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Italy: Behind the Ski Mask

This was also the period when the Red Brigades began to get front page coverage with the startling kidnapping and release of a Genoa magistrate, Mario Sossi, in the spring of 1974. Soon after came the Red Brigades’ first kneecappings and murders, and the arrest, escape, and recapture of their then leader Renato Curcio.

Nineteen seventy-seven was the point of escalation, “the year of the gun,” as leftist poet and Autonomia sympathizer Nanni Balestrini put it. Now began the huge marches in Italy’s major cities, with hundreds of the participants wearing the passamontagna (a ski mask over the face) and more often than not with contropotere in tasca, “counterpower in the pocket,” the radicals’ euphemism for guns. A January shoot-out between protesting students and the Rome police left two members of Autonomia dead. On March 12 a masked youth stepped out of a protest march in downtown Rome, warned away reporters, and fired two wild shots toward the police. On April 21 a photographer caught this scene in Milan: As the police dispersed a protest rally, a fleeing youth, bandanna pulled up Western-style, turned and struck a Kojak pose—feet wide apart, both hands holding a pistol at arm’s length—and fired. A policeman fell dead.

Another line was crossed and pervasive terror began. One or two persons would frequently slip out of a side street or alley, shoot, and melt back into the crowd. “Kill a cop and go home for dinner,” as an editorial bitterly put it. Many of the left revolutionaries are hard to categorize. The members of the group called Prima Linea, as Robert Sole wrote in Le Monde, are often “semi-clandestine and can set off a stick of dynamite on Thursday, wound ‘a tool of imperialism’ in the legs on Friday, and on Saturday demonstrate in the streets dressed in a ski mask and red scarf.” The Red Brigades did their part that year with thirty-six kneecappings and one murder. On November 16, in broad daylight on a Turin street, they walked up to Carlo Casalegno—deputy editor of La Stampa and a former Resistance leader and a symbol of liberal antiterrorist journalism—shot him four times in the face and, as he lay on the ground, delivered the coup de grâce to his head.

By the end of 1977, after well over 2,000 terrorist attacks carried out by seventy-six different radical groups, the situation gave some signs of calming down. Then on March 16, 1978, came the stunning event in Rome’s Via Fani. As Aldo Moro was being driven to Parliament to inaugurate the first Italian government openly supported by the PCI, the Red Brigades gunned down his five guards and dragged him off to fifty-four days of imprisonment and “people’s trial” before murdering him on May 9.

Italy is still in a state of siege, and it is questionable whether the arrest of Morucci, Faranda, and the dozens of others now in custody will end the terrorism. Estimates of the number of guerrillas run from 800 underground with 10,000 semi-clandestine sympathizers to as many as 3,000 “combatants,” roughly the same number as that of partisans active in the Italian cities between September and March 1944.5 One night last April, as if to parade their talents for coordination, terrorists set off twenty-eight bombs within minutes of each other in various cities of northern Italy. After a relatively calm weekend last May the Monday dailies reported that seven cars belonging to Corriere della Sera had been firebombed in Milan and the car of an industrialist blown up in Naples.

The violence is not confined to the left. The neo-fascists, now stepping up their own terrorist campaign, dynamited the façade of Rome’s Regini Coeli prison, destroying over fifteen cars and a water main in the process, and two weeks later blew up a wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Meanwhile in Padua radicals circulated fliers inviting students to turn in the names of “antiproletarian” professors, who, if they are lucky, may only have their offices burned. Less fortunate ones, like the rector of the university, are shot in the legs. In mid-June Professor Fausto Cuocolo of the University of Genoa was kneecapped by two unmasked youths as he administered final examinations.

Given the pervasiveness of such terrorism in this most civilized of countries, one welcomes the efforts of Sabino S. Acquaviva, sociologist at the University of Padua and Visiting Fellow at All Souls, Oxford, to cut beneath the surface and to try to reach its underlying causes. He has undertaken to explain the ideology of the radical left in his Guerrilla Warfare and Revolutionary War in Italy and to trace its social psychology in The Religious Seed of Revolt. The two books overlap and in a sense have their unnamed subject in Toni Negri himself, one of those “clamorous cases of people,” as Acquaviva puts it, “who began with a militant commitment to Catholic Action only to end up, in the space of a few years and via complex and troublesome intellectual odysseys, as militants or theoreticians in armed revolutionary groups.”

Acquaviva gives an interpretation of such political careers that is familiar in Italy but more sociological in approach than most. He emphasizes the general collapse of traditional values in the country after the war. In the late 1940s and 1950s, he argues, Italy broke its cultural fixation on the past—on the latinitas and romanitas exalted by the Fascists—and broke as well the domination of family and ecclesiastical authority over much of Italian life, particularly the attitudes of the young. Italy more and more became a society “tending to satisfy needs in as short a term as possible,” a situation familiar enough to viewers of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1959) and Antonioni’s dreary trilogy in the early 1960s. 6 Against this background Acquaviva traces how three major forces can be said to have created conditions favorable to the growth of radical Autonomia: the Catholic Church, the Communist Party, and the late-arriving but widely diffused counterculture.

By the end of the 1950s, Acquaviva argues, the Church found itself straddling a fault line that ran deeper than the Protestant Reformation. Even in tradition-bound Italy the years before the Second Vatican Council were filled with theological turmoil, much of it growing out of the vigorous discussion of Christian social doctrine in Catholic Action groups. Many young intellectuals, such as those who formed the Intesa group in which Negri was active, were inspired by the example of the French worker-priests and spoke of the need to shift the axis of religious commitment from an eternal “up above” to a historical and social “up ahead.” This desire, as Acquaviva puts it, to “realize the other world in this world” led many of them, especially those who had integrated “a mentality of mission, of struggle against the infidels,” to pass “from an exigency of Christian totality to one of Marxist totality, from a Catholic need for centralism to a Marxist one.” Acquaviva claims that one element of continuity between the Catholic ideology these activists abandoned and the revolutionary one they embraced is found in their strong sense of moralism.

I recall that some time ago a young revolutionary who still claimed to believe in God told me: “Some big politician wanted that highway built [near Padua], and it cost 1.5 trillion lire that could have been used for cardiac or dialysis centers which we still don’t have…. But the highway was worth more votes than a hospital or cardiac center, and therefore someone who could have been saved is dying because that road was built. Now who is the worse killer? I who shoot that politician and maybe prevent his crime from being repeated, or that politician who kills every day?”

Acquaviva finds a second element contributing to Autonomia in the crisis of identity that Italian Marxism has suffered in its long march from postwar Stalinism to present-day revisionism. Especially since 1973, when the PCI came out for the historic compromise with the Christian Democrats, many Italians have come to see the Party not as an adversary of capitalist society so much as a component of it, a moderate force for reforming the work ethic in Italy rather than a revolutionary movement to abolish it. For the Autonomists, the PCI hardly seems the place to enact the end of alienation that they take to be the promise of Marxism. For them, only the “refusal of work,” that is, absolute opposition to salaried labor, is true to the revolutionary spirit of Marx.

Here enters the third element, the counterculture of personal liberation and self-fulfillment. Before it is a political movement, Acquaviva notes, Autonomia is a will to enjoy life rather than to have to earn it, a radical rejection of any society which, instead of enriching its citizens, dominates and represses them with an ethical system that insists that value comes through uncreative work. For the Autonomists the key word (it is Negri’s) has become autovalorizzazione, which can be translated as falling somewhere between self-fulfillment and self-assertion. In this concept the personal and the political meet, and more often than not Dylan pipes the tune and Marx dances.

The new agent of revolution, they say, is no longer found simply in the underpaid factory worker but in all the alienated “social laborers” of the counterculture, the autonomi who choose to reject the Party and the labor union and to hitch their desire for personal fulfillment to the hope of extinguishing the state and achieving pure communism. For them the state is in a profound crisis and is presiding over its own demise. Any efforts to reform it, whether by liberalizing capitalism or achieving democratic socialism, only extend the alienating law of surplus value and prevent the attainment of a society dedicated to personal self-realization. Instead, the Autonomist demands the abolition rather than the reform of the state for the sake of realizing human needs beyond those of work.

When it comes to the Red Brigades and terrorism, Acquaviva ends up a pessimist. Capturing the presumed leaders of these groups, he says, is like cutting weeds that then spring up stronger than before. The diffused “membership” of Autonomia, much of it as broad as the audiences of underground radio stations that interrupt their rock music with “war bulletins” about “proletarian raids” (Radio Sherwood in Padua, Radio Onda Rossa in Rome), provides ample water for the revolutionary fish. Italy, he says, is no longer living through a period of sporadic terrorism, not even one of terrorism with mass support. It has slipped into real guerrilla warfare concentrated around well-organized nuclei that strike with precision and revolutionary logic. “Guerrilla warfare,” he concludes, “now exists, has deep roots, and is substantial. Italians will have to live with it for a long time. It is an aspect of our history in the last quarter of this century.”

  1. 5

    Alberto Ronchey, “Guns and Gray Matter: Terrorism in Italy,” Foreign Affairs, 57 (Spring, 1979), p. 924, a translation of a chapter from his book, Libro Bianco sull’ultima generazione White Book on the Last Generation. See also Giorgio Bucca, Terrorismo in Italia Terrorism in Italy.

  2. 6

    See the interesting analysis by Adolfo Battaglia, vice minister of foreign affairs, in his recent book, Le Politiche dei partiti e la politica di governo The Politics of the Parties and the Policy of Governing.

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