Enter the Red Brigades, the new moral opposition

Left-wing terrorism has returned to Italy, arguing that the Berlusconi government deserves criminal

''At bottom" - said a colleague about Marco Biagi - "he was an ingenu. He wholly underestimated the impact, not of his ideas for reform (which achieved a consensus among many people, even within the left), but of the company they made him keep. 'What?' people would say. 'You're working with [the labour minister, Roberto] Maroni?' And he'd reply: 'If I write good music, what does it matter who plays it?' "

Marco Biagi, a moderate leftist law professor, was advising Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing government (made up of a coalition of such viscerally anti-left parties as Umberto Bossi's Lega Nord and Gianfranco Fini's Alleanza Nationale). Biagi was murdered at the hands of men who claimed membership of the 30-year-old Red Brigades terrorist faction.

Biagi, who had advised the previous left-of-centre Ulivo government, was a perfect target for the Red Brigades. Their hatred is sparked above all by those who seek a consensus between left and right. Their most famous victim, the former Christian Democrat prime minister Aldo Moro, kidnapped and killed in 1978, was an architect of the "historic compromise" designed to bring the Communist Party into a governing coalition.

The Brigades' most recent victim before Biagi was Massimo D'Antona, killed nearly three years ago in Rome, and also a labour law professor advising the (centre-left) government. Two other government advisers had been attacked: Professor Gino Giugni was shot and wounded in 1983 and Ezio Tarantelli was killed two years later.

Leninist to the core, the Italian far left believed that the worst traitors were those who sought to incorporate labour into the bourgeois state. More than any other revolutionary left in the rich world, it was "workerist" - seeking to supplant the mass Communist Party which, in pursuit of electoral success, had become increasingly revisionist under its leader Enrico Berlinguer.

Italy's extremist left was drawn from a student body that had grown in the 1960s through a vast expansion of university places - places that, however, had been created without matching expenditure, teaching staff or post-graduation jobs. The far leftists sought to influence and lead a working class which had also grown rapidly during Italy's economic miracle years from the 1950s to the 1970s, and which contained millions of workers who had left the land, often in the south, to seek factory jobs in the industrialised north.

Both would-be leaders and would-be led were raw, usually young, disoriented, often guilt-ridden (if middle-class) or uprooted (if working-class). The anni di piombo, or "years of lead" (bullets) from 1972-89 bequeathed to Italy a tradition of terror. This was amply matched by the fascist right - the rightist terror with links to the military and secret services so strong that moderate Catholics such as Moro (hated as much by the far right as by the far left) feared a coup from that quarter far more than from the left.

These were years of fearsomely radical change in a conservative country, a change in which Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao and even Stalin were close guides for the strategies and exegesis of the scholar-revolutionaries who filled the pages of short-run, short-lived journals with denunciations of the state, the bourgeoisie, the Church and each other. The groups - La Lotta Continua, Il Manifesto (a lively daily paper of that name is still published), Potere Operaio and Operaio Sociale - were united in their contempt for the Communist Party, from which many of the members had defected: they agreed that it had ceased to envisage revolution as an urgent, violent possibility. They themselves would usher it in. The texts all said it: violence had to be the handmaiden.

One figure provides a link between the years of lead and the time of the new "regime", as the Berlusconi government is now called by the left: the academic political philosopher Toni Negri. A leader of Operaio Sociale, he believed, by the early Seventies, that "the horizon of armed struggle" had been opened up by the "constant innovation of political initiative" on the part of the working class. Although he was probably never involved in terrorist actions - the Red Brigades and the other terrorists of the left share a well-publicised contempt for Marxist theorisers - Negri was convicted of being a brigatista by a magistrate who believed that he and his circle at the University of Padua had provided the brigatisti with their intellectual rationale.

Negri fled to France, where he taught and wrote until the late Nineties, returning to serve out a prison sentence commuted to a relatively mild form of parole.

Negri is now an avatar of the new global movements that reach well beyond Italy. His book Empire, written with the American literary theorist Michael Hardt, is a text as important as, if much denser than, Naomi Klein's No Logo or Viviane Forrester's L'horreur economique. Still a believer in (a different kind of) revolution, he is no longer an overt supporter of terrorism. But he has, with others in the global movements, taken a position that describes a moral equivalence between the US and its allies, on the one hand, and terrorism of all sorts on the other.

This claim of equivalence is an important milestone in the development of the modern left. It deprives western governments - any government which supports that of the US, which means all - of any claims of right. It allows a full-throated opposition to the war against terrorism, no matter against whom it is waged. It implicitly gives the government the status of a group of criminals and terrorists.

Luca Casarini, spokesman of the Tute Bianche and a leader of Italy's powerful "No Global" movement, is a follower of Negri's. In a statement immediately following Biagi's murder, he argued that the Red Brigades, with "their maniacal psychotic pathology", had provided the regime with an excuse for repression. The regime had profited from, even "called for", the murder to discredit and attack the "social struggles for rights and democracy" for which Casarini's movement stands.

Negri, in statements and interviews since 11 September, has also sought to cement in the notion of equivalence. In an interview with the French journal Multitudes in January, he said that "terrorism is the double of empire. From this point of view, the enemy of both Bush and Bin Laden is the multitude." In February, Negri analysed the al-Qaeda network as essentially a "neoliberal group which wanted domination over the Arab world": Bush is seen as a beneficiary of the attack, using it to declare a permanent war to cement US dominance.

In Italy, Negri's moral equivalence argument sounds plausible. Though elected on a large turnout with a convincing majority, Silvio Berlusconi is the owner of the three main independent TV channels: and as prime minister, his is the most powerful influence in the policies of the three state-owned RAI channels. His coalition partners, the Alleanza and more especially the Lega Nord, include politicians who are given to extremist statements and gestures. And Berlusconi still has a number of allegations on his business conduct pending a court hearing.

He has pushed a law on conflict of interests through parliament which allows him to keep his Mediaset company and he has opposed European legislation that would force disclosure of his business dealings. Although his own politics are far from extreme - his party, Forza Italia, is a centrist-populist bloc - with these actions, Berlusconi is seen as sending a signal to Italians that mixing business with government is now viewed with unquestioning acceptance. This laissez-faire attitude could, at worst, resurrect a more overt practice of corruption.

At the same time, Berlusconi has launched an attack on the hitherto untouchable labour laws of Italy - including Article 18 of the Italian statute on workers' rights, which guarantees continuity of employment and which has acted, at least for public sector workers, as a guarantee of a job for life.

It was on this issue that Biagi was consulting with Roberto Maroni: many believe that the rigidities in Italian labour law and practice contribute to the very high unemployment in the south of the country.

But there is clear evidence that the Berlusconi government is especially vulnerable to moral opposition. Tony Blair has done business with the Italian premier, but the French government recently delivered a stinging insult: the culture minister, Catherine Tasca, publicly proclaimed that she "would not shake his [Berlusconi's] hand" if he were to come to open a literary pavilion that Italy had sponsored at the Paris book fair. When the pavilion was opened on 22 March, the two junior culture ministers who did turn up, Vittorio Sgarbi and Nicola Bono, were booed off the stage by a large crowd of protesters. Sgarbi and Bono withdrew to Rome, blaming Tasca for incitement.

More seriously, the CGIL union federation, the largest in the country, turned out an estimated three million demonstrators in Rome on 23 March for a peaceful, joyful event, the largest ever seen in the capital. The participants proclaimed their opposition to terrorism as well as to changes in the labour law. The event confirmed the view of many on the moderate left that Sergio Cofferati, the CGIL leader, should be made leader of the main left party, the Left Democrats; and that, through his leadership, the left could stage a comeback.

The problem, however, is deeper than that. A new leader is not a strategy. The centre-left Ulivo government quit office with many reforms undone. The left is weak and divided. The lesson the far left may be tempted to draw is that armed struggle is again a possibility - indeed, the only means of making an impression on the regime.

Depriving the Berlusconi government of legitimacy is easy, given its manifest failings and silences: but to do so is to launch into a political space that is dangerous for the left, and for the country.

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