italian Communist Party had built itself during the '40s among skilled workers in the older industrial centers of Italy. These were the most advanced workers of the period both industrially and politically. Through their unions and Left-wing parties, the political objective of the skilled workers was domination of the work process in what was still largely craft production. Assembly-line production developed on a massive scale in Italy only with the investment boom of the '50s and early '60s-—the “economic miracle'. In the most modern and concentrated industries of Ita1y—auto, rubber, chemicals, steel—a new work force was created. This new composition of the Italian working class generated new political forms. Since the early '60s, the locus of industrial insurgency in Italy has shifted from the skilled worker to the "mass worker'; from the unions of the CGIL and parliamentary organizations of the PCI to the “mass vanguards" of the factory and community. The Communist Party has found itself challenged from the Left. A new revolutionary movement has emerged.

The main current of the Italian revolutionary Left has been called “operaisti" ("workerist") to distinguish it from the Trotskyists and Maoists. It has seen itself as the agency of the historic break of "mass vanguards" to the Left of the Communist Party. The journal Quaderni Rossi began in 1961 as a theoretical voice of the new movement it saw emerging. Through the mid-'60s, its ideas were appropriated by the earliest circles of extraparliamentary activists. By 1967 numerous local groups began to appear, generally taking the name "Potere Operaio” (“Workers' Power"). These local groups were in turn both harbingers and catalysts of far larger movements. From the rising of the student movement in 1968, the explosion of the industrial working class in the Hot Autumn of 1969, the insurrection of town after town in the South, and the beginning of a women’s movement, Italian capitalism has been beset by massive, violent, and universal upheaval. Caught up by this mass upsurge, the small local groups expanded, mushroomed in new places, and finally in 1969 united themselves into two major organizations: Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle) and Potere Operaio (Workers' Power). Differences in major struggles, particularly those at the 55,000- worker FIAT Mirafiori plant in Turin, divided the groups chiefly on the basis of the types of demands they advanced. Potere Operaio has distinguished itself by its call for “political wages”: guaranteed income for all as the unifying slogan of socialist agitation. Lotta Continua has attempted to develop unity in struggle through continuous and militant fights for precise objectives in every sector of daily life.

Without minimizing the differences between Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio, certain concepts are shared by this whole current of the Italian revolutionary movement. “Mass vanguards”, defined in the article by Adriano Sofri, are seen as the insurgent groups inside every struggle whose unification is the purpose of the Left. Revolutionary unification occurs only when insurgent groups merge into a common struggle—through mass action, not through delegates. Today in Italy, delegation serves to check mass participation and transfer power from the working class to the agencies of class mediation: Communist Party or reformist union. But the revolutionary movement is going beyond these mediations. It will not permit itself to be used for the modernization of its enemy.

The class struggle is the mainspring of development of every social system. The interest of the ruling class is to make this spring work for the extension and reinforcement of its own power. And so workers' autonomy occurs when the class struggle stops working as the motor of capitalist development. (Adriano Sofri, Comunismo Number 1 by Lotta Continua)

The breakthrough into "workers’ autonomy" happens when the working class fights for more than reformism can possibly concede. "Workers’ autonomy' emerges when the working class fights for income gains beyond and finally detached from productivity gains. “Workers' autonomy" emerges when the working class unites itself, directly and universally, for all its interests in every sphere of life. "Factory, school, and community: The struggle is one.” "Workers' autonomy’ is the goal of revolutionary socialism in Italy!