The Birth of Workerism

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 10, 2011

Piazza Statuto was our founding congress ... (Potere Operaio 1973c: 208)

If the wage bargaining round of 1962 would at last see the FIAT workforce rouse itself to open strike action, their after-effects threw the various factions within Quademi Rossi into violent collision. The immediate catalyst was provided by the Piazza Statuto riot of July, during which hundreds besieged the Turin offices of the smallest and most conservative of the three major union confederations, the UIL (Unione Italiana del Lavoro – the Italian Union of Labour), in what the broad consensus of the labour movement denounced as an assault by provocateurs and lumpenproletarians. Many of the demonstrators were themselves UIL members from FIAT, furious that their union had sabotaged their first big strike by signing a separate agreement with management. But this was lost at the time upon even the most militant union and party leaders, who preferred with Vittorio Foa to dismiss the whole affair as a ‘manifestation of extremist pathology’ and a ‘diversion from mass action through the strike’ (quoted in Lanzardo 1979: 58). A decade later, the event would be recognised by many union officials, including the new secretary of the UIL, as a positive turning point in the development of inter-union cooperation. In 1962, however, more simple answers were demanded: extremists, it was claimed, both of the right and left, were behind the troubles. While the likes of Paolo Spriano sought to play down the influence of a small group - ‘students essentially - whose outlook was ‘tenaciously resistant to reality’, others found in Quaderni Rossi a perfect scapegoat for their own inadequacies. Despite Panzieri’s desperate efforts to disassociate his group from the riot, Quaderni Rossi’s already tenuous links with the CGIL and historic left now collapsed completely, and with them the very meaning of the journal’s project as its founder had originally conceived it (ibid.: 54-5, 69-70, 207).

Even before Piazza Statuto, the Socialist Franco Momigliano had cast doubt upon the coherence of Quaderni Rossi’s approach to unions. Writing in the journal’s second issue, Momigliano (1962: 108, 109) had centred his criticisms upon the group’s denial that the unions’ role was ‘for the working class not only institutionally, but also objectively, of necessity, a contractual function’. For him, on the contrary, such a role was the whole basis of the unions’ strength in society. It was naive, he believed, to project revolutionary connotations onto the most radical of the unions’ measures to defend labour-power within capitalism. A more sensible course, he argued, was to work to broaden the scope of their power, so that conquests already won could form a springboard for further social reform. To abandon its project and return to the fold, or to press on into the wilderness: this was the stark choice which seemed to face Quaderni Rossi after Piazza Statuto. While for Panzieri the subsequent break with the official labour movement proved traumatic, those closest to Alquati experienced it as the release from an increasingly impossible collaboration. Having correctly identified the estrangement between workers and unions, many of the Northerners now considered as completely mistaken the group’s original premise that their reconciliation could be achieved in a form antagonistic to capital. For these Zengakuren, as they were then dubbed (Alquati 1975: 27), a new tack was required, one which drew sustenance directly from working-class struggle itself. The first effort along these lines was attempted by the Venetian circle, in the form of workplace rank-and-file committees organised in Porto Marghera (Negri 1964a; Isnenghi 1980). With the revival of industrial activity amongst metalworkers in 1963, both the Zengakuren and the Roman members of Quaderni Rossi pushed for a concerted, autonomous intervention at the national level, starting with a more agitational form of publication than the existing theoretical review.

Starting directly from working-class behaviour also meant clarifying further the significance of those moments when its antagonism to capital refused to manifest itself openly. Already touched upon briefly and discretely by Alquati, the question of sabotage as a form of resistance would be explored at great length by Romolo Gobbi in a publication distributed at flAT. During the previous July, argued Gatto Selvaggio, when

open struggle was blocked by the unions, the workers, consciously and collectively coordinated by the worker-technicians, immediately intensified sabotage within decisive areas identified through collective discussion. After the separate agreement they CONTINUED THIS STRUGGLE IN MORE HIDDEN BUT POLITICALLY RELEVANT FORMS. (Gatto Selvaggio 1963: 1)

Brought to trial in late 1963 for producing an unauthorised publication that preached subversion, Gobbi could justly complain that the prosecution had completely ignored Gatto Selvaggio’s central argument, which was to indicate sabotage’s limited contribution, outside of a revolutionary phase, to the development of class autonomy. ‘More advanced forms of organisation’ were needed, ones which could break the confines of the individual workplace; in this regard, Gobbi believed, Italian workers could learn much from the unofficial mass actions or ‘wildcat strikes’ which had proved so popular in France and Britain (quoted in Quaderni Piacentini 1963: 81-2).

Such a perspective, however, evoked little sympathy from Panzieri. Angered by what he saw as the ‘biological hatred’ of some in the Turin group for the left parties and unions (Panzieri 1987: 359), he had none the less reconciled himself to the view that the existing unions and parties were no longer ‘a valid instrument for the generalisation of struggle’. Still, he remained dubious that any mass alternative could be constructed in the short term. In his contribution to the first issue of the new interventionist paper Cronache Operaie, Panzieri did not deny the ‘concrete possibility’ of uniting the disputes then in progress. He did criticise, however, those who extolled isolated disruptions of production for believing that such actions possessed a strategic moment capable of anticipating capital’s development. As the strike wave faded away inconclusively, Panzieri’s pessimism deepened. While he agreed that a more accessible format than Quaderni Rossi was required, Panzieri saw its main purpose to be ‘the formation of a cadre linked to workers struggles without the pretence of representing or leading them’. Given this, the mass agitation advocated by some was currently out of the question (Panzieri 1973: 297-8, 299). Beneath such tactical differences, he insisted at an August editorial meeting, lay fundamental theoretical ones. These were evident in a recent essay by Tronti, which he considered

a fascinating resume of a whole series of errors which the workers’ left can commit in this moment. It is fascinating because it is very hegelian, in the original sense, as a new way of reliving a philosophy of history ... a philosophy of history of the working class. (quoted in Lumley 1980: 129)

‘There is probably’, he continued, ‘not one point on which we agree’ (Panzieri 1973: 303). Raising the question of sabotage as an example, Panzieri characterised it as nothing more than the ‘permanent expression of [workers’] political defeat’. The existence within one journal of two such divergent approaches was no longer tenable, he concluded: only a parting of the ways could offer a workable solution to the problem (ibid.: 303, 304).

The key issue for Panzieri, then, was the different connotations that he and the advocates of immediate action placed upon class behaviour. Perhaps Tronti and his associates were correct in saying that one could not ‘trace the analysis of the level of the working class from the analysis of the level of capital’. All the same, ‘a series of Fragmentary refusals’ like those evidenced in the recent struggles were no substitute for a coherent strategy based upon the material circumstances of the working class (Panzieri 1973: 291, 321). The path to the unification of workers against capital was still a very hard and weary one’, and could find its ‘permanent political reference’ only in continued enquiries into the proletarian condition (ibid.: 254, 321).

Looking back, the points of confluence between Panzieri and the nascent workerists have become as clear as the depth of their disagreement. Like the later split between Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua (’Continuous Struggle’), that of 1963 flowed from personal as well as political differences, with neither side able to claim to have only benefited from the separation. After Panzieri’s death, the uncritical use of sociology by some members of Quaderni Rossi seemed to confirm the workerists’ worst suspicions. Yet the latter could hardly afford to feel smug, as their ‘political experiment of a new type’ soon brought submersion within Tronti’s theoretic~l framework and that ‘enchantment of method’ which burdened It (Panzieri and Tronti 1975: 6). Finally, the discovery that a revolutionary mass movement was not yet on the cards would reopen the whole debate concerning the possible renovation of the labour movement which Piazza Statuto had seemed to close, leading to a further division in every way as painful as that from Quaderni Rossi.