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International Socialism, Autumn 1979


Riccardo Albione

The crisis of the Italian revolutionary Left

(Autumn 1979)


From International Socialism, 2:6, Autumn 1979, pp. 137–144.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We publish here a response to Chris Harmon’s article in IS No. 4 on the Revolutionary Left in Europeby a member – albeit a critical member – of one of the organizations that Chris Harman analysed there: Democrazia Proletaria.

The main problem for the Italian far left is not that there are less revolutionaries in Italy today than in the past (there may even be more – in many areas outside the main Northern cities the left only began to make its influence felt around 1975 and has grown since). The problem is that these revolutionaries no longer seem capable – indeed no longer believe themselves capable – of effective political action. The main question which any analysis of the crisis has to answer is why.

In his recent article on the crisis of the European revolutionary left, published in International Socialism Chris Harman approached this problem from the point of view of the main revolutionary organizations. Now the largest nationally organized grouping on the Italian revolutionary left is DP which before the June elections had around 10,000 members. The PDUP has around a third of this number. Autonomia Operaia, while lacking a formal national structure, probably has at least the same number of activists as DP and probably more.

The revolutionary left as a whole (that is the mass of comrades who believed themselves to be fighting for revolution) played a vital role in the social and political struggles in the years following 1967: the demonstrations in the Universities in 1967 and 1968, the “hot autumn” in the factories in 1969, the fight to uncover government collusion in the December 1969 bombing in Milan (16 dead), the women’s movement, the divorce referendum, squats, the soldiers movement, the disoccupati organizzati (organized unemployed movement), the struggle for abortion, the 1977 uprising, the referendum against anti-terrorist legislation and so on.

Very often however the main revolutionary organizations were conspicuous by their absence, particularly when they felt the issues at stake did not directly affect the “working class”. Undoubtedly their general ideology was very influential, especially in the schools, the universities and the major Northern factories. Nonetheless it was only on rare occasions that they succeeded in launching a specific struggle rather than latching on to one which already existed.

The important point is that today it is not just the surviving revolutionary organizations which are going through a crisis but the whole revolutionary movement and that this crisis cannot be explained exclusively in terms of the theoretical and organizational weaknesses of the “revolutionary vanguard”. The same mistakes (uncritical acceptance of external “models of socialism”, dogmatism, undemocratic internal party organization, lack of attention to “superstructural problems”, the tendency to generalize from an extremely limited knowledge of reality, intellectualism ...) have been made time and time again by organization after organization. It seems unlikely that this was just “bad luck”. If as Harman points out the rise of the revolutionary left was due to objective changes in the structure of modern capitalist society it seems likely that its decline is similarly to be traced to structural social change rather than to mere subjective error.

The traditional analysis which the revolutionary left has made of the social changes which led to the explosion in 1968–69, an analysis which Harman seems to accept, contains many of the elements necessary for an understanding of what happened. Undoubtedly mass migration from the South of Italy, the breakdown of rural (Catholic) society, the absorption of these new Southern immigrants into the Northern working class, the modernization of Italian industry, the destruction of old skills and the emergence of the operaio massa – the unskilled or semi-skilled assembly line worker – all helped to infuse a new radicalism into the Italian working class.

In the autumn of 1969 the union bureaucracy was swamped by totally new working class demands: – not just for higher pay (although the increases achieved in the period 1969–73 were very large) but for a more egalitarian wage scale (lower differentials, equal cash increases for everyone, equal conditions for manual and clerical workers), for direct workers’ control over the work process (assembly line speeds, saturation rates, use of dangerous substances, piece work, night work, overtime) and over negotiations with management (stewards to be elected directly by each work team regardless of union affiliation, directly elected factory councils to take on many of the negotiating functions previously reserved for union officials). New tactics were invented for forcing through worker demands (shop by shop stoppages without warning, limited stoppages at strategic points on the line, demonstrations within the factory to involve the whole workforce in the problems facing specific groups of workers). There was an undoubted willingness to resort to violence and sabotage.

The fact remains however that the change in the nature of the industrial working class which lies at the heart of the traditional analysis is not enough to completely explain the rise of the revolutionary left; still less does it explain the decline of the movement. By 1976 the traditional structures of Italian society were infinitely weaker and modern industry considerably stronger than they had been in 1968 and yet the far left had declined rather than gained in strength. Unless we are to ascribe this decline exclusively to the failings of the revolutionary organizations we are forced to the conclusion that the traditional analysis is inadequate.

In reality any analysis of the role of the far left in recent Italian history has to bear in mind two fundamental considerations; that the revolutionary left has never been exclusively (or even primarily?) a movement of the industrial working class; and that the rise of the revolutionary left was just one element in a general movement for change which included the reformist left (PCI) and which from 1972 was in fact dominated by the reformists.

The student struggles in 1967 and 1968 and the support given to the revolutionary movement by many “intellectuals” broke the ideological hold of the DC. At least in the major cities the role of Christian Democrat ideology among the young was drastically reduced (though this obviously did not mean that young people all became revolutionaries). The “hot autumn” in 1969 went far further, challenging the very survival of the Christian Democrat power system. Large sections of “public opinion” (that is of purely bourgeois opinion-makers) came to believe that this system in its existing form was incompatible with the survival of “liberal” (capitalist) democracy.

The cadre of the new revolutionary organizations (Potere Operaio, Lotta Continua, L’Unione dei Marxisti Leninisti, Il Manifesto and later Avanguardia Operaia and the PDUP) came almost exclusively from the students, the professional intellectuals and the young civil servants. What is more, their politics reflected a tendency towards abstract ideological thinking which was entirely typical of the petty bourgeois, Catholic intelligencia. There was no lack of extremely detailed studies of the situation in the factories, capitalist work organization and so forth. The trouble was the use to which these analyses were put. On the one hand the Marxist-Leninist (Maoist) groups tended to use them simply to provide justification for decisions already taken on “superior”, “political” grounds. On the other the “workerists” (concentrated in Potere Operaio, and Lotta Continua) failed to realize how the discontent and radicalism they found in the factories was not enough in itself to bring about revolution. Above all else they failed to extend their very accurate analysis of the factory situation to the rest of society.

On both sides a whole series of concepts were accepted more or less uncritically: – the virtues of the Chinese cultural revolution, “third worldist” ideas of revolution in the periphery, the concept of a vaguely defined “front of progressive countries”, the need for a revolutionary party and for democratic centralism (usually in the Stalinist rather than in the Leninist sense). Worse still there was a tendency to translate even purely tactical positions into doctrinal dogma and to expel the unorthodox. The devotion of the activists to their work was extreme (one Marxist-Leninist organization went so far as to oblige its activists to enter into “red marriages” so as to increase the output of future militants). Political work was regarded as a 24 hour activity (a conception which automatically excluded anyone who had to spend 12 hours a day on work and travel...)

The predominant role of the petty bourgeois intelligencia within the organizations was in actual fact no obstacle to their winning substantial support from workers – so long as the revolutionary movement remained tied to pre-1968 traditions. For many politically conscious workers the PCI was guilty not so much of having failed to offer a new mode of revolutionary politics as of having betrayed (Stalinist) tradition. As yet there was only very limited willingness to accept a radical critique of the “socialist” countries (for most workers the Soviet Union still enjoyed enormous prestige), or of Stalinist methods of party organization. There was very little awareness of how far the class composition of the PCI cadre (which was not entirely dissimilar to that to be found in the revolutionary left) had influenced the reformist politics adopted by the party.

The new revolutionary organizations won acceptance on the one hand through their militancy – on the other through their uncritical acceptance of much of the PCI tradition, some of which the PCI had itself abandoned. Yet it was precisely this tradition (a bureaucratic party dominated by petty bourgeois intellectuals and an ideology to match) which prevented them from making a concrete analysis of Italian society or – to be more precise – which prevented them from using those analyses which existed as an effective tool in their everyday political work. Far from using their theory to lead the revolutionary movement, the organizations tended to limit themselves to post hoc critiques of what the movement had already achieved on its own initiative. When they did intervene actively the results were often disastrous (e.g. Lotta Continua’s refusal to participate in the factory councils in 1969 and 1970).

The very success of the revolutionary left led to fundamental changes in the structure of Italian society. As early as 1970 most of the major factories in the North stopped hiring new labour. Management did not want to pay the high wages and grant the improved working conditions it had been forced to agree to. Above all it did not want to accept the limitations which increased worker power on the shop floor imposed on its planning. Emigration to the Northern cities came to a halt. At the same time there was a major expansion of small industry in traditionally non-industrial areas. The textiles, clothing, footwear and furniture industries grew very rapidly. Even major industry began to “decentralize”. FIAT started to finance small businessmen to set up “independent” companies using extremely modern technology to make components, attempting this way to escape the grip of the unions in the major factories. Other companies followed suit.

Wages and conditions in the new factories were appalling. Safety regulations were blatantly ignored. Usually the employer refused to pay national insurance so workers lacked any kind of pension or health care, yet frequently in the areas where the new factories were set up unemployment was so bad that no-one dared protest. (Often the labour force was selected on political critieria.) The unions were virtually non-existent. Worse still these were areas with no tradition of working-class struggle. Right to this day very few successful factory struggles have been organized outside the traditional working class areas.

In these areas, the refusal of the major factories to hire new labour made it almost impossible for young people to find “official” work. The last few years have seen the emergence in Italy of a whole generation of partially unemployed workers relying for a living on “black” labour ... and their parents.

Among these emarginati other objective and subjective factors have tended to eliminate residual class differences. The last ten years have seen a significant reduction in overt discrimination against working class children at school. The number of working class university students has grown dramatically (ever since 1968 it has been possible to enter university more or less automatically). With the exception of a privileged few, most young people face the same problems regardless of class origin: – full or partial unemployment, the lack of even a minimum income for subsistence, difficulties in breaking away from a conservative family structure, housing (rented accommodation is practically non-existent), police harassment... It is not surprising that at least to some extent they have developed an ideology of their own.

The ideology of 1968 and 1969 had represented the negation of the dominant values in Italian capitalist society in theory. The students in particular had rejected any idea of hierarchy – and had promptly joined revolutionary organizations organized on Stalinist, bureaucratic lines; they had revolted against bourgeois culture – and then spent their evenings in philosophical discussion of the finer points of dialectical materialism: they were horrified by the work ethic and insisted on 24 hour a day activism; they had been disgusted by Catholic sexual morality and yet very often refused to use contraception.

The new generation which emerged from 1971 onwards was very different. Above all it had very little to do with the pre-1968 tradition. For the first time libertarian ideas were taken seriously. A high proportion of young people, especially in the cities, lost all interest in a “regular career”. There was a general rejection of academic culture (including the academic Marxism the “68ers” had taken so seriously). At least in the cities there was a substantial change in sexual morality.

From the early 1970s onwards the gap between the groups set up at the end of the 1960s and this potential-pool of support grew wider and wider. At the same time there was growing, dissatisfaction within the groups themselves. The major Marxist-Leninist groups split and dwindled away to insignificance. Potere Operaio, the largest “workerist” organization, dissolved. Many individual activists left the national organizations to form local collectives involved in specific fields of political work. Some of these were later to become what is now known as Autonomia Operaia. Women flooded to leave the major organizations where they had usually been relegated to a purely subordinate function. In 1974 the kidnapping of Sossi, a conservative judge in Genoa signalled the emergence of the Red Brigades.

In practice however it was not just the revolutionary organizations which were in decline but the revolutionary movement itself. The organizations had proved unable to provide any kind of revolutionary leadership. They had failed to build any alliance between factory workers and other social groups outside the factories, to involve the mass of workers in the political issues underlying the factory struggles. As for the revolutionary movement, it had shown tactical ability in individual struggles but lacked any kind of coherent strategy. While management re-organized the factories so as to regain control over production the PCI gradually recovered political control. The factory councils degenerated into cogs in the union machine. More and more attention was concentrated on demands such as worker control over company investment (which increased the role of the union bureaucracy) and less and less on alternatives which might have increased the day to day power of workers on the assembly lines (it had been precisely this power which had made 1969 so successful).

As a political force the left as a whole grew. For the first time considerable sections of the bourgeoisie began to accept the idea of a role for the PCI in government. The victory in the divorce referendum in 1974 showed general public support for a reform of the Christian Democrat power system. The 1975 local elections (in which the PCI took nearly all the major cities) confirmed this impression. At the same time however the bridling of the workers movement tended to eliminate the one force capable of forcing the bourgeoisie to make concessions.

The strengthening in support for reformism and the decline in the revolutionary organizations changed the balance of power within the left. Just as previously the PCI had been forced to adapt to the massive increase in strength of the revolutionary left so as to maintain control over the working class; now the surviving organizations of the revolutionary left (PDUP, Avanguardia Operaia and Lotta Continua) believed that they had no choice but to adapt to the growing strength of reformism. Much of the debate within these organizations came to centre on the “institutional question”. There was an unstated assumption that just as the revolutionary left had forced the PCI to back a number of radical demands in the factories, it was now capable of exerting the same sort of pressure at an institutional level, forcing the PCI to abandon the “historic compromise” with the Christian Democrats and form a Chilean-style left government. This was the main demand of the three organizations when they joined together to fight the 1976 general election.

In numerical terms the results were not altogether unfavourable. 550,000 votes, 6 MPs and massive state financing (in Italy all parties represented in Parliament are subsidized by the state) were not enough however to cover up the total failure of the left government strategy. The PCI showed not the least sign of considering the “left alternative”; on the contrary, it became even more accommodating towards the Christian Democrats than it had been in the past.

The tensions within the groups exploded. In 1976 Lotta Continua dissolved, following a revolt by feminist militants against the sexist, authoritarian attitude of the national leadership. The PDUP and Avanguardia Operaia both split, with the right wing of the two organizations merging in the PDUP while the left formed Democrazia Proletaria. A very large number of grass-roots activists, disgusted by the manoeuvring of the national leadership and disillusioned with their political strategy withdrew from any form of national organization. Many no longer engaged in any form of political activity. Some joined the PCI; some formed local collectives, others chose the “armed struggle”. The remaining women comrades withdrew en masse. Since 1976 neither PDUP nor DP has included any significant number of women activists.

The break-down in the national organizations of the revolutionary left following the 1976 elections was obviously due to a large extent to the failure of the left government strategy. This however is only part of the explanation – significantly an earlier electoral defeat in 1972, when the groups failed to win a single MP had much less serious results. Much of the trouble was due to the excessive importance which had been attached to electoral politics but this again was only a symptom of the underlying disease. The real problem was that the PDUP, AO and LC had lost contact with their potential supporters. They had failed to provide real leadership in the factories – and had thus enabled the PCI to regain control. At the same time they had forfeited their support from the young, who were infinitely more critical of their hierarchical structures – and the ideology it produced – than they had been in 1968 and 1969. Then the groups had won significant support from a mass movement (even if they had failed to lead it). Now they could only rely on their own militants whose numbers were dropping rapidly.

The March 1977 uprising only served to make matters worse. Significantly the centre of the movement was not in the industrial north but rather in cities such as Bologna and Rome with a small working class and a large mass of emarginati (the fully and partially unemployed, students, etc.). In Rome the Movimento del 1977 saw the emergence of Autonomia Operaia as the dominant force on the far left. The PDUP sided with the PCI. DP militants attempted to take on a mediating role – but with very little success (the autonomi referred to them as “zombies”).

Despite the abstruse writings of major autonomi theoreticians (such as Toni Negri) the implicit ideology of the autonomi was far more closely tied to reality than either DP or the PDUP. To a large extent autonomo theory can be traced back to the old “workerist” groups. The basic tactic (which had been the tactic used by Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua) was to take up and support demands which were already being made by existing social groups and attempt in this way to radicalise them. By 1977 the autonomi had a solid social base, especially where the PCI and the “old” revolutionary groups had never been able to make their weight felt: – in the hospitals (where ancillary workers and nurses are treated even worse than in Britain and where conditions for patients are appalling), in the public service sector, in the poor suburbs of the major cities, in the South, in traditionally Christian Democrat cities such as Padua.

Where they were present they participated in whatever struggles were underway, at times playing a leading role. There is no truth in the claim that their view of social struggle is limited to armed encounters with the police.

What is true however is that wherever a movement has shown itself willing to indulge in violence the autonomi have encouraged this, at times acritically. The street battles in Rome in March 1977 were not due exclusively to the autonomi (although they certainly helped to provoke them). Rather these battles expressed the very real physical hatred of the police – indeed of the whole bourgeois state – felt by huge masses of unemployed or semi-unemployed young people with not the least prospect of a house or a job or any form of economic security (there is no dole in Italy). Insofar as they were violent the autonomi expressed a very real component in the 1977 movement. In this sense they were far more “representative” than DP. In another sense however they shared one of the key weaknesses of the old groups. They were incapable of developing a detailed analysis of the society around them and still less of using this analysis to plan their political action effectively.

The fate of the 1977 movement was a key example of this, the autonomi helped to organize the spontaneous violence of a mass movement but they were incapable of seeing where this would lead. The mistook the extremism of the young Rome unemployed for the general consciousness of the whole working class. Autonomo violence was met with police escalation: – as might have been expected. The Minister of the Interior ordered the police to fire on unauthorized demonstrations ... and the movement died. This was entirely predictable. DP, for one, predicted it but was too cut off from the movement to make its voice felt.

Since 1977 there have been very few mass movements in Italy On a national scale (one of the few exceptions was an autonomo-led revolt by the hospital workers in 1978). The Moro kidnapping made life harder for the whole of the organized revolutionary left. The autonomi have suffered severely from police repression (all their major theoreticians are in jail). DP has tended to be squeezed between the PCI, which accuses it of collusion with terrorism, and the autonomi who charge it with having failed to make a clean break with the institutions of the state. The PDUP has become a satellite organization for the PCI with close ties to the “left” within the party. Events outside Italy have made matters worse. The arrest of the “gang of four” forced all the organizations to re-examine their attitude towards China. The Vietnam-China war made the whole problem of “external models of socialism” infinitely more acute.

This last point is crucial. If we give credit to the analysis underlying Lenin’s concept of the party we have to avoid making a fetish out of the old bolshevik model, designed to meet a very specific historical need. Certainly Italy needs a national organization of the revolutionary left, “outside” the movement, capable of developing its own strategy rather than just responding tactically to the needs of the movement. What is more, virtually no-one in the revolutionary left would deny this. The problem is the form this organization should take. How should it avoid the alternative between “intellectualism” and “workerism”? How should it rebuild contacts with the young? How should it work in the factories? How should it react to the spread of the “armed struggle”?

Today in Italy these problems are beginning to be faced up to for the first time. Democrazia Proletaria in the form it took after the 1978 congress, was an attempt to provide an answer. What is more it was not a complete failure. At a local level DP comrades have been extremely active. During the election campaign many comrades were involved from outside the organization. Nonetheless it is clear that the answer provided was totally inadequate. At a theoretical level the problem of building a national organization without this implying a Stalinist bureaucracy was faced up to. An attempt was made to reach a clearer view of what was going on within Italian society. On international questions the party was forced to begin a critique of all “external models of socialism”.

At the same time however there was a failure to translate this “theory” into practice. The organization remained hierarchical and undemocratic (without this implying efficiency); national policy statements continued to be ambiguous. The party did not succeed in shaking off its “cultural” and ideological heritage from the past. Above all it failed to understand what was going on around it. The election result was totally unexpected.

The problem facing DP today; or to be more precise, the problem facing the whole of the Italian revolutionary left, is to find an answer to the problems I have outlined here. This is all the more difficult in that the class composition and implicit ideology of a movement cannot be changed overnight. Undoubtedly the fate of the Italian revolutionary left will depend to a large extent on factors outside its control – in particular on the effects of the coming recession on the industrial working class which could well be re-radicalized by the threat of unemployment (as yet there have been virtually no mass sackings). Nonetheless if the left is not to repeat the mistakes of the past it has to have the courage to realize what these were.

This applies internationally as well as just in Italy. At international meetings and in articles, very few comrades of the European revolutionary left have been willing to recognize the failings of their own organizations although they have been generous in criticism of foreign comrades. Big party chauvinism has been rife. My own organization – DP – has often been one of the worst culprits. This has to cease. Unless the various organizations of the revolutionary left in Europe are prepared to take a deep look at their own failings (which they know better than any foreign comrade) and to discuss these openly, there is very little point to the debate which Harman has opened.

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