09. Going to the people: students and workers

The theme of worker-student unity recurred throughout the development of the student movement. Students participated in the vast demonstrations that accompanied the strikes of the early sixties and student politics was predominantly shaped by the organizations and ideologies of the Left. However, the idea of unity was interpreted and acted on in different ways. Three phases can be identified. First, in the early and mid sixties student unity with the working class was mediated through institutions, namely the parties and trade unions, and was conceived as an alliance between different social groups. In the second phase, unity was theorized in terms of a direct, unmediated relationship between the student movement and workers. The notion of alliance was discarded, since it implied differences of interest, and was replaced by an idea of unity based on shared oppres- sions. Student struggles against educational and state authoritarianism were perceived as parallel to those of workers and against a common enemy. In the third phase, unity came to be interpreted as student mobiliz- ation and organization against the exploitation and oppression in the factories and workplaces rather than in the universities and schools. This chapter will deal with the theory and practice of student-worker unity in the second and third phases. The focus will be on the student movement and its development, and not on its influence on workers’ struggles, which will be considered in Part 3.

During the waves of student occupations at the beginning of 1968, the idea of unity with the working class was continuously reiterated. As has already been written, not only Marxist ideas, but emblems and symbols such as red flags were borrowed from the workers’ movement. Students’ assertion of their identity through their dress, participation in collective action and pursuit of new social and moral values was done in opposition to bourgeois norms and in the name of working-class ideals. Student perceptions of their objective class position also changed. Either they rejected their privileged backgrounds out of choice, and conceived of a future among the ranks of the wage-earners. Or, alternatively, they inter- preted their professional work as a means of destroying privilege from within.

Student documents from the March 1968 occupation of the Statale make frequent reference to the change in students’ economic prospects. This feeling was perhaps strongest in the movement in the humanities faculty, which was one of the least career oriented; its programmatic statement read:

Students know that the jobs they will get when they graduate will not be ones of power, but will mean obeying other people’s orders. A law faculty leaflet claimed that only 6 per cent of graduates acceded to the profession, and the rest ‘are absorbed by the labour market as lowly paid clerical workers’. Among engineering students only one-fifth were thought to be likely to get jobs in the profession. A document called the department a ‘dream factory’. Fear of unemployment does not appear much in the student publications, though there is an acute awareness that students were no longer a protected and privileged elite, and a supposition that their futures lay more with a working-class than a middle-class destiny. Thus unity with workers was not thought to be a purely ideological question, though few seriously considered material and social consequences of proletarianization. In the heady days of student activism this did not create much anxiety about personal prospects. Calculations about career opportunities were thrown to the winds in preference for living for the moment and for a utopian future.

However, some groups of students looked at their training as a means of putting special skills to the service of the working class. The medical students are an especially interesting example in this respect. They were the first to occupy their faculty at the Statale, which was especially surprising given its predominantly middle-class and conservative nature. The action committee raised issues concerning students' own situation - it denounced the baronial power structure, the high student-teacher ratio, inadequate facilities and ruthless selection - but it also criticized the organization of medicine as a social practice. They published a pamphlet, translated from French, which questioned the Left’s quantitative approach to health, which consisted of demands for more medicine and more hospitals. Such demands, it claimed, were based on the acceptance of rigid hierarchies, narrow definitions of health and on an ideology of scientificity. The pamphlet called instead for an attack on the causes of ill- health (for example, industrial accidents), for a decentralization of services into the community and a diminution of the divisions of labour among health workers. L’Unita’ reported nearly a year later that, during a subsequent occupation of the medical faculty, open seminars were held on the theme ‘Medicine and Society’. It involved ‘study groups with the direct participation of factory workers and the inhabitants of quartieri in Milan’, and the discussion of health at work and preventative medicine. The challenge, which started in the university, had extended outwards.

A key notion among medical students was the idea of putting themselves ‘at the service of working class’. This entailed providing a service which was not only free but given without the expectation of prestige or honour in return. The idea of ‘service’ stemmed from the Chinese model of the ‘barefoot doctor’ and of the intellectual who worked in the fields and learnt from the peasants. According to this approach, it was the workers who had the collective power to improve health conditions by fighting the causes ill-health, which were rooted in the capitalist organization of society. The task of the radical doctor was to increase awareness of the class dimensions of health, and to help people be confident of their judgements. In Turin at the Molinette hospital students gave leaflets to visitors explaining how ‘the bosses destroy our health and then try to patch us up’. Together with some of the doctors, they organized meetings to which Fiat workers were invited. In April 1969 one meeting drew some two hundred workers and four hundred students and set a precedent for the impressive worker-student assemblies which met during the Hot Autumn. The student movement’s ideas about democracy, accountability and participation were being applied to break down the corporative privileges of student and doctor in the interests of a general social transformation.

The movement in the engineering faculty at the Statale made similar critiques of the role of engineers in sustaining the dominant ideology. A document produced during the occupation of the faculty in March 1968 made no concessions to the ideals of the liberal professions:

the nucleus of bourgeois ideology is the concept of technical rationality and efficiency. This means the conditioning of the student’s mind to the conception of the engineer as God, presiding over every cog in the productive process. The idea is also reinforced by other incentives such as grades, degrees, the profes- sion, social status and wealth.

As in the case of the medical students’ critique of medicine, the role itself was being attacked. It was not a question of appealing to the social conscience of doctors and engineers, or of winning them over to the side of the working class, but of prefiguring their supercession as professions set above other forms of work and other workers. The vision involved both self-abasement and the learning of humility in the existing society, and the anticipation of the utopian unity of the future society. Again, the Chinese model was the source of inspiration, which was counterposed to the modern capitalist factory. In China. according to one student document:

the factory . . . is not a purely economic unit ..,, It is the place where illiterate workers learn to read and write, and where the workers can perfect and extend their skills .... Often houses. schools and recreational facilities are built around the factory by them.

The document went on to describe how inside the factory there were no bureaucracies, nor systems of material incentivization, such as piece-rates. Leaders were elected and there was a high degree of equality in society. In this framework, the machinery, which in capitalist factories was used to subordinate workers, was subordinated instead to their needs. This vision provided the means to judge the contemporary divisions of mental and manual labour, which the student movement identified as the funda- mental barrier to unity between workers and the future technicians, lawyers, doctors and engineers in the universities. When students put themselves ‘at the service’ of the workers, they were therefore negating their assigned role as the agents of domination.

From the summer of 1968, the student movement in the universities ceased to concentrate on political activity within the educational insti- tutions. The movement continued, but many activists looked to the industrial struggles for a lead. The national conferences were dominated by discussion of worker-student unity, and the ‘worker commissions’ at the universities became the main locus of activity. Guido Viale recalled that:

after the struggles of '68 a large number of students were no longer interested in the university it was no longer where they socialized and its struggles appeared to them to be futile and folkloristic.

Instead, according to Viale, student militants were following one of three paths: Firstly, they were leaving their studies to take up jobs in factories; secondly. they were becoming professional militants' in the student movement, and thirdly, students were addressing the question of student- worker unity by working with clerical as well as manual workers, and by examination of their own material situation as part of the proletariat. Each of these options is worth examining to see the way the student movement related to the working class outside its own institutional context.

The decision to take a factory job is more interesting for its symbolic significance than for its political effects. Very few students decided to become workers, but these few realised a fantasy that was entertained by thousands of others. They were literally stripping themselves of their class privileges and plunging themselves into the exploited class. It was an act of total negation of the student identity, and a crossing of the frontier between mental and manual labour at the point where the divide seemed deepest. The case of Andrea Banfi, a student from the Statale who left his studies to take a job at Alfa Romeo, gives a glimpse of this unusual inter- pretation of student-worker unity. Andrea Banfi created a storm, however, when it was discovered that he was not a semi-educated son of a peasant as he had declared, but an ex-student and, furthermore, the son of a PSI senator. The company promptly promoted him to a white collar job, and then sacked him. A fellow worker commented:

We immediately went on strike and the whole of the second shift stopped in protest. lf a bourgeois wants to renounce his class privileges to fight and pay in person, it’s not that he thinks like one of us, he is one of us.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there were student activists who concentrated on developing alternative educational practices. The movement at the Statale, which established its hegemony over most of the Milanese movement, worked to build up links with the unions. However, this orientation towards the official workers' movement was not acceptable to many students who regarded the unions, along with the traditional Left, as reformist and revisionist; they sought direct links with workers.

The events at Pirelli, where workers had formed a ‘rank-and-file Committee’ independent of the union, and the mobilization of white-collar workers in Milan during the autumn of 1968 created a favourable atmosphere for student-worker unity. Students provided a service for workers by making available facilities for meetings and helping distribute leaflets, and they joined picket-lines and demonstrations. Students from the Catholic University worked through the FIM-CISL, with the help of Bruno Manghi and other radical lecturers who collaborated with the union. The idea that students should put themselves at the service of the working class predominated, especially in 1968.

Statements by students exuded humility and a willingness to learn;

we students refuse to be either tomorrow’s agents of exploitation in the hands of the bosses, or to be exploiters ourselves ..., In the struggle against exploitation the most important role will be played by the working class . . . we want to know and discuss your problems so as to learn how to struggle against capitalism and to teach the lessons to younger students.

However, students also played a more active and interventionist role, which was implicitly vanguardist. Student activists felt that they were qualified to be teachers and educators. The student movement had acquired considerable prestige, especially in the eyes of younger workers. Its activists were skilled organizers, public speakers and leaflet-writers, and some had the advantage of having studied the Marxist classics. After a year of frenetic political agitation involving occupations, demonstrations and clashes with the police, such individuals could claim to have taken risks and made sacrifices for the movement. Moreover, it seemed that in many respects students had anticipated the demands, forms of action and organization that were being learned by a workers’ movement in the early stages of mobilization. Students had been the first to insist on grassroots democracy based on general meetings, and on the effectiveness of direct action. They had organized themselves to deal with police attacks.

To what extent student interventions influenced the workers’ movement will be considered in later chapters, but it is important here to point out that students and agitators could not help but think that they had had a significant part in setting the ball of mobilization rolling. Throughout 1969 students and workers participated together in vast demonstrations and mingled their collective enthusiasm in meetings held in schools and universities. In the excitement, groupings of workers and students were formed in the main Milanese factories. Political fantasies took flight. A document produced by students at the Statale, for example, spoke of the rise of urban guerrilla warfare in the metropolitan countries, where the complexity and precision required by capitalist organization laid the system open to attack. The student movement was described as the guerrilla force:

only the working class can make the revolution, but whilst capital has its police . . . the student movement is the guerrilla force of the working class in as far as it creates disorganization and disorder.

Student activists perceived of themselves in a variety of ways - as detonators, ideologues, leaders, and even as guerrillas, but less than ever as students. After the dramatic events at Fiat during the industrial dispute of June-July 1969 when mass meetings involved thousands of workers and students, it seemed that the overthrow of capitalism was a real possibility.

Through the rebel factory workers students lived out their fantasies and their dreams of revolt. And, vice versa, workers were attracted by the outside agitators who handed them leaflets at the works entrance and engaged them in conversations about revolution, China and Marxist theory. It was a strange encounter. For the most part, the students were from middle-class backgrounds and enjoyed the educational and other privileges of their class. lf it had not been for politics, these social groups would have scarcely have come in contact with one another socially. Through politics there was an exchange which involved much more than conversations about Marx. It was not simply that the agitators were preaching the gospel; they themselves had come to learn ‘what it was really like’ to be a worker. It was a situation not unlike that analysed by Jacques Ranciere in terms of the ‘thoroughgoing reciprocity in which workers and intellectuals figure in each others’ imaginations in endless circularity’.

Unfortunately these reciprocal fantasies have not been investigated; it can be guessed that they were filled with images and ideas stranger than anything hinted at in contemporary political discourses. Not least, meetings between students and workers had distinct sexual as well as class connotations. This desire on both sides to make a new social identity - to imagine ‘the self’ as different through ‘the other - was in many ways liberatory and positive. It meant escaping from the prison of a preconstructed social identity. It meant conceiving of a life that was free from the seemingly inevitable constraints of the existing society. And, in practice, the meeting of workers and students entailed a crossing of social and cultural frontiers. New possibilities were opened up for living a life in which every sort of person met socially. The promise was there of rich and diverse experiences which a class society prohibited.

The coming together of outside agitators and workers had its positive, A utopian moments - moments which prefigured an egalitarian society. The relationship, however, was not always reciprocal in an egalitarian sense. The students were often more fascinated by their image of the working class than interested in getting to know workers as individuals. They thrust them back into a class identity which was imprisoning in so far as it denied individuality and disqualified dreams and ambitions which deviated from proscribed notions of class consciousness. Thus, student activists, who had started by demanding education as everyone's right, ended by telling workers that the pursuit of learning and culture was an illusion. Vittorio Foa wrote of this attitude:

that workers’ dream and desire for books is rightful even when the books themselves are full of lies. Culture and books can be criticized when they have been mastered, not by rejecting them a priori, and then delegating the leadership of one’s struggles to the offspring of the capitalists.

The middle-class utopian thinkers who went to preach to Ranciere’s proletarians looked forward to guiding a working class which was industrious and disciplined. A class that was above all productive. By contrast, many Marxist intellectuals and students in Italy in 1969 admired workers’ disruptiveness. Although their situations were very different, they saw a common enemy in ‘the system’ and authority.

In Italy, the interaction and joint action between students and workers in 1968-9 reached levels unique in Western Europe, and the subsequent development of social movements in the seventies bore this imprint. Indeed, the Italian movements acquired aura and status internationally for their working-class involvement. However, this did not result just from the influence of the agitators, though it seemed so at the time. An understanding of the Italian case needs to take into account two important historical considerations. Firstly, the fact that one cannot talk about a consolidated working class and working class culture in Italy in the way that has been done for Britain, France or Germany. As Maurizio Gribaudi has shown in his study of Turin, social mobility meant that many families experienced a working-class condition as a ‘stage’ rather than as the basis for a fixed identity. There have been virtually no cores of heavy industry where strong ouvriereisme has developed, meaning a working-class identity counterposed to the influence of other social groups. Secondly, the development of Italian trade unionism and socialism has been characterized by the unusually high degree of participation by middle-class activists, and this remained the case in the post-war period. The openness to ‘outside’ ideas and organization therefore has historical and structural explanations. In the 1968-9 hiatus this was given a new twist by the simultaneity of the crisis in relations in the education system and in workplaces, which meant an encounter not just between individual members of the middle class and workers but between students and workers as two groups sharing homologous situations. However, the student movement was superseded by a number of political organizations which claimed to represent the working class. Political groups such as Lotta Continua, Avanguardia Operaia, Potere Operaio, Il Manifesto and the archipelago of other organizations came into existence because of the students’ movements. Not that a New Left did not predate 1968, as has been seen, but it was isolated. The movement not only popularized the ideas of its forerunners, but provided the leadership, cadres and the bulk of the membership of the groups. At the same time, the political groups put an end to the student movement as an autonomous force; student issues were subordinated to strategies relating to the industrial working class; the ideas of the party and political leadership, which the student movement had criticized, were re-established as orthodoxies. The new organizations claimed to represent the working class. The worker-student unity developed by the movements of 1968-9 gave way to a hierarchical relationship in which the ex-student activists were usually the leaders. For a large part of the movement (though not all if it) the liberatory utopianism it generated was destined to collapse under the weight of a new orthodoxy.