potere operaio: the last firebrands

In August we staged a series of forums on what we can learn from past communist organisations. Martine Bourne reports on the discussion about Italian group Potere Operaio.

Potere Operaio (Workers Power) were the focus of the second meeting of the series organised by the London group on communist organisation and class struggle. Potere Operaio emerged in 1967 as a grouping operating independently of the trade union movement. They stood as a faction within the Communist Party-led CGIL trade union during internal elections at the Petrolchimico company based in the industrial zone of Venice, Porto Marghera. From here they built themselves into a national organisation which at their high point had 10,000 activists, but by 1973 had split.

Italy had come out of the Second World War defeated and went about rebuilding its economy and moving away from small scale workshops to mass production factories. The Communist Party of Italy (PCI) played its part assisting in the disarming of the anti-fascist resistance and supporting the restructuring of industry. This represented the origin of the post war crisis in the PCI. With Stalin surrendering Western Europe to US influence, the PCI on the one hand accommodated itself to the Italian state, while experiencing marginalisation under US pressure to separate the trade union movement into political unions to distance communist militants from the rest of the working class.

The PCI was pessimistic about the new industrial workers, who migrated from the countryside to the industrial zones, believing they lack the required class consciousness of the older generation. The other significant event to shake not only the PCI, but all communist parties in Western Europe was the 1956 Hungarian Uprising when workers councils were established before being quickly stifled by ‘Soviet’ military intervention. The crisis and compromise of the PCI provided space for Potere Operaio (PO) and other groups like Lotta Continua (Permanent Struggle) to develop theory and organisation within the vacuum.

From the beginning PO were influenced and worked with leftist intellectuals. The most notable being Antonio Negri. Negri was critical of both the unions and the leftist parties for their participation in the restructuring of Italy. What Negri argued was required was the party of insurrection to resolve the conflict between workers and the state. While Negri’s writings have been translated into English, those of the workers within PO have not. This is a pity as it would have given a voice to the organisation’s workplace activists and a greater insight into their practice.

From the Porto Marghera base Potere Operaio linked up with other like minded groups that by 1969 formed a national organisation and paper. While Negri wanted to build the organisation there was a tension with the workplace militants who focused on the economic struggle. The CGIL expelled the PO activists from the union as they would not toe the union line. This allowed for the development of autonomous workers bodies free of the unions. This gave PO the space to develop their practice.

They tried to move away from union and political party model of organising and representing workers interests to encouraging workers themselves to take the initiative. The demand for flat rate pay increases sought to break down the hierarchical pay and grade structures and sectionalism between blue and white collared workers which assisted the employers and the unions to divide the workforce on narrow sectional lines. ‘Less work, more wages’ was a slogan adopted to distinguish themselves from the unions and that ‘too much work kills’ which was literally true in the chemical industry.

Negri’s desire to develop the existing organisation into an insurrectionary party saw Potere Operaio organise on the ‘terrain’ outside of the factory. There were campaigns to drive down transport costs, rents, electricity bills, wages for housework, squatting empty houses and mass shoplifting. But what was cost of all this activity?

A clip of a DVD, “Porto Marghera – The Last of the Firebrands”, the story of Potere Operaio, was shown giving the human side of the struggle. Augusto Finzi, one of the activists in the Petrolchimico plant spoke of the time that work and political activity took him away from his wife and child which led them to split-up. The activist culture mirrored the factory in that people did not exist beyond their usefulness to the project. And then work making people sick through poor health and safety and the employer’s own health checks used to get rid of workers. Finzi’s own experience led him to his own interest in herbal medicines and healthy foods to counter the damaging health impacts of work, chemicals and poor diet.

The trajectories of Finzi and Negri explain why Potere Operaio split as a national organisation in 1973. Finzi favoured an automous workers organisation and opposed taking up arms. Negri favoured a ‘Leninist’ insurrectionary party. Events speeded up and some former members of PO took up the armed struggle with the Red Brigades and Prima Linea. The Italian secret state adopted the ‘Strategy of tension’ using the secret service and their Gladio network with fascist elements to create an environment potentially conducive to a right-wing coup. With this followed waves of repression against PO activists and others. Both Finzi and Negri found themselves imprisoned in 1979 due to the activities of the Red Brigades.

Potere Operaio’s legacy for communists today is not only the need to be able to operate independently of the trade unions within the workplace and take the struggle into the community, but also the need to ask ourselves whether own practices mirror the exploitative values we are striving to replace.

Further reading: Steve Wright, Storming heaven: A theoretical history of Operaism, Pluto Press, 1992.

The final meeting in the series is about 1970s British organisation Big Flame. From 7pm on Monday 30th August at the Lucas Arms, Grays Inn Road near King’s Cross.