To stun an ox

I’ve written a book. The MS has just gone off to the publisher; it’s still got to be checked, copy-edited, re-checked, typeset, proof-read and probably several other stages I’ve forgotten about, and it probably won’t be out much before Christmas. But it’s a book, and it’s been written. By me.

It’s called ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-1977. The introduction begins like this:

A long wave of direct action spread across Italy between 1972 and 1977. Factory workers went on strike without union approval, walking out or occupying their workplaces; empty buildings were squatted and converted as ‘social centres’; council tenants withheld the rent; groups of women went on ‘can’t pay? won’t pay!’ shoplifting trips. The streets were also busy, with marches and demonstrations running at around two per week throughout the period.

Sidney Tarrow has analysed an earlier wave of contentious activism in terms of a ‘protest cycle’ or ‘cycle of contention’. Tarrow described how, in the early 1970s, a wave of contentious and disorderly movements spread from the universities to the industrial North of Italy before being neutralised by the Partito Comunista Italiano. The PCI’s qualified endorsement of the movement’s tactics led to the demobilisation of the movement and the achievement, in modified form, of its principal goals, by way of an expansion of the political repertoire endorsed by the PCI. The PCI in this period occupied an ambivalent position, as a supposedly ‘anti-system’ party which nevertheless played a significant role in the Italian political system; this put it in a strong position as a political ‘gatekeeper’. The outcome of the cycle was positive: under pressure from the movements, the PCI pushed back the boundaries of acceptable political activity.

In this book, I argue the late-1970s wave should be seen as a second cycle of contention. The movements of this second cycle include the ‘area of Autonomia’, based in factories and working-class neighbourhoods and active between 1972 and 1977; a wave of activism among young people which gave rise to the ‘proletarian youth movement’ of 1975-6 and the ‘movement of 1977’; and the left-wing terrorist or ‘armed struggle’ milieu. I argue that the outcome of the second cycle, like that of the first, was determined by the interaction between contentious social movements and the PCI. I also suggest that the PCI’s hostile or exclusive engagement with the second cycle of contention had lasting effects for the party as well as for the movements of the cycle. The PCI committed itself to a narrower and more explicitly constitutional range of activities and values; the result was a lasting contraction of the party’s ideological repertoire, and consequently of the repertoire of mainstream politics.

The conclusion ends like this:

Between 1966 and 1980, the PCI played the role of ‘gatekeeper’ to a relatively closed political system, admitting certain innovations to the sphere of political legitimacy and barring others. The movements of the second cycle were confronted by a hostile gatekeeper, which persistently framed their activities in terms which excluded them from political legitimacy. A key manoeuvre, as we have seen, was the evocation of violence: the movements were repeatedly denounced for the use of violence, toleration of violence, tardiness in disowning those who used violence… The ultimate result was the repression of a broad area of social, cultural and intellectual ferment, accompanied by dozens of prison terms and a brief flourishing of openly illegal ‘armed struggle’ activity; the PCI itself also suffered, denying itself a source of much-needed ideological renewal.

The disastrous outcome of the second cycle of contention was not inevitable. Given the relatively closed Italian political system, any disorderly social movement would face some type of engagement with some type of gatekeeper; by the 1970s the gatekeeper for any left-wing movement could only be the PCI. However, the exclusiveness of the PCI’s engagement was not a foregone conclusion until Berlinguer committed the party to the ‘historic compromise’ strategy – if then. The engagement was a missed opportunity which could have been taken.

The same choices could face other gatekeepers in other relatively closed systems. In Britain, where the electoral system excludes social movements from the national political system, the Labour Party remains the principal left gatekeeper. Faced with a disorderly and uncontainable rival to its left, Labour would have the same options as the PCI. An inclusive engagement would require the party quietly to appropriate and absorb the demands and tactics of the new movement, while publicly denouncing its leadership as irresponsible extremists. An exclusive engagement, in contrast, would involve denunciations of violence, escalating demands for dissociation and emphatic assertions of the party’s own commitment to democracy and the rule of law. The Italian experience demonstrates that the second of these approaches is not likely to have good results – for the movements or for British society.

The book is dedicated to Nanni Balestrini and the late Primo Moroni, whose work on the period is absolutely indispensable; I mean, by all means start with my book (and Steve Wright’s), but then get some Balestrini – and an Italian dictionary if you need one. The epigraph is from one of Balestrini’s novels:

I said to him I ask myself sometimes now it’s all over I ask myself what did it all mean our whole story all the things we did what did we get from all the things we did he said I don’t believe it matters that it’s all over I believe what matters is that we did what we did and that we think it was the right thing to do that’s the only thing that matters I believe

You won’t see the book for several months, and all things being equal you’re not very likely to see it then: the first print run will be an academic hardback, limiting its potential sales rather severely. But if the hardback run sells out a paperback may be possible – so tell all your friends, especially if they work in a library. It looks like being the first book-length study in English of the autonomist movements of the late 1970s, which should give it a bit of an audience.

Anyway: I’ve written a book. A book, by me, written; written, then edited and re-edited, checked and edited again, and sent off to the publisher today. I’ve celebrated with a bottle of Decadence. Now perhaps I’ll complete that biography of Debord. Or I may just do some of the stuff that’s been piling up while I’ve been working on this book…


  1. Posted 1 March 2008 at 01:41 | Permalink | Reply


  2. Posted 1 March 2008 at 02:21 | Permalink | Reply

    What a wonderful accomplishment! Have another bottle of good stuff on me!

  3. Posted 1 March 2008 at 02:26 | Permalink | Reply

    My warmest congratulations! The books sounds interesting (I am quite interesting in the history of Western European Communism), who’s the publisher? Also, Debord was a fascinating figure, so I definitely think a biography is in order.

  4. Posted 1 March 2008 at 04:06 | Permalink | Reply

    Congrats, compa. Tis an interesting subject…

  5. Posted 1 March 2008 at 11:12 | Permalink | Reply

    It’s Manchester University Press, which I’m quite pleased about, what with the U of M being my employer (I don’t think that was a big factor in them taking it). I can see it falling between several stools – the Lawrence and Wishart audience won’t want to read a book about how the PCI really, really screwed up; the SCHNews audience won’t want to read a book about how the PCI did anything. Vedremo.

    Debord… thereby hangs a tale, which I’ll go into in another post. (Short version: been there, done that, gave up.)

  6. Posted 1 March 2008 at 11:56 | Permalink | Reply

    And soon, very soon, but just too late, you will flick through your proof copy again and spot the enormous and embarrassing error you failed to notice before.

  7. Posted 1 March 2008 at 18:46 | Permalink | Reply

    The proofing stage is way down the line – all I’ve been able to spot so far is enormous and embarrassing holes in the argument.

  8. Posted 1 March 2008 at 23:24 | Permalink | Reply


  9. Posted 2 March 2008 at 21:22 | Permalink | Reply

    Bravo! Well done that man.

    Let me echo ejh’s sentiment though; having helped edit and proof several books (sadly, none of them my own… yet!) there is always one glaring error that sneaks through no matter how many people are proof-reading. Strangely enough though, you discover it within fifteen minutes of getting your hands on a published copy.

    Again though; congratulations!

  10. Posted 2 March 2008 at 23:23 | Permalink | Reply


    I’ve been enjoying the occasional post on the same subject you’ve written here over the years, so I’ll keep an eye out for your book once it nears publication.

  11. Posted 5 March 2008 at 18:16 | Permalink | Reply

    A fairly random question. I was considering applying for the MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History that is administered by the Faculty of History at Cambridge. I just found out that I am past the application deadline (14th Feb). In your experience, do people at Cambridge consider late applications on their merits, or should I not bother?


  12. Posted 5 March 2008 at 20:01 | Permalink | Reply

    My experience at Cambridge is 25 years old, so unlikely to be much use. I wouldn’t hold out much hope on general principles, I have to say – just about everything academic seems to be wildly over-subscribed these days. Is there anyone you can phone?

  13. korakious
    Posted 6 March 2008 at 18:47 | Permalink | Reply

    Not really no, but never mind. I am sure I’ll cope just fine somewhere else :)

  14. Posted 7 March 2008 at 11:26 | Permalink | Reply

    Well done! I’ll see if our library will get a copy in. I concur with Jim: I haven’t dared to read the co-authored book I had published a while ago, ever since opening it at the first page of one of the chapters I was responsible and finding a stonking and idiotic grammatical error staring back at me.

  15. Posted 10 March 2008 at 14:09 | Permalink | Reply


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