'We Want Everything'

The fourth section of chapter 5 of "Storming Heaven".

Submitted by Fozzie on August 30, 2023

By the late 1960s, FIAT's traditional image as an island of relative privilege for factory workers had begun to tarnish. In particular, the frantic pace of production had become increasingly unacceptable for growing numbers of Mirafiori's 50,000 workers, as the firm's annual staff turnover of 10 per cent attested (Castellina 1969: 13). By this time around 60 per cent of FIAT's employees were from the South, many of them living in difficult circumstances in a city whose social services and housing sector were ill-equipped to meet their needs (Partridge 1996: 86). In July 1968 the journal Quaderni Piacentini published excerpts from a union questionnaire aimed at gauging FIAT workers' commitment to industrial action over shorter hours and piecework rates. Conducted on a scale far beyond the means of Quaderni Rossi or similar groups, the survey drew a massive 20,000 replies. Out of this complex mosaic of perceptions, the widespread hatred for the FIAT environment emerged with great clarity. 'The work rhythm is exhausting', complained one employee. 'We work too much and enjoy too little', wrote another, adding 'they treat us like slaves, and if someone speaks up they are punished severely'. Some insisted that they were 'tired of strikes', but the majority's attitude towards management was belligerent, and the conviction that 'We must give FIAT no respite' was a common one (Ciafaloni 1968: 86, 84, 89, 90). Unions were criticised for their disunity and the ineffective, symbolic nature of their stoppages, which should instead attempt to bring maximum 'disorganisation' to the firm. This combative mood was matched by an openess towards the MS, with one worker even floating the possibility of striking three days a week 'if the unions are all united, and if the students intervene (without them nothing can be resolved)' (ibid.: 88, 90).

For the rest of the year and into early 1969, FIAT remained at simmering point, with strong turnouts for two national strikes: one over improved pensions, and one against the regional wages zones which had traditionally kept Southern pay levels below the national average. December 1968 registered a new high point, with a joint call by local unions for a half-hour stoppage in protest at the killing of two Sicilian labourers by the police. 'For the first time', Angelo Dina (1969: 136) noted soon after, 'an internal strike had been successful throughout FIAT.' The struggle came out into the open yet again in April, sparked once more by the death of Southern demonstrators at the hands of the police (Revelli 1989: 41). It was to follow the pattern already established elsewhere in the North, with the most qualified workers the first to stir themselves, and the lower categories moving in their wake. Associates of Panzieri now in the Turin PSIUP, who had worked long and hard amongst the specialised workers concentrated in FIAT's Auxiliary departments, gained broad support amongst these 8000 staff for a system of workplace delegates to negotiate piecework rates (Giachetti 1997: 46; Ferraris 1998). As the unrest slowly spread along the firm's cycle of production, however, its demands changed radically. Few of the semi-skilled workers in the assembly and paint shops showed interest in the auxiliary employees' programme; instead they called for substantial, flat wage increases and immediate passage up to the second category of pay (Revelli 1989: 42-3). Organising lightning stoppages which flared up and down the FIAT line, 'common' workers made their Italian debut as 'direct protagonists of struggle', pushing towards 'a profound modification of relations within the working class, and the refusal of the existing division of labour' (Reyneri 1978: 63-4). Such action was to signal a revolution in Italian industrial relations, the coming of age of operaismo's mass worker as a social subject.

Before May, only a few small groups within Turin's MS - remnants of Quademi Rossi and Classe Operaia - had carried out a modest political intervention at FIAT. The rest of the movement, still dominated by conceptions of Student Power, continued to lie under the malaise which had come to grip most campuses. The events at Mirafiori lent a new lease of life to the local MS, and by the end of the month its members began to make regular appearances at the factory gates. There they were to encounter more than one hundred cadre newly arrived from the Potere Operaio groupings of Tuscany and the North-East (Giachetti 1997: 38). Curiosity also brought many line workers to the activists' meetings. By June, hundreds of workers could be seen making their way after each shift to this new 'assemblea operai e studenti', there to discuss the state of play at FIAT and to organise the almost daily stoppages which now racked the firm (ibid. : 58; Fraser 1988: 224-7).

The influence of La Classe was at first prevalent within the assembly. In particular, the workerists' emphasis upon material needs as the fundamental cement of class solidarity evoked a strong response from workers previously indifferent to leftist rhetoric. As never before, large numbers of those who had at best defied factory discipline in purely individual ways began to show an interest in organised class struggle (Virno 1989). The reaction of Alfonso Natella to an invitation to meet with students - 'What the fuck, I've got nothing to lose, I'll go and see what these turds have to say' - was typical of many young Southern immigrants in 1969. Also typical was his surprise to discover that 'the things that I'd thought for years, as long as I'd worked, the things I'd believed only I felt, were thought by everyone' (Balestrini 1971: 93, 132-3). For such workers, talk of bigger pay packets and slower work rhythms bore a concreteness missing from much of leftist propaganda, while the struggle to achieve them held out the possibility of a new, collective identity. As Natella recalled in the book We Want Everything:

At times we had failed to understand each other or agree because each of us was used to speaking in a particular way- as a Christian, as a lumpen, as a bourgeois. Finally, however, in deeds, in the fact that we had made the struggle, we could all speak in the same way. We discovered that we all had the same needs, the same necessities, and that it was these that made us all equal in struggle. (ibid.: 133)

For La Classe and its successor Potere Operaio, the materiality of the demands advanced by production workers in the lowest categories cut a swathe through the pretensions of those on the left who talked of the 'new socialist man'. 'The working class has no ideology to realise', the workerists argued in October, since

the starting point for its struggles are material needs that have to be satisfied. The new and irreducible fact in the workers' struggle is the demand that, wherever capital is found in either a private or collective form, it should be removed from control over living labour in order to break the vicious circle of labour-toil, of work as slavery. (Potere Operaio n.d.: 19)

Like Classe Operaia before it, the group around La Classe was to centre its understanding of working-class political composition upon the question of the wage. Just what exactly the wage thematic then meant for the tendency, however, was not always clear. In its most general form, it would entail the fight for 'more money, less work', a fight which both increased workers' control over the use of their labour-power, and disengaged their renumeration from productivity. Here talk of the wage suggested much more than a mere increase in income, being inseparable from opposition to the gradings and pace of production which weakened and divided workers as a force in society. It was, in other words, the refusal of the existing division of labour, the struggle to appropriate all social wealth outside the logic of commodity relations. This was the sense of Bologna and Daghini's criticism of those leftists who bemoaned workers' disinterest in 'qualitative' demands at a time when even employers 'now see the working class only as a "wage variable"':

Must we therefore leave every discourse on the wage to the adversary? Must we continue to remain prisoners of bourgeois ideology and its divisions/oppositions between 'economic' and 'political', between 'qualitative' and 'quantitative', between 'party' concerns and 'union' concerns? (Bologna and Daghini 1968: 18)

Yet if emphasising the political nature of the wage struggle made good sense at a time when the prevalence of collective piecework linked pay directly to productivity, many within the tendency were also guilty of reading all aspects of the struggle at Mirafiori within the terms of the wage-form. Take Tronti (1969: 508) for instance, whose commitment to the PCI had not completely extinguished his influence upon La Classe: 'For today's worker - correctly - hours, tempos, piecework, bonuses are the wage, pensions are the wage, power itself in the factory is the wage'. In his later reconstruction of the period, Guido Viale (1978: 181-93) of Lotta Continua was to make much of this reductionism, portraying the influence of its proponents as no less destructive than that of certain self-proclaimed 'Marxist-Leninists'. More balanced was the critique he voiced during the creeping May itself. Then he argued that the workerists were 'endemically incapable of grasping all of the political implications of a struggle of these dimensions': in particular, the latter's demonstrated 'capacity of subjective initiative'. Formed completely outside the official labour movement, this had come to invest 'all aspects of the clash' (Viale 1973: 58). In the end, amongst prominent workerists only Bologna would at that time raise doubts about such a use of the wage, noting with Ciafaloni that the exclusive focus upon the struggle for flat wage increases,

even if very correct in principle, can lead to an insufficiently clear confrontation with the problems of the aims of production and the distribution of power. (Bologna and Ciafaloni 1969: 157)

The lack of clarity in workerism's discourse on the wage was most evident in La Classe's call for the generalisation of 'the wholly political content' of the objectives raised at FIAT and other industrial concentrations. The vehicle for this was the demand for a social wage 'equal for all', whether engaged in productive labour or not. In this schema, the relative wage became a measure of power, an indicator of the existing balance of force between the two classes. While such a view was underpinned by an innovative political reading of Keynes' own 'discovery' of labour as an independent variable in capitalist society (Negri 1967), La Classe invested little effort in explaining the links between the various articulations of labour-power. Nor, for that matter, did advocacy of a social wage open the tendency to a more balanced assessment of political problems outside the immediate process of production. Thus, despite its growing talk of the social sphere, La Classe would also rail against those

who, instead of making a correct class analysis, identify the 'left of the people' in those most discontented, ultimately organising only poor devils, the sexually repressed, adolescents with Oedipal complexes, students in conflict with the family, lunatics, wretches, filmmakers in crisis, anguished noblewomen, sex maniacs, bourgeois anxious for expiation, the phobia-ridden etc. ... (quoted in Viale 1978: 178)

The workerists' understanding of the slogan 'from the factory to society' assumed a more concrete form on 3 July. When the unions called a strike that day over high rents, the worker-student assembly upped the ante with an afternoon demonstration before FIAT's main gates, in Corso Traiano. Soon things spilled over into street fighting in the surrounding suburbs. The clashes were to continue into the early hours of the morning, as rocks and molotovs were pitted against the tear gas of the carabinieri (Ginsborg 1990: 316, Giachetti 1997). Dubbing the affair an 'insurrection', La Classe was exultant:

It's been 20 years since the workers of FIAT have been able to show themselves in the streets, fighting hand-to-hand with the police and coming off victorious. (La Classe 1969a: 193)

In its aftermath, the assembly called a national conference of autonomous workers' committees for late July. The venue was to be Turin, 'the most advanced moment of a process of struggle which runs throughout Italy, and the political reference point for the whole Italian working class' (Assemblea operaia di Torino 1969: 41). Yet the workerists' assessment of Corso Traiano would also contain a note of disappointment. In their opinion, the 'extraordinary level of class autonomy' displayed in Turin had still proved insufficient to provide direction to the clashes. A new revolutionary organisation was needed, one capable of 'discovering, generalising and transforming the political contents emerging from workers' struggles, and more generally from mass struggles, into preordained revolutionary violence'. If, on the other hand, such a vehicle dedicated to the defeat of social capital and its state remained absent, working-class autonomy risked 'being overturned into a dangerous occasion for the class enemy's counterattack'. In such circumstances, the reorganisation of capital's organic composition would take its toll upon the compactness of the mass worker (La Classe 1969b: 48, 49).

Measured in these terms, the national conference of CUBs was to be a failure for La Classe. Writing in August, Piperno described the gathering in Turin as one that had projected 'a disquieting sensation ... of the disjuncture between intentions and results'. In particular, The Creeping May 125 it had been unable to move beyond the theme of autonomy, of 'the strategic programme elaborated by the mass struggles that is now the patrimony of the movement'. This, however, was no longer enough: what the present occasion demanded was nothing less than the restoration of 'Leninism's primacy of tactics over strategy' (quoted in Bobbio 1978: 39).