The Working Class Goes to Paradise


It is by no means easy to pinpoint the specifically Catholic roots of activism amongst students belonging to the generation of ‘1968’. This forensic task constitutes an even greater challenge when attempting to assess the Catholic motivations behind working-class militancy, which is equally characteristic of the conjuncture of ‘1968’, certainly in Mediterranean Europe.[1] For student leaders, benefiting from their familiarity with texts and written expression of ideas, frequently penned autobiographies, if they did not become the outright objects of biographical studies themselves. Working-class leaders had far fewer occasions to devote precious free time to the production of reflections on their own personal and political itineraries. Given the particular volatility of the Italian cauldron of multiform social movement activity for several years after 1968, sufficient material has been published on the veritable laboratory of radical working-class action south of the Alps to permit at least an approximate picture of the issues at hand. Characteristically, much of the material allowing much-needed and hitherto much-occluded insight into the Catholic motivation for radical working-class insurgency stems from sources closely identified with ‘Catholic’ workers’ associations, above all the quintessentially Catholic trade union federation, the Confederazione Italiana Sindacati dei Lavoratori (CISL).

From 1968 till 1976, no country in Europe experienced such a seemingly permanent wave of working-class struggles and working-class gains quite like that in Italy. Especially in the upswing phase of 1968-72, the CISL occupied pride of place within the range of contestations which made Italian factories and offices almost ‘liberated zones’ compared to anywhere else in Europe.[2] For anyone familiar with the history of Italian trade union federations—and especially that of the CISL—this was a wholly surprising and unpredicted turn of events. For the CISL had been created to provide a moderate counterweight to the hegemonic Communist current dominating trade union politics in the wake of liberation in 1945. For a few years after liberation, virtually all Italian trade union currents operated within the unified Confed- erazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL). But in 1948, the Catholic current split from the CGIL in the context of emerging Cold War politics, first setting up what became known as the Libera CGIL (Free CGIL), then renaming itself in 1950 as the CISL. For two decades the CISL performed the role of a moderate, pro-Western alternative to the Communist-dominated CGIL. With good reason, the CISL was thus identified as the Catholic answer to ‘Communist’ intransigence. How could a trade union federation wholly devoted to business unionism turn into a vehicle of societal revolt?

In fact, unlike virtually all other European national Catholic (or Christian) trade union federations set up or revitalized at the onset of the Cold War, the CISL adopted the orientation towards ‘secularism’ [laicita] as an operating principle and ideological identity from the start. From the outset, no formal ties bound the CISL to the Catholic church. Especially in Italy, where the Catholic church could boast of a huge array of capillary organizations within and beyond Catholic Action, this choice of a secular orientation was wholly atypical and was recognized as such by friend and foe. Nonetheless, for all their open advocacy of a pluralist orientation, the CISL was part and parcel of the Italian Catholic universe. In fact, as one of the most astute members of the CISL leadership team, Bruno Manghi, once stated perspicaciously, it was solely because of the deeply Catholic convictions of the founding generation of CISL leaders that the CISL could afford to adopt a lay orientation. In the late 1940s, the Catholic roots of the cislini were universally recognized as an outstanding feature of their organization, and thus their embrace of nominal secularism was questioned by few observers at the time.[3]

If the choice of laicita was based on the indisputable strength of Catholic convictions within the CISL’s leadership and ranks, it nonetheless opened the doors towards a genuinely pluralist orientation. And one way in which this autonomy from the Catholic church was able to manifest itself was in the choice of ideological role models. The traditional social doctrine of the church remained the unquestioned key ideological reference point for quite some time. Catholic social theory viewed society as an interlocking series of relationships based on natural law, where each link performed an assigned role in a quasi-organic harmonious mechanism assuming social peace as a permanent primordial value. But other traditions could also find a toehold in the official culture of the CISL. Given the fascination with American culture as the pinnacle of Western civilization in the era of the Cold War, American trade union practices were widely admired by CISL leaders, and the United States AFL-CIO performed the function of role model in the heyday of Cold War politics in the 1950s and early 1960s.[4]

Yet, for all its Cold War blinkers, even within the AFL-CIO there operated a variety of sometimes conflicting traditions. For the metal workers’ federation (FIM) operating within the CISL in the period of incipient reorientation within the CISL (1958-63), Walter Reuther and the early postwar United Automobile Workers (UAW) were a key source of inspiration. And, of course, within the spectrum of American trade union politics, the Reuther period of UAW activism stood at the left margins of the kaleidoscope of US working- class politics.[5]

Yet, more generally, the infatuation with the American role model, in the context of stultifying Italian Cold War politics, frequently introduced into the CISL not just a breath but entire breezes of fresh air. In the face of the hegemony of traditional Catholic social theory, American pragmatism opened up new vistas for cislini.[6] What fascinated the CISL the most about their American godfather were the democratic impulses, still visible in AFL-CIO practices in the course of the 1950s, but also the advocacy and practice of unity amongst formerly competing federations[7]—the erstwhile ‘enemy brothers’, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, merged into a unitary federation in 1955! Another feature of American culture, the rising star of academic sociology in the 1950s and 1960s, also left a lasting impact on CISL theory and practice.[8] Certainly the important training school for CISL cadres, founded in Florence in 1951, for the most part kept Catholic social theory at arm’s length in its syllabi and associated practices, preferring to draw on the traditions of the more open-minded American theories and experiences.9

Nevertheless, for all practical purposes, up to 1958 and in some respects all the way up to 1968, the CISL was a moderate and ‘acceptable’ alternative to CGIL radicalism. Even when Giulio Pastore, co-founder and first president of the CISL from 1950 to 1958, stepped down from a cabinet post in the Italian national government in 1960 in protest against the collusion of the Christian Democratic Prime Minister, Fernando Tambroni, with the neofascist Movi- mento Sociale Italiano, whose votes had been crucial to allow Tambroni to narrowly survive a vote of confidence, the CISL remained wholly absent from the subsequent social and political convulsions affecting Italian civil society.10 The CISL by and large performed the role assigned to it for close to two decades. If there were no official ties to the Catholic church, the close relationship with conservative Christian Democracy more than made up for this.

  • [1] For a survey of the working-class dimension of the upsurge in activism in the late 1960s andearly 1970s, see my chapter, ‘“Vogliamo Tutto”. The Working-Class Dimension of “1968”’, inThe Spirit of ’68. Rebellion in Western Europe and North America, 1956-1976 (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 2007), pp. 93-130.
  • [2] The classic cinematographic expression of this era remains Elio Petri, La classe operaia va inparadiso (Italy, 1971).
  • [3] Note the relevant passage in an interview with Bruno Manghi, ‘Una pigra unanimitaaffievolisce la democrazia’, in Fondazione Vera Nocentini (ed.), Sindacalismo e laicita. Il para-dosso della Cisl (Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2000), p. 46.
  • [4] Note, for instance, Silvana Sciarra, ‘L’influenza del sindacalismo “Americano” sulla Cisl’, inGuido Baglioni (ed.), Analisi della Cisl. Fatti egiudizi di un’esperienza sindacale (Rome: Lavoro,1980), pp. 283-307.
  • [5] Bruno Manghi, ‘La Fim. Una federazione in un sindacato di categorie’, in Baglioni (ed.),Analisi della Cisl, p. 663. For the role of the UAW and, in particular, Walter Reuther in thepostwar conjuncture of US politics, see Nelson Lichtenstein, Walter Reuther. The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
  • [6] Again, Bruno Manghi is excellent at teasing out the various strands and consequences of thefascination with United States’ practices within the CISL; note his ‘La Fim-Cisl. Apologia di unprocesso di liberazione’, in Lorenzo Bedeschi et al., I cristiani nella sinistra. Dalla Resistenza aoggi (Rome: Coines, 1976), p. 216.
  • [7] Interview with Franco Bentivolgi, ‘La laicita nell’esperienza formativa dei dirigenti Cisl’, inFondazione Vera Nocentini (ed.), Sindacalismo e laicita, p. 56.
  • [8] For the unusually prominent role of trained sociologists in CISL leadership bodies, note therelevant comments to this effect in Emilio Reyneri, ‘Il ruolo della Cisl nel ciclo di lotte1968-1972’, in Baglioni (ed.), Analisi della Cisl, p. 749. For a discussion of a similarly
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