Workers and Students Unite

Submitted by Juan Conatz on November 22, 2011

With the dissolution of Classe Operaia, any organised presence of 'pure' workerists was confined to the North-East of Italy, where Potere Operaio veneto-emiliano (POv-e) dominated the region's far left. Although the group soon came to wield considerable influence over its own local MS, Pov-e's relations with student politics were quite different to those of its Pisan namesake, whose members were always at pains to distance themselves from the Venetians. Years later, Negri would attempt to explain the differences between the two Workers' Power groupings in terms of their respective social composition. According to him POv-e, unlike the Tuscan formation,

was overwhelmingly working-class, so that student problems, which were fundamental for the Pisans, were always mediated via a rather difficult debate within Potere Operaio veneto-emiliano. (Negri 1979a: 93)

Whatever the truth of this, throughout 1967 and 1968 the workerists closest to POv-e clung unflinchingly to the world of lavoro operaio ('blue-collar work'). In their view, the only political problem of any consequence still left unsolved from the experience of Classe Operaia was the relation between the class and the labour movement. One senses that for them, as for Piperno at that time, many of the student movement's concerns smacked of the merely '''personal'' or superstructural', and as such were simply dismissed as irrelevant (Piperno and Scalzone 1978: 74).

With such attitudes commonplace, it should come as no surprise that Pov-e's journal had paid no attention to the student movement before the middle of 1968. By that time, a fundamental shift could be discerned within the most important components of the MS, with the proponents of Student Power now finding themselves challenged by more traditional ideologies stressing the primacy of the working class in social conflict. The criticisms of Oreste Scalzone (1968: 2) - not yet a workerist, but already prominent within the faction-ridden Roman MS - were not untypical of such views. After conceding the potency of Student Power's anti-institutional critique, Scalzone argued that it had also engendered a widespread mistrust of 'the party as an institution', the 'revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat'. Without the latter, the MS would remain confined to the university, ultimately exhausting itself as nothing more than a privileged revolt by 'bourgeois children'. While lacking Scalzone's socialist moralism, many student activists were increasingly conscious of the limits of a struggle conducted wholly within the university. As the whole edifice of Italian society began to appear as an obstacle to the reform of higher learning, even the most sectionalist advocates of Student Power looked with interest to a working class that was again stirring itself into action. Thus one of the first of the movement's factory commissions was formed in Trento; by the middle of the year, the first steps towards a practical linkage with workers had been made in all the other major university cities (Boato 1978: 228-32).

It was this 'turn to the class' which led POv-e to display public interest in the development of the MS. The first discussion of students carried the significant title of 'Fiat Edison Marzotto University - one struggle against one boss', and was published in the early days of May 1968. Noting the growing preparedness of students to reply to state force in kind, as witnessed by the March clashes at Valle Giulia in Rome (Ginsborg 1990: 304), the article expressed a certain condescending pleasure that the MS had finally moved beyond 1967's generic themes of protest. In the process, it had discovered the need to join with workers in 'an open and general struggle against the entire plan of capital'. Whilst most students came from bourgeois families, the MS represented an attempt 'to negate their own class origin in order to be a revolutionary class'. To take things forward, the workerists demanded 'the generalised wage for all' (Pov-e 1968c: I, 4). Unlike the notion of a 'political wage', however, which in a few years would play a central role in Potere's Operaio's discourse on political recomposition, the aim for Pov-e of the 'generalised wage' seems not to have been that of organising students as part of the proletariat. True, the 'generalised wage' was important for allowing access to university for working-class youngsters. POv-e's primary interest, however, lay elsewhere, in seeking the means by which an effective relation between students and workers could be realised outside academe. Worker-student unity, it was argued, could only be consummated in the environs of the factory, where capital's plan 'is most organised, and from whence it draws its strength'. Thus, whatever other ways such unity might have been conceived, for POv-e it would from the beginning entail the submission of student interests to the promotion of workers' struggles, an attitude which understandably outraged wide sections of the MS (Boato 1978: 198).

As many student activists were then discovering, their efforts to support industrial struggles, and in particular to promote a rank-andfile control over them, met not only with frequent interest on the part of workers, but also hostility from union officials jealously protective of their 'turf'. Even the FlOM, the component of the CGIL most open to 'new' political discourses, agreed to discussions with students only on condition that the latter accept its 'monopoly over the class' (Viale 1978: SO). In such Circumstances, the widespread antipathy amongst student activists for POv-e could only have been deepened by the group's continued circumspect behaviour before the 'official' representatives of labour. Indeed, so cautious was POv-e at this time that it actively discouraged efforts to circumvent the CGIL:

We have said before that the Movement reaches its maximum point of growth in the awareness of the necessity of contact and organisation with the working class, which in Italy is still identifiable with the union organisation of the Labour Movement. It is clear that if the Student Movement seeks direct and organisationally effective contact with the working class, it cannot dream of doing so outside the class union: direct contacts are always precarious, and often lack possibilities of generalisation '" (POv-e 1968c: 4)

If one reason for this outburst can be traced to the tendency's fear of isolation, another lay in the fact that the split with Tronti's closest supporters still remained unclear in the Veneto for much of 1968. Pov-e thus continued to maintain relations with left currents within the PCI, even organising a joint conference with them, 'Students and Workers', in June. As the workerists argued in Potere Operaio:

[T]he organisational channels which permit contact with the working class [are not] confined to the union. Despite the reformist lines to which their leaderships are committed, the parties of the labour movement are still class parties by dint of the composition and characteristics of their base. (ibid.: 4)

Not surprisingly, many on the far left objected to such arguments. Harshest in its criticisms was the Marxist-Leninist tendency within the Pisan Potere Operaio, for whom this utterance was yet one more proof that

workerist and spontaneist praxis cannot escape its internal logic, but rather converges into the reformist, and evermore clearly counterrevolutionary strategy of the offiCial institutions of the labour movement. (quoted in Boato 1978: 231)

The struggles of workers at Montedison's Petrolchimico plant in Porto Marghera that summer, in which POv-e was to play an important role, would set the group on a final collision course with the parties and unions of the left. While the ambiguities inherited from Classe Operaia's discourse on the historic left did not long survive this conflict, the chemical workers' struggles only confirmed the group in its interpretation of worker-student relations. Worker-student unity was projected by POv-e as a 'new organisational form' consummated in the often violent mass picketing of late July (POv-e 1968a: 35-6). In practice, this 'unity' meant the 'workingclass use' of the MS as a channel of communication against the bosses and, where necessary, union leaders as well (pOv-e 1968j: 4). One workerist leaflet summed up the question thus:

Only if the union between workers and students, under the leadership of the working class, becomes an organisational and continuous fact, will the student movement conserve its political weight and significance. (POv-e 1968a: 31)

A more sophisticated workerist attempt to grapple with the political role of students emerged in Sergio Bologna and Giairo Daghini's detailed, first-hand reconstruction of the French May. Here students were presented as detonators of class struggle, the 'acting minority' of which Daniel Cohn-Bendit had spoken in his famous interview with Sartre (Bologna and Daghini 1968: 20). French students were praised for having triggered 'the most formidable and concentrated mass refusal of the job [posto di lavoro] ever seen in an advanced capitalist country' (ibid.: 35), in the form of a general strike by at least 9 million workers. At the same time, it was conceded that this had not been sufficient to overcome the gulf separating students in the streets from workers in the occupied factories (ibid.: 49-51). It was in their conclusion, however, that Bologna and Daghini introduced a new twist to their tendency's reading of worker-student relations. First, they drew a parallel with the defeat suffered in 1920 by Turin's metalworkers, who had stood firm but alone in their factory strongholds. In future, argued Bologna and Daghini, workplace occupations must act as 'trampolines' to launch 'decisions of a practical-political type, which must then translate themselves into the organisation of the social circuit of struggle'. Such a schema offered students a privileged role as intellectual labourers, for in order to be successful, 'these mechanisms of working-class struggle must be entirely reconstructed at the theoretical level' (ibid.: 52-3).

While this attempt to grasp the peculiar contributions which the intellectually trained might offer to revolutionary politics was passed over by the rest of the tendency, it is no less true that POv-e's approach to students only prefigured the general practice of the extra-parliamentary organisations formed with the Hot Autumn. Within a few years, indeed, Potere Operaio (1972d) was to ascribe greater legitimacy to students' struggles within the education sector than did a number of its rivals. In 1968, however, the resurgence of industrial strife would see the specific problems of students overshadowed by those of the mass worker; only with the crisis of the far left during the mid-1970s would some workerists begin to rethink entirely the relation between intellectual strata and the working class, between detonators of a knowledge or of particular knowledges, and productive workers. (Bologna 1981: 15-16)