3. Classe Operaia

With Tronti’s journal began the classical phase of workerism’s development. For all the different nuances within it, certain core features developed by Classe Operaia (Working Class) served to unite all its exponents: the identification of the working class with the labour subsumed to the immediate process of production; an emphasis upon the wage struggle as a key terrain of political conflict; the insistence that the working class was the driving force within capitalist society.

The new group was strongest in Rome and the Veneto, where defection from Quaderni Rossi had been almost total; elsewhere the situation proved less fortunate, with splits in Milan, Turin and Genoa. From the outset, therefore, Classe Operaia experienced an imbalance between the political weight which it assigned to different working-class concentrations – particularly in the North – and its own ability to intervene within them. It was a predicament heavy with irony for a group committed to mass political intervention, above all for the Romans, whose fascination with what Marx (1976) had defined as the ‘immediate process of production’ was of little avail in a city dominated by service industries. Nor could it bode well that such workplace intervention as did occur in Rome was left to the younger members of the group. Or in the words of Rita Di Leo, ‘lithe adults” constituted the Politiburo, and didn’t go to the factories’ (quoted in Piccone Stella 1993: 200). Of all the components of Classe Operaia, only the Venetians were able to combine a certain numerical weight with what was then considered strategic location. It would be simplistic to reduce the tendency’s later split – between those who chose entrism into the PCI, and those who sought to organise on its left – to this dichotomy. All the same, there can be no doubt that the factor of geographical location played an important if unrecognised part in the evolution of those paths (Negri 1979a: 80).

The ‘very hegelian’ essay by Tronti, which Panzieri had criticised in mid-1963, appeared in January of the following year as the editorial of Classe Operaia’s first issue. In it the most scandalous novelty of the new workerist ideology – the reversal of primacy between capital and labour – was clearly set out for the first time.

Seeking to uncover ‘the laws of development of the working class’ so as to advance the cause of proletarian dictatorship, Tronti admitted:

We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head ... and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class. (Tronti 1964: 1)

The current international restructuring of capital, he argued, could only be understood as a response to the movement of the working class, which today had become ‘a social mass’, possessing ‘the same collective attitudes, the same basic practices, and the same unified political growth’. This homogenisation coincided with ‘a period of in-between in working-class history’, with workers both estranged from the existing labour movement - ‘through which class consciousness usually expresses itself’ - and lacking an adequate instrument with which to replace it (ibid.: 2). While the revolutionary process was ‘assured’, its progress would be quicker and easier if a section of the old movement could again play a leading role. In the meantime, workers still made use of the traditional institutions of party and union, albeit with little enthusiasm, while keeping for themselves ‘an autonomous strategic perspective free from restriction and compromises’. Thus the task facing revolutionaries was to construct a new political outlook able to grasp ‘the total viewpoint of the working class’, carrying Lenin’s political project of the seizure of power into the maturity of capitalist development analysed by Marx (ibid.: 4, 5).