On the third of December 1968, forty thousand school students marched through the streets of Rome. While they went up Via Nazionale, one of the main streets of the city, the bourgeois ladies out shopping and the clerks in the offices above stared at them apprehensively.

Children out walking when they should be at school was something familiar, which had never worried anybody. But this time it was different. The ‘children’ were many, and they felt neither guilty nor naughty for what they were doing. Whereas normally they would have avoided meeting their teachers on such a day, this time they seemed not to fear anybody. They seemed suddenly to have discovered that it is possible not to obey your teacher, not to think what they tell you to think, not to accept all the violence and repression hidden behind the word ‘discipline’. And they used a big word for all this: ‘general strike’.

A general strike, be it of school kids or of industrial workers, doesn’t just happen from day to night. It needs days and days of patient work, discussions, meetings, leaflets, individual strikes, etc, to make it happen. It can’t be decided from above unless there is real agitation and feeling for it at the base.

In Rome, the first agitation in schools had started around March last year, when the student movement in the Universities was at its height. At that time, a small number of school students used to attend the meetings and demonstrations held by their older colleagues, and tried to start something similar in their schools. It was only with the new academic year, though, that University students themselves decided to work hard on the schools question, contacting people in every school, using all possible channels—leaflets, personal friends and relatives, political connections of all sorts (Party branches, left-wing Catholics, Maoist or Trotskist groups, etc.) Day by day, we would work with these small groups of students (often not more than four or five in each school, and not always political people), trying to give them suggestions about possible action in the school and at the same time to stimulate their political consciousness. Action developed very fast, maybe with better results than we had expected, often ending up in one-day or two-day strikes in individual schools. Finally, one afternoon, a large assembly of technical and professional students decided that the time had come for a big united strike; after two days, trainee teachers and grammar school students joined in and the general strike was proclaimed.

That technical students should be the first ones to call for a general strike did not surprise us. They had been the most militant ones right from the beginning.

Technical and professional training, in Italy, takes place at school and not, as in England, at college level. The only type of further education which exists is university education, which is only open to grammar school students. Therefore, the students who choose technical, professional, or teacher training schools (and the choice takes place at the age of 14) are usually those who cannot afford to go to University and who wish to obtain a qualification (a school diploma) after a relatively short time. Their ‘class consciousness’ is thus much stronger than that of other school kids. They are the children of the exploited working class, and know that they are soon going to be exploited themselves; that their diploma, which cost long years of hard work, will be worth little more than nothing once they start looking for a job. These students are, objectively, the most discriminated against, and they feel it. Thus, it was relatively easy for us to articulate their discontent in Marxist terms and explain to them that the discrimination was a class discrimination, that they themselves were being used as tiny components in a big machine called capitalism. Once this new approach was accepted by them, their deep dissatisfaction with the school system exploded with great violence, and ‘Down With The Class School’ became one of their favourite slogans.

With the students in the Licei (grammar schools), the problems were slightly different. These students are not faced with urgent material problems (such as the question of the diploma), and it is therefore much more difficult to get them involved in a mass action. While technical and professional students were up against the structures of the school (examination system, excess of school hours every day, discrimination), the students in grammar schools were much more easily touched by somewhat vague ‘anti-authoritarian’ issues. And although their leaders (because of their cultural background) often had a very high level of political understanding, they very seldom succeeded in carrying the mass of their schoolfellows along with them. Some of us used to say jokingly that a few grammar school students might consider themselves to be ‘the vanguard intellectuals’, but that it certainly seemed that the ‘revolutionary masses’ were to be found elsewhere. Yet, despite all the diffidence which comrades from technical schools tend to show towards these ‘children of the bourgeoisie’, it must be recognized that they were the ones who started the movement, and who were most ready to take up the political issues raised by the student movement last year. They were the first ones to bring up the question of free assemblies in the schools—which was to become one of the main issues in the general strike.