2. Quaderni Rossi and the Workers' Enquiry

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 8, 2011

The first issue of Panzieri’s journal appeared in the second half of 1961, making a big splash within the Italian labour movement. Exhausting its initial print run within a matter of weeks, Quademi Rossi excited interest amongst politicians of the left, union officials, workplace activists and rank-and-file party members – even, if Alquati (1975: 26) is to be believed, amongst younger members of the nation’s managerial elite. From the beginning, however, it was to be plagued by a series of crises. First to defect were the group’s most prominent union”associates. A year or so later, they would be followed by the circle around Tronti. Then, in October 1964, just when some internal order seemed finally to have been restored, the journal suffered the unexpected blow of Panzieri’s death, from which it never fully recovered. While the editorial board of Quademi Rossi continued to exert an influence upon the fringes of the labour movement until its dissolution four years later, no one could claim any longer that it bore much resemblance to the journal founded at the beginning of the decade.

For some critics, it is enough to label all collaborators of the original journal as ‘workerists’ - after all, most were guilty, in the words of Lelio Basso, of ‘positing the centre of gravity of struggle within the factory’ (quoted in Magni 1970: 36). As the growing polarisation within the group soon made clear, however, the common commitment to a new political practice was much weaker than the very different interpretations of class behaviour that divided the journal’s editors. In reality, however, the workerist stream of Italian Marxism was to emerge fully blown only with Classe Operaia (Cacciari 1978: 45-7). Instead, it would be more apt to liken the first three issues of Quademi Rossi to incubators, within which many of the themes central to classical operaismo were to receive their initial nourishment.

While Panzieri’s new journal represented a novel experiment within the Italian left, its name evoked an earlier experience in the annals of left socialism, that of the French Cahiers Rouges associated in the late 1930s with Maurice Pivert. It was an apt reference: like Pivert before him, Panzieri had first hoped to win his country’s Socialist Party to what he saw as a proletarian, revolutionary perspective, only to encounter an immovable hierarchy mesmerised by the lure of parliamentary office Goubert 1977). It was also an ominous one, and the prospect that he might replicate Pivert’s fate – banishment into the political wilderness at the head of a splinter group – filled Panzieri with dread. In March 1960, even as he made his first plans for the new publication, Panzieri would confess in a private letter that ‘I see all paths blocked, the “return to the private” leaves me cold, the possible fate of the small sect terrifies me’ (Panzieri 1973: 271).

Isolated in Turin from the factional intrigue of the capital, Panzieri located his path back from despair in the local CGIL’s willingness to experiment with new approaches to political work. Following the shock of the 1955 defeat at FIAT, the national leadership of the union had been forced to admit that it was out of step with much of the workforce. ‘The reality’, confessed its secretary,

is that we have not adequately examined the changes to the various aspects of productive life and the technical organisation of the wages structure which have occurred in enterprises.(quoted in Mangano 1979: 13)

Union work, he concluded, had been too schematic, promoting political campaigns ‘with a capital P’ whilst ignoring the reality of changing work conditions. As a remedy, a number of practical changes were adopted, the most important of which was the acceptance of limited forms of collective bargaining so as to reflect differences in conditions from firm to firm. That was as far as the change went in much of the country. In the Turin CGIL, however, a war came to be waged against what the Socialist Vittorio Foa (quoted in ibid.: 16) termed the ‘fossils’. These were functionaries who failed to see that the declining weight within production of that ‘old type of worker upon which party and union had generally rested in the factory’ (Pugno, quoted in Magna 1978: 309) demanded a new approach to the fight against employers. Foa, Panzieri wrote to Tronti in December of 1960, was ‘very committed’ to the production of a new review that addressed the real problems facing the working class. This, he felt, was a sign that ‘at least here in Turin’, it was necessary to distinguish between party and union in their relations with the class: ‘Here the union – perhaps because of the terrible defeats suffered in past years – is relatively open to new themes ... ‘ (Panzieri 1973: 283). As the organisation most in contact with the daily experience of workers, the CGIL – and in particular its metal industry union, the FlOM (Federazione Impiegati Operai Metallurgici • the Metalworkers’ Federation) – soon assumed in Panzieri’s mind a privileged role as the vehicle best suited to lead the renovation of the Italian labour movement.

A further antidote to despair came from the wave of industrial and political struggles which, having stopped for breath at the end of 1959, resumed the following year with greater intensity. With their national contract up for renewal, workers in the metal-mechanical sector had struck throughout the North in 1959, for the first time making widespread use of overtime bans. In some of the bigger firms a push from below for greater unity amongst workers, whatever their union affiliation, could also be discerned; at one plant in Turin for example, workplace delegates from all three major unions jointly organised the picketing (Bolzani 1978: 55). Far from quenching their combativity, the desultory results of the contractual struggle seemed only to fuel the anger of many workers, who chose to reopen the conflict in 1960 at the plant level. Starting in September, metalworkers held a series of national one-day stoppages – again augmented by overtime bans – which by December succeeded in opening a major split in capital’s ranks, in the form of a separate agreement with the state employers’ association. Common to this, in Turin and elsewhere, was a questioning of the struggle’s management: more and more workers believed that this responsibility lay directly with their own assemblies, rather than with union officials (Panzieri 1973: 245-7). The struggles of (predominantly female) workers in the textile industry, freshly emerged from a process of restructuring and ‘modernisation’ even more frantic than that of other sectors, were more aggressive still, disrupting the flow of production through lightning stoppages which alternated by hour or shift (’checkerboard strikes’). While neither textile nor metalworkers were to achieve satisfactory results from such exertions, their new-found resolution was unmistakable, and pointed to a fundamental change in the tone of Italy’s industrial relations (Bolzani 1978: 60-70).

The most overtly ‘political’ moment of this cycle came with the wave of demonstrations and street-fighting which gripped Italy in the summer of 1960, sparked by a government decision to allow the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano to hold its congress in the traditional working-class citadel of Genoa. The immediate effect of these protests, which saw more than a dozen workers killed by police before Prime Minister Tambroni was eventually forced to reSign, was to open the door finally to a new centre-left coalition. Fought under the cross-class banner of anti-fascism, the July days have been dismissed by some as merely a ‘defence and affirmation’ of the values of that capitalist state erected after the Second World War (Del Carria 1979: 13). What is particularly interesting about the clashes, however, is the determinate role within them of the most recent generation of workers (Lerner 1980: 38). Almost none of these were old enough to recall the Resistance, let alone fascist rule – why then did they take to the streets with such ferocity? A Rinascita survey conducted amongst young Roman participants in the street-fighting provided an elementary clue: for many such young people, it discovered, fascism evoked the spectre of class domination in its purest form. ‘I have never known fascism,’ admitted one, ‘although my father speaks badly of it. We are like slaves, work is a burden and I don’t even make enough to live on. That is fascism to me – the boss’ (quoted in Garzia 1985: 14). Hailing the role of young workers in the clashes, Panzieri (1975: 122-3) was to make a similar connection: the roots of fascism, he argued in the paper of the Turin PSI, lay in the factory, the source of the padronato’s power over society, and there it must be defeated.

In this way, a nominally ‘anti-fascist’ discourse led back to the most important question thrown up by the current industrial disputes, that of the relation between class behaviour and the organisation of labour in modern production. New labour processes and new workers foreign to the traditions of the labour movement did not spell the end of working-class struggle. Rather, it was within the most technologically advanced firms that – with the glaring exception of FIAT – the industrial conflicts of 1959-60 had been at their most fierce. To make sense of these problems, and to develop a coherent political strategy adequate to the changing face of Italian capitalism: this was the unifying thread binding the disparate forces which Panzieri brought together in the first issue of Quademi Rossi. The cooperation of the local CGIL offered a door into the factory for the young intellectuals of the group to study working-class behaviour first-hand. Together, in what one wit was to dub ‘anarcho-sociologism’ (Alquati 1975: 72), they might yet develop ‘a class political line’ (Lolli 1962: 35) to defeat capital.