On March 11, 1977, the Communist-led government of Bologna sent the police into the city’s university to quell student protests, breaking a centuries-old protocol that granted autonomy to the ancient institution. Francesco Lorusso, a student and member of the far-left extra-parliamentary group Lotta Continua, was murdered in the ensuing violence, shot in the back by police.
Leftists from across Italy flocked to Bologna in support of the movement. Yet the Italian Communist Party (PCI), in power in Bologna since the end of the war, refused to back the students. At this crucial moment the party chose to side with the establishment rather than harness a youthful movement at the height of its power.
It marked the turning point in Bologna’s decades-long experiment in participatory democracy — which, up until then, had marked the PCI as a leading force of democratization among the Western European communist parties.
In both its success and ultimate failure, in both its remarkably effective socialist policies and abject failure to integrate an energetic youth, “Red Bologna” provides invaluable lessons for a resurgent democratic socialism today.
These days the PCI remains the principal culprit in the subsequent decline of the Italian left, the party’s very real achievements in Bologna obscured by its compromises with the ruling class and betrayals of the young, precarious, and marginalized in society. But in the years preceding the violence, PCI-governed Bologna was frequently singled out as a model of effective municipal governance — and not just by the Left. “Bologna,” Newsweek proclaimed in 1974, “is by far the best governed state in Europe.”
A PCI stronghold since the war, Bologna became the central testing ground of the party’s new approach to socialist political organization. The PCI’s goal was to introduce elements of socialism at the local level, within a country still fundamentally under capitalist rule at the national level. Eschewing top-down rule from party to citizen, the party attempted to directly engage the city’s residents at all levels of decision-making.
In Red Bologna, a study of the period published in 1977, the journalist Max Jaggi outlines the raft of radically innovative policies and social programs that emerged. Fare-free buses were introduced, traffic was diverted away from public squares, the historic center was protected with strict planning regulations, and an already progressive national law demanding at least eighteen square meters of public space per person was increased to sixty-four.
Attitudes to public health were also completely transformed. Writing at the time, Sil Schmit described a shift from the “hierarchical clinic” to a “therapeutic community.” The Bolognese authorities empowered workers to strike in protest against poor working conditions, paid health care professionals to conduct occupational health analyses in the workplace, and fostered a massive public discussion about health, featuring thousands of pamphlets written by workers themselves. All this was wrapped up in the city health department’s guiding slogan: “prevention is revolutionary.”
On education, the government sought total reconstruction. An official statement explained their aims: “The type of young person we need is one who has learned to understand; who knows how to change things and who wants to change them.” In the face of a woefully inadequate national education system, additional afternoon schools were organized with council-employed teachers, parents’ unions were fostered, and Bologna became host to a yearly international forum on progressive education policy.
Progress could be seen in every area of public policy. But it was in the area of housing that the PCI’s participatory model made its most visible gains. The newly formed housing cooperatives had a combined membership of over fifteen thousand at their peak in the mid-1960s. In a delegation of power that would be inconceivable today, these cooperatives were granted their own planning offices and through the Piano di Edifizia Economica e Popolare allocated land for redevelopment in the five most deprived areas of the city (made available at 20 percent of market rents).
The idea was to give to the residents of these areas the concrete means with which to alleviate the social ills associated with a capitalist state. The aim was not to overthrow the state through direct means, but to find crevices within it for alternative social models, while confronting and negating market forces rather than merely trying to ameliorate them.
This aggressive redistributive approach extended across Bolognese public policy, transforming “residents,” “customers,” and “patients” into active participants in the formal means of social provision.
And yet, amid all this radical inclusivity, one growing force was conspicuous in its absence: the movement of the city’s students and young radicals.
Red Bologna Rejects Its Youth
A contradictory feature of the Bolognese government’s participatory policy was its marginalization of many of those outside the traditional, unionized working class: women, homosexual collectives, squatters, and anyone associated with the autonomia movement.
As Franco “Bifo” Berardi details, “the agenda of the PCI aimed at pitting the workers who have a regular job against the irregular, unemployed, precarious, underpaid young proletarians.” The party’s position was distilled in its sanctioned suppression of Radio Alice, a local radio station run by autonomia activists. The radio station employed innovative call-in methods to provide a continuous feedback of struggle occurring across the city, thus expanding the very structure of Bologna’s preexisting participatory politics across the airwaves.
Stefano Bonaga, then a young philosophy professor at the university, remembers the spirit of the autonomia movement well: “there was a rejection of the notion that the party will lead us to communism and justice. The new idea was to start building society ourselves, without mediation.”
The youth also opposed the PCI’s “historic compromise” with the Christian Democrats — proposed in 1973 and consummated in 1976 — an alliance forged in the name of stability that they saw as an unforgivable concession to the ruling class.
As a university professor and activist in the 1970s, and eventually a participant in the city’s local government, Bonaga has seen this history unfold from both sides. For Bonaga, the PCI’s rejection of the new movements was a categorical error, a result of conflating the terroristic fringe (the infamous Red Brigades) with the “very intelligent” stream that ran through them — which, he says, should have been preserved and incorporated into the PCI’s model of participatory democracy.
Shunned by the traditional beating heart of the Italian working classes, the heterogeneous post-workerist left floundered in its attempts to create a popular movement that questioned the very purpose of work. On the other side, with no answers to the practical and intellectual challenges confronting them, the PCI hemorrhaged supporters — not just to the youthful movements but to the violent nihilism of the Red Brigades.
The party soon fell into terminal decline, eventually dissolving amid a nationwide corruption scandal that consumed both parties of the historic compromise.
Lessons for the Left
March 1977 saw the defining clash between two currents of postwar progressivism. With thousands flocking to Bologna to support the students, the PCI had the chance to advance their ambitious municipal experiment. They blew it.
Red Bologna thus stands as a warning to today’s left parties. The problems which emerged from students’ rejection of the PCI have strong parallels to contemporary mainstream politics and its relationship to an angry and energetic youth hostile to austerity. Reflecting on the continuing resonance of autonomia, Bonaga says, “It’s not that people don’t trust representatives. It is that they don’t trust the model of representation . . . a modern party should not represent but rather be part of the negotiations of a collective social potency.”
Can left-wing parties avoid repeating the same terminal mistakes? Clearly, we are not at the same historical juncture. But an analogy has presented itself in the British Labour Party’s unprecedented confrontation with a radicalized youth mobilizing behind the party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
In a review of Jaggi’s Red Bologna, written in 1978, a member of the British left reflected on the lessons to be gleaned from the governance of its Italian counterpart:
The majority in the labor movement practice a form of technocratic reformism which is not truly democratic. This practice is exemplified in the continual refrain, “Vote Labour and we will do this for you.” This reformist practice has become increasingly ineffective in achieving significant reforms in the last few years — we live in an age of cuts, high unemployment, and cash limits.
That this statement could easily have been written today, with even more intensity, speaks to the continued relevance of this period. Any political force that emerges to combat austerity would do well to look to the Bolognese experience.