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International Socialism, Winter 1978/79


Paulo Petta

UFOs and Star Wars:

The theory and practice of the Red Brigades


From International Socialism, 2:3, Winter 1978/79.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A new current has emerged from the crisis of large sections of the West European revolutionary left. A terrorist current impatient with the lack of development of the revolutionary left and bitter at the integration of the leaders of the traditional workers’ organisations, has taken up arms against what they see as the key personnel of the capitalist order. Thus, in Spain we have seen sections of the Basque nationalist movement wage a consistent war against the Civil Guard and other representatives of the centralised Spanish state. In Germany, there was the kidnapping of Schleyer, an ex-Nazi and head of the employers’ federation, by the Red Army Faction, which inexorably led to its bloody conclusion in West Germany’s prisons.

But it has been in Italy that the most spectacular ‘triumph’ of the new current was carried out. The kidnapping and subsequent murder of Aldo Moro removed at one stroke perhaps the most important single individual in Italian politics. Therefore it is in Italy that we should look to see whether the strategy of this new terrorist current can lead, as its propagandists would claim, to a new revolutionary upsurge. For if it fails in Italy, then it is difficult to see where else it could be successful. The Italian working class is one of the most militant and class conscious in Europe. The move of the Italian Communist Party to supporting the Christian Democrat government has only been achieved at the expense of great strains between the leadership and the base. In the factories of the North, the Red Brigades do indeed appear to have some support. Finally, the economic standards of living for substantial sections of the population have worsened dramatically.

It would seem that in Italy, many of the preconditions that terrorist groups say they thrive in, are present. Yet the results of the Red Brigades’ actions have been disastrous. The government have used their campaign to introduce new, harshly repressive laws which have been used to crack down on all militants of the left. More importantly, the government, supported by the trade union and Communist Party leaders, have won an immense political and ideological victory over many workers. They have felt forced to line up with their traditional enemies, the Christian Democrats, in defending parliamentary rule from the ‘bloodshed and anarchy’ of the Red Brigades. The weakness of the union militants’ response to the negotiations of the new employment contracts is partly an effect of the Red Brigades strategy. Far from precipitating a revolution, the Red Brigades have pushed the prospect further back.

So what political strategy makes the Red Brigades persist in their lunatic course? Their motives remain almost unknown in Italy itself; in the English speaking world they are a complete mystery. We think that it is therefore important to publish the following article on the Red Brigades; first, to understand what is the inspiration behind this and similar organisations, and secondly, to make sure that such an analysis does not spread. It appeared first of all in Praxis, June/July 1978.

In the world of the new left, the Red Brigades (Brigate Rossi – BR) are like a new kind of UFO; amongst us bunglers – thinking we know everything about everyone – these unknown characters, efficient yet disregarded, throw us into dismay and inspire an almost reverential fear: the fear of the amateur before the professional.

As to their nature and their purpose, almost everything that is written is just guesswork. It is the same thing when we ask ourselves about their international links. So who are they? The children of spontaneity or of Marx and Lenin? Anarchist terrorists or initiators of a real fight? Rivals to Guevara, to the IRA and Al Fatah; or agents of the fascists, the Russians, the Germans, the Americans or the Cubans?

The fact that many of these guesses could appear possible without there being any evidence at all is in itself a prime cause for suspicion. What sort of revolutionaries are these who don’t bother to offer any credible image of themselves to ordinary people? Who don’t attempt to give the reasons for their actions any real publicity? Who carry out only limited propaganda activities ‘in a few localities in one or two cities’ and who, when it comes to the rest of the working class, “rely” on the image of themselves created by the bourgeois press after the Moro kidnapping?

This article cannot answer all these questions. What it tries to do is to explain a few aspects of their theory based on the one complete “theoretical” document by the BR which has come to light in the last few years.

This document is the so-called “Resolution on Strategic Direction” of February 1978 which was sent to a few papers. One of these claimed that the document was mainly only a reproduction of the writings of the traditional leaders of the BR, written while in prison. We can assume this to be true; but it only serves to highlight the contradictions of the new leaders who have little political creativity but are still sensational when it comes to military efficiency.

Revolutionary Marxism has always had a tradition of insurrection but it has always avoided the danger of militarism. For leaders like Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh, military action was always considered necessary but only as a development of politics. In other words, military action was only possible if beforehand the party has consolidated its presence and political prestige, thus creating conditions which were favourable for a revolutionary armed initiative. In every case, it was the politics that came first, not war.

But in the last ten years or so, some parts of the left have turned this position upside down. The person mainly responsible for this was Regis Debray and his interpretation of Guevarism. However unlike Debray, the BRs at least attempt to sketch an outline of the political situation in which they operate. But straight away we must state that this outline which attempts to justify their actions is somewhat insufficient to say the least. What is immediately apparent is that though the BRs from their history and terminology should be part of the Marxist Leninist tradition, their analysis comes from another source altogether. While they certainly don’t hold to the view that so many others have done that Marxism is synonymous with a wait-and-see strategy, their analysis certainly cannot be described as Leninist.

First and foremost there is a complete lack of political analysis. The fact is that in a country like Italy you can’t do anything unless you take into account the influence of the parties, the unions and the consciousness which they have developed in the working class. You don’t solve anything by considering this reformist consciousness as merely the product of the mass media. The fact is that these ideas have been rooted in the masses for almost a century, even though it is now propping up the established power-structure. The fact is that Italy today is not the mythical Latin America of Regis Debray where the peasant masses can only be dragged out of their fear and submission by “exemplary” armed actions.

This crass “theory” runs through the actions of the BR. We’ve mentioned UFOs; we could as easily talk of “Star Wars”; such is the alienation from the BR’s actions even on the part of those workers who have not felt themselves forced to line up with the state against the BR. In the practice of the BR, armed struggle is not a complement to, but a substitute for, political action.

Central to the BR’s theory is their analysis of the world economy. To develop capitalism into an efficient world system, they argue, there is a need for a political, institutional and economic restructuring of the relations between the various factions within the world bourgeoisie i.e. between the ‘multi-national’ and traditional sectors. The new forms of imperialism develop their own staff which need to infiltrate the power-centres of all the capitalist states and eventually to assume control...The centres of power which are undertaking this task of re-structuring the world economy are, in the first place, the international ones-the EEC, NATO and the IMF. Second come the “new bureaucracies” of the nation-state (presumably the civil service) and third, other centres of power like the government, the Bank of Italy, the Confederation of Industry and the mass-media.

However it is when the BR turn their attention to the state that the problems arise. They hold that the present political tendency of capitalism is authoritarian; so far so good. They also hold – and this we can still agree with – that this leads to a fundamental shift of power away from Parliament to the Executive (police, civil service, army etc.). Parliament runs the risk of being weak and ineffective; so we now according to the BR, see a ‘reversal of roles; the state is no longer, as in the liberal democratic tradition, an expression of various parties. Now it is the parties who are the expression of the state. The Executive is no longer the political expression of power relations inside Parliament rather it is the instrument of the international bourgeoisie in the national field. And it is the state which now uses the parties employing them to mobilise the masses around the government’s policies’. But because of the ‘global, totalitarian nature of this domination, there arises a real conflict between the apparatus and the public, rising up against each other, both with their own interests’.

We have many criticisms of this analysis; the most important – the role of the parties – we’ll leave till later. But the first point we want to make is that the analysis seems to give the impression that the multinationals are winning key-posts through a kind of masonic-like conspiracy carried out by trained cadres. The only real, though partial, example we have of such a process was Opus Dei in Spain. Yet the analysis does not look at what conditions and political forms would be necessary in Italy to allow such a process to take place. Secondly, the BR have a very imprecise notion of what they call the ‘Executive’. For them, the executive arm of the state is a completely unified structure. They say, for instance, that ‘every extension in the powers of the police in general, and the special police in particular, leads to a strengthening of the executive from the moment that the latter exercises absolute and direct control over them’. So the BRs do not believe in the existence of “separate bodies” within the state, it is all a unified whole. The judiciary, for instance, is increasingly being integrated into the executive.

In other words, the BRs do not recognise or understand the contradictions which emerge as the state becomes increasingly authoritarian and repressive. The BR’s analysis sometimes sounds like a ‘conspiracy theory’ where there is a ‘capitalist cell’ and the BR’s role is to shoot down the members of this cell one by one.

A third criticism is that their analysis of the state is suspect. For instance, they emphasize the repressive parts of the state as being its most important part but then go on to say that ‘the mass media is one of the true branches of the Ministry of the Interior’. For them the mass media under capitalism ‘militarises the means of communication between the masses and their technicians’. From this, presumably, the assassination of journalists is an inevitable conclusion. Thus the over-estimation of the state as a totally integrated and efficient structure for repression leads to a disastrous political strategy.

But it is in their analysis of the parties that the political weaknesses of the BR is really revealed. They say that in times of crisis: ‘various bourgeois forces clash and co-exist inside the state. But this process doesn’t lead to the break-up of the state rather it leads to its restructuring’.

But what are these ‘bourgeois forces’? The main one is obviously the Christian Democrats. The problem here is that it is not really capable of the task of restructuring capitalism as its imperialist backers want it to. But what about the Italian Communist Party? How, if we accept the analysis of the BR, can it find its mass base?

On some points of the analysis we can agree with the BR. It’s true for instance that the PCI differs from traditional social-democrats since in Italy, there are not the conditions for the integration of the workers’ aristocracies into the system. It is true that ‘it is inevitable that the reformists’ policies progressively lose all their reformist traits behind them so as to become openly repressive: the PCI’s function thus changes from progressive to conservative, independently of the wishes of its militants’.

But in all this where are the people? Where are the working class? Paradoxically it is only the ruling class that have any idea of the contradictions involved in this huge change within the PCI: there is a section of the bourgeoisie which, whilst not being hostile to the aims of imperialism, is forced to struggle to defend its areas of power within the institutions of the state’.

Where the analysis does touch on the working class, it tries to show that their natural allies are the youth, shop-workers, prisoners (called ‘outlaw proletariat’ by the BRs), and even the ecologists. But we are never told what the real working class does as it is attacked by the ruling class or what its relationship is towards the reformist parties and unions.

We get the impression that behind a few ‘Leninist’ labels there lies a deep-rooted trust in the spontaneous revolt of the working class which a vanguard can and must start by a ‘radical critique of arms’, typical is the discussion on the PCI: after having shown how fragile reformism is in a country like Italy, plus the tendencies which are pushing the PCI to take on an increasingly repressive role, what do they do? It seems obvious that you should therefore try and develop mass struggles in order to accentuate the relationship between the PCI and its working class base. Instead the BRs come to the conclusion that the relationship is already in crisis and therefore that ‘the contradiction (between the masses) and modern revisionism is more than antagonistic; it must be confronted on a military level’.

From an analysis (sensible), they pass to labelling (Maoist) and then to an operational conclusion (lunatic).

What we have said up to now hopefully helps us to understand why for the BRs the only acceptable political campaign is that of the armed struggle.

At the bottom of their analysis is the need to prove the authoritarian nature of the capitalist state. Indeed it is stated that this authoritarian tendency is growing: ‘imperialism needs to create a repressive society increasingly similar to a massive prison camp over millions of producers’. This state, however, is different from the traditional fascist or social-democratic states: ‘social democracy and fascism were mutually exclusive. In the modern imperialist state, they can co-exist together, giving rise to a new regime, which is neither fascist nor social-democrat but a dialectical mastering of both’. This pre-supposes the “regularisation” of the class struggle, by means of repression and the mass media. They deny that this can occur through the weapon of reformist “well-being” which has historically been most important (look at West Germany for example). For the BRs, ‘what hinders the enemy from normalising the situation and thus winning a tactical victory over the working class and its allies in the last ten years’ has been the initiative of those who have taken up arms against the regime. As Habbash said ‘the incapacity to destroy the revolution in a particular phase is in itself a victory for the revolution’. Finally, for the BR, the armed initiative will lead to ‘the provoking of a pre-emptive counter-revolution’.

The BRs’ armed strategy thus puts into motion that sequence of violence-repression-violence, which is their aim. Their argument for this runs as follows: ‘Imperialisms today can offer nothing either on an ideological or economic level. All they can offer is force. They are confronted by a series of opposition movements from those of national liberation struggles to the uprising of the industrialised working class. They cannot grow since they are constantly opposed by these opposition forces. The bourgeoisie was founded as a political force since it was the expression of a real growth in the productive forces. The imperialist bourgeoisie will lose since in order to establish itself it must continually attack the working class and thus suffocate this growth. As a result the revolutionary forces will strengthen, grow and finally win’.

One can see the economistic analysis at the bottom of this perspective; economic conditions will worsen, therefore the working class will become more revolutionary. But what is really worrying is the confidence with which it is implied that the armed struggle not only forces the bourgeoisie to drop any reformist mask (this is one of the BR’s main aims) but also prevents any new phase of economic development.

How wrong can you be! It is precisely actions like those of the BRs and the political ebb that results that favours the bourgeoisie in returning order to the factories, in outlawing opposition and in the move towards an anti-strike law. It is difficult to imagine a more effective way of helping the bourgeoisie in restoring profit-margins than the one that the BRs have devised.

It seems that it has never entered the head of the BRs that their armed struggle deals a mortal blow to the mass movement – not the bourgeoisie. They take it for granted that the working class is aware and ready to fight, that the new mass movements are ideologically and organisationally prepared for the revolutionary struggle. And from these movements more or less orientated towards revolution there emerges the Fighting Communist Party.

But this turns marxist politics on its head. Armed struggle never takes priority over political action for real revolutionaries. The BRs’ position only bears resemblance to Debray’s “revolution within the Revolution” and his more or less valid interpretation of Guevarism. For them the party is a military organisation, its leading group is the military command, its supporters are irregular troops. In a period of capitalist stability one carries out ‘armed propaganda’. In times of crisis, the guerrillas have two tasks. One is to publicise themselves (the BRs are not so stupid to imagine that the period of decisive military war has already started.) Secondly, they must set in motion the dislocation of the enemy apparatus.

That the guerrilla is a cause of the counter-revolutionary restructuring of the state or that her or his actions constitute a massive problem for the real revolutionary movement, is something the BRs either don’t see or ascribe to the natural order of things.

What channels do the BRs intend to keep open between their own secrecy and the masses? The document deals with this too. They declare that the armed struggle is ‘a war of the whole class, not of a small elite’ which is waged ‘in the factories, the schools, the prisons and wherever else imperialist oppression manifests itself. They declare themselves against ‘those bureaucratic-minority tendencies which see the Fighting Communist Party as something which grows outside the class’. And further, ‘there is no dichotomy between an action of the movement and armed action’.

That the BRs’ practice doesn’t correspond to the theory should be obvious. Not practising what you preach is an old fault of all the parties. But the blindness here is immense. It is not just a case of the ‘normal’ small group blindness and infantilism.

Rather it is an immense over-exaggeration and dramatisation of the crisis, the coming counter-revolution, and the immediate massive economic conflict. If you can say as the BRs do that ‘the state is unable to tolerate any proletarian struggle’, that ‘bourgeois power has to try and annihilate the movement’s communist vanguard’ and that every example of the proletariat’s autonomous organisation is met by the regime with arms’ then, at this point, the armed struggle does seem a necessity. But how can you equate this frenzied picture with a ruling class which exerts its control with the partial consent of the masses using the PCI and the unions?

The only way it can be done is to deny that this control has any element of consent in it, by portraying the reformists as mere agents of repression, and, we predict, by shooting them down. The document obviously doesn’t reveal the next targets of the BR; but from the way they talk, it seems that the following should take care when going home at night: the international organisations like the IMF and NATO, the big capitalist organisations like the Bank of Italy, journalists and, most obviously, the leaders of the PCI.

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