'France is Near'

Submitted by Juan Conatz on June 1, 2012

One event which contributed to the growing assertiveness amongst Italian workers was the French general strike of May and June 1968. The May days had a galvanising effect upon the Italian far left as well, with both Leninists and libertarians holding it up as a verification of their policies. The workerist assessment of May was also largely positive, and if Potere Operaio agreed with Marxist-Leninists that the key element missing in France had been a revolutionary political organisation, it was equally adamant that such a body must take a mass form internal to the class (POv-e 1968i: 2). One of the first to review some of the literature that had poured out of France in the aftermath of May was Massimo Cacciari, whose defection to Tronti's camp would not lessen his ongoing interest in the intricacies of class composition. Cacciari cuttingly dismissed those - like Andre Glucksmann - who continued to preach the lessons of What Is To Be Done?, when on the contrary it was increasingly evident that

struggle manifests and massifies itself completely within the determinate production relations, and it is from here, finally, that it tends to 'socialise' itself ... There no longer exists, for the class, a 'politics-outside', external to its own mass location in the advanced capitalist cycle. (Cacciari 1969: 454, 455)

The French May also prompted operaismo to deepen its critique of self-management as a weapon against capital. Indeed, despite his dismissal of vulgar Leninists like Andre Glucksmann, Cacciari's greatest venom was reserved for those who saw workers' management of production as the gateway to some idyll of democracy practised to its ultimate degree. Self-management's fundamental flaw, he argued, was that it challenged not the capitalist mode of production as a whole, but simply the right of its current functionaries to hold sway:

[I]n this manner self-management disarms the class: in place of the formidable instruments which it has discovered and strengthened against the capitalist production relation, it offers a model of 'liberation' which is objectively reactionary even in terms of the capitalist production relation itself. (Cacciari 1969: 459)

The ideology of self-management, he insisted, found its roots in the most backward sectors of the class, still jealously clinging to their traditional skills. It was these strata which comprised the base of the Western Communist parties, and from whence their reformism drew sustenance; in the meantime, liberation from labour, not the liberation of labour, had become the aim of modern revolutionary politics (ibid.: 460).

The identification of the self-management project with the base of the French Communist Party (PCF) would no doubt have surprised many in France, not least members of the PCF itself. The assessment offered by Bologna and Daghini (1968: 17-18) was more balanced, recognising that self-management had meant very different things during the general strike. True, for the majority of its advocates it held out nothing more than 'workers' management of their own exploitation', while the Communist wing of the French labour movement revealed its political dishonesty by conjuring up the spectre of 'left opportunism' each time the phrase was mentioned. For the most radical students, however, such as those of the Mouvement du 22 Mars, the term evoked something fundamentally different: a meeting place where they and workers could discuss the question of power (ibid.: 30). Self-management's real critique, however, had come from those young unskilled workers at Renault who had called for a minimum wage of 1000 francs a month. This exorbitant demand, claimed Bologna and Daghini, had threatened 'to blow up' the labour market, and was symptomatic of the collective egoism of workers keen 'to negate their own figure as producers':

It was the refusal of labour which emerged at the end of discussions of self-management, and not the acceptance of a better and more human organisation of labour itself (ibid.: 42, 46-7)

More than any other single event, the French May accelerated radical operaismo's final abandonment of the tactic of a working-class 'use' of the PCI. If the general strike had further demonstrated that workers' spontaneity both refused the unions' policies whilst retaining those bodies as an elementary means of organisation and communication, the role of the French Communist Party in contrast had been one of containment and provocation (Bologna and Daghini 1968: 51-2). It was the PCF which had brought the Communist-led component of the union movement to heel during the June negotiations with the state, and it was the PCF which had most vehemently denounced the far left. Within Italy, the assessment of one former Quademi Rossi editor - 'when it comes to the crunch, the PCI will not behave differently to the PCF' (Masi 1968: 56) - also came to be accepted by POv-e and its allies in Rome. Having claimed as late as its May issue that 'the working class has always seen in the PCI its party, a party that wants to be revolutionary' (pOv-e 1968e: 4), any positive portrayal of the Communist Party disappeared from the pages of Potere Operaio after July. By March 1969, Luciano Ferrari-Bravo (1969: 36) of POv-e was advancing the proposition that the French May held the same significance for the Communist movement as that of August 1914 for the Second International. According to Scalzone, the PCI leadership's march towards participation in a 'new majority' of government parties, coupled with its firm commitment to capitalist development, was confirmation that

[t]he open clash between the real autonomy of the class movements and the control of the opportunist organisations of the labour movement is in the nature of things. It happened in France; it will happen in Italy ... (Scalzone 1969: 6)

Why so drastic a shift in operaismo's critique of the PCI? One cause was the realignment of forces within the tendency itself, as increasing numbers of Tronti's immediate supporters chose the PCI after the June conference, 'Students and Workers' (Boato 1978: 295). Beyond this, both observation of the French May and their own difficulties at Porto Marghera helped to bring home to workerists the untenable nature of their traditional tactics. Indeed, despite what many on the far left deemed its too conciliatory tone, the tendency's attempt to intervene at factory gates had already provoked a number of clashes with PCI activists (Negri 1979a: 91-2; Bologna 1988). Yet if Piperno (1969: 37) was to come closest to capturing the essence of the Communist Party when he dubbed it 'the working-class articulation of capitalist social organisation', the PCI was far from identical with the French Communist Party. Perhaps, indeed, it was the very differences between the two that most concerned the workerists, and their hostility became explicit just as the PCI was making its greatest efforts at dialogue with the MS. It would be foolish to interpret the outstretched hand of certain party leaders as anything more than an attempt to utilise the new mass movement for their own ends. In the long run, though, such an accomodating flexibility seemed to pose even more of a threat to the independent existence of groups such as POv-e than the confrontationist approach taken by the French party. Such a risk was, in the end, academic; as it transpired, the PCI's openness would soon disappear along with much of its major left tendency, finally driven from the party in 1969 (Amyot 1981; Garzia 1985).

If more than a little pessimism underlay operaismo's appraisal of political developments in Italy, the growing wealth of experiences in class militancy and autonomous organisation were a source of encouragement to the tendency's decision to finally strike out alone. In this respect too, the French general strike played an important part in altering expectations as to the timescale of social change. 'For the first time we are not afraid of confrontation', Potere Operaio announced in May (POv-e 1968d: 1). While speaking of the 'long and patient', if 'unstoppable work of organisation', the paper now extolled the new forms of struggle in evidence (pOv-e 1968f: 4). Above all, the breadth of discontent under De Gaulle, combined with the French Communist Party's 'sordid but frontal' blockage of the strike wave, lent a sense of urgency to class antagonisms already heightened by the challenges to Western imperialism emanating from the Third World (pOv-e 1968i: 2).

Nor was such optimism entirely unwarranted. If the French events projected to Italian workers some sense of the enormous energy and creativity latent within their class, their own student movement indicated that different and more effective forms of organisation existed than the traditional ones assumed by party and union. As discontent with the labour movement's performance within the workplace mounted, growing numbers of workers were to take matters into their own hands (Regalia et al. 1978; Reyneri 1978: 51-2, 74). The most famous of such early initiatives was taken that June by militants at the Milan offices of the tire firm Pirelli. Angry with their unions' poor handling of recent struggles over contracts and work conditions, they had formed a body - the Comitato Unitario di Base (CUB - United Rank-and-File Committee) - destined to mark a new phase in Italian industrial conflict (Mosca et a1. 1988; Lumley 1990: 183-95).

The situation at Pirelli in 1968 was in many ways emblematic of Northern Italian industry as a whole. Although staff numbers had declined overall in recent times, there had been a considerable influx of young male workers into the firm, with management taking advantage of their inexperience to speed up production (CUB 1969: 18; Pietropaolo 1970: 68). Like POv-e's cell at Montedison, the CUB brought together not only younger workers relatively new to politics, but also those experienced party and union activists dubbed 'factory communists' by Alquati (Pasetto and Pupillo 1970: 96; D'Agostini 1974: 199-200; Basilico 1976: 281). The CUB also worked closely with members of both the MS and left groups - including Sergio Bologna (1988), who helped to write some of their documents. Less anti-union to begin with than extra-union, it sought to overcome the divisions imposed by competition between the CGIL, the CISL and the UIL. In its first document, the group stressed the need to build working-class power through struggles over working conditions in individual departments; these in turn, it held, would lay the basis for a general struggle 'to invest all of Pirelli'. Struggle over workplace matters, it argued, could not be dismissed as irrelevant to political struggle, since 'the significance of exploitation is political' (CUB et a1. 1970: 100, 103). The CUB's primary purpose, the committee continued in another piece, was to contribute to the planning of working-class struggle, since only this could defeat 'the general plan of capital's exploitation' within which the unions, through the national contracts, were increasingly inserted (ibid.: 99-100, 104).

Beyond its insistence that the direction of industrial action remain in the hands of the workforce itself, the most striking aspect of the CUB experience at Pirelli was the practice, beginning in the middle of June, of the self-limitation of production. The 'go-slow' was a relatively novel occurrence in Italy. As one of the best accounts of the period has explained, it was immediately effective because it upset 'the balance between the cost of the strike to the firm and to the workers which practice had established and almost made legitimate' (Regalia et a1. 1978: 112). Leaving no space for unions to intervene, hostile to the existing organisation of labour, the 'go-slow' proved a great success at Pirelli (CUB et a1. 1970: 131-2). Soon the CUB phenomenon had spread to a number of major factories in Milan, lending encouragement to discrete minorities of workers in other parts of the country to go and do likewise. In Porto Marghera itself, POv-e's cell at Petrolchimico reformed as a Comitato Operaio (Workers' Committee), which presented itself as

a new organisation which does not intend accepting the ensnarement of struggles and mystification of perspectives which the party, unions and other organisations advance. Our immediate objective is to create a network of working-class links capable of leading struggles. (quoted in Pasetto and Pupillo 1970: 105)

At the same time, with the student movement increasingly losing direction and impetus, the North-Eastern group drew closer to other :workerist fragments around .the country. Together with small groups in Milan and Turin and a sizable section of the Roman MS, plans were laid for a new national journal, the first since Classe Operaia's demise (Scalzo.ne 1988: 1~0-7). When La Classe finally did appear m May 1969, It was to shift workerist attention back to its initial source of inspiration - FIAT's Mirafiori plant in Turin.