Dreaming your eyes away

A recent exchange from CT.

John Quiggin:

The disastrous bloodbaths generated by revolutionary alternatives to democracy have by now provided sufficient warning that no such alternative can attract any genuine support.[3]
fn3. The turn to terrorist methods by groups like the Red Brigades has served to discredit revolutionary approaches even more, and thereby further stabilise representative democracy.


The footnote about the Red Brigades gives such a superficial and distorted image of a huge, important and genuinely challenging group of social movements that I’m struggling to formulate any reply to it. (Can I suggest you read the book?) You can, of course, argue that you’re not talking about the reality of what the Red Brigades (plus the other armed groups, the broader armed movement and the still broader movement which refused to disown the above) were but the effects of how the Red Brigades (etc etc) were represented, and that what was a superficial and distorted image at the time has in effect become the historical record; I’d have no answer to that, except to thank God that there’s more than one historical record.


The standard version of history is always selective and often distorted. But the Red Brigades did the things for which they are now remembered, and the effects are as I said, even if they also did lots of other things that are now forgotten.


The effects of how they are remembered are as you said.

I mean, what do you mean by “terrorist methods”? Who do you mean by “groups like the Red Brigades”? When did these groups “turn to” those methods, and which methods were they using beforehand? No googling!

A long wave of contentious, confrontational and often violent activism began in 1972-3 (unless it was a very long wave that began in 1965-6), and was brought to a halt under immense pressure in 1979-80. One of the after-effects of the repression that was brought to bear on the movements was to pronounce a general anathema on ‘terrorism’ and ‘violence’. But it was the defeat of a huge movement that did it, not spontaneous revulsion against a few armed headbangers – and, more relevantly for your thesis, that defeat certainly wasn’t accompanied by a rise in political engagement or increased confidence in the democratic system. On the contrary, the Italian political system has never really recovered – and the respectable, non-violent, anti-terrorist Left has suffered worst of all.

(Academic footnote: clause beginning “that defeat”, above, represents book’s major contribution to political science, qua extension/modification of Sidney Tarrow’s more optimistic “cycle of contention leading to expansion of legitimate political repertoires” thesis.)

Neither JQ nor anyone else has responded to the (admittedly rather snotty) second comment, so there it rests.

What this exchange gets at, I think, is the fact that history is written by the victors – something of a basic banality, but one with surprisingly far-reaching effects. Quiggin’s comment suggests that the things we do remember are a reliable sample of everything we could have remembered – or perhaps, more specifically, that the bad things that are generally remembered aren’t cancelled out by the less bad things that most people don’t remember. Either way, the implication is that some things the Brigate Rosse did have been forgotten and others remembered, by a blind and arbitrary process of selection which nevertheless tends to preserve the more significant and more representative historical facts – which in this case would presumably consist mainly of the kidnapping and subsequent murder/assassination/execution of the Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro. But if I were compiling a list of the BR’s worst and least forgiveable crimes, I don’t think the death of Moro would be first or even second on the list. The BR killed Guido Rossa, a Communist trade unionist who had tipped off the police about a BR member he had spotted; they killed Carlo Casalegno, a liberal newspaper columnist and a former Partisan; they killed Roberto Peci, whose brother was a member of the BR who had turned informer. None of these names have come down to even a moderately well-informed contemporary reader outside Italy, and I’d hazard a guess that the situation’s not much better in Italy. What we do remember is that a group of masked revolutionaries threatened to “strike at the heart of the state” and, horrifically, succeeded; that one of the country’s leading politicians was subjected to a kind of improvised show trial, found guilty and shot; and that nothing really changed as a result, except that everyone involved got long prison sentences, and the thought of masked (or even unmasked) revolutionaries has provoked a kind of collective wince on the Italian Left ever since.

The fact that the BR also killed left-wingers isn’t all that’s been forgotten. Consider that the BR had a membership in the hundreds and bases in several different cities; consider that the group had been active for four years before they carried out their first planned killing, using such methods as vandalising strikebreakers’ cars and kidnapping factory foremen for a few hours. Consider the two arson attacks at FIAT in 1976 which were followed by phone calls claiming them for the BR, even though the group had nothing to do with them; the same year, a writer for the Corriere della Sera noted approvingly that, “[r]igidly marshalled by the unions, … FIAT workers are ever less receptive to extreme suggestions”. Consider how shocking the murder of Guido Rossa was – and why it was so shocking. And consider that, while the BR was the largest and longest-lived of them all, it was one of over 40 substantial “armed struggle” groups to be active between 1972 and 1980, to say nothing of a wider milieu of shifting and ephemeral armed groups. Consider also the thousands of people who put sustained activity into autonomist “collectives” and “committees” over the period, and the broader constituency of students, young people and low-paid workers who marched, rallied and occupied over and over again. Consider that in 1977, at the height of the student movement, the harshest criticism of the BR from within the movement was that they were compagni che sbagliano, “comrades who have made the wrong choice”.

Consider, in short, that while the BR were active in Italy, political violence was a tactic used on a mass scale – and not only by the Left, let it be said. (One of the few unequivocal successes of the period was that the level of radical mobilisation of 1977 drove the neo-fascists off the streets, with lasting effect.) Outside the Communist Party – a staunch upholder of the Italian Constitution, and the Christian Democrat government with it – there was no question on the Italian Left in the 1970s that revolutionary change was possible, and that it would necessarily involve violence. (Having said that, the violence involved can be overstated; by and large we aren’t dealing with roving gangs of assassins here. Something like 97% of ‘armed struggle’ actions between 1970 and 1981 were non-lethal, mostly consisting of property damage.) The debate about the violence of the ‘hard’ autonomists and the armed groups was about whether it was excessive, premature, substitutionist, objectively counter-revolutionary even; the idea of denouncing it as violence would have occurred to hardly anybody. The turn to terrorist methods by groups like the Red Brigades – if by this we mean what the actual armed groups actually did – had very widespread passive support indeed, and the layer of active support was fairly substantial (the layer of participation was non-trivial, if it comes to that).

What happened next was a masterclass in repression. In the words of Nanni Balestrini,

in 79 … everything breaks everything is broken but to break everything it takes the all-party alliance it takes the armed forces it takes the judiciary it takes the whole of the mass media it’s never been known in a modern state for it to take this whole array of forces to put a stop to what was defied as a minority which was really a majority of society in the process of transformation

A combination of political repression, saturation policing and exemplary sentencing drove the broader movement off the streets, leaving only the armed groups (armed activity peaks in 1978, the year after the peak in mass activity). An equally flexible and equally draconian response to the armed groups left only a few groups standing, and prompted the surviving groups to carry out more violent actions against more spectacular targets. Meanwhile the Left (meaning the Communist Party) called for ceaseless vigilance and ruthless severity against the threat from the Left (meaning the terrorists, anyone who sympathised with the terrorists, anyone who didn’t denounce the terrorists promptly enough, and so on). By the time the last BR splinter group had been mopped up, the Left had devoured itself, politics as usual had been suspended for several years and everyone was willing the nightmare to end.

And that is the context in which it’s true to say that the example of the Red Brigades “has served to discredit revolutionary approaches”. History is written by the victors: once an oppositional group has been labelled as criminal or insane, that label will tend to stick unless or until the group gets a chance to tell its own story – and what was good and rational and useful about the group, the common sense they shared with other people of their time and place, will wither and be forgotten. (You could call it “manufacturing the immense condescension of posterity”.) Those groups and organisations from the Italian 1970s which are now labelled as intrinsically “violent” and written out of history – or, at best, evoked as an awful warning – were previously denied political legitimacy on exactly the same basis. The violence which was used to preserve the status quo somehow never enters the accounting, even when it is more indiscriminate and more brutal than the revolutionary violence it opposed – as counter-revolutionary violence often is (cf. Cairo). In Italy there was a group called the Armed Proletarian Nuclei, who killed two people between 1974 and 1977; in the same period they had five members killed by the police, one of whom, Annamaria Mantini, was ambushed in her own flat and shot in cold blood. (The official story was that she had pulled a gun on the waiting police officer after opening the door to let herself in, prompting him to draw his gun in self-defence; she then somehow shut the door on his arm, which in turn made his gun go off, which killed her. The Corriere della Sera politely criticised this story, arguing that the public fully supported the police and did not need “official versions which soften the truth”.) She was 22.

We need to remember the way the world looked to Annamaria Mantini, and thousands like her. (We already know how it looked to her killers and the people who justified their actions.) This is why I said, in reply to John, “thank God that there’s more than one historical record”. When I put together my political personality test I described myself as a Left-Hegelian Tory – somebody who believes that things could be radically different (and radically better), but feels that conserving the existing resources of that hope is more important than trying to realise it; my one-word label for this position was ‘Historian’. It’s the kind of historian I’d like to be, anyway.



  1. John Quiggin
    Posted 5 February 2011 at 10:31 | Permalink | Reply

    To repeat, my comments were mainly on the factual point that the terrorist acts for which the BR is remembered (and I think this includes the point that they murdered leftwing opponents as well as state officials) have cemented the dominance of representative/electoral democracy by discrediting any alternative. As you say, violence committed by the state is often forgotten.

    That is certainly history as written by the victors, and it is, as you say, important to remember that there is more than one historical record.

    Still, it’s equally important to remember that the temptation to extra-legal violence is almost always a road to disaster.

    • Phil
      Posted 5 February 2011 at 15:32 | Permalink | Reply

      John – it’s a question of agency, and of historical process. It isn’t a simple, given fact that “the terrorist acts for which the BR is remembered” had the effect of discrediting alternatives to representative democracy. There was a long and conflictual series of interactions between the state and its supporters and the movements and theirs, and when the music finally stopped one of the end results was a widespread traumatic revulsion at any kind of violent revolutionary activity. But it wasn’t the BR that created that result. Apart from anything else, it only occurred after the crackdown. The BR killed 13 people between 1974 and 1977; 1978 was their peak year in terms of actions and new recruits.

      While I was thinking about this comment I read the following on the BBC’s Egypt liveblog; mutatis mutandis, it seems relevant.

      Omar Kamel in Cairo disagrees with one of our correspondents, Kevin Connolly. Omar sent this message to us a short while ago: “It is completely misleading to say that “the paralysis induced by the protests is having a huge impact on the creaking economy”. The paralysis has been caused by the complete disappearance of the police force and the curfews imposed by the government. As for the tourists they have been frightened away by the xenophobia created in the country by the government that maintains until now that the protests have been influenced by foreign agents from (depending on the government’s mood and level of desperation) the US, Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, etc. The government created a mood of xenophobia and this was exacerbated by their attack on foreign journalists.”

      “Cairo paralysed by week-long protests” sounds fair enough, and if we live long enough we’ll probaby see it in history books. But it looks as if “Cairo paralysed by inept and lawless government attempts to disrupt week-long protests” would be closer to the truth.

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