Building the Armed Party?

Second part of the chapter on Potero Operaio in Steve Wright's "Storming Heaven".

Submitted by Fozzie on August 16, 2023

The mass worker believes only in real parties, credible ones ...

(Alquati 1980: 30)

Insurrection, militarisation of the movement and armed party - phrases inseparable from the ideology of Potere Operaio - would continue to haunt the workerists long after the group's demise. Having failed to link Autonomia with the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), some of the magistrates directing the '7 April 1979' case centred their investigation instead upon the common past of those detained in Potere Operaio. In doing so, their chief charge was to be that the organisation had planned an insurrection in 1971 (Ferrajoli 1981 : 54). If on closer examination this grand design would prove to be nothing more than the preparation of petrol bombs for a Milan demonstration, the new tack of the prosecution, as two of the accused were to indicate, revealed a wilful ignorance of the workerist group's whole project:

In the first place, is working-class autonomy or has it ever been in fact, an insurrectional phenomenon? The very first thing we need to do here is to clear up a misunderstanding - the one pursued by the Roman judge - that is, the resurrection of an insurrectionalist thematic that was the historical property of the 1968 group Potere Operaio. Agitation for an insurrectional perspective (which never even began to become a theory, far less an insurrectionary practice) constituted a last resort to articulate leninist goals (vieuxleninist?) on a theoretical and 'workerist' corpus, and above all, on a transformation of its referent, of the social subject of the struggles which '68 had begun to reveal in all their breadth. Potere Operaio said insurrection for the same reasons Lotta Continua said 'Take over the city' and Il Manifesto (Yes, Magri himself) put forward guerrilla warfare in the factories. The judges obviously forget, or better still, they are obliged to conceal by whatever means possible, the small detail that P.O. was the very first group to take note historically of the impractibility and inadequacy of that attempt at articulation, and to dissolve. (Negri and Ferrari-Bravo 1981: 24)

Yet in defending Potere Operaio so, Negri and Ferrari-Bravo were themselves guilty of smudging over the profound disagreements which had separated it from the other major far left organisations in Italy. In a mundane sense, what they said was perfectly true: the workerists' actual practice of violence was little different to that of thousands of other leftists. As for the dabblings of some of Potere Operaio's leadership with their own clandestine structures, these too were modest by the standards of the time (Palombarini 1982: 81-6).
Indeed, if members of Potere Operaio had not shown themselves backward in the manufacture of molotov cocktails for use against the carabinieri, neither did they possess the reputation of certain more doctrinally moderate groups for settling political differences with monkey wrenches. Ideologically too, the thematic of an unavoidable armed struggle against the state, as exemplified by the efforts of the Vietcong, was an important part of the extra-parliamentary groups' common patrimony, and one which marked them off from a PCI leadership deemed revisionist. Whilst differences within the far left as to the meaning of armed struggle then ran deep, 'on the "if'", as Scalzone (Tracee 1983: 26) would later point out, 'there were no doubts'. What did distinguish Potere Operaio, however, was its conception of insurrection as a pressing, imminent necessity. Crash or crash through was the message Potere Operaio broadcast to other revolutionaries after 1970; if 'the party of the insurrection' was not built, it argued, the only possible outcome would be 'the general defeat of the movement' (Potere Operaio 1971d: 5).

The roots of such a discourse lay in the group's pessimistic assessment of the Hot Autumn's outcome. Yet, to begin with at least, the answer to the insufficiency of 'continuous struggle' in the factory was seen to lie in the greater centralisation of existing radical working-class forces, rather than the constitution of an organisation separate from them. This task was to be entrusted to new factorybased 'political committees', through which Potere Operaio hoped to lay the basis for 'general scadenze of struggle and the class party' by channelling discontent into 'precise moments of struggle and obtainable objectives' (Finzi 1971: 37). Spurned by its half-sister Lotta Continua, Potere Operaio launched the committees in the early months of 1971 together with Manifesto, a group with which it had little in common, if not a mutual isolation from the rest of the far left (Bocca 1980: 54; Berardi 1998: 132-4). Not surprisingly, as the progeny of such mismatched parents, most of the political committees soon proved practical failures.

For the rest of the group's short existence, the majority within Potere Operaio was to reiterate again and again its diagnosis of an impotent far left, and a working class trapped in a dead end. From its beginnings with Classe Operaia, workerism's political point of reference had oscillated constantly - and not always with coherence - between the two poles of 'mass work' and the 'vanguard party'. In other words, between what it saw as the dictates of contemporary class composition, and the strictures imposed by the manoeuvring of the class enemy. By privileging the latter from the late 1960s onwards, Tronti and his associates had begun to abandon operaismo. Now, little more than a year after its formation, the group showed itself to be equally 'obsessed by the reality of the adversary' (Negri 1979a: 111), leaving those who found the solution inadequate - like Sergio Bologna (1980b: 180) and Franco Berardi (1998: 116) - little option but to depart.

The precise contours of the vanguard party visualised by Potere Operaio were to be spelt out by Negri in Crisi dello Stato-piano. Before a state 'casual and arbitrary' in its behaviour, its efforts to hold the capital relation sustained only by hatred and 'the desperate will of class survival', nothing less than a return to the Leninist problematic of insurrection could direct mass struggle towards a satisfactory conclusion. While the raw material of this process was the whole layer of militants formed within the last cycle of conflicts, the danger
existed that, in the absence of a further leap forward, this vanguard would risk 'suffocation' at the hands of 'pre-constituted levels of autonomy and class spontaneity'. If the formal structure of the party would not necessarily follow the Bolshevik model, its function as the privileged subject of recomposition was not in doubt:

The vanguard has to prove capable of interpreting the mass tendency to appropriation and channelling it against the enterprise, against the factory-command that is imposed on the class ... Action by the vanguard alone is empty; action by the mass organisms alone is blind. But it is equally dangerous to attempt to merge the two moments into unified mass vanguards. (Negri 1971: 132, 133)

Despite Negri's denials (1971: 132), Potere Operaio's conception of the revolutionary party would owe more to the 'theory of the offensive' which had flourished briefly within the Communist movement of the early 1920s than to any notion held by Lenin (Cacciari 1978: 58). Embraced by both left Communists and the extremist wing of Bolshevism, condemned by Lenin himself as 'insane and harmful' (Harman 1982: 214), the strategy of forcing the pace of class struggle through the exemplary actions of the party found its most intelligent advocate in Georg Lukacs. For the latter, it represented the means to shake off 'the Menshevistic lethargy of the proletariat' (quoted in Lowy 1979: 161). Admittedly, the only significant attempt to apply it in practice - an uprising in Central Germany during March 1921 - had proved disastrous. All the same, the only thing available to those determined to ground a militant approach to class unity within the theoretical baggage of the Communist movement, whilst avoiding some variant of a United Front between existing labour organisations, was precisely the theory of the offensive. Having spurned as futile any such alliance with the historic left, it is perhaps not surprising that Potere Operaio would turn instead to such a spectacular notion of vanguard organisation. In doing so, it also rejected a third path, that of seeking the meaning of its political project within the behaviours of the class, so turning its back upon what was precisely 'the theoretical novelty of Italian
workerism' (Berardi 1998: 130).

Workerism's interest in the theory of the offensive had first been roused during Italy's creeping May, in an essay penned by Giario Daghini (1971) for the September 1968 issue of Aut Aut. While this initial discussion of the question failed to separate the elements specific to the theory from a more general discourse upon the necessity of revolutionary violence, this was no longer so in 1971, when Potere Operaio stated explicitly:

If the crisis of autonomy before the bosses' attack prevents us from assuming the permanency of significant levels of attack on the part of the autonomous behaviours of the workers' struggle, then
the problem of shifting the relations of force in favour of the working class can only be resolved, from the beginning, by the hypothesis and realisation of instruments adequate to an offensive strategy. (Potere Operai 1971d: 4)

Yet, for all the group's talk of 'acting as a party' - a slogan then shared with Lotta Continua - it would be mistaken to think that Potere Operaio genuinely believed that it could undertake such a project alone. For one thing, the group, with perhaps three or four thousand militants to its name, continued to lag behind the other nationally based organisations in both size and influence. Most of its members, furthermore, were still concentrated in the traditional strongholds of Rome and the Veneta, outside which, as Scalzone was to report from Milan in December 1970, the climate was all too frequently 'hostile, inhospitable, icy, lukewarm? Certainly little enthusiasm (for us)' (quoted in Bacca 1980: SS). Conscious of such limitations, Negri's intervention at the 1971 conference was to demonstrate a realism singularly lacking in his preparatory document:

When we say that we are not a party, we are saying that we are not a weapon adequate to the conquest of power, that we are not capable, today, of this ... Comrades, saying this raises all the difficulties of the things to be done ... the difficulties that derive from the discrepancy between the tempo of organisation and that of the clash ... (quoted in Scarpari 1979: 269)

Looking back in 1979, Bologna would argue that 'for the intermediary and rank-and-file cadre in Potere Operaio, the primary reference always remained the armed party rather than the composition of the class' (quoted in Galante 1981: 482). While this insight does much to explain the group's growing loss of contact with political reality, it is not the whole picture. At least until the middle of 1972, when the activity of undergound formations began to proliferate, Potere Operaio envisioned the construction of the armed party as a project
embracing the 'overall movement' or the 'class left', rather than any one specific sector within it, clandestine or otherwise (Scarpari 1979: 268). Such hopes would go unrealised, however. Certainly, the early 1970s were a period of heightened class antagonism in Italy, characterised both by the open mobilisation of the forces of fascism and a growing sympathy in some government circles for an authoritarian resolution ofthe 'social question' (Ginsborg 1990: 335-7). Still, neither the rest of the left, nor any significant section of the working class itself, showed signs of taking up Potere Operaio's call. If the project of an armed party found a certain resonance within some of Milan's factories (Silj 1979; Alfieri et al. 1984), it fell largely on deaf ears elsewhere. True, the leadership of Lotta Continua responded to the changing political climate by replacing its programme to 'Take Over the City' with talk of an imminent 'general clash'. Then again, they intended by this less a convergence with Potere Operaio's catastrophist perspective, than an accentuation of those elements of physical force already present within the culture of the far left. In particular, the line of a 'general clash' meant the greater formalisation and centralisation of the stewards' organisations which all the groups had formed to protect their members from police and fascists (Cazzullo 1998: 183-97).

Polemicising later with a different 'armed party', Mario Dalmaviva would hold that

the politically motivated subjective exercise of violence, if it is not to be a simple reflection of class behaviour already present in the social confrontation, needs legitimation. Not the formal legitimation of the state, or of legislation, which is 'legitimated' by the ferocity of its adversary, but a class legitimation. Such a class legitimation comes about when a credible political project of 'changing the status quo' meets with, roots itself in, and is recognised by, a significant element of the class. (Dalmaviva 1981: 37)

Potere Operaio's failure to win any such sanction in 1972 was to prove the greatest blow to its goal of militarising the class struggle, sending the group into a turmoil from which it would never recover. In the ensuing debate, however, the perplexities which some within Potere Operaio had earlier admitted privately now came into the open, helping to clarify those differences concerning class and politics which all the talk of insurrection had swept under the carpet. At first the nuances were subtle, but over time two distinct positions were to evolve: the first advanced by Negri's wing of the organisation, intent upon reviewing the meaning of working-class autonomy and the insurrectional model; the other that of the 'partybuilders' around Piperno and Scalzone. 1972 would see Negri (1976a: 59) begin a re-reading of Lenin and the party-form adapted to the
circumstances of labour's real subsumption:

I believe that the most important thing we need to learn from Lenin is not so much abstract models or phrases, as his way of relating to the revolutionary process and to the subjectivity of the working class. We need to ask how the working class is composed today, and what need for organisation follows from its given determinate composition, a composition that is undoubtedly different from that which Lenin described. (ibid.: 31-2)

What was now needed, wrote one member of Negri's faction in June of 1972, were 'new experiences of struggle' richer than those of the far left groups. 'Only in this sense - of working-class direction of the organisation - can the problem of the unity of revolutionary forces be posed concretely' (Potere Operaio 1972h: 3). In this respect, it was suggested, a lot could be learned from the linking of factory vanguards in Lombardy by rank-and-file committees at Alfa, Pirelli and Sit Siemens (Cantarow 1972; 1973). The response to such arguments from those in the group most committed to the Leninism of What Is To Be Done? was predictable, ridiculing their opponents for ignoring the necessary mediating function of the vanguard party. Left to its own devices, these workerists claimed, working-class autonomy 'lives for and in the capitalist relations of production': only a political-military organisation committed to the destruction of the state was capable of breaking such stagnation (Potere Operaio 1973a: 3). 'The practical inefficiencies of a workers' assembly' were simply not up to such a task; in any case, the form and function of the revolutionary organisation could not be dictated by the nature of struggles, but only by the task of wresting political power from the class enemy. It was thus misleading to talk of a 'working-class leadership' as the Negri wing did, since the party was a voluntary organisation whose members entered it on the basis not of social background but commitment to Communism. Only those, in sum, who turned their back upon Leninism in favour of a view in which 'party, workers' struggles and mass movement are all fused into one sublime identity' could fail to see that 'the construction of the party is a party affair' (Potere Operaio 1973c: 3, 4).

With some justification, Piperno and Scalzone could claim that their position was consistent with the doctrine handed down from Classe Operaia, and that it was Negri who had broken with the premises upon which Potere Operaio had been founded. Such criticisms Negri accepted with aplomb, countering that the whole strategy of the extra-parliamentary groups - Potere Operaio included - had been on the wrong track since at least 1971, when

[t]he real task - of rearticulating from within itself the compactness of the newly unified strength of the working class - was transformed into an external undertaking of guidance and abstract leadership ... In the same span of time that the working-class struggle was advancing, extending and consolidating its destruction of the factory hierarchy, launching the slogan of the guaranteed wage, and beginning the first struggles on that front, the groups were mustering their attacking capacity (which was now becoming impotent and abstract because it had no bite on the mass level) into what was claimed to be an attack 'directed against the state' ... They were to be heavily defeated; the repression would find them isolated, and was able to savage them. In addition, their detachment from the class was now total: the groups were completely absent from the contract negotiations at the end of 1972. (Negri 1973c: 57)

If the two factions were to share one thing in common, it was a continuing championing of the project of armed struggle as a necessary and imminent moment in the transition to Communism. According to Negri, for example, it was not the strategy of armed struggle that should be abandoned; rather, the likes of Scalzone and Piperno were too blinkered to see that any vanguard organisation had to be 'rooted immediately within the composition of the class', since

autonomy has represented a terrain of constant innovation of political initiative, and above all it has opened up the horizon of armed struggle. (Negri 1973c: 59)

But to what exactly did such a statement refer in the Italy of the early 1970s? For Negri, two incidents sprang immediately to mind. The first had taken place in Porto Marghera where, after the failure of police attempts to break up mass pickets, a general strike had been proclaimed which saw three days of street battles before the forces of law and order finally regained control of the situation (Mariani and Ruffato 1979: 33-4). Just as Potere Operaio had dubbed Corso Traiano an 'insurrection', in Negri's hands (1973c: 57) the dramatic events of August 1970 were transformed into 'a possible model of urban guerrilla [warfare]'. Even more outlandish was his interpretation of the workers' blockade of FIAT Mirafiori in early 1973 where, following six months of struggles over the new contract, the complex had been sealed off for three days by mass pickets. The struggles of that March, in their ferocity, had brought temporary relief to those on the far left most closely bound up with the experience of Mirafiori. For one worker militant in Lotta Continua, the blockade signified 'the fulfilment of four years of struggle at FIAT'; while for Potere Operaio,

' [t]aking power' at FIAT, and in all of Turin, contains an explicit allusion to the seizure of political power and to the revolutionary programme of the abolition of wage labour. (Potere Operaio 1973d)

In Negri's opinion, the FIAT action represented nothing less than the 'general arming of the factory' which hailed the birth of the 'Mirafiori party', a party-form inseparable from the vanguards immersed in mass struggle (Negri 1973a). Once again, however, such triumphalism bore little semblance to reality. Indeed, soon it would be clear that the combativeness of the FIAT pickets stood more as a final gesture of open defiance by the protagonists of 1969 than the portent of a new wave of militancy in the large factories (Portelli 1985: 12).

If the more recent instances of unofficial factory committees quickly became the chief point of reference for Negri's faction, the other wing of Potere Operaio (1973a) looked increasingly to what it called the 'area of the party'. While it was not always clear just what forces the latter embraced, amongst them were included a number of those groups committed to the clandestine organisation of a proletarian military apparatus: above all the Brigate Rosse; to a much lesser extent, the Gruppi Armati Partigiani led by the publisher Feltrinelli. It is easy, with hindsight, to become emotive about Potere Operaio's interest in the former, but it must be remembered that in the spring of 1972 the Brigate Rosse's activities bore rather different connotations to those which they would assume after 1975. Led by militants once noted for their violent verbal attacks upon workerism, the core of the Brigate Rosse had participated in the Hot Autumn as part of a Milan-based Marxist-Leninist group well-grounded in local workplace committees, and in good standing with Potere Operaio (Balestrini and Moroni 1988: 222). Choosing to go underground in anticipation of a fascist coup, their earliest actions were largely symbolic and didactic, ranging from the incineration of cars owned by strike-breakers and fascists to the kidnapping and public humiliation of unpopular magistrates and factory managers (Silj 1979: 96-116). In turn such practices found, if not endorsement, then certainly indulgence within those sections of the Italian working class where the flame of the Resistance and present-day Third World struggles burned strong. Through such actions, which emphasised the armed group's orientation to the workplace, the Brigate Rosse were initially to strike both factions of Potere Operaio as an important anticipation of the tasks ahead. None the less, there was also a certain coolness towards them from many in Potere Operaio, suspicious that the Brigate held pretensions to monopolise the political-military functions which were by rights the property of the revolutionary movement as a whole. 'The working class is the only subject which interests us', declared an article in Potere Operaio from June 1972.

Every other form of subjectivism is only an attempt to supplant the working class ... the problem of militarisation therefore is completely subordinate to the development of mass struggle and must be directed, even in its technical aspects, by the current form of the party (the mass organisms under working-class direction) ... The military 'specific' is such only if it refers to mass struggle. To think of the militarisation of the mass movement in terms of von Clausewitz is worthy of fascists. (Potere Operaio 1972f: 3)

Deeply divided as to the significance of class behaviour and the function of political organisation, Potere Operaio collapsed in all but name by the middle of 1973. While Negri's compatriots moved off to embrace the nascent 'Area of Autonomy', their opponents attempted for a while to keep the organisation alive. Before long they too were to be drawn into Autonomia, albeit as a current with little initial sympathy for either Negri's circle or their schemas. Others still were to follow the road already taken by Tronti, Asor Rosa and Cacciari, which ultimately led to militancy within the Communist Party (Paolozzi 1980). In their own way, each of these divergent paths offered different solutions to the problems that workerism continued to ponder. In each case, however, the most valuable lesson of the 1960s - the attentive study of working-class behaviour - was to be sacrificed in a greater or lesser degree to political impatience and an increasingly rigid conceptual apparatus. As the middle of the decade approached, fewer and fewer within the political tendency which had first introduced the debate on class composition into the Italian left were to take as their starting point the vicissitudes of broad sectors of the working population itself.