The 1970s were known in Italy as the “years of lead”. A huge upsurge in working class and student struggles began in 1968.
The revolutionary left and the Communist Party grew quickly. The ruling class met them with “the strategy of tension” in which sections of it threatened a military takeover.
There is evidence of Mafia involvement in this sabre-rattling and neo-Nazi attacks on the left.
Defiance, my new book, centres on the life of Peppino Impastato during those years. He grew up in Cinisi, a Mafia controlled town beside Palermo airport, and his father was a Mafia member.
Peppino’s importance is as a model in fighting the Mafia. Peppino took the ideas of Karl Marx and tried to apply them to the circumstances of Mafia domination, where there was no strong tradition of trade unions.
He began by appealing to the new generation. The first of his writings was about sexuality.
Peppino began on these social issues and expanded out, working with larger organisations like the Communist Party. He tried to find common cause with them.
Palermo airport was being expanded so he threw himself into the struggle against the ruin of the local environment and destruction of the livelihoods of local peasants whose land was being expropriated to build a new runway.
When the runway was built he tried to organise the workers at the airport.
He also took on the Mafia while appealing to people’s needs. Because employment was often casual – Mafia run companies would employ people, off the books at long hours with no insurance or health and safety cover.
Peppino took part in unionisation drives that brought him up against the Mafia. Peppino and his friends set up film clubs and in 1977 a popular revolutionary radio station. Developing that counter-power meant coming up against the Mafia. The hitmen eventually silenced Peppino but not his message. His funeral turned into an angry anti-Mafia demonstration.
The film The 100 Steps centres on Peppino’s life, and when it came out it fitted the growing anti-capitalist and anti-war movement which rocked Italy in the first half of this decade.
Peppino was rightly seen as someone who was about making huge, radical challenges to the system. He is also someone who appeals to the imagination with a sense of doing something new, yet remaining clearly rooted on the left.
The 100 Steps, released in 2000, is the second biggest grossing film in Italian cinema over the last decade. This is some achievement for a small budget film made by an unknown director with an unknown cast. Its popularity spread by word of mouth, and it was often shown at union conferences and community centres.
Even today Giovanni, Peppino’s brother, could spend every night of the week going to meetings throughout Italy talking about his brother and the film.
My book tries to tell the story of a young, left wing activist trying to change the world. He is someone who fights against his own family, so it’s also a story of division.
Peppino Impastato is someone who shows that if you appeal to people’s needs and their desire for change you can map out a strategy for radical change.
Defiance: The Story of One Man Who Stood Up to the Sicilian Mafia by Tom Behan is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop for £15.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com