Classe Operaia - The birth of Italian Workerism

Italian factory council

A history of the origins of the radical Italian theoretical current known as 'Operaismo' (Workerism), which began with Mario Tronti's Journal Classe Operaia.

An extract from Steve Wright’s book 'Storming Heaven'

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 Quademi 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 Romafis, 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, "'the 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).

The Conjuncture
Shortly after the Quademi Rossi split, the leadership of the PSI reaped the rewards of its post-1956 course and entered Italy's first centre-left government. The marriage, blessed by both the Kennedy administration and the Vatican, had been finally consummated after a courtship of a year and a half. 'As of today', proclaimed the party daily Avanti, 'everyone is freer' (quoted in Franchi 1977: 82). Only seven months later, however, the coalition would be in the grips of a crisis - the first of many - as Socialists and Christian Democrats squabbled over the meaning and extent of the reforms necessary for Italy's development.

For Classe Operaia, the arrival of the centre-left was welcome if for no other reason than that it clarified the political lines between the workers in the factory and the reformists in Parliament: 'the class struggle is much too serious to be left to MPs' (Classe Operaia 1964b: 1). In particular, it laid bare the path that the planning demanded by the new socialised capitalism would have to follow. Unlike some in Quaderni Rossi, however, Tronti's group believed this transition to be far from smooth or organic:

[T]he capitalist system will never be able to attain a perfect objective rationality of its mechanism of development .,. [rather] it tends towards this as its maximum program ... The decisive leap to capitalist society properly speaking, organised around the production of the average rate of profit, occurs by means of a thousand delays, postponements, adjournments. (Tronti 1973: 114, translation modified)

Classe Operaia's starting point in determining the success of such a project was the recent cycle of struggles, which had indicated that sections of the working class - particularly in the metal industry were no longer prepared to accept either wage restraint or the tightened work discipline imposed through technological innovation. The problem, as defined by the more astute of capital's political and economic representatives, was how to introduce an element of flexibility into industrial relations whilst keeping the situation within bounds functional to the continued accumulation of capital. In practice, the journal argued, this could only be achieved by means of an incomes policy which institutionalised the relationship between wage increases and productivity. Amongst the chieftains of the state - the Palazzo, as Pasolini once called it - Guido Carli, then Governor of the Bank of Italy, assumed a particular importance in Classe Operaia's mind. Unlike the prominent Socialist Riccardo Lombardi, who mythologised planning as a significant step towards a post-capitalist society, Carli accepted its necessity as a measure to stabilise the existing order. Calling for a 'global policy' centred upon the relation between wages and productivity, Carli was prepared to accept a wage push to the extent that it forced more backward firms to modernise their productive and financial structures (Classe Operaia 1964c: 15).

Views such as these were proof, Tronti believed, that

raising the price of labour-power was a working-class act of force which coincided for a moment with a necessity of capital, and then overthrew it, surpassing and upsetting it... the imbalance between wages and productivity is a political fact, and must be understood as a political fact and utilised as such. (Tronti 1971: 99)

The classical Leninist distinction between political and economic struggles was thus no longer applicable, since today the fundamental power relations in society were embodied in the sphere of production itself:

From the working-class point of view, political struggle is that which tends consciously to place in crisis the economic mechanism of capitalist development. (ibid.: 111)

For Tronti, capital's development was best understood as a series of political cycles that did not, in any immediate manner, coincide with its 'economic' rhythms:

capitalist development runs along a chain of conjuncture. We say that each link of this chain will offer the occasion for an open conflict, for a direct struggle, an act of force, and that the chain will break not where capital is weakest, but where the working class is strongest. (ibid.: 101)

In line with such logic, classical operaismo rejected the Third Worldism then widespread within the Western new left. According to the youth-oriented journal Classe e Partito, edited by Asor Rosa and Franco Piperno amongst others (Scalzone 1988: 24), the peasant struggle in Vietnam could serve working-class internationalism, so long as the two were not confused. Moreover, 'in effect in Vietnam it is capital that is on the attack' (Classe e Partito 1966: 7). A less extreme position would be put by Alquati, who conceded the importance of struggles conducted by workers - if no one else - in the 'periphery'; yet for him too, their ultimate salvation lay with their counterparts in the developed world (Alquati 1975: 101).

If workers' struggles fell away with the recession of 1964, Classe Operaia could take consolation in the fact that the ruling class itself was suffering a disjuncture between industrialists and their ostensible representatives in the state. Thirteen years later, Carli would blame both the politicians and the industrialists. The first had failed to promote the cohesiveness of Italian society, which meant that by decade's end 'the ferment of protest, rather than stimulate reforms, accentuated the process of social decomposition and disintegration'. The second, he held, had 'never considered the state a social organization to which they are directly responsible' (Carli 1977: 185, 190). According to Classe Operaia, while the centre-left government shied away from implementing a coherent plan based on an incomes policy, preferring instead to impose discipline through a credit squeeze, employers were resorting to quite traditional weapons such as layoffs and speedups to attack workers in the factories. This, in its opinion, revealed the capitalist illusion of recent years - the political error of our class adversary - that of wanting to achieve direct control over the working class only at the end of a spontaneous process of economic development and through a spontaneous integration of labour into capital. (Classe Operaia 1965a: 1)

As for the politicians, their original scheme had failed because its essential prerequisite - a social democratic party able to draw workers into the orbit of the state - was still missing. Crippled by the defection of its CGIL cadre to a new Socialist Party of 'Proletarian Unity' (PSIUP), the PSI could still supply competent economists and politicians to the Palazzo, but no significant slice of the working class itself.

With this project of integration a failure, and Socialist talk of planning little more than window dressing, Tronti's fear of a social democratic involution took new form within the PCI. Here Giorgio Amendola had expressed sympathy for the notion of planning and called for the formation of a single party of the left. His version of democratic planning, which drew sustenance from the same logic as that of Togliatti 20 years before, rejected the notion of an incomes policy. Instead it looked to increases in both direct and indirect wages as a means to stimulate effective demand and thus allow for full employment 'at the maximum level of productivity' (Amendola 1966: 399). In this way, he argued, the 'class dynamic' could playa Stimulating role in economic development. Coupled with the Workers' struggle within the framework of the Constitution as the 'national ruling class', 'defender of the interests of the whole Italian people', and 'bearer of the country's general needs', this would start to alleviate the problems 'exasperated' by those monopolies which since the 1940s had orientated Italy's economy towards production for foreign markets (ibid.: 587).

Unlike the rest of Western Europe, Classe Operaia insisted, in Italy the transition to the social factory had begun in the absence of a social democratic party. As a consequence, the possibility existed, for the first time, 'of reaching capital's maturity in the presence of a politically strong working class' (Classe Operaia 1964e: I), creating a situation of 'maturity without stabilisation' (Tronti 1971: 117). This project Amendola and others like him, with their talk of a single party embracing the existing formations of the historic left, had come to threaten; everything turned upon preventing the success of their endeavor. For many of Classe Operaia's editors, the exploration of class composition now paled alongside the pressing need to reclaim the Communist Party for revolutionary politics. Within the space of a year, Tronti's 'political experiment of a new type' had reverted to a tactic of a very old kind indeed (Sbardella 1980).