From International Socialism, No.49, Autumn 1971, pp.20-21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
ITALY experienced massive struggles over terms for the renewal of agreements between the employers and the unions in the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969. But the outcome was one that was in accord with the desires of the more dynamic elements within the ruling class. They could fit into their wider political perspective both substantial wage rises and the increased role of the unions within the factories.  Demand in the economy would be increased and the trade unions would police the factories: conditions which would guarantee rapid increases in productivity and production that would more than compensate for higher wage costs.
This perspective also took a favourable view of the moves towards unity by the three main unions (Communist, Social-Democrat and Christian Democrat) and of the programme on reforms – on housing, health and education – advanced by them. Indeed, these reforms were seen as essential if the ruling class was to ensure social stability by reducing the more blatant aspects of poverty.
Central to this strategy was a shift to the left of the parliamentary political spectrum, with the long term aim of bringing the CP into the government.
Over the last two years the parties concerned in such a scheme have actively developed an identity of purpose. In particular, the CP leadership passed a resolution of July 8 last year supporting a vigorous acceleration of production. Berlinguer opened the November Central Committee meeting of the Party with a paper which stressed: reforms; loyalty to bourgeois institutions; availability of the Party for a restructuring of parliamentary relationships (although without untimely pressures); the need to develop collaboration at all levels immediately so as to encourage the ‘economic and social progress of the whole nation’; and last, but not least, a total battle against the forces of the left that opposed this collaboration.
But one element has been missing from the reformist equation – the working class. The path which the reformists thought open to them has proved very thorny.
The working class emerged from the struggles of 1969-70 tired, but still basically dissatisfied. The result has been continual struggles of a spontaneous nature which have half-paralysed Italian industry.
Demands have involved .resistance to ‘auto-exploitation’, i.e. piece-work, and a refusal to aid capital in the more intensive utilisation of machines through speed up and shift work. In other words, they have centred around conditions inside the factories. The importance of this trend cannot be overestimated in a country where the pace of production is such as to push industrial accidents to unparalleled heights. There is one death every hour, a man permanently injured every 20 minutes and a serious injury every six seconds. The record of deaths is twice that of France and the us and five times that of the UK. It is a sad witness to the lack of effective shop stewards organisations.
In 1970 alone nearly 4,000 individual plant bargains were fought over. New methods of struggle designed to ensure maximum disruption with minimum loss of wages were adopted – an important point after months of protracted strikes. Factory after factory was immobilised by ‘chess board’ strikes with every other department taking action in turn, or by ‘brushfires’, with departments coming out in succession to one another, etc.
Production has been prevented from returning to its pre-1969 level by the strikes (for instance, the telecommunications firm SIT Siemens has lost four million working hours with a labour force of 15,000) and by massive absenteeism (in FIAT one man in eight is off work every day). This situation has created enormous problems for all the reformist sectors.
The ‘progressive’ elements of Italian capitalism have had to change the emphasis of their policy. Faced with unmanageable factories and with the inability of the trade unions to control the working class they have opted for a policy of repression. They have attempted to fragment the opposition and isolate vanguard elements through lockouts and sackings.
By breaking with the declared aim of the monopoly sector – capitalism with a human face – the policy has brought about unity within the bourgeoisie. The weaker, more reactionary elements, who opposed the policy of the monopolies in 1969, are now willing to be in tactical agreement with them.
Meanwhile the trade unions have found that the role they aspired to was dependent upon their being able to deliver the goods of industrial peace. In an attempt to help the reformist sections of the ruling class get out of the impasse, the union have failed to put up a real opposition to the repression. The elimination of the vanguard from the factories suits the purposes of the bureaucracies.
The trade unions and the CP have simultaneously to give guarantees to the bourgeoisie and to keep the working class happy. This inevitably involves them in continual somersaults. The CP has come out in favour of increased productivity, but to appease the uproar among its members explains this away as a ‘misunderstanding’. The trade unions attempt to hold back militancy, while making concessions to the base so as to retain control. They have attempted to divert militancy away from the factory into a struggle for state reforms, while here and there engaging in isolated adventures designed to ensure defeats that can be blamed on the ‘ultra-left’.
The re-emergence of organised fascist violence and the increase in the fascist vote in the southern local elections have both been much publicised in Italy and abroad. But these developments have to be seen in perspective.
In spite of the insurrection at Reggio, the butchery at Catanzaro and the farcical ‘coup’ of Prince Borghese, Italy is not experiencing a fascist offensive of any seriousness. Fascism is always a possibility in a capitalist society. But it is not the option that the ruling class is choosing at the moment. It just happens that the cry ‘fascist danger’ is useful to all ‘democratic’ protagonists today. The bourgeoisie can justify its own repression of the left by talk of the need to put down the opposed forms of ‘extremism’. And the CP can form popular anti-fascist organisations which enable it to collaborate with the parties to its right.
The fascist blackshirts have gained some room for manoeuvre. The more reactionary sections of capital can use them for their own purposes, and the fascist organisations have succeeded in gaining a mass following of some sort, particularly in the south. Here things are getting worse, rather than better for the mass of the population. Massive emigration remains a permanent feature (so that there are now six million southerners living in the north). The crisis of small industry has had much greater impact than elsewhere in Italy. And wages, which 10 years ago were half those in Lombardy (in the north), are today only a third.
Such a desperate situation makes it possible for apparently trivial issues – like that of where the regional capital should be located – to become of fundamental importance. The fascists are able to capitalise on such questions because of the inability of the reformists to offer any solution and because of the absence of the revolutionary left in the south.
But to be successful as a national political force fascism requires more than local success or the achievement of a large protest vote. It needs to be able to exercise brute force outside the normal arena of politics. But this is impossible without the mobilisation of large petty bourgeois and lumpen masses in intense political activity – something only possible in times of acute crisis and of demoralisation of the working class. None of the preconditions exists nationally in Italy at present.
The perspective for Italian capitalism is and must remain the restructuring of industry to increase competitiveness. To this end it must drag the antiquated state machine into the twentieth century and integrate the working masses. Such tasks demand reformism and the involvement of the trade unions and the CP in the management of the state machine. In spite of temporary set-backs and reorientations this remains the aim of monopoly capital.
Its main problem is that it has embarked on the reformist road at a time when the trade unions and the CP are beginning to lose their iron hold over the masses. Moreover, internationally the options for reformism are being closed. Within these contradictions lies the great opportunity for the Italian left.
1. For a fuller discussion on the split within the ruling class between representatives of modern monopoly-capital with their reformist proposals and the more reactionary smaller entrepreneurs, see IS 40 and IS 42.
Last updated on 19.2.2008