The theory and practice of Italian workerism

Storming Heaven:

Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism

First published in 2002, Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven is the most thorough and concise study of the revolutionary theory and practice that emerged from Italy in the 1960s. The appearance of this new edition is an occasion to revisit the lessons we might learn from these events. Wright gives a critical survey of the workerist tendency (operaismo), noting points of internal contradiction and failures of analysis as well as its insights. It is valuable for us today to take on aspects of workerist inquiry, while remaining aware of the elements of it that turned out to be misleading or incomplete.

Theorists affiliated with the workerist perspective, including Raniero Panzieri, Renato Alquati, and Mario Tronti, described the working-class experience of their time in order to better develop its tendencies and potential. This endeavor paid close attention to possibilities for struggle at the point of production, but also documented and learned from the concrete specifics of life beyond the factory doors. In doing so the workerists anticipated some of the later insights of social reproduction theory.

The 1960s in Italy witnessed the development of a new consumer society. Many workers had participated in antifascist resistance efforts, including the seizing of workplaces. The Communist Party of Italy (PCI) was particularly strong, but advocated national renewal and state-level negotiations. PCI leadership condoned the priority of management in dictating factory productivity. Trade unions were split between the left-wing coalition, the Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL), and more moderate and conservative organizations.

“Workerism” commonly refers to Marxists who overemphasize the role of a limited sector of the working class, skilled industrial laborers. In Italy, however, this term took on a very different meaning. As Wright explains, a number of dissident members of the Italian communist and socialist parties questioned the reformist electoral strategies imposed by Stalinism or social democracy. These militants were particularly interested in the potential of Italy’s industrialized north, where the working class was most concentrated and had the highest degree of consciousness. Their goal was a reorganization of working-class institutions toward direct democratic control.

Raniero Panzieri, a militant socialist, was the first to suggest the rudiments of the workerist perspective. He argued that Marxist cultural thought ought to reject the dictates put in place by upper-level party leadership. As director of the Socialist Party’s theoretical review in Rome from 1957 to 1959, he encouraged new discussions of Marxist thinkers who had been suppressed by Stalinism, such as Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, and György Lukács. Panzieri declared that socialism could only be achieved if the worker’s movement was reorganized “from below and in forms of total democracy.” Panzieri argued that new institutions and procedures needed to be oriented toward the direct participation of the masses of workers, and that accountability to them depended on attentiveness to the details of their lived experience. While rejecting any substitionism of the party for the class, Panzieri hoped that the Socialist Party could be reoriented as a revolutionary instrument.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the party wished to form a coalition government with the Christian Democrats, and Panzieri was removed from his editorial role at their journal. However, he made contact with a number of other young revolutionaries who shared his ideas about working-class democracy. Among them was Mario Tronti, who was a member of the Italian Communist Party’s university cell. Panzieri and others of his mindset believed that analysis needed to be enmeshed in practical struggles in the workplace. In 1961, Panzieri created a new journal, called Quaderni Rossi, that included members of different parties as well as independent Marxists. This journal was concerned with economic analysis of conditions in Italy, but believed that this analysis could only be useful alongside an understanding of the experiences and consciousness of the working class itself. The journal interviewed individual workers to record their life stories and their perspectives on their work and living conditions, and also distributed questionnaires for broader studies.

In developing their methods, researchers at Quaderni Rossi drew from Karl Marx’s own “Workers’ Inquiry” of 1880, in France. They also took inspiration from two post-Trotskyist groups: Socialisme ou Barbarie, a French organization, and the Correspondence Publishing Committee associated with C. L. R. James. Panzieri and others felt that these groups were too spontaneist and individualistic, in that they rejected the need for a revolutionary party. However, they believed that methods of inquiry that placed working-class self-activity at the forefront would be the theoretical backbone of a new party. Effectively, Panzieri worked to correct the ultra-left deviation away from the Leninist tradition that James and others had adopted, as an excessive reaction to Stalinist distortions. While later Italian workerists would follow a path toward the refusal of organization, this was a departure from Panzieri’s intent.

Panzieri believed that the way to reestablish party leadership according to the activity of the working class was through greater power for CGIL. This trade union, comprised of the most radical workers, could function as the locus point for a vanguard layer. In 1959, workers throughout the north—both metal workers, predominantly male, and textile workers, mainly female, inaugurated a new wave of struggle in the industrial sectors. In 1960, this period of agitation led to antifascist street fighting in which more than a dozen workers were eventually killed by police. Quaderni Rossi noted that the political rejection of fascism had a class character; the most militant antifascists recognized it as an extension of the power the boss had over them in the factory.

Quaderni Rossi aimed to trace the rise of political consciousness through social experiences. Tronti developed two ideas from Lukács. The first was the insistence on proletarian standpoint; Tronti believed that the social totality could only be understood by adopting the viewpoint of the working class, in its historical actuality. The second was the idea of commodity fetishism tending to govern all elements of society, even outside the formal economy. In a 1962 essay, Tronti argued that capitalism tended toward concentration, with the state beginning to act as a unified agent, a “collective capitalist.” Tronti believed that the social relations attendant to capital, then, began to pervade the entire social totality, even outside the workplace. As a name for this, Tronti coined the phrase “social factory.” In Tronti’s initial conception, this did not mean that activity and work outside the circuit of commodity production also produces value for the capitalists. Rather, he aimed to explore the ways that the relations of production had pervaded areas of working-class life; what we would now call social reproduction.

Wright describes the workerist distinction between what they called the “political” and “technical” composition of the working class: its “behavior as a subject autonomous from the dictates of both the labor movement and capital,” emerging from the “material structure of the working class.” Tronti distinguished the living potential of the working class from its reification as an exploited element of the forces of production. He declared that “labor must see labor-power, as commodity, as its own enemy.” This division was a means of maintaining the superiority of the self-activity of the working class over its reduction to a simple instrument, by capital. Panzieri and Tronti agreed that the working class had an independent existence and self-consciousness outside the workplace itself, but that it would be strongest and most capable of striking revolutionary blows through disruptions at key points of production.

However, Wright traces an unresolved contradiction in Tronti’s description of the nature of the working class. Tronti placed great importance on close attention to the working conditions and potential for struggle by a relatively narrow sector of the working class concentrated in the industrial north; he combined this with a growing interest in the expansion of proletarianization through all social relations and the significance of reproductive activity and experience beyond the working day. This had great strengths, in that it avoided the tendency toward representative abstraction of the working class. However, it became unclear whether the working class could be primarily understood through a vanguard layer or whether broader social activity was becoming equally relevant.

In 1961, Romano Alquati, one of the authors associated with Quaderni Rossi, wrote a report on the collective experience of workers at FIAT. This began a development of their sociological method that emphasized the notion of “class composition.” Wright defines this as “the various forms of behavior which arise when particular forms of labor-power are inserted in specific processes of production.” Class composition developed general concepts out of detailed descriptions of the dynamic character of working-class experience in advanced capitalism. Alquati’s analysis uncovered a tendency toward “deskilling”: capital’s preference for labor that was increasingly unspecialized, in order to lessen the reliance on skilled workers with leverage to demand higher wages or better working conditions.

Unfortunately, Quaderni Rossi’s emphasis on self-activity rendered them vulnerable to party and union leadership who saw this as dangerous or unreliable. In 1962, they were scapegoated after a riot in the Piazza Statuto in Turin, when hundreds of workers confronted one of the most conservative unions. Union and party leadership argued that Quaderni Rossi’s skepticism toward representation had contributed to this kind of undisciplined activity, and their hope to reform traditional working-class institutions became increasingly remote.

In 1964, after Panzieri’s unexpected death, the remnants of Quaderni Rossi regrouped into a new journal, Classe Operaia (Working Class). In the pages of Classe Operaia, the broader life-world of the working class as whole became an increasing topic of investigation, with decreasing importance allocated to workers at the point of production. Alquati took Tronti’s notion of social factory much further, arguing that industrial plants, residential zones, and administration centers were all beginning to share similar principles. This expansion of the understanding of the social factory had positive and negative effects. Positively, it led to a greater appreciation of the significance of social struggles outside the economic realm. Unfortunately, this also led to the eventual collapse of the distinction between productive and reproductive labor. Workerists began to see activity outside the workplace as tightly bound to a circuit of commodity production. They were correct in viewing the social totality as continually shaped by the exploitive demands of capital, sometimes through state policy; but they began to neglect or occlude divisions between different sectors of the social totality, which may not all follow the same logic. Moreover, this insistence began to produce skepticism about the necessity for struggle at the point of production, because all moments of the social totality appeared equally integral to the functioning of the capitalist state and capital accumulation.

These contradictions led to the dissolution of Classe Operaia in 1967. At the same moment, a new cycle of student struggles began, culminating in the “Hot Autumn” of 1969. The university appeared as a new locus point that could ignite broader class activity, and this seemed to support the idea that struggles outside the workplace were now equally important. Tronti and others formed a new group called Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power). They argued that students were pre-workers, and that they were being disciplined to take on a new economic role, the “mass worker.” Tronti’s notion of the mass worker drew from earlier analyses of the tendency toward deskilling. The workerists argued that labor in advanced capitalism was less and less specialized, and more characterized by unreliability and potential unemployment. However, a variety of workplace struggles took place, in addition to student activism. Workers developed a tactic of self-limitation of production, rather than total stoppage. Workers and students also made demands from the state, and tried to win time and space from their own exploitation in order to make room for their own free creative activity. Contemporary social reproduction theorists understand this; for example, Tithi Bhattacharya writes, “Where a struggle for a higher wage is not possible, different kinds of struggles around the circuit of social reproduction may also erupt.” The problem was that these struggles over reproduction were not sufficiently coordinated with other strategies that took place at the site of productive labor itself.

Wright’s book is of great significance for understanding a chapter in European working-class history, but also has considerable relevance for reflection on our own situation. The workerists can be viewed as making considerable progress toward a better understanding of the democratic self-activity of the working class, the need to develop institutions accountable to the class, and the crucial need for attention to social reproduction. However, they also fell short in many respects, partly as a result of conditions beyond their own control, and partly a result of certain contradictions and gaps in their own theories. Steve Wright’s study critically revisits their ideas and dilemmas, with an eye toward sharpening our own conceptual tools.

Issue #85

September 2012

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