A discussion of the history and theory of Italian operaismo, its strengths, weaknesses and legacy. The second part of the essay examines the convergence and divergence of autonomist Marxist thought and anarcho-syndicalist thought.
“...analysis becomes complete only through participation in struggles...”
(Panzieri, La crisi del movimento operaio,1973)
1.0 Into the laboratory
The long wave of anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian struggles that began in Italy in 1968 with the rest of Europe was to continue to smoulder until 1977 as the country underwent thorough economic, social, cultural and political transformation. It was a period marked by a rapidly industrialising economy and a simmering political situation as millions of low wage casual workers, disillusioned students and frustrated youth found they were locked out of political participation by a compromised and bureaucratic Italian Communist Party (PCI) and class collaborationist unions. Conditions were ripe for an explosive growth in the size and influence of the extra-parliamentary, radical social movements. Amongst many of the leading left activists and intellectuals a peculiar blend of Marxism known as operaismo or ‘workerism’ was developed that gradually transmogrified in the course of the 1970s into the body of thought known today as autonomist Marxism. A combination of unorthodox Marxism, existentialist philosophy and counter-cultural ideas, it inspired and was inspired by nearly a decade of intense working class revolt in the factories, universities and neighbourhoods of Italy. Autonomist Marxism’s leading theoreticians included the likes of Antonio Negri, Mario Tronti and Sergio Bologna.
The main organisations in the early days were Potere Operaio, a workerist organisation founded in Tuscany in 1966-1967 (Lumley 1990, xii), Lotta Continua, a group best remembered for its Take Over the City program in Milan and elsewhere and many other smaller more regional constellations of activists. As the 1970s unfolded most of these groups and the myriad of political “micro factions” (Scalzone cited Wright 2002, 160) divided into two distinct but overlapping strands of the Autonomia movement, the movement of autonomy. The first strand can be labelled “diffuse autonomia” a broad swelling of counter-cultural student and worker collectives engaged in direct action politics from community radio to squatting, and the second was the groupings around Negri, Autonomia Operaia, a semi-militarised, decentralised movement of militant workers and students. The movements and theoreticians had drawn on the lessons of the rupture of 1968 and developed a new vocabulary of Marxism with a set of innovative concepts which guided the analysis and actions of leading militants and organisations.
Firstly, they theorised the emergence of a new stage of capitalism based on a model of a social factory, dominated by social capital exploiting the social worker that had come about as a result of the real subsumption of all labour to capitalist domination. From this theorists conceptualised working class self-valorisation, of building political and social movements on the authentic needs and desires of working class people. By following their innate desires the working class carve out spaces of autonomy separate from and radically opposed to capital.Thirdly activists and intellectuals sought to understand the class composition, the real position, behaviour and organisation of the working class; its relationship with unions and political parties and the methods of struggle. On the basis of this research, revolutionaries could develop strategies and tactics that would aid recomposition or the political will to act, the unity and strength of the working class. Capitalist organisation was not just something to be found and fought in the workplace but also within the ideas and self-activity of the working class.Lastly, the strategy of refusal was a new paradigm in praxis that argued that class issues such as food prices, housing and social services could not be resolved through the parliamentary state or through union bargaining. Class struggle became increasingly located within the community and the movements’ understanding of capitalist development changed accordingly. Central to this, autonomous groups and individuals sought to “create forms of struggle which embody rather than represent the self-management on which a communist society must be founded” (Wicked Messengers, 1974).
The first part of this essay examines these four concepts, their strengths, weaknesses, application in what has been widely called the Italian laboratory and their continuing relevance today. The intellectual and political work of Italian communist and convicted supporter of the terrorist Red Brigades, Antonio Negri appears prominently here, not least because his work has been the most widely translated and influential in the English speaking world. I also draw on the theoretical contributions of other theorists and activists within this broad movement. However Negri is by far the most influential of all autonomist Marxists with a substantial influence in sociology departments and on radical intellectuals around the world. To engage with autonomist Marxism is to engage with Negri and vice versa, they cannot be separated out in their development or effect. This essay does not, nor could not cover the huge diversity of varying perspectives, debates and interpretations but focuses on the common ground of the movement and its most influential contributions to Marxist politics.
The second part of the essay examines the convergence and divergence of autonomist Marxist thought and anarcho-syndicalist thought, before seeking to understand what were the historical and theoretical brakes to the development of operaismo and ‘brakes’ now retarding its current mutation in the autonomist Marxism of the Empire variety, a book published by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000) that has had considerable impact in the revival of interest in autonomist Marxism and in Negri’s thought and work. Early twenty-first century global capitalism sustains its domination by constantly reorganising and re-educating those in its orbit. Therefore the autonomous, the liberating organisation and education of the proletariat continue to be the chief concerns of anti-capitalist praxis today as in the 1970s.
This essay ends by posing the question, so what is to be done? I argue that to avoid the mistakes of the autonomists today’s radical intellectuals and activists by basing this praxis in anarcho-syndicalist and anarchist rather than autonomist Marxist theory can avoid the mistakes and thus the defeats of the past.
1.1 Social capital, social factory, social worker
Antonio Negri in Lesson Six of Marx Beyond Marx describes the circulation of commodities as “a capitalist victory over the crisis...every new territory invested by capital and its circulation constitutes one more class relation” (1991, 105). Negri insists upon the importance of Karl Marx’s collection of notes on money, production, circulation and surplus value (Grundrisse 1971) to revolutionary Marxist politics because “the analysis of circulation [in the Grundrisse] develops the theory of class struggle into a theory of revolutionary subject” (1991, 106). Building on this insight, Negri’s 1973 pamphlet Worker’s Party Against Work articulated how post-Fordist changes in the form and content of capital, the wage, crisis and the ongoing development of capital through the circulation of commodities produces a situation whereby “the entire society is drawn into subordination to enterprise-command, and the form of enterprise production becomes the hegemonic form of the overall social relation” (2005, 72). This essay does not describe this lengthy analysis of the real subsumption of society to capitalist logic of domination but rather attempts to situate it historically, to understand its strengths and limitations and to realise its latent radical potential.
In the early 1970s the leading intellectuals of operaismo were coming to grips with the concept of a social factory, which recomposed the mass worker of Fordist society as the socialised worker (operaio sociale), whom was composed inside and outside the factory and who struggled inside and outside the factory; contesting capital for control of culture, life and social reproduction. Not only the economic but the social sphere was a terrain of struggle. The activist-intellectuals wanted to use this knowledge, “to try and run ahead of these new processes within capitalism; we felt it was much better to try and run ahead of these new processes within capitalism; we felt it was much better to try and run ahead of these new developments and try and organise them external to the factory” (Negri & Cesare 2008, 62). At the same time as Negri’s ideas of the social worker were crystallising, the grouping that was to become Autonomia Operaia was in formation with Negri in a leading role. Steve Wright, who has done more than any other to illuminate the thought and work of operaismo in the English speaking world, describes this new concept and this new tendency forming in parallel at the March 1973 Autonomia conference in Bologna. This conference marks a rupture in the language, the mood and the politics of post-war European Marxism. The introductory report heralded “The only path possible is that of attack” (Comitati Autonomi Operai in Wright 2005, 153). This assault on social capital would be, “rooted directly in factories and neighbourhoods” (ibid, 153). A switch had been flipped; the activists involved in the struggle in the factories during the ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969, now identified familial social relationships and social alienation as the replicating of “the slavery of the factory” (Collectivi Politici Operai in Wright 2002, 153).
The idea of the social worker in the social factory contains new emphasis on the importance of culture and politics in proletarian politics. Negri quotes Marx, “Historical development, political development, art, science etc. take place in higher circles over their [the slaves] heads. But only capital has subjugated historical progress to the service of wealth” (1971, pp.589-590). Yet the idea of the social worker was as much a product of new youth cultures influenced by rock-and-roll and the direct action politics of the 1968 uprisings as it was born of Marxist theory. May 1968 and the global youth and student revolt that it heralded pulled a kind of existential youth figure into the class struggle, recalling an earlier age of Parisian Communards storming heaven. The threat to capitalist power was embodied not in the unionised factory worker of the classical labour movement that had been tamed in the 1950s and 1960s, but in the young proletarian or student who refused work, fought the police on the barricades and experimented in alternative ways of living. Their existence as a generation was defined in relation to their lived opposition to the conservative social and political atmosphere of advanced industrial society, a future of mindless work for minimal pay and global imperialist wars like those in Indo-China. By the time Autonomia Operaia was formed hundreds of thousands of Italian workers had taken part in collective direct action within this social factory. By 1970 in Milan no less than 500 police were needed to evict a family who squatted a vacant house. High school students went on strike against the cost of books and communities picketed Supermarkets over food prices (Lotta Continua 1973). The 1974 energy crisis saw communists within the state-owned electricity commission reconnect power to those who had their energy disconnected for engaging in self-reduction, paying significantly less for power or not paying at all (Wright 2002, 158).
The model of the social factory and the social worker enabled Negri and his milieu to understand the political and social struggles of the time and to push these further. It enabled the extra-parliamentary left in Italy to conceptualise capitalist relations within the social world and thus to articulate strategies and tactics for this terrain. Arguably this was the precursory power analysis that would later emerge in the work of Foucault (1991), Deleuze and Guattari (2008). Below we discuss the strategy of refusal, class composition and self-valorisation which were all developed by the seventies movements in the context of having to face the exploitative power of social capital. The limitation of the concept of a social worker in a social factory placed constraints on these concepts and consequently the kind of action taken and strategy chosen by the Italian activists. The main weakness was a failure to realise that only at the point of production do classes stand one against another. The social reproduction of capitalism through the circulation of commodities arguably affects everyone equally; the capitalist pays the same for electricity as the worker. The struggle around reproduction was important in limiting the reach of capitalist social relations but as the Italians found out, it was not a substitute for destroying capitalism, for destroying the social relation that exists at the point of production and dominates the rest of society. Capital and the state seek to control the entire terrain of the social but their power over working people exists in their ownership and control over production and therefore where working class counter power has to be built. Throughout the 1970s and culminating in 1977 Negri and the workerists were increasingly alienated from mainstream workplace politics by the ‘Historic Compromise’ between the PCI and the Christian Democrats, the ‘Strategy of Tension’ (discussed below), and corporatism. This context is important in understanding why they failed to understand their task as the process of education, organisation and emancipation within the entire working class. Instead they sought to leverage their isolation by basing their political vision on the informal and spontaneous struggles of workers and increasingly by the end of the 1970s, on the counter-cultural student movements, the feminist and environmental movements. Without the orientation to worker-control of unions and of their economy the movement lost its way and struggled to see the difference between production and reproduction.
1.2 Valorisation, self-valorisation and language
Self-valorisation is best thought of as the autonomist project of reconceptualising of workers’ direct action in capitalist terms. Valorisation, is the term used to describe the creation of surplus-value by workers within capitalist enterprise. Its inverse is self-valorisation; proletarians assigning and creating their own value and defending those values from capitalism. Self-valorisation is the expression of the autonomous needs and desires of exploited people under capitalism, their “strength to withdraw from exchange value and the capacity to base itself on use values... the recognition of the class’s own independent productive force” (Negri 2005, 241). It is a concept used by Negri and the workerists to understand workers’ struggle and behaviour in and against capitalism independent from unions and the PCI. Negri has consistently viewed self-valorisation as the primary method of social transformation; within the working class, as a process that de-structures capital and de-stabilises the state, and as the method of proletarian transition towards communism.
In the concept of self-valorisation we can see the form of the movements of the 1970s and the content of the youth and student uprising of 1977. Firstly it poses that the “personal is political” in a Marxian way, that welds the existentialist insurrectionism of 1968 to the workerist Marxism of Italy. The groups who made up the “area of autonomy” on the extra-parliamentary far-left in the late 1970s saw workers’ self-activity as a privileged realm of political action. We also see in it the possibility to ground a political praxis which is anti-state, horizontal, constitutive, spontaneous, liberatory and violent. A praxis which was compatible with both the Third World peasant struggles that the European left glorified and the combatant image student Marxists and anarchists had of themselves; struggling to prevent a re-emergence of fascism that lay just beneath the surface of cold war Europe. The reappearance of self-valorisation in Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004) is not surprising. It coupled with the refusal of work are the two important motors Negri and Hardt see driving the Fordist-Keynsian political economy towards a capitalism without territorial constraints and inclusive of immaterial production. Encapsulated within self-valorisation is the pedagogy of “separation”, the tearing apart of capitalist and proletariat knowledge which can be seen as a precursor to notion of deterritorialization proposed by Deleuze and Guattari. “Desire, the desert-desire, the revolutionary investment of desire...a decoded flow, a deterritorialized flow that runs too far and cuts too sharply, thereby escaping from the axiomatic of capitalism” (2008, 413).
Harry Cleaver asserts that self-valorisation, “gave a name to the positive content of that explosion and refocused our attention on the ways in which workers not only struggle against capital but for a diverse variety of new ways of being” (1993). In the 1970s this enabled workerists to understand why “new collective ways of living - day-care centres, communal kitchens, people's health centres - are developed [in the struggle]. In this way people begin to live in the buildings in a way which is totally opposed to the idea of isolated, private units for which the architects designed them” (Lotta Continua 1973). It also enabled the autonomists to encode the political importance of autonomist led struggle in the 1970s that turned towards “self-reduction of energy costs, political shopping (the direct appropriation of wealth), public spending, services” (Ryan in Negri 1991, xxix) in the wake of the use of rising living costs and inflation as a weapon of capital by which to reverse these struggles. Talking of wage payment as a form of capital circulation, Negri writes, “Capital cannot separate itself from this relation. It must recompose it, and in order to do this it must bend to the relation, not only in its abstract form but also in its contents” (1991, 135). Thus not only the payment of the wage must be considered in an analysis of capitalist control but also the circulation of the wage back into production via consumption.
The currents of operaismo were riding the wave of the most politically active and radical sectors of Italian society and so intent were they on reaching the shore of revolution they mistook the popular tide going out on their utopian dreams for revolutionary momentum. For the cadre of the “area of autonomy” self-valorisation was everywhere in the youth movements of 1977. Autonomists gathered to write lengthy documents on the social struggle declaring "Autonomy from: bourgeois political institutions, economic institutions, cultural institutions, normative institutions” (Red Notes 1978). Meanwhile FIAT workers criticised the destructive impulses of students who smash workers cars and wondered what would actually happen in the absence of a government (Red Notes 1978). But self-valorisation was to run into capitalist valorisation, the attempts at separation into the employing classes’ militant struggle for the reunification of capitalist interests and working class interests in the workplace. For all their talk of autonomy, the workerists could not create working-class autonomy while caught up in their own sectarian organisations, their terroristic means and their counter-cultural rhetoric. Those who theorised the emergence of the social worker had forseen that in order to maintain the social factory, in order to maintain the commodity, capital would need to control proletariat needs and desires, it would need to “mobilise the ‘animal spirits’” (Harvey 2000, 103) to control consumption. Against the militant Radio Alice stood the culture industry, for every autonomous social centre were a million television sets re-coordinating the desires of the proletariat, for every act of autonomous self-valorisation that posed workers subjectivity against capital was a newspaper that posed worker’s subjectivity as compatible with capital, as only realisable through consumption. As Harvey was to realise through his re-reading of capital, as long as the individual consumes under capitalism their body will remain a battleground, an accumulation strategy (Harvey 2000). Production forces us to sell our labour, consumption forces us to buy it back, capital covers over this void by pretending that in consumption we can realise a substitute for our alienation. Gratuitous consumption is held out to workers as a better form of self-determination, which seems to be more compatible with our needs, because unlike self-valorisation, commodities already contain the fruits of our labour.
Self-valorisation cannot destroy capitalist valorisation as a process of social transformation. It can compete with but it will not overthrow capitalism. Our own bodies betray us. The workerists fail to see the contradiction in workers’ roles, as Harvey acknowledges (1982, 157), “Capital circulates, as it were through the body of the labourer as variable capital and thereby turns the labourer into a mere appendage of the circulation of capital itself”. Self-valorisation could only ever be a defensive tactic. The struggle for a reduction in the working week, the struggle for housing, the struggle for a living wage, the struggle against the nuclear-state are all moments of self-valorisation. Self-valorisation allows us to separate ourselves momentarily from the capitalist accumulation process to act as a block, the strategy of refusal, but we cannot live self-valorisation forever. The capitalist will stop at nothing to ensure any Chinese walls bounding capitalist accumulation are demolished.
Negri however is not wrong in his understanding of self-valorisation and his chapter on Communism and Transition uses the Grundrisse to liberate Marxism from dialectical determinism and put subjectivity at the centre of the crisis, at the centre of the revolution. “Recognition, consciousness, revolution. It is the moment in the method where the “obstacle” materializes”, (1991, 162). Negri ends Marx Beyond Marx with an excerpt from the Grundrisse where Marx points out that capital poses the creation of surplus value as the “condition of the necessary [labour within production]”, restricting the notion of what is socially necessary labour under capitalism and causing a “living contradiction” (Marx cited in Negri 1991, 189). It would be foolish to disagree with both Marx and Negri; this living contradiction is unquestionably the most potential tipping point between capitalism and social revolution. What is the deepest origin of this living contradiction? Why do workers seek to defend their non-capitalist forms of creation, their co-operation and social relationships from the market? Why do workers seek to abolish capitalist work and to control, “to develop most fully the use-value and the power of living labor” (Negri 1991, 189). The only convincing answer based on the most rudimentary and sketchy understandings of human consciousness, behaviour and action comes from anarchist and linguistic scholar Noam Chomsky who sees an understanding of human language use and acquisition as a model for understanding the limits to capitalism. “Language is the process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied” (1970, 152). The living contradiction is that capital cannot conceive as useful the free creation of society, the self-valorisation of the working class and thus cannot account for and cannot control the subjective proletariat who refuses work. Negri’s belief that “Every time I break capital’s margins of valorisation I appropriate yet another space for worker’s valorization” was essentially correct (2005, 260). Yet he fails to synthesise that this valorisation represents a crisis in the law of value. And “the state, faced with the crisis in the functioning of the law of value, attempts to reimpose the law by force, mediating its own form of the capital relation and the commodity form in general” (ibid., 238). If Chomsky is correct that self-valorisation, or the collectively generated desire for freedom comes from humanity’s innate propensity for language and its collective expression, where would the state and coercive authority seek to control and dominate when capitalist logic is under attack? Upon the terrain of language, by reducing creativity, enforcing sterility and speaking in phrases “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable” (Orwell 1946). Orwell was right. The autonomist movements of self-valorisation were delegitimized by the institutions of the left manipulating language to isolate the Seventies social movements from the radical sections from the bulk of the working class, Communist Party Youth put out leaflets denouncing the autonomists as “gangsters and fascists...who want to throw the country into chaos” for chasing Luciano Lama, leader of the main trade union federation off a Genovese university campus (Red Notes 1977). Negri himself was convicted as a cattivo maestro or evil genius, his writings outlawed and himself imprisoned.
Chomskyan understandings of universal grammar and the link between language and anti-capitalist struggle for free labour immensely enrich and deepen our reading of self-valorisation. In Chomsky we find again this presupposition of a limit to capital and its valorisation that exists in humanity’s mental organisation. Capitalism is “incapable of meeting human needs that can be expressed only in collective terms” (Chomsky 1970, 153). This expression of needs can only take place antagonistically to capital by collective use of language which “in its essential properties and the manner of its use, provides the criterion for determining that another organism is a being with a human mind and the human capacity for free thought and self-expression, and with the essential human need for freedom from the external constraints of repressive authority” (ibid., 145).
1.3 Class composition
Another key theorem of workerism that has come to occupy a place in autonomist Marxism is class composition. When we speak of class composition we speak of the social relationships within the working class. This allows us to then speak about political class re-composition, about the process by which the working class solidifies into a force more powerful than capital; conscious and antagonistic. Midnight Notes Collective described it thus,
By 'political recomposition' we mean the level of unity and homogeneity that the working class reaches during a cycle of struggle in the process of going from one composition to another. Essentially, it involves the overthrow of capitalist divisions, the creation of new unities between different sectors of the class, and an expansion of the boundaries of what the 'working class' comes to include. (1992)
For Negri, capital’s attempt to control, to divide, to further exploit and oppress gives the task of political re-composition urgency; “The fundamental issue of the communist project has always been that of the unity, the recomposition, of the working class” (2005, 261). From there movements must look to find those barriers to unity and to destroy them, paving the way for the ever escalating self-valorisation of the working class. At the same time also defending the political composition of the working class and in this sense Negri’s conception of a party of autonomy, the “army that defends the frontiers of proletarian independence” (2005, 276) is useful.
But Negri’s and his fellow workerists understandings of class re-composition were founded on the rotten supports of Leninism which ignored other determinants of human needs and desires “gender, age, race, language, schooling, past struggles and defeats” (Wright 2002, 226). Another problem with their analysis was so often the denial of the processes of de-composition and an analysis of the factors that lead to it. Working class violence like street rioting and armed struggle may provide the proletariat involved with a sense of unity but filtered through the capitalist media and against the hegemony of state power and a discourse of “law and order”; it can equally be a way of decomposition. Negri’s 1977 pamphlet Domination & Sabotage in many ways is prescient in its identification of the dialectic of self-valorisation that is worker’s sabotage of capitalist structure and its inverse; capitalist restructuring and stabilisation. At one point, Negri seems to foresee the rise of neo-liberalism when he calls for the proletariat struggle to move to the terrain of public spending because the “only alternative is to accept subordination, to plunge into the maelstrom of destructuring, to abandon ourselves to destruction” (2005, 253). To this, Negri eerily reminds us, “there is no alternative” (ibid.).
What does this concept of class composition tell us? It tells us that working class consciousness, unity, solidarity and power is not set in stone by the forces of production, but the outcome of tactical and strategic decisions made both by proletariat and capitalist forces. Class composition analysis should lead us away from dogmatic utopian anarchism and vanguardist Marxism and their logical conclusion with a “theory of substitution; the party, sect, or theorist, who disclose class-consciousness, not as it is, but as it ought to be.” As E.P. Thompson reminded the world, “class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end this is its only definition” (1963, 11). Wright gives a nod to class composition as the defining legacy of workerism in his conclusion. Wright notably concludes Storming Heaven by quoting Francsco Ciafaloni’s seminal research on the role of skilled workers, “technicians”, and their place in the division of labour “went to the core of the problem of specialised labour” (Wright 2002, 105) and their role within the class struggle. “To know more about the workers of Turin, to know more in general about the oppressed classes, is not a small problem. It is the cultural and political problem of any left worthy of the name” (Ciafaloni cited in Wright 2002, 227). In turning knowledge of the working class into the problem autonomists were able to discover and propose avenues of struggle or political recomposition that had hitherto been unforeseen. Ciafaloni and Sergio Bologna’s work on the class composition of technicians was able to provide a practical proposal for the way the communist movement should relate to technicians to avoid the threat of their “identification with the existing division of labour” (Wright, 104) and by radical critique of “the division between manual and intellectual labour within society as a whole, starting with ‘a profound critique of the education system and its complete overthrow’” (Bologna & Ciafaloni 1969, 157 cited in Wright 2002, 105). This is the potential of class composition analysis and it stands drawn against a Marxist intellectualism that sees its role as one of counting ghosts, like Derrida and the deconstructionists (Derrida, 1991). As Wright argues, “To [workerism’s] mind, the only valid starting point for any theory that sought to be revolutionary lay in the analysis of working-class behaviour in the most advanced sectors of the economy” (2002, 4). Any honest and committed Marxist or left intellectual should agree, the revolutionary movements of the future must build their social theories on social science and not contingent upon their own predetermined notions of what is and isn’t revolutionary or what is and isn’t philosophically right. This western European Marxist tradition of trying to understand the “social totality” dates back to Gyorgy Lukacs reaction to Leninism in History and Class Consciousness (1971) where he warns of political activists seeing a distorted reality in a distorted mirror if they fail to seek to comprehend the whole of the social world rather than focusing on the part that fits with their ideological interpretation. We shouldn’t however be too critical of the post-modernists. Raymond Williams reminds us that the relations of production in any given society plays a role in “setting limits, exerting pressures” on its cultural and ideological expressions (1991, 408). In this way we can sympathise with those like Butler, Zizek and Laclau whose irrelevant, fanciful and unintelligible dialogues on the left were built on a terrain where, “the moment one shows a minimal sign of engaging in political projects that aim seriously to change the existing order, the answer is immediately, ‘Benevolent as it is, this will necessarily end in a new gulag!’”(Zizek 2000, 127).
Anton Pannekoek, the great council communist said that undemocratic organisations inevitably tend, “to inhibit the autonomous activity by the masses that is necessary for revolution” (Cited in El Ojeili 2003, p.190). Class compostion began with dissident Marxists who “went so far as to portray sociological enquiry as the means to establish a new ‘organic’ relation between intellectuals and working people, based upon the joint production of social knowledge ‘from below’” (Wright 2002, 22). The research and study methods of the theorist, will determine the outcome of the theory; the project of socialism from below cannot but be built on the practice of social knowledge from below. I find in the ‘action research’ currents resurfacing in North American social movements, the intellectual heirs of this tradition who propose a re-grounding of radical theory and social science with radical social movements. Limitations do exist in this and one can detect a certain intellectual laziness whereby the researchers do not stray too far from their own milieu. In Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations and Collective Theorization, the activists and writers produce pieces which elevate their own personal experience over the collective experience of a political subject (2007). Class composition analysis is a powerful tool because of its democratic and liberatory form and its revival from behind the smokescreen of post-modernism should be welcomed. However the spirit of this analysis is not only to understand what we already know but to bring back information from behind the lines of capitalist society.
1.4 Strategy of refusal
We might ask a question: what happens when the form of working class organisation takes on a content which is wholly alternative; when it refuses to function as an articulation of capitalist society; when it refuses to carry capital's needs via the demands of the working class? The answer is that, at that moment and from that moment, the systems whole mechanism of development is blocked. (Tronti 1965)
Mario Tronti’s thesis on The Strategy of Refusal in 1965 was to set the scene for a whole new unfolding in political activism that sought to withdraw from and not to reform capitalist society. In practical terms the tactics that made up The Strategy of Refusal were diverse. They ranged from the creation of alternative ways of life like what the Metropolitan Indians (Italian Yippies) practiced, to squatted apartment blocks, rent strikes and a form of politics manifest in the re-appropriations of consumer goods or even whole supermarkets by ‘proletarian youth gangs’. Arguably the Hot Autumn of student and worker struggles in 1969 marked the beginning of the strategy of refusal. Through the formation of rank and file committees in the large factories of Italy’s industrial centres, new demands “erupted within the heart of the rank-and-file movement: the abolition of piece-work, overtime and methods of production causing undue physical or mental strain: equal pay increases for all and parity between blue and white collar workers” (Bedani 1995, 148). Capitalist valorisation in the workplace was blocked here by a co-ordinated but spontaneous strategy of refusal. Against it capital could only spill out across the whole social terrain; hitting back by using inflation on consumer goods to recoup the losses it had taken on the now proletariat dominated factory floor.
A woman speaking at an affordable housing campaign meeting complained, “People talk about the Hot Autumn factory contracts. What did the workers gain? Nothing - absolutely nothing! I know what my family's finances are like. If you do the shopping, you see prices rising every day. I'd say we've lost out badly” (Lotta Continua 1973). The strategy of refusal in the factories had blocked the intensification of exploitation in the factory; forcing capital into the development of exploitation outside the factory. However as exploitation spread so did the strategy of refusal through mass squatting and rent strikes. By 1976 there were over 1500 squats (Lumley 1990, 263). Tronti’s (1965) polemic against reformism, against the management of exploitation, hypothesised, “[t]here must come a point where all [demands] will disappear, except one - the demand for power, all power, to the workers, This demand is the highest form of the refusal.” Tronti cites the history of working-class struggle over the length of the working day to prove that what continues to keep the working class from this demand is the tactics and strategies of negotiation, of collective bargaining, of compromise and collaboration. What is needed, says Tronti, is “The working class refusal to present demands to capital, the total rejection of the whole trade union terrain, the refusal to limit the class relationship within a formal, legal, contractual form” (ibid.). The early 1970s indicate that to a certain extent the tactic of autoriduzione, of self-reduction of utility and transport payments had the desired effect, it “pushed the unions into acting like political parties and into legitimating illegal forms of struggle, thereby encouraging civil disobedience by other social groups” (Lumley 1990, 264). Indeed the withering of the unions as a weapon of working class power and a school in struggle was precipitated by exactly what Tronti predicted, a mid-1970s swing back towards parliamentarianism, consultation with management, bureaucratisation and the erosion of rank-and-file democracy (Lumley, 1990, 262).
There can be no more fatal an error for revolutionaries then the abandonment of trade union organisation as the basis for political struggle. This is not to say that one must be a syndicalist and see no place for parliamentary or insurrectional struggle but it does say that we cannot leave the organised and institutionalised organs of working class power to reformists and bureaucrats. In the base committees of Hot Autumn we can see the most advanced forms of autonomy and self-valorisation. In 1977,
3000 workers representing 450 factory councils gathered in Milan to discuss how to oppose both the government's and unions' collusion in their wage reductions. Adopting the language of the Metropolitan Indians, they referred to the unions as "palefaces who speak with forked tongues. (Katsiaficas 2006)
Similarly the practice of the strategy of refusal gave rise to a form of limited, localised dual power in the community such as at a local school. Taken over and run by teachers, students and community, Lotta Continua could boast; “From now on the school will be run on different lines, because the community is taking direct control over every aspect of its running” (1973). But why did the strategy of refusal fail to bear the fruit of a social revolution in Italy in the 1970s?
Well to some extent there was a social revolution. Certainly the position of factory workers, of the unemployed, of students and particularly of women underwent a huge transformation and new forms of participation and inclusion gradually brought the majority of those politicised back into the mainstream of politics. Yet the hardcore of revolutionary anarchists and heretical Marxists were smashed by the Italian state, big business and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Known as the “strategy of tension”, fascist terrorism and agent provocateurs pulled an already militarised movement into a spiral of violence with the state that it could not win. Denounced by the Communist Party and increasingly isolated from workers by the unions; the incipient revolutionary movement was decimated. In 1980 “at least 3000 activists were incarcerated in maximum security prisons, incommunicado without normal legal rights” and several hundred were in political exile in France (Katsiaficas 2006, 63). On the industrial front a 35 day strike at FIAT factory in Milan broke the power of the unions, resulting in a “somewhat humbled and more ‘realistic’ sindicato which seemed to be emerging from its recent defeats” (Bedan 1995i, 255). The tide had turned against the Italian revolutionary left, brought about in part by founding their revolutionary strategy on a method of social transformation that refused to make the intellectual leap between autonomous Marxism and anarcho-syndicalism.
2.0 From autonomist Marxism to anarcho-syndicalism
In a moment of intimacy hurtling through all these decades, belying their tragic consequences, Negri admits, “I do not know how to jettison the problem of the party” (2005, 275). Later in life we hear an elaboration from Negri, “I am not even minimally an anarchist! I am very fond of discipline and of groups that organise to come to a common understanding” (2007, 55). In Empire, Negri and Hardt (2000) tell us,
"We would be anarchists if we were not to speak...from the standpoint of a materiality constituted in the networks of productive cooperation, in other words, from the perspective of a humanity that is constituted productively, that is constituted through the “common name” of freedom."
The above statements contain the two contradictions that haunt Negri’s work and refuse to allow it to develop to its full potential. Firstly, is the problem of the organisation of the proletariat in and against capital. The need for discipline and for theoretical and strategic unity without becoming an inverted agent of capitalist control. Secondly, is the problem of subjectivity that haunts the divide between the broad anarchist tradition and the broadly defined Leninist tradition. Leninists see the proletariat as created and conditioned by the material conditions imposed upon it by capitalism. The anarchist tradition in its adoption of Marx’s materialist conception of society modified it significantly. Arguably (and ironically) this was to bring it more in line with the Marxist analysis expounded, for example, in the Grundrisse. Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin and others in the anarchist milieus of the nineteenth century, “maintained that economic factors were central but not necessarily primary...[they] cannot be taken as primary and determinant in every situation” (Schmidt & van der Walt 2009, 107). In this section I analyse the convergences and divergences between the theoretical framework of the autonomist Marxism of Negri and operaismo, and anarcho-syndicalism, the broad current of movements that strive for libertarian communism through the method of syndicalism, “the view that unions – built through daily struggles, a radically democratic practice, and popular education – are crucial levers of revolution, and can even serve as the nucleus of a free socialist order” (ibid., 7). From there I examine the limits of the theoretical tools of operaismo, and its bastard offspring autonomist Marxism in the actual realm of historical class struggle and the ideological roots of these blinders. From there we can develop the essay to its concluding chapter, which posits anarcho-syndicalism as the logical praxis of autonomist Marxists.
2.1 Between autonomist Marxism and anarcho-syndicalism
It is interesting that the avowed aims of autonomous Marxists are notably similar to those of anarcho-syndicalists who seek to “build a popular revolutionary movement – centred on a revolutionary counterculture and the formation of organs of counterpower” (ibid., p.21). The concept of self-valorisation is inherently libertarian and mirrors the anarchist praxis of opposition to all forms of human subordination to central authority and command. Self-valorisation posits a horizontal praxis of expanding the limits of human freedom, rather than attempting to capture state power via a vanguard party. The ‘strategy of refusal’ can clearly be seen to have origins in the anarchist currents of the classical worker’s movements, such as the cost-of-living riots of the Italian red years 1919-1920 (Anarcho nd.) and the tactics of the mostly United States based Industrial Workers of the World, (IWW), who refused to sign contracts with employers. Interestingly Kropotkin’s criticisms of the labour theory of value and of Marx’s belief that this would operate in the form of wages even after the destruction of capitalism, appears like an unacknowledged precursor of the “social factory” and thus of “immaterial labour”. In The Conquest of Bread and other works “he made an argument for the social character of production...a collective process, based on the knowledge, experience and resources developed in the past” (Schmidt & van der Walt 2009, 89). The workerist notion of understanding the importance of political re-composition is taken to its logical conclusion in the form of anarcho-syndicalism. Whereas the workerists sought to reconstitute proletarian unity on the basis of an ever-expanding sphere of capitalist production and reproduction, the anarcho-syndicalists like those in the IWW sought to build the re-compositon through a global “one big union” which went beyond individual industries, sectors and nations. Class consciousness and the revolution were not the precursor but the result of the global organisation of the working class. Had the insights of autonomist Marxism been developed to the point they have been in anarcho-syndicalist thought, it is highly likely that some of the devastating mistakes made during the 1970s would have been avoided.
“We are here; we are indestructible; and we are in the majority,” said Negri just a few short years before his arrest (2005, 263). Wright accuses Negri of “millenarianism” and certainly anyone reading Negri’s later works will detect a sort of feverish optimism in it (1996). An anarcho-syndicalist in 1977 would not and could not have read the situation as one of uncrushable revolutionary potential. The spiral of violence initiated by the state and inflamed by the actions of the Red Bridages and the words of the autonomists turned the “problems of military strategy, political line, and state repression into the key issues” (Lumley 1990, 307) and led the militants into an unwinnable armed conflict, or else “narcissim”, “self-management of misery”; “a cul-de-sac of perpetual mourning” (Bocchio and Torchi cited Lumley 1990, 307). The working-class was not organised autonomously with dual power organisations that could take over the running of the state, and was still deeply wedded to the official reformist and bureaucratic unions like those in the CGIL, and to voting for the Communist Party (ibid., 308). There was no generalised and shared counterculture, and a Communist Party intellectual even talked of “two societies”, between “the organized working class and marginalized, unemployed youth – there is a deep divide” (A. Asor Rosa cited in Lumley 1990, p.308). In short, Negri and the Italian revolutionary left put the cart before the horse, the armed insurrection against the state before developing a sufficient counter-power that led them to associate donning the ski mask with “the warmth of the worker’s and proletarian community” (2005, 259) when in reality large sections of even left-wing working class was increasingly alienated from and even troubled by the violence and vandalism of the militants (Red Notes 1978).
2.2 Theoretical limits of autonomist Marxism
So what went wrong in the myriad currents of operaismo? What prevented Negri and his fellow travellers and what continues to inhibit the developing of autonomist Marxism into a praxis that can inspire a substantial revolutionary movement? This part of the essay looks at the constraints that autonomist Marxism has faced since inception in Italy and which continues to preclude its development into a coherent and practicable body of social theory. Operaismo was an offshoot of Marxist-Leninist currents in the Italian left and its theoreticians clung to the Leninist notion of a proletarian vanguard party. This foundation has arguably done more than anything else to hamper the theories relevance to working people. Its latest incarnation in the hefty theoretical contributions of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri illustrate the contemporary limitations on Negri’s thought; his failure to heed the lessons of history and continuing infatuation with the ideology of the French post-structuralist philosophers Deleuze and Guattari.
Tronti’s The Strategy of Refusal, while tactically innovative for the Leninist currents he was emerging from, was organisationally deficient. It concluded with a call for “communism as the party, which instead of constructing a model of the future society, supplies a practical means for the destruction of the present society” (1965). Bologna however foresaw another form whereby communism was achieved through “the party as social majority” (1967). In the end, as Negri remembers, it was the organisational form based on “armed vanguards structured like small parties in military guise” that won out and it was not only a “humanly unsustainable choice, but a political suicide” (Negri 2006). We do not have space for and we do not need to rehash the familiar anarchist arguments against Leninism, the dictatorship of the proletariat and the vanguard here. Instead we look at the historical and material constraints that faced the social movements in Italy in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Although they had elevated direct action, self-organisation and extra-parliamentary activity to the point of fixation; operaismo and the radical workers and students movements in Italy were never able to shake the “vision and structure” of the Italian Communist Party from whom they had departed in the 1950s (Katsiaficas 2006, 42). Even if some among the autonomists recognised that the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist organisations of the 1930s; the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and the Federacion Anarquista Iberica (FAI), represented “one of the few examples of a genuine “party of autonomy”” (Bordiga, 1976 cited in Wright 2002, 189). However as a result of the victory of Italian fascism, Italy in the 1960s didn’t have an anarcho-syndicalist tradition that the autonomists could learn from. After the mass uprisings in the factories and farmlands that at times turned into insurrections in Italy between 1919 and 1920; a right-wing backlash turned into the first European victory for fascism (Roberts 1979). After the socialists had signed a “pact of pacification” and fascist violence forced workers into “new [trade unions] controlled by the fascists”, all that stood between Benito Mussolini’s “black shirts” and total control were the Italian anarchists and the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI) which had nearly 1 million members at its height (Roberts 1979, 217). Between 1917-1922 the USI was outlawed, its leadership arrested and 6,000 working-class people murdered by state and fascist death squads (Anarcho 2008). This terrible destruction, combined with the prominence of “national syndicalists” within the Fascist regime was never recovered from and the ability of the Italian Communist Party in the post-1945 era to control left political space and the trade unions precluded the re-emergence of a significant syndicalist or anarchist movement (Rocker 1989, 164). When anarchism did finally reappear as a significant force in Italy in the student revolt of 1969 it was under the sway of the Situationist Internationale; leaflets proclaimed the “student movement is the guerrilla force of the working class in as far as it creates disorganization and disorder” (Lumley 1990, 114). Manipulated, armed and trained by the CIA Italian fascists waged war on anarchists and the Italian left. This forced a militarisation of the most radical sections of the left who fought back with equal violence. Between 1969 and 1979 the “years of lead” took 415 lives (Katsiaficas 2006, 41). When it came to articulating a method of workplace struggle, leading anarchists followed the autonomists in their abandonment of unions as vehicles of working-class emancipation and argued instead for, “direct struggle organised by the base; small groups of workers who attack the centres of production” (Bonnano 1975). Destroyed by fascists in 1921, encircled by them in the 1970s, radical Marxists and anarchists retreated from the building of syndicalist, anarcho-syndicalist or revolutionary unions into small urban guerrilla units in the tradition of Leninism and insurrectionalism respectively.
2.3 Postmodern limits to Empire
The contemporary limitations of Negri’s theory and much of the anarchist and Marxist currents which have been influenced by Empire and Multitude comes from its augmentation with French poststructuralists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Callinicos states that “the theoretical construction of Hardt and Negri’s book cannot be fully understood unless it is set alongside A Thousand Plateaus” (2007, 193). Alex Callinicos accuses Negri with supplanting strategy with ontology, for example sabotage attains the “status of transhistorical reality”; and speaking in metaphysical abstractions that “immunize [concepts like empire and multitude] from critical examination” (ibid., 194). It is hard not to agree. Cremin and Roberts (2009) ridicule the assertion in Empire that everyone is struggling because “if everyone is struggling in their own unique and different way then struggle is rendered meaningless”. The influence of ideas like “lines of flight” is clearly apparent yet they appear in Negri’s work alongside bizarre contradictions such as; the multitude “can never be flattened into sameness, unity, identity, or indifference” when it’s unity has been clearly the only force it has had in recent times (2004, 105). In anti-globalisation summit protests at Seattle and Genoa this multitude’s strength was the unity of the trade unions and environmental organisations alongside Left parties and NGOs and its shared identity as a ‘global justice movement’.
Barbrook has charged followers of Deleuze and Guattari for ignoring the fact that “the rhetoric of mass participation often hides the rule of the enlightened few” (2003). Certainly Negri and Hardt do just this when they attempt to use the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari as rationale for their attempt to dominate the discourse of globalisation with the concepts of “empire” and “multitude”; which becomes “an activity that combines the intelligence and action of the multitude” (2000, 302). In reality dedicated left-wing activists see the “multitude” as more problematic than helpful, as it “could crowd out giving equal attention to kinship, race, and power based dynamics as to economy based dynamics” (Albert 2005). We could conclude by saying that Negri offers a romanticised view of the grassroots struggle against capitalist globalisation based on the fact that for twenty years his intellectual skills have been primarily used to produce the “theoretical rationale for a policy of polarising the Italian left” in the 1970s (Callinicos 2007, 189). Others are less kind, labelling Negri “a man who felt no compunction about leaving his long-time comrades and loyal disciples to face lengthy prison sentences in Italy whilst he lived it up in Paris [and who now has] the sheer effrontery to present himself as a revolutionary theoretician for the new century and babble about "the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist"” (Abse 2002).
2.4 Anarcho-syndicalism beyond Autonomist Marxism
Self-organisation and self-education have historically been the watchwords of anarcho-syndicalists the world over. They sum up the strategy, the tactics and the theory of social revolution and their practical application contains both the anarchist critique of existing society and the anarchist vision of a post-capitalist, post-state society. Marxist ideologies continue to hold sway over anti-capitalist academic discourse, teaching and social theory to the point where an anarchist anthropologist can bemoan “there are thousands of academic Marxists of one sort or another, but hardly anyone who is willing to openly call herself an anarchist” (Graebar 2007, 303). Autonomist Marxism has been particularly influential on non-Leninist academic Marxists and has found exponents in the likes of Harry Cleaver, John Holloway and those who trail Deleuze & Guattari or Hardt & Negri or both. Thus it is absolutely crucial to rearticulate those key principles of anarcho-syndicalism that highlight the strengths of autonomist Marxism but also lead it beyond and against the nasal gazing of the academic world.
The autonomist project of class organisation has been defunct ever since the emergence of operaismo on the dwindling island of Leninist thought. Its recent adherents have sought to rebuild that project of organisation in ways that involve only those subjects already “autonomous” from capital, the state and ideological state apparatuses. This can lead to the sort of theoretical lens that focuses almost exclusively on hyper-marginalised parts of the working-class like illegal migrants, unorganised labour or those involved in non-capitalist lifestyles like social centres and communes. This Quixote like search for “autonomous-ness” leads in the end to powerlessness and disorganisation. It leads to attitudes like those of Cleaver who was to say, “We can only strive to organize our struggles such that their collective effect is to undermine capital and encourage the emergence of diversity and independent growth” (1981). This attitude falls short even of social democratic views that working-class organisation can control capital, can humanise it and can harness it for the benefit of all. It doesn’t even come close to the views of syndicalist groups like the IWW that the working-class should organise together for its mutual interests, so that it could attain “that solidarity which alone can abolish wage slavery and usher in the new society” (IWW cited in Burgmann 1995, 50). The Porto Marghera Worker’s Committee in 1973 was calling for an organisation “capable of fighting back against the bosses' political control, capable of taking all the power necessary to make class interests triumph” (Wildcat 2007). By Empire, Negri who had done so much good work with the chemical workers of Porto Marghera could write, “Perhaps the incommunicability of struggles, the lack of well structured, communicating tunnels, is in fact a strength rather than a weakness” (2000, 58-59). By the time Empire was published, Negri had truly made friends with failure.
One is reminded in critiquing the views of Negri and the workerists on organisation of that same critique levelled against those anarchists who are unable to bridge the “gap between the day-to-day activities and their utopian aspirations. This gap consists basically of a lack of strategy, a lack of sense of how various activities fit together to form a whole, a lack of ability to assess the general situation” (Quail 1978). The historic tradition of anarcho-syndicalism has always sought to unite those struggles around the wage, around rent, against sexual or ethnic oppression through anarcho-syndicalist organisation under the slogan of “One Big Union” and to forge from that the re-composition of the working class. For example the CNT in Spain sought to “combat exploitation in the field of consumption” and organised a rent strike of 100,000 people (Schmidt and van der Walt 2009, 192). Because the broad anti-political thrust of anarcho-syndicalism has always sought to unite the working class outside of mainstream unions and in preparation for the community self-organisation of society it has always sought to unite any form of struggle by those who do not own the means of production, who make up the working-class. In contrast is Antonio Negri and most varieties of Marxism who continue to see the struggle of non-waged workers, of women, of illegal immigrants as somehow different and irreconcilable with the general interest of the working class, and even as not working class in themselves. For example Negri flies in the face of the last 150 years of anarchism and Marxism when he states that the working class is only those who work in the realm of industrial production and the “multitude” is the “whole of singularities” (2004). We can only conclude then that Negri is playing word games in order to fetishise class struggle (particularly the anti-globalisation movement, the Palestinian intifada) without a unifying vanguard class organisation. The struggles of the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) in the early 1970s halted $5 billion of development that would have destroyed the environmental and cultural heritage of Sydneysiders. The union also took action in support of homosexual, women’s and Aboriginal rights because “it saw itself as expressing the collective self-interest of most people in confronting all manner of oppressions and preventing environmental destruction” (Burgmann and Burgmann 1998, 4-5). The BLF clearly regarded itself as first and foremost a working class organisation and like the IWW and CNT provides proof that democratic, empowering and unifying working class organisations based on direct action, self-organisation and unity are the best way to defend working class interests.
Education has always been a key part of anarchist social movements because it provides people with the awareness, the confidence and theoretical and practical tools to transform their own lives. At the heart of this method is the notion that only liberated individuals can liberate society through a social revolution. As Rocker noted pedagogy should be based on the “practical experiences and occurrences of the everyday struggles of the workers” (1989, 17). One of the central tenets of autonomist Marxism has been class composition analysis, beginning in the worker’s enquiries of the operaismo journal Quaderni Rossi. As a method of producing knowledge about the conditions of production and also of working class behaviour and struggle it is yet to be surpassed as a mode of inquiry within the Marxist canon. As one of those who was involved in the worker’s enquiries at Porto Marghera with Negri was to remember “I never again found the same intelligence of the Seventies, this force of thought that built together in practice, and I miss it very much” (Del Re 2005, 58). Yet within the methodology of class composition analysis were the seeds of intellectual elitism. It is in contrast to anarchist and anti-authoritarian pedagogies centred on a belief that all people have the faculties for understanding their own local conditions of exploitation and the struggle against it. Hardt argued that in Negri’s and operaismo thought analysis and education had been, “subordinated to the desires, to the project of the working class as subject” (27, 2005). It is clear from the historical material that groups like Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio collapsed because they sought to subordinate projects of class re-composition to the party organisations that the theorists came from. While Negri believed that there could be “no class recomposition without centralization” (2005, 222) the speeches made at the 1976 conference of Lotta Continua reveal the problems inherent in this line. Workplace militants and feminist activists split the organisation on the question of whose oppression contained more revolutionary potential (Red Notes 1978). Even Negri argued twenty years after the publication of Domination and Sabotage that his intellectual work to “legitimise a kind of leadership within the seventies movement” had been a failure (2005, xxxix). The Marxist intellectuals in their race to create a vanguard with the most advanced knowledge of the composition of capitalist organisation and proletariat behaviour had ignored the long-term, patient work of education that would enable people to understand their own oppression and be their own vanguard. Anarchists have long held a “long streak of suspicion regarding intellectuals vis a vis the virtuos masses” (El-Ojeili 2003, 59), and have stressed that the masses can educate themselves. As Ackelsberg noted in her study of the autonomous organisations of anarchist women in the Spanish revolution, “Education was essential to releasing women’s potential and enabling them to become fully contributing members of the movement and the new society” (1991, 118). Theorists of autonomy must move beyond the operaismo idea that “the process of proletarian unity [i]s the responsibility of a specialised layer within the class” (Wright nd). If the emancipation of the working-class is the task of the workers themselves then an educational praxis as a way of creating conscious subjects who understand the world from their own experiences is a prerequisite. Even Lotta Continua had realised by the end of their conference that “a very close relationship has been established between political recomposition in this period and the collective transformation of everyday life” (Red Notes 1978). As one communist militant has noted in recent times, “In the era of diffused intellectuality, one can't see what "the intellectual" might make specific, unless it is the expanse of the gap that separates the faculty of thinking from the aptitude for living” (Coupat 2009).
3.0 Refusal of conclusion
The preface to Negri’s American edition of his classic Marx Beyond Marx sums up the spirit of the lectures he gave in 1978. A dialogue between a prisoner and a free man the preface reads as a pure distillation of the theory and a reproduction of the praxis of autonomist Marxism. The dialogue represents a tension between the inside and the outside in the autonomous movement and between Negri as famous political militant and Padua University Professor and Negri jailed and exiled in the wake of the state’s allegation that he was the chief theoretician of the Red Brigades; “What does it mean to struggle against capital when capital has subjugated all of lived time, not only that of the working day, but all, all of it. Reproduction is like production, life is like work. At this level to break with capital is to make a prison break” (1991, xvii). This is the radical potential of autonomist Marxism, of Negri’s thought and of the practices of the seventies movements in Italy; to theorise the escape from capital; to begin to theorise how the proletariat can live its resistance to capital in an organised and democratic way. Yet the pitfalls of ontology, of post-structuralism and of overconfidence continue to dog the thinking of autonomist Marxists. There can be no doubt that the organisation and education of the working class is not only the method of anti-capitalist struggle but the prerequisite. We should not overlook the contributions of operaismo and its achievements for the Italian working class nor should we be overly harsh on those who have dedicated their life to revolutionary change. It is easy enough to be swept up in the spirit of the times. As Alisa Del Re noted, “it seemed that each one of us could somehow influence our own destiny and each other’s destiny” (2005, 51). It would be wrong for us to close the chapter on autonomist Marxism and on Antonio Negri. Self-valorisation, class composition, strategy of refusal and the social worker all deserve their place in the vocabulary of today’s militants, but they should be understood in their proper context and not elevated to divine commandments. Instead, let us open a new chapter that moves with and beyond autonomist Marxism to a new appreciation of the strengths of anarcho-syndicalist thought. A chapter written in actions not words.
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Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand
10 June 2009