On Saturday 15 October, around 200,000 converged in Rome to march and rally and once more underline a burning hatred for the putridly corrupt regime of Silvio Berlusconi and an equally burning determination to found the means to get rid of it.
But this time these sentiments embodied something vitally different in Italy’s notoriously fragmented and divided radical terrain.
For the first time almost every element of radical protest and action — from the metalworkers of FIOM, the “base unions” [rank-and-file networks] of COBAS, university researchers and students unions, social centres from every major city, left political parties and movements to a constellation of environmentalist collectives, citizen action and anti-privatisation forums, single-issue campaigners, internet activists — had found a common front! Whatever its shortcomings, it was another step towards a growing political realism from which the key tasks and priorities of how to build a serious worker-led movement of united resistance can be posed.
And the need for that realism was dramatically in evidence. As at Genoa a decade ago, 500 or so of the “Black Bloc”, masked and kitted out in riot gear, launched themselves against any targets considered symbols of capitalist power and wealth, setting fire to cars, rubbish carts, and shops, smashing bank (and post office!) dispensing tills, and simultaneously setting violently on any other marcher protesting that this gratuitous vandalism played into the hands of those in power.
The police, seeing their opportunity, sent in their water cannons and teargas squads. Then the whole character of the day changed, as the authorities split the marchers, intending to mop up those of the Bloc who had come for nothing more than a riot. But the cops underestimated the incredible fighting capacity of the Social Centre militants in Rome and elsewhere, joining the Bloc in what became a five-hour battle, which finally saw the state thugs driven back street by street and, irony of ironies, out of Piazza San Giovanni, the intended point of arrival of the march!
The picture is mixed. All the forces of the Italian political establishment have been handed a gift. As to the organisation of the event, the very presence of the Black Bloc — the dead spot on the the collective brain of the radical left — points to the prevailing “anti-politics”, so powerfully negative when “democracy” is construed to permit the participation of those so violently opposed to it in words and deeds and so cynically apolitical in the destruction wreaked.
In spite of all of their bureaucratic deformities, none of the present union federations would have permitted the Black Bloc to do what they did. Regrettably the Bloc will feel emboldened by what its activists believe to be a famous victory over the state machine. In reality that is a predictably subpolitical refusal to distinguish the woods from the trees. At best the victory is pyrrhic. There can be no short cuts for the masses but to find, identify and shape to their own needs the political and organisational tools necessary to confront exploitation and oppression.
That process, haltingly, confusedly has been underway for some time with positive results. The demonstration’s turnout, at least, was another sign of it. It will not be stopped.