The workers’ inquiry: what’s the point?

Joe Thorne looks at the history of the “workers’ inquiry” idea: from Marx, to Italy in the 1960s, to the present day. This fairly long article touches on debates amongst those influenced by operaismo about how we should relate to the modern workplace.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 13, 2013

The point of these notes is: to understand what the term ‘workers’ inquiry means; to argue that it has come to mean at least two different things; to characterise the political objective of these different projects; and to evaluate both the importance of those objectives and how well they are met by the methods in question. The point is to articulate what place I believe the inquiry ought to have in the ideas and practice of revolutionaries. It will also say something about research into class composition more generally.

Karl Marx

The term “workers’ inquiry”, its basis in Marxist orthodoxy, and its association with lengthy surveys (100, questions, no less), originates in an 1880 proposal by Karl Marx.

We hope to meet in this work with the support of all workers in town and country who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes form which they suffer and that only they, and not saviors sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills which they are prey. We also rely upon socialists of all schools who, being wishful for social reform, must wish for an exact and positive knowledge of the conditions in which the working class — the class to whom the future belongs –works and moves.1

The questions included:

15. State the number of rooms in which the various branches of production are carried on. Describe the specialty in which you are engaged. Describe not only the technical side, but the muscular and nervous strain required, and its general effect on the health of the workers.

40. Do schools exist for children and young people employed in your trade? If they exist, in what hours do the lessons take place? Who manages the schools? What is taught in them?

81. Do any resistance associations exist in your trade and how are they led? Send us their rules and regulations

The most obvious reason for caution about any plan drawing inspiration from Marx’s is that there is no record of any responses to his proposal, nor any suggestion that it lead anywhere. This is reason for caution, no more than that: but as we shall see, it was not to be the first time.

Quaderni Rossi

The most important modern inspiration for the workers’ inquiry is dissident Italian Marxism in the 1960s and 1970s. Originating in the Quaderni Rossi journal, the idea was taken up by elements in Potere Operaio, Autonomia and Lotta Continua.

Within Quaderni Rossi there were disagreements about the method and purpose of the inquiry.

On the one side, there was the faction of “sociologists” (lead by Vittorio Rieser), and at that time the most numerous. This section understood the inquiry as a cognitive tool in order to understand a transformed worker reality, and oriented towards provide the tools for producing a theoretical and political renovation of the worker movement’s official institutions. On the other side, we find Alquati and a few more (Soave and Gaparotto), who, based on factory experiences in the US and France, considered the inquiry as the basis for a political intervention oriented towards organising workers’ antagonism. It was a considerable difference from the point of view of the concrete goals of the survey. The distance was even greater though in terms of method: in fact, while the first faction was actualising Marxist theory with themes and methods from North American industrial sociology, Alquati was proposing a kind of strategic research in the study of the factory.2

This latter tendency didn’t just have a research agenda. They had a tactical agenda, part of which was that the inquiry needed to be a workers’ self-inquiry. It implied that not only would the researcher be immersed (working, living) within the research context in question, other workers would be engaged in the process, not merely as objects of research (respondents to questionnaires), but co-researchers themselves.

This version of the worker inquiry implied a further step from the simple questionnaire towards a process of co-research: one the one hand, inserting militant-intellectuals, who were pursuing research into the object-territory (almost always the factory, and some times, neighbourhoods), transforming them into additional subject-agents of that territory. On the other hand, actively implicating the subjects who inhabit that territory (mainly workers, and sometimes, students and homemakers) in the research process, at the same time, would transform them into subject-researchers (not merely objects). When this double movement worked well, the knowledge production emerging from the research process mutually nurtured a self-empowerment process and the production of a rebel subjectivity in the factory and neighbourhoods.3

This (dialogical, organisational, tactical) aspect of the workers’ inquiry is also the one emphasised by Raniero Panzieri:

The aims of inquiry can be schematically summarised thus: we have important instrumental goals driven by the character of inquiry as a correct, efficient and politically fertile method to establish contacts with singular and grouped workers. This is a crucial objective: not only is there no discrepancy, gap or contradiction between inquiry and the labour of building political relations; inquiry is also fundamental to such process. Moreover, the work needed for inquiry, the labour of theoretical discussion with comrades and workers, is one of serious political training, and inquiry is a great tool for this.

Inquiry should also aim to decisively eliminate ambiguities that persist in our theoretical formation, that is the theory elaborated in Quaderni Rossi, because as other comrades have already pointed out many aspects of this draft of a theory are arrived at only by antithesis; they are drawn from a critique of official policies and of the theoretical developments of the workers’ movement, yet they are not positively grounded nor empirically based at the level of class.4

Why inquiry? Wasn’t it sufficient simply to develop the correct line, and hand out leaflets to the workers telling them what they should do? What set the inquiry method apart from this approach was the recognition that beneath the official rhetoric of demands over pay and perhaps hours, workers had other concerns about their work.

A historian of the period, Robert Lumley, gives an example of a woman worker who had been complaining “to Communist Party officials that they had not understood the problems on the shop-floor (tens of women had been suffering fainting fits and hysteria because of the pressure of work, but the union agreed to compensation rather than a reduction of line-speeds).”5 She recounts:

they came back at me with ‘that’s what the Quaderni Rossi people say` and so on. I, poor thing, hadn’t a clue who these people were, so I went to find out.6

Lumley continues:

She described how, when she went to speak about working conditions at meetings, ‘an official was sent with me so that I bore witness to my experience, and he drew the political conclusions’. The Quaderni Rossi experiment, in other words, proposed an alternative method of political work which attempted to overcome this division of labour.7

The Tribe of Moles

Whilst we are discussing the Italian Marxism of that period, we would do well to mention Sergio Bologna’s text The Tribe of Moles, which seeks to explain the explosions in student militancy in 1977 as an expression of a specific process of class recomposition. As far as I am aware, the text was never described as a workers’ inquiry: but it is nonetheless considered important and influential as a text which addresses the question of the relationship between class composition and struggle.

Bologna’s objective was “to uncover the new class composition underlying these struggles, and to indicate the first elements of a programme to advance and further generalise the movement.”8 In the conclusion to the text, he anticipated and replied to a particular line of criticism:

Such a proposal cannot be simply written off as a step backwards in collective bargaining, that would prepare the ground for a new social contract between the Government and the unions. It would be absurd to reject it out of hand, for the simple reason that such new objectives would carry within them the representative weight of the infinite political creativity that has emerged in these past few years. Rather, the bigger problem is how we are going to find the point where such a project can be applied – in short, to choose the “new Mirafioris” out of all the various “driving sectors” of the so-called tertiary sector. More specifically, out of those sectors which function as a connecting link between the production of absolute surplus value and the production of relative surplus value – like, for example, the cycle of transportation. Moreoever, even in the simple extension of the rigidity of labour (even in its form as a system of trade union guarantism) to lavoro nero, subcontracted work etc, would have the effect of forcing the factory struggle to take a leap forward. In short, we are looking for the social channels whereby we could break the encirclement that is currently under way, and prevent the movement dispersing itself into a thousand decentralised moments of struggle – a new, long Purgatory of endemic struggles. We have to find something which can function in the same way as did the strikes over pensions and the strikes over wage-zones did, in relation to the workers’ cycle of struggles in 1968-69.9

But there were no new ‘Mirafioris’, not then, and not yet.10 Over the next decade, the Italian revolutionary left dissolved its own organisations. What informal organisation was left was smashed, and many of its best militants – Sofri, Negri – are still in prison.

We should be clear about the logic of Bologna’s programme, and how it relates to subsequent historical developments. Bologna’s idea was that the sort of research he was doing could help reorientate revolutionary activists to focus on those areas of the economy which were most capable of producing militancy and radicalism. It provided, was able to provide, no such assistance. In general, this idea – that we can find and target the most important sectors with militant activity is, if not useless, problematic. There are arguably cases when such orientation was effective, including the decision of the Russian Bolsheviks to concentrate their activity on urban factory workers. But it is not very often possible to identify the next “mass vanguard”. For example, it seems unlikely that it would have been possible, in early November 2010 (unless through an organisation with exceptionally deep roots), to identify 16-18 school and college students as the subjects of the next great upsurge. Last summer, we asked Sheila Cohen to write an article for our paper “to look at the broader political sweep of how changes in class structure and composition interact – or don’t – with issues of consciousness and resistance.” Her conclusion? “Mostly the story is one of almost complete unpredictability.”11

Decomposing the inquiry I: Wildcat

Under the heading of the workers’ inquiry, a great diversity of approaches to research and writing have developed: the Wildcat group in Germany being the best known and most committed proponents of these techniques, research models, and political concerns. It is possible to argue that these approaches tend more to Bologna’s, as discussed above, than they do to the original idea of the workers’ inquiry. In any case, they include:

- An organisation basing itself on regular, systematic local reports, which seek to answer a defined series of questions relating to class composition, struggle, etc. (The ongoing practice of Wildcat in Germany.)

- In depth interviews or personal description of experience in a single workplace, industry, or job. M has written on his experience at Hackney street cleansing department.12 The ‘Call Centre Inquiry Communism’ (Kolinko) project, which resulted in a book-length write up on experience, class composition and capitalist accumulation in call centres is perhaps the most important product of this agenda. The full text is available online.13

- Macro-level analysis of class composition and existing struggles in a borough14 , city15 , region, or nation state.

It is obvious what these have to do with class-composition. But it is not obvious that they should be discussed under the same category as the workers’ inquiry, which seems to be a very different sort of project – one in which revolutionaries not only investigate proletarian reality, but engage other proletarians in that process of collective evaluation, as part of a process of promoting communist ideas and workers’ struggle. Nonetheless, as we will see, such projects are often promoted under the banner of the workers’ inquiry, and by those who do refer explicitly to the inquiry idea.

But what are the functions claimed for these different techniques? One is similar to that claimed by Bologna for his approach in The Tribe of Moles. As the proposal which lead to Kolinko put it, “we want to attack the question of whether there is a broader tendency of capitalist development and the possibilities for communism behind this formation of a new type of worker.”16 Or as they said elsewhere, “Investigation means first of all to find out how we can fight against work and exploitation together with other workers in a particular place and how we can develop a form of power at the same time.”17

I have explained above why I am sceptical about this approach, and if anything the scepticism seems validated by the Kolinko experience. What more do we know, now, about the possibilities for communism? What more do we know about how we can fight and develop a form of power? Not much.

Who’s listening?

Ironically, I believe it is possible to argue that, while proponents of the modern workers’ inquiry officially emphasise the importance of listening to workers, and the importance of rigorously evaluating militant experience, these values are not present within their attitude to their own practice and theory of the workers’ enquiry. A member of The Commune, a call centre worker, has reviewed Prol-Position’s Call-centre, inquiry, communism (Kolinko) publication.18

Prol Position activists are constantly guarding against being seen to “represent” workers, but rather want to “promote” self-organisation, and so their leaflets and materials are of a largely descriptive character, while also making sharp criticisms of trade unions and pointing to the limits of different forms of struggle. They furthermore take part in activist initiatives set up with the aim of ‘supporting’ working class struggles, for example in the Call Centre Offensive outlined in the book. The chapter on trade unions, ‘base unions’, petitions and strikes has much of interest on the different means of resistance employed by workers, such as in the 1999 BT strike, “Large amounts of overseas phone calls were reportedly made, apparently totaling over £15,000. One call was claimed to have been made to the speaking clock in Zimbabwe with the receiver left off the hook overnight; as well as this, top of the range stock was sent out to householders with faulty BT equipment”.

But this part of the study seems to have a somewhat artificial character: the Marxists get jobs in a call centre in order to find out what is going on and relay it back to the workforce, but stop short of giving any practical advice for how to advance struggles. To a limited extent, this seems to recreate a mirror image of the crude “Leninist” form of “intervening” in a workplace from the outside and giving lectures on the lessons of history: i.e. the revolutionaries see themselves as separate from the workforce and with different objectives, using their enquiry to inform their own theories, understand how the working class resists work and to help them(selves) reflect on the world, but not actually doing much to test the water of organizing tactics which could actually succeed. It is no surprise that they report that their materials about working conditions often meet with the response “OK, so what? We know that already. What can we do?” Indeed, the chapter on organizing initiatives concludes with the questions “how can we relate to strikes and conflicts and thus support some kind of learning process? What kind of means do we need to be able to hear about the important developments? What can we learn within strikes and other struggles? How can we participate in the discussions of the workers?…”, the Prol Position activists presenting themselves as outsiders. They hope to promote the values of self-organisation (solidarity, democracy, serious focus on the workers’ own most pressing concerns) within the class, but in fact the book tends towards merely discerning to what extent resistance is taking place already.
. . .

The workers’ enquiry is a useful tool in the early stages of such organizing work. Whether by deliberate “intervention” or not being able to get a better job, a worker who goes into a call centre already a revolutionary ought to understand the ins and outs of the workplace and the views of her/his colleague. But its value is premised not merely on sociological analysis and personal reflection on the results of the study, but rather as a means to an end. The working class understanding itself not merely in terms of the work it does and the conditions to which it is subject, but rather as an agent of transformative change which examines its force and rights all the better to change them. Workers’ self-inquiry, not an inquiry about workers.19

A review in Aufheben 12 (2004)20 makes some similar points. If the idea is that the workers’ inquiry is a qualitatively different and better way to engage with workers than the standard methods of the left, isn’t it a subject of some concern that workers don’t find the texts which are produced, or the process of research, more engaging, empowering, or useful? Isn’t it of similar concern that the interviewees often find the interviews themselves disempowering, even didactic (through leading questions)? Why haven’t young workers in the recomposing class been attracted to the workers’ inquiry? Enough young workers must have come across the Prol-Position researchers in the course of producing the book to test this: was there any noticeable attraction toward involvement in Prol-Position, Wildcat, or workers’ inquiry in general. Why has Wildcat, whilst promoting this approach – which allegedly brings it closer to the working class – been less good at attracting radical workers than Trotskyist organisations, or even spreading its ideas? Could it be that workers are sometimes more interested in general political ideas, or practical ways to build their confidence in action, than microscopic accounts of empirical reality? Is this wrong? Who says? Should the Prol-Position activists have tried to promote answers on the level of organisation? Would those who participated be in favour of doing that another time? If not, why not?

Decomposing the inquiry II: no politics without inquiry?

Ed Emery, a prominent partisan of the inquiry idea made a proposal in 1995 for a workers’ inquiry project in Britain, entitled No politics without inquiry! The practical objective of Emery’s proposal was described as follows:

To set up an intercommunicating network of militants doing more or less detailed work on class composition in their local areas; to meet as and when appropriate; and to circulate the results of our collective work.21

The political need which this programme was supposed to meet was described as follows.

The old class forces have been taken apart. World-wide. “Decomposed”. New class forces are emerging. New configurations. This is what we call a “new class composition”. . . The new class composition is more or less a mystery to us (and to capital, and to itself) because it is still in the process of formation. Eternally in flux, of course, but periodically consolidating nodes of class power. Before we can make politics, we have to understand that class composition. This requires us to study it. Analyse it. We do this through a process of inquiry.22

In other words, much like Bologna and Wildcat (whose approach he explicitly seeks to emulate), Emery is conceiving research, inquiry as an aid to a grand strategy for revolutionary militants. Panzieri’s idea of the inquiry as an organising, project is absent from the proposal. However, if Emery’s approach to the function of the inquiry seems somewhat derivative, his conception of its potential diversity of form and subject matter is creative and interesting. He asks:

why stop at the printed word? We could include song. Woody Guthrie, singing the lives and times of the migrant workers of Dust Bowl USA. Alan Lomax, collecting blues and prison work songs. Pete Seeger and Bob Reiser with their Carry It On: A History in Song and Picture of the Working Men and Women of America . . . And photography. For example, Sebastiao Salgado’s incredible Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age, which he defines as a work of “militant photography”. And Jo Spence, in Putting Myself in the Picture, where, among other things, she charts the process (a labour process, in the arena of reproduction) of her own death from cancer. Bringing the Inquiry right home into the front room, into the family . . .23

The bibliography lists such luminaries as Tony Cliff and Mao Tse Tung as practitioners of the workers’ inquiry, each in their own way. As far as I know, much like Marx’s proposal, and much like the proposal presented to the 2010 ‘Meltdown’ conference hosted by our organisation, this proposal didn’t get anywhere.

Recomposing the inquiry: workers’ stories and faceless resistance

Young militants of the Swedish group Kämpa Tillsammans have developed their own method of inquiry, which does not rely on the lengthy interviews typically used by Wildcat. For the purpose of this review, their experience is worth quoting at length.

While traditional workers’ inquiries tend to be quite formal, often involving questionnaires and formal interviews, the members of Kämpa Tillsammans chose instead to document their own (often humorous) work experiences, draw lessons from them and publish them on the internet. They deliberately chose the medium of story-telling because they wanted workers to engage with the stories in a way that is not possible with formal surveys. Kim Muller of Kämpa Tillsammans explains that they wanted to change the popular idea of what it was to be a worker; workers do not communicate with each other via “written pamphlets or leaflets but by talking and storytelling”, thus stories provide a far better way to develop a new workers’ discourse than dry analysis and documentation.

This practice has since become popular in the Swedish workers movement, with many militants reporting on their workplaces online on sites such as (for health workers) or Arbetsförnedringen (for job seekers). The practice of workplace blogging can easily spread work experiences, showing the political dimensions in daily conflicts as well as giving clues about the changing composition of the working class.

One such blog, ‘Postverket’ is written by Postal Service workers. They see it as a way of developing the discussions that start in the canteen or on the shopfloor and circulating them among other workers in different sections and in other parts of the country. In turn, the discussions on the blog can serve as the basis for further discussion and action within the workplace.

The writers have found that, once introduced to the blog, their co-workers start to read it and discuss it with other workmates, helping to develop their ideas and sharpen their criticism of the bosses and the work.

Thus for the Swedish movement, workplace blogging has a number of different functions. On the one hand, by publishing online, workers can transcend their individual workplace to connect their experiences and ideas with those of other workers on the other side of the country. It allows for the deepening of political arguments and critique. On the other hand, workplace blogs can create a new discourse of work, and help to form the basis of a new working class identity. For many people, the mention of ‘working class’ summons up a dozen grey clichés, none of which are relevant to their experiences. Stories and experiences from modern workplaces can help to popularise a more relevant conception of work and class, that can in turn help to propel working class mobilisations.24

Perhaps, in this idea of workers’ stories, we can see a return to the Quaderni Rossi conception of the inquiry: workers’experience as a means to involve workers in general (not only revolutionary workers!) in the promotion of class consciousness, political organisation, and perhaps one day – struggle. One implicit criticism of the Wildcat approach by Kämpa Tillsammans is that the formal interview process is somewhat alienating and boring. This view is also expressed by a member of The Commune who has been interviewed as part of a Wildcat inquiry.25

It would be interesting to know what a workplace intervention or organising drive based around stories and first person accounts would be like. Although at least one member of our organisation is currently involved in such a project, the lack of access to materials from past interventions makes it difficult to ascertain the existence of such a project, and evaluate its relative impact. We do have access to a bulletin and leaflets produced by Big Flame – a British group which drew on the influence of the Italian Marxist traditions we have discussed – but in fact they are fairly ‘political’ and ‘objective’ in their tone, although less so than the (admittedly, much shorter) bulletins of Trotskyist groups such as Workers’ Fight.26 For an example of something a bit different, see page 11 of the Ford Halewood bulletin, which contains a letter and a poem.27 My impression is that the Big Flame interventions had a less didactic character, not because of the style of the texts, but because of how they were organised: with open editorial meetings, and because of the time which was put in at the factory gate listening to workers, and basing their politics faithfully on the submerged aspirations of the most militant layers. It’s hard to imagine any effective organising based only on passively reflecting mass subjectivity, rather than by bringing to the fore particular elements.

An intermission: The American worker

Well before Quaderni Rossi, a young American factory worker wrote about his experiences at work. What he and his fellow workers felt, smelled, saw, said, and thought. It was published in 1947, the first half of The American Worker. In the introduction, he gives us some idea of the power which dragging working class experience out of the shadows, and placing it in the light can have.

The rough draft of this pamphlet was given to workers across the country. Their reaction was as one. They were surprised and gratified to see in print the experiences and thoughts which they have rarely put into words. Workers arrive home from the factory too exhausted to read more than the daily comics. Yet most of the workers who read the pamphlet stayed up well into the night to finish the reading once they had started.

In direct contrast was the attitude of the intellectuals who are detached from the working class. To them it was a repetition of an oft-written story. They felt cheated. There was too much dirt and noise. They could not see the content for the words. The best expression of what they had to say was: “So what?” It was to be expected, for how could those so removed from the daily experiences of the laboring masses of the country expect to understand the life of the worker as only the worker can understand it.

I am not writing in order to gain the approval or sympathy of these intellectuals for the workers’ actions. I want instead to illustrate to the workers themselves that sometimes when their conditions seem everlasting and hopeless, they are in actuality revealing by their every-day reactions and expressions that they are the road to a far-reaching change.28

The whole pamphlet is worth reading. It burns with working class life, and we can see why a factory worker at the time would have lost sleep to read it. It doesn’t quite fit into the conception a of workers’ inquiry as a process through which to organise, but as a text it clearly has the potential to act as an organising or consciousness raising tool, just by dint of being hard hitting, raw, well written, and most importantly backed up by a clear intention to distribute it to relevant people by a political network (in this case the Johnson-Forest Tendency29 ) with the means to do so. In our paper, we’ve carried a few reports from comrades on their work, or other aspects of their lives. We should do more of this; but seek to take a leaf out of Paul Romano’s book: trying to find something in the experience of work which does point in the way of communism. As for how he does it, I can’t detail that here, it’s necessary to read the text. However, Ria Stone, who provides a sort of theoretical after-word, concludes like this:

“Sure, we could do it better.” In these words, there is contained the workers’ recognition of the enormous scope of their natural and acquired powers, and the distorted and wasteful abuse of these powers within the existing society. In these words is contained also the overwhelming anger of the workers against the capitalist barriers stifling their energies and hence victimizing the whole world. Never has society so needed the direct intervention of the workers. Never have the workers been so ready to come to grips with the fundamental problems of society. The destinies of the two are indissolubly united. When the workers take their fate into their own hands, when they seize the power and begin their reconstruction of society, all of mankind will leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.30

The inquiry in context: the contributions of organising and politics

Quaderni Rossi’s inquiries, and those of their immediate political descendents, took place in a period of high and sustained class struggle. This was not incidental to the context in which the inquiry had such relevance, but – in Panzieri’s account – fundamental to it.

it is extremely important to remember the outcome of our previous discussion: inquiry needs to be carried out in the heat of the moment and on the spot, it must investigate a situation of great transformation and conflict, and investigate the relationship between conflict and antagonism within it. In other words, we need to investigate the manner in which the system of values expressed by the workers in normal circumstances changes, and detect those values that are substituted or disappear when the awareness of alternatives arises, because some of the values held by workers under normal circumstances are absent from moments of class conflict and vice versa.31

Such a warning should give us cause to be wary about what we can expect from an inquiry in a period of low class struggle; and therefore some of its limits as an approach to communist activism.

If we return to Robert Lumley’s account of the period, he argues that, alongside the emergence of previously submerged demands (assisted by Quaderni Rossi), an organising tradition based around politically educated militants was vital.

The agitators within the factories in the period before 1968 were mainly drawn from, or had been within, the ranks of the Communist Party, and were the backbone of union organization. They were especially well qualified for this role for a number of reasons, which related mostly to their political rather than their trade union identities. Above all, these people resisted the pressures of everyday experience that seemed to say that nothing could really be changed.32

The emphasis in the passage is mine. The point is that it is necessary, in order to build a militant, working class communist movement, not mainly to enumerate the various reasons for our sense of disempowerment, which are many, but to assert that general truth: that the working class can, through its own action, change the world. This idea has a certain power to break through the fixed objectivity of the present moment. An understanding of the world as it is must constantly be subjected to the countervailing pressure of working class self-confidence; which does not always have a real, objective manifestation, but which we can assert only on the level of politics, and of our general, abstract understanding of the world. And indeed, that was the very point of the theory of proletarian autonomy, developed in Quaderni Rossi by Mario Tronti and others.

According to one militant who left the Communist Party in 1967:

it seemed that at a certain moment along the road something could happen that had never happened before . . . at one level, ingenuously, I believed that this society is not ours, and we must create a society of our own that is different. This is what the PCI taught and it did it well. It is not by chance that it took the best part of the working class because of its sense of responsibility the militant had to be very serious, honest, humble, conscientious, and present himself to the workers by putting himself at their service.33

My emphasis again: political education is vital; and not all politics flows from analyses of experience or class composition, much of it is based on general and abstract conviction. This is worth mentioning because is a tendency to see inquiry type politics as the crucial form of political activity: and that propaganda, political education, and agitation for action represent, in some sense, ideological and didactic diversions from the real business of politics. But if we return to look at the context in which the modern idea of the workers’ inquiry emerged, we can see the importance, to what happened next (the ‘creeping May’ period of intense class struggle, 1969 – 1976) of these very things. The explosive combination came when the new subjectivity broke through the limits of the old ways of doing things: but in that breaking through, militants took much of value with them:

The Communist Party membership and background was . . . no automatic guarantee of a militant’s ability to represent and mobilize fellow workers. When ideology was separated out from, and even counter-posed to the ‘moral economies’ of groups of workers, then it could function repressively as seen in the instance of the response of PCI officials to emotional reactions to working conditions, which was regarded as an economic issue to be resolved by monetary agreement. In the mid to late sixties, a number of agitators found themselves in conflict with the party, which seemed incapable of organizing the intense feelings of resentment and outrage on the shop-floor, and which they felt had reneged on its promise to bring about radical change. For them, immersion in the daily realities of the factory was also an act of purification and a return to the roots of the Communist project. The role of these agitators was enhanced by their political connections, which linked them to outside networks, giving them additional resources of information and moral and intellectual support.34

Therefore, analysing the period which gave birth to the workers’ inquiry, we can say that we need: not only attention to the subterranean elements of proletarian consciousness, but also, no less vitally, political education, and effective organisers. We need to be interested in these elements as well.

Inquiry, research, and building a working class communist movement

The point of this text is to allow me to explain, coherently and in the context of the existing tradition, what competing strands I see in the idea of the “workers’ inquiry” (and, more generally, class-composition related research), and which of those strands I see as being valuable and important.

I have argued that there are two principle strands within the idea of the workers’ enquiry: the activist, militant strand, which engages workers as the subjects of research and action; and the strand which seeks to analyse class composition as an aid to the orientation of revolutionary militants. I argued, broadly, for a positive attitude toward the former (as one element in a broader agitational strategy), and a sceptical attitude toward the latter.

To be clear: the conception of the militant workers’ self-inquiry, articulated in the comments of Panzieri quoted above, I think is of tremendous political importance. It suggests a means of engaging with workers which is more dialogic than didactic. But how we integrate that dialogic intention into our organising will differ from time to time and place to place. I think that the workers’ stories idea of Kämpa Tillsammans is probably the most interesting, clearly articulated contemporary idea about how to approach that practically (and the aspect of humour is important!). I think that an inquiry which does not involve others – outside the existing communist layer – as active participants in setting the research agenda, and which does not integrate that with a project to promote militancy, will be of little usefulness; amounting to freelance academia, whether or not that is the intention. But this means we have to prioritise the question: in what forms, now, are workers interested in sharing their experiences? Or if they are not, most of all, interested in that, what are they interested in?

For these reasons, I am much more sceptical about the model of the very different “workers’ inquiry” promoted by Wildcat, which draws (as I see it) on a wholly different set of objectives, which I have suggested are drawn from Sergio Bologna’s interest in the changing structure of class composition as a potential guide to revolutionary orientation. So, I think when we talk about inquiry proposals, it is best we talk in very definite terms, and try to answer the question, first: how does it engage people beyond our organisation (and beyond the ranks of organised politicos) as active participants? (If it can’t, then isn’t that a sign that we ought to be doing something else instead, which can?) And second: what is its militant content? That is, what does it try to do on the level of political organisation?

So much for the workers’ inquiry. Is all research which does not fit this conception useless? No! As it happens, I find the idea of a study into the class-composition (and capitalist functioning) of a city such as Bristol fascinating, and I would be interested in working with others to develop a fairly full account of changing patterns of work and industry in Britain, as well as the British economy’s connection to the wider global one. My political motivation for this is that I want to understand the world that I live in, and I want other people to as well, although I’m not convinced either project would end up being able to inform anything on the level of strategy or propaganda. For this reason, I don’t grant any overwhelming priority to such projects.

For example, let’s take the proposal – currently being considered by some comrades – for an enquiry into the capitalism and class composition in Bristol. If the idea of the Bristol study got to the point of talking to workers, it could have real organising implications, which would be fantastic. But this sort of research does not begin from working class experience – in the case of Bristol, for instance, it begins with asking questions such as: what industries are where? Where do workers live? What is the relation of those companies to global supply chains?

So what importance do I think this sort of research has? I think it does have some importance, but not such importance that I think it ought to be a major drain on time, certainly not to the extent that it competes with workplace activity, in which collective self-inquiry and the promotion of militant activity ought to seamlessly merge. Unlike the self-inquiry proper, I don’t think this ‘objective’ analysis of changing class structure is even necessarily more of a priority than answering questions such as – what is the function of trade unions in Britain today? Or – what is the function of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the modern world system? Ultimately, I think any serious organisation must be able to address these ‘big’ political questions, as well as know about the structure of employment on the docks. They are both necessary.

Postscript: the inquiry and our organisation

How do these attitudes relate to the recent proposals a number of London comrades have made about our paper and organisation? In a number of ways. First of all, because if we want to promote any method at all – whether it’s the workers’ inquiry or armed struggle – it’s necessary to organise to grow as a method of, and with the aim of, doing so. There’s no point having a great idea such as the inquiry, if there’s no attempt to promote it. Secondly, because having such a small organisation and such a small circulation paper doesn’t provide the basis for having a genuine class conversation, which would imply a certain diversity of experiential input, and ideally a certain plurality of involvement in certain industries, areas and job types – such that one can expect a reply from others informed by their own experience. Thirdly, because, to return to the original point of the workers’ inquiry – building a communist movement amongst workers’ – the workers’ inquiry isn’t the only way to do that. There are other methods, and neither Marx nor the Quaderni Rossi researchers pretended otherwise. Diffuse propaganda, political education, agitation for direct action and solidarity, as well as other forms of activity, also have a role. They have had for every remotely successful organisation in the past, and no doubt will in the future too.

Originally posted: May 16, 2011 at The Commune

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3Ibid.
  • 4 Note than insofar as the inquiry is meant to lead to a superior “theoretical formation”, it is by addressing “ambiguities” – or presumably, errors – in existing theory. The point is not to come up with theories about class composition in order to prove or disprove them. The point is to use studies of class composition or working class experience to address the questions which workers and revolutionaries are already asking, because they are implied by the political challenges of the moment.
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9bid.
  • 10Fiat Mirafiori in Turin was the most important factory in developing the practice of workers’ autonomy, and hosted the most important of the worker-student assemblies, the movement around which produced Lotta Continua in 1969. What about now? Contra Bologna, the small factories didn’t turn out to be the next major site of struggle either.
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15As I believe the comrades in Bristol are considering. . .
  • 16
  • 17
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  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25A personal aside. I previously proposed that we base a pamphlet on student occupations around asking participants to give their own accounts of the occupations, and draw out what seemed important to them. Comrade L argued that we shouldn’t bother “scratching the issue” unless we use proper “research methods”. I think we should be prepared to see an approach based on soliciting stories as a method as worthwhile as a 100 question survey. It has some flaws, sure, but it also has the strength of recognising the subjectivity – in the jargon of 1960s Italian Marxism ‘encouraging the self-valorisation’ – of the participants, and their more equal agency in the inquiry process. At any rate, it isn’t a more eclectic approach than that proposed by Ed Emery, who wants to use photography and folk song!
  • 26
  • 27
  • 28
  • 29The Johnson-Forest Tendency was a split from Trotskyism in the US (at different times, both the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Workers’ Party) lead by C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee Boggs: its orientation can be identified as roughly ‘Marxist humanist’.
  • 30
  • 31
  • 32
  • 33 Ibid.
  • 34 Ibid.



10 years 8 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Spikymike on October 13, 2013

Coincidence that I had just read this on 'The Commune' site because I noticed that the people producing the 'Angry Workers of the World' bulletin, that I really like and helped distribute recently, were also discussing a 'Workers Inquiry' which another comrade had indicated some distrust over.
On reading this article I realised that I was also impressed with and had previously some connections with a number of the other groups listed, and would add perhaps also 'Gurgaon Workers News' from India, but hadn't really connected them all with an approach under the label of 'Workers Inquiry', though as the article points out this seems to cover a number of different approaches, some more useful than others. Having co-operated with and for a time been a member of the old UK Solidarity group I also thought I detected some elements of a common approach?

The strength of some of these approaches seems to lie in a commitment to analyse changing class composition and class struggle based on a detailed understanding of material reality gained from the workers involved as an aid to advancing struggle rather than producing generalised commentaries added to attract sales of an ideologically based party paper. On the other hand some types of 'Worker Inquiry' seem to be a rather artificial mechanism for academics or other professional 'revolutionaries' and 'ideologues' without any real roots in working class struggle to find out what the workers (other than themselves) that they identify as having the potential for change are actually up to, given their own lack of experience. Though this might seem a bit unfair in so far as none of us amongst to-days tiny organised pro-revolutionary tendencies could possibly have a real grasp of what is going on across the spread of working class struggle in a rapidly change world?

klas batalo

10 years 8 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by klas batalo on October 13, 2013

this was really good and the swedish example made me think of recomposition and makes we want to start a blog for coffee shop workers...


10 years 7 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by nedalong on November 7, 2013

What the early scholars said about the workplace can relate with the present day workplace. But I guess there is bitterness in karl marx’s sayings.


4 years 1 month ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Spikymike on May 18, 2020

Since it doesn't come up here on 'More Like this' should mention Juan's other post titled 'Workers' Inquiry: a genealogy' that relates to my post above. Here:'-inquiry-a-genealogy or here? Issue 3.


10 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by plasmatelly on January 22, 2014

Yes, very useful. I'll try it out today.