Laboratory Italy 

The Golden Horde: Revolutionary Italy, 1960-1977

Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni

Trans. Richard Braude

Seagull Books: Italian List, 2021.  ISBN 978 1 8030 9193 8 

Reviewed By Howard Slater 

For many the year 1968 marks a highpoint for revolutionary agitation in Europe. Waves of protests, sit-ins and occupations could be witnessed from Paris to Belgrade and over to Mexico City and Chicago. However, these uprisings that questioned the rise of a consumption-led capitalism and a growing technologization of production seemed to fritter out into left wing folklore. Their lack of longevity, their failures, have been mulled over in the decades since then and gave rise to various modes of explanation: from voluntary servitude to the power of a mediatised-spectacle to manipulate collective perception; from a critique of the forms and tactics of the classical workers movement to the psychoanalytically-toned questionings proffered by ‘minority’ groups that opened up notions of difference and desire.  

Perhaps the long-lasting failure of ’68 was the way that it became celebrated by Left and Right. The Left looked back nostalgically but the Right, seeing this mass wave of protests as a serious threat to its profiteering consensus began the work of globalisation, of outsourcing production to low-wage economies that ended up with a de-industrialisation that hit this country in the late 70s. So, both Left and Right seemed to freeze ’68 in aspic. It became the master signifier around which all hopes for a revolution in continental Europe floundered and around which the search for a new revolutionary subject began. This was as much a media-effect: the hierarchical selection of what news to cover, what anniversaries to celebrate, a kind of essentialising of ’68 that has the effect of drawing a line under it as the last chance, the ultimate defeat. In this way the social struggles that occurred in Italy (and let’s not forget Portugal in 1974) over the decade following ’68 becomes not so much an element of popular consciousness but an area of specialised knowledge. 

Back in the 80s you would be hard pressed to research into what had only recently occurred in Italy. Those UK-based groups that reported and discussed events there (such as Big Flame) had disbanded and their booklets rarely appeared in circulation. There was one sole book, an anthology of contemporaneous writings, that arrived on these shores from the USA: Italy: Autonomia – Post Political Politics (1980) Until the publication of Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven (2002) which recounted the story as a workerist history, it was only the efforts of an Edinburgh based journal Common Sense and the publication of writings by Toni Negri by the one-man band of Red Notes that offered routes into coming to grips with a socio-political situation that contained “the factual and cultural premises of a civil war.” In short, one could say that what occurred in Italy was akin to what was happening in Northern Ireland. 

This book, then, marks something of a departure from the foregoing in that it is a recounting of the history written by two protagonists who participated in the upheavals of those decades.  First published in Italy in the late 80s it is a collaboration between novelist Nanni Balestrini and bookshop-owner Primo Moroni. The two of them, having access to an archive that had been established by Moroni, began to piece together the history of the period and interspersed their narrative with a choice selection of contemporaneous texts drawn from journals, flyers, newspapers. So, this book also figures as an anthology and rather than being a straight ‘political’ or ‘workerist’ recounting the two authors include much information and assessment of the counter-cultural movements in Italy as well as the widespread factory struggles that mark the period. They chart the rise of popular revolutionary songs and their dissemination through assemblies and protests, they give credence to the ‘revolutionary presuppositions’ of youth rebellion articulated by the urban communes of the beats/hippies and how this mutated into the proto-Situationist agitations of the Green Wave (a grouping which has much in common with Alexander Trocchi’s Project Sigma) who deployed an ironic sardonicism with slogans like those that appeared on the walls of Paris: “President Johnson invites you to a free holiday in Vietnam: emotions guaranteed.” 

This accent on youth struggle not only has its efficacy in rendering the mood and militancy of the university occupations that arose and rearose during this period, but it also indicates the change in sensibility that young people, who increasingly entered the factories, brought to the industrial struggle. This brings us to a thumbnail rendition of the initial history that the two authors recount in this book. Bearing in mind the fetishism of ’68 in the media, it came as a surprise that a wave of strikes (veering on a general strike) came to break out in Italy the following year. This continuation was dubbed the Hot Autumn. In the early chapters of their book, then, Balestrini and Moroni describe a legitimation crisis through which we can understand the term autonomia that is often used to describe the new form of working-class militancy that arose in Italy. What we had there was a situation in which the workers and the youth (often one and the same) had come to mistrust their representatives. Strong shopfloor unions and an embedded Communist Party (with roots in the Partisans of post war Italy) came to be unable to deliver on the workers’ demands (over contract negotiations but equally including ‘social’ demands such as asking to be compensated for ‘travel time.’) What then arose was a working class that increasingly became autonomous from the unions and the CPI to the degree that it was possible to speak of an extra parliamentary left. Indeed, the numerical strength and militancy of the Fiat factory (which crops up throughout this book) meant that it was given the ironic moniker of the ‘Miafiori Party.’ Various innovative tactics were employed: wildcat strikes, chessboard strikes, hiccupping strikes… and leaving the factory to occupy public squares and link-up with other forms of struggle such as those over housing. 

As with the demands to be recompensed for travel time another demand that the two authors often refer to may have sent shock waves through the Italian bourgeoisie: the working-class demand to decouple wages from productivity which would effectively chisel into the sacrosanct capitalist leverage of surplus value. In fact, these shockwaves, an unappeasable struggle of ‘impossible demands’ spreading through Italian society, opened up another phase which was termed the strategy of tension. The bomb in Piazza Fontana, blamed on anarchists, was soon unveiled as the work of Italian fascists in league with the Italian secret services. This was followed in 1970 by an ‘attempted coup’ that the author’s describe as being tied up with a right-wing conspiracy involving members of the armed forces. From here we enter the domain of ‘para-politics’ that have been dramatised (and more widely exposed) in the crime novels of Leonardo Sciascia. Here are depicted the existence of a ‘parallel government’ (Propaganda Due), infiltration of left-wing groups, remote manipulation of terrorists by puppet masters, alliances between the army, politicians, mafiosi, masons and industrialists, CIA involvement etc. The author’s do not go down this route that we, in this country, may recognise in the ‘dirty war’ as practiced in Northern Ireland or in our dim recollections of God’s Banker being found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge. 

This omission is understandable as these murky waters veer towards conspiracy theories and a byzantine meshwork of information and counter information and Balestrini and Moroni are more concerned here with laying out the facts and apposite commentary that outline the wide-ranging struggles against what they term “authoritarian democracy” (as witnessed in the state of emergency brought on by the Reale Law in 1975) as well as charting the theoretical developments of working class theory that took place in Italy from the early 60s onwards. The first wave of these developments (reflected here in the inclusion of texts by Toni Negri, Sergio Bologna, Raniero Panzieri etc) owe something to unorthodox readings of Marx that the authors highlight were inspired by the study of Marx’s newly available Grundrisse with its pivotal section that was dubbed ‘the fragment on machines’. In short, these theorists took up what they termed ‘class composition’ which, to paraphrase Balestrini and Moroni, relates to how changes in the structure of the production system informs working class consciousness, modes of organisation and resistance. This was a new concept at the time which didn’t get much traction in this country, but which led the Italians, who carried out ‘worker inquiries’ in the factories, to chart the technological changes that industrial capitalism was making. They noted a change from the ‘mass worker’ (who may retain a modicum of ‘craft’) to the ‘social worker’ (who is essentially being deskilled into ‘any-job-whatsover.’) In this light these theorists noted new forms of struggle which in this volume pivot around the author’s discussion of the ‘refusal of work’, a rejection of wage labour and the search for other means of living, other forms of life, other means of relating to one another.   

It is this latter, encapsulated in the popular slogan ‘Reclaim Life’, that marks the tenor of the situation as it developed in Italy over the 70s and came to a culmination point in what was termed the Movement of ’77. Before we arrive there it must be mentioned that Balestrini and Moroni include a chapter entitled ‘The Revolution in Feminism.’ That this is a separate chapter tells a tale in itself as women, politicised through focussing on their emotional experiences through consciousness-raising groups, came to offer theories of patriarchy (the ‘original infamy’, the original class division, as Lea Melandri describes it here) that they found applicable to both the official organs of state politics and the practices and ways of operating of the extra-parliamentary left. This questioning of the very forms of politics, politics as a male dominated sphere, led to what the authors describe as a mass exodus of women from left organisations like Lotta Continua. The women were accused of placing too much “emphasis on intimacy and the individual”, and of a separatism that was seen by some as fracturing and blunting the wider movement. However, it must be noted that the legacy of an Italian feminism that retained a focus on the distinction between Women’s liberation (revolution against unreformable social structures) and Women’s emancipation (legal rights enshrined by bourgeois law), perhaps, with the hindsight brought on by de-industrialisation, outstrips the more workerist innovations of that period. A prime example is the Wages for Housework campaign of the mid 70s and the work of Leopoldina Fortunati (sadly absent from this book) who, via taking Marxian categories to task, showed the invisible (affective) labour of women in the domestic sphere as hidden from sight and unpaid for by capital. 

Perhaps in contradistinction to the flavour of the feminist struggle and its opening up of difference and desire as legitimate political categories, the long lasting effects of the strategy of tension as well as the Communist Party coming into talks with the Christian Democrats about playing an appeasing role within the state (the famous Historical Compromise), led to a situation in which many militants took up armed struggle and the kidnapping of factory bosses. Another prime factor here is, with an ongoing and irresolvable social struggle, the Italian state resorted to tactics of round-ups, imprisonment in ‘special’ jails and an all-round harassment of the youth-formed squatted social centres that became hubs for the relaying of information (including a network of pirate radio stations) and which ensured that any political upheaval had its wider counter-cultural ramifications. As the author’s illustrate, there was, during the 70s, a shared-in “adversary culture”, a form of what Trocchi termed an Invisible Insurrection in that the the classical working class were no longer the leading representative of social unrest that the Party and State could negotiate with. They describe how it became the norm to attend demonstrations with firearms and it was this climate that led to the forming of terrorist groups such as the Red Brigades and Armed Proletarian Nuclei (which had links to prison struggles.) Many participants in the Movement of 77 and thereafter, deemed this development as a serious mistake, an actual fracturing of the wider movement. The Red Brigades came to be seen as a Leninist vanguard who turned away from the “mass avant-garde” to take on the State itself. This reached a culmination in the Moro Affair in which Aldo Moro, president of the Christian Democrats and overseeing negotiations with the Communist Party, was kidnapped and held to ransom not for money but for the issuing of sensitive and inflammatory political material. The State refused to negotiate (perhaps, it is mooted, because elements in the state did not want the PCI anywhere near power) and so Moro was eventually deemed to be sacrificed by the State and was shot by the Red Brigades. 

This latter, happening in 1978, is covered by the last of the anthologised texts in this book by Paolo Virno. This essay acts as a kind of Afterward to this volume and perhaps shows that Balestrini and Moroni preferred to concentrate on more positive aspects of the history they are covering as well as to give space to ‘internal’ criticisms of the Movement of 77 so as to not give the last word to the counter-revolution. I say this because the kidnapping and assassination of Moro was surely the springboard to an even more venomous reaction by the Italian State. Virno notes the deployment of what was called the Calegero theorem: “the hypothesis of a single political leadership governing all of the revolutionary movements, underground or otherwise.”  This ‘theorem’, surely still operative today in even less nuanced times, led to the infamous mass arrests of April 7 in which many militants and writers, editors and commentators found themselves either in jail or fleeing into exile (including the author of this last text of the book who went on to speak of the ‘disenchantment’ that marked the decade that followed.) 

So, Moroni and Balestrini offer up this book as both a tool mémoire and as a way of charting “the epoch defining passage from one phase of capitalism to another.” It is in this way that some speak of Italy as a laboratory for it has since come to be accepted that this phase was one marked, in the West, by de-industrialisation. It has often been remarked of autonomia that it theorised how working-class struggle fed into the development of capital, that its militancy, its refusal of work, was a driving force that provoked technological change. This may be a poison chalice as we only need recall how Fiat led the way with mass sackings and the robotisation of the production line which ushered in an era of ‘non-guaranteed’ work. The old industrial working class with its jobs for life and ‘social wage’ was replaced by the contractual precarity of neo-liberal capital that to this day eats into the gains made by the Workers Movement: sick pay, holiday pay, lengthening of the working day etc. For one commentator from the A/Traverso collective, reflecting on the mass gathering in Bologna,  this was a case of a missed opportunity to combat capital on the level of its technological recomposition, one that required forms of intellectual labour necessitated by what would become a key marker for the post-industrial West: the increasingly central productive role of communications and language, a situation that the authors describe as “the domain of a semiocracy, the domain of symbol and signs.”  

Whilst this is obvious to us today it is also worth noting that the legacy of the period covered in The Golden Horde was the foundation upon which many of the authors included within its covers continued their investigations. Such concepts as ‘immaterial labour’ (services) and ‘affective labour’ (social care) as well as ‘precariat’ (zero-hour contracts) all emanated from the study of capital’s technical recomposition and the changes this has made to the modes of wage labour and surplus value extraction. In the West it seems that the physical exhaustion of labouring has come to be matched with the psychical cost of a society that is open for business 24/7. This is interestingly reflected by Balestrini and Moroni’s use of the term ‘existential’ which seems like a placeholder for the transitions that their book highlights. At one turn this seems to mean a kind of change in cultural consciousness, an ineffable transformation that operates at an unconscious level, and at another it seems to be a harbinger of the ‘existential unease’ that currently marks our society. In this light the only disappointing aspect of this book is the omission of a prospective chapter drafted by feminist activist Lea Melandri and radical psychoanalyst Elvio Fachinelli and drawn from their journal L’Erba Voglio. This journal which brought together coverage of the workers struggles and the feminist struggle, was also exploring the ‘micropolitical’ domains of radical pedagogy and anti-psychiatry. This conjunction and its ongoing interaction is crucial for our times. It is no shame that the authors didn’t have the benefit of 30 years of hindsight. Their book opens up a continent. A crack in the continent from which arises an anterior-future. 

Other Works of Interest 

Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (eds.) Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, University of Minnesota, 2008. 

Paolo Bona and Sandra Kemp (eds.) Italian Feminist Thought: A Reader, Blackwell, 1991. 

Primo Moroni Archive, see https://www.inventati.org/apm/index.php?step=eng_description