Politics in the First Person: the autonomous workers movement in Italy - Wicked Messengers

Article about Autonomia Operaia and the radical workers' movement in Italy in the 1960s and 70s.

Submitted by Steven. on September 27, 2010

Again and again over the last decade, moments in the Italian class struggle have acted as an Inspiration to revolutionaries and leftists in this country. Be it the workers struggles of 1969-71, the student movements of 1977, Autonomia Operaia, the 'creative' autonomia, the extra-parliamentary groups, the feminist or gay movements, the armed parties.

Whatever your 'category' it's been possible to find a model in Italy. Even professors can look at their Italian counterparts and dream of secret lives and martyrdom. Part of this is rightly a tribute to the intensity and imagination displayed in these moments of refusal - an intensity and imagination often in marked contrast to similar reactions in Britain but equally in the left's interest in Italy can be seen more negative ambitions. Italian capitalism has always been a great exporter of 'style'.

The fascination of Italian leftism for many so called revolutionaries is the stylish gloss that can be given to the same useless illusions, the modish new bottles for the same sour grapes. This is nothing new. Leninists have regularly turned to the history of the Italian C.P (whether the sophisticated jesuitry of a Gramsci or the obsessive organisational fetishism of a Bordiga) in efforts to refurbish their bankruptcy. Today a similarly illusory source of renewal is sought in the various organisational reactions to the nakedly anti-proletarian C.P. Of particular fascination have been the 57 varieties of neo-leninism - both soft the extra parliamentary rackets (eg. Lotta Continua), and hard - the post-maoist tendencies within the area of Autonomy (diffuse party', 'party-process' , non-party parties).

The source of this fascination here is clearly the same 'crisis of militancy' that has produced, for example 'Beyond the fragments'. Its critique of the left and its failure is similarly based on purely structural grounds (critique of hierarchy, lack of democracy, 'betrayal' etc.) not of function (as ideological wing of capital). (Alternatively, critique of the lefts failure to respond to: read instrumentalise new movements). Behind the interest in class composition and the 'new class subject' all too often lies the same old despair at the failure of the working class to shape up. Behind the sophisticated analyses of capitalist restructuring we discover the same old productivist horror a: "self-management" or "workers control" (sic.).

Fetishising the superficially new forms of capitalist attack or proletarian defense provides radical camouflage for the same old leftist project channeling struggle into reformism, into the restyling of capitalism. The effect of this embrace of death has been to obscure much of what has been genuinely inspirational and subversive in the. Italian struggles.

We're reprinting these articles because we've found them useful and interesting. Of course no solutions to anything can be found in texts (except perhaps how to console the failure to be subversive). But we hope that they'll at least provide food for thought.

Rising Free, April 1981

Autonomy: the state of independent self-organisation. 'Worker Autonomy' has become a crucial concept in the Italian revolutionary movement. It refers to workers independence from all capitalist structures and social relations - including the relations of dominance reproduced in the unions, parties, and ultra-left groups.

The Autonomia Opearia tendency had its birth in the resentment of revolutionary workers towards the control exercised within the organisations by 'outside militants' - intellectuals and students. The bitterness is shown very clearly in the minutes of a meeting held in Turin in 1971, one of a series of meetings of industrial workers involved in various left groups or rank and file organisations:

The situation within our organisation

We asked ourselves who holds the political direction of our organisation and how this is used, both nationally and locally. In our opinion there has always been a difference of weight between the 'outside' militants and the workers. Up till now it has always been the former who decided the political line and have imposed it on the assemblies, thanks to their greater preparation and the greater amount of time at their disposal.

The workers have been merely the "shit-workers" of the revolution and that is perhaps why we have lost some very good militants. We do not share the attitude of anyone who leaves , or, of those who stay and limit themselves to getting angry, and criticising comrades on an individual level. However, we cannot ignore the fact that this situation has brought about considerable confusion and uncertainty in our work.

Objectives have been proposed, which involved the whole of the organisation, and then they have suddenly been abandoned. So the workers could only be the passive recipients of decisions, because they were never able to understand the basic meaning of a particular line, when new ones kept popping up.

Official documents were prepared without giving workers time to participate in their drafting.
With the centralisation of certain functions, general propaganda has improved, but at the expense of decentralised work.

There has been a tremendous lack of information, about both local and national struggles. Consequently economic and political analyses have been the fruit of individual work by comrades stepping into the gap.
This has brought about a lagging behind in the formation of new cadres, people who are able to participate in decision-making and who can be sent to where struggles are happening.

The role of outside militants - Who are the outside militants? They are the non-worker comrades. It's wrong to call the 'students' because they are in fact working full time for the organisation.

The outside militant can have little appreciation of what's happening inside the factory, compared with the workers. Many of them have a harmful effect on the class struggle, because they stifle debate among the workers or are always handing down to them ready-made solutions. It is not a matter of bad faith. We must give these comrades a role, and must discuss the matter collectively.

If the workers organise themselves better in the nuclei, the outside militants are going to be left with only the centralises work (co-ordination, handling information) which must always be under the control of the workers.

These are among the early rumblings of discontent on the part of veteran militant workers in the northern cities. This sense of not being in control of one's own politics is what led to the formation in many factories of autonomous workers groups, the next stage in a process which had begun when these militants saw through the unions, with a critique like this one by the Autonomous Assembly of Alfa-Romeo in Milan, headed 'The Union Defends You But Controls You':

This is how in the present 'crisis' the union maintains its function of defending the working class:
1) Putting forward defensive, fragmentary and in effect 'symbolic' struggles (especially in the sectors hit by unemployment).
2) Reinforcing union unity, which gives it more weight in the bargaining over its own power relative to the boss's ; and reinforcing the union power in the factory (the regulation of the shop-stewards organisation and the factory councils, trying to make them the mouthpiece for announcing to the base the decisions of the high-ups). The attempt to shift everything to the top, manipulating the decisions of the base came out clearly at Alfa; every time the factory council changed its line towards more advanced forms of struggle, the union seized its decision making power.
3) Trying to prevent pre-contractual struggles from getting started, for fear that they may spread to other smouldering factories. Instead, allowing them to spread only when they might for a 'precedent' for the national contract - or when the thrust of the base was too strong too control.

The defensive function of the union becomes least adequate when the demands of the working class, though still fitted into a union platform, express aspirations of a political character. The Alfa platform is a typical example. Born in economic struggle, it expressed the more general political needs of the masses bound up with their social conditions of existence. The union won't pull together these demands making them a source of political growth; nor will it embody them in demands which don't either distort the fundamental aspirations, or openly combat them, or leave them to die abandoned.

The document goes on to show how the union "tries generally to recuperate all these needs into the pay-demand struggle and to emasculate their political potential".

The need for Workers Democracy, an organisation in which the will of the workers has real weight in the decisions taken; the union picks up this need not so as not to lose the masses, but then wins back its lost ground through bureaucratic control.
The need for the Political Dimension of Demands, cutting into new aspects of work conditions formerly under the bosses will; from struggles over work-speeds and piece-work to egalitarian demands against pay differentials and grades. The union tries to recuperate these demands into the system and, for example, inserts into these statements on automatic promotion through the grades the principle of 'craft status'.

The Autonomous Assembly goes on to summarise its reasons for not working within the union.

Before 1960 it was impossible to be in touch with the working class without working in the unions. Today it is no longer so, because many workers not only in Italy, but throughout the world (from Poland to France to the US to Sweden) have seen that the union, in whatever guise it presents itself, is above all a major means of control over the working class. So if we really want to 'put politics first', we can't work in the unions who put the economy first instead. Of course, they talk about politics, but only when it's a question of making the workers' needs agree with the bosses; and they speak of the 'power' of the working class, which for them is only the 'power to sign wage agreements', in other words slavery.

For us, on the contrary, the objective remains the taking of power by the proletariat. To reach this goal we know the economic struggle is important; but only insofar as it reinforces the workers capacity for autonomous struggle, develops to the limit of their political needs and hence leads them to organise around objectives which are not in the nature of demands. To take up the political needs of the working class within the union means to increase the unions capacity for political control.

Such was the political biography of many Italian industrial workers. Having reached the point of breaking with the Communist Party and the unions, 'caught between the anvil of government force and the hammer of the workers' forward thrust, large numbers of militant moved towards the extra-parliamentary groups - Lotta Continua, Potere Operaio.

But there too, they found the aspiration for 'politics' in the first person unfulfilled. The slogan was in fact used by Lotta Continua at one point, as a move in its process of self-distinction from the straight left; but as we've tried to show such groups failed, so far as many workers were concerned, to place the revolution in the present. Around this slogan had crystallised a revolutionary consciousness in the here and now which sets out from experience, oppression, experienced needs and desires, to create forms of struggle which embody rather than represent the self-management on which a communist society must be founded.

The distinction between reality and illusion in revolutionary politics - between big words and big living - is hard to articulate. Inside a group one tends to be mesmerised by a language which may have died long ago so long as everyday life within the organisation is concerned. Yet the language is still there; and capitalism teaches us to take appearance for reality. The Alfa workers, like many others, felt the dead hand of the old world in the comradely grip of Lotta Continua; they managed to articulate and act upon this awareness.

The Autonomous Assembly has also run up against some 'external groups' which aren't rooted in the factory and thus fatally end up giving huge abstract directions, making their political line fall from on high. At Alfa 'the groups' all intervene, and are often a confusing element for the workers at the base. There are mornings when on is given five or six leaflets. The decision to exclude from the Autonomous Assembly all militants who aren't Alfa workers was inevitable if the meetings weren't to be turned into a platform for various external groups aspiring to the political direction of the Assembly.

We reaffirm, then, our autonomy from the groups, and reject those external comrades who, with a superficial practice, feel themselves leaders of the working class just because they sometimes come and stand outside of the factory gate.

Having seen through the union, Workers Autonomy has come to see through vanguardism. But the tendency has found it harder to produce a theoretical language which is not contaminated by hierarchical formulations.

The quotation above continues "The moment has come for the working class to choose its own leaders". An improvement on leadership imposed from outside certainly; but don't any leaders gravitate inevitably to a position 'outside' those who are led? There will always be people who say or do first what others are moving towards. It is only when such early swallows try to annex authority from this historical chance that they become dangerous, encouraging 'the masses' to sink their own initiative into a spectacle of other people's creativity.

Without having seen how the Autonomous Assemblies operate in practice, it's difficult to evaluate the rags and bones of Leninist ideology scattered throughout their texts. But it seems clear to us that the thrust of the movement is towards a more and more radical rejection of hierarchy; a replacement of ideas of leadership with a concept of the autonomous groups as "a constant point of reference" for practical struggles.

The document from which we have been quoting dates from 1972. A more radical expression of the theoretical position can be seen in the following extract from a discussion document issued in 1973 by the Alfa Assembly and the Committee of Struggle in the Sit-Siemens plant.

Characterisation of the organisation of Workers Autonomy

The correct development of workers autonomy must move on three lines:

1. The always anti-capitalist and anti-productivist nature - that is, attacking the structure of work - of the objectives put forward.
2. The non-legalistic terrain, linked to the necessities of struggle, which our goals demand, and conditioned only by the awareness of our balance of forces.
3. Continual development of the capacity for self-management of the struggle, in all its aspects, conducted directly by the exploited masses.

In this sense the autonomous organs must not assume a role of bureaucratic representation of workers autonomy, but must develop a dialectical function of constant, totalised political definition, and of organisational experience in relation to the movement.

The language is still dull and dusty; but the thrust towards a generalisation of the concept of autonomy is clear. It is a good deal clearer in the political practice of the Workers Autonomy nuclei; beginning with a radical generalisation of the critique of the organisation of work, which expresses the development of mass consciousness among industrial workers.

The important thing is that through this struggle (against grades) the worker has learnt a little more about that principle of the 'division of labour' which rules not just the factory but the whole of society. He knows very well that 'the new way of making cars' is a big package in a society like this, and that for the moment it is necessary to fight strongly to make the workplace a little less exhausting and a little more rewarding. But he is also aware that the struggle over grades puts in crisis the factories hierachical structure: that no-one is born a labourer or a skilled worker, to serve the boss and fill his pockets.

In this society, you're born an immediately 'sorted out'. It's already settled if you're going to university and becoming a director, or just doing the statutory schooling so as to be better at holding a hammer or drudging on the line. The aim of nursery school is to teach you to obey: discipline, order, subordination. The elementary schools become a school in individualism, the most anti-worker school in existence (everyone must occupy the position allotted to him: a rebel is a villain). One learns the importance of a career, of being cleverer than others, that is, more of a scoundrel and a toady. When kid reaches middle school and begins to think what great things he can do, he is already assigned his place in society. He can still go on studying, but if he's not 'clever' enough, or hasn't got a rich family behind him - he'll always be a mug.

In Milan, Rome, Venice, Turin, even Naples Workers Autonomy has moved more and more towards the generalisation of its revolutionary perspectives into the whole social existence; most notably into housing and education. It is important to make the point that, because of the very different organisation of capitalism in Italy, initiatives which would here be more or less reformist (free schools, squatting) have there a much greater revolutionary content. To squat is illegal, and frequently turns into a pitched battle with the cops; alternative forms of education have far more directly revolutionary content. Italian capitalism has not developed the subtler forms of recuperation that exist in Britain.

The development by Workers' Autonomy - a general term forms taken by the tendencies we have described - of a revolutionary practice around housing and schooling is very different from the similar initiatives of groups like Lotta Continua. Outside of both the work and lives of the proletariat, the groups circle hungrily in search of an 'opening', a means to insert themselves and impose themselves upon the revolutionary struggle of the working class. In contrast, Workers Autonomy is an advanced expression of what the working class is doing; far from inserting itself into autonomous struggles, it emerges from them.

There has been an amazing upsurge in illegality in Italy in recent years. Workers take over buses and refuse to pay fares; take over housing estates and refuse to pay rent; take over supermarkets and refuse to pay (groups, on the other hand, take over supermarkets and charge half-price!). What is illegality on a small scale becomes communist legality on mass scale. Workers Autonomy is not some small freakish bubble of ultraism: it rides the wave of living revolution in the Italian working class.

One of the most striking developments is the creation in Milan of Communa Operaia: the workers collective. This is the practise of 'politics in the first person': a realisation that the future starts now, that a collective practice in the factory must be matched at home. There are three main collectives in Milan, housing perhaps 200 people, many of whom are part of the Autonomous Assemblies: a number of are young southern workers faced with the racketeering of the Northern cities.

It's clear that revolutionary workers find collective living no easier than revolutionary intellectuals. There is a resistance in the collectives to explicit discussion of personal and sexual interactions. Here, as in the family, the development of the women's and gay movements has threatened the lifestyle of many male militants. The recognition that these, too, are expressions of 'politics in the first person' doesn't come easy; but we hope it will come.

Our description of Workers Autonomy is based largely on documents; also on extensive discussions with revolutionaries from a student milieu rather than a working class one, who have lived and collaborated with members of the Autonomous Assemblies. Because we have no direct personal experience of the tendency, our conclusions can only be tentative.

But it seems clear that this movement, rather then the far better-known vanguardist groups like Lotta Continua, marks the genuinely revolutionary thrust of the Italian working class. Formed spontaneously in several cities at once out of the communist aspirations of militant workers, Workers Autonomy now has a thriving network of groups; mainly in the large factories - Alfa, Sit-Siemens, Pirelli, the Portomarghers oil refinery - but also in small and middle sized factories. It seems capable of generalising and articulating the swell of revolutionary consciousness without seeking to impose an authoritarian vanguard upon it.

But perhaps the most immediately relevant aspect for us in Britain is the critique of left vanguardism. Groups like Big Flame and Fight On talk of 'autonomous working class struggle', mainly because they see an opening for them to break the stranglehold of the established vanguards. But the workers will gain nothing from substituting a 'liberal' vanguard for an avowedly Leninist one.

Most British workers express their practical understanding of this by ignoring all the earnest angels leafleting at the gate. The difference is that in Italy, some workers have found it possible to organise towards self-management by themselves. The historical reasons for this are probably highly complex; their discovery would be an interesting intellectual exercise. But the main point is clear: if, and when, the British working class develop 'politics in the first person', no-one else can do it for them. The contemptible pretence of groups like Big Flame to speak for the workers of Ford must be seen for what it is: the same mystified opportunism which Workers Autonomy has rejected in Italy.

This article first appeared as a supplement to the paper Wildcat #4 Dec. 1974 - and was written by the group Wicked Messengers. We have taken it from the Rising Free 1981 pamphlet 'La Politica in Prima Persona' in which it was reprinted along with two articles from Claudio Albertani - not reproduced here.

From the now defunct Class against Class website.