Chapter 2: New Left Up to the Formation of the BR

“Strike one to educate one hundred”

Chapter 2: New Left Up to the Formation of the BR



               This chapter reviews the events that led at the end of the 1960’s
to the start of urban guerrilla warfare in Italy. We can see two processes
at work. The first was the growth of political violence, both in the increasing
militancy of the

working class and in the military counter-offensive of the State.
The second process was the influence of advanced ideas from the national
liberation movements. Italy had produced a generation of young revolutionaries
who turned for answers to communism in the Third World.

Armed struggle became the main issue debated within their movement,
not only because of the models of guerrilla movements in Cuba, Vietnam and
Uruguay, but because it was already an objective reality. The escalating
clash between the mass movements and the Italian State had already carried
the antagonists onto the terrain of armed struggle. The ruling class itself
was divided (as we shall later discuss) on how to handle the crisis, and
was forced on the defensive as the New Left advanced. Trying to repeat their
successful repression of the post-World War I factory take-over movement,
the imperialists began to use not only the police, but also fascist para-military
groups to violently break up the 1960’s movements. At the same moment, the
revisionist Old Left parties were steadily pulling to the right, trying to
drag the struggle back onto the terrain of legalisms and parliamentary reform.
How to consolidate the renewed revol- utionary activity within the masses,
and how to deal with the militarized nature of the political clash, became
the central question for the new generation of the 1960’s.

Italy at the end of the 1950’s was a society of growing contradictions.
It had just gone through ten years of rapid industrialization and urbanization
known as the “Italian miracle”, following the heavy destruction and defeat
in World War II. Masses of peasants from the impoverished South had been
forced off the land into Northern industry. A middle-class consumer society
— semi-amerikan — had been created in the urban North on the backs of this
new class of low-wage immigrant proletarians. The South itself remained the
most backward and poorest region. Because of its position as the official
State religion, the Catholic church still held Italian culture in a semi-feudal
grip.

The conservative trend of the 1950’s dominated the Italian Communist
Party (PCI), which had become a legalistic, mass revisionist party. While
the PCI-led unions remained the largest, their size had shrunk. In Italy
industrial unions are voluntary political organizations, with various unions
competing with each other for individual members within each factory. Different
unions represent different politics and in fact represent the major political
parties. By the end of the 1950’s, company unions (often run by the Fascists),
Catholic unions, and Social-Democratic unions led by the rightwing pro-u.s.
Italian Social-Democratic Party (PSDI) had taken oyer sizeable chunks of
the labor movement. Between 1955 and 1961 the Italian Communist Party’s membership
had dropped from 2.2 million to 1.7 million, a loss of 500,000 members. There
had been much disillusionment among Italian workers following the 1956
revelations about Stalin’s crimes and the reformist decay of the PCI.

The PCI-led union federation, the CGIL, had even lost control
of the traditional stronghold of the Italian working class — FIAT’s huge
Mirafiori works in Turin. This had a larger meaning than we might see at
first. In Italy there was a high degree of industrial concentration, on
a semi- feudal pattern. Corporations concentrated production in a few urban
centers which also therefore contained a high concentration of workers,
and which they dominated like an industrial fiefdom. In the “u.s.a.” this
was seen at the turn of the century at Ford’s River Rouge works in Detroit,
Michigan, and in U.S. Steel works in Gary, Indiana (a works is an industrial
complex of many factories in one place). FIAT automobile corporation is the
largest and most powerful company in Italy. Its owning family, the Agnellis,
were and are imperialist royalty, the Italian equivalents to the Rockefellers.

FIAT’S Mirafiori works employed 40,000 workers in 1968, with 80,000
more in other FIAT plants in that city. In fact, 80% of FIAT’S total work-
force then was concentrated in Turin, the 2nd largest city in Italy. Fully
one-half of Turin’s population was economically dependent on one company,
FIAT, either directly or indirectly in smaller companies supplying auto
parts to FIAT production. It was in Turin that the Italian proletariat had
its greatest social concentration and political cohesiveness, giving it a
leading role within the entire working class, so the PCI’s loss of mass support
at FIAT Mirafiori, where they once had gotten 70-80% of the vote in union
shop steward elections in the late 1940’s, meant much more than losing support
in one factory or one industry. It really meant that they had lost the confidence
of the vanguard of the class.

 THE CONTINUITY OF RESISTANCE

 A young Communist FIAT worker, Sante Notarnicola, was among those
who resisted the mood of political demoralization in the late 1950’s. Notarnicola
hung out with some other rebels at FIAT. Among his comrades was an older
worker, Danilo Crepaldi, who had as a teenager been a fighter with the Armed
Partisan Groups. The Armed Partisan Groups (GAP) had been the most daring
of the anti-Fascist guerrillas during World War II, shooting it out with
Nazi troops in lightning raids in the Northern industrial cities of Genoa
and Turin. Notarnicola was part of a smaller group of FIAT rebels who started
collecting arms and discussing armed struggle in 1956. Danilo Crepaldi reminded
them how the PCI had sold out the revolution: “He reminded us that while
among us so many hopes, dreams and myths were crumbling, in faraway countries
heroic fighters were holding high the banner of guerrilla warfare. In Italy
instead the revolution had been postponed. In Turin, in certain factories,
out of a workforce of 10,000, only 100 workers could be counted on to answer
a strike call. SIDA [the FIAT Fascist company union then – Ed.) persisted
in its strike-breaking and corrupting maneuvers. Danilo … thought about
building a kind of Armed Partisan Group, with very vague goals to begin with.
Once again he brought up the question of arms: the first objective was to
find weapons, put them in working order, or to accumulate a certain quantity
of them. Once this was done we could decide what to do with them.”

Notarnicola and his two comrades were all in the PCI, and lived
in the Barriera di Milano neighborhood. Barriera di Milano, one of many
“red neighborhoods”, was a closely-packed slum where 80,000 working class
people always voted for “communist” or “socialist” politicians. There it
was common for families to be loyal PCI members going back two or three
generations. The Italian Communist Party ran much of the community’s life,
with their own community officials, coffee shops, and sports clubs. Notarnicola
was a typical militant. Child of an emigrant, he had grown up surrounded
by both FIAT and the PCI. He went to work at FIAT as most-of his childhood
friends and classmates did. While he was angered at the oppression, Sante
Notarnicola was not a leader.

One of the others, Piero Cavallero, was the son of a Partisan
fighter and was himself a minor paid functionary of the PCI. Cavallero
took charge among the three. They became a clandestine unit of PCI members,
but independent of the PCI and unknown to the Party. As we’ve discussed,
the PCI had treacherously disbanded the Partisan guerrilla movement after
Germany was defeated in 1945. But many Communist Partisans, although grudgingly
going along with PCI orders under threat of death, didn’t turn in their
weapons as they were supposed to. As one of these ex-Partisans, Danilo Crepaldi
still had his old sub-machine gun, and he taught Sante Notarnicola how to
use it. Their first plan was to collect guns from old Partisans, repair them,
and quietly train young PCI members to use them. While Cavallero was breaking
with the PCI, Notarnicola still hoped the PCI would revitalize itself. They
began making plans for actions in the spring of 1959. The group decided that
the main thing was to get money, which would be hidden away to buy arms and
support guerrillas when the time came. In May, 1959, they executed an expropriation
where they worked, seizing the FIAT Mirafiori night shift payroll. The three
guerrillas got away cleanly, but decided because of the intensive police investigation
to lay low for a long time.

In January 1964 the armed group, which still had no name or more
definite political plans, began doing regular expropriations. On a technical
level the cell seemed to work well, and did 23 expropriations over a four
year period. But they had gradually become more and more adventurous, attacking
two or three banks within one hour. Civilian bystanders were shot. On September
25, 1967 the ceil, which no longer had Danilo Crepaldi, but had recruited
two more young Communist workers, became trapped by police after an expropriation
at a Bank of Naples branch in Milan. The cell, which was armed with sub-machine
guns, and police reinforcements got into a heavy fire fight on the street.
Five civilian bystanders were killed, or died afterwards, in the rain of
bullets (a student, a driver of a passing car, a woman and a man on the sidewalk,
and an elderly war veteran). Six police and sixteen civilians were hospitalized
with wounds. Only one of the cell was wounded and captured at the shoot-out,
the others escaping temporarily.

These events were a national sensation, both in the capitalist
press and within the Left, The authorities began a national manhunt, offering
a 20 million lire reward for information leading to their capture (20 million
lire then represented over ten years’ wages for a factory worker). Piero
Cavallero and Sante Notarnicola hid out in a forest near Turin, but were
tracked down and captured after eight days. The careless taking of lives,
the supposed “base motives” of robbing banks for money, were factors in the
controversy.

It became known that behind Notarnicola’s back all the expropriated
funds, which were to have been hidden for future guerrilla use, had been
ripped off. Danilo Crepaldi and Piero Cavallero had set up a small business
to cover for the new flow of money. But the business lost money. Becoming
politically discouraged, they began to argue between the two of them over
whether or not to continue, and began spending the money on themselves. Danilo
had died in 1966. Cavallero, who had come to enjoy the actions and the financially
improved lifestyle, continued on for his own purposes. As guerrillas the
cell was discredited.

The movement related to the trials mainly as a big scandal. Notarnicola
was at first abandoned. Their cell was publicly denounced by the Italian
Communist Party, the Social-Democrats, and the liberal press, as just thieves,
criminals and murderers. Sante Notarnicola was given a life sentence. Misled
by his few comrades, isolated by the movement, publicly labelled foolish
at best, Notarnicola still believed in revolution. Although no leader or theoretician,
Notarnicola refused to work for the State or to be crushed by his own heavy
defeat. He never denied the many political errors he had made or the primitive
level of the political understanding he and his comrades had started with,
and used his trial to put forward a self-criticism. He told the court at
the end of his trial in 1971: “I don’t regret having rebelled against the
bosses. I regret having done it at the wrong time in the wrong way.”
[click here to read Sante Notarnicola's
Sentencing Statement

]

In prison Sante Notarnicola gradually became a symbol to the New
Left of the search for revolutionary answers. He became a leading prison
activist and later joined the NAP (Armed proletarian Nuclei) communist guerrilla
group. Notarnicola was a public figure in Italy equivalent to George Jackson.
His experience and the experience of other unsuccessful rebels during the
lost years, was a reminder that Italy had an unbroken history of revolutionary
armed struggle. Italian communists of three successive generations, in
1920, 1943, and in the 1960’s, had fought their government and the Fascists.
In Italy, deep, bitter class hatred of the bourgeoisie was a reality in
the 1960’s. One traveller in Italy during those years reported:

“A young Italian railroad machinist I talked to this summer told
me that he had joined the PCI-controlied CGIL union two years ago, but that
he and his friends had quit in disgust. When I asked him and a 32-year old
fellow railroad worker what they thought of the left wing parties they told
me with very pointed, heavy irony that ‘all the parties’ were the same. They
all bought votes, scratched each others’ backs, robbed the public till, and
lived like kings. ‘The Communists, the Socialists and the trade union bureaucrats
live off our backs, like everyone else,’ the younger worker pointed out.
What was the answer? ‘Maybe a really honest Socialist party which will change
things,’ the older worker suggested. What should be done, I asked the machinist?
‘Wipe them all out and start from scratch.’ … Finally the older worker,
a quiet, almost timid railroad clerk- statistician, concluded, with vehemence:
‘If I had the power?’ Then he quoted Dante, an old Italian poet: ‘Se fossi
foco brucerei il mondo. Were I a fire I’d burn the world.'”

The same outbursts of rage, even against the established class
leadership, marked the start of the 1960’s. In July 1960 the Italian Communist
Party (PCI) organized protest strikes against the new Tambroni government,
which represented the Christian Democratic right wing and had Fascist backing.
Quickly the protest got out of the revisionists control. After two weeks of
violent street battles, largely led by young Southern immigrant workers, the
Tambroni government fell.[1

] The July 1960 street fighting, which took place all over the country,
stunned and scared the revisionists and the Italian bourgeoisie alike.
It signalled the start of two decades of social and political crisis for
Italy.

In the summer of 1962 another violent revolt erupted in Turin.
During a strike at FIAT, the Social-Democratic union and the Catholic union
attempted to sell out the strike. Thousands of FIAT workers, in a spontaneous
move, marched on the Social-Democratic UIL union headquarters in Piazza
Statuto in downtown Turin and surrounded it. Workers burned UIL union cards
in a bonfire. When the police attempted to disperse the crowd, fighting broke
out. Three days and nights of violent street battles followed, as young workers
held their ground against the police. Again, as in the July 1960 battles,
young Southern immigrant workers were in the forefront of the fighting. Many
Communist militants, PCI shop stewards, and rank and file members took part
as individuals in the thick of the street battles. Top leaders of the Italian
Communist Party (PCI) rushed in to stop things and restore bourgeois order,
but were physically chased away by the masses.

Sante Notarnicola, who was in the 1962 Piazza Statuto fighting,
described what happened:

“In the summer of ’62 the revolutionary base revolted openly against
the party, telling the old party hacks to go get fucked. The battle lasted
three days and L’Unita [the PCI newspaper —Ed.] called us thugs and lined
up with the bourgeoisie. For many comrades it was the collapse of the last
illusions of a revolutionary reform of the PCI. I remember Pajetta [a well-
known member of the PCI central committee —Ed.]. He came there and he didn’t
know what to do; the great leader was no longer in front of an enthusiastic
crowd, but in the middle of people who had lost their patience and who were
tearing down the pedestal built for him because of his past as a partisan.
When a volley of stones was thrown at him, he reawoke and began to shout,
‘Down with the bosses and the cops’, urging us on to the attack. His partisan
past had re-emerged from his subconscious. Then, in the cold light of the
next day he called us ‘Fascists’ in the pages of L’Unita!”

The Piazza Statute fighting was the first, open mass defiance
of the revisionist leadership since the late 1940’s. It led directly to
the first Center-Left reform government a year later by Aldo Moro, head
of the moderate wing of the DC (Christian Democratic Party).[
2 ] Moro, in alliance with the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), promised
wide-ranging social reforms and modernization of society. But he was unable
to carry  them out because of obstruction from his own DC party’s powerful
right wing, which had the backing of the Vatican and the Fascists. Center-Left
governments ruled Italy from 1963 to 1968, and their total failure to carry
out any real social reforms set the stage for the mass student and worker
revolts of 1968 and 1969.

 NEW POLITICS OF THE 1960’S

From the beginning the Italian New Left gave an importance to
political theory. It was only with this theoretical work that their young
movement could assimilate the lessons of Mao, of the Tupamaros, of Carlos
Marighela and other Communists from oppressed nations. Political journals
prepared the way for a new revolutionary movement that would consciously
unite factory, prison and university in class war. The earliest and most
germinal of these journals was Red Notebooks, begun in 1961 by young intellectuals
on the Left edges of the Social-Democrats. What they had in common was an
agreement that the existing Left stood in the way, and was a reformist hegemony
stifling struggles of the working class. Red Notebooks student activists
pioneered by aiding Turin auto workers opposing the reformist trade unions.

In addition to Red Notebooks, some of the many New Left theoretical
journals were Young Critic, Piacentini Notebooks, Class & State, Hammer
& Sickle, Workers Voice, New Commitment, and finally in 1967, Political
Work. The cadre from Political Work were to become an important part of
the founding nucleus of the Red Brigades.

In this period intense debate and study began, centering on the
question of new forms of working class resistance to advanced capitalism.
It was clear that the old European answers — legal trade-unionism, parliamentary
political parties, defense of bourgeois democracy until some distant hour
when the final insurrection takes place — were sterile. While their debate
drew on European experiences in Italy and elsewhere, it was especially internationalist.
Peoples War in Vietnam and the armed party- building line of Mao Zedong were
studied. Of special interest were the experiences of other movements that,
like the Italians, were starting out again. For that reason the fledgling
urban guerrilla forces in Brazil and Uruguay, as well as the Black Liberation
Movement in the u.s. empire were studied as having special significance.
The Italian movement had much admiration for the Black struggle. Rebellions
in Watts and Harlem from 1964 on, together with the rapid development of Black
Power and the Black Panther Party were closely watched in Italy. Emergence
of New Afrikan self-defense groups with popular support, verified for Italian
revolutionaries that new revolutionary potentialities existed even in the
“urban-technological metropoli” of advanced capitalism.

An anti-authoritarian university reform movement had sprung up
in Italy starting in 1966. Mass student occupations of campus buildings became
a main form of struggle. In November 1967, a new student organization formed
in Turin, the MS (“Student Movement” or Movimento Studentesco). All decisions
of the MS were made in mass assemblies of students. MS and radical student
activity in general quickly spread. As the numbers of student protesters
grew into the thousands in each major city, and as their tactics and politics
grew more militant, clashes with the police became increasingly violent and
frequent. Those clashes then in turn further radicalized the mass movement
in an upward spiral.

One of the key centers of this student movement was Trento University,
in the northern-most region of Italy in the Alps, near the Austrian and
Swiss borders. This is a conservative region politically. In March 1967,
Trento students staged a week of mass demonstrations on the campus and in
the streets of Trento in support of the Vietnamese revolution. Demonstrations
were attacked by the police. Students reacted with a mass strike which closed
the school. Police repression against the student movement only produced
more resistance, and in the fall of 1967 the Trento University administration
was unable to open the school in the face of a continued student strike.
In October of that year the Trento student movement leadership issued a Manifesto
for a Negative University, and organized counter-courses for the student body.
One was on the Chinese revolution and Mao’s politics; another was a study
of the current phase of capitalist development, using the writings of Euro-amerikan
radical economists. The Manifesto put forward an anti-capitalist critique
of the existing educational system, and saw the student movement at Trento
as part of a revolutionary movement.

The most important fruit of the Negative University, however,
was the emergence of a new magazine called Political Work. Among the editors
were two future founders of the Red Brigades, Mara Cagol and Renato Curcio
(who had met as sociology students at Trento in 1966). First published in
the nearby city of Verona with left Catholic politics, Political Work was
soon ideologically Marxist-Leninist and Maoist. The group was heavily influenced
by the comparison between the Vietnamese revolution and the degeneration
of both the “Communist” PCI and the “Socialist” PSIUP Left parties. Although
Political Work had a limited distribution of only five thousand copies at
its peak, it had great influence on the student movement as a whole. In
collaboration with the Negative University, Political Work published a number
of pamphlets for study groups — the first of which was on the Black Power
movement in the “u.s.a.”

The militancy of the student movement spread to the working class
in 1968. In March-April 1968 a series of wildcat strikes broke out at FIAT
auto plants in Turin. A joint strike committee of workers and radical students
was formed, which issued a daily strike bulletin. Out of this committee
the largest Italian New Left organization, Continuous Struggle (“Lotta Continua”),
was born. That same strike bulletin grew into a national daily newspaper
for the New Left, while Continuous Struggle itself grew into an Italian equivalent
to the “u.s.a.” SDS. During these spring months the political focus of
the student movement grew from university reforms to building a broad anti-capitalist
alliance with industrial workers.

1968, we must remember, was the year the Vietnamese Revolution
had reached a decisive turning point after the victory of the Tet offensive
in February. Imperialism was in retreat and political disarray. There was
an anti-imperialist tide advancing world-wide. Everybody was watching everybody
else and drawing strength from each others’ example. Throughout 1968, the
Italian student movement was deeply affected by and increasingly saw itself
as part of this growing world-wide youth revolt against imperialism.

In May 1968 the ruling Center-Left coalition government of Premier
Aldo Moro was voted out. The national elections had been conducted at the
height of the worker-student rebellion in France, which had monopolized
Italian news. In a spontaneous explosion, all the major factories in France
had shut down in a general strike. The general strike was not over economic
demands, but expressed an unarticulated anger at the social-political system.
Street barricades went up in the heart of Paris. Thousands of militant French
students took over school buildings and fought hand-to-hand against black-uniformed
CRS security force for over a week. The French May 1968 worker-student rebellion
had a big impact on Italian politics, speeding up the process of mass radicalization.

Throughout 1968 and 1969 the process of radicalization continued
in giant steps. Two developments cast their shadow into the future: the
New Left vanguard was being absorbed into a revolutionary sector of the Northern
working class struggle; that class struggle itself was becoming militarized,
with the state mobilizing its forces for a military “final solution” to their
crisis. The question of a strategic line that could answer the critical problems
of this militarized confrontation became the number one question for the
movement.

In June and July of 1968 a wave of wildcat strikes swept through
many small and medium-sized factories where the unions had been too weak
to stop them. In Milan, workers at Pirelli tire corporation’s Bicocca plant
set up a new form of organization called the C.U.B. (“United Rank- and-File
Committee” or Comitato Unito de Base). The Pirelli C.U.B. was a joint worker-student
organization and soon was leading strikes and other actions at the plant.
Like the student movement, the C.U.B. made all its decisions in open mass
assemblies. The very existence of the C.U.B. was a recognition that workers
couldn’t move forward within the unions. It was similar to the League of
Revolutionary Black Workers in the Detroit auto plants in that regard. Within
the next eighteen months the C.U.B. movement spread to over a hundred factories,
in a push for class organization independent of capitalist domination.

The strike movement gradually spread to more and larger factories.
Increasingly the tactic of mass factory take-overs and direct worker control
of the struggle through open mass assemblies was adopted. Between January
and early April 1969 a series of important factory struggles broke out in
the North with even more militant tactics. On February 4, 1969 striking
Monfalcone shipyard workers near Venice occupied not only the shipyards but
the town hall. This was the first time striking Italian workers had moved
against the government. The strikers won their demands. Textile workers in
nearby Marzotto di Valdagno had been on strike at the same time, occupying
their factory and making decisions in a mass assembly After three months of
intermittent strikes, the textile workers mobilized the whole town through
neighborhood committees. All the highways and rail lines into Marzotto were
blocked. Angry demonstrations were held against the TV news whiteout of their
struggle. At the end of 1969 the strikers occupied the town hall. The government
gave in. This was the militant strike movement that would continue to grow
until reaching its peak during the “Hot Autumn” 1969.

 ARMED  STRUGGLE  ON  THE  AGENDA

 The pivotal event of 1968-69 took place in the South, however,
involving peasant day laborers. Pursuing their strike, farm laborers had
taken over and blocked the main national highway at Avola in Sicily. On
December 2, 1968, police were told to immediately restore order. They began
firing at the unarmed demonstrators, who fled into the fields and took cover.
For 25 minutes the police fired volley after volley of shots into the fields
where unarmed families were hugging the earth. Two laborers were killed and
others wounded. It was clear that the State was sending a message, threatening
the workers with violent repression if they went too far and challenged the
State Power.

For a week Italy was rocked by violent protests. The Italian working
class and the student movement were enraged. In Milan, Genoa and Rome thousands
of workers and students battled with police. In Milan, students and workers
held a mass meeting inside the Alfa-Romeo auto plant (a future BR stronghold).
In Turin students marched into the FIAT “Grandi motori” plant and held a
joint protest meeting with FIAT workers. The Avola killings and the demonstrations
that followed were a key turning point in the mass revolts of 1968 and 1969.
They marked the beginning of effective cooperation between student revolutionaries
and workers on a mass scale. And for some New Leftists like future Red
Brigades (BR) leaders Renato Curcio and Mara Cagol, then still student
leaders of the Negative University movement at Trento University, it starkly
raised the question of the movement’s lack of preparation for military action
by the State. Avola convinced them of the need to prepare for armed struggle,
and this problem dominated their thinking from December 1968 and through
all of 1969.

The militarization of the conflict was only further confirmed
by the events of 1969. In February 1969 the government began more attacks
on the student movement following the demonstrations against visiting u.s.
president Richard Nixon. 12,000 police put Rome under a virtual state of
siege and there were violent confrontations between students and police. 31
people were hurt and 300 arrested. Two days later 6,000 heavily armed police
staged a pre-dawn raid on the barricaded campus of Rome University, but the
students who had been alerted to the raid had evacuated the campus during
the night. The Rome University assault was the beginning of an all-out campaign
of police repression which the student movement was unable to resist. In
the following 19 days heavily armed police staged military assaults on and
seized every occupied university campus in the country. Italian Communist
Party (PCI) members of parliament protested verbally against the repression
of the student movement, while at the same time PCI senators kept their political
distance from the student movement by abstaining on a key senate vote on a
university reform bill. In fact, as the State increased its repression of
the student New Left during the winter of 1969, the PCI’s line against “extremism”
in the student movement also hardened. The PCI blamed the left wing of the
student movement for provoking government repression. Instead, the PCI argued,
students had to recognize that the PCI was the only force capable of solving
the crisis of the student movement by winning legal reforms through electoral
means.

The increasingly militarized nature of the clash only became more
apparent when the struggle broke open in the poverty-stricken South. On
April 9, 1969 police in the little town of Battipaglia south of Naples opened
fire on demonstrators who had seized the town in protest over the closing
of a local cigarette factory. Two people, a student and a professor, were
killed by police. Battipaglia had been one of the government’s regions of
model development in the South. But despite government investments in the
area, unemployment had continued to grow. In March of 1969 five small factories
had shut down, and when the Santa Lucia cigarette factory was also threatened
with a shut-down, workers occupied the factory. The entire town was mobilized
to support the strike.

What began as a union demonstration turned into a violent uprising.
The city hall was attacked and burned. Highways and rail lines were blocked
and the police headquarters surrounded and besieged. Police and reinforcements
were driven out of Battipaglia and the town was “liberated” It was while
police were trapped in the police headquarters by demonstrators that they
opened fire on the crowd. The next day the reformist union leaders tried
to hold a meeting but it was broken up by townspeople. In Battipaglia and
elsewhere in the South these uprisings took on a multi-class regional or semi-nationalist
character, an explosion of rage against the neo-colonialist exploitation
of the South.

The violence in Battipaglia in which 200 people were hurt, including
90 policemen and security agents, touched off violent support demonstrations
in the rest of Italy in the following days. In Milan demonstrators battled
police for 4 hours in an attempt to march on the Business Association headquarters.
There were violent demonstrations in Rome, Florence, and other cities. In
Bologna, a major city of the central Italian “red belt”, where the PCI had
controlled the city government for decades, the demonstration turned into
a violent confrontation with the revisionists. PCI goon squads tried to
defend “their” train station from being seized by the enraged demonstrators.
In the FIAT plants in Turin southern immigrant workers went on strike in solidarity
with Battipaglia struggles. This was an important political step forward
for them and FIAT workers as a whole. The three major union federations of
the PCI revisionists, the Catholics and the Social Democrats called a joint
3-hour general strike in protest on April 11, while the PCI called for a
law to disarm the police: “to make the police defenders of democratic order
and the people rather than the tool of the anti-worker struggle”.

After Battipaglia popular uprisings of entire villages and towns
spread throughout the South. Typically, city halls and railway stations
were seized, highways blocked. Orgoloso in Sardegna rose, Castelvolturno
and many other towns outside Naples were swept into the movement. Occupations
took place throughout Calabria, one of the poorest southern regions. In
Sicily, Palermo (the island’s capital and a city with a revolutionary proletarian
tradition, dating back to the 1789 French Revolution) joined the occupation
movement. In the rough mountainous interior of Sicily, one of the poorest
regions of all western Europe, 25 towns were occupied. L’Unita, newspaper
of the PCI, treacherously imposed a press whiteout and did not report any
of these uprisings.

In June and July 1969 most of the Puglia region (Apulia) on the
south-eastern Adriatic coast of Italy’s “heel” was swept by insurrectionary
town occupations touched off by a militant agricultural laborers strike.
The State chose to play a waiting game and did not attempt to openly repress
the Puglia movement, which was the most militant and widespread of all
the rebellions in the South that year. Instead the government waited until
the movement had died down later in the summer to repress individual militant
leaders. The government was particularly worried that open repression would
have led to a link-up between struggles of Northern industrial workers
and Southern peasants.

In the spring and summer of 1969 secret high-level government
meetings were held to decide what response to take to the spread of Battipaglia-type
uprisings. The governing Center-Left coalition, whose main parties were
the conservative Christian Democrats (DC) and the Social-Democratic Socialist
Party of Italy (PSI), was split into hardline vs. soft-line factions. The
hardliners in both parties argued for open “exemplary” repression to intimidate
the masses and the movement. The softliners argued for a strategy of co-option,
using a cautious combination of selective repression and promises of social
reforms. That softline faction, led by former DC Premier Aldo Moro, also
argued that a “historic compromise” was necessary: bringing the revisionist
Italian Communist Party (PCI) into the capitalist government as a partner.
Only such a broad alliance, they said, would provide the government with
a broad enough social base to make it politically stable. The hardliners in
both the DC and the PSI, who were backed by the u.s. Nixon-Kissinger administration,
argued that any alliance with “communists” would be treason.

Because of these splits in its own highest councils, the then-current
government of DC Premier Mariano Rumor temporarily opted for a soft line
in the South in the spring and summer of 1969. Hard-liners in the police
and military security forces, however, encouraged the fascist New Order (Ordine
Nuovo) movement to begin a “strategy of tension”. This entailed violent
terrorism against the Left together with random atrocities. Their plan was
to create a public mood of panic, in which a military dictatorship would
be welcomed.

Beginning in April 1969 the Fascists did many public bombings.
On December 12, 1969 a Fascist bombing in front of a bank at the Piazza Fontana
(a public square) in downtown Milan killed 16 people and injured 90, some
of whom were crippled for life. The police quickly moved in and framed two
anarchists for the bombing, one of whom was later thrown to his death from
the window of a Milan police building. As a symbol of the violent repression
and of the State-Fascist armed collaboration, the bombing became so infamous
that it is just referred to as “Piazza Fontana”.

 

 ORGANIZATION AND STRATEGY

 The political crisis was no less a crisis for the New Left, which
was faced with the challenge of jumping to a higher level of revolutionary
organization and strategy — or of falling back. With the South in revolt
and the dissident C.U.B. workers’ movement spreading through factories in
the North, many new parties, groups and collectives emerged and attempted
to solve these pressing problems. On July 26-27, 1969, on the initiative
of Left vanguard groups such as Continuous Struggle and Workers’ Power, a
national meeting of C.U.B.s was convened in Turin. Continuous Struggle’s
attempt to build the C.U.B.s into a revolutionary organization, national
in scope and with anti-revisionist politics, failed, however. The direct
democracy of mass worker-student assemblies making their own independent
decisions in each factory, which was a strength at first, had become an “ultra-democratic”
barrier to higher forms of organization. There was also a strong economist
influence among both radical students and workers. That is, however militant
or illegal or violent the tactics used (fighting police, sabotage, taking
over plants, etc.) for many the purpose behind such tactics was only the
pursuit of higher wages and other reforms within the bourgeois system, for
which revolutionary strategy was obviously unnecessary.

There were four main trends visible in the Italian New Left after
Avola — with different strategies and different forms of organization:

Reformist: Those who took this as their main strategy spoke of
how impossible revolution was without the working class majority — which
was, after all, still loyal to or influenced by their traditional party,
the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Therefore, this trend said, the main strategy
had to be takeover or reforming of the Old Left. Some, such as Red Notebooks
co-founder Mario Tronti, implemented this strategy by leaving the New Left
and joining the PCI, ostensibly to take it over from within. Others, such
as the “Maoist” party PCd’I, established rival micro-parties to the PCI,
building the same type of legalistic organization and running candidates against
the PCI in the parliamentary elections. Their hope was to become the PCI
of the future. This trend naturally believed that armed struggle by the Left
was premature. Instead, they led a retreat in the student movement back to
the terrain of bourgeois democracy, until that future hour when they would
have taken over the Old Left.

Spontaneist: This was the largest trend within the New Left, dominating
both Continuous Struggle (“Lotta Continua”) and most of the worker-student
factory assemblies. This trend was revolutionary, but saw revolution as
coming spontaneously from the masses without “bureaucratic” mechanisms such
as programs, parties or armies. Mixed together in the spontaneist trend were
undeveloped young militants, anarcho-syndicalists, and those who were in
reality reformists. The main thing to these militants was to radicalize the
form of mass activity then going on, acting as a tactical vanguard to create
more violence. In the factory struggles their main answer was more and more
sabotage. In demonstrations they started destroying property or even, after
first quickly tying scarves around their faces, coming forward to fire pistol
shots at the police before disappearing back into the crowd. While the spontaneist
trend believed in the importance of anti-capitalist violence during mass
demonstrations, it opposed urban guerrilla warfare as “separating them-
selves from the masses”.

Workerist (“Operaista”): This trend was more developed, with a
Marxist orientation. It interpreted the revolutionary role of the working
class, however, in an abstract way. Workerism saw the revolution as being
completely determined by struggles on the factory floor. In fact, revolution
was seen as solely coming from the economic struggle in big industry between
capitalists and factory workers. Workers’ Power (“Potere Operaio”), one of
the strongest New Left organizations, was the main workerist force. It was
founded in 1966 out of a split in Red Notebooks magazine. Under the leadership
of Tony Negri, an influential 1960s radical professor. Workers’ Power spread
from its original student base in Pisa to Pavia, Venice, Turin, and Padova.
Workers’ Power local student collectives were largely independent of each
other but shared a common national newspaper with the same name. Although
Workers’ Power played an early role in turning the student movement towards
factory organizing, the organization always remained primarily a student
one. Only in the large Montedison chemical works at Porto Marghera outside
of Venice did Workers’ Power build a strong base among factory workers. The
organization went through a crisis in late 1968-early 1969 over whether to
remain a loose student structure or to become a revolutionary party. In
September 1969, Workers’ Power formally reconstituted itself as a Marxist-Leninist
cadre organization. It was to reach its greatest strength in 1971-72, when
it had 150 local sections and 4,000 members, 1,000 of them full-time militants.
This trend was sharply divided over the question of clandestine organization
and urban guerrilla warfare.

Peoples War Based in the Working Class: This trend, whose main
organization was the Red Brigades, saw the modern struggle as protracted
war between imperialism and the working class. In their view revolutionary
organization was not the unarmed mass movement nor the would-be guerrilla
“foco”, but a combatant Communist party whose armed activities are actively
based in and a political expression of the most conscious strata of the working
class. In the 1970s the Red Brigades demonstrated a strong class base and
rapid growth. The BR’s organizational strongholds were in certain key Northern
Italian factories (FIAT, Alfa-Romeo, Sit-Semiens, etc.) where they politically
controlled whole departments. The Brigades eventually had thousands of members,
tens of thousands of active supporters, and at least hundreds of thousands
of sympathizers.

These trends were not separated by iron walls, but shared people
and ideas as they struggled together in a quickly-changing movement. They
often referred to their movement as “autonomy’  or the “autonomous
movement”. This word was used by the Italian New Left in the same, all-purpose
way that 1960s movements in the u.s. empire used the word “liberation”. Autonomy
stood for changes far beyond the present system. Autonomy was the name given
to the radical counter-culture and to the New Left itself. Autonomy was
also used to designate groups and programs tactically independent of the
Old Left parties and unions. And for some, proletarian autonomy was used
to indicate the zone of communist ideas, culture and embryonic society of
the new armed struggle.

In late 1968 the entire editorial board of the Trento university
journal “Political Work”, including Mara Cagol and Renato Curcio, had dissolved
PW and joined the Maoist party “PCd’I”. But only two weeks later “PCd’I”
split, with the PW group leaving the party as part of the more activist
“red line” faction. By the fall of 1969 many of the PW cadre, including Cagol
and Curcio, had moved to Milan to take part in another attempt to start
a revolutionary organization.

Milan was the main center of the militant C.U.B. worker-student
movement, which had first begun at the Pirelli tire factory. In several
Milan workplaces, notably the IBM and Sit-Siemens electronics factories,
communists had formed Study Groups of technical workers to “study and propose
goals and actions to the employees… not from the outside like the union
does… but from the inside through analyses and mass assemblies everyone
can participate in.” On September 8, 1969 the Pirelli C.U.B., the IBM Study
Group, the Sit-Siemens Study Group, the former PW collective, worker-student
collectives at the Alfa-Romeo auto plant, the State Telephone company and
at other workplaces, merged to form the Metropolitan Political Collective
( CPM) in Milan.  This was the organization that gave birth to the Red
Brigades.


Notes


1. Under the Italian legislative system, which is like the British parliament,
any time that a government loses a vote on a major issue its term of office
ends. Unlike the u.s. system, in which an administration has a fixed term
of years, in Italy a government can last years or days. The Tambroni government
lost its voting majority because some legislators felt it was not keeping
order while other legislators wanted to use the Tambroni government as
a scapegoat.  [return to text
]


2. Trying to cope with the steadily shrinking conservative vote, which
was leaving the DC without enough power to pass legislation, Moro formed
an alliance with a moderate “Left” party, the PSI. This gave the imperialists
working class support in parliament. The PSI leaders gained by becoming
part of the ruling government. They were also pressured by threats of a military
coup and mass repression if they didn’t join the DC coalition. [
return to text

]