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The fire last time: 1968 in the US and France
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Activists in Italy—and not only in Italy—may be increasingly ready to rethink the lessons of the entire period leading up to and following the struggles of Industrialization finally came to Italy in the s, almost a century later than in England, Germany, and the United States, but it came in ways that accentuated Italian uneven development.
When Antonio Gramsci came to study on a scholarship at the University of Turin in , he found an industrial society profoundly different from the rural traditionalism of his native Sardinia and from the southern two-thirds of the Italian peninsula. Industrial development in the north of Italy stood in shocking contrast to a predominantly rural south where many agricultural workers subsisted as peasants or sharecroppers under pre-capitalist forms of socioeconomic relations. In the industrialized north, intense class conflict and organized working-class resistance emerged on a mass scale less than a decade after the founding of such capitalist empires as Fiat automobiles and Pirelli tires and other rubber products.
Soon after his arrival in Turin, Gramsci became an activist in the Italian Socialist Party PSI , founded in and by a mass party in control of city governments in Milan, Bologna, and elsewhere across the north. But a majority in the PSI, including most of its members elected to Parliament in and the trade union leadership, remained cautiously reformist. Although the new PCI recruited some 43, members by the end of , Mussolini and the Partito Nazionale fascista PNF were already using organized street violence to enforce their ideology of extremist nationalism and racism.
By the fascists could claim a membership of , Communists and other leftists were attacked, killed, and driven into exile. The entire Italian left was devastated for twenty years. By the end of the s, 2.
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These consequences were extremely important in the late 60s and 70s, and they still figure in Italian political culture today. When the Italian state re-established itself in the immediate post-War period, first by the election of a constituent assembly and a referendum in June to decide whether the country was to be a monarchy or a republic the vote for a republic won, 54 percent to 46 percent , then by a vote in to approve the constitution of the First Republic, the Italian Communist Party played an influential role.
The PCI continued to be part of immediate postwar governments and was importantly involved in the adoption of the constitution. By the late s the PCI had become the biggest communist party in Europe: in it had a formal membership of 2. In the elections of the PCI won 4.
But PCI participation in the national government was already threatened, in large part because of U.
This election was a disaster for the PCI and a triumph for the new center-right party that would control the Italian state for the next forty-five years, the Christian Democrats DC. These basic economic and social changes led to major transformations in Italian culture: print and electronic media, advertising, education, habits, and styles of daily life were all profoundly affected. The s in Italy began on a tide of rising expectations and of widespread dissatisfaction with outmoded social forms and cultural assumptions.
In this environment the Christian Democrats found themselves no longer able to govern from the traditional right: beginning with the new government formed in the summer of and continuing for almost ten years, they became the strongest party within a series of center-left coalition governments that included the socialists and other smaller parties such as the radicals and the democratic socialists.
Expectations of and disillusionment with these center-left governments—all of which continued to comply with U. The center-left coalition governments of — were themselves, in part, a response to mass protests against the right. The Christian Democrats formed a government in the spring of with the support of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement MSI and the monarchist party. When the MSI attempted to hold its annual convention that July in Genoa, protests broke out with such intensity that the police had to insist that the MSI convention be postponed. There were related protests against the Christian Democrat-fascist alliance in Reggio Emilia and in Sicily, provoking brutal police violence and producing such outrage across the country that the government was forced to resign.
A bit further into the decade, in and , the number of strikes spiked dramatically, and for the first time recently arrived workers from the south joined forces with northern workers in significant numbers. Militant student activism was already emerging in Italy at the beginning of the s. But conditions in the schools were terrible: too few classrooms, a shortage of textbooks, inadequately trained teachers, old-fashioned curricula.
By the late 60s many more students were going on to university. Students from technical schools were allowed to attend university for the first time in , and after an entrance exam was no longer required for university admission. So by some , students were in the universities, compared to , in Conditions for most of these students were abominable.
Nothing had been done to provide adequate faculty, library, or classroom resources for them. University campuses built to accommodate 5, students were, by , jammed with 30, Bari , 50, Naples , and 60, Rome.
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A substantial number of the new university students were working-class—and except for a few scholarships awarded to students of outstanding academic achievement, there was no government financial aid. Serious student protests first erupted in —interestingly, in private Catholic universities in Trento and Milan—and then spread to the big public universities. In February the movement reached a critical moment with the occupation of the University of Rome. Students were also defying a government ban on demonstrations.
This time, when the police mounted a charge with teargas and truncheons, the student protesters fought back fiercely, sending forty-six policemen to the hospital. Student and worker militancy in Italy was sharply energized by events in France in May of , when hundreds of thousands of students occupied universities in Paris and other cities. Although the full momentum of the Italian student protests was not sustained through the summer and into the latter months of , they transformed the political awareness and confidence of an entire generation of young Italians.
Only a minority of student protesters were working-class, but most middle-class students were also facing restrictions and hardships and understood very clearly that authoritarianism and corruption in the university system reflected a fundamentally exploitative social order. So when organized struggle among Italian workers began to intensify following the election of yet another center-left government in May , student activists were eager to get involved. Even before the May election, organized worker resistance was building.
In March the unions called a national strike in support of higher pensions—and were themselves surprised at the response: , metalworkers turned out in Milan and were joined by a large group of white-collar workers.
On April 19 in the Marzotto textile factory at Valdagno in the hills outside Venice some 4, workers, many of them women, marched through the town and demanded that the Christian Democratic town council pressure the company to improve conditions for their employees. Confidence and determination within the working class continued to build across the country through the summer and fall—as did willingness on the part of the capitalist ruling class to crack down. In December police killed two striking workers in Avola, Sicily. Several days later two more strikers were killed by police at Battipaglia, near Naples.
Two additional points need to be made about developments in Both these points are illustrated in the struggle at the Pirelli Bicocca plant in Milan in June The revolutionary Marxist group Avanguardia Operaia Workers Vanguard played a key role in shaping the course of events at Pirelli. These CUBs included many unskilled and semi-skilled workers operai comuni , and they began to demand that such workers be promoted automatically to higher designations after a specified period of time on the job. They also demanded wage parity for workers at the same skill level north and south. As this kind of solidarity between northern and southern workers grew more sustained, trade union leaders began to adopt wage parity as a demand of their own.
Workers across Italy argued for wage increases based on their actual needs and the cost of living, not on company profits. The emergence of CUB in the struggle at Pirelli and elsewhere in Lombardy was a clear sign of rising sign working-class militancy, initiative, and confidence. Out of the CUB came new strategies of organization and action. Mass assemblies, in which individual workers were encouraged to participate, became the main forums for planning and making decisions. Spontaneous worker militancy was important, but in the months and years ahead it would not in itself be enough to mount a decisive challenge to Italian capitalism and to those in the PCI and the union bureaucracy bent on reforming rather than transforming the system.
As a point of comparison, some 10 million workers had gone on strike during the third week of May in France, a more extensively industrialized country with a higher percentage of unionized workers. But in Italy, worker militancy lasted much longer: in alone more than million worker-hours went to strikes. On November 19, 20 million Italians turned out in solidarity for a nationwide general strike. As for the strikes themselves, most were initiated by the unions, as in The workers prolonged strikes beyond the time periods set by the unions, and they broadened the demands….
This was essentially the case in the great battle that erupted in May at Fiat Mirafiori in Turin. The unions were unusually weak at Fiat, and the radical left had been watching carefully during the winter and spring as contract negotiations among skilled unionized sectors of the workforce dragged on. There was a strong turnout from Fiat workers for two national strikes in early —one over pensions, the other over regional wage differentials that kept pay levels in the south below the national average.
Gradually more and more unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the assembly and paint shops took part; by late May these workers were calling for substantial across-the-board wage increases and blocking production in their divisions. For several months small groups of students from the University of Turin had been handing out leaflets at the factory gates and talking to workers going off shift.
Fiat workers were at first skeptical of the intellectuals and students in Potere Operaio. We discovered that we all had the same needs, the same necessities, and that is was these that made us all equal in struggle. What was eventually to become the largest revolutionary organization intervening in the Fiat struggle did not even exist prior to the summer of Adriano Sofri, a leader from the Tuscany group of Potere Operaio based in Pisa, arrived in Turin with a group of comrades and began to attract his own following among student militants.
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When the meetings got too big for the bar, they moved to a hall at a nearby hospital. Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio would compete for influence at Fiat throughout the summer and into the fall of Fiat responded late in the summer by suspending 7, workers—but even this did not stop the momentum. On September 25 an estimated 50, engineering workers took part in a national demonstration. The one-day general strike in November called by the unions over the housing question was, as noted earlier, a huge success.
There were organized movements to reform the antiquated and corrupt Italian legal system, to improve conditions in Italian prisons, and to provide better housing and transportation to a rapidly expanding urbanized workforce. A serious and determined feminist movement began to take shape in Italy during this year, sometimes in critical relationship to the mainly male-dominated worker and student movements and to revolutionary Marxist groups such as Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio.
By the end of , four significant Marxist organizations to the left of the PCI had emerged, each with a primary base in a particular region or city: Potere Operaio in the Veneto, Lotta Continua in Turin, Avanguardia Operaio in Milan, and in Rome a group of dissident Marxist intellectuals from within the PCI itself. The founders included five members of Parliament and three members of the PCI central committee, all of whom were promptly expelled. After the dramatic confrontation in July between demonstrators and police, the worker-student assembly in Turin had called a national conference to debate the next steps.
But none of the existing Marxist groups was able to lead convincingly in this direction. Lotta Continua itself had only just come into existence as an organization, and while at the height of the struggle it would claim a national membership of some 50,, a realistic assessment of its actual size would be closer to 8, to 10, Its newspaper came to have a print-run of 65,, but Lotta Continua was never cogently committed to the project of building a revolutionary Marxist party that could advance the new worker militancy and connect it with the other emergent social movements of — Lotta Continua had cut itself off from a major assertion of organized working-class power.
As for Potere Operaio, it was outflanked by Lotta Continua in the Fiat struggle and never really gained traction as a national organization. Six years later the courts ruled that Pinelli had also been completely innocent.