03. The agitators and moral outrage

Submitted by Steven. on February 26, 2010

From the end of the 1950s Italy was a country undergoing simultaneous major upheavals in its social and economic structure, so that it experienced change with a sudden intensity. John Low-Beer writes that the

innovative militancy of the Italian labour movement since 1968 may be explained partly by the conjunction of a number of changes in the society in the previous years: the rapid growth of manufacturing in the North and the concomitant immigration from rural areas of the South to the industrial cities of the North; and the increase in the student population and in the number of technicians in the advanced sectors of industry. The spread of values particular to post-industrial society thus coincided with the large influx of young immigrants into semi-skilled jobs. In Britain or the United States, these changes were separated by at least a generation. Their overlap proved to be an explosive situation.

As has been seen, the reorganization of the workplace and the city had contradictory effects; thus, the labour militancy can in part be ascribed to the discontent of the immigrant workers, but immigration also had consequences of making organization and resistance more difficult. The changes provoked fractures between the parties of the Left and the unions and their constituencies, and made their analyses of social realities hopelessly inadequate. So there was nothing automatic about the emergence of the spirit of collective protest and opposition. It grew first of all on the margins of the organizations and in the minds of dissident and disaffected individuals. These figures will be the subjects of this section; firstly, in the shape of intellectuals and, secondly, in that of the worker-militant.

A Dissident Intelligentsia
The period of the 1960s was characterized by a ferment among intellectuals on the Left reacting against the Marxism of the Communist and Socialist parties, and searching for a revitalized theory. Groupings which became known as the New Left set themselves a historic task; it was, in Giovanni Bechelloni’s words:

a political culture which aimed to break with the heritage of idealism (a heritage which appeared in the thinking of the Left parties in the shape of historicism, Gramscianism, neo-realism and philosophical Marxism); to do this, it re-read Marx as the sociologist of capitalist society, but the return to Marx was characterized by a tension between theoretical inquiry and political commitment.

This project’s outcome can be examined in different ways, but here the primary concern is with the New Left ’s critique of the organizations claiming to represent the working class, and with its role in promoting social mobilization. The focus will be on its reviews, and on the political initiatives emerging from them.

The importance of the review in the 1960s needs to be related to the particular role of intellectuals in Italian society, especially on the Left, and to the political debate of the period. Firstly, it is worth noting that the idea of the review as a privileged format for theoretical/political intervention sprang up within the milieu of the city intelligentsia. Becchelloni describes it as being composed of groups of people peripheral to the political parties, who teach in universities, often on a temporary basis, or in a liceo; they have connections with publishing houses, live in the cities of the Centre and North, and many travel to the United States, Britain, France and Germany. Their marginality is significant in that it is also the result of a choice that involves an alternative intellectual route, which is cosmopolitan. It holds the promise of a future that others might not be able to see. In this spirit Franco Fortini wrote in a letter published in the first edition of Quaderni Piacentini:

The history of contemporary Westem societies is the history of individuals and minorities who decide not to bow to the inevitable.... those who in their isolation have decided not to remain alone.

In a similar vein, characteristic of the significance of the visionary in the mythology of the Left, Danilo Montaldi wrote of Lenin as someone who 'did not accept "reality”, and by "dreaming” realized what no “realist” succeeded even in imagining'. The roles assigned to the intellectual were as numerous as the different currents within the New Left, but there was a shared belief in the power of ideas and hence, even if implicitly, in that of their authors and disseminators. A high moral tone and deep seriousness emanated from the pages of the reviews, and dominated the oppositional culture.

It is significant, however, that in the 1960s it was largely through reviews rather than through books that cultural exploration was pursued. This particular cultural vehicle was more suitable to the needs and aspirations of a new brand of intelligentsia. It facilitated the expression of a collective as opposed to individualistic ethos such as that celebrated in the dominant culture’s conception of the artist and thinker. Goffredo Forfi has remarked on the peculiar value of the review:

I have always been convinced that reviews, more so than books, ‘make culture’, if only because very few really important books get published .... Working on a review requires practical knowledge and abilities; there is the exchange of opinions between people, the taking up of positions, the making of decisions in relation to what is happening, the capacity to reason and to choose between proposals.

The importance of the reviews and the sense that intellectuals had something important to contribute related to the context of rapid social change, which seemed to call for new maps and compass readings. Bechelloni lists six reviews as being the most influential: Quarderni Rossi, Quaderni Piacentini, Classe e Stato, Classe Operaia, Contropiano and Nuovo Impegno. Of these, attention will be given to Quaderni Rossi (QR) and Quaderni Piacentini (QP), which first came out in September 1961 and March 1962 respectively, and to Classe Operaia. The first task faced by the reviews was to make a comprehensive critique of the traditional Left, and the second (though it did not necessarily follow) was to elaborate alternatives. Bechelloni has written:

The history of the reviews and of the relations (or lack of them) with the parties and organizations of the Workers’ Movement can also be studied as the history of the incapacity for renewal and openness on the part of the leaderships of the latter.

This blockage became particularly evident in the post-1956 renewal of debate on democracy, though it should be pointed out that this was most lively in the Socialist Party where there was a greater range of opinion from pro-Soviet to social libertarian than in the Communist Party. Leading spirits within Quaderni Rossi, like Raniero Panzieri, were former members of the PSI or part of critical minorities within it, like Vittorio Foa. The entry of the party into government in 1963 and the subsequent foundation of the PSIUP further distanced the intellectual dissidents?
There was no equivalent split in the Communist Party until the Manifesto group’s formation in 1969, although prestigious individuals like the philosopher Lucio Colletti left in protest against Stalinism. However, it was an obligatory point of reference and target of criticism as the biggest party and the custodian of Marxist orthodoxy.

The critiques made of the parties were predominantly of what was seen as their ‘social democratization’. This was most evident in the case of the Socialist Party, but was also thought to apply to a Communist Party that was oriented to parliamentarism and losing touch with the industrial working class. This line of analysis had a long history in the writings of the Bordigist and Trotskyist organizations, which claimed to be the genuine heirs to Marx and Lenin. For them, the key to revolution lay in the role of the party and the adoption of the ‘correct political line’. In the 1960s this approach was given a new lease of life with the popularity of the Chinese model following the Cultural Revolution of 1965-6. The Chinese model answered a call for orthodoxy and the wish to believe in a promised land. However, the critiques developed by the Quaderni Rossi, and by Raniero Panzieri in particular, departed from this sterile tradition. They questioned elements of the tradition itself as well as what were seen as its deformations at the hands of the Socialist and Communist Parties.

Panzieri’s critique was far-reaching and had lasting effects precisely because it did not recapitulate the attacks on the parties for ‘betraying’ the working class or for deviating from the orthodoxies. He said quite simply that the problems went back to the founding fathers themselves, whose object of analysis had been laissez faire capitalism. A consequence of this was that they gave disproportionate importance to planning and to the common ownership of the means of production as the defining features of socialism. It was, then, these aspects that predominated in the thinking of the modern parties. They espoused the vogue for technological change, planning and modernization, thereby subordinating themselves to the logic of neo-capitalist development. Panzieri did not spell out his own position, but in his writings others found critiques of the vanguardist conception of the party, ideas for council communism, and the brief for ltalian appropriations of Chinese experiments in breaking down divisions of mental and manual labour. Panzieri did not live long enough to see this happen, and was not a person lightly to dismiss the parties and unions with which he had worked for so long. However, a younger generation had less caution and greater expectations.

The question of alternative organization and concrete political intervention haunted the intellectuals associated with the reviews. Above all, they accepted the Marxist insistence on the unity of theory and practice. However, they were more in agreement over their differences with the traditional Left than in how to act on their ideas. The problem was less pressing for Quaderni Piacentini which assumed the role of a forum and published articles from a range of viewpoints, including the first appearances in Italian of writings by Marcuse, Horkheimer and Habermas. For the Quaderni Rossi, on the other hand, disagreement ended in splits and the launching of Classe Operaia. The editorial group was divided in its estimation of whether the time was ripe for setting up a revolutionary organization; Panzieri and Vittorio Reiser referred to the engineering contract of 1962 as a defeat for both the unions and the working class, while for the future founders of Classe Operaia, Romano Alquati and Mario Tronti, the former had indeed been defeated, but the working class had made a ‘qualitative leap’.

The fate of Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia, neither of which survived longer than a couple of years, would be of little interest but for their place in the history of the Italian New Left. Their role has retrospectively acquired mythic qualities. Particularly celebrated were Tronti’s articles: ‘Lenin in England’, ‘Factory and Society’ and ‘The Strategy of Refusal’, which proved to be founding documents of Italian operaismo. A key formulation was:

We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first and the workers second, and this is a mistake. Now we have to turn the problem on its head . . . and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class. At the level of socially developed capital, capitalist development follows hard behind the struggles ....

From this perspective, the history of recent capitalist development was rethought; the major economic transformations, mass production and state initiatives to underwrite wage gains and job security were seen as responses to working class insurgency in the period following the Russian Revolution. These, in turn, created the conditions for new levels of class struggle. The mass worker of the modern factory, unlike the craft worker of an earlier stage of capitalist development, expressed a radical antagonism to the production process itself. The ‘strategy of refusal’, to use Tronti’s words, entailed the refusal of production obligations (through strikes, sabotage and manning struggles) and the escalation of wage demands. Tronti interpreted these tacit and tactical practices as workers’ struggles to make the fulfilment of needs independent of capital’s requirements. For him the mass worker short-circuited union representation, and traditional party policies.

The concept of workers’ autonomy (autonomia operaia) was not invented by Tronti, but he had an important role in defining a term which was to become a touchstone of revolutionary politics over the next ten years. (A mapping of the different uses to which the term has been put would make an interesting study in its own right. It was important not only for political activists but set the terms of wider cultural debate. In the mid and late sixties workers’ autonomy was understood to mean autonomy from capital (the refusal of workers to define their need and demands according to capital’s need for labour power subordinate to the rhythms of the production process), and autonomy from external organizations (workers’ independence from the parties and unions which were seen to be subservient to capital). As such, it represented the most absolute and essentialist conception of social movement. However, the problem of assessing the influence of the new ideas about political movements remains. How significant were people like Panzieri and Tronti, who were the outside agitators? Did they undermine the old inevitability, and were they also ‘the travelling salesmen of the new inevitability? Most people, if they had been asked this question in 1967, would undoubtedly have dismissed as irrelevant the reviews and the alternative organizations of the New Left. The circulation of the former were highly restricted; in late 1967 Quaderni Piacentini sold 4,000 copies, and Classe Operaia sold a maximum of 5,000 before it ceased publication in 1966.The organizations were weak. An inquiry by the review Nuovo lmpegno in 1967 found that they numbered eighteen, but they had ‘virtually no workers inside them, and little effect on struggles or presence in the factories’. Bechelloni writes that

this political culture was developed in restricted intellectual circles, and, during the 1960s, had only the faintest of echoes in political and cultural debate and in political events.

Moreover, the reviews were taken by surprise by the sudden rise of the student movement. They had paid little attention to the problems inside the educational institutions, or to the protest in the United States. A certain fixation with the factory conflict produced myopia in relation to other social tensions. Moreover, the reformist and modernizing ambitions of the government were taken at face value as the manifestation of neo-capitalist planning, so that their demise was not seriously considered.

However, measurement of influence by circulation and membership figures can be misleading. Quaderni Rossi illustrates this. It was a review with a small circulation, but a disproportionately large readership. It played a seminal role in the emergence of a sociology of the workers’ movement, but the review was also a point of reference and inspiration for a generation of political and trade union activists. It gave dignity and significance to workers’ opinions and experience.

An interview recorded in 1967 with a union activist at the Sit Siemens electrical engineering factory in Milan is interesting on this point. She recalls that when she went to complain to Communist Party officials that they had not understood the problems on the shop-floor (tens of women had been suffering fainting fits and hysteria because of the pressure of work, but the union agreed to compensation rather than a reduction of line-speeds):

they came back at me with ‘that’s what the Quaderni Rossi people say` and so on. I, poor thing, hadn’t a clue who these people were, so I went to find out.

She described how, when she went to speak about working conditions at . meetings, ‘an official was sent with me so that I bore witness to my experience, and he drew the political conclusions’. The Quaderni Rossi experiment, in other words, proposed an alternative method of political work which attempted to overcome this division of labour. The ideas coming from the New Left need to be put in the broader context of their intellectual significance and their fashionableness. They presented challenges to the orthodox readings of Marx, Lenin and Gramsci. They were like a breath of fresh air. For example, Asor Rosa’s Scrittori e Popolo, which attacked neo—Gramscian accounts of the Italian literature, and Tronti’s Operai e Capitale were intellectual landmarks for the younger generation in the universities. Publishers who sympathized with these views, saw the market possibilities opened up by interest in such radical political texts. They promoted and capitalized on the emergence of a new market, and fed the immense hunger for cultural and political discussion with a flow of new publications. Primo Moroni and Bruna Miorelli have written:

A great laboratory was formed in which Stalinists, libertarians, council communists, Leninists, operaisti and ‘spontanists’ all took part. Their strictly political themes mixed with Marcuse, Laing, Cooper, the Frankfurt School. Remember the enormous impact of don Milani’s Letter to a School-Teacher which was printed by a minuscule publisher with organic ties with the community. If it now seems little more than . . . populist, at the time it gave vent to an aggressive radical opposition to the system. Books and symbols of the international struggles in China, Vietnam and Cuba were readily consumed. The Feltrinelli bookshops sold literally tons of Che Guevara posters. The old public made up of intellectuals, trade unionists and party officials was joined by a new type of purchaser - the student and young worker. The old eighteenth century idea of the bookshop as a place of culture was superseded by the modern one of the market opening on to the street.

Of the more established publishers, it was Giangiacomo Feltrinelli who proved most adept at sowing the seeds of new-leftism and reaping the subsequent harvest in the wake of 1968. His story is both intriguing and illuminating.

Feltrinelli, the millionaire owner of one of Milan’s largest publishing companies, was fascinated by the Latin American revolutionary movements and dreamt of imitating its methods of guerilla warfare in Italy. He was, therefore, attracted by elements of the New Left who looked to Cuba and the Third World for inspiration, rather than by the traditional Left. An article in the review La Sinistra in July1967 drew a picture of Feltrinelli:

His hair, long and disorderly like a beatnik’s, his moustache drooping and wearing a very colourful tie . . . he spoke to us of his conversations with Fidel, and of the uplifting experience of a people .. . who generously supported the fight against Yankee imperialism.

Although Feltrinelli’s relations with the New Left were full of contradictions on account of his wealth (these came into the open when a student meeting greeted him with the slogan: ‘Two, three, a thousand million’), nevertheless his readiness to publish its documents and to provide financial support should not be lightly dismissed.

Firstly, Feltrinelli, along with smaller publishers like Samona and Savelli, pioneered the opening up of a new market, and, in the process, gave currency to the new ideas. Thus, the social movements were able to make use of already existing networks linking political initiatives to the publishers. Secondly, Feltrinelli’s attraction to the revolutionary cause illustrates the way that romance and adventure were fashionably associated with the Left in this period. His case is exceptional, but the phenomenon of ‘defections’ by the sons and daughters of the wealthy and influential in Italy was to take on scandalous proportions.

In early 1967 the New Left was marginal to political and intellectual life in Italy, but it was perhaps not as marginal as might at first be imagined. Clearly, the reviews were the preserve of a tiny minority, and the established parties dominated debate. At the same time, as analysis of the student movement will show, the new ideas made considerable inroads into the acceptance of the parties as the inevitable representatives of opposition in the country. More generally, the New Left was a symptom of wider shifts of opinion. Many of the themes developed by the New Left on the nature of modern capitalism and on the reorganization of the factory, touched on problems that were preoccupying people who had to live with worsening working conditions and falling wages. The themes developed by Quaderni Rossi and its operaist offspring were in many ways prophetic. A marginal grouping of intellectuals managed to put their finger on the pulse of discontent and to identify its causes in the transformations of the labour process in the factories, but in addition they anticipated the radical demands. In the mid sixties few listened, but by the end of the decade the call for the abolition of grades, for lump sum wage increases, for the elimination of piece rates, for direct workers’ democracy, were heard in hundreds of workplaces.

However, workers, who had little enough opportunity to come into contact with the new Left ideas before 1968, arrived at radical analyses of society by other routes. For them, the older traditions of resistance - Socialist, Communist and even Catholic - and the ‘moral economies’ of workplace and community - were more important in shaping their rebellion. These agitators were, moreover, insiders rather than outsiders.

Worker Agitators
The agitators within the factories in the period before 1968 were mainly drawn from, or had been within, the ranks of the Communist Party, and were the backbone of union organization. They were especially well qualified for this role for a number of reasons, which related mostly to their political rather than their trade union identities. Above all, these people resisted the pressures of everyday experience that seemed to say that nothing could really be changed. A woman militant recalls the positive aspects of her experience of the party, which she subsequently left in 1967; to the question: ‘Did you always believe in revolution and the overthrow of the state?’, she replied:

Yes, , . . it seemed that at a certain moment along the road something could happen that had never happened before . . . at one level, ingenuously, I believed that this society is not ours, and we must create a society of our own that is different. This is what the PCI taught and it did it well. It is not by chance that it took the best part of the working class because of its sense of responsibility the militant had to be very serious, honest, humble, conscientious, and present himself to the workers by putting himself at their service.

The life of this particular agitator bears witness to her words, in that she was sacked several times for her activism (a penalty she viewed as an ordinary part of her ‘training’), but her struggle was also against the ‘sense of resignation... the feeling that as a woman you have to accept what you’re given’.

The Communist Party membership and background was, however, no automatic guarantee of a militant’s ability to represent and mobilize fellow workers. When ideology was separated out from, and even counter-posed to the ‘moral economies’ of groups of workers, then it could function repressively as seen in the instance of the response of PCI officials to emotional reactions to working conditions, which was regarded as an economic issue to be resolved by monetary agreement. In the mid to late sixties, a number of agitators found themselves in conflict with the party, which seemed incapable of organizing the intense feelings of resentment and outrage on the shop-floor, and which they felt had reneged on its promise to bring about radical change. For them, immersion in the daily realities of the factory was also an act of purification and a return to the roots of the Communist project. The role of these agitators was enhanced by their political connections, which linked them to outside networks, giving them additional resources of information and moral and intellectual support.

The Marxist tradition, in all its many variants, was undoubtedly the most significant ideology in encouraging the idea of social transformation in the 1960s. A whole history, as has been mentioned, lies behind this legacy. Catholicism, by contrast, was predominantly associated with social and political conservatism. However, radical interpretations of Catholic belief, often influenced by Marxist thought, took shape among workers as well as among intellectuals. Interesting light can be thrown on the role of agitator as evangelist by the autobiography of Antonio Antonuzzo, in whom life in the modern factory provoked deep-felt moral outrage.

Antonio Antonuzzo was Sicilian in origin, but his family transferred to . Tuscany in search of work, a search that eventually took him to Milan. In 1961 he got a job at Alfa Romeo. For the first three years he was the typical, obedient hard worker. He got the job after receiving help from the Christian Democrats and a charity organization for immigrants, and gained promotion to skilled status because of his good relations with the foreman. At work his main concern was self-advancement through hard work, and, although not a scab, during strikes he went with his friends (mostly meridionali like himself) to ‘seek out a woman with a good heart who sells the wares of love’. Their idea of collective action did not rise above bargaining the rate with the women concerned.

Antonuzzo does not point to a single incident as precipitating a change from an individualist, deferential consciousness to a belief that there was a collective way of struggling to save the working class from its subordination. He writes of becoming aware of the disproportion between wages and work done, but more significant is a sense of revulsion at the inhumanity perpetrated in the factory: 'When a machine broke down, you became aware of how little you mattered to the management: a series of technicians rushed to get it working, whilst when a worker had an accident or could no longer work they replaced him by a more efficient one.’ It shocked him that such things were tolerated by the Catholic Church; ‘in the name of Christ they justified the injustices suffered by the exploited. But it was through the radicalized Catholic FIM-CISL that Antonuzzo became a militant. He applied himself assiduously to unionizing others, using his mobility as a ‘jolly’ and his speed as a worker to travel around the factory. Often he wrote articles for the factory union paper in the lavatory. In an attempt to buy him off, management offered Antonuzzo a foreman’s job, but he had already decided against the individualist option so that the offer could only increase his angry determination to foment revolt. His account of the treatment meted out to scabs during the 1966 industrial dispute celebrates an old ritual of collective theatre in which the ‘Judas’ is paid off:

I collected five lire from every worker on my team and I said to every one of them that they should shout ‘scab’ when I threw the money on the bench in front of him.

For Antonuzzo the discovery of the union coincided with the creation for himself of a new identity and sense of belonging. It was deeply personal:

until I joined the union I saw the family as a personal matter. After joining, I came to think about it as something I shared with other people.

His conception of society and of his place in it had been transformed. The experience was something that he felt the need to communicate to his fellow workers. When in 1967 he became a full-time organizer for the FIM-CISI, he was given the possibility of dedicating himself completely to the cause he had espoused. He experienced the joys of evangelism: ‘when I went among the workers . . . I had a host of things to say because I felt one of them and I was happy because they listened to me with attention.’ Antonuzzo’s rebellion against injustice was very particular and his conversion to socialism was minoritarian. It was especially marked by his Catholic faith and his southern origins, and it took place in a period in which the majority of workers appeared to accept their lot. However, his anger and thirst for action were not isolated and hidden obsessions; rather, Antonuzzo could sense himself giving vent to collective feelings. It was a time when the rumble of popular protest could be heard under the surface of the society; it was a time that agitators dream of.

Cracks in the Fabric
In 1968-9 Italy experienced what Gramsci termed an ‘organic crisis’. Social movements broke the mould of institutional definitions of politics, and the insurgency in civil society put the authority of the ruling bloc in question. But, as has been shown in this chapter, the mould was already badly cracked before it was put under the intense pressure of new political demands. There was a massive withdrawal of support and delegation with respect to the structures of representation, especially in the light of the failure of the Centre-Left government to live up to its promises. It was a clear case of the ‘ruling class failing to achieve a noteworthy political enterprise for which it had demanded their approval’. Disappointment and disillusionment were registered in the general elections of May 1968 ·when the Socialist Party votes fell dramatically, and the small rival to the left, the PSIUP, won ground. However, the rift between representatives and represented went further. Emilio Colombo’s summary of the cause of the crisis in progress, given to the national council of the Christian Democratic Party in January 1969, is instructive:

Where have we fallen short? It seems to me that reforms have got nowhere, so the structures of civil society have aged and the whole fabric has deteriorated. Social forces have not found suitable channels for the expression of their sense of freedom. That’s why the moment of pluralism is becoming, in our society, a moment of disorder. The wave of unrest, and even irrationality, is all the more disturbing when sectors which are by nature given to reformist action pursue revolutionary objectives because of their profound disillusionment with the methods and timing whereby reforms have been carried out by the politicians.

The failure of the Centre-Left reforms had particularly serious consequences given the scale and stressfulness of the socio economic changes following the ‘miracle’ years. There was the growth of widespread scepticism about the possibility of redressing injustices and reducing inequalities through parliamentary measures. The Communist Party, too, was affected by this mood, which strengthened the hand of its left-wing and dissident members. In this context, the revolutionary option did not seem very much less realistic than the reformist one, particularly when Italian history seemed to suggest that sudden and dramatic popular mobilizations produced more results than gradual parliamentary reforms. The social contract, in other words, could it seemed, only be redrawn through the actions of social movements. This tradition of popular protest was part of a rich historical legacy that still had adherents within a Communist Party that had been systematically excluded from government since 1947. It was, moreover, the moving force behind the agitators who were heretics looking for an authentically revolutionary communism. With the demise of the political parties, the idea of political action that dealt on the spot with problems and injustices acquired its rationale and legitimacy, even though it appeared irrational to government ministers.

The ideologies of resistance and rebellion, and the moral economies of groups of workers were of great importance to the process of social mobilization which began in late 1967. Without them, the crisis of representation would have produced disillusionment without hope in change. As the interpreters and propagandists of discontent, the agitators played a crucial role, especially in the early stages of the movements. Although the surge of collective defiance surprised most militants in the factories in 1968, nevertheless they were ready, in that they looked to their fellow workers rather than to the organizations as the force for change in the world. Similarly, among students it was the exponents of the New Left who were most prepared to initiate disruption and construct alternatives. The role of the agitators was undoubtedly positive in many respects, though with the proviso that they were in many respects the revivers of an older faith rather than apostles of a new one.