9. The Collapse of Workerism

Ninth chapter of "Storming Heaven" by Steve Wright.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 24, 2023

1977 was a decisive year for the Italian far left. Coming in the wake of its disappointing showing in the previous year's general elections, the tumult of a new wave of struggles by students scornful of the 'cadavers' of 1968 was a stark indication of the mounting discontent of politically minded youth with the triplice and its style of politics. Having long posed as the privileged interpreters of Italy's oppositional forces, the three major organisations to the left of the PCI now found themselves contaminated or even overtaken by a new politics which emphasised needs over duty, difference over homogeneity, the localised and personal over a class-wide struggle. Always the most sensitive to the moods of the broader movement, Lotta Continua was the first to enter into crisis, dissolving as a formal organisation in late 1976 under the hammer blows of its disgruntled and divided membership (Red Notes 1978). The PDUP fared little better: torn between its established role as the critical conscience of the Communist Party, and the possibilities for broader influence outside the sphere of the PCI, it painfully split in two (Garzia 1985). Even Avanguardia Operaia, traditionally the most staid member of the triplice, found its congress besieged by 'Metropolitan Indians' dressed in feather bonnets and war paint, and demanding a new approach to political activity (Libera 1977: 738).

1977 was also a decisive year for operaismo. The various organisations of Autonomia were able - for a brief time - to fill the vacuum created by the triplice’s crisis. None the less, the multitude of problems which the new political mood exemplified would push workerism's conceptual apparatus, in Negri's words (1979a: 147, 148), to its 'extreme limits': 'To speak still in the old terms, after the experience of 1977, is to be dead.' As has been seen, Negri's own efforts to delineate a new approach simply repeated the tendency's old errors in a different guise; within two years, his political project would lie shattered. For the editors of Primo Maggio, by contrast, the so-called 'Movement of '77' would inspire their most important internal debate, throwing into question once again the significance of the categories bound up with the thematic of class composition. Together, the incursion of new elements into the FIAT workforce, and the intensification of industrial conflict within Italy's service and transport sectors, served to revitalise aspects of the journal's reflections. In the end, however, neither of these processes could ultimately prevent the collapse of those grand themes that the rational wing of workerism had long sought to preserve and enrich.

The cycle of struggles that opened in 1977 would end badly: retrenchment, addiction, imprisonment, even suicide were not uncommon. In the aftermath of its defeat came the 1980s, 'the years of cynicism, opportunism, and fear' (Balestrini and Moroni 1988: 387). Yet as Bologna would come to argue, whatever the havoc it unleashed, 1977 had posed fundamental questions about political recomposition. And while no section of the Italian far left had been able to find practical answers to them at the time, none the less these were questions that all future revolutionaries would be obliged to address:

[T]he movement of 1977 was not only a totally different way of conceiving of the relation between life and politics, but a series of contents and values that had never been placed on the agenda of the political project. Despite having apparently left a void in its wake, despite having apparently only laid bare the crisis of political forms, including the crisis of the party-form, 1977 has to be considered one of the greatest anticipations of the forms and contents of political and social life seen in recent years. After 1977 there is no turning back, despite all the errors committed, and for which many are still paying in an atrocious manner. 1977 was a year in which the wealth and complexity of problems was such that the political form able to contain and organise them all adequately could not be found. (Bologna 1980c: 28-9)