Introduction to the English edition
Ever since the 1970s there has been a steady trickle of information into the English-speaking world about the working class movement in Italy during its most intense phase in the whole of the second half of the twentieth century (roughly from 1968 to 1977). The flow of texts started with material translated and distributed by political activists sympathetic to what was happening in Italy. The Red Notes pamphlets (1974 onwards) were the first indication that many non-Italian speakers in the UK had of what was going on. Other translated texts sometimes appeared – for example, the group around the Rising Free bookshop in north London published the pamphlet “Take Over the City” (largely a reprint of an article of the same name by Lotta Continua)
in 1974, or thereabouts. The political group Big Flame was to a large extent influenced by the Italian movement
(particularly by the organisation Lotta Continua), and sometimes published texts produced by the movement
, along with news about Italy.
In the US, the bi-monthly magazine Radical America (founded in 1967 by some members of Students for a Democratic Society) contained quite a few very informative articles about Italy, between 1971 and 1976
More recently, references to the 1970s Italian movement and the political ideas which informed it and were produced by it – broadly speaking, the Marxist theoretical and practical current known as “Operaismo”
– have become common, in fact fashionable, in academia, and even in novels.
All this has made available much useful material about political theory and some of the more inspiring activities carried on outside workplaces – “proletarian shopping” etc. It has also brought a certain obsession with armed groups, often divorced from any context of who carried out acts of armed violence and what their relationship was to the wider class struggle.
Despite all this, though, very few accounts have been made available of what Italian workers in large workplaces actually did. How they organised themselves, what their concrete relationship was with initiatives taken outside workplaces (around housing, self-organised price reduction, the student movement, the women’s movement…), what their real relationship was with the unions, the political parties, student activists, armed groups…
From the late 1970s onwards, information also started to become available about the vicious state repression that comrades in Italy were being subjected to
. It was possible to read about the arbitrary mass arrests and imprisonment and the absurd trumped up terrorism charges that forced many people (including the famous Toni Negri) into exile. But much less has been written about the real policies of “repression” which brought an end to the movement – the restructuring of the economy, partly carried out precisely to break up big concentrations of militant workers and (as in other industrialised countries) to subject wage labourers in general to the discipline of mass unemployment. It was the process of relocation, decentralisation and automation of workplaces that proved so hard for workers to resist. Much harder to resist, in fact, than false accusations of being leaders of the Red Brigades, even if direct state repression certainly played a role in the suppression of particular workers committees, including the one at Magneti Marelli, as is described in this book.
So, apart from a desire to set the historical record straight, why do we want to dig up the story of the Magneti Marelli workers? After all, both the technology of production and the organisation of labour processes have changed a lot in the last 40 years. Why do we think that the struggles at Magneti Marelli have anything to teach us today?
For a start, however much technology changes and lifestyles of workers outside the workplace may change, the tendency for capital to recreate the factory in new sectors of the economy does not go away. The despotic command of the assembly line, whether a classical one in a car factory or a modern electronics factory (Foxconn!), or a slightly modified one in an Amazon warehouse, or a more “virtual” one imposed by just-in-time production and global supply chains
, doesn’t change that much. Likewise, the figure of the hated foreman (even though they might now be called a “team leader” and not be a man) is as real as ever. And it is in the factory (in the widest sense) that the class contradictions are at their most stark and where there is the greatest potential for collective resistance on the part of the wage-labouring class. Nor have the immediate things that the workers fought against changed: the inhuman pace of work, wages that don’t keep pace with inflation, wage hierarchies that set workers against each other…
The struggle of workers against the despotism of the factory is nothing new, nor is it particularly unusual, even in a period of relative social peace like the one we experience today. But workers’ struggle and organisation in Italy in the 1970s went much further than anything seen in recent years. In fact, the Italian worker’s experience was possibly the highest expression of the last proletarian political cycle, to use a term which developed from the movement in Italy.
The notion of “political cycle” was, and is, in very common use in Operaist circles. It is best described in terms of a historical period in which struggles reinforce each other across the globe creating the conditions for a qualitative break from the working class politics (trade unionism and social democracy) in existence during periods in between political cycles. The beginning and end of a cycle are marked by strong elements of discontinuity in relation to the preceding and later periods. The “social contract”, that is, the collective formalised consent between classes, is a main cause of inertia and conservation of social relations
. It is the main obstacle that the working class must overcome in beginning to carry out the mission of radical transformation of society. One of the pillars of the social contract is, of course, the trade-unions, and the beginnings of a radical organisational and political break from the unions on the part of the workers is one of the signs of the birth of a new political cycle.
The movement in Italy didn’t simply go further on a quantitative level – number of strikes, number of days on strike, profits lost etc. It is not a matter of the extent or duration or level of violence of the struggle. It went further on a qualitative level. In particular, the workers were not simply creating disruption in order to bargain with the boss from a stronger position. They were using their collective strength to take what they needed and to directly improve their conditions of life. As the operaisti of the time said: “We don’t demand, we take, and we organise ourselves accordingly”.
The “Red Guard” of the title has nothing to do with Maoist students! It refers to an episode of struggle (continued over several months) provoked by the company sacking some workers (naturally they were some of the most militant and politicised). But they refused to be excluded from the factory. A “Red Guard” of their comrades escorted them into the factory every morning against the wishes of the management and the threats of their thuggish security guards, insisted on their right to be present in the factory (now as “agitators” rather than workers productive for capital), and escorted them out again in the evening. They understood clearly that the bosses’ right to fire workers consists in more than just the right to stop paying them. It also consists in the right to exclude them from the workplace and thus prevent them associating with their comrades. This right had to be fought against, and still needs to be!
A final postscript
The necessity for a “workers’ history” like this one is underlined by the fact that the Magneti Marelli company still exists, and is still in the car parts business
. It employs 43,000 people worldwide, including around 10,000 in Italy. The company website has a “history” section, making no reference to the strikes of the 1970s whatsoever…