Rifondazione opposes rail link

Workers' discontent has found an unexpected outlet, notes Toby Abse

The last week has seen a spectacular revival in Italy of the movement against the building of a high-speed railway link between Turin and Lyons, the Treno ad Alta Velocità (Tav), which would dramatically improve communication between Italy and France across the Alps.[1]

The trigger for this sudden flare-up was the accidental electrocution of Luca Abba, a 37-year-old anarchist and small farmer born and brought up in the Val di Susa, the high Alpine valley through which the line is intended to go. He tried to climb up an electricity pylon as a protest on February 27, and made contact with a high-voltage live wire and remained in a coma. Some parallels have been drawn with the death of the anarchist railwayman, Giuseppe Pinelli, in 1969, with a cartoon in La Repubblica making a somewhat tasteless joke about “the accidental coma of an anarchist”.[2] The latest reports suggest that Abba is recovering, so the story is, fortunately, now unlikely to fit the title of Dario Fo’s most famous play, The accidental death of an anarchist.[3]

Whilst a case can clearly be made for the tactics adopted in recent years by a number of groups of Italian workers - protesting on the roofs of workplaces faced with closure or getting up on cranes and refusing to come down - climbing electric pylons is bound to strike most outsiders as an extremely risky, if not downright suicidal, form of protest that probably owes more to Catholic notions of martyrdom than the traditions of the workers’ movement. To those of us outside the anarchist milieu, the incident involving Abba seemed more reminiscent of the tragic and futile death of the famous publisher turned leftwing terrorist, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli - who accidentally killed himself whilst blowing up an electric pylon at Segrate in March 1972 - than of Pinelli’s murder by the police.


The ‘No Tav’ movement has been in existence for many years and is a strange alliance of local farmers from the Val di Susa, pacifist environmentalists, who might best be described as ‘deep greens’, anarchists and autonomists. Whilst some anarchists have a genuine interest in ecological issues and perhaps there may be an ecological strain in autonomism (although it is generally a much more consumerist ideology than classical anarchism[4]), the main attraction for these groups seems to be the chance of engaging in skirmishes, if not pitched battles, with the forces of the state, with some degree of backing from sections of the local population.

Many such high-speed rail links inevitably arouse a certain amount of protest and antagonism amongst those whose homes or land lie directly in the path of a projected railway. However, most of the opposition to the London-Birmingham HS2, so far at any rate, has no such radical leftwing coloration - indeed much of the opposition in rural areas comes from people who are Conservative in the party-political sense.[5] Moreover, such intransigent opposition would not necessarily be shared by all environmentalists elsewhere in Europe - many dedicated campaigners against climate change see railways as infinitely preferable to cars, lorries and aeroplanes in terms of the production of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, even if they do not all wax so lyrical on the prospect of railway journeys halfway round the world as Jonathan Neale at full throttle.[6]It might also be noted that no such widespread movement seems to have arisen in the mountainous areas of France that would be equally affected by a Lyons-Turin rail link. Work started on the French side as early as 2002 and the project seems to be supported by both the local administrations and the vast majority of local citizens. This has been explained by the fact that financial compensation has been paid to those adversely affected, that there has been a greater degree of public consultation about the project than was the case in Italy. In addition, 86% of the work so far has been done by local firms and any workers brought in from outside the area have slept in local hotels and been fed in local restaurants. This has brought benefits to the local economy, at the same time avoiding the disruption that the building of a camp for such labourers would have caused.[7]

The reaction to Luca Abba’s accident was both rapid and widespread. On February 27 Rome’s main railway station, Roma Termini, found its traffic paralysed for a quarter of an hour by what La Repubblica described as “200 antagonisti”. Demonstrators invaded the railway lines at Bologna and the police charged at them in retaliation. The railway stations at Pisa, Palermo and Ancona were occupied, with repercussions on rail traffic throughout Italy. In Florence a sit-in on the tramway slowed down the service. There were also protests in Aosta, Reggio Calabria, Reggio Emilia, Piacenza, Forli, Modena, Parma, Cosenza, L’Aquila, Trieste, Genoa and Cagliari. Meanwhile computer hackers from the internationally notorious Anonymous attacked the internet sites of both the police and the carabinieri.A lot of this activity was organised relatively spontaneously by the massive use of social networks, but Paolo Ferrero, the secretary of Rifondazione Comunista, also appealed for a nationwide mobilisation, so it would be a mistake to ignore the role of more old-fashioned forms of political organising.[8] Rifondazione’s support for the No Tav campaign is not belated opportunism of the kind displayed by Antonio Di Pietro of the populist Italia dei Valori party. Di Pietro is now calling for a moratorium on building work in the Val di Susa, despite his earlier enthusiasm for Tav and other large-scale building projects when he was minister of public works in one of the centre-left governments. Rifondazione’s campaigning on the issue long preceded its 2008 split, with party leader Fausto Bertinotti clearly identifying himself with the No Tav protests and Rifondazione getting an impressive share of the vote in the Val di Susa - an area of the country with no particular association with the radical left. So it is not surprising that Nichi Vendola’s Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (Left, Ecology, Freedom) has also taken an intransigent position of opposition to Tav throughout the disturbances of the last week, making no concessions on this front, despite its rather soft and ambiguous attitude towards its potential electoral coalition partners in the ex-‘official communist’-dominated Partito Democratico (PD) on other issues.


February 29 saw more dramatic and violent clashes between the protestors and the security forces in the Val di Susa itself, with the police not only resorting to violent charges at the demonstrators, but employing both tear gas and water cannon. Whilst the No Tav protestors clearly have some popular support in the valley, it is hard to tell whether they have a majority of the population behind them. The advocates of Tav talk about the “silent majority” that supports the building of the rail link, but so far their talk about organising a march in favour, along the lines of the famous ‘March of the 40,000’ that brought the Turin Fiat strike to an end in 1980, has remained empty rhetoric. Some local mayors are still committed to the No Tav movement, even if a few municipalities have changed hands in recent years and elected supporters of the link.

It is interesting that these clashes in the Val di Susa led Piero Fassino, the PD mayor of Turin, to take a very hard line against the movement, opposing any dialogue or negotiation. Fassino claimed that while there was “popular consensus” for the movement back in 2005, No Tav has a “much more limited consensus”. It has “superimposed on the popular identity an ideological antagonism against Tav and against any public works, attracting into the valley the groups that oppose the rigassificatore [gas terminal] of Livorno, the Dal Molin airport,[9] the bridge over the strait[10] and any other infrastructure. The Turin-Lyons railway has been transformed for these people into the ‘mother of all battles’.”[11]March 1 saw a new wave of nationwide demonstrations and protests over Tav. Rome saw an invasion of the PD’s headquarters , signalling the protestors’ awareness that the PD was becoming their most vocal opponent amongst the political parties - Fassino’s hostile stance received the wholehearted backing of the party’s national leadership. In Milan, there was a sit-in at the stazione Centrale, the A14 motorway from Bologna to Taranto was blocked near Bologna, in Florence the Camp di Marte railway station and one of the bridges were blocked, in Naples activists occupied the high-speed rail tracks near Piazza Garibaldi, in Turin a major road was blocked for an hour and a half and there was a protest outside the Turin offices of the RAI television station, something which was replicated in Cagliari.[12]On Saturday March 3 there were protests all over Italy.[13] Inevitably the numbers of people involved were greater than in the previous weekday demonstrations. There was serious disruption in Rome, where the police were unable to stop demonstrators from blocking the nearby access road to the Rome-L’Aquila motorway for a couple of hours. Protestors also managed to block a large tract of the ring road around the city, effectively cutting the capital in two in terms of the circulation of traffic. In Pesaro demonstrators burnt the banners of the PD to show their disgust at that party’s enthusiastic support for Tav.

The Milanese protestors seem to have confined themselves to the more conventional and traditional march to the central Piazza Duomo but in the Val di Susa itself greater creativity was displayed when No Tav supporters occupied the toll booths on the A32 motorway and allowed motorists to pass by without paying - a popular, but arguably not very environmentally friendly gesture. Some have suggested that the No Tav protesters have been copying the tactics used by taxi and lorry drivers in recent protests against prime minister Mario Monti’s liberalisation decree, but, although there may be some truth in this, since the drivers gained national media attention by disrupting traffic and communications, such tactics as blocking railway lines have been used by the Italian left on quite a number of occasions in the past, especially during anti-war protests.

The Tav controversy has also revived the national debate about the capacity of organised crime groups, such as the Sicilian Mafia, the Neapolitan Camorra and the Calabrian Ndrangheta, to obtain large-scale public works contracts for their associates and front companies. Writer and journalist Roberto Saviano, the most famous opponent of the Camorra, raised this issue in the context of the Tav in an article focussing on the role of the Calabrian Ndrangheta.[14] The region of Piedmont, he pointed out, was in third place nationally in terms of Calabrian Mafia infiltration. The following day, the Torinese prosecutor, Giancarlo Caselli, responded to Saviano’s article by emphasising that it had been the successful police investigations and arrests in Turin, Cuneo and Alessandria that had brought the issue to national attention and that the authorities should respond by increasing their controls over public works contracts, not by stopping them.[15]

The Tav controversy is being treated by Monti and president Giorgio Napolitano purely as a public order issue, with both of them emphasising that the works will go ahead. They insist that Italy must abide by its international obligations to its French partner, with Tav sometimes being promoted as a symbol of general European integration. However, the whole affair clearly raises wider issues about the environment and about widespread corruption and criminal involvement in Italian public works schemes. Moreover, it indicates that, despite the efforts of the PD to win traditional centre-left voters to uncritical support for Monti’s technocratic cabinet, there is still quite a lot of discontent, particularly amongst wide layers of Italian youth, which may eventually be mobilised for a more focused opposition to the whole austerity programme.

It is precisely this possibility that has made the PD’s leadership so fearful about the national demonstration called by the metalworkers’ union, Fiom, for March 9 in a demonstration in which the No Tav movement has been invited to participate.



1. At present the main rail passenger link is a slow night train between Paris and Turin, whilst most freight is carried by heavy lorries.

2. La Repubblica February 28.

3. For those unfamiliar with the play, or the real historical events on which it is based, it should be stressed that Pinelli’s death was far from accidental - he ‘fell’ from the top-floor window of a police station in Milan. The authorities talked of a suicide, but it was clearly a political murder carried out by Inspector Calabresi or men under his command. Calabresi was subsequently assassinated in revenge for Pinelli’s death. Many years later some former members of Lotta Continua, including the organisation’s leader, Adriano Sofri, were arrested, tried and sentenced for this killing.

4. Whilst the more committed members of the Spanish FAI/CNT were renowned for their austere lifestyle, the autonomists of the 1970s embarked upon ‘proletarian shopping expeditions’, some of which resembled the looting of London’s lumpenproletariat last August.

5. Whether the advantages of HS2 outweigh the disadvantages is, of course. more debatable, as there is already a reasonably good rail link between the two cities and the price of tickets on the new line may make it a niche market for wealthy business travellers. There is also an argument about whether the destruction of working class communities by the expansion of Euston station can be justified. Nonetheless, opposition to HS2 may be broadly characterised as coming from Tory nimbies, not the extreme left.

6. Having on one occasion some years ago sat as an observer in a discussion on transport at a Green Party conference, I am aware that there is a current within the party that only supports slow local trains and seems to think that we should not travel more than about 20 or 30 miles from where we were born. I do not believe that such views are shared by Caroline Lucas, Jean Lambert, Jenny Jones or Darren Johnson.

7. This is a summary of an article in La Repubblica March 1. Whilst the editorial line of the paper is sympathetic to the building of Tav, the article seems a genuine attempt to explain why French and Italian reactions have differed rather than an overt piece of propaganda.

8. La Repubblica February 28.

9. This is for an American military base rather than a civilian airport.

10. This refers to Silvio Berlusconi’s megalomaniac plan to build a bridge linking Sicily and Calabria, which, as many have pointed out, would be a wonderful opportunity for both the Sicilian Mafia and the Calabrian Ndrangheta to get their hands on massive and lucrative public works contracts. Others have raised queries about the safety of such a project in an area prone to earthquakes, even if it were to be built by scrupulous engineers and not cost-cutting associates of organised crime bosses.

11. La Repubblica March 1.

12. See La Repubblica March 2. Other examples of local protests are given in three pages of coverage of the No Tav movement.

13. See La Repubblica March 4, which devoted its first seven pages to No Tav.

14. La Repubblica March 6.

15. La Repubblica March7.