‘What do we want? Everything!’: Italy’s Hot Autumn 

28 June 2023
Luca Tavan

Italy’s “Hot Autumn” was one of the most profound moments of the global radicalisation of the late 1960s and 1970s, a period of massive strikes, student revolt and social struggle that lasted a decade. On the streets, movements for education, housing rights and women’s liberation transformed the conditions and social expectations of millions of people.

In Italian factories, a state of permanent warfare reigned, which was so bitter and confrontational that some militants likened their position to that of Vietnamese guerrillas fighting the US occupation. As American troops hastily evacuated Saigon to escape a Viet Cong insurgency, some Italian capitalists were making their own exit plans. Aldo Ravelli, one of the head brokers at Milan’s stock exchange, later recalled: “Those were the years in which I tested out how long it would take me to escape to Switzerland. I set out from my house in Varese and got to the frontier on foot”.

Before 1968, Italy looked on the surface like a capitalist success story. The “economic miracle” of the 1950s and ’60s brought the highest growth rates in Europe. The Catholic Church and the conservative Christian Democrats dominated politics.

But this appearance concealed enormous social tensions, which first exploded on university campuses. After World War 2, universities had been transformed from ruling-class playgrounds into training grounds for the masses of civil servants, technicians and white-collar workers required to run a modern industrial economy. Hundreds of thousands of children of the middle classes and workers entered tertiary education for the first time; they were confronted by a system in an advanced crisis.

By 1968, the universities of Rome, Naples and Bari, designed for a little more than 5,000 students, now had 60,000, 50,000 and 30,000 students respectively. The curriculum was traditionalist and archaic. Examinations were mostly oral, where “a policeman dressed up as a teacher spends five to ten minutes in liquidating the accused with a series of questions”, wrote student radical Guido Viale at the time.

While the student movement first emerged as a revolt against stuffy teachers and crowded lecture theatres, it quickly evolved into an ideological challenge to the values and institutions of postwar capitalism.

Students who had grown up with a view of the United States as the liberator of Europe now had images of American war crimes in Vietnam beamed to them through the television every evening. The “economic miracle” had created vast riches for industrial magnates like Gianni Agnelli, owner of the Fiat automobile company, but offered little hope of a stable job for the graduates the universities churned out.

By early 1968, the university revolt had spread across the country, from the urban metropolis of Turin to the sleepiest provincial campuses. A turning point came in February, when students occupying the University of Rome were expelled by police and then decided to recapture the Faculty of Architecture building. Students fought the police in what became immortalised as the “Battle of Valle Giulia”—it was the first time the movement confronted the state head-on. Then in May, a Parisian student revolt sparked France’s largest general strike in history. The news electrified the Italian student movement, and the new radicals turned their attention from the campuses to the workplaces.

By the late 1960s, the factories of Italy’s industrial north were a tinderbox. Southern migrant workers were lured there with the promise of well-paying jobs but found themselves housed in horrid conditions with unsafe workplaces and authoritarian managers.

The traditional left forces of the Communist Party (PCI) and its CGIL union federation had little to offer these workers. The union leaders limited resistance to planned, one-day strikes that would allow workers to vent their frustration without challenging the system. And the PCI, despite its revolutionary rhetoric, prioritised increasing its parliamentary representation over supporting struggle and disavowed radical actions. So, when workers’ struggles began to emerge on a wide scale, they took place outside these institutions.

In early 1968, after the national unions settled for a deal at the Pirelli Bicocca tyre factory in Milan that offered meagre pay increases and virtually no improvement to conditions, a wave of spontaneous strikes emerged. A group of militants at Pirelli, with the help of members of the revolutionary socialist organisation Avanguardia Operaia (Workers’ Vanguard), set up a new organisation to give shape to the struggle: the United Base Committee (CUB). The CUB united rank-and-file workers across the factory and put decision making in their hands, sidelining the conservative union leaders.

Between 1968 and 1969, strikes increased fourfold, and the CUB model of rank-and-file control through mass assemblies began to spread. In June 1969, revolutionary students in Turin successfully established a “worker-student assembly”, which hundreds of workers from the Fiat Mirafiori plant would join at the end of their shifts. When the unions called yet another routine one-day strike over rent in July 1969, the Fiat worker-student assembly issued a blistering statement: “According to these gentlemen the class struggle takes place only on certain days of the year, as if they were Bank Holidays, and they of course decide when. But we are not going to wait for permission from anyone”.

They decided to escalate things by calling their own demonstration outside the factory’s main gates in Corso Traiano. It soon spilled over into street fighting in the surrounding suburbs. The clashes continued into the early hours of the morning, as workers with rocks and Molotov cocktails were pitted against police truncheons and tear gas. The official slogans of the unions were completely ignored in favour of the now famous catchcry: Che cosa vogliamo? Tutto! (What do we want? Everything!).

This agitation spread from the manufacturing centres to chemical and building workers, and then to the railways. Many white-collar workers, who had previously seen themselves as a privileged middle class and often sided with management, struck for the first time. The movement spread to the public sector: from hospitals, to schools, to the postal service. Many industries dominated by women, from shopworkers to hotel workers, saw their first serious explosion of class struggle.

The strike wave was like nothing in Italy since the 1920s, as workers eschewed the usual routine of demonstrative strikes and took their destiny into their own hands. At Fiat, workers organised “internal marches”, moving through the factory section by section to bring workers out on strike. At one demonstration, which must have been especially chilling for Fiat’s owner, 10,000 militants waving spanners in their hands chanted “Agnelli, Agnelli, Vietnam is in your factory”. As methods of struggle changed, so too did workers’ demands. Egalitarian demands to eliminate wage differentials between skilled and unskilled workers, and between the north and poverty-stricken south, became popular.

Collective struggles to transform social conditions spread from the workplaces to every corner of Italian life. Mass action to address the housing crisis mobilised thousands. Between 1968 and 1970, an estimated 40 percent of the 100,000 families living in public housing estates in Milan went on rent strike. Occupations of empty houses took off. In 1974, 600 families were mobilised to occupy the new Falchera estate in Turin. In a climate of radicalism that put the state on the defensive, these actions could be incredibly effective. Magistrates frequently refused to condone police evictions of squatters, or local governments hastily found the families alternative housing.

As inflation picked up in the early ’70s, workers attempted to combat rising prices through direct action dubbed autoriduzione (autoreduction). Fiat metalworkers refused to pay a 25-50 percent increase in bus fares, instead nominating their own delegates to collect fares at the old rate and send the money directly to the bus companies. This method was quickly adopted by the unions to reduce rising electricity bills.

The struggle even spread to the poverty-stricken rural south. In spring of 1969, the town of Battipaglia rose in response to local factory closures. Two people were killed by police, and an enraged crowd stormed the local police station. A revolt in Reggio Calabria—spurred by unemployment, squalid housing and police repression—rocked the south for a year. From June to September 1970, the city saw nineteen days of general strikes, twelve dynamite explosions, thirty-two roadblocks, fourteen occupations of the railway station, two of the post office, one of the airport and one of the local TV stations.

Revolutionary organisations with a mass following sprung up across the country. Turin-based Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle), which didn’t even exist at the beginning of 1969, quickly recruited 10,000 members through leading the worker-student assemblies and other social struggles. Avanguardia Operaia, which pioneered the CUB in Milan, recruited thousands of factory workers. Their politics were eclectic and incorporated diverse points of reference—from the Trotskyist tradition, to syndicalism, to Mao’s China. But whatever their limitations, they succeeded because in the climate of radicalism they offered what the Communist Party and union leaders could not: new methods of struggle, history, politics and theory for radicalising workers to devour, and a belief in the possibility of a fundamental transformation of society. According to Italian socialist Yurii Colombo: “Between 1968 and the late 1970s, more than 100,000 people became members of far-left organisations in Italy”.

These were golden years, when the political horizons of millions were raised by participation in collective struggle, and a fundamental challenge to the capitalist system seemed imminent. Workers won the right to strike, a guarantee that wages would rise with inflation, an expanded pension system and affordable housing. The women’s movement achieved the right to divorce and abortion, facing down the Catholic Church and winning in a country once considered irredeemably conservative.

But after temporarily losing its footing, the Italian capitalist class regained its composure and implemented a variety of strategies to contain the movement.

Firstly, the bosses went on an economic offensive to smash workers’ resistance. They allowed the economy to enter a recession and drove up unemployment to end the strike wave, but this was largely unsuccessful. When employers attempted to stare down metalworkers by cutting off contract negotiations in 1972, it only spurred the struggle on, culminating in a two-day occupation of Fiat Mirafiori in 1973—arguably the high point of the movement.

Sections of the ruling class hostile to any reform turned towards state violence to repress the movement. In 1970, the fascist ex-commander Junio Borghese briefly attempted to occupy the Ministry of the Interior and overthrow the government, with the knowledge of US intelligence. State security services collaborated with fascist groups to launch terror attacks that could be pinned on the left and create the pretext for cracking down on the movement. The most infamous example of what was dubbed the “strategy of tension” was the fascist bombing of a bank in the Piazza Fontana in Milan that killed seventeen people and led to the arrest of two anarchists, one of whom was killed in police custody.

But the most important lifeline for the Italian capitalist class came from the reformist leaders of the PCI and CGIL unions. The union leaders realised they needed to shift to the left in response to the labour upsurge, “riding the tiger” of radicalism to bring it back under control. They worked overtime to bring radical organisations like the rank-and-file controlled factory councils under their influence.

PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer began arguing from 1973 that there was a “pressing danger of the nation being split in two” by the radical upsurge. As an alternative to growing polarisation between workers and bosses, left and right, Berlinguer proposed a “historic compromise”: Communists should enter government and share power with the Christian Democrats. Positioning as responsible ministers in waiting, the Communists attacked the more militant struggles like autoreduction, squats and unauthorised strikes, and presented themselves as champions of “law and order”.

Although it took many years, the PCI and unions worked to tame the movement, bring it back into a legal framework and isolate the radicals and revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow the existing order.

The revolutionary organisations that had exploded in the late 1960s now faced a difficult situation. They had made amazing strides—commanding the loyalty of countless thousands, leading militant struggles and controlling multiple daily newspapers and radio stations.

But by the mid-’70s, society had begun to stabilise. The revolutionaries had to recognise that there was a long uphill battle ahead, a patient battle to win masses of workers who were still loyal to the PCI and CGIL. But the revolutionary groups were raised on the expectation that the final struggle against capitalism was just around the corner. They refused to accept that the pace of struggle had slowed and looked for a quick road to political breakthrough. Some invested their hopes in getting the Communist Party elected to government, hoping this would provoke a revolutionary struggle. Others turned to terrorism, kidnapping managers and politicians and eventually assassinating former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978. Within a few years, the revolutionary left had all but collapsed.

The capitalist class was able to stabilise Italian society in the 1980s, assisted by a brutally repressive state and a weak and divided left. Dissidents were rounded up en masse—it’s estimated that there were 3,500 political prisoners in 1980. By the early 1980s, Fiat had sacked 23,000 workers, including the leading radicals, in the worst working-class defeat since World War Two. The 1980s were a period of capitalist triumphalism in Italy, symbolised by the long rise of proto-Trumpian media magnate and future Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The memory of the Hot Autumn has left a deep mark on Italian society. Fiat boss Agnelli remembered it as a nightmare: “We experienced a continuous loss of managerial authority ... For us, then, the lack of equilibrium between management and unions inside the factories lasted ten to twelve years. That cost us dearly”.

For Mario Mosca, one of the founders of the CUB at Pirelli Bicocca, 1968 “was the best year of my life. It was the year in which as a worker I felt myself to be a protagonist and the master of my fate. And I continued to have that sensation for the following two years. It was wonderful to be alive”.

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