5. The Creeping May

In December 1967 a number of prominent intellectuals associated with the radical wing of operaismo met to discuss the nature of international class struggle during the interwar period. The venue was the University of Padua, where Negri had recently assumed the Chair of State Doctrine and was now busy establishing a foothold for the tendency within the academic world. Attempting to situate historically many of the assertions advanced in Tronti's Operai e capitale, the contributions ranged across various subjects, from the German council movement to the British General Strike and John Maynard Keynes' work on the dynamic of effective demand (Bologna et al. 1972). The pivotal experience of the period, however, was seen as that of the US, where workers had clashed with a capital able to make the leap to its social form in the absence of a social democratic party. Above all, it was claimed, Roosevelt's New Deal had realised practically what Keynes' General Theory had grasped in only a mystified form. The wage was now an independent variable, and nothing short of an income policy underpinned by the legal organisation and regulation of the working class could hope to prevent a repetition of the disaster of 1929 (Ferrari-Bravo 1972: 108-14).

The Mass Worker Takes Form

Within the workerism that followed Classe Operaia's demise, mass worker and the wage became inseparable themes. If until the Padua conference this class figure remained somewhat indistinct, a 'social mass', now the mass worker began to assume flesh and blood. It possessed three decisive attributes: it was massified, it performed simple labour, and it was located at the heart of the immediate process of production. Individually interchangable but collectively indispensable, lacking the bonds which had tied skilled workers to production, the mass worker personified the subsumption of concrete to abstract labour characteristic of modern capitalist society (Bologna 1972: 13,23). It was a 'crude, pagan race' (Tronti 1968: 46), bent on destroying not only that factory regime which, to Engels' (1959) mind would always be with us, but any force which subordinated the fulfillment of its needs to the dictates of dead labour.

With its organisational presence restricted to the North-East of Italy for most of 1967 and 1968, it was only natural that operaismo's political work and discussion of class composition would at first focus upon Emilia-Romagna and the Veneto. The North was then in the grip of a widespread industrial restructuring, based for the most part upon the intensification of labour rather than any significant investment in new plant (Graziani 1979: 86-7). As elsewhere in the North, the recession in these two regions also offered employers a perfect opportunity not only to attack pockets of dead time in production, but also to pursue what Massimo Paci (1973: 89-92, 133) was to call the 'masculinisation of employment'. According to Franco Donaggio (1977: 20-1), only one factory in Porto Marghera continued to hire workers in the mid-1960s, recruiting predominantly amongst males in their twenties or thirties. Elsewhere in the North-East, owners achieved the same result simply by laying off women and the oldest and youngest of the men (POv-e 1967d: 2).

The growing homogenisation of labour by age and gender within many of Italy's large and medium-sized industrial concerns during the late 1960s acted to reinforce that compactness encouraged by the spread of mass production techniques (Paci 1973: 161-2). One crude indicator of this declining weight of skilled manual labour amongst workers as a whole was the changing fortune of apprentices. As fewer and fewer positions required prolonged periods of preparation in school or factory, the percentage of industrial employees holding apprenticeships dropped dramatically, from 12.8 per cent in 1961 to 4.6 per cent in 1970 (ibid.: 223). The traditional system of grading pay by skill also began to assume new connotations: having once served in part to defend the wages and conditions of skilled workers, its original rationale had been increasingly undermined from the 1950s onwards by the fragmentation of work tasks intrinsic to mechanisation. Under such circumstances, the grading system proved a flexible tool with which Italian managers could redefine job roles without resorting to more sophisticated methods such as 'job evaluation' (Regini and Reyneri 1971: 112). The same semi-skilled task frequently fell under quite different pay classifications from one firm to the next, rendering any material distinction between many 'qualified' and 'common' workers increasingly blurred (Paci 1973: 153). Promotions, too, reflected this transformation, coming to signify less the acquisition of new skills than an acknowledgment of seniority (Regini and Reyneri 1971: 105).

That gradings had become a problem was already a widely-held belief at the beginning of the 1960s, and the struggles of that time had registered a muted push against the existing division of the workforce into four categories (Paci 1973: 163). The solution agreed to by unions and employers in 1963, however, had simply been to divide the second-lowest category further into two levels of 'common workers'. This trend was continued by the metalworkers' contract of 1966, which also split the top category of 'specialised worker' in two (Regini and Reyneri 1971: 72, 107). That employers would seek the further stratification of their workforce is not difficult to comprehend, but the fact that support for the new categories was no less widespread amongst union officials perhaps requires explanation. For the CGIL in particular, with its faith in technical progress still formally intact, the increase in the number of gradings - and with it, a growing spread in pay - was of great importance, a mark of the further specialisation and skill demanded by economic development. If some of its functionaries were critical of the existing system, this was due not to any doubts as to the rationality of its division of labour, but only capital's ability to administer it fairly (ibid.: 108). The worth and dignity of skills was a faith held dear not only by the more conservative sections of the FlaM, but also by champions of workplace democracy like Bruno Trentin, who would confess at the height of the mass challenge to gradings:

I believe that professional qualifications are still a goal and a patrimony of workers ... It is not a weapon of the boss, and I don't see, therefore, why the boss should not pay for it ... (ibid.: 76)

If such an attitude does much to explain the distance between many workers and the CGIL in 1968 and 1969, the irony of the restructuring of the mid-1960s was that ultimately it acted to strengthen the forces of labour whilst greatly restricting capital's manoeuvrability. By selecting young adult males as those supposedly best suited to the rigours of mass production, employers effectively ruled out the use of other components of the labour market as an industrial reserve army. When added to the--growing absorption of young people by mass education, and the declining rate of migration northwards, this handicap served to strengthen the rigidity of an industrial workforce already partly homogenised by the des killing of mass production techniques. For the first time since the war, the relations of force within Italy's urban labour market were no longer stacked in capital's favour. When workers began to perceive this shift, they would set out to bring enormous pressure to bear upon the Italian industrial relations system precisely at its weakest point: the categories of 'skill' which until then had furnished its cornerstone (Paci 1973: 168).

Workers and Workerism in Porto Marghera

Within the Italian petrochemical sector of the 1960s, technical and white-collar staff constituted a noticeably high proportion of employees (Cacciari 1968: 592). This did not mean, however, that most workers in the major petrochemical plants - whether classified as 'manual workers', 'technicians' or white-collar 'employees' - were any less massified or in possession of greater control over production than their counterparts in manufacturing (Zandegiacomi 1974: 26-7). The traditional craft workers of Porto Marghera had already been forced down the 'technological path to repression' during the 1950s; the relatively higher qualification of those who replaced them was in large part a distorted recognition of the greater technological sophistication of production within the chemical industry. Like their counterparts at FIAT, many of the new chemical workers had come from the countryside; indeed, in a region that epitomised the process of industrialisation in the absence of urbanisation (Patrono 1980: 96), many continued to live in a rural setting. What, if anything, made their workplaces different from Mirafiori was on the contrary the apparent perfection of the tyranny of fixed capital. Here, the very nature of the production process - a highly automated system demanding attention around the clock - guaranteed the subordination of employees even more fully than the car industry's assembly line. Thus in Porto Marghera, no less than in Turin, a mass worker would slowly take shape during the years of the economic miracle.

By 1967, five or six years of workerist intervention at Porto Marghera had begun to bear fruit at Montedison's large Petrolchimico plant. There POv-e could claim as adherents both younger workers fresh from the outlying countryside, and a number of longtime CGIL militants elected to the firm's Commissione Interna (Pasetto and Pupillo 1970: 96; Perna 1980). Frustrated with the regional union's refusal to organise around health and safety - a perennial concern in an industry plagued by a high accident rate and silicosis - in August POv-e members called a stop-work meeting which voted for strike action. Fearful of being outflanked at a plant where its base was already weak, the local union ratified the decision. The brief stoppage which followed saw only 500 employees take part, yet the implications of the episode were disturbing, as one local newspaper reflected:

There remains the (preoccupying) fact that the 'Chinese' were able to impose their objectives on unionists of con sum ate experience. Of the 10 per cent who heeded the strike call, almost all were youths in their twenties, 32-33 years of age at the most. It is a warning which cannot be ignored; it means that there is a cog loose somewhere ... (quoted in POv-e 1968a: 13)

It was the group's first major independent action, one that left it cautiously optimistic about the future. For the following year, none the less, POv-e continued to promulgate Classe Operaia's traditional discourse on the working-class luse' of party and union. Whilst the revisionism of the PCI's leadership was measured for the first time against the performance of Communist parties in other continents (POv-e 1967c: 3), the workerist message remained the same. The labour movement might be integrated into the capitalist system elsewhere in the West, but in Italy the party's rank-and-file - 'its truly revolutionary base' - still blocked this tendency. It was mandatory, then, to join the struggle 'against the reformists in the party' to that 'against the boss in the factory' (pOv-e 1967a: 1; 1967j: 1). In fact, claimed Potere Operaio, the goals of reclaiming the party in the workplace and defeating modern planned capitalism were intertwined, since

[t]oday the political terrain on which the relation of force between workers and capitalist is measured is that of the factory, and the wage-productivity relation is the key to the whole functioning of capitalist society. What yesterday was economic, today is the only real political terrain; what yesterday was political, today has become appearance ... (pOv-e 1968b: 4)

Thus, until events in 1968 shattered the group's belief in any possibility of the official labour movement's renovation, the question of the Communist Party's future remained an open one. True, some articles in the workerist journal called for a new, mass revolutionary party during 1967. Others the following year, though, continued to put the ball firmly in the court of the PCI, 'that great Communist Party' which workers 'have always seen as their own', and which now 'must choose' between social democracy and class struggle (POv-e 1968b: 4; 1968d: 4).

A similar ambivalence then informed POv-e's understanding of the CGIL. As with the Communist Party, the group's view of the union before that point had been deeply contradictory. In this it was marked both by hostility towards the top-down efforts at cooperation between the three major confederations - for whose sake the CGIL seemed prepared to capitulate its few remaining class principles - and the belief that the 'class' union was still susceptible to working-class influence. Thus, while in one article the refusal of CGIL parliamentarians to vote against the Socialist Party's 'five year plan' was seen as confirmation that all unions were within capital's logic, other pieces called for 'true' union autonomy. 'Union bureaucrats are paid by the workers', stated an article of November 1967, 'we must impose the interests of the workers upon them' (POv-e 1967b: 1; 1967f: I, 4; 1967i: 2). In one respect, such differences reflected ongoing differences of opinion amongst workerists as to the unions' long-term worth; as has been seen, the demarcation between 'extremists' and 'entrists' had still by no means clarified itself fully amongst the North-Eastern exponents of operaismo (Bianchini and Pergola 1980). On the other hand, such pronouncements were the product of POv-e's belief that regional specificities also had their part to play in defining the relation between workers and the labour movement. Thus, while the PCI of Emilia-Romagna - the central regulator of the local capitalist economy - was dismissed from the beginning as a lost cause (pOv-e 1967h), the group's assessment of the Veneto party was for a time much more open-ended.

Above all, however, POv-e was acutely conscious that Italian workers, on the defensive after the disappointing contract struggles of 1966, were not yet prepared to venture far beyond the cover of either party or union. During 1967 there were to be no appeals in Potere Operaio for militants to form autonomous committees, even if one article noted the emergence in some workplaces of

forms of autonomous working class organisation and initiative, for now still in an embryonic state, but susceptible to further development (POv-e 1967f: 1).

Instead, if any alternative in the factory to the revisionism of the PCI and CGIL was held up, it was to be the traditional delegate structure of the Commissione Interna, with numerous articles that year advising workers to pressure their workplace representatives into fighting the reorganisation of production. If, as the Petrolchimico dispute of August made clear, even these bodies were not immune to the corrupting influence of reformism (POv-e 1967g: 4), this was not cause for undue despair: what mattered most was not so much the organisational form assumed by workers' struggles as their content. Counselling workers to use 'the wage thematic' belatedly discovered by the unions, the issue of Potere Operaio for July 1967 looked forward to an imminent political struggle within the workplace, one which placed 'everything in discussion: staffing levels, hours, overtime, holidays' (POv-e 1967e: 4).

In Porto Marghera, the opportunity for this 'guerrilla warfare in the factory', as Potere Operaio was to call it in late 1967 (POv-e 1967i: 2), appeared the following summer when production bonuses came up for negotiation. The chemical contract made provision for marginal percentile adjustments, varying from category to category, but the local workerists struck upon the demand of a flat 5000 lire increase for all: an objective both egalitarian and, they felt, one which most workers would deem 'worth fighting for' (POv-e 1968a: 16). It proved to be a shrewd move, with the popularity of the idea forcing the CGIL once again to take up demands advanced by the group. Opening in late June, the dispute saw a dozen stoppages before its climax, in early August, with a demonstration in which thousands of chemical workers converged upon the neighbouring town of Mestre, effectively isolating it from the rest of the Veneto (ibid.: 39). From the beginning of the conflict the question of leadership was hotly disputed. After workers involved in discussions with MS militants were threatened with expulsion by the union bureaucracy, the site of decision-making shifted firmly to the mass meetings (ibid.: 26-9). The strikers' tactics throughout were aggressive, with stoppages on alternate days designed to disrupt production, and mass picketing to intimidate those still prepared to work. The biggest card, however, would be played on 29 July, when strikers threatened to reduce the size of the skeleton staff traditionally left to oversee the plant, prompting a lockout (ibid.: 37-8; Tarrow 1989: 169). This object lesson in the vulnerability of continuous flow processes, along with the effectiveness of rank-and-file organisation, did much for the prestige of POv-e at the plant. Yet the group still found itself pitifully weak outside the workplace, and powerless to prevent a final agreement between management and unions enshrining percentile increases by category. The dispute also shattered once and for all any ambiguity about 'using' the union. If it was 'stupid to talk of "betrayal"', as POv-e argued a few months later, that was because the CGIL, no less than the other union confederations, had become a tool of capital. Henceforth, workers would truly be thrown upon their own resources in fighting the employers and state (POv-e 1968a: 42, 46; 1968g: 1; 1968h: 3).

'France is Near'

One event which contributed to the growing assertiveness amongst Italian workers was the French general strike of May and June 1968. The May days had a galvanising effect upon the Italian far left as well, with both Leninists and libertarians holding it up as a verification of their policies. The workerist assessment of May was also largely positive, and if Potere Operaio agreed with Marxist-Leninists that the key element missing in France had been a revolutionary political organisation, it was equally adamant that such a body must take a mass form internal to the class (POv-e 1968i: 2). One of the first to review some of the literature that had poured out of France in the aftermath of May was Massimo Cacciari, whose defection to Tronti's camp would not lessen his ongoing interest in the intricacies of class composition. Cacciari cuttingly dismissed those - like Andre Glucksmann - who continued to preach the lessons of What Is To Be Done?, when on the contrary it was increasingly evident that

struggle manifests and massifies itself completely within the determinate production relations, and it is from here, finally, that it tends to 'socialise' itself ... There no longer exists, for the class, a 'politics-outside', external to its own mass location in the advanced capitalist cycle. (Cacciari 1969: 454, 455)

The French May also prompted operaismo to deepen its critique of self-management as a weapon against capital. Indeed, despite his dismissal of vulgar Leninists like Andre Glucksmann, Cacciari's greatest venom was reserved for those who saw workers' management of production as the gateway to some idyll of democracy practised to its ultimate degree. Self-management's fundamental flaw, he argued, was that it challenged not the capitalist mode of production as a whole, but simply the right of its current functionaries to hold sway:

n this manner self-management disarms the class: in place of the formidable instruments which it has discovered and strengthened against the capitalist production relation, it offers a model of 'liberation' which is objectively reactionary even in terms of the capitalist production relation itself. (Cacciari 1969: 459)

The ideology of self-management, he insisted, found its roots in the most backward sectors of the class, still jealously clinging to their traditional skills. It was these strata which comprised the base of the Western Communist parties, and from whence their reformism drew sustenance; in the meantime, liberation from labour, not the liberation of labour, had become the aim of modern revolutionary politics (ibid.: 460).

The identification of the self-management project with the base of the French Communist Party (PCF) would no doubt have surprised many in France, not least members of the PCF itself. The assessment offered by Bologna and Daghini (1968: 17-18) was more balanced, recognising that self-management had meant very different things during the general strike. True, for the majority of its advocates it held out nothing more than 'workers' management of their own exploitation', while the Communist wing of the French labour movement revealed its political dishonesty by conjuring up the spectre of 'left opportunism' each time the phrase was mentioned. For the most radical students, however, such as those of the Mouvement du 22 Mars, the term evoked something fundamentally different: a meeting place where they and workers could discuss the question of power (ibid.: 30). Self-management's real critique, however, had come from those young unskilled workers at Renault who had called for a minimum wage of 1000 francs a month. This exorbitant demand, claimed Bologna and Daghini, had threatened 'to blow up' the labour market, and was symptomatic of the collective egoism of workers keen 'to negate their own figure as producers':

[i]It was the refusal of labour which emerged at the end of discussions of self-management, and not the acceptance of a better and more human organisation of labour itself (ibid.: 42, 46-7)

More than any other single event, the French May accelerated radical operaismo's final abandonment of the tactic of a working-class 'use' of the PCI. If the general strike had further demonstrated that workers' spontaneity both refused the unions' policies whilst retaining those bodies as an elementary means of organisation and communication, the role of the French Communist Party in contrast had been one of containment and provocation (Bologna and Daghini 1968: 51-2). It was the PCF which had brought the Communist-led component of the union movement to heel during the June negotiations with the state, and it was the PCF which had most vehemently denounced the far left. Within Italy, the assessment of one former Quademi Rossi editor - 'when it comes to the crunch, the PCI will not behave differently to the PCF' (Masi 1968: 56) - also came to be accepted by POv-e and its allies in Rome. Having claimed as late as its May issue that 'the working class has always seen in the PCI its party, a party that wants to be revolutionary' (pOv-e 1968e: 4), any positive portrayal of the Communist Party disappeared from the pages of Potere Operaio after July. By March 1969, Luciano Ferrari-Bravo (1969: 36) of POv-e was advancing the proposition that the French May held the same significance for the Communist movement as that of August 1914 for the Second International. According to Scalzone, the PCI leadership's march towards participation in a 'new majority' of government parties, coupled with its firm commitment to capitalist development, was confirmation that

[t]he open clash between the real autonomy of the class movements and the control of the opportunist organisations of the labour movement is in the nature of things. It happened in France; it will happen in Italy ... (Scalzone 1969: 6)

Why so drastic a shift in operaismo's critique of the PCI? One cause was the realignment of forces within the tendency itself, as increasing numbers of Tronti's immediate supporters chose the PCI after the June conference, 'Students and Workers' (Boato 1978: 295). Beyond this, both observation of the French May and their own difficulties at Porto Marghera helped to bring home to workerists the untenable nature of their traditional tactics. Indeed, despite what many on the far left deemed its too conciliatory tone, the tendency's attempt to intervene at factory gates had already provoked a number of clashes with PCI activists (Negri 1979a: 91-2; Bologna 1988). Yet if Piperno (1969: 37) was to come closest to capturing the essence of the Communist Party when he dubbed it 'the working-class articulation of capitalist social organisation', the PCI was far from identical with the French Communist Party. Perhaps, indeed, it was the very differences between the two that most concerned the workerists, and their hostility became explicit just as the PCI was making its greatest efforts at dialogue with the MS. It would be foolish to interpret the outstretched hand of certain party leaders as anything more than an attempt to utilise the new mass movement for their own ends. In the long run, though, such an accomodating flexibility seemed to pose even more of a threat to the independent existence of groups such as POv-e than the confrontationist approach taken by the French party. Such a risk was, in the end, academic; as it transpired, the PCI's openness would soon disappear along with much of its major left tendency, finally driven from the party in 1969 (Amyot 1981; Garzia 1985).

If more than a little pessimism underlay operaismo's appraisal of political developments in Italy, the growing wealth of experiences in class militancy and autonomous organisation were a source of encouragement to the tendency's decision to finally strike out alone. In this respect too, the French general strike played an important part in altering expectations as to the timescale of social change. 'For the first time we are not afraid of confrontation', Potere Operaio announced in May (POv-e 1968d: 1). While speaking of the 'long and patient', if 'unstoppable work of organisation', the paper now extolled the new forms of struggle in evidence (pOv-e 1968f: 4). Above all, the breadth of discontent under De Gaulle, combined with the French Communist Party's 'sordid but frontal' blockage of the strike wave, lent a sense of urgency to class antagonisms already heightened by the challenges to Western imperialism emanating from the Third World (pOv-e 1968i: 2).

Nor was such optimism entirely unwarranted. If the French events projected to Italian workers some sense of the enormous energy and creativity latent within their class, their own student movement indicated that different and more effective forms of organisation existed than the traditional ones assumed by party and union. As discontent with the labour movement's performance within the workplace mounted, growing numbers of workers were to take matters into their own hands (Regalia et al. 1978; Reyneri 1978: 51-2, 74). The most famous of such early initiatives was taken that June by militants at the Milan offices of the tire firm Pirelli. Angry with their unions' poor handling of recent struggles over contracts and work conditions, they had formed a body - the Comitato Unitario di Base (CUB - United Rank-and-File Committee) - destined to mark a new phase in Italian industrial conflict (Mosca et a1. 1988; Lumley 1990: 183-95).

The situation at Pirelli in 1968 was in many ways emblematic of Northern Italian industry as a whole. Although staff numbers had declined overall in recent times, there had been a considerable influx of young male workers into the firm, with management taking advantage of their inexperience to speed up production (CUB 1969: 18; Pietropaolo 1970: 68). Like POv-e's cell at Montedison, the CUB brought together not only younger workers relatively new to politics, but also those experienced party and union activists dubbed 'factory communists' by Alquati (Pasetto and Pupillo 1970: 96; D'Agostini 1974: 199-200; Basilico 1976: 281). The CUB also worked closely with members of both the MS and left groups - including Sergio Bologna (1988), who helped to write some of their documents. Less anti-union to begin with than extra-union, it sought to overcome the divisions imposed by competition between the CGIL, the CISL and the UIL. In its first document, the group stressed the need to build working-class power through struggles over working conditions in individual departments; these in turn, it held, would lay the basis for a general struggle 'to invest all of Pirelli'. Struggle over workplace matters, it argued, could not be dismissed as irrelevant to political struggle, since 'the significance of exploitation is political' (CUB et a1. 1970: 100, 103). The CUB's primary purpose, the committee continued in another piece, was to contribute to the planning of working-class struggle, since only this could defeat 'the general plan of capital's exploitation' within which the unions, through the national contracts, were increasingly inserted (ibid.: 99-100, 104).

Beyond its insistence that the direction of industrial action remain in the hands of the workforce itself, the most striking aspect of the CUB experience at Pirelli was the practice, beginning in the middle of June, of the self-limitation of production. The 'go-slow' was a relatively novel occurrence in Italy. As one of the best accounts of the period has explained, it was immediately effective because it upset 'the balance between the cost of the strike to the firm and to the workers which practice had established and almost made legitimate' (Regalia et a1. 1978: 112). Leaving no space for unions to intervene, hostile to the existing organisation of labour, the 'go-slow' proved a great success at Pirelli (CUB et a1. 1970: 131-2). Soon the CUB phenomenon had spread to a number of major factories in Milan, lending encouragement to discrete minorities of workers in other parts of the country to go and do likewise. In Porto Marghera itself, POv-e's cell at Petrolchimico reformed as a Comitato Operaio (Workers' Committee), which presented itself as

a new organisation which does not intend accepting the ensnarement of struggles and mystification of perspectives which the party, unions and other organisations advance. Our immediate objective is to create a network of working-class links capable of leading struggles. (quoted in Pasetto and Pupillo 1970: 105)

At the same time, with the student movement increasingly losing direction and impetus, the North-Eastern group drew closer to other :workerist fragments around .the country. Together with small groups in Milan and Turin and a sizable section of the Roman MS, plans were laid for a new national journal, the first since Classe Operaia's demise (Scalzo.ne 1988: 1~0-7). When La Classe finally did appear m May 1969, It was to shift workerist attention back to its initial source of inspiration - FIAT's Mirafiori plant in Turin.