Big Flame

1970-1984

Posts Tagged ‘Lotta Continua’

LOTTA CONTINUA Part 3 (Related Political Organisatons no 2)

Posted by archivearchie on May 24, 2011

I posted on this site a brief review of the history and positions of Lotta Continua. I then followed this up in Lotta Continua Part 2 by making available some articles written by or about Lotta Continua from the Big Flame Internal Bulletin. I now want to conclude this series (unless something more BF/LC related which I don’t know about turns up) with two items I have obtained since the last post. Another internal document and a pamphlet published by West London Big Flame.

Discussion with Lotta Continua members no3

I previously published two sets of notes of conversations between BF and LC members from the BF Internal Bulletin. This discussion predates them. The discussions took place in January 1974 before Big Flame had an Internal Bulletin: Italy 1973.

Sections of the notes set out LC’s views on contemporary developments in Italian politics (the fall of one coalition Government and its replacement by another) and the Oil Crisis. Of more interest today are the Lotta Continua members’ responses to three questions from BF:

–   Changes in its attitude towards factory delegates (equivalent to shop stewards in Britain). With the failure of autonomous assemblies LC members were standing for delegate positions, but not feeling obliged to follow the decisions of delegate committees.

–   Its attitude towards the Italian Communist Party (PCI). The LC members took from developments in Chile the importance of the space created by the Allende Government in supporting the formation of bodies like the cordones obreros. Their strategy was for working class pressure to force the PCI into some form of Popular Unity Government (this was despite the PCI having shifted its position in favour of the “historic compromise” of an alliance with forces to its right).

–   Its attitude towards women’s struggles. This was answered by a women LC comrade who was angry with LC’s lack of a perspective on women. She said it was up to women in LC to change this situation. Her remarks are interesting in the light of developments in Lotta Continua in the years which followed.

Documents from the 1975 Lotta Continua Congress

Libcom has posted a pamphlet produced by West London Big Flame: Fighting for Feminism: The ‘Women Question’ in an Italian Revolutionary Group. The local group also produced another Lotta Continua related pamphlet.

Lotta Continua only ever had two National Congresses. It fell apart after the second in 1976. What happened there is recorded in detail in Il 2. Congresso di Lotta Continua, Rimini, 31 ottobre- 4 novembre (Rome: Edizion Co-op Giornalisti LC, 1976). Extracts in English can be found in the Red Notes pamphlet Italy 1977-9: Living with an Earthquake pp 81-96. The West London BF pamphlet covers the earlier Congress which was held in 1975: Documents from Lotta Continua.

Despite Lotta Continua being formed in 1969, it did not hold its first national meeting to constitute itself as a party until January 1975. Three Big Flame members attended as observers. The pamphlet is in three parts:

–   A brief summary of the Congress by BF.

–   Translations of some of the key Congress documents – on Materialism, on Tactics, on Internationalism and on the LC Newspaper.

–   Notes by a BF member on the Workshop on Women. This shows the diversity of opinions held by LC women members, some fairly critical of the organisation.

Archive Archie

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LOTTA CONTINUA Part 2 (Related Political Organisations no 2)

Posted by archivearchie on June 14, 2009

What Do We Want? Everything!

What Do We Want? Everything!

This post follows on from the previous one on Lotta Continua. I promised in a comment there to provide some additional publications written by or about Lotta Continua from the Big Flame Internal Bulletin, and here they are.

Discussion with Lotta Continua members no1

This discussion in 1975 ranged across three areas:

–   The current situation in Italy including the relationship of the Italian Communist Party [PCI] to the Christian Democracy/Socialist Party Government; the “auto-reduction movement”; the LC attitude towards workers’ councils in factories; Lotta Continua itself (LC is “not the party of the revolution. We are a revolutionary party but not THE party”).

–   International issues including Portugal and the LC approach to internationalism (LC is “against ‘twin’ organisations” but does have fraternal/sororal links with groups).

–   Lotta Continua’s support for the Communist Party in the Spring 1975 regional elections (on the basis this vote was a defeat for the right wing and Christian Democracy, “voting for the CP is not identifying with the revisionist line, the bureaucracy of the CP”.

Click here on view Report from discussions with comrades of Lotta Continua (Internal Bulletin Oct/Nov 1975)

Discussion with a Lotta Continua member no2

This discussion occurred a year later. It consists of answers to a series of questions, which included these issues:

–   The change from the strategy of supporting the Italian Communist Party [PCI] to becoming part of Democrazia Prolerari [Democratic Proletariat] (over the last year “the political project of the PCI has been clarified”. Participation in PD is part of a strategy of “building unity at the base”).

–   LC’s attitude towards factory councils (there is “no one line” for all workplaces).

Click here on view Interview with Lotta Continua (Internal Bulletin June 1976)

LC4Extract from a Adriano Sofri article

This is quite a short extract from an article by Adriano Sofri in the Lotta Continua newspaper in March 1973 called “On the question of delegates and of organisation”. The introduction to the extract covers the different stages in LC’s development and quotes from the position agreed at the 1975 congress on the necessity of a party. Sofri discusses the meaning of the slogans “mass organisation” and “communist vanguard”. He acknowledges mistakes in the previous position on factory councils.

Click here on view Vanguard, Mass Political Work and Mass Organisation (Internal Bulletin March 1976)

French Trotskyist Critique of Lotta Continua

This is a translation of an article by Daniel Bensaid in the journal of the French section of the USFI (United Secretariat of the Fourth International). Bensaid focuses on the theses agreed at LC’s 1975 congress, and his article is in four parts: (a) Violence and the Army, (b) The International Strategic Line (including the various internationals and China), (c) The Notion of the Prolonged Crisis (including the CP and the unions), (d) Building the Party (LC constitution and internal organisation). The version of the translation I have from the BF IB ends mid sentence in part (c), so this is all I am able to reproduce here.

Click here on view French Trotskyist on Lotta Continua (Internal Bulletin March 1976)

There is one more Big Flame publication with Lotta Continua documents which I know about but have not been able to track down. This was published by West London Big Flame in 1976: Documents from the 1975 Lotta Continua Congress. If anyone out there has a copy, please tell me.

Archive Archie

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LOTTA CONTINUA Part 1 (Related Political Organisations no 2)

Posted by archivearchie on May 30, 2009

 LC1Episode 6 in the Big Flame History series mentioned two Italian political organisations – Lotta Continua [the Struggle Continues) [LC] and Potere Operai  (Workers Power) [Potop]. This post gives more information on the former.

The Beginning

In the mid 1960s a number of activist groups influenced by the Operaismo writers were established in different cities. In 1968 they moved apart following a disagreements over organisation and the importance given to struggles over wages. The Venato and Emilia-Romagna group, which adopted a more Leninist perspective and included Toni Negri, became the basis of the new national Potop. The Pisa branch of the Tuscany group, mainly ex-Italian Communist Party and including future LC General Secretary Adriano Sofri, moved to Turin attracted by the struggles at FIAT. There it linked up with students from Milan, Trento and Turin to become Lotta Continua.

The links from Lotta Continua back to Operaismo are apparent in this quote from Adriano Sofri: “The class struggle is the mainspring of development of every social system. The interest of the ruling class is to make this spring work for the extension and reinforcement of its own power. And so workers’ autonomy occurs when the class struggle stops working as the motor of capitalist development” (quoted in Radical America March-April 1973 issue p5).

LC grew out of interventions at the FIAT Turin plant in April/May 1969. Students and activists got to know workers, started helping them write leaflets, which led on to joint assemblies. The leafleting was a large scale enterprise, with 15,000 to 20,000 handed out per shift.

The phrase “La Lotta Continua” started to appear on the leaflets (taken from “la lutte continue” from the events in France the previous year). In time it became the umbrella name for a loose network of activists. Groups in other cities started adopting the same phrase in their leaflets, and within 3 years LC was a national organisation. The newspaper “Lotta Continua” was launched in Nov 1969. By 1972 it was a daily.

LC2

The End

Lotta Continua crumbled away after its second congress in Oct/Nov 1976. A key event in the runup was when male members of LC used violence to force their way into an all-women abortion demonstration in Rome in December 1975. The congress was characterised by hostility between male workers and women, and between both and the leadership. LC later published the congress speeches as Il 2o Congresso di Lotta Continua, and a selection of these can be found in Red Notes Italy 1977-9: Living with an Earthquake pp81-96 (also available as libcom.org or Class against Class). Within months most of the organisation had dissolved into a looser movement – the area of autonomy.

China 

Some commentators have labelled Lotta Continua “Soft Maoist”. Certainly like much of the “new left” groups in Europe, formed after 1968, the Chinese cultural revolution was an influence. However, despite adopting some Maoist phrases, the influence was not as strong as that of Operaismo.

Examples of overlapping terminology include references to Red Bases – taking areas of control away from the enemy (Organising for Revolution pp10-11, Fighting in the Streets p12). LC also talked of a cultural revolution occurring in the factories in Italy (see Bobbio p48). The frequent references to the masses have parallels with the ideas of the “mass line” and “serving the people”.

Take Over the City

Lotta Continua had taken up housing struggles from the early days. However in 1971 it launched “Take over the City” as its political programme. It argued “the city is merely the network of those instruments of exploitation and domination invented by the bosses for keeping the workers under their thumb and for dividing them at every moment of their existence. …There is beginning to be, today [Nov 1970], something in the social sphere, something comparable to the explosion which rocked Italian factories two years ago” (Fighting in the Streets pp2,5).

Struggles around the programme covered housing (rent strikes, occupation of empty flats), food (pickets of supermarkets, establishing “red markets”), transport (refusing to pay fares, stopping buses running), schools and nurseries.

Within a few years LC abandoned “Take over the City” as a programme (without dropping the ideas behind it), as it found that involvement in community struggles did not lead to the development of political power bases from which it could generalise out of the struggle.

Elections

The early Lotta Continua had little truck with elections, taking up the slogan “Don’t vote – occupy!” during the June 1971 regional elections (Take over the City p22). From 1973 onwards LC began to shift its stance.

In 1975 PdUP (Proletarian Unity Party) and Avanguardia Operaio (Workers Vanguard) established a joint platform – Democrazia Prolerari (Democratic Proletariat) for the regional elections. LC did not support them, advocating a vote for the Italian Communist Party (apparently on the basis that putting them in power would create a better basis for struggles). By the June 1976 national election it had joined DP (although keeping its own separate programme). The result –  550,000 votes or 1.5% of the total, 6 deputies, 1 of them from LC) was a major disappointment. Despite this being the first success at a national level for revolutionary left candidates, LC had hoped for much more.

The Composition of LC

Red Notes claim that Lotta Continua has up to 50,000 militants (Italy 1977-9: Living with an Earthquake p110). Others have challenged this figure. The early LC found it difficult to determine its numbers because of difficulties defining what was a militant. The first census in Lotta Continua’s history, around the time of the 1975 congress produced a figure of 8,000 militants, less than expected (Bobbio p148). This is the only number I have found. What is undoubtedly true is that LC had an influence beyond its size.

Information on the delegates at the two LC conferences provides a breakdown of the leading members of the organisation. At the Jan 1975 congress, delegates were 32% labourers, 7% other proletarians, 11% employees and technicians, 17% teachers, 21% students, and 11% full time militants. 20% were aged 20 or younger, 60% aged 21 to 29, and 205 30 and over. 10% of the delegates were women. These figures can be compared with a sample survey of the general membership which revealed 26% women, 27% labourers and 31% students (all data from Bobbio pp148-49).

By the last congress in Oct/Nov 1976 the percentage of women delegates had risen to 27.5%. 31% were workers, 32.3% were at university or school, and 9.6% employees of various kinds (Il 2o Congresso di Lotta Continua p306).

LC3

Criticisms of Lotta Continua

LC has been criticised for amongst other things:

–  its narrow focus on a certain type of worker

–  a lack of democracy in its internal organisation

–  its response to feminism

–  its attitude to violence

–  Its neglect of theory

A lot of LC’s problems can be part explained (which isn’t the same as justified) by its relatively large size and speed of recruitment. It is significantly easier to deal with some of these issues if your group is small and homogenous, although practice shows this is certainly no guarantee! I will say something about each of the issues listed.

Narrow Focus

Lotta Continua went through many shifts in its campaigns, the social sphere, the unemployed, prisoners, etc. However, it was forever marked by its initial inspiration – workers at Northern factories like FIAT. Places where unions were weak and workers struggles strong. It struggled to generalise this experience- to deal with the lack of an imminent revolutionary upheaval, the continuing role of the Italian Communist party, etc. It did make some changes, participating in Councils of factory delegates from 1972, but never enough.

Internal Organisation

Pre LC Adriano Sofri wrote: “For us, the correctness of revolutionary leadership, strategy, and organization derives neither from past revolutionary experience nor from the consciousness that the party is necessary. Their correctness derives, in the final analysis, from their relationship to the masses, and their capacity to be the conscious and general expression of the revolutionary needs of the oppressed masses. …The problem for revolutionaries is not to “‘place yourself” at the head of the masses, but to be the head of the masses” (Sofri Organising for Workers Power). This position is often repeated e.g. “We choose to be inside the struggles which the masses are waging. …We have tied to organise our forces, rather than to discuss organisation” (Organising for Revolution pp6-7).

Lotta Continua’s organisation prior to 1973 was rudimentary. Apart from decision making at national conventions, it was run by a group of old friends (Sofri in his 1976 congress speech confessed to a “private patrimony”). Then things changed: “The theoretical and political formation of cadres, the election of leaders, the individual responsibilities of the militant in the framework of collective discipline, the division of tasks and specialisation …It is nothing else than the discovery of democratic centralism and the third-internationalist concept of the party” (Bobbio p130, translation Della Porta p88). As a result from 1973 onwards “the possibility of comrades contributing to the formation of the political line was reduced; the responsibility for the major decisions was ever more concentrated at the top of the pyramid” (Bobbio p130, translation Ginsborg p360).

In part this was response to more difficult times, but it is also a product of the way LC began. A need to find a more coherent line from the different positions of those who found themselves in the organisation. From this distance it is hard for me to condemn all the organisational changes introduced. Some must have produced a needed efficiency. However, there was clearly problem with the amount of democracy.

Response to Feminism

LC leaders admitted that they very slowly came to see the struggle against sexism as an important part of the class struggle (e.g. Guido Viale in his introduction to the 2nd congress book). Verbal violence against office workers during factory protests often had a strong sexual content. In fact Lotta Continua probably responded faster than many groups on the Italian left, which led to higher expectations, and the eventual breakup. The divisions between the workers and the women in LC were exascerated by the lack of women workers (which itself stemmed from the nature of the workforce).

Attitude to Violence

The newspaper “Lotta Continua” was known for the violent tone of its language. The death of the Police Commissioner Calabresi in 1972 (see below) was described as “a deed in which the exploited recognise their own yearnings for justice”. This stemmed from a feeling that a civil war was underway, but served to provoke further the police and fascists. The Red Brigades, and similar groups, were criticised by Lotta Continua for the opportunities they gave to the right wing and carrying out the sort of actions which could not be taken up by the masses. After 1974 LC tried to reign in the violent acts of some members e.g. by closing down the Prisons Commission. This simply escalated the departure of some members, many from the “servizio d’ordine” (defence squads initially established for protection at demonstrations) to the armed groups. NAP (Nucleus of the Armed Proletariat) was a split from Naples LC. Prima Linea (Front Line) was formed out of ex-LC members from Milan and elsewhere, plus former Potop members.

Neglect of Theory

It is certainly true that LC was practice orientated, and gave little time to explicit discussions of theory. There was still a theory underlying its actions. Whether more theoretical discussion would have made much difference to the rapid swings in approach, is difficult to judge. Certainly there are plenty of theory heavy groups who have also swung alarmingly in their positions.

After Lotta Continua

LC members went on join a variety of different groups – The Italian Socialist Party, the Radical Party and the current left coalition Rifondazione Communisti (Communist Refoundation). Several went on to work for newspapers and television.

The paper “Lotta Continua” carried on to June 1982. In 1977 it opened up its letters page and debate blossomed – mainly from the former women members and sympathetic men (the former leaders and workers were present to a much lesser extent). Personal politics came to the fore, with many confessing they were desperate and lonely. A selection of letters was published as Care Compagne, Cari Compagni. In 1980 a smaller selction was published in Britain as Dear Comrades. A Big Flame member wrote the introduction and part translated the book.

Within a decade the view of much of the Italian left was to see the former LC leaders as out of date and ridiculous (as reported in Lumley States of Emergency p278) In 1988 the former LC General Secretary Adriano Sofri was arrested on the testimony of a “pentito” (repentant) former LC member and charged with ordering the murder of a Police Commissioner Calabresi in 1972. The legal process dragged on to 2000. Then despite doubts about the testimony of the “pentito” and the lack of any other evidence, Sofri received a 22 year jail sentence. Two other former LC members were convicted at the same time. One has been released on medical grounds, another fled whilst out of jail for an appeal. Sofri is still in prison.

Archive Archie

 

Sources on Lotta Continua

Very little from Lotta Continua is available in English. In the early 1970s two pamphlets were published in a series Documents from the Italian Revolutionary Movement. No 1 was Organising for Revolution a reprint of a speech by Gianni Safri and Franco Caprotti of LC at a Telos conference in 1971. No2 was called Fighting in the Streets. The latter consisted of Lotta Continua documents about its “Take Over the City” programme.

This is complemented by a descriptive account of Take over the City which was published as a pamphlet in England by Rising Free and in the USA in a Radical America article. It is currently available in three places on the internet:

Radical America March-April 1973 issue (pp pp78-112 of the magazine, pp80-114 of the document)

Class Against Class

Libcom.org

The same issue of Radical America also contains an article ”Organizing for Workers  Power” by Adriano Sofri, written in 1968 pre Lotta Continua (pp pp33-45 of the magazine, pp35-47 of the document) and an interview with another LC leader Guido Viale (pp pp113-119 of the magazine, pp115-121 of the document). The former has been republished by Monkraft.

The 1979 Red Notes/CSE Books pamphlet Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis includes two articles by Lotta Continua members “25 Years at FIAT” and “The Worker-Student Assemblies in Turin: 1969”.

Discussions of LC in English, particularly those from left groups, demonstrate little understanding of it. Exceptions are Paul Ginsborg A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988 (Penguin, 1990); Donatella Della Porta Social Movements, Political Violence and the State (CambridgeUniversity Press, 1995) and Sidney Tarrow Democracy and Disorder: Protest and Politics in Italy 1965-75 (Clarendon Press, 1989). All three draw heavily on Bobbio (see below), as indeed do I.

For those who can read Italian there is a considerable literature about LC e.g. Luigi Bobbio Lotta continua: storia di una organizzazione rivoluzionaria (Roma : Savelli, 1979) and Aldo Cazzullo I ragazzi che volevano fare la rivoluzione. 1968-1978: storia di Lotta continua (Milano: Mondadori, 1998).

A fairly complete run of the newspaper Lotta Continua (apart from the early years) can be found in the “Red Notes Italian Archive” at the London School of Economics.

In the early 70s there was a LC branch in London. Around 1971 it issued a leaflet come pamphlet in Italian, English and Spanish in support of a campaign for a guaranteed minimum wage of £35 a week. It was called That’s Enough! Now we want Everything.

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 6. Italy

Posted by archivearchie on May 26, 2009

In the pamphlet Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation written in 1977, Big Flame said: “We emerged as a rank and file grouping in Liverpool in 1971, owing no allegiance to any particular current or historical tradition”. I have a problem with this statement. Big Flame never saw itself as part of a linear tradition, promoting the texts or programme of one or more great thinkers. However, it is not possible to have a proper understanding of the group without acknowledging the impact on its development of certain currents in Italian Marxism.

Hot Autumn

Italian Background

The Italian Marxist theoretical approach called Operaismo originated with two journals in the 1960s: Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks) and Classe Operaia (Working Class). There was never a single viewpoint, but a variety of different perspectives from such writers as Mario Tronti, Sergio Bologna, and Toni Negri. I will use the Italian phrase Operaismo as the literal translation – Workerism – has a different meaning. In recent years the phrase Autonomism has gained a lot of currency. However, it is more closely associated with the developments of the “autonomia” movement in Italy from the mid 1970s on and the later writings of Negri (which are a significant development from his earlier works), than the earlier phase I am interested in here.

In May 1969 there were strikes in FIAT. By later in the year (the Hot Autumn), these had spread, for example, to Chemical factories and Pirelli. Many new political groups came out of the events of 1969. Two of them were particularly influenced by Operaismo – Lotta Continua (The Struggle Continues), which I will discuss in more detail in my next post (see Lotta Continua, and also Lotta Continua Part 2), and Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power). These are only two groups out of a complex pattern of developments. For a fuller picture see the Red Notes pamphlets Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis and Italy 1977-9: Living with an Earthquake (now available at libcom.org as a pdf  and Class against Class as text).

I don’t have the space here to do more than take the briefest glimpse of some of the ideas of Operaismo (which anyway are often complex and difficult to understand), nor the differences between the writers. Similarly I will only briefly discuss the practice of groups like Lotta Continua. I will focus of two ideas which had an impact on Big Flame: the phrases – “autonomy” and “mass politics”. These have a history which goes back well before Operaismo. Autonomy was frequently discussed in moral and political philosophy. Sociologists have talked of mass politics as a political order in the era of mass political parties. There are also earlier uses on the Italian left. Gramsci in The Modern Prince talked of mass politics as “real political action of the subaltern classes” as distinct from “merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses”.

However, in the 1960s and 70s these phrases were given a new twist and prominence. The starting point for Operaismo was that the working class determines the nature of capital and the state, through its struggles it exerts its autonomy. Spontaneous struggles manifest a political content which foreshadows a powerful organisation. The working class exerting its autonomy forces capital to restructure the way it rules. Since the Second World War this has involved a massification of production with new machinery, the destruction of hierarchies, deskilling and (in the case of Italy in particular) the recruitment of a new workforce of young, inexperienced migrant workers. The new mass workers particularly characterise industries like automobiles, steel, rubber and radios. After an initial quiescence, these workers demonstrate a stubborn denial of all but the most minimal collaboration with the labour process (sometimes referred to as a refusal of work). Also over the post war period exploitation in the factory links up with social life beyond its walls. Workers live in a social factory where no moment of their life escapes capitalist domination.

The working class’s political refusal to resolve the contradictions of capitalism takes the form of mass struggles. The highest level of such struggles, and the model for Italy, was seen as taking place in the USA in the 1930s and 1940s. Operaismo reinterpreted Leninism. To realise the revolutionary destiny of the masses a form of mass practice is required. If a political organisation is to construct the unification of the working class, it can not do so from a position external to the masses, but only from the internal standpoint of the masses. The role of a party is to transform mass struggles into the mass political re-appropriation of power.

Italy paper

Big Flame and Italy

Sometimes the influence of Italy on Big Flame is implicit rather than spelt out. Two headlines in the newspaper come to mind. Both are talking about Britain. In August 1972 the paper predicted a Long Hot Autumn. In October 1977 it claimed sections of the Army were pursuing a Strategy of Tension.

Two of Big Flame’s earliest publications contained material on Italy: the pamphlet Italy 1969-70, published in 1971, and “The Struggle in Italy” in Fact Folder no2 published in 1972.

Italy 1969-70 details how the Hot Autumn developed in 1969, including articles about the struggles in FIAT, the different tactics in the factories, the attempt to introduce line delegates (similar to shop stewards), a demonstration in Turin which developed into a battle with the police, and a discussion with migrant workers from the south). “The Struggle in Italy” consists of a discussion with two people with recent experience of events in Italy, and of notes written by a member of Potere Operaio.

The bulk of Italy 1969-70 was republished in the US magazine Radical America. Click here to view Radical America September-October 1971 issue at the magazine’s archive on the web. (The article can be found at pp10-38 of the magazine, pp12-40 of the document). Two of the six sections of the pamphlet are omitted, along with the Preface, the Appendix, and some other supplementary material.

Big Flame was an organisation which emphasised practice rather theory. After the two documents mentioned above discussion of Italy in Big Flame publications was mostly confined to news articles in the paper. Even in internal documents, it is very rare to see explicit references to Operaismo writers. The influence of Italy is probably best seen in Big Flame’s practice. Here the influence of Lotta Continua is most apparent. From early 1969, through the Hot Autumn, and for many years thereafter Lotta Continua members regularly went down to the factory gates. Initial help with leaflets led to student worker assemblies. It was this which Big Flame was attempting to copy, on a much smaller scale, in its base group model. Lotta Continua didn’t support the introduction of line delegates into the factories, seeing this as leading to union control over struggles. This influenced Big Flame’s early positions on shop stewards.

Big Flame’s links with Lotta Continua are mentioned in the pamphlet Big Flame: Our Perspectives and Work discussed in Episode 2  of this series. There was continuous contact between the two groups in the early to mid 1970s with mutual visits. In 1975 Lotta Continua organised a “cadre school” for Big Flame members. Big Flame also had less regular links with another Italian group Avanguardia Operaio (Workers Vanguard) during the same period.

Too much can be made of the Big Flame’s Italian connection. Not everyone in Big Flame was influenced by Italian Marxism. The few early internal documents which mention Operaismo writers were extremely critical of both Tronti and Negri. Not everyone took Lotta Continua as a model. Big Flame never tried to set itself up as the English franchise of Lotta Continua as some have suggested. Before the latter’s implosion, some Big Flame members raised criticisms (e.g. its response to feminism, lack of internal democracy) in internal documents (as mentioned above there was barely a reference, favourable or unfavourable, in its open publications). Most Big Flame members had even stronger criticisms of Potere Operaio. As time went on newer members joining Big Flame were much less likely to see the Hot Autumn as the source of their inspiration, or even be aware of the currents in Italian Marxism discussed here.

1981-82 Debate

The 1974-75 debate in Big Flame about the meaning of autonomy was mentioned in Episode 5 of this series. In 1981-82, there was another debate covering both autonomy and mass politics. Starting in the run up to the 1981 Conference, which lead on a Day School on Autonomy in July 1982.

Here are some of the articles from the debate. They are listed in order of my assessment of the extent to which they departed from Big Flame’s traditional positions. The defenders come first, and the critics later.

(1) Mass Work and Big Flame (Discussion Bulletin Sept 1981)

(2) Does the Struggle Continue? (Information Bulletin June 1982 – Day School document)

(3) A Critical Look at Big Flame Theory (Discussion Bulletin April 1981)

(4) Autonomy and Mass Practice (Discussion Bulletin Nov 1981)

(5) Autonomy: A Case of Too Many Meanings (Information Bulletin June 1982 – Day School document)

(6) The Struggle for Mass Politics  (Discussion Bulletin Sept 1981)

[These documents come from the days of stencil duplicators/mimeograph machines and therefore aren’t the easiest to read]

Article (1) sees the problem as Big Flame’s abandonment of ideas like mass politics. It particularly supports the base group model, and wants to see this readopted. Article (2) sets out to defend the idea of Working Class Autonomy from its critics. Its sees as its strength seeing the working class as an active force (the only tendency to “put the horse before the cart”), It concludes the acknowledging that the approach was developed 10 years before, and needs to be updated for the 1980s.

Article (3) is mostly devoted to a lengthy exegesis of Big Flame’s traditional theory. It sees these as a significant improvement on other ideas current amongst the left at the time. It ends with some critical comments e.g. questioning the notion that communism is inherent in the working class, and believing that Big Flame does not take reformism seriously enough. Article (4) wants to retain but modify the terms autonomy and mass politics. With autonomy, the author wants to retain the idea of independence of the working class, but questions the assumption that there is inherently a progressive tendency to focus on class objectives. With mass politics, he recognises the need to work directly with the mass of the work class and oppressed, but finds the idea of mass politics vague, often with little more meaning than mass leafleting.

Article (5) argues that from the beginning the idea of autonomy made no sense in the Britain of the 1970s. The writer suggests that it is impossible to set up permanent working class institutions without some labour movement support. Article (6) wants to reinterpret the notion of mass politics. It criticises the base group model for operating independently of the institutions of the labour movement. To create socialist politics in a conservative culture new alliances are required.

The authors of both articles (3) and (6) raise the question of working within the Labour Party. By the end of 1981 at the conclusion of a debate about the Labour Party (on which see a future Episode in this series – see Episode 27), they had both left Big Flame. The organisation never resolved the differences between the positions of those who remained in the rest of its life up to 1984.

Archive Archie

 

Sources on Operaismo

Back in the 1970s and 80s, it was hard to get hold of translations into English of relevant documents. Publications released in England consisted of a few Red Notes pamphlets (such as Italy 1977-8: Living with an Earthquake and Italy 1980-81: After Marx,Jail!); a CSE pamphlet on The Labour Process and Class Strategies; plus a joint publication between the two: Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis which came out in 1979. If you were lucky enough to live near an alternative bookshop like Compendium in Camden Town, you could also get hold of US journals like Radical America, Telos and semiotext(e).

Everything has changed with the internet. The following sites are worth checking out:

Class against Class

Translations @ generation-online

Aut-op-sy

A useful overall introduction is also provided by Steve Wright Storming Heaven (Pluto, 2002).

For those who can read Italian, I would draw attention to Classe Operaia: Reprint Completo 1964-67 (Milano: Machina Libri, no date). This republishes with the original design the complete run of Classe Operaia, as well as related publications from the same period Gatto Salvaggio, Cronache Operaie, Classe e Partito and Il Potere Operaio.

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