The refusal of work - Workers Committee of Porto Marghera

Petrolchimico plant
Petrolchimico plant

This text was published by Italian chemical workers in the “Comitato operaio di Porto Marghera”, in Quaderni dell'or-ganizzazione operaia, no. 1, 1970, in duplicated format.

Submitted by Dan Radnika on October 11, 2012


This text is translated from the French version, which can be found in the recently published book Pouvoir ouvrier à Porto Marghera - Du Comité d’usine à l’Assemblée de territoire (Vénétie – 1960-80) [“Workers’ Power in Porto Marghera – from the Factory Committee to the Territorial Assembly (Venetia – 1960-80)”], Les nuits rouges, 2012.

As the book explains, the workers’ committee of the Montedison chemical plant at Porto Marghera (close to Venice), was set up with the help of the group Potere Operaio, and transformed itself into the Workers Assembly, starting in November 1972, and extended its influence into part of Venetia. This could only happen after a long period of political development stretching back to the early 1960s. The committee put forward demands in many ways identical to those of other workers’ committees of the time (uniform wage increases and reduction of wage differentials, reduction of the pace of work…), and carried them forward by the same methods of struggle (assemblies of each workshop, then of the factory, internal marches, refusal of delegation). It also extended the scope of struggles to areas of life outside the factory by external interventions on the questions of housing, transport and the chemical pollution suffered by the whole region as well as the staff of the big chemical plant where the committee was based.

It’s worth noting that the implicit vision of communism put forward here is, as always, specific to the struggles which produced it. It is a kind of “mass workers’ communism”, very different from the “skilled workers’ communism” theorised by people such as Pannekoek and Gorter early in the twentieth century, and even more different from the “artisan’s communism” envisaged by William Morris. Who knows how communism will be imagined and theorised in the next major cycle of struggles... !

The text is very much of its time and we may dispute some of its factual statements, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the best concise statements of the “wage labourer’s case against wage labour” ever written.

The Refusal of Work

What does it mean to destroy the bosses’ power? Who are the bosses and what do they want? These seem like stupid questions but in reality they are fundamental to the aim of establishing what political line we have to take to confront the bosses.

What we have to say above all is that the commonplace idea that the bosses exploit the workers so as to enrich themselves is wrong. This aspect exists without a doubt, but the wealth of the bosses is in no way proportional to their power. For example, Agnelli1 , in proportion to the vehicles which are produced, should be rolling in money, but, on the contrary, he contents himself with a boat and a private aeroplane, which would certainly be available to some other boss with a revenue far more modest than that of Fiat. What interests Agnelli is the conservation and development of his power, which coincides with the development and growth of capitalism. To put it another way, capitalism is an impersonal power and the capitalists act as its functionaries, so much so that the bosses are no longer necessary to capitalism. In Soviet Russia, for example, there is capitalism without the capitalists. What defines capitalism is profit. It might well be true that the distribution of profit is “more just” than in Italy, but the communist revolution cannot make the distribution of social profit more just, it must overturn the relations of capitalist production which create profit. We need to overthrow a social system in which people are forced to work. In this connection, the experiences of the Chinese and Cuban revolutions must also be re-evaluated.

Above all, capitalism substantially tends towards the conservation of the balance of force against the working class and it uses its development to reinforce its power more and more. That means that all the machines, technological innovations, industrial development, even the under-development of some regions, are used to politically control the working class. There are the now classic examples of capitalist behaviour, such as the introduction of the assembly line in the mid-1920s, in response to the revolutionary wave which shook the world in the years following the First World War. They wanted to get rid of the type of skilled working class which had made possible the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the movement of factory councils across the whole of Europe. The assembly line deskilled all workers, thus pushing back the revolutionary wave and also modifying how the class struggle manifests itself, translating itself in many countries into a definitive defeat and an absence of political organisation, leading to an incapacity to modify its intervention according to the new type of workers’ behaviour. But now, this technical structure has been turned against capital, producing a massification of wage demands which find one of their principal bases in the almost uniform structure of the cycle of production in the factory. So, capital now revolutionises this structure by seeking to eliminate some workers and to disperse the others over a much larger wage range than that of today, all the while introducing automation as a veritable political war machine against the working class.

This manoeuvre is already in force in America, and the only reason that the bosses haven’t yet applied it in Italy is that they are not sure of being able to control the workers’ response to this attack. This shows that progress, the development put forward by the bosses and their servants is only a continuous attempt to adapt the organisation of collective capital to attack the working class. Technological progress is never a neutral and inevitable factor, as the bosses and the unions always say it is whenever they talk about redundancies during the introduction of new machines. Because they mainly believe in the neutrality of science, in these cases the unions limit struggle to the defence of jobs (SIRMA, Leghe Leggere etc.) and never confront the problem from the point of view of the reduction of working time. They believe, or seem to believe, that the boss is speaking the truth: that for example, in some workshop, after the introduction of some machine, half the workers become useless, victims of inevitable progress. But the workers have a different logic: they think that in place of working eight hours with a hundred workers, since the introduction of the above mentioned machine, you can work better with two hundred doing four hours each. This logic, as well as diminishing the time present in the factory, also resolves the problem of unemployment.

The workers are not therefore against the machines, but against those who use the machines to make them work. To those who say that work is necessary, we reply that the quantity of accumulated science (look, for example, at the moon landings) is such that we can immediately reduce work to a thing purely exterior to human life, in place of conceiving of it as “the very reason for human existence”. To those who say that man has always worked, we reply that in the Bible it is written that the earth is flat and that the sun goes around it, and that, until the time of Galileo, that was the truth, it was something known since always, it was the scientific point of view. But the problem is not to give scientific explanations, but to overthrow the existing social order by imposing the interests of those who materially create the conditions of what exists, that is to say the working class. It is only by affirming these interests, sweeping away the political power opposing them, that we can create the conditions of existence of a society better than the present one.

For this it is necessary for the workers to create an organisation which is capable of pushing back the political control of the bosses, of assuming all the power necessary to make their class’ interests triumph. Presently, it’s the bosses, their mechanisms of power which use everything, from science to the workers’ struggle itself, when it doesn’t really pose for itself the objective of the destruction of the relations of production, that is to say of escaping the bosses’ political control.

The need to politically control the workers and to maintain their power is so strong for the bosses, that to achieve this they are willing to give us money. For example, in America, the bosses themselves are opposed to progress. In some factories, it’s been necessary to introduce automation for a long time to reduce the number of workers. But, under the massive pressure of struggles which have taken place in American society, struggles led above all by unemployed blacks, capital has preferred to return to old systems of production to be able to give them work. Obviously this doesn’t mean that unemployed blacks aspire to this result, but it shows the use that the bosses make of science, that is to politically control the working class. This behaviour of the bosses therefore shows two things: firstly, that progress is not neutral and that it is exclusively only applied if it reinforces the political control over the workers and that it is only put to work to control forces hostile to capitalism; secondly, that the control is exercised above all through work. In fact, the bosses of those American factories would absolutely not want, so as to be able make the newly hired work, to reduce the duration of work for all, but to continue to keep the new staff working the previous hours, even if it’s necessary to return to the conditions of production previous to automation. To sum up, capital is willing to put us back into technically outdated factories, constructed that way, to control us politically. For this it is also willing to pay people to work for no purpose whatsoever. This is why the discourse of the refusal of work has become so current. With the development of machines, it will be possible to work much less, on condition that the machines invented by modern science don’t become the exclusive monopoly of the United States and the Soviet Union, as is the case now, but that they can be used by the whole world. There is the need to impose the workers’ logic according to which we have to invent lots of machines, to always reduce working time more with the aim of making it tendentially disappear. From now on, speaking of socialism is no longer possible because socialism is what exists in Russia, nothing but a new organisation of work, but the workers don’t want that, the workers want to work less and less, going as far as making any effective compulsion to work disappear.

It is not true that in this society we are free. We are only free to get up every morning and go to work. Who DOES NOT WORK DOES NOT EAT! Is that freedom? It is work which prevents our freedom; in reality we are obliged to work. The dictum which says that work ennobles is an invention of the bosses.

When all the people are rid of the necessity to work because they have what is needed to eat, to cloth themselves and to satisfy their desires without working, then they will enjoy real freedom! We say that with nothing more than the existing machines it would be possible to achieve many things which seem like science-fiction. In the CV 16 department, for example, during the last “contractual” strikes of 1969, the management kept the autoclaves of that shop running by making use of some new automatic control equipment: the workers were at home and the plant continued to produce. To prove that they were stronger, the boss didn’t mind throwing out all the discourses on the necessity of human labour on this occasion.

Thus in the Montedison Nitrogen factory, an electronic computer “automatically” runs the ammonia synthesis plant: the boss promotes the increase in productivity and does not pose the problem of reducing the duration of work.

Shops such as these show how the interest of the system is in using work as a form of political control over the workers. In fact, manual labour and nervous effort are much reduced. What remains is only the obligation of the worker to be physically present at the machine. There remains the capitalist violence which wants the person to be conditioned and enslaved by the machine.

But what are the means to abolish all this? It is a question of sweeping away the mechanism of control which capital has put in place over the workers.

No one can hypothesise about the way in which this rupture will be concretely realised and it is even less possible to indicate what will replace what we have to destroy. The problem is not that. In none of the great revolutions of history, could we know, a priori, what would substitute for what was being overthrown, because the modifications in people’s characters, in relations between classes, were so radical in revolutionary periods that it rendered any historical hypothesis impossible.

What the workers must do to destroy capitalism will modify the history of humanity in a manner much more profound and radical than the French Revolution and it is therefore impossible to foresee what will follow it. Today, we rather need to think about how we’re going to destroy what exists.

Thus, “make the revolution” becomes an even more unsuitable term than “take power”. In fact, power is above all a political line almost imposed by development, all the structures of society form the organisation that the bosses have given themselves to be able to impose their political line. We want to create an organisation stronger than that of the bosses around our political line. For this, we say that the workers are against society, that they are different from other classes by the fact that society is entirely structured against them and that it has perfected itself in this way in response to their movements.

The struggle of the working class is in fact, as we have seen, the main incentive to capitalist development: consider the French May, where the small factories were put in difficulty following the wage increases obtained by the workers, which favoured the concentration of capital and development of monopolies. Or let’s consider the Soviet Union, where the revolution of 1917 accelerated capitalist development and transformed the backward country which was Tsarist Russia into one of the most powerful capitalist countries in the world.

Capital is in sum a power which reproduces itself thanks to the good will of singular individuals; the problem of its elimination is not therefore the elimination of private property, but in the very destruction of the relation of production, that is to say the destruction of the necessity of working so as to live.

  • 1The boss of Fiat from 1966 until his death in 2003.



11 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by kingzog on October 13, 2012

I'm glad that this was put in the introduction:

we may dispute some of its factual statements, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the best concise statements of the “wage labourer’s case against wage labour” ever written.

Because a few paragraphs in I read this:

There are the now classic examples of capitalist behaviour, such as the introduction of the assembly line in the mid-1920s, in response to the revolutionary wave which shook the world in the years following the First World War.

The assembly line was not introduced in the 1920's, for one. And for two, industrialists and engineers from all over the western world had been working on such a system for decades before the 1910's even. But, I hope that readers can forgive the authors for a mistake that honestly was, and still is, a popular misconception. Because this really is a good piece based on it's other merits.