Chapter Two: New Left Up to the Formation of the BR :: Strike One to Educate One Hundred

“Strike one to educate one hundred”

Chapter Two

This chapter reviews the events that led at the end of the 1960’s to the start of urban guerrilla warfare in Italy. We can see two processes at work. The first was the growth of political violence, both in the increasing militancy of the working class and in the military counter-offensive of the State. The second process was the influence of advanced ideas from the national liberation movements. Italy had produced a generation of young revolutionaries who turned for answers to communism in the Third World.

Armed struggle became the main issue debated within their movement, not only because of the models of guerrilla movements in Cuba, Vietnam and Uruguay, but because it was already an objective reality. The escalating clash between the mass movements and the Italian State had already carried the antagonists onto the terrain of armed struggle. The ruling class itself was divided (as we shall later discuss) on how to handle the crisis, and was forced on the defensive as the New Left advanced. Trying to repeat their successful repression of the post-World War I factory take-over movement, the imperialists began to use not only the police, but also fascist para-military groups to violently break up the 1960’s movements. At the same moment, the revisionist Old Left parties were steadily pulling to the right, trying to drag the struggle back onto the terrain of legalisms and parliamentary reform. How to consolidate the renewed revol- utionary activity within the masses, and how to deal with the militarized nature of the political clash, became the central question for the new generation of the 1960’s.

Italy at the end of the 1950’s was a society of growing contradictions. It had just gone through ten years of rapid industrialization and urbanization known as the “Italian miracle”, following the heavy destruction and defeat in World War II. Masses of peasants from the impoverished South had been forced off the land into Northern industry. A middle-class consumer society—semi-amerikan—had been created in the urban North on the backs of this new class of low-wage immigrant proletarians. The South itself remained the most backward and poorest region. Because of its position as the official State religion, the Catholic church still held Italian culture in a semi-feudal grip.

The conservative trend of the 1950’s dominated the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which had become a legalistic, mass revisionist party. While the PCI-led unions remained the largest, their size had shrunk. In Italy industrial unions are voluntary political organizations, with various unions competing with each other for individual members within each factory. Different unions represent different politics and in fact represent the major political parties. By the end of the 1950’s, company unions (often run by the Fascists), Catholic unions, and Social-Democratic unions led by the rightwing pro-u.s. Italian Social-Democratic Party (PSDI) had taken oyer sizeable chunks of the labor movement. Between 1955 and 1961 the Italian Communist Party’s membership had dropped from 2.2 million to 1.7 million, a loss of 500,000 members. There had been much disillusionment among Italian workers following the 1956 revelations about Stalin’s crimes and the reformist decay of the PCI.

The PCI-led union federation, the CGIL, had even lost control of the traditional stronghold of the Italian working class—FIAT’s huge Mirafiori works in Turin. This had a larger meaning than we might see at first. In Italy there was a high degree of industrial concentration, on a semi- feudal pattern. Corporations concentrated production in a few urban centers which also therefore contained a high concentration of workers, and which they dominated like an industrial fiefdom. In the “u.s.a.” this was seen at the turn of the century at Ford’s River Rouge works in Detroit, Michigan, and in U.S. Steel works in Gary, Indiana (a works is an industrial complex of many factories in one place). FIAT automobile corporation is the largest and most powerful company in Italy. Its owning family, the Agnellis, were and are imperialist royalty, the Italian equivalents to the Rockefellers.

FIAT’S Mirafiori works employed 40,000 workers in 1968, with 80,000 more in other FIAT plants in that city. In fact, 80% of FIAT’S total work- force then was concentrated in Turin, the 2nd largest city in Italy. Fully one-half of Turin’s population was economically dependent on one company, FIAT, either directly or indirectly in smaller companies supplying auto parts to FIAT production. It was in Turin that the Italian proletariat had its greatest social concentration and political cohesiveness, giving it a leading role within the entire working class, so the PCI’s loss of mass support at FIAT Mirafiori, where they once had gotten 70-80% of the vote in union shop steward elections in the late 1940’s, meant much more than losing support in one factory or one industry. It really meant that they had lost the confidence of the vanguard of the class.


A young Communist FIAT worker, Sante Notarnicola, was among those who resisted the mood of political demoralization in the late 1950’s. Notarnicola hung out with some other rebels at FIAT. Among his comrades was an older worker, Danilo Crepaldi, who had as a teenager been a fighter with the Armed Partisan Groups. The Armed Partisan Groups (GAP) had been the most daring of the anti-Fascist guerrillas during World War II, shooting it out with Nazi troops in lightning raids in the Northern industrial cities of Genoa and Turin. Notarnicola was part of a smaller group of FIAT rebels who started collecting arms and discussing armed struggle in 1956. Danilo Crepaldi reminded them how the PCI had sold out the revolution: “He reminded us that while among us so many hopes, dreams and myths were crumbling, in faraway countries heroic fighters were holding high the banner of guerrilla warfare. In Italy instead the revolution had been postponed. In Turin, in certain factories, out of a workforce of 10,000, only 100 workers could be counted on to answer a strike call. SIDA [the FIAT Fascist company union then – Ed.) persisted in its strike-breaking and corrupting maneuvers. Danilo … thought about building a kind of Armed Partisan Group, with very vague goals to begin with. Once again he brought up the question of arms: the first objective was to find weapons, put them in working order, or to accumulate a certain quantity of them. Once this was done we could decide what to do with them.”

Notarnicola and his two comrades were all in the PCI, and lived in the Barriera di Milano neighborhood. Barriera di Milano, one of many “red neighborhoods”, was a closely-packed slum where 80,000 working class people always voted for “communist” or “socialist” politicians. There it was common for families to be loyal PCI members going back two or three generations. The Italian Communist Party ran much of the community’s life, with their own community officials, coffee shops, and sports clubs. Notarnicola was a typical militant. Child of an emigrant, he had grown up surrounded by both FIAT and the PCI. He went to work at FIAT as most-of his childhood friends and classmates did. While he was angered at the oppression, Sante Notarnicola was not a leader.

One of the others, Piero Cavallero, was the son of a Partisan fighter and was himself a minor paid functionary of the PCI. Cavallero took charge among the three. They became a clandestine unit of PCI members, but independent of the PCI and unknown to the Party. As we’ve discussed, the PCI had treacherously disbanded the Partisan guerrilla movement after Germany was defeated in 1945. But many Communist Partisans, although grudgingly going along with PCI orders under threat of death, didn’t turn in their weapons as they were supposed to. As one of these ex-Partisans, Danilo Crepaldi still had his old sub-machine gun, and he taught Sante Notarnicola how to use it. Their first plan was to collect guns from old Partisans, repair them, and quietly train young PCI members to use them. While Cavallero was breaking with the PCI, Notarnicola still hoped the PCI would revitalize itself. They began making plans for actions in the spring of 1959. The group decided that the main thing was to get money, which would be hidden away to buy arms and support guerrillas when the time came. In May, 1959, they executed an expropriation where they worked, seizing the FIAT Mirafiori night shift payroll. The three guerrillas got away cleanly, but decided because of the intensive police investigation to lay low for a long time.

In January 1964 the armed group, which still had no name or more definite political plans, began doing regular expropriations. On a technical level the cell seemed to work well, and did 23 expropriations over a four year period. But they had gradually become more and more adventurous, attacking two or three banks within one hour. Civilian bystanders were shot. On September 25, 1967 the ceil, which no longer had Danilo Crepaldi, but had recruited two more young Communist workers, became trapped by police after an expropriation at a Bank of Naples branch in Milan. The cell, which was armed with sub-machine guns, and police reinforcements got into a heavy fire fight on the street. Five civilian bystanders were killed, or died afterwards, in the rain of bullets (a student, a driver of a passing car, a woman and a man on the sidewalk, and an elderly war veteran). Six police and sixteen civilians were hospitalized with wounds. Only one of the cell was wounded and captured at the shoot-out, the others escaping temporarily.

These events were a national sensation, both in the capitalist press and within the Left, The authorities began a national manhunt, offering a 20 million lire reward for information leading to their capture (20 million lire then represented over ten years’ wages for a factory worker). Piero Cavallero and Sante Notarnicola hid out in a forest near Turin, but were tracked down and captured after eight days. The careless taking of lives, the supposed “base motives” of robbing banks for money, were factors in the controversy.

It became known that behind Notarnicola’s back all the expropriated funds, which were to have been hidden for future guerrilla use, had been ripped off. Danilo Crepaldi and Piero Cavallero had set up a small business to cover for the new flow of money. But the business lost money. Becoming politically discouraged, they began to argue between the two of them over whether or not to continue, and began spending the money on themselves. Danilo had died in 1966. Cavallero, who had come to enjoy the actions and the financially improved lifestyle, continued on for his own purposes. As guerrillas the cell was discredited.

The movement related to the trials mainly as a big scandal. Notarnicola was at first abandoned. Their cell was publicly denounced by the Italian Communist Party, the Social-Democrats, and the liberal press, as just thieves, criminals and murderers. Sante Notarnicola was given a life sentence. Misled by his few comrades, isolated by the movement, publicly labelled foolish at best, Notarnicola still believed in revolution. Although no leader or theoretician, Notarnicola refused to work for the State or to be crushed by his own heavy defeat. He never denied the many political errors he had made or the primitive level of the political understanding he and his comrades had started with, and used his trial to put forward a self-criticism. He told the court at the end of his trial in 1971: “I don’t regret having rebelled against the bosses. I regret having done it at the wrong time in the wrong way.” [click here to read Sante Notarnicola’s Sentencing Statement ]

In prison Sante Notarnicola gradually became a symbol to the New Left of the search for revolutionary answers. He became a leading prison activist and later joined the NAP (Armed proletarian Nuclei) communist guerrilla group. Notarnicola was a public figure in Italy equivalent to George Jackson. His experience and the experience of other unsuccessful rebels during the lost years, was a reminder that Italy had an unbroken history of revolutionary armed struggle. Italian communists of three successive generations, in 1920, 1943, and in the 1960’s, had fought their government and the Fascists. In Italy, deep, bitter class hatred of the bourgeoisie was a reality in the 1960’s. One traveller in Italy during those years reported:

A young Italian railroad machinist I talked to this summer told me that he had joined the PCI-controlied CGIL union two years ago, but that he and his friends had quit in disgust. When I asked him and a 32-year old fellow railroad worker what they thought of the left wing parties they told me with very pointed, heavy irony that ‘all the parties’ were the same. They all bought votes, scratched each others’ backs, robbed the public till, and lived like kings. ‘The Communists, the Socialists and the trade union bureaucrats live off our backs, like everyone else,’ the younger worker pointed out. What was the answer? ‘Maybe a really honest Socialist party which will change things,’ the older worker suggested. What should be done, I asked the machinist? ‘Wipe them all out and start from scratch.’ … Finally the older worker, a quiet, almost timid railroad clerk- statistician, concluded, with vehemence: ‘If I had the power?’ Then he quoted Dante, an old Italian poet: ‘Se fossi foco brucerei il mondo. Were I a fire I’d burn the world.’

The same outbursts of rage, even against the established class leadership, marked the start of the 1960’s. In July 1960 the Italian Communist Party (PCI) organized protest strikes against the new Tambroni government, which represented the Christian Democratic right wing and had Fascist backing. Quickly the protest got out of the revisionists control. After two weeks of violent street battles, largely led by young Southern immigrant workers, the Tambroni government fell.[1 ] The July 1960 street fighting, which took place all over the country, stunned and scared the revisionists and the Italian bourgeoisie alike. It signalled the start of two decades of social and political crisis for Italy.

In the summer of 1962 another violent revolt erupted in Turin. During a strike at FIAT, the Social-Democratic union and the Catholic union attempted to sell out the strike. Thousands of FIAT workers, in a spontaneous move, marched on the Social-Democratic UIL union headquarters in Piazza Statuto in downtown Turin and surrounded it. Workers burned UIL union cards in a bonfire. When the police attempted to disperse the crowd, fighting broke out. Three days and nights of violent street battles followed, as young workers held their ground against the police. Again, as in the July 1960 battles, young Southern immigrant workers were in the forefront of the fighting. Many Communist militants, PCI shop stewards, and rank and file members took part as individuals in the thick of the street battles. Top leaders of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) rushed in to stop things and restore bourgeois order, but were physically chased away by the masses.

Sante Notarnicola, who was in the 1962 Piazza Statuto fighting, described what happened:

In the summer of ’62 the revolutionary base revolted openly against the party, telling the old party hacks to go get fucked. The battle lasted three days and L’Unita [the PCI newspaper —Ed.] called us thugs and lined up with the bourgeoisie. For many comrades it was the collapse of the last illusions of a revolutionary reform of the PCI. I remember Pajetta [a well- known member of the PCI central committee —Ed.]. He came there and he didn’t know what to do; the great leader was no longer in front of an enthusiastic crowd, but in the middle of people who had lost their patience and who were tearing down the pedestal built for him because of his past as a partisan. When a volley of stones was thrown at him, he reawoke and began to shout, ‘Down with the bosses and the cops’, urging us on to the attack. His partisan past had re-emerged from his subconscious. Then, in the cold light of the next day he called us ‘Fascists’ in the pages of L’Unita!

The Piazza Statute fighting was the first, open mass defiance of the revisionist leadership since the late 1940’s. It led directly to the first Center-Left reform government a year later by Aldo Moro, head of the moderate wing of the DC (Christian Democratic Party).[ 2 ] Moro, in alliance with the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), promised wide-ranging social reforms and modernization of society. But he was unable to carry them out because of obstruction from his own DC party’s powerful right wing, which had the backing of the Vatican and the Fascists. Center-Left governments ruled Italy from 1963 to 1968, and their total failure to carry out any real social reforms set the stage for the mass student and worker revolts of 1968 and 1969.


From the beginning the Italian New Left gave an importance to political theory. It was only with this theoretical work that their young movement could assimilate the lessons of Mao, of the Tupamaros, of Carlos Marighela and other Communists from oppressed nations. Political journals prepared the way for a new revolutionary movement that would consciously unite factory, prison and university in class war. The earliest and most germinal of these journals was Red Notebooks, begun in 1961 by young intellectuals on the Left edges of the Social-Democrats. What they had in common was an agreement that the existing Left stood in the way, and was a reformist hegemony stifling struggles of the working class. Red Notebooks student activists pioneered by aiding Turin auto workers opposing the reformist trade unions.

In addition to Red Notebooks, some of the many New Left theoretical journals were Young Critic, Piacentini Notebooks, Class & State, Hammer & Sickle, Workers Voice, New Commitment, and finally in 1967, Political Work. The cadre from Political Work were to become an important part of the founding nucleus of the Red Brigades.

In this period intense debate and study began, centering on the question of new forms of working class resistance to advanced capitalism. It was clear that the old European answers—legal trade-unionism, parliamentary political parties, defense of bourgeois democracy until some distant hour when the final insurrection takes place—were sterile. While their debate drew on European experiences in Italy and elsewhere, it was especially internationalist. Peoples War in Vietnam and the armed party- building line of Mao Zedong were studied. Of special interest were the experiences of other movements that, like the Italians, were starting out again. For that reason the fledgling urban guerrilla forces in Brazil and Uruguay, as well as the Black Liberation Movement in the u.s. empire were studied as having special significance. The Italian movement had much admiration for the Black struggle. Rebellions in Watts and Harlem from 1964 on, together with the rapid development of Black Power and the Black Panther Party were closely watched in Italy. Emergence of New Afrikan self-defense groups with popular support, verified for Italian revolutionaries that new revolutionary potentialities existed even in the “urban-technological metropoli” of advanced capitalism.

An anti-authoritarian university reform movement had sprung up in Italy starting in 1966. Mass student occupations of campus buildings became a main form of struggle. In November 1967, a new student organization formed in Turin, the MS (“Student Movement” or Movimento Studentesco). All decisions of the MS were made in mass assemblies of students. MS and radical student activity in general quickly spread. As the numbers of student protesters grew into the thousands in each major city, and as their tactics and politics grew more militant, clashes with the police became increasingly violent and frequent. Those clashes then in turn further radicalized the mass movement in an upward spiral.

One of the key centers of this student movement was Trento University, in the northern-most region of Italy in the Alps, near the Austrian and Swiss borders. This is a conservative region politically. In March 1967, Trento students staged a week of mass demonstrations on the campus and in the streets of Trento in support of the Vietnamese revolution. Demonstrations were attacked by the police. Students reacted with a mass strike which closed the school. Police repression against the student movement only produced more resistance, and in the fall of 1967 the Trento University administration was unable to open the school in the face of a continued student strike. In October of that year the Trento student movement leadership issued a Manifesto for a Negative University, and organized counter-courses for the student body. One was on the Chinese revolution and Mao’s politics; another was a study of the current phase of capitalist development, using the writings of Euro-amerikan radical economists. The Manifesto put forward an anti-capitalist critique of the existing educational system, and saw the student movement at Trento as part of a revolutionary movement.

The most important fruit of the Negative University, however, was the emergence of a new magazine called Political Work. Among the editors were two future founders of the Red Brigades, Mara Cagol and Renato Curcio (who had met as sociology students at Trento in 1966). First published in the nearby city of Verona with left Catholic politics, Political Work was soon ideologically Marxist-Leninist and Maoist. The group was heavily influenced by the comparison between the Vietnamese revolution and the degeneration of both the “Communist” PCI and the “Socialist” PSIUP Left parties. Although Political Work had a limited distribution of only five thousand copies at its peak, it had great influence on the student movement as a whole. In collaboration with the Negative University, Political Work published a number of pamphlets for study groups—the first of which was on the Black Power movement in the “u.s.a.”

The militancy of the student movement spread to the working class in 1968. In March-April 1968 a series of wildcat strikes broke out at FIAT auto plants in Turin. A joint strike committee of workers and radical students was formed, which issued a daily strike bulletin. Out of this committee the largest Italian New Left organization, Continuous Struggle (“Lotta Continua”), was born. That same strike bulletin grew into a national daily newspaper for the New Left, while Continuous Struggle itself grew into an Italian equivalent to the “u.s.a.” SDS. During these spring months the political focus of the student movement grew from university reforms to building a broad anti-capitalist alliance with industrial workers.

1968, we must remember, was the year the Vietnamese Revolution had reached a decisive turning point after the victory of the Tet offensive in February. Imperialism was in retreat and political disarray. There was an anti-imperialist tide advancing world-wide. Everybody was watching everybody else and drawing strength from each others’ example. Throughout 1968, the Italian student movement was deeply affected by and increasingly saw itself as part of this growing world-wide youth revolt against imperialism.

In May 1968 the ruling Center-Left coalition government of Premier Aldo Moro was voted out. The national elections had been conducted at the height of the worker-student rebellion in France, which had monopolized Italian news. In a spontaneous explosion, all the major factories in France had shut down in a general strike. The general strike was not over economic demands, but expressed an unarticulated anger at the social-political system. Street barricades went up in the heart of Paris. Thousands of militant French students took over school buildings and fought hand-to-hand against black-uniformed CRS security force for over a week. The French May 1968 worker-student rebellion had a big impact on Italian politics, speeding up the process of mass radicalization.

Throughout 1968 and 1969 the process of radicalization continued in giant steps. Two developments cast their shadow into the future: the New Left vanguard was being absorbed into a revolutionary sector of the Northern working class struggle; that class struggle itself was becoming militarized, with the state mobilizing its forces for a military “final solution” to their crisis. The question of a strategic line that could answer the critical problems of this militarized confrontation became the number one question for the movement.

In June and July of 1968 a wave of wildcat strikes swept through many small and medium-sized factories where the unions had been too weak to stop them. In Milan, workers at Pirelli tire corporation’s Bicocca plant set up a new form of organization called the C.U.B. (“United Rank- and-File Committee” or Comitato Unito de Base). The Pirelli C.U.B. was a joint worker-student organization and soon was leading strikes and other actions at the plant. Like the student movement, the C.U.B. made all its decisions in open mass assemblies. The very existence of the C.U.B. was a recognition that workers couldn’t move forward within the unions. It was similar to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the Detroit auto plants in that regard. Within the next eighteen months the C.U.B. movement spread to over a hundred factories, in a push for class organization independent of capitalist domination.

The strike movement gradually spread to more and larger factories. Increasingly the tactic of mass factory take-overs and direct worker control of the struggle through open mass assemblies was adopted. Between January and early April 1969 a series of important factory struggles broke out in the North with even more militant tactics. On February 4, 1969 striking Monfalcone shipyard workers near Venice occupied not only the shipyards but the town hall. This was the first time striking Italian workers had moved against the government. The strikers won their demands. Textile workers in nearby Marzotto di Valdagno had been on strike at the same time, occupying their factory and making decisions in a mass assembly After three months of intermittent strikes, the textile workers mobilized the whole town through neighborhood committees. All the highways and rail lines into Marzotto were blocked. Angry demonstrations were held against the TV news whiteout of their struggle. At the end of 1969 the strikers occupied the town hall. The government gave in. This was the militant strike movement that would continue to grow until reaching its peak during the “Hot Autumn” 1969.


The pivotal event of 1968-69 took place in the South, however, involving peasant day laborers. Pursuing their strike, farm laborers had taken over and blocked the main national highway at Avola in Sicily. On December 2, 1968, police were told to immediately restore order. They began firing at the unarmed demonstrators, who fled into the fields and took cover. For 25 minutes the police fired volley after volley of shots into the fields where unarmed families were hugging the earth. Two laborers were killed and others wounded. It was clear that the State was sending a message, threatening the workers with violent repression if they went too far and challenged the State Power.

For a week Italy was rocked by violent protests. The Italian working class and the student movement were enraged. In Milan, Genoa and Rome thousands of workers and students battled with police. In Milan, students and workers held a mass meeting inside the Alfa-Romeo auto plant (a future BR stronghold). In Turin students marched into the FIAT “Grandi motori” plant and held a joint protest meeting with FIAT workers. The Avola killings and the demonstrations that followed were a key turning point in the mass revolts of 1968 and 1969. They marked the beginning of effective cooperation between student revolutionaries and workers on a mass scale. And for some New Leftists like future Red Brigades (BR) leaders Renato Curcio and Mara Cagol, then still student leaders of the Negative University movement at Trento University, it starkly raised the question of the movement’s lack of preparation for military action by the State. Avola convinced them of the need to prepare for armed struggle, and this problem dominated their thinking from December 1968 and through all of 1969.

The militarization of the conflict was only further confirmed by the events of 1969. In February 1969 the government began more attacks on the student movement following the demonstrations against visiting u.s. president Richard Nixon. 12,000 police put Rome under a virtual state of siege and there were violent confrontations between students and police. 31 people were hurt and 300 arrested. Two days later 6,000 heavily armed police staged a pre-dawn raid on the barricaded campus of Rome University, but the students who had been alerted to the raid had evacuated the campus during the night. The Rome University assault was the beginning of an all-out campaign of police repression which the student movement was unable to resist. In the following 19 days heavily armed police staged military assaults on and seized every occupied university campus in the country. Italian Communist Party (PCI) members of parliament protested verbally against the repression of the student movement, while at the same time PCI senators kept their political distance from the student movement by abstaining on a key senate vote on a university reform bill. In fact, as the State increased its repression of the student New Left during the winter of 1969, the PCI’s line against “extremism” in the student movement also hardened. The PCI blamed the left wing of the student movement for provoking government repression. Instead, the PCI argued, students had to recognize that the PCI was the only force capable of solving the crisis of the student movement by winning legal reforms through electoral means.

The increasingly militarized nature of the clash only became more apparent when the struggle broke open in the poverty-stricken South. On April 9, 1969 police in the little town of Battipaglia south of Naples opened fire on demonstrators who had seized the town in protest over the closing of a local cigarette factory. Two people, a student and a professor, were killed by police. Battipaglia had been one of the government’s regions of model development in the South. But despite government investments in the area, unemployment had continued to grow. In March of 1969 five small factories had shut down, and when the Santa Lucia cigarette factory was also threatened with a shut-down, workers occupied the factory. The entire town was mobilized to support the strike.

What began as a union demonstration turned into a violent uprising. The city hall was attacked and burned. Highways and rail lines were blocked and the police headquarters surrounded and besieged. Police and reinforcements were driven out of Battipaglia and the town was “liberated” It was while police were trapped in the police headquarters by demonstrators that they opened fire on the crowd. The next day the reformist union leaders tried to hold a meeting but it was broken up by townspeople. In Battipaglia and elsewhere in the South these uprisings took on a multi-class regional or semi-nationalist character, an explosion of rage against the neo-colonialist exploitation of the South.

The violence in Battipaglia in which 200 people were hurt, including 90 policemen and security agents, touched off violent support demonstrations in the rest of Italy in the following days. In Milan demonstrators battled police for 4 hours in an attempt to march on the Business Association headquarters. There were violent demonstrations in Rome, Florence, and other cities. In Bologna, a major city of the central Italian “red belt”, where the PCI had controlled the city government for decades, the demonstration turned into a violent confrontation with the revisionists. PCI goon squads tried to defend “their” train station from being seized by the enraged demonstrators. In the FIAT plants in Turin southern immigrant workers went on strike in solidarity with Battipaglia struggles. This was an important political step forward for them and FIAT workers as a whole. The three major union federations of the PCI revisionists, the Catholics and the Social Democrats called a joint 3-hour general strike in protest on April 11, while the PCI called for a law to disarm the police: “to make the police defenders of democratic order and the people rather than the tool of the anti-worker struggle”.

After Battipaglia popular uprisings of entire villages and towns spread throughout the South. Typically, city halls and railway stations were seized, highways blocked. Orgoloso in Sardegna rose, Castelvolturno and many other towns outside Naples were swept into the movement. Occupations took place throughout Calabria, one of the poorest southern regions. In Sicily, Palermo (the island’s capital and a city with a revolutionary proletarian tradition, dating back to the 1789 French Revolution) joined the occupation movement. In the rough mountainous interior of Sicily, one of the poorest regions of all western Europe, 25 towns were occupied. L’Unita, newspaper of the PCI, treacherously imposed a press whiteout and did not report any of these uprisings.

In June and July 1969 most of the Puglia region (Apulia) on the south-eastern Adriatic coast of Italy’s “heel” was swept by insurrectionary town occupations touched off by a militant agricultural laborers strike. The State chose to play a waiting game and did not attempt to openly repress the Puglia movement, which was the most militant and widespread of all the rebellions in the South that year. Instead the government waited until the movement had died down later in the summer to repress individual militant leaders. The government was particularly worried that open repression would have led to a link-up between struggles of Northern industrial workers and Southern peasants.

In the spring and summer of 1969 secret high-level government meetings were held to decide what response to take to the spread of Battipaglia-type uprisings. The governing Center-Left coalition, whose main parties were the conservative Christian Democrats (DC) and the Social-Democratic Socialist Party of Italy (PSI), was split into hardline vs. soft-line factions. The hardliners in both parties argued for open “exemplary” repression to intimidate the masses and the movement. The softliners argued for a strategy of co-option, using a cautious combination of selective repression and promises of social reforms. That softline faction, led by former DC Premier Aldo Moro, also argued that a “historic compromise” was necessary: bringing the revisionist Italian Communist Party (PCI) into the capitalist government as a partner. Only such a broad alliance, they said, would provide the government with a broad enough social base to make it politically stable. The hardliners in both the DC and the PSI, who were backed by the u.s. Nixon-Kissinger administration, argued that any alliance with “communists” would be treason.

Because of these splits in its own highest councils, the then-current government of DC Premier Mariano Rumor temporarily opted for a soft line in the South in the spring and summer of 1969. Hard-liners in the police and military security forces, however, encouraged the fascist New Order (Ordine Nuovo) movement to begin a “strategy of tension”. This entailed violent terrorism against the Left together with random atrocities. Their plan was to create a public mood of panic, in which a military dictatorship would be welcomed.

Beginning in April 1969 the Fascists did many public bombings. On December 12, 1969 a Fascist bombing in front of a bank at the Piazza Fontana (a public square) in downtown Milan killed 16 people and injured 90, some of whom were crippled for life. The police quickly moved in and framed two anarchists for the bombing, one of whom was later thrown to his death from the window of a Milan police building. As a symbol of the violent repression and of the State-Fascist armed collaboration, the bombing became so infamous that it is just referred to as “Piazza Fontana”.


The political crisis was no less a crisis for the New Left, which was faced with the challenge of jumping to a higher level of revolutionary organization and strategy—or of falling back. With the South in revolt and the dissident C.U.B. workers’ movement spreading through factories in the North, many new parties, groups and collectives emerged and attempted to solve these pressing problems. On July 26-27, 1969, on the initiative of Left vanguard groups such as Continuous Struggle and Workers’ Power, a national meeting of C.U.B.s was convened in Turin. Continuous Struggle’s attempt to build the C.U.B.s into a revolutionary organization, national in scope and with anti-revisionist politics, failed, however. The direct democracy of mass worker-student assemblies making their own independent decisions in each factory, which was a strength at first, had become an “ultra-democratic” barrier to higher forms of organization. There was also a strong economist influence among both radical students and workers. That is, however militant or illegal or violent the tactics used (fighting police, sabotage, taking over plants, etc.) for many the purpose behind such tactics was only the pursuit of higher wages and other reforms within the bourgeois system, for which revolutionary strategy was obviously unnecessary.

There were four main trends visible in the Italian New Left after Avola—with different strategies and different forms of organization:

Reformist: Those who took this as their main strategy spoke of how impossible revolution was without the working class majority—which was, after all, still loyal to or influenced by their traditional party, the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Therefore, this trend said, the main strategy had to be takeover or reforming of the Old Left. Some, such as Red Notebooks co-founder Mario Tronti, implemented this strategy by leaving the New Left and joining the PCI, ostensibly to take it over from within. Others, such as the “Maoist” party PCd’I, established rival micro-parties to the PCI, building the same type of legalistic organization and running candidates against the PCI in the parliamentary elections. Their hope was to become the PCI of the future. This trend naturally believed that armed struggle by the Left was premature. Instead, they led a retreat in the student movement back to the terrain of bourgeois democracy, until that future hour when they would have taken over the Old Left.

Spontaneist: This was the largest trend within the New Left, dominating both Continuous Struggle (“Lotta Continua”) and most of the worker-student factory assemblies. This trend was revolutionary, but saw revolution as coming spontaneously from the masses without “bureaucratic” mechanisms such as programs, parties or armies. Mixed together in the spontaneist trend were undeveloped young militants, anarcho-syndicalists, and those who were in reality reformists. The main thing to these militants was to radicalize the form of mass activity then going on, acting as a tactical vanguard to create more violence. In the factory struggles their main answer was more and more sabotage. In demonstrations they started destroying property or even, after first quickly tying scarves around their faces, coming forward to fire pistol shots at the police before disappearing back into the crowd. While the spontaneist trend believed in the importance of anti-capitalist violence during mass demonstrations, it opposed urban guerrilla warfare as “separating them- selves from the masses”.

Workerist (“Operaista”): This trend was more developed, with a Marxist orientation. It interpreted the revolutionary role of the working class, however, in an abstract way. Workerism saw the revolution as being completely determined by struggles on the factory floor. In fact, revolution was seen as solely coming from the economic struggle in big industry between capitalists and factory workers. Workers’ Power (“Potere Operaio”), one of the strongest New Left organizations, was the main workerist force. It was founded in 1966 out of a split in Red Notebooks magazine. Under the leadership of Tony Negri, an influential 1960s radical professor. Workers’ Power spread from its original student base in Pisa to Pavia, Venice, Turin, and Padova. Workers’ Power local student collectives were largely independent of each other but shared a common national newspaper with the same name. Although Workers’ Power played an early role in turning the student movement towards factory organizing, the organization always remained primarily a student one. Only in the large Montedison chemical works at Porto Marghera outside of Venice did Workers’ Power build a strong base among factory workers. The organization went through a crisis in late 1968-early 1969 over whether to remain a loose student structure or to become a revolutionary party. In September 1969, Workers’ Power formally reconstituted itself as a Marxist-Leninist cadre organization. It was to reach its greatest strength in 1971-72, when it had 150 local sections and 4,000 members, 1,000 of them full-time militants. This trend was sharply divided over the question of clandestine organization and urban guerrilla warfare.

Peoples War Based in the Working Class: This trend, whose main organization was the Red Brigades, saw the modern struggle as protracted war between imperialism and the working class. In their view revolutionary organization was not the unarmed mass movement nor the would-be guerrilla “foco”, but a combatant Communist party whose armed activities are actively based in and a political expression of the most conscious strata of the working class. In the 1970s the Red Brigades demonstrated a strong class base and rapid growth. The BR’s organizational strongholds were in certain key Northern Italian factories (FIAT, Alfa-Romeo, Sit-Semiens, etc.) where they politically controlled whole departments. The Brigades eventually had thousands of members, tens of thousands of active supporters, and at least hundreds of thousands of sympathizers.

These trends were not separated by iron walls, but shared people and ideas as they struggled together in a quickly-changing movement. They often referred to their movement as “autonomy’ or the “autonomous movement”. This word was used by the Italian New Left in the same, all-purpose way that 1960s movements in the u.s. empire used the word “liberation”. Autonomy stood for changes far beyond the present system. Autonomy was the name given to the radical counter-culture and to the New Left itself. Autonomy was also used to designate groups and programs tactically independent of the Old Left parties and unions. And for some, proletarian autonomy was used to indicate the zone of communist ideas, culture and embryonic society of the new armed struggle.

In late 1968 the entire editorial board of the Trento university journal “Political Work”, including Mara Cagol and Renato Curcio, had dissolved PW and joined the Maoist party “PCd’I”. But only two weeks later “PCd’I” split, with the PW group leaving the party as part of the more activist “red line” faction. By the fall of 1969 many of the PW cadre, including Cagol and Curcio, had moved to Milan to take part in another attempt to start a revolutionary organization.

Milan was the main center of the militant C.U.B. worker-student movement, which had first begun at the Pirelli tire factory. In several Milan workplaces, notably the IBM and Sit-Siemens electronics factories, communists had formed Study Groups of technical workers to “study and propose goals and actions to the employees… not from the outside like the union does… but from the inside through analyses and mass assemblies everyone can participate in.” On September 8, 1969 the Pirelli C.U.B., the IBM Study Group, the Sit-Siemens Study Group, the former PW collective, worker-student collectives at the Alfa-Romeo auto plant, the State Telephone company and at other workplaces, merged to form the Metropolitan Political Collective ( CPM) in Milan. This was the organization that gave birth to the Red Brigades.

K. KersplebedebK. KersplebedebK. Kersplebedeb

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