'We'll Pay What Agnelli Pays'

Second section of chapter 7 in Steve Wright's "Storming Heaven".

Submitted by Fozzie on August 17, 2023

During 1974, as the West's energy crisis exacerbated domestic inflation, Italian society exploded with new struggles that pushed those 'socialised' tendencies already nascent in Negri's thought into the centre of his consciousness. The common theme of the new turmoil was the practice of 'self-reduction', through which working people organised to protect themselves against the increased service charges unleashed by the Rumour government. Beginning in Turin, where workers from FIAT's Rivalta plant refused to pay an increase in bus fares, the self-reduction of prices soon spread throughout the Northern cities and Rome, where it became particularly popular as a means to fight rises in electricity and phone charges.

As such activities quickly assumed the dimensions of a mass movement able to mobilise 180,000 families in Piedmont alone, the labour movement found itself divided over the question. Whilst many Communist union functionaries questioned the efficacy and value of this new form of struggle, others saw its advocacy as crucial to their continued legitimacy. 'In these last months, the credibility of the unions has hit a low ebb', argued the secretary of Turin's Labour Council. 'What is at stake here is our relationship with the people; what is being questioned is our ability to build an alternative' (quoted in Ramirez 1975: 190). The practice of self-reduction also proved fertile ground for the autonomous collectives. The Romans of the Comitati Autonomi Operai (Workers' Autonomous Committees) - known commonly as the 'Volsci' - had sufficient members at the state-controlled electricity commission ENEL (Ente Nazionale per L'Energia Elletrica) to restore power to those disconnected for defying the new rates. It was not difficult for them, therefore, to convince many of the local populace to pay the tariffs at the industrial rate (about one quarter of the domestic price) rather than at the 50 per cent reduction most commonly proposed by the unions. Without such a draw card, autonomist groups in the Veneto and elsewhere were none the less still prominent in the struggle, if necessarily more cautious than their Roman counterparts (Big Flame 1974: 13-14).

Nor were these the only struggles occurring outside the factory. To the threat of cuts to education spending and staff, a new movement amongst high school students responded with demonstrations and occupations. In Turin, students organised a march to Mirafiori to attend the plant's first open assembly. A new wave of housing occupations also began early in the year, starting in Rome and spreading to Turin by October. The Rome squats were dominated by members of the group Lotta Continua, but there was also room for the involvement of the Roman autonomists, one of whom became in September the first from the Area to be killed in clashes with the police. In Turin, on the other hand, the occupations became notable for the numerically large presence of factory workers involved in an activity which in the past had chiefly engaged the productively marginalised and 'poor' (Comitati Autonomi Operai 1976: 205-11, 214-19). Finally, 12 October saw one of the first organised instances of 'proletarian shopping', when demonstrators entered a supermarket in Milan and forced the manager to sell merchandise at reduced prices (Controinfonnazione 1974: 12 13).

Changes were also then occurring within the movement of Autonomia itself. In the middle of 1974, a debate concerning the guaranteed wage revealed major differences of outlook. The central rift ran between those who privileged the refusal of labour as the basis of revolutionary strategy, and the Assemblea Autonoma dell' Alfa Romeo, for whom the development of class consciousness - and human potentiality -was inseparable from the experience of labour:

By guaranteed wage we understand the right to life conquered with the guarantee of a job. Because in a Communist society, each must contribute according to their abilities and receive from society according to their needs ... The comrades of Marghera say: when all men [sic] are freed from the necessity of labour, because they no longer need to work in order to eat or clothe themselves or satisfy their desires, then we will have true freedom! To this we reply that we are not against labour, but against the capitalist organisation of labour whose end is not social progress but profit ... [in the South] the proletarian masses seek to resolve their problems with jobs. (Assemblea Autonoma dell' Alfa Romeo 1974: 14-15)

Finding themselves alone on the matter, the Alfa militants were to quit Autonomia a few months later. Differences within the Area did not, however, dissipate with their departure. Whilst sympathetic to the notion of communism as the liberation from labour, other participants in the debate were becoming increasingly concerned with the political weight within the Area of the workerists and their allies. For the Romans especially, neither the ex-members of Potere Operaio nor those of the Gruppo Gramsci had shown any signs of establishing 'a new relationship with the movement'. Instead, the Volsci claimed, these militants remained particularly vulnerable to the 'temptation' of reconstructing Autonomia along the outmoded and bureaucratic lines of the groups formed out of the student movement of the late 1960s (Comitato Politico ENEL and Collettivo Policlinico 1974: 14; Comitati Autonomi Operai 1976: 71-4).

Such fears would soon prove prophetic. By 1975 the self-defined 'organised' components of Autonomia, stretching from the group around Negri or the remnants of Oreste Scalzone's wing of Potere Operaio, to a number of Marxist-Leninist organisations and the Romans themselves, had already begun their transformation into an ensemble of political 'micro-factions' (Scalzone 1978). While their contempt for institutional politics led them to work on a different terrain to that chosen by the major groups outside the PCI (Lotta Continua, Avanguardia Operaia and the PDUP), the political style of most of the 'organised' autonomist groups increasingly acquired a similiar heavy-handedness. For this reason, many a potential sympathiser already disenchanted with the 'big three' (triplice) of Italy's far left chose to enter not Autonomia 'with a capital A', but rather the burgeoning number of 'diffuse' collectives that began to swell the broader autonomist movement (Soulier 1977: 92-3).

Looking back, it would be easy to sense an inevitability in this process, given the flaws inherent in that 'anti-revisionist' culture which the autonomists shared with the majority of Marxists to the left of the PCI. Of particular note was the regularity with which new insights were to be grafted on to the existing Marxist-Leninist corpus, rather than utilised to question the latter's continuing claim to revolutionary veracity. Yet it would be wrong to obscure what were, particularly in its early period, the positive elements which Autonomia contributed to the culture of the Italian far left. Perhaps the most important of these was its refusal of separate political and economic spheres of struggle, and with it the dichotomy of party and union which had been the left's organisational norm since the days of the Second International. In doing so, the Area was to go much further than any other of its major Italian rivals in challenging the practical sensibilities of traditional Communist politics. In its initial manifestation as a predominantly factory-based network, Autonomia had represented a small but significant experiment in revolutionary politics based upon the self-organisation of that generation of workplace militants thrown up by the struggles of the 1960s. That the pursuit of such a project was quickly frustrated within the Area itself attests both to the dead weight of past ideologies and the growing shift of social forces attracted to Autonomia's banner. Thus, despite the criticisms of conventional Leninist precepts voiced by quite diverse autonomist formations in their early years, none would attempt a critique as fundamental as that then emerging from within certain feminist circles, let alone that traditionally advanced by the libertarian left. Rather, in opposition to the increasingly tame politics of the triplice, most tendencies within Autonomia were to formulate a brand of Leninism which, if often harshly critical of the armed groups' understanding of tactics, none the less sanctified armed struggle as the pinnacle of class struggle. Faced with the Italian state's apparent determination to criminalise social protest, which in mid-1975 saw fascists and police kill six leftist demonstrators in as many weeks, such a 'Leninism under arms' seemed to hold a certain practical relevance. This was true above all for many of the young high school activists formed in the new season of self-reduction and clashes in the streets. As Autonomia began, through political disaffection or layoffs, to lose much of its base in Italy's large factories, it was to be amongst this generation that the Area would now recruit most strongly. Having earlier cut their teeth within the stewards' organisations of the triplice - Lotta Continua above all - many of them were impressed by the autonomists' preparedness to meet the attacks of the carabinieri and fascists with physical force. Later still, those amongst them who found Autonomia inadequate on the 'military' front would again move on, either joining established armed groups or founding their own (Stajano 1982).

Writing in early 1976, Negri had identified one of the fundamental contradictions facing the Area and the social forces which it sought to organise as that between those who privileged 'the movement', and the champions of 'a "Leninist" conception of organisation' (Collettivi politici di Milano 1976: 229). Unfortunately, his optimism that Autonomia was capable of overcoming this problem would soon prove misplaced. Choosing instead to 'act as a party' in the tradition of Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua, the dominant forces within Autonomia would unknowingly doom themselves to repeat the trajectory of those groups whose failures they had once so vehemently criticised (Collegamenti 1974: 262; 1977: 23).