The radical left in Italy is currently finding its feet after waves of mobilisation followed by harsh police and judicial repression. Having given birth after fascism to the largest Communist Party in postwar Western Europe, and in parallel the greatest repression of communists during the so-called strategia della tensione (strategy of tension), Italy has a legacy of strong antagonism between state-promoted fascism and antifascist resistance. The explanation for this can be found in the formation of the Italian republic, which emerged from an armed struggle led by communists against fascists. With this in mind, I spoke to Mario Rossi (an alias), a communist ex-prisoner who is now facing new police charges, about the contemporary communist and antifascist movements, prison, and what Italian leftists are learning from responses to the economic crisis and crisis of social democracy in the rest of Europe.
In December 2014, a fascist group called Forza Nuova tried, on the wave of a racist backlash against gypsies in Rome, to organise a demonstration in Florence against migrants and what they called degrado. Local antifascists organised a counter-demonstration through the network Firenze Antifascista, which forced the fascists to relocate their protest to a peripheral part of the neighbourhood. When the police tried to stop the antifascists marching, they resisted and the police chased groups of protestors and attempted arrests. No one was arrested, but in October this year Mario was informed, along with nine other activists, that they’d been charged with using violence against the police during the attempted arrests. When I asked Mario why they waited almost a year to address charges to the nine activists, he told me that it was not by chance: “By now we have understood quite well why they do that. They do that because it’s the beginning of the school academic year, because in this way they try to prevent and undermine any kind of political activity or political momentum that at the beginning of the academic year the movement tries to join. Every year the cops try to undermine this potentially positive moment for actions and struggles, by releasing charges, by arresting, by charging people with freedom restrictive measures.” Mario currently has to sign in at the local police station every morning at 9am, meaning he cannot leave town for longer than a day. Whilst draconian, he is lucky – he could have been arrested and placed in prison, house arrest, or even banished from the city. The charges are for fairly serious crimes given the nature of what took place – violence against police, resistance to police actions, marching without authorisation, covering your face (which is a crime in Italy) and, chillingly, a crime that remains on the statute books from the fascist penal code called adunata sediziosa, which means ‘gathering with bad intentions’.
In Italy, political activism starts at a young age. Just before Christmas, there was an energetic wave of high school occupations springing up against the government’s school reforms (Buona Scuola). Not only do schools have reputations for radicalism or conservatism, but there are even left factions present. In Mario’s hometown of Padova, for instance, the effects of the 1970s splits in the autonomia movement are still felt in the two main squatted social centres that high school students gather around, with the more reformist elements forming the disobbedienti in contrast to the revolutionary communists who remained faithful to the Marxist-Leninist tenets of the early autonomist movement. Just as the current Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s school reforms are inspiring a new generation to occupy and resist, in the early years of the millennium military involvement in Afghanistan and then Iraq led to a wave of occupations. Relatively speaking, this was a period of low mobilisation following the Genoa G8 summit protests, the zenith of the disobbedienti movement which struggled to reinvent itself after the murder of Carlo Giuliani by riot police at the demonstrations. This wave of anti-war mobilisation was a ‘last gasp’ of the No Global movement rather than something new. At the same time, it inspired many into radical politics.
At university, Mario joined a collective called Valle Giulia (named after historically significant clashes between students and police in Rome in 1968) before moving to Milan, after the huge student mobilisation of 2005. Whilst this mobilisation did not produce anything concrete, nor was it as large as the Onda (Wave) of a few years later, it was a base on which to build. “History is always a never-ending process, there are not such clear-cut lines, disruptions, clear fractures… these moments shouldn’t be taken as the final struggle against the system, obviously these are just moments of struggle against which you have to, in a way, to achieve something in terms of concrete goals, but at the same time you have to accumulate forces. These are moments in which a lot of people get mobilised, get radicalised, and as a political project or organisation you have to be able to accumulate forces, in a Gramscian sense, to form political activists, to educate political activists and to develop your political organisation, your capacity of being effective in a political sense.”
This gets to the core of the fractures in the 1970s autonomia movement. Mario takes a traditional Marxist-Leninist position in his critique of contemporary autonomists and dissobedienti whom he says mobilise for the sake of mobilisation rather than building a long-term strategy. At the same time he recognises the elements of this movement from which communists must learn, in particular discarding vertical for horizontal organisation, “how to build a social movement, how to be involved in a social movement, how to not undermine the social movement”. The way in which the Occupy movement unfolded as well as the ways in which SYRIZA and Podemos originated have presented real challenges (although ultimately failing ones) to the vertically-organised Leninist groups.
“Right now, it seems to me there is less need of such a vertically-structured organisation thanks to the recent technological advances. Nowadays, we can communicate faster, the nodes of the organisation, the local branch of the organisation, of a potential revolutionary organisation, can be much more autonomous, because at the same time, they can be much more related to each other. You move much faster around, you can communicate and exchange material and whatever else in a much easier manner.”
In the past, pre-packaged discourse could be sold to people because of historical examples, whereas now there is no clear example or well-defined strategy. “We should not fear to question our organisation as well. A serious radical organisation cannot come about if it’s not intimately part of a process of radicalisation. Even if at some point you manage to get a leading position in a movement, if you then pretend to make the movement become the organisation, you are failing.” This is a criticism levelled in equal measure at the likes of the Socialist Workers’ Party in the UK and Podemos in Spain.
Despite the relative low-mobilisation of the 2003-2008 period, a trend was emerging that affected the ideas of radical political activity now being built upon. Whilst a general big movement was missing, activists went back to the local struggles, a rediscovery: “to be rooted in the place where we live, in a way to find our liberation path in our daily life. Obviously then if we are good enough in linking the local to the global, and linking the particular, in Marxist terms, the particular contradiction to the broader, general contradiction, we manage to be effective, to get people mobilised for a radical general social change.”
The archetypal local struggle that has invigorated the radical movement during fallow periods is the No TAV campaign, the campaign against the high-speed train network around Northern Italy and into neighbouring countries. Although it started in the mid-1990s, in the mid-2000s it became more structured; now a wider struggle, back then it was based more in Val di Susa, a valley in the very North West of Italy where the initial line was being constructed, and there were activists who moved there in order to fully commit to the struggle. Mario first visited the valley around this time, and the reasoning he gives for it keeping the movement not just alive but lively is “it showed that it was still possible to resist a counter-narrative, to be hegemonic… they manage with a really widespread militancy and mobilisation, to be hegemonic.” Moreover it provided direction. “Let’s move back to our territory, let’s see from our daily life what’s wrong and let’s get people mobilised to struggle against what’s wrong in our territory, in our everyday life, and then from a revolutionary perspective let’s link those problems to a broader problem that is capitalism in general.”
Another local struggle that had a huge mobilising effect during this period was that against the building of the Dal Molin US military base in Vicenza, a small town in Veneto. Like the No TAV movement, and in some ways the Greenham Common campaign in the 1980s, it was politicising in that it fostered an anti-imperialist, anti-militarist logic from what was a local struggle based on a ‘not in my back yard’ sentiment, a sentiment which is strengthened by the regionalism that Italians tend to prioritise over nationalist identity. It was a week before a massive protest of 100,000 people in this small town, on Monday 12th February 2007, that ten police smashed into the home Mario shared with his then-partner at dawn to arrest them both and charge them for membership of a clandestine organisation (Partito Comunista Politico-Militare who were linked by the police to the New Red Brigades) under article 270b, international terrorism. Amongst other things, the police accused the arrestees of trying to infiltrate the anti-war movement, building a case of terrorist activity through environmental evidence, in one case bugging coffee shops where political meetings were held by telling the owners of the café, shamefully, that they were tracking paedophiles exchanging material. Although their arrest was timed ahead of this huge demonstration, it was not specifically linked to their activism in the anti-war movement – the group had been monitored by the police from about 2001.
For months after the arrests, there was a great deal of media coverage in Italy and internationally. I asked Mario whether he was surprised by his arrest. “It wasn’t a complete surprise because I’m a communist. I try to act coherently and I know that by acting coherently to my political commitment I might break the law. So I think that every revolutionary activist, every radical activist, should be aware that at some point they could get in trouble with the law.” At the same time, he had no idea who most of the people he was arrested with were, nor anything about most of the accusations made against him. In court, Mario and his comrades took the Jacques Vergés position of ‘offensive connivance’, accepting the legitimacy of the court and participating in the trial to a point, but refusing to respond to questions or give authorisation to their lawyers to undermine their political identity in order to get any sort of benefit, instead challenging the prosecutor to prove their guilt.
Immediately after arrest Mario was held in solitary confinement for almost five months – 23 hours a day in a cell, 1 hour outdoor in a slightly bigger cell. At the age of 21, Mario was considered the most dangerous prisoner on his wing of a high-security prison. After almost a year of this, he was placed under house arrest – still at this point, the case was in pre-trial phase. Two things seem to have maintained his psychological health during this period: his feeling of being part of a collective struggle, having to maintain his health in order to be in good shape for the movement (“I don’t have the responsibility to take care of me just because of me, but because my welfare is important also for a collective project and for other people”), and his strict daily routine. He woke early, trained hard, read widely, gave up alcohol, meat, television. Rarely did he have days filled with nothing; after spending a day lying on the sofa, he got the sofa removed from his room to prevent it happening again. His routine during house arrest was so rigid that, upon being called to the police station for release, he immediately returned to complete his gym workout before properly leaving the house for the first time in almost four years. Although it kept him sane, it also made him feel like a machine, not a human being. When I asked him if this was a by-product of the judicial system, to impose a form of self-discipline, he reminded me that his self-preservation was in order to be a better revolutionary afterwards – “that’s not the aim of the judicial system!” Although fostering this level of discipline enabled him to study hard for his degree and improve his physical fitness, it did instil certain character traits that he struggles with: pride in facing difficulties, becoming easily irritated by others. Psychologically, house arrest was much more challenging than prison, a form of limbo where the outside world was just outside the front door. At one point, awaiting conviction, he felt that he would be held under house arrest indefinitely.
This reminded me of Assata Shakur, in particular the comparison she makes in her book between imprisonment and freedom, stating that it isn’t really such a sharp dichotomy, that as a black woman on the streets of white America, she was never free. Mario’s experience in prison strengthened his position on this: “What we call freedom is not just a physical state, it’s a mental state as well. I never felt unfree mentally. I’m much less unfree now, mentally, I’m conditioned, I’m affected by the idea of going back to prison and so I shape my behaviour, or to be badly affected in my job for my political position. I was much more open, I didn’t have anything to lose. When you have nothing to lose you are free, in a way, you are much freer than if you have a lot to lose.”
The repression of Florence’s antifascist movement is just one contemporary example of attacks on the radical movement. There have been scores of arrests following the No Expo protests in Milan on 1st May 2015, including the first ever use of the European Arrest Warrant against five Greek students using the Italian law of saccheggio e devastazione (devastation and pillage), and in Bologna the local authorities have evicted a number of high-profile squats and have even placed medieval-sounding exclusion orders on leading activists, banning them from the city. The current centre-left government is to blame for the repression of the radical left – it has also been successful in preventing the emergence of an electoral group to its left as in Greece and Spain. For Mario, this is a blessing, and an indication of strength of the antagonist movement in Italy, a legacy of the 1970s and 1980s which saw the biggest revolutionary wave to ever happen in a Western country in modern history.
Where does all this leave the movements today? Mario’s impression is that forces are accumulating. “Right now I think that what has to be done is to be in the street, to be where the contradictions of this system, which are everywhere, are mostly evident. Not to try to rush to the most radical solution because it’s good to be radical, but to build real radicalism day-by-day along with people, otherwise it becomes just a self-satisfying process that would satisfy us for a short period and then just collapse in on itself… It’s striking that in countries like the UK and Ireland in which the capitalism discourse, that discourse that had been hegemonic for more than twenty years, just collapsed in a really short period of time. I’m not saying right now the majority of the population is deeply convinced that capitalism is not the solution but is the problem. But since I see what seems to be real social forces that were in motion years before Corbyn’s election, I see them in motion in Italy, I don’t want to see those forces wasted in institutional para-electoral projects which will inevitably crash against the structural constraints which the liberal-democratic system and the current capitalist setting impose, but among people who are seriously committed in thinking how to achieve a radical social change, there is a general understanding that ‘let’s run the next election’ is failing.”
by Rosa Gilbert | @rosagilbert