By 1968, the unrest which characterised campus life in the US, West Germany and Japan had become an international phenomenon, reaching even into the Eastern bloc before exploding in France with the heady days of May and June (Ortoleva 1987,1988). More so than in any other advanced capitalist society, however, the Italian ‘Year of the Students’ heralded a broad wave of social conflict that would peak in 1969 with the ‘Hot Autumn’ of the Northern factories. Italy’s was a ‘creeping May’, and if its Movimento Studentesco (Student Movement) (MS) had then only recently emerged from beneath the shadow of the official student organisations, it lost no time in moving to overtake its foreign counterparts. In so doing, it placed on the agenda the possibility of an effective worker-student alliance the likes of which campus radicals elsewhere could only dream.
University occupations and demonstrations were not unheard of in the Italy of the mid-1960s. A number of brief but widespread mobilisations had taken place in response to the centre-left government’s moves to rationalise higher learning, while in spring 1966 the Roman campus had been in turmoil after a student was killed by fascists. The cycle of struggles which opened in early 1967, however, was much more profound in scale than anything before, involving at its peak thousands of university and high school students throughout urban Italy, and quickly paralysing much of the education system. Lively and confrontationist, the new movement was notable not only for its size, but also for its efforts to redefine the very notion of politics, constructing forms of organisation - above all, the permanent 'assembly' - which simply and brutally swept the traditional student bodies aside.
Along with the new-found industrial muscle of technical workers, the rise of the MS was the most distinctive feature of social conflict in Italy during the first half of the biennio rosso1 of 1968-69. As the product of social strata whose behaviour could not be reduced to that of simple labour, the actions of students and technicians raised important questions for operaismo’s understanding of class composition. Yet in the immediate aftermath of the Classe Operaia split, many workerists seemed incapable of grasping the significance of such forces. As Bologna would confess more than a decade later:
I remember our embarrassment in interpreting the underlying social mechanism, in understanding the relationship between the movement in the universities and the formation of the working class. In my opinion, this also determined our great political marginalisation during the ‘anti-authoritarian’ period f~om Autumn 1967 to the beginning of 1968, when we were mcapable of assessing the nature of the student movement. (Bologna 1981: 14)
Such isolation would be alleviated by the middle of 1968, as the movement itself became increasingly preoccupied with the industrial working class, and a number of prominent members of the Roman MS moved to embrace the workerist credo. But it would only really be broken with the migration of student cadres to FIAT Mirafiori in spring 1969, by which time many Northern factories were in turmoil, and the very nature of the ‘student question’ - now subsumed to that of the mass worker – had changed beyond recognition.
- 1Literally, 'red biennium'; it evokes the Italian strike-wave of 1919-20.