This article analyses how in the 1970s a segment of Italian radical activists belonging to the tradition of operaismo (workerism) appropriated and interrogated the history of the International Workers of the World (IWW) using it as a tool of political intervention in the Italian context. Following the upheaval of the ‘Hot Autumn’, the IWW provided to the Italians an inspiring comparison with a militant labour organisation in times of changing composition of the working class and of transformation of the organisation of production. The importance of this political use of the past lies in the way it illuminates the particular context in which these activists operated. In the course of the 1970s, Italian radicals responded to the normalization of industrial relations by joining groups that endorsed a political line tinted with Leninism and advocated a revolution led by a vanguard of militants. This was in contrast to the tenets of shopfloor-centered strategy and grassroots and shopfloor participation typical of operaismo. The – eventually – failed attempt of the ‘militant historians’ to revive, through their distinctive interpretation of the IWW, that political tradition sheds light on the success of the backlash against shopfloor working class militancy at the end of the decade, when vanguard groups had become marginal in the factories and reformist unions lacked a political clout to oppose company restructuring and relocation. This article is based on articles, memoirs and interviews that are evidence of the politically-driven debate about the IWW among Italian radicals. It improves on the existing historiography of the Italian labour movement by resisting its teleological impulse to explain the backlash on the 1980s as an inevitable outcome. It also contributes to the burgeoning transnational labor historiography; it challenges methodological nationalism in the study of workers’ insurgency by charting the influence of US history far beyond its borders and across time, adopting a transnational approach that is, unusually, both geographical and a diachronic. This story tells us more about Italian history than it does about American history, but it is testimony to a far reaching influence of American history and to entanglements that crossed borders through the work of the activists, scholars, and translators who acted as transnational vehicles of ideas and political practices.