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Unlike anywhere else in Europe, Italy experienced a ‘second 1968’ during the mid-1970s – an extraordinary wave of student occupations and innovative mass wildcat direct action in its major cities. Reaching a climax in 1976-77, it involved hundreds of thousands of people, and included rent and fare strikes, large-scale squatting, organised shoplifting and a widespread ‘refusal of work’ by young people.
The movement was chaotic and diverse, embracing unreconstructed Leninists and stoner anarchist pranksters, radical feminists and macho leather-jacketed street-fighting men, university lecturers and ex-cons. It was also riven with differences on political tactics, particularly on the use of violence. Some participants were pacifists, others out-and-out enthusiasts for armed struggle. Most were somewhere in between.
These differences ultimately proved to be the movement’s nemesis. Faced with the unrelenting hostility of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the main party of the left, which at the time was attempting to effect an ‘historical compromise’ with the centre-right Christian Democrats, a small but significant minority of activists opted for armed struggle to the exclusion of all else. After that the state came down hard on anyone publicly associated with the ‘area of autonomy’ (regardless of what they had actually done), arresting and incarcerating hundreds from 1978 onwards.
Phil Edwards first caught wind of what was happening in Italy as a teenager reading the British anarchist press, and his book is the product of many years’ research. It is very much a hybrid – in part narrative history, in part a contribution to the political sociology of social movements.
He argues convincingly that it is wrong to look at the mid-1970s rebellion merely as an aftershock of Italy’s ‘hot autumn’ in 1969, when a wave of worker and student militancy rocked Italian society. By the mid-1970s, a new generation was involved and Edwards makes telling points about the short-sightedness of the PCI’s anathematisation of the new movement. In its single-minded pursuit of the ‘historical compromise’, he argues, it lost the chance to renew itself by taking on at least some of the movement’s demands.
This is a serious piece of work that deserves a much wider readership than it is likely to get retailing at £60. Steal this book!