“The workers may have the last word, not those who are on the outside”


Interview with Ferruccio Gambino by Ralf Ruckus (Padua, Italy, April 2018), conducted for the Chinese collection of texts on the struggles and theoretical explorations in the Italian 1960s and 1970s, focusing on operaismo and its critique.

Ralf Ruckus (RR): What started Operaismo?

Ferruccio Gambino (FG): Operaismo arose out of an impulse to renew social relations at a time of a strong industrializing drive—particularly in Northern and Central Italy. This impulse could be summed up as: There must be a better way of living for people who have to sell their lives day-to-day for a wage.

RR: Which social and political changes in the 1950s brought about the new ideas of Operaismo?

FG: Industrialization, migration and the accelerating pace of work and life, not only in the cities but almost everywhere in Italy. In 1947, the Italian Communist Party (PCI), and the Socialist Party (PSI) were thrown out of the post-war antifascist government that had been under the thumb of US money and diplomacy. The resulting government was a coalition formed by a big conservative party and a set of smaller secular parties (excluding the fascists). It tried to make Italy an industrial country and to change the old order that had been centered on an alliance between northern industrial monopolies and southern
landlords. It strictly controlled wages and labor supply through regulating the movement of migrants from the countryside to cities.

These constraints met strong resistance among migrants, who voted with their feet by leaving poor jobs on the land. By the mid-1950s, the old social order based on the separation of country from city began to crack. Half of the Italian population changed their place of residence between 1955 and 1975—some 25 million of 50 million people.

The flow of migration from the rural north, from central Italy and even more from southern Italy to the outskirts of urban centers, especially to Northwestern Italy, was a river of no return. Moreover, in the late 1940s the Italian government had encouraged young people to migrate to South America, Canada and Australia, in the hope that they would not return.

There was also legal migration to Belgium’s coalmines, and after 1954 legal migration to Germany got into its stride. There was also legal and underground migration to France, Switzerland and Great Britain. By the end of the 1950s when industrialization in Italian cities and towns took on momentum, many of the Italian migrants in Europe came back. Quite often, once they returned to Italy, they demanded better working conditions and living standards similar to those they had experienced in central Europe.

After 1947, opposition to government policies revolved around the Italian Communist Party (PCI), and the Socialist Party (PSI). These parties were active in industrial towns and cities in the 1950s, and administered cities and towns better than the rival conservative parties. Even so, migration was so massive that the newly arrived often had to fend for themselves. Many young people did not know where to turn for support. It was in such an atmosphere that by the mid-to-late 1950s discontent grew. But, at the time this discontent had no name.

RR: Can you tell us more about the political crisis around the PCI, who was discontented with the PCI and why?

FG: Young people who took new industrial jobs looked for self-defense and found it—to some extent—not so much in leftist political parties as in the leftist confederation of trade unions (CGIL) and in the middle-of the-road confederation of Catholic trade unions (CISL). However, the leftist CGIL could deliver less than the moderate CISL because of the tough anti-leftist stance that industrialists had taken since the late 1940s.

Furthermore, a part of the young students could not accept the idea of joining the PCI after the Soviet repression of the Hungarian insurrection of 1956. Small groups of dissident Marxists who had been isolated by the two main leftist parties (PCI and PSI) throughout the 1950s got some attention among young workers and students in cities like Rome, Milan, Genova, Florence, Padova, and particularly Turin.

There were also small dissident groups even in several cities where splinter groups of old so-called Bordigists from the Internationalist Communist Party (a split from the PCI’s Gramsci line in the mid-1920s) had survived fascism and had passed their experiences on to young and independent leftists such as Danilo Montaldi and Romano Alquati.

RR: What role did Raniero Panzieri play?

FG: Panzieri was the rallying personality in this ferment of the late 1950s and early 1960s. A young member of the PSI in Rome in the mid-1940s, he went to Sicily to teach philosophy at the University of Messina, at the same time organizing political and cultural activities, and leading peasant land occupations there in 1950. Those occupations, for the expropriation of absentee landowners, were a crucial experience in his life.

In the early 1950s, he arose to prominent positions in the leadership of the PSI. When the party moved to the right (1959–1962) and joined the government coalition, he settled in Turin to work in a publishing house, distancing himself from the PSI. A tireless organizer, he linked up various dissident groups of young leftists from the PSI, PCI and smaller groups throughout the country, preparing them for an uncharted course.

RR: One result of his activity was the journal Quaderni Rossi.

FG: Probably this was his main achievement: gathering scattered young people, giving them the motivation and courage to move beyond the political establishment of the time, and coming out with the path-breaking journal Quaderni Rossi. The first issue was published in 1961. The titles of the first three issues were crystal clear in their attempt to renew the working class perspective: “Working class struggles within capitalist development,” “Factory and society,” “Capitalist plan and working class.”

The Quaderni Rossi militants formed a composite group. Some of them—including Panzieri and Antonio Negri—had received their political training in the PSI, while others, such as Mario Tronti, were members of the PCI, and still others, like Alquati, came from small groups on the left or, like Vittorio Rieser, from the CGIL.

Factory workers were a tiny minority in the group, although the people who carried out work for Quaderni Rossi cultivated all sorts of links to workplaces in the industrial areas, large and small. In all, however, they were probably not more than 60 people, in their large majority male, but with important contributions from women activists such as Anna Chicco, Monica Brunatto, and Liliana Lanzardo.

RR: So when and how did you get involved in these debates and organizing efforts?

FG: It all started in late 1956. A friend of mine and I, both fifteen-year-old students at the high school in a small northwestern city, were weighing up the idea of joining the local PCI. Then the Hungarian insurrection broke out and was crushed, leading us to ask, “What is the point of joining a party with strong links with those who shoot at workers?”

In June 1960, right after finishing high school, I went to Milan and had to work to survive as a university student. I went to classes during the day and worked in the evenings, first at an office and then doing odd jobs, giving private lessons and later doing translations. I worked also during the summer and continued to help my father on the land whenever it was necessary during the high season.

After 1960, I kept in touch with my friend who had moved to Turin. He told me about a new group by the name of Quaderni Rossi. I started reading their material and thought it was very interesting.

RR: What do you consider the most important contributions of Quaderni Rossi?

FG: I have to make this point straight, even at the cost of oversimplification. First comes
subjectivity. Historian Jürgen Kuczynski wrote on the final page of ‘The Rise of the Working Class’ (1967): “… there is no work on the rise and condition of the working class which has not suffered intellectual shipwreck if the author has not been sympathetic towards this class.” Alquati moved that position further: It is impossible to know the human condition in a class society if one is not fighting with the exploited and the oppressed. This was the origin of what he called conricerca. [See Alquati’s “Struggle at Fiat” in volume 1 of the Chinese edition documented here.]

Second, as the factory expands, all social relations in a capitalist society are increasingly shaped by the factory. Mario Tronti added that we had been looking at capitalist development first and after that at working class struggles. He thought that was a mistake and that it’s necessary to turn the problem upside down. At the beginning is the struggle of the working class. [See Tronti’s “Lenin in England” in volume 1 of the Chinese edition documented here.]

Third, Panzieri and Rieser brought forward the position that a subdued class conflict is absorbed and made into a tool of capitalist accumulation.

Finally, one of Panzieri’s arguments was that capital’s use of machines and technological
innovation is not a neutral evolution into progress, but a refined tool of exploitation and
expropriation of the working class. [See Panzieri’s “The Capitalist Use of Machinery” in volume 1 of the Chinese edition documented here.]

In the early 1960s, with mesmerizing economic growth in Europe, they sounded anathema to mainstream common sense. Even in present times it appears that much of the left has not internalized these positions at the international level.

RR: Quaderni Rossi split up in 1963. What were the reasons for the split?

FG: That split was long in the making. Panzieri and most of the people around him in Turin expected the militants to deepen their experience and to study closely key working class situations for some time before reemerging better prepared with a new, politically active group.

A wildcat strike in Turin on July 7–9, 1962, against a yellow trade union that had signed a labor contract unbeknownst to most workers, was a lightning bolt in the night of the Italian political landscape. Turin, then on its way to becoming a city with a population of one-million, was dominated by Fiat auto factories. In 1962 the city became a place of social conflict again.

It has to be noted that the revolt had not only been anticipated by Quaderni Rossi, but had been promoted by its militants in Turin. Leaflets signed by Quaderni Rossi were widely distributed at factory gates by the group’s militants before and during that revolt. The leftist trade unions and the PCI denounced Quaderni Rossi as agents provocateurs paid by the other side. This allegation did not take long to backfire against the PCI, as most people on the left knew that Panzieri and his younger comrades were honest and dedicated people.

Subsequently, about half of the people from Quaderni Rossi, including Panzieri and Rieser, limited their activities largely to research and study. The other half, including Tronti, Negri and Alquati, decided to start a new militant journal by the title of Classe Operaia. [See Negri’s “Crisis of the Planner-State” in volume 2 of the Chinese edition documented here.]

After the split, there was little animosity between the two groups, communication continued between them, and there was room for a reunification as late as 1964. Tragically, Panzieri died of a sudden stroke in October 1964 at the age of 43. The fifth issue of Quaderni Rossi was published in 1965, and then the journal was discontinued.

RR: What were you doing at the time of the split?

FG: In late 1963, my friend in Turin told me there was going to be a split, with those in the Veneto area and a few other cities to leave Quaderni Rossi. I subscribed to their new magazine Classe Operaia and when I received the first issue, ‘Lenin in Inghilterra,’ it produced a real shakeup in my thinking. Tronti wrote that for a long time we looked at capital first and then at the working class struggles, and we were wrong. He argued that we have to turn the problem upside down. My mind started reeling. As a small group of interested students, we read and re-read and made comments about ‘Lenin in Inghilterra’ and did not pay much attention to the idea that a revolutionary tension had to come to the West on the wings of Leninism. The accent was constantly on the potential agent of revolutionary change, a working class that had got cleaned out at the poker of two major wars, and that was again alive, in spite of ruling classes that had invented fascism and Nazism in Europe to annihilate its political strength.

I wanted to get in touch with the people in Classe Operaia, and the first person I found was Sergio Bologna. [See Bologna’s “The Factory-Society Relationship as a Historical Category” in volume 2 of the Chinese edition documented here.] He lived close to the student dormitory in Milan where I stayed—a building where 600 students lived, probably the poorest students in the city. The first meeting I organized for Classe Operaia took place with a few students there in 1965. Then there was an interruption as I got a Fulbright
grant to study in the USA. I went to New York in September 1966. New York at that time
radicalized me even more than Italy could have possibly done. I was in New York in the spring of 1967 with the march of half a million people—led by Martin Luther King—against the Vietnam War. It was unforgettable. Later, in 1967, I went back to Italy.

RR: How big was the group around Classe Operaia?

FG: Classe Operaia as a journal came out from 1964 until 1966 and all in all less than 100 people were involved (not counting northeastern Italy), most of them in their 20s and early 30s, with the exception of Guido Bianchìni and Luciano Arrighétti, two crucial older comrades who had been partisans in the Resistance and longtime militants after the war. By early 1966 it was a group that, although small, was present and active in some large cities and also in smaller industrial areas in Northern and Central Italy. By that time, the Veneto (northeastern Italy) group in Classe Operaia had grown and could count on some 50 trained militants, including many industrial workers. They began to call their group “Potere Operaio, Veneto Section of Classe Operaia”.

It was an ambivalent group, though. Most of its leading members in Rome, including Mario Tronti who was the chief editor of Classe Operaia, had never cut their ties with the PCI completely. When the party tightened its bolts in 1966, Mario Tronti with some of his fellow militants in Rome decided to discontinue both the journal and the group, for good. Then Mario Tronti, whose membership in the PCI had been suspended because of his editorship of Classe Operaia, was fully reintegrated into the PCI.

It was at that point that those who wanted to continue organizing re-grouped as Potere Operaio (PO). That group was born out of necessity by those who did not intend to give up.

RR: You were also involved in PO but, at some point, you disagreed with some of its positions.

FG: 1969 and 1970 in PO were intense and fruitful years for many people, including myself. This time was full of political activities. The most difficult period for myself and some of the others started later, after 1971, as Potere Operaio took a turn to Leninism.

An early sign of that turn to Leninism was an article in the third issue of Potere Operaio with the ominous title: ‘Cominciamo a dire Lenin’ [Let’s begin by saying Lenin]. Quite a few people, including myself, were alien to a Bolshevik style. And there we were, with people who were trying to use Leninism to short-circuit the organizational work.

Crucial for those who had adopted the method of conricerca was the construction of an
organization from the bottom up. According to Leninism the so-called “class consciousness”, a term that at that time we could not find in Marx’s writings (because it is not there), had to be injected into the working class from top down by intellectuals. It was the perversion of conricerca and of its consequent line of conduct by members of the group that shifted the organization’s course.

I stayed in PO despite the mounting political differences, as I thought that this situation could be reversed, maybe with a split. The split came later, in the summer of 1973, when some of us retrenched in several workers’ committees in industrial centers such as Porto Marghera, near Venice, where I was already active.

Meanwhile, there were two crucial developments. One was the feminist movement that began within PO by members, including Mariarosa Dalla Costa. She and several other founders of the group Lotta Femminista had been active in PO since 1968. Their networks with other feminists both abroad and in Italy grew stronger during the period. They became less active within PO and by around 1970 discontinued their engagement. [See Dalla Costa’s “Women and the Subversion of the Community” and Silvia Federici’s “Wages Against Housework” in volume 2 of the Chinese edition documented here and here.]

The second was the rise of other intense international activity to create contacts with small and big groups elsewhere, in France, Switzerland, Germany, and the U.S., notably with Facing Reality, the League of Black Revolutionary Workers, and the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO). Personally, I feel forever indebted to these three groups for my formative years and beyond.

Our troubles increased with the spreading of different Leninist armed groups, such as the Brigate Rosse (BR) in the mid-1970s, and with the repression and arrests of PO people beginning in 1977.

Let me add this here: There is an important difference between groups that adopted agitation, propaganda, and violence against things, and groups like BR that did not hesitate to exert violence against people. The reason why the former PO leadership was incarcerated or had to go into exile was that a PCI-inspired judicial apparatus decided that the most effective way to incriminate an extinct PO and get rid of it for good was to allege that their structure was not dissolved and that it overlapped the leadership of the BR. This allegation became absurd and untenable when the public trials began in 1983–1984. But in the meantime militants had been kept under hard incarceration or had to stay in exile for years.

Meanwhile, PO de facto dissolved between July and December of 1973. Later attempts in Rome to revive it failed. In northern Italy a part of the militants from PO and other groups coalesced in Autonomia Operaia.

RR: Could you say more about the specific conflict with the PO section in Rome?
FG: They were, in their majority, Leninists. The members of a different persuasion had already quit by this time.

Those who had joined PO in Rome originally formed, in my opinion, a group with a specific social composition. It leaned on the appeal and militancy of a northern working class group such as the early PO, but basically it was a group of students with a smattering of workers they had picked up in the outskirts of Rome. Workers had very little to do with the group’s interests and perspectives, let alone its Leninism.

In general, the most important achievement of PO was that it set an example. It proved that students and workers could interact with each other on equal footing, on the base of a political collective activity that involved action and not only thinking—a political collective activity that also involved the development of social skills and taking personal risks in a sick society that remained indifferent if not hostile.

Political differences in the group were made explicit and open without any condescension on either part. Debates could be heated but were respectful. The litmus test came in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when mutual solidarity emerged unabated in prison and exile.

RR: One approach Operaismo offers that differs from Leninism is conricerca. Who started using the term?

FG: Alquati used it first. But it was also, to some extent, a concept of Montaldi, one of Alquati’s early mentors. In a way, there was a commonality that started this new way of approaching the situation of the working class: workers and intellectual militants can rise to the occasion, be on a par, and try to help each other. Both are part of a political effort, and neither is going to prevail. As far as the working situation is concerned, the workers may have the last word—not those who are on the outside—but under the condition of an open debate.

Alquati’s idea was that there is no wisdom descending from above. We don’t have to teach, we have to study the situation in depth before saying anything. You can see that attitude even in the way that Alquati studied the working situation. He perused all those books on time-motion studies, production techniques, in other words: the bosses’ tools. When a militant is dealing with a complex situation he/she has to search every nook and cranny.

RR: Okay, when you go into a struggle or you want to understand the situation of workers, you don’t go there because you want to tell them something but you start listening, observing and understanding before you can make an assessment. That is one aspect. Another is that conricerca is not research in the usual sense of merely trying to understanding a situation, but research specifically aimed at trying to change things.

I think that aspect is important because nowadays some people use the concept and term conricerca to do just science or research and even build their academic career on it. But that was not the original intention. It was seen as a form of organizing, of self-organization, and of intervention in the struggles.

FG: I absolutely agree.

RR: Let’s talk about the similarities and differences between Italy in the 1950s and 1960s and contemporary China. Industrialization, migration, and subsequent workers’ struggles happened in both countries.

FG: One big issue is the separation of most of the population from the countryside and the
dissolution of the old peasant economy. In Italy, such a massive population—massive at least in Italian proportions—came from the countryside to the cities. People came to the north by train with nothing but cardboard suitcases, looking for higher wages—or even just wages of any kind. Centuries of exploitation and oppression took the public stage at long last. They had their dignity and they demanded recognition.

RR: One of the visual impressions of China is migrant workers carrying simple bags, taking trains headed to and from the industrial areas in the east or the south.

You said that in Italy one of the defining factors for the struggles in the 1960s were the people who had migrated after WWII to other European countries where the conditions were better. When some of them returned to Italy, they had higher demands than those who had stayed because they knew what the conditions were elsewhere. In China, migration is mostly internal, but when migrants return to their villages, those who stayed behind see that you can earn a lot more money in the cities and many then migrate too.

What did the struggles of migrant workers in Italy look like?

FG: There was a turning point between 1959 and 1962, which came because there was a real working class movement on the rise in the richest cities in Italy, including Milan. The workers were starting to say, “we are producing all this wealth and what remains with us?” That attitude could, may I surmise, sooner or later affect China, too. It might take years, but the feeling that there is wealth around and that we get very little out of it can produce surprising results.

RR: I think we are in this stage already. There is one difference though. The situation of Italian workers did improve, but very slowly and interrupted by longer periods of crisis. In China you have a much longer period of growth, and it is still continuing, and there have been only a few, relatively short periods of crisis, which might have had some impact on workers but apparently not on their expectations.

We discussed this already: One finding of Operaismo was to put things in the right order. Before people analyzed capital and then the working class, and the operaisti said, “Look at the working class first!” In China, of course, the working class is a driving force of development. 

Any chance for a ‘more advanced’ economy in China has to be built on higher domestic
consumption. That means employers would need to raise wages to an extent where people could actually afford to buy more goods. This is also the demand of many workers. And as you say, they see the wealth and they want a bigger share.

Whether this will become a revolutionary situation in China or produce a workers’ movement similar to that in Italy in the late 1960s and the 1970s will have to be seen.

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