I’ve got a review! One in print, in a magazine people actually read! The August/September issue of Red Pepper, to be precise:
‘More Work! Less Pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-77
Manchester University Press
Unlike anywhere else in Europe, Italy experienced a ‘second 1968’ during the mid-1970s – an extraordinary wave of student occupations and innovative mass wildcat actions in its major cities. Reaching a climax in 1976-77, it involved hundreds of thousands of people, and included rent and fare strikes, large-scale squatting, organised shoplifting and a widespread ‘refusal of work’ by young people.
The movement was chaotic and diverse, embracing unreconstructed Leninists and stoner anarchist pranksters, radical feminists and macho leather-jacketed street-fighting men, university lecturers and ex-cons. It was also riven with differences on political tactics, particularly on the use of violence. Some participants were pacifists, others out-and-out enthusiasts for armed struggle. Most were somewhere in between.
These differences ultimately proved to be the movement’s undoing. Faced with the unrelenting hostility of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the main party of the left, which at the time was attempting to effect an ‘historic compromise’ with the centre-right Christian Democrats, a small but significant minority of activists opted for armed struggle to the exclusion of all else. After that the state came down hard on anyone publicly associated with the ‘area of autonomy’ (regardless of what they had actually done), arresting and incarcerating hundreds from 1978 onwards.
Phil Edwards first caught wind of what was happening in Italy as a teenager reading the British anarchist press, and his book is the product of many years’ research. It is very much a hybrid – in part narrative history, in part a contribution to the political sociology of social movements.
He argues convincingly that it is wrong to look at the mid-1970s rebellion merely as an aftershock of Italy’s ‘hot autumn’ in 1969, when a wave of worker and student militancy rocked Italian society. By the mid-1970s, a new generation was involved and Edwards makes telling points about the short-sightedness of the PCI’s anathematisation of the new movement. In its single-minded pursuit of the ‘historic compromise’, he argues, it lost the chance to renew itself by taking on at least some of the movement’s demands.
This is a serious piece of work that deserves a much wider readership than it is likely to get retailing at £60. Steal this book!
I don’t think I’d quarrel with any of that, with the obvious exception of the last sentence. (Although if you do see the book in a bookshop, it would be very much in the spirit of the movement to take it to the counter and insist on paying a price you can afford. But I wouldn’t advocate this, of course.)
Paul is someone I had a lot in common with when I first knew him, back in the late 80s – knowledge of the Sits, the Solids and the Italian scene; hatred of Communism and other forms of Leninism; interest in Yugoslavia, as it then was; E. P. Thompson fandom, and of course membership of END. I think it’s fair to say that Paul and I went in slightly different directions politically over the next couple of decades – I more or less dropped the anti-Leninist thing, while he hung on to that but dropped his opposition to New Labour. One of us is surely headed for the dustbin of history, but in the absence of a future edition of The Encyclopedia Galactica or similar it’s unfortunately impossible to say which. But in any case, Paul is a thoroughly good bloke – and, more to the point, knows a lot about the radical left in Italy in the 1970s. I’m really pleased that the book has got his endorsement.
This is also the first issue of Red Pepper I’ve seen in a while, and it seems to have improved enormously over the last few years. The August/September issue is 64 pages perfect bound, with six pages devoted to books and another full page of film reviews as well as a three-page music feature – it makes a bit of a contrast with my struggles as Culture Editor to squeeze books, films, music and everything else into a single two-page spread. They’re approaching the “front half/back half” model of the old New Statesman, which is not a bad model to approach – and the front half looks pretty good, too. I might just subscribe; I might even bung them some money. (I’m not working for them again, though – there are limits.)
Update I’ve got another review! This one’s in the Bulletin of Italian Politics and you can read it here (PDF). It’s by the estimable John Foot; he’s more critical of the book than Paul, but he does say
Much of this is interesting and original. Edwards is at his most convincing when mapping out the complicated features of this ‘movement’ (which was in reality a whole series of movements, ranging from local housing rights activists, to unofficial strikes, to autoriduzione, to cultural protest of various kinds and lifestyle politics). The range of what was going on in that period was indeed impressive and in many ways quite extraordinary, and these forms of direct action often challenged prevailing structures (including those on the left) in intriguing ways. These movements deserve to be studied and understood in themselves, and in relation to other parties and Italy as a whole. Phil Edwards’ book helps us in this understanding and in re-locating this period within the post-1968 upheavals which shook schools, universities and other institutions across Italy.
John’s criticisms are interesting, and I hope to discuss them another time. Now I’ll just close with his conclusion:
This book, in conclusion, asks as many questions as it answers, as any good work of history or politics should.
Which is fair enough, I think.