Sandro Mezzadra (Dipartimento di Politica, Istituzioni, Storia
!ni"ersit# di $olo%na&
*ord count+ ,-./
Operaismo (“operaism”), also known in the English-speaking world as
“autonomist Marxism”, refers to a theoretical and political current of Marxist
thought that emerged in Ital in the earl !"#$s% &n original reading of Marx in
the framework of the radical workers' struggles that de(eloped in the countr
during the whole decade led to the in(ention of new theoretical concepts (such
as technical and political class composition, the mass worker, the refusal of
work) and of a new political methodolog (the so called militant in(estigation or
co-research)% )he de(elopment of operaism deepl in*uenced in Ital +oth
political culture and political and social mo(ements in the !"#$s and !",$s%
)he theories of Italian re(olutionar operaism, which since !"#- shaped
political experiences such as “.otere operaio” (“/orkers' .ower”) and the
multifarious mo(ements of “&utonomia operaia” (“/orkers' &utonom”), widel
circulated also a+road (for instance in 0erman, through a maga1ine like
“&utonomie” and the work + 2arl 3ein1 4oth, in 5rance, through maga1ines
like “Mat6riaux pour l7inter(ention”, “8amarades” and the work + 9ann Moulier
:outang, and in the ;<, through a maga1ine like “=erowork” and the work +
3arr 8lea(er)% &fter the repression wa(es that since &pril ,
!"," led to the
imprisonment of hundreds of militants and intellectuals of the autonomous
mo(ement in Ital, forcing man others to go into exile (mainl to 5rance), the
earl !""$s marked the +eginning of a new theoretical and political season and
the +irth of what is currentl referred to as “postoperaism”% 2e to this new
season ha(e +een such concepts as “general intellect”, “immaterial la+or”,
“cogniti(e capitalism”, the “autonom of migration”, and the “multitude”%
3ardt and >egri's Empire (?$$$) has widel contri+uted to the glo+al spreading
of such concepts within social mo(ements, Marxist and post-Marxist
discussions, as well as cultural and postcolonial studies%
!% @& new era in the class struggle is +eginning% )he workers ha(e imposed it
on the capitalists, through the o+Aecti(e (iolence of their organi1ed strength in
the factories% 8apital's power appears to +e sta+le and solid, the +alance of
forces appears to +e weighted against the workers% &nd et precisel at the
points where capital's power appears most dominant, we see how deepl it is
penetrated + this menace, this threat of the working classB% )hese are the
opening sentences of Mario )ronti's “Cenin in Inghilterra” (“Cenin in England”),
written in !"#D as an editorial for the Erst issue of the newspaper Classe
operaia (“/orking class”) and repu+lished in !"## in Operai e capitale
(“/orkers and 8apital”), a +ook that was +ound to +ecome a kind of +i+le
within the Erst wa(e of operaist thinking ()ronti !",!F -")% )he a+o(e Guoted
article + )ronti is particularl important in the histor and formation of
operaismF the Erst sentences clearl indicate one of the main polemical fronts
of this current of political thinking, that is the frontal attack against all theories
of working class integration, which were widel circulating in the !"#$s +oth in
mainstream social sciences, in pu+lic discourse and e(en in some (arieties of
“)hird-/orldist” Marxism% )o this polemical front )ronti added in the same
article the formulation of a methodological principle (often emphaticall
referred to as a kind of “8opernican re(olution”) that, + all diHerences,
remained crucial to the whole theories of operaism and postoperaismF that is,
the idea that it is necessar to re(erse the classical relation +etween
capitalistic de(elopment and workers' struggle, to identif in workers' struggles
the real dnamic element (the real “mo(er”) of capitalistic de(elopment and to
aIrm the latter's su+ordination to workers' struggles%
&s a newspaper, Classe operaia (!"#D-!"#,) emerged out of a split within the
experience of a militant Aournal, Quaderni rossi (“4ed note+ooks”), which had
+een founded in !"#! in )urin + 4aniero .an1ieri, a prominent intellectual and
leftwing leader of the Italian <ocialist .art% 8ritical toward the new part line,
which was laing the +asis for the following experiences of the so called
“center-left” go(ernments in the countr, .an1ieri gathered a group of oung
intellectuals, workers and technical emploees, starting an in(estigation on the
li(ing and la+or conditions of the working class in and around )urin% )he Aournal
Quaderni rossi was +orn out of a connection with similar groups +ased in other
regions of >orthern Ital, intellectuals such as &ntonio >egri and Mario )ronti
(the former linked to the <ocialist .art in .adua, the latter to the 8ommunist
.art in 4ome) and militant researchers such as 4omano &lGuati and 0uido
:ianchini% In man senses the work done + Quaderni rossi is to +e considered
the origin of operaism, although it is also correct to emphasi1e the split of the
group (and the +irth of Classe operaia) as the real moment of emergence of a
political operaism% Quaderni rossi, while originall maintaining a strong relation
with the left of the trade unions, produced a real rupture with the hegemonic
political culture of the Italian left of the time, which was deepl shaped + the
reading of 0ramsci proposed + the intellectuals of the 8ommunist .art in the
!"J$s and + the political line set + .almiro )ogliatti since the end of the war%
&lthough it can look paradoxical, the rupture produced + Quaderni rossi was
twofold, and it +asicall consisted in a dou+le redisco(erF the redisco(er of
Marx (the Erst Italian translation of a fragment of Marx' Grundrisse, the famous
“5ragment on the machiner”, was pu+lished in the D
issue of Quaderni rossi)
and the redisco(er of the factor% &fter the historical defeat of the left at 5iat
in !"JK, the factor had +een concei(ed + the oIcial organi1ations of the
la+or mo(ement a site of resistance and political formation of cadres, +ut
surel not as a strategic site of oHensi(e workers' attackF while a “historicist”
reading of Marx had +een pre(ailing, the politics of alliances had +een
recogni1ed as the main task of communist and socialist politics%
Quaderni rossi looked for a wa out of the internal and international crisis of
the la+or mo(ement in the second half of the !"J$s through an emphasis on
the new Gualit of class struggle and composition within the new conditions
determined + the wa(e of mass industriali1ation that had radicall
transformed Italian social, economic and cultural landscape +etween the end of
the !"J$s and the +eginning of the !"#$s% )he Aournal started to produce an
accurate cartograph of workers' conditions and struggles, stressing the
importance of seemingl “un-political” workers' +eha(iors such as a+senteeism
and small (e(en indi(idual) gestures of sa+otage, and initiated “militant
in(estigations” in man factories, directl in(ol(ing workers in the production of
knowledge on their li(ing and work conditions and experimenting the
transformation of this knowledge into a condition for struggle% In a wa it is
possi+le to sa that Quaderni rossi plaed a ke role in the esta+lishment of
industrial and la+or sociolog in Ital, in a condition in which the predominant
historicist culture of the left was +asicall hostile to sociolog as such% .arallel
to this, a new reading of Marx (especiall of the chapters on the “/orking da”
and on “Machiner and Modern Industr” of Capital, +ook !) started to open up
the (er categor of capital to the acknowledgment of its nature as a social
relationship, as the pro(isional snthesis of a tension (of a struggle) that
structurall remains open%
Classe operaia tried to interpret the radicali1ation of workers' struggles that
+ecame apparent at least since !"#?, when a wild uprising in )urin (the so
called uprising of .ia11a <tatuto) +rought to the fore the +eha(iors of the new
unskilled and oung workers, mainl migrants from the <outh of the countr,
whose recruitment had radicall transformed the composition of the working
class in the factories of the >orth (and Erst of all in the 5iat plants in )urin)% )he
newspaper was presented as a “new stle of political experiment”F +esides
intellectuals such as Mario )ronti, )oni >egri and <ergio :ologna, Classe operaia
was produced + a wide network of autonomous workers' groups, +ased in
man factories in the >orth of the countr (with the emerging chemical pole of
.orto Marghera, close to Lenice, increasingl plaing an important role)% 8rucial
to the split with Quaderni rossi was the idea that the Italian situation was rife
for political experiments in re(olutionar autonomous workers' organi1ation
(“!"$J in Ital” was the title of another editorial written + )ronti)% :ut at the
same time, Classe operaia was also the theoretical la+orator within which the
main categories and the methodolog of the Erst wa(e of operaism were
deEned% )he concept of “technical class composition” was worked out as a kind
of re(erse side of what Marx had termed the “organic composition of capital”%
)o this the concept of a “political class composition” was added, in order to take
the su+Aecti(e +eha(iors, the needs, the traditions of struggle into account in
the deEnition of class%
/hile the analsis of the new role assigned to the <tate + 2enesianism led to
the concept of “plan of capital” (that was later de(eloped + >egri in the earl
!",$s into the concept of “plan-<tate”), in the most engaged theoretical
chapter of his Operai e capitale (“Marx, for1a-la(oro, classe operaia”, “Marx,
la+or power, working class”) )ronti contended that the relation of la+or to
capital is alwas dou+le, at once incorporated into its workings as a commodit
(as “la+or power”) +ut also separated from its logic as a form of political
su+Aecti(it (as “working class”)% Mrawing on a reading of Marx' Grundrisse,
)ronti (!",!F ?!!) de(eloped the idea of “la+or as su+Aecti(it”, la+or as set
against capital, as not-capital% )his idea implied a radical emphasis on the
partiality of the su+Aecti(it of the working class% On the one hand, )ronti
stressed the fact that onl from the unilateral point of (iew of this partial
su+Aect it was possi+le to produce a knowledge of the “totalit” of capitalism%
On the other hand, he full de(eloped the political conseGuences of this
theoretical point, setting the interest (and the “explosi(e power”) of the
working class against such concepts as the “people” and “popular so(ereignt”
itself, which had +een ke to the theor of “progressi(e democrac” of the
8ommunist .art under the leadership of )ogliatti (cf% )ronti !",!F ,")% )he
militant in(estigation on the new technical conditions of la+or in the “fordist”
factories led the group of Classe operaia to identif the new composition of the
working class in the so called mass workerF the lack of identiEcation of the
unskilled worker in the “content” of la+or, far from +eing descri+ed in terms of
“alienation”, was considered + Italian operaists as the root of a refusal of work
and of political struggles for wage independentl of producti(it%
?% )he students' mo(ement of !"#- and the workers' “hot autumn” of !"#" led
to a new split within Italian operaism% Mario )ronti and others decided to
continue their political and intellectual acti(it within the 8ommunist .art,
since the were con(inced that workers' struggles structurall needed a
political “supplement” in order to multipl and consolidate their power (a
position that was later ela+orated + )ronti in his theor of the “autonom of
the political”)% &ntonio >egri and others were instead con(inced that the le(el
of autonomous power expressed + workers in the “hot autumn” directl
posited the pro+lem of a re(olutionar rupture% )he organi1ation “.otere
operaio” (“/orkers' .ower”) was founded upon this political e(aluation and was
acti(e until !",K% &lthough the histor of the organi1ation was shaped + man
contrasts on the “part line” (with positions ranging from an emphasis on
workers' autonom and (iolence to a redisco(er of the Ceninist politics of
insurrection), its newspaper was an important point of reference for the most
radical workers' experiences in Ital%
:oth the new dimension of workers' struggles (that was sm+olicall
represented + the occupation of the MiraEori 5iat plant in march !",K) and the
spread of new social mo(ements since the end of the !"#$s led the maAorit of
“.otere operaio” to propose the end of the group's experience and its
con*uence into the wider mo(ement of “autonomia operaia” (“workers'
autonom”)% )he composition of this mo(ement was radicall heterogeneous,
+oth from a political and from a social point of (iewF although the proposal of
“workers' autonom” came from some +ig factories in the >orth and from
workers' committees in the ser(ices in 4ome, the mo(ement increasingl
registered and expressed the political militanc of new proletarian sectors,
especiall in the peripheries of the metropolitan areasN the slogans and
language of operaism were rearticulated in the new situation and h+ridi1ed on
the one hand with older political traditions (such as for instance workers'
councils), on the other hand with the new emerging experiences of feminism,
en(ironmentalism and counter-cultureN the emphasis on organi1ation, “counter-
power” and spread of proletarian (iolence against state and capital that was
deEning for some components of the mo(ement was met + the emphasis on
creati(it, micropolitics and the redisco(er of “situationism” that was deEning
for other components% )he uprising of !",, in Ital (and particularl in :ologna
and in 4ome) was the culminating moment of the growth of the autonomous
mo(ementF in a wa it can +e retrospecti(el considered as an em+ronic
emergence of a new social composition of la+or and as the announcement of
man of the issues that ha(e +een at stake in the de(elopment of
postoperaism in recent ears% !",, was also a ear shaped + a dramatic clash
+etween the autonomous mo(ement and the 8ommunist .artF since that ear,
in a situation that was increasingl characteri1ed + the militar actions of the
4ed :rigades and other leftist armed organi1ations, the 8ommunist .art
plaed a ke role in the criminali1ation of the autonomous mo(ement and in
the organi1ation of repression against its militants and intellectuals%
5rom a theoretical point of (iew, the de(elopment of Italian re(olutionar
operaism in the !",$s was entirel intertwined with the histor of political and
social struggles +rie* sketched a+o(e% & Erst element can +e identiEed in an
attempt to reconstruct the international dimension of the ccle of struggles of
the mass worker% )his attempt led to an intensi(e stud of the histor of class
struggles in the ;<, particularl focused on the I// and on such experiences
as “5acing realit” in the !"J$s, as well as to an in(estigation of workers'
struggles in the !"#$s and in the earl !",$s in /estern Europe% Operai e stato
(“/orkers and state”), a collecti(e +ook pu+lished in !",? that can +e
considered an important mo(e in this direction, introduces a second important
theoretical element, that is the role and changing shape of the state in
capitalism% .articularl important on this point has +een the work + &ntonio
>egri and Cuciano 5errari :ra(oF the deEnition of the “plan state”, which has
alread +een recalled, was worked out on the +asis of two essas collected in
Operai e Stato, one de(oted to 2enes + >egri and one de(oted to the >ew
Meal in the ;< + 5errari :ra(o% In the following ears, the struggles of the
mass worker were recogni1ed as the crucial element that had produced the
crisis of the “plan state”F while politicall the operaists within the autonomous
mo(ement thought it necessar and possi+le to deepen the disarticulation of
the (er form of the state through a mixture of sa+otage and social struggles
for “indirect wage” (that is, for the increment of the <tate's pu+lic expense),
the analsis of the crisis of the “plan state” led to the proposal of the concept
of “crisis state”, which anticipated man de+ates on the crisis of the welfare
state% & third crucial theoretical element in the !",$s was the militant
in(estigation on the incipient forms of capitalistic restructuring as a response to
the mass worker's struggles% &t least since !",K man collecti(e in(estigations
and analsis stressed the fact that capital itself was compelled + the intensit
of these struggles to in(ent new forms of production and new modalities of
intertwining +etween production, circulation and reproduction% <uch a concept
as “diHused factor” tried to grasp these emerging new capitalistic forms, while
the concept of “social worker” was proposed in order to identif the class
composition that could politicall anticipate capital's attempt to reaIrm its
command on the whole societ%
K% /hat is currentl referred to as “postoperaism” +egan to emerge in the earl
!""$s% /hile in Ital a new students' mo(ement (!""$-!""!) and the
consolidation of the social centers mo(ement opened up new possi+ilities for
radical political action and thinking, two Aournals were launched that
contri+uted to a critical examination and renewal of the legac of operaismF the
Erst one, Luogo comune (“8ommon place”) was started in 4ome + .aolo Lirno
and others, the second one, Futur Antérieure (“5uture anterior”), was started in
.aris + &ntonio >egri, other Italian political expatriates and 5rench
intellectuals such as Oean-Marie Lincent% )hese two Aournals initiated a de+ate
on “post-fordism” that tried to read “against the grain” man of the characters
and the rhetoric itself of the new “*exi+le” organi1ation of capitalismF in the
following ears a new reading of Marx's concept of “general intellect” was
proposed, in order to stress the role of knowledge and language in the (er
composition of la+or dominated and exploited + capitalN a li(el discussion
focused on the concept of “immaterial la+or”N the emphasis on the mo+ilit of
la+or led some “postoperaist” theorists to propose a theor of the “autonom
of migration”N the concept of the multitude, originall worked out + &ntonio
>egri in his reading of <pino1a, was further ela+orated +oth in order to grasp
the “technical” heterogeneit of the composition of la+or and to propose a form
of political organi1ation +eond the tradition of the la+or mo(ement%
<ince !""" post-operaist concepts and theories ha(e deepl in*uenced the
discussion within the alter-glo+ali1ation mo(ementF the ha(e +een sharpl
critici1ed + some leftist intellectuals and acti(ists, while others ha(e
enthusiasticall appropriated them% )hrough the pu+lication of Empire + 3ardt
P >egri (?$$$), operaism and postoperaism ha(e +ecome “tra(eling theories”
and part of the glo+al critical discussion within social mo(ements and
knowledge production +oth within and outside the academ%
SEE ALSOF &utonomism, &utonom of migration and the alter-glo+ali1ation
mo(ement, Ital, from the new left to the great repression (!"#?-!"-!), Ital,
<ocial 8enters Mo(ement, Marxism, Multitude, >egri, &ntonio%
Re0erences and su%%ested readin%s
&lGuati, 4% (!",J), Sulla Fiat e altri scritti, MilanoF 5eltrinelli%
:irkner, M% P 5oltin, 4% (?$$#), !ost-"Operaismus# $on der Ar%eiterautonomie
&ur 'ultitude# Gesc(ic(te und Gegenwart) *(eorie und !ra+is# Eine Einf,(rung,
<tuttgartF <chmetterling%
:ologna, <% P 4awick, 0%.% P 0o++ini, M% P >egri, &% P 5errari :ra(o, C% P
0am+ino, 5% (!",?), Operai e stato# Lotte operaie e riforme capitalistic(e tra
-i.olu&ione d/Otto%re e 0ew 1eal, MilanoF 5eltrinelli%
:orio, 0% P .o11i, 5% P 4oggero, C% (Eds%) (?$$J), Gli operaisti, 4omaF
5errari :ra(o, C% (?$$!) 1al fordismo alla glo%ali&&a&ione, 4omaF Manifestoli+ri%
3ardt, M% P >egri, &% (?$$$), Empire, 8am+ridge, M&F 3ar(ard ;ni(ersit .ress%
3ardt, M% P Lirno, .% (Eds%) (?$$#), -adical *(oug(t in 2taly3 A !otential !olitics,
Minneapolis, M>F ;ni(ersit of Minnesota .ress%
Cothringer, <% P Mara11i, 8% (Eds%) (?$$,), Autonomia3 !ost-political !olitics,
8am+ridge, M& Q CondonF <emiotext(e)%
Milani, 5% P )ratta, 0% (Eds%) (?$$-), L/operaismo degli anni Sessanta# 1ai
4Quaderni rossi5 a 4Classe operaia5, 4omaF Meri(e&pprodi%
>egri, &% (?$$,), 1all/operaio massa all/operaio sociale# 2nter.ista
sull/operaismo, LeronaF om+re corte (!
ed% !",")%
/right, 4% (?$$?), Storming 6ea.en# Class Composition and Struggle in 2talian
Autonomist 'ar+ism, CondonF .luto .ress%
)ronti, M% (!",!), Operai e capitale, )orinoF Einaudi (?
enlarged ed%, !
Lirno, .% (?$$D), A Grammar of t(e 'ultitude, 8am+ridge, M& Q CondonF

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