Category Archives: Autonomia

When your war is won

Quick announcement: I’m giving a paper at Taking Control, at SOAS this Saturday. It’s a conference on contemporary revolution, with some interesting speakers. It’s also free to register. And – if any more incentive were needed – I’ll be there with a stash of flyers for my book, which you’ll be able to order at the special conference rate (50% off). Roll up, roll up, and so forth. (And no, I do not recommend that you steal this book.)

Here’s the abstract. (Thanks for technical data to the B&T crowd.)

Terrible beauty seeks geometric potency: arms and the law in the anni di piombo

This paper looks at the relationship between broad movements and small groups using violent tactics. The starting point is the Italian experience of the late-1970s anni di piombo (‘years of lead’), when a sustained high level of protest and direct action, associated with the Autonomia Operaia movement, was accompanied by the growth of a distinct milieu of ‘armed struggle’ groups (the best-known being the Red Brigades).

From the point of view of a fluid and horizontally-organised movement, groups dedicated to clandestine violence are problematic in multiple ways: they are typically accused of lacking accountability to the movement, and substituting their own strategic and tactical goals for the movement’s, and of pursuing violence and militarisation for its own sake. Whether these problems are inherent in the relationship between any armed group and any mass movement is open to question. Some have argued that this type of disjuncture can and should be overcome, on the grounds that any revolutionary movement, facing the violence of the state, would need to develop or acquire the capacity to carry out violence of its own. Thus Autonomist theorist Franco Piperno called in 1979 for the ‘terrible beauty’ of large- scale spontaneous direct action to be united with the ‘geometric potency’ of well-directed firepower, exemplified by the Red Brigades’ kidnapping of Aldo Moro (and specifically the shooting of Moro’s five bodyguards).

Using evidence from the North of Ireland as well as from Italy, this paper argues that there is an inherent problem in the relationship between armed minorities and mass movements, but locates the problem not in the sphere of accountability but that of law. The rule of law is seen as prior to state power rather than flowing from it; any sustainable alternative to the state will respect its own law rather than simply imposing its own power. Rather than building the capacity to deliver violence, a radical movement should focus on developing an alternative legality.

Update 15/3 Courtesy of Backdoor Broadcasting, here‘s the audio of my presentation – and here‘s the main conference page. Most of the slides were text-only, but you’ll need the following graphic at around 15:00.

After listening to mine and Ben Whitham‘s papers, someone suggested that what my paper lacked was an illustration of the relative ranges of a P.38 and a fire extinguisher thrown off a roof. Happy to oblige! Here’s M-16 vs P.38 again:

And if we zoom right in, we can see P.38 vs fire extinguisher:

Kids, just say no.


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.

Me: Continue reading

No mention of girls

I’ve got a review! One in print, in a magazine people actually read! The August/September issue of Red Pepper, to be precise:

Continue reading

What happened once in Italy

I’ve written another paper, this one for presentation at the Alternative Futures and Popular Protest conference in Manchester at the end of the month. Here’s the abstract:

‘Just plain comrades’: Italian armed struggle groups and the mass movement, 1972-80

This paper will look at the difficult and contradictory relations between large-scale radical movements and ‘armed struggle’ groups in Italy in the 1970s. I shall argue, firstly, that the scale and duration of the ‘armed struggle’ phenomenon makes it impossible to dismiss as an nihilist aberration; this was in some senses a social movement in its own right. Secondly, I shall argue that the armed milieu was closely related to the broader radical movement, but that its evolution was conditioned by different social and political factors. I shall trace the different fortunes of the armed groups and the mass movements in three periods (1972-5, 1976-7, 1978 9), looking at the conditions under which armed groups formed and dissolved. Lastly, I shall look at the ways in which the political exclusion of the mass movements appears to have contributed to the growth of the armed groups, concluding by suggesting some parallels with the British government’s current anti-terrorist strategy.

And here are the references:

Balestrini, N. (1989), L’editore, Milan: Bompiani
Balestrini, N. and P. Moroni (1997), L’orda d’oro (revised edition), Milan: Feltrinelli
Del Bello, C. (a cura di) (1997), Una sparatoria tranquilla: per una storia orale del ’77, Rome: Odradek
Della Porta, D. (1995), Social movements, political violence and the state, Cambridge: CUP
Echaurren, P. and C. Salaris (1999), Controcultura in Italia 1967-1977, Boringhieri: Turin
Edwards, P. (2009), ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-77, Manchester: Manchester University Press
Jamieson, A. (1989), The Heart Attacked: Terrorism and conflict in the Italian state, London: Marion Boyars
Monicelli, M. (1978), L’ultrasinistra in Italia 1968-1978, Rome: Laterza
Moroni, P. (1994), “Origine dei centri sociali autogestiti a Milano”, in Francesco Adinolfi et al, Comunitá virtuali. I centri sociali in Italia, Rome:Manifestolibri
Moroni, P. (1996), “Un certo uso sociale dello spazio urbano”, in Consorzio Aaster et al, Centri sociali: geografie del desiderio, Milan: Shake
Moss, D. (1989), The politics of left-wing violence in Italy, 1969-85, London: Macmillan
Piazza, G. (1987), “Movimenti e sistema politico: il caso di Autonomia operaia” (unpublished thesis), Università degli studi di Catania
Progetto Memoria (1994), La mappa perduta, Milan: Sensibili alle foglie
Progetto Memoria (1996), Le parole scritte, Milan: Sensibili alle foglie
Tarrow, S. (1989), Democracy and disorder, Oxford: OUP
Tarrow, S. (1998), Power in movement, second edition, Cambridge: CUP
Vinciguerra, V. and M. Cipriani (1999), Oppressione, Repressione, Rivolte: Storia d’Italia dal 25 luglio 1943 ad oggi, online
Wright, S. (2002), Storming Heaven: Class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, London: Pluto

What I really wanted to do was get into why particular armed groups formed at particular times – for instance, there was a flurry of group formation around 1978-9, which seems to be traceable to the contradiction between the vitality of the mass movement in that period and the closure of political opportunities. Having said that, the key period for the smaller groups was 1974-5, which was a period of growth and innovation rather than blockage. More research required!

Greetings to anyone arriving here from Socialist Unity, by the way. Have a look around – you’ll probably find something of interest behind this tag, this one or this one. (I think my favourite’s this one, though.)

Too pale a hue

June? June?

Oh well – I’m back, probably.

What’s been happening? Looking back at the last two posts, both those papers got rejected; in one case it was more of a “revise and resubmit”, so I’m not particularly distressed. The other was more of a “hit the back wall without bouncing” rejection, which did stop me in my tracks for a bit – but I’ll get a resubmission out of it. And my book is almost out, and almost has its own Web page (a holding page as I write this, but I’m going to fix that RSN).

I was going to kick this blog back into life with a few thoughts on blogging, or a political meme that drifted past in the summer, or some thoughts on the mainstreaming of Fascism, or possibly even my long-planned post on the ethics of armed struggle. (Armed struggle: I’m agin it.) Instead of which, I’m going down that time-honoured route to a blog post, the comment that got too long for the comment box. Sparked off by something on Daniel’s site, which has an odd sort of big-fleas-little-fleas appropriateness about it.

First off, how about a bit of Tronti? (Borrowed from my book, which is out soon.)

Capitalist society has its laws of development: they have been formulated by economists, applied by governments and endured by the workers. But who will discover the laws of development of the working class? … We ourselves have put capitalist development first, workers’ struggles second. This is wrong. We need to reverse the problem, change its sign, begin from first principles: and the first principle is the struggle of the working class. Where capital is developed on the social scale, capitalist development is subordinate to workers’ struggles: it follows on from them and has to shape the political mechanisms of its own production accordingly.
Mario Tronti (1964), “Lenin in England”

More generally – Tronti and the workerists argued – capitalist development is parasitic on workers’ intelligence and creativity, which they use in the refusal of work. You get the job done with half an hour to spare and sneak off for a fag; your employer cuts your working day by half an hour and cuts your pay accordingly. Result: profit. You do eight hours’ work in six hours; your employer increases your workload by 33%. Result: profit.

And so to Thomas Friedman.

we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public [i.e. state] school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won’t be just a passing phase, but our future.

[the] problem will be reversed only when the decline in worker competitiveness reverses — when we create enough new jobs and educated workers that are worth, say, $40-an-hour compared with the global alternatives. If we don’t, there’s no telling how “jobless” this recovery will be.

Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education.

For a start, the “untouchable” theme is a striking example of Friedman’s legendary tin ear. To use “untouchable”, as a noun, to refer to people at the top of the heap – people who will thrive while the rest of us struggle – is bizarrely insensitive. To do so when what we’re struggling against is competition from low-wage countries, like, say, India – ugh. Brane hertz.

The “work-smarter-not-harder” stuff in the last paragraph quoted above is pretty insulting, too – at least, it is for those of us who have been hearing it from management gurus, year in and year out, ever since the last recession. The sermon changes from year to year – sometimes there’s just no money around; sometimes there’s lots of money but lots of people competing for it; sometimes it’s neither of the above but the world is changing! – but the message is always the same. There’s always some compelling reason why we’ve got to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to achieve this and save money on that. We can’t just get on with our jobs – that would be wrong. (More to the point, it would mean we didn’t generate more profit than we did last year. See Tronti.)

But Friedman has something more specific to say here. Something that goes roughly like this:

“Only a minority of American workers are doing well out of globalisation – everyone else is getting shafted! As nobody could possibly have predicted (except for everybody but me)! So we need to move all American workers into that minority! And the key to that is education, government-provided education in particular! And what we need to do to government-provided education is, oh, damn, time’s up.”

I was particularly struck by the line about the $40-an-hour jobs. He’s literally proposing to fix the problem at the margin – by moving everyone who’s being affected by global competition into the margin of jobs so skill-intensive, and skills so specialised, that they can’t be done for less than $40/hour. Because if they could be done cheaper they would be, and if they’re done cheaper on the other side of the world, hey, them’s the breaks.

In The age of insecurity, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson liken globalisation to a strong wind – a conventional enough image these days. They then say that the anti-protectionist orthodoxy is a bit like saying we should deal with this strong wind by opening all our doors and knocking down walls where possible. (That wind is out there whether we like it or not! It’s a fact of life! It’s the way the world is!) Friedman has been urging on a process which other people said should be resisted or slowed down, because it would lead to disruption and immiseration on a large scale. He’s now claiming that it has led to large-scale disruption and immiseration – and his only solution is for the 80% to clamber on board the 20%’s lifeboat. And if that doesn’t work, well, it’s probably the fault of the government.

Good evening or good morning

More news on my book. I handed over the corrected proofs this morning, together with an index. Compiling the index was easier than I’d thought it would be, but still not exactly fun; it was one of those tasks that leaves you looking round for the next chunk of mental hard labour for several days afterwards. My basic approach was to index every proper name I could see, plus a few key concepts. I then cut out most names with only one occurrence, although a few got left in for the benefit of anyone who picks up the book and starts by browsing the index (don’t tell me it’s just me).

It’s called ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-7, and it’ll be published (initially in hardback) by Manchester University Press this autumn. And that index? Here’s a selection. (For each initial letter I’ve included the first entry and the one with the most references.)

A A/traverso; Autonomia
B Balestrini, Nanni; Brigate Rosse (BR)
C Cacciari, Massimo; Confederazione Generale Italiano del Lavoro (CGIL)
D d’Alema, Massimo; Democrazia Cristiana (DC)
E L’erba voglio; Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna (ETA)
F Faina, Gianfranco; Feltrinelli, Giangiacomo
G Gandalf the Violet; Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana (GAP)
H ‘Historic compromise’; Hot Autumn
I Ingrao, Pietro
L Lama, Luciano; Lotta Continua
M Maccari, Germano; Movement of 1977
N Napolitano, Giorgio; Negri, Antonio
O Operaismo
P Pajetta, Enrico; Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI)
Q Quaderni Rossi
R Radical Party; Resistance (Italian)
S Sayer, Andrew; Scalzone, Oreste
T Tarrow, Sidney
U Unità Comuniste Combattenti (UCC); l’Unità
V Via italiana al socialismo
W Wowdadaism

They say you can tell a lot about a book from its index; certainly I’m pretty pleased with what this one seems to be saying. It’s not Pale Fire – no “Berlinguer, idiocy of; idleness of; taste of, in shoes” sub-entries – but I think it tells you pretty much what the book’s about. It’s about Togliatti, Feltrinelli, Lotta Continua and the Red Brigades, and everything that connects them. One connection in particular:

Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) passim
see also Austerity; Berlinguer, Enrico; Confederazione Generale Italiano del Lavoro; Historic Compromise; Lama, Luciano; Togliatti, Palmiro; l’Unità

Give or take a few

My book: an announcement and a question.

I’m quite excited about my book. Or should I say, my book – for lo, that’s an actual link to a page where you can, apparently, pre-order it, with free UK delivery and everything. And here’s the publisher’s page about the book, and here’s what it says there:

‘More work! Less pay!’

Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972–77
Phil Edwards

In the mid-1970s, a wave of contentious radicalism swept through Italy. Groups and movements such as ‘Proletarian youth’, ‘metropolitan Indians’ and ‘the area of Autonomy’ practised new forms of activism, confrontational and often violent. Creative and brutal, intransigent and playful, the movements flourished briefly before being suppressed through heavy policing and political exclusion.

This is the first full-length study in English of these movements. Building on Sidney Tarrow’s ‘cycle of contention’ model and drawing on a wide range of Italian materials, Phil Edwards tells the story of a unique and fascinating group of political movements, and of their disastrous engagement with the mainstream Left. As well as shedding light on a neglected period of twentieth century history, this book offers lessons for understanding today’s contentious movements (‘No Global’, ‘Black Bloc’) and today’s ‘armed struggle’ groups.

This book will be of great interest to scholars in the fields of Italian politics and society; the sociology of social movements; and terrorism and political violence.

1. Introduction
2. The Hot Autumn and after: a cycle of contention reconsidered
3. From Resistance to Historic Compromise: the politics of the PCI
4. From Feltrinelli to Moro: a second cycle of contention
5. ‘Repudiate all forms of intolerance’: how the movements were framed
6. A cycle and its aftermath
7. Do you remember revolution?
8. Social movements and cycles of contention: theoretical appendix

The book itself is currently sitting on the floor of our front room in the form of proofs (proofs! actual proofs of my book!) – proofs which I’m going to have to check before too long, to say nothing of producing an index.

Setting aside my new-authorial giddiness (which mostly evaporated when I started thinking about indexing anyway), I honestly think this is a book that’s well worth publishing. It is the first full-length study in English of the Italian movements of the 1970s – the great archipelago of Autonomia, the ‘proletarian youth’, the indiani metropolitani, the movimento del ’77 and all – not to mention the vast and complex panorama of ‘armed struggle’ groups which flourished and declined alongside them. There’s some of this in Storming Heaven, Steve Wright’s excellent book on operaismo and Autonomia; there’s some about the movimento in one chapter of Robert Lumley’s States of Emergency; and there are a couple of very good books about the armed groups by David Moss and Donatella della Porta. But to get a proper overview of the scene, you’ve basically had to read Italian. Up to now!

All right, so it’s an academic specialism like any other, and I only think it’s fascinating and important because it’s my academic specialism – someone else could make an equally good case for a new atlas of French regional dialects or a groundbreaking study of variations in snail shell thickness. But I do think it’s fascinating and important – and since this is my blog, I’ll take the space to tell you why.

Italian politics often looks a bit weird, seen from the outside, and the mid- to late 1970s were a particularly weird period. It had two particularly striking features. Firstly, you had a political system that was becoming more and more ossified, heading for the final stasis of the ‘five party’ period (when every political party to the Left of the Fascists and to the Right of the Communists was locked into a permanent coalition around the ruling Christian Democrats). The Communists – who had been systematically excluded from power since 1948 – tried to challenge the Christian Democrats’ dominance of Italian politics, but they did so (this is the weird part) by asking to be allowed to share power; the word ‘begging’ also comes to mind. The Communists’ approach was politically abject; it was tactically inept (the Christian Democrats under Aldo Moro ran rings around them), and it was strategically disastrous (the party never recovered, and arguably still hasn’t). Whether ideologically or in terms of party self-interest, it made no sense at all. Why did they do it?

Well, you’ll have to read chapter 3, but a large part of what was going on had to do with the second oddity of the period. In the late 1960s there had been a huge amount of industrial militancy, beginning outside the unions and very largely escaping their control. The wave of activism culminated at the very end of the decade, with an official settlement agreed in December 1969; this got the workers most of what they’d wanted, while also giving the unions what they’d wanted by acknowledging their representative role in the workplace. So in 1970 everyone went back to work, to be greeted with a pay rise plus official union representation, and things went back to normal. What’s extraordinary is what happened next: over the next few years, things started kicking off again, in the name of direct action against inflation. Rent strikes, bus fare strikes, utility strikes, ‘proletarian shopping’ (à la Can’t pay? Won’t pay!)… it was all happening, facilitated in many cases by people who’d cut their teeth in the wildcat strikes of the 60s. It’s a period of extraordinarily active and widespread protest and agitation; it didn’t go anywhere near the official Left (represented by the poor old Communist Party); and, for the most part, it didn’t go near the workplace either.

So you had political stasis, a supine official Left and some fairly wild scenes in the streets, in the campuses and on the estates. And then you had the interaction between the movements and the Communist Party, which is the analytical heart of my book. Following news stories in the Communist Party’s paper l’Unità over a period of five years, I analyse the party’s dominant ‘framings’ of the movements – how the party leadership saw them, and how it wanted party members to see them. Hostility to the movements is not surprising – these were, after all, potential political rivals. What is surprising, and marks a sharp departure from the Party’s approach to the activism of the late 60s, is the hostility expressed towards the movements’ members, their demands and their culture. Instead of offering to take the movements under its wing, the Party essentially dismissed them in their entirety, after labelling them as breeding-grounds for nihilist hooligans and fascist provocateurs. This ‘scorched-earth’ policy made life extremely difficult for the movements, deprived of any kind of sponsor from within the political mainstream; from this point of view it could be said to have been a success. However, it also led inexorably to the Communist Party denying itself a major potential source of new members and new ideas, and alienating much of its existing support. And they never did get to share power with the Christian Democrats.

It’s a fascinating and in many ways a tragic period. More to the point, the scale and diffusion of activism makes it a very unusual period in European history. To think of another like it I think you’d need to go back to May ’68, if not to Barcelona ’36 – and both of those have had plenty written about them, even in English. Yes, Steve Wright’s book is good – and the chapter in Robert Lumley’s book – but I really think this is the first book in English to do the period justice. I don’t expect you’ll buy it, though, unless you’ve got an institutional budget. Here’s the problem: the initial edition is hardback only. The planned cover price is £60, or approximately 30p per page. There’s a possibility of a paperback edition, which I might be able to recommend people to buy with a straight face; there’s a possibility, if the hardback edition sells. It’s an edition of 400.

All giddiness spent, I know the topic of the radical left in Italy in the 1970s isn’t that fascinating to that many people; I know the book’s never going to sell a million. I think it’s got a definite readership, though, not all of whom frequent university libraries. With a fair wind I think it could sell a few thousand – if it was affordable.

So here’s the question, aimed particularly at anyone who’s been in a similar position or knows people who have (hi Daniel!): how can I sell (say) 300 academic hardbacks, knowing that they’re realistically only going to be bought by libraries and eccentric millionaires? Advertising? Journal papers (Phil Edwards is the author of…)? Word of mouth at conferences? Emails to everyone I’ve ever met who might be interested (Forgive the impersonal approach, NO STOP PLEASE DON’T DELETE THaaah, too late)? Blog posts like this one?

Any suggestions will be gratefully received. (And I really don’t expect you to buy the book yourself. Unless you’re a librarian and/or an eccentric millionaire, of course, in which case feel free.)

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