The experience of Senza Tregua, a revolutionary working class organisation, emerged out of a phase of workers’ struggle in Italy that was characterised by a severe crisis: high levels of inflation and an attempt to undermine workers’ power in workplaces through restructuring and job cuts, co-managed by left-wing parties and mainstream unions that were supposed to represent the working class. Out of the defeat of both the traditional and the extra-parliamentarian leftist organisations, workers’ political committees emerged in some of the major factories and industrial centres. These committees extended the struggle from the factory into the wider social arena through ‘proletarian rounds’, e.g. by occupying houses, enforcing lower transport or energy prices, escorting sacked workers back to their workplace, shutting down smaller factories where management ran weekend or overtime shifts while general unemployment was on the rise.
These actions of self-defense clashed with the legal framework of workers’ struggle and automatically raised the question of how to respond to state repression. The establishment of ‘proletarian rounds’ created local moments of dual power to bourgeois law. The need for organised violence to enforce these ‘workers’ decrees’, e.g. to lower prices to an affordable level or to occupy a factory that was earmarked for closure, arose as a practical consequence of the real needs of the movement.
This article is divided into two parts. The first part will summarise the main historical developments that led to the creation and dissolution of ‘Senza Tregua’ (No Ceasefire), an organisation that tried to coordinate the various local factory committees and to generalise the direct actions into a wider political program. Here I suggest re-reading a previous book review we wrote on the political committee at the Magneti Marelli factory, which was the most developed committee at the time. The second part will draw some conclusions for today, both in terms of current struggles of self-defense against inflation and the crisis attack, as well as in terms of the political discussion around ‘what is a revolutionary transition’.
My main sources for this article are Chicco Galmozzi’s book ‘Figli dell’officina’ and Emilio Mentasti’s book ‘Senza Tregua – Storia dei Comitati Communisti per il potere operaio (1975-76)’. Apart from these books, I mainly refer to the series of Senza Tregua newspapers, which can be found here.
The author Chicco Galmozzi was a factory worker in Milan in the 1970s and part of the local Senza Tregua group that later on would found the armed group Prima Linea. He was sentenced to prison for a fatal attack on a local fascist and for forming a ‘terrorist organisation’. Given this biography, the book could have been written from a first-hand perspective, but it wasn’t. On one hand, Chicco Galmozzi avoids the traps of yarn-spinning biographies by focusing on the wider development of the political organisation and class movement. On the other hand, the book has long passages of rather tedious sociological analysis, e.g. of the way the various bourgeois and movement newspapers reported on workers’ violence. Similarly, where he describes discussions between different factions within the Senza Tregua, it would have been nice to read more about his own involvement and thoughts at the time. Emilio Mentasti’s book is much better structured and provides more ample background regarding the history of Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio, the two organisations that were crucial for the formation of the political committees and, later on, Senza Tregua.
We start the journey during the watershed year of 1973, which saw the major global economic impact of the oil shock and its ripple-effects of increasing unemployment and inflation, flanked by the political shock of the coup in Chile, which demonstrated the limits of democratic socialism and social reform projects. In reaction to this, the Communist Party of Italy (PCI), the ‘party of the working class’, announced the historic compromise, advocating for an alliance with ‘democratic forces’, such as the Christian Democrats (DC), which actually had a strong anti-communist core and ties to fascist and ultra-Catholic organisations. While its official representation opted for compromise, workers themselves reacted to the crisis with an intensification of struggle, such as during the violent factory occupation at FIAT (“the red handkerchiefs at FIAT”) or at Feda, where workers burnt bosses’ cars and female factory occupiers confronted patriarchal forces, whether in the form of managers or irate husbands. It was clear that the phase had changed from economic boom conditions, which allowed for successful wage strikes and negotiations, to a situation of general crisis, attack on workers’ conditions and collectivity through casualisation and job cuts. The idea of gradual reform lost its material basis and a ‘historic compromise’ would objectively turn into a co-management of crisis restructuring.
Against this general historical background, local worker militants made their own political decisions. In Sesto San Giovani, an industrial suburb of Milan, young workers who had previously been organised in ‘Il Circolo Lenin’ joined the organisation Lotta Continua, having been attracted by its national reach and generally revolutionary positions. ‘Il Circolo Lenin di Sesto’ had emerged out of the experience of the ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969, during which many radical workers broke with the traditional parties like the PCI or PSI and started looking for new ways to organise revolutionary politics. Figures like Piero Del Guidice brought together local students and workers who were less attracted to the emerging Maoist and Trotskyist organisations, and more to a mixture of Marx, the Black Panthers and Led Zeppelin. Their group focused on organising factory leaflets and meetings and the direct support of workers’ actions, e.g. the defence against factory closure at Varedo. They informed local workers about the working class uprising against ‘real socialism’ in Poland in 1970, which upset the suburban Stalinists. With the comrades from ‘Il Circolo Lenin’ joining in 1973, the local Lotta Continua branch had now around 100 members, primarily factory workers who already possessed collective forms of organisation at major workplaces like Breda, Falck, Telettra, Pirelli or Magneti Marelli.
In 1974 things continued to heat up. During the end of the 1960s, inflation levels in Italy had hovered around 2%; in 1974 inflation had reached 20%. The state and management used the so-called ‘cassa integrazione’, a scheme of subsidised short-time work or (temporary) lay-offs, to dismantle industrial strongholds – with the help of the mainstream trade unions. In companies like Magneti Marelli, workers around the ‘political committees’ organised a fierce resistance against this scheme, which was seen as one of the major weapons to divide the class – by providing cushioned, but atomising lay-offs for the core workforce, while the more marginal sections of the class were facing cold unemployment and ‘black market’ labour.
Workers’ resistance against the crisis attack took various forms. In the summer of 1974, workers at FIAT Rivalta refused to pay for increased bus fares, while Enel workers boycotted electricity bills. Mass squatting by working class families, such as in San Basilio in Rome in September 1974 led to violent confrontations with the police. During a short and rather symbolic ‘general strike’ in February 1975, workers at Alfa Sud, Fiat Mirafiori and at Michelin made use of the situation to occupy their factories. In May 1975, workers at FIAT Rivalta organised mass assemblies during which they ‘held court’ over management and decided which foreman, supervisors or department managers should be kicked out of the factory and which ones could stay.
On the local level, comrades in Sesto San Giovani reacted to the situation by intensifying their struggle, primarily by organising ‘proletarian rounds’ that left the bigger factories and entered the wider industrial areas, e.g. in order to shut down factories that ran weekend shifts. First smaller scale, but more planned actions by groups of militants were organised, e.g. the armed break-in into the office of the fascist trade union CISNAL, which had helped the management of various companies to organise strike-breaking and to gather intelligence about worker militants.
Within Lotta Continua, political tensions emerged during the course of 1974. This was less about the question of armed actions, but about the interpretation of the wider political phase and ensuing tasks. The leadership of Lotta Continua, and with it a majority of members, saw that workers’ struggle had been too weak to create a clear break from the PCI and other reformist organisations and that, therefore, the task of the day was to get the PCI into government during the upcoming general elections, while creating a wider working class movement to push the PCI to the left. During the national congress of Lotta Continua in January 1975, they spoke of the ‘use of the PCI by the class’ or even ‘the kidnapping of the PCI’. The leadership of Lotta Continua decided to enter an electoral coalition called ‘Democrazia Proletaria’, which gathered less than 2% of the votes.
This general interpretation of the phase and the electoral turn by Lotta Continua didn’t sit well with the working class militants from many of the factory political committees, who at that point still loosely organised around the label of ‘Comitati comunisti per il potere operaio’ (Communist committees for workers’ power). They maintained that ‘the working class wasn’t defeated’, that a new generation of workers was in the process of developing new and radical forms of struggle – from internal factory demonstrations to ‘sweep’ the factories from strike-breakers and repressive management, to ‘proletarian rounds’ which carried the struggle into the wider working class area and which were able to defy bourgeois (property) laws through mass action. They saw that the official ‘workers’ organisations’, first of all the PCI, were not just opposed to these kinds of actions, but were often offering themselves as guardians of the peace and willing to denounce militant workers to management and the state. A more fundamental difference in political perspective started to emerge: how is revolutionary working class unity created? Instead of trying to forge a tame ‘workers’ unity’, by appealing to the mystical base of the PCI, these militants claimed that ‘the radical minority will have to act as a majority’ or ‘create a majority’ through action. The task of a political organisation was to relate to all these forms of radical action and to generalise them in a wider program of dual power.
Apart from this general controversy, there were also differences in the approach towards the question of anti-fascism and armed struggle. The general line of Lotta Continua was to enter into anti-fascist alliances with other left groups, e.g. in the Comitato Antifascista in Torino, which was dominated by the PCI. The comrades of the committees criticised the fact that the ‘antifascist alliance’ preferred to use their clout to prevent ‘far-left militant workers’ from taking part (and causing trouble) in the demonstration organised in the aftermath of the coup in Chile, rather than say, attacking fascists in the industrial areas. While the PCI’s anti-fascism was there to defend bourgeois democracy, the comrades in the committees saw fascists as a concrete threat to proletarian organisation and as part of what they called the ‘blocco sociale nemico’ (the social block of the enemy). Their actions, such as the armed attack on the fascist union or later on the execution of the local fascist organiser Pedenovi, were supposed to defend the space for working class independence in concrete terms.
At this point, we also see clear differences emerge in how the role of armed struggle was perceived. Lotta Continua had their own separate ‘defence organisation’, which was set apart from the ‘intellectual leadership’ of the organisation. There was a clear division of labour that the comrades of the committees criticised. The position of the political committees also set them apart from the main armed organisation, the Brigade Rosse, and their understanding of the ‘attack on the heart of the state’. The comrades saw the position of the Brigade Rosse as the flip-side of the position of the PCI, as both organisations based their strategy on the supposed ‘autonomy of the political’ – if we assume that the real social power lies in the headquarters of the political class, then we have to capture this central political power either through military action or electoral victory.
In contrast the comrades of the committees saw the struggle with the state primarily as a struggle with the various tentacles of the state and capitalist organisations that reached into working class life in the form of the ’social block of the class enemy’: from company security to semi-feudal medical associations that profited from repressive abortion laws, to firms that researched factory restructuring. Rather than a detached ‘armed party’ that would fight its own battles with the highest state representatives, the comrades emphasised the connection between daily workers’ struggle and the need for organised violence and the prospect of a longer ‘civil war’ with the institutions of class power. The revolution was not around the corner, but the survival of the working class as a political subject and as a material composition under attack from restructuring required organised militancy. Galmozzi emphasises that violence is an intrinsic part of the relation between workers and capital, quoting a statistic about criminal charges during the workers’ struggles of the ‘Hot Autumn’ in 1969, a time when no ‘armed group’ was around: from September to December 1969 there were 3,225 charges for trespass and illegal occupation; 1,712 for individual acts of violence (pickets, internal demos); 179 for possessing arms and explosives.
These disagreements with the electoral course of Lotta Continua led to the exit of those workers in Milan who used to be organised in ‘Il Circolo Lenin’. They were later on followed by other political committees, primarily from factories and areas in Firenze, Turin and Naples. Their initial reason to join Lotta Continua, the need for a wider (inter-)national political organisation, was still valid. In June 1975 the comrades started publishing a national newspaper called Senza Tregua as a step towards such an organisation. They were joined by a faction of people around Oreste Scalzone, who had left Potere Operaio in 1973, but who were later on accused of ‘depressing unrealism’ and Leninist orthodoxy. (Another influential group, primarily based in Milano, with which Senza Tregua comrades collaborated was ‘Grupo Gramsci’ and their newspaper ‘Rosso’. It would be worthwhile to read and write more about their experience, as they are equally little known in the English speaking world.) In the following two years we see many militant workers’ actions that Senza Tregua referred to positively and/or was involved in directly, most of them on an open collective level, some on a more clandestine level.
At Magneti Marelli, the committee was at the forefront of organising resistance against the ‘cassa integrazione’ and restructuring. These were numerous and very concrete struggles, department by department, around multiple issues. But it was mainly female assembly workers who fought together with the committee for the abolition of the low wage categories. During the course of the struggle, a bigger group of workers ransacked the company security department and found detailed documentation of the factory struggle, built upon a factory-internal spy network. Management reacted by sacking 30 militant workers, but for 360 days a ‘workers procession’ of several hundred workers brought the sacked workers back into the factory on a daily level, where they could continue organising the political struggle. Hundreds of workers also attended the court hearing and forced the judge to reverse the dismissal. Later on, the chief of security, Palmieri, was injured during a clandestine attack. Magneti Marelli and Breda workers were also involved in mass squatting and a violent attack on the Scaini company headquarter, where management had just tried to dismiss workers. In October 1975, workers at Innocenti opposed 1,500 job cuts. Comrades from the political committee led a demonstration that ended up blocking the main local train station. While Senza Tregua comrades supported the effort to open the occupied factory towards workers from other local companies, the trade union leadership and the revisionist left organisations tried to expel ‘outsiders’. On the 11th of November, the Innocenti manager Valerio Di Marco was shot in the legs.
Workers at Philco-Bosch in Bergamo were in a similar situation, battling 160 job cuts. They first occupied the factory, which was difficult to sustain, so they erected a struggle tent in the main square, which attracted up to 4,000 people. From there they disrupted local council meetings, blocked highways and the main Italian bicycle race. They had to defend the occupation against the police and fascists. Worker militants who had left Lotta Continua with the ‘political committees’ were a driving force of the struggle, which ended in a defeat despite all their efforts. In March 1976, a high-up Philco-Bosch manager with a Nazi past was again shot in the legs. Apart from direct factory struggle, the group also got involved in the struggle against the repressive abortion regime, e.g. in Napoli, militant demos were organised and an infamous gynaecologist was, you guessed it, shot in the legs. After a chemical accident at Seveso, an armed group ransacked the office of the elitist medical association and liberated money and valuables, criticising the role of the medical bureaucracy in covering up industrial accidents.
During these hard struggles, militant workers and Senza Tregua comrades frequently clashed with the mainstream trade unions and leftist parties who saw their role as being to ‘manage the crisis in workers’ interest’ under threat. The PCI had obtained 34.4% of the votes in the 1976 general elections, and in many cities, such as Napoli or Bologna, basically ran local politics and the restructuring of the welfare state. In the factories, trade unions co-managed the process of the cassa integrazione and helped management to introduce ‘productivity enhancing measures’, allegedly in order to ‘save jobs’. At Alfa Romeo, for example, the union agreed to team productivity bonuses that were based on average attendance of all team members, in order to combat rampant absenteeism amongst workers. At Alfasud, management could count on the participation of unions and the PCI in a so-called ‘conferenza di produzione’ to find ways to increase productivity, while Berlinguer, the general secretary of the PCI, proclaimed on national television that ‘workers have to agree to sacrifices in order to save the Italian economy’. We can see this role of social democracy as technocratic administrators of the deep social crisis mirrored in contemporary Germany and the UK, where the SPD under Schmidt and Labour under Callaghan enforced severe measures to curb strike action and to tighten the belts of the working class.
Senza Tregua had aimed at becoming a national organisation, but the industrial strongholds with operative political committees remained limited to Milan, Bergamo, Turin and, to a certain degree, Naples, Rome and Florence. Within these strongholds the committees had actual influence in the sense that at Magneti Marelli they could call for an independent strike and 60% of the 3,000 plus workers would follow their call; or the different local committees in Milan could call for an independent demonstration against the ‘austerity course of the left parties’ and 30,000 workers would attend; in Turin the committees at major companies like FIAT or Lancia brought together 300 militant workers in a ‘city assembly’ in order to coordinate efforts. In this sense they were not just a radical fringe, nor were they a marginal one.
In both books we can read more about the various activities and local situations, but there is little information about how the organisation tried to increase the political cohesion, apart from publishing the newspaper and holding conferences. Both authors explain the fact that Senza Tregua dissolved and Prima Linea was founded out of it, by the dissatisfaction of some of the workers’ militants with the ‘federalist’ nature of Senza Tregua and the fact that within the leadership, the separation between ‘intellectual work’ and political-militant activities persisted. The ‘intellectual leadership’ around Scalzone and Del Guidice maintained that the political party could not emerge out of the ‘political commitees’ of various bigger workplaces, but only through ‘permanent seminars’ of workers’ cadres. The group around the ‘sergenti’, primarily the factory committee comrades from Milan and Turin, opposed this and proposed a process of centralisation from ‘workers rounds’ towards ‘workers’ militias’, in the form of Prima Linea. In this sense, the formation of Prima Linea was not seen simply as a step towards the militarisation of struggle, but ‘to create order’ in the form of a more centralised organisation.
Both Galmozzi’s and Mentasti’s books end here, but at least Galmozzi’s book hints at a few problems that would riddle Prima Linea. The fact that, unlike Lotta Continua, they would not ‘spare their cadres’ by excluding crucial comrades from logistical-practical tasks meant that many of the leading comrades got arrested fairly quickly. Raising the stakes in terms of armed attacks also meant that many of the factory comrades were not able to continue their ‘legal’ lives, which meant that in the medium term the separation between ‘mass work’ and ‘armed struggle’ was recreated, even though Prima Linea had a critique of this separation as its core premise. We have to remember that all this happened in and around the year 1977, a time when, at least in Italy, mass insurrection was actually a lived experience and not an abstract stage in the political program. Political violence was less of an ideological choice, but strategically used by both sides of the class war, e.g. in the form of cooperation between the deep state, the conservative party DC and fascist forces during the ‘strategy of tension’.
This is a fairly brief summary of the short life of Senza Tregua and I think it would be wrong to think that the outcome of the process – in the form of Prima Linea’s limited and often adventurous politics – was predestined. In the following, I will try to summarise the main political line of Senza Tregua that set them apart from the rest of the far-left, and their effort to create a political organisation and ‘program’.
The political character of the crisis
Senza Tregua saw the crisis as a crisis of the domination of capital and as a frontal attack on workers’ social power. Measures like the cassa integrazione objectively aimed at decomposing and stratifying the class. Under these conditions, the material basis of left reformism was undermined and became a tool in the hands of the capitalist class. The participation in electoral politics distracted the working class from the necessity of hard, direct struggle. At the same time, the mass experience of ‘refusal of work’ and the collective infrastructure of a widespread social movement meant that, during this crisis, there was less likelihood that an increase of unemployment would immediately create an industrial reserve army and subsequent pressure on wages. In terms of the global dimension of the crisis and the intensity of struggle, Italy had become the weakest link in the imperialist chain. National politics were increasingly decided by the multinational institutions of capital, such as the IMF, something which weakened any national reformist projects.
The composition of the working class
In their analysis, Senza Tregua use terminology derived from the older ‘Operaists’, in terms of ‘technical composition’ (the form and divisions of the class imposed through the material organisation of production) and ‘political composition’ (the forms of struggle and political visions that workers develop in relation to and beyond their technical composition). In contrast to the old ‘Operaists’, Senza Tregua emphasise the political and subjective dimension of class composition. Although they referred to a material division in terms of older ‘skilled workers’ and young ‘mass or unskilled workers’ their main way to conceptualise the divisions within the class was in terms of ‘workers’ right-wing’ and ‘workers’ left-wing’ and the political struggle between these poles. They saw the PCI primarily as the political right-wing. They saw the hard and militant struggle and new attitudes towards the factory regime, such as absenteeism and refusal of work, as the left-wing. They claimed that, unlike in the 1960s, the ‘mass worker’ was not hegemonic within the class anymore, that the material basis of the ‘technical composition’ set too narrow limits, and that the class had to reconstitute itself politically independently from its productive function within the capital-labour relation. At the same time, they refused the widespread ‘new left’ interpretation that there were now two clearly distinct sections of the working class, the ‘guaranteed workers’ in the core industries and the ‘unguaranteed workers’, under which the ‘new left’ subsumed workers in marginal jobs, students, women.
The question of class unity
Deriving from their understanding of class composition, Senza Tregua claimed that the striving for an abstract ‘class unity’ had become a fetish that was used to pacify the class. During the cycle of wage struggles during the late 1960s, the class had to impose class unity against the trade unions, e.g. by insisting on equal pay claims for both white and blue-collar workers, or by creating workers’ assemblies instead of relying on stratified representation. With the crisis, this unity had been undermined. In the current moment, the militant and radical minority of workers had to ‘act as a majority’ or ‘dynamically create a majority’ and that only through struggle against the ‘workers’ right-wing’ could a real unity be reached in the medium term. This perspective on workers’ unity would also determine their understanding of the role of political organisation. Senza Tregua claimed that the myth of ‘workers unity’ prevented the ‘workers’ left-wing’ from forming a working class revolutionary organisation, which in turn would be necessary to shift the balance towards a real unity.
The centrality of the factory and the struggle against restructuring
While their perception of class composition stressed the political component, Senza Tregua reiterated that the collective character of the factory struggle was still central in order to reconstitute the class movement. They refuted the ‘autonomist’ claim that the whole of society had become one big factory. They largely discarded the ‘productive’ character of the factory and saw it primarily as a power base for struggle, which had to be used in order to enter the ‘territory’, meaning, the wider social sphere where you could confront state power. They spoke of the dialectic between struggle against restructuring and the ‘political leap into the terrain of power’. This referred to the necessity of avoiding getting caught up in a merely defensive struggle, which could easily be isolated within the factory or company walls. They claimed that the old formula had been reversed: “social alternatives don’t emerge out of daily struggles of self-defence, but alternative reference-points have to be created (even) to defend the immediate interests today”.
From factory struggle to ‘workers’ decrees’ – the question of program and transition
Probably the most significant and interesting political line of Senza Tregua was their claim that the current militant actions by workers carried within them the elements of a wider program of transition. Primarily, they referred to the mass experience of ‘factory internal processions’, where workers would ‘sweep’ the factories of strike-breakers or unwanted managers. In some cases workers ‘held court’ in bigger assemblies and decided which manager to remove from the factory. Rather than merely demanding a working-time reduction, workers used their power inside the factory to work less hours whilst at work. Organised cores within the workforce advanced these internal processions into ‘proletarian rounds’ that would enter the local industrial areas, for example to close down factories that ran weekend-shifts or to intervene in court hearings of charged co-workers. Senza Tregua theorised these actions as ‘workers’ decrees’, a kind of alternative working class legality that imposed itself against bourgeois laws. The core of the matter was that instead of demanding improvements from management or the state, workers took or imposed what they needed. While Senza Tregua was not opposed to the raising of wider transitional demands that came out of the struggles against restructuring at the time, e.g. the demand for an 50,000 Lira pay increase, a ‘political wage’ (for students, unemployed, unpaid domestic workers) and a 35-hour working week, they maintained that raising these demands alone would not rally the social power to enforce them. Instead, the program had to be developed through the actual imposition of ‘workers’ decrees’.
According to Senza Tregua two escalations were necessary in order to develop the existing level of actions into a wider program of power. In terms of content, workers would have to proceed from, e.g. organising sporadic ‘proletarian shopping’ (entering supermarkets en masse and either not pay or pay less) towards the establishment of ‘political prices’ for the local working class and the ‘proletarian taxation’ of the local (petty) bourgeoisie. This would only be possible with an escalation of the form of actions, from ‘proletarian rounds’ to working class squads or militias. They spoke about the need for ‘workers to make themselves the state’.
The question of revolution and communism
There is a certain gap between Senza Tregua’s clear description of the various stages of power struggle on one side and the question of how to transform the existing capitalist mode of production into a communist ‘society of freely associated producers’ on the other. Revolution is primarily described as a long civil war, during which the working class has to impose itself and its concrete material needs on all fronts against a class enemy that is not reducible to some high command, but exists as a ‘social block’ in the wider society: from local administration, landlords, the petty bourgeoisie in the form of shop-owners or small businesses, the mafia, the medical hierarchy, the police force, scientific management to the ‘workers’ right’. Senza Tregua explicitly demands that we cannot limit ourselves to ‘workers inquiry’ into the composition of the working class, but have to engage in equally detailed inquiries into the composition of the ‘block of the enemy’. In Senza Tregua no.3 the comrades write:
“Another immediate task is to develop a mass inquiry into those who exploit us and live off our skin. Let’s organise a major capillary proletarian inquiry within the neighbourhoods, in the cities, in the workplaces into the areas of high income, an inquiry that has immediate executive effects! Let’s organise rounds, pickets and militant delegations that take on forms of proletarian taxation of those with high incomes, in order to create collectively administered funds for communal needs and the defence and sustenance of struggle!”
This very clear and realistic description of the challenge of power struggle is contrasted by a rather vague reference to the outlines of communism or an alternative mode of production. Senza Tregua claimed that the transitional phase was not a distinct mode of production or state form as such, but a transition of struggle and dual power, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. The levels of productivity were ripe for communism. The widespread wildcat strikes and absenteeism are the first indicators that the class wants to abolish itself as labour power through the enforcement of the socialisation and redistribution of labour and the creation of a new ‘social cooperation’.
The role of the organisation
Senza Tregua were Leninists in the sense that they saw the need for a centralised workers party, but they were against abstract or self-proclaimed vanguardism. Their vanguardism was established organically through action, e.g. through the leading role of the political committees in concrete struggles on the factory level and beyond, and through the fact that they aimed at actively coordinating and generalising existing struggles. These were primarily industrial workers who were speaking, not middle-class intellectuals. While they were critical of the small Marxism-Leninist sects, they were equally critical of the diffuse ‘autonomia’, the social movement that saw revolution as some kind of gradual and indiscriminate undermining of the existing society, whether through factory sabotage, ‘refusal of work’, squatting, small-scale armed actions or counter-culture. If the newspaper can be seen as a self-reflection of their own organisation, we can say that on one side it is characterised through clarity when it comes to descriptions of concrete struggles, the role of the militant factions and the role of the workers’ right-wing within them. At least half of the content of the newspaper consisted of such concrete struggle reports and more or less concrete descriptions about the current phase of the crisis. On the other side though, when it comes to the more ‘programmatic’ articles, the language becomes rather cryptic and repetitive. This contrast might reflect an actual (personal) division within Senza Tregua that finally led to the organisation’s dissolution. In order to give a flavour of this, here are translations of two paragraphs from their newspaper:
“We need to go beyond the autonomy of the needs and the behaviours of the class in order to organise a workers’ leadership, a workers’ party at the national level, which is able to stand at the head of a new cycle of mass struggles, on the revolutionary ground. And we need the program. A program that does not mean getting lost in the game of prefiguring communism: to equip oneself with the program means ‘possessing a work plan’ (made up of political directions, organisational choices, forms of struggle, objectives to be practiced) that manages to exit the ghetto of defending the material conditions of workers and proposes first lines of tendencies (to be brought to life in daily struggles) concerning the reduction of working time, the distribution of goods, the re-appropriation of produced wealth, the imposition of political prices, the formation of workers’ decrees…”
“We have to support the transformation of workers affected by political dismissal into militants who continue to enter the factory on a daily level, who carry out full-time agitation and organising work in the departments, who receive wages on the basis of workers’ contributions and higher taxation of white-collar staff, managers, bosses; the organisation of high taxation against the bourgeois classes living in the neighbourhood as a means of organising the subsistence of the dismissed workers, the workers occupying the closed factories; the organisation of integral self-reduction (rent, tax bills) sustained and continually revived in terms of clashing at all levels with the capitalist social institutions that are in control of the social wage; the publication of notices fixing prices – for an internal working class basket of goods – (and the ability to impose this decree); the self-reduction of working hours, etc.”
Critical questions and lessons for today
When it comes to lessons for today, we have to face the fact of a changed working class, industrial structure and political landscape. Today the gap between bigger workplaces and the wider proletarian terrain has widened and the workplaces themselves have to confront an increasing dependence on a global, and therefore more removed, productive and financial framework. Senza Tregua were absolutely right when they described the crisis attack in the mid-1970s as a political attack on the subjective constitution of the working class. Deindustrialisation was, in the end, a way to undermine the social influence of the working class. This attack resulted in ‘political debate’ or ‘collective identification with a class interest’ being largely removed from the shop-floor for the following decades. But then the capital-labour relation is not primarily a political relation, it is a mode of production, which means that capital is forced to re-combine social labour in order to produce profits. Factories today are more dispersed, but the logistic chains, transport hubs and warehouses are massive, re-concentrating some of the social labour. The pandemic has revealed the significant quantitative scope of mass labour in the essential sectors, even in the heartlands of ‘deindustrialisation’. We see a reemergence of the working class as a political subject, even if it is presented through the distorted lenses of ‘political representation’ and discourse, such as ‘21st century socialism’. The actual attacks in the form of inflation and restructuring will force our class to start digging again and see what can still be found under the shit-heap of thirty years of neoliberalism.
But there are other things to take away from this historical experience, for example in relation to the current discussion within the revolutionary milieu about revolutionary transition and about the current responses to the so-called ‘cost of living crisis’. Senza Tregua’s practice and strategy of the ‘workers’ decree’ is a sharp edge compared to the blunt conceptions of ‘transitional demands’ or ‘universal rights’ on one side, or the fuzzy ideas about insurrection on the other. Their materialist analysis of the role of the ‘workers’ right-wing’ destroys the wooly hope that working class unity will grow gradually towards the crescendo of a general strike. Their understanding of the dialectic between factory or workplace struggle and the wider class power to impose and reappropriate social time and wealth makes current communisation theories appear pretty pale and bloodless. Their reminder of the existence of a ‘social block of the enemy’ is a cold shower for all who believe that we will have to fight only the 1%. We have hinted at some of the problems of the current ‘Don’t Pay’ and ‘Enough is Enough’ campaigns in previous articles, and we think that the experience of Senza Tregua can still fill some gaps when it comes to the question of ‘where is the power to impose, rather than to demand’.
Still, their reduction of workers’ struggle to a relation of power is pretty primitive and, finally, fatal. It is correct to say that there is a struggle going on within the working class and that the ‘workers’ right-wing’ has to be defeated or won over through effective, militant struggle. But workers, in particular skilled or intellectual workers, are not only, and perhaps not even primarily, won over by the fact that workers manage to impose themselves against the repressive forces of management and the state. These skilled sections of the class will be equally swayed by workers demonstrating the collective creative capacity to create a different world. To see the factory – or any workplace – primarily as a concentration of power and not also as a space of workers’ productive association is understandable if the enemy-side tries to appeal to the ‘work ethic’, ‘professional pride’ or the ‘productive function’ of workers in order to appease them and blackmail them into ‘saving jobs by working more and earning less’. In an article about the factory occupation at Fargas, Senza Tregua overreached when they wrote: “A factory which is the centre of territorial struggle is difficult to defeat, a factory where workers produce is already defeated”. Often, for example when looking at the case of the factory takeover at Zanon in Argentina, we have seen that this dichotomy is wrong.
This position is also difficult to understand if we bear in mind the effort that contemporary fellow revolutionists like Alquati or Bologna undertook in order to understand the intricate productive cooperation of workers – partly as a base for power, but also as a base for social intelligence that can contribute to the movement. This productive sensitivity is lacking in the statements of Senza Tregua. Even within the experience of the ‘political committees’ we see that comrades understood and referred to the dual character of the production process as a process of power struggle and human practice. In the case of the political committees in the chemical hub of Porto Marghera, workers used their specific productive knowledge to shut down production during a strike without harming the technical apparatus – something that management claimed wasn’t possible. They used their knowledge to inquire about the side-effects of certain chemicals and to impose filters or changes to product lines. They researched herbal and natural alternatives to certain chemical fertilisers or pharmaceutical remedies. At Siemens or Pirelli it was primarily the young technicians and ‘white-collar’ engineers that created autonomous forms of struggle, expressing the frustration of these ‘knowledgeable minds’ with the wasteful contradictions of capitalist production. Similarly, the political committee at the main hospital in Milan looked in detail at the process of health work and the impact on patients and tried to develop alternatives. This is one of the few articles in Senza Tregua where workers actually refer to the specific production process beyond asking how to interrupt it. As a result, Senza Tregua’s general programmatic references to the ‘social productive intelligence’ as the foundation for communism remain vague.
To be fair, there are programmatic declarations that qualify the role of occupied factories beyond being merely workers’ concentrations of power. In Senza Tregua no.3 they write:
“In the coming months, in the coming years we have to create the power to re-appropriate the entirety of our social force: to stabilise the concrete ‘power of the producers over production’ is the fundamental task of the workers’ dictatorship. We have to stop locking ourselves up within the occupied factories, which have become useless ‘lager’ [camps / warehouses] where our will and capacity to struggle burns out. We have to create the power to occupy and run useful factories to produce means of subsistence and struggle. (…) We have to revive this proposal amongst the workers, the unemployed, the women, the young proletarians without work, the students. We have to orientate their power and will to socialise their own capacity towards this terrein. The production for subsistence, the production for combat: in the conquest of these complex terms a process develops within which the proletariat begins to transform its autonomy into a social dictatorship.”
But in concrete terms this productive side of the struggle and its challenges are not further developed. Perhaps this one-sided emphasis on power, rather than productive intelligence also expresses itself in their relation to armed struggle. Both in Galmozzi’s book and in Senza Tregua’s newspaper, armed actions to attack company security to get hold of company intelligence are not distinguished politically from actions such as the knee-capping of managers after the actual workers’ struggle had already been defeated. This is not primarily a moral question, but a question of the function of violence in a class movement. Is the class movement actually a ‘civil war’, where violence is primarily an expression of military power to expand territorial influence – or is violence an act of concrete self-defence or advancement of the movement to take over more of the productive fabric of society? In the latter case, it might make sense from a logistical point of view to execute a charismatic fascist leader or a particularly able management consultant so as to give breathing space for collective action, but in the long run this will not compensate for the collective power to oppose fascists or company restructuring and, more importantly, to develop and enforce viable social and productive alternatives to the existing system.
There is no question that any class movement has to impose itself in a territorial sense, but the struggle in geographical space would remain patchy and to a certain degree primitive if it is not oriented towards a programmatic struggle in the essential sectors. The pandemic has shown that the crucial sectors identify themselves in times of social crisis and potentially take on a role of social leadership. It is conceivable that in times of supply-chain crunches, transport workers will have to politicise their role and make decisions about socially necessary and unnecessary tasks; that in times of a pandemic, health workers will not only have to criticise the insufficient state plan, but develop an alternative one; that in times of increasing military conflict and state surveillance, tech and engineering workers will turn against the corporate strategy; that in times of climate change, construction, energy and automotive workers feel an increasing unease about their industry and its social impact. “We all work, we all work less, we won’t tighten our belts, we only engage in socially useful work” is the tension of transition that lies in the air during this period of multiple crises, where high-paid bullshit jobs and inflated start-ups clash with depressed wages in essential sectors such as agriculture, health food production or transport. Here we can agree with Mike Davis, who wrote in ‘Old Gods, New Enigmas’ that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the imposition of the development of the forces of production against the straightjacket of the capitalist crisis, under the central command of the working class, in the wider social interest. The question of power and enforcement of a working class program is unanswered, the role of an organised militant core in the main industries has not been replaced, and in that sense, experiences like the one of Senza Tregua remain crucial.