“Strike one to educate one hundred”
Chapter 3: Preparation for a new resistance: C.P.M.
In the winter-spring of 1969-70 the CPM grew to be one of the key
organizations in Milan. It continued to operate inside the factories where
the C.U.B.s and study groups that had given birth to the collective were
based. CPM consciously linked wage and working conditions struggles to the
larger struggle against world imperialism. Slogans like “Indochina- Italy:
the same struggle” and “Imperialism-reformism: the same chain”, were typical
of their mass political line.
An important new element in the Milan situation was a movement of
vocational students, representing the spread of student rebellion into the
working class. There were 80,000 such vocational students in Milan, the
most of any city in Italy. These young workers labored during the day and
attended school at night to complete their technical training or apprenticeships.
Their student/worker movement rebelled against the long hours, arbitrary
and vindictive school discipline, and the high tuition fees. Led by CPM militants
at the Feltrineli Technical Institute, thousands of vocational students
had a large demonstration demanding an end to tuition fees. The slogans
included: “The union=workers police”, “Administrators + teachers–servants
of the bosses”, and “The bourgeois state cannot be changed, it must be destroyed!”
CPM was a large political influence in the student/worker movement in Milan.
The collective was still only an intermediate stage of development.
It was not in its own eyes the revolutionary vanguard, but only like- minded
militants who had come together to consciously search out the path of transition
from spontaneous mass movement to revolutionary organization. As an IBM study
group paper put it: “Struggles on the factory floor must be integrated into
the world-wide class struggle, particularly in its European expression.”
The CPM found itself in disagreement with the extra-parliamentary
Left groups over their assessment of the national labor-management contract
fights of the “Hot Autumn” of 1969. These battles involving 5 million unionized
workers began in September 1969. Most of the New Left had been overly optimistic
about their potential results, viewing the wage struggles in themselves as
“revolutionary” and the bourgeoisie about to “surrender unconditionally”.
But in December after the national wage contracts had been signed the reformist
unions had come out of the fight numerically and organizationally stronger,
and spontaneous mass struggle in the factories had not only ebbed temporarily
but had been co-opted. Unprepared for this set-back to the rank-and-file
C.U.B. movement the mood of the New Left now swung from wild optimism to
deep pessimism. CPM disagreed with the shallowness of the New Left’s understanding.
CPM having reached a more political assessment of tbe short-comings of the
C.U.B. movement now also saw its strengths more realistically than the rest
of the New Left.
At IBM-Italy the revolutionary study group had taken a leading role
in the “Hot Autumn” struggles. A manager had been fired at the IBM Vimercate
factory “for having been part of a group politically opposed to management”,
and for thus having supported the workers’ demands. When the unions defended
the company, a spontaneous struggle broke out. The study group reported:
“The workers of IBM stop working and meet in mass assembly… the
decision of the Internal Commission is totally repudiated and the union body
itself is pushed aside and denied any authority to lead the workers: the
Internal Commission is forced to demand that management reverse its decision.
It is decided by the workers to constitute themselves as a permanent mass
assembly linking together the fight against repression with the contract
struggle. It is a memorable day for IBM, and for the autonomy and the class
momentum that the workers express in totally spontaneous forms; it is lived
through in an atmosphere of high tension. The spontaneous strike lasts the
whole day changing from a mass assembly into a parade which snakes through
the entire factory and then reconvenes in mass assembly to decide the forms
of struggle for the following days.”
IBM management was forced to back down. The IBM study group concluded:
“The balance sheet is undoubtedly positive: the spontaneous strike
and the achievement of the mass assembly… constitute the new political
base from which to move forward.”
But “… political insufficiency and a certain dose of opportunism
present in the group permits the unions to quickly reabsorb the movement
within the channels of their contractual logic.
“The political vacuum in which factory struggle takes place is a
sign of the progressive lessening of tension. From time to time some incident
just happens, some big shock, such as clashes with die-hard scabs, or incidents
involving destruction of their cars, to which no one knows how to give proper
political weight and a proper outcome…”
Between November and December 1969 the group analyzed its own crisis
which was expressed by the contradiction between “the success of the general
goal of mobilization of the working class and the failure of the presupposition
of autonomy which was to be its foundation.”
According to this self-criticism: “To turn to all the workers …
has been to pretend not to notice reality, to not act to identify the Left
in the factory and within it find a political space to constitute oneself
as a point of reference…. At IBM we wanted to be the point of reference
for all the workers and we weren’t a point of reference for anyone. We won
everyone’s sympathy and we were considered a dissident fringe of the unions;
we wanted to change the direction and the terrain of the struggle at IBM
in opposition to the union’s choices and we were almost always the unconscious
instrument of the unions. Errors were committed in mistaking for real political
consciousness a generic opportunism of the silent majority type which monotonously
sides with the winning proposition.”
The study group concluded that there was a need to go beyond the
spontaneous level of struggle in the factory, and to raise the level to
that of the anti-revisionist and anti-imperialist struggle. To start this
an exemplary action was carried out. During ceremonies IBM held to inaugurate
a new computer model top directors of the Italian IBM affiliate as well
as u.s. IBM management were present at the plant in Milan. CPM, which the
IBM study group had just joined, put up banners inside the IBM plant with
slogans like “IBM Produces War”, “IBM in Italy, Imperialism at Home”, “On
Strike, Out With The Servants of Imperialism”. As a result the u.s. IBM
directors were forced to enter the building by a service entrance.
The IBM study group’s radical self-criticism was part of their political
interaction inside the Metropolitan Political Collectiye (CPM) with the Sit-Siemens
and Pirelli groups, who were undergoing a similar crisis over spontaneism.
The decision by the IBM study group to join CPM at this point came out of
their understanding that to make this qualitative political leap to anti-imperialism
and anti-revisionism, the factory movement needed to go beyond the political
and organizational limitations of the C.U.B. and factory study group forms
of struggle. The IBM study group described the problem as follows:
“The crisis of the Pirelli C.U.B. (which resuited from the collapse
of the struggle after the contract was signed, and the failure to organize
a working class vanguard within the factory), the impasse faced by the IBM,
Sit-Siemens and other factory groups which have sprouted like mushrooms
during the hot autumn contract fight’s some of which are just as rapidly
falling apart, demands a fundamental change of the political assumptions
underlying their actions and a radical rethinking to justify their existence
outside of the trade union organizations and the left [electoral] parties.”
The IBM study group concluded that the “Hot Autumn” factory uprisings
had decreed the death of “groupism”. From now on the factory struggle had
to be seen in the framework of a wider class struggle on the European and
world level. As far as the terrain of the struggle was concerned the study
group concluded “above all, the class struggle in the metropolis is defined
in revolutionary terms whose outcome is represented by PEOPLE’S ARMED STRUGGLE”.
In December 1969 a small group of Catholic laypersons held a conference
at a religious institute in Chiavari, a small port city on the Ligurian coast
not far from Genoa. The “Catholic laymen” were disguised CPM representatives.
The secret meeting discussed a proposal, put forward by Curcio, Cagol and
others, that CPM prepare for immediate armed struggle. A military-political
organizational plan was outlined. The debate that ensued caused sharp divisions
in the CPM between those who wished to advance the struggle at that point
primarily by violent mass “social confrontation” in strikes and demonstrations,
and those who wanted to begin a systematic plan of urban guerrilla warfare.
There were also differences on timing, with some holding that a longer period
of political-organizational preparation was necessary before forming guerrilla
forces. This debate was to continue throughout 1970 until a second secret
meeting in October of 1970, when the two groupings split and the Red Brigades
were formally launched.
One interesting result of the Chiavari conference was a long theoretical
document, entitled Social Struggle & Organization in the Metropolis,
which systematized the political line of the collective. In it, the CPM comrades
drew up “a balance sheet of concrete political experience and outlined plans
for future political work”. In this document a definition of proletarian
autonomy is given:
“We see in proletarian autonomy the unifying content of the struggles
of the students, workers and technicians which prepared the way for the qualitative
leap of 1968-69.
“Autonomy is not a fantasy or an empty formula for those who, in
the face of the system’s counter-offensive, nostagically cling to past struggles.
Autonomy is the movement for proletarian liberation from the comprehensive
hegemony of the bourgeoisie and it coincides with the revolutionary process.
In this sense autonomy is certainly not a new thing, a last-minute invention,
but a political category of revolutionary Marxism, in whose light the consistency
and direction of a mass movement can be evaluated.
“Autonomy from: bourgeois political institutions (the state, parties,
unions, judicial institutions, etc.), economic institutions (the entire capitalist
productive-distributive apparatus), cultural institutions (the dominant
ideology in all its manifestations), normative institutions (habits, bourgeois
“Autonomy for: the destruction of the whole system of exploitation
and the construction of an alternative social organization.”
“It is necessary today to redefine the very concept of revolution
in the light of objective conditions and the real development of the autonomous
movement of the european proletariat….
“Revolutionary process and not revolutionary moment.
“The Brazilian revolutionary Marcelo De Andrade writes: ‘Before the
unification of world capitalism by yankee imperialism, the proletariat was
able to arm itself by unarmed means, that is they could first organize themselves
politically and develop the political struggle and unarmed violence up to
a certain point, to then profit from the social, political and military disasters
of the ruling classes of their respective countries to arm themselves and
seize power…. Today, given that the possibility of an inter-imperialist
war is historically excluded, an alterative proletarian power must be, from
the beginning, political-military, given that the armed struggle is the main
form of the class struggle.’
“Implicit in incorrect conceptions current today in Italy regarding
the relationship between mass movement and revolutionary organization is
the image of a process of this type: first we develop the purely political
struggle, winning the masses to the idea of revolution, only then when the
masses have become revolutionary we will make the armed revolution….
Intermediate objective: the construction of the Marxist- Leninist party.
“Reality itself pulls us away from suggestions of a false alternative.
The social dimension of the struggle and the highest point of its development:
the struggle against generalized repression, already constitutes a revolutionary
movement…. When it is possible to get 4 years in jail for not having attacked
a cop, a choice is imposed: either one hides in the marsh of renunciatory
reformism, or one accepts the revolutionary terrain of the
struggle…. The bourgeoisie has already chosen illegality. The long
revolutionary march in the metropolis is the only adequate response.”
“SINISTRA PROLETARIA” —
THE SHIFT FROM LEGALITY TO ILLEGALITY
In July 1970 the CPM collective began publication of a theoretical
magazine called Sinistra Proletaria (Proletarian Left). CPM had previously
published agitational leaflets using this title but the appearance of the
magazine reflected a new stage in the ongoing struggle over the question of
armed struggle inside the collective. With the appearance of Sinistra Proletaria
the collective dropped the name CPM and took on that of Proletarian Left.
This marked the beginning of the Red Brigades in embryonic form.
SP/CPM pointed out that the struggle within the movement for a higher
level of organization was the critical step:
“To organize ourselves is not easy, it’s a struggle… it is a struggle,
first of all against spontaneism and confusion, against the tendency to accept
the frontal assault which the bosses would like to impose on us, we need
an all-inclusive organization which is able to carry out the struggle we’re
engaged in, not in one factory or in one neighborhood, but in the whole
society…. The proletariat has gone through the first stage of struggle:
that of spontaneous clashes everywhere and anywhere, where it’s go for broke,
risking everything, and it now begins to understand that the class struggle
is like a war. One has to learn how to strike without warning, concentrating
one’s forces for the attack, dispersing rapidly when the enemy counterattacks….
When the american army invaded Cambodia, it did not find even the shadow
of a Vietcong, later it had to endure sudden attacks everywhere in South
Vietnam, in the rear areas where it was weakest. This is the model to follow….”
“…. whoever thinks they can attack us with impunity, fire
us, beat us up, must meet with a hard answer. But not only that: we
must learn to strike the enemy first, when it is still unprepared…. We
must build workers cells for defense and attack, we must learn to protect
our backs, to defend a comrade when they are assaulted…. The organization
of violence is a necessity of the class struggle.”
In addition to doing theoretical battle against the backwardness
of the movement, SP/CPM sought to deepen its roots in the factories and
generalize the anti-capitalist struggle to Italian society as a whole. And
they put special emphasis in the summer of 1970 on building a clandestine
base in the key
factories of Sit-Siemens, Alfa-Romeo, FIAT and Pirelli.
During this same period SP/CPM joined with Continuous Struggle and
other groups to challenge the reformist PCI’s attempts to co-opt the mass
discontent with a legalistic program tied to a return of a Center-Left
government. They ambitiously initiated an aggressive campaign called “Let’s
take the city” which called on workers “to take, not ask for” housing, transport,
books, food, etc.
Between the summer of 1970 and February 1971 (when it ceased to exist
as a public organization) SP/CPM led a series of mass occupations of abandoned
housing in the Red working class neighborhoods like Quarto Oggiaro, Gallaratese,
and MacMahon which ring Milan’s outskirts. The popular mass slogan “housing
should be taken, don’t pay rent” was put out in June 1970.
In these housing struggles SP/CPM emphasized the need for the masses
to prepare themselves to militarily meet the violence of the State, pointing
out that these struggles were part of a wider struggle for State power. The
level of mass support for these housing occupations was very high, and women
played a leading role in the many violent clashes with the police. The poor
families in each building had to fortify it and organize themselves to fight
off police attacks to evict them. Despite the PCI’s denunciation of these
occupation movements as adventurist provocations which would only help the
Right, a number of them were successful, such as one in September 1970 in
the Gallaratese neighborhood which won badly needed housing for 20 proletarian
This struggle took place under the leadership of a committee set
up by Sinistra Proletaria (SP). The target was a 14 story empty apartment
building, belonging to public housing authorities, in the Red proletarian
“The committee nominated three household heads to take care of technical
problems. Only the members of this small committee were to know the day of
the occupation…. The overall problem consisted in carrying out the occupation
by surprise…. The occupation of the apartment was decided for the night
of September 24-25. Only the committee of three knew the exact day…. The
families left in separate waves: this way if the police followed and stopped
one automobile the others could still continue….
“A comrade acting as courier was supposed to be stationed near the
apartment building to relay a warning if the police were nearby…. The police
were not there…. By 10:45 p.m. all the families were in the building….
The action had been very swift and silent…. A rudimentary defense was immediately
organized with… bricks and stones brought inside…. The police only
found out about the occupation the next day by reading the newspapers!
During the night the walls of all the nearby houses were plastered with a
special edition of the Sinistra Proletaria newspaper entitled WHO DO OU HOUSES
BELONG TO? and leaflets entitled Housing should be taken, don’t pay rent.
An enormous banner saying OCCUPIED HOUSES fes- tooned with red banners made
the police furious….
During the morning the biggest mistake of the action was made. Trusting
a rumor spread by the police… the comrades ignored the problem of defending
the building. The error is paid for… 300 police intervened in a very swift
action…. They were able to break down the front door despite being bombarded
with bricks and stones… from the windows. The police drove everyone out….
The response of the occupants, especially the proletarian women was immediate….
The will to struggle and win emerged clearly from the mass popular assembly
[called to decide strategy —Ed.]. All those who spoke reached the same conclusion:
struggle until victory, no retreat, mass encampment in front of the building
until all the families were given housing. If the police intervened again
they were ready to put up a violent resistance…. At 11 p.m. the police
made their first charge, which was very violent. They met with an enraged
response: a lot of cops ended up in the hospital, among them a police captain
who was hit over the head with a bottle of milk by a mother. Violent police
charges followed. Tear gas was used.”
The next day, September 26, after seeing the resolve of the twenty
resisting families and the solidarity shown them by the rest of the neighborhood,
the public housing authorities gave in and granted them housing. The violent
struggle had paid off! Sinistra Proletaria distributed a victory statement
“They have won against the revisionists and all the other ‘false
friends of the people’ who preached moderation, who wanted to rely only
on negotiations, who accused the people in struggle of extremism and adventurism.
Revisionists of all varieties said we would be defeated! And instead we
won! The new law of the people has won!”
The changing SP/CPM organization also led a campaign in early 1971
to make transportation free, urging workers to seize buses during rush hours,
and refuse to pay. This struggle did not take on a really mass character
like the housing struggles, since shortly after SP launched the campaign
they went underground. The seeds for a future mass struggle were sown however.
Three years later mass struggles for free transport did explode ail over
The one new sector of rebellion that the SP/CPM backed away from was
the feminist movement. At that time the first women’s liberation groups were
forming in Italy. While composed of petty-bourgeois intellectuals, as is
typical of new radical phenomena at first, feminism was a shock to the ingrained
backwardness of Italian society — including the New Left. SP/CPM viewed
women’s oppression as a secondary issue, often as a petty-bourgeois diversion
the revolution. Their view was that women needed nothing except to
join their husbands in overthrowing the government. Here is a CPM leaflet
distributed for International Women’s Day in 1970:
“But liberation in relation to whom?
From the husbands who are exploited 8 hours a day in the factory,
Liberation so women ‘can work’?
Liberation so that women today ‘can’ go to a cafe or movie alone,
buy some extra clothing or a necklace, or take the pill?
In our society based on exploitation 24 hours out of 24 hours a day:
Men have the privilege of being exploited in the factory to ‘main
Then in addition in the name of their liberation the bosses offer
In this way women are exploited:
First, because they have to enter the factory to pay the rent, to
Second, because they have to take care of the house, the children
— to take away the so-called ‘weight’ of educating your children
— ask you to ‘delegate’ to them the authority to educate your
To struggle for day care centers means to struggle for our
Real liberation comes from the class struggle.”
Metropolitan Political Collective
The leaflet expresses some good ideas, particularly in the need to
protect children from the State and the so-called educational system. But
the male outlook and narrowness of the leaflet is evident. To belittle women’s
struggle for basic human rights, for the right to a job or the right to go
out in public alone without fear of violence, is chauvinism. Remember that
this was in a society where women were legally not allowed even wage labor
without a husband’s permission.
What was so incongruous about that was the leading role in CPM played
by Margherita (Mara) Cagol. She was an exceptional woman in both senses of
the word. The Italian New Left was still primarily male in outlook and composition.
A revolutionary Left based in certain key factories in heavy herself came
from a middle class family (mother a schoolteacher and father a small cosmetics
store owner) in the far North. She had a very Catholic upbringing, and was
thought to be a serious-minded person by her teachers. It was at Trento,
as a student activist, that she first found the revolution. While her close
comrade and husband, Renato Curcio, became the leading theoretician
of the Brigades, Mara Cagol was a leading militant in her own right. During
the Political Work period at Trento University, she had done social investigation
on peasant conditions in the surrounding Trentino region, and had translated
an abridged version of Karl Marx’s Capital which was widely used in Italian
New Left study circles.
In the Metropolitan Political Collective Mara was among the most
radical. She took a leading role in organizing the new guerrilla formations,
and was to become
the political-military commander of a column of the Red Brigades.
As Renato Curcio wrote of her: “For Mara imperialism was not an abstract
concept but an enemy that you began to fight — in common with comrades —
in your everyday choices.” Mara certainly was exceptional in her commitment
and abilities. But she was also the proverbial exceptional woman whose
abilities even male chauvinists always depend on, and whom they single
out for praise in part as a way to avoid facing the general oppression of
Mara was at the same time a pathfinder for other women who were coming
to join the anti-imperialist armed struggle. As the radicalization of women
in Italy grew, the number of women in the armed struggle rose. However, the
women in the armed struggle and the women raising feminist struggles were
not necessarily the same women. In Italy (as in the “u.s.a.” there was a
profound division among radical women–where armed anti- imperialism and
Women’s Liberation were put in opposition to each other. Neither this nor
the attitude of the BR were static situations, however. The practical effect
this had on the movement will be seen in the national referendum on divorce
Beneath the public struggles led by “Sinistra Proletaria” in the
summer and fall of 1970, a new organization calling itself the “Red Brigade”
singular at first, and then the “Red Brigades”, began to carry out small
propaganda actions. This was a point where armed activity was also taking
root even in the flinty soil of West Germany, with the appearance of the
Red Army Faction (R.A.F.) In France an armed organization had risen out
of the ashes of the French May 1968 student revolt. The BR felt especially
close to this French group, which began with the same name, Proletarian
Left (“Gauche Proletarienne”) and did the same kind of illegal housing occupations,
bus take-overs and other mass actions that SP used in Italy. European developments
were encouraging. In its September-October 1970 issue SP wrote:
“Guerrilla warfare has now completed its initial phase… it is no
longer simply a detonation… but has taken on the dimension of being the
only strategic perspective that .can historically replace the insurrectionary
one, which is now
inadequate, and… penetrate the metropolis, fusing the world proletariat
in a common strategy and form of struggle. Capital unifies the world through
its project of armed counter-revolution; the proletariat unites itself on
a world scale through guerrilla warfare. ITALY AND EUROPE ARE NOT HISTORICAL