A Party of Autonomy?
by Steve Wright (2005)
In loving memory of Ivan Conabere (1963-2002)—‘Uno di noi’
Autonomia operaia is a party, from the phenomenal, organisational and structural point of view—Judge Pietro Calogero (La Repubblica 1979: 120).
If only!—Mario Dalmaviva, Luciano Ferrari Bravo, Toni Negri, Oreste Scalzone, Emilio Vesce, Lauso Zagato (1979: 23).
This chapter seeks to explore, in a critical manner, the debate over the party-form played out within and around the groups of Autonomia Operaia during the late seventies, when that area of revolutionary politics was briefly the dominant force within the Italian far left. Having assumed a leading role during the initial stages of 1977’s ‘strange movement of strange students’ (Lerner, Manconi & Sinibaldi 1978), Italian autonomists finally found a mass audience for their debate around the meaning and purpose of political organisation. This was to be a many-sided discussion while it lasted, conducted not only between the various ‘micro-fractions’ (Scalzone 1978) that together claimed the label of Autonomia organizzata, but also with a range of critics ‘outside and on its borders’ (Martignoni & Morandini 1977).
Such arguments of a generation ago remain significant for a number of reasons. To begin with, they throw light on the work of Antonio Negri, surely the best known of those who then debated out the merits or otherwise of a ‘party of autonomy’. Secondly, and without minimising the differences that separate us from that time, the Italian experience of the late seventies resonates in important ways for those seeking today to challenge the ‘present state of things’. Did Autonomia’s project fail despite its ambition to build a new kind of revolutionary party, or because of it? Can some new reading of Lenin and leninism lend coherence to the multitude of struggles that circulate today, or should we rather ‘let the dead bury their dead’ (Marx 1852: 106), and seek instead forms of anti-capitalist organisation particular to the contours of today’s class composition?
It is my contention in what follows that the Italy of the seventies put paid once and for all to vanguardist pretensions, whether leninist or otherwise. With its roots planted firmly in a range of sectors—students (many of whom were also engaged in wage labour), workers in small firms, public employees from hospital staff to clerks—the so-called ‘Movement of ‘77’ brought together a rich tapestry of mass anti-capitalist practices. Infused with an iconoclasm previously confined to feminist and left libertarian circles, the movement challenged not only the Communist party’s project of the Historic Compromise, but also the common sense of the New Left groups (Bologna 1977a; Cuninghame 2002a; Lumley 1990; Wright 2002). As Sergio Bologna (1980: 28-9) recognised at the end of that decade, the movement of 1977 was not only a totally different way of conceiving of the relation between life and politics, but a series of contents and values that had never been placed on the agenda of the political project. Despite having apparently left a void in its wake, despite having apparently only laid bare the crisis of political forms, including the crisis of the party-form, 1977 has to be considered one of the greatest anticipations of the forms and contents of political and social life seen in recent years. After 1977 there is no turning back, despite all the errors committed, and for which many are still paying in an atrocious manner. 1977 was a year in which the wealth and complexity of problems was such that the political form able to contain and organise them all adequately could not be found.
Before going further, however, it is worth asking what exactly is meant when talking of ‘Autonomia’. The difficulties involved in this exercise have again been set out by Bologna, this time in a 1995 interview: there is always this danger of misunderstanding Autonomia as a political elite (ceto politico), Autonomia as a new type of political thought, Autonomia as the definition of a mass movement, or what? So, it’s very difficult. Where can we begin? I believe the first thing to say is exactly to specify, to articulate these differences, basically between the different levels. As a result, from time to time, we have called Autonomia all three or four of these things together. So, we have to premise that this word, ‘autonomy’, is at the same time a very complex word but also highly ambiguous. What is important is not to create through this ambiguity some major contradictions. Keeping in mind that in fact that the thought of Organised Autonomy, in particular the thought of Toni Negri, is a system of thought which in a certain sense has theorised ambiguity. Exactly on this point: the relationship between political elites, ideology and movement. This attempt to refuse Leninism, to say essentially that the political forms of today are dynamic political forms which open (and) close, which are not permanent. Obviously, it was a way of hiding, shall we say, the dialectic between political elite and movement (Cuninghame 2001: 97-8).
Let’s briefly address each of these facets—’political elites, ideology and movement’—in turn. Like all political ensembles, whatever their creed, Autonomia possessed its own ceto politico: a multi-layered stratum of activists committed to the movement’s continuity through the ups and downs of its daily routine. Such layers were constituted around different, yet often interpenetrating axes: class location, ideology, shared experience, personal and group loyalty. As the movement waxed and waned across the decade, so too would the various fortunes of different layers and aggregations within this stratum. While the ultimate fate of its ceto politico was tied to Autonomia’s self-defined ‘organised’ components’, it cannot simply be reduced to the latter, given the important networks of militants to be found in other sections of the ‘area’.
Then there is the question of ideology. The constellation of forces within Autonomia drew their ways of seeing from a broad array of traditions: not only the home grown marxist tendency of ‘workerism’ [operaismo] (Wright 2002), but also a host of other, often competing threads. For all that, there remained an identifiable core of shared beliefs within the movement, which Luciano Castellano (1979c: 8-15) would sum up as follows: the refusal of labour (itself open to a variety of interpretations); the defence and extension of working class needs against the logic of the market; the reading of capital as a social relation of power; and finally, as a consequence of the latter, a notion of capital’s state-form at odds with the mindset of orthodox marxism. Regarding the state, as Negri (1979: 190) was to put it in one of his early interrogations of 1979,
For “Autonomia”, take-over [of the state] is a meaningless term at least on two accounts: that no State power exists outside the material organisation of production; that there is no revolution except as a transitional process in the making and partly realised. It is therefore clear that “Autonomia” rejects any idea of a State “coup” through actions directed against the institutions. For the B.[rigate] R.[osse], proletarian liberation and any other effort and any moment of struggle in this sense are impossible if the State power structure is not attacked and destroyed.
Finally, there is Autonomia as a movement. As Cuninghame (2002a, 2002b) has carefully documented, there was in fact a number of ‘Autonomies’ (Borio, Pozzi and Roggero 2002) in the seventies, even if here too each would at some point intersect with the others. These were, in a rough chronological order of appearance:
- the network of workplace militants that had inspired the movement’s initial foundation;
- an uneasy alliance of regionally-based ‘micro-fractions’ striving for hegemony within the broader ‘area of Autonomia’ and beyond;
- a ‘diffuse’ galaxy of independent local collectives, often courted by the ‘organised’ autonomists;
- a ‘creative’ wing pre-occupied with the politics of subversive communication;
- last but not least, a myriad of tiny clandestine groups, many of which were former (or not so former) articulations of Autonomia organizzata: above all, of the stewards organisations formed (as elsewhere in the Italian left) to protect members at demonstrations from police and fascists.
This chapter will concentrate on the second of these ‘Autonomies’, while casting an eye over the others to the extent that they engaged in the movement’s debate around the party-form. Then again, if a party project is by definition inseparable from the organisation of ceti politici in pursuit of state power, it is hardly surprising that the loudest calls for a ‘party of autonomy’ would emanate precisely from the ranks of Autonomia organizzata.
- Understandings of the party in the early autonomist movement
It is as the cutting edge [punta offensiva] of social class unification that the workers of the large factories reveal themselves to be an absolutely hegemonic political and theoretical figure within the current class composition (Negri 1973a: 128).
We can begin the discussion by examining the notions of the party raised back in the very first days of Autonomia. What Cuninghame (2002a, 2002b) calls the ‘autonomous workers movement’ began in part as a rejection of the party-building exercises of the New Left groups formed after 1968.  Increasingly preoccupied with their own organisational development, by the early seventies such groups had shifted their focus from the workplace militants they had recruited in and around the Hot Autumn of 1969, towards projects of a rather different kind. For Lotta Continua, this entailed a reorientation from factory-oriented meetings wherein only workers were allowed to speak, to an emphasis by 1972 on campaigning in the streets against what it saw as the increasingly authoritarian involution of the ruling Christian Democrat party (Cazzullo 1998). Or take the case of the group founded by Negri and many other prominent workerist intellectuals: by 1971-72, as Bologna (1979: 11) once recalled, ‘Potere Operaio chose instead as its reference point the ceto politico of the extra-parliamentary formations, to which it continued to pose the problem of militarisation’.
In the same period, a significant minority of radical workplace militants had come to agree with the Assemblea Autonoma di Porto Marghera (1972: 24)—long the mainstay of Potere Operaio in the petrochemical industry—that ‘neither the groups of the revolutionary left, nor the [factory] councils weighed down by union control’, were adequate vehicles for the mounting working class struggle. A new party was sorely needed to ‘direct the opening of a revolutionary process’, argued a Roman circle of service sector workers who chose to abandon the Manifesto group in 1972. But this was to be an organisation built first and foremost in the factory and office, and within which workplace militants could finally realise the earlier promise made by Potere Operaio and other groups of a ‘working class direction’ to revolutionary politics. A weighty anthology of autonomist texts compiled in the mid seventies by the Romans provides ample documentation of the prevalence of such views during the movement’s early years. For militants at Milan’s Alfa Romeo plant, writing in 1973, the ‘party of the working class’ had to be the direct expression of ‘the various autonomous movements’, rather than of ‘intellectuals who provide the line, and then descend to the factory in search of vanguards to carry it out’. According to the introductory report tabled at the first national gathering of autonomist circles in 1973, the revolutionary party could not be established through the existing New Left groups, but only through ‘the centralisation from below of the mass vanguards’. (now in CAO 1976a: 23, 25, 42).
Given this equation between revolutionary leadership and the workers of the large factories—popularised by Negri (1973b) with the phrase ‘party of Mirafiori’—non-worker activists were always going to have a particular role within the early Autonomia. To be sure, there were many struggles in which workers and others could act side by side: for example, in local neighbourhood campaigns supporting housing occupations and the ‘self-reduction’ of rising public utility and transport bills (Ramirez 1975). There were also arenas—such as the schools—in which non-workers were encouraged ‘to start from their own needs’ so as to then feed the latter into the wider class struggle against capital (Collettivo Politico del Berchet 1974: 23). Even here, however, autonomy meant being with the factory organisms, uniting on the basis of the program rather than dividing over lines, affirming the centrality and leadership of the factory organisms rather than of professional politicians (ibid).
As for political activities around the large factories, non-worker members of Autonomia were commonly assigned the kind of support role that ‘external’ activists had provided at FIAT and elsewhere in the late sixties. Indeed, those who argued, like Negri and his close associates, that ‘the working class becomes party through the centralisation of its own movements’ (Potere Operaio 1973: 211), soon abandoned the ranks of Potere Operaio in favour of collaboration with such ‘factory organisms’. But such a division of labour also held the potential to breed considerable resentment, as is evident in the following account from the Veneto: in this donkey work argument, one side was loaded with work and then found it counted for nothing, treated like shit. They used you, but if someone had a problem they sent you home. People didn’t eat, they were there every morning to hand out leaflets, do pickets, they really bust themselves, but the organisation was done by the Workers’ Autonomous Assembly (quoted in Cuninghame 2002a: 72).
Working in a region where the ‘mass worker’ of fordist production was far from the most typical component of the local class composition, many of the Veneto activists soon came to rethink this role: the argument we made was that the organisation had to be inclusive, that beyond the strategic argument the complexity was in the fact that we were all in this organisation (…) made up of students, workers, [that] it would be better if it called itself an inclusive organisation and not one calling itself workers, even if autonomous (ibid).
At first predominant within Autonomia, militants from the large factories had largely lost their earlier influence by 1977. The reasons for this are myriad, from the political disaffection of some of the original workplace activists, to the savage impact of industrial restructuring, which saw many revolutionaries expelled from the immediate process of production after 1974. Equally important was the growing interest in the movement’s ideologies and practices amongst a new generation based in schools, the service sector, or smaller firms, locales from whence the ‘diffuse’ collectives of Autonomia would draw much of their sustenance. Last but not least, there was the strategic realignment of many within the ceto politico that increasingly described itself as Autonomia organizzata. Conscious of the movement’s shifting social base, many of the latter chose with the Veneto collectives to reconfigure themselves as miniature political organisations (Wright 2002: 158-162). In these changed circumstances, the autonomist debate over the party would assume connotations that were both new, and yet somehow strangely old.
- The party builders of organised autonomy
There still exists the concrete risk of ‘groupuscule’ [gruppiste] temptations, a risk that Autonomia Operaia Organizzata absolutely must not run (CAO 1974: 242-3).
If nothing else, the debate within Autonomia organizzata over the party-form was often fierce, closely entwined both with ideological disagreements, and the practical realities of shifting realignments amongst the various ‘micro-fractions’. A cursory glance at the joint statements issued across 1977 by most of the major groups within ‘organised autonomy’ (the notable absence being the Romans of the Comitati Autonomi Operai) might suggest the beginnings of national cohesion. But this is a false impression, as even a preliminary survey of the groups’ various perspectives throws light on the reasons why a ‘party of autonomy’ was never a serious likelihood in the Italy of the seventies.
A Party for the Soviets?—the Comitati Autonomi Operai
Not the party of Autonomia Operaia … but the party-instrument … that from the beginning must contain the premises of its own extinction (CAO 1978c).
With its own trajectory and traditions, grounded in a class composition very different to that found in Lombardy or the Veneto, it is little surprise to discover that the major Roman autonomist grouping held distinctive views on the party. In a first attempt to clarify its politics, the Manifesto group (1971: 433-4) had spoken briefly of those ‘councils’ through which the mass movement must organise itself in the contemporary struggle ‘for communism’. For the Comitati Autonomi Operai, (CAO, known popularly as the Volsci—the ‘volscevichi’ to opponents) by contrast, the championing of councils was from the beginning at the heart of their understanding of political organisation and social change. Indeed, by the end of the decade this advocacy of working class ‘direct democracy’ against the ‘delegated democracy’ of capital would join the aggressive assertion of working class needs as the defining features of the Volsci’s political ideology (CAO 1978c).
More than most sections of ‘organised Autonomy’, throughout their existence the Comitati Autonomi Operai retained some of the distinctive characteristics of the early autonomist movement. Its basic unit was a collective constituted in a specific suburb or workplace (most famously, the Policlinico teaching hospital—Stame & Pisarri 1977): in some cases these were also open to militants from outside ‘organised autonomy’. Coupled with this was a broader ‘city-wide assembly’, also open to participation by circles outside the CAO (Del Bello 1997). Not surprisingly, then, the group’s initial efforts to make sense of the party-form would echo these structures, through an original interpretation of the meaning of revolutionary organisation.
Writing in 1974, the CAO reflected upon the failure of the Russian revolution, and in particular upon the process by which the power of workers organised in councils (soviets) ‘was transformed into the dictatorship of the party over the proletariat’. Against this, the Volsci expressed considerable interest in recent Chilean events, which before the military coup had seen the emergence of councils [cordones] seeking to group together all sections of the class, including the unemployed. Rejecting the traditional models bequeathed by the Communist movement, the Romans proposed a form of organisation that will maintain for a ‘long’ period to come the dual characteristic of ends and means, the anticipation that is of soviet and party. Accomplishing this, however, requires from the start those characteristics of direct democracy and autonomy that characterise the anticipation of the soviet, and the subjectivity, the starter motor [motorino], the cadre schools, that characterise the anticipation of the party (in CAO 1976a: 68, 68-9).
Another document from May of the following year indicates that, at least in the period before 1977, a number of more conventional leninist precepts continued to inform the Romans’ outlook. Arguing that as a means rather than the end of revolution, ‘the party must develop working class autonomy and not substitute itself for it’, a case was made nonetheless for the view that the ‘full expression’ of working class consciousness could only be brought ‘from without’ (in CAO 1976a: 376). At the same time, there were already hints of a shift towards some alternative framework. The CAO’s 1976 anthology closes by interviewing a prominent Volsci member at the Policlinico hospital. According to Daniele Pifano, Italian workers were now obliged to make a ‘qualitative leap’, carrying them from the defence of working class needs to a political strategy of imposing such needs upon society as a whole. This, he stressed, was a task that could not be left to the party alone. Citing the Chilean case, Pifano noted with disappointment the absence there of any revolutionary party or force that didn’t limit itself to providing the maximum impulse to these structures [the cordones—SW], but promoted their city-wide, regional, national centralisation, that restored to the masses their own capacity to elaborate directly a political-military strategy, to take charge of and practice this directly beyond the restricted professional cadre of the party (in CAO 1976a: 384).
The CAO would be very prominent in the upheavals of 1977. Like many other components of Autonomia organizzata, it was often accused by its political rivals of attempting to impose its hegemony both within movement assemblies, and through a confrontational approach to street demonstrations (Bernocchi et al. 1979: 38-42). At first, the group was hopeful that the new cycle of struggles would reinvigorate the various ‘organised autonomist’ circles as part of a wider project of ‘mass counterpower’ (CAO 1977: 166). As it became clear by early 1978 that more and more of the initiative within the Italian far left was passing to the Brigate Rosse and its program of clandestine politics, the CAO would lay much of the blame at the feet of its northern counterparts. Building upon criticisms first voiced with Potere Operaio’s collapse (CAO 1979b), the Volsci accused that group’s former members not only of seeing the construction of a revolutionary vanguard as necessarily separate from mass organisation, but worse still of privileging the former over the latter (CAO 1978d: 13). While the CAO placed its emphasis upon establishing ‘stable institutions of the proletariat’ (CAO 1978e: 1), many of the ex-members of Potere Operaio were accused of holding to ‘a rigidly leninist conception of the party’ (CAO 1978f: 13). Compounding the problem, the Volsci continued, was the failure of the ‘organised autonomists’ to maintain any serious and sustained work around the large factories, despite this being the original rationale of the movement (CAO 1978b: 19). As for particular tendencies within Autonomia, Negri’s circle—already criticised in 1976 for the abstractness of their notion of the ‘socialised worker’ (Wright 2002: 171)—was now dressed down for the voluntarism of its program of linked ‘campaigns’ (CAO 1979a: 6). Once dismissed for the overly reductionist nature of their analyses (CAO 1976b), many of Oreste Scalzone’s longtime associates received a similar drubbing, this time for writing off the whole of Autonomia organizzata as a political failure (CAO 1979d).
After the Bologna conference of September made clear the growing isolation of Autonomia organizzata within the broader Movement of ’77, the CAO proposed its own project of national unification. This was to be a ‘Movement of Workers’ Autonomy’—MAO, to use its Italian acronym—pitched above all at ‘autonomia diffusa’ (CAO 1978c). Insisting that the Movement of ‘77 had proved incapable of converting its ‘antagonistic force’ into ‘programmatic terms’, the document reiterated the Volsci’s longstanding commitment to the development of mass forms of dual power. Since the primary concern of the proletariat was ‘to win as a class, rather than lose as a party’, the purpose of political activity was to work towards the creation of soviets as ‘the representative expression of class unity’ within a project of counterpower. Here a party organisation—‘as the self-management of revolutionaries, as the prefiguring of a new form of cooperation between communists’—had a key role to play. This time round, however, its function was not to bring consciousness to the class from outside, but rather to help clear away those obstacles to the latter’s own struggle for self-emancipation, since ‘an awareness of capitalist laws is not immediately given in the proletariat’s class behaviours’. In a period when no single sector of the class had emerged as a pole of recomposition, the MAO was intended to encompass both party and soviet functions. Within it there was no space for either full-time militants or professional revolutionaries: instead, ‘each of us is the party and together we will all form the political line’, while wielding an equal political weight in decision-making. Nor was the formation of authentic soviets the project of one organisation or ideology, but could only be achieved in cooperation with ‘other social political forces’.
In the end, the MAO initiative would prove stillborn, unable to break the Volsci’s isolation within the broader movement. On the other hand, the project hinted at the degree to which some sections of Autonomia organizzata were prepared to rethink their role. In this regard, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the CAO’s reflections upon the party was the explicit connection made within these between organisational structure and function on the one hand, and ceto politico on the other. Noting that the goals of the latter often entailed ‘its own self-preservation’ and/or the consolidation and extension of influence, an anonymous writer in I Volsci suggested a link between pretensions to the status of ‘external vanguard’ and theoretical rigidity in social analysis. Indeed, they insisted,
The more external a ceto politico is to social subjects, the more centralised, hierarchical and separate its form of organisation (CAO 1979c: 15).
‘From “extremists” to revolutionaries’—the tendency around Oreste Scalzone
If strategy is implicit in the class, in its processes of recomposition, it can be actualised by the subjective action of the party … articulating and determining this strategy concretely, through decisive passages of grand tactics … (Cocori 1977: 46).
Despite the leninist ardour of its leading members, the Comitati Comunisti per il potere operaio (CC) and its successor Cocori were amorphous entities, prone to splits and realignments, with many cadre ultimately being lost to the armed groups, Prima Linea above all (Stajano 1982). Initially, however, the Comitati Comunisti were able to regroup around the journal Senza Tregua a range of circles in Lombardy from 1975 onwards. These included not only associates of Oreste Scalzone from Potere Operaio, who had once opposed Negri’s proposal to liquidate their organisation into the early autonomist movement, but also a significant exodus from the local Lotta Continua. The latter came above all from Sesto San Giovanni, a ‘Stalingrad’ of older industrial complexes soon to face significant job losses through workplace restructuring (Cazzullo 1998: 238-9). The former members of Lotta Continua included a number of prominent militants from the Magneti Marelli factory, and the Comitati Comunisti’s intervention there would pioneer a distinctive approach to organising, around what it called ‘the workers’ decree’. Years later, Scalzone and Lucia Martini (1997: 555) would recall this ‘social, cultural, political’ experience as follows: the discourse on ‘the workers’ decrees’ [concerned] the capacity of a network of revolutionary class vanguards to express their counterpower over the territory, over the entire social organisation. The reduction of working hours and the social wage, a guaranteed income for all as the right to life: given these two axes of demands, what was needed was to approximate them in forms of struggle. The struggle against enterprise command, factory discipline, productivity increases; the struggle against prices, tariffs, rents. It was something different, harder and more bitter than the ‘We Want Everything’ of ’69: it entailed affirming a sort of new citoyenneté, introducing irreversible modifications into the social state of things.
Stated in less grandiose terms, the ‘decree’ entailed the imposition of demands upon management in the workplace, theorised as workers ‘organising their own force to exercise power’. Such actions were seen as crucial steps in the consolidation of that ‘communist working class fraction’ (in CAO 1976a: 108) which had made the workplace department [reparto] ‘the privileged place of debate, of political decisions, of initiative, of struggle’ (CC 1976: 120). As a consequence, the Comitati Comunisti concluded, party responsibilities ‘in the current conditions of conflict’ fell upon this stratum, which was obliged to challenge within the factories the ‘working class right’ and its project of damping down class conflict (in CAO 1976a: 109, 108).
By early 1977 the CC had begun to echo Negri’s thesis of the ‘socialised worker’. Even then, the group continued to assign a strategic role to factory militants. Only this cadre, Senza Tregua suggested, was capable of bridging the divide between emerging militant sectors such as hospital workers, and those parts of the ‘old’ class composition hit hardest by restructuring (CC 1977c: 73). In a giant broadsheet distributed in March of that year, the Comitati Comunisti (1977a: 4) insisted upon ‘the stabilisation of new levels of formal organisation for the revolutionary party of the proletariat as communist organisation of combat and program’. This was to be achieved through the emersion and renovation of the existing structures of Autonomia in the new Movement of ’77, itself centred on the network of factory communist vanguards who in recent months have promoted (as a minimal but decisive terrain) autonomous struggle, resistance to restructuring and the first forms of opposition to the ‘social pact’ (CC 1977b: 1).
Further decantation in the area of Senza Tregua led to the formation of the Comitati Comunisti Rivoluzionari (Cocori) in the second half of 1977. In a pamphlet produced for the Bologna conference, Cocori spelt out its own distinctive views on the party’s role. The problem facing revolutionaries, it stated bluntly, was the conquest of ‘a majority discourse’ within the working class. For this to succeed, the ‘organised autonomists’ were obliged to engage in ‘a process of radical rectification’ (Cocori 1977: 1). Cocori conceded that ‘today we live in a “post-bolshevik” epoch’ characterised by the presence of the ‘material bases’ for communism. While this excluded the need for any distinct ‘socialist’ stage under the guidance of a party-state (ibid: 46), it did not minimise the need for a ‘neo-leninist’ approach to organisation premised upon ‘a subjectivity external to the class’. Unlike the Volsci, Cocori saw nothing inherently revolutionary in the pursuit of working class needs, which in any case risked collapse into ‘a paralysing Babel’; only the party could ensure an appropriate ‘selection and synthesis … within the universe of needs’ (ibid: 45, 44-45). Not that the class was ‘backward’; rather, the agility of capital’s command demanded the creation of a party instrument possessed of that ‘offensive technique for [the state’s] destruction’ absent from the proletariat’s struggles within and against the capital relation (ibid: 44, 45). At the same time, Cocori did not itself claim to be a pole of regroupment, let alone what it disparagingly termed a ‘micro-party’. Instead, it aimed to be a ‘communist centre of initiative’ within a broader process of revitalisation on the path to ‘the party of the revolution’ (ibid: 1).
A year later, Scalzone would reiterate many of these arguments, albeit now in a more difficult context and a far gloomier frame of mind. Cocori having dissolved, his attention had shifted to a new editorial project encompassing both the Pre-print pamphlet series and the journal Metropoli. Agreeing with Galvano Vignale (1978: 29) that ‘except as a legacy and wealth of political personnel, Autonomia is finished, full stop’, Scalzone (1978: 34, 35) accused the ‘organised autonomists’ of placing their continued function as competing components of a ceto politico ahead of the strategic rethinking demanded by recent events. Isolating itself from the national metalworkers’ demonstration of December 1977, Autonomia organizzata had fallen back upon ‘tried and true’ formulae from the mid seventies, such as physical force campaigns of ‘militant’ anti-fascism. Faced with the Moro kidnapping and murder, Autonomia had refused to address the social roots of the terrorist phenomenon, let alone engage in political debate with the Brigate Rosse, as Cocori (1978) had counselled at the time. Instead, most of its components had simply rung their hands, or like the Volsci and Negri’s group had demonised those advocating the militarisation of class struggle.
As for the party-form, Scalzone (1978a: 49) repeated Cocori’s argument about the consequences that stemmed from the present ‘“post-bolshevik” epoch’. Since ‘the general movement tends to posit itself as a modern “mass leninist subject”’, the specific functions of the party would ultimately decline. Until that tendency reached its full fruition, however, ‘a residual necessity’ for bolshevism remained (Scalzone 1978b: XXXIII). Here the party was conceived not as a ‘demiurge’, but rather as a force able a) ‘to interdict’ capital’s effort to obstruct the proletariat’s constitution as a revolutionary subject; b) ‘to enervate the organisational processes of ‘class subjectivity’; and finally c) to develop a critique of politics that challenged the existing ‘social common sense’ (Scalzone 1978a: 59). Given the woeful state of Autonomia, only modest steps were possible in the here and now. Rejecting the proposal of a ‘party of autonomy’ as at best a lashing together of the existing micro-fractions, Scalzone argued instead for a ‘centre of initiative’ able to promote ‘elements of partial synthesis’ within the class struggle. Looking to the future from the vantage point of November 1978, Scalzone (ibid: 62) could see only ‘the long purgatory’ facing those committed to revolutionary organisation. A few short months later, Judge Calogero and his associates would make of these words a grim irony, as the state crackdown against Autonomia began with a vengeance.
‘The reasoned use of force?’—the Collettivi Politici Veneti
The combination of all forms of struggle, legal and illegal, mass action and the reasoned used of force, the capacity of political leadership, enabled [costruirono] the effective hegemony of this experience throughout the Veneto (Arsenale Sherwood 1997).
While Negri’s presence at the University of Padova was an important intellectual reference point within the Italian far left, the dominant autonomist group in the Veneto region would take a path quite different from his own. According to one reconstruction by former participants, the origins of the Collettivi Politici Veneti per il potere operaio (CPV) lay with a younger generation of local activists keen to maintain the structures developed within the local Potere Operaio (M.U. 1980: 11). Perplexed by the divisions that had torn apart their organisation at the national level, they felt little sympathy for the orientation of Negri and his ilk towards the existing workplace collectives:
We couldn’t understand—they said—what the choice of the factory autonomous assemblies would mean for us. We were nearly all students, and we didn’t see any sense in reducing ourselves to the role of ‘supporters’ of workers’ struggles (quoted in Fondazione Piciacchia-Libreria Calusca 1997: 465).
Instead, the Veneto group chose to build upon the networks established through earlier projects around public transport, the cost of living and militant anti-fascism, and, slowly reaching out from Padova to other centres in the region (ibid, 465-7; Zagato 2001: 8). While their decision to maintain the local structure of Potere Operaio for some time after 1973, along with the ‘classically leninist’ nature of their organisational culture (Benvegnù 2001: 2), indicated certain affinities with Scalzone’s circle, the CPV seem to have kept their distance from the Comitati Comunisti (Ferrari Bravo 1984: 194-5). Indeed, for a time in the late seventies, they would align themselves with Negri’s group, before once again striking out on their own, although continuing to collaborate with some of the latter’s associates in the journal Autonomia and the movement station Radio Sherwood. Given such a trajectory, there is much in the CPV’s understanding of the party that marked it out from many other components of Autonomia organizzata. The CPV would also become renowned for the practice within its orbit of what has euphemistically been termed ‘the reasoned use of force’, from the sabotage of property (Anonymous 1978a, 1978b) to the physical intimidation (and sometimes wounding) of those deemed the movement’s ideological enemies (Petter 1993). If some such acts engendered only revulsion outside its ranks, they have also been justified by a number of the CPV’s former exponents as ‘the best antidote’ to the influence within the region of the likes of the Brigate Rosse and Prima Linea (Fondazione Piciacchia-Libreria Calusca 1997: 468).
The views of the Collettivi Politici Veneti on organisation would be spelt out at greatest length in a draft document published in the May 1979 issue of the journal Autonomia, mere weeks after the arrest of Negri and so many others. Following an editorial that lamented the ‘insufficient and artisanal’ efforts to construct a centralised autonomist movement at the national level (Autonomia 1979: 3), the CPV (1979: 18) argued that while the project of the party must be grounded in class composition, current struggles had seen a dramatic and growing divide between possibilities and their practical realisation. Unlike other champions of the socialised worker, they saw the latter as above all a latent political project, one that could never emerge without ‘party organisation’ (ibid). Unlike so many other fractions of Autonomia organizzata, the Veneto group believed it possible and desirable even at this stage to engage in dialogue over political perspectives with what it termed ‘the communist comrades of the “armed party”’ (ibid: 20). Criticising the latter’s fixation upon the leadership of the PCI as a central stumbling block for the revolutionary process, the CPV argued for a rethinking of the proper relation between clandestine and ‘non-clandestine’ practices, since
The movement needs to enrich itself with the complexity of the problems … to arm and strengthen itself and accept the capitalist challenge on all fronts of the class conflict (ibid: 21).
Alongside this, the Veneto group sought to affirm, against what it saw as confusion elsewhere within Autonomia, the necessity of ‘separateness between communist subject and spontaneous movements’: Separateness not in the sense that one is on the Moon and the others here on Earth, but in the capacity to organise with continuity the proletarian initiative within spontaneous submovements, with the autonomy precisely of political struggle and critique within them (ibid).
Such continuity, it went on, was the responsibility of an ‘Organised Communist Movement’ (MCO), a network of proletarian activists which differentiated itself from the various mass movements (themselves commonly articulated on a territorial basis) through its ‘political line’. Finally, at the head of the MCO stood a ‘central structure, of direction, of political and organisational synthesis’, capable of embodying ‘the concept and the materiality of the party’. And if there was any doubt on the matter, readers were reminded that the success of such a project demanded ‘the maximum possible unity and discipline’ (ibid: 22).
In the final section of the document, the CPV further delineated their views through a critique of other autonomist ‘micro-fractions’. Negri’s group, for example, was condemned for addressing the party question in ‘wholly ideological and general political terms’, as well as for lacking the necessary means to put its program into practice. The Comitati Autonomi Operai of Rome, on the other hand, were accused of holding an ‘instrumental and non-strategic’ understanding of organisation, while steadfastly dodging all efforts to be drawn into a centralised, national structure. In the end, the CPV concluded, the Roman’s MAO project represented an obstacle not only to the further development of its primary audience of ‘autonomia diffusa’, but also a step back ‘for all the forces of Aut. Op. Org’ (ibid: 24).
‘A party of autonomy’—Antonio Negri and the Collettivi Politici Operai
The worst and oldest error is the constitution or reconstruction of the ‘group’ … [with its] … paleoleninist schemas of organisation (democratic centralism, professionalisation of leaders, organised division of labour) (Rosso 1975: 235, 236).
Those in the English-speaking world who have heard of Autonomia are likely to have heard also of Antonio Negri. For much of the seventies, Negri would be a member of the Collettivi Politici Operai (sometimes known as Rosso, after their newspaper), an autonomist group based primarily in and around Milan, and drawing its early cadre from former members of both Potere Operaio and the Gruppo Gramsci (Wright 2002: 153). With a certain initial presence in the local car industry, the group’s orientation would slowly shift across the decade, looking with increasing interest to the ‘proletarian youth circles’ of Milan’s hinterland. Early exponents of occupied social centres and of a politics lived ‘in the first person’, the youth circles fed a growing network of ‘diffuse autonomist’ collectives unaligned with Autonomia organizzata, in the process anticipating many of the themes later found in the Movement of ’77 (P. Farnetti & P. Moroni 1984). Able to draw upon the prestige both of Negri as an intellectual, and of Rosso as a paper (around which an alliance of sorts was formed in the mid seventies both with the Volsci and some of Franco Berardi’s circle in Bologna), the CPO was long the leading component of Autonomia organizzata within the Milan radical left. On the other hand, in the face of competition from Senza Tregua and a number of other ‘organised autonomist’ groupings (Moroni 1994), the CPO was never able to attain the sort of local hegemony secured by the CAO in Rome or the CPV in the Veneto.
How did Negri assess other approaches to political organisation within Autonomia? Some pointers lie in his assessment of the Volsci’s views on the matter. Dismissing the latter’s leitmotif of ‘direct democracy’ as dominated by ‘the logic of individual needs and of the scarcity of resources’ (Negri 1976: 134), Negri would offer a more detailed critique of the Romans’ perspectives as part of the Collettivi Politici Operai’s contribution to a debate within Autonomia on organisation. Here it was suggested that the preconditions that made a ‘soviet’ model of revolution conceivable—a ‘molecular’ system of production wherein each enterprise constituted ‘a moment of power’; a socially homogenous working class community; a state-form whose functions were ‘immediately transferable to the direct management of the masses’ (CPO 1976a: 10)—were all absent in the Italian case. On the other hand, it was argued, the allusion of the soviet model to the ‘direct, inalienable character’ of working class power was both praise-worthy and actual. Rather than offer any detailed alternative of their own at this point, however, Negri’s group suggested that the discourse on organisation could only arise ‘from within the organisation of the concrete behaviours of the masses’. The key thing to remember, it concluded, was that ‘the problem of organisation and that of the program arise together’ (ibid). What this meant in practical terms was spelt out in another article from the same issue of Rosso, which identified the primacy of a series of ‘current objectives’ [obiettivo di fase], ranging from struggles in the factory to those against rising costs and repression (CPO 1976b: 2).
If this emphasis upon specific campaigns able to embody an anti-capitalist program failed to resonate with many others amongst the ‘organised autonomists’, it did strike a chord with one of the minor marxist-leninist organisations of Italy’s north. Already back in 1975, in his pamphlet Proletari e Stato, Negri (1976a: 70) had begun to hold out a hand to such groups, praising ‘the party process in the marxist-leninist sense’ as the path to be followed. Such efforts began to pay off by 1976, with an increasing attention to Autonomia in general, and the work of Negri in particular, evident in the pages of Voce Operaia (Leonetti 1976). Indeed, by December of that year, the publishers of the latter, the Partito Comunista (marxista-leninista) Italiano, had joined with Rosso to draft a ‘platform’ with four central points: struggle over the wage; struggle against work; struggle against command; and struggle against the state (Recupero 1978: 34-5). By 1977 the PC(m-l)I had to all intents and purposes become another ‘micro-fraction’ within Autonomia organizzata, before ultimately dissolving sometime in the following year.
The question of the party was clearly a central preoccupation for Negri throughout 1977. Alongside some essays in Rosso that year, his views are set out in two key texts: the pamphlet Dominio e sabotaggio (Negri 1977b), and the closing chapter of the book La forma stato (Negri 1977a). Already in the opening chapter of the latter, written in January, Negri (1977a: 24) had posed what he held to be ‘the fundamental problem’, namely ‘that of organisation, of What is To Be Done?’ Significantly, the title of The State-form’s last chapter (‘From Left Wing Communism [Estremismo] to What Is To Be Done?’) would directly invoke two of Lenin’s most strident calls for vanguard organisation. For all its talk of self-valorisation, or the passing dismissals of the ‘autonomy of the political’, the notion of the party advanced by Negri here was strongly reminiscent of Mario Tronti’s views from a decade earlier. Having posed ‘the problem of the State as the problem of capital’s party’, Negri turned to ‘the problem of the party as the problem of the State of the working class: better, of the anti-State, of workers’ power’ (Negri 1977a: 334). Since the process of working class self-valorisation—‘the possibility of not working hard, of living better, of guaranteeing the wage’—remained both ‘inside and outside capital’, it was not in itself able to break free of class society. What was needed, therefore, was the class’ ‘organised political force’ able ‘to accelerate and lead towards a definitive rupture of the capital relation’ (Negri 1977a: 339). Just as Tronti (1971: 236) had argued in 1965 that ‘the society of capital and the workers’ party find themselves [to be] two opposing forms with the same content’, so Negri held in early 1977 that
The work of the party is therefore the exact opposite of that which constitutes capital’s modification of the material constitution. The party is the anti-State, through and through [fino in fondo]. Opposite points of view are exercised upon the dual nature [duplicità] of this class composition: the capitalist will to legitimate again the processes of administration and exploitation, and the working class will to administer proletarian independence, to the point of attacking the State and destroying the wage system. Parallel and opposite, two equal and contrary forces act upon the class composition (Negri 1977a: 339).
Viewed through these lenses, the meaning of the party was less about structure than function. This was not a party that claimed to represent the class: rather, its purpose was to manage the disarticulation of capitalist domination. It was a vanguard in a literal sense, the minesweeper that cleared a passage for the workers’ advance. But it was more than this, too: it was also a general staff. Thus, while Negri (1977a: 342) paid formal homage in this text to the autonomist slogan of ‘the refusal of delegation’, there was no question but that the process of proletarian unity was the responsibility of a specialised layer within the class. In his words, ‘This work of recomposition through the destruction [of capital’s command] must be completely in the hands of the collective brain of workers’ struggle’ (ibid).
Reviewing the development of the Movement of ’77, a June article in Rosso highlighted what the CPO saw as a dangerous polarisation between those pushing an ‘insurrectionalist’ perspective, and those who saw the development of struggle in gradualist terms. Since every advance in ‘proletarian power’ was now matched by ‘greater force’ and repression, it fell to ‘the communist organisation’ to break this vicious circle from within a strategic approach based upon ‘the mass line’ (Rosso 1977a: 169). Against those who declared themselves the ‘combatant party’ and saw class struggle as a battle between ‘different and counterposed “state apparatuses”’, Rosso spoke of the need for ‘the party as organiser of civil war and direction of the proletarian army’ (ibid: 170). The rejection of both insurrectionalist and gradualist sensibilities was continued in a Rosso article prepared for the Bologna conference. Here the outlook of the Brigate Rosse was singled out for its militarism, which failed to understand the strategic significance of ‘the great masses’ process of liberation’ (Rosso 1977b: 176). All the same, if ‘the bad infinity’ between class recomposition and repression was to be broken, the question of ‘vanguard organisation’ could not be avoided. While the crisis of the state-form had engendered a crisis of the party-form, it was nonetheless the case that the constitution of a political instrument that we insist on calling party is as much plausible on the scientific level as it is absolutely necessary on the practical level (Rosso ibid: 177).
Holding that ‘a stable organisation’ could not be established ‘in bureaucratic-formal terms’, Rosso concluded by reiterating its often stated view that only a series of related campaigns was able to provide the basis through which a new national formation—‘the collective organiser of social subversion’ (ibid: 176, 177)—might aggregate through struggle.
The precise relation between this ‘collective organiser’ and the broader process of ‘social subversion’ was made clear in Negri’s pamphlet Dominio e sabotaggio, written in early September1977. Significantly, in this piece Negri would requalify his views in a number of important ways. To begin with, in testimony to the Movement of ’77’s vitality, the fundamental dialectic in class society was stated in new terms, with self-valorisation now coming to supplant the party as the state’s chief antagonist, ‘the opposite of the concept of the “State-form”’ (Negri 1977b: 15). Unlike his position of eight months previously, Negri here asserted that self-valorisation did indeed embody the capacity to break the capital relation, since it was itself ‘the strength [forza] to withdraw from exchange value and the capacity to base itself on use values’ (ibid: 22; see also 38). As for the party, Dominio e sabotaggio bluntly asked whether such an entity still had any useful role to play in the revolutionary project. Echoing concerns long voiced by the Volsci, Negri (ibid: 67) identified the birthplace of the Gulag in ‘the party’s monopoly on violence, the fact of its being the obverse rather than the determinate antithesis of the State-form’. And yet, he went on, ‘I do not feel able to jettison the problem of the party’ (ibid: 61). Here Negri returned to arguments made in Rosso eighteen months previously, where it had been argued that the contradiction between those who privileged ‘the movement’, and the champions of ‘a “leninist” conception of organisation’, had to be confronted as ‘a leninist contradiction’ (CPO 1976c: 229). Writing in Dominio e sabotaggio, Negri stressed that the contradictory problem of organisation could only be lived out by the movement’s militants, who found themselves ‘rooted on the one hand in the practice of self-valorisation, and tied, on the other, to the functions of offense’ (ibid: 63). Given this, he concluded, the party could indeed find a role to play in the process of class recomposition, as the army that defends the frontiers of proletarian independence. And naturally it must not, cannot get mixed up in the internal management of self-valorisation (ibid: 62).
The months between the writing of Dominio e sabotaggio and Negri’s arrest in April 1979 would see little opportunity to put such notions to the test. Always extremely fragmented, the Autonomia of Milan and its surrounds would fracture further and further in the wake of the Moro affair (Gaj: 1980). And while Negri would soon abandon the agitational Rosso in favour of the more reflective environment of Magazzino, in the months before his arrest he would continue to insist that
The most rigorous critique of the Third International cannot negate that essential urgency that we find in our experience of struggle, and that consists in the construction of an adequate form of party organisation, of organisation for the class in this phase (Negri 1979a: 131).
- Critics on the borders
But it’s the ‘Party of organised autonomy’ that has demonstrated [realizza]—through leninist idiocy—the failure of a year of manipulation, wild repression and political games against the movement (Collegamenti 1979: 7).
Within Autonomia itself, the circle most critical of the party-form was grouped around Franco Berardi (‘Bifo’) in Bologna, where it inspired both the journal A/traverso and the movement station Radio Alice. Emphasising the creativity of contemporary movements against capital and the state, A/traverso would insist that proletarian autonomy be recognised ‘as a majoritarian social tendency’, in which the ‘revolutionary line’ could not be ‘reduced to a party project’ (A/traverso 1977a: 149). More than most sections of Autonomia, this ‘creative’ tendency was also prepared to take to heart, even before 1977, arguments concerning ‘the refusal of militancy and the party’ as specialised, voluntaristic functions (A/traverso 1977b). Instead, it would experiment on two fronts. The first and least successful would be the development of a new language of revolution (‘conspiring’ through ‘maodada’); the second—all too relevant to debates within today’s movements against global capital—attempted to develop a participative media able to facilitate (in real time!) the horizontal organisation of struggle. It is hardly surprising, then, that by late 1975, Bifo and his comrades would formally break with Rosso, after its other editors failed to criticise those members of the Volsci who had joined Lotta Continua stewards in disrupting a national feminist demonstration. A year later A/traverso could be heard warning that similar problems might well face the Movement of ’77, from those who believe in resolving problems with stewards organisations [servizi d’ordine] or through the exhibition of their own virile force … The attitude of sectors of Autonomia operaia organizzata (with a capital A), a military behaviour of violence and aggression towards comrades, towards youth and women, drawing themselves up in military formation [schieramento], signals a profound incomprehension of the new elements that this movement expresses. But what is worse is that today the imposition of a minoritarian logic of organisational patriotism [una logica minoritaria ed organizzativistica], whether of a militarist or workerist stamp, risks forcing onto centrist positions sectors of the movement that are certainly not centrist (A/traverso 1977c: 1).
Nor were critics hard to find on Autonomia’s margins. According to one article in the small journal Neg/azione (1976: 138), these comrades (Aut. Op.) start from a revolutionary reality, namely the need for the autonomous development of proletarian needs, whilst yet again proposing (professional) ‘revolutionary militancy’ and the party. This has the effect of channelling such revolutionary needs into capitalist schemas of ‘politics’ and ‘ideology’. While starting from anti-revisionist premises (the refusal of the party as ‘consciousness’ and detonator of the autonomous movement), Autonomia Operaia Organizzata smuggles the party back in through the window, bureaucratising the very concept of ‘autonomy’ in the process.
Even harsher sentiments were voiced in the pages of Provocazione (Puzz 1976: 142, 143), where Autonomia was described as ‘a parking bay’ for ‘malcontents’ from the New Left groups intent on domesticating working class self-activity. A somewhat more discerning picture was painted in Insurrezione’s pamphlet Proletari, se voi sapeste …, which sought to discriminate between the Volsci as the expression of ‘the direct organisation of consistent numbers of proletarians and a great quantity of neighbourhood committees and collectives’, and the autonomist groups of the North, whose function in the late seventies was deemed largely ephemeral and ‘spectacular’ (n.d.: 9, 11). On the other hand, little affection for ‘organised Autonomy’ could be found in the pages of the anarchist journal A, where a writer poked fun at Scalzone’s alleged insistence during one ‘encounter’ between autonomists and supporters of Lotta Continua at the 1977 Bologna conference that ‘militants of the Comitati Comunisti Rivoluzionari who continue fighting will be subject to disciplinary sanctions’ (A 1977: 4).
Perhaps the most sustained critiques of Autonomia from those on its borders would come from the circles grouped around the journals Collegamenti and Primo Maggio. The first had been established in the early seventies as a small network of workplace militants and their supporters based primarily in Milan, and viewing the world through an original blend of class struggle anarchism, council communism and the operaista notion of class composition. For its part, Primo Maggio began life in 1973 as a review of working class history, albeit one increasingly concerned with accounts of contemporary struggles as the decade wore on. Its editors were drawn primarily from former members of Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua who, in rejecting those groups’ ‘will to power’, were keen to rethink the political roles and divisions of labour that then characterised the Italian radical left.
A common theme across the reflections of both journals (between which there was some convergence of discussion and even membership) was a consideration of the ceto politico generated within Italy’s far left in the years since 1968. In a 1974 article on Autonomia, Collegamenti (1974: 258, 263) identified three components within that movement. The first of these was a ‘more or less consistent working class fringe’ organised above all in workplace committees, the second a slice of the ‘political personnel’ whose previous efforts to lead the class in ‘neoleninist’ groups such as Potere Operaio had proved a failure. Finally, there were a number of ‘small traditional stalinist-maoist bureaucracies’ such as Avanguardia Comunista in Rome and the Comitato Comunista (marxista-leninista) di unità e di lotta in Milan, of which it was said ‘only an incurable opportunism can consider them class forces’. All things to all people, according to Collegamenti, Autonomia already ran the risk of repeating the trajectory of Lotta Continua in attempting ‘to ‘expropriate proletarians of the comprehension of their struggle’ by carving out a privileged role for itself within the process of class recomposition.
The first issue of a new series of Collegamenti (1977a: 5) expanded these criticisms. Here it was argued that the early ‘autonomous workers movement’ of factory militants had been highjacked by ‘old wolves in new skins’, whose antics in ‘imposing analyses and divining the most “correct” and “revolutionary” objective’ had alienated the movement’s original workplace and neighbourhood collectives ‘one by one’. That this had occurred was not simply due to the perfidy of Autonomia’s ‘micro-fractions’, however. Rather, its basis lay in the failure of the original workplace committees’ intention that the federation of similar bodies ‘factory by factory’ would eventually lead to ‘total control over production’ on the path to a ‘reborn republic of councils’ (ibid: 6). With such hopes dashed by the massive restructuring and layoffs that characterised much of Italian industry after 1973, space was opened within Autonomia for the rise of the ‘organised autonomists’ and their growing stress upon the overarching dimension of ‘political’ struggle. While the likes of Negri turned their back upon the large factories, Scalzone’s group had made little progress within them by touting their simplistic schemas of a counterposed working class ‘right’ and ‘left’ (Collegamenti 1978: 81). A similar pattern would be repeated with the Movement of ’77 which, isolated from much of the traditional working class and under growing pressure from the state to reduce its dynamic to one of physical confrontation, increasingly lost the social dimension to its struggle. In such circumstances, this vicious circle was exacerbated by the preparedness of many in Autonomia organizzata to accept the state’s challenge, while extolling ‘the thematic of the party, voluntarism and the separateness of militancy’ to rationalise their right to a specialised leadership role within the broader movement (ibid: 85).
A central figure in Primo Maggio, former leader of Potere Operaio, and work colleague of Negri, Sergio Bologna paid considerable attention to the debate on organisation within Autonomia. One of his first writings on the matter was a review of Negri’s pamphlet Proletari e Stato, which Bologna criticised at length for what he saw as its abandonment of any political project centred upon the workers of the large factories (Wright 2002: 170-1). Along the way, Bologna (1976a: 27) also gave a thumbs down to the model of political organisation set out in Proletari e Stato, dismissing as ‘useless’ the idea that ‘the new party no longer has a motor in the front (the vanguard), but rather one in the back, like a Volkswagen’. 
On the other hand, Bologna’s reaction to Autonomia’s role in the initial stages of the Movement of ’77 was a broadly positive one. Writing in March to Lotta Continua’s daily newspaper, he chided the latter for failing to engage in political debate with the autonomists. A crucial difference to 1968, he continued, was that, unlike the political activists of that time, ‘today some sectors of the organised autonomy tendency are actual and concrete elements of class composition—ie, they are inside it’ (Bologna 1977c: 99). This point was reiterated in ‘The Tribe of Moles’, Bologna’s classic analysis of the Movement of ’77, where it was suggested that the autonomist groups had early won a hegemonic role because of their ability to anticipate political themes profoundly different to those of the late sixties. Yet hardly had ‘the echoes of the [February] clashes in Bologna’ died down ‘when everyone whipped out their Lenin masks from behind their backs—in particular the Workers’ Autonomy (Autonomia Operaia) tendency in the North’ (Bologna 1977a: 56). The very failure of Autonomia to force the pace of struggle, however, made it clear that now, against previous vanguardist notions of class politics, organisation is obliged to measure itself day by day against the new composition of the class; and must find its political programme only in the behaviour of the class and not in some set of statutes; and thus must practice, not political clandestinity, but its opposite (ibid: 58).
In a long reflective piece published on the eve of the September conference, Bologna devoted some space to rejecting the notion that forcing the pace of street confrontations would inherently promote the process of social self-organisation. Citing an episode in Milan four months previously, where a policeman had been shot dead in what was widely seen as a revenge killing by a fringe of the autonomist movement, Bologna argued that the critique of the party as an organisational form must not end up in a situation where the individual person becomes the Party, and where juvenile behaviour can create situations that have a disastrous effect on the whole movement (Bologna 1977b: 121).
If anything, Bologna’s views of Autonomia had become harsher by 1978. While expressing interest in the Volsci’s call for engagement with the remaining instances of ‘autonomia diffusa’ within the large factories, he showed nothing but scorn for the ‘organised autonomists’ of Italy’s so-called ‘industrial triangle’ (bordered by Milan, Turin and Genoa). The ‘workerist ceto politico’, he argued in February, was responsible for having reproduced leadership elites that are elites of revolutionary bourgeois, of having suffocated—like their illustrious predecessors—the working class direction of organisation and the movement (Bologna 1978a: 155). The key to this problem, he continued in a Primo Maggio editorial, lay in dissolving the coupling ‘crisis of party-form—need of organisation’. Little could be expected on this front from the ‘old whores’ of Autonomia, however, at least in places like Milan, while the Bologna conference had only confirmed that tendency’s propensity to reproduce the worst behaviours of the New Left ceto politico formed after 1968 (Bologna 1978b: 4).
- After the deluge
How many times we pretended not to be a party! We weren’t but we would have liked to have been one. It was very ambiguous (Alisa Del Re, quoted in Cuninghame 2002a: 135).
In practical terms, the movement died over the problem of the party (Negri 2000: 10). The cycle of struggles that opened in 1977 would end badly. Retrenchment, addiction, imprisonment, exile, even suicide were not uncommon. Indeed, even before its decapitation through the mass arrests of 1979-80, many of the ‘micro-fractions’ of Autonomia would lose members to burnout or to ‘NCO revolts’ that fed the movement’s fringe of ‘diffuse terrorism’. In the aftermath of its defeat came the eighties, ‘the years of cynicism, opportunism, and fear’ (Balestrini & Moroni 1988: 387). On the other hand, the emergence of today’s movement against global capital in Italy has prompted a certain interest in the struggles of earlier generations, including those of Autonomia. In particular, recent years have seen the appearance of a number of important studies of the period which draw heavily upon oral sources (Borio, Pozzi & Roggero 2002; Del Bello 1997; Cuninghame 2002a). Amongst other things, these projects have provided space for veterans of those years to offer their own reflections concerning the autonomist movement’s successes as well as its ultimate failure. What light do these accounts throw upon our understanding of the attempt to establish a ‘party of autonomy’?
On many scores, serious differences of interpretation remain. Take the question of the organisational structures developed in some sections of Autonomia organizzata. Carlo Formenti (1999: 6), who left the area at an early point in its development, notes ‘the paradox of Autonomia’ as the product of the dissolution of the [post-1968 groups], but then maintaining the logic of the party within itself, that is the logic of leading cadres who had to lead, dominate, direct, coordinate and encompass within a common strategy and tactics everything that moved, every aspect and contradiction.
In the case of many northern components, he argues, this paradox was inseparable from the establishment, out of their stewards’ organisations, of clandestine structures parallel to their public face. More than this, once created … there was inevitably a transversal attraction between the various separate organisms … rapidly leading to the separation of this level from that of class autonomy and from political direction by the movement… (ibid: 2-3).
In the face of this contradiction, some in the Autonomia of southern Italy had instead ‘chose[n] the self-dissolution of these “parallel structures”’ (Lanfranco Caminiti, quoted in Cuninghame 2002a: 130). Against this, a former member of the Veneto collectives would continue to insist that the answer lay elsewhere, in ‘the reasoned use of force’: there didn’t have to be separation between those who did politics and those who did politics and the armed struggle or only the armed struggle … practicing politics was to do everything at the same time (quoted in Cuninghame 2002a: 133).
In what ways did the ‘organised autonomist’ groups seek to develop their own membership in preparation for the creation of a vanguard party? Speaking as a former member of Rosso, Ferruccio Dendena holds that this question was treated with little seriousness in that organisation: I put the blame for this on the leaders who did not want to run proper ‘cadre schools’ and the bureaucratic relationship they had with the activists—‘do this leaflet today, go to that march tomorrow’ etc.—which pushed them towards the armed groups (quoted in Cuninghame 2002a: 145).
Beyond this, Dendena (2000: 8) has identified a broader range of problems within the Autonomia organizzata of the late seventies. First there were the rivalries between the various ‘micro-fractions’. While some of these rivalries were programmatic in basis, little serious effort was made to thrash out a unified national perspective. Others were no more than the product of petty jealousies and past unpleasantries, leading some to shun the CPO ‘simply because Negri was there’, altogether too daunting a figure for theoretical and political debate. Again within Rosso, Dendena recalls a tension between those who saw the vanguard as responsible for developing mass organisation, and others who thought it sufficient to lead others into street clashes on the basis of sloganeering. On this score, Negri himself (2000: 10) regrets that the early Autonomia’s efforts to challenge the mass/vangauard distinction failed, forcing it back onto a traditional political terrain. According to Bologna (2001: 14), however, a problem with Negri’s political perspective, then and now, is to mistake the intensification of conflict for the broader process of class recomposition. Borio (2001: 9) makes a similar point: throughout the seventies Negri emphasised pushing forward, reaching and forcing along the discourse on struggles. He said: the struggle, power, the strength of the class, its organised segments and parts, have reached a level that is irreversible. This focus on the contingent might even be considered a necessary tactic for carrying the struggle forward, for leading the conflict to more advanced dimensions. But in reality, from a theoretical point of view, if you look not only at the immediate situation, but in terms of a broader project, it was a great political error, even a catastrophe.
For his part, Sergio Bianchi (2001: 7) has spoken of the periodic efforts by the ‘organised autonomists’ of Milan to colonise other parts of Lombardy, which only increased the wariness towards them of many in the ‘diffuse’ collectives (see also Farnetti & Moroni 1984). Alisa Del Re (2000: 2)—never formally part of Autonomia, despite the fantasies of Calogero and his ilk—contrasts the gains made by early feminist collectives around social services in the Veneto with the militaristic model of activism developed by many in the CPV. Finally, for Vincenzo Miliucci, once a prominent member of the Volsci, Negri’s group was also guilty of incorrect relations, as a ceto politico, with the authentic and decisive structures of autonomia operaia in Milan: the Assemblea autonoma dell’Alfa Romeo, the Comitato della Pirelli, the Collettivo operaio della Sit-Simiens (in Del Bello 1997: 15).
To be fair, their critics hardly remember the efforts of the Comitati Autonomi Operai any less harshly. Piero Bernocchi (1997: 68-9)—a former rival of the CAO who now works with many of its ex-members in the Confederazione Cobas—argues that during 1977, the main autonomist formation in Rome lost that ‘popular spirit that had characterised it’ previously. He further accuses the CAO of abdicating any leadership role, in the process failing to conduct ‘a clear and open political battle’ with the armed groups, whose culture was quite distant from ‘the movementist and libertarian attitudes of the Volsci’. Consciously or not, the CAO had instead allowed free rein to the most militarist tendencies within the Roman far left, leading to a cycle of street battles that only the state could ultimately win. Benedetto Vecchi (2001: 5) recalls things somewhat differently. He holds that, for all their profound differences in ideology and practice, the CAO and Brigate Rosse were (‘a little ironically’) locked in a competition to win the leadership of the Movement in Rome precisely on the level of politically-motivated violence. Dendena (2000: 8) goes further, claiming that the Volsci’s network of territorial committees was held together by the charisma of leading militants rather than a political program. As the level of physical confrontation grew after 1977, this left elements within such local units vulnerable to infiltration by, or defection towards, armed groups such the Brigate Rosse. The former brigatista Franscesco Piccioni agrees: the CAO were ‘sorcerers’ apprentices’ who were simply living ‘day by day’ in the absence of a longer term political project. Their model of leadership, he continues, consisted of ‘being within’ the Movement, and of saying ‘everyone can do what they like, so long as they don’t break their links with us’ (in Del Bello 1997: 125, 124). Not surprisingly, Miliucci (2000: 15) disagrees, arguing that the Volsci were right to dissolve into the broader Movement for the duration of 1977; if he has regrets, it is that the group did not then seek explicitly to be an ‘anti-party, to be movementists’. Pifano, by contrast, is rather more self-critical, looking back with regret upon his organisation’s ‘often instrumental’ approach in practice to direct democracy, along with its inability to work with those currents it deemed to be on the moderate wing of the movement (Pifano 1995: 287). Above all, he argues, Autonomia’s failure ‘to represent a general political force’ opened a programmatic void that the armed groups on its fringes and beyond were more than willing to exploit (Pifano 1997: 366).
- In conclusion
Do I believe that knowledge can still be of assistance to practice? I think so, at least for a limited period, as long as we start from trying to recover that knowledge which capital (in the process of reducing socially necessary labour) is daily expropriating from the working class.
We’ve had enough of ideology-merchants! Let’s set to work again as ‘technicians’, inside the theoretical framework of class composition. This job is not one for a small group of intellectuals, but for thousands of comrades—the doctors, the technicians, the psychiatrists, the economists, the physicists, the teachers etc (Bologna 1977b: 122)
As has been seen, the project of a ‘party of Autonomy’—the formal unification of the movement’s ceto politico as a revolutionary leadership—remained stillborn for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most fundamental of these was the inability of the great majority of Autonomia organizzata to rethink its role as a ceto politico in the face of the rich and complex class composition thrown up in the late seventies. Having experimented with and then largely abandoned the role of ‘external militant’ serving the ceto operaio of workplace militants, the ‘organised autonomist’ groupings commonly fell back upon more traditional notions of a political cadre. Yet even here, the more innovative approaches proffered then—for example, Negri’s idea of the party as a specialised army protecting class self-organisation, a sort of servizio d’ordine writ large— were still very much out of step with the ‘good sense’ to be found outside Autonomia organizzata’s ranks:
Pacifists such as Lama enlist policemen, while those ‘further left’ seek the legitimation of ‘mass violence’, of the ‘armed proletariat’. The actual movement was more realistic and less bellicose, more human and less heroic: it put peace up for debate because it criticised war and it shattered the criterion of delegation and legitimisation because it rejected the army … (Castellano 1980: 232, translation modified).
And for some, it would seem, little of importance has changed, apart from the language utilised. Thus, while Negri (2000: 14) has recently wondered out loud whether ‘luxemburgism’ might not be ‘the leninism of this epoch’, Empire (Hardt and Negri 2000) continues to assign a privileged role within the process of radical social change to the ceto politico, this time round presented in the guise of ‘the militant’ (Sabrina & Chris 2002; Holloway2002). 1977 would not be the first occasion that those seeking radical social change have failed to take up Marx’s (1852: 106) challenge to learn from the past, while seeking inspiration from the poetry of the future.
In the specific case of Autonomia, a heavy price would be paid for the privileging of a discourse around the party as the crucial ingredient necessary for overturning ‘the present state of things’—particularly when this sought to occlude what Bologna has called ‘the dialectic between political elite and movement’ (Cuninghame 2001: 98). Reflecting on this problem twenty years ago, one editor of Collegamenti suggested that the term movement can be thought of as an ‘ensemble of behaviours and objectives that, whatever their specificity, refer to common and interconnected needs’. But beyond this, it carried a second connotation: in considering the movement, we can’t forget that it is also a specific social layer, a ceto politico (to use that horrible term) that poses itself as the relatively stable expression of social antagonism, as its memory, as the bearer of social values expressed by class behaviours. Although the movement, in this second sense, is something different from the class movement proper, one can’t understand the latter by overlooking the former. The political practices, the analytical and organisational instruments of the movement’s ceto politico play a notable role in the general evolution of struggles.
The movement’s ceto politico oscillates between its various roles, therefore, in a manner that is hard to untangle. It can pose itself simultaneously or alternatively as a minority agent for class self-organisation, or as a simple appendage to traditional organisations and rules; as a movement of self-awareness, or as the bureaucratic and authoritarian direction of struggles (Giovannetti 1980: 7). The irony of Autonomia organizzata’s discourses on the party-form is that, having developed an understanding of the capital relation that suggested that the latter’s abolition presupposed something other than the storming of the Winter Palace, most of its components nonetheless looked to marshalling the movement’s ceto politico in pursuit of a general clash. That they were unable to do so does not detract from the tragedy of their course. Are other paths possible? Can we envisage instead approaches able to recognise that the generation of ceti politici is a necessary consequence of class relations in a capitalist society, without asserting that the most important prelude to dissolving the capital relation entails the rallying of such layers of activists into a unified political unit designed to monopolise the broader movement’s ‘strategic reason’?
One of the more interesting debates in the late nineties suggests a tentative yes, with some anti-capitalists in Britain and elsewhere making a call to ‘Give Up Activism’ (Andrew X 1999). Not through inactivity (although a lot of what passes for political action today may well be only make-work), but instead by challenging the divisions of labour currently existing in the various movements against global capital, as well as the latter’s relationship with the class composition with which they seek to engage. To be successful, such a course will require the continual rethinking of organisational forms, in pursuit of what Cuninghame (2002b) has called ‘the search for an organisational model that is both participatively democratic and structurally transparent’. But more than this, it may require further exploration of what Bologna (2001: 13) has termed the role of ‘technicians’: that is, of comrades able to share their particular expertise and judgement as part of the collective development of ‘strategic reason’, without claiming any privileged leadership function as a consequence.
If this is so, we may yet see some interesting new answers to the problem posed a quarter of a century ago by the editors of the North American journal Zerowork (1977: 6), of how ‘to develop and circulate organizational strategies that do not contradict the autonomy of the working class’.
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* I would like to thank the following for their constructive criticism of an earlier version of this chapter: Tim Murphy, Chris Wright, Ni k, Enda Brophy and Patrick Cuninghame.
 Wright (2002) seeks to explore the operaista tendency as the limit case of this failure.
 I have chosen to retain the Italian term ceto politico, as this evokes the notion both of a stratum within a movement and/or class, as well as the vocation (whether realised or not) to provide leadership to the latter. Moss (1989: Chapter 2) has some interesting insights into the stratification of Autonomia’s ceto politico in much of northern Italy, even if his focus upon the question of politically-motivated violence tends to filter out other aspects of the stratum’s internal dynamics.
 One of the hardest aspects of any discussion of the role of militants/activists entails unravelling the relationship between the ceto politico proper, which commonly defines itself through individual identification with a formal organisational project and its associated ideology, and that broader ceto operaio within a given class composition, which may promote working class struggles without necessarily belonging to any organised ‘movement’. Some passing reference to this problem can be found in Borio, Pozzi and Roggero (2002). Danilo Montaldi (1971: XII) offers some very thought-provoking reflections upon this latter layer, even if he is adamant that is ‘not a social stratum’. For a discussion of one example of disjuncture between political activists and workplace militants, see Mason (1979).
 The history of Autonomia in Italy’s south remains the least known of the various ‘Autonomies’. There are some sources available—from anthologies of the period (Recupero 1978 above all), to a passage in the new edition of L’orda d’oro (Caminiti 1997), and sections of Patrick Cuninghame’s dissertation (2002a)—but nothing like the range of materials concerning the Romans or many of the Northern collectives.
 In the words of John Holloway (2002b: 157), ‘The form of the party, whether vanguardist or parliamentary, presupposes an orientation towards the state and makes little sense without it. The party is in fact the form of disciplining class struggle, of subordinating the myriad forms of class struggle to the over-riding aim of gaining control of the state. The state illusion penetrates deep into the experience of struggle, privileging those struggles which appear to contribute to the winning of state power and allocating a secondary role or worse to those forms of struggle which do not.’
 Some acute insights into the early autonomist milieu can be found in the work of Ellen Cantarow (1972, 1973).
 The Manifesto circle is probably the bestknown component of the Italian far left in the English speaking world, with works by its most prominent members past and present (Magri, Rossanda, Castellina) often appearing in translation over the past thirty years. Driven out of the PCI at the end of the sixties, it remained torn between efforts to push the Communist party ‘further left’, and engagement with the party-building exercises of the main New Left groups. Its most enduring legacy is the daily newspaper of the same name (http://www.ilmanifesto.it).
 It is interesting to compare this with the criticisms of so-called ‘outside’ militants in the New Left groups, made by some factory activists at the beginnings of the ‘autonomous workers movement’. For example, there is the following from a Turin meeting of 1971: ‘Up to now it has always been the former [the ‘outside’ militants—SW] who decided the political line and have imposed it in the assemblies, thanks to their greater preparation and the greater amount of time at their disposal. The workers have been merely the “shit-workers” of the revolution’ (quoted in Wildcat n.d.: 2).
 Many of these statements can be found in Recupero (1979).
 Enzo Modugno (1981: 242) has recalled the bemusement of Paul Mattick when confronted with the ‘councillist’ views of some leading Manifesto exponents in 1977.
 ‘We, as the Policlinico committee, made reference to the committees of Autonomia Operaia as a political structure. The majority of our comrades adhered to this political structure, not all however’—Ciaccio (1982).
 Such concerns make it hard to understand the accusations, circulated around 1978 by some circles in the Roman revolutionary left, that the CAO were ‘pro-Soviet’ in the sense of supporting the USSR of Brezhnev. To date, I have only been able to find second hand accounts of such charges (Bocca 1979: 96; or see CAO 1980a, where an excerpt from a newspaper article repeating the charges is reprinted without comment). That the CAO’s work with certain Palestinian organisations (for which some of the Volsci’s leading members would pay dearly—ibid) may have brought them (like many Italian leftists) into contact with ‘pro-Soviet’ circles is quite possible. Beyond this, however, a pro-Soviet orientation sits at odds both with the organisation’s broad practice, as well as its numerous pronouncements concerning ‘twenty years of Cold War, with its Budapests, Pragues, Warsaws, and the latest aggression exhibited by Soviet imperialism’ (CAO 1980b; see also CAO 1978g).
 Similar arguments about the ‘obtuse self-satisfaction’ of Autonomia organizzata were offered at this time by the Centro di Iniziativa Comunista Padovana (n.d.: 121, 122) (a small split from the Veneto collectives which, as its name suggests, may well have had ties to the Cocori network).
 Such an assessment of the PCI would seem to have been rather more typical of the Brigate Rosse than of the other prominent armed groups such as Prima Linea.
 In turn, this process prompted opposition from more orthodox members of the PC(m-l)I—(Acerenza et al. 1977).
 In this section I have drawn upon the translation of Dominio e sabotaggio by Ed Emery as revised by Timothy S. Murphy.
 Along the way, Bologna also made a point of the dramatic shift in Negri’s views on the party across the first half of the seventies: ‘Negri has passed from the theorisation of insurrection in ’71 to the extinction of the party in ’73, from ultra-bolshevik positions to the pure objectivism of struggles: a 180 degree turn’ (ibid). A similar observation was voiced by Marcello Pergola during the early stages of the 7 April case, in a passage that also suggests the disparate nature of Rosso’s early efforts to establish a national network within Autonomia: ‘I remember taking part, in late Spring 1974, in a meeting at Berardi’s house in Bologna … dedicated to the illustration of the contents of the new series of Rosso by Antonio Negri. I remember being struck by the change compared to Negri’s earlier discourses on the formalisation, on the necessity of the party: now instead he seemed to be paying particular attention to emerging subjects, the youth proletariat, women etc. Berardi was preparing his journal A/traverso, with a strongly anarchist content, we of Modena did not want to renounce our links with various union sectors, Bianchini underlined the necessity of links with factory cadre … In conclusion, the meeting ended without any concrete, operative result; and it demonstrated once again the contrasts between the different positions’ (quoted in Palombarini 1982: 122).
 To be fair, the experience of Autonomia was quite different in Genoa to elsewhere in the north—see the recollections of Mezzarda (2001) and Moroni (2001).
 Dendena’s views are echoed by Guido Borio (2001: 9), himself a past militant in Rosso.
 A less flattering explanation for the hostility towards Negri from within the Volsci can be found in an interview with Graziella Bastelli (in Del Bello 1997: 158).
 Ironically, Precari Nati (n.d.) have since made similar charges concerning the Volsci’s relations with these early instances of the autonomous workers movement.
 A similar argument is set out in Mezzadra (2001: 13).
 Elsewhere I have sought to explore the legacy of the Resistance for the postwar Italian far left—(Wright 1998).
 Amongst other things, this recent debate over activism has alluded to earlier critiques of ‘the militant’ developed within the ambit of the Situationist International. Commenting on an earlier draft of this chapter, Chris Wright has rightly suggested that many of the perspectives on revolutionary organisation surveyed here could be usefully viewed through an engagement with such critiques. As part of that process, it would also be fruitful to examine the efforts during the seventies of the likes of Riccardo D’Este— see for example ‘Un’esperienza oltra la politica’ in Cevro-Vukovic (1976).
 Timothy Murphy has drawn my attention to the affinities between Bologna’s notion of ‘technicians’ and Foucault’s (1980) discussion of ‘specific intellectuals’, outlined in his 1977 interview ‘Truth and Power’.
Source: The Philosophy of Antonio Negri (2005), chapter 4, p 73-108