Tronti in Deutschland

The first section of chapter 8 of "Storning Heaven", on the reapprasial of the German revolution by Italian militants.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 23, 2023

The implications of De Caro's arguments were to be spelt out more fully three years later, in what has become the piece of workerist historiography best known to the English-speaking left. 'Class Composition and the Theory of the Party at the Origins of the Workers-Council Movement' Bologna’s contribution to operaismo's 1967 conference on the interwar period, is a piece wide-ranging in scope. Its domain stretched from the international cycles of class struggle of 1900-20 to encompass such questions as the nature of Fordism, the specificity of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the prewar US, and debates in the Second International concerning spontaneity and organisation. Its central aim, however, was to make sense of the class composition of the German Ratebewegung, the failure of which had sealed the fate both of the Bolsheviks and the postwar world revolution. In Bologna's (1972: 25) view, the distinguishing feature of the councils lay in the political weight within them of skilled workers, particularly those of the machine industry. Deemed indispensable by management, such workers exercised a considerable degree of control over the labour process. Conceived as the self-management of the existing mode of production, their practice of working-class autonomy ultimately ran aground due to the lack of any project to confront the obstacles posed by the existing state, seeking at most to democratise and renovate it in a socialist sense. In this respect, the essay was also part of the ongoing workerist polemic against contemporary arguments which grounded revolutionary politics in a productivist ethic:

The concept of workers' self-management could not have had such a wide appeal in the German workers-council movement without the presence of a labour force inextricably linked to the technology of the working process with high professional values and naturally inclined to stress their function as 'producers'. The concept of self-management pictured the worker as an autonomous producer, and the factory's labour-power as self-sufficient ... This relation between occupational structures and determining political-ideological attitudes is well-known. It has to be emphasised both because Germany provides the most substantial illustration, and as a reminder to those who love confused and inconclusive discussions of 'class consciousness', as if the latter were a spiritual or cultural fact. (ibid.: 5-6)

Following De Caro, Bologna was careful to avoid a critique which either dwelt upon the ideological shortcomings of self-management, or else dismissed it as something tainted with the odour of the labour aristocracy. That such a conception of socialism was a dead end in the age of the assembly line did not in any way detract from its political efficacy in the Europe of the early 1920s. After all, 'the revolutionary import of a movement must be calculated on the basis of the historically determined stage of development in a specific situation' (Bologna 1972: 12). True, this particular figure of the 'worker-inventor' was already in 1919 'objectively doomed to extinction' by Fordism (ibid.: 7). Given this, the political importance of the council movement lay above all - as a consequence both of its international significance and the rigidity of German industry - in its ability 'to provoke the crisis and to freeze capitalist development' (ibid.: 26).

Amongst other things, Bologna's essay was a useful illustration of classical workerism's habit of stressing the contents of radical struggles whilst reducing the question of their organisational form to a purely secondary matter. If such a stance indicated a legitimate wariness of those who made a fetish of workers' councils, it also did nothing to challenge the argument - common to proponents and detractors of the council-form alike - which equated the working class practice of direct democracy with productivism. When one turns to examine the events of 1918-23, however, it becomes clear that this formulation is far from adequate. As Bologna (1968: 128-9) was to point out in another essay of the period, historiography has not been kind to the German revolution, preferring - whether through myopia or bad conscience - to leave it in the shadow of Weimar and the Russian October. Indeed, so widespread had this collective dismissal become that even so astute an observer and former participant as Paul Mattick (1968: 348) could look back upon it half a century later and see nothing but the 'dreary story' of 1918. Without doubt, the general thrust of the councils was simply towards their own extinction in favour of a National Assembly, whilst their most extreme limit lay in ambiguous attempts to combine councils and parliament. Yet, even if skilled workers such as Bologna had described had been the 'most typical' representatives of the movement, the experiences of the latter could hardly be said to exhaust those of the German working class as a whole in the five years which followed Wilhelm II's abdication.

When later he was to review the work's failings, Bologna (1974) would note the 'hasty and schematic' manner in which it sought to separate the epoch of the mass worker from that of its predecessor. Following the predominant historiography's preoccupation with the events of 1919, however, the most glaring oversight of 'Class Composition and the Theory of the Party' lay in its neglect of a whole series of struggles that ran counter to - and, in their political significance, went beyond - those of the Ratebewegung. Indeed, the absence of any discussion of the postwar struggles of the Ruhr miners was all the more strange given the essay's designation of this sector as the 'most advanced' in the class composition of prewar Germany (Bologna 1972: 9, 1 1).

The emergence after 1968 of a new generation of radical historians has done much to improve our understanding of the revolution in the Ruhr, and of the miners' existence generally (Geary 1980; Bruggemeier 1981). Even so, the major study by von Oertzen, from which Bologna was to draw so much of the ammunition for his 1967 argument about skilled workers, already contained a detailed discussion of the radical nature of working-class organisation in the Ruhr after the war. The only reasonable conclusion to draw from this, therefore, is that Bologna had been in such haste to make his basic point concerning the craftworkers of the Raten that he failed to register another class faction. Ironically, this was one within which the determinant weight of unskilled migrants indicated obvious parallels with the Italian mass worker of the 1960s (Baluschi 1981). Finally, if Bologna was correct in concluding that the real failure of the German Revolution lay in its inability to join class autonomy to a project of armed power, it was also the case that in 1920 the Ruhr had seen a unique attempt to address this question. There thousands of miners had first abandoned the old trade unions for new organisations modelled upon the industrial unionism of the IWW, and had then gone on to form Red Armies - replete with heavy artillery - to engage the Reichswehr and the Freikorps Gones 1987: 176 83).

Criticising the workerists in the introduction to his massive study, Proletariato di fabbrica e capitalismo industrial, Stefano Merli argued that 'at least in the historiographical field', the tendency had offered

[quote]a manichean history, with a working class without internal articulations, monolithic in its revolutionary fixity, and a 'bureaucracy' which, having never exercised hegemony, having never become the ruling group, was forced to satisfy itself with the manipulation [strumentalizzazione] of the masses. (Merli 1972: 1 1)

It was a harsh judgement, yet not far from the truth. While operaismo had provided some new perspectives for the interpretation of labour history, its work still remained marked by that simplistic and one dimensional view of proletarian behaviour prevalent in the philosophical reflections of Tronti. This was particularly evident in the other workerist contributions to the 'Workers and State' conference, which had been even more prone than Bologna to represent the working class as a homogeneous entity. Indeed, it was very revealing that none of the contributions to this survey of the interwar period were to devote much attention to the experiences of either fascism or Stalinism, both of which had imposed massive defeats upon the working classes of Europe. Instead, the problem of decomposition, of the destruction of the class as political subject, had remained conspicuously absent from their discourse. Significantly, the strongest historical piece in the book - Ferruccio Gambino's (1976) careful reconstruction of the history of Ford workers' struggles in Britain - was written three years after the 1967 conference, and benefited both from its author's acuity and the changed circumstances which followed the Hot Autumn.

Interestingly, the most sustained piece of classical workerist historiography was not to be produced in Italy at all. Written largely by Karl-Heinz Roth, who had been prominent during the late 1960s within the German student movement, and first published in 1974, The 'Other' Workers' Movement offered an interpretation of German working-class history from that nation's unification a century before. Presenting the vicissitudes of a working-class movement ignored by party and union alike, the book provoked a considerable controversy within the German left upon its appearance, which would be further fuelled by Roth's own subsequent arrest in obscure circumstances the following year (Primo Maggio 1976a).

Unlike Bologna, who had seen the autonomy of the unskilled emerge only after the destruction of the skilled workers' centrality to production, Roth (1976: 36) placed great emphasis upon the formation - even before the First World War - of a new working class. This class was 'crude, homogeneous even as it was divided in the workplace by a refined hierarchy, but always ready to revolt'. Present in textiles, the ports and above all the mines (where Polish migrants played a fundamental role), this sector of the working class was separated from the craft workers who dominated the official labour movement by a profound gulf of behaviours and values (ibid.: 35). With the militarisation of labour during the war, dramatic transformations had taken place within the industrial workforce, weakening the influence of skilled workers in favour of the unskilled and unorganised. After the failure of the armed insurrections of 1920-23, both strata of the class again succumbed to the discipline of capital, which now sought to introduce productive techniques inspired by Ford so as to prevent the repetition of such outbursts. Given that for much of the Weimar regime both the Social Democrats and Communists looked primarily to skilled workers as their privileged reference point, the 'other' working-class movement came again to be abandoned to its own devices (ibid.: 49-56). Driven underground but never fully extinguished by the Nazis, as the pivotal chapter by Elisabeth Behrens sought to document, its struggles would resurface sporadically after 1945. With West Germany's use of immigrant labour - first from East Germany then increasingly from the Mediterranean - the gulf between the two components of the class had become starker than ever before. Written in the immediate aftermath of a strike wave that had swept through much of German industry during 1973, Roth's conclusion was quietly optimistic. Despite the currently spasmodic outbursts of confrontation, the 'multinational worker of mass production' would be pushed by growing repression in the factory to organise a new guerrilla war able to strike out from the workplace against 'the entire social machinery' (ibid.: 241).

While Roth was to polemicise at length with the specific reading of German events presented by Bologna in 1967, it was clear that his own method of enquiry was little different. For example, in depicting the decision in 1920 of the most intransigent wing of the German Communist Party to form a new political body - the KAPD - linked to militant workplace organisations, Roth would present the coherence of a small if significant minority of activists as the property of the unskilled as a whole (Roth 1976: 63). Further, this latter stratum was portrayed as a compact force, whose documented diversity of gender, age and nationality appeared to pose no great barriers to its internal unification. Nor, apart from a passing reference to the famous chemical workers of Leuna, did Roth seek to examine the condition of workers outside the factory, or what bearing this might have upon their behaviour (ibid.: 54-5).

In a brief review which dismissed The 'Other' Workers' Movement as 'confused to an unacceptable degree', Paul Mattick (1978: 88) also made plain his lack of interest in the problem of class composition. Instead, he offered his longstanding 'conjunctural' analysis of working-class subjectivity as a product of capitalist crisis (Meriggi 1978c: 1 1). A more pertinent savaging occurred at the hands of the historian Erhard Lucas (1978: 96), whose work on the failed German revolution had been much cited in Roth's study. What particularly offended Lucas about the book, beyond what he deemed its superficial use of sources, was that it used the category of mass worker not as a hypothesis to be tested, but rather as a 'machete' with which to hack a way through conventional historiography. Yet even as he documented a number of the errors and gaps in the work, Lucas would himself fail to confront Roth's central proposition concerning the relation between class behaviour and the technical structure of labour-power (Behrens et al. 1978: 109-10). More balanced was the assessment of Massimo Cacciari (1978: 41, 42), who argued in the pages of Rinascita that Roth's 'strongly reductive' approach and 'continual ideologisation' of the 'other' workers' movement did not obscure the book's strengths, in particular its account of the evolution of military-style repression in German factories. The most perceptive critique of Roth's study, however, was to come from Tillman Rexroth (1978: 33). As he pointed out both its method, which depended more upon a counter-reading of existing research than original excavation of its own, and its exclusive focus upon 'the male world of the factory, a male world even when women _work within it', were characteristic of classical workerist historiography. In this sense, he concluded, The 'Other' Workers' Movement remained 'a book that describes alternative working-class history in a non-alternative way'.