8. The Historiography of the Mass Worker

Eighth chapter of "Storming Heaven" by Steve Wright.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 23, 2023

We, with our 'Americanism', with our metropolitan ideology, with the two great 'locations' set at the centre of our historical memory, of our theoretical and ideological identity: the class struggles of the American proletariat, and the gigantic and tragic German Communist movement of 1918 to 1932. (Scalzone 1981: 9)

Workerism in the years before the Hot Autumn had secured only a minor foothold within Italian left historiography. The dominant school in the immediate postwar period was that associated with the Communist Party, which saw the purpose of history as tracing the development of the institutions of civil society. Gramsci himself had recognised in the Prison Notebooks that 'the history of a party can only be the history of a determinate social group' (quoted in Bermani 1975: 37). Despite this, the majority of his followers waged a fierce polemic in the early 1950s against those whose interest in working class and popular culture led them beyond the institutions of the labour movement, there to explore both dissident political experiences and the daily life of workers and peasants (Bermani and Bologna 1977: 21-4). Indeed, even the best of Communist historiography, such as Paolo Spriano's chronicle of the PCI's development - a work whose sense of balance was at that time unique amongst party histories - continued to advance this focus upon the internal dynamic of the organisation's leadership. Here, as Mariuccia Salvati (1980: 8) has justly noted, 'Whatever fell outside the party, fell outside history, and vice versa. ' Given the similarly narrow optic of historiography in the universities, the few intellectuals committed to the pursuit of a properly social history were forced literally to be autodidacts, particularly in economic matters (Bologna 1981: 10).

By the beginning of the 1960s, however, the introduction to Italy of the work of the foreign Communists Eric Hobsbawm and Jurgen Kuczynski did much to legitimise the notion of a history of working people. In a similar fashion, the incursion of American sociology and modernisation theory prompted a reconsideration of economic history (Pitassio 1976). The first of the new Communist studies was that of Giuliano Procacci (1962, 1970), which examined the class composition of Italian workers at the turn of the century. Far from evoking sympathy within operaismo, however, this and similar studies would be dismissed by the tendency as proof of the PCI's refusal to confront the most pressing contemporary questions, beginning with the state of working-class organisation at FIAT (Alquati 1975: 310; Bermani and Bologna 1977: 32). For its part, workerism's earliest historical forays were largely schematic, their chief purpose being to set out 'new "interpretative frameworks"' capable of surpassing existing left historiography (Bologna 1964: 27).

In a series of short review essays published in late 1963 and early 1964, Sergio Bologna was to explore the significance of fascism from the working-class point of view. Despite the specific contexts within which they had arisen, the German and Italian interwar experiences both touched upon matters of current relevance. That of Nazism, for example, presented the problem of working-class passivity in extremis, revealing at the heart of the fascist rise to power the violent subordination of labour-power to production, along with the disposition of all available means to the pursuit of accumulation (Bologna 1963a: 19). In Germany the institutions of the old labour movement had either been destroyed or integrated into new Nazi organisations in 1933, as re-armament protected by autarchy made possible industry's full utilisation of productive capacity. During the war itself, the use of foreigners as slave labour filling the bottom rungs of the production process had destroyed the last remnants of class solidarity, the 'primary condition for the existence of the working class as a political class' (Bologna 1963b: 62). It was precisely under the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler, moreover, wherein the bonds between labour and its erstwhile representatives were violently sundered, that the reduction of working-class history to that of party and union bureaucracies appeared 'truly grotesque' (Bologna 1964: 28). Later, as Bologna (1981: 12) would acknowledge, the critical reading of official records by radical historians would help to reconstruct the many instances of resistance to the workplace regime imposed by the Nazis. In the process, their efforts would also make plain what Timothy Mason (1979) once called the fundamental divide between the political resistance of the German left, and working-class opposition in the factory and labour market.

As to the Italian case, Bologna was chiefly concerned in the early 1960s to challenge the prevalent leftist view of fascism as the product of Italy's social and political backwardness. As the liberal economist Rosario Romeo's recent work had shown contra Gramsci, the absence of agrarian reform had in no way impeded the advance of Italian capitalism. While Gramsci's line of argument had been tenable in his own time, Bologna (1963b: 63) believed that it had since been confuted by the impetuous development of Italy's economic 'miracle', which had encouraged a growing economic and political unity within the hostile camps of capital and labour. Thus, despite his weaknesses, Romeo had to be acknowledged as the only Italian historian currently capable of

undertaking economic research, simply because his work possessed the undoubted merit of having returned historical discussion to the proper terrain, because it refuses the level of so-called superstructures, of perceiving history only through political institutions. (Bologna 1963b: 64; 1964: 28)

'Some hypotheses of Marxist research on contemporary history', which appeared in the third number of Quademi Rossi, made explicit the alternative vantage point from which workerism chose to survey the question. The essay pushed very hard against Communist historiography, and in particular its understanding of fascism, taking instead as its starting point the recent wave of industrialisation. This, argued its authors Umberto Coldagelli and Gaspare De Caro,

objectively poses class relations at the purest and most mature level of their antagonism ... the science of this present indicates the general direction of development itself, and explains the causes of deviations, oppositions and delays to it. In other words, [from this standpoint] history becomes a biography -0f the collective capitalist in its incessant struggle with the individual capitalist and in its struggle with the working class. (Coldagelli and De Caro n.d.: 104)

Like Bologna, the essay presented fascism as 'the political expression of a determinate level of development', a response to 'objectively revolutionary' conditions in which Italy found itself after the First World War (ibid.: 106, 107). Conceiving of fascism as a peculiarly modern reply to this stalemate, Coldagelli and De Caro were also harsh in their assessment of the eventual formula with which the Communist movement had chosen to meet it. To their minds, the Popular Front was a convergence of interests between those committed to defending the Soviet bureaucracy, and sections of Western capital concerned with political and economic reform. Yet, while such a critique evoked those advanced both by contemporary dissident leftists like Fortini (n.d.; 197 4) and the traditional Communist heresies, it was not to be expanded at any length by Coldagelli and De Caro (n.d.: 107-8). Similarly, their analysis of fascism as a political form of capitalist domination, which was to be developed with rigour a decade later by Marco Revelli (1975), was depicted here simplistically as corresponding 'perfectly' to the needs of capital (Coldagelli and De Caro n.d.: 107).

Instead, in another brief essay devoted to the biennio rosso, De Caro (1964) turned his gaze to the Turin factory councils of 1920, which 'Some hypotheses' had defined as 'the only initiative responding to the necessity of a revolutionary rupture at this determinate level of capitalist development' (ibid.: 106). Polemicising with Spriano's study of the period, De Caro located the importance of the councils not in their efforts to defend the interests of labour-power within capital more capably than the unions, but in their reference to a project of political power. Thus, if Gramsci had considered the councils as organs that accepted and took root in the existing organisation of labour, they could not simply be dismissed, as Bordiga had believed, with the charge of reformism. Rather, their true significance - precisely because they anticipated a more advanced form of capitalism based upon co-management - lay in their ability to block the state's efforts to assert a greater role in economic life. That they ultimately failed in this enterprise, De Caro believed, was primarily the fault of the historic left parties, which had been unable to arm workers with an adequate form of political organisation.