The Movement Loses Direction

The third section of chapter 9 of "Storming Heaven".

Submitted by Fozzie on August 25, 2023

Summing up the debate in early 1978, Bologna (1978b: 149) would dub the arguments advanced by most of his critics within Primo Maggio as unreasonably optimistic. Based upon assumptions that portrayed the development of the new revolutionary movement as a univocal process, they forgot that 'The autonomy of the subject cannot elide power, its reality.' Qualifying the elastic reading of subjectivity in 'The Tribe of Moles', Bologna reiterated his belief that any effort to understand contemporary proletarian behaviour required 'a sector of concrete labour-power' as its focus (ibid. : 156). Preferring the perspectives advanced by Messori and Revelli, he recognised that these were, in their own way, no less partial than the views of Marazzi or Berti. On the other hand, he believed, the interpretative framework held out by the Turin editors possessed a materiality absent from explanations advancing undifferentiated notions of social control. Even more importantly, Messori and Revelli had directed attention back to workerism's original enquiry into the composition of the working class. This was all the more important given that the latter, faced with the competing models of 'radical bourgeois operaismo' offered by the Communist Party and Autonomia, was as much 'without allies' as it had been in the 1960s (ibid.: 157).

The terms of Primo Maggio's debate over the efficacy of workerist theory would remain unresolved. In the meantime, the new movement had entered deeper and deeper into crisis as 1977 unfolded. Despite their dramatic scale, the almost weekly encounters with police and carabinieri soon proved to offer no programme for the movement's consolidation and extension. Matters were not helped, according to the Volsci, by those within it who chose to play up the movement's attributes as primarily a 'youth' phenomenon, and so turned their backs upon older generations within the emergent class composition (Pifano 1997: 366). Hemmed in on by extensive state repression, and by a Communist Party increasingly determined to legitimate itself as a 'party of government' at the expense of 'deviant' social forces, the movement began to falter. Above all, it proved incapable of finding a productive way of harnessing its own internal tensions, and on that basis of reaching out to broader working-class circles. Instead, as Marco Melotti would later argue,

[t]he perverse spiral of raising the stakes in the direct clash with the repressive apparatuses of the state IN PRACTICE conceded hegemony to the deliriums of the armed struggle ideology [combattentismo]. (Melotti 1984: 64)

In this context, the refusal of politics became 'the exclusive privileging of the "military'" dimension, while '"revolutionary radicalism" became measurable only in terms of the hardness of the clash with the adversary, whether this be the state or the "deviationist comrade'". At the same time, in many parts of the movement,

the unconscious/thoughtless [incosapevole] introjection of the thematic of 'two societies' turned snobbish, the total exclusion of any relation with the city's working-class and proletarian fabric. (ibid.)

Little by little, these behaviours began to generate two distinct camps within the movement. At one pole stood those who emphasised the libertarian themes of autonomy and personal development only to turn inwards, refusing to confront the obstacles which limited the movement's extension. At the other stood those who glossed over both the political implications of the libertarian stream's critique of traditional Italian 'anti-revisionism' and any serious discussion of class composition in favour of debates concerning the feasibility of civil war. During the movement's Bologna conference of September 1977, the gulf between these two approaches to politics assumed a tangible form, with most components of Autonomia and a number of the more conventional political groups choosing to turn their back on other participants, instead sealing themselves off within the city's Palasporto stadium, there to battle for 'hegemony' (Balestrini and Moroni 1988: 334).

Despite Negri's (1977c: 29) optimistic appraisal of the times - 'Political conditions favour us ... Italy is not Germany' - Autonomia would emerge from the conference more isolated than before. Its predicament would be made plain three months later when, snubbed by the organisers of a national metalworkers' march in Rome, its contingent of demonstrators remained trapped by police within the university campus. Having lost their reference point in the broader class composition, sections of the autonomist movement increasingly vented their frustration through the physical intimidation of those they identified as enemies (Petter 1993). In the face of such behaviours, only a few revolutionaries would argue that the role of the movement's 'political class' lay not in building 'the party', but rather in identifying and promoting an anti-capitalist programme generated from within the new class composition itself (Collettivo Politico Alitalia e Aeroporti Romani et al. 1978; Collegamenti 1979).

The Moro kidnapping of 1978 would throw the implications of the Brigate Rosse strategy of carrying the struggle 'to the heart of the state' into bold relief. While all the major currents within the autonomist movement would condemn the killing of the Christian Democrat leader (Castellano 1980: 1 79-97), their growing disorientation was plain to see. Meanwhile, the Area continued to lose activists to the armed formations, a process accelerated by the increased preparedness of fascist groups - above all in Rome - to use deadly force against members of the movement (Lombardo-Radice and Sinibaldi 1979). Their sway now declining within their own organisations, many of Autonomia's most prominent thinkers finally began to suspect that the continued influence of the trip/ice might not be the greatest threat to the movement's development. Negri (1979a: 24-5, 28), for example, remained scathing of those he called the 'party of the ghetto', who washed their hands of all questions of 'power' and 'violence' only to unwittingly glorify the omnipotence of the state, before which they stood paralysed. At the same time, he also began to distance himself from those circles within the Area that either stretched out a hand towards the Brigate Rosse, or else aspired to compete with them on the military front. The terrorists and their sympathisers, Negri argued, were so obsessed with destabilisation that they had become oblivious to the significance of the new mass subjectivity. His own response, however - an insistence upon the privileged function of the party-form within the process of recomposition - was itself anything but new. More a shield and sword than the movement's command centre, the construction of a 'party of autonomy' (Rosso 1978: 193-4) as the watcher on the wall of proletarian freedom remained essential, he argued, if the growing bifurcation between 'the ghetto' and 'the insurrectionalists' was to be overcome:

The party, if I may make a jest, is a combatant religious order, not the ecclesiastical totality of the process ... [it is] the army which defends the frontiers of proletarian independence. (Negri 1977a: 62)

That the majority of autonomist groupings, by their arrogance, had recently squandered enormous opportunities was now also apparent to Scalzone. The 'micro-factions' of the Area, he noted in December 1978, had begun to reveal their fundamentally conservative nature earlier that month, when they had chosen to isolate themselves from the demonstrating metalworkers, 'not all of whom, certainly, were union functionaries'. Amongst other things, this demonstrated that the attempt to apply 'the classic model of democratic centralism' within the various segments of the 'organised' Area had only generated 'monsters'. How then could the process of political recomposition be relaunched? Scalzone was not so sure, beyond a return to the exploration of class composition; what was certain, he held, was that Negri's project for a 'party of autonomy' could only be stillborn, since it did nothing to rethink the experience of the micro-factions (Scalzone 1978: 34, 60, 62, 63). For Piperno, a starting point for resuming the class struggle's forward advance lay in trying to understand the origins of the armed groups within the revolutionary movement and the class composition that had generated it. According to him, the deciding vote lay with the terrorist groups themselves: would they choose to place themselves at the disposal of the movement as a whole, or would they instead continue to wage their almost private feud with the state? In other words, were the armed groups capable of joining 'the frightening beauty' of the movement's 12 March 1977 rampage in Rome with 'the geometric power displayed in Moro's kidnapping'? (Piperno 1978b: 226).

Isolated from the rest of the Area, yet with much stronger roots in their local proletariat, the Comitati Autonomi Operai (1978b: 15) in Rome were by contrast harsh in their criticism of the Brigate Rosse. The Volsci had no doubt that the Moro affair represented an The Collapse of Workerism 215 attempt by the armed group to force 'the vanguards and advanced sectors of the class' into the political underground, all the better to exercise its sway over them. Not that the Roman autonomists had not made their own mistakes in the face of a class composition as complex as that which emerged in 1977. With hindsight, Daniele Pifano would look with regret upon his organisation's 'often instrumental' approach to direct democracy, along with its inability to work with those currents it deemed to be on the moderate wing of the movement (Pifano 1995: 287). Above all, he later argued, Autonomia's failure 'to represent a general political force' had opened a programmatic void that the armed groups on its fringes and beyond were more than willing to exploit (Pifano 1997: 366). Even in 1978, however, the Roman group proved to be more prepared than most of its Northern counterparts to face up to some of the autonomist groups' failings. In particular, the response of the Volsci to Autonomia's crisis of late 1977 and early 1978 was to propose a 'slow, patient, intelligent entrance into the large factory' in conjunction with the hundreds of 'autonomous' workplace committees that had maintained their distance from the organised Area (Comitati Autonomi Operai 1978a: 19).

Such views would resonate with a number of Primo Maggio's editors; Bologna (1978b: 1 53) above all. During 1979, the journal worked hard and long to bring together some of the workplace activists who refused both the policy of sacrifice and austerity promoted by the Communist union leadership (Vannicelli 1983: 508-45) and the born-again Leninism of much of Autonomia (Crespi 1984). In the process it became clear that if the industrial front was still quiet at FIAT, elsewhere things were hotting up. As the hospitals saw a groundswell of strikes outside the direction of the confederations (Arrighetti 1978), the port of Genoa offered the unique example of a delegates' council dominated by 'autonomous' militants elected ahead of the CGIL's chosen candidates (Collettivo operaio portuale 1978). Finally, within the complex network of manufacturing firms surrounding Milan, the union austerity policy inspired open opposition from growing numbers of factory delegate councils.

None of this, however, led the editors of Primo Maggio to assume that a class-wide wave of struggle lay just around the corner. In Bologna's opinion, the PCI had for the most part remained successful in maintaining its hegemony amongst industrial workers, despite the disappointments and confusions that its behaviour since June 19 7 6 had evoked. In those regions where it held sway, the party was already engaged in a sophisticated experiment to establish a new state-form. Here it was 'the masses themselves who act as judge and jury', a process Bologna (1977b: 58) held 'would be innovative were it not happening within a framework of a freezing of the class power balance, with a restoration of capitalist control at all levels' . More generally, the PCI's support found its material basis in the mass worker's desire 'to continue to function as labour-power'. For such a demand, Communist reformism represented 'the most concrete mediation of the interests of the working class'. While the extent to which such a programme was workable largely depended upon the resolution of Italy's difficulties within the international division of labour, Bologna firmly rejected any interpretation of the PCl's role that rested upon its function of repression alone. On the contrary, he maintained, the party and the CGIL could be expected soon to reaffirm their mediating role, 'not through paralysis of the struggle but through the promotion of struggle' (Bologna 1977c: 1 19, 120).

Considered absurd by many, it was a prophecy that would reveal its full meaning only three years later, in October of 1980. In the meantime, one of the most novel features of Italian working-class politics during the late 1970s began to unfold at FIAT. Having frozen its staff intake for four years, the auto giant's management once again opened its gates to new employees in 1978. Because of recent legislation favouring the hiring of women and young people seeking their first job, FIAT was to draw a disproportionate number of its 12,000 new staff from these categories (Revelli 1989: 73-4). Overnight, the terms of the earlier debate on the 'two societies' would take on new meaning, as large numbers of the protagonists of 1977 - 'the children and wives of Gasparazzo' (Deaglio and Manenti 1979: 6) - entered the terrain of the mass worker for the first time.