1968: Memoirs of a Workerist


This essay was originally published in a special 1988 edition of Il Manifesto for the twentieth anniversary of 1968. A personal reflection on the tumultuous events of the years around 1968, Sergio Bologna surveys the political terrain of the time, focusing in particular on worker struggles in the factories, the growing student movement, and the intellectual debates that defined the various radical organizations struggling to make revolution in Italy.

Old Marzotto

’68 in the factories was predominantly a Milanese phenomenon, symbolized by the Pirelli CUB.1 Fiat took off a year later, while other factories, like Montedison in Porto Marghera, FATME in Rome, or Saint Gobain in Pisa, more or less followed the fortunes of their respective external “potoppist” groups, albeit recalcitrantly. The ’68 of the Pirelli CUB prefigures the movements and the rank-and-file committees of the 70s, whereas the ’68 of Valdagno, for example, looks rather like the belated explosion of a “company town” stuck under an anachronistic feudal-style despotism.

I had spent a few days in Valdagno in ’65. Someone told me that the memory of Old Marzotto, who would send his foremen to pick up girls from the departments, was still fresh. His sons, who were automobile enthusiasts, would race down the avenue leading from their villa to the factory as though they were in Monza. At the exit of the factory there was a sentry box with a guard.2 The workers, as they left, were compelled to look him in the eye, since he selected those who were to be searched with a subtle, almost imperceptible gesture of the head. Men on one side, women on the other. I don’t remember if, at that time, the women had already won the right to be searched by other women.

Valdagno had no other social or physiological rhythm than that of the factory. In the evenings the town was deserted, dark, and already people spoke of the Marzotto factory’s irreversible pollution of the Agno river. This was 1965. When, several months later, I took over Umberto Segre’s post at the University of Trento and ran into Mauro Rostagno – whom I had known previously through some small workerist groups in Milan in ’63 – and met his partner, Marianella, and Checco Zoi, Paolo Sorbi, and other members of the “Historical Group” of the Faculty of Sociology, they almost refused to believe me when I told them about Valdagno. The explosion of rage at Valdagno happened without the students; they arrived from Trento after the fact.

Another story that should be told, because it anticipates the current stories of ACNA and Farmoplant, and because students were decisive in that case, is the story of SLOI, a cancer-factory which produced antiknock agents for gasoline.3 There was a comrade in the “Historical Group” whose father, who worked at SLOI, died of cancer during those years. The intervention of the students, and of the odd brave local trade unionist, led to the SLOI case and to the factory’s closure.

Direct Action in the Factory

The years 1965/66 were the last years of the type of direct action in the factory that was born with Quaderni Rossi. In Milan, this intervention had been more systematic than elsewhere because there were so many factories, and none exercised the hegemony of Fiat in Turin, or Montedison in Marghera. Our intervention produced few organizational results. These were the years of Classe Operaia, the only publication which, during that period of violent restructuring and repression, was publishing data on the situation in the factories. More important than the Classe Operaia journal were the pamphlets and posters produced by the local groups, especially those from Lombardy. I think – I hope – that they are still preserved at the Feltrinelli Foundation Library.

In any case, we contributed to agitating the waters. I remember a spontaneous strike at the Innocenti auto plant in Lambrate with a march at the Prefettura, in May 1965. I remember the departmental struggles at Siemens in Piazzale Lotto, at Autobianchi in Desio, at Farmitalia and Alfa Portello. We had comrades in Como, Varese, Pavia, Monza, and Cremona who took action at other large factories in Lombardy. But we didn’t know anyone at Pirelli. What was the outcome of this mole’s work? A “knowledge” of the factory in all its articulations, the likes of which no one in Italy possessed at the time – not in Turin, where they were crushed by the automobile monoculture, or in the Veneto, or in Genoa. The industrial panorama of the Milan area was more diverse, more sensitive to innovation, and more open to foreign industry.

The Theory of the Mass Worker

With the end of Classe Operaia, action in the factories also ceased. I redirected my political-intellectual energy toward teaching in Trento, collaborations with Quaderni Piacentini, and swapping contacts with groups in the U.S. and in Germany. In September 1967 (the student explosion was in the air) Toni Negri announced a seminar in Padova to celebrate his recent nomination to receive tenure. This is the seminar in which we fine-tuned the theory of the mass worker. I consolidated the fruits of my years of study on worker’s councils and gave a paper on the difference between the figure of the professional worker and the mass worker, that would be published five years later by Feltrinelli in Operai e Stato.

In the winter of 1967/68, the student revolt exploded and involved, in the beginning, a clear rejection of workerist theories. In the more politically mature universities, where the student groups had been influenced by memories of Panzieri from which they needed to free themselves to reaffirm their new identity and to fully own the anti-authoritarian theories of student power, their negation was particularly violent. The “Historical Group” of Trento thus violently broke the association that had existed between us.

Quaderni Piacentini was fascinated with Frankfurt and Berlin, Krahl and Dutschke, and fully disregarded – as did the entire Italian movement – the important contribution that the German struggle received from the technical-scientific schools, as well as the critique of science and technology they set in motion, the so-called “engineers’ movement,” and their refusal of their profession. In short, all those seeds that, in the 70s, blossomed into political ecology, were ignored. I had heard of these things because the contacts I had with the RFT were the outcome of Lelio Basso’s old acquaintances, and so fell within the purview of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the trade unionist left. In ’67 I had taken another trip to Germany which had broadened these contacts. It was on that occasion that I met – through Renate Siebert – Angela Davis, who was living in an old, rotten factory building in Frankfurt at the time. The trade unionist left was carefully following the “engineers’ movement,” since it directly involved the skilled work-force of future production.

The New res publica

The beginning of ’68 elicited a strange feeling in me: on the one hand I felt a certain isolation, as though the student movement and its ideologies needed to “reject” the culture with which I identified; on the other, I perceived that an expansive space had opened within which it was possible to take flight. It was as though a new, yearned-for res publica had come into being and, like the old one, had banished me. However, my feeling was predominantly that the future was on our side. From the old group of Classe Operaia I could expect but little. Some had moved away. Others were reactivating themselves as citizens in the new res publica, and a significant portion had been swallowed up by the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Only Toni Negri continued to think big. He was, it seems to me, more obsessed with the idea that it was necessary to convert a “visible” part of the student movement to the workerist cause; so, he would chase after it, while simultaneously pursuing the goal of strategic alliances with some of its prominent leaders.

The Refusal of Exploitation

I had a different outlook, which can be summed up thus: let the students go their own way. If they must kill the fathers, so be it. If they want to relate to the working class, good; if not, then it’s all the same. In any case, they have done a lot – perhaps even too much. The key wasn’t to bring the students in front of the factories, since they had usually got there on their own.

In Trento, work at SLOI or Michelin had preceded ’68; in Turin, both in Palazzo Campana and Molinette, the students of medicine had immediately asked themselves how they should relate to Fiat. The problem was different: it wasn’t to bring the students in front of the factories, but to bring the factory working class toward the “refusal of work,” understood as a refusal of the dirtiest mechanisms of exploitation. It was therefore necessary to collaborate to create a new sector of factory-worker leaders capable of supplanting the crumbling union structures. In short, I was convinced that, even if every Italian university had covered the walls with the words “workers’ power,” nothing would have happened in the factories. The challenge was to prevent the student movement – which, by now, was recognized as a new institution by the workers’ movement (i.e. by the PCI and CGIL, the Italian General Confederation of Labor) – from being taken over by a conception of work that was borrowed from the worst Togliattism and that affirmed a working class culture that deliberately ignored the contribution made by the workerist current and continued to regard it as heretical.

I was fed up with being called a “provocateur, paid by the Americans” by the Communists of the Internal Commission every time I tried to hand out a Classe Operaia leaflet in front of a factory in Sesto San Giovanni. The last thing I needed was for the students to join in! I would have preferred anything rather than that they start concerning themselves with the working class.

The French May changed everything.

After the French May

From that moment on, the “workers’ question,” sidelined or granted only secondary importance by the students’ movement, came back to the fore. I threw myself headlong into it as soon as I heard the first radio communiqués on the clashes in Nanterre and at the Sorbonne. Just the time necessary to raise some money, and Giairo Daghini and I took off for Paris with a car so full of spare gasoline that it looked like a bomb. We were accompanied by Alberto Savinio’s son, Ruggero.4 It was a trip filled with enthusiasm and cold showers.

Arriving at the border anxious about the policemen’s questions and all that gas and finding only a single large banner reading “la douane aux douaniers (customs to the customs officials),” our spirits rose. Then, from the border all the way to Paris, we saw no trace of revolution, or of anything unusual; provincial France carried on unperturbed. We were floored. But our arrival in the Latin Quarter, with its barricades still smoking, and a psychedelic night spent wandering through that incredible landscape of the Sorbonne brought us back to the stars. We stayed in Paris until the end. Then we wrote an article for Quaderni Piacentini which perhaps served to reintroduce workerist analytic categories into the movement.

The Class Universe

The French May was a watershed in the collective imagination. However, concretely, it couldn’t be taken as an example of the worker-student relation. It had demonstrated that the working class was an active player, nothing more. It had restored legitimacy to the “workers’ question” in universities and in the foundational structures of the movement, but nothing more. How to explain that the circuits of working class memory were tortuous and convoluted, and the history of defeats, disappointments, and betrayals even heavier? How to convey that the languages, codes of communication, symbols, and imaginary were something else entirely? To engage in dialogue with this class universe, one needed knowledge and an understanding that only those of us who had participated in the workerist laboratories of the 60s had begun to systematically organize.

During the first months of ’68, before the French May, I had completely abandoned the terrain of debate of the student movement for the reasons mentioned above. I had started to work on the technicians, i.e. on that new layer of the work force, of the new industrial professions, which had begun to develop, especially in Lombardy, in the high-tech industries (electronics, telecommunications, fine chemistry, engineering, etc.). I had some limited personal experience in this area: for two years I had worked at Olivetti in the electronics department (in the press and advertising office) and had been there during the first struggles of a group of technicians – those responsible for the maintenance of the junk Elea Olivetti computers.

It was in that context that the hypothesis – scrapped subsequently by the Milanese Trade Union Chamber – first emerged of creating a union for technicians. At the time, the terrain of analysis of the new industrial professions was already polluted with the first post-industrial theories, according to which blue-collar workers were becoming extinct and were being replaced by white-collars. These post-industrial theories found a broad echo in the workers’ movement, the student movement, and the culture of the left more broadly. To contrapose to these theories an analysis of the situation centered instead on the complementarity of white- and blue- collars – that is, on the political and historical unity of the work-force rather than on its separation and reciprocal exclusion – was not easy. For the moment, we – less famous than Mallet and Wright Mills5 – won, and were able to postpone by a decade the fortunes of post-industrial theories in our country. We won because our orientation made it possible to create initiatives and movement, whereas the other created only paralysis and sociological chatter. The University of Trento was an inexhaustible reservoir of human and social types. It was a university where all those who had been deprived of their need for education by the rules imposed by the Italian higher-education system could find satisfaction, even if only partially.

The Worker-Students

So, there were many worker-students.6 The first wave of contestation had somewhat marginalized them. They had not been able to participate in all the assemblies and occupations – i.e. in the “full time” phase of the movement – and consequently were less influenced by the charisma of certain leaders, whom they nonetheless esteemed and respected. Their problem was twofold: to verify if “student power” had translated into a greater or lesser power as working-students, and to attempt to reproduce, in their workplaces, some of the spaces of freedom, discussion, and negotiation that they had witnessed emerging within the university. But to accomplish this, the theories of student power were of little help; rather, they needed theories of the new technicians.

I had distributed some papers on the subject, and some of the ideas therein were published in the March 1969 issue of Quaderni Piacentini in an article co-authored with Ciafaloni. These papers, which revisited themes I had dealt with in my university lectures in Trento, circulated, and contributed to the discussion which was developing – independently by now – in the high-tech factories. Thus, the association was born with a group of employees from Snamprogetti in San Donato Milanese, some of whom were enrolled in Sociology in Trento and had added my course to their curriculum. They constituted one of the first base committees of ’68 in this sector of high-tech factories.7

Against Entryism

In Milan, despite the swarms of little groups throughout the 60s, there were few which could boast of incorporating factory workers. In addition to us, there were the remains of the PCd’I-(ml), which included a few solid cadres of workers, and there was the group of the PSIUP, which practiced entryism in the CGIL and would eventually give life to Avanguardia Operaia, and which today constitutes the old framework of DP.8 We didn’t agree with their Trotskyist entryism and were more sympathetic to the M-L because, within the factories, they were kamikazes, like us. Nonetheless, with the PSIUP (later AO, later DP) group, there was more of a “Milanese” solidarity that came to light when the real workers’ ’68 began in September. They had comrades in the high-tech factories, and their discourse on the technicians had many points in common with our own. When they began to extend their influence on the student movement of the Milan Polytechnic, the experience of those technicians who were already involved in the production process became important for the future engineers, chemists, and physicists.

Here, though, it’s necessary to make an important qualification. The big news in the student movement after the exhaustion of the first wave of contestation in the winter of 1967/68 was the progressively more informed participation in the movement of the technical-scientific schools (Physics and Medicine in Padova; Medicine in Turin; Physics and Engineering in Rome; Engineering, Chemistry, and Agriculture in Milan; Physics in Pisa; the Experimental Laboratory of Biology in Naples, and so on). The documents produced by these schools had a different depth, and reading them today is genuinely instructive. This was due to the fact that they downplayed the theme of Öffentlichkeit (publicness) specific to the first student movement and instead privileged the issues of science, technology, and, therefore, of production. Furthermore, we find, in the questions raised by the technical-scientific departments, the big themes of the 70s and 80s: health, the role of doctors, the expropriation of knowledge on the part of capital incorporated in machinery, and so on. Some of the documents from back then are poor and characterized by great naïveté. Others (for example, those – in whose formulation Franco Piperno participated – of the Scientific schools in Rome, published in the Linea di Massa pamphlet, “School and Capitalist Development”) retain their freshness and foresight to this day.

Guerilla in the Departments

In August, Daghini and I went on a nice fishing holiday in the archipelago of Kornati, convinced that in September there would be much to do for those who, like us, had a workerist background. The real ’68 was yet to begin in the factories.

None of us contributed, directly or indirectly, to founding the Pirelli CUB. It represented a turning point inasmuch as it grew, matured, and developed entirely internally to class memory. The external influence of groups, ideologies, and single theorists and activists appears to have been nonexistent. Its leaders had been factory union-leaders with a history in the CGIL and the PCI; they were not “new men,” young immigrants. Pirelli Bicocca didn’t have the mobility of Fiat’s work-force – it was a “Milanese” factory through and through, so close to Sesto San Giovanni that it was almost part of it, but sufficiently at its outskirts to be a metropolitan factory, like Siemens, Alfa Portello, and Borletti.

The Pirelli CUB was a masterpiece of workers’ autonomy which, regrettably, lasted no more than a year and was swept away in the Fall of ’69 by the escalation of the clash, and the extreme levels to which it had been brought. The Pirelli CUB and the struggles which it contributed to directing, coordinating, and initiating revealed themselves immediately to be excellent instruments for the departmental guerrilla, albeit not ones capable of withstanding a phase of national confrontation.

As is well known, the Pirelli CUB did not initially look for allies, neither amongst the students, nor in the workers’ movement; it sought them out once the first internal divisions manifested, which people said were the consequence of personality cults, but were really caused by differing perspectives. Thanks to a previous contribution, I was able to establish a relationship of trust with one of the founders of the Pirelli CUB, Raffaello de Mori, and we collaborated on the Linea di Massa pamphlet, “Struggles at Pirelli,” which contains an in-depth reconstruction of ’68 at Pirelli and of the Bicocca CUB.

Immediately afterward, I started working with the comrades of S. Donato Milanese to draw up the other Linea di Massa pamphlet, “Technicians’ Struggles,” on the experience of Snamprogetti. I consider these “scrivener’s” experiences as valuable as those of any oral historian. Since these pamphlets served, at the time, to make ’68 in the factories known throughout Italy and, thereafter, to preserve its memory, I am proud to have collaborated in their production and consider this experience to be, qualitatively, on a par with that of Quaderni Piacentini, Classe Operaia, or Classe.

The “Self-Reduction” of Production

The experience of the Pirelli CUB was contagious, but replicating it in other factories proved difficult. Many other unitary base committees existed only on paper. The significant contribution of the Pirelli CUB was not to be measured at the level of organizational formulas, but at that of strategy contained in that particular type of refusal of work, consolidated in the demand/realization of the abrogation of incentive pay, in having indicated the road of egalitarianism against merit-based wage-increases and the system of promotions/whims of the ruling class, and in having located the types of goals that could be achieved without negotiation; the workers’ capacity to actualize a different system for the organization of work and a different climate in the factory, without negotiation, had been reaffirmed. As Battista Santhià reminded Marco Revelli in an interview in 1974, such complex forms of the self-reduction of production – forms requiring an extraordinary participation and unity on the part of all workers, technicians included – had not been seen since the Resistance. Twenty years later, I am inclined to think that the greatest merit of the Pirelli CUB was never to have erected monuments to itself. For this reason we tend to forget it today – perhaps because it didn’t create any second-rate ideologies, make anyone’s fortune or elevate anyone to fame.

Workers and Technicians

As I’ve already mentioned, in February 1968 there had been the first workers’ and technicians’ strike at Siemens. From that moment on, the agitations, initiatives, and the constitution of the so-called “study groups” had started up again in all the factories. It was the first time in the postwar period that the strata of the workforce which had previously been deployed in an anti-worker fashion and had hitherto been the social vehicle of ruling-class discipline in the factory broke their dependence and chose the path of class solidarity. This would not have been possible if the “new industrial professions” had not emerged within these strata.

The departmental struggles at Pirelli had begun before the holidays and resumed in September. At Snamprogetti the struggle and the occupation of the offices broke out in mid-October and were protracted until mid-November, when the students occupied the Milan Polytechnic. These three months – September, October, November – express the ‘68 of the Milanese workers in all its complexity. All the accumulated energies, the imaginative thrusts, theoretical reflections, and new codes of communication fused in a synthesis which can only be defined as “new political class composition” where everyone was present – students and workers, technicians and employees – in the heart of industrial production and the heart of the formation of the skilled industrial workforce. This is the true Milanese ’68, devoid of charismatic leaders – students or workers – and free of vanguard factories, avant-garde departments, or hegemonic tension on anyone’s part. It is a complex system of synergies – an articulated culture, whose internal connections are, in some respects, difficult to grasp, and which is profoundly different from the class culture in Turin.

The Pirelli CUB gives a strong forward thrust and then disappears, becoming collective patrimony, and the same happens to the Siemens study groups, the Permanent Assembly at Snam, the occupation of Architecture, etc. The 30th of November, fifteen days after the occupation of the Polytechnic, the first national Congress of the Technical-Scientific Schools occurs. The theme is the usual one: reproduction and expropriation of knowledge from the school to the factory.

Two and a half months later, on the 15th of February, 1969, there would be, in Milan, the first national protest of technicians and employees from the big industries.

Settling Accounts with the Lawyer

Thus, while I was busy putting the finishing touches on the Linea di Massa pamphlets, a year which had begun with feelings of marginalization closed with the feeling to be the winner.

What we had to do in the following months was clear to me: ignite the struggle at Fiat, and give it a different sign from all preceding struggles. Only then would we change class relations in this country. We had to do it – we had to succeed – even without the students, without Pirelli, without the technicians. As workerists, we had to settle accounts with the Lawyer.9

Lanfranco Pace had participated in the Polytechnics’ Conference as an observer and trusted envoy of the leading group of the Roman Student Movement. It was the first time that I had met one of those strange Roman animals, who surveyed an assembly with the same look of conquest with which they checked out an attractive woman. Toni Negri had been back in action for a while and was going back and forth between Padova, Rome, and Milan, trying to convince the Roman Student Movement of Piperno and Scalzone to unite with the workers of Marghera in order to then forge an alliance with us in Milan. So, he would tell us that 100-200 cadres were ready in Rome for action in the factories, while all the while telling them that we held Siemens and Pirelli, ENI and Alfa Romeo, and when he was really fired up he would throw in the Milan Expo as well.

I was very wary and knew that the workers at Marghera reasoned with their heads. By November or December 1968 I had started to be active again – that is, I had resumed contact with all the groups in Lombardy and Piedmont that I had noted in my agenda or remembered off the top of my head. To each I preached the necessity – the urgency – of doing something about Fiat, or, at the very least, of recognizing that ’68 had been a prologue and that the bulk of things was yet to come and could only happen at Fiat. I encountered suspicion, and a certain skepticism. The general tendency was to fall back on ’68, to fix some of its forms and make do. In addition, I was reproached for lacking coherence: “What? You who had theorized workers’ autonomy as internal evolution are now trying to organize an external intervention?!”

La Classe, a Workerist Paper

The disappointments I experienced in this recruitment campaign convinced me to accept Toni Negri’s proposals, all the more so because they had become appealing: a newspaper. Thus, I ended up believing, and making people believe, that what he was saying about the rest of Italy was true. The newspaper was La Classe. Thanks mostly to Scalzone, whom I had yet to meet, the paper was ready to be distributed in Piazza Duomo on the first of May. I wrote the editorial, and called it “To Fiat!”. We were showing our hand, but no one would believe us – the usual know-it-alls. On top of that, the fact that some old workerists were getting back together to organize a newspaper set in motion a circuit of suspicion that made many Milanese scenes with which I had longstanding relationships of trust inaccessible to me in short order.

I repeated many of the tours that I had already made during the first recruitment campaign, especially in the provinces. Instead of increasing my credibility, as I had anticipated, the fact that I returned with a newspaper created more mistrust. It was the party syndrome, I think, which played tricks on us. Actually, short of thinking that Negri and Piperno were Lucifer and Beelzebub, there was no legitimate reason to reject, a priori, a movement-based Fiat project, rather than a group-based one. The departmental struggles at Fiat, as everyone knew, had started expanding, offering proof of a unique continuity. Thus, despite the failures, my obsession grew.

Something New at Fiat

The reason why I now deemed the intervention of an external organization as both possible and desirable derived from the convictions that had matured during the Milanese autumn, when it seemed to me that, both on the part of the students and at the factories, certain cultural obstacles had been overcome and a thread of common interests had been identified. In short, it seemed to me that, in just a few months, ’68 had undergone a huge qualitative leap. In the second place, it seemed that, if something qualitatively new were to occur at Fiat, we would need a political-cultural tool to transmit its memory, to translate the event into language, culture, opinion, and to tune into the wavelength of Öffentlichkeit. The “new” could only be decoded by someone who knew the past well.

Once more, help came from the enormous human reserve of Sociology at Trento. Not, this time, in the form of worker-students, but in the guise of someone who seemed to have been sent by fate: Mario Dalmaviva, also a student at Trento, and a transplant to Turin from Bergamo. We saw each other a few times and I maybe succeeded in dragging him to a Classe editors’ meeting once, but nothing more. All it took was for Mario to get four or five basic concepts on the Fiat working class in his head, and he took off to agitate in front of the gates at Mirafiori. We had ignited an explosive situation: within a week there were daily assemblies of 70 to 100 workers – as many as could fit in the nearby bars – at the end of the shift.

During those days, Mario was backed up by a few personal friends, one or two of which were enrolled, like him, in Sociology at Trento – people who had never seen a factory and probably never read a line of the sacred workerist texts. But they all had something more important in them: for personal, family, cultural, or whatever reasons, they felt that the liberation of the Fiat workers was part of their story. So, at the gates they knew how to talk much better than most Eega Beeva worker-philes, myself included, of course.

Once they had set off, this group of comrades, stupefied by the responsibility that had fallen on their shoulders, turned around to see if those who had egged them on were still behind them. But they were disappointed. I myself arrived almost ten days after the event, anticipated by Giairo. In Turin, Alberto Magnaghi and other comrades just out of the PCI, like Franconi, were the only ones to lend a political and organizational hand.

A New Political Class Emerges

In the meanwhile, the movement had moved to the Molinette hospital, one of the spaces liberated by the students from the scientific departments. I wrote the first series of pamphlets – those which launched the “lotta continua” (fight on) slogan and which were partially reprinted in Balestrini’s Vogliamo Tutto. The cast of characters produced by that first nucleus of workers from the mixed assembly was truly full of surprises. The wealth of political experiences of those people who, before landing at Fiat, had seen half the world – they were all southerners – was without equal among my encounters and associations of previous years. I only befriended Alfonso Natella though, who was brilliant, and the most easy-going. I remember one of his maxims: “Chaos is freedom!” None of our friends and comrades were visible on the horizon, not even with a telescope. Nonetheless, the Veneto sent us another extraordinary character, also new to the movement and with no baggage other than his profound Irpinian drive for redemption and his great communicativeness: Emilio Vesce.

Surprised, and a little annoyed, the Turin movement and political-intellectual class initially withdrew, almost as though to await our failure. Then Sofri arrived and, having understood the situation immediately, convinced them to dive in and take on managing the events. The Romans arrived last, once Molinette’s hospitality was at its end and we were being welcomed by the Architecture department. They made an important contribution and took on the management of the worker-student assembly along with the future cadres of Lotta Continua. I withdrew with Vesce to follow the action at Fiat plant in Rivalta and ended up writing the report on Rivalta for the Convention of committees, vanguards, and who knows what else, in late July.

The chronicle could go on, but it would be necessary to interrogate ourselves at length about those months at Fiat. To read that experience merely as a prehistory of the groups is to impoverish it, even if the pre-eminence accorded by some to the problem of “management” ended up distorting the initiative and transferring it from the terrain of working-class autonomy to that of accountability between gangs. The prevalent interest that ended up emerging was not that of a new collective subject, but of a political class still in formation, running for management of the class.

Impracticability of a Dream

Perceiving this contradiction determined my subsequent obsessions. I played a decisive role in striving for the constitution of Potere Operaio, where I tried to make credible the proposition of a “working-class direction of organization.” But I didn’t know how to go beyond articulating a desire. It took me a long time to recognize the defeat, and the impracticability of such a proposal within a structure like PO. But it would have been the same had I been in Lotta Continua. or Avanguardia Operaia. So I left PO only a year later. It would have been better to recognize the historicity of my proposal in September ’69, when, writing the editorial for the first issue of the journal, “From La Classe to Potere Operaio,” I was still stubbornly determined to pursue a vision of the movement similar to the one that had fixed itself in my heart during the Milanese autumn in ’68.

Do I regret founding Potere Operaio? No. I recognize that it was a mistake to think of making it into an instrument of working class leadership. Since it wasn’t feasible, my political standpoint was no better than the others. In fact, it probably contributed more to the group’s paralysis than to its development during that first year. So much so that when I left – as did many comrades who had shared the experience of the Milanese ’68 – PO started to grow, to find its identity, and, with it, a different drive. No, my determination was no better than Toni’s or Franco’s. Rather, they were right to say that the terrain of working class conflict had moved so far forward that dwelling on the value of the as yet undeveloped content of ’68 was useless. Having recognized this, I consider my concerns to have been legitimate, not as regards PO, but as regards the entire political class of the groups. Once out – albeit a little disoriented at first – I thought I could contribute to realizing my goals by working at the level of the rank-and-file people and offering my experience and my knowledge to local groups.

Primo Maggio

From this sprung the subsequent organization of the so-called “service facilities for the movement” [strutture di servizio al movimento]. The relationship with Giulio Maccacaro’s group meant, for me, revisiting in more articulate terms a system of synergies between bearers of historical and technical knowledge and social subjects – in particular, factory workers.10 The comrades from San Donato had set up a “workers’ club” and I worked with them a little. They had become a neighborhood group, and my contribution ended up being very limited and ultimately unsatisfying. But if I hadn’t worked with these employees of ENI it would never have occurred to me to work on oil and “chemical planning.” ’73 marked the end of the interregnum and of the search for a new line of interests. Primo Maggio was founded and we started working on themes that still partly constitute the core of my activities today.

– Translated by Alessandra Guarino

  1. Author’s note: the CUBs were autonomous worker organizations. Only workers participated in building and managing the group, in particular at the Pirelli plant in Milan. I spent hours discussing with Raffaello de Mori, one of the founders of the Pirelli CUB, the dynamics of the constitution of the CUB. Some external militants of the Communist Party or some trade union officials should have had a role as supporters of the CUBs activities, as they were rank-and-file members of the worker’s movement living in the neighborhoods of the factory. Later on, when political groups like Lotta Continua and Avanguardia Operaia became stronger, they founded Comitati di Base with factory workers, students and other social groups, but in general they represented a minority among the workers. At the beginning, Pirelli’s CUB followers were the great majority of the work force. It was one year before the Unions took control again. 

  2. Author’s note: The sentry box was a sort of rectangular wooden platform, pretty high (50/60 cm), and located in the middle of the entrance, where a guard wearing a huge black cloak very similar to that of the carabinieri could control the flow of workers leaving the factory. It was strange to see the workers walking with their faces looking up. 

  3. Translator’s note: ACNA was an Italian chemical manufacturing company based in Cengio, Savona. From the early 1900s to its closure in 1999, it manufactured, first, explosives, and then paints, dumping the toxic byproducts into the river Bormida and, later, burying the waste in the surrounding countryside in order to evade the 1976 “Merli” law on toxic emissions. It was responsible for nearly a century of pollution of the river Bormida and its watershed, the potentially irreversible contamination of groundwater and soils throughout the area, and the environmental devastation associated with the emission of toxic gases. Farmoplant, founded in 1976 in Milan, was a subsidiary of the Montedison industrial group, which manufactured pesticides. In 1988, two explosions ignited a reservoir containing the pesticide Rogor, releasing a plume of toxic smoke that impacted the neighborhoods of Marina di Massa and Marina di Carrara. This incident, which had been preceded by several others, finally led to the factory’s closure in 1991. 

  4. Author’s note: Alberto Savinio (1891-1952), painter, composer, essayist, poet, journalist and set designer, lived in Paris for many years, in close contact with famous artists and intellectuals, from Picasso to André Breton. His son Ruggero, a painter himself, owned a wonderful atelier in the French capital where we slept the first nights. 

  5. Translator’s note: This is a reference to the sociologists C. Wright Mills and Serge Mallet, the latter of whom helped to develop a theory of the “new working class.” 

  6. Author’s note: Worker-student (studente lavoratore) means people with a salaried job in private enterprises or public administrations, white collars, who went to universities following the reform of the access to higher education. Before 1970 only students coming from the classical or scientific Lyceum were permitted to enter universities, not students coming from professional or technical schools. As a consequence, the number of university graduates in Italy was very small before 1970. With the liberalization of access to higher education, a mass of new students came to our universities. At the University of Padova they immediately became the majority. Only at the Sociological Faculty in Trento, a private University that became public in 1969, was there open access before that time. So, while teaching in Trento, I met worker-students (or employee-students), a couple of years before Padova, who I began recruiting for our political purposes, people such as Mario Dalmaviva and others from Turin, the technicians of the oil industry in San Donato Milanese and so on. As employees of industrial companies or public administrations, they were much more aware of the problems concerning working conditions. The language of workerism was more familiar to them than the sentences of the new philosophers, and the working class movements came closer to their expectations than the armed guerrillas of campesinos in the southern hemisphere. We can say that the worker-students helped the ideas of workerism to overcome the anti-authoritarian program of the first wave of the students’ movement. 

  7. Editor’s note: Snamprogetti, a company of ENI, the Italian State Oil Corporation, specialized on research and project management for the oil drilling platforms, offshore and onshore. 

  8. Translator’s note: The Communist Party of Italy (Marxist-Leninist) or PCd’I -(ml) was an anti-revisionist party; the Italian Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity (PSIUP) was a radical party that split from the mainstream Socialist Party in 1964; Avanguardia Operaia (AO) was an extra-parliamentary party founded in 1968; Democrazia Proletaria (DP) was a united electoral front founded in 1975, including, among others, Avanguardia Operaia. 

  9. Translator’s note: Gianni Agnelli, president of FIAT from 1966 to 1996, was known as “the lawyer.” 

  10. Editor’s note: Giulio Maccacaro, scientist, doctor, University teacher, editor of the magazine “Sapere”, the most important publication of “critical science” in the 70s. 

Author of the article

participated in Potere Operaio and Primo Maggio. He now works as a freelance consultant on transportation and logistics.