There’s an old saying that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thirty years ago in Italy a political drama played out that justified such a saying – the kidnapping and killing of Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro.
But equally this story shows that the Red Brigades, the left wing group that kidnapped Moro, took a wrong path in their attempt to bring down the system so many people hated.
The background to the kidnapping began in late 1967 when a wave of student occupations engulfed campuses. By 1969 this rebellion had spread to the working class.
Political strikes were called over issues such as pensions, housing, rents, health provision and taxes, culminating in a general strike in November 1969.
An avalanche of concessions followed this upsurge. By 1973 piece work had been abolished in many factories, holidays were increased, the working week reduced from 48 to 40 hours, and workers were granted 150 hours of paid annual leave for non-work related education.
Union membership increased dramatically. The teachers’ unions rose from 4,000 in 1968 to 90,000 in 1975, while general union membership rose from four million in 1968 to 6.6 million in 1975.
New revolutionary organisations emerged from this firestorm. But some of them romanticised about movements that used armed
struggle, such as the Vietnamese liberation movement, the Palestinians and the IRA.
While these anti-imperialist struggles were worthy of support, Italy was a highly industrialised country that did not suffer colonial or imperialist domination.
These ideas didn’t matter too much while the movement was growing, but by the early 1970s hopes of an immediate revolution had been dashed.
In workplaces union bureaucracies began to regain lost ground. They came out in support of workplace councils open to all workers, often run by mass meetings ending with a show of hands.
Some revolutionary groups abandoned these councils due to the growing influence of “reformists”. This meant abandoning the majority of workers to union leaders and the policies of the Italian Communist Party (PCI).
It also meant that the revolutionaries became increasingly isolated from millions of working class people.
The PCI was a mass organisation with over a million members, and it continued to grow electorally. In a paranoid Cold War environment, some people in government were worried by its strength.
The small revolutionary parties born in 1968-69 had collapsed by the mid-1970s. This and the danger of a fascist coup meant some young people saw going underground as the only alternative.
Similarly, many young people viewed the PCI as hopelessly compromised by its strategy of parliamentary change.
These activists were motivated by political ideas, but were politically impatient.
The Red Brigades harked back to the wartime resistance movement against fascism. They felt the need to accelerate working class radicalism, and thought they could short-circuit the normal rules of political development by taking terrorist actions.
They had a network of contacts and friends that they could fall back on. For some in the legal movement, the Red Brigades were “comrades who make mistakes”.
The first Red Brigade actions occurred in 1972-4, with kidnappings and interrogations of factory managers. Nobody was hurt initially, and many of these actions had support within factories, mainly because sometimes management’s anti-trade union secrets were turned into posters and pasted up on factory walls.
Yet bizarrely the Red Brigades based their organisation on Third World national liberation movements, forming themselves into secret city-wide “columns”. They never had more than 500 members.
Many areas of the state had never been cleared of fascist sympathisers following the end of Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship in 1945.
These elements started to work with neo-fascist groups to launch the ”strategy of tension”. This involved fascist groups launching terrorist bombings, and the government blaming the left – with the hope of justifying a massive clampdown.
The majority of them targetted PCI branches, synagogues or anti-fascist monuments. This culminated in a bomb attack on a bank in Milan that killed 17 people.
These attacks nearly all went unpunished and involved high-level support. But there was another wing of the ruling class, led by Christian Democrat politician Aldo Moro, who had a different attitude towards the Communists. It wanted to incorporate the Communists into government.
In the 1976 general election the PCI had won 34 percent of the vote compared to 38 percent for the Christian Democrats.
As Moro was on his way to parliament one morning in March 1978 to propose greater collaboration with the PCI, the Red Brigades attacked his entourage, killing his escort and kidnapping him.
The Red Brigades wanted to gain political recognition through the kidnapping. They also hoped to stop the “historic compromise” Moro wanted to make with the PCI. Crucially, they made it clear they would release Moro if some of their members were released from jail.
The Christian Democrats faced a dilemma. Many leaders had never agreed with Moro’s desire to bring the Communists into government. They were worried about what Moro – desperately trying to save his life in a Red Brigade hideout – might reveal.
Anxious that they might be associated with the Red Brigades, the PCI was the strongest in refusing any negotiation. During the 55 days of Moro’s imprisonment, Communists and Christian Democrats demonstrated side by side for his release.
Another player in a whole series of murky manoeuvres was the US secret service, which also took the view that Moro was expendable. The Christian Democrats decided not to negotiate. The Red Brigades then executed Moro.
The outcome was the opposite of what the Red Brigades had intended. The kidnapping united the Christian Democrats and shifted the Communist Party into an even more moderate stance, prepared to accept any compromise to join government.
The following year, Fiat management used the convenient excuse of “terrorism”, to sack 61 key activists. This was the prelude for a bigger attack in 1980.
Not only had the Red Brigades set off on the wrong foot several years earlier, they had to live in utmost secrecy to survive, totally separated from working class people. The outcome of their decision to kidnap Moro revealed how distant they were from the class they claimed to represent.
Tom Behan’s new book Defiance: The story of one man who stood up to the Sicilian Mafia is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com