A VIRTUOUS CIRCLE

The CISL had traditionally attracted young unskilled and white-collar workers precisely because of its image of greater moderation vis-a-vis the CGIL, the latter having often relied on skilled workers’ radical instincts to sustain its confrontational image in the 1950s and early 1960s. One of the characteristics of the post-1968 period in Italy, of course, was the prominent role of unskilled young workers and white-collar employees as shapers of their radical destiny. As these hitherto rather passive strata abandoned their deferential attitudes from 1968 onwards, the CISL became their natural organizational vehicle. Unskilled workers were the key forces pushing to reject Taylorism, piecework regimes, and other unwanted features of late-capitalist productivism. Building on the pre-existing substructures of traditional Catholic esteem for egalitarianism, the CISL after 1968 became the key organization for the promotion of anti-hierarchical, anti-capitalist demands, which were now all the rage on the factory and office floors. The CISL, hitherto not particularly well implanted in classic blue-collar industries, suddenly benefited from the influx of new and radicalized members. Unlike the CGIL, which had engaged in many confrontations during the Cold War decades, the CISL had few memories of battles lost in earlier years. Coupled with the rush of new members, the CISL was thus ideally poised to give organizational expression to these newly popular spon- taneist and anti-hierarchical milieux. As the weaker union in blue-collar industries up to 1968, the cislini felt that they had little to lose and could embark upon new engagements and experiences. In turn, this newly emerging image of the CISL fuelled by anti-hierarchical, spontaneist, and libertarian energies fed a constant stream of new recruits from within the burgeoning Italian New Left, the PSIUP, and notably the legion of activists radicalized in the ranks of post-Vatican II Catholic dissent.[1]

A major source of energies stimulating cislini activists to seemingly reach for the sky was the absence of a strong and authoritative political filter. Having increasingly abandoned Christian Democrat tutelage in the years between 1958 and 1968, there was no political organization to which cislini could turn for experience and advice. The CGIL, by contrast, was still led on a relatively short leash by the PCI, even though the PCI was far less authoritarian in this regard by comparison with the attitudes of the PCF vis-a-vis the CGT in France. But the newly dominant CISL radicalism operated in truly autonomous fashion. And, in a period when production relations were turned upside down, the implications of such a turn were literally and figuratively unlimited.

In the years of moderation, the cislini had enthusiastically engaged in contract negotiations over production goals and the technical division of labour on the factory floor, including piecework regulations. The CGIL, by contrast, systematically rejecting such attempts to shape the contours of production within the limits of capitalist rationality, traditionally had refused to engage in such negotiations. Now, after 1968, when the cislini reoriented towards stridently anti-capitalist goals and methods, there was no organization better placed to contest and reject piecework, line speeds, and similar trappings of technical management of the factory floor than the CISL, which knew better than any other organization what such a Taylorist approach concretely implied. Up to 1968, individual contracts negotiated at factory- level had tended to adopt gains obtained in, often difficult, national negotiations. From 1968 to 1972, this relationship was essentially reversed. National contract terms now, instead, adopted gains which particularly combative and successful local workforces in flagship factories had managed to achieve. Individual factories—rather than national negotiation teams—were driving the system in this period of rapid change. The CISL, hitherto playing second fiddle on the national scale, was once again well poised to benefit from this role reversal. With individual factory battles setting the tone, the political centrality of the factory became the watchword of the day. Once again, the cislini, with no political party as their brains trust behind the scenes, felt perfectly at ease in this new and highly politicized spontaneist environment. In turn, their elevation of the factory to the primary locus of contestation attracted yet another non-traditional left-wing milieu which had quietly grown in influence from the late 1950s onwards: the operaisti.[2]

In hindsight, the high value placed traditionally by cislini on contract negotiations, originally fed by pre-Vatican II organicist Catholic social theory promoting social peace, had unwittingly prepared the CISL to become the quintessential union federation of this hot phase of radical working-class struggles after 1968. Their traditional promotion of a decentralized approach to interactions with employers, an attitude emerging as much from their position as the underdog vis-a-vis the CGIL as from the traditional Catholic veneration of ‘substitutionism’, favouring decentralization of decision-making whenever possible, further aided the radiance of CISL factory-centred activism after 1968. The CISL—and the FIM always performing a vanguard role in this stage of sessantotto activism—kept its eye on the prize of the individual factory floor, and the CISL was therefore also much better prepared than the CGIL to promote and foster internal union democracy and the rotation of tasks amongst its members. Cislini—again with the FIM in pole position—regarded its grassroots base as the source of and the locus of debates on policies and objectives. The CISL was constitutionally far less inclined to view the rank- and-file as a constituency which could be mobilized instrumentally to support ideas generated at the top. It is easy to see how such egalitarian, anti-hierarchical attitudes could promote the virtuous circle of attracting antiauthoritarian activists emerging from the milieux of gruppi spontanei and the Movimento Studentesco to further feed the flames of CISL radicalization.

If, then, the CISL’s rise to prominence owed much to circumstantial accident—in the terms of Vatican II: the happy conjuncture of the ‘signs of the times’—certain Catholic dispositions contributed their own fair share to this process. Thus, to furnish one additional example of the capacity of Catholic traditions to facilitate radicalization, the study of CISL attitudes towards participation in the running of their enterprises is curiously instructive. In the 1950s and early 1960s, still under the sway of organicist conceptions of factories as harmonious production units, this willingness meant above all the negotiations of piecework rates, line speed, and other features of technical factory regimes. There was no sense, then, of such contract negotiations challenging the underlying rationale of enterprises running along capitalist lines. After 1968, the meaning of ‘participation’ changed rapidly and profoundly. It now no longer meant the stipulation of the rate of exploitation, but instead it was reinterpreted to mean workers’ control and workers’ selfmanagement. The principle of engagement with the running of an enterprise was still the same, only the concrete contours and ultimate goals had changed in radically new directions.[3]

Pierre Carniti, the long-time CISL leadership figure, once asked himself ‘why Catholics within unions appear to engage in experiences which are richer and more advanced than others’.[4] Leaving aside a host of factors already addressed earlier in this chapter, Carniti highlighted in his answer one additional mechanism or, rather, a complex of issues that can be traced back to traditional Catholic belief systems. Carniti pointed to elements of Catholic faith which, ‘though firmly anchored in concrete time and concrete history, do not fully exhaust themselves with actions, projects, politics or ideology. There is also the presence of hope, hope in total liberation, constantly invoked by tensions encountered in everyday struggle, in view of the final destiny of humanity.’[5] The striving for equality, an authentically egalitarian future, cannot be subsumed solely by reference to improvements in work schedules, working conditions, or a more rational reshuffling of necessary labour time, ‘but it also means the realization of another quality of life, a transformation of values able to oppose individualism and to promote solidarity and equality in the face of competition’.[6] Or, as Pierre Carniti was fond of saying, ‘Jesus Christ was certainly not a Menshevik’.[7]

  • [1] By far the most convincing portrayal of the process of fundamental reorientation inoutlook and strategies by the CISL after 1968 is Emilio Reyneri, ‘Il ruolo della Cisl’, alreadycited in note 8, from which this subsection heavily draws. The Partito Socialista Italiano di UnitaProletaria (PSIUP) was the key political party which gave organizational expression to New Leftsympathies at that time.
  • [2] Operaisti placed emphasis on autonomous working-class action to achieve radical goals,unencumbered by the constraining role of traditional left-wing political parties or trade unionfederations. First making waves in the late 1950s, this current obtained a particular popularity inItaly, often having prepared the ideological and activist terrain in grassroots efforts in the run-upto 1968. The most accessible English-language study of operaismo is now Steve Wright, StormingHeaven. Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (London: Pluto, 2002).
  • [3] Treu, ‘Cultura e valori’, pp. 51-4, is particularly insightful on the changing meaning of‘participation’ within the culture of the CISL.
  • [4] Pierre Carniti, ‘Lavoratori cattolici, conflitto, classe’, in Baglioni et al., Lavoratori cattolici,p. 107.
  • [5] Carniti, ‘Lavoratori’, p. 108. 3 Carniti, ‘Lavoratori’, p. 109.
  • [6] 30 Carniti, ‘Lavoratori’, p. 107.
  • [7] 31 The standard reference work on the MLAC is now Valentino Marcon and Tino Mariani,
 
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