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While most political forms and traditions of the European left cross-pollinated freely across national boundaries, the Italian operaismo of the 1960s was largely a sui generis experience in its time. Credited with a significant intellectual impact at home—transforming Italian sociology, through its project of worker inquiries, and yielding a heady if evanescent crop of theoretical journals: Quaderni rossi, Classe operaia, Angelus Novus, Contropiano—it had less immediate reverberation abroad than the larger current around Il Manifesto, whose cultural breadth and political consistency was of a different order. A condition for operaismo’s existence was the dramatic industrial expansion of the 1950s, within a culture already deeply coloured by two mass workers’ parties, each with its own lively intellectual life. The Italian Communist Party had some two million members, while the Socialist Party of the post-war decades was far to the left of Cold War social democracy; both were revitalized by the thaw that followed Khrushchev’s secret speech. Operaismo would be characterized by an implacable hostility to the diluted Gramscianism of the pci’s ‘national-popular’ outlook (‘the Resistance as a second Risorgimento’), and by an engagement with anti-historicist, scientific methodologies. Early operaista thinkers sprang principally from the left of the psi, whose watchword of ‘autonomy’—originally with a ‘for-itself’ connotation—remained a key term. A seminal figure, Raniero Panzieri (1921–64) edited the psi’s theoretical journal Mondo operaio from 1957 to 59; marginalized by the Nenni leadership, he went to work for Einaudi in Turin. Launching Quaderni rossi there in 1961, Panzieri could draw on like-minded thinkers around Luciano Della Mea in Milan, Antonio Negri and Massimo Cacciari in the Veneto and Mario Tronti in Rome. Born into a working-class Communist family in Rome in 1931, Tronti had joined the pci in the early 1950s, while studying philosophy at the University of Rome. Breaking with Quaderni rossi in 1964, he went on to edit Classe operaia, returning to the pci in 1967 to pursue the operaista project within its ranks and developing a concept of the ‘autonomy of the political’. In this issue, we publish an edited extract from Tronti’s memoir of the movement, Noi operaisti, published by Derive Approdi in 2009. At once polemical and personal, it offers an illuminating contrast of the springtime of 56 and hot autumnn of 69, and draws a sharp distinction between classical operaismo and its distant echo, autonomism, which persisted on the counter-cultural margins of Europe’s cities from the late 70s, to emerge in more hygenic form in Hardt and Negri’s Empire at the turn of the century.
he i talian 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. new left review 73 jan feb 2012 119
as well as ideas. in the name of those beneath. party members were never a majority within Italian workerism. the combination was perhaps my personal problem. This was not the bourgeois mandate. inviting workers to join the anti-capitalist struggle. but I would stress the transition—in effect. criticism and judgement. a limited but significant generational fraction. eds. Rupture of fifty-six One key date emerges as a strategic locus for us all: 1956. I have never forgotten the lesson we learned at the factory gates. reflection. coming from the hands that accepted our bits of paper.120 nlr 73 Semi-literate partisans facing Nazi execution squads produced the Lettere di condannati a morte della Resistenza. by following its own. 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. Operaismo reworked Marx’s brilliant phrase—the proletariat attaining its own emancipation will free all humanity—to read: the working class. Several things made that year ‘unforgettable’. They would laugh and say: ‘What is it? Money?’ A ‘rough pagan race’ indeed. Thought and history encountered each other in a direct. even in the early days. enrichissez-vous. wages. Here I will describe the Lehrjahre—the formative apprenticeship years—of the operaisti. Operaismo marked a way of thinking politically. and some of what came after. Turin 1952. a work of art. Piero Malvezzi and Giovanni Pirelli. Lettere di condannati a morte della Resistenza italiana. presented as an objectively antagonistic reply to the word. profit. when we arrived with our pretentious leaflets. always the same. A sense of the grandeur of the conflict awoke in us a passion for the Nietzschean style: to speak in a noble register. partial interests. The answer. What had been said and written on it came later. 8 settembre 1943–25 aprile 1945. nor dominant in Quaderni rossi or Classe operaia. creates a general crisis in the relations of capital. 1 . I will try to explain the complex. The biographical account that follows retains an element of ambiguity between personal and generational registers. immediate and frontal clash. Strong thought requires strong writing. What is had to be exposed to analysis. A clumsy historian of events. it was the word. early stabs at the operaisti argument.1 In the same way. This was not the case for the most part. But I should say at the outset that my operaismo was of a Communist kind.
the cultural line of the Italian Communists. and his writing was even harder to understand. but a certain intellectual aristocratism clung to us still. 2 . or Aristotle against the Platonists. At a certain point a strange-looking character arrived from Sicily— he had been teaching in Messina: tall. I sensed. The approach we took then seems all the more valuable now. it was precisely on this basis that. the rule of the proper noun. materialist or idealist—the De Sanctis–Labriola–Croce–Gramsci line— had exercised an unparalleled cultural hegemony in politics. they discussed what they thought of them. the horizons of communist liberty. one step at a time. Thanks to Togliatti’s charisma. broadly speaking.2 To be honest: we freed ourselves from the pci’s Gramscian ‘national-popular’. At the Istituto Gramsci you could encounter party members from the Directorate and the Secretariat. Jan– Feb 1970. and now set about putting it to work. 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. as substantive or adjective. with a hooked nose and hawkish face. we few were given the chance to discover. They didn’t write books. They read books. and ‘Settling Accounts with the Russian Formalists’. piece by piece. that the twentieth century ended there. toiling over the concept created difficulties with the word. while retaining its lessons with regard to method. We awoke from the dogmatic slumber of historicity. like Galileo against the Scholastics. He spoke in difficult language. when the triumph of mediatized vulgarity over political language is complete. by trial and error. ‘The Marxist Critique of Rousseau’. which came at the cost of a slightly self-referential isolation. Science against ideology—that was the paradigm. from 1956 onwards. wiry. Ours was a school of ascetic intellectual rigour. Then. In Italy. paying no heed to orthodox allegiances. Jan–April 1979. Understanding was more important than persuasion. a powerful group of pci leaders had formed around it in the post-war period. On reflection. Today the opposite is true—ease of discourse means dispensing with thought. or get improbable ghost-writers to do so for them. while others—the majority—were rediscovering the value of bourgeois freedoms. And between one initiative and the next. before I consciously thought it.tronti: Memoir 121 an epistemological rupture—from a party truth to a class truth. nlr i/59. we outgrew this schema as far as content was concerned. But Della Volpe took apart. Marx contra Hegel. nlr i/113–114. See also Galvano Della Volpe.
122 nlr 73 I remain unsure about the choice of political tactics at that point—not what was ‘correct’. 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. The two rights of 1956 were also the two wrongs. it was only its historical-conceptual elaboration that came later—and with it. a cultural sacrifice on the altar of praxis. Some years ago. openings. in the crossfire between the two opposing blocs. the exercise of that Renaissance political category. but what would have been most useful. The dilemma is whether to pursue the passion of belonging or the calculus of possibilities. precisely because they wish you well. But there was another path open to us in 1956: that of political growth within the mass-membership pci. . at times. I ask myself if it would have been possible to be a Togliattian. I wrote: ‘We young communist intellectuals were right to be on the side of the Hungarian insurgents. Rita Di Leo’s Operai e sistema sovietico 3 Tronti. What would this second path have entailed? A long march through the organization. It’s true that. We let ourselves get carried away by the fascinating pleasure of alternative thinking. It is easy to choose between right and wrong. But the lingering doubt remains that the other path may have been the right one: saying a little less and doing a little more.’3 This is the kind of sentence that even one’s closest friends. Togliatti was the master politician par excellence. In my personal formation. The theoretical discovery of the ‘autonomy of the political’ took place within the practical experience of operaismo. both of them internal to your side. even from the cultural framework that sustains and at times legitimates it. pretend not to have read. but with a different culture—and answer. 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. the realization of having failed to reach a synthesis of ‘inside and against’. little depends on your own decisions and much on circumstances. what’s hard is when you have to choose between two rights. Politics has an autonomy of its own. La politica al tramonto. Yet resolving this Oedipal enigma of the twentiethcentury labour movement was exactly the task that confronted us. whose leadership had embarked upon a period of ‘renewal in continuity’. Yet one of the most significant critical analyses of the Soviet system came from within operaismo. encounters. ‘honest dissimulation’. yes. Turin 1998.
He was not. He was not by nature a romantic hero. Quaderni rossi was a beautiful title for a journal. opposing ideologies. It is strange how. but became one by force of circumstance. a Communist.tronti: Memoir 123 demonstrated that starting from the point of view of the workers made it possible to comprehend a great deal more than the capitalist factory. To start the writing. He wanted to go from being an organizer of operaismo to being the organizer of workers’ culture. completely informal way of coming together. over time. Mario Miegge. Operai e sistema sovietico. to leave a trace. Ours was an original. . with a dose of the anarchic socialism that the old psi historically bore within itself. analysis and study. Dario and Liliana Lanzardo. he read Capital and imagined the revolution. a commitment to be this. so similar to our own—to mine in particular—which made us feel close to him. The red of the cover was the sign of a decision. who read Capital in order to organize the revolution. even among those comrades who did not make the same journey from Quaderni rossi to Classe operaia. in his early forties—was one of those fated to spend too little time on this earth. and therefore the reading. Panzieri’s Marx was that of Luxemburg. Raniero—he died in 1964.4 The workers’ political experiment par excellence was here brought critically into play. a sort of mutual affection has remained. Michele Salvati and more. His tradition was that of revolutionary syndicalism. with an evocative simplicity. and could never have been. Like Rosa. But he couldn’t really organize anything. Not in the way that ‘groups’ became institutionalized in the early 1970s. Remembering him today. A Bildungsroman It was in the early 1960s that an operaista group began to form spontaneously. But ‘workers’ control’ was a magic word 4 Rita Di Leo. Vittorio Rieser. eloquent in itself. Enough. politically and culturally. recalling the human qualities of people such as Bianca Beccalli. Edda Saccomani. ‘Notebooks’ expressed the will for research. thinking about him again. not Lenin. There lay the charm of his limitations. Bari 1970. Unlike Lenin. on the front cover—black on red—was a brilliant idea on Panzieri’s part. I feel a nostalgia for a lost political humanity. I still feel a deep sympathy. It remained an extremely isolated analysis: truth and fact coincided too closely for it to be welcomed by the two dominant. Giovanni Mottura. though.
The debt of Italian sociology to operaismo is now widely recognized. then . Paths through purgatory Our disagreement with Panzieri and the sociologists of Quaderni rossi arose over the idea and practice of politics. launched in 1963 as ‘the political newspaper of the workers in struggle’. looking back between Quaderni rossi and Classe operaia. or between Vittorio Rieser and Romano Alquati. but only the better to fight the war that interested us. More than once we got lost and found ourselves on the boundary that divides one side from another. Umberto Coldagelli and Gaspare De Caro opened a critical path with their ‘Marxist research hypotheses on contemporary history’. The primacy of politics was present from the start in Classe operaia. Whatever has been said about ex-workerist intellectuals. there was less disagreement than we thought at the time. there is always a consensus that the analyses of its workers’ enquiries were ‘lucid’. We valued the movementist impulse as a passion. Nazism and the working class. but it was also a context in which new ways of history were being envisaged. nothing else. There is an art. focused the lens and took a photograph. in the first issue—‘first the workers. we put all our efforts into mastering that art. we recognized the reformists of the left as serious functionaries of the capitalist general intellect (reigning today at the Euro-global level). in Quaderni rossi 3. It was an event of the political imagination which we thought about constantly—and practised. The slogan of my editorial. 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. too. but used it as a more advanced field of struggle.124 nlr 73 that woke us from that other dogmatic slumber—the Socialists’ ‘party of all the people’. rather than as a fact. Quaderni rossi turned on the lights inside the factory. in which the relations of production stood out with startling clarity. We were not enamoured of progressive democracy. without ever crossing it. ‘Lenin in England’. to losing oneself in the polis—that of politics. Operaismo opened up a new way of engaging in sociology: Weberian methodology mixed with the politics of Marxist analysis. In that sense. Sergio Bologna began research on Germany. Intuitively. a far more serious matter. We preferred enlightened bosses. Coldagelli began his long venture into the political and institutional history of France.
Togliatti’s translation/interpretation: it goes to the bottom of things. But it was he who showed us how the young fiat workers were waging their struggle. During our meetings. And apart from a few rank-and-file pci militants. The choice of graphics was a matter of high-level craftsmanship. organization. or perhaps precariously. He told us that it was only as an adult. in a reversal of bondsman and lord. a significant doubt. Mayakovsky to Eluard. intellectual disarray was raised to the level of genius. we brought together a fine old madhouse. we saw others. it pioneered comic-strip political satire—the victorious dragon chasing a fleeing Saint George. between 1848 and 1871. and thus intuit. conflict. and this would later be one of the selection criteria for those who took the operaista experience onto the field of struggle.tronti: Memoir 125 capital’. The movement from analysing workers’ conditions. that he realized fields were green. when he was finally able to buy himself some spectacles. 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. Inscribed on the paper’s red masthead were Marx’s words: ‘But the revolution is thorough. And if Quaderni rossi effected an innovation in content. it is workers’ struggles that drive the course of capitalist development—that was politics: will. or whether it has in fact retired. poets and writers. as what was coming into being. crowded its pages. was what gave the leap from the journal to the newspaper its meaning. In Alquati. We saw Classe operaia as the Politecnico—the legendary post-war cultural weekly— of the factory workers. to intervening in the claims they advanced for their class interests. but could not coexist. Long. as Quaderni rossi continued to do. he would say he was always a step ahead. It goes about its business methodically. It is still on its journey through purgatory.’ Die Revolution ist gründig. In other words. we would spend half the time talking. that is. Not bad. slow periods of restoration are prone—more than other epochs—to will-o’-the-wisps of revolutionary illusion. Marx saw several of them. the rest laughing. That aber at the beginning was crucial. decision. They came together on the basis of a shared research project. Today we no longer know if it is still working methodically. From our small corner. He saw not so much what is. from Babel to Brecht. I’ve never yet met people of higher human worth than those I associated with first at Quaderni rossi . Classe operaia was also a revolution in forms. Alquati would invent.
epochless time. and have been pardoned by the inimical times that followed. It emerged at the exact moment of transition when the tragic greatness of the century turned on itself. Our workerism What. I remember them with infinite nostalgia. They practised it. of the countryside against the city. welcomed into the Parnassus of the well-intentioned. The maximum disorder renewed the existing order. an episode in the history of the workers’ movement. estranged. then. oscillating between forms of the struggle and organizational solutions. We were not moved by an ethical revolt against factory exploitation. We were never Chinese and the Cultural Revolution of the East left us cold. such a straightforward sense of commitment. The Classe operaia comrades are less cited and more often denounced. and not least. The comrades from Quaderni rossi are better known. Our operaismo should be given credit for not falling into the trap of Third Worldism. our favourite colour. we brought the struggle of the workers against work in the Grundrisse. moving from a permanent state of exception to new ‘normal’. only the worst aspects of human history can come from it. . on the relations between workers and capital. We never used the term ‘proletariat’: ‘our’ workers were not like those of Engels’s Manchester but more like the ones in Detroit. The factory worker that we encountered was a twentieth-century figure.126 nlr 73 and then at Classe operaia: such selfless public interventions. with years of novicehood and pilgrimage. more than a little sceptical and indeed strongly critical of it. Looking back on the 1960s. of the long farmers’ marches. operaismo was also a specifically twentieth-century event. and is. Everything changed so that everything essential could stay the same. is operaismo? An experience of intellectual formation. such a disenchanted. in Italy and beyond. but by political admiration for the practices of insubordination that they invented. free of all personal ambition. self-ironizing way of sharing collective work. an attempt to break with Marxist orthodoxy. but we know that when guards or brigades take it up. we can see those years had a transitional function. We didn’t bring The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 with us to the factories. These young men and women did not theorize ‘a new way of doing politics’. In this last sense. Red was. an attempted cultural revolution in the West.
the moments seized. when the red flag waved over the factories. daily needs. It was another penetrating discovery to find that. The fact is that the whole history of the first half of the twentieth century converged on the figure of the mass worker. the conditions imposed. and grew up after it. this was what the operaisti were trying—naively. The qualitative difference between unrest and revolution requires deeper investigation. But they were also heirs to the factory occupations of the revolutionary years. Operaismo was our university. Yes. these workers were the children of the anti-fascist workers of 1943. to put it in crisis is another. by always staying on the same side. Yet with the 1960s we were already entering the declining half of the century. no doubt—to interpret. In the great factories. with their desperate rebellions. only the miserable course of the decades that followed. the objectives pursued and the means to pursue them: asking for nothing more than was possible. In the forced concentration of industrial labour in Italy between the 1950s and the 60s. the conflict was almost equal. who had rescued warehouses and machinery from Nazi destruction. union dissatisfaction and political demands. To criticize power is one thing. The 1960s emancipation of the . only the worker-subject who emerged in that time. we graduated in class struggle—entitling us not to teach. nothing less than what could be obtained. Blessed naivety which made us—Fortini said it well—‘as wise as doves’. between 1914 and 1945. their millennial heresies. 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’).tronti: Memoir 127 But we welcomed the fact that twentieth-century workers had disrupted the ‘long and glorious’ history of the lower classes. their recurrent and generous attempts—always painfully repressed—at breaking their chains. could rise to the height of that history. The workers’ view became a political means of seeing the world. testimony to the will to do as in Russia. could make it seem a miraculous season of new beginnings. the insubordinate use of Taylorist production schedules. and a human way of operating within it. 1919–20. We were excited by the forms of struggle but also by its timing. day by day. through to the end of the century and beyond. We won and we lost. in a permanent trench war. but to live. the needs of breakneck capitalist development created an unprecedented crucible of historical experiences. sabotage on the assembly line.
as conservatives and liberals would chorus. it was the crisis of that movement which played an active role—and. institutional forms of the labour movement and its parties. forcing capital to make concessions: the welfare state. active part. which was not an anomaly but a normal feature of politics. the organized workers’ movement played a central. Operaismo and the pci Yet there was a simple fact which could not be eliminated by an act of political will. the struggles exacerbated that crisis. democratizes and stabilizes itself anew. which made itself felt at national level. the official. the fiat workers’ dispute over a new contract became the opportunity for an extraordinary public agitation. reforms. paradoxically. and were to some extent oriented against. In the struggles for emancipation. Yet the more culturally advanced struggles— for liberation—ushered in a vengeful capitalist resurgence. Maybe. but capitalist development will use those struggles for its own ends if no organized revolutionary process opens up. let us talk about property . the role of unions and parties. A paradox: the most culturally backward struggles—for ‘emancipation’— had social consequences that were favourable to labour. The whole discussion on the ‘autonomy of the political’— which originated in operaismo and spread from there—was about this. capable of changing that balance of forces. the first struggles were right and the second ones wrong? I believe we need to look for another explanation. we learned. Many of those who made up the ‘alternative subjectivity’ of the 1960s had been formed outside. was how the political centrality of the working class operated. It is easy to see this in the case of social struggles in which the entire systemic apparatus of domination repositions itself. This. Did operaismo also function in this way? I leave the question open. constitutional reforms. the pensée unique of a single possible social form. but it is a necessary precondition. now burnished with some new reforms. We were the sacrificial victims in this process. Workers’ struggles determine the course of capitalist development. In the struggles for liberation. and the subordination of everything human to a universal theory and practice of bourgeois life.128 nlr 73 individual led to the restoration of the old balance of forces. Thus in 1962. Brecht’s proposal to the Paris anti-fascist conference of 1935: ‘Comrades. in practice: putting back on the country’s agenda. each time it erupted. To understand this is not enough to overturn it.
and the ancient little world of civil society. and examining the Westminster model. the Party leadership was replenished far more from the ranks of the students than from those of the workers. scaling back its objectives. not just because of a real decline in the party’s capacity for mediation. The quiet strength of the pci was to place itself within this minor history of longue durée. composed of intellectual forces that still exist today (despite the disappearance of their antagonist). an outlook. 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. (Here too there is proof ex post facto: in the years that followed. The small-minded ‘Italietta’ of the Risorgimento still weighed on those of us born in the 1930s. The pci’s ‘national-popular’ was a bête noire for us workerists. we would learn more from studying that decade than from experiencing all those that followed. And the two ‘red biennia’. calling a halt to any impulsiveness.) At the same time. This phenomenon intensified after Togliatti’s death in 1964. being careful never to reach for the impossible. thought and struggle. at the level of culture . the entire pre-fascist era was. finally came to an end. disenchanted ways felt its weight on our shoulders—from the limitations of the Italian language to the blindness of its culture. The whole of Italian history up to that point had been a minor story of the twentieth century. a generation. after all. but also because of the profound transformations that were taking place within Italian society. a caricature of Western liberal systems. We were vaccinated against the vetero-italica disease. embedded in the memory of the nineteenth century. Those of us attempting to think in modern. a leftist anti-communism developed which requires a historical analysis. organizing a ‘what is to be done’ that never went beyond the possible. Contrary to what is commonly supposed. reading Locke and Montesquieu. who grew up under the sign of a movement. intimacy and communication rather than of being. As we discovered. a mode of feeling. 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 it was fundamentally an anti-pci. It was only with the late 1950s and early 60s that modern capitalism really took off in Italy. The vanguards of those days have now been joined by an army of repentants.tronti: Memoir 129 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.
the factory–society–politics nexus as the strategic location in which capitalist transformations took place. This cycle concluded with the dissolution of the myth of capitalist backwardness. cultivated this myth beyond any justifiable point and made it the social basis for a cultural common sense. The most orthodox Togliatti faction. in an original sense. Quaderni rossi and Classe operaia saw more clearly than the pci journals. Our comrade Alberto Asor Rosa wrote Scrittori e popolo in 1964. the Amendola group. This is where the split occurred between the party and young emerging intellectual forces. Gramsci’s life and work synthesized these things. but was unable to see the social. it was the Italian version of a communist party. The Apulian labourer who became a mass worker in Turin was the symbol of the end of ‘Italietta’ history.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. It is a commonplace to say that the pci was the real Italian social democracy. even during the rise of capitalist development in Italy. see nlr i/13–14. il gran partito noi siamo dei lavoratori . at the age of thirty: an essay on—and against—populist literature in Italy. Rome 1965. . material causes that had brought them about and the central role of the great factory. and bequeathed their hegemonic intellectual legacy to the totalizing political action of Togliatti. The real strength of the pci was its conscious strategy of rooting itself. Avanti. especially in the North. Rather. Thus reformism was. Scrittori e popolo.5 His book marked the beginnings of a crisis in an aspect of Italian political culture that had remained hegemonic up to that point. on-site 5 6 Alberto Asor Rosa. The Italian road to Socialism had been a long one. who found support in parts of the union sector. Società and Rinascita. Yet without that popular—not populist—politics. the reality of a people. avanti. this was something we understood early on. which had long persisted in the pci. culturally. and in the restive ranks of the Party. One need only turn the pages of the operaisti journals: correspondence from factories. the political form that the revolutionary process took in that context. we could never have had reason to sing. Togliatti had a firm grasp of the superstructural and political aspects of the early centre-left. stretching off far into the distance: behind us was the history of a nation. the tradition of a culture. . It was not. . For the pci internal debate. Jan–Apr 1962. in the people that had emerged from this history. lucidly.130 nlr 73 even before that of politics.
with a traditional. communication has never been separate from thought. Our new social subject. aiming at a practice with strategic consistency and historical depth. If not much else came out of it. and also editorials on the key political questions of the time. with an enjoyable hominis dignitate. 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. the mass worker. in that ideology of the workers as a ‘universal class’. This was a serious. In this sense. in the political friendships born on that basis. evaluation of contracts. at least we found a way of surviving. critique of demands. interventions in struggles. and that I would say was returned. it defined a way of doing political culture. after which followed the great breakdown of all forms in the early twentieth century. which ‘by freeing itself frees all of humanity’. More than a way of doing politics. to be convinced that for us. present in the nineteenth-century Marx. historical form which was in crisis. Contropiano and later—to a certain extent—Laboratorio politico. Even now I am not sure whether a relish for intellectual adventure and the exercise of political responsibility can be truly compatible. was shattered by Munch’s scream. It was a matter of restoring. We saw a subject without form—or rather. It is enough to skim through magazines such as Angelus Novus. was no longer contained in the old political form. Here we are speaking of artistic . high culture: specialization without academicization. or perhaps implanting. and with dialectical materialism in that of the Third. a post-proletarian aristocracy of the people against the existing drift of a bourgeois populism.tronti: Memoir 131 analysis of the restructuring of the production process. A passionate love affair would later develop between operaismo and nineteenth-century Central European thought: a love that was not disappointed. Hegelianism was to be found. our operaismo was essentially a form of cultural revolution. That image of the proletariat. first and foremost. which produced significant intellectual figures rather than determining historical events. in a hostile world. given the work produced within that framework. Much ink has been spilled in controversies over anti-Hegelianism in Italian operaismo. international issues. yet they coexisted for us. saturated with Kantian ethics in the era of the Second International. A subject that is born of crisis is a critical subject. assessments of management strategies.
132 nlr 73 avant-gardes. economic. social. who made the leap. deliverance also grows. civil war. but also of scientific and philosophical ones. This allowed us to grasp the political kernel lying beneath the ideological crust of those dates. The political calamity triggered a great cultural crisis. One need not be a communist to understand this. It was a time when history and politics were in full flow. and global. all that followed. It was the Bolsheviks. as dramatic events unfolded—the Twentieth Party Congress of the cpsu. 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. There was no room for narcissistic gambolling or analysing the unconscious in 1956—at least. we had no choice but to engage with events. and the revolution of all other collective human forms. Out of that inferno came the principle of hope: the most advanced revolutionary experiment ever launched. and 1968 when we no longer were. We could respond to 1956 without the constraint of the historic shackles that weighed upon the previous generation. We had the good fortune to set out with this thought. We added the virtù of the ‘worker’s perspective’. I never accepted the notions of good and evil used by the Church to tame the faithful. in the course of their experiment. good manifests itself when you are forced to take a stand. under the tragic impact—1914!—of the first great European. we could seize the possibilities it opened up. not in that troubled land which was the international communist movement. make decisions. dismal periods when nothing happens. alone and cursed. Critique of 1968 Two good twists of fate: we lived 1956 while we were still young. Similarly. The tide of human progress—the belle époque—crashed against the wall of the worst massacre ever seen. Little by little. to question ourselves. choose between two sides. political. But where danger is. and so began the intellectual adventure recounted here. the Hungarian revolt and its destruction—everything was accounted . it’s the fall into sin that awakens you to freedom. But I understood through hard experience that evil means those long. nihilism is not produced by dark periods of barbarism but by false glimmers of civilization—against which it is not the worst response. cannot cancel the gratitude which humanity owes for that heroic effort. imposing themselves on everyday life. Khrushchev’s secret speech.
tronti: Memoir 133 for. Following Marx. Born in the 1930s. what the movement expressed symbolically—was its anti-authoritarian character. The appearance—that is. to be a great misfortune (as Marx said it was to be a wage-labourer). which was another stroke of luck. This did not last: in individuals it was extinguished and absorbed. we did not feel that iron bond with the socialist motherland: it had not become the focus of our lives. Mondo Operaio. operaismo would never have existed: we would not have had Panzieri’s ‘Theses on Workers’ Control’. For our elders. a commitment of great human intensity. not a conflict over spheres of influence. yet we were offered a delicate chiaroscuro. with more flower children and fewer apprentice revolutionaries. This reiteration of 1956 is not excessive. for to experience that year in one’s youth turned out. The appearance took hold and the real substance was lost. vulgarizing the Gramscian edict against Croce: less dialectic of opposites. we experienced the Cold War as a ‘clash of civilizations’. Communism was no longer the final stop on a railway line that led mankind inexorably towards progress. from which no thinking heart could escape in the climate of those times. following Lenin. more dialectic of differences. in groups it was diverted and bastardized. from the modernizing imperatives of capitalist society— but perhaps it would have assumed a different form. anti-fascism had been a political and moral imperative. nor would we have come together. capable of leaving its stamp on one’s existence forever. February 1958. In its own way. We were young and free-spirited: naive as it may appear. It was the first ‘no’—agonizing but emphatic—that we gave to the party leaders.7 The year 1968 would still have happened—it sprang from other roots. this worked. it would be the organization of a force capable of breaking the weakest link in history’s chain. Togliatti’s mandarins trod warily between the contradictions of the Soviet system. Not having lived through the war against fascism. in the long run. and never feared in the postwar era that fascism would return. 7 . ‘Sette tesi sulla questione del controllo operaio’. The substance was its character as revolt. as intellectuals of the crisis. We witnessed 1968 as adults. we wanted clarity rather than confusion. it would be the self-criticism of the present. Raniero Panzieri. we were too young for the anti-fascist resistance. As militants. Without that leap. From that point on there was no room in our thinking for ‘magnificent and progressive destinies’.
At Valle Giulia. .134 nlr 73 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. 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. though in the factories we had met the new layer of workers—especially young migrants from the South—who were active and creative. and this is what happened. which has not yet come to a close. A new elite was pressing forward into the light. we were with the students against the police—not like Pasolini. The re-privatization of the whole system of social relations began with this period. parties and ‘the public’ was upon us. but not decisive for changing the structural balance of forces between the classes. it was among the middle classes that it had snapped. though we would grasp it soon enough—this truth: to demolish authority did not automatically mean the liberation of human diversity. But first and foremost. Paradoxical outcomes The remarkable youth of 68 did not understand—nor did we. it could mean. these transformations were beneficial for Italian capitalism and its pursuit of modernity. to determine who would be in charge of modernization. The poison of ‘anti-politics’ was first injected into the veins of society by the movements of 68. was exhausted. We had not predicted a clash of generations. crisis and war. But in the factories. we knew it was a struggle behind enemy lines. But at the same time. the crisis of politics. To chant la lutte continue was already an acknowledgment of defeat. This was an interesting phenomenon. The Cold War had long become a hindrance. The slogan ce n’est qu’un début could only be successful for a very brief period. a new ruling class for the globalized capitalism that lay in the future. always in the lead (certainly compared to the older workers who were exhausted by past defeats). The old ruling class. against the backdrop of an eruption across the Western world which constituted the strength of the movement. the bond between fathers and sons still held together. The year 68 was a classic example of the heterogenesis of ends. in March 68. The maturation of civil society and the conquest of new rights transformed collective consciousness. the war-time generation.
small groups were fatally led to repeat the vices of larger organizations.’ it told its readers with characteristic irony in the final issue. Here. the era of classical operaismo was finished. Later. offered a lead. the times really had changed. the fleeting moment passed. ‘The times they are a’ changing’: ten years after 68. prestigious core of activists? Could it have influenced the movement. We should have pushed for a new ‘politics from above’ inside the rank-and-file movements. given it a political orientation? I don’t think so. The Trilateral Commission dictated the tenets of the new world order and its civic religion. and the dead reconquered the living. from Woodstock to Piazza Fontana. unconsciously imitating the practices of the ‘dual state’. ‘Don’t subscribe. ‘dual layers’. the American Goliath was humiliated by the Vietnamese David. from Quaderni rossi to the nouveaux philosophes. and so on. with all the usual deformations: minoritarianism.’ What role might the ‘political newspaper of the workers in struggle’ have played. At that moment. and thus to disrupt the social and political balance of forces. There. The decision to close it down was taken to avoid the looming risk of turning into a ‘groupuscule’. rather than restabilizing it. from the workers’ struggles to the youth revolt. In some respects.tronti: Memoir 135 In the long run the game was lost. to counter the implicit drift towards anti-politics. and for a long time. we passed from the Paris rebellion to the invasion of Prague. self-referentiality. things went better in the us than in Europe. The opportunity was not taken. and from the flower children to the anni di piombo. Real processes defeated imaginary subjects. At best. which could only have come from the existing workers’ movement. There was thus no continuity between political operaismo and the potentially anti-political movements of 1968. ‘we’re going now. we smiled when we heard people chanting ‘student power’. but I remember vividly . if it had still been alive during the events of 1968. Classe operaia took the controversial decision to declare its project exhausted. In Italy. hierarchization. The radicalization of discourse on the autonomy of the political from the early 70s was born from this failure of the insurrectionary movements. it would not be. published in 1967. that had spanned the decade of the 60s. for which the moment was ripe. and therefore the Communists. with its compact. What was lacking was the decisive intervention of an organized force. another world was possible. Of course. A concerted initiative could have pushed the reluctant European social-democratic parties towards undertaking a historic reconstruction.
armed with a different cultural tradition—yet to be constructed—and with new intellectual tools. mobilizing slogan. ‘Students and workers. had been altered by the beginning of the Cold War détente and ‘peaceful coexistence’ between the two systems. the issue wasn’t anti-authoritarianism but anti-capitalism. But above all we fought the Party’s right on the question of its analysis of Italian capitalism. still quietly present in the pores of civil society. It arrived in Italy still young and yet already mature. at least in Italy. helping to form a generous generation of militants. For the international context. of modernization without revolution. able to operate skilfully within the contingencies of the disorder to come. I was then on leave from the party. Nineteen sixty eight was born in Berkeley and baptized in Paris. exactly where we had positioned ourselves. the concept of neo-capitalism. The Italian ‘hot autumn’ of 1969 was a spontaneous movement: this was also its limitation. but at the same time. its ephemeral character eventuating in its structuring role. Operaismo was. We did not like the idea of a single left-wing party for Italy. Classe operaia shut down just as the Eleventh Party Congress of the pci was opening. within the medium-to-long term. and long before the ‘hot autumn’ of 69. This would be a figure brought up to date for neo-capitalism. But we did not involve ourselves in the bitter struggles at the top for the leadership that came after Togliatti. a combined specialist-cum-politician. 68 discovered operaismo. it made a substantive criticism of 68 in advance. We were against Amendola without being for Ingrao. and remained the case as long as il partito existed. compounded by an equally backward Soviet orthodoxy. in true Marxist style. if operaismo was diffident about 68. There was never a more striking coincidence of opposites. In fact. That was the real annus mirabilis. which would mean the explicit social-democratization of the pci. In its turn. poised between workers and pci. but party membership—conscription by one’s own free will—was taken for granted: this was so before the operaista experience. . which we saw as a more advanced—and therefore more productive—terrain of struggle. too. one of the founding premises of 1968. We put forward. Capital would need a new levy of political professionals. united in the struggle’ was a thrilling.136 nlr 73 the moment when a student march on the Corso in Rome unexpectedly raised the cry of ‘workers’ power’. while the other side had an outdated view of the Italian economy. 1969 corrected a great deal and caused much more alarm. Operaismo pushed 1968 beyond its premises. In 1969.
therefore new organization—which had blocked the path of operaismo in its early phase. from legal concessions to state terrorism. it remained the statement of a method. This was clear in the two consequences that derived from it. Second. 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. a political game in which one’s hypotheses had to be tested on different terrain from that which one has chosen oneself. which still saw itself formally as the party of the working class. the violent reaction of the system. which used all its defensive strategies. All of this was already inscribed in the unresolved contradiction between struggles and organization—new struggles. 8 . from the secret service to the social compromise. It was this second path that predominated. subjected to the non-pacifist forays of the so-called autonomi. The idea of ‘inside and against’—that sophisticated. 1977 has more For the conference proceedings see Tronti et al. I agree that. The system’s aggressive response to the jolt administered by the autunno caldo swept the movement away—or. The exceptional ‘human material’ which played such a major part in the experiment that was operaismo was not made for. The idea of lotta operaia took on a general social dimension. the balance of power shifted in favour of the workers and to the disadvantage of the bosses. Operaismo e centralità operaia. what amounted to the same thing. and from it another history would flow. indispensable for understanding but ineffective as a basis for action. was not organically adapted to.tronti: Memoir 137 Workers and capital found themselves physically face to face with one another. when we convened a conference on ‘workerism and worker centrality’ with Napolitano and Tortorella. First. With the autunno caldo.8 I do not here take 1977 as a date of key significance—a choice rather than an oversight. compared to 1968. Rome 1978. wages exerted a direct effect on profits. made it change course. in a leaden Padua. perhaps overly complex principle that was expressed in its classic form as political operaismo—was unable to take root in flesh-and-blood individuals. We carried on this discussion right up till 1977. a leap in national social consciousness and a political opening for consensus around the greatest opposition party. All attempts to connect with internal developments within the pci in the mid-60s went awry.
Negri played a key role in the experience of Classe operaia. But I’d like to say that the Italian workerism of the early 1960s did not lead in this direction. Toni Negri’s intelligence is manifest in the theory of the transition from ‘mass worker’ to operaio sociale. What followed was the paradoxical story of a general defeat. The experience of the Fordist–Taylorist worker—and the later criticism of this figure— lies at the root of all his later research. while the later endeavours—grounded more in self-organization—placed themselves dangerously against that movement. or to all those that went on to participate in autonomia operaia. with the new professionals emerging from the context of mass production. The leadership of the pci suffered. The precise dividing line was as follows: these initial two projects. and the civil transformations and cultural shifts under way in the country. The system of alliances—employees. These were all ways in which the workers of 1962 anticipated the modernization of 1968 and the dawning postmodernity of 1977. the same fate as the ruling classes of the country.9 but by that point the practical damage had already been done. on that battlefield. With his feet planted firmly in the strategic location of Porto Marghera. But a new system of alliances was coming into view within developed capitalism. Classe operaia was closer to Quaderni rossi than it was to Negri’s Potere operaio. 9 . Viewed from the present. Modernization required Antonio Negri. cried the title of Classe operaia in March 1964. Dall’operaio massa all’operaio sociale: intervista sull’operaismo. and a violent waste of precious human resources had passed hopelessly to the wrong side. Milan 1979. ‘Workers without allies’. middle classes. in a subordinate mode. he was essential to the birth of the paper. the consequent expansion of the market and spread of consumption. took themselves to be critically inside the workers’ movement. when we were all forced to understand where history had ended up going. Thus it went until the end of the 80s.138 nlr 73 political weight and marks a more decisive social shift. much of the negative relation between new generations and politics was solved there. That was a mistake. first magazine and then daily newspaper. punctuated by illusory small-scale victories. and then to editorial work and distribution. which had an editorial by Negri. he sensed developments and gave shape to his position. Red Emilia—that the official workers’ movement had built on the basis of an advanced pre-capitalism certainly needed to be criticized and opposed.
Translated by Eleanor Chiari . the latest form of neo-liberal capitalism may prove ironically similar to the final forms of state socialism: incapable of reform. political and cultural. at the levels of both government and 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 movements of 68 supplied new personnel for this handover. in its place. Just the flood. In this sense. the Communist Party was rechristened as the Democratic Party of the Left. This was followed by the farce. always managerial. Yet it’s worth stressing one final fact: for as long as the post-capitalist horizon remained open. But at that point there was little else that could be done. neo-liberal capitalist restoration sapped the workers’ capacity for opposition. What happened in the party was what happened in the circles of power: a new political class was not born.tronti: Memoir 139 a passing of the baton from the generations of war and resistance to the generations of peace and development. the struggle to introduce elements of social justice within capitalism achieved some success. It was at once theoretical and ideological. rather. In the last act of the tragedy. that lined up il popolo comunista to contain and slow the neobourgeois flood. Once the revolutionary project was defeated. under pressure from anti-political populism. a new administrative class emerged. the reformist programme became impossible too. a combination of intellectual and mass common sense. The newly declared dominance of capital was not just economic but social. From the 1980s onwards. when even the word ‘party’ disappeared. 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. There were no more barriers.