THE WORK OF MICHELE MICHELINO REFLECTS THE TRAGIC ASPECTS OF AN ENTIRE VANGUARD GENERATION’S EXPERIENCE IN THE WORKERS’ STRUGGLE
The sad recent passing of an indomitable vanguard of the working class struggle prompted the Proletari Comunisti-Pcm group to publish an important political document by Michele Michelino on the blog of the same name. It is the text of an extensive speech at the “Conference upon the 50th anniversary of the ‘Hot Autumn 1969’” organised by the same Proletari Comunisti in 2019 in Milan.
At the beginning of Michele Michelino’s text, it is announced as “a historical review of the workers’ struggles of ‘68/’69” which can “also serve to better understand how to wage the battle in the present”. In reality, the text does not offer a review, and perhaps the first thing one notices is the absence thereof. In the text, Michele Michelino does not even offer any real summation, and rather, more than anything else, narrates in the first person, i.e., recounts the workers’ battles to which he contributed and in which he was often the protagonist.
What, then, is the political importance of this document? Through the limpidity and essentiality with which it expounds, this document gains an evident typical character, that is, representative of the work of a vanguard generation of factory battlers, and who have continued, in one form or another, the class struggle on the trade union ground, that of representation in the workplace and that of defence of workers’ health. It is an invaluable testimonial not only to the work of these vanguards, but also, so to speak, to the self-awareness and consciousness of their own personal and collective history, which these vanguards have matured over time, through each stage of a painful and complex class struggle that developed in particular in the 1970s, and subsequently maintained, in essence, as constitutive of their identity in the decades thereafter, up to today.
Consequently, it is not only Michele, but also, for example, the historical vanguards of Alfa Romeo in Arese and Fiat in Pomigliano – the only ones in Italy to have built a real workers’ union, Slai Cobas, in the early 1990s. When in those years workers all over Italy thought of an alternative to confederal unions, they thought of the Cobas, and when they thought of the Cobas they thought solely and exclusively of those of Alfa Romeo in Arese and Pomigliano d’Arco. The reasons for which this union lasted only a few years as a workers’ anomaly ultimately lie in the experience of the generation of vanguard workers’ struggles born in the 1960s and 1970s.
As apparently distant as they may seem, events such as those that gave rise to the work of Michele Michelino and the history of Slai Cobas can be considered the expression of the same great battle, the same expectations and, all told, the same fundamental conceptions.
Obviously, it is not only Michele and the Alfa and Pomigliano Cobas. The vanguards of the battle born in the 1970s have continued to fight on the trade union field, resisting all pressures and rejecting the offers of co-optation made to them by the confederal unions, first and foremost FIOM. They have been the proponents of various organisations in defence of the economic interests and trade union rights of workers and have effectively distributed themselves all along the spectrum of alternative trade unionism. Their initiative has from time to time gained the support of technicians, university researchers, doctors, teachers, lawyers, students, social centres, political groups and even, in a more or less interested form, parties of power.
This generation of vanguards of the struggle is thus not only still present and active but, directly or indirectly, has profoundly influenced more recent experiences of grassroots unionism, at least in terms of their essential premises. Similarly, it has made practically hegemonic among communist groups, particularly those that claim their roots in Marxism-Leninism, the questionable idea that it is not possible to found the revolutionary party without having the support of, or without being able to win over, the workers’ vanguards, that is, in essence, more or less large sectors of alternative unionism.
And yet in the work and experience of this generation of vanguards of struggle, a tragic side can be seen. Neither in the contribution by Michele Michelino, nor in the article of Proletari Comunisti-Pcm that puts it forward, does any consciousness of this transpire.
From the point of view of Marxism the term ‘tragedy’, in the realm of class struggle, is used when the battle is fought with no prospect of victory. The ‘tragedy’ is even more salient when those who, having no prospects, battle on without having the slightest conscious understanding of the situation in which they find themselves. To put it differently, slipping into a tragic situation is like heading into a blind alley and being unable or unwilling to do anything to try to find one’s way out.
Obviously, the situation can be tragic either because at a given point it is objectively no longer possible to get out of it, or, conversely, because, not being aware of being in the dead end, one does nothing, even if is capable, to turn back.
Now the problem is that the tragic nature of the work carried out by the generation of vanguards in the 1960s-1970s struggle, the one that did not give up and continued the trade union battle against the bosses, the governments and the confederal unions, is of the latter type: it is the expression and consequence of a lack of true class political consciousness and thus is a persistence in a substantially losing situation, which represented and still represents today, in the end, a sort of heavy ball and chain for the proletariat and the prospects of revolution in Italy.
Where does this lack of awareness of the blind alley into which it has gone and into which it continues unperturbed to invite young people and workers to enter?
To answer this question, we need to go back to the political and cultural climate of the 1960s and early 1970s. This climate lies at the root of the genesis of the intellectual formation of this generation of vanguards of struggle. In fact, we always forget that what is ultimately decisive for the intellectual formation of the vanguard workers is not the facts and bare experiences, but the fusion of facts and experiences with certain conceptions, theories, interpretations, political lines.
The usual contempt for theoretical activity in the sphere of revolutionary Marxism leads to short-sighted empiricism, i.e. to the thesis that facts and experiences in themselves produce revolutionary consciousness and that political ideologies do not in themselves have any particular weight in the class struggle.
Thus one forgets, overlooks or denies the fact that the generation of vanguards of struggle born in the 1960s and early 1970s came about in the shadow of the ‘left’ of the PCI, of theoretical “operaismo” and, subsequently, of political groups such as Potere Operaio, PdUP-Manifesto, Avanguardia Operaia, Lotta Continua, or of Trotskyist and Bordighist groups and areas such as Autonomia Operaia. It could be objected that Michele Michelino, however, was a member of the UCI(m-l) and that subsequently he continued, throughout his life, to take his inspiration from Marxism-Leninism. The problem from this point of view is that in Italy Marxism-Leninism had a season of life that lasted only a few years and was characterised by considerable backwardness, with the consequence of leaving the field essentially open to the various declinations and hybridisations of critical Marxism and “operaismo”. The fact that in Italy Marxism-Leninism practically coincided only with the first two years [1966-1968] of the life of the CPd’I(m-l) had enormous political and ideological consequences.
Not only was there no effective transition from Marxism-Leninism to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, but with the end of the PCd’I(m-l) the path was cleared more than ever for eclecticism, in other words, the hybridisation of Marxism-Leninism with other extraneous ideological tendencies. On the one hand, the consequence of this was that the UCI(m-l), of Trotskyist origin, with its corrective campaign of 1971 made the jump to the PC(M-I) Workers’ Voice, aiming to integrate Trotskyism, Bordighism and “operaismo”under the guise of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. On the other hand, the first combatant organisations, which also called themselves Marxist-Leninist, more than anything else emphasised “Marxism-Leninism of Latin American matrix” (Guevarista and Fuochista), combining it with other theories, partly spontaneist and partly mediated by reference to a type of Marxism of a structuralist matrix.
The generation of vanguard fighters like Michele Michelino was thus formed on the foundations of the influence of “operaismo”. Michele said in his speech: “Today, with the fact that there are fewer and fewer large factories, apart from a handful like ILVA, it is quite clear that the forms of organisation too must change. Today it is difficult for us to reach the majority of the workers, for which reason we will need to think of new forms for organising the workers’ movement, and of ways of doing it”. This statement can be correct if the problem is the construction of the trade union organisation, but it is classically spontaneist or rather economistic and “operaista” if we are dealing with the construction of the party, and the party, as Lenin stressed in “What to do?”, is the highest and main form of organisation of the workers’ movement.
A generation of vanguards of struggle which, having formed in Avanguardia Operaia, Lotta Continua, in the Autonomous Assemblies, in the Trotskyist and Bordighist groups, etc., continues for a lifetime to fight against the bosses, governments and reactionary trade unions, without ever elevating itself above the struggle and the trade union organisation, without ever posing the problem of elevating the workers above the bosses. It is a generation of fighters that has partially surrendered in the face of the offensive or counter-offensive of the class adversary, a generation that has not been able to find the road to political struggle and the construction of revolutionary political organisation.
This generation shared and disseminated the workerist thesis, that the party is the product of the accumulation of workers’ struggles against the industrial bosses and against the government, that the radicalisation of these struggles leads to “workers’ power” and that “workers’ power” in the factories and workplaces gradually translates into the soviets and the revolution. This generation continued the undertaking of the “operaismo” of the 1960s and made a relevant contribution to the fact that, in fifty years, the construction of a revolutionary communist party tied to sectors, however limited, of the vanguard of the proletariat, has not been achieved in Italy. This paradoxically tragic character inherent in the struggle of a generation that continues in some way to be a protagonist, especially in its legacy of ideals as a guide, reference, model, is to this day a source of obscuration of class consciousness.
We cannot deny or underestimate the importance of the economic struggle, of the struggle for democratic representation in the workplace, for trade union rights and for the health and safety of workers, but we must say with absolute clarity and great decisiveness that the main aspect is the revolutionary theory as a guide to praxis, the class consciousness, the political struggle, the political programme, on the basis of which to develop workers’ and popular initiative. This programme must in its essence be made up of positive and proactive elements, and serve to bring the proletarian revolution and socialism closer together, without falling back on abstract and maximalist, often bombastic, rehashes of the maximum programme of the socialist revolution. Without a political programme there can be no initiative and direct experience of the masses and therefore no real achievement and development of the construction of a communist party.
Michele Michelino’s text splendidly bears witness to the impossibility of building the communist party from economic-union struggles and those for representation, rights or ‘workers’ power’ in the workplace. It is the concrete exposition of an experience that shows how, from radical and even violent trade union struggles, only trade union gains can eventually result as a consequence, but never a ‘revolutionary consciousness’ or a revolutionary political initiative. The preconditions for the construction of the trade union organisation, the economic-union struggle and the struggle for ‘workers’ power’ in the workplace, and the preconditions for the construction of the revolutionary communist party, class consciousness, the political struggle, the constitution of organisms of political power, are different. These are two incommensurable dimensions, which can and must be combined, but which can only really be combined, and thus multiply their reciprocal effects, with the presence, the initiative and the leadership of an adequate Marxist-Leninist party, today referred to as “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist”, as the foundation.
For a fighting vanguard of the proletariat, a life spent fighting against the industrials bosses and governments is certainly worthy of consideration and appreciation, but it is nevertheless a sad life. All the more so if one does not even have a precise consciousness of the narrow horizon of one’s worldview and practice.
What can really illuminate the life of a vanguard worker is the fact that he wants to be a cadre of a revolutionary proletarian political party working to build a popular political bloc in the perspective of revolution and the establishment of a New Democratic People’s and Anti-Fascist State on the road of Socialism.
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