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1968 in Italy: Revolution or Cold Civil War

It is important to remember that Italy was probably the first country in Europe involved in that worldwide generational protest cycle which came to be called “1968.” The occupation of universities and the student mobilization had already begun in the autumn of 1967. In addition, the famous battle of “Valle Giulia” in Rome between students and police took place on March 1, 1968, before the most famous joli Mai.

After forty years, the crucial question that has not yet received an answer is about the nature of the protests, both in Italy and elsewhere. In Italy, that question is still unavoidable just for the duration of the event. It is customary to think that it was a revolution. So I will concern myself here with three key questions:

1. 1968 in Italy: was it a revolution?

2. What theory of revolution applies?

3. What was the status of violence in this hypothetical revolution?

1. Was 1968 in Italy a revolutionary situation?

If revolution means a radical change of the material structure (economy and society), 1968 in Italy was a revolution, but more of a consequence of a revolution than a revolution itself. Between 1955 and 1962, Italy underwent an industrial revolution, entering the circle of the most advanced and developed countries. Some data: in fifty years, from 1901 to 1950, the per capita income increased 62%; in the decade 1952-1962, it rose 47%. During the 1950s, agricultural production rose 3% a year, while industrial production rose 9%. In a few years, Italian peasant society basically disappeared, replaced by modern consumerism. But revolution may alternatively mean radical change in collective mentality and ideology. In this sense, too, the Italian 1968 was a revolution. The new ideology, a culture of anti-authoritarianism and self-assessment, broke up the old culture, a narrow-minded mentality, too hierarchical and too heteronymous. Hence, with the new ideology came the spread of civil rights, such as divorce and abortion. An objection might be raised that these rights were the unavoidable result of a process of secularization, but the social pressure through protest actions and demonstrations also contributed in an important way to the crisis in the Catholic Church.

However, if revolution means a radical change in the political system, the Italian 1968 was definitely not a revolution. The so called “Tangentopoli” and the fall of the First Republic (the expression Italians started to use after that event), i.e., the discovery of high-level and widespread corruption among the Italian parties and the party system, showed how much our political system had not changed. Its oligarchic aspect had, if anything, been reinforced during the 1970s and 80s. Although (as Sidney Tarrow argues), Italian civil society expanded after 1968, neither the ruling class nor democracy truly matured. On the contrary, democracy probably declined, and terrorism was the result of this awareness that change was impossible. But the source of terrorism, that is ideology, was not an adequate solution. On the contrary, terrorism provided an easy enemy for the old ruling class to deal with on a cultural level, even if it was very bloody and cruel for its victims. An ideology formed by Marxist theory looked for allies where there weren’t any: the working class did not want anything more than better social insurance and welfare. Therefore, terrorist groups were formed by tiny groups of people. They could develop only thanks to a sympathetic cultural milieu, which was able to translate democracy as socialism. The true democracy could be only the socialist society (collectivization; working-class self-government and similarities). The Leftist political thinker Norberto Bobbio fought a lot with this misunderstanding of the representative institutions by the Italian Left.

At the same time, 1968 in Italy was something very different from a revolution: it was also a civil war during the Cold War period. This triumph of ideology played its role by inflaming a latent configuration marked by political conflict. In addition, the position of Italy in the system of international relationships favored the persistence of division based upon two important cleavages: communism/anti-communism and fascism/anti-fascism. After World War II, Italy was the European country most marked by the legacy of the two totalitarian ideologies. Democracy was perceived primarily as an import product rather than an indigenous tradition. Citizenship was defined more by party membership than by national institutions. And many parties had strong ideological connotations: think of the Communist and the Socialist Parties, but also to some currents inside the Christian Democratic Party. Giovanni Sartori wrote in the 1970s, in his famous Parties and Party Systems (1976): “The Italian situation represents an extreme case of partisan hypertrophy.” [1]

2. Which theory of revolution?

The only answer is Marxism, but then: What kind of Marxism in the Italian 1968?

As Lucio Colletti and Perry Anderson noted, the Stalinist bureaucratization of the USSR and the Third International ruptured the political-intellectual unity that had marked Marxism until the beginning of the 1920s. Plechanov, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Hilferding, et al. had been both theorists and political leaders. After that, the situation changed. Choked down in Eastern Europe, Marxism also underwent a radical transformation in the West: it became less political and economic analysis and more and more about philosophy. Out of the core of political practice (even if not formally), Marxist intellectuals changed their physiognomy, often migrating into universities.

For Anderson, 1968 opened a new chapter: a new alliance between theory and practice emerged; after a long period of division in Western Marxism, philosophy and politics would reunite. Colletti understood how illusory Anderson’s thesis was. The rupture between theory and practice was (and remains) incurable. Stalinism was not the cause of Marxism’s crisis: the argument has to be turned around: Stalinism resulted from more profound crises within Marxism. Colletti argued that after 1917 Russia grew progressively and led to Stalinism. Marxism was irretrievably flawed on several levels:

(a) in the analysis of the capitalist State and, particularly, modern representative democracy;

(b) in the evaluation of the role of nationalism and the bourgeois revolutions themselves, in Europe and the rest of the world;

(c) in the economic theory of Das Kapital, starting from the theory of surplus value (on which the theory of capitalistic exploitation is based).

In other words, Colletti recognized that the real problem is that Marxism was itself an “ideology,” in a very Marxist sense: “false consciousness.” For that reason Eastern European societies were completely beyond its grasp. In his Sacred Family, Marx observed that Robespierre was creating the society of “Crédit Mobilier” just while he was imagining the restoration of the ancient republic with its virtues.

Something similar happened to Lenin and Trotsky. They thought they were creating the society of the free and the equal, of the workers self-government, of the Soviet Commune. Concretely, something very different resulted.

In the 1960s, in Italy (and elsewhere in Europe), the crisis of Marxism was clear to many intellectuals, but there was a certain difference between the ruling class of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the Marxist intellectuals. The so-called Marxist intellectual avant-garde was marching in the demonstrations, while some Italian communist politicians tried to do the right thing at that moment: facing the Western liberal-democracy’s successes, i.e., recognizing its capacity to combine liberty and social solidarity (think of the welfare-state model, which was just spreading in that period)—and the success of the West stood in marked contrast to the failures of the Soviet East. However, in the same period, young and less young Italian Marxist intellectuals (members or former militants of PCI or PSI) underwent a process similar to what happens every time the Dalai Lama dies. Buddhist monks search everywhere to find the newborn who has “the sign,” the proof of reincarnation. The same search for a new leader took place in Italian Marxism when Stalin died (especially, after his “second death” in 1956, with the Twentieth Congress and the de-Stalinization produced by Khrushchev’s “secret report”). First, Fidel Castro was the “newborn”; then Mao Tse-Tung, then Lin Piao, Che Guevara, and so on. This hunger for the absolute is more comprehensible among young people, less among mature university scholars, Colletti said. But he himself was one of them!

Anyway, the prevalent kind of Marxism “used” by the Italian New Left groups was Leninist (State and Revolution) or Maoist. In any case, in that period, Marxism in Italy witnessed the beginning of its final crisis and its disappearance as hegemonic political culture. The appeal to “exotic Marxisms” testified to the extreme attempt to make the revolution in the West. This logic of the very last assault on the capitalist citadel explains the high level of violence that ensued.

3. Was this a violent revolution?

The burning desire to return to an authentic Marxist theory, the “pure” one, neither reformist nor “maximalist” but revolutionary, a desire that inflamed the theorists of journals and mini-groups of the Italian “New Left,” meant a new relevance assigned to violence in making revolution. Not by chance the term and the concept of the proletarian dictatorship returned along with the myth of the seizure of power by Bolsheviks or by Chinese Red Guards.

Michel Vovelle correctly identifies violence, alongside egalitarianism and unanimity, as a component of the tradition of ancient millenarianisms. That held for the French Revolution, and it holds for the 1968 protests as well. In this sense, it was a revolution indeed. Psychologists of crowds could well explain how violence is connected with mass popular movements and collective behavior and actions. It is almost a question of physiology; or, as an ethnologist could say, an excess of proximity.

Insofar as Marxism is a millenarian-utopian attitude (mystic-utopian, Lucio Colletti said), its relation with violence is constitutive: violence is history’s midwife.

The denunciation of the Stalinist personality cult after 1956 was a break in the historical process. Overcoming that break meant rediscovering voluntarism. Lenin returned, and the slogan for all extra-parliamentary groups to the left of PCI was: not beyond Stalin, but before Stalin: coming back to the origins to let the revolution start again. Sometimes, for an increasing number of groups, these origins were not the Bolshevik ones, going back to the October 1917, but the Maoist ones, especially the Chinese cultural revolution in the mid-1960s. China was interpreted as taking the revolutionary purpose seriously, and a way to overcome the impasse caused by the Stalinist moment of the worldwide revolutionary process.

The widespread and heavy use of ideology meant the search for the absolute enemy became abstract. When you need to find the Enemy par excellence (the Enemy with the capital E), you will surely find it, a lot of enemies; and the enemy needs violence to exist, because violence creates enemies (i.e., victims). A massive use of ideology meant that social phenomena would be read from the point of view of utopia, necessarily lacking in realism. But that’s not reading, it’s dreaming. Nevertheless, reality comes back as negative consequences, in opposition to your wishes. This dissonant reply causes resentment and the wish for making reality closer to the dreams. The usual argument is: “Our project failed because our effort was insufficiently coherent and determined. We have to use more force.” The spiral of violence therefore starts again and again. Stopping it becomes really hard.

In the end, there were many causes of the Italian 1968, but an important one was the mere presence of the Italian Communist Party. More than the policies chosen by its leadership, the presence of the Party was decisive. As Sartori noted, it was a classical example of an anti-system party. It was a two-headed party: it managed more power (especially at a local, regional level, but also in Parliament), while it talked revolution. The more “conservative” its actions, the more revolutionary its discourse became. The two faces were equally fundamental to its identity. Its ambivalent nature helped to spread the instability and ineffectiveness that sadly came to characterize the Italian political system.

Instability and inactivity are two terms that are apparently in contradiction. But the political system was marked by both the inability to change and the inability to have strong and durable governments, especially after the end of the so-called “centrism” (the period ruled by the Christian Democrat leader, Alcide De Gasperi, from 1947 to 1953). If Italian political culture were contradictory, it was due to the Communist Party: one of the founders the republic and its constitution, while remaining the biggest pro-Soviet party in the West. It was democratic in necessity and tactics, but totalitarian in final aim and strategy.

As long as Togliatti was alive, this contradiction was well managed. After his death, it exploded, even if the Communist Party tradition (i.e., the “democratic centralism”) restrained the negative consequences.

A proverb says: “Be sure your sins will find you out” (in Italian: “tutti i nodi vengono al pettine”). Political anomaly has to come out; and during a typical crisis of growing up, Italian society manifested this anomaly and its anachronism. 1968 in Italy was that: a nineteenth-century reply to a modernization crisis, a too ideological reply, while the first need was a reformed political culture. But the difficulties cannot all be blamed on a backward political culture. The ruling class also had a great responsibility, especially after the 1968 protests. The bad 1970s were its fault. Its weakness allowed foreign actors (the United States? the Soviet Union? whoever else?) to introduce their obscure interests, and Italian politics became the chessboard of non-Italian agents. National sovereignty was reduced more than in the past, because 1968 was the weakest point of the bipolar international scene.

In general, there was a lack of political management of the conflict, which first emerged in civil society and was deeply transformed by an economy passing from an agricultural-industrial configuration to an industrial-agricultural one. This aspect accelerated the penetration and action of the extra-parliamentary groups inside the more general protest movement.

In conclusion, the Italian 1968 was so long for three reasons:

(a) a sticky political and civic culture, heavily ideological, deeply factious, and marked by high polarization [2] and heavy rhetoric (also a Fascist legacy);

(b) a parliamentary ruling class that had become oligarchic, the so-called “partitocrazia” (party-power; partyism), very distant from a rapidly changing civil society (the distance between the “palace” and the “square,” the power and the people, as Pasolini argued);

(c) Italy was a borderline state/country during the Cold War: the presence and influence of foreign powers was relevant, not always but especially in moments of crisis.


1. Giovanni Sartori, Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976), p. 88.

2. “Briefly put, we have polarization when we have ideological distance (in contradistinction to ideological proximity)” (ibid., p. 135).

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