07. The spread of student protest: the state university, schools and institutes

Politics as Entertainment

The student movement at the State University (‘La Statale’) formed in the wake of the occupations at the Catholic University. It did not play a leading role nationally, nor did events at the Statale have a resonance within a specific cultural orbit equivalent to the mondo cattolico.

However, this section of the movement rapidly dominated student politics within Milan. Its influence grew when the national movement was in crisis in the summer of 1968. The particular interest of this case lies in examining how the Statale became so central to the social life of the student movement.

The medical students were the first to occupy their faculty when, in mid February 1968, they took action in protest over overcrowding and the high examination failure rate. A few days later science, arts and law faculties were occupied. During March, April and May student occupations and police evictions produced a ding-dong battle. At the Cattolica there were seven occupations in 1968-9, and the students at the Statale took action with equal regularity. Moreover, as will be seen below, schools too were swept into the fray. There was no let-up in hostilities in 1968 until the June examinations, which at the Cattolica were presided over by the police. Each confrontation led to an escalation. Fascist attacks and the arrival of students at the gates with police escorts demanding the ‘right to study’ led to a militarization of conflict, especially following the battle of Valle Giulia. On 25 March 1968 street battles broke out involving over a thousand students, when police evicted the occupiers from both the Catholic and State universities. Repression, expulsions and legal action against students provoked campaigns against victimization, and hardened feelings towards the authorities. Students responded by locking up the rectors of the two universities, and by putting ‘reactionary’ lecturers on trial. Writing on the walls pointed the accusing finger. For example, a certain Bonicalzi was addressed: ‘Bonicalzi, you who love prefabrication, tell us about building speculation.’ Graffiti also contained ironic advice to workers on how to go to university: ‘Workers, you too can go to university - join the police.'

Whilst the struggle for the control of space was lost at the Cattolica, the students at the Statale managed to assert their hold over their territory. The Cattolica activists were relatively isolated from the bulk of the student body by the time confrontation took a more violent turn. Their most effective and popular methods of struggle involved passive resistance, and they were not sufficiently prepared to do battle for a political autonomy which required the free use of institutional space. Moreover, the authorities at the Cattolica held firm. At the Statale the student movement could count on a broader area of support, and had fewer scruples about violent action. It was already more politicized in the early stages, due to a history of organization and activism that was lacking at the Cattolica. Then, the authorities of the Statale were more ready to accept incursions on their prerogatives rather than have more conflict. The students at the Statale effectively made the university into a base for the movement, but their success needs also to be related to their exploitation of its topographical centrality. The Ospedale Maggiore site, which has formed the core of the university since its foundation in 1924, is in the centre of Milan. It is a five-minute walk from Piazza Duomo, where political and trade-union rallies historically follow on from marches through the city streets. The student movement quickly transformed the nearby Piazza San Stefano into its place for meetings and rallies. Students from all the educational institutions came to the Piazza, and to the university for city-wide demonstrations, debates or to coordinate strikes and protest action. When the Statale students occupied the buildings others joined them and helped repel attacks.

However, the attractions of the State University were not only political in narrow sense. Occupations provided excellent opportunities for an exciting social life including free rock and jazz concerts. A Corriere della Sera report entitled the ‘Nights of Mao’ gave a voyeuristic insight into the carnival atmosphere which reigned during an occupation of the Statale:

this is how the pro-Chinese (filo-cinesi) elements pass the hours of the cultural revolution - they play poker, dress up in lecturers’ robes, use crucifixes as weapons, listen to Bach and make toasts with wine from Puglia.

Indeed, an important part of the new politics was precisely these sorts of taboo-breaking acts. Hardly a statue escaped mockery - white marble was desecrated by colourful daubs, heads acquired hats and inscriptions were ‘corrected’. And, unfortunately, students also left their mark on their surroundings by destroying and vandalizing them. The fine Renaissance courtyards and Della Robbia sculptures suffered considerable damage.

The State University, at the height of the student movement, afforded numerous opportunities for entertainment, and drew crowds of young people looking for excitement and wanting to see for themselves what the press had made so notorious. The buildings and courtyards, which had been taken over for educational purposes, once again teemed with a sort of life they had known in previous centuries. The university took on some of the features of a market-place and hostel. Student control over the entrance halls, combined with the free flow of persons in and out of the buildings, made them ideal spots for trading and illicit dealing. Most of the goods on sale consisted of books, newspapers and other political paraphernalia, but itinerant street-vendors, mostly Southerners, also came to sell their contraband cigarettes, watches and other things, whilst students themselves made and sold jewellery and leather articles. Sometimes the vendors showed a rare eye for a captive market; before each clash with the police, a small cart would suddenly appear loaded with lemons, which students would use to diminish the effects of the tear-gas. Students turned the university into a hostel for the poor and needy, who spontaneously gravitated to a place where they would not only get free meals at the canteen and a roof for the night, but where they would be humoured by their hosts. Well-known city drunks and even patients escaping from mental asylums drifted around the university.

For students the cobbled streets adjoining the university contained good-quality cheap restaurants and several bars, which they continuously frequented. One of the favourite student places was the ‘Strippoli’ in Piazza San Stefano, which had excellent food and wine from Puglia. But it was the atmosphere that gave it life, and made it like one of the old fashioned osterie, which had all but disappeared from Milan. In fact, the whole area around the university was transformed by the presence of the student movement. Expectation hung in the air. News concerning the movement travelled down the wires of bush-telegraph run by networks of activists. Bits of information would be exchanged in the entrance hall to the university, whilst posters on the walls just outside announced the next demonstration or meeting. At the ‘Strippoli’ there would perhaps be discussion of recent events. All in all, there was a feeling that to be at the Statale was to be at the centre of action, even when the air was clear of tear-gas and the scream of sirens.

Changing Social Relations

The State University in Milan became a centre of a new form of sociality. The idea of fraternity was no doubt idealized within the movement, but it nonetheless pointed to an aspiration which tended to broaden the possibilities for social exchange. This has already been suggested in relation to the changes in dress and appearance - changes which facilitated social and political identification. It was also indexed by changes in linguistic usage. The familiar tu form of address was widely adopted within the movement for all exchanges, whereas previously it would not have been used except when addressing a friend, close acquaintance or member of family. This deliberate informality, which was associated with popular traditions, served to dispense with what were regarded as bourgeois distinctions between people, while the withdrawal of courteous forms of address such as the use of titles (Dottore, etc.) was a way of snubbing figures of authority. The movement, moreover, created its own peculiar slang (gergo), a strange mixture of swear-words and political jargon, which was later dubbed sinistrese (left-talk). It had none of the richness of an argot, and it bore the imprint of educational institutions in which it was formed, especially in its more verbose and sententious manifestations. However, like the slogan shouted on the demonstration, this slang gave a sense of group identity, but was not exclusive in that it was easily picked up. Thus, joining the movement was made easy even for outsiders; it was sufficient that they learnt a smattering of its terminology for them to be able to engage others in conversation. Above all, it was a sociality based in political activity and discussion, and relied on the most public of vocabularies.

The new sociality produced through the student movement was more extensive than that which preceded it. The activist was at the centre of an intricate web of social relations. A student who was at the State University in 1969 recalls that her diary contained the numbers and addresses of some three hundred people she had met through the movement, the great majority of whom she thought of as her friends. For her it was a period of happiness because ‘you were at home everywhere in the city’. Moreover, activists travelled frequently from city to city to attend conferences and demonstrations, and went to Paris, Berlin and other centres of the student movement. Telephone calls through the interfaculty information centres maintained regular contacts. It was a sociality that was made possible by the time and freedoms enjoyed by students, but in turn that time was organized into a relentless timetable of commitments. The interests of the collectivity were made to prevail over those of individual. Above all there was an idea of ‘solidarity’ informing social relations. This meant that demonstrations could be organized with lightning speed. A series of telephone calls, a roneoed leaflet and a crowd of several thousand could be gathered to protest outside the San Vittorio prison against arrests which had occurred a couple of hours previously.

The student movement made sociality more public by channelling it through political activity, and in the process deeply affected the private and personal lives of its protagonists. Its ideal of how a comrade should aspire to live was represented in the oft-quoted words of Che Guevara:

Marxists must be the most courageous and the most complete human beings, but always, and above all, they . .. must live and pulsate with the masses ....

They must be tireless workers, who give themselves utterly to the people, and sacrifice their hours of rest, their families and even their lives for the revolution, yet who are never indifferent to the warmth of human contact.

This heroic model, which closely resembles Christ’s conception of the apostolic mission, had a considerable resonance in the student movement. There was a streak of fanaticism about the militant’s lifestyle. People were judged according to their political identities or their degree of commitment to the movement. A person was either a comrade or not; and if not, was excluded or marginalized from the activist’s social circles, which were constructed largely on the basis of political activity. Thus, during

1968-9 many friendships which antedated the movement, and many family relationships, went into crisis. It was an embarrassment to have a relationship with a revisionist (a member of the Communist Party), and there was a reaction against parents, especially when they were wealthy or held conservative views. Although there was a variety of factors involved, such as teenage rebellion against fathers, it is notable that these conflicts were thought of in a political framework.

The student movement not only rejected certain traditional forms of sociality (mostly those premised on hierarchy and authority), but it gave rise to alternative models and experiments, which liberally interpreted Che Guevara’s injunctions. The examples of the commune and of attitudes to sexual liberation offer some insights into these developments.

The most celebrated commune to be established in Milan came out of the occupation of the State University’s student hostel (Casa dello Studente) in May 1969. A meeting called for free beds, the extension of services for women students, the evaluation of requests for lodging on the basis of need rather than merit, and job security for all staff. The action led to almost total student control over the premises. However, most students lived with their parents in Milan, so communal living was a marginal experience, especially for those attending the Cattolica. There was no equivalent to the US or British campuses. Moreover, by contrast with the North American movements, the few communal houses shared by activists served mainly as bases for other activities. Little time was spent at home, little space was left for private, personal relationships. The prevalent idea was that everything had to be shared.

Sex too was thought to be something to be shared among comrades. Free love and sexual liberation were facets of the student movement in Italy as in other countries. It was, likewise, a contradictory freedom. A leaflet written by education students at the Statale gives a slightly confused picture of this:

talking about freedom and revolution without living them in our everyday lives leads to fascism .... That means to say, that for women, if they don't 'masculinize’ themselves along authoritarian lines, nothing remains but the task of duplicating, of being the ‘duplicating angel’ (angelo del ciclostile). . . . The system wants us not to make love. . . . The bourgeoisie is not interested in the creation of a new relationship between men and women because it would lead to its self-immolation.

Criticism was also directed against the authoritarian and repressive aspects of the Chinese Revolution such as ‘the repeated invitations to marriage, maternity and chastity, that is to the prohibition on the rational self-management of one’s life’. The leaflet celebrates love-making as anti-authoritarian and anti-bourgeois, but it also suggests that women were being squeezed between older and newer forms of oppression. The vogue for Reichian ideas reinforced those tendencies within a student way of life

which exalted self-expressivity.

The idea of sexual liberation was spoken of positively by both men and women in the student movement, but it was often experienced at the time as unpleasant, especially by the women. They were obliged by social pressures to give freely of themselves. During occupations sexual intercourse was actively canvassed, and the women, who were always in a minority, found it difficult to say ‘no’ for fear of appearing ‘repressed’. Within the movement, masculine values, such as the courage and daring of a Mario Capanna in the face of the police, and the masculine image, exemplified by the virile, bearded look, were hegemonic among men. It was the men who were the leaders, and women students were required to dress and behave like them in order to win respect; otherwise they tended to be glamorous appendages of the male leaders (la donna del leader). The women activists continued to do the humbler tasks of duplicating and preparing meals. Their role in the movement was subordinate and invisible. The specific nature of women’s oppression remained unrecognized; so whilst students were intensely aware of class discrimination and inequalities in education, they were largely oblivious to both the public and private humiliations endured by women as a social group.

The new sociality brought into existence by the student movement was, therefore, a contradictory mixture of freedoms and oppressions. Participation involved extending circles of friendship and breaking down the barriers between people of different ages and classes; at the same time, friendships were circumscribed by political definitions and confused with the category ‘comrade’. Public life became more intense, but at the expense of personal concerns. Interpretations of freedom, fraternity and equality claimed to be in the interests of all, but they reaffirmed male powers to define social relations. The repressive and moralistic elements of the new sociality came to the fore when the movement went into decline.

At the Statale the student movement succeeded in maintaining its grip on the institution, which functioned as the headquarters for the movement as a whole. However, at the end of 1969, the movement was subordinated to the newly founded political organizations of the extra-parliamentary Left, which replaced the loose structures of grassroots democracy with their versions of Leninist democratic centralism. The most regressive and which the outlook repressive elements of the new sociality were formalized and institutionalized by the political sects. At the Statale the Movimento Studentesco (now a party) fought tooth and nail to drive out rivals, and to establish the supremacy of Marxist-Leninist dogma and organization; the statalini even resurrected Stalin as ‘the symbol of intransigent struggle against the bourgeoisie and fascism, as the rejection of the line of the Western Communist parties, and as part of the fight against Trotskyism’.

Although the Movimento Studentesco was perhaps an extreme example of political puritanism, it nonetheless represented wider tendencies that developed out of the movements of 1968-9. Above all, it entailed the construction of a closed political subculture in which narrow political definitions governed the social existence of its members. A Movimento Studentesco document makes this clear, by posing an alternative for school students between a life of militancy and the escapism of bohemianism:

it is not surprising that the bourgeoisie favours a false anti-conformism . . . comics, detective stories, television, the guitar and long hair are for many young people the only form of social and cultural existence. Through these instruments, the bourgeois ideology of violence . . . pansexualism and escapism is transmitted.

However, in the wake of the movements there was also a reaction to this new conformism, especially among women and youth, who struggled to assert identities which the Left and student politics had repressed or refused to recognize. Tiny minorities anticipated these developments in a confused way in 1968-9, but they were isolated and marginalized. As will be shown in part IV, it was not until the development of the new social movements in the 1970s that the themes of personal and sexual identities were explored and used to redefine politics itself.

Revolt in the Upper Secondary Schools

On 26 January 1968 the students of the Liceo Berchet occupied their school with the help of city-wide support from university and secondary school students. A month later the Liceo Parini was occupied and the structures were set up, through meetings at the Statale, of a Milanese ‘coordination’ for the Movimento delle Scuole Medie. The movement spread to all the main upper secondary schools, firstly to the liceo classico and liceo scientifico, and subsequently to the technical institutes and vocational training schools. The movement started in Milan, but quickly assumed national proportions with a wave of occupations, demonstrations, strikes in the spring and then in the autumn. It was very much an offshoot involving teenagers who quickly learnt the political language of their elder brothers and sisters, but while the student movement in the universities went into eclipse, it put down its roots in the schools.

Unlike in the universities, where students were recognized to be citizens with the right to speak, meet and organize politically, in the secondary schools there were heavy restrictions on such activities. Some student associations and publications existed, but under close supervision. An authoritarian regime prevailed in the majority of schools. One of the movement’s central objectives was precisely the recognition of school students’ adulthood and citizenship. This was true not only in the earlier stages of mobilization, but throughout the struggle with the rigid and intransigent authorities.

Even before the student movement gathered momentum in the universities, a major scandal blew up in a Milanese Iiceo over the issue of freedom of speech, and provoked a national debate. Students at the Liceo Parini published an article in their paper, La Zanzara, on changing attitudes towards sex among their fellow pupils which provoked protests from some parents. A police inquiry resulted in arrests. The article itself was in the form of a report on the findings of a questionnaire asking about sex before marriage, contraception and divorce. It reflected tendencies in favour of women’s equality in sexual relations and careers. It criticized the Church’s role in defining social relations in terms of the ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, and for causing a sense of guilt about sex. One reply called for ‘total sexual freedom and a total change of attitudes’, but the overall perspective was one of bringing Italian education in line with the ‘majority of civilized countries’ and forwarding ‘democratic development’. The reaction it provoked was one of moral panic, especially in the Catholic establishment and in the public prosecutor’s office; the prosecution evoked the spectre of an Americanization of Italian youth:

The sexual problem must be scientifically dealt with or we will reach a situation in which the girls will go around with contraceptives in their pockets and a sleeping bag under their arms . . . I am speaking on the behalf of the sane society, the healthy society.

In response to the threat, the article in the Fascist penal code on crimes of opinion (reato d’opinione) was used against the editors of La Zanzara. Camilla Cederna, writing in the enlightened middle-class weekly L’Espresso, observed how in Italian society ‘the mechanisms of repression are unloosed when the taboo areas - sex and family, hierarchy and army - are touched.

What emerges clearly from the Zanzara case is the rigidity of the institutions when faced with criticism. The authorities did their best to keep schools free of what they saw as the dangerous influences at large in society. For them, the school was a bastion of civilized values against the onslaught of a new barbarism. When there were strikes by students at the Liceo Galvani in 1966, the headmaster issued a statement:

Absenteeism from lessons is a painful business which is neither justified not acceptable. In school there must be a relationship of trust, respect and confidence, a dialogue between pupils and teachers. These conditions enable the young freely to inform their superiors of the wants, hopes, doubts and difficulties which they come across in their school life.

But it was just this paternalism which the students found repugnant. Attempts to punish and repress in cases where dialogue broke down only provoked further disaffection. The Zanzara incident, for example, led to petitions, demonstrations and mass attendance at the trial. The school was made into a political battleground. Students demanded that:

the school be thought of and organized not as preparation for society, but as part of society. The school should not be a place for listening but for active participation.

The language of a student report denouncing censorship in schools published in 1967 is full of words and phrases like ‘growth’, ‘maturity’, ‘democracy’, ‘participation in civil life’; these indicate a commitment to rights and responsibilities, showing the extent to which students were influenced by the political culture from which this vocabulary derived. But the cultural life inside the upper secondary schools was not always so respectable.

During the mid to late 1960s Iiceo students were reading existentialist literature (Sartre, Camus) and Pavese novels. There was a cultural climate in which the rebel, the outsider, and the loner were the heroes who rejected respectable and bourgeois society. Well before 1968, radicals and anarchists organized meetings against the Concordat and the Vietnam War. Anti-authoritarian ideas and behaviour, stimulated by the youth culture imported from Britain and the United States, were fashionable before they became aspects of the student movement. Students wore long hair and baited the authorities with disrespectful behaviour.

In January 1968 students of Milan’s upper secondary schools and institutes occupied their buildings and carried on a struggle against authoritarianism just as did the university students. Often strikes were coordinated throughout the city’s educational institutions. Formal structures to organize the movement’s activities were created in the wake of spontaneous sympathetic action. When on 7 March 1968 police evicted students occupying six schools, the next day 10,000 students struck in protest. However, it was not until the autumn that the movement spread from the most active schools to involve the majority of institutions. On 28 November 10,000 school students demonstrated for political rights, and every day brought news of an occupation or picket.

The movement’s objectives were summed up in a leaflet of the action committee of the Liceo Berchet as follows:

the control and eventual elimination of marks and failures, and therefore the abolition of selection in school; the right of everyone to education and to a guaranteed student grant; freedom to hold meetings; a general meeting in the morning; accountability of teachers to students; removal of all reactionary and authoritarian teachers; setting of the curriculum from below.

To gain these objectives, the leaflet concluded that it was necessary to unite with the working class, since to ‘change the school, society must be changed’. The demands that were felt to be the most important, and around which students mobilized, concerned political rights and the autonomy of the movement within the institutions. They were also the questions which could be acted on directly; thus meetings were held in school hours, papers were produced and students came and went from school and class when they wanted to - all without prior permission.

Mass disobedience unhinged the normal methods of exercising authority in the classroom and school. In the celebrated case of the Liceo Parini, the head, Mattalia, tried to open a dialogue with the students who had occupied the school in March 1968. For his pains, he was suspended by the minister of education, who ordered the police to repossess the premises. The resort to police intervention in response to ‘illegaI’ student meetings, the suspension and expulsion of activists and attempts to evoke parental support for the restoration of order - all these measures intensified the students’ campaign for political rights. When in October 1968 students at the Liceo Einstein were suspended, 1,300 out of the 1,700 students went on protest strike.

The movement in the schools rapidly developed its own organization, which started in the class and extended to the city-wide coordinating body. As in the universities, the key unit was the general meeting. A statute of the Cattaneo technical institute sets out the standard organizational structure; the general meeting was the sovereign body, and from it were elected commissions and study groups with special functions. Thus, there was a press commission, an administrative commission and so on, and study groups on subjects decided by the general meeting. Each class had a monthly meeting to plan and decide on teaching questions. There was also a paper, which was directly accountable to the general meeting. So, far from being an echo of the university movement or a temporary revolt, the school students’ movement established a permanent presence in its own right. The tasks of holding meetings and demonstrations, and of producing leaflets and distributing them, entailed a whole process of political education that pushed formal education to the margins of many teenage lives. At the same time, the ostensible seriousness of the political literature hid the theatrical and entertainment aspects of student politics. A rare report from a study group admonishes fellow students for their very lack of seriousness about themselves:

it is a paradoxical fact affecting all students that they know how to talk about Dante and Cicero, about Milan and lnter, but they don’t know how to talk about their own situation and work. The proof of this is that in certain moments meetings are made into a hell-hole. People shout and clap as if in a stadium.

The ideas of anti-authoritarianism and student power gave legitimacy and new meaning to a whole traditional repertoire of informal resistances in the classroom. Thus absenteeism or the playing up of teachers took political forms and came to signify the refusal of bourgeois ideas.

Although the school student movement privileged the fight for political rights, and was obliged to by the recalcitrance of the authorities, it also thought in terms of alternative methods of learning. A report to the general meeting of the Giorgi technical institute, for example, made four proposals. It called for group work, greater student-teacher cooperation, joint meetings and group meetings with teachers to decide the assessment of marks. As in the case of the universities, great importance was attached to collective work as opposed to individual competitiveness, and cooperation was seen as an end, and not just as a means. Marks were therefore regarded as a divisive instrument of social control from above that had to be neutralized by collective pressure, and then dispensed with. In part, this strategy complemented the fight for political rights because it sought to protect the individual and the group from discrimination in the classroom, and to prevent reprisals against those dedicating time to the movement instead of to their own studies. But it also sprang from a desire to put useful knowledge and real learning before institutional requirements. There was widespread opposition to compulsory Latin and religious studies, and interest in making other subjects ‘relevant’.

The idea of alternative learning was especially significant in the liceo and technical institutes in 1968-9, because education was regarded as potentially positive and liberating. Hence students campaigned to make the institutions accessible and relevant to everyone. These relatively privileged students looked ahead to further study in the university and could expect to get work without too much difficulty. In other words, there was not yet that pessimism about the point of studying because of lack of job prospects.

The late sixties was a prosperous period. However, attempts to develop alternative educational practices foundered in difficult institutional circumstances. Apart from the hostility of the authorities, students lacked the support of sympathetic teachers, who were indispensable to any viable strategy for transforming the educational process within schools. Such teachers were usually isolated individuals. There was little unionization (not counting the professional associations), and no strong network of radical teachers. In fact, it took the student movement to create a generation of teachers committed to more democratic and egalitarian methods. As a consequence, alternative study proved delusory and students adopted a cynical, instrumental approach to their studies; activists channelled their energies into political mobilization outside the classroom. These tendencies were aggravated by the university movement’s decline in late 1968, and the domination of the movement by the organizations of the New Left.