Eight Theses on Militant Historiography

Submitted by Nate on June 10, 2010


by Sergio Bologna

Translated by Ed Emery

[Draft translation]

1. The condition of the militant historian.

Up until now we have maintained that the subjectivity of the militant historian, the fact of his collocation within the revolutionary class movement, as a bearer of specific techniques, was a sufficient precondition for making militant historiography. We had consequently maintained that the organisation of research too, and of cultural production, would have to take place within self-managed spaces, within that separate society which is the revolutionary class movement.

But the subjectivity of the militant historian is also determined by his material condition, by the fact of being excluded - if not de jure, then certainly de facto - from available sources, from research, and from public funding. The use of alternative sources, the adoption of alternative methodologies, is often a choice imposed by marginalisation. It follows from this that the militant historian today has to organise in order to achieve parity of treatment as regards access to sources, to university research, and to public funding. If there is a latent Berufsverbot, then we must staunch it, anticipate it, and defeat it!

2. The original shortcomings* of militant historiography.

In Italy it was at the end of the 1950's, in thedebate which brought "Movimento Operaio" to a close, in the early writings of Montaldi, that modern militant historiography was born - in other words a historiography closely linked to the practical and theoretical problems which the new class composition was posing for the traditional structures of the party and the trade union. Its greatest original defect consisted in the tendency to re-evaluate "minoritarian" experiences - as a means of forcing the pace of poemic with Stalinism - to such an extent that it ended up being a Left-wing version of the "heretical history" of the kind produced by Cantimori.* This was a secondary outcome, but it has proved long-lasting, as can be seen in some of the historiography of the anarchist, councilist and Bordighist movements.

3. The workers' inquiry.

The specific form against which militant historiography had to measure itself at the start of the 1960's, with the Quaderni Rossi was the workers' inquiry. Here militant historiography had to face up to its backwardness in relation to other disciplines, such as industrial sociology, which had been far swifter in getting itself legimitated by the new class composition. In this period sociology enjoys an undisputed hegemony within the disciplines, while militant historiography remains as a rearguard, ancillary function. In the workers' inquiry, militant historiography also measures itself against the problem of oral sources, and with the relationship between subjectivity and history in general. This whole problematic is synthesised* in the relationship between spontaneity and organisation, which is the first major interpretational histoiographic category which the militant historiography of the early 1960's succeeded in establishing. The curiosity towards the workers' council experiences, both of the early 1920's, and of the 1930's and 1950's in the countries of Eastern Europe,* derives from the conviction that it is possible to apply the spontaneity-organisation nexus as a general category of the history of the working-class movement.

The other major category which, in this phase, was just glimpsed, but not developed, because of the limited familiarity of Italian historians with problems of technology,* given their general humanistic formation, is that of the nexus between the refusal of work and technological innovation. Industrial sociology, even in its ultra-Left versions, is incapable of offering a theoretical framework within which to locate the nexus between class movement and innovation in machinery. It sees only the separateness of individual behaviours, and class fragmentation, and not its recomposition.

4. Political class composition.

It is only when the category of class composition is defined, or, rather, applied, that militant historiography emerges from its infantile disorders, and succeeds in regaining the terrain of "social history" on the one hand, and on the other the terrain of political-institutional history. The concept of class composition, while it is functional, it is at the same time all-embracing and therefore ambiguous. It is a skeleton key* which opens all doors. It has replaced within militant historiography what, in the Gramscian conception, but particularly in the Gramscian school of history, has been the concept of "hegemony". This means that it is still a "post-Gramscian" concept, and if militant historiography wishes to emerge from the long purgatory of post-Gramscianism, if it wants to prevent the concept of political class composition being sucked up* by the wishywashiness* of the orphans of Togliatti, then it is going to have to denouce its ambiguities and limits, and is going to have to specify itself better. When one takes a closer look, within the category of class compsotion it had been attempted to translate into new terms - matched to a society which was no longer peasant and no longer feudal - some of the contents of the category of "civil society". When we said "political class composition", we mean, or we meant, not only the technical composition, the structure of labour-power, but also the sum and the interweavings of the forms of culture and of behaviours both of the mass worker and of all the strata subsumed to capital. [? Missing] worker, his peasant past, his link (or his break) with the family clan, his past as a working-class emigrant, in contact with more advanced technologies and with societies with a more advanced command over labour-power, his past as a political and trade-union militant, or his past as a member of a Catholic, patriarchal clan - all translated into acquisitions of struggle, into political wisdom, a sum of subcultures which catalyse each other, in contact with the massification of labour or with its inverse process, of fragmentation and dispersion over territory. Machinery, the organisation of labour, transmute and bring to light these cultural pasts, the mass subjectivity takes hold of them and translates them into struggle, the refusal of work, and organisation. Political class compositionis first and foremost a result, an end point of an historical process. But dialectically and at the same time it is the starting-point of a historical movement within which labour subsumed to capital interprets the productive, social and political organisation of exploitation, and turns it into the organisation of its own autonomy. It is from the starting-point of class composition that it is possible to identify within the internal workings* of the proletariat its programme of action. The critique of Leninism as the autonomy of the political starts from here, but here unfortunately it is still at a standstill and has not taken a step forward. The break with it has to be practical and political. Certainly, the militant historian, in order to emerge from the post-Gramscian phase, can keep one eye fixed on the antagonistic behaviours, on the real fractures of the nexus between democracy and development, on the initiatives of power which the class sets in motion in order to manage its own autonomy also beyond the negotiation of the price of its labour-power, to social antagonism towards the insitutional system of democratic negotiation, towards the norms which discipline the conflictual behaviours within advanced industrial societies, of crisis, etc... But for all that he may refine and specify better the category of class composition in contact with these realities, the militant historian will never ever be able to anticipate at the disciplinary level that which at the level of political practice has not yet happened. In other words, for militant historiography, the emergence from the post-Gramscian phase will take place only when the revolutionary class movement in Italy will have emerged from the post-Togliattian, minoritarian and groupuscule phase, when the problem of the relationship between programme will be practically set in motion along the right road, and when the critique of Leninism will give way to an alternative to Leninism.

5. Science and machinery.

If we adopt the relationship between worker and machine as one of the fundamental nexuses into which the militant historian has to research, we must have clearly in mind the fact that by so doing we are taking on a specific conception of science. If we consider all scientific knowledge as already incorporated in machinery, if we consider science and technology as one single thing, then we begin to see as secondary the problem of science as a separate institution, relatively autonomous from technology, which was the presupposition on which traditional historiography, including communist historiography, based its discourse as regards intellectuals. The assumption of the intellectual as a specific social category takes as its starting point, in the tradition of the working-class movement, the distinction between science and technology, research and application of the same, research and machinery. It is this distinction which is at the origins of the definition of the intellectual worker as "relatively unproductive", socially neutral and as a possible "ally" of the working class. Let us, on the contrary, attempt to take on the working-class viewpoint of science. Science as machinery, thus science as a "power that is hostile" to the class, in Marx's felicitous expression in the Grundrisse, the intellectual worker as a productive worker inserted within the cycle of socialisation of capital or within the apparatus of legitimation of command. A worker who must "free himself from himself"before he goes seeking out alliances with the proletariat. A worker without allies, capable of exercising with autonomy a refusal of imposed roles, and thus capable of developing - already in the form of abstract intellectual labour - an autonomous force of initiative, specific forms of organisation, of refusal, of mass organisation. In conclusion: science and technology as one single thing, materialised into machinery, which is a "hostile power" to the class, both of which are object of a parallel process of liberation, on the part of the class and of the intellectual labour, whether concrete or potential. No sooner do the class and intellectual labour move in an antagonistic manner than enomous and powerful cognitive processes are triggered within the conflict, as a product of the conflict; a latent invention-force liberates itself and is translated into specific knowledges, new technologies and new sciences. It is within this very rich field of knowledge that the militant historian must learn to seek his methodological instruments.

6. The history of political institutions and social history.

Through the whole of the 1960's, and, for some comrades, still during the 1970's, the relationship between politico-institutional historiography and social history was, one might say, brilliantly resolved in the identification between factory and society. There is no point, here, in repeating what we said about this in Primo Maggio 2 (Winter 1973-4, pp. 1-8). The certainties of the 1960's have transformed into the doubts of the 1970's and into the crisis and renewal of Marxism. Militant historiography, and in particular the historiography which is still based on a Marxist structure of categories, finds itslef violently pushed to one side, leaving the field open to traditional historiographical currents which, imperturbable and mummified in their academic strongholds, dare to range wide over terrainw hich at one time, at least in Italy, was the reserved hunting-ground for militant historiography - in areas such as oral history, The result of this is what we have seen happening, with the borders being opened to Anglo-Saxon oral history - precisely that historiography which hunts around in the working-class peripheries of the West with the same sense of foreignness and of curiosity with which it wanders through the forests of the Amazon, and is able to pass itself off as an innovative current. The crisis of Marxism is perceivable not only at the level of the analysis of classes, where, in one way and another, the problem of "civil society" in relation to the given mode of production still finds broad terrains of correspondence* and open horizons of research, parallel to that which is commonly known as "social history", which, within the official lineéup, represents the point of lesser friction* with militant historiography. The crisis of Marxism, and therefore the crisis of militant historiography, is noticeable most particularly in the analysis of the state and in the analysis of the relationship between the state and the process of valorisation. It is a mirror reflection of the crisis of Leninism, in other words the uunresolved relationship between class composition and programme, the unresolved programme of revolutionary organisation today. Until this crisis is resolved, militant historiography concerning the state and its political-institutional apparatuses, remains the version, albeit the most incisive, of the economic history of the contemporary world, the history of the business and finance bourgeoisie, the history of public aparatuses whose aim* is the consolidation and maintenance of the process of capitalist valorisation. Thus militant historiography, in this difficult provisional phase, is able to establish given alliances with the history of economic thought and of economics in the strict sense of the word. But it must not forget that if alliances and convergences are possible and are able to accelerate the crisis, in a positive sense, of economic historiography, and lead it to liberate itself from the interpretative schemas of neo-classicism and Keynesianism, at the same time, it, that is to say, militant historiography, has still to confront the serious problem of how to emerge from the present crisis of the Marxist apparatus of categories and the crisis of the critique of political economy. Theoretical work on this is both possible and highly necessary; it is a question of life and death for militant historiography.

7. Proletarian internationalism.

Thus far this has been analysed at the level of relations of collaboration and of solidarity between organisations that are ideologically close to each other, according to an interpretative schema which is entirely institutional; but it has to be related back to the problem of the international dispersal of Italian labour-power. Until there is a history of the migrant proletariat, from the United States to Canada to South America, from Germany to Belgium to Central Europe and Western Europe, to Australia, to Africa... Until there is a history of the cultural and political changes, of the internal transformations, of the successive stratifications of the various Italian emigr*e communities, and between all these and the local proletariat, the modes of production and the local staqte apparatuses, the history of the Italian proletariat remains a handicapped history. This lack of attention of Italian historiography is a reflection of a political and organisational lack of attention. Let us put into relationship the geography of the international dispersion of Italian labour power with the geography of the anti-Fascist political emigration, for example. In certain regards they are divergent: the proletariat to the West, and the anti-Fascist political emigr*es to the Soviet Union. In other regards they are parallel but not touching: there are more contacts between the Italian emigr*e anti-Fascists and the bourgeois anti-Fascist strata abroad than between the former and the Italian proletarian communities abroad. In the USA in particular, we have to analyse, beyond the heroic period of the IWW and the first wave of immigration, the movements and the internal transformations of the Italian community, and why it became an element of control and of trade-union racketeering in important sections of labour-power in the United States, and how all this was born from within civil sovciety and from exported sub-cultures. All this has to do with the problem of violence in the conflicts between class interests in the United States, but it also has to do with the problem of violence in general. In particular we should follow the migratory patterns of organised groups, of collectivities, of family clans or of co-villagers, compared with the emigration of single individuals. We should specify when the emigration of organised clans has been preferred to the emigration only of adult males, and how much effect this has had on the history of the Italian family as an institution of control and a relation of production, but also how much this has counted in supplying various capitalisms (particularly European) with a docile and flexible labour-force.

8. The rapid obsolescence of militant historiography.

Since militant historiography draws its strength from cognitive* values and propositions that emerge from movements of the revolutionary class, and since, in recent years, this movement has shown signs of extremely rapid processes of obsolescence; since militant historiography is anyway always behind the times, and the work of the historian moves with slow steps, one has to propose the problem of the obsolescence of the historian's intervention, particularly when the intervention is militant. This is also a problem of forms of expression. The essay, the review article, the book, are finding an increasingly distant echo within society. It would be worth asking ourselves whether we should not perhaps change radically our means of expression, and whether perhaps it would not make more sense to work collectively on a film, or a song, rather than an essay or a book. This problem can only be resolved via collective organisation of militant historians, and of those who professionally dedicate themselves to techniques and instruments of other forms of expression. In this field the movement has created hundreds of self-managed initiatives. What is at stake is to give ourselves instruments that we are going to be ab le to use, in order to be able to collaborate in them. There can be no militant historiography without a "politics of culture".