Workerism and autonomism in Italy’s “Hot Autumn”

by Luca Tavan • Published 27 March 2023

So there we were, with the three-hour union strike, and the two of us got together with five or six other comrades and contacted a few people from Lotta Continua. Then we set off; just the seven of us. And by the time we got to the head offices where all the staff hung out, there were about seven thousand of us!… The staff were all looking out of the windows, and saw us down below. They didn’t know what to do. And the few guards on the doors were terrified. It was beautiful…this year we started with seven of us and ended up with seven thousand. Next time we’ll start with seven thousand and end up with seventy thousand, and that’ll be the end of FIAT. Goodbye, Agnelli.[1]

Interview with a FIAT worker, 1970

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

Italy’s decade-long period of social contention, which historian John Foot has described as “quite easily the most radical, interesting, and, in the end, violent of all the world’s ‘1968s’”,[2] led to an explosion of revolutionary politics and organisation. In the 1970s, the revolutionary left won the loyalty of tens of thousands, and published three daily papers.[3] Socialist activists who had been marginalised during the post-war boom could now find an audience among radicalising workers, and were given an unparalleled opportunity to put their ideas and strategies to the test.

The workerists were one such grouping. In the early 1960s, they had attempted to rediscover the revolutionary heart of Marxism by turning their attention to the tensions emerging in the large factories in the country’s industrial north. They focused on self-organised, militant struggle as the motor for social change, in opposition to the gradualist approach of the mainstream union leaders and the parliamentarism of the Italian Communist Party. At the peak of the struggles, their militancy allowed them to exert a serious influence on sections of the working-class vanguard that were looking to make a revolution.

But as the industrial struggle receded in the 1970s, many workerist intellectuals abandoned an understanding of class rooted in the process of production. They began searching for a new revolutionary “counter-power” to capitalism. This new movement, dubbed Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy) privileged local autonomous organising, alternative lifestyles and subculture, and in some cases armed struggle against the state. Their attempt to find a shortcut to challenging capitalism led to the marginalisation of the revolutionary left in the workers’ movement, and ultimately to a series of brutal defeats.

This article will chart the experience of Europe’s most active revolutionary left from the highs of leading workers in militant struggle to the lows of lifestylism and terrorism. The issues described below are not simply of historical interest. Autonomist politics still linger as a dead weight in many parts of the left today. By understanding these politics as a product of the failure of the revolutionary left, we can better build organisations and struggles that avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

The Communist Party and the long boom

Italy’s Hot Autumn emerged after a long period of capitalist stability. Italy was dubbed Europe’s economic miracle due to its rapid post-war reconstruction. By the late 1950s GDP was increasing at an unheard of rate of more than six percent per annum.[4] The boom transformed the economy, as dominant exports shifted from food production and textiles to modern consumer goods – fridges, televisions, washing machines and cars – still out of reach for most Italian workers. The automotive industry was at the centre of this expansion. It’s estimated that in 1963, 20 percent of the total investments in Italy derived from production choices made by FIAT. The behemoth car manufacturer drove demand for mechanical parts, steel, petrol and rubber, as well as road infrastructure.[5]

The Italian Communist Party (PCI) loomed large over the left throughout this period. After years of repression under Mussolini’s fascist regime, it had rebuilt itself rapidly through participation in the resistance to Nazi occupation which erupted in 1943. Many PCI militants had operated for years or decades underground, separated from their exiled leadership and relatively unaffected by the huge changes the official communist movement had undergone. While party activists tended to see the Resistenza as the opening stage of a social revolution that could place workers’ power on the agenda, the party leadership had other plans. When PCI leader Palmiro Togliatti returned victoriously from exile in 1944, he announced a sharp change of tack.

Togliatti had spent years in exile as a key functionary of Stalin’s Comintern, imposing the exigencies of Soviet foreign policy on the Communist Parties. To assist the Stalin-Churchill-Roosevelt alliance in their joint effort to carve up Europe, the PCI was ordered to collaborate with the Italian state. And so in April 1944, Togliatti dutifully announced the “Salerno turn”. The PCI now officially recognised the government headed by King Victor Emmanuel and the former fascist Pietro Badoglio, in exchange for cabinet positions. The party’s entire program, from socialisation to opposition to the monarchy, was sacrificed at the altar of “national unity” and collaboration with the dominant bourgeois Christian Democratic Party. Having given this promise of loyalty, the Communist Party was able to continue building its influence in the resistance without fear of alienating Italy’s capitalist class.

Crucially, Togliatti viewed this new orientation as a permanent strategic perspective:

If we want the government and its action to be in conformity with the democratic will of the majority, the mass parties of the left and the Christian Democratic party must collaborate, and collaborate not in a temporary way, reserving the right to attack and destroy each other at the first opportunity, but in a permanent way, with a long prospect of common reconstructive activity.[6]

While many PCI activists treated the Salerno turn with suspicion, they were willing to give Togliatti the benefit of the doubt. The leadership fostered the illusion that they were just playing a tactical game, the strategy of doppiezza, or duplicity – encouraging the bourgeoisie to lower its defences. Overall the PCI was successful in building its prestige through participation in the resistance while isolating the radical elements which wanted to use the struggle to advance workers toward power.

By 1946 the party could claim two million members and its leaders looked forward to a bright future where they would be taken seriously as collaborators in building the post-war capitalist order. These plans were rudely interrupted. With the onset of the Cold War the Italian ruling class received a stern message from their American allies to end collaboration with the PCI, and the Communists were ejected from office in May 1947. The party would spend the next two decades in the political wilderness, at least at a national level, yearning for a return to governmental power.

Despite being shunned, the Communist Party doubled down on its reformist practice and theory, though it maintained a degree of revolutionary rhetoric.

While its membership declined in the decade between 1956 and 1966 to a little over one-and-a-half million members, the PCI remained a powerful force in civil society. It dominated the CGIL, the largest union federation, and accrued masses of moderate trade union officials. It organised 200,000 through women’s unions, sponsored a cooperative league with two million members, and published the country’s second-best-selling daily newspaper.[7] In Bologna from 1945, the PCI had a chance to demonstrate its governing prowess under the leadership of a communist mayor who was able to reassure local business that communist policy wouldn’t be directed against them. The party boasted of being able to provide subsidised school meals, build municipal facilities and increase public transport, all without ever running a deficit.[8] For isolated groupings of revolutionaries, challenging the PCI for the loyalty of organised workers would have seemed like a distant dream.

Ending the industrial peace

As with any period of capitalist expansion, there were subterranean contradictions accumulating which pointed toward the possibility of a new radical rupture. The economic boom had the effect of drawing millions of southern migrants to the factories of the north. Between 1955 and 1971, some nine million Italians moved between regions, from a total population of around fifty million.[9] From the standpoint of the mainstream left, this new labour force was initially seen as diluting militancy, because many of these workers brought with them no political or union traditions. But conditions of near full employment gave workers a confidence that hadn’t existed since the war. And the concentration of industrial workers at the centre of large-scale, mass-production industries, subject to constant speed-ups and intensification, created a febrile industrial atmosphere. Though they were largely unorganised, workers from the south could be highly volatile. As one foreman explained: “the most difficult to deal with are the southerners, because they are the ones who get angry the most often and protest the most; the Piedmontese hold it against me that I’ve become a foreman, but they are the most tranquil and conscientious workers”.[10]

The first major test of the battle-readiness of these new sections of the working class came in 1962 when the national metalworkers’ contract came up for renewal. There were bitter struggles at firms like Lancia and Michelin, but FIAT would be the decisive factor in the campaign. Throughout the fifties it had been transformed into a bastion of industrial peace, through a combination of high wages and benefits, and the brutal persecution of militants. In 1955 this was symbolised by the defeat of the PCI-aligned CGIL in internal union elections.[11] This time, however, a determined lead by factory militants led to 60,000 being pulled out at the company that was at the heart of the post-war boom. Then in July, when FIAT bosses attempted to bypass negotiation with the strikers by signing a separate agreement with an employer-friendly union federation, thousands of FIAT workers besieged the union’s headquarters. When the police intervened to break up their demonstration, hundreds fought back. Paul Ginsborg wrote:

For the next two and a half days, Piazza Statuto became the site of an extended urban riot. An extraordinary series of running battles took place between demonstrators and police. The demonstrators broke windows, threw stones, set up rudimentary barricades and repeatedly charged the police lines. They were armed with slings, sticks and chains. The police replied by driving their Jeeps at the crowd, filling the piazza with tear gas and using the butts of their rifles on the demonstrators. The clashes went on late into the night both on Saturday 7 July and Monday 9 July. Pajetta of the PCI and Sergio Garavini of the CGIL tried to persuade the crowds to disperse, but they were ignored and manhandled. Over a thousand demonstrators were arrested by the police, though the numbers charged were far fewer.[12]

At this harbinger of a coming earthquake in post-war class struggle, the PCI leaders and union officials displayed marked uneasiness. They dismissed the Piazza Statuto riots as the work of agents provocateurs. Communist Party intellectual Paolo Spriano described them as “students essentially” whose perspective was “tenaciously resistant to reality”,[13] but the truth was undeniable – Piazza Statuto was a revolt of mostly young workers, many of them southerners, who felt unrewarded by Italy’s “economic miracle”.

The workerists

These emerging cracks in the post-war settlement between capital and labour posed a challenge for the left. In October 1961, a group of intellectuals centred around the unions and major workers’ parties had published the first issue of a new journal, Quaderni Rossi. This journal was where the “workerist” tendency took form. The workerists attempted to analyse and give clarity to the new developments in the country’s large northern factories. They rightly identified both the radical potential that existed in these struggles and the inability of the Communist and Socialist Parties to lead them. The workerists argued for a “Marxist purification of Marx”, which meant going back to basics, and refocusing on workers’ power at the point of production as the key to socialist transformation. Their stress on “the working-class point of view” was deliberately and diametrically opposed to the Communist Party strategy of “hegemony”, which meant popular front-style top-down alliances with other designated “progressive classes” through electoral intervention.

This was a largely healthy reaction against reformism. But the workerists went further, laying out a novel analysis of the role of the working class in capitalism. Directly inspired by the revolt at Piazza Statuto, workerist intellectual Mario Tronti flipped the traditional analysis of the Communist Party, in which the working class is passively shaped by capitalist development, on its head. In 1962, Tronti argued that the existence of the working class and its struggles were the key motor-force of capitalism:

We have seen that the commodity labour-power is the properly active side of capital, the natural home of any capitalist dynamism. It is the protagonist not only of the expanded reproduction of the valorisation process, but also of the continual revolutionary upheavals of the labour process itself.[14]

In Tronti’s account, capital has relied throughout its history on the inventiveness and demands of the working class in order to find new avenues of growth. Every new bourgeois strategy – from technological developments, to the Keynesian welfare state, to new government coalitions – has emerged as a reaction to workers’ power in production, and as an attempt to incorporate workers’ struggle.

The workerists drew political conclusions from this analysis. In the absence of a revolutionary struggle for power, capital would simply use workers’ struggle as a spur for its own growth. Routine union bargaining would only strengthen the system by incorporating workers’ demands into capitalist development. So workers needed independence from the state and official union structures, which restrained the inherently revolutionary potential of their struggles. Priority should be given instead to struggles that could not be accommodated by capitalist development.

We might ask: what happens when the form of working class organisation takes on a wholly alternative content? When it refuses to function as an articulation of capitalist society? When it refuses to shoulder capital’s needs through meeting working class demands? The answer is that, at that moment and starting from that moment, the system’s whole development mechanism is blocked.[15]

This meant the workerists tended to glorify absenteeism, sabotage and deliberately unachievable wage demands, regarding them as tactics that, at a formal level, expressed and developed workers’ political and economic autonomy from the dictates of capital.

Tronti referred to this as the “strategy of refusal”. He even went so far as to imply that the struggle against capitalism could be resolved at the point of production alone, writing that: “The machinery of the bourgeois state must today be smashed within the capitalist factory”.[16]

They developed a highly voluntarist conception of working-class struggle – arguing that workers could challenge capitalism by subjectively rejecting its prerogatives and refusing to compromise with it. This was very different from the conception of revolutionary politics developed by communists like Luxemburg and Lenin, who argued that the day-to-day struggle for reforms under radical leadership was necessary to build the organisational power and revolutionary consciousness of the working class.[17]

Having written off the unions as hopelessly incorporated, the workerists drew inspiration from the volatile struggles of unskilled and semi-skilled workers who had confronted police with rocks and bottles in the battle of Piazza Statuto. Tronti identified these layers, to whom he referred as the “mass worker”, as a new revolutionary agent. The highly skilled metalworkers who had led the struggles of the Biennio Rosso of 1919–20 had struggled to assert their mastery and control over the jobs in which they took great pride. In contrast, the new mass workers despised their role in the labour process. The historic mission of the mass worker was to smash the factory system entirely.

From the workerists’ perspective, the inherent radicalism of the mass worker rendered the question of developing class consciousness redundant. The forms of struggle that workers adopted would be determined not by political intervention and the “battle of ideas” in the class, but by how sections of the class were compelled to act as a result of their specific role in the productive process. As founding workerist Raniero Panzieri explained:

[T]he subversive strength of the working class, its revolutionary capacity, appears (potentially) strongest precisely at capitalism’s “development points”, where the crushing preponderance of constant capital over living labour, together with the rationality embodied in the former, immediately faces the working class with the question of its political enslavement.[18]

This amounted to a form of technological determinism which downplayed the importance of politics in the workers’ movement.

At various times Tronti hinted that this mass worker might be a portent of something happening across the rest of capitalist society: “the whole of society exists as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over the whole of society”.[19] But in the 1960s he never developed this analysis. The workerists kept their focus within the factory gates.

There were deep tensions within the largely academic workerist milieu about how to translate their ideas into action. Within a few years, they split between a wing which wanted to restrict their activity to research, led by Raniero Panzieri, and a wing led by Mario Tronti and Antonio Negri, inspired by the revolts emerging around them, and committed to political organisation.

Among the activists, there were further splits over the question of orientation to the Communist Party. The workerists were forged by their common agreement that the PCI’s rightward drift was a result of its separation from shop-floor struggles, but they never advanced a unified, systematic critique of Stalinism, and the reformist practice it had engendered in the Italian party. Tronti held to an extremely elitist conception of the role of the party, writing in Workers and Capital:

Only through a subjective conscious intervention from “on high”…which allows you to master the functioning of the system to be destroyed can you foresee and anticipate the turning points in the cycle of capital’s development, can you measure, control, manage and thus organise the political growth of the working class, obliging it to go through a whole chain of different confrontations at different levels and on some of these occasions break the chain, reverse the relationship between the parties and smash the state machine.[20]

This approach to political organising fit with Tronti’s loyalty to the reformist PCI. A more radical wing led by Antonio Negri defined itself through its intransigent opposition to the PCI, the dominant current in the workers’ movement.

Workerists in the Hot Autumn

Revolutionaries were given an unparalleled opportunity to put their politics to the test when Italian society exploded with social ferment in 1968. The Hot Autumn in the factories was preceded by an explosion on the university campuses, which provided the first widespread ideological challenge to Italian capitalism since 1945. After the war, 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, and were confronted by a system in an advanced state of 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.[21] The curriculum was traditionalist and archaic – overwhelmingly examinations were oral, occasions where “a policeman dressed up as a teacher spends five to ten minutes in liquidating the accused with a series of questions”.[22] By the late 1960s the campuses were ready to explode. As Paul Ginsborg wrote: “The decision to allow open access to such a grossly inadequate university system amounted simply to planting a time bomb in it”.[23]

The student movement was not just a revolt against stuffy teachers and crowded lecture theatres – it was an ideological revolt against the values and institutions of post-war capitalism. As student leader Guido Viale wrote:

The university functions as an instrument of ideological and political manipulation. It aims to instil into the students a spirit of subordination to the powers that be (whoever they may be). It tries to cancel, in the psychological structure of every student, the collective dimension of personal needs. It intends to destroy the possibility of establishing relations with one’s neighbour which are other than purely competitive in character.[24]

Students who had grown up with an image 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 FIAT, but offered little hope of a stable job for the graduates that the universities churned out. Hundreds of thousands of students turned to revolutionary politics amidst the ferment. Then, in May 1968, Parisian students helped to spark the largest general strike in history. The news electrified the Italian student movement, and the new revolutionaries turned from the campuses to the workplaces.

In the factories, the first major strikes of 1968 were unofficial and spontaneous. Tyre manufacturer Pirelli Bicocca in Milan was typical. After years of industrial quiescence, a series of small, sectional strikes had emerged in defiance of the union leadership. They were driven by anger at speed-ups and piece-rate payments, and were fuelled by young semi-skilled workers with little in the way of organisational traditions. Robert Lumley gives a picture of the rapidly changing working conditions that fuelled discontent:

From 1964 increases in workloads, rather than investment in new machinery, was the chief means of raising productivity. One worker in the vulcanization section told a researcher that in 1964 he had had eight machines to tend, but as a result of rationalizations the number had increased to seventeen, and he had to produce 390 tyres instead of 15.[25]

By September there were almost daily strikes at Pirelli, routinely involving thousands.[26]

By 1970, there were disputes in 4,000 individual factories, with new methods of struggle emerging, including sit-down strikes, internal factory marches, checkerboard strikes, and violent reprisals against hated managers.[27] It was a paper associated with Milanese industrialists which first dubbed this cycle of revolt the “Hot Autumn”, likely in reference to the “long hot summer” of Black urban uprisings which shook the United States in 1967.[28]

This explosive wave of struggles had largely caught the Communist Party and major union federations off guard. A correspondent wrote in the British Socialist Worker at the beginning of December 1968:

The movement has been directed by the official trade union apparatus only to the extent that it has accepted and advanced the genuine demands of the rank and file. The real leaders of the struggle have been the factory base committees and local assemblies.[29]

The union leaders’ preferred approach of routine bargaining every few years had proved completely inadequate to a working class faced with constant speed-ups, rationalisation and reprisals on the factory floor. Luigi, a veteran FIAT worker, explained the limitations of the official union strategy:

So every two or three years, when the contracts were about to expire, we would have the classic sort of struggle you know, two or three days of strikes, all kept within union channels, and then the boss’s repression would begin all over again. And the little politicisation achieved through those two or three days would be blocked for the next three years of boss’s rule.[30]

Workers previously indifferent to the largely student and intellectual radical left were now willing to give them a hearing. This opening was created by the new sense of collective power that came from the more radical actions being taken, and by the political vacuum that was created by the abdication of the Communist Party. Workerists and other revolutionaries could now have a real impact. Toni, a Calabrian migrant worker new to FIAT, described the process of making contact with the revolutionaries:

I began to pick up on the politics that Lotta Continua were into. At first, you know, I really didn’t understand too much. I used to read their leaflets, but only in a sort of informative way, so as to know what they were saying. One day one of the student comrades from Lotta Continua hunted me out and began talking to me. He really attacked me because I was still in the union. Before I worked at FIAT I’d worked for a few months at other little factories, and all that I’d heard was that the unions were there to defend the workers. Of course, down in Calabria we don’t even know what a union is; people don’t know that they exist! But gradually I began to understand what they really are.[31]

Even the potentially alienating workerist denunciation of the unions was taken seriously by militants looking for new methods of struggle. In the same interview, Luigi expanded:

The unions are there to make sure that workers are kept inside the system, and have less possibility of beginning to challenge it. The unions are the political extensions of the sicknesses that exist inside the government; the “long arm inside the factories” of political parties. Every group, every political party has a little hand inside the factory. The Christian Democrats have CISL, the Communists have the CGIL, SIDA are the Fascists, UIL is the Social Democrats, even some Republicans…every one of them has a certain presence inside the factory to control the situation.[32]

At the Montedison petrochemical plant in Veneto, which employed 15,000 people, the patient and systematic work of a group of workerist militants who would go on to help form Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power) was paying off. In 1967, after five years of organising, they were able to organise their first industrial action. By the end of the year they were leading dozens of strikes to win a flat 5,000 lire increase for all workers in the factory, regardless of skill and job categories. The struggle relied on aggressive tactics to win, greatly increased the prestige of the workerists, and affirmed their strategic perspective – it was organised through mass democratic worker assemblies, “autonomous” from the official union and party structures.[33]

At FIAT Mirafiori in Turin, struggle was also picking up in late 1968. A student activist grouping had turned from the campuses to the workplaces, inspired by the analysis of the workerists. By June of 1969 hundreds of workers were making their way at the end of their shifts to worker-student assemblies to discuss the almost daily work stoppages occurring in the factory.

The workerists were given the opportunity that all revolutionaries dream of: the chance to test their politics in a period of industrial upsurge and social ferment. When the unions called a routine one-day strike over rent in July 1969, the worker-student assembly at FIAT managed to escalate things by calling a demonstration outside of the factory’s main gates in Corso Traiano. Soon things spilled over into streetfighting in the surrounding suburbs. The clashes were to continue into the early hours of the morning, as workers with rocks and molotov cocktails were pitted against police truncheons and tear gas.[34] The official slogans of the unions against rent rises were completely ignored in favour of the now infamous workerist catchcry: Che cosa vogliamo? Tutto! (What do we want? Everything!)

By the end of the 1960s two new revolutionary groups had emerged from the workerist tendency: Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle), built from the worker-student assemblies in Turin, and Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power), based in Veneto. Both were committed to ruthless opposition to the Communist Party’s reformism, but they had different conceptions of what sort of party the working class needed. Potere Operaio, shaped by the thought of Antonio Negri, opted for a caricatured version of “Leninism”, a centralised and disciplined vanguard party, which owed more to the Stalinist tradition than the real record of the Bolsheviks. Adriano Sofri founded Lotta Continua as a network of “internal vanguards”, spurning formal leadership and structures in favour of decision-making through mass assemblies. Both took the essentials of the workerist analysis into the upsurge of the Hot Autumn, and both won the loyalty of thousands, while influencing countless more.[35]

Workerism in crisis

Despite these early successes, problems with the approach of the workerists soon emerged. The most radical struggles of 1968–69 had largely bypassed the official union structures, but by 1970 many of the union leaders recognised the need to accommodate the new mood. Starting with the more militant metal and chemical unions and then spreading outwards, the official unions began to “ride the tiger” of workplace militancy in order to bring it under their control. They began to recognise new grassroots workplace “delegate” structures which were emerging relatively spontaneously, and ratified them as a new system of workplace democracy, based on factory councils.

The councils, which spread rapidly across industry, were composed of delegates from every shop or department in the workplace. Delegates were elected in a secret ballot by all the workforce, whether trade union members or not, and were subject to recall at any time. The meetings of the factory council were open to all workers. By 1975 there were more than 32,000 councils with more than 250,000 delegates, an incredible flourishing of workplace democracy.[36]

Sticking to their guns, both Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio boycotted the councils, arguing that they were nothing more than a conspiracy to reincorporate the working class back into capitalist planning. While there was some truth to this, their stance meant refusing to relate to the hundreds of thousands of workers who were moving into struggle for the first time through this process. Ironically, it also made it much easier for the union leaders to reassert their control.

The workerists could win some support in a period of offensive struggle. But they fundamentally mistook the ideas of a vanguard section of the class for those of the working class at large. The unions and PCI, far from losing support, were in fact growing alongside the new council movement. Despite building impressive organisations of thousands, the workerist parties only exerted decisive influence in relatively isolated strongholds – like FIAT Turin for LC, and Montedison in Veneto for PO. By abstaining from the council movement, they undermined the strides they had made during the working-class offensive. In particular, their approach made it impossible to challenge the hegemony of the PCI over the broader working class.

By the early 1970s the struggle had become more difficult for revolutionaries for a number of reasons.

The Italian state responded to the upsurge of the late 1960s with a “strategy of tension”. A section of the ruling class hostile to any initiatives for reform instead colluded with fascists who planted bombs to create a climate of fear and repression. The most famous of these actions, the bombing of a bank in the Piazza Fontana in Milan, was pinned on the left, and led to the murder of one anarchist activist. Rumours of coup plots abounded, culminating in an actual abortive attempt in 1970, when the fascist ex-commander Junio Borghese made a brief attempt to occupy the ministry of the interior. While the Italian ruling class quickly retreated from this high-risk strategy, this threat began pushing many radicals toward a mistaken insurrectionary perspective. That same year the Red Brigades were formed, a clandestine armed organisation which would help popularise the analysis that the situation was tending not just toward heightened class struggle, but toward civil war. This would become a recurrent theme on the far left throughout the 1970s.

Then, from 1973, an economic crisis resulted in a bosses’ offensive which changed the industrial situation fundamentally. The capitalist class used the crisis as an excuse to restructure industry and victimise factory militants. The deliberately extreme demands valorised by the workerists got less of a hearing as workers’ struggle became primarily defensive. The mass assemblies began to decline. Reformists had regained ground through the unions, asserted their control over the factory committees, and in 1976, far from being swept away by the struggle, the PCI received its highest ever vote.

These were all potentially surmountable problems. Class struggle always involves ebbs and flows, advances and setbacks. There has never been and never will be a continual and linear escalation of struggle to the point of power. These setbacks and downturns can be endured by revolutionaries, but they are a test of the solidity of your politics. The situation demanded a flexible but principled approach which allowed them to organise the militants who had already broken with reformism, while relating to the millions of workers who still expected the unions to defend their interests. It demanded a united front approach to the Communist Party, meaning joint struggles to strengthen the fighting capacity of the class while exposing the limitations of the PCI’s reformist parliamentarism. Most importantly, it required an understanding that revolution wasn’t right around the corner, and there were years of struggle ahead that activists would have to prepare themselves for.

These are all questions which the revolutionary Marxist tradition had been forced to confront before. The Third International prior to Stalinist degeneration had grappled with all of them through the experience of a wave of workers’ revolutions and the construction of mass communist parties. But both PO and LC rejected these traditions, in favour of developing a new revolutionary strategy from scratch. They were quickly thrown into chaos and confusion.

Lotta Continua had largely ignored the question of relating to members of the Communist Party or proposing joint struggles in 1969–70. They preferred instead an intransigent maximalism: “We are not interested in bringing down the Christian Democrat junta, we want to destroy the capitalist system”.[37] By 1971 they had performed an about-turn, claiming that fascism posed an existential threat and that unity with the Communist Party was necessary. But this unity was not proposed on the basis of ruthless critique of the PCI’s betrayals. Instead Lotta Continua tended to adapt to the larger party’s politics, glorifying its radical past and anti-fascist credentials. This was no aberration, but a product of their political approach. As Chris Harman wrote:

The spontaneism of the leaders of Lotta Continua, their belief that revolutionary politics arises immediately out of the struggle, meant in 1969 articulating a hatred of strike activists against the reformist parties and union apparatuses. In 1971 and 1972 it meant articulating the feelings of those who found the Communist Party members and union activists were as worried as they were by the growth of the far right.[38]

Their lack of a systematic and principled approach to winning workers away from the influence of reformism led to a flip-flopping from sectarian abstention to ideological capitulation. By 1976 Lotta Continua were throwing themselves into the struggle to propel the Communist Party into governmental office.

While successfully avoiding this right-wing error, Potere Operaio drew inspiration from failed ultra-left outfits like the German KAPD of the 1920s. They resurrected the disastrous “theory of the offensive” – a strategy of forcing the pace of class struggle through the brave minority actions of a revolutionary party. Their central strategy had been to leapfrog over reformist consciousness by bypassing the official structures of the labour movement, based on an extremely optimistic prediction of imminent revolution. When experience proved the continued resilience of reformist ideas in the workers’ movement, they lapsed into an increasingly elitist and pessimistic view of working-class agency and consciousness. A grouping of PO militants now argued that without their intervention, working class autonomy “lives for and in the capitalist relations of production”.[39] Alarmed by the seeming passivity of large sections of the working class, and the apparent threat of a right-wing coup, they believed that only a military organisation capable of destroying the capitalist state could end this cycle and shake workers from their lethargy. Unsurprisingly, calls by PO activists to militarise the struggle fell on deaf ears.

Still, Potere Operaio continued the search for signs of an imminent revolutionary upsurge. In 1973, workers at FIAT Mirafiori blockaded their workplace with mass pickets. PO theorists developed an analysis of this struggle which bore little resemblance to reality. They wrote: “Taking power at FIAT, and in all of Turin, contains an explicit allusion to the seizure of political power and to the revolutionary programme of the abolition of wage labour”.[40] This analysis, deliberately ignorant of the realities of the class struggle, seemed to herald an imminent revolutionary situation based on one isolated factory struggle.

It soon became clear that the 1973 FIAT occupation was a final defiant stand by the leading protagonists of the Hot Autumn, rather than the beginning of a revolutionary challenge for power. The capitalist counter-offensive and the continued vitality of reformist workers’ institutions created a new terrain in the factories, one in which radicals were increasingly marginalised.

The experience at the Innocenti plant outside Milan was typical. There, a group of militants launched a supportable campaign against management attempts to reduce the workforce while increasing working hours. They faced hostility not just from the employers, but the CGIL-dominated factory council. The conflict came to a head in October 1975, when PCI and CGIL stewards clashed physically with members of the Workers’ Coordinating committee. The following day six leading radicals were sacked.[41] The right-wing newspaper Corriere Della Sera noted the re-establishment of CGIL control in the factories: “Rigidly marshalled by the unions…Fiat workers are ever less receptive to extreme suggestions”.[42] Sergio Bologna, one of Negri’s collaborators, provided a sober assessment of the period in contrast to the euphoric analyses of Potere Operaio:

[A] deeper division has occurred: not between factory and society, but within the factory itself, between the working-class right and left. In sum there has been a reassertion of reformist hegemony over the factories, one that is brutal and relentless in its efforts to dismember the class left and expel it from the factory.[43]

As the movement in the factories was being rapidly crushed under the weight of repression, the revolutionaries gradually shifted their focus from the workplaces to the streets. Amidst the inflationary crisis of the mid-1970s, campaigns for housing rights, the reduction of transport fares and electricity fees, and various social movements like the women’s liberation movement exploded. In 1977 Bologna wrote of this period: “the extra-parliamentary groups began their suicidal retreat from the factory, and in general ceased to give much attention to problems of the composition of the class. This has led to a situation where, today, the factory and the working class are almost unknown entities”.[44]

Workerism had foundered in the face of the realities of class struggle, sending leading PO figures like Antonio Negri in search of a new strategy. It was in this context of demoralisation and confusion that autonomism emerged from the crisis of workerism.

The birth of autonomism

“Autonomia Operaia”, as the new movement was known, is difficult to define because of its vague organisational and political parameters. It was in reality a label adopted by a network of organisations, collectives, social spaces and struggles, informed and inspired by the analysis of intellectuals like Negri, Franco Berardi and Oreste Scalzone. It began life as a network of workplace militants, often led by activists from the dissolved revolutionary organisations. By 1975 the centre of autonomist organising had shifted away from the workplace. An autonomist “proletarian youth movement” emerged which organised around squats and social centres, and focused on demands for greater consumption and the “right to luxury”. This helped spur a closely related student movement which reached its climax in 1977 before rapidly deflating. Increasingly after that point, the movement was defined by different strategies which reflected the further fragmentation and demoralisation of the movement. One wing was concerned with subverting capitalist culture, while the other degenerated into myriad tiny clandestine armed groups which swore to wage war on the employers, the fascists and the state.

A series of political perspectives united the autonomists struggling in these different fields. The autonomists were united by a rejection of the need for leadership exercised by centralised political parties. They tended also to deny the centrality of the industrial working class, focusing instead on the equal value of every struggle against the system. Their strategy for revolution was based on building forms of “counter-power” by progressively liberating space from the rule of capital and the state. They believed in the possibility and necessity of a strategy of permanent offensive against the system.

Autonomism took the emphasis on subjectivity at the heart of workerism to its extreme – progressively severing the tie between their “revolutionary” objectives and a concrete analysis of capitalism or an orientation to working-class struggle. While autonomism tended to preserve workerism’s key theoretical categories, particularly the focus on “autonomy” from all political processes and state institutions, it was also its ideological opposite – a thoroughgoing trashing of the fundamental Marxist dictum that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”.

In many ways autonomism only really existed as a negative critique of Marxism, as a way of escaping the strategic dilemmas which had entrapped the left during the Hot Autumn, by simply choosing to ignore them. Sylvère Lotringer reflected this in her glowing 1980 appraisal of autonomist politics:

A body of workers, it breaks away from labor discipline; a body of militants, it ignores party organization; a body of doctrine, it refuses ready-made classifications… Autonomy has no frontiers. It is a way of eluding the imperatives of production, the verticality of institutions, the traps of political representation, the virus of power.[45]

Failing to overcome the impasse of the early 1970s, autonomists chose to re-conceptualise social change in a way that erased class struggle as the central category for understanding capitalism, as Lotringer explained:

The nature of social confrontations has changed drastically. Politics up to now was tied to the relationships of production: the conflict between exploiters and exploited. This conferred on the working class an indubitable centrality. In post-industrial societies…the opposition between factory and society is slowly disappearing. Factories are no longer the focus for struggles. Consequently, political antagonisms can be defined as a properly social, even micro-social, conflict. Class struggle has yielded to more subtle confrontations.[46]

This rejection of class antagonisms and conscious political intervention in favour of vagueness, fluidity and sophistry dressed up as novel theory would lead the movements of the 1970s to disaster.

Antonio Negri and the “social worker”

In response to the impasse that radicals faced in the mid-1970s, Antonio Negri and his collaborators established the defining feature of autonomist politics – the rejection of an analysis of class rooted in the process of production, and the identification of a new revolutionary subject: the “social worker”. They would develop from this a political practice which focused on social layers that played a marginal role in production, and whose “proletarian status” would be defined by a denial of access to commodities, rather than a denial of control over labour.

In his 1975 essay Proletari e Stato, Negri argued that in the context of capitalist crisis, the whole of society has now become involved in the process of production, far outside the boundaries of the factory. The role of the state had imposed factory-like discipline on all of society. One consequence of this is that the distinction between productive and unproductive labour disappears. All labour produces value at all times.[47]

Since the process of capitalist exploitation now took place on a society-wide scale, socially and economically marginalised groups such as students, the unemployed and casual labourers must be counted as core sections of the proletariat. The new role of the capitalist state had dramatic implications for social struggle:

It transforms exploitation into a global social relation. Jail equals factory… In reality, the operation of real subsumption does not eliminate the [class] antagonism, but rather displaces it to the social level. Class struggle does not disappear; it is rather transformed into all the moments of everyday life. The daily life of a proletarian is posited as a whole against the domination of capital.[48]

Negri here enacted a theoretical sleight of hand, inventing a new revolutionary subject – the “social worker” – to avoid confronting the relative decline of the factory struggle, and workerists’ marginalisation. He thus liquidated the Marxist conception of class in order to avoid facing up to the practical problems that the movement faced.

This argument had some precedents in the debates on the far left, particularly in feminist circles. The blindness of workerist politics to questions of women’s oppression had prompted some militants to set up women-only organisations, like Lotta Feminista. They were responding to a crudeness on the part of the workerists which mirrored some of the worst elements of their syndicalist predecessors. One Potere Operaio article about women entering the workforce summed up their basic attitude:

It is about time to stop shedding tears about women’s “equality”, [which] like every lecture about civil rights is fucked up. Capital has already “equalised” women at Mirafiori, assigning them to the assembly lines.[49]

Essentially, they argued that women simply had to be organised as workers, which meant conveniently that all specific political demands centred around challenging oppression could be ignored.

Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s small pamphlet, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, pioneered a critique of this framework. In it Dalla Costa set out to demonstrate that in performing domestic labour, women themselves produced surplus value. In doing so, she would be the first of the workerists to advance a case for the claim that the extraction of surplus value could occur outside the process of production. Dalla Costa’s revision of Marx was an attempt to remedy the blindness of workerist politics to social relations outside the workplace, but it meant obscuring the central role of the workplace altogether.

This breakthrough laid the basis for Negri to theorise the “social worker”, entirely disconnected from the labour process. In Marx’s terms, productive labour is that which produces the surplus value that allows capitalists to accumulate. It is not a moral claim about the social usefulness of any particular form of work, but a crucial economic one: “This distinction between productive and unproductive labour”, Marx wrote, “has nothing to do with either the particular speciality of the labour or with the particular use value in which…[it]…is incorporated”.[50] Unpaid labour in the home produces use values which enable the reproduction of capital’s most important commodity, labour power. This understanding does not downplay domestic labour’s importance, as some feminists assume. It clarifies its specific role and importance while demonstrating why those who perform it (mostly women) do not have the potential social power they have in paid work. Profits do not cease flowing if women refuse to perform their domestic duties, even if this might lift a burden from their shoulders.

It is their role at the centre of productive labour which gives the working class its specific social power, its ability to stop the flow of profits on which capitalists rely. While other oppressed and exploited groups are capable of political contestation and disruptive struggle, no other social layer in history has possessed this capacity.

The understandable but flawed feminist criticism of the workerists should have been taken as a challenge to deepen their understanding of the relationship between the industrial working class, other social layers and the role of social oppression – a series of questions they had so far neglected. In the end, they simply adopted the feminist critique of workerism wholesale, before taking it even further, collapsing all distinction between productive and unproductive labour and abandoning one of the essentials of Marxist analysis.

This argument was mirrored by Lotta Continua. One of its leaders spoke of the proletariat as “all those sectors who, having been invested by the strength and content of the workers’ struggles over the past few years, have now found, or are beginning to find, their own autonomous growth as a movement as a mass organisation: the unemployed, the state and local government employees, the young people, the soldiers, the social struggle etc”.[51]

So by 1975, workerism, a form of Marxism originally obsessed with a narrow conception of class struggle at the point of production, flipped over into its opposite, a celebration of plurality and the equal strategic validity of all forms of resistance. At a time when struggles were becoming more fragmented, Negri delusionally posited that capitalism itself had brought about a greater level of unity in the working class and massively extended its scope and power. The trajectory of the autonomist-led struggles of the mid-1970s would bluntly refute this hypothesis. While the radical students of 1968 made a priority of connecting their struggles to the workplaces, the generation of the “proletarian youth revolt” of the mid-1970s revelled in politics that were overtly “anti-work”, and often anti-worker. By focusing consciously on the liberation from labour in contrast to the liberation of labour, the political and theoretical emphasis of the workerists provided a bridge between the factory struggles of the late 1960s and these new forms of practice.

The autonomists’ most provocative and significant actions centred around demands for more leisure and consumption, liberated from the necessity of labour. Autoriduzione became a common practice – using collective pressure and threats to force a reduction in the price of concert and movie tickets. In supermarkets the same process was labelled “proletarian shopping”.

The movement proclaimed the “right to luxury” as a contradictory response to the increasingly austerian politics of the mainstream left. Amidst the economic crisis, in October 1976, Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer announced a “war on waste…and laxity in work and study”, signalling that the PCI would expect workers to bear the brunt of rescuing economic growth. But it also reflected a disturbing drift in the conception of the sort of liberated society the autonomists were fighting for. Steve Wright has written illuminatingly:

Potere Operaio…explicitly rejected the normative value that Marxists had traditionally assigned to the goal of labour freed from the domination of capital, replacing it with an ethic of consumption unfettered by the dictates of accumulation. Yet if such an approach stemmed from a refusal of that asceticism which many on the left hoped to impose upon working people, it also drastically simplified the problems involved in reappropriating the wealth produced under the logic of capital. At its worst, the conception of communism and revolutionary struggle which some workerists were to develop during the 1970s can be characterised as a sort of “capitalism without labour”.[52]

This perspective was rejected by militants who still maintained that the vision of a communist society was inseparable from a vision of the liberated potential of human labour. The Alfa Romeo Autonomous Assemblies, whose members would quit Autonomia, would write:

By guaranteed wage we understand the right to life conquered with the guarantee of a job. Because in a communist society, each must contribute according to their abilities and receive from society according to their needs… The comrades of Marghera [Negri’s group] say: when all men [sic] are freed from the necessity of labour, because they no longer need to work in order to eat or clothe themselves or satisfy their desires, then we will have true freedom! To this we reply that we are not against labour, but against the capitalist organisation of labour whose end is not social progress but profit… [In the South] the proletarian masses seek to resolve their problems with jobs.[53]

At the extreme end, Negri’s theory presented organised workers as a privileged layer holding back a confrontation with capital:

Some groups of workers, some sections of the working class, remain tied to the dimension of the wage, to its mystified terms. In other words, they are living off income as revenue. Inasmuch, they are stealing and expropriating proletarian surplus-value – they are participating in the social labour racket – on the same terms as their management. These positions – and the trade union practice that fosters them – are to be fought, with violence if necessary. It will not be the first time that a march of the unemployed has entered a large factory so that they can destroy the arrogance of salaried income.[54]

Given this assessment, it is unsurprising that autonomism gradually ceased to be a movement based on workers in the large factories, and became instead a movement of youth and social movement activists.

Goodbye to the revolutionary party

The rejection of a party organisation in favour of “networked” social movements and struggles was a defining feature of autonomism. This too was a direct product of the failure of the workerist groups. During their internal crisis in the early 1970s, Potere Operaio initially moved further towards a tightly centralist model of organisation. This was rejected by many of its militants. Disoriented and torn apart by internal debates about armed struggle, the contradictions of the organisation blew it apart. In late 1973, following the occupation at Mirafiori, Potere Operaio decided to dissolve itself: “We have rejected the logic of the political group in order to be within the real movement, in order to be within organised class autonomy”.[55] Potere Operaio’s leaders, in liquidating their group, hailed the creation of the “party of Mirafiori”. They had seen in the FIAT occupation a model of resistance – an immanent process of creating communism which sidestepped the problems of generalising class consciousness and confronting the state.

Their blindness to these strategic challenges allowed them to insist that the revolutionary party was obsolete. Autonomist Franco Berardi’s account of this development is typical, in that it takes for granted an authoritarian model of organisation before rejecting party organisation outright:

[W]ithin the takeover itself was contained the possibility of transcending those vanguard organizations that had come near to assuming the role traditionally played by the workers’ movement: a role of authoritarian leadership, of bureaucratic intransigence in the face of the passions and the new types of needs expressed.[56]

Within the space of a few short years Lotta Continua would follow suit, dissolving into the social movements in 1976. In practice, the “structurelessness” of the party meant that it inevitably came under the control of a chosen group of political leaders, who were all the more unaccountable for the fact that their positions were not recognised.

Lotta Continua’s tensions would come to a head at the Rimini Congress, in the aftermath of the general election of June 1976. The leadership had developed a perspective that the election would be a massive breakthrough for the radical left, allowing them to aid the Communist Party in forming a government which would open up the space for a struggle for workers’ power. While the PCI increased its vote, it did so by cannibalising votes from the radical left groups, rather than expanding the left vote as a whole. LC leader Adriano Sofri admitted that by investing hopes in the Communist Party, the leadership had made “the most disastrous error in our history”.[57]

The mood of despair generated by the dashing of false hopes created a climate where all sorts of grievances could be raised, fusing together disparate hostility to the party’s leadership and organisational methods. This began when women members took the platform after Sofri’s opening address, insisting that women meet separately before the congress could resume. Women had been caucusing separately since the previous December, when a contingent of male LC stewards had physically interjected into a women-only demonstration for abortion rights to argue against their exclusion. For the women involved, this had summed up the party’s undemocratic, militarist, male culture. The proceedings of the conference then became entirely insular, focused on every group and individual expressing their feelings about their party experience. References to the external political situation, the state of the class struggle, disappeared completely. At the end of the proceedings, Sofri declared that it was up to the congress’s participants to decide whether Lotta Continua was a project worth salvaging. Within months the organisation had disbanded.

Having failed in their task of providing clarity and a line of march for the movement, it was convenient for the former leaders of the workerist organisations to argue that the entire notion of a party was obsolete. Through the traumatic experience of their crisis and then collapse, thousands of militants from Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua left, and moved into hundreds of smaller activist collectives and autonomist assemblies.

Activists disillusioned with the revolutionary organisations now began to see a “movement of the movements” as an alternative to the stale and repressive structures of the party. The attitude that social struggles needed to be autonomously led on their own terms was recorded in the official notes of LC’s Rimini Congress:

There has developed a just demand that one’s own existence and condition in society should be recognised as the basis for one’s own participation… This was a demand that arose not only from the women but also from the workers and the young people.[58]

The social movements now increasingly demanded independence not just from the reformist party system and union bureaucracies, but from the revolutionary organisations themselves. This would make it difficult for revolutionaries to find ways to link diffuse struggles, win the movements to strategic positions, or relate them to the central power of the organised working class. The collapse of the revolutionary groups reinforced the fragmentary tendencies within the movement.

Revolutionary counter-power

With the discovery of the “social worker”, the “strategy of refusal” described by the workerists was taken to a radically voluntarist conclusion. Instead of focusing on workers at the point of production, revolutionary change was identified in the process of ordinary people across society rejecting capitalism in their everyday lives. Autonomists described this as the process of developing “counter-power”. In the 1960s workerists had spoken of “workers’ autonomy” as a process of self-organisation of struggle, separate from unions and political parties. Now “autonomy” was taken to mean that people could organise a new society independently from capitalism.

The “proletarian youth revolt” spread through autonomist spaces that emerged all over the country, from the social centres established through squatting, to the entire networks of “free radio stations”. Squatting had begun in the mid-’70s as a method of securing housing for working-class families. By early 1977 it’s estimated that the youth of Milan alone had occupied more than 50 buildings, with about 2,000 consistent squatters involved.[59] Radio Alice and Radio Popolare became Brechtian experiments in socialist mass communication, giving people a voice to share their experiences.

The main goal of these experiments was to carve out small spaces to have experiences “outside” of capitalist exploitation, not to mount an offensive against it. The occupations thus became an end in themselves. As a publication of one of the Milan circles put it:

We hold festivals because we want to have fun, to be together, to affirm our right to life, to happiness, to a new way of being together. We occupy buildings because we want to have places to meet, to debate, to play music, put on plays, make things up, to have somewhere that’s a definite alternative to family life.[60]

Particular importance was attached to “being together”, and to the exploration of interpersonal dynamics through consciousness raising. There was a proliferation of photography and music workshops, yoga classes. One particularly low point was the “Proletarian Youth Festival” organised by Lotta Continua and others in June 1976. Rather than a moment of liberation, it more closely resembled the infamous Fyre Festival of 2017.[61] Water and sanitation were not provided, power was cut, and food stalls were raided by attendees against the urgings of festival organisers.[62]

This form of “resistance” could easily find legitimation in Negri’s new conception of revolutionary strategy. He wrote:

The struggle against the capitalist organisation of production, of the job market, of the working day, of the restructuring of energy, of family life, etc., etc., all this involves the people, the community, the choice of lifestyle. To be communist today means to live as a communist.[63]

The autonomist Lucio Castellano argued similarly: “The ‘socialist’ question…of the proletariat taking political power, is not even posed, because the new power which is emerging has no statist representative, cannot be delegated, cannot be separated from that which it performs”.[64]

The notion that a small minority of revolutionaries could begin to build communism in the margins of the capitalist system is at best wishful thinking, at worst deliberate obfuscation. Though autonomists such as Negri and Holloway have time and time again defended these projects as an incipient form of “territorial counter-power”, they represented a retreat from serious revolutionary objectives. Even a million occupied apartment buildings and pirate radio stations would still leave capitalist control of the production process and the state intact. Only a powerful movement based at the point of production, and mobilised on the streets to smash the state institutions, can challenge capitalist power.

The high point of autonomist influence coincided with the high point of its internal tensions, in the student revolt of 1977. The movement was spurred in February by a series of proposed education reforms which broke with the principle of mass education established in the post-war period. Student occupations and protests swept the country, including a 50,000-strong march in Rome.[65] The movement took a bitter turn on 17 March, when a student demonstrator was shot dead by a policeman in Bologna. That a protester could be killed in the city that was the jewel in the crown of PCI local government left an indelible impression on the students.

What distinguished it from the wave of struggle that began nine years earlier was the gulf that separated the struggling student elements from the mass of workers and the rest of society. While the student movement of 1968 in Italy was popular enough that it had managed to drag a reluctant Communist Party into voicing support, the tide had now turned.

In February 1977, PCI members forced entry into a student occupation at the University of Rome, having concluded that “the resumption of didactic and scientific activity” in the university was “politically essential and essential for democracy”.[66] Luciano Lama, head of the CGIL, heavily protected by trade union and PCI stewards, came to address the occupation. Lama was shouted down, and violent clashes broke out between autonomists and the stewards of the PCI. Eventually, riot police cleared out student occupiers to the cheering of PCI members. The Communist Party had retained its hegemony over the left wing of civil society during the upsurge, and was more than willing to use this influence to isolate and marginalise the autonomists, as Bologna noted:

Now it is to be the factory mass meeting that expels the extremist: the mass tenants’ meeting that decides to expel the young hooligan; and the college assembly to expel the “undesirable” student with his pistol and iron bar.[67]

Predictions that the “social worker” would bring about unity in the working class sadly turned out to be wishful thinking, as the movements fragmented. As collective social struggle declined, the “liberated areas” fell into crisis. The youth centres, unable to win demands for public funding, either closed down or ended up as the “self-management of misery”.[68] Many of the free radio stations confronted the reality of the continued existence of the state, and were cleared out by the police. This downturn hit the left hard across the world. Where revolutionary organisations existed and were able to carry out an orderly retreat, a minority of militants could be sustained through the downturn. But in Italy, most activists saw only two options ahead of them – retreat into their personal lives or to join the growing ranks of the clandestine armed organisations.

“The only path possible is that of attack”

Negri’s analysis of the nature of capitalism led to an extremely optimistic assessment of the power of spontaneous struggle. If capitalism itself is bringing on higher forms of unity within the working class and resistance exists everywhere, then there is no need to intervene with tactics and a program. There’s no need to weigh the balance of forces, detect weak links in the movement or wage ideological arguments. As Negri put it, delusionally, in the midst of the capitalist counter-offensive:

“[T]he working class, its sabotage, are the stronger power – above all, the only source of rationality and value. From now on it becomes impossible, even in theory, to forget this paradox produced by the struggles: the more the form of domination perfects itself, the more empty it becomes; the more the working class refusal grows, the more it is full of rationality and value… We are here; we are uncrushable; and we are in the majority.[69]

With the ground cut out from under the mass movement, the notion that Potere Operaio had toyed with in the early 1970s – that the militarisation of the struggle was the only path forward – became widespread in Autonomia. The years of hope which characterised the late 1960s and early ’70s ticked over into the anni di piombo, the years of lead.

Political violence, or at least its invocation, had featured as an element of the struggles since the Piazza Statuto in 1962. Violent reprisals against hated managers, foremen and even conservative white-collar workers had featured in the euphoria of the industrial upturn. A favourite chant of the striking and occupying FIAT workers was “Agnelli, Indochina is in your factory”, referencing the guerrilla struggle in Vietnam.

Even the Red Brigades, who would become the most notorious of the clandestine terrorist organisations, had begun in 1970 as an auxiliary support for the struggles in the factories. Its founding members were participants of the Hot Autumn, and their early actions consisted of monitoring suspected “bosses’ agents” among the workforce, distributing advice on sabotaging production, beating up foremen and burning their cars.

Their principle aim, however, was spelled out in the bulletin Sinistra Proletaria:

It is time to move ahead to a general confrontation in order to establish the principle among the proletarian masses in struggle that “no one has political power unless they have military power”; to educate the proletarian and revolutionary Left to the need for resistance and partisan actions; to unmask the oppressive and repressive power structures that divide the class.[70]

This perspective contained a logic of escalation which led directly from small-scale kidnappings and interrogations of factory managers in 1972, all the way to the infamous capture and execution of former prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978. These methods, which in the early 1970s were often denounced, or at best tolerated on the margins of the movement, came to exert a serious influence by the latter half of the decade. There are a few related reasons for this development.

Firstly, while fears of a reactionary coup had receded into the background by the mid-’70s, the state resorted to heavy repression in response to the movement of 1977. On 11 March Pier Francesco Lorusso, a militant associated with Lotta Continua, was shot dead by police in Bologna[71]. Two days later the student occupation at Bologna University was cleared with the use of armoured cars.[72] That this could take place in Bologna, where the PCI now governed as the party of “law and order”, impressed upon many radicals the need to confront the state openly. Tragically, a series of futile reprisals against the police only encouraged further state repression, which led to the murder of several more radicals in the following months.

Secondly, political violence took on an increasingly substitutionist character, and was seen as a necessity amidst the despair and confusion that followed the defeat of the movement of 1977. As one interview with a Red Brigade member recounted: “We came out of ’77 in good shape… At the same time, we could see that those people who had made different choices didn’t know what the hell to do any more; from the first of January 1978, they didn’t know what to do”.[73]

Armed activity peaked alongside the suppression of the mass movements – the great bulk of it took place between 1977 and 1980. Just a fortnight after the occupation of the University of Rome, a demonstration of some 60,000 young people in the capital degenerated into a four-hour guerrilla battle with police. Shots were fired on both sides, and some of the demonstrators chanted a slogan in praise of the P38 pistol, the chosen weapon of the Autonomi. Thousands of autonomist activists were initially willing to throw themselves behind clandestine activity, joining the myriad armed splinter groups which emerged. Their methods rapidly led to marginalisation and fed a cycle of state repression further isolating them from the working class. Increasingly, a high proportion of their activity was indistinguishable from conventional criminal activity with little or no connection to broader social objectives: bank robberies, kidnapping, extortion and gunfights with the police.

Lastly, the autonomists tended to endorse the Red Brigades’ conception of violence as the key weapon in the class struggle, and joined them in urging an immediate confrontation with the state. This was the logical conclusion of their political perspective of a constantly escalating revolutionary struggle. While Negri disagreed with the Red Brigades’ conception of a single centralised proletarian army (“The BR don’t believe in the ‘hundred flowers’ of armed struggle. One flower is plenty”[74]), he hailed spontaneous violence as inherently constructive. As always, plying the trade of the theorist, Negri was able to dress this reactionary nonsense in pseudo-Marxist language, claiming that violence was the only way to generate the class unity necessary to overthrow capitalism:

[T]he armed struggle represents the only fundamental strategic moment – i.e. the only possibility of achieving a recomposition of the proletariat and a consolidation of the struggles, and destroying, along the way, capital’s weapons of provocation, of repression and containment that are designed to isolate and newly compartmentalise the various class sectors.[75]

Autonomists thus tended to fetishise illegality as the yardstick for any movement’s revolutionary character, rather than the political consciousness of the masses who participated in it.

The state adopted an increasingly intransigent approach toward these methods, with the support of the PCI. In 1979 a Communist Party-aligned judge issued warrants for the arrest of a dozen leading autonomists, including Negri, on false accusations of collusion with the Red Brigades.[76] In the wave of recriminations and mass arrests that followed more than 3,000 radicals were imprisoned, leading some to claim that Italy contained the largest population of political prisoners outside the USSR.

Assisted by a state more than willing to deal out brutal repression and a weakened and divided left, the capitalist class was able to stabilise Italian society in the 1980s. Using the ostensible threat posed to Italy’s republic by the “extremist” movement as an excuse, the PCI moved to explicit collaboration with the Christian Democrats. In what PCI leader Berlinguer referred to as the “historic compromise”, the party gave support to a series of Christian Democrat governments even as they implemented brutal austerity, and provided cover for the repression of the remnants of the radical left.

The last decisive showdown of the Hot Autumn was at Fiat Mirafiori in Turin, the heart of the Hot Autumn. In 1979, Fiat succeeded in sacking 61 militants in the plant, accusing them of having participated in violence during the struggles of the preceding decade. By the early 1980s FIAT had managed to sack 23,000 workers there, including the leading radicals, in the worst working-class defeat since the Second World War,[77] which opened up space for a new economic boom based on a huge decline in working-class living standards. Increasingly detached from any connection to the factory, and isolated by their own clandestine methods, the autonomists had little to offer these struggling workers.

The autonomists’ emphasis on hyper-militant tactics organised by an elite minority had led the workers’ movement on the path to the worst industrial defeat of the post-war period. By this time, autonomism mainly exerted influence to the extent that it encouraged mindless militancy, an approach which mitigated against a serious reckoning with the disaster of the late 1970s.

Autonomism and revolutionary politics today

Autonomism has repeatedly re-emerged as an influential set of politics in radical movements – from the struggles in Latin America in the 1990s, the anti-capitalist movement of the early 2000s and movements like the Indignados in Spain in 2011. It has tended to gain popularity in places where the “traditional left” has been discredited by the experiences of reformism and Stalinism. Autonomist politics have thrived where the working class has failed to assert its leadership over movements for social change.

Autonomism jettisoned what was undoubtedly the best feature of workerism – its focus on the working class as the only force capable of exercising the social power necessary to challenge capitalism. The politics of autonomism can be best understood as a substitutionist response to the crisis of the radical left in mid-1970s Italy. Instead of realising that the struggle had reached an impasse and that deeper strategic debates were necessary for revolutionaries to survive, they searched for a new shortcut to revolutionary advance. They were willing to abandon working-class agency and revolutionary organisation, to chase all sorts of fads, in order to avoid confronting tough realities about the situation they faced. The actions championed by the autonomists, whether the squatting and fare evasion of the “marginali” or armed terror, were doomed attempts to compensate for a working class that was seen as no longer revolutionary.

Since the 1970s, Negri has been championed by the postmodernist academic milieu. His own intellectual contribution has assisted in giving a left-wing gloss to anti-Marxist and fundamentally conservative theory. His work encourages people to contemplate the existence of “figures” of resistance unmoored from an analysis of the structures of capitalist production. Negri’s own search for a new immanently revolutionary social subject who can sidestep the project of winning masses of people to a conscious socialist project continues to this day. In his 2019 essay “Empire, Twenty Years On”, Negri writes: “migration constitutes a major force of internationalism and an ongoing insurrection against the border regimes of nation-states and the spatial hierarchies of the global system”.[78] Refugees are assigned the role of the new proletariat, whether they are conscious of this or not.

Turning away from the working class made it impossible for the autonomists of the 1970s to develop a coherent and viable revolutionary strategy. Autonomists then vacillated between ignoring state power or attempting to confront it head on. The baleful legacy of these politics continues to shape the left to this day. Lifestylist solutions to capitalism – like squatting, dumpster-diving and veganism on the one hand, and the individualised violence of “black-blocs” on the other – both belong to the heritage of autonomism.

One influential expression of this heritage is John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power, a book which cut with the grain of the anti-capitalist movement at the turn of the twenty-first century. Holloway’s autonomist-inspired world view rejects the traditional revolutionary objective of capturing state power, in favour of creating new ways of living in the “cracks” of capitalism. For Holloway, this could mean anything from gardening, to composing music, to spending time with your kids. Virtually the only practice which he considers incapable of pointing toward an alternative to capitalism is collective working-class struggle for better wages and conditions, insisting that: “to take wage labour (or simply labour) as the basis of the anti-capitalist movement is quite simply to entrap that movement within capital”.[79]

In focusing on the politics of separate organising, of lifestyle, difference and marginality, many of the themes developed by autonomists would prefigure contemporary liberal identity politics. The Italian autonomist Lucio Castellano wrote in 1980:

Blacks, women, young people, the elderly, gays: national, professional, linguistic and religious minorities: what dominated the “movement” over these years was the search for a “non-political” identity that centred on a difference to be recognised and respected, on the basis of which to negotiate spaces for the management of resource.[80]

To combat these politics and develop movements capable of winning power for the working class, we need to learn from the failures of the workerists. The workerists took a decisive step, challenging the bureaucratic reformism of the Italian Communist Party and rediscovering the centrality of struggle to the socialist movement. But importantly, they never developed an understanding of reformist consciousness, and they abdicated their responsibility to challenge reformists for leadership of the class’s struggles. This led them on a path to abandoning the working class, their own revolutionary organisations, and the objective of a socialist society in its entirety. To win socialism, revolutionaries need to be able to prove the superiority of their political approach in every arena, from the workplaces to the streets, by connecting day-to-day struggles against exploitation and oppression to the ultimate goal of overturning the capitalist system.


Berardi, Franco 1980, “Anatomy of Autonomy”, in Autonomia: Post-political Politics, Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi (eds), Semiotext(e).

Blackledge, Paul 2012, “Holloway in Perspective”, International Socialism, 136, Autumn.

Blackmer, Donald LM 1977, “Continuity and Change in Post-war Italian Communism”, in Communism in Italy and France, Donald LM Blackmer and Sidney Tarrow (eds), Princeton University Press.

Bloodworth, Sandra 2014, “Lenin and a theory of revolution for the West”, Marxist Left Review, 8, Winter.

Bologna, Sergio 1980, The Tribe of Moles”, in Autonomia: Post-political Politics, Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi (eds), Semiotext(e).

Castellano, Lucio 2021, “Autonoma, Autonomies”, in The Golden Horde: Revolutionary Italy 1960–1977, Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni (eds), Seagull Books.

Callinicos, Alex 2001, “Toni Negri in Perspective”, International Socialism, 92, Autumn.

Edwards, Phil 2009, More Work! Less Pay! Rebellion and Repression in Italy 1972–7, Manchester University Press.

Foot, John 2003, Modern Italy, Palgrave Macmillan.

Fuller, Jack 1980, “The New Workerism”, International Socialism, 8, Spring.

Georgakas, Dan (ed.) 1971, “Italy: New Tactics and Organization”, in Radical America, 5 (5), September/October.

Ginsborg, Paul 1990, A History of Contemporary Italy, Penguin Books.

Harman, Chris 1998, The Fire Last Time, Bookmarks Publications.

Harman, Chris 2010, Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx, Haymarket Books.

Lotringer, Sylvère and Christian Marazzi 1980, “The Return of Politics”, in Autonomia: Post-political Politics, Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi (eds), Semiotext(e).

Lumley, Robert 1990, States of Emergency: Cultures of Revolt in Italy from 1968 to 1978, Verso.

Mohandesi, Salar 2013, “Class Consciousness or Class Composition?”, in Science & Society, 77 (1), January.

Negri, Antonio 1984, Marx beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse, Bergin & Garvey.

Negri, Antonio and Michael Hardt 2019, “Empire, Twenty Years On”, New Left Review, 120, November/December.

Red Notes 1978, Italy 1977–8: Living With An Earthquake, December.

Thoburn, Nicholas 2003, Deleuze, Marx and Politics, Routledge.

Tronti, Mario 2019, Workers and Capital, Verso.

Wright, Steven 2017, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Autonomist Marxism, Pluto Press.

[1] Georgakas 1971, pp.33–34.

[2] Foot 2003, p.8.

[3] Harman 1998, p.198.

[4] Ginsborg 1990, p.214.

[5] Ginsborg 1990, p.215.

[6] Quoted in Blackmer 1977, p.29.

[7] Ginsborg 1990, pp.290–91.

[8] Ginsborg, 1990, p.203.

[9] Ginsborg 1990, p.219.

[10] Quoted in Ginsborg 1990, p.250.

[11] Wright 2017, p.9.

[12] Ginsborg 1990, p.252.

[13] Quoted in Wright 2017, p.54.

[14] Tronti 2019, p.31.

[15] Tronti 2019, p.259.

[16] Quoted in Wright 2017, p.35.

[17] For an elaboration of this argument, see Bloodworth 2014.

[18] Quoted in Mohandesi 2013, p.88.

[19] Quoted in Wright 2017, p.34.

[20] Quoted in Fuller 1980.

[21] Ginsborg 1990 p.299.

[22] Ginsborg 1990, p.200.

[23] Ginsborg 1990, p.299.

[24] Ginsborg 1990, p.301.

[25] Lumley 1990, p.184.

[26] Harman 1998, p.135.

[27] Harman 1998, p.194.

[28] Lumley 1990, p.208.

[29] Quoted in Harman 1998, p.193.

[30] Georgakas 1971, p.32.

[31] Georgakas 1971, p.33.

[32] Georgakas 1971, p.37.

[33] Wright 2017, p.104.

[34] Quoted in Wright 2017, p.114.

[35] It was not just the question of organisation that separated Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua. While PO was a “pure” workerist party focused almost exclusively on struggle at the point of production, Lotta Continua intervened into social movements, and combined workerist analysis with Maoist tendencies.

[36] Harman 1998, p.194.

[37] Harman 1998, pp.199–200.

[38] Harman 1998, p.205.

[39] Quoted in Wright 2017, p.135.

[40] Quoted in Wright 2017, p.137.

[41] Wright 2017, p.156.

[42] Quoted in Edwards 2009, p.72.

[43] Wright 2017, p.157.

[44] Bologna 1980, p.40.

[45] Lotringer and Marazzi 1980, p.8.

[46] Lotringer and Marazzi 1980, p.10.

[47] Fuller 1980.

[48] Negri 1984, p.xvi.

[49] Quoted in Wright 2017, p.122.

[50] Quoted in Harman 2010, p.122.

[51] Quoted in Harman 1998, p.344.

[52] Wright 2017, p.128.

[53] Quoted in Wright 2017, p.147.

[54] Quoted in Fuller 1980.

[55] Quoted in Thoburn 2003, p.163.

[56] Berardi 1980, p.51.

[57] Harman 1998, p.208.

[58] Red Notes 1978, p.83.

[59] Lumley 1990, p.300.

[60] Quoted in Edwards 2009, p.76.

[61] The Fyre Festival was supposed to be a glamorous music festival in the Bahamas in April 2017, with luxury accommodation and top-tier talent. However guests arrived to find a shambolic setup, and it was eventually cancelled.

[62] Edwards 2009, p.78.

[63] Quoted in Callinicos 2001.

[64] Castellano 2021, p.463.

[65] Lumley 1990, p.295.

[66] Quoted in Edwards 2009, p.89.

[67] Bologna 1980, p.58.

[68] Lumley 1990, p.307.

[69] Quoted in Wright 2017, pp.159–60.

[70] Quoted in Lumley 1990, p.282.

[71] Lumley 1990, p.295.

[72] Edwards 2009, p.139.

[73] Edwards 2009, p.175.

[74] Edwards 2009, p.62.

[75] Wright 2017, p.159.

[76] Edwards 2009, p.185.

[77] Callinicos 2001.

[78] Negri and Hardt 2019.

[79] Quoted in Blackledge 2012.

[80] Castellano 2021, pp.465–66.

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