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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Italian Political Violence, 1969-1988: The Making and Unmaking of Meanings



In liberal democratic societies, political violence - that is to say, violence which is organised clandestinely and intended to have political consequences - cannot accomplish its ends simply through utilising force to cause physical harm to opposing groups. To be effective, those who engage in political violence must also give broadly intelligible meaning to their actions, so that episodes of violence communicate a relatively coherent message within the society at large.

For this reason, our understanding of the dynamics of political violence can be greatly enhanced by focusing on the struggle waged between supporters and opponents of clandestine movements (as well as among groups within clandestine organisations) to control the interpretation of violence. This is the approach taken by David Moss in the following paper, as he provides a highly original and provocative explanation of the emergence, evolution and decline of political violence in Italy between 1969 and 1988.

The political identity of extremist groups within postwar Italian society was first established with relative ease, as an extension of the struggle between Fascist and Resistance forces during the Second World War. A boundary of hatred between clearly distinguishable camps provided the necessary definition of friends and enemies, as well as a plausible justification for violence as a tool of politics during the early period of political and economic reconstruction in Italy.

Over the years, however, the development of liberal democratic institutions, facilitating collaboration between parties of the left and right, posed a fundamental challenge to this early legitimation of political violence. It became increasingly difficult to justify violence as a means of action and to present a sufficiently convincing definition of what distinguished the goals of extralegal groups from others now drawn into the normal political process.

Moss stresses the extreme complexity of Italian political violence under these circumstances, and the need to move away from common misconceptions which bestow too great a degree of organizational strength and ideological coherence on groups engaged in terrorist activity in Italy. Through careful analysis of material culled from judicial and police proceedings, as well as other sources, he reconstructs a picture of disparate sets of actors, often sustained by conflicting interpretations of their roles and justification for their activities. The public discourse of violence, created by an intellectual elite, was only partially assimilated by the limited number of people who actually carried out terrorist attacks. And the latter, in turn, were sustained by wider networks of friends, neighbours and family members who acted primarily out of personal solidarity. For many of them, violence was only a peripheral feature of a broader political process.

Although the magnitude and frequency of terrorist activities increased during the latter 1970s, in a concerted attempt to retain a voice and a constituency for extremism, the groundwork of political violence in fact continued to weaken. By the mid-1980s, it had virtually collapsed. In Moss’s opinion, the response of the Italian government to political violence reinforced the internal structural difficulties of extremist factions by systematically refusing to accord the latter any recognized status as interlocutor and by treating each terrorist incident as an isolated act -- thus denying any claim to broad national standing. The fragmented and localised nature of Italian politics further hindered efforts to associate violence with a clear political message.

The reader will find much in this paper to stimulate debate, both on the concrete characteristics of the Italian experience with political violence, and on the analytical insights to be gained from interpreting that experience in terms of the creation and destruction of “discourse communities”.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Feb 1993
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD