Italy on the Brink of Revolution - Lessons from the 70’s

Italy in the 1970s had two traditional mass parties of the working class, the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, but to their left were several sizeable ultra-left groups, with tens of thousands of members and a group of MPs. The question has to be asked: why did these groups fail to offer an alternative when the PCI leaders entered into a pact with the Christian Democracy in 1976 and supported an austerity programme? And why did they subsequently collapse?

On 22-24 September 1977, a hundred thousand left-wing youth, members and sympathisers of the various ultra-left groups that existed at that time, came from all over Italy and gathered in Bologna for a mass protest against state repression. The aim of the organisers was to show how strong the ultra-left was, and that it was a concrete alternative to the official Communist Party (PCI).

The choice of Bologna was symbolic as it was seen as the “capital” of the Communist Party. The mayor of Bologna was always a key figure in the PCI and the town had always produced a strong Communist vote, winning more than 40% since the 1950s and rising to 49% in the 1975 local elections. Thus, holding the conference of the ultra-left in this city was seen a direct challenge to the leadership of the PCI.

The point about the ultra-left in Italy in the 1970s is that it was not small or marginal, but had the active support of around 100,000 youth and workers. To understand how such an ultra-left movement could gather such huge support we need to place its development in the context of the class struggle that had erupted with the Hot Autumn of 1969.

Workers 1Milan engineering workers in protest

In Italy, the events of 1977 are often compared to the big student protests of 1968, but the two years are in reality two very different moments in the development of the class struggle in Italy. The year 1968 in effect signalled the reawakening of the Italian working class and opened up a pre-revolutionary period in which the workers could have taken power. The year 1977 marked the beginning of the end of a tumultuous decade of class struggle.

It is worth noting how in the twenty years prior to 1968, Communist Party membership had been in decline, from its peak of 2,200,000 members in 1947 to roughly 1.5 million in 1968. Something similar was also seen in the Young Communists, who went from over 400,000 in 1950 to about 130,000 in 1968. A similar process took place in the trade unions that saw a long term decline in their overall membership from the 1950s when about 50% of the workforce was organised in a trade union, through to 1968, when only 34% of workers were in a trade union. This long term decline was due to two factors: 1) the defeat of the revolutionary movement of 1943-48 and 2) the ensuing post-war economic boom that massively raised living standards.

This all began to change in 1968, with the beginning of a massive upsurge in membership of the unions and the Communist Party. The left in general grew in strength between 1968 and 1977. Membership of the PCI rose to 1.8 million by 1976. The party’s youth wing, the Young Communists (FGCI, Federation of Italian Young Communists), on the other hand went through a very different process. From its 130,000 members in 1968, within two years it had been reduced to around 75,000.

The growth of the ultra-left

The question is: where did these tens of thousands of Young Communists go and why did they abandon the Communist Party precisely in the period of intense class struggle of 1968-70? The answer is to be found in the wave of youth radicalisation to the left of the Communist Party. Because the Communist Party leaders were seen as a brake on the movement, in particular among a layer of youth, many ultra-left groups began to grow significantly in that period.

Several groups, starting out with small numbers, grew to become organisations of around 10-20,000 members each. One example is Avanguardia Operaia (Workers’ Vanguard), which began with a group of industrial workers in Milan and a small split from the Mandelite Fourth International [“Trotskyists”], the Gruppi Comunisti Rivoluzionari. They started out with around 100 members in 1968 and grew to around 15,000 - including supporters - by 1977. The sum total of these groups, from Avanaguardia Operaia, to Lotta Continua (20,000), the Manifesto group [a split from the PCI] (around 6000), the Partito di Unita’ Proletaria (17,000), Potere Operaio (2500), and others, was around 100,000.

Workers PowerThere was also the group known as Autonomia Operaia, which was a product of the disillusion, first with the PCI and later also with many of the ultra-left groups who were seen as too moderate, a group that openly played with the idea of the “armed struggle”. Many of the youth who adhered to Autonomia were to end up joining the Red Brigades and other terrorist organisations, that had been operating since 1970. The fact that in this period over 4000 left militants were sentenced to prison for belonging to armed organisations, shows how widespread support for the “armed struggle” had become. A wider layer of sympathisers and collaborators also existed, which involved several tens of thousands of mainly radicalised youth.

Avanguardia Operaia

To understand these developments we have to remember the many repressive measures were carried out by the state security forces in that period, starting in 1968-69. This was part of an attempt by the state to isolate and weaken the growing left groups in a period of intense class struggle. The Hot Autumn of 1969 in fact marked the entry of the working class onto the scene in that period. [For more on this see the videos on The Italian Hot Autumn of 1969 and the audio file Italy 1969: the Hot Autumn]

Hundreds of young left activists were arrested, with some of them receiving prison sentences. Editors and journalists of left-wing papers were arrested, accused of fomenting the insurrectionary overthrow of the system. Parallel to this were the hundreds of physical attacks on left militants and the headquarters of left groups by organised fascist gangs. Fascist groups also planted bombs, killing many people, such as the famous Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan in December 1969 which killed 17 people and injured 88 others.

All of this had an extremely radicalising effect on young workers and students, but in 1977 there were two important events that added to this process, the killing of Francesco Lo Russo, a 25-year old student and member of Lotta Continua, in Bologna on 11 March and Giorgiana Masi in Rome on 12 May. In the case of Francesco Lo Russo there are photos that show very clearly that the police was firing directly into the crowd of students.

student victimGiorgiana Masi

Communist Party and trade unions enormously strengthened

Parallel to this mass radicalisation of the youth to the left of the PCI, however, was also a strengthening of the traditional mass organisations. The Young Communists, after losing almost half their members in the period 1968-70, went on to double their forces between 1970 and 1976, reaching a 150,000 members, as a new generation of youth was radicalised. The same was the case with the PCI, as we have seen, which won many new members in the same period, and also the trade unions that almost doubled their membership.

This phenomenon was not understood by the many ultra-left groups that believed that the betrayal of the PCI leaders would prepare the ground for them to win over the masses. This revealed a total lack of understanding of how the mass of the working class moves. This explains the isolation of the advanced layer of the youth and workers and their inability to connect with the masses that still adhered to the PCI. Although at the time it was not clear to those taking part, what was being prepared was a new period of defeats for the working class. In fact, the current situation in Italy has its roots in the events of 1976-79, of which 1977 is a crucial moment.

That year marked an important milestone in the passage from the revolutionary events of 1968-77 to the later period of ebb and decline of the left. Not only did we see the collapse and disappearance of almost all the various groups of the revolutionary left born in the wake of 1968, but eventually we would also see the largest Communist Party in the West liquidated after the 1991 split.

[Note: The only sizeable group that did survive was Democrazia Proletaria, the product of a fusion of Avanguardia Operaia and other groups, but it was only a very pale version of what it had been, very much shifted in the direction of reformism, and even this group eventually disappeared when it fused with the left split in the Communist Party in 1991 to form Rifondazione Comunista, which in turn has also all but collapsed since then.]

At the end of the 1960's in Italy, an unprecedented period had opened up. For almost a decade, there was a mobilisation of the working class and the youth that led many to believe that the taking of power was "around the corner." This, as we have seen, also explains the birth of so many revolutionary groups listed above.

The revolutionary perspective was a real one. The working class could have taken power, not once but several times. The tragedy was in the contradiction between the reformist positions adopted by the PCI leadership over the years and the inability of the extra-parliamentary left to connect with the mass of workers who looked to the Communist Party. This contradiction became crystal clear in 1977. It is no exaggeration to say that if the PCI and CGIL [trade union] leaders had been genuine communists, true heirs of Lenin and Gramsci, the subsequent history of Italy would not have been one of defeats for the workers. We would have seen an Italy transformed from the top to bottom, an Italy with a workers’ government in power, a Communist Italy.

The exponential growth of the trade unions and the massive increase in strikes and factory occupations confirms this, as does the growth of both the Communist Party and the ultra-left groups. In the years 1969 to 1978, hundreds of thousands of youth and workers joined the party for the first time, with a huge renovation of the party’s ranks. Here we had a dual process. On the one hand, there was a huge surge into the trade unions and the PCI involving millions of people, but within this same process we see a radicalisation to the left among the most advanced layers.

From the very beginning of the reawakening of the movement in 1968, the tendencies of the PCI and FGCI leaders towards class compromise and moderation were evident. This could be seen in the everyday struggles and in turn this fuelled the growth of a critical wing within the movement.

The orientation of the masses towards the PCI was not only reflected in the increased membership, but also on the electoral front, where literally millions of young people and workers voted Communist for the first time. This was seen first in the local municipal elections of 1975 and then in the general election of 1976 when the PCI won an unprecedented 34% of the vote. If we add to this, the votes of the Socialist Party – which had moved to the left in that period after losing many votes after a decade of being in coalition governments with the Christian Democracy – and the votes of the Proletarian Democracy (Democrazia Proletaria) electoral coalition of several left groups, the overall left vote was close to 48%.

In 1976, in fact, several of the larger ultra-left groups came together in an electoral coalition and won 6 MPs, raising further their hopes of becoming a visible alternative to the PCI.

The massive 1976 vote for the Communist Party and other left forces was met with enormous enthusiasm. It raised the hopes of the workers and youth who believed that this was the beginning of a radical change in the country and that now the interests of the working class would come to the fore.

What actually happened was that this enthusiasm would soon turn into a burning disappointment. The success in the elections in fact concealed the real process that was taking place. The PCI leadership had long before abandoned any perspective of a revolutionary struggle for power.

PCI leaders prepare “Historic Compromise”

In its congress documents the PCI continued to make references to the struggle for "elements of socialism"; capitalist society was criticized; even Lenin continued to be quoted! With all this, one of the greatest deceptions of the Italian working class was about to take place. While keeping up the pretence of struggling for "socialism", at its 14th Congress (March 1975), using the tragic events of the 1973 coup in Chile, the leaders came out with the position that it was necessary to "avoid a vertical split within the people and the country into two clearly defined enemy camps." This is how the famous “Historic Compromise" was sold to the ranks, which would lead to a pact between the PCI and Christian Democracy (DC).

To put it in a nutshell, the idea was that to avoid a military coup in Italy what was needed was to build an alliance with the Christian Democracy. To justify this position it was claimed that there was a "progressive" wing of the Italian bourgeoisie and that this was expressed in its party, the Christian Democracy. This position is at the heart of the events that unfolded between 1976 and 1979. However, far from being progressive, the Christian Democrats ably exploited the position of the PCI leaders to push through a reactionary agenda in parliament.

This was to become clear in the autumn of 1976. After the biggest electoral success of the PCI in June of the same year, the Christian Democrat Andreotti was called on to form a new government and on August 4th he requested a vote of confidence for his minority government in parliament. For the first time in thirty years the PCI MPs abstained, thus allowing Andreotti to form a government with the direct support of just 258 MPs.

Autumn 1976: austerity programme triggers workers’ reaction

In early October Andreotti moved from words to deeds and announced his austerity programme. Among the measures proposed were a 25% increase in the cost of petrol, 20% in gas, 15% in fertilisers; a two-year freeze in the sliding scale of wages and the abolition of seven days of vacation. The following week, other measures were announced, including increases in electricity prices and telephone and postal charges.

Enrico berlinguer imm1Enrico Berlinguer, general secretary of the PCI

This was not the first time that a government had announced an austerity programme, but this one was seen as a particularly severe attack and it almost provoked a general strike from below... if it had not been for the role played by the PCI leaders! The measures that Andreotti was preparing to implement had been common knowledge for some time and yet Luciano Lama, secretary of the CGIL trade union confederation and a leading figure in the PCI, declared that he was "in full agreement" with Andreotti. The rank and file workers, however, were of a very different opinion.

In Naples, on October 4th, the workers at the Italsider steel plant organized a one-hour protest strike. Already in the previous months there had been protests by the agricultural labourers and strikes of the railway workers, but when Andreotti announced his austerity measures there was a very militant nationwide response from workers throughout Italy.

At the Arese Alfa-Romeo plant near Milan the paint shop workers came out on strike and then this spread throughout the whole factory, involving 2,500 workers who stopped production. The movement spread to other factories, with the OM-Fiat workers, for instance, setting up roadblocks in Via Tibaldi. Even the petrol pump workers participated in the strike!

The factories in the north were in revolt, with wildcat strikes breaking out in Milan and Turin, and protests spreading everywhere. Under pressure from below, the Turin Cgil, Cisl, Uil trade union federations called a 4-hour general strike for October 13th.

There was a very tense atmosphere in the whole country and an all-out nationwide general strike seemed inevitable! But no such strike was to take place. Very quickly, the PCI leaders mobilised, ready to use all their authority to bring to an end the movement that was growing from below!

PCI leaders rein in the working class

The spontaneous reaction of the workers was threatening to undermine all the PCI leaders’ carefully prepared plans for class collaboration with the Christian Democrats. The PCI leaders had therefore one clear aim in mind: to rein in the protest movement that was spreading across the country. The Communist party leaders still had the authority to achieve this. The party had branches in every corner of the country, and Communist party workers were often in the front line of the mobilisations. In less than 24 hours, the PCI managed to mobilise tens of thousands of local cadres and leaders in an attempt to contain the centrifugal forces building up from below.

It is not by chance that the party leaders concentrated a lot of energy on the Turin and Milan working class strongholds. The PCI leaders mobilised all their forces to "explain" their economic programme, their pact with the Christian Democrats, their support for Andreotti's austerity programme. In essence, their position was that the workers had to make "sacrifices" – i.e. accept austerity – in order to get the economy back on its feet. Andreotti, being a long hated figure of the Christian Democracy, could not have convinced the workers to swallow the austerity measures. However, where Andreotti failed, the PCI leaders succeeded.

On Sunday, October 10 a mass meeting was held at the Teatro Alfieri in Turin, with the main speaker Luciano Barca, who was one of the top leaders of the party, and also considered an "economic expert". The theatre was packed with shop stewards and rank and file workers. At 5am on October 11th, Diego Novelli, the Communist mayor of Turin, was at the huge Mirafiori FIAT plant at Gate Number 1 speaking directly to the workers.

While this was going on, 27 provincial and regional leaders of the PCI turned up at the gates of almost all of the most important factories in Turin. Later on in the day Adalberto Minucci, regional secretary of the party, went to the FIAT plant in Mirafiori, while Renzo Giannotti, another Turin PCI leader, went to the Rivalta plant.

The same scenario was repeated in Milan, where Giorgio Napolitano spoke on the Sunday at the Palalido arena where 6,000 workers from the main Milanese factories gathered to hear him speak. Similar scenes were repeated in Genoa, Naples, Bari and other major cities all over Italy. A special meeting of provincial and municipal Communist Party councillors was convened in Florence to check that the situation was under control. In Palermo, Paolo Bufalini, one of the top party leaders, summoned a special meeting of the regional committee to ensure that the party was able to control the situation.

The wave of spontaneous strikes that started on October 8 could have triggered a general strike that would have brought down the Andreotti government. But this was not what the PCI leaders wanted.

One important thing that has to be remembered here is that at this stage the PCI and CGIL leaders (as well as those of the other trade unions) still had huge authority among the masses of workers. This explains how they were able to rein back in that wave of anger and militancy. This was not understood by the many extra-parliamentary left groups of that time and this lack of understanding was also to significantly influence the course of events in the following year, 1977.

The approach of many workers was not to immediately come out against their own leaders. The PCI had had a tremendous election victory just a few months earlier. The line of the need to make "sacrifices" still convinced many and the workers were willing to grant some time to their leaders.

There was, however, a layer of young people and workers that was very much aware of the betrayal that was taking place. This explains the existence and growth of the ultra-left groups that had the active support of at least one hundred thousand people, and over half a million votes. The year 1977, however, represented a breaking point between this advanced layer and the masses. In this situation we see once again all the mistakes of the ultra-left made so many times in history.

This advanced layer viewed the PCI increasingly as a party that had compromised with the bourgeois establishment – which was absolutely correct – but what these young militants did not understand was why the mass of workers continued to have illusions in the Communist leaders. This rejection of the PCI and CGIL leaders, particularly on the part of the youth, was revealed in a dramatic manner during the open clashes between the students and the PCI and CGIL activists stewarding a meeting at Rome University in February 1977.

January 1977: the student movement erupts

In early December 1976, the Minister of Education, Malfatti, in line with the general line of austerity and cutbacks, presented a decree that removed one of the gains of the 1968 student movement, the liberalisation of the curricula, as well as increasing student fees and restructuring the exam system.

In reaction to all this, on January 24, the student protests began with the occupation of the University of Palermo. The movement spread like wildfire across the country. The occupation of Rome University, on February 1st, was immediately attacked by a group of Fascists who opened fire on the students, seriously injuring two left-wing students in the faculty of Literature and Philosophy.

In the following weeks, the number of police provocations and Fascist attacks against the students continued to grow, especially in Rome. Faced with this explosion of mobilisations, the PCI leaders adopted a cynical position subordinated to their ongoing support for the government.

Their position was outlined in a statement by Senator Pecchioli published in the Communist party daily, L’Unita’: "The attack by the Fascists of the MSI at the University and the violence of the so-called 'Autonomi' provocateurs are two sides of the same coin." The Communist Party leaders used this idea of the “two extremes”, i.e. the ultra-left and the fascists, as a way of maintaining a distance between their own ranks and the radicalised left youth. Their aim was clearly to quarantine the youth movement and avoid any possible linking up of the youth and the working class as a whole.

Lacking a recognized leadership, the youth movement went from moments of collective mobilisation that assumed mass proportions, to improvised actions of retaliation on the part of this or that group, against branches of the MSI or meetings promoted by the fascists. This uncoordinated response proved to be totally inadequate in facing up to the “strategy of tension” put in place by the then Minister of the Interior, Cossiga with the collaboration of the secret services, groups of provocateurs, and sections of the state security forces.

Very often, the clashes became full-fledged battles between the students, the fascists and the police, often following on from a police raid. A typical case was the February 2 demonstration in Rome, when suddenly a white FIAT 127 drove into the students. Two police officers in civilian clothes began shooting at the students. This was the first time that Cossiga's plainclothes special corps was used. There were other gunshots across the square. One of the police officers was injured, together with two demonstrators who were arrested.

new undercover policePlainclothes police officers shot into the crowd of students

In spite of the fact that the students were facing brutal attacks on a daily basis, in Rome the local Communist Party unashamedly announced on February 12 that, " the resumption of lectures was a political and democratic necessity" on the very same day that the University authorities had called on the police to bring the occupation of the university to an end.

In this context, a rally was organised at the university with the secretary of the CGIL, Luciano Lama, speaking. On February 17th, the students who were occupying the university gathered to protest against Lama. The students had painted in huge letters slogans against Lama. The atmosphere became very heated. Initially the students were shouting slogans against Lama, but then scuffles broke out between the students and the Communist party stewards. It all ended with a real street battle with the party’s stewards coming off badly. Lama was kicked out of the University. Then the police intervened violently against the students. The Communist party leaders came out very hard against the students. All this confirmed the opinions the Rome students had of the trade union bureaucracy.

The movement was also radicalised in Bologna. On February 23, in a meeting of four thousand factory workers and students, the harsh criticisms the students made of the PCI were partially rejected by the workers. However, all of them were unanimous in condemning a poster produced by the bus workers – under the influence of the PCI leaders – that described the “Autonomia Operaia” of Rome as "Fascist scum".

The PCI leaders, however, had no intention of changing their position. Enrico Berlinguer, the leader of the Communist Party, just a few days after the expulsion of Lama from the University of Rome, stated the following: "we should leave no room for fascist-type activities, which remind us of 1919 [this is a reference to the founding of the Fascist party], not only because of the methods used, but also because of their blind violence against the trade union organizations, the workers' parties, the democratic institutions, the centres of cultural life, the schools and universities."

The movement in Bologna culminated in clashes between the students and police on March 11. That day, as we have seen, the police fired on the students and killed Pier Francesco Lorusso, in via Mascarella, close to the university. The anger of the youth exploded like never before.

Fori di proiettile BolognaThe police claimed to have fired in the air but as you can see here, in Via Mascarella, the bullet holes prove otherwise

The state increased its repressive measures. Funding was made available to increase the wages of the police. The government placed a ban on all demonstrations between April 25 and May 31. Interior Minister Cossiga, on 18 February appeared on the TV news, declaring that: "We will not allow the universities to become a den of metropolitan Indians, freaks and hippies." [Note: “Metropolitan Indians” were the so-called the creative wing of the movement].

Cossiga became the archenemy of the student movement, with his provocations and repressive measures, and the leaders of the Communist Party were seen as his accomplices. While the police was carrying out ruthless repression of the youth movement, the trade union and Communist Party leaders were using all their authority to bring the protest movement to an end.

Ultra-left methods

Anni di piombo3

The mass of workers, meanwhile, continued to hope that the collaboration between the PCI leaders and the Christian Democrats could lead to something good, and they could not understand the youth protests that went as far as open physical confrontations with the Communist Party.

An example is what happened in Bologna in that period. The Autonomia Operaia group attempted to organize an attack on the headquarters of the local PCI, now seen by them as the main enemy. The PCI’s stewards, mostly workers, defended the offices of the party and pushed back the “Autonomi”. Such tactics played straight into the hands of Berlinguer who used it to further argue his position that the extra-parliamentary left were like "fascists". This widened even more the gaping chasm between the more advanced layers and the masses. Autonomi3

The ultra-left made many mistakes, but we need to underline one in particular: the failure to understand that the masses learn from experience and not from the propaganda or slogans of this or that ultra-left group. The working class is not one homogeneous block, but it is made up of layers that move at different times. The mass of workers still had confidence in their leaders and were willing to wait and see what the austerity measures would bring.

The working class does not easily abandon its leaders, it does not easily abandon its traditional mass organizations, built in times of struggle with great sacrifices. It is true that long periods of economic growth and the stability of the capitalist system tend to lead to the crystallisation of a bureaucratic layer at the head of these organizations. However, to understand the true nature of these bureaucrats, the workers require deeds and not words.

All this confirms the fact that the working class learns from experience, especially the experience of major historical events. This or that little compromise is not enough. Usually the working class takes time, a long time, sometimes years and decades, to fully understand certain processes, but sooner or later the workers do understand when the facts speak out clearly.

This process may seem too slow to those who for particular reasons develop a more advanced level of consciousness; and this can lead to frustration and impatience. Even among the workers we can observe this same phenomenon. Among some of the advanced workers ultra-left tendencies can emerge, egged on by the sectarian left groups. In this way, instead of connecting the advanced layers to the mass, they are isolated from the class as a whole, with disastrous consequences.

Lenin understood this well, and that is why he always insisted that revolutionaries should have patience. Their task for long periods was to "patiently explain". Right up until the eve of October 1917, the main task of the Bolsheviks was to win the masses to their programme.

Lenin understood that before the Bolsheviks could become a mass party, before they could win the big majority of the workers, the masses needed to go through the experience of their own reformist leaders in government. For this reason, Lenin fought sectarianism in the movement with all his strength. It is precisely why he wrote Left-wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder.

For the sectarian, all this is a closed book. The sectarian does not understand the need for patient long-term work, of explaining and convincing. The sectarian expects the masses to come to him. The problem for the sectarian is that the working class does not understand small revolutionary organisations and does not turn to them. This is true even when these organisations have correct ideas and programmes (as was the case with the Bolsheviks), but it is far worse when they are imbued with sectarianism!

To the left of the PCI, the ultra-left had tens of thousands of activists, thus they were an important factor in the political situation, especially among the youth. These groups were divided and held different positions and opinions, but it is not the purpose of this article to enter into these differences. Here we focus on one thing that united all these groups: the idea that the "betrayal" on the part of the PCI leaders would provide an opportunity to build a revolutionary party to its left and that to achieve this all that was required was to denounce the PCI leaders and the masses would flock to these small groups. What happened next would show how wrong and simplistic this idea was.

The crisis of the ultra-left

This brings us to September 1977, when the ultra-left decided to put on a show of strength and called a conference against repression in Bologna, the stronghold of the PCI. The turnout was impressive, with about 100,000 youth from all over Italy gathered in the city. The result was, however, the exact opposite of the one intended by the promoters. Instead of presenting a united and cohesive revolutionary left, all the internal contradictions of the ultra-left were exposed.

Bologna 23 24 25 settembre 1977 Convegno contro la repressioneConference of the ultra-left in the Palasport basketball stadium

A graphic expression of this is what happened at the famous meeting in the Palasport basketball stadium. The "comrades" of the various groups attacked each other. In particular there was the physical confrontation between the “Autonomi” and Lotta Continua supporters, who were hitting each other with chairs. The whole meeting of around 12,000 broke up in a in very undignified manner. Rather than showing how strong they were, they showed how divided they were! The author of this article was present at that meeting and witnessed these tragic events, fully aware of the negative consequences all this would have on the left as a whole.

That conference marked the beginning of a crisis of the various ultra-left groups. Many activists dropped out of politics and thus began the famous "season of lull". The defeat led to frustration and most of the disappointed activists simply went home, some of them turning to drugs. A minority joined the terrorist groups, such as the Red Brigades, which had emerged in those years, which only served to strengthen the reactionary policy of the Christian Democrats and that of the PCI leaders

To many the situation must have seemed a desperate one. "Politics" had seemingly failed, and therefore what was required was "action". As history has shown many times in the past, ultra-leftism is the price paid for the opportunism of the leaders of the labour movement. The consequences of the defeat and frustration were, however, far more serious.

The facts speak for themselves. In 1977 alone, 2128 terrorist attacks were carried out, compared to the 1198 of the previous year. 32 people were kneecapped; while police officers, political activists, journalists and lawyers were killed. The year 1978 was to be even worse with an exponential growth in the number of attacks, kidnappings and killings, culminating in the kidnapping and assassination of Aldo Moro in 1978. – but more on this later.

The role of the trade union leaders

The PCI leaders continued throughout 1977 with their policy of collaboration with the Christian Democrats, together with the trade union leaders. At that time the Italian bourgeoisie could not govern the country without the support of the PCI leaders. It is true that repressive measures increased, but these alone were not enough to control the situation. The very same Minister of the Interior, Cossiga, emphasized the need for a "political consensus", by which he meant a greater role had to be given to the PCI in calming down the situation. One of the conditions posed by Cossiga in deciding whether or not to bring the PCI into the government majority, was "its ability or not to get the working class to accept the sacrifices needed to get out of the economic crisis." (reported in La Repubblica).

The more far-sighted bourgeois understood the real situation far better than many of the left groups. In 1977 and again in early 1978, the PCI leaders had shown that they had the authority needed to convince the workers.

On January 24, 1978 La Repubblica published an interview with Lama, which was to become famous, entitled "Workers tighten your belts". Lama is very clear in what he says: "...the trade unions call on the workers to accept a policy of sacrifices, not minor, but substantial sacrifices."

Trade Union leaderLuciano Lama, general secretary of the CGIL- Trade Union Confederation

Lama skilfully started out from a burning problem facing the working class, the very high levels of unemployment, arguing: "…if we want to be consistent with the goal of reducing unemployment, it is clear that improving the conditions for workers in jobs has to take second place."

When the editor of La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, asked him to explain “concretely” what he meant, Lama replied: "Wage demands in the coming years will have to be very limited; the increases that can be demanded will have to be spread out over the three year duration of the collective bargaining agreements, the whole mechanism of lay-off pay will have to be revised from top to bottom. We can no longer force companies to keep in employment those workers who are excess to their production needs, nor can we continue to think that the Layoff fund can pay workers indefinitely. In our proposal we state clearly that the Fund should cover workers’ wages for one year only, except in exceptional circumstances to be decided by the regional unemployment commissions (made up of trade union representatives, employers, local and regional authorities). In short: real mobility of labour and an end to permanent unemployment benefit."

And to dispel any doubt about what he was proposing, he added, "We are, however, convinced that to force companies to keep excess labour is a suicidal policy. The Italian economy is on its knees also because of this policy. Therefore, although no one more than ourselves is aware of the difficulties that flow from this problem, we believe that companies, once their state of crisis has been established, have the right to sack workers. "

With these words Lama was undermining all the key demands raised by the movement that had begun with the Hot Autumn of 1969. One of the aims of the movement, the reduction of the working week, is thus destroyed: "...let us bear in mind that we are the country where the working week is one of the shortest in the developed industrial countries. We work on average a 40-hour week as well as having more holidays than other countries. The tendency in all capitalist countries is to reduce the working week, but the other countries must align with our position before we can take another step in that direction."

The whole interview was permeated by a view that was anything but communist. Lama revealed his complete acceptance of the logic of capitalism; everything had to remain within what was compatible with the system. For Lama the solution to all the problems was to be found in the "accumulation of capital, appropriately programmed by the state and aimed at increasing employment as much as possible". And he stressed that, "This is our line."

The interview provoked a big stir. The next day the newspapers were full of various trade union leaders expressing their positions, some in complete agreement, and others being more doubtful. There was the problem of how to convince the rank and file of the unions to accept this surrender on the part of the trade union leaders. But Lama's goal was clear: come out into the open, pose the question openly and prepare the conditions to impose this position on the ranks.

A few weeks later, in mid-February, there was the famous “EUR turn”. A union conference was held at the EUR conference centre in Rome. The line that emerged was based on two points, wage moderation on the part of the workers and, in exchange for this, an investment programme on the part of the bosses to create jobs. The idea was that the workers by accepting to tighten their belts would allow the bosses to accumulate the capital needed for investment. It was precisely the position developed by Lama in the famous interview.

Of course, while the first point was to be applied immediately in the coming round of collective bargaining, investment was to be delayed to some hypothetical future. In effect, the leaders of the Italian trade union movement had simply signed a blank cheque at the EUR conference.

Deep economic crisis

These events should be placed in the economic context of the period. Italian capitalism, like the whole of world capitalism, was going through a critical moment. In 1974-75 there was the first serious fall in production since the Second World War. The lira was devalued several times, contributing to rising inflation. The crisis deepened further in early 1976, and there seemed no way out of the situation. It was therefore inevitable that measures were being discussed that also involved the political equilibrium and the government of the country.

The austerity measures that had been imposed by governments prior to 1976 had failed to bolster the lira that was in freefall together with the stock market. On a "black Wednesday" in September 1974, the Italian Stock Exchange fell by over 8% with the MIB [Italian Stock Exchange] index dropping to 48.74. Two years later, in 1978, the MIB index dropped further to 37.75. In 1975 inflation reached 17.2% but the following year in 1977 it rose further to 20.1%. In January 1976, the foreign exchange markets were closed for three days: the dollar, which was worth 720 lira, by March rose to 820 lira. A completely new phenomenon emerged, "stagflation", i.e. stagnation and inflation at the same time.

Thus, the working class felt the pressure on two fronts, rising unemployment and a cut in real wages due to rising inflation. The youth felt the brunt of the attack in 1977, with youth unemployment shooting over the two million mark. These were the conditions that led to the student uprising of 1977.

These very same conditions, however, also helped Lama to get his position accepted. With no one offering a genuine socialist perspective, the only alternative seemed to be to seek a solution within the confines of the capitalist system. In this context Lama's position appeared as logical to an important layer of workers: we need to make sacrifices today in order to be improve things tomorrow! Here we see that "ability to get the working class to accept the sacrifices needed to get out of the economic crisis" that Cossiga had referred to!

This is precisely the reason why the entry of the PCI into the government’s parliamentary majority was being prepared, albeit with no ministerial portfolios. The minority Andreotti government fell after a big trade union demonstration in Rome on December 3, 1977. This was followed by months of negotiations that eventually led to Aldo Moro at the end of February 1978 announcing the agreement that had been reached preparing the entry of the PCI into the government. It was in fact as he was going to Parliament for the opening of the debate on the new government that Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigades, and later killed.

The nefarious role of individual terrorism

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the effects of this dramatic event. The assassination of this bourgeois politician brought no benefit to the labour and youth movement. The Red Brigades, by kidnapping and killing Moro merely provided the bourgeoisie with the excuse they needed to introduce more repressive measures and to move the whole situation in a reactionary direction – and all this was also reflected within the tops of the PCI.

Aldo Moro3Aldo Moro, while being held by the Red Brigades

Shortly after the killing of Moro, a referendum for the repeal of the Legge Reale was held and the results speak for themselves. In May 1975, Parliament had passed a law that greatly enhanced the powers and the level of immunity guaranteed to police officers. The right-wing parties were obviously in favour, but the left, including the PCI, had opposed it. However, between 1975 and 1978 many things had changed. The PCI was now part of the government majority and in the referendum campaign decided to join the right-wing parties and campaigned against the abolition of the Legge Reale.

On June 11, 1978 in the referendum, which saw a big turnout, 76% voted No. The PCI held a policy (even more strongly than the Christian Democracy) of eliminating all those forces to its left that could have a destabilizing effect on the existing political equilibrium. The PCI leaders cynically exploited terrorism in order to persuade the working masses of the need for repressive laws.

The effect of the Moro assassination was therefore not to weaken the pact between the PCI and the Christian Democrats, as the Red Brigades claimed in their delusional statements. On the contrary, it allowed the PCI leadership to strengthen even more its collaboration with the Christian Democrat government led by Andreotti.

Br processoMembers of the Red Brigades on trial in 1982 for the killing of Aldo Moro, among them Mario Moretti (3rd from Left) and Prospero Gallinari (wearing glasses), both of humble working class and peasant backgrounds, Gallinari having started his political activity in the youth of the Communist Party

The PCI kicked out of government majority

The situation faced by the workers, however, continued to worsen. As we have seen, inflation was reducing real purchasing power. The small changes to the sliding scale of wages only protected the lowest waged workers, while workers on middle incomes found themselves worse off. This provoked dissatisfaction among a wide layer of workers. The speeches at the EUR trade union conference in February 1978 were now very far from the real situation faced by working class families. The workers were making sacrifices, but these were not followed by any economic improvements.

This explains why the EUR agreement collapsed in the winter of 1978-79 during the new wave of collective bargaining agreements. While the trade union leaders continued to preach moderation, the workers had other ideas and tried to claw back what they had lost in terms of purchasing power. So while paying formal lip service to the EUR agreement, in each industry the workers started demanding substantial wage increases. The bosses now realized that the PCI and the trade union leaders had exhausted their ability to contain the workers' demands and declared that the EUR agreement was dead.

The political expression of all this was the PCI's withdrawal of support for the Andreotti government in early 1979, which led to the fall of the government at the end of March. The Christian Democrats were split over the question of whether to continue with the so-called "national solidarity" government based on the support of the PCI. The majority was now of the opinion that a change in tactics was necessary. The bourgeoisie was pushing to break with the PCI, which they saw as weakened and no longer able to control the ranks of the trade union movement.

The 1979 election defeat

Early elections were thus called, and the PCI suffered an important setback, winning only 30% of the vote in the June elections. This was the first electoral setback for the PCI for decades. In an article that appeared in La Repubblica on June 7, 1979, Eugenio Scalfari, the editor, offered his analysis of what had happened to the Communist Party vote:

"The PCI experienced a significant loss, of around four percentage points, which is 12 percent of its electorate. Where did these votes go and why?

"A substantial number of Communist losses has certainly gone to abstentions and blank votes; another, equally substantial number of votes has switched to the Radical Party; and a very modest share (the numbers reveal this) moved to the Socialist Party, which in turn lost some votes to the Social Democratic Party.

"From this shift of votes away from the PCI, it is easy enough to identify the reasons why: the general line of the Communist Party, of 'appeasement' towards the Christian Democracy, was not supported by 12 per cent of those voters who had supported it in the 20 June 1976 elections.

"These voters wanted the PCI to stand as an alternative to the Christian Democracy..."

The same article explains that the haemorrhaging of Communist votes was particularly strong in the South, in the industrial outskirts of the big cities and among the youth.

Crisis of PCI

The effect of all this on the ranks of the PCI was to provoke a much greater critical outlook. The Historic Compromise began to be viewed as the cause of this defeat, so much so that even Berlinguer was now forced to speak of an “Alternative” – albeit a "Democratic Alternative" – to the Christian Democracy. During the 16th Congress of the PCI, held in March 1983, Berlinguer explained that, "The Democratic Alternative is an alternative to the Christian Democracy and its system of power..." This represented a very important change in the language of the leaders of the PCI. It is true that immediately after those words Berlinguer added that the new line did not exclude "convergence on specific goals", but the important thing to understand was that the leaders of the PCI had been forced to change the party line, at least in words, in response to the criticisms of the rank and file.

The tragedy of this period in Italy was the fact that there was no organized opposition within the ranks of the PCI working to build a revolutionary alternative to its leaders. In those years the conditions for building a left-wing opposition in and around the PCI had been maturing. Those same workers, who in 1977 still had great confidence in the leaders of the PCI, had now gone through an experience, and had started to draw conclusions from that experience – not on the theoretical front but in the real concrete world. They wanted to understand what had happened and why. But no such organised opposition existed. The critical advanced youth and workers of 1977 had been isolated within the sectarian left. Many did later turn away from the ultra-left, but only to go home and abandon politics altogether.

A similar process was seen within the ranks of the PCI. In 1977 PCI membership began to decline, and by 1989 the party had lost almost 400,000 members. Particularly strong was the fall in the number of workers adhering to the party. In 1977 the party had 828,000 workers within its ranks, but by 1988 this number had gone down to 588,000. The biggest decline was in the North West, the most industrialised and therefore most working class part of the country.

The Italian working class has paid a very high price for the failures of that period. The main responsibility for all this – as we have seen – obviously falls on the shoulders of the PCI leaders. For Marxists, however, reformism and the tendency to betray on the part of the reformist leaders is an objective fact. It does not surprise us! The question posed by Marxists is: how to resolve this historical contradiction between the revolutionary upsurge of the masses and the tendency towards class compromise of the leaders of the very same masses?

We must prepare for a new period of radicalization

Forty years have passed since those tumultuous events. In the meantime a new generation of workers has emerged. In these forty years the Italian bourgeoisie has taken back most of the reforms that previous generations had fought for. They even managed to eliminate the Communist Party, which had such a powerful tradition, leaving the workers with no political expression. And yet, for the bosses today this is still not enough. The pressures of world capitalism force the Italian capitalists to cut costs and to eliminate what remains of the reforms of the past.

Today’s trade union leaders are worthy of heirs of Lama; they are of the same breed. They dream of a capitalism where they can sit at the negotiating table with the bosses without any class struggle. They limit themselves to demanding only what is compatible with the capitalist system. But the class struggle always tends to transcend these limits. Today, no concession can be won from the bosses without an uncompromising struggle. Anyone who does not understand this today lives in a dream world.

However, even the most militant of struggles is not enough on its own. History teaches us that the working class needs theory, analysis and perspectives. And these do not fall from the sky, but must be developed by those who have the tools to do so. This brings us to the role of the "subjective factor" that Lenin referred to. Among the mass of workers there is always a more advanced layer, which reaches revolutionary conclusions ahead of the rest of the working class. The task of the Marxists is to understand all this, and to organize this layer, strengthening its links with the rest of the class. Our task is to win the advanced layers, who at times may be moving in a sectarian direction, and educate them in the history of the working class, in how it moves and organises, and stop them from making ultra-left mistakes. Otherwise, the risk is that the advanced layer moves too far ahead of the masses and is thus isolated. The task of revolutionaries is not to break away from the mass of workers but to march with them while always warning of the dangers inherent in reformism.

The leaders of the labour movement have reached an extreme level of degeneration. This is the effect of both the defeat of the 1970s and the subsequent years of capitalist recovery and stabilisation. Under these conditions, the leaders of the movement have come under enormous pressure from the bourgeoisie. They can envisage no other system than the capitalist system. They abandoned long ago the ideas on which our movement was founded. That is why they do not understand the present-day world; they do not understand the conditions of the working class. In this sense they represent the past and not the future. Now, however, all the conditions for a new ascent of the class struggle are maturing, like that of the 1960s and 1970s.

The events of the 1970s created the conditions for the building of a strong revolutionary force based on the workers and the youth. What we saw in that period was the development of consciousness at different rhythms in different layers. This is inevitable: not everyone reaches the same conclusion at the same time. Workers in particular learn from their experience, from great events. When they fight, they do so with confidence in their own established leaders. When these leaders, like Lama in Italy in the 1970s, tend to compromise with the bosses, the workers’ initial reaction is to give their leaders time and credit. Workers in general do not learn from the theoretical elaborations of some small group; they learn from real living events. They need time to see with their own eyes the role of the reformist leaders. But one thing is clear: sooner or later the workers begin to draw the right conclusions and question their own leaders.

When this happens they do not spontaneously build a revolutionary alternative. They seek a viable alternative, but if there is none then a process of disillusionment can set in and the capitalist class can go on the offensive and defeat the workers. Then all the wrong conclusions are drawn and a mood of pessimism sets in. This is what happened in Italy after the experience of 1976-79. And from a generation that had challenged openly the capitalist system, it became a demoralised layer – the famous “sessantottini”, those of ’68 – that weighed down on the new generation, imbuing every movement with a deep pessimism.

The role of a Marxist tendency is to understand this. If one does not understand this, the risk is to fall into sectarianism, a sectarianism dictated by impatience. This was the mistake of all the ultra-left groups in the 1970s. Imagine what would have been possible in Italy if instead of having one hundred thousand revolutionary activists divided into a myriad of groups fighting each other, they had been united in one single Marxist tendency working in and around the ranks of the PCI! Instead of attacking the Communist Party, such a Tendency – with 100,000 members, in effect a small party – would have skilfully applied Lenin’s tactic of the United Front, reaching out to the ranks of the PCI, patiently explaining the limits of the party programme. Such a force could have transformed the PCI itself, could have won to a revolutionary programme the mass of workers and youth who were organised in the PCI and the CGIL.

The events of 1977 must be understood in this context. It is thanks to the mistakes of the ultra-left, that it failed to influence the ranks of the PCI. In fact, they played right into the hands of the reformist PCI leaders. This in turn created the conditions in which the Italian bourgeoisie was able to regain control of the situation. No longer requiring the services of the PCI leaders, the party was kicked out of the government majority and a new period of direct attacks on the working class began. The 5-week strike at Fiat in 1980, which ended in a burning defeat thanks to the trade union leaders, is the most famous episode in all this. The effects of that defeat are still with us today.

However, history shows that the working class will recover from every defeat. The Italian working class recovered from the defeat of 1922 (the rise of fascism), as well as that of 1948 (the defeat of the Left in the elections after a period of intense class struggle). It will also recover from the defeat of the 1970s. As Marxists we do not have any doubts about this.

Today of course the political landscape of Italy is very different from that of the 1970s. The Socialist Party collapsed in 1992, together with the old Christian Democracy, after being engulfed by massive corruptions scandals. The Communist Party, after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, first changed its name in 1991 to the PDS, Democratic Party of the Left and later fused with a number of bourgeois parties to form the present Democratic Party, an utterly bourgeois formation. The left wing of the old PCI split away and formed Rifondazione Comunista in 1991, but that too has all but collapsed, after years of supporting “centre-left” governments and their austerity policies.

Thus the Italian working class finds itself with no party of its own, and this explains the present impasse. But it is inevitable that it will find a political expression of some kind sooner or later, possibly like Podemos in Spain, or Melenchon’s France Insoumise. We cannot say exactly where it will come from and who will lead it, or its precise nature, but it will come.

The question is: what will happen next time the working class rises? Will history simply be repeated? Will the movement face another defeat because of sectarianism on the left or will we learn the lessons of the past? It depends on us! The Marxists of the IMT in Italy,  will not make the mistakes of the sectarians of the past, once a mass expression of the working class emerges.

Video: Rome - 12 May 1977, this video proves that plainclothes police fired at the students, killing Giorgiana Masi (Italian audio)