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Mario Tronti, "Our Operaismo"

Our Operaismo
Mario Tronti

The italian operaismo of the 1960s starts with the birth of Quaderni rossi and stops with the death of Classe operaia. End of story. Thus goes the argument. Or alternatively—si le grain ne meurt—operaismo is reproduced in other ways, reincarnated, transformed, corrupted and . . . lost. This text originally sprang from the urge to clarify the intellectual distinction between operaismo—‘workerism’ the inadequate but unavoidable English translation—and post-operaismo, or the autonomia movements of the late 70s and after. Then the sweet pleasures of remembrance did the rest. Whether this ‘rest’ is in good taste or of any use today will be for its readers to judge. This is my truth, based on what I believed back then and which I only see more clearly today. I don’t want to provide a canonical interpretation of that project; but this is one of the possible readings, one-sided enough to support the good old idea of partisan research, that indigestible theoretical practice of ‘point of view’ that formed us.

I say we, because I believe I can speak for a handful of people inseparably linked by a bond of political friendship, who shared a common knot of problems as ‘lived thought’. For us, the classic political friend/enemy distinction was not just a concept of the enemy, but a theory and a practice of the friend as well. We became and have remained friends because we discovered, politically, a common enemy in front of us; this had consequences that determined the intellectual decisions of the time and the horizons that followed. I shall try to speak simply, eschewing literary language. Yet it needs to be said that 1960s operaismo forged its own ‘high style’ of writing, chiselled, lucid, confrontational, in which we thought we grasped the rhythm of the factory workers in struggle against the bosses. Each historical passage chooses its own form of symbolic representation. Semi-literate partisans facing Nazi execution squads produced the Lettere di condannati a morte della Resistenza, a work of art. [1] In the same way, the boys who stood outside the gates of the Mirafiori factory in Turin in the early morning went home at night to read the young Lukács’s Soul and Form. Strong thought requires strong writing. A sense of the grandeur of the conflict awoke in us a passion for the Nietzschean style: to speak in a noble register, in the name of those beneath.

I have never forgotten the lesson we learned at the factory gates, when we arrived with our pretentious leaflets, inviting workers to join the anti-capitalist struggle. The answer, always the same, coming from the hands that accepted our bits of paper. They would laugh and say: ‘What is it? Money?’ A ‘rough pagan race’ indeed. This was not the bourgeois mandate, enrichissez-vous; it was the word, wages, presented as an objectively antagonistic reply to the word, profit. Operaismo reworked Marx’s brilliant phrase—the proletariat attaining its own emancipation will free all humanity—to read: the working class, by following its own, partial interests, creates a general crisis in the relations of capital. Operaismo marked a way of thinking politically. Thought and history encountered each other in a direct, immediate and frontal clash. What is had to be exposed to analysis, reflection, criticism and judgement. What had been said and written on it came later.

The biographical account that follows retains an element of ambiguity between personal and generational registers. But I should say at the outset that my operaismo was of a Communist kind. This was not the case for the most part, even in the early days; party members were never a majority within Italian workerism, nor dominant in Quaderni rossi or Classe operaia; the combination was perhaps my personal problem. Here I will describe the Lehrjahre—the formative apprenticeship years—of the operaisti, a limited but significant generational fraction. A clumsy historian of events, as well as ideas, I will try to explain the complex, early stabs at the operaisti argument, and some of what came after.

Rupture of fifty-six

One key date emerges as a strategic locus for us all: 1956. Several things made that year ‘unforgettable’, but I would stress the transition—in effect, an epistemological rupture—from a party truth to a class truth. The time span from the Soviet Twentieth Party Congress to the Hungarian events constituted a sequence of leaps in the awareness of a young generation of intellectuals. I sensed, before I consciously thought it, that the twentieth century ended there. We awoke from the dogmatic slumber of historicity. In Italy, the rule of the proper noun, as substantive or adjective, materialist or idealist—the De Sanctis–Labriola–Croce–Gramsci line—had exercised an unparalleled cultural hegemony in politics. Thanks to Togliatti’s charisma, a powerful group of PCI leaders had formed around it in the post-war period, and now set about putting it to work. At the Istituto Gramsci you could encounter party members from the Directorate and the Secretariat. They didn’t write books, or get improbable ghost-writers to do so for them. They read books. And between one initiative and the next, they discussed what they thought of them.

At a certain point a strange-looking character arrived from Sicily—he had been teaching in Messina: tall, wiry, with a hooked nose and hawkish face. He spoke in difficult language, and his writing was even harder to understand. But Della Volpe took apart, piece by piece, the cultural line of the Italian Communists, paying no heed to orthodox allegiances. [2] To be honest: we freed ourselves from the PCI’s Gramscian ‘national-popular’, but a certain intellectual aristocratism clung to us still. Understanding was more important than persuasion; toiling over the concept created difficulties with the word. Today the opposite is true—ease of discourse means dispensing with thought. The approach we took then seems all the more valuable now, when the triumph of mediatized vulgarity over political language is complete. Ours was a school of ascetic intellectual rigour, which came at the cost of a slightly self-referential isolation. Science against ideology—that was the paradigm. Marx contra Hegel, like Galileo against the Scholastics, or Aristotle against the Platonists. Then, broadly speaking, we outgrew this schema as far as content was concerned, while retaining its lessons with regard to method. On reflection, it was precisely on this basis that, from 1956 onwards, while others—the majority—were rediscovering the value of bourgeois freedoms, we few were given the chance to discover, one step at a time, by trial and error, the horizons of communist liberty.

I remain unsure about the choice of political tactics at that point—not what was ‘correct’, but what would have been most useful. It’s true that, at times, little depends on your own decisions and much on circumstances, openings, encounters. But there was another path open to us in 1956: that of political growth within the mass-membership PCI, whose leadership had embarked upon a period of ‘renewal in continuity’. What would this second path have entailed? A long march through the organization; a cultural sacrifice on the altar of praxis; the exercise of that Renaissance political category, ‘honest dissimulation’. In my personal formation, Togliatti was the master politician par excellence. I ask myself if it would have been possible to be a Togliattian, but with a different culture—and answer, yes. Politics has an autonomy of its own, even from the cultural framework that sustains and at times legitimates it. We let ourselves get carried away by the fascinating pleasure of alternative thinking. But the lingering doubt remains that the other path may have been the right one: saying a little less and doing a little more. The theoretical discovery of the ‘autonomy of the political’ took place within the practical experience of operaismo; it was only its historical-conceptual elaboration that came later—and with it, the realization of having failed to reach a synthesis of ‘inside and against’.

Some years ago, I wrote: ‘We young communist intellectuals were right to be on the side of the Hungarian insurgents. But—this is the paradox of the revolution in the West—the socialist State was not wrong in bringing the contest to an end with tanks.’ [3] This is the kind of sentence that even one’s closest friends, precisely because they wish you well, pretend not to have read. Yet resolving this Oedipal enigma of the twentieth-century labour movement was exactly the task that confronted us. It is easy to choose between right and wrong; what’s hard is when you have to choose between two rights, both of them internal to your side. The dilemma is whether to pursue the passion of belonging or the calculus of possibilities. The two rights of 1956 were also the two wrongs, dividing those who saw only the possible development of what would be called ‘socialism with a human face’ from those whose sole yardstick was immediate control over emplacements, in the crossfire between the two opposing blocs.

Yet one of the most significant critical analyses of the Soviet system came from within operaismo. Rita Di Leo’s Operai e sistema sovietico demonstrated that starting from the point of view of the workers made it possible to comprehend a great deal more than the capitalist factory. [4] The workers’ political experiment par excellence was here brought critically into play. It remained an extremely isolated analysis: truth and fact coincided too closely for it to be welcomed by the two dominant, opposing ideologies.

A Bildungsroman

It was in the early 1960s that an operaista group began to form spontaneously. Not in the way that ‘groups’ became institutionalized in the early 1970s. Ours was an original, completely informal way of coming together, politically and culturally. It is strange how, over time, a sort of mutual affection has remained, even among those comrades who did not make the same journey from Quaderni rossi to Classe operaia. I still feel a deep sympathy, recalling the human qualities of people such as Bianca Beccalli, Dario and Liliana Lanzardo, Mario Miegge, Giovanni Mottura, Vittorio Rieser, Edda Saccomani, Michele Salvati and more. Quaderni rossi was a beautiful title for a journal, with an evocative simplicity, eloquent in itself. ‘Notebooks’ expressed the will for research, analysis and study. The red of the cover was the sign of a decision, a commitment to be this. To start the writing, and therefore the reading, on the front cover—black on red—was a brilliant idea on Panzieri’s part.

Raniero—he died in 1964, in his early forties—was one of those fated to spend too little time on this earth. Enough, though, to leave a trace. Remembering him today, thinking about him again, I feel a nostalgia for a lost political humanity. He was not by nature a romantic hero, but became one by force of circumstance. He wanted to go from being an organizer of operaismo to being the organizer of workers’ culture. But he couldn’t really organize anything. There lay the charm of his limitations, so similar to our own—to mine in particular—which made us feel close to him. Panzieri’s Marx was that of Luxemburg, not Lenin. Like Rosa, he read Capital and imagined the revolution. Unlike Lenin, who read Capital in order to organize the revolution. He was not, and could never have been, a Communist. His tradition was that of revolutionary syndicalism, with a dose of the anarchic socialism that the old PSI historically bore within itself. But ‘workers’ control’ was a magic word that woke us from that other dogmatic slumber—the Socialists’ ‘party of all the people’.

To walk with Raniero at night through the streets of Rome or Milan—not the hated Turin—was to realize Benjamin’s idea of ‘losing oneself’ in the streets of a city. There is an art, too, to losing oneself in the polis—that of politics; we put all our efforts into mastering that art. More than once we got lost and found ourselves on the boundary that divides one side from another, without ever crossing it. We preferred enlightened bosses, but only the better to fight the war that interested us. We were not enamoured of progressive democracy, but used it as a more advanced field of struggle. Intuitively, we recognized the reformists of the left as serious functionaries of the capitalist general intellect (reigning today at the Euro-global level). We valued the movementist impulse as a passion, rather than as a fact. It was an event of the political imagination which we thought about constantly—and practised, a far more serious matter.

Quaderni rossi turned on the lights inside the factory, focused the lens and took a photograph, in which the relations of production stood out with startling clarity. Whatever has been said about ex-workerist intellectuals, there is always a consensus that the analyses of its workers’ enquiries were ‘lucid’. Operaismo opened up a new way of engaging in sociology: Weberian methodology mixed with the politics of Marxist analysis. In that sense, looking back between Quaderni rossi and Classe operaia, or between Vittorio Rieser and Romano Alquati, there was less disagreement than we thought at the time. The debt of Italian sociology to operaismo is now widely recognized; but it was also a context in which new ways of history were being envisaged. Umberto Coldagelli and Gaspare De Caro opened a critical path with their ‘Marxist research hypotheses on contemporary history’, in Quaderni rossi 3. Coldagelli began his long venture into the political and institutional history of France; Sergio Bologna began research on Germany, Nazism and the working class.

Paths through purgatory

Our disagreement with Panzieri and the sociologists of Quaderni rossi arose over the idea and practice of politics; nothing else. The primacy of politics was present from the start in Classe operaia, launched in 1963 as ‘the political newspaper of the workers in struggle’. The slogan of my editorial, ‘Lenin in England’, in the first issue—‘first the workers, then capital’; that is, it is workers’ struggles that drive the course of capitalist development—that was politics: will, decision, organization, conflict. The movement from analysing workers’ conditions, as Quaderni rossi continued to do, to intervening in the claims they advanced for their class interests, was what gave the leap from the journal to the newspaper its meaning. And if Quaderni rossi effected an innovation in content, Classe operaia was also a revolution in forms. The choice of graphics was a matter of high-level craftsmanship; poets and writers, from Babel to Brecht, Mayakovsky to Eluard, crowded its pages; it pioneered comic-strip political satire—the victorious dragon chasing a fleeing Saint George, in a reversal of bondsman and lord. We saw Classe operaia as the Politecnico—the legendary post-war cultural weekly—of the factory workers.

Inscribed on the paper’s red masthead were Marx’s words: ‘But the revolution is thorough. It is still on its journey through purgatory. It goes about its business methodically.’ Die Revolution ist gründig. Togliatti’s translation/interpretation: it goes to the bottom of things. Not bad. That aber at the beginning was crucial; a significant doubt. Today we no longer know if it is still working methodically, or perhaps precariously, or whether it has in fact retired. Long, slow periods of restoration are prone—more than other epochs—to will-o’-the-wisps of revolutionary illusion; between 1848 and 1871, Marx saw several of them. From our small corner, we saw others, and this would later be one of the selection criteria for those who took the operaista experience onto the field of struggle. Today the famous split within Quaderni rossi may seem at first glance to have been due to the incompatibility of figures such as Panzieri and Romano Alquati. They came together on the basis of a shared research project, but could not coexist. In Alquati, intellectual disarray was raised to the level of genius. He saw not so much what is, as what was coming into being. He told us that it was only as an adult, when he was finally able to buy himself some spectacles, that he realized fields were green. Alquati would invent, and thus intuit; he would say he was always a step ahead. But it was he who showed us how the young FIAT workers were waging their struggle.

In other words, we brought together a fine old madhouse. During our meetings, we would spend half the time talking, the rest laughing. And apart from a few rank-and-file PCI militants, I’ve never yet met people of higher human worth than those I associated with first at Quaderni rossi and then at Classe operaia: such selfless public interventions, free of all personal ambition; such a straightforward sense of commitment; and not least, such a disenchanted, self-ironizing way of sharing collective work. The comrades from Quaderni rossi are better known, and have been pardoned by the inimical times that followed, welcomed into the Parnassus of the well-intentioned. The Classe operaia comrades are less cited and more often denounced; I remember them with infinite nostalgia. These young men and women did not theorize ‘a new way of doing politics’. They practised it.

Our workerism

What, then, is operaismo? An experience of intellectual formation, with years of novicehood and pilgrimage; an episode in the history of the workers’ movement, oscillating between forms of the struggle and organizational solutions; an attempt to break with Marxist orthodoxy, in Italy and beyond, on the relations between workers and capital; an attempted cultural revolution in the West. In this last sense, operaismo was also a specifically twentieth-century event. It emerged at the exact moment of transition when the tragic greatness of the century turned on itself, moving from a permanent state of exception to new ‘normal’, epochless time. Looking back on the 1960s, we can see those years had a transitional function. The maximum disorder renewed the existing order. Everything changed so that everything essential could stay the same.

The factory worker that we encountered was a twentieth-century figure. We never used the term ‘proletariat’: ‘our’ workers were not like those of Engels’s Manchester but more like the ones in Detroit. We didn’t bring The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 with us to the factories, we brought the struggle of the workers against work in the Grundrisse. We were not moved by an ethical revolt against factory exploitation, but by political admiration for the practices of insubordination that they invented. Our operaismo should be given credit for not falling into the trap of Third Worldism, of the countryside against the city, of the long farmers’ marches. We were never Chinese and the Cultural Revolution of the East left us cold, estranged, more than a little sceptical and indeed strongly critical of it. Red was, and is, our favourite colour; but we know that when guards or brigades take it up, only the worst aspects of human history can come from it.

But we welcomed the fact that twentieth-century workers had disrupted the ‘long and glorious’ history of the lower classes, with their desperate rebellions, their millennial heresies, their recurrent and generous attempts—always painfully repressed—at breaking their chains. In the great factories, the conflict was almost equal. We won and we lost, day by day, in a permanent trench war. We were excited by the forms of struggle but also by its timing, the moments seized, the conditions imposed, the objectives pursued and the means to pursue them: asking for nothing more than was possible, nothing less than what could be obtained. It was another penetrating discovery to find that, during the long phase of seeming quiescence at FIAT—from 1955 (the internal-commission election defeat) to the return of general contractual struggles in 1962—there had not been worker passivity but another kind of wild-cat struggle: the salto della scocca (‘skipping a chassis’), sabotage on the assembly line, the insubordinate use of Taylorist production schedules.

Yes, these workers were the children of the anti-fascist workers of 1943, who had rescued warehouses and machinery from Nazi destruction. But they were also heirs to the factory occupations of the revolutionary years, 1919–20, when the red flag waved over the factories, testimony to the will to do as in Russia. In the forced concentration of industrial labour in Italy between the 1950s and the 60s, the needs of breakneck capitalist development created an unprecedented crucible of historical experiences, daily needs, union dissatisfaction and political demands; this was what the operaisti were trying—naively, no doubt—to interpret. Blessed naivety which made us—Fortini said it well—‘as wise as doves’. Operaismo was our university; we graduated in class struggle—entitling us not to teach, but to live. The workers’ view became a political means of seeing the world, and a human way of operating within it, by always staying on the same side. The fact is that the whole history of the first half of the twentieth century converged on the figure of the mass worker; only the worker-subject who emerged in that time, between 1914 and 1945, and grew up after it, could rise to the height of that history.

Yet with the 1960s we were already entering the declining half of the century; only the miserable course of the decades that followed, through to the end of the century and beyond, could make it seem a miraculous season of new beginnings. The qualitative difference between unrest and revolution requires deeper investigation. To criticize power is one thing, to put it in crisis is another. The 1960s emancipation of the individual led to the restoration of the old balance of forces, now burnished with some new reforms. We were the sacrificial victims in this process, which was not an anomaly but a normal feature of politics. To understand this is not enough to overturn it, but it is a necessary precondition. The whole discussion on the ‘autonomy of the political’—which originated in operaismo and spread from there—was about this. Workers’ struggles determine the course of capitalist development; but capitalist development will use those struggles for its own ends if no organized revolutionary process opens up, capable of changing that balance of forces. It is easy to see this in the case of social struggles in which the entire systemic apparatus of domination repositions itself, reforms, democratizes and stabilizes itself anew.

A paradox: the most culturally backward struggles—for ‘emancipation’—had social consequences that were favourable to labour, forcing capital to make concessions: the welfare state, constitutional reforms, the role of unions and parties. Yet the more culturally advanced struggles—for liberation—ushered in a vengeful capitalist resurgence, the pensée unique of a single possible social form, and the subordination of everything human to a universal theory and practice of bourgeois life. Maybe, as conservatives and liberals would chorus, the first struggles were right and the second ones wrong? I believe we need to look for another explanation. In the struggles for emancipation, the organized workers’ movement played a central, active part. In the struggles for liberation, it was the crisis of that movement which played an active role—and, paradoxically, the struggles exacerbated that crisis. Did operaismo also function in this way? I leave the question open.

Operaismo and the PCI

Yet there was a simple fact which could not be eliminated by an act of political will. Many of those who made up the ‘alternative subjectivity’ of the 1960s had been formed outside, and were to some extent oriented against, the official, institutional forms of the labour movement and its parties. Thus in 1962, the FIAT workers’ dispute over a new contract became the opportunity for an extraordinary public agitation, which made itself felt at national level. This, we learned, was how the political centrality of the working class operated, in practice: putting back on the country’s agenda, each time it erupted, Brecht’s proposal to the Paris anti-fascist conference of 1935: ‘Comrades, let us talk about property relations!’ But the PCI did not acquit itself of its allotted function of translating the great workers’ struggles of the early 60s into high politics. Contrary to what is commonly supposed, the ‘party of the working class’ was more willing to listen to the 68 of the students than to the 69 of the Italian workers. (Here too there is proof ex post facto: in the years that followed, the Party leadership was replenished far more from the ranks of the students than from those of the workers.) At the same time, a leftist anti-communism developed which requires a historical analysis. Here it was fundamentally an anti-PCI, composed of intellectual forces that still exist today (despite the disappearance of their antagonist), who grew up under the sign of a movement, a generation, an outlook; a mode of feeling, intimacy and communication rather than of being, thought and struggle. The vanguards of those days have now been joined by an army of repentants.

This phenomenon intensified after Togliatti’s death in 1964, not just because of a real decline in the party’s capacity for mediation, but also because of the profound transformations that were taking place within Italian society. It was only with the late 1950s and early 60s that modern capitalism really took off in Italy, and the ancient little world of civil society, embedded in the memory of the nineteenth century, finally came to an end. The small-minded ‘Italietta’ of the Risorgimento still weighed on those of us born in the 1930s; we would learn more from studying that decade than from experiencing all those that followed. We were vaccinated against the vetero-italica disease. The whole of Italian history up to that point had been a minor story of the twentieth century. Those of us attempting to think in modern, disenchanted ways felt its weight on our shoulders—from the limitations of the Italian language to the blindness of its culture. As we discovered, reading Locke and Montesquieu, and examining the Westminster model, the entire pre-fascist era was, after all, a caricature of Western liberal systems. And the two ‘red biennia’, so different from one another—1919–20 and 1945–46—were magical moments that could only have emerged from the ashes of the great wars.

The quiet strength of the PCI was to place itself within this minor history of longue durée, scaling back its objectives, calling a halt to any impulsiveness, organizing a ‘what is to be done’ that never went beyond the possible, being careful never to reach for the impossible. The PCI’s ‘national-popular’ was a bête noire for us workerists, at the level of culture even before that of politics; this was something we understood early on. Our comrade Alberto Asor Rosa wrote Scrittori e popolo in 1964, at the age of thirty: an essay on—and against—populist literature in Italy. [5] His book marked the beginnings of a crisis in an aspect of Italian political culture that had remained hegemonic up to that point. Yet without that popular—not populist—politics, we could never have had reason to sing, Avanti, avanti, il gran partito noi siamo dei lavoratori . . . The real strength of the PCI was its conscious strategy of rooting itself, lucidly, culturally, in the people that had emerged from this history.

It is a commonplace to say that the PCI was the real Italian social democracy. It was not. Rather, it was the Italian version of a communist party. The Italian road to Socialism had been a long one, stretching off far into the distance: behind us was the history of a nation, the reality of a people, the tradition of a culture. Gramsci’s life and work synthesized these things, and bequeathed their hegemonic intellectual legacy to the totalizing political action of Togliatti. Thus reformism was, in an original sense, the political form that the revolutionary process took in that context. This cycle concluded with the dissolution of the myth of capitalist backwardness, which had long persisted in the PCI, even during the rise of capitalist development in Italy. The most orthodox Togliatti faction, the Amendola group, cultivated this myth beyond any justifiable point and made it the social basis for a cultural common sense. This is where the split occurred between the party and young emerging intellectual forces, who found support in parts of the union sector, especially in the North, and in the restive ranks of the Party. [6]

In fact the northern Italian workers’ struggles of the early 60s were closer to those of New Deal America than to those of the southern Italian farm workers in the 1950s. The Apulian labourer who became a mass worker in Turin was the symbol of the end of ‘Italietta’ history. Togliatti had a firm grasp of the superstructural and political aspects of the early centre-left, but was unable to see the social, material causes that had brought them about and the central role of the great factory. Quaderni rossi and Classe operaia saw more clearly than the PCI journals, Società and Rinascita, the factory–society–politics nexus as the strategic location in which capitalist transformations took place. One need only turn the pages of the operaisti journals: correspondence from factories, on-site analysis of the restructuring of the production process, assessments of management strategies, critique of demands, evaluation of contracts, interventions in struggles, international issues; and also editorials on the key political questions of the time.

Culture of crisis

The hypothesis that the chain had to be broken not where capital was weakest but where the working class was strongest set the operaista agenda. Even now I am not sure whether a relish for intellectual adventure and the exercise of political responsibility can be truly compatible; yet they coexisted for us, in the political friendships born on that basis. If not much else came out of it, at least we found a way of surviving, with an enjoyable hominis dignitate, in a hostile world. In this sense, our operaismo was essentially a form of cultural revolution, which produced significant intellectual figures rather than determining historical events. More than a way of doing politics, it defined a way of doing political culture. This was a serious, high culture: specialization without academicization, aiming at a practice with strategic consistency and historical depth. It was a matter of restoring, or perhaps implanting, a post-proletarian aristocracy of the people against the existing drift of a bourgeois populism. We saw a subject without form—or rather, with a traditional, historical form which was in crisis. Our new social subject, the mass worker, was no longer contained in the old political form. A subject that is born of crisis is a critical subject. A passionate love affair would later develop between operaismo and nineteenth-century Central European thought: a love that was not disappointed, and that I would say was returned, given the work produced within that framework. It is enough to skim through magazines such as Angelus Novus, Contropiano and later—to a certain extent—Laboratorio politico, to be convinced that for us, communication has never been separate from thought.

Much ink has been spilled in controversies over anti-Hegelianism in Italian operaismo. Hegelianism was to be found, first and foremost, in that ideology of the workers as a ‘universal class’, saturated with Kantian ethics in the era of the Second International, and with dialectical materialism in that of the Third. That image of the proletariat, which ‘by freeing itself frees all of humanity’, present in the nineteenth-century Marx, was shattered by Munch’s scream, after which followed the great breakdown of all forms in the early twentieth century. Here we are speaking of artistic avant-gardes, but also of scientific and philosophical ones, and the revolution of all other collective human forms, social, economic, political, under the tragic impact—1914!—of the first great European, and global, civil war. The tide of human progress—the belle époque—crashed against the wall of the worst massacre ever seen. But where danger is, deliverance also grows. Out of that inferno came the principle of hope: the most advanced revolutionary experiment ever launched. It was the Bolsheviks, alone and cursed, who made the leap; all that followed, in the course of their experiment, cannot cancel the gratitude which humanity owes for that heroic effort. One need not be a communist to understand this. And whoever does not understand—or does not want to understand—it is missing a part of the soul they need in order to exist and to act politically in this world. We had the good fortune to set out with this thought. We added the virtù of the ‘worker’s perspective’, and so began the intellectual adventure recounted here.

Critique of 1968

Two good twists of fate: we lived 1956 while we were still young, and 1968 when we no longer were. This allowed us to grasp the political kernel lying beneath the ideological crust of those dates. We could respond to 1956 without the constraint of the historic shackles that weighed upon the previous generation; we could seize the possibilities it opened up. It was a time when history and politics were in full flow, imposing themselves on everyday life; we had no choice but to engage with events, to question ourselves, make decisions, choose between two sides. I never accepted the notions of good and evil used by the Church to tame the faithful. But I understood through hard experience that evil means those long, dismal periods when nothing happens; good manifests itself when you are forced to take a stand; it’s the fall into sin that awakens you to freedom. Similarly, nihilism is not produced by dark periods of barbarism but by false glimmers of civilization—against which it is not the worst response.

There was no room for narcissistic gambolling or analysing the unconscious in 1956—at least, not in that troubled land which was the international communist movement. The political calamity triggered a great cultural crisis. Little by little, as dramatic events unfolded—the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU, Khrushchev’s secret speech, the Hungarian revolt and its destruction—everything was accounted for. Togliatti’s mandarins trod warily between the contradictions of the Soviet system, vulgarizing the Gramscian edict against Croce: less dialectic of opposites, more dialectic of differences. We were young and free-spirited: naive as it may appear, we wanted clarity rather than confusion, yet we were offered a delicate chiaroscuro. It was the first ‘no’—agonizing but emphatic—that we gave to the party leaders. Not having lived through the war against fascism, we did not feel that iron bond with the socialist motherland: it had not become the focus of our lives. For our elders, anti-fascism had been a political and moral imperative, capable of leaving its stamp on one’s existence forever; a commitment of great human intensity, from which no thinking heart could escape in the climate of those times. Born in the 1930s, we were too young for the anti-fascist resistance, and never feared in the post-war era that fascism would return. As militants, we experienced the Cold War as a ‘clash of civilizations’, not a conflict over spheres of influence. From that point on there was no room in our thinking for ‘magnificent and progressive destinies’. Communism was no longer the final stop on a railway line that led mankind inexorably towards progress. Following Marx, it would be the self-criticism of the present; following Lenin, it would be the organization of a force capable of breaking the weakest link in history’s chain.

This reiteration of 1956 is not excessive. Without that leap, operaismo would never have existed: we would not have had Panzieri’s ‘Theses on Workers’ Control’, nor would we have come together, as intellectuals of the crisis. [7] The year 1968 would still have happened—it sprang from other roots, from the modernizing imperatives of capitalist society—but perhaps it would have assumed a different form, with more flower children and fewer apprentice revolutionaries. We witnessed 1968 as adults, which was another stroke of luck, for to experience that year in one’s youth turned out, in the long run, to be a great misfortune (as Marx said it was to be a wage-labourer). The appearance took hold and the real substance was lost. The appearance—that is, what the movement expressed symbolically—was its anti-authoritarian character. In its own way, this worked. The substance was its character as revolt. This did not last: in individuals it was extinguished and absorbed, in groups it was diverted and bastardized.

Those of us who had lived through the struggles of the factory workers in the early 60s looked on the student protests with sympathetic detachment. We had not predicted a clash of generations, though in the factories we had met the new layer of workers—especially young migrants from the South—who were active and creative, always in the lead (certainly compared to the older workers who were exhausted by past defeats). But in the factories, the bond between fathers and sons still held together; it was among the middle classes that it had snapped. This was an interesting phenomenon, but not decisive for changing the structural balance of forces between the classes. At Valle Giulia, in March 68, we were with the students against the police—not like Pasolini. But at the same time, we knew it was a struggle behind enemy lines, to determine who would be in charge of modernization. The old ruling class, the war-time generation, was exhausted. A new elite was pressing forward into the light; a new ruling class for the globalized capitalism that lay in the future. The Cold War had long become a hindrance; the crisis of politics, parties and ‘the public’ was upon us. The poison of ‘anti-politics’ was first injected into the veins of society by the movements of 68. The maturation of civil society and the conquest of new rights transformed collective consciousness. But first and foremost, these transformations were beneficial for Italian capitalism and its pursuit of modernity. The re-privatization of the whole system of social relations began with this period, which has not yet come to a close.

Paradoxical outcomes

The remarkable youth of 68 did not understand—nor did we, though we would grasp it soon enough—this truth: to demolish authority did not automatically mean the liberation of human diversity; it could mean, and this is what happened, freedom specifically for the animal spirits of capitalism, which had been stamping restlessly inside the iron cage of the social contract that the system had seen as an unavoidable cure for the years of revolution, crisis and war. The year 68 was a classic example of the heterogenesis of ends. The slogan ce n’est qu’un début could only be successful for a very brief period, against the backdrop of an eruption across the Western world which constituted the strength of the movement. To chant la lutte continue was already an acknowledgment of defeat.

In the long run the game was lost. The radicalization of discourse on the autonomy of the political from the early 70s was born from this failure of the insurrectionary movements, from the workers’ struggles to the youth revolt, that had spanned the decade of the 60s. What was lacking was the decisive intervention of an organized force, which could only have come from the existing workers’ movement, and therefore the Communists. A concerted initiative could have pushed the reluctant European social-democratic parties towards undertaking a historic reconstruction, for which the moment was ripe. We should have pushed for a new ‘politics from above’ inside the rank-and-file movements, to counter the implicit drift towards anti-politics, and thus to disrupt the social and political balance of forces, rather than restabilizing it. At that moment, another world was possible. Later, and for a long time, it would not be. The opportunity was not taken, the fleeting moment passed, and the dead reconquered the living. Real processes defeated imaginary subjects. In some respects, things went better in the US than in Europe. There, the American Goliath was humiliated by the Vietnamese David. Here, we passed from the Paris rebellion to the invasion of Prague, from Quaderni rossi to the nouveaux philosophes, from Woodstock to Piazza Fontana, and from the flower children to the anni di piombo. ‘The times they are a’ changing’: ten years after 68, the times really had changed. The Trilateral Commission dictated the tenets of the new world order and its civic religion.

In Italy, the era of classical operaismo was finished. Classe operaia took the controversial decision to declare its project exhausted. ‘Don’t subscribe,’ it told its readers with characteristic irony in the final issue, published in 1967, ‘we’re going now.’ What role might the ‘political newspaper of the workers in struggle’ have played, if it had still been alive during the events of 1968, with its compact, prestigious core of activists? Could it have influenced the movement, offered a lead, given it a political orientation? I don’t think so. The decision to close it down was taken to avoid the looming risk of turning into a ‘groupuscule’, with all the usual deformations: minoritarianism, self-referentiality, hierarchization, ‘dual layers’, unconsciously imitating the practices of the ‘dual state’, and so on. At best, small groups were fatally led to repeat the vices of larger organizations. There was thus no continuity between political operaismo and the potentially anti-political movements of 1968. Of course, we smiled when we heard people chanting ‘student power’, but I remember vividly the moment when a student march on the Corso in Rome unexpectedly raised the cry of ‘workers’ power’. In fact, if operaismo was diffident about 68, 68 discovered operaismo, and long before the ‘hot autumn’ of 69. ‘Students and workers, united in the struggle’ was a thrilling, mobilizing slogan, helping to form a generous generation of militants, still quietly present in the pores of civil society.

Classe operaia shut down just as the Eleventh Party Congress of the PCI was opening. There was never a more striking coincidence of opposites. I was then on leave from the party, but party membership—conscription by one’s own free will—was taken for granted: this was so before the operaista experience, and remained the case as long as il partito existed. But we did not involve ourselves in the bitter struggles at the top for the leadership that came after Togliatti. We were against Amendola without being for Ingrao. We did not like the idea of a single left-wing party for Italy, which would mean the explicit social-democratization of the PCI. But above all we fought the Party’s right on the question of its analysis of Italian capitalism. We put forward, in true Marxist style, the concept of neo-capitalism, which we saw as a more advanced—and therefore more productive—terrain of struggle, while the other side had an outdated view of the Italian economy, compounded by an equally backward Soviet orthodoxy. For the international context, too, had been altered by the beginning of the Cold War détente and ‘peaceful coexistence’ between the two systems. Capital would need a new levy of political professionals, armed with a different cultural tradition—yet to be constructed—and with new intellectual tools. This would be a figure brought up to date for neo-capitalism, a combined specialist-cum-politician, able to operate skilfully within the contingencies of the disorder to come.

The Italian ‘hot autumn’ of 1969 was a spontaneous movement: this was also its limitation, its ephemeral character eventuating in its structuring role, within the medium-to-long term, of modernization without revolution. Operaismo was, at least in Italy, one of the founding premises of 1968; but at the same time, it made a substantive criticism of 68 in advance. In its turn, 1969 corrected a great deal and caused much more alarm. That was the real annus mirabilis. Nineteen sixty eight was born in Berkeley and baptized in Paris. It arrived in Italy still young and yet already mature, poised between workers and PCI, exactly where we had positioned ourselves. Operaismo pushed 1968 beyond its premises. In 1969, the issue wasn’t anti-authoritarianism but anti-capitalism. Workers and capital found themselves physically face to face with one another. With the autunno caldo, wages exerted a direct effect on profits; the balance of power shifted in favour of the workers and to the disadvantage of the bosses. The idea of lotta operaia took on a general social dimension. This was clear in the two consequences that derived from it. First, a leap in national social consciousness and a political opening for consensus around the greatest opposition party, which still saw itself formally as the party of the working class. Second, the violent reaction of the system, which used all its defensive strategies, from legal concessions to state terrorism, from the secret service to the social compromise. The system’s aggressive response to the jolt administered by the autunno caldo swept the movement away—or, what amounted to the same thing, made it change course. It was this second path that predominated, and from it another history would flow.

All of this was already inscribed in the unresolved contradiction between struggles and organization—new struggles, therefore new organization—which had blocked the path of operaismo in its early phase. All attempts to connect with internal developments within the PCI in the mid-60s went awry. The exceptional ‘human material’ which played such a major part in the experiment that was operaismo was not made for, was not organically adapted to, a political game in which one’s hypotheses had to be tested on different terrain from that which one has chosen oneself. The idea of ‘inside and against’—that sophisticated, perhaps overly complex principle that was expressed in its classic form as political operaismo—was unable to take root in flesh-and-blood individuals; it remained the statement of a method, indispensable for understanding but ineffective as a basis for action.

Leaden times

The true difference between our operaismo and the formal workerism of the PCI lay in the concept of the political centrality of workers. We carried on this discussion right up till 1977, when we convened a conference on ‘workerism and worker centrality’ with Napolitano and Tortorella, in a leaden Padua, subjected to the non-pacifist forays of the so-called autonomi. [8] I do not here take 1977 as a date of key significance—a choice rather than an oversight. I agree that, compared to 1968, 1977 has more political weight and marks a more decisive social shift; much of the negative relation between new generations and politics was solved there, on that battlefield. But I’d like to say that the Italian workerism of the early 1960s did not lead in this direction. Viewed from the present, Classe operaia was closer to Quaderni rossi than it was to Negri’s Potere operaio, or to all those that went on to participate in autonomia operaia. The precise dividing line was as follows: these initial two projects, first magazine and then daily newspaper, took themselves to be critically inside the workers’ movement, while the later endeavours—grounded more in self-organization—placed themselves dangerously against that movement. Toni Negri’s intelligence is manifest in the theory of the transition from ‘mass worker’ to operaio sociale, [9] but by that point the practical damage had already been done, and a violent waste of precious human resources had passed hopelessly to the wrong side.

Negri played a key role in the experience of Classe operaia; he was essential to the birth of the paper, and then to editorial work and distribution. With his feet planted firmly in the strategic location of Porto Marghera, he sensed developments and gave shape to his position. The experience of the Fordist–Taylorist worker—and the later criticism of this figure—lies at the root of all his later research. ‘Workers without allies’, cried the title of Classe operaia in March 1964, which had an editorial by Negri. That was a mistake. The system of alliances—employees, middle classes, Red Emilia—that the official workers’ movement had built on the basis of an advanced pre-capitalism certainly needed to be criticized and opposed. But a new system of alliances was coming into view within developed capitalism, with the new professionals emerging from the context of mass production, the consequent expansion of the market and spread of consumption, and the civil transformations and cultural shifts under way in the country. These were all ways in which the workers of 1962 anticipated the modernization of 1968 and the dawning post-modernity of 1977.

What followed was the paradoxical story of a general defeat, punctuated by illusory small-scale victories. Thus it went until the end of the 80s, when we were all forced to understand where history had ended up going. The leadership of the PCI suffered, in a subordinate mode, the same fate as the ruling classes of the country. Modernization required a passing of the baton from the generations of war and resistance to the generations of peace and development. The movements of 68 supplied new personnel for this handover. What happened in the party was what happened in the circles of power: a new political class was not born; rather, in its place, a new administrative class emerged, always managerial, at the levels of both government and opposition. The whole Berlinguer leadership—as much with the historic compromise as with its alternative—proved to be nothing more than a tumultuous period of defence, that lined up ilpopolo comunista to contain and slow the neo-bourgeois flood. But at that point there was little else that could be done. In the last act of the tragedy, the Communist Party was rechristened as the Democratic Party of the Left. This was followed by the farce, when even the word ‘party’ disappeared, under pressure from anti-political populism. There were no more barriers. Just the flood.

From the 1980s onwards, neo-liberal capitalist restoration sapped the workers’ capacity for opposition. With the breaking of the weakest link in the anti-capitalist chain—the Soviet state—there was no longer any way to block the returning hegemonic power from taking absolute command. The newly declared dominance of capital was not just economic but social, political and cultural. It was at once theoretical and ideological, a combination of intellectual and mass common sense. Yet it’s worth stressing one final fact: for as long as the post-capitalist horizon remained open, the struggle to introduce elements of social justice within capitalism achieved some success. Once the revolutionary project was defeated, the reformist programme became impossible too. In this sense, the latest form of neo-liberal capitalism may prove ironically similar to the final forms of state socialism: incapable of reform.

Translated by Eleanor Chiari

[1] Piero Malvezzi and Giovanni Pirelli, eds, Lettere di condannati a morte della Resistenza italiana, 8 settembre 1943–25 aprile 1945, Turin 1952.

[2] See also Galvano Della Volpe, ‘The Marxist Critique of Rousseau’, NLRI/59, Jan–Feb 1970, and ‘Settling Accounts with the Russian Formalists’, NLR I/113–114, Jan–April 1979.

[3] Tronti, La politica al tramonto, Turin 1998.

[4] Rita Di Leo, Operai e sistema sovietico, Bari 1970.

[5] Alberto Asor Rosa, Scrittori e popolo, Rome 1965.

[6] For the PCI internal debate, see NLR I/13–14, Jan–Apr 1962.

[7] Raniero Panzieri, ‘Sette tesi sulla questione del controllo operaio’, Mondo Operaio, February 1958.

[8] For the conference proceedings see Tronti et al, Operaismo e centralità operaia, Rome 1978.

[9] Antonio Negri, Dall’operaio massa all’operaio sociale: intervista sull’operaismo, Milan 1979.