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October 24, 1994 | The Nation

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October 24, 1994

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On March 16, 1978, Aldo Moro--a key figure of Italy's ruling Christian Democracy--was captured in Rome in broad daylight by the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse, hence the initials B.R.). Fifty-five days later, the government having refused any negotiation with the kidnappers, he was executed. Mario Moretti, the mastermind of this operation and one of the historic leaders of the B.R., is now 47 and serving the thirteenth year of a life sentence. He is the author of a recent Italian best seller, Mario Moretti: Brigate Rosse. Una storia italiana (Anabasi, 259 pp., 25,000 lire). Or, to be more accurate, this book is a lengthy interview with Moretti by Carla Mosca, a journalist on Italy's public radio, and--last but not least--by Rossana Rossanda, who also wrote the preface.

Rossanda, once in charge of culture for the Italian Communist Party, was kicked out of that organization as one of the founders of the Il Manifesto group, which criticized the Soviet Union at the time of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Il Manifesto still exists as a daily paper, and Rossanda is viewed by many as the voice of conscience of the Italian left. Neither she nor her journal had any sympathy for the vanguard violence preached and practiced by the B.R. On the other hand, she is aware that their story is a political, not a criminal, one and, in a tragic way, a part of the history of the left as a whole. Thus Moretti's interviewers show a great deal of understanding but no indulgence, and this inner tension contributes to the value of this document.

The Moro episode takes up less than a third of the book. Moretti describes in detail the preparations, the action, the talks with Moro while they were waiting for the official response. He takes full responsibility for everything, including the execution. He hotly denies that the Red Brigades were terrorists: They never bombed blindly and always attacked specific targets. The death of Moro's guards was part of "the war with the state"; the guards took the same risks as he and his comrades. The striking feature in this description of the drama is the astonishment of the protagonists: Moretti's strange surprise on discovering that the C.P. is backing the government to the hilt and Moro's terrible realization that his closest colleagues are unwilling to make a gesture--the liberation of a few prisoners--to save his life. There is also the horrible admission, hinted at by Moretti, that killing a stranger is one thing, but killing a man with whom you have lived and talked for fifty-five days is something quite different.

Was it absolutely necessary to kill the former prime minister? The interviewers admit that the kidnapping--which showed the underground movement's ability to challenge the state--was popular in some quarters, but insist that the execution was not. Releasing Moro, they argue, would have gained much approval for the B.R. and raised real problems for the establishment. Moretti rejects such analysis with passion. "For an organization of guerrillas which had carried out such an extraordinary operation...to have let Moro go without an exchange," he maintains, would have been to admit that "the revolutionary policy is on the defensive and the state is invincible. This was unacceptable." This strange view was apparently almost unanimous among his comrades, which suggests that a guerrilla movement driven underground develops a logic of its own.

Italy's Red Brigades were unique. They were unlike the Sandinistas, the Tupamaros or, to stick to Europe, the I.R.A., all movements of national liberation, whereas the Brigate described themselves as "the armed instrument of class struggle." And unlike the Weather Underground or Germany's Red Army Faction, the B.R. had genuine roots inside factories. Actually, they were born in the big enterprises of Milan such as Pirelli (where Moretti had been a technician) and Siemens, then spread to Turin, Italy's other industrial center, and only afterward to Rome. They were also the byproduct of a vast social upheaval, the Hot Autumn of 1969, which revealed the militancy of the Italian labor movement.

Their early actions--seizing and then releasing bosses in various factories to show that authority could be challenged on the shop floor--generated a lot of sympathy and support. The hard core of the B.R. was always rather small; there were only ten to fifteen real illegals in each factory brigade. Even counting all sorts of auxiliaries, the B.R. never numbered a thousand people. But because of that backing they were nevertheless able to defy the Italian state and its mighty machine of repression for a dozen years. Does this mean that the B.R. were in the factories like fish in water? Reading this book makes me realize that one of the mistakes of the Brigades was working under this assumption.

Moretti is right in arguing that their ultimate defeat coincided with the economic crisis, the restructuring of industry and the collapse of militancy in the labor movement. But their decline began earlier. When the B.R. changed their targets and began attacking lawyers and journalists, they lost part of their support. Moretti confuses workers' reluctance to denounce buddies to the police with approval of the B.R.'s policies. Indeed, the move from factory to society at large and to an attack on the state, of which the Moro episode was a climax, was in itself a signal that the movement was losing its bearings. By 1981, when Moretti was arrested, popular support was dropping and repression rising, and the Brigades had lost any hope of victory. But the logic of the underground guerrilla faction seems to be that it cannot come to a stop even when it has lost its momentum.

And so this is a very sad story, and not just because it is partly written in blood. There are the lives lost, on both sides, but also the lives wasted. When so many activists, often the most devoted and militant, go astray, it is usually not only their fault. As a rule, the official leadership of the labor movement is also to blame. The Italian case cannot be understood without grasping the contradiction between the dynamism of the social upheaval at the time and the cautiousness of the Communist Party, its determination to drive the movement into electoral channels. That is one of the messages of this book.

The other one is a condemnation of violence waged by a self-appointed vanguard, which starts with the idea of spurring the movement and actually sets it back. It does so because, whatever its intentions, it substitutes itself for the people instead of developing their political awareness and activity. The search for a historical shortcut, gun in hand, usually leads to a dead end, and often a bloody one at that. Though the tragedy is highly Italian, it has meaning for us all.