Historic Compromises

by Henry on May 15, 2009

I was at a conference in Italy last week, where I read as much as I can about last Saturday’s meeting, brokered by Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s President, between the widows of Giuseppe Pinelli (who, after three days of interrogation without food or sleep, either fell to his death from a window in the Milan magistracy or was pushed) and Luigi Calabresi (the magistrate who was interrogating Pinelli, and who was himself murdered a couple of years later). This hasn’t gotten any attention in the English speaking press that I can see. Still, it was a very significant event in Italian politics – an attempt by some of the parties at least to draw a close to Italy’s ‘years of lead,’ in which leftist unrest, kidnappings and murders went together with brutal state repression and tacit state help for fascists who organized large scale terrorist bombings to create the enabling conditions for a coup.1 And it is particularly interesting to me because I’ve just finished reading Phil Edwards’s fascinating account of one very poorly understood aspect of this period – the birth of the Autonomist left, and its relationship both with terrorist groups (my term, not Phil’s) and the Italian Communist Party. This is, to say the least, a very well timed publication (although Manchester University Press’s decision to print it only in an expensive and difficult-to-find hardback edition, is arguably rather less well judged).

First, Saturday’s event. It was very clearly carefully orchestrated. Gemma Calabresi and Licia Pinelli seem to have taken very considerable care to emphasize the purely personal aspects of their symbolic reconciliation, drawing on their common experience as widows, and the hurt that their children experienced from losing their fathers. This is nonetheless an interesting and important political move. Giuseppe Pinelli’s death was the subject of Dario Fo’s famous play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and one of the major unhealed traumas of the Italian left. The refusal of various leftist groups to condemn Calabresi’s murder was interpreted at the time by those in the ‘mainstream’ left and the right as evidence of their irredeemability. That these men’s widows have embraced each other has considerable symbolic significance, even if the families of other victims remain unreconciled.

The more overt politics can be found in Napolitano’s statement. First, the statement acknowledges that Pinelli was a twofold victim of the state – that he was arrested for a crime that he obviously didn’t commit (a bombing that left 17 dead, and which had in fact been committed by fascists engaged in the infamous ‘strategy of tension’), and that he had had an ‘absurd’ death while in police custody. The ambiguities of this characterization of the circumstances of Pinelli’s death are surely deliberate. It allows those on the left who are outraged by Pinelli’s death to say that the state has finally acknowledged what happened. Oreste Scalzone, a former leader of Potere Operaio (a key leftist group from this period) claims that “it is clear that they have finally recognized, forty years afterwards, that this was murder by the state.” However, centrists can continue to maintain that it’s more likely that Pinelli, temporarily debilitated by three days of abusive interrogation and food and sleep deprivation, fainted or committed suicide.

The government itself has yet to comment (the President is not a member of the government as such and plays a largely symbolic role in Italian politics). Berlusconi has very frequently tried to play up links between the Italian left and terrorism, suggesting that attacks on him are deliberate attempts to destabilize the Republic. So far, he has remained silent – I wouldn’t be surprised if he continues to clam up. While a left-right reconciliation over the Years of Lead would not be in his interest, a direct attack on Napolitano, let alone Gemma Calabresi, would be unlikely to turn out very well. Not that considerations of this kind have stopped him in the past of course, so I may well be wrong.

Most interesting of all is the way in which Napolitano tries to have his cake and eat it, by on the one hand acknowledging, more or less, that unnamed people had sought to build up tensions so as to create the conditions for an authoritarian ‘turn’, but on the other waxing indignant about any suggestion that these people might have nobbled the judiciary. As Daniel remarked in comments a couple of weeks ago, the modern history of Italy is a conspiracy theorist’s dream – a shadowy Masonic lodge running politics, prime ministers beholden to the Mafia, secret CIA sponsored networks with arms dumps made available to dubious characters, and tacit alliances between the secret services and Fascist extremists. The Pinelli case and its aftermath (in particular, the trial of Adriano Sofri, a leftist convicted of having killed Calabresi), have, shall we say, many quite intriguing aspects for the armchair conspiracy theorist. While Napolitano claims that we need to ‘look forward’ without ‘rancor’ (sound familiar?), I imagine that the book is not closed on this (and that this public acknowledgment that there was something fishy may help open doors a little bit rather than close them off). In particular, it highlights the problematic aspects of the Sofri case – while Sofri and other autonomists certainly suggested in print that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if Calabresi were to meet his end, the only evidence that Sofri actually ordered Calabresi’s murder is a confused and self-contradictory ‘confession’ from a former leftist. Whether you like incitements to violence or not, there is a clear difference between using violent language and actually plotting murder, and this is a difference with important legal consequences.

Phil’s book has a lot to say about autonomists and violence. It’s a fascinating read. I’ve always been curious about the history of autonomous Marxism, but there isn’t very much that’s available in English that’s good. Phil provides both a social history of Autonomia in its own right (which could have done with a bit more detail in my opinion, but that’s because I have a weakness for anecdotes and good stories) and a more structured account of its relationship with the Italian Communist Party. The latter builds up to a forceful critique of Sidney Tarrow’s interpretation of movement politics in Italy. Tarrow believes that there was one major wave of Italian social movements in the late 1960s, creating several organizational innovations that were successfully absorbed by the Italian Communist party, and that everything else was leftovers. In particular, he claims that the leftist unrest of the 1970s was the product of irreconcilable leftist extremists, trying to outbid each other by becoming ever more violent. Phil disagrees, and argues that there was a second important wave of social movements after the first, including the autonomists, as well as feminists and various lifestyle groups. This ended badly, in futility, bitterness and violence, but only because the Italian Communist Party deliberately marginalized these movements.

So Phil wants to rescue autonomous Marxism from what he describes (riffing on the obvious source) as less enormous condescension than historical oblivion. The gatekeepers, in his opinion, have been able to rewrite history so as to lump in autonomous Marxism with the Red Brigades and everyone else as one big historical explosion of nihilism and futile aggression. In an alternative history, where the Italian Communist Party had paid attention to the autonomists, and tried to steal their best tricks, Italy and the Communists would have been the better for it.

Autonomia, as described by one of Phil’s sources, consisted of three main elements. Most numerous were the ‘creatives’ – libertarians with radical leanings. Second were the professors and theorists (most prominently, in later life, Toni Negri). Third were the workers, or Autonomia proper, who had their beginnings in the workplace unrest of the early 1970s. Autonomists were involved in traditional protests, but also in quite untraditional forms of action, including most notoriously, autoriduzione, in which young people, individually or in large groups, went to eateries or stores, ate or purchased to their heart’s content, and then refused to pay more than they considered a fair price (this extended to government services like taxes and electricity too, and possibly apocryphal stories involved autonomistas exercising their ‘right to caviar’ in expensive restaurants). They emphasized ‘collective creativity,’ hanging out together, and, ‘not least, the playful tactics previously associated with counter-cultural movements such as the Beats,’ (p. 86). The ideology of ‘maodadaism’ argued that political struggle and unity were far less promising than new forms of social life. Olivier Turquet, who was as much of a leader of this movement as anyone (which is to say: perhaps not very much) proclaimed at a press conference that:

My name is Gandalf the Violet. I shall speak in a strictly personal capacity. As such, I speak in the name of the Elves of Fangorn Forest, the Coloured Nuclei of Red Laughter, the Absent Phantom Political Movement, the Dada-Hedonist Cells, Worker’s Joy and Student Rejoicing, the Schizophrenic International, the Disturbed Clandestine Nuclei, the Chicory Tribe, the Cimbles and all the Metropolitan Indians2

The autonomists may have sounded like the Yippies, but they were a genuine social movement, with significant numbers of adherents, and still exist, albeit in a reduced form (I stayed around the corner from an Autonomist zone in Venice in the mid-1990s). And they didn’t just hang out. They sometimes organized.

If I understand the book correctly, Phil doesn’t believe that Autonomia was ever going to be a sufficient basis in itself for a remaking of politics. But he does think that the Italian Communist Party should have borrowed from the autonomists, by, for example, identifying the high prices targetted by autoriduzione as a source of social problems, and changing their economic policies accordingly. He also argues that the Italian Communist Party’s anathematization of the autonomists was not so much a response to the problem of terrorism and violence as one of the things that made this a problem in the first place. For a variety of reasons, the Italian Communist Party decided to opt for an alliance with the state, and with the most corrupt elements of the state, leading them to block and condemn the autonomists. This helped push the autonomists from unconventional protest, with the odd serving of street violence on the side, to targetted assassinations and the like. The further reaches of the left had nowhere else to go. If the Italian Communist Party had embraced the bits of the far left that they liked, while isolating the others, it would likely have eased the tensions substantially.

Much of this thesis is plausible to me. I suspect that if the Italian Communist Party had taken in some of the autonomists, we would have seen less support for the Red Brigades. Phil’s account of how the Italian Communist Party couldn’t do this, because of its self-conception as a part of the legitimate post WW-II dispensation, is both convincing and new to me. And whether his alternative history is right or not (counterfactuals are impossible to prove), there was a lot to autonomia beyond the streetfighting, and the more targetted forms of violence and murder that some people who had been associated with the movement became involved with. Indeed, in some ways, autonomia presaged later social movements which emphasized how society could be changed through reshaping individuals’ consumption habits and ways of associating with each other, rather than state takeover (as such, of course, it shared some of the weaknesses of these movements as well as the strengths).

The book has some holes. In particular, it could have done with much more comparison with other cases in Western Europe and elsewhere. This would have strengthened the book considerably, by putting the relationship between Italian Communists and autonomists in context. Other leftwing parties in other countries had similar dilemmas, albeit in weaker form (they were typically Social Democrats rather than Communists). In particular, the last part of the book, which relies on ‘what ifs’ would have been strengthened if it identified the somewhat different ways in which different parties in different countries responded to the radical left. As a political scientist, I was left wondering why Phil didn’t use Tarrow’s own data as well as his own – if he could have demonstrated that Tarrow’s own data supported different conclusions, it would have been a strong result (perhaps he tried to get his hands on it and was refused permission – I don’t know).

But in any event, this is a valuable little book. It guides readers well through a complicated milieu of different overlapping organizations, factions and tendencies, picking up on and illustrating the logic underlying the various fissures. It reinterprets the relationship between the Italian Communist Party and the autonomist left in a way that I found both convincing and original. And it provides basic research on an important movement that is grossly underdiscussed in the English language literature, and to some extent in Italian too. There are some underlying claims and normative arguments in the book that I don’t agree with – in part, because I come at it from a different political place (I am a fairly middle-of-the-road Social Democrat in European terms, while Phil, I imagine, is substantially to my left). But if I only read books written by people who shared my political views, I’d have a boring time of it. Recommended.

1 Calabresi’s murder, which has never been convincingly solved (although see below) or claimed by any group, may itself have been a provocation by the fascist right.

2 The last two of which were real political organizations.



Balqis 05.15.09 at 5:01 pm

I was born in ’68 so I’ve learned about this delicate historic phase of my country through books and media and I find your analysis quite interesting but I’d be cautious in forcing a political significance for the embrace between the two widows .
Maybe it just naturally happened after so many years of sufferance .
And given the reaction of a bunch of extremists after the appointment of Calabresi son as director of La Stampa, apparently there’s no compromise that can heal some wounds .


dsquared 05.15.09 at 5:04 pm

Just as a small footnote, the London Autonomists ended up forming the political movement around “Class War” magazine, IIRC.


Trevor 05.15.09 at 5:06 pm

For more, the book “Storming Heaven” is a decent work on the thought and internal disputes of many of these groups, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction.

“Reading Capital Politically” is a good primer on what differentiates Autonomist Marxist from its other manifestations, and isolates what the Italian groups & thinkers (Tronti, Negri) thought
from their specific Italian contexts.


anxiousmodernman 05.15.09 at 6:06 pm

Thank you for the review of this forthcoming book. I’ll have to get this one from the library when it comes out, as Amazon is advertising a $73.13 price tag!


Hidari 05.15.09 at 6:06 pm

‘My name is Gandalf the Violet. I shall speak in a strictly personal capacity. As such, I speak in the name of the Elves of Fangorn Forest, the Coloured Nuclei of Red Laughter, the Absent Phantom Political Movement, the Dada-Hedonist Cells, Worker’s Joy and Student Rejoicing, the Schizophrenic International, the Disturbed Clandestine Nuclei, the Chicory Tribe, the Cimbles and all the Metropolitan Indians2′

Oh for the days in which politicians (or anyone) made speeches which began like that.

Unfortunately we are left with the unctuous whinings of Blair and Brown, which are easily as illogical and incoherent, but a good deal less amusing.


muzz 05.15.09 at 10:03 pm

if you’re this interested in italian politics you’ve probably already seen it, but if not i’d like to recommend the film “Il Divo” by Paolo Sorrentino

imho a must see for anyone interested in politics and cinema


Phil 05.16.09 at 5:26 pm

While my longer comment’s in mod limbo, let me just say cheers, Henry – thanks for an excellent review.


Phil 05.16.09 at 5:29 pm

Ah – I think I see what’s happened. Longer comment follows. Ahem.


Many thanks for an excellent review. One nitpick – could you change “Phil Edward’s” to “Phil Edwards’s”?

On Tarrow – I think the claims about the position I challenge (Tarrow believes that there was one major wave of Italian social movements in the late 1960s etc) should probably be in the past tense; Tarrow hasn’t written about this stuff in the last decade or so, and I don’t know that his position hasn’t changed. The idea of re-analysing his data is a good one, and all I can say is that it didn’t occur to me (the chapter where I do some quant. analysis was the last thing that went in).

What do I think should have happened? Well, you’re right about my starting-point being a bit to the Left of yours. I’m a Marxist, which has to mean thinking that the overthrow of capitalism is at least dreamable – and ultimately I think the late-70s wave should be honoured as a failed revolution. But I wanted to get away from two ways of thinking that I think it’s easy to slip into if you’re on the radical Left. One is “revolution or bust” – you judge changes in the way people live and work according to whether they heighten the level of conflict or make it easier to make revolutionary interventions. In the case of Italy, a strong right-wing Communist Party in the late 70s was quite plainly a force for the preservation of capitalism – but a stronger and more left-wing Communist Party would have been a considerably more effective force for the preservation of capitalism. But it would have expanded the realm of the politically thinkable and the socially permissible, which would have been a massively good thing for Italian society in both the short and the medium term.

The other assumption I wanted to get away from is the betrayal thesis: the idea that individual leaders – and individual decisions by individual leaders – have a determining influence on which way political struggles develop, so a leader who makes the wrong decision can and should be held responsible for the subsequent defeat. What fascinated me about the Communist Party in that period was just how narrow their field of action really was. In Berlinguer they had a leader who was innovative, thoughtful and charismatic, and as a result they ended up taking some really extravagantly awful positions – but the field of possible alternatives wasn’t all that broad. And this was the case, not because of the original sin of constitutional political parties under capitalism, but because of the specific political and cultural evolution of the Communist Party up to that point.

On one hand, a kind of determinism which sees everything that happens under capitalism as an element in the reproduction of capitalism, until the messianic break represented by revolution; on the other, a kind of voluntarism that says that making that break happen depends on having the right people in charge. I’m saying that things could have been a bit different (and a bit different would have been well worth having) – but that that alternative timeline would have been quite hard to get to, and there were good reasons why we didn’t.

If the Italian Communist Party had embraced the bits of the far left that they liked, while isolating the others, it would likely have eased the tensions substantially.

That’s not quite the argument I was making, although it is a difficult one to summarise in a sentence. My point was that the PCI neutralised the earlier movement by adopting (and softening) their tactics while remaining hostile to the movement itself. In the heyday of Autonomia, there was a huge repertoire of new protest tactics, new forms of organisation and new ways of thinking that the PCI could have helped itself to, all the while maintaining that the groups that had actually come up with them were swivel-eyed extremists who couldn’t be trusted. It wouldn’t have been a great outcome for movement activists, but it would have worked for everyone else. Instead, the party drew in its skirts to remove any suggestion of contamination by new ideas – a bad move in itself, cutting off the party from a huge source of renewal – and essentially defined the movement as criminal. It’s not surprising that a large minority repaid the compliment.

autonomia presaged later social movements which emphasized how society could be changed through reshaping individuals’ consumption habits and ways of associating with each other, rather than state takeover

Autonomia was probably the first movement to emphasise both.

More to say, but that’s enough for now. Thanks again for a thought-provoking review.


Henry 05.16.09 at 8:25 pm

Phil – thanks for the reply and clarification. One question though, which I wanted to work in, but couldn’t figure out quite how to put in there which is: if Autonomia had developed further, and had shaped the CPI’s strategies, would the end result have been a different kind of stasis, the kind of stasis prefigured, I think, in Negri’s recent work, which appears to me to be entirely devoid of any real political program, or a sort of lifestyle Marxism? Here, I think Scott’s “recent review”:http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/015_04/2973 has Negri dead to rights:

The great perplexity involved in reading Negri comes from the sense that surely his concepts must, sooner or later, enter sublunary orbit, and hover over the terrain of politics, and provide something resembling an actual plan of action. But this is not quite what happens. The problem is not that the framework is abstract. Rather, it is that the system is just too beautiful. When actualities run counter to the theory, they are absorbed, and the theory instantly corrects itself by making flaws into features.

… What makes all of this nearly unbearable for the garden-variety leftist reader—and Negri’s work cannot have much of an audience elsewhere on the continuum of political opinion—is that everything grows exponentially woollier the closer it gets to questions of agency. Who, in the system of Empire, has the means and the motive to change things? And why? And how? (Who in particular, that is, for a category so boundlessly capacious as the Multitude embodies the worst features of utopian, counterculturalist, and populist thought, all at once.)

In other words, might the PCI actually have been _worse off_, and _more compromised_ in the longer run (given yer basic framework of analysis), if it had bought into these new kinds of action. Obviously, I am being a bit unfair here – that autonomia gave rise to Negri gave rise to this particular kind of fluffy pseudo-materialist analysis is _not_ to prove that this fluffiness was immanent in the whole thing from the beginning. But I think you could make a decent case that it is one highly plausible way in which the movement would have developed if it had become domesticated earlier.


Phil 05.17.09 at 1:10 pm

One of the really interesting things about Autonomia is the way it gave house-room to some really uncompromising left-Hegelian idealism alongside the most basic and immediate material demands – and, at its best, actually made them fit together. So a slogan like “More pay! Less work!” was a demand which workers could easily get behind, but at the same time it was an expression of the conscious self-valorisation of labour and as such an immanently revolutionary act. It’s a neat trick, to say the least. (I think I should probably have made more of this in the book – I err on the side of letting the points I’m making sit there on the page rather than waving them in the reader’s face.)

Anyway, I’m loath to be too critical of Negri, for a variety of reasons, but I think he was always vulnerable – even at the height of the movement – to the charge of assuming that this kind of linkage between street-level activism and the total socialist transformation of reality must exist, then reasoning back from there. You could say that he jumped the gap between ideal and material by idealising his materialism. But what he never did – and never has done – is float free of street level to the point of arguing that the battle could be won within the realm of ideas or within the political sphere. As Perry Anderson pointed out in the LRB recently, Mario Tronti, Alberto Asor Rosa and Massimo Cacciari – leading figures of operaismo and hence forerunners of Autonomia – ended up not only on the inside of the PCI but denying that there was any outside.

So that’s half an answer – the domestication of a bit of Autonomia actually happened, kind of (although Tronti and co made their move long before Autonomia had got going), and I think the results bear out your suspicion of the idealist tendencies of Autonomia. That said, I think a move from within the PCI to embrace (or reappropriate) some of the stuff that was going on in the late 70s would have had a very different dynamic. Above all it would have broadened the range of permissible forms of protest & political participation, and that in itself would have militated against disappearing into a cloud of fluffy pseudo-materialism. For example, imagine that the party in local government had responded to rent strikes by cutting rents as far as the budget would allow and giving tenants’ groups quasi-official status. You end up with slightly more politically engaged (and happier!) tenants, a tenants’ group whose leaders are regarded as dirty sellouts by any local Autonomists, and – perhaps most important for the current argument – a whole new layer of party activists, who bring their own ideas to the party (pun unintended but felicitous).

Good questions – thanks. And I still haven’t got round to the bit about the PCI’s attachment to the will-you-condemn method, and how well that worked for them…

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