Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism

Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism


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ISBN-13: 9780745399904
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 07/15/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Steve Wright is a senior lecturer the faculty of information technology at Monash University, in Australia.

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Weathering the 1950s

'So-called operaismo', noted Antonio Negri a year or so before his arrest in April 1979, had emerged above all 'as an attempt to reply politically to the crisis of the labour movement during the 1950s' (Negri 1979a: 31). A worldwide phenomenon, this crisis proved especially serious in Italy, where the crushing of revolutionary Hungary and the collapse of the Stalin myth dovetailed with a domestically induced malaise already hanging over much of the left. Together these dislocations were to become the primary concerns of a new approach to Marxism which would both anticipate the Italian new left of the 1960s and provide the soil from which workerism itself would directly spring.


The 1950s were a period of profound transformation for Italian society. The aftermath of the Second World War left much of the economy, particularly in the North, in a state of chaos. Industrial production stood at only one-quarter the output of 1938, the transport sector lay in tatters and agriculture languished. A combination of inadequate diet and low income (real wages had fallen to one-fifth the 1913 level) meant that for large sectors of the population, physical survival overrode all other considerations. Yet by the end of the following decade the nation's economic situation was startlingly different, with dramatic rises in output, productivity and consumption: Italy's 'miracle' had arrived with a flourish (Clough 1964: 315; Gobbi 1973: 3).

Even as those working the land declined in number, the rate of growth in the agricultural sector actually increased slightly between 1950 and 1960. From the middle of the decade, as secondary industry began to develop extensively, excess labour-power was encouraged to embark upon an internal migration from countryside to city, and above all from South to North. While important new investments in plant were made in Italy's North-East (petrochemicals) and South (ferrous metals), the tendency remained that of concentrating large-scale industry in the traditional Northern triangle formed by Genoa, Turin and Milan. The most dynamic sectors located here were those bound up with the production of a new infrastructure: housing, electricity, petrochemicals, ferrous metals and autos. Industrial production had already matched prewar levels by the end of the 1940s; by 1953 it had jumped another 64 per cent, and had almost doubled again by 1961 (Lieberman 1977: 95–119). All of which moved one writer in the March 1966 issue of the Banco Nazionale del Lavoro Quarterly Review to note that

the prodigious progress made by the Italian economic system in recent years, a progress the like of which has never been seen in the economic history of Italy or any other country. (De Meo 1966: 70)

Not that such growth sprang from a void, or that its progression had been linear, smooth. The fundamental premises of the 'miracle', instead, were established in the late 1940s only after a massive shift in the relations of force between the major classes. Italy's industrial base may have been profoundly disorganised in 1945, but as De Cecco (1972: 158) has pointed out, 'the situation was not at all desperate, especially in comparison with other [European] countries'. While neither the social dislocation caused by the war nor Italy's continuing dependence upon the importation of raw materials could be dismissed lightly, it was also true that much of the country's prewar fixed capital remained intact, or had even been enlarged due to wartime demands. If any major obstacle to accumulation existed, therefore, it was the working class itself. For many workers, and particularly those Northerners who had seized their workplaces during the struggle against Mussolini and the Wehrmacht, the future promised, if not the imminent advent of socialism – although this too was heralded in many factories – then certainly major improvements in work conditions and pay, along with a greater say over production in general. While it was hardly a return to the heady days of 1920, this new-found power within the labour process also allowed workers to flex their muscles beyond the factory walls, leading to freezes upon both layoffs and the price of bread. Yet no matter how restrained in reality, such assertiveness was still more than the functionaries of Italian capital were prepared to concede; for them, the path to postwar reconstruction could only pass through the restoration of labour docility. (Salvati 1972; Foa 1980: 137–62)

After their prominent role in the Resistance, the military defeat of fascism and Nazism in Central and Southern Italy ushered in a period of impressive growth for the parties of the left, from which the Communists – the current most firmly rooted in the factories – would benefit most of all. But the line which party leader Palmiro Togliatti proclaimed upon his return from exile in 1944 was to surprise and disappoint many members who, however ingenuously, associated the PCI with the goal of socialist revolution. Togliatti was too shrewd a politician not to recognise the lessons that the Greek experience held out to anyone contemplating insurrection in post-Yalta Western Europe, but it would be wrong to think that international considerations restrained an otherwise aggressive impulse to revolutionary solutions. Building upon the tradition of party policy established with the defeat of the Communist left in the 1920s, the PCI leadership was to advance a course which sought to unite the great mass of Italians against that 'small group of capitalists' seen as objectively tied to fascism. Within such a strategy the open promotion of class antagonism could only be an obstacle. The aim instead was to build a 'new party', one capable of expanding its influence within both the 'broad masses' and the new government, immune to the 'sectarianism' of those militants who spoke bluntly of establishing working-class power (Montaldi 1976: 87–8). Nor did this course alter with the fall of Mussolini's puppet 'social republic' in the North. For Togliatti, the decisive arena for gains in post-fascist Italy was to be not the world of the workshop or field, but that of formal politics, where accommodation with other social groups was a prerequisite for participation. The conditions under which the PCI had entered government at war's end were not entirely to its suiting, yet there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his admission that the leadership had gone ahead just the same

because we are Italians, and above everything we pose the good of our country, the good of Italy, the freedom and independence of Italy that we want to see saved and reconquered ... (quoted in Montaldi 1976: 99)

And the party was to be as good as its word. As Franco Botta (1975: 51–2) has shown, in the immediate postwar period the PCI moved 'with extreme prudence on the economic terrain, subordinating the struggle for economic changes to the quest for large-scale political objectives, such as the Constituent Assembly and the Constitution'. Togliatti (1979: 40) put it thus upon his return from the Soviet Union: 'today the problem facing Italian workers is not that of doing what was done in Russia'; on the contrary, what was needed was a resumption of economic growth within the framework of private ownership so as to ensure the construction of a 'strong democracy'. Togliatti urged working-class participation in such a project of reconstruction, envisioning recovery 'on the basis of low costs of production, a high productivity of labour and high wages', in the belief that the effective demand of the 'popular masses', rather than the unfettered expansion of free market forces proposed by liberal thinkers, would serve as the chief spur to economic expansion. (Quoted in Botta 1975: 57)

Would such an alternative model of development have been feasible in the 1940s? There is no simple answer to such speculation, although similar notions continued to inform the thinking of the left unions well into the next decade (Lange et al. 1982: 112; Ginsborg 1990: 188–90). What remains interesting is that, whatever the polemical tone of Togliatti's attack upon liberals like Luigi Einaudi, his own views on development shared more assumptions with such opponents than he realised. The most important of these affinities was the emphasis placed upon a substantial increase in productivity as the path to Italy's salvation. In practical terms, however, any rise on this score – which at that point in time offered employees the simple alternative of working harder or being laid off – could only be won at the expense of that level of working-class shopfloor organisation achieved during the Resistance. True children of the Comintern, for whom the organisation and form of production were essentially neutral in class terms, the PCI leadership saw no great problem in conceding – in the name of a 'unitary' economic reconstruction – the restoration of managerial prerogative within the factories. After all, wasn't productivity ultimately a problem of technique? The factories must be 'normalised', argued the bulletin of the Milan party federation in July 1945. The fact that new organs had been created which offered 'an ever-more vast participation and control of workers over production' could not mean the removal of 'labour' and 'discipline' from their rightful place at the top of the immediate agenda. Another party document from September of that year stated things more bluntly: 'the democratic control of industry by workers means only control against speculation, but must not disturb the freedom of initiative of senior technical staff ' (quoted in Montaldi 1976: 259, 267). As one FIAT worker later put it:

I remember straight after the war Togliatti came to speak in Piazza Crispi – and then De Gasperi came – and they both argued exactly the same thing; the need to save the economy ... We've got to work hard because Italy's on her knees, we've been bombarded by the Americans ... but don't worry because if we produce, if we work hard, in a year or two we'll all be fine ... So the PCI militants inside the factory set themselves the political task of producing to save the national economy, and the workers were left without a party. (Quoted in Partridge 1980: 419)

In 1947, having invested so much energy in tempering working-class resistance to 'reconstruction', the parties of the historic left found themselves unceremoniously expelled from the De Gasperi government. Christian democratic political hegemony brought with it massive American aid, and the triumph of a model of industrial development that combined efforts to impose the unbridled discipline of the law of value in some sectors with selective state encouragement of others. In practice this involved production for the international market underpinned by low wages, low costs and high productivity; a sharp deflationary policy to control credit and wages; the elimination of economically 'unviable' firms, and the maintenance of high unemployment. To make matters worse for the labour camp, the union movement found itself split – with American and Vatican connivance – along political lines, enabling employers to open an offensive in the workplace against militants of the left parties and their union confederation, the CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro – the Italian General Confederation of Labour). (Ginsborg 1990: 141–93)

Closed in upon itself ideologically, its hard core of skilled workers disorientated by victimisation, the CGIL's isolation from the daily reality of the shopfloor would be symbolised by the loss in 1955 of its majority amongst the union representatives elected to FIAT's Commissione Interna (Contini 1978). Nor were the union's subsequent efforts to face up to its malaise helped by the significant changes then occurring within both the production processes and workforce employed in industry. Stimulated in part by the prospect of new markets which Italy's entry into the Common Market offered, investment in new plant by the largest Northern employers increased significantly in the second half of the decade (Lichtner 1975: 175–82; King 1985: 69–77). At the same time, the biggest firms began to recruit amongst a new generation of workers, men and women with little experience of either factory work or unionism. In all, Italy's manufacturing workforce would grow by 1 million during the years of the economic 'miracle'. At first these new employees were predominantly of Northern origin; as the 1950s drew to a close, however, entrepreneurs turned increasingly to the thousands of Southerners lured Northwards by the lack of jobs at home and the promise of a large pay packet (Alasia and Montaldi 1960; Fofi 1962; Partridge 1996). And just as such industrialisation only exacerbated differences between what had long appeared to be two discrete nations within Italy – the advanced North and semi-feudal Mezzogiorno – so too its benefits failed to extend themselves uniformly to all classes in society. As a consequence, the Italian labouring population which saw the 1960s draw near appeared markedly weaker and more divided than that of a decade before, a depressing view to which the lag of wage increases far behind those of productivity paid further mute testimony. (King 1985: 87)


That 'unforgettable' year of 1956, as Pietro Ingrao has called it, marked a genuine watershed in the history of the PCI. As the first cracks appeared in the Soviet Party's facade, Togliatti pronounced ominously upon certain 'dangers of bureaucratic degeneration' in the USSR, vigorously denouncing all the while the rebellious workers of Poznan and Budapest as tools of reaction (Bocca 1973: 618; Ajello 1979: 389–90; Togliatti 1979: 141). Formally committing the party to the 'Italian road to socialism' it had followed for years, Togliatti also used the occasion to stamp out those insurrectionalist tendencies that lingered on within the PCI (Montaldi 1971: 369). Firmly embedded in a Stalinist matrix, such elements constituted in their own distorted manner what little that remained of the PCI's original class politics. A whole layer of middle-ranking cadre, who viewed Khrushchev with suspicion – not for complicity in Stalin's tyranny, but for having dared criticise him at all – found themselves slowly eased from positions of responsibility. The 8th Party Congress ushered a new levy of future leaders into the Central Committee, as an even greater 'renovation' occurred in the PCI's important federal committees, with the overwhelming majority of Komitetchiki henceforth party members of less than a decade's standing (Ajello 1979: 427). Whilst the most prominent of the older 'hards' managed, in exchange for their silence on current policy, to remain within the PCI's leading bodies, the small number of militants and functionaries who objected to the new regime were simply driven out of the party (Peragalli 1980).

Thus, if PCI membership would decline overall by the end of the decade, with a noticeable loss of liberal intellectuals disenchanted more with international events than the party's domestic policies, there was to be no exodus by rank-and-file Communists like those which devastated Communist parties in the English-speaking world. Indeed, when the PCI did emerge from its uncertainties it was to do so as a much-invigorated force, the correctness of its postwar course as a national-popular 'new party' largely confirmed in the leadership's eyes (Asor Rosa 1975: 1622).

For the other major party of the left, by contrast, 1956 would be experienced as a fundamental break. Always a strange political creature, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) had been born anew in the final days of fascism. At that time its axis appeared decisively to the left of other Western Socialist parties, although the diversity of groupings within it lent a certain erratic bent to its political direction. Led by Pietro Nenni, Giuseppe Saragat and Rodolfo Morandi, its actions in the immediate aftermath of the war involved a juggling act. Vowing a continuing commitment to its close relationship with the PCI through the 'unity of action' pact sealed in the Popular Front period, the PSI also attempted to establish an identity independent of the Communist Party. Encouraged by its showings in the first postwar elections, the emphasis at first was placed upon 'autonomy', a notion that bore various connotations within the party. For some it represented aspirations to the mantle of 'revolutionary' party let fall by the moderate Communists; for others, it meant the construction of a mass social democratic party along British or German lines. In early 1947, midst the growing climate of the Cold War, the Socialist Party's reformist wing split away on an explicitly anti-Communist platform, a section of the party's left in tow; months later, the left parties were expelled from government. Both events were to have an enormous impact upon the majority of Socialists, winning a growing audience for those who saw the supreme political division as that between a socialist East and revanchist West, and any attempt to evolve a 'third way' merely a capitulation to imperialism. Following a brief period of non-alignment under the rule of a centre faction, the party's traditional critical support for the Soviet Union blossomed into support tout court. Indeed, by the outbreak of the Korean War, Nenni could be heard proclaiming his close identification with the USSR in the 'struggle for peace', and Morandi publicly dedicating himself to the Herculean task of cleansing the party of all traces of social democracy's corrupting influence (Libertini 1957; Vallauri 1978; Benzoni 1980: 33–70; Foa 1980: 270–81).


Excerpted from "Storming Heaven"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Steve Wright.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Harry Cleaver
1 Weathering the 1950s
2 Quaderni Rossi and the Workers’ Enquiry
3 Classe Operaia
4 New Subjects
5 The Creeping May
6 Potere Operaio
7 Toni Negri and the Operaio Sociale
8 The Historiography of the Mass Worker
9 The Collapse of Workerism
10 Conclusion
Postscript: Once More, With Feeling: A Bibliographic Essay Afterword to the Italian Edition by Riccardo Bellofiore and Massimiliano Tomba

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