Towards a Militant History

Section 2 of chapter 8 of "Storming Heaven" on the radical workerist history journal Primo Maggio.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 23, 2023

A greater receptivity to the complexities of working-class politics was to come in the early 1970s with the establishment of the history journal Primo Maggio. Grouped around Sergio Bologna (1973a: 162), its editors were committed to the development of a new, militant history 'subordinate to struggle'. While their common past in Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua bestowed a distinctly workerist bent to their enquiry, the vanguardism and political intrigues of those organisations had left the editors acutely aware of the disjuncture between working-class autonomy and past attempts to organise it from without. According to Primo Maggio, 'autonomy is not only a permanent contradiction of the relations of production, but also a permanent contradiction in the construction of the party'. For this reason, it refused from the beginning to succumb to that 'unreal pretence of political organisation' which had so marred the judgement of Classe Operaia (Bologna 1976b: 29, 39). This, together with the collaboration of a number of young historians formed in Gianni Bosio's exploration of popular culture - an experience which had left them both committed to the use of oral sources, and sensitive to the complexities of working-class life - lent to this 'rational' workerist undertaking a sobriety at odds with Negri's triumphalism. While one early reflective piece by Bologna (1974: 5) denied that there was any 'necessary relationship between class composition and organisation, in the terms of a subordination of the political programme to class composition', the opposite argument would soon emerge as one of Primo Maggio's most important contributions to workerist sensibilities.

Sympathetic to much of the radical history written in the US since the late 1960s, those involved in Primo Maggio were none the less sharply critical of historians whose work displayed the simplistic features earlier criticised by Merli. Writing in 1975, Peppino Ortoleva examined Jeremy Brecher's study Strike! (1980)1 , which had drawn exclusively upon conventional sources such as written documents to reconstruct the relation between the institutions of the labour movement and the high points of working-class struggle. Brecher, he argued, betrayed an 'Enlightenment view of the historian's role' as one whose task was to restore in class memory a past scrubbed clean by capital. Against this, Ortoleva wrote approvingly of the efforts of Alice and Staughton Lynd (1981), who had started instead

from a quite different presupposition, which is constantly verified in the course of [their] investigation: the hegemony of capitalist culture, and its version of American history, does not translate into a tabula rasa of the 'collective memory' of the American working class. A store of working-class traditions remains, but it is the patrimony not of the American proletariat as a whole, but rather -disarticulated and sectionalised - of individual groups of workers, of rank-and-file union experiences etc. (Ortoleva 1975: 52)

As the workerists of Primo Maggio soon began to discover, class composition - contrary to Bologna's curt dismissal of 1967 - was indeed a cultural product. Drawing upon his work with Bosio, Cesare Bermani (1975: 48) insisted upon the 'non-homogeneous nature of culture within a class society'. Both inside and outside the workplace could be found the culture of those who were 'exploited but not submitted', within which memory served to filter, order and transmit experience. Used critically, oral testimony could throw light upon the internal workings of class subjectivity; for this to happen, however, the historian must also be a political militant, who as such had won 'the complete trust of the interviewee. History of and for the workers' and peasants' movement can only be a history written by a militant for militants.'

It was no longer possible, then, to see political composition as merely the result of an immediate and exclusive relation with the labour process. The best work of classical workerism had been made possible by the recognition of material divisions existing alongside that formal unity provided by the shared condition of wage labour: in Alquati's case back in the 1960s, the identification of a generation gap at FIAT. For Bologna, writing during the social 'earthquake' of 1977, political composition had come to mean

not only the technical composition, the structure of labour-power, but also the sum and interweaving of the forms of culture and of behaviours of both the mass worker and all the strata subsumed to capital. The mass worker's peasant past, its links (or break) with the familial clan, its past as migrant worker in contact with the most advanced technologies and with the society of the most advanced command over labour-power, its past as political or union militant or its past as a member of a patriarchal Catholic clan: these attributes are all translated into the acquisitions of struggle, into political wisdom, the sum of subcultures which catalyse on contact with the massification of labour and with its inverse process of fragmentation and territorial dispersion. Machinery, the organisation of labour, transmute and bring to light these cultural pasts; mass subjectivity appropriates them and translates them into struggle, refusal of labour, organisation. Political class composition is above all the result, the end point of a historical process. But it is also, and in a dialectical manner, the starting point of a historical movement in which the labour subsumed to capital interprets the productive, social and political organisation of exploitation and overturns it into the organisation of its own autonomy. (Bologna 1977d: 62)

Thus, if in Primo Maggio's understanding the factory continued to be 'the most important site of socialisation and strength', its notion of the workplace was considerably richer and more complex than that advanced by the workerism of the 1960s. Indeed, in introducing the journal's readers to one contemporary American account of factory life, Ortoleva (1976: 42) was to criticise its author for failing to see that 'the division and stratification of workers outside the factory also acts within it'.

Primo Maggio was also increasingly critical - if not always to the satisfaction of some of its younger associates (Scarinzi 1984: 67) - of that Leninism which Potere Operaio had expoused for most of its existence. In the years when Negri (1976a: 201-23) went out of his way to defend Lenin's polemic against 'infantile leftism', Primo Maggio would make clear for the first time the debt which operaismo owed to earlier proponents of class autonomy. Reflecting upon the vicissitudes of the Comintern, whose initial aim of creating 'a multinational instrument of command over the rhythms of world revolution' he still considered praiseworthy, Bologna (1975: 94) emphasised that at the beginning of their quest the Bolsheviks had turned to the various forces of left extremism, from the ultra-left of Germany and Holland to the revolutionary unionists of Britain and the US, as the privileged interlocutors of their project. Only when these currents spurned the Russian model of organisation did Lenin begin his offensive against them, which would be won at the cost of ignoring the specificities of class composition in Europe and North America. If the bulk of the Western working class for its part refused to abandon the traditional labour movement for the militant factory organisations advocated by syndicalists, industrial unionists and left communists, it also refused to follow the Communists upon putschist manoeuvres such as the March Action of 1921. As a result, the growing stress that the Zinoviev-led Comintern placed upon the party function led it to privilege relations with other parties and their social bases through the so-called United Front. This choice was made at the expense of relations with workers themselves, a problem that became confined to the fight for hegemony within the unions. This tactic had failed in turn, according to Bologna, because the Comintern had no sense of the wage struggle as anything but a defensive measure to maintain the most minimal level of subsistence in the epoch of capitalism's decline (ibid. : 92-3, 94).

Of all the competing factions of the early Communist movement, then, the clearest conception of both the need for independent organisation within the workplace, and the long term prospects of social change could be found amongst those advocates of class autonomy dubbed 'infantile leftists' by Lenin. As Bologna indicated, however, the left extremists of the IWW and the KAPD were themselves often sharply divided in their perspectives, and ultimately ineffectual in pursuit of their goals (Bologna 1975: 92). To avoid Primo Maggio simply becoming 'an anthology of '"marginalised" working-class movements', as Bologna wrote to Primo Moroni (quoted in Bermani and Cartosio 1984: 7), the recovery of such experiences had to be set firmly against the current dialectic between the working class, the labour movement and the state. Examining the past through the eyes of the present was no longer enough: the journal must also engage in the direct discussion of contemporary political problems.