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Visions of emancipation: the Italian workers' movement since 1945.

Italy, of course, is different. In what other country would the Socialist President and the fanatically anticommunist Pope publicly mourn the death of the leader of the Communist Party? But Italy's differences are, in some ways at least, simply the experience of the entire West writ large and with imagination. That is the case with the postwar Italian left, the subject of Joanne Barkan's important new book.

For the Western left, the postwar era is divided into two quite different periods: the period from 1947 to roughly 1970, and that from the early 1970s to the present. In the first period, perhaps the greatest boom in the history of capitalism, trade unionists, socialists and most communists became left Keynesians. Under conditions of economic growth, workers and their allies could present themselves as a "national class," i.e., a class whose interests were those of society as a whole. High wages and high consumption, it was understood, were the keys to expanded production.

In the early 1970s, a worldwide economic slowdown culminated in the worst recession since the Great Depression. In most of Europe, unemployment reached record highs and stayed there. (Sweden and Austria were exceptions.) More to the point, these events restored the classic contradiction between accumulation and consumption. We had entered, as Jerry Brown rightly said, an age of limits. But, being an American, he typically ignored the critical questions: Whose limits? Which social actors were to receive the bill?

Visions of Emancipation begins with a useful, if fairly standard, account of the period in Italy immediately following World War II. The cold war was a major force in the factories as well as in Parliament. In 1955, for instance, the American Ambassador to Italy, Clare Boothe Luce, decided that the United States would award no military contracts to plants in which the Communist-led General Confederation of Labor had a majority. Then, too, the U.S. government and trade unionists from the American Federation of Labor had played an active role in splitting the Italian union movement shortly after the war.

By the 1960s, in Italy as throughout the West, the balance of bargaining power started to shift. New social forces began to appear both within and outside the unions. Barkan's analysis of these developments makes her Visions of Emancipation an indispensable volume for any student of the left. Here, one finds that tendency of the Italian left to write themes large and con brio.

The new unionism of the late 1960s and early 1970s in Italy did not begin with the younger workers, who tended to ignore the unions, but with the skilled veterans. As the movement gathered strength, it brought new groups--women, southerners, the unskilled--into the struggle. It also raised new demands: equal pay increases for everyone in order to reduce income differentials within the working class; some worker control over production decisions; 150 hours of paid time off over three years so that workers could take educational courses. the 150 hours concession played a significant role in feminist consciousness raising, for it enabled women to participate in discussion groups with full pay. (Some of their voices emerge in a fascinating series of interviews at the conclusion of Barkan's narrative.)

In the "Hot Autumn" of 1969, more than a quarter of the Italian work force went on strike. In the factories there were tumultuous assemblies which resulted in less hierarchical forms of representation for the workers. The issue of money, however, was not ignored: taking their pay in 1966 as a base, the metal and mechanical workers were able to get a 47.8 percent increase by 1970. (In the same period, prices had only gone up by 11.6 percent, so here was an actual income increase of more than one third in five years!)

Then a number of things happened. The new unionism lost some of its spontaneity; the union hierarchies began to consolidate again; oil shocks and stagflation hit the advanced industrial economies; and suddenly history seemed to turn a corner. Ironically, there are people on the left and the right who agree about the causes of these trends. In Claus Offe's collection of essays Contradictions of the Welfare State and in Samuel Bowles, David M. Gordon and Thomas E. Weisskipf's Beyond the Waste Land, critics of the system argue that the welfare state, particularly in periods of populist surges, may be too capitalist to be socialist--and too socialist to be capitalist.

In any case, one of the most intriguing parts of Barkan's analysis is her account of the "historic compromise" proposed by the Italian Communists to deal with the new situation. Most Americans think of the Berlinguer proposal in political terms, as an attempt on the part of the Communists to create an alliance with the progressive forces among the Christian Democrats. But it also involved a remarkable plan for self-imposed working-class austerity in exchange for genuine working-class participation in shaping the economic transition that it sacrifices would help finance.

Eventually the Communists backed off from their own proposal because the workers' sacrifices were much more specific than the compensations offered them. As part of that change of direction, the Communists turned toward the new social movements of the 1970s. Barkan's chapter on feminism and the working class is quite good. When the Italian feminists emerged among college educated women in the 1960s, the problems they faced paralleled the experience of American women during the same period. Women on the left were sometimes called angeli del ciclostile, "angels of the mimeograph machine." But the tempo of activity accelerated quickly, not the least because the struggle for the right to choice in abortion was well mobilized and capable at times of challenging the Communists who, because of the "historic compromise," were cutting too many deals with the Christian Democrats. Eventually, that mobilization from the bottom worked and Italy passed one of the most progressive abortion laws in the West.

Moreover, even through Italian women did not enter the paid labor force at anything like the rate of American women, the political culture of the country allowed them to make real gains within the unions. "By 1980," Barkan writes, "unions in Milan were even holding factorywide assemblies during working hours to discuss legislation on sexual violence in the broader context of women's subordination, sexual needs, and matrimonial duties."

Enormously important as that and other social gains are, they do not alter the fact that no one on the left in Italy has a coherent answer to the crisis that has been going on for a decade or so. It is to Barkan's credit that she does not shrink from the depressing results of this struggle:

The labor movement had sufficient strength in the market arena to disrupt the economy, but it never exercised enough influence in the politcal arena to gain structural reforms. When the economy went into crisis, the labor movement was vulnerable to serious defeats precisely because the model of development had not been substantially altered. The unions could not redeploy their full strength in the market arena because this would only have aggravated the economic crisis. The dilemma is unequivocal. Labor has the ability to destabilize the economic system but still depends ont he existing system and cannot change it in the neat future. This constitutes the impasse of the Italian labor movement.

And the impasse of the French, Spanish, German and U.S. labor movements. Do not expect Joanne Barkan to offer a militant formula for getting the working class out of its terrible bind, but her book is important because it asks the right questions and avoids the easy answers. That is the condition for finding a real answer.
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Author:Harrington, Michael (American socialist writer)
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 23, 1985
Words:1279
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