by Guido Borio (2018); written for the Chinese collection of texts on the struggles and theoretical explorations in the Italian 1960s and 1970s, focusing on operaismo and its critique.
During the 1950s and the 1960s, Italy’s big manufacturing industry went through a cycle of modernization. Its products became highly competitive on the international market, exports doubled, and domestic demand increased considerably. Many big enterprises innovated their production methods by introducing semi-automated full production cycles in their plants. This technology increased the division of labor on assembly lines: these processes allowed for a break down of workers’ labor into multiple simple tasks and increased work speed and productivity enormously. The technological and organizational transformation led to substantial changes in terms of both the potentials of neocapitalism, and the composition of the working class. As such, the power relations were newly defined, characterized by high profits and low wages.
Development required and caused a massive migration from the countryside to the industrial cities and centers, from the south to the north of Italy, and from Italy to countries in Central Europe. In the ten years from 1952 to 1962, 15,724,000 people, mostly from the working population, were removed from the registries of the municipalities where they lived, and 15,621,000 were registered in other municipalities. One third of all Italians changed residence, workplace, and ways of life. The society, the social system, and the institutions changed quickly, embodying the antagonism of the multinational enterprise and the mass worker.
Italian operaismo was born in the early 1960s with the activity of Quaderni Rossi [Red Notebooks], a political group around Raniero Panzieri. It was composed of small groups of militants in Turin, Genoa, Padua, Milan, Florence and Bologna which gave life to the magazine. The first issue was published in September 1961. In late 1965, after the sixth issue, the magazine ceased its activity.
The militancy of Quaderni Rossi materialized in the various groups’ theoretical analysis, research and co-research (conricerca), and political intervention. Some written interventions, like Panzieri’s “Capitalist Use of Machinery in Neocapitalism”, Alquati’s “Organic Composition of Capital and Labor Force at Olivetti”, and Tronti’s “Plan of Capital” provoked considerable debate.
1962 – A cycle of struggles linked to the renewal of [collective] contracts began in July. In Turin, 93,000 workers went on strike and blocked production in the auto plants. FIAT responded with a lock-out and signed a separate contract with UIL, a union that collaborated with the management of the multinational company. On July 7, large groups of young workers arrived at the UIL headquarters at Piazza Statuto. The headquarters were destroyed, and, subsequently, the mass of workers clashed with the police forces that were rushed in. As the hours went by, tens of thousands of workers arrived, and the clashes turned into a revolt that continued for two more days with a vast and continuous exchange of demonstrators.
The debate about what had happened at Piazza Statuto led to the definition of different positions on the possibilities and forms of workers’ struggle, as well as the role of the group Quaderni Rossi. These differences were expressed by Cronache Operaie [Workers’ Chronicles] and Potere Operaio [Workers’ Power] in Milan, and Gatto Selvaggio [Wildcat] in Turin. As time went by, opposed positions within the group developed and deepened, which led to the group’s split.
1963 – In July, after an assembly outside the “Petrolchimico” plant in Marghera (Venice), in which demands were made for an increase of wages, production at “Petrolchimico” was blocked for 48 hours on July 4 and 5.
During the days of October 15 and 16 important wildcat strikes took place at FIAT. Initiatives of spontaneous struggle were set up in many factories around Turin and Milan and in the Veneto region. Classe Operaia [Working Class] was born, and Alquati, Asor Rosa, Bologna, De Caro, Negri and Tronti took part. The magazine was the expression of different groups which made interventions in factories in Padua, Mestre, Milan, Turin, Genoa, Rome, and Florence. The first issue was published in January 1964, the last one in March 1967.
1964 – Raniero Panzieri died in Turin on October 9.
1966 – On February 23, 17,000 workers went on strike at FIAT in Turin. On March 23, a general strike and a demonstration with more than 10,000 participants took place in Marghera. Another general strike happened in Turin where factories were blocked to stop production at Riv (producing ball bearings for the auto industry). In June, another general strike took place in Milan.
In 1966, [collective] contracts were signed for metal, chemical, construction, cement, and food workers. The strikes of metal workers and chemical workers were very hard. There were clashes between workers and the police in Milan, Rome, Naples, Genoa, and Trieste. Spontaneous wildcat strikes erupted in many factories in the north.
1967 – The group Potere Operaio was formed in Porto Marghera. The magazine with the same name was distributed with a certain frequency in front of the factories.
From early 1967 until spring 1968, student struggles developed at the universities which involved tens of thousands of students. The student assembly became the political sphere for mass decisions, while all other forms from delegation to mere participation were refused. Study groups and seminars became collective moments of elaboration and analysis. They produced flyers, documents, and drafts that expressed the positions of the movement. However, the main activating forces were the struggles and the opposition vis-à-vis the institutions. Almost all universities in Italy were occupied. There were many clashes with the police which tried to evict the universities.
In December, at the university of Padua, a seminar took place titled “Struggles and the reform of the capitalist state from the October Revolution until the New Deal.” Among the participants were George P. Rawick, a historian working on slavery in the U.S. and the workers’ movement there, the feminist Maria Rosa Dalla Costa, and the Marxist philosopher Mario Tronti. The papers were collected in a volume edited by Antonio Negri and Sergio Bologna, Operai e stato [Workers and the State], published by Feltrinelli in Milan in 1972.
1968 – The student mobilizations got bigger, and the struggle spread in January. The culmination of the occupations and the evictions by the police across all of Italy came in February. On March 1, violent clashes happened in Valle Giulia [in Rome] that lasted for more than two hours. Police buses and trucks were set on fire. 150 students as well as police officers got injured. At the end of February and in March, hundreds of thousands of high school students started the struggle in Italy’s main cities: Rome, Milan, Turin, Palermo, and Bologna. 2,700 students got charged with a crime. The student struggle started with the refusal of academic authoritarianism but soon turned into a movement against the whole institutional system, highlighting how the social and political composition of the youth had fundamentally changed and how mass education had transformed the quantity and quality of the formation of the new intellectual work force.
On April 6, groups of students participated in pickets at the gates of FIAT. 90 percent of blue-collar workers and many white-collar employees abstained from work during a mobilization that demanded the reduction of working hours to 40 per week, the reduction of the work speed, and no more overtime. The work stoppages continued in the departments and teams over the following days.
Mid-April saw the first episode of a unified struggle of students and workers. At Valdagno, during a strike over ten days in the factories of the textile company Marzotto, workers had severe confrontations with the police, and during the struggle several villas of bosses, cars, a hostel, and shops were attacked and burned. The bronze statue of the company founder, Count Gaetano Marzotto, got knocked down. 105 workers were detained and 47 imprisoned.
On December 2, during a general strike of farm workers in Avola (Sicily), violent clashes with the police broke out. Afterwards the police shot and killed two farm workers and injured another ten.
1969 – On April 9 and 10, the inhabitants of Battipaglia (Salerno) rose up against the closure of the only industrial plant in the city. Large police forces intervened, and the cops shot and killed two demonstrators. The following day, the local community attacked the police barracks with bricks and stones, and they burned down the building and many police vehicles. Throughout the day, carabinieri and policemen were hunted down and disarmed.
The workers’ struggle spread to many work places, involving large, medium-sized, and small factories throughout Italy. The workers demanded wage increases and the reduction of the work speed. Those demands constituted the intrinsic political nature of the conflict. The driving force behind this workers’ autonomy were the conflicts which spread in the large semi-automated plants: at FIAT, Alfa Romeo, Siemens, Pirelli, Petrolchimica Montedison, and others.
On April 11, the workers stopped the production at FIAT Mirafiori in Turin and left the factory buildings in a procession onto the streets of a city that was paralyzed by a general strike.
On May 11, hiccup strikes lasting a few hours took place in many departments at FIAT in Turin and again throughout the following days. As there was no regular supply of parts on the assembly lines, they were no longer able to function. The wildcat strikes became a common form of struggle. That new form of struggle allowed the most militant workers to discover that by starting to close down one department there was the possibility to stop production in one workshop and across the whole factory. The struggle spread to other parts of FIAT: in Rivalta, in Lingotto, in Spa, at the plant for large engines, and in the ironworks.
The need to extend the intervention and to communicate what happened at Mirafiori gave birth to the weekly paper La Classe [The Class] on May 1, 1969. The last issue came out in August 1969.
In June, production at Mirafiori was blocked for 15 days. The struggle spread to all other plants. According to FIAT, the loss of production was about 40.000 cars.
On July 3, a general strike was called. At 2 p.m., before the demonstration departed, the police attacked the workers on the entrance to Corso Traiano. A car carrier was placed sideways in the middle of Corso Traiano. As the battle began, the revolt spread to the whole district in the south of the city and in the neighborhoods around Nichelino Moncalieri. The clashes involving tens of thousands of proletarians continued until the following day.
On July 26 and 27, a national conference of workers’ committees and workers vanguards was held in Turin with confrontational debates of various political lines.
On August 28, workers of Pirelli occupied the center of Milan and blocked the management’s tower building. On August 30, a new series of strikes and demonstrations included Pirelli in Milan, FIAT in Florence, Modena and Pisa, Marzotto in Valdagno, Lanerossi in Vicenza, Salamini in Parma, Italsider in Bagnoli, Isa in Villa S. Giovanni, and Zuccherificio in Legnano. Pirelli was blocked again on September 2.
In September, the publication of the weekly magazine Potere Operaio began. The editorial group included Antonio Negri, Giairo Daghini, Franco Piperno, Oreste Scalzone, Mario Dalmaviva, Sergio Bologna, Ferruccio Gambino, Emilio Vesce, and Guido Bianchini. Francesco Tolin was the responsible editor.
There was also a strong mobilization of technicians who were often at the forefront in many factories in Milan, especially at Siemens and Pirelli. Particularly rigorous were the mobilizations at Snamprogetti, at CNEN, at the National Institute for Nuclear Physics, at CNR in Ispra and in the south the technicians at Italsider and Italcantieri in Taranto, Bagnoli, and Castellamare di Stabia.
In September, strikes for the renewal of [collective] contracts started. The workers demanded big and equal wage rises for all. A mass [of workers] was prepared for any type of confrontation. On September 6, two million workers (from the metal, the construction, and the chemical industry) went on strike all over Italy. That was repeated on September 11 when one million metal workers stopped working, and 100,000 thousand of them blocked FIAT. On September 12, one million construction workers went on strike. The Pirelli workers in Milan staged an impressive demonstration and blocked all roads.
The mass workers’ conflicts continued to escalate for two months. Among them were numerous demonstrations inside the factories that blocked Mirafiori on October 8. On October 10, 250,000 metal workers paralyzed Turin. At FIAT the demonstrations inside the plants forced white-collar employees to leave the offices while the police was charging outside the factory. At Pirelli, the police attacked and broke through the picket line. On October 14, violent police attacks on FIAT workers took place at Corso Sempione. Strikes and internal demonstrations spread in Turin. On October 29, the struggle at Mirafiori became very tough. Successive inside demonstrations of thousands of workers forced scabs, white-collar employees, and executives to leave their work posts. 100 cars were destroyed, and the canteen was devastated. FIAT suspended 70 workers and denounced 122 workers and trade unionists. On November 13, 50,000 workers occupied the center and clashed severely with the police.
On November 1, the weekly Lotta Continua [The Struggle Continues] began to be published. It was closed in 1972 only to be followed by a daily newspaper of the same name.
On November 19, the union called for a strike in Milan on the topic “Fight for reform” and organized an assembly at the theater Lirico. During the day, numerous demonstrations and assemblies took place. Following one demonstration, the police passed in front of the theater as the workers left. A police van hit two workers. The police aggression provoked an immediate reaction which triggered severe clashes. In Via Larga, many police jeeps were blocked and destroyed, elsewhere more clashes happened. A policeman, Antonio Annarumma, is pulled out dead from the ravel of vehicles. At the end of the day of clashes, 50 policemen and carabinieri were injured and as many workers and students, 19 were arrested.
On November 28, the unions organized a national demonstration in Rome. 100.000 workers took part. Meanwhile, FIAT in Turin got blocked again by an autonomous strike of 20,000 body shop workers at Mirafiori. On December 4, 200,000 metal workers brought Milan to a standstill with a demonstration. On December 7, the [collective] contract for the chemical industry was signed, one day later so was that of the metal workers in the state sector.
On December 12, a bomb exploded at the Banca dell’Agricoltura in Milan, killing 17 and injuring 88. A fascist anti-proletarian group was responsible for the bomb.
On December 21, the [collective] contract of the metal workers in the private industry was signed.
1970 – In January and February, significant struggles resumed in big factories of Alfa Romeo, Pirelli, Siemens Petrolchimica, and FIAT Rivalta demanding worker level upgrades and the reduction of the work speed.
In May, June and July, important struggles took place in many factories in the Veneto region. At Montedison, the mobilization grew and, on August 3, road blocks were set up in front of the petrochemical plant in order to stop production. On August 4, throughout the region roads were blocked with barricades and the police intervened. The carousel with the jeeps began. Some vans were attacked and set on fire. The police shot and seriously injured two workers. Clashes and barricades went on throughout the night. The street fights continued the following day with the blockade of the overpass in Mestre. The whole region was cut off, railway traffic interrupted.
In October and November, internal mobilizations at Pirella Bicocca, Siemens, Innocenti, Alfa Romeo, and Autobianchi were resumed. In Taranto, 700 workers of the steel plant were suspended. Meanwhile, at the polytechnical college in Turin migrant students blocked the campus to protest against student fees. Elsewhere in Turin university campuses got occupied.
On December 12, during a demonstration at the anniversary of the massacre a year before, the police attacked a demonstration in Milan. A student was killed by a tear gas canister shot at face level. In the following days, demonstrations exploded. The middle school students went on strike, and there were impressive demonstrations in all the main cities.
1971 – Pirelli Bicocca was occupied for one day in response to the plan of the management to subtract a percentage from the payroll for the time not worked.
In May, the occupation of houses spread in Rome. At the beginning, 500 families were involved.
At FIAT, the struggle against the cuts in working hours exploded again. The management fired five workers. On May 17, a massive assembly took place in the body shop. In the following days, more strikes took place, and a demonstration left the factory and crossed Turin. The stoppages continued. On May 29, Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio called for a demonstration in support of the struggle. Several thousand workers and comrades were attacked by the police at Porta Palazzo. What followed was an afternoon of violent clashes, and several police cars were burned. At the end of the day, 54 people were arrested, and numerous policemen and carabinieri were injured.
In June, during the struggle for housing, whole apartment buildings were occupied in Via Tibaldi in Milan. After that there were numerous road blocks and severe clashes with the police that lasted for days. A demonstration of another 30,000 people went through the city in protest against eviction attempts. In Rome, more than 100 families occupied flats in two districts of the capital city.
1972 – Numerous autonomous factory assemblies were set up: in Milan at Alfa Romeo in Arese (with the journal Senza Padroni [Without Bosses]), at Sit-Siemens, at Pirelli on the initiative of the Struggle Committee, in Veneto on the initiative of the Autonomous Assembly of Porto Marghera (with the journal Lavoro Zero [Zerowork]), in Rome on the initiative of the Workers’ Collective of the Polyclinic and the Workers’ Committee at Enel.
A critique of “operaismo” and more in general of Marxism from the viewpoint of women’s unpaid housework was developed by Maria Rosa Dalla Costa (Padova) and Selma James (London) in their feminist manifesto The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (published in English by Falling Wall Press in Bristol in 1972).
On December 3, a meeting took place with autonomous workers’ organizations from many Italian cities.
1973 – This was followed in January by a second meeting in Florence with militants from Milan, Rome, Turin, Naples, Florence, and Marghera. In March, there was another conference with 4,000 militants in Bologna.
In February and March, a new big cycle of struggles started at FIAT in Turin, with internal demonstrations, acts of sabotage of production, and attacks on bosses. At the height of the conflict, after an internal demonstration with 10,000 workers on March 29, Mirafiori got occupied for three days. The entrances were under the control of the workers who had stopped production.
In March, the first issue of the magazine Rosso [Red] was published as a biweekly by Gruppo Gramsci. In December, it took on the role as the “newspaper inside the movement” and became the expression of the group Autonomia Operaia [Workers’ Autonomy].
In September, the first issue of the magazine Primo Maggio [Mayday] was published, edited by Sergio Bologna.
1975 – On April 16, a student, Claudio Varalli, was killed by a fascist in Milan. On the following day, 20,000 young people clashed with the police and the carabinieri. The police decided to use motor vehicles to attack and disperse the demonstration. One of the heavy vehicles of the column ran over and killed the young Giannino Zibecchi. In many Italian cities, tens of thousands of people took the streets, with repeated clashes and attacks on the headquarters of the fascists. Rodolfo Boschi was killed by the police in Florence. In Turin, Tonino Micciché, a militant from Lotta Continua, was killed by a guard during a demonstration for the right to housing.
In December, the first issue of the journal Zerowork was published in New York.
In the theoretical debate in Italy, the understanding of a new class composition emerged, with the passage from the mass worker to the social worker, a new antagonistic figure connected to the social factory. Significant contributions to that hypothesis were formulated by Antonio Negri in Proletari e stato ([Proletarians and the State] 1976), in the magazine Rosso, and by Romano Alquati who also explored the topic of tertiarization in the essays L’Università e la formazione –l’incorporazione del sapere sociale nel lavoro vivo ([The University and Formation – The Incorporation of Social Knowledge in Living Labor] 1976) and Università di ceto medio ([Middle Class University] 1978).
1977 – In February and March, the student movement exploded again. In Bologna and Rome, tens of thousands of students occupied the university and clashed with the police. On March 11, a student was killed by the police in Bologna. The whole city center was devastated during clashes and looting, and the police intervened with armed vehicles. More clashes occurred on March 12 in Bologna and in Rome, where a demonstration with 100,000 people occupied the center and clashed with the forces of law enforcement. There were also severe street fights in Milan and Turin. During many demonstrations firearms were used on both sides.
1978 – Brigate Rosse [Red Brigades] kidnapped Aldo Moro, the chairman of the largest political party in Italy, Democrazia Critiana [Christian Democrats] on March 16. He was killed on May 9.
1979 – On April 7, the public prosecutor’s office in Padua ordered the arrest of 19 militants in Padua, Milan, Turin, and Rome. Among them were Antonio Negri, Guido Bianchini, Oreste Scalzone, and Mario Dalmaviva. They were accused of subversive association and the formation of armed groups called Potere Operaio, Autonomia Operaia, and Brigate Rosse. The court case took place years later, and many were acquitted.
In June and July, a new cycle of workers’ struggles started in connection with the renewal of the [collective] contracts for the metal workers. In Turin, in the plants of FIAT Mirafiori, Rivalta, and Spa Stura Lingotto the conflict exploded again with inside demonstrations, sudden strikes, and attacks on bosses and white-collar employees. Production was out of control for months. In the last week of July, the workers’ demonstrations left the factories and blocked the cities, the entrances to the factories, and the ring roads.
On October 9, 61 workers were fired in plants at Mirafiori, Rivalta, and Lancia Chivasso. Most of them were militants from the autonomous committees, the internal networks which had promoted the struggles in the departments also in opposition to the trade unions. The dismissals were presented as part of the struggle against terrorism. In the following twelve months, more than 6,000 workers were fired individually, those considered absenteeist, non collaborative, and insubordinate towards the bosses. The FIAT management tried to change the power relations so it could carry out a profound organizational and technological restructuring of the automotive sector.
1980 – On September 10, negotiations with the metalworkers union broke down in Rome. FIAT announced the dismissal of 14,000 employees. On September 11, the workers of the first shift at Mirafiori declared an unlimited strike. After 35 days of pickets and interruptions of production, a contract was signed by the union and FIAT in Rome. The dismissals were revoked, and a fund for 23,000 workers was set up called “Cassa Integrazione” [a kind of benefit for workers released from work, allegedly temporarily]. At the workers’ assemblies the secretaries of the three big unions participated in person and pushed for the approval of the contracts at all costs. Most of the workers had a negative opinion, though. The three union bosses Lama, Benvenuto, and Carniti risked being beaten up by the furious workers and were forced to flee, ingloriously protected by the police. None of the 23,000 workers who were covered by the Cassa Integrazione ever returned to work in the factory.
During those years of social conflict, 1,986 militants were arrested, 6,000 were subject to criminal investigations, 1,000 were injured, and 370 were killed. According to the data provided by ISTAT, in 1969, 302 million working hours were lost, and 7,500,000 employees participated in the conflicts. In 1979, 185 million hours were lost, and 15,000,000 employees participated. State repression led to thousands of arrests after April 7, 1979, while a part of those wanted by the police went into exile.