3. Classe Operaia

With Tronti’s journal began the classical phase of workerism’s development. For all the different nuances within it, certain core features developed by Classe Operaia (Working Class) served to unite all its exponents: the identification of the working class with the labour subsumed to the immediate process of production; an emphasis upon the wage struggle as a key terrain of political conflict; the insistence that the working class was the driving force within capitalist society.

The new group was strongest in Rome and the Veneto, where defection from Quaderni Rossi had been almost total; elsewhere the situation proved less fortunate, with splits in Milan, Turin and Genoa. From the outset, therefore, Classe Operaia experienced an imbalance between the political weight which it assigned to different working-class concentrations – particularly in the North – and its own ability to intervene within them. It was a predicament heavy with irony for a group committed to mass political intervention, above all for the Romans, whose fascination with what Marx (1976) had defined as the ‘immediate process of production’ was of little avail in a city dominated by service industries. Nor could it bode well that such workplace intervention as did occur in Rome was left to the younger members of the group. Or in the words of Rita Di Leo, ‘lithe adults” constituted the Politiburo, and didn’t go to the factories’ (quoted in Piccone Stella 1993: 200). Of all the components of Classe Operaia, only the Venetians were able to combine a certain numerical weight with what was then considered strategic location. It would be simplistic to reduce the tendency’s later split – between those who chose entrism into the PCI, and those who sought to organise on its left – to this dichotomy. All the same, there can be no doubt that the factor of geographical location played an important if unrecognised part in the evolution of those paths (Negri 1979a: 80).

The ‘very hegelian’ essay by Tronti, which Panzieri had criticised in mid-1963, appeared in January of the following year as the editorial of Classe Operaia’s first issue. In it the most scandalous novelty of the new workerist ideology – the reversal of primacy between capital and labour – was clearly set out for the first time.

Seeking to uncover ‘the laws of development of the working class’ so as to advance the cause of proletarian dictatorship, Tronti admitted:

We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head ... and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class. (Tronti 1964: 1)

The current international restructuring of capital, he argued, could only be understood as a response to the movement of the working class, which today had become ‘a social mass’, possessing ‘the same collective attitudes, the same basic practices, and the same unified political growth’. This homogenisation coincided with ‘a period of in-between in working-class history’, with workers both estranged from the existing labour movement - ‘through which class consciousness usually expresses itself’ - and lacking an adequate instrument with which to replace it (ibid.: 2). While the revolutionary process was ‘assured’, its progress would be quicker and easier if a section of the old movement could again play a leading role. In the meantime, workers still made use of the traditional institutions of party and union, albeit with little enthusiasm, while keeping for themselves ‘an autonomous strategic perspective free from restriction and compromises’. Thus the task facing revolutionaries was to construct a new political outlook able to grasp ‘the total viewpoint of the working class’, carrying Lenin’s political project of the seizure of power into the maturity of capitalist development analysed by Marx (ibid.: 4, 5).

The Conjuncture

Shortly after the Quaderni Rossi split, the leadership of the PSI reaped the rewards of its post-1956 course and entered Italy's first centre-left government. The marriage, blessed by both the Kennedy administration and the Vatican, had been finally consummated after a courtship of a year and a half. 'As of today', proclaimed the party daily Avanti, 'everyone is freer' (quoted in Franchi 1977: 82). Only seven months later, however, the coalition would be in the grips of a crisis - the first of many - as Socialists and Christian Democrats squabbled over the meaning and extent of the reforms necessary for Italy's development.

For Classe Operaia, the arrival of the centre-left was welcome if for no other reason than that it clarified the political lines between the workers in the factory and the reformists in Parliament: 'the class struggle is much too serious to be left to MPs' (Classe Operaia 1964b: 1). In particular, it laid bare the path that the planning demanded by the new socialised capitalism would have to follow. Unlike some in Quaderni Rossi, however, Tronti's group believed this transition to be far from smooth or organic:

[T]he capitalist system will never be able to attain a perfect objective rationality of its mechanism of development .,. [rather] it tends towards this as its maximum program ... The decisive leap to capitalist society properly speaking, organised around the production of the average rate of profit, occurs by means of a thousand delays, postponements, adjournments. (Tronti 1973: 114, translation modified)

Classe Operaia's starting point in determining the success of such a project was the recent cycle of struggles, which had indicated that sections of the working class - particularly in the metal industry were no longer prepared to accept either wage restraint or the tightened work discipline imposed through technological innovation. The problem, as defined by the more astute of capital's political and economic representatives, was how to introduce an element of flexibility into industrial relations whilst keeping the situation within bounds functional to the continued accumulation of capital. In practice, the journal argued, this could only be achieved by means of an incomes policy which institutionalised the relationship between wage increases and productivity. Amongst the chieftains of the state - the Palazzo, as Pasolini once called it - Guido Carli, then Governor of the Bank of Italy, assumed a particular importance in Classe Operaia's mind. Unlike the prominent Socialist Riccardo Lombardi, who mythologised planning as a significant step towards a post-capitalist society, Carli accepted its necessity as a measure to stabilise the existing order. Calling for a 'global policy' centred upon the relation between wages and productivity, Carli was prepared to accept a wage push to the extent that it forced more backward firms to modernise their productive and financial structures (Classe Operaia 1964c: 15).

Views such as these were proof, Tronti believed, that

raising the price of labour-power was a working-class act of force which coincided for a moment with a necessity of capital, and then overthrew it, surpassing and upsetting it... the imbalance between wages and productivity is a political fact, and must be understood as a political fact and utilised as such. (Tronti 1971: 99)

The classical Leninist distinction between political and economic struggles was thus no longer applicable, since today the fundamental power relations in society were embodied in the sphere of production itself:

From the working-class point of view, political struggle is that which tends consciously to place in crisis the economic mechanism of capitalist development. (ibid.: 111)

For Tronti, capital's development was best understood as a series of political cycles that did not, in any immediate manner, coincide with its 'economic' rhythms:

capitalist development runs along a chain of conjuncture. We say that each link of this chain will offer the occasion for an open conflict, for a direct struggle, an act of force, and that the chain will break not where capital is weakest, but where the working class is strongest. (ibid.: 101)

In line with such logic, classical operaismo rejected the Third Worldism then widespread within the Western new left. According to the youth-oriented journal Classe e Partito, edited by Asor Rosa and Franco Piperno amongst others (Scalzone 1988: 24), the peasant struggle in Vietnam could serve working-class internationalism, so long as the two were not confused. Moreover, 'in effect in Vietnam it is capital that is on the attack' (Classe e Partito 1966: 7). A less extreme position would be put by Alquati, who conceded the importance of struggles conducted by workers - if no one else - in the 'periphery'; yet for him too, their ultimate salvation lay with their counterparts in the developed world (Alquati 1975: 101).

If workers' struggles fell away with the recession of 1964, Classe Operaia could take consolation in the fact that the ruling class itself was suffering a disjuncture between industrialists and their ostensible representatives in the state. Thirteen years later, Carli would blame both the politicians and the industrialists. The first had failed to promote the cohesiveness of Italian society, which meant that by decade's end 'the ferment of protest, rather than stimulate reforms, accentuated the process of social decomposition and disintegration'. The second, he held, had 'never considered the state a social organization to which they are directly responsible' (Carli 1977: 185, 190). According to Classe Operaia, while the centre-left government shied away from implementing a coherent plan based on an incomes policy, preferring instead to impose discipline through a credit squeeze, employers were resorting to quite traditional weapons such as layoffs and speedups to attack workers in the factories. This, in its opinion, revealed

the capitalist illusion of recent years - the political error of our class adversary - that of wanting to achieve direct control over the working class only at the end of a spontaneous process of economic development and through a spontaneous integration of labour into capital. (Classe Operaia 1965a: 1)

As for the politicians, their original scheme had failed because its essential prerequisite - a social democratic party able to draw workers into the orbit of the state - was still missing. Crippled by the defection of its CGIL cadre to a new Socialist Party of 'Proletarian Unity' (PSIUP), the PSI could still supply competent economists and politicians to the Palazzo, but no significant slice of the working class itself.

With this project of integration a failure, and Socialist talk of planning little more than window dressing, Tronti's fear of a social democratic involution took new form within the PCI. Here Giorgio Amendola had expressed sympathy for the notion of planning and called for the formation of a single party of the left. His version of democratic planning, which drew sustenance from the same logic as that of Togliatti 20 years before, rejected the notion of an incomes policy. Instead it looked to increases in both direct and indirect wages as a means to stimulate effective demand and thus allow for full employment 'at the maximum level of productivity' (Amendola 1966: 399). In this way, he argued, the 'class dynamic' could playa Stimulating role in economic development. Coupled with the Workers' struggle within the framework of the Constitution as the 'national ruling class', 'defender of the interests of the whole Italian people', and 'bearer of the country's general needs', this would start to alleviate the problems 'exasperated' by those monopolies which since the 1940s had orientated Italy's economy towards production for foreign markets (ibid.: 587).

Unlike the rest of Western Europe, Classe Operaia insisted, in Italy the transition to the social factory had begun in the absence of a social democratic party. As a consequence, the possibility existed, for the first time, 'of reaching capital's maturity in the presence of a politically strong working class' (Classe Operaia 1964e: I), creating a situation of 'maturity without stabilisation' (Tronti 1971: 117). This project Amendola and others like him, with their talk of a single party embracing the existing formations of the historic left, had come to threaten; everything turned upon preventing the success of their endeavor. For many of Classe Operaia's editors, the exploration of class composition now paled alongside the pressing need to reclaim the Communist Party for revolutionary politics. Within the space of a year, Tronti's 'political experiment of a new type' had reverted to a tactic of a very old kind indeed (Sbardella 1980).

A New Use For Old Institutions

During the latter days of his involvement in Quaderni Rossi, Tronti had believed that ‘the true organic integration of the labor unions within the programmed development of capitalist society’ represented the most important threat to the struggle against capital (Tronti 1973: 109). With the decline of industrial struggle during 1964, however, he had been forced to reconsider such a view. Classe Operaia would subsequently insist that there were two sides to the union struggle,

the working-class one, namely the incessant conflict around the division between necessary labour and surplus value; and the union one, namely the constant rationalisation of capital, stimulated by labour. (Classe Operaia 1964a: 22)

Gramsci, the group claimed, had offered ‘perhaps the best definition of the permanent contractual and legislative character of the union’ in the period before the Second World War. With the emergence of social capital, however, the union’s function necessarily changed, becoming the ‘occasional opponent and permanent collaborator of the democratic structure of society’. As a consequence, any strategy of union ‘autonomy’ from the party, such as sections of the CGIL had recently proposed, could only hasten the process by which the union became ‘an increasingly organic function of capital’s plan’ (Classe Operaia 1964d: 26). If workers had consciously chosen to use the unions in their struggles of the past decade, this owed more to the PCI’s absence from the factory than any intrinsic merits possessed by the CGIL itself. Indeed, the contempt of workers for union officials was now almost as great as their ‘class hatred’ for foremen, guards and technical staff - ‘and so it will become, increasingly, in the future. But how to organise this, today, against the social boss?’ (Tronti 1971: 100). Thus, while any ‘union road to the working class’ had to be ruled out, there did exist ‘an undeniable union life to the working class’ which made its continued use a tactical necessity (Classe Operaia 1964a: 22). In such circumstances, Tronti would argue, the best approach to unions was that taken by Lenin:

n certain instances, some of which are very much present, tying the union to the party via a transmission belt still seems the most practicable path for the class struggle. (Tronti 1971: 115)

The key problem was to restore political organisation to the workers. ‘There are moments’, Tronti would soon proclaim, ‘when all problems can and must be reduced to this one problem: organising the party’ (Tronti 1971: 20). At first, however, the question of the party remained an open one. Indeed, until December 1964 the need for a ‘political organisation’ was spoken of in only the vaguest of terms within the pages of [i]Classe Operaia. According to the editorial of the June 1964 issue, both the traditional parties as well as new forms – even, in contradiction with its other pronouncements on the matter, the unions themselves – were possible organs of struggle. The primary objective of organisation, it was argued, was ‘to maintain the continuity of the open struggle’ (Classe Operaia 1964e: 1). Spontaneity, then, continued to be seen as a positive indication of the irreducible nature of the antagonism of labour to capital, of the ‘inexhaustible combativity of the working class’ (Classe Operaia 1964a: 5). All the same, there was general agreement within Classe Operaia that unless such struggles attained an explicitly political form, they would to the union level and become coherent with capital’s development.

In pondering whether their goal could be achieved outside the historic left, the group was also acutely conscious of the historic failure of earlier revolutionary Marxists to make any significant impact upon the Italian working class after the Second World War. The followers of Amadeo Bordiga had had the most success, but after a brief upsurge in the late 1940s their small party had dissolved into a number of warring factions that either returned to the political wilderness or else buried themselves away in the unions. The plight of Trotskyism had been even more bleak, reduced to eking out a semi-clandestine existence within the PCI. Neither of these fates particularly appealed to the editors of Classe Operaia; nor, for that matter, did they show any great interest in the first murmurings of Italian Maoism. Their reasons for such diffidence, beyond the vagaries of sectarian politics, were rational enough, being based on the realisation that a new organisation unable to command the support of a large slice of the working class was doomed to failure. This lesson, moreover, had been reinforced for the Venetians by their unsuccessful attempts to build workplace committees outside the official labour movement, a failure that led them temporarily to advance a more cautious approach to autonomous organisation.

Both the Northerners and Romans, then, were initially united in rejecting what they called ‘Trotskyist tactics’ and ‘Chinese dances’ (Tronti 1966: 32), even if their motives for doing so were rather different. For Tronti in particular, whose opinions had led to suspension from his local PCI section (Rossini 1980: 65), the search for a solution to the problem of political organisation had become a pressing need. Already in ‘Lenin in England’ it had been clear that, for him at least, the distance between the class and the official labour movement was no cause for celebration: the argument that the working class determined capitalist development, as radical as it seemed, only went so far. For Tronti (1971: 236), working-class struggle was like a great wave that tossed capitalist society and the class party on to the shore of a new conjuncture, spending itself in the process. From there, the initiative shifted to capital and/or the party, ‘two opposing forms with the same content’ -labour.

While such a conviction was understandable given the changed climate of the mid-1960s, it also revealed that Tronti could not conceive of the unification of the working class as a force against capital- what the workerists now began to call political recomposition -outside of a party-form. A number of other utterances appeared to belie this – for example, his argument later in ‘Marx, labour-power, working class’ that working-class power, unlike that of the capitalists, was by nature non-institutionalised, since it could exist separately from the official form of its representation (Tronti 1971: 240). At bottom, however, the thrust of his thinking presupposed avanguard party. In the essay ‘Classe e partito’, published in Classe Operaia’s issue of December 1964, Tronti’s starting point was the distance between the Communist Party and a working class which risked defeat if it confined its actions to the bounds set by capitalist accumulation. The crucial missing element, he believed, was ‘the intervention of revolutionary will’, inseparable from the ‘irreplaceable function’ of the party:

Only through a subjective, conscious intervention from above, through a material force which allows the possession and command of the system’s functioning mechanism to be destroyed; only through the social use of this force is it possible not only to foresee and anticipate the turning points in capital’s cycle of development, but also to measure, control, manage and therefore to organise the political growth of the working class, forcing it to pass via a chain of conflicts at various levels and on various occasions ... [so as ultimately] to overturn the relation between the classes, to smash the state machine. (ibid.: 112)

Perhaps Trotsky had put it more eloquently with his analogy of the party as piston and the class as steam, but the sentiment expressed here was no different. Tronti’s was a bluntly instrumentalist notion of organisation: that the PCI had tended so far to adapt itself to capitalist development did not, in his opinion, mean that it could not be used against capital in the future. With this he combined another sensibility common to orthodox Trotskyism, locating the crucial site for such a transformation within the party’s leadership. This ‘collective brain’ could re-establish a correct relationship with the class through its control of the scientific tools, the tactics and strategies necessary to manoeuvre capital into a vulnerable Situation. The slogan to be worked around, he declared, was ‘Give us the party in Italy and we will take Europe’ (ibid.: 25).

Since the revolutionary party could not reasonably expect to encompass all the experiences of the class, it would have to maintain a certain autonomy, a tension, towards the workers as towards capital. This tension, Tronti held, was embodied in the figure of the revolutionary leader, no doubt as Napoleon had embodied the world-historical idea in Hegel’s time. In ‘Marx, labour-power, working class’, Tronti was to indicate just how crucial he believed this figure to be:

Lenin practised materially that overthrow of the relation between working class and capital which in Marx was only a methodological discovery, the partisan scientific foundation of a working-class point of view on capital. After Lenin, the working class can impose practically everything on capital. With one formidable condition: if it is armed from the outside with the intervention of tactics, with the direct leadership of the party ... by itself the working class can never arrive at this, and the party arrives there only when it contains a Lenin. (Tronti 1971: 254)

Thus, despite his fierce criticisms of traditional Communist intellectuals and their disdain for the reality of the factory, Tronti’s main contribution to the struggle to overthrow the division between manual and intellectual labour was to propose instead that the intellectually trained become professional revolutionaries (Tronti 1971: 246). Not surprisingly, such an analysis attracted considerable criticism from others within the Italian new left. For Gianmario Cazzaniga, writing in the journal Giovane Critica, Tronti’s arguments recalled in their idealism ‘the positions of the young Hegelians’. Further, by locating the central contradiction in the head of the revolutionary leader, they showed themselves to be completely foreign to current debates ‘in the international Communist movement’ (Cazzaniga 1967: 33). Even Asor Rosa, one of Tronti’s closest associates in the Roman group, was to baulk at this aspect of his analysis. Instead, he told a public meeting on Operai e capitale that Tronti needed to clarify this ‘rather inexplicable or insufficient’ point which seemed to present the tactical moment as ‘the rule of the empirical, of the empiricism of the leader, whereas, vice versa, science would seem to be the total preserve of strategy’ (Asor Rosa 1967: 46).

In this manner Asor Rosa touched upon another fundamental aspect of Tronti’s discourse on politics: the relation between strategy - already embryonic within the class – and tactics, the property of the party. Such a notion remained dear to later workerists as well, with Negri citing it years later as ‘one of the most precious legacies’ of Classe Operaia. Through such a relation could be grasped not only the richness of daily struggles, but also the party’s task of drawing out, like a modern day Socrates, their revolutionary significance. According to Negri, one of the main problems with Classe Operaia had been the presence within the group of many who overvalued the tactical moment whilst simultaneously undervaluing ‘the institutional role of the Communist Party’ (Negri 1979a: 84). In Tronti’s work, however, the problem is different: there the party came to dominate both strategy and tactics as the privileged bearer of working-class science:

[A] correct relation between class and party presupposes ... this practical capacity of anticipation and of direction of the class’ movements in determinate historical situations: not only knowledge of the laws of action, but the concrete possibility of acting, in total possession of what could be called the theory and practice of the laws of tactics. In this sense the party is not only the scientific bearer of strategy, but also the practical organisation of its tactical application. The working class possesses a spontaneous strategy of its own motions and development: the party must observe it, express it and organise it. (Tronti 1971: 113)

Tronti was pessimistic as to the possibilities both of an autonomous working-class activity that could break the rhythm set by contractual struggles, and the political space available to construct a new organisation, as the continuing stagnation of the PSIUP demonstrated. It was not surprising, therefore, that Tronti’s focus shifted to the PCI’s redemption from a reformist leadership. The party function, he argued, could be performed ‘only by an already existing political organisation, and only by a party cemented to the class as such’ (Tronti 1978a: 24). The Communist Party thus had to be rebuilt as a party in the factory, so as to organise a blockage of production and therefore of profit, since ‘Whoever controls and dominates [production] controls and dominates everything’ (Tronti 1971: 235).

In light of this orientation, one of the most striking aspects of the whole Roman position within Classe Operaia would be its failure to provide any coherent structural analysis of Communist reformism. True, many pages of the journal after late 1964 were taken up with examinations of the PCI’s evolution since the 1940s. But this material was largely descriptive in its account of party policy and ideology, focusing above all upon the gradual but apparently irreversible decline of the Communist Party’s presence in the factory, and the corresponding drop in working-class membership. On occasion such dissatisfaction even filtered into PCI forums: for example, the 5th National Conference of Communist Workers of 1964, where one functionary relayed the common query of young workers: ‘What does the party do? ... The unions organise struggles and strikes – what does the party organise? Only elections?’ (quoted in Classe Operaia 1965b: 30). For Classe Operaia, the major blame for this state of affairs lay squarely with the choices made by the party leadership during the forties. At that time, when many Northern workers were still armed and in control of their factories, Togliatti had refused to work to consolidate the working class as an autonomous political force, tying it instead to the fate of a generic ‘people’. From the ‘new party’ of the early 1940s, Classe Operaia argued – indeed, right back to Dimitrov’s unveiling of the Popular Front at the Comintern 7th World Congress – a continuous thread could be traced to Amendola’s proposal for a ‘single party’ of the left. But as to the reasons which had led the leadership of the major working-class party to choose this course over a revolutionary one, Classe Operaia had nothing to say (Classe Operaia 1964f; 1964h).

Tronti and his closest associates were quite adamant that the entrism they now proposed would be profoundly different to that of previous dissident Communist groups. These, they argued, had failed because they were lacking in ‘a general perspective truly alternative to the official one’ (Tronti 1971: 25). Nor did the Romans have any sympathy for Togliatti’s successor Longo, who had publicly criticised many of Amendola’s proposals. Longo too, in his time, had called for a ‘single party’ of the left, had sanctioned the right to a ‘fair’ profit, and had toyed with dropping the PCI’s Communist label. Nor, finally, did they have much time for the party’s ‘official’ left wing around Pietro Ingrao, which they condemned for its lack of a ‘scientific vision’ of the working class and its privileging of civil society as the crucial site of struggle (Classe Operaia 1965c: 9). Indeed, the Romans were not at first even prepared to concede that the Communist Party’s reformist line might be tied either to its internal structure or to the Stalinist traditions of its past:

It is clear that we are not interested in the theme of the relations between Togliatti and Stalin, of the leading role of the USSR, of the originality or otherwise of the PCI’s line. We gladly leave it to the Trotskyists: this is not the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem lies in the relation between the PCI and the working class. (Classe Operaia 1964h: 13)

Later Tronti’s faction would be more reasonable, admitting that the question of the party’s line could not be separated from that of its structure (Artioli 1967: 4). Still, from now on the fate of the class was inseparable from that of the party, in a struggle that moved both against capital and towards the party. If Amendola’s efforts to recast the PCI as an all-embracing social democratic party proved successful, capital would finally be able to gain control of the class. While the ruling class was still not sophisticated enough to bring the PCI into the state, a ‘single party’ would be a different matter. If, on the contrary, the left of the labour movement could be regrouped so as to leave the social democrats in a minority – something never seen before in the transition to social capital – then the balance of forces would shift towards the workers (Tronti 1966: 32).

Beyond any political objections that might be raised to such a position, its most distinctive attribute was to be its patent impracticability. By 1966 the Romans were prepared to gamble everything on halting the ‘social democratisation’ of the PCI, including the existence of the journal and national group. ‘We think that in great part we have exhausted the reasons for our direct political presence’, they were to write in May of that year (Tronti 1966: 32). Yet within a party where the major left current commanded the support of perhaps 20 per cent of active members (Amyot 1981: 157), Classe Operaia’s own forces could only be considered minuscule. In addition, they were to find themselves the object of an aggressive public campaign by sections of the party leadership, which did not shy away from slander plain and Simple. ‘Who pays them?’, the Turin page of the party daily L’Unita had asked rhetorically in early 1964, while leaving its readers in no doubt that Classe Operaia’s voluminous output of publications depended upon the purse strings of big business (Minucci 1964). In the face of such vehemence, the group had been able to do little more than seek consolation in the unrest which the incident provoked within the local party (Quaderni Piacentini 1964). By 1966 Classe Operaia would be reduced to celebrating the reunification of the Socialist Party with Saragat’s PSDI (Partito Social Democratico Italiano – the Italian Social Democratic Party) as a signal both of social democracy’s marginalisation, and the temporary reprieve of the PCI and PSIUP (Classe Operaia 1966). Of all of Tronti’s closest associates, only Asor Rosa maintained – for the moment – a ruthlessly pragmatic approach to the historic parties, which he characterised as ‘now nothing more than transitory meeting places for revolutionary militants’ (As or Rosa 1966: 23).

Class Composition

Nobody has discovered anything more about the working class after Marx; it still remains an unknown continent. One knows for certain that it exists, because everyone has heard it speak, and anyone can hear fables about it. But no one can say: I have seen and understood. (Tronti 1971: 18)

Within Classe Operaia, as in Panzieri’s group, research on working-class behaviour continued to revolve around the studies of Alquati. Later he would deem his work of that time as the product of ‘Five Years of Solitude’: as projects which, artisanal and exploratory in nature, could only offer hypotheses to be taken up practically at some future date (Alquati 1975: 11). None the less, having established his conceptual framework in Quaderni Rossi, Alquati’s central concerns turned to following the complex bonds between the class and its ostensible representatives, and to mapping out the former’s patterns of ‘invisible’ organisation. In his first contribution to the new journal, Alquati focused upon the FIAT wildcat strikes of 1963, which he saw as indicative not of backward, ‘anarchoid’ behaviour, but of a new, compact, mass vanguard in motion. The most important property of these wildcats lay in their refusal to play by the established rules of industrial relations; instead, they were unpredictable, they excluded the union from the direction of the struggle, and ‘they demanded nothing’ (ibid.: 187, 192). At the same time, Alquati believed, it was wrong to see such strikes as anything but transitional phenomena, a temporary measure until a more adequate form of organisation could be found. ‘Carrying the permanent struggle beyond the “wildcat”’, he went on,

demands above all a ‘beyond’ of anticipation, of theory, of organisation, of strategy and therefore a ‘beyond’ of the international organisation of revolutionary political struggle ... At FIAT, as in the entire Italian working class, the workers already look to the final battle. (ibid.: 197)

Leaving aside this triumphalist note, the most interesting aspects of ‘Lotta alIa FIAT’ are bound up with its explicit rejection of self-management ideology, and its attempt to identify the connecting thread which ran from open forms of struggle like the wildcat to more subterranean forms of resistance. Polemicising at length with the union left grouped around the Turin CGIL, Alquati dismissed their plans for workers’ control as unwitting attempts to bind labour to accumulation. Instead he pointed to recent stoppages in which ‘the revolutionary consciousness and will of the workers expressed itself above all in the refusal to address positive demands to the boss’. Such independent action, he concluded, demonstrated that workers had begun to grope their way towards a goal entirely different to that envisaged by Bruno Trentin and his ilk: the organisation of a ‘’’political’’ self-management outside of capitalist production against the “general political power” of capital’ (Alquati 1975: 189, 193).

Developing its thematic of class composition in this manner, Tronti’s group came to reject a notion of class consciousness as the mere aggregate of each worker’s Weltanschauung. Struggle, rather, was seen as the greatest educator of the working class, binding the various layers of the workforce together, turning the ensemble of individual labour-powers into a social mass, a mass worker. It was through struggle that class autonomy most clearly differentiated itself not only not only from the movements of capital, but also from ‘the objective articulation of labour-power’ (Alquati 1975: 225). As Negri put it in his essay ‘Workers without allies’:

[T]he working class is increasingly closed and compact internally, and searches within itself to articulate its ever greater unity in organisation ... today the whole working class in struggle is the vanguard. (Negri 1964b: 18)

Identifying the subterranean paths by which class recomposition moved was, however, to prove a far more difficult task; at times, indeed, the workerists’ talk of the compactness of the class merely stood as an admission that its inner workings remained opaque to them. The limits of Classe Operaia’s approach were particularly evident in its argument that passivity should be understood as an instance of class antagonism, a form of ‘organisation without organisation’ (Tronti 1971: 262). According to Alquati (1975: 191), the reticence of workers to join in union-sponsored token strikes could be read not only in a traditional manner as a lack of class identity, but also as a refusal to sanction empty gestures which did nothing to challenge capital’s command over their labour-power. Against this, Sandro Studer has suggested that the path to understanding such behaviour lies in examining

the daily relationship between workers and productive forces, which is always an ambiguous relationship, where both the acceptance and refusal of capitalist labour coexist, where workers’ passive objectification and subjective (collective) resistance coexist within the subsumption of labour-power to the productive process. (Studer 1977: 59)

For his part, Alquati was not to pursue the matter beyond the limits already set by his work in Quaderni Rossi. All the same, his work would be amongst the first to address, however implicitly, an apparent contradiction within classical workerism. This lay in its insistence upon the permanent nature of labour-power’s antagonism to capitalist relations of production, while at the same time talking of a ‘technological path to repression’ (Negri 1967: 11), by which capital could successfully destroy the political quality of given concentrations of working-class power.

Unlike many Marxists, the editors of Classe Operaia never believed that the ‘making’ of the working class within a particular social formation was an event confined to a single period. Rather, it was the result of an ongoing interplay between the articulations of labour-power produced by capitalist development, and labour’s struggles to overcome them. But which element was the more potent: the continuity of struggle, or capital’s ability to decompose its antagonist? Was the proletarian subject really destroyed by the reorganisation of production which periodically followed industrial conflict, or was it like some single-celled creature, which could be infinitely divided whilst still retaining its genetic code intact? Was it enough to say, with Negri and Tronti, that capital’s restructuring simply displaced class conflict to a higher and more socialised level? Finally, what role if any did the problem of memory play in the reproduction of class antagonism?

These questions would become paramount at the end of the following decade. In the mid-1960s, however, most workerists seemed happy to posit a determinate relation between the workforce’s material articulation within the organic composition of capital- the ‘technical composition’ of the class – and its struggle to overturn such subordination in pursuit of a new political unity. Whilst still associated with Quaderni Rossi, Alquati had already stepped beyond such reductionism, intertwining his assertion of labour’s inherent hostility to capital with a sense of the peculiar problems thrown up by the vast cultural gulf which separated the million new workers of the ‘miracle’ from their older workmates. By the time of Classe Operaia, Alquati had deepened his understanding of shopfloor culture further, placing an increasing emphasis upon the coherence that the transmission and filtering of memory between successive generations of workers lent to the immediate experience of production. In this regard, his best work of the period was to be a study of those ex-party ‘factory Communists’ who provided an internal vanguard for the industrial working class of Turin. It was these factory activists, he argued, formed in the struggles of the miracle and now politically homeless, who would ultimately decide the fate of Tronti’s project of the working-class ‘use’ of the PCI (Alquati 1975: 274-302). By stressing the dialectic between such militants and the workplace culture which nurtured them, Alquati thus began to move away both from conventional Leninist notions of vanguard organisation, and Classe Operaia’s own simplistic characterisation of the working class as a single, homogeneous mass. In this manner, his thematic of ‘invisible’ forms of class organisation came to acquire a certain substance, gesturing towards those elementary units of working-class resistance which, based upon both the organisation of labour and social networks, have been explored at length by certain radical American writers (Weir 1981).

In other respects too, Alquati would continue to supply Classe Operaia’s most sober assessments of working-class behaviour. Emphasising the need to locate Italian developments within an understanding of accumulation and proletarianisation as worldwide phenomena - ‘ii socialist” countries included’ - he was of the opinion that if the unification of the class was now ‘decisive’ it was also ‘partial’. In Italy, he continued,

a stumbling block to approaching the structure of labour-power at the social level is the extreme differentiation between the levels of capitalist exploitation in the various zones, sectors, firms. (Alquati 1975: 222, 223)

An appreciation of the Italian working class, therefore, could not be exhausted by its description as a ‘compact social mass’: rather, such homogeneity stood as a goal for which to fight. And more than any other editor of Classe Operaia, Alquati was sensitive to the existence of a working-class experience outside the workplace. Forty years before, Otto Ruhle had insisted:

Only in the factory is the worker of today a real proletarian … Outside the factory he [sic] is a petty-bourgeois, involved in a petty bourgeois milieu and middle class habits of life, dominated by petty bourgeois ideology. (Ruhle 1974: 41-2)

Alquati’s view was diametrically opposed to that of the old Council Communist. Taking his cue from the category of social factory, he argued that no moment of a worker’s life could escape the reach of direct capitalist domination:

Turin is considered the ‘factory-city’. And it’s even true that there isn’t one aspect of the ‘social life’ of the city that is not a moment of the ‘factory’, understood in the Leninist sense as ‘social relation of production’. But it is also the ‘factory-city’ because according to the census more than 60 per cent of its ‘labourers’ are industrial workers, because the mass of factory workers is concentrated in the city, working in factories and living around them. There are no simple, clearcut distinction, then, between the plants where surplus value is created, the residential zones where labour-power reproduces itself, and the centres of administration of the movements of variable capital, of commodities, products and semi-worked primary and auxiliary materials. (Alquati 1975: 230)

At the same time, Classe Operaia’s insistence upon the centrality of productive labour in the direct production process would severely restrict Alquati’s understanding of class relations outside the world of immediate production. Thus, despite its promising beginning, the rest of his article on Turin as a ‘factory-city’ explored only the connections between different plants in the cycle of the metal industry. Similar limitations emerged within his piece on the ‘green factory’ of agriculture, which ended rather than began with the realisation that ‘one of the most urgent analyses to be made is that of the social fabric of class recomposition’ (ibid.: 272).

Introducing Classe Operaia to a new generation of readers in 1979, Negri (1979b) was to confess with some justice that ‘our mass worker smelt badly of the Putilov works’. Curiously, in the course of an earlier polemic, he had come to the opposite conclusion about the journal. Then he had complained that the likes of Tronti and Cacciari, ‘who today go on and on about working-class centrality’, had at that time ‘fully recognised the productive nature of socially mediated labour’ (Negri 1979a: 11). A similar position has been advanced by Giovanni Bossi (1975: 260), for whom the classical workerist discourse encompassed not only the political leadership of workers in the large factories over the rest of the class, but also ‘the socialisation-massification of the figure of the working class beyond immediate production’. Such an understanding of what Bossi has called ‘the capitalist use of the articulation of the territory’, however, is impossible without a fully developed notion of circulation and reproduction, both of which Classe Operaia lacked. At best, as exemplified by the work of Alquati, the ‘social fabric’ would be discussed only to the extent that it offered a means to communicate or block struggles. Furthermore, it is puzzling that a journal such as Classe Operaia, which is remembered as the birthplace of the ‘mass worker thesis’, should have had so little to say about the enormous impact which migration then wrought upon the whole of working-class culture in the North. If, as Bologna (1981: 17) later recalled, ‘part of workerism was an analysis of the formation of the industrial proletariat of the 1960s, the passage from countryside to factory’, then this was true only in terms of its impact upon the workplace. Next to nothing, for example, would be said about the problems – of housing, transport, social life – which their relocation brought for the new levy of industrial workers. Where the question of migration was taken up in Classe Operaia, it was simply in terms of its function as one of the objective bases of the ‘liquidation’ of the peasantry as a class separate from productive workers. Alternatively, it was understood as a moment of the mobility of labour-power; even in the latter case, discussion would be confined to migration within the Veneto region rather than from North to South (Di Leo 1964; Tolin 1965).

Reviewing some American studies a few years later, the workerist Ferruccio Gambino (1968) would insist that the gates of the factory stood firmly closed to the mainstream sociologists of that nation. A cynic might have added that if this was so, operaismo itself remained trapped inside. There is, in fact, more than a grain of truth in the contemporary critique of Classe Operaia’s outlook – advanced by one of its own associates in the pages of Rinascita – as ‘factoryist’. According to Accornero (1965), Italy was reduced to the industrial triangle, and the working class to the productive workers of the large factories in the North. In the end, however, the journal’s chief failure would lie not so much in its reductionism, although this would create problems enough, but rather in its habit of bringing to toohasty a conclusion the necessarily complex matter of developing political strategies adequate to the autonomous class behaviour which it had been its privilege to identify.

A Class Science?

For working-class thought, the moment of discovery has returned. The days of systems-building, of repetition, and vulgarity elevated to the status of systematic discourse are definitively over. What is needed now is to start again, with a rigorously one-sided class logic - courage and determination for ourselves, and detached irony towards the rest. (Tronti 1964: 4)

When, in 1966, Tronti’s contributions to Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia were reprinted in the book Operai e capita Ie, they were to be overshadowed there by a previously unpublished essay on ‘Marx, labour-power, working class’. Written in the same year as Lire Ie Capital, the piece was also, in its own way, a symptomatic reading of the critique of political economy. As the title suggests, it took as its starting point two central categories in Marx’s work in order to draw out the methodological premises for a class science. Unlike some of Althusser’s epigones, however, Tronti did not believe that such a science could ever depend upon purely internal proofs for verification. If theory necessarily informs practice, allowing us to order ‘facts’ and to pierce the world of mere appearance, then it was equally true that certain theoretical advances were possible only by means of practical breakthroughs. In this vein Tronti set out to filter a reading of Marx through the struggles of the early 1960s, seeking to escape the ‘petrified forest’ of vulgar Marxism which presently dominated the thought of the Communist movement. For classical workerism, as Negri (1983: 94) has noted, theory was a weapon to be used ‘both as a scientific lever and as a practical club’. The working class was crude and menacing: so too must be its science. All great discoveries - ‘ideas of simple men which seem madness to the scientists’, as Tronti put it – had been made by ‘dangerous leaps’, by breaking ‘the thread of continuity’. Today too a new horizon was demanded: ‘blind, minute analyses’ were best left to pedants (Tronti 1971: 11, 12).

‘Knowledge is tied to struggle. Who knows truly hates truly.’ The working-class point of view was thus ‘a non-objective social science which makes no pretence of objectivity’, its motivation being fuelled instead by the class hatred ‘of that part which wishes to overthrow society’ (Tronti 1971: 14, 232, 245). In the introduction to his unpublished Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law of the early 1840s, Marx (1975a: 187) had first proclaimed that part to be the proletariat, whose secret was ‘the dissolution of the hitherto existing world order’. Thus the first section of Tronti’s essay sought to find, within Marx’s early works, the gestation of the category labour-power, that peculiar commodity sold by the worker to capital. According to Tronti, its origins could be traced back to the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, a piece he was anxious to recover from the hands of those humanists and existentialists who had so bedevilled Althusser. But the pre-1848 texts were marked by considerable confusions, from which Marx had been freed only after a push from the outside:

Abstract labour already exists as labour-power in Marx before 1848. Labour-power already exists as commodity. But it is only the revolutionary passage of ‘48 which lays bare in Marx’s head the theoretical process that will carry him to discover the particular content of the commodity labour-power. The latter is no longer tied simply – through the alienation of labour – to the historical figure of the worker, but rather – through the production of surplus value – to the birth of capital itself. (Tronti 1971: 130)

It was this practical catalyst, he asserted, which had allowed Marx both to fuse and to surpass the thought of Hegel and Ricardo. Here Tronti echoed the approach of Raya Dunayevskaya, whose text Marxism and Freedom had emphasised the dialectic between theory and class activity:

All of history is the history of the struggle for freedom. If, as a theoretician, one’s ears are attuned to the new impulses from the workers, new ‘categories’ will be created, a new way of thinking, a step forward in philosophic cognition. (Dunayevskaya 1958: 89)

Tronti’s approach to theoretical discovery was very much the same, with the added qualification that an often fortuitous relationship existed between enquiry and its results. Indeed, in certain circumstances serendipity could even become a methodological principle:

[U]nknown worlds wait to be explored, and the vicissitudes of those who try to find a new route to the Indies, and precisely because of this discover other continents, are very close to our current mode of procedure. (Tronti 1971: 5)

Here, it would seem, there was no place for teleological rabbits pulled out of the hat at the last instance. Yet Tronti was himself to prove far from consistent in applying such an open-ended notion of theoretical enquiry; ultimately, his critique would remain trapped within its own conceptual terms, a metaphysic unable to realise that interaction with the real world for which it yearned.

This weakness would reveal itself most fully in the central section of ‘Marx, labour-power, working class’, wherein Tronti sought to deepen Quaderni Rossi’s earlier reading of capital as a power relation. So-called economic laws, he argued, had to be rediscovered as political forces, behind which lay the motor of working-class struggle. This was true above all for the cornerstone of the critique of political economy, the law of value. It was wrong, Tronti held, to interpret this law as proof that workers produced all wealth in society: such an argument was both moralistic and incorrect. The crucial point, rather, was that in assuming labour as the measure of its value, capital had acknowledged its dependence upon a unique commodity, one with the potential to destroy it completely (Tronti 1975: 225, 230). From this point of view,

[t]he labour theory of value means labour-power first, then capital; it means capital conditioned by labour-power, set in motion by labour-power ... Labour is the measure of value because the working class is the condition of capital. (ibid.: 224-5)

To refuse such a function within the valorisation process, Tronti believed, would prove the most coherent means to dismantle the class relation. Now that labour, with the generalised use of mechanised production, had lost ‘all individual character, and, consequently, all charm' (Marx and Engels 1972: 39), such a strategy of opposition to wage labour found its material reference point in the modern working class, which

has only to look at itself in order to understand capital. It has only to combat itself in order to destroy capital. It must recognise itself as political power, and negate itself as productive force. (Tronti 1971: 261)

In posing the antagonism between capital and labour in these terms, Tronti could claim no less a precursor than Marx himself, for whom a Communist society was one in which work – the tyranny of economic necessity – would no longer regulate people’s lives. According to the German revolutionary, capital was not a thing to be taken over and managed in a new fashion, but a social relation based upon a process – the self-expansion of value – which must be abolished as a prerequisite of human freedom (Marx 1975b: 278-9). When, after him, most leftists had envisaged their goal instead as a society at whose centre stood the workers reunited with their products, only a handful were to raise their voice in opposition. One of these was James Boggs, a former member of Correspondence whose critique of American unionism would appear in the pages of Classe Operaia. In The American Revolution, Boggs pictured a looming ‘workless society’, in which it would be ‘technologically possible for men [sic] simply to walk out on the streets and get their milk and honey’. To his mind, the strongest push for such a compact would come not from factory workers, busy defending their jobs, but from the ‘outsiders’ whom society had marginalised. ‘The workless society’, he concluded, ‘can only be brought about by actions and forces outside the work process’ (Boggs 1963: 53, 58). Tronti’s line of thought led him to exactly the opposite conclusion: only those who actually produced surplus value could block its accumulation, and with it the reproduction of the capital relation. Yet if such an argument was rigorous in its logic, Tronti’s efforts to give substance to the crucial passage from a mass of individual labour-powers to a class of workers would prove less successful.

‘What the working class is cannot be separated from how it struggles’ (Tronti 1971: 200). Having established the sphere of production as the privileged terrain within which, through struggle, the class composition of workers experienced a ‘political leap’, Tronti turned to what he saw as currently the most widespread form of working-class opposition to capital. This, he claimed, was exemplified by the passive, sullen denial of any but the most minimal collaboration within the labour process. If passivity was sometimes the product of a political defeat, as Panzieri had held, it could also arise in the wake of a new level of capitalist development. According to Tronti, these two manifestations had become entwined ‘in the past few decades’; while passivity remained a barrier to revolutionary activity, it also represented ‘an opting out of the game, a flouting of the social interest’ (ibid.: 202, 261, 262). Having reached this point, however, the essay’s argument simply ground to a halt, unwilling or unable to delve beneath the surface appearance of the phenomenon of passivity. Instead, Tronti’s refusal to budge from the highly abstract realm inhabited by ‘pure’ labour-power would lead him to postulate a series of suggestive if ultimately vacuous notions, such as his description of passivity as a form of ‘organisation without organisation’. Last but not least, it led him to take refuge in t~e triumphalist assertion that ‘Many experiences have failed. Ours will not fail’ (ibid.: 259; 262).

Polemicising with the latterday Quaderni Rossi and its efforts to construct a ‘model’ of socialist society with which to inspire workers, Asor Rosa would argue:

If there are reasons why the working class must overthrow and smash the domination of the capitalist system, they certainly cannot be found outside the material, objective characteristics of the class itself – Marx has at least taught us this. (Asor Rosa 1965: 39)

From this vantage point, perhaps the most important bequest of ‘Marx, labour-power, working class’ lay in its instruction that the Italian new left discover ‘what has happened in the working class since Marx’ (Tronti 1971: 263). In the pursuit of such understanding the work of Tronti himself, with its hermetically sealed categories, could only be of limited utility. Ironically, the ability to push parts of Marx’s conceptual apparatus towards their limits, in the process discerning certain aspects of workers’ behaviour without leaving the realm of theory, had become both his gift and his doom. Like Moses before him, Tronti would glimpse, but not himself enter, the promised land.

The End of Classe Operaia

As early as 1965, Tronti (1978a: 29) had argued that the existence of groups such as Classe Operaia was symptomatic of the labour movement’s current weakness, and could only be short-lived. Resuming this theme two years later, he was to deny that the recent round of contractual struggles posed any serious threat to capitalism. The social system based upon the accumulation of value for its own sake was young and vibrant, with most of the Third World’s population yet to be conquered by the wage relation:

The simple growth of this immense mass of individual labourpower, and within it the internal passage from proletarians to workers, will be the true challenge of the final days of the second millennium, and not the technological futurism of those who see in the automated factory all labour being transferred to machines ... (Tronti 1967a: 28)

Not only did capital continue to rely upon workers, Tronti went on, but the latter themselves still needed capital for their own growth and development as a social force. The class was neither strong enough nor mature enough to overthrow the capital relation, although it was now possible to manage the latter through the party. From the earlier strategy of workers within and against capital, and of revolutionaries within and against the party, there now followed ‘the party inside and against the state’. In fact, he believed, even a working-class use of social democracy had become possible:

Power is everything in cases such as these. Only the relations of force are decisive ... There is no solution that can be tactically excluded a priori. Tactically, all solutions are good. (Tronti 1967b: 26, 27)

As Lenin had said: ‘the revolution is a dirty affair ‘” one can’t make it with clean hands’ (ibid.: 27). By any means necessary, then - except outside the institutions of the official labour movement.

While the Northern workerists were more sanguine than Tronti about the prospects of their continued organisational autonomy, they too saw the revolutionary renovation of the historic left as an unavoidable task. As Negri would later remember in his autobiography:

Throughout those years our conviction was that, given a determinate level of consistent crises and the construction of [new] moments of organisation, the official labour movement would line up within the revolutionary process. It would be forced to. What a frightening error! How ingenuous and myopic on our part ... (Negri 1983a: 98)

None the less, the main thrust of the Northerners’ approach to political organisation continued to centre upon the need to maintain and generalise the fight within production. To their minds, the Romans’ emphasis upon entrism – at a time when the level of industrial conflict was again on the rise – was ludicrous. A full twelve months before the last issue of Classe Operaia appeared m 1967, the division into two factions had already effectively taken place, with only a handful of editors, like Alquati, maintaining a certain dIstance from both camps. Whilst this separation did not lead to their immediate rejection of the existing labour movement, nor even end their theoretical collaboration with Tronti’s inner circle, It did mark fundamental prioritising by the more radical workerists of industrial agitation over inner-party politicking. If a working-class ‘use’ of the PCI existed, then it was one that stemmed from miltant organisation in the workplace. As workerism entered a phase of ‘practical enthusiasms and theoretical depressions’ (Metropolzs 1978: 7), the hypotheses of the Classe Operaia years stood ready to be tested in the heat of conflict.