Review - Storming Heaven by Steve Wright - Red and Black Notes

a photograph of a copy of Storming Heaven by Steve Wright - the original edition

Red and Black Notes review of Steve Wright's Storming Heaven. The entire book can be found here.

Submitted by Fall Back on July 10, 2009

One of the many drawbacks of English being the de facto lingua franca is that English speakers do not as urgently feel the need to learn a second language as others. In effect, this can have the disadvantage of cutting off of entire traditions. Case in point, Italy. While Gramsci's writings have long been made available in English, and diluted through the academy, other vastly richer traditions have been long neglected. The Italian left communists, and Bordiga in particular, have scarcely any material available in English; likewise the autonomist tradition. How fortunate then to have Steve Wright's new book, Storming Heaven, which is the first, comprehensive, English language book on the development of the Italian workerist tradition.

Before examining that statement, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the word "workerist." In the English language, and especially because of the influence of Leninism, "workerist" is simply used a political swear word. In his battles with the "Economists" in Russia, Lenin used this term for some of his opponents who he argued merely tailed the existing working class. More broadly, this tendency has meant an uncritical worshiping of the working class and excusing its faults. Still, when much of the left worships uncritically at non-proletarian temples, perhaps this is not the worst crime.

Is this what is meant in Wright's text? Actually no, in the Italian context, the meaning of workerism is quite different. Workerism looks at the working class as central to the idea of revolution. Storming Heaven then, is both a history of the development of this tradition and a critical evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses, including those of the social factory and the mass worker.

Wright's narrative begins in the 1950's where the Italian Communist Party (PCI) stood as the largest political formation in Italy, although through the efforts of the US and Christian democrats, it was excluded from governmental power. That the PCI was no threat to capital seems to have been overlooked - after all, it had provided its service to capital in the post war period by mobilizing to hold back working class struggles. Throughout the 1950s, the PCI looked to working class participation in the efforts of reconstructing Italy with the expectation that they would share in the benefits.

In this climate of accommodation with capital, intellectuals within both the PCI and the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), in greater and lesser degrees broke from the orthodoxy of their parities in rejecting aspects of Leninism, and striving toward an authentic Marxist method of inquiry. A key motivation was the efforts in workers' research such as the workers inquiry employed by Marx is the 1880s. It is worth here considering the international aspect to this movement. Danilo Montaldi, of the Quandini Rossi (Red Notes) journal, was deeply influenced by a diary in the pages of the French journal Socialisme ou Barbarie by autoworker Daniel Mothe. Prior to Mothe's diary, S ou B had published a similar document, The American Worker by the Johnson-Forest tendency

Quandini Rossi was launched in 1961 by Raniero Panzieri, but a later split in 1964 gave birth to Classe Operaia (Working Class), beginning in Wright's words "the classic phase of workerism." This phase was characterized by three central ideas: an emphasis on the wage struggle, identification of the working class and the immediate process of production, and the working class as the driving force in capitalist society.

It has become fashionable to state that class is a disappearing concept and that the important of the factory worker has declined, the workerists approached this question is a different way. Mario Tronti wrote that "the fate of the worker become the fate of society as a whole" since the factory was only the concentrated form of social relations within capitalist society. In other words, the factory model was extended out beyond to the gates, to the idea of the social factory. But while the autonomists seemed to privilege the factory worker, if society was a "social factory" it followed that all struggles were struggles against capital. It is this latter point that some influenced by this trend were to develop. It also marks a contrast with the early council communist theorists like Otto Rühle, who argued that a worker is only a worker at work; at other times the worker is utterly bourgeois.

Class consciousness therefore, was not seen as something imported by a Leninist or social democratic organization. Mario Tronti saw class consciousness, not as the result of individual experience or even as the cumulative effect but rather as an aggregate where the whole formed something rather different from the sum of the parts. It was in struggle that the worker acquired consciousness as a part of the struggle. Despite, the difference with Rühle, this idea is common to many of the descendants of the council communist tradition.

Wright's book ends with the collapse of workerism. The counter-assault by the Italian state, using the issue of the Red Brigades as the pretext for increased repression, forced a retreat and reorganization and end to the mass phase of the autonomist movement. Which leaves open a broader question: if it is the working class which drives capital, rather than seeing workers are merely reacting, where does this leave the movement in periods of defeat?

Steve Wright's book is valuable on many levels. It provides an account of a tendency not well known in English. It also critically addresses the strengths and the weaknesses of this current. In the current period of new interest in autonomist ideas, Storming Heaven desires to be widely read.

First Published in Red and Black Notes #16/17, Spring 2003, this article has been archived on from the Red and Black Notes website.