Potere Studentesco

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 25, 2011

The reasons for the rapid collapse of the ‘official’ Italian student bodies in 1967 are not difficult to discern. Student numbers had begun to expand with the partial liberalisation of access to tertiary education in 1961, although the structure of secondary schooling continued to handicap the chances of youth from blue-collar families. By the middle of the 1960s the Italian system of higher learning was suffering as much from overcrowding, poorly equipped facilities and antiquated courses as any other in Europe. With graduate employment becoming more and more of a problem, I~ was not surprising that the earliest of the new style of campus disturbances _ at Trento in 1966 – was highly corporatist in nature. Still, it would be Simplistic to deduce the origins of the new movement from nothing more than the disjuncture between Italian universities and the needs of capitalist development. Along with the rest of the industrialised world, the mid-1960s in Italy witnessed the fruition of a deep-rooted normative crisis amongst young people, signs of which Quaderni Rossi had already charted in Italian industry. It also registered the beginnings of a specific ‘youth’ subculture rejecting many of the dominant values of civil society (Piccone Stella 1993; Mangano 1999). Expressed through music and dress, through changing attitudes towards the family and work, such values found particularly fertile ground amongst members of the Communist and PSIUP youth federations. For many of the latter, the example – and mythology – of China and its ‘Cultural Revolution’, along with that of their nation’s own Resistance, served to condemn as failures both the meagre showings of the ‘Italian road’, and the monstrosities of the Soviet experience (Viale 1978: 19; Moroni 1983). True, other far-left currents, including workerism, made some advances within these organisations. But it was the spectacular images of anti-imperialist struggle in Asia and Latin America which first fired youthful imaginations in the mid-1960s, leading many young militants to condemn the historic left’s purely verbal solidarity with movements of national liberation (Bobbio 1978: 9-12). Nor was this break with traditional politics confined to those young people emerging from the mainstream left. A similar restlessness was also detectable within the Catholic world, with dissident Catholic students coming to play an important role in the MS, and after within left groups as diverse as Lotta Continua and PDUP (Partito di Unita Proletaria – the Party of Proletarian Unity) (Cerrato 1999). As Asor Rosa (1968: 198) would astutely note at the time, the new student movement had attained a significance unique in postwar Italian politics, because it represented nothing less than ‘the first example of a mass struggle without party control’.

The rejection of its hegemony did not mean, however, the immediate severance of all ties to the historic left. Indeed, the first phase of struggles in 1967 saw student actions whose leaders – hotly asserting the movement’s autonomy from the left parties – were often still nominal members of the latter or their youth federations. Various justifications were then offered for this peculiar relationship. For some student activists, the MS represented an important split within the ‘middle class’; whilst the movement needed to organise autonomously, it was still obliged to look to the working class – and thus its party, however revisionist – to lead the popular ‘historic bloc’. This position, common at Milan’s State University, also struck a responsive chord in many of the more conservative sections of the local PCI (Camboni and Samsa 1975). For other young militants, the renovation of the historic left as a revolutionary force was still an open question. Like the workerists, they perceived the labour movement’s major problem as one of a healthy base held back by a reformist leadership, and looked to pressure exerted both within and without the parties to rectify the situation. Others, finally, were of the opinion that for the moment, and whatever their policies, the left parties – and the PSIUP above all – afforded a useful channel of rank-and-file communication until something better came along (Hellman 1976: 250).

The very schizophrenic nature of the PSIUP, with a leader~hip dominated by older associates of Morandi quite out of touch wIth – and, more importantly, incapable of disciplining – the party’s younger militants, made such a use seem feasible to many for a time. Similar attempts to utilise the Communist youth federation would meet with varying results. While youthful dissent and sympathy for ‘extremist’ politics were tolerated in places such as Reggio Emilia, in other localities – for example Pisa – exclusion came swiftly for those who strayed beyond the bounds of the party’s dominant postwar traditions (Cazzullo 1998: 41-2). This general mood of intolerance did nothing to improve the increasingly strained relationship between the PCI and politicised youth; Amendola’s portrayal of the student movement as an enemy to be defeated only added fuel to the fire. Despite the more conciliatory position advanced by others in the party leadership during 1968, the membership of its youth federation continued to decline. By 1969, relations between the PCI and MS in all major cities except Milan had effectively collapsed, and a number of factions within the student movement began to amalgamate into new national organisations seeking to challenge the Pcl’s dominance of working-class politiCS (Luperini 1969; Hellman 1976: 272).

While struggles circulated throughout the major university ce~t~es in Italy, the MS swelled to mass proportions in only a few localItIes during 1967, and it was the experiences in these cities – above all Turin and Trento – which gave the new movement its initial orientation in pursuit of ‘Student Power’. Influenced in part by the German and American campus movements, this new ideology was turned by its young theoreticians into a peculiarly Italian concoction. To their minds the tyranny of the academic ‘barons’ and the discriminatory nature of university admission were only an expression of the more general power relations within society. ‘Authoritarianism’, wrote Carlo Donolo (1968: 78) at the time, 'is a new word for an old fact: exploitation.’ Yet if such a generic notion of domination was perhaps the major weakness of Student Power as an ideology, its very breadth left it open to a number of quite different readings. In its first emanation, in Trento, the call for Student Power stressed the sectionalist interests of students; even in its most radical form, it rarely went beyond the demand for ‘universities to the students, factories to the workers’. In Turin, by contrast, emphasis was from the beginning placed upon the social continuity of class rule. Echoing Quaderni Rossi’s thesis of the social factory, Luigi Bobbio and Guido Viale held that

[t]he social system of advanced capitalism increasingly takes the form of a network of totalitarian institutions aimed at the total control and domination of the persons subject to it ... Authoritarianism in a neo-capitalist world is not a hangover from feudalism; it is the fundamental form of class domination, to which all social institutions are subordinated. (Bobbio and Viale 1968: 222)

In their view, the role of the MS was to challenge schools’ function as ‘a direct instrument of subordination’ which, through the organisation of consensus and passivity, ‘manipulate the students, persuading them to accept the division of labor and hierarchic stratification of roles on which our society is based’ (ibid.: 223). Europe’s historic left and unions were considered little better, since they confronted social conflict only to keep it within the confines set by capital: ‘The only thing these organisations still have to offer is a career’ (ibid.: 222). If the immediate targets in Turin were again the class nature of admission and the power of professors, the continuous nature of domination throughout society ultimately raised the problem of joining with the working class to generalise the conflict gripping academe. Elsewhere however, sectionalist interests or Third Worldism reigned supreme. In Rome, talk of a worker-student alliance made little ground before 1968, with its proponents likely, in Scalzone’s words, to be ‘drowned out by whistles and cat-calls’ and dismissed as ‘one of the PCI, a "politico" (Piperno and Scalzone 1978: 75).