Issue 3: Workers’ Inquiry

Workers’ inquiry: a genealogy

Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi's exhaustive look at 'workers' inquiries' and how they were practiced and theorized by the Johnson-Forest Tendency, Socialisme Ou Barbarie and operaismo groups.

Exact and Pos­i­tive Knowl­edge: Marx’s Questionnaire

In 1880, La Revue social­iste asked an aging Karl Marx to draft a ques­tion­naire to be cir­cu­lated among the French work­ing class. Called “A Work­ers’ Inquiry,” it was a list of exactly 101 detailed ques­tions, inquir­ing about every­thing from meal times to wages to lodg­ing.1 On a closer look, there seems to be a pro­gres­sion in the line of ques­tion­ing. The first quar­ter or so ask seem­ingly dis­in­ter­ested ques­tions about the trade, the com­po­si­tion of the work­force employed at the firm, and the gen­eral con­di­tions of the shop, while the final quar­ter gen­er­ally shifts to more explic­itly polit­i­cal ques­tions about oppres­sion, “resis­tance asso­ci­a­tions,” and strikes.

The ques­tion­naire began with a few prefa­tory reflec­tions on the project as a whole. These fif­teen or so lines basi­cally amounted to a sin­gle prin­ci­ple: learn­ing from the work­ing class itself. Only the work­ing class could pro­vide mean­ing­ful infor­ma­tion on its own exis­tence, just as only the work­ing class itself could build the new world. But behind this sim­ple call lay a num­ber of com­plex moti­va­tions, objec­tives, and inten­tions, mak­ing work­ers’ inquiry – this seem­ingly mod­est desire to learn from the work­ers – a highly ambigu­ous, mul­ti­fac­eted, and inde­ter­mi­nate project from the very start.

At its most rudi­men­tary level, work­ers’ inquiry was to be the empir­i­cal study of work­ers, a com­monly neglected object of inves­ti­ga­tion at the time. “Not a sin­gle gov­ern­ment, whether monar­chy or bour­geois repub­lic, has yet ven­tured to under­take a seri­ous inquiry into the posi­tion of the French work­ing class,” Marx lamented. “But what a num­ber of inves­ti­ga­tions have been under­taken into crises – agri­cul­tural, finan­cial, indus­trial, com­mer­cial, political!”

Since these other forms of inves­ti­ga­tion – like those end­less gov­ern­ment inquiries into this or that cri­sis – sim­ply could not pro­duce any real knowl­edge of the work­ing class, some new form of inves­ti­ga­tion had to be devel­oped. Its objec­tive, as those hun­dred ques­tions reveal, would be to amass as much fac­tual mate­r­ial about work­ers as pos­si­ble. The goal, Marx wrote, should be to acquire “an exact and pos­i­tive knowl­edge of the con­di­tions in which the work­ing class – the class to whom the future belongs – works and moves.”

Of course, even in Marx’s time, health inspec­tors and oth­ers had already begun to under­take this kind of inves­ti­ga­tion into the world of the work­ing class. But not only were these offi­cial inves­ti­ga­tions unsys­tem­atic and par­tial, they treated work­ers as mere objects of study, in the man­ner of the soil and seeds of those well-investigated agri­cul­tural crises. What set worker’s inquiry apart from these other empir­i­cal stud­ies was the belief that the work­ing class itself knew more about cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion than any­one else. It is the “work­ers in town and coun­try,” Marx thought, who “alone can describe with full knowl­edge the mis­for­tunes from which they suffer.”

With this brief inter­ven­tion, Marx estab­lished a fun­da­men­tal epis­te­mo­log­i­cal chal­lenge. What was the rela­tion­ship between the work­ers’ knowl­edge of their exploita­tion, and the sci­en­tific analy­sis of the “laws of motion” of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety? In Cap­i­tal, he devoted many pages to doc­u­ment­ing the labor process, yet this seemed to be part of a log­i­cal expo­si­tion which began with the crit­i­cal expo­si­tion of value, an abstract cat­e­gory of bour­geois polit­i­cal econ­omy. He nev­er­the­less main­tained in his 1873 after­word that “In so far as such a cri­tique rep­re­sents a class, it can only rep­re­sent the class whose his­tor­i­cal task is the over­throw of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion and the final abo­li­tion of all classes – the pro­le­tariat.”2 Louis Althusser, in his famous Pref­ace to the French trans­la­tion, sug­gested that this meant that Cap­i­tal could only be under­stood from a specif­i­cally pro­le­tar­ian view­point, since that is “the only view­point which makes vis­i­ble the real­ity of the exploita­tion of wage labour power, which con­sti­tutes the whole of cap­i­tal­ism.”3 Yet Marx’s own view remains unclear. Was work­ers’ inquiry a means of access­ing the pro­le­tar­ian view­point? Was it sim­ply the work­ers’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in gen­er­at­ing a uni­ver­sal knowledge?

What is abun­dantly clear is that Marx had a high esti­ma­tion of the autonomous activ­ity of the work­ing class. Not only would work­ers pro­vide knowl­edge about the nature of cap­i­tal­ism, they would be the only ones who could over­throw it: only the work­ers in town and coun­try, “and not sav­iors sent by prov­i­dence, can ener­get­i­cally apply the heal­ing reme­dies for the social ills which they are prey.” This prac­tice of work­ers’ inquiry, then, implied a cer­tain con­nec­tion between pro­le­tar­ian knowl­edge and pro­le­tar­ian pol­i­tics. Social­ists would begin by learn­ing from the work­ing class about its own mate­r­ial con­di­tions. Only then would they be able to artic­u­late strate­gies, com­pose the­o­ries, and draft pro­grams. Inquiry would there­fore be the nec­es­sary first step in artic­u­lat­ing a his­tor­i­cally appro­pri­ate social­ist project.

The prac­tice of dis­sem­i­nat­ing the inquiry also rep­re­sented a step towards orga­niz­ing this project, by estab­lish­ing direct links with work­ers. “It is not essen­tial to reply to every ques­tion,” Marx wrote. “The name of the work­ing man or woman who is reply­ing will not be pub­lished with­out spe­cial per­mis­sion but the name and address should be given so that if nec­es­sary we can send com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” For some, this attempt to forge real con­tacts with the work­ers was in fact a gen­uine inten­tion of the project.

Of course, Marx men­tions noth­ing about build­ing orga­ni­za­tions in this short arti­cle. How­ever, he would later indi­cate that research and orga­ni­za­tion had a close rela­tion­ship. In 1881, just a year after pen­ning this ques­tion­naire, Marx received a let­ter from a young social­ist who wanted to know what he thought about the recent calls to refound the Inter­na­tional Workingmen’s Asso­ci­a­tion. Marx revealed that he was opposed to this project. The “crit­i­cal junc­ture” for such an asso­ci­a­tion had not arrived, and attempt­ing to form one would be “not merely use­less but harm­ful,” since it would not be “related to the imme­di­ate given con­di­tions in this or that par­tic­u­lar nation.”4

So any orga­ni­za­tion had to be tied to con­crete his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions. We can con­clude from Marx’s enthu­si­as­tic response to La Revue social­iste that he granted a strate­gic role to research; in this spe­cific con­junc­ture, inquiry was a more appro­pri­ate mea­sure than launch­ing an orga­ni­za­tion, and was per­haps even its precondition.

Marx died a few years after this first stab at inquiry, never receiv­ing a sin­gle response. But the project would have a remark­able after­life in the fol­low­ing cen­tury. As we pull away from Marx’s orig­i­nal blue­print to sur­vey the much longer his­tory of work­ers’ inquiry, it is hard not to notice the remark­able insta­bil­ity of this prac­tice. Though nearly every exam­ple touches the coor­di­nates first devel­oped by Marx, inquiry has been pol­y­semic and con­tra­dic­tory. This intro­duc­tion will sur­vey its devel­op­ment as a way of inves­ti­gat­ing its under­ly­ing questions.

Rais­ing Con­scious­ness: The Johnson-Forest Tendency

While fig­ures like Pierre Nav­ille and Simone Weil had ear­lier pub­lished first­hand accounts of fac­tory life, Marx’s project was only truly rein­car­nated in 1947, when the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency released a short pam­phlet called The Amer­i­can Worker. Named after the pseu­do­nyms of its two prin­ci­pal the­o­rists, CLR James (J.R. John­son), the Trinida­dian author of The Black Jacobins, and Raya Dunayevskaya (Fred­die For­est), Leon Trotsky’s one­time assis­tant, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency first emerged in 1941 as an oppo­si­tional cur­rent within the Trot­sky­ist Work­ers’ Party. In 1947, the year they spon­sored their first inquiry, this mar­ginal though respected cur­rent left the WP over what was then known as the “Negro Ques­tion.” While the Work­ers’ Party argued for a sin­gle, broad, mul­tira­cial move­ment orga­nized under the slo­gan “Black and White, Unite and Fight,” the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency coun­tered that the black com­mu­nity had its own spe­cific needs, which could not be peremp­to­rily sub­sumed under such a homog­e­niz­ing move­ment, and along with other oppressed minori­ties should strug­gle for its own auton­omy.5

In 1951, after break­ing from Trot­sky­ism alto­gether, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency formed Cor­re­spon­dence, with a news­pa­per of the same name.6 Cor­re­spon­dence, whose first issue was released that Novem­ber, was to be a new kind of paper. Prin­ci­pally writ­ten, edited, and dis­trib­uted by work­ers them­selves, it was intended to serve as a forum in which work­ers could share their own expe­ri­ences. Reflect­ing the Tendency’s con­tin­ued empha­sis on the pri­macy of autonomous needs, each issue was delib­er­ately divided into four sec­tions – for fac­tory work­ers, blacks, youth, and women – so that each sec­tor of the broader work­ing class would have its own inde­pen­dent space to dis­cuss what con­cerned them most. The hope was that in writ­ing about their lives, work­ers would come to see that their prob­lems were not per­sonal, but social. A 1955 edi­to­r­ial titled “Gripes and Griev­ances” stated the pur­pose of the paper: “When mil­lions of work­ers are express­ing the same gripe about their job, the fore­man, the union, and the com­pany, it is no longer a gripe, it becomes a social prob­lem. That gripe or griev­ance no longer affects just this or that indi­vid­ual, it affects all of soci­ety.”7 The objec­tive of the paper, then, was to make peo­ple real­ize the uni­ver­sal­ity of their seem­ingly par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ences, by pro­vid­ing a space where they could be dis­sem­i­nated. Draw­ing an anal­ogy to polio, which, they claimed, was once con­sid­ered a per­sonal prob­lem before being accepted as a social con­cern, the edi­tors argued that the whole point of Cor­re­spon­dence was to change pub­lic atti­tudes on deci­sive ques­tions. The goal of the work­ers’ paper, to put it another way, was to raise consciousness.

This news­pa­per was in many ways a log­i­cal con­tin­u­a­tion of the Tendency’s ear­lier efforts at inquiry. The first and per­haps most famous of these was The Amer­i­can Worker. Grace Lee Boggs, a co-author of the pam­phlet, recalls that it first began as a diary. When Phil Singer, an auto worker employed in a New Jer­sey GM plant, began to dis­cuss the frus­tra­tions of the rank and file at the fac­tory, CLR James sug­gested that he write his thoughts down in a diary.8 Sec­tions of it were later assem­bled into a coher­ent piece, and paired with a the­o­ret­i­cal essay by Grace Lee Boggs. The first part of the pam­phlet, now attrib­uted to Paul Romano, Singer’s pseu­do­nym, became a kind of self-reflexive ethno­graphic inves­ti­ga­tion into the con­di­tions of pro­le­tar­ian life in post­war Amer­ica. The sec­ond part, attrib­uted to Ria Stone, Boggs’s party name, con­sciously drew on the con­crete expe­ri­ences doc­u­mented in the first part in order to the­o­rize the con­tent of social­ism in a world changed by automa­tion, the assem­bly line, and semi-skilled labor.

When Social­isme ou Bar­barie later trans­lated the pam­phlet into French, they called it the “first of its genre.”9 A worker was describ­ing, in his own voice and explic­itly for other work­ers, his con­di­tions of exploita­tion in a way that the­o­rized the pos­si­bil­ity of its strate­gic over­throw.10 Singer’s account rep­re­sented both research into the changes in the labor process, as well as a polit­i­cal prac­tice aimed at rais­ing the con­scious­ness of his co-workers. He steadily moved from sta­tic descrip­tions of exploita­tion in the fac­tory to a dynamic con­sid­er­a­tion of the new forms of strug­gle that had emerged out of those forms of exploita­tion. Sur­vey­ing the con­tra­dic­tions in the work­place, the var­i­ous points of con­tes­ta­tion, and signs of pro­le­tar­ian dis­gust with man­age­ment, bureau­cracy, and even unions, Singer pointed to the wild­cat strike, with work­ers’ self-management as its con­tent, as the new form of strug­gle in the post­war period.

While Phil Singer pro­vided the first exam­ple of this new kind of work­ers’ inquiry, Grace Lee Boggs laid out the Johnson-Forest Tendency’s the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem­atic. She drew heav­ily on a pas­sage from Cap­i­tal that described how the “par­tially devel­oped indi­vid­ual,” who was restricted to “one spe­cial­ized social func­tion,” had to be replaced in large-scale indus­try by the “totally devel­oped indi­vid­ual” who could adapt to vary­ing forms of labor.11 Read­ing this in light of Marx’s ear­lier works, prin­ci­pally the Eco­nomic and Philo­soph­i­cal Man­u­scripts of 1844, which Boggs her­self was the first to trans­late into Eng­lish, she took this to mean that mod­ern indus­try in post­war Amer­ica had now real­ized the com­plete alien­ation of human nature.

Accord­ing to Boggs, cap­i­tal­ism was to be under­stood as the pro­gres­sive alien­ation of humanity’s nat­ural pow­ers into the things it pro­duces. Even­tu­ally, how­ever, this process will reach a point where all of human­ity, all of its social essence, has been fully alien­ated into the means of pro­duc­tion. But this thor­ough­go­ing dehu­man­iza­tion of the indi­vi­ual, she argues, is at the same time the poten­tial human­iza­tion of the world in its entirety. It is at that point that the objec­tive con­di­tions will finally be ripe to reclaim those pow­ers, recover human essence, and defin­i­tively recon­sti­tute the indi­vid­ual as a uni­ver­sal being. In her words, “Abstract labor reaches its most inhu­man depths in machine pro­duc­tion. But at the same time, it is only machine pro­duc­tion which lays the basis for the fullest human devel­op­ment of con­crete labor.”12

“The essen­tial con­tent of pro­duc­tive activ­ity today is the coop­er­a­tive form of the labor process,” Boggs con­cluded. In “the trans­for­ma­tion of the instru­ments of labor into instru­ments of labor only usable in com­mon” and “the economis­ing of all means of pro­duc­tion by their use as the means of pro­duc­tion of com­bined, social­ized labor,” cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion had reached the point where it was now implic­itly already social­ist. How­ever, the real­iza­tion of this implicit social­ism was blocked:

The bour­geoisie main­tains a fet­ter on this essen­tially social activ­ity by iso­lat­ing indi­vid­u­als from one another through com­pe­ti­tion, by sep­a­rat­ing the intel­lec­tual pow­ers of pro­duc­tion from the man­ual labor, by sup­press­ing the cre­ative orga­ni­za­tional tal­ents of the broad masses, by divid­ing the world up into spheres of influence.

This con­flict between the invad­ing social­ist soci­ety and the bour­geois fet­ters pre­vent­ing its emer­gence is part of the daily expe­ri­ence of every worker.”13

Inter­est­ingly, this con­cept had emerged in a pam­phlet that James, Dunayevskaya, and Boggs wrote the same year, with the title The Invad­ing Social­ist Soci­ety – a polemic against Trot­sky­ists who did not share their view that the USSR rep­re­sented a new form of cap­i­tal­ism. The pam­phlet elab­o­rates on some of the the­o­ret­i­cal pre­sup­po­si­tions of The Amer­i­can Worker, in which Boggs had defended “the dis­tinc­tion between abstract labor for value and con­crete labor for human needs.” For Boggs, Marx’s def­i­n­i­tion of “value pro­duc­tion” was “pro­duc­tion which expanded itself through degra­da­tion and dehu­man­iza­tion of the worker to a frag­ment of a man,” which in its use of machin­ery “degrades to abstract labor the liv­ing worker which it employs.” Con­crete labor was instead directed towards needs, “the labor in which man real­izes his basic human need for exer­cis­ing his nat­ural and acquired pow­ers.”14

In The Invad­ing Social­ist Soci­ety, the authors argued that value pro­duc­tion was clearly at work in Russ­ian “state cap­i­tal­ism,” just as it was in the United States, and they elab­o­rated on the “dual char­ac­ter” of labor Boggs had described in the other pamphlet:

Labor’s fun­da­men­tal, its eter­nally nec­es­sary func­tion in all soci­eties, past, present and future, was to cre­ate use-values. Into this organic func­tion of all labor, cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion imposed the con­tra­dic­tion of pro­duc­ing value, and more par­tic­u­larly surplus-value. Within this con­tra­dic­tion is con­tained the neces­sity for the divi­sion of soci­ety into direct pro­duc­ers (work­ers) and rulers of soci­ety, into man­ual and intel­lec­tual laborers.

The man­age­r­ial rev­o­lu­tion, in this con­cep­tion, was sim­ply an expres­sion of value pro­duc­tion and the class divi­sion between man­ual and intel­lec­tual labor. If this class divi­sion and this kind of alien­at­ing labor process could be observed in Rus­sia, there was only one con­clu­sion: the state bureau­cracy extracted sur­plus value from Russ­ian work­ers, and was in fact a cap­i­tal­ist class.

The pro­le­tariat, they went on to argue, had been dis­abused of all the illu­sions of bureau­cratic van­guards, which had sim­ply insti­tuted a new form of cap­i­tal­ism, and reformism, which lim­ited itself to con­test­ing the dis­tri­b­u­tion of surplus-value. Now the pro­le­tariat had “drawn the ulti­mate con­clu­sion”: “The revolt is against value pro­duc­tion itself.” The invad­ing social­ist soci­ety, for James, Dunayevskaya, and Boggs, could be observed in this real­iza­tion.15

The polit­i­cal moti­va­tion of this the­ory may have been under­stand­able, but it led the group to use Marx’s cat­e­gories in a way that dis­solved their his­tor­i­cal speci­ficity. Two decades ear­lier I.I. Rubin, at the close of a period of rel­a­tively free debate in the Soviet Union, had explained in a lec­ture at the Insti­tute for Eco­nom­ics in Moscow that a “con­cept of labour which lacks all the fea­tures which are char­ac­ter­is­tic of its social organ­i­sa­tion in com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, can­not lead to the con­clu­sion which we seek from the Marx­ian stand­point.” In his elab­o­ra­tion of Marx’s con­cepts Rubin asked directly whether the value-form could be observed in a planned econ­omy, in which some social organ had to equate labor which pro­duced dif­fer­ent things and was under­taken by dif­fer­ent indi­vid­u­als. While this social equa­tion was often described as “abstrac­tion” in some gen­eral sense, Rubin dis­tin­guished it from Marx’s con­cept of abstract labor. In all his­tor­i­cal epochs, Rubin con­ceded, human beings have engaged in a phys­i­o­log­i­cal expen­di­ture of effort to repro­duce their con­di­tions of exis­tence. But Marx’s value the­ory set out to explain cer­tain his­tor­i­cally spe­cific char­ac­ter­is­tics of cap­i­tal­ist commodity-producing soci­eties. In such soci­eties the labor of indi­vid­u­als, as con­crete labor which pro­duces use-values, is not “directly reg­u­lated by the soci­ety” – in con­trast to a soci­ety in which social equa­tion is done on the basis of the planned allo­ca­tion of those use-values.16

In commodity-producing soci­eties, labor is only socially equated when the prod­ucts of indi­vid­ual labor­ers are “assim­i­lated with the prod­ucts of all the other com­mod­ity pro­duc­ers, and the labour of a spe­cific indi­vid­ual is thus assim­i­lated with the labour of all the other mem­bers of the soci­ety and all the oth­ers kinds of labour.” And cru­cially, this social equa­tion only hap­pens “through the equa­tion of the prod­ucts of labour”; labor “only takes the form of abstract labour, and the prod­ucts of labour the form of val­ues, to the extent that the pro­duc­tion process assumes the social form of com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, i.e. pro­duc­tion based on exchange.” When com­mod­ity own­ers in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties engage in pro­duc­tion, they do so seek­ing to “trans­form their prod­uct into money and thus also trans­form their pri­vate and con­crete labour into social and abstract labour,” since they depend on the mar­ket for their con­di­tions of exis­tence. It is through the medi­a­tion of the mar­ket that these pri­vate labor expen­di­tures take on a social form.17

From the van­tage point of Rubin’s inter­ven­tion, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency had ended up align­ing itself with those Soviet econ­o­mists who believed that value was a tran­shis­tor­i­cal cat­e­gory, reducible to the social equa­tion of labor that would exist in any soci­ety and nec­es­sar­ily take the same form in social­ist plan­ning as it did in a cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket. Their attempt to show that the USSR, despite its plan­ning of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion, com­peted on the world mar­ket and there­fore had the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a huge cap­i­tal­ist enter­prise, sim­ply dodged the ques­tion of the exchange of the prod­ucts of labor as an expres­sion of the mar­ket depen­dence of individuals.

Of course, Rubin did not address the ques­tion of whether the plan­ning organ of a social­ist soci­ety was a party bureau­cracy, a work­ers’ coun­cil, or any­thing else. While this dis­tinc­tion would cer­tainly be of polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, it has no bear­ing on the ques­tions of abstract labor and value. In its under­stand­able drive to crit­i­cize the oppres­sive char­ac­ter of work in the USSR, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency had lost grip on its own crit­i­cal con­cepts, and above all, by reduc­ing the value-form to alien­ation in the labor-process, com­pletely mud­dled the dis­tinc­tion between abstract and con­crete labor. In this regard inquiry had a tense rela­tion­ship to Marx­ist the­ory; shift­ing towards the doc­u­men­ta­tion of work­ers’ expe­ri­ence, the sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of the shop floor, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency accepted and inverted the ortho­dox eco­nomic world­view of their adver­saries, leav­ing it more or less intact.

And by accept­ing the tran­shis­tor­i­cal con­cep­tion of the cat­e­gories of labor and value, social­ism itself took on tran­shis­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics. It was a telos already con­tained in the ori­gin, in human nature which alien­ated itself in machin­ery. The task of social­ists was to uncover it by cast­ing aside the cap­i­tal­ist fet­ters. Accord­ing to this view, social­ism would not have to be con­structed; it would have to be real­ized. We can iden­tify a kind of dou­ble mean­ing to this term: on the one hand, social­ism as an inher­ent ten­dency would have to be made “real,” or actual, and on the other hand, social­ism could be actu­al­ized only when those work­ers cur­rently engaged in these embry­onic social­ist rela­tions grad­u­ally came to rec­og­nize, or “real­ize,” that social­ism already con­sti­tuted the very essence of post­war capitalism.

This con­cep­tion of social­ism was a com­men­tary on Singer’s expe­ri­ences inso­far as work­ers’ inquiry was the means of this real­iza­tion. It was through inquiry that work­ers would come to “real­ize” that social­ism was already there, hid­den in their every­day lives, wait­ing to burst forth. In cir­cu­lat­ing these inquiries, other work­ers with sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences would come to the same real­iza­tion, spark­ing a dia­logue over their uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ences. In this way the work­ers would become con­scious of them­selves as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary class. The prin­ci­pal task of the orga­ni­za­tion, first as the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency, and then as Cor­re­spon­dence, would be to facil­i­tate this coming-to-consciousness by cre­at­ing a space where con­nec­tions or “cor­re­spon­dences” between dif­fer­ent work­ers could be made.

Inquiry, then, was the cor­ner­stone of this project. Grace Lee Boggs had the­o­rized it, and Phil Singer had pro­vided the first con­crete exam­ple. The Amer­i­can Worker would there­fore emerge as a kind of par­a­digm. In 1952 Si Owens pub­lished Indig­nant Heart: A Black Worker’s Jour­nal, under the pseu­do­nym of Matthew Ward. It was much longer, in fact prac­ti­cally a book, and was explic­itly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. It told the story of how a young black worker moved from the cot­ton fields of Ten­nessee to the auto­mo­bile plants of Detroit and became a mil­i­tant, a rad­i­cal force within the United Auto­mo­bile Work­ers of Amer­ica. In 1953 “Arthur Bau­man,” the pseu­do­nym of an anony­mous stu­dent, recounted his story to Paul Wal­lis in what would become Artie Cuts Out, a nar­ra­tive, again in the style of Singer’s The Amer­i­can Worker, about high school stu­dents in New York. Also that year, Correspondence’s best­selling pam­phlet, A Woman’s Place by Marie Brant (Selma James) and Ellen San­tori (Filom­ena D’Addario), made its first appear­ance. What Singer did for fac­tory work­ers, Owens for black work­ers, and Bau­man for the youth, James and D’Addario sought to do for house­wives. A Woman’s Place dis­cussed the role of house­work, the value of repro­duc­tive labor, and the orga­ni­za­tions autonomously invented by women in the course of their struggle.

Fol­low­ing Singer’s model and Boggs’s the­o­ret­i­cal frame, all of them drew on the every­day expe­ri­ences of the author in order to rig­or­ously inves­ti­gate the social con­di­tions of a par­tic­u­lar class fig­ure; they then used that inquiry to the­o­rize how that frag­mented social group might come together as a col­lec­tive polit­i­cal sub­ject. The objec­tive in all of these – as it would later be for the Cor­re­spon­dence news­pa­per – was to show how seem­ingly per­sonal expe­ri­ences were actu­ally social. The under­ly­ing assump­tion of these inquiries was that what one par­tic­u­lar worker felt some­where is very sim­i­lar to what another might feel else­where, and that these shared expe­ri­ences, these com­mon ways of liv­ing, can pro­vide the ground­work for col­lec­tive action.18

Of course, it should be noted that nei­ther The Amer­i­can Worker nor any of these other texts ever called itself a work­ers’ inquiry. Indeed, they could just be called worker nar­ra­tives, or per­haps even tes­ti­monies.19But they should all still be seen as rep­re­sent­ing an iter­a­tion, or at least a vari­a­tion, of the project Marx laid out in 1880. The Ten­dency was quite famil­iar with Marx’s 1880 arti­cle.20 Boggs had read it, and made an explicit ref­er­ence to it in a foot­note in her sec­tion of The Amer­i­can Worker.21 And despite sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences, these inquiries, espe­cially The Amer­i­can Worker, repro­duced many of the inten­tions, moti­va­tions, and objec­tives of Marx’s orig­i­nal project. In fact, read­ing Marx’s ques­tions along­side The Amer­i­can Worker, it seems as though Singer had pro­vided Marx with the first, com­pre­hen­sive response to his ques­tion­naire – it was just sev­eral decades late.

But Singer’s response took a form that Marx did not antic­i­pate. Marx imag­ined that work­ers would offer line-by-line answers to his ques­tion­naire. “In replies,” he made sure to spec­ify, “the num­ber of the cor­re­spond­ing ques­tion should be given.” Singer, how­ever, did not pro­duce a neat list of bul­leted responses; he crafted these raw answers into a lit­er­ary nar­ra­tive. This was per­haps the most dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of all the inquiries spon­sored by the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency – and per­haps one of the main rea­sons why they were never for­mally called “work­ers’ inquiries.” Work­ers’ inquiry, in this vari­a­tion, was specif­i­cally a sub­jec­tive nar­ra­tive account, not a response to a questionnaire.

This inno­va­tion in the genre of inquiry, how­ever, ampli­fied ten­sions already embed­ded in the orig­i­nal project. On the one hand, the nar­ra­tive form worked to advance inquiry as a form of pro­le­tar­ian self-activity. Although Marx made it clear that knowl­edge of the work­ing class could only be pro­duced by work­ers them­selves, his orig­i­nal project seemed to fore­close the space for any kind of cre­ative expres­sion, demand­ing mechan­i­cal answers to pre­fab­ri­cated ques­tions. Singer’s nar­ra­tive model allowed work­ers to raise their own unique voice, express them­selves in their own lan­guage, with their own idioms, ideas, and feel­ings, and even pose their own questions.

On the other hand, although priv­i­leg­ing the nar­ra­tive form might have ampli­fied the power of work­ers’ inquiry as a means of self-activity, it had the poten­tial to under­mine another of aspect of that project, what Marx called the acqui­si­tion of “an exact and pos­i­tive knowl­edge of the con­di­tions” of the work­ing class. The open­ness of the nar­ra­tive form exag­ger­ates a ten­dency to slip from mea­sured gen­er­al­iza­tion to unten­able over­gen­er­al­iza­tion. By try­ing to fuse his sub­jec­tiv­ity with that of the rank and file as a whole, Singer ends up attempt­ing to legit­imize him­self as a reli­able mouth­piece for all the work­ers in his fac­tory: “Their feel­ings, anx­i­eties, exhil­a­ra­tion, bore­dom, exhaus­tion, anger, have all been mine to one extent or another.”22 But as the text pro­ceeds, Singer qui­etly goes from “their feel­ings are mine” to “my feel­ings are theirs,” lead­ing the reader to believe that Singer’s per­sonal expe­ri­ences, desires, and opin­ions are actu­ally those of the GM rank and file itself – if not those of the entire Amer­i­can work­ing class. His expe­ri­ences, or those of some work­ers at his par­tic­u­lar plant, are pre­sented as the expe­ri­ences of all work­ers everywhere.

Allegedly com­mon daily expe­ri­ences are then gen­er­al­ized to uni­ver­sal polit­i­cal atti­tudes: “The work­ers feel that strikes merely for wages do not get them any­where.”23 This is a prob­lem shared by all the nar­ra­tive accounts, since they all repli­cate Singer’s model. In A Woman’s Place, for exam­ple, Selma James wrote, “The co-authors of this book­let have seen this in their own lives and in the lives of the women they know. They have writ­ten this down as a begin­ning of the expres­sion of what the aver­age woman feels, thinks, and lives.” One first won­ders whether there is such a thing as an “aver­age woman,” free from the com­pli­cat­ing dimen­sions of region, class, race, sex­u­al­ity, and so forth; but even if this uneasi­ness is set aside, one is still left to ask whether James’s own unique expe­ri­ences are enough to access “the aver­age.” In fact, James intro­duces another inno­va­tion that extends the reach of her gen­er­al­iza­tions. Her inquiry begins in the third per­son, but after only a few pages abruptly shifts to the sec­ond per­son. The pat­tern quickly repeats itself: “Every­thing a house­wife does, she does alone. All the work in the house is for you to do by your­self.”24

This kind of homog­e­niza­tion sup­ports, and is in fact sup­ported by, a decon­tex­tu­al­iza­tion of expe­ri­ence. Nearly all of these inquiries, with the slight excep­tion of Indig­nant Heart, go to great lengths to detach their nar­ra­tive from a spe­cific local­ity. There is noth­ing in The Amer­i­can Worker reveal­ing where Singer actu­ally works; the same goes for A Woman’s Place.25 If one of the pri­mary objec­tives of work­ers’ inquiry is to rig­or­ously study the con­di­tions of exploita­tion at spe­cific points of pro­duc­tion, to pro­duce a pos­i­tive and exact knowl­edge of the work­ing class, it must spec­ify the bound­aries of its inves­ti­ga­tion. Though fac­to­ries in post­war Amer­ica might have had some com­mon­al­i­ties, they were wildly dif­fer­ent, each with its dis­tinct con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion, power rela­tions, and demographics.

A closely related prob­lem is the delib­er­ate mod­i­fi­ca­tion of infor­ma­tion, in a way that often alters the mean­ing of the accounts. One imme­di­ate exam­ple results from the use of pseu­do­nyms. Nearly every­one in the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency had one, and most had sev­eral; in fact, there were so many fake names in cir­cu­la­tion, Boggs recalled that there were times when they them­selves didn’t even know who was who.26 This was partly a holdover from Trot­sky­ist prac­tices, but more seri­ously a secu­rity mea­sure against McCarthy­ism; at one point Cor­re­spon­dence had as many as 75 infil­tra­tors, and CLR James would later be deported because of his activ­i­ties with the group.27

But despite the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for the prac­tice of assum­ing pseu­do­nyms, they pro­vided a cover for ambigu­ous author­ship. A Woman’s Place was signed by two women, both under pseu­do­nyms, but was actu­ally writ­ten only by Selma James. As James later recalled, she wrote the book by jot­ting down ideas on scraps of paper, then drop­ping them into a slit made in the top of a shoe box. She later sat down and pieced together the ideas into a draft. After she shared the draft with the group and her neigh­bors, and made some revi­sions, CLR James told her to include Filom­ena D’Addario’s sig­na­ture so that the lat­ter could speak about it to the pub­lic with some legit­i­macy.28 It turns out that a piece which claims to have been writ­ten by two women, and in fact tries to con­vince its read­ers that it was con­structed from the expe­ri­ences of two dif­fer­ent women, was actu­ally writ­ten by one.

But the most seri­ous trou­ble is in Indig­nant Heart. Of all the accounts, this is the only one to give pre­cise details about places, and so, at first glance, seems to break with the model devel­oped by Singer. In actual fact, how­ever, though the book is largely accu­rate regard­ing Owens’ later life in the North, it delib­er­ately dis­torts his place of birth, set­ting his child­hood in south­east Ten­nessee rather than in Lown­des County, Alabama. In the 1978 reprint, which included a sec­ond part pick­ing up where the orig­i­nal 1952 text left off, Owens jus­ti­fied this by remind­ing his read­ers of the “vicious McCarthyite witch hunt,” adding that “few who did not go through that expe­ri­ence of national repres­sion of ideas can fully under­stand the truly total­i­tar­ian nature of McCarthy­ism and the ter­ror it pro­duced.”29 Less con­vinc­ing, how­ever, is his claim that these changes “do not take any­thing away from the truth of the expe­ri­ences described,” and that what he wrote about his early years “could be true of almost all Blacks” liv­ing in the South­ern United States.30

In other words, the rewrit­ing of the facts is ratio­nal­ized by the assump­tion of a homo­ge­neous and uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ence. But Alabama is not Ten­nessee, and such a dras­tic move com­pro­mises the sci­en­tific char­ac­ter of the piece; it becomes more like his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, and less a con­crete inquiry into spe­cific con­di­tions of exploita­tion. An inquiry into the world of the work­ing class threat­ens to degen­er­ate into a kind of travel diary; close, metic­u­lous, mil­i­tant inves­ti­ga­tion tends to be replaced with enter­tain­ing sto­ries about the mys­tery, exoti­cism, and strange­ness of an unknown world.

Per­haps even more trou­bling, Si Owens did not actu­ally write Indig­nant Heart. Con­stance Webb, another mem­ber of the group, and James’s one­time lover, did. Cor­re­spon­dence cham­pi­oned a prac­tice which Dunayevskaya later called “the full foun­tain pen” method – though it is per­haps bet­ter known as amanu­en­sis. Intel­lec­tu­als would be paired with work­ers who might be uncom­fort­able writ­ing their expe­ri­ences; they would lis­ten as the work­ers recounted their story, write them down on their behalf, and then have these work­ers revise the writ­ten doc­u­ments as they saw fit. It was Webb, then, who recorded the story, made revi­sions, edited the drafts, and pieced it all together into a coher­ent whole.31 It was in many ways just as much her book.

But the lead­er­ship, in this case largely Dunayevskaya, and not the authors, decided how the book should appear. Dunayevskaya insisted that it be called Indig­nant Heart, after a quo­ta­tion by Wen­dell Phillips, over the protest of both Owens and Webb; and, even more seri­ously, she decided to pub­lish it all under the sin­gle name of Matthew Ward.32 In an odd way, Cor­re­spon­dence had delib­er­ately effaced its con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion, mak­ing it appear as though a sin­gle author had writ­ten the book by him­self, which was far from true. Yet one of orig­i­nal aims of Correspondence’s inquiries had been to hon­estly rec­on­cile the ten­sions between intel­lec­tu­als and work­ers. Why hes­i­tate in admit­ting that Indig­nant Heart had been, at its very core, a work of col­lab­o­ra­tion? Why go to such lengths to make the text look like an exam­ple of raw pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence, rather than a medi­ated production?

Finally, all these inquiries imbri­cate the descrip­tive with the pre­scrip­tive. They draw lim­ited con­clu­sions based on the analy­sis of observ­able phe­nom­ena while simul­ta­ne­ously mak­ing declar­a­tive state­ments about what real­ity should actu­ally look like. The trend was first set by Singer, who con­cluded the first part of The Amer­i­can Worker by announc­ing that the work­ers’ frus­tra­tion with the incen­tive sys­tem amounted to “no less than say­ing that the exist­ing pro­duc­tion rela­tions must be over­thrown.”33 In the same way, James ends her own inquiry, “Women are find­ing more and more that there is no way out but a com­plete change. But one thing is already clear. Things can’t go on the way they are. Every woman knows that.”34 Surely not all women actu­ally thought this in 1953. And surely James knew this, just as Singer was well aware that most work­ers did not want to over­throw exist­ing pro­duc­tion rela­tions. These state­ments can only really be under­stood as per­for­ma­tive – not descrip­tions of exist­ing sit­u­a­tion, but declar­a­tive moves seek­ing to trans­form what the text has already described. For a tra­di­tion which grounded itself in the rais­ing of con­scious­ness, these state­ments about the con­scious­ness of work­ers, dis­sem­i­nated to those work­ers them­selves, sought to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Though all four of these inquires cer­tainly engage in sci­en­tific analy­sis, tak­ing note of new forms of pro­duc­tion, exploita­tion, and resis­tance, these obser­va­tions only seem to serve as the lit­er­ary back­ground for an unfold­ing nar­ra­tive, rather than serv­ing as inci­sive obser­va­tions into a par­tic­u­lar point of pro­duc­tion. All the ten­sions explored above work to seri­ously dimin­ish the spe­cific research value of these texts. But it is impor­tant to rec­og­nize that they only become prob­lems if one con­tin­ues to pri­or­i­tize the research func­tion of work­ers’ inquiry. If, how­ever, the objec­tive is to build class con­scious­ness, then the dis­tor­tions of the nar­ra­tive form are not prob­lems at all. They might actu­ally be quite nec­es­sary. With these nar­ra­tives, the ten­sion in Marx’s work­ers’ inquiry – between a research tool on the one hand, and a form of agi­ta­tion on the other – is largely resolved by sub­or­di­nat­ing the for­mer to the lat­ter, trans­form­ing inquiry into a means to the end of consciousness-building.

Build­ing the Cir­cuit: Social­isme ou Barbarie

These Amer­i­can exper­i­ments in work­ers’ inquiry res­onated quite broadly, becom­ing an explicit ref­er­ence point for one French group in par­tic­u­lar. Social­isme ou Bar­barie fol­lowed a remark­ably sim­i­lar tra­jec­tory to that of its Amer­i­can equiv­a­lents – the two groups were in con­tact, shar­ing their dis­cov­er­ies, trans­lat­ing each other’s work, and even co-authoring a book at one point. It began as the “Chaulieu-Montal Ten­dency,” an inter­nal cur­rent within the French sec­tion of the Trot­sky­ist Fourth Inter­na­tional, named after the pseu­do­nyms of its prin­ci­pal ani­ma­tors, Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis (Pierre Chaulieu) and Claude Lefort (Claude Mon­tal). Like the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency in the United States, the Chaulieu-Montal Ten­dency soon found itself opposed to the offi­cial Trot­sky­ist move­ment, prompt­ing a split in late 1948. About twenty mil­i­tants left to form a new orga­ni­za­tion, Social­isme ou Bar­barie, with a new jour­nal of the same name. The first issue was released in March of the fol­low­ing year.35

Like Cor­re­spon­dence, Social­isme ou Bar­barie placed a great deal of empha­sis on the notion of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence. For both these groups, social­ist the­ory and strat­egy, even the very con­tent of social­ist project itself, could only be derived from the every­day expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class. Daniel Blan­chard, a for­mer mem­ber of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, has reflected on the organization’s con­cep­tion of a social­ist soci­ety: it would be “not the result of either utopian dream­ing, or of an alleged sci­ence of his­tory, but of the cre­ations of the work­ers move­ment. The pro­le­tariat is, by its prac­tice, the per­pet­ual inven­tor of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory and the task of the intel­lec­tu­als is lim­ited to syn­the­siz­ing and sys­tem­atiz­ing it.“36

In this regard Social­isme ou Bar­barie con­tested the French Com­mu­nist Party (PCF) which held that social­ism had to be brought to the work­ing class from the out­side. For both Cor­re­spon­dence and Social­isme ou Bar­barie, on the other hand social­ism actu­ally came from within every­day pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences. But these groups agreed that work­ers are largely social­ized by cap­i­tal­ism, and there­fore still marked by cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­ogy, at least to some degree. Since almost no one was free of cap­i­tal­ist think­ing, social­ist con­scious­ness would not spon­ta­neously burst forth, even though it was always lurk­ing below. Cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­ogy still had to be com­bated; and some other mech­a­nism was required to allow this latent con­scious­ness to appear.

That mech­a­nism was work­ers’ inquiry. So while the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency was the first to recode work­ers’ inquiry in the form of the worker nar­ra­tive, Social­isme ou Bar­barie explained why: the worker nar­ra­tive could express the pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence in such a way as to make its embed­ded social­ist con­tent appear.

Social­isme ou Bar­barie adopted this spe­cific form of work­ers’ inquiry – inquiry as nar­ra­tive account – from Cor­re­spon­dence almost ready­made. The group set about trans­lat­ing The Amer­i­can Worker, which appeared seri­ally in the first eight issues of its homony­mously titled jour­nal. These mil­i­tants hailed the pam­phlet as a new, rev­o­lu­tion­ary kind of writ­ing; Philippe Guil­laume intro­duced it with the dec­la­ra­tion that “the name Romano will stay in the his­tory of pro­le­tar­ian lit­er­a­ture, and that it will even sig­nify a turn­ing point in this his­tory.”37

Work­ers’ inquiry, in this early French con­text, there­fore took on roughly the same form that it did with the Amer­i­cans, with The Amer­i­can Worker again set­ting the par­a­digm. It not only formed the empir­i­cal ground for Claude Lefort’s “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,” Social­isme ou Barbarie’s most seri­ous the­o­riza­tion of inquiry, but would also spawn a num­ber French inquiries mod­eled on Singer’s account. The first came in 1952, when Georges Vivier, a young worker at Chaus­son, began a series on pro­le­tar­ian life titled “La vie en usine” (Life in the Fac­tory). The most famous of these nar­ra­tives, how­ever, were the diaries of Daniel Mothé, the nom de guerre of Jacques Gau­trat, a machin­ist at Renault-Billancourt.38 His writ­ings, which first appeared in the pages of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, attracted so much atten­tion that an edited ver­sion was soon pub­lished by Les Éditions de Minuit in 1959 under the title Jour­nal d’un ouvrier 1956-1958 (Jour­nal of a Worker). It was received well enough to prompt the pub­li­ca­tion of a sec­ond diary, called Mil­i­tant chez Renault (Mil­i­tant at Renault), by Les Éditions du Seuil in 1965.

There would be a sec­ond moment in this transna­tional cir­cu­la­tion. By the time Cor­re­spon­dence split from the offi­cial Trot­sky­ist move­ment to become its own dis­tinct entity, the group decided to fur­ther rev­o­lu­tion­ize the form of work­ers’ inquiry: worker nar­ra­tives became a work­ers’ paper. The work­ers’ paper was to be a more dynamic form of inquiry, where dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the work­ing class could not only share their expe­ri­ences with sim­i­lar kinds of work­ers, but could in fact exchange those expe­ri­ences with each other through let­ters to the editors.

Social­isme ou Bar­barie cer­tainly had some reser­va­tions about the the­o­ret­i­cal assump­tions under­pin­ning the Cor­re­spon­dence project, but the group was suf­fi­ciently inspired by the model of the work­ers’ paper to spon­sor one of its own in France. Just as The Amer­i­can Worker had cre­ated a new genre of writ­ing, so too, they believed, did Cor­re­spon­dence stand for an entirely new kind of pub­li­ca­tion. “It rep­re­sents a pro­foundly orig­i­nal effort to cre­ate a jour­nal for the most part writ­ten by work­ers to speak with work­ers from the work­ers’ view­point,” they wrote in 1954. “It must sim­ply be acknowl­edged that Cor­re­spon­dence rep­re­sents a new type of jour­nal and that it opens a new period in rev­o­lu­tion­ary worker jour­nal­ism.”39 So just as Social­isme ou Bar­barie was inspired by The Amer­i­can Worker to spon­sor its own worker nar­ra­tives, so too was it prompted to sup­port the for­ma­tion of a work­ers paper along the same lines as Cor­re­spon­dence.

But although both groups used the work­ers’ nar­ra­tive and the work­ers’ paper as a means of access­ing the pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence, there was still at least one sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence. For Cor­re­spon­dence, social­ism already existed embry­on­i­cally in pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences, which sim­ply had to be expressed and shared with other work­ers. It was enough to pro­vide a forum in which to cir­cu­late these expe­ri­ences; the “invad­ing social­ist soci­ety” would emerge on its own.

Social­isme ou Bar­barie remained skep­ti­cal. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis would com­ment many years later, if “you talk about the invad­ing social­ist soci­ety,” then you “keep the apoc­a­lyp­tic, mes­sianic streak; the idea that there is a def­i­nite end to the road, and unless every­thing blows up we are going there and we are bound to end there, which is not true.”40 For Social­isme ou Bar­barie, the devel­op­ment of social­ism was not an irre­sistible force, but the very ques­tion to be answered. While there were cer­tain ele­ments, rudi­men­tary, inchoate, frag­mented, that could be found in pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences, they could not be acti­vated sim­ply through writ­ing, or even the shar­ing of that writ­ing with other work­ers. Some in Social­isme ou Bar­barie even believed that these ele­ments could not be prop­erly artic­u­lated into a coher­ent social­ist project until they had been reworked through theory.

So the buried ele­ments recov­ered by inquiry had to be politi­cized before social­ism could see the light of day. These dif­fer­ences imme­di­ately put into ques­tion the poten­tial func­tion of mil­i­tant intel­lec­tu­als. For Cor­re­spon­dence, the role of intel­lec­tu­als was ambigu­ous. Their goal was to pro­vide the space for worker expe­ri­ences to be shared, even if this resulted in a poten­tial ven­tril­o­quism, as in the case of Con­stance Webb and Si Owens. As a 1955 edi­to­r­ial called “Must Serve Work­ers” put it, “The pri­mary task of any indi­vid­ual who comes to a work­ing class move­ment from another class is to put behind him his past and com­pletely iden­tify and adapt him­self to the work­ing class… The func­tion of the intel­lec­tual is to aid the move­ment, to place his intel­lec­tual accom­plish­ment at the dis­posal of the work­ers.”41

Indeed, the very struc­ture of the orga­ni­za­tion was deter­mined by this belief. Grace Lee Boggs later recalled in her auto­bi­og­ra­phy that the group tried to ground itself on Lenin’s notion that the best way to com­bat the bureau­cracy of the “first layer” of intel­lec­tu­als was to develop the “third layer” of the work­ers.42 Cor­re­spon­dence divided itself into three lay­ers: “real work­ers” in the first, “intel­lec­tu­als” who were now employed in jobs tra­di­tion­ally done by “work­ers” in the sec­ond, and the “real intel­lec­tu­als” in the third. As an evi­dently dis­grun­tled for­mer mem­ber recalled:

The real pro­le­tar­i­ans were put in the first layer, peo­ple of mixed sta­tus, like house­wives, in the sec­ond, and the intel­lec­tu­als were put in the third. Our meet­ings con­sisted of the now highly pres­tige­ful first layer spout­ing off, usu­ally in a ran­dom, inar­tic­u­late way, about what they thought about every­thing under the sun. The rest of us, espe­cially we intel­lec­tu­als in the third layer, were told to lis­ten.43

In con­trast to this, Social­isme ou Bar­barie claimed that worker expe­ri­ences had to be inter­preted and devel­oped, and this opened up space for a dif­fer­ent role for intel­lec­tu­als. The larger space that Social­isme ou Bar­barie accorded to the­o­ret­i­cal pro­duc­tion forced it to more directly, and per­haps more con­tentiously, inter­ro­gate the rela­tion­ship between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als, espe­cially as it related to the prac­tice of work­ers’ inquiry.

But to under­stand the prob­lems raised by the work­ers’ paper, we have to go back to 1952 and an unsigned arti­cle by Claude Lefort titled “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”44 Hid­den within their daily expe­ri­ences, Lefort claimed, lay basic, per­haps even uni­ver­sal, pro­le­tar­ian atti­tudes: “Prior to any explicit reflec­tion, to any inter­pre­ta­tion of their lot or their role, work­ers have spon­ta­neous com­port­ments with respect to indus­trial work, exploita­tion, the orga­ni­za­tion of pro­duc­tion and social life both inside and out­side the fac­tory.”45 To access these atti­tudes, which for Lefort formed the very ground of the social­ist project, mil­i­tants had to col­lect accounts of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences. Indeed, learn­ing about the expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class, and inquir­ing into its daily life, had to be a fun­da­men­tal aspect of any rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tions. “Social­isme ou Bar­barie would like to solicit tes­ti­monies from work­ers,” he announced, “and pub­lish them at the same time as it accords an impor­tant place to all forms of analy­sis con­cern­ing pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence.”46

Since those atti­tudes, how­ever, remain latent, and because they are nec­es­sar­ily par­tial, tes­ti­monies must not only be col­lected, but actu­ally inter­preted. And therein lay the real prob­lem: who had the right to inter­pret these accounts? Lefort con­cluded his pro­gram­matic essay with exactly this ques­tion, which he answered with another:

Who will reveal from beneath the explicit con­tent of a doc­u­ment the inten­tions and atti­tudes that inspired it, and jux­ta­pose the tes­ti­monies? The com­rades of Social­isme ou Bar­barie? But would this not run counter to their inten­tions, given that they pro­pose a kind of research that would enable work­ers to reflect upon their expe­ri­ence?47

For the moment, these ques­tions were not so press­ing, since Social­isme ou Bar­barie remained on the mar­gins, and inquiry on the scale imag­ined by Lefort a mere pro­posal. But they became a prac­ti­cal con­cern in May 1954, when a work­ers’ paper actu­ally emerged in France. It all began at Renault-Billancourt, an auto­mo­bile plant in the sub­urbs of Paris. A mon­ster of a fac­tory, employ­ing some 30,000 work­ers, it was also a leg­endary site of pro­le­tar­ian mil­i­tancy, and widely con­sid­ered a Com­mu­nist strong­hold. But by the 1950s, the Party slowly began to lose its grip, increas­ingly com­ing under fire from more rad­i­cal ele­ments, like the Trot­sky­ists. It was in this con­text that, in April 1954, a break­through arrived when a few work­ers from one of the fac­tory shops cir­cu­lated a leaflet on wage lev­els. It was warmly received by other work­ers, and, encour­aged by this enthu­si­as­tic recep­tion, a few work­ers decided to launch an inde­pen­dent, clan­des­tine, monthly paper called Tri­bune Ouvrière.48

“What we want,” announced the first issue of the work­ers paper, posi­tion­ing itself against both the Renault man­age­ment and the PCF lead­er­ship, “is to end the tute­lage that the so-called work­ers’ orga­ni­za­tions have exer­cised over us for many years. We want all prob­lems con­cern­ing the work­ing class to be debated by the work­ers them­selves… What we sug­gest is to make of this paper a tri­bune in which we ask you to par­tic­i­pate. We would like this paper to reflect the lives and opin­ions of work­ers. It’s up to you to make this hap­pen.”49

Social­isme ou Bar­barie quickly sup­ported the paper, offer­ing it finan­cial back­ing, help­ing to dis­trib­ute it, and even pub­lish­ing extracts of the paper in its own review. But the exact rela­tion­ship between the two pub­li­ca­tions – the one a clan­des­tine paper writ­ten, edited, and man­aged by fac­tory work­ers, the other a the­o­ret­i­cal jour­nal almost entirely pro­duced by intel­lec­tu­als – was ambigu­ous, and, at times highly divi­sive. Some saw the work­ers’ paper as an inde­pen­dent venue for the raw voice of the work­ing class, what­ever it might have to say, and there­fore only loosely allied with the the­o­ret­i­cal project car­ried out by Social­isme ou Bar­barie; oth­ers wanted to for­mally inte­grate it with Social­isme ou Bar­barie, hop­ing the work­ers’ paper could intro­duce the rig­or­ous ideas of the group to a broader pro­le­tar­ian audience.

In 1955, Tri­bune Ouvrière began run­ning into dif­fi­cul­ties. The col­lec­tive had not really grown, work­ers by and large seemed indif­fer­ent to the paper, and the edi­to­r­ial board remained tiny, with no more than per­haps 15 work­ers. Part of this gen­eral lack of inter­est stemmed from logis­ti­cal chal­lenges. The edi­to­r­ial team had min­i­mal fund­ing, and couldn’t afford to charge high prices, since none of the work­ers would buy an expen­sive paper. It was also very dif­fi­cult to dis­trib­ute. As a clan­des­tine paper, it could only be cir­cu­lated from hand to hand. And its meet­ings could not be orga­nized out in the open, mak­ing it very dif­fi­cult to estab­lish long-term rela­tions with inter­ested readers.

But there were also other, per­haps more fun­da­men­tal prob­lems at play. Daniel Mothé used the oppor­tu­nity to write a pro­gram­matic piece on the mean­ing of the work­ers’ paper, spend­ing a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the arti­cle dis­cussing the rela­tion­ship between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als. It should be noted at the out­set that Mothé was not really a “neu­tral” observer. The only one to have a foot in both orga­ni­za­tions, Mothé was one of the prin­ci­pal ani­ma­tors behind the paper as well as mem­ber of Social­isme ou Bar­barie since 1952 – he there­fore had a vested inter­est in “solv­ing” the vexed rela­tion­ship between the two pub­li­ca­tions.50 It’s highly sig­nif­i­cant, more­over, that Mothé pub­lished his long piece about Tri­bune Ouvrière in Social­isme ou Bar­barie.

In con­trast to Cor­re­spon­dence, which he directly men­tioned in his piece, Mothé argued that a work­ers’ paper, though entirely writ­ten by work­ers them­selves, still had to par­tic­i­pate in some kind of dia­logue with mil­i­tant intel­lec­tu­als – in fact, this had to be its pri­mary func­tion. For Mothé there is a clear divi­sion of labor, deter­mined by the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion itself, which can­not be will­fully ignored. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics has to take account of this divi­sion, rather than wish it away. Mothé builds on this obser­va­tion to con­struct a dichotomy between two ideal types: the worker on the one hand, and the mil­i­tant intel­lec­tual on the other. They are pri­mar­ily dis­tin­guished, he says, by their train­ing, sug­gest­ing that “if the for­ma­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant is a for­ma­tion that is almost exclu­sively intel­lec­tual,” espe­cially dur­ing a period in which “rev­o­lu­tion­ary minori­ties” have been uprooted from the work­ing class, the “polit­i­cal for­ma­tion of work­ers is, on the con­trary, almost exclu­sively prac­ti­cal.” This prac­ti­cal for­ma­tion was both acquired in the expe­ri­ence of strug­gle and became the basis of new meth­ods of strug­gle. The key prob­lem is to find a way to link these two dis­tinct poles, to cre­ate a form that can fuse the “imme­di­ate expe­ri­ence of the work­ers and the the­o­ret­i­cal expe­ri­ence of rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants.”51

Mothé argued that each pole had to play a unique func­tion that was nev­er­the­less depen­dent on the other. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant artic­u­lates rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory, imparts that the­ory to the work­ing class, and com­bats false ideas.52 The “essen­tial ele­ments” of that the­ory, how­ever, are them­selves drawn from the lived expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class. They form a rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tion­ship: “In this sense, if the work­ing class needs the rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion to the­o­rize its expe­ri­ence, the orga­ni­za­tion needs the work­ing class in order to draw on this expe­ri­ence. This process of osmo­sis has a deci­sive impor­tance.”53

The key­stone of this rela­tion, Mothé argued, is pre­cisely the work­ers’ news­pa­per. The real func­tion of the work­ers’ paper is to medi­ate between these two poles. It is the means through which work­ers can express their every­day expe­ri­ences, which can then be the­o­rized by rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants. Mil­i­tants can then read these accounts, sift through them for latent polit­i­cal ten­den­cies, and work their rudi­men­tary insights into rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory. At the same time, one assumes, the paper can serve as the vehi­cle through which these newly devel­oped the­o­ries will then be trans­mit­ted back to the work­ing class.

Mothé’s model, how­ever, posed as many ques­tions as it answered. To begin with, there was the impre­cise notion of expe­ri­ence, and the ques­tion­able assump­tion that, at base, all pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences artic­u­lated a set of uni­ver­sal atti­tudes. The Johnson-Forest Ten­dency and Claude Lefort both shared this sup­po­si­tion. Indeed, in “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,” Lefort went so far as to write:

Two work­ers in very dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions have in com­mon that both have endured one or another form of work and exploita­tion that is essen­tially the same and absorbs three-quarters of their per­sonal exis­tence. Their wages might be very dif­fer­ent, their liv­ing sit­u­a­tions and fam­ily lives may not be com­pa­ra­ble, but it remains the case that they are pro­foundly iden­ti­cal both in their roles as pro­duc­ers or machine oper­a­tors, and in their alienation.

Even if one lim­its the work­ing class to fac­tory work­ers, which Lefort seemed to do, such a claim reduces the het­ero­gene­ity of the work­ing class to a shared human essence: work­ers are every­where the same because they have all alien­ated their uni­ver­sal cre­ative pow­ers into the things they pro­duce. But such a con­cep­tion pre­vents us from grasp­ing the many forms that labor-power assumes, the plu­ral­ity of ways it is put to work, and the diverse processes through which it is exploited.

All this leads one to won­der who these “work­ers” Mothé keeps talk­ing about really are. If rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants must draw on pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences, do these include those of house­wives and farm­work­ers? Must rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants draw on all these expe­ri­ences, or is the expe­ri­ence of only one sec­tor suf­fi­cient, and if so, which will speak for all the rest? Mothé’s unsta­ble ter­mi­nol­ogy exposes his pref­er­ence. The piece begins by draw­ing a dis­tinc­tion between “rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants” and “work­ers,” but Mothé soon speaks of “rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants” and “van­guard work­ers.” The slip sig­nals his pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of one kind of worker over the oth­ers. Indeed, for Mothé, as with most Social­isme ou Bar­barie, when they spoke of the work­ing class, they really meant the indus­trial work­ing class, par­tic­u­larly at the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries; but even more specif­i­cally, their ideal fig­ure, their con­structed van­guard, was semi-skilled labor­ers. It is impor­tant to observe that while Social­isme ou Bar­barie sought to bypass the whole notion of the van­guard party by going directly to the work­ing class, even its most “anar­chis­tic” ele­ments, like Lefort, remained encased in the gen­eral prob­lem­atic of van­guardism: the van­guard ele­ment was no longer out­side the class, but within it.

Mothé added a fur­ther qual­i­fi­ca­tion to this reduc­tion. The worker must not only be the most polit­i­cally con­scious of his class, but must also be capa­ble of express­ing his expe­ri­ences in such a way that they could be the­o­rized. This required not only a high degree of gen­eral lit­er­acy, as well as a fair share of con­fi­dence, but also some flu­ency in a more chal­leng­ing polit­i­cal lex­i­con. “In this sense,” Mothé clar­i­fied, “those work­ers most suit­able for writ­ing will be those who are at the same time the most con­scious, the most edu­cated but also those who will be the most rid of bour­geois or Stal­in­ist ide­o­log­i­cal influ­ence.”54 So Mothé wanted a worker who could not only reflect on his sit­u­a­tion and tran­scribe it into a nar­ra­tive that mim­ic­ked the nat­ural oral cul­ture of the aver­age worker, but who would also be free of all non-revolutionary ide­ol­ogy. It’s no sur­prise then, that Mothé, and much of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, only found one worker who fit the bill: Daniel Mothé him­self.55

The synec­dochic sub­sti­tu­tion of a sin­gle polit­i­cally con­scious male fac­tory worker for the work­ing class as a whole marks a sig­nif­i­cant step back from the posi­tions devel­oped by the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency, and later Cor­re­spon­dence, which had iden­ti­fied at least four dis­tinct seg­ments of the work­ing class: indus­trial work­ers, blacks, women, and youth.

Per­haps the shaki­est part of Mothé’s model, how­ever, had to do not so much with the first step in this process – from work­ers to intel­lec­tu­als – but the sec­ond, from intel­lec­tu­als to work­ers. Mothé spent a great deal of time dis­cussing the first process, but very lit­tle on the sec­ond. This was largely because this sec­ond process proved to be con­tentious among both the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants of Social­isme ou Bar­barie as well as the fac­tory work­ers who formed the edi­to­r­ial core of Tri­bune Ouvrière.56

Some were strongly sup­port­ive of “return­ing” social­ist ideas to the work­ing class. Cas­to­ri­adis was the first to argue, as early as June 1956, that the group had to cre­ate a sep­a­rate “work­ers’ paper” aimed explic­itly at the work­ing class, not just in Paris, but all of France. It was imper­a­tive, he thought, to intro­duce more work­ers to Social­isme ou Barbarie’s the­o­ret­i­cal work, and to sharpen the the­ory itself, since the need to engage with a broader audi­ence, and there­fore write more acces­si­bly, would push the mil­i­tants to work in a more “con­crete” way, avoid­ing abstrac­tions and pay­ing greater atten­tion to devel­op­ments in the class struggle.

This pro­posal was rejected. Some, like Mothé, accepted Cas­to­ri­adis’ the­o­ret­i­cal posi­tion whole­heart­edly, and agreed with the neces­sity of such paper, but felt it was imprac­ti­cal due to the lack of resources, and the fact that the paper prob­a­bly would not find a ready audi­ence, given that it did not already enjoy strong links with the wider work­ing class in France. More­over, Mothé had seen first­hand, through his work with Tri­bune Ouvrière, just how dif­fi­cult it was to oper­ate a “work­ers’ jour­nal” in even one fac­tory, let alone all of France, as Cas­to­ri­adis hoped.

Oth­ers, like Henri Simon and Claude Lefort, opposed the paper on the­o­ret­i­cal grounds, high­light­ing once again a major divi­sion over the vexed “orga­ni­za­tion ques­tion.” Simon asked to what extent the paper would actu­ally be a work­ers’ paper if it were forcibly repur­posed to trans­mit rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory to work­ers.57 How would this be any dif­fer­ent from the other “worker” news­pa­pers, such as those spon­sored by the PCF, which they so harshly criticized?

In a sim­i­lar vein Lefort, who had always opposed the impo­si­tion of any kind of “direc­tion” onto the autonomous move­ments of the work­ing class, decried Castoriadis’s pro­posed paper as “an oper­a­tion from above.” As he put it, “Chaulieu has decided to have this paper at any cost, even though there is no working-class pub­lic in which to dif­fuse it, and even fewer work­ers to actively take part in it.”58 To be sure, Lefort was never opposed to the notion of a work­ers’ paper, not even to orga­ni­za­tion or the­ory as such. But his con­vic­tion that every­thing had to flow organ­i­cally from the work­ing class itself trans­lated into a deep sus­pi­cion of pro­grams: what­ever the inten­tions behind the draft­ing of such a doc­u­ment, and even if it were elab­o­rated in ref­er­ence to the class, a pro­gram would always end up ossi­fy­ing into an exte­rior form, ulti­mately strait­jack­et­ing working-class spon­tane­ity. Such a stance, which implied an extremely cir­cum­scribed role for mil­i­tants, was anti­thet­i­cal to Cas­to­ri­adis’ posi­tion, already reveal­ing an irrec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ence between the two prin­ci­pal the­o­rists behind the jour­nal. And it was pre­cisely work­ers’ inquiry, in the form of the paper, that revealed it most strik­ingly. Though both ral­lied around work­ers’ inquiry, each had a very dif­fer­ent objec­tive in mind. For Lefort, the object of inquiry was uni­ver­sal pro­le­tar­ian atti­tudes; for Cas­to­ri­adis, it was the rudi­men­tary con­tent of the social­ist program.

Although the pro­posal was defeated, the mat­ter exploded into full view again in 1958. De Gaulle’s coup cre­ated an entirely new sit­u­a­tion. The estab­lished Left seemed par­a­lyzed, a wave of new recruits flooded into Social­isme ou Bar­barie, and many, led by Cas­to­ri­adis, believed the time had finally come to trans­form the group into a rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion, com­plete with a line, and a pop­u­lar paper like the one he had pro­posed back in 1956.59 A split took shape along the old fault lines, and in Sep­tem­ber, the minor­ity, led by Lefort and Simon, left to form Infor­ma­tion et Liaisons Ouvrières (Worker Infor­ma­tion and Con­nec­tions, ILO).60

One of the very first actions of this rein­vented Social­isme ou Bar­barie was to cre­ate a new paper, Pou­voir Ouvrier, in Decem­ber of that year. The form of the paper reflected Mothé and Castoriadis’s goals, ini­tially divided into two sec­tions: a polit­i­cal one, which pub­lished sim­pli­fied ver­sions of the the­o­ries devel­oped in its par­ent orga­ni­za­tion, and another, titled “La parole aux tra­vailleurs” (loosely, The Work­ers’ Turn to Speak), which pub­lished worker tes­ti­monies in the tra­di­tion of Paul Romano.

Argu­ing for the strate­gic neces­sity of the paper, Cas­to­ri­adis elab­o­rated his con­cep­tion of the rela­tion­ship of the intel­lec­tual and the worker in “Pro­le­tariat and Orga­ni­za­tion, Part 1,” writ­ten in the sum­mer of 1958 as the split with Lefort’s fac­tion was tak­ing place. While Mothé’s model of the paper had been some­thing like a trans­mis­sion belt, mov­ing for­ward then back­wards between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als, as if at the flip of a switch, in this text Cas­to­ri­adis pro­vides a more dynamic image, more like a cir­cuit. Mil­i­tants do not sim­ply dis­sem­i­nate their the­o­ries among work­ers in order to con­vert them to social­ism, they sub­mit their the­o­ries for ver­i­fi­ca­tion. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory will “have no value, no con­sis­tency with what it else­where pro­claims to be its essen­tial prin­ci­ples,” Cas­to­ri­adis argued, “unless it is con­stantly being replen­ished, in prac­tice, by the expe­ri­ence of the work­ers as it takes shape in their day-to-day lives;” it was this process which would allow the work­ers to “edu­cate the edu­ca­tor.”61 This meant that Social­isme ou Bar­barie, which had hith­erto been an exceed­ingly “intel­lec­tual” review, had to rethink its prac­tice. “The task the orga­ni­za­tion is up against in this sphere,” he con­tin­ued, “is to merge intel­lec­tu­als with work­ers as work­ers as it is elab­o­rat­ing its views. This means that the ques­tions asked, and the meth­ods for dis­cussing and work­ing out these prob­lems, must be changed so that it will be pos­si­ble for the worker to take part.” Rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory had to be more acces­si­ble, the orga­ni­za­tion had to become more dis­ci­plined, and its com­po­si­tion had to change:

Only an orga­ni­za­tion formed as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers’ orga­ni­za­tion, in which work­ers numer­i­cally pre­dom­i­nate and dom­i­nate it on fun­da­men­tal ques­tions, and which cre­ates broad avenues of exchange with the pro­le­tariat, thus allow­ing it to draw upon the widest pos­si­ble expe­ri­ence of con­tem­po­rary soci­ety – only an orga­ni­za­tion of this kind can pro­duce a the­ory that will be any­thing other than the iso­lated work of specialists.

Like Mothé, he argued that mil­i­tants had to “extract the social­ist con­tent in what is con­stantly being cre­ated by the pro­le­tariat (whether it is a mat­ter of a strike or of a rev­o­lu­tion), for­mu­late it coher­ently, prop­a­gate it, and show its uni­ver­sal import.”62 The­ory must flow from the “his­toric as well as day-to-day expe­ri­ence and action of the pro­le­tariat,” and even “eco­nomic the­ory has to be recon­structed around what is con­tained in embryo in the ten­dency of work­ers toward equal­ity in pay; the entire the­ory of pro­duc­tion around the infor­mal orga­ni­za­tion of work­ers in the fac­tory; all of polit­i­cal the­ory around the prin­ci­ples embod­ied in the sovi­ets and the coun­cils.” But then it would be up to mil­i­tants to extract “what is uni­ver­sally valid in the expe­ri­ence of the pro­le­tariat,” work this up into a gen­eral “social­ist out­look,” then prop­a­gate this out­look among the work­ers whose expe­ri­ences served as its very con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­ity (214).

Cas­to­ri­adis had attempted pre­cisely this in the third part of his “On the Con­tent of Social­ism,” also in 1958. After crit­i­ciz­ing the bureau­cratic Bol­she­vik expe­ri­ence and then imag­in­ing a coun­cilist man­age­ment of soci­ety in parts one and two, he turned in the last part to the analy­sis of the labor process at the level of the enter­prise. The con­tent of social­ism is the “priv­i­leged cen­ter, the focal point” with­out which there is only “mere empir­i­cal soci­ol­ogy.” The con­tent of social­ism could only be demon­strated in the “proletariat’s strug­gle against alien­ation” (156).

The main con­tra­dic­tion of cap­i­tal­ism, Cas­to­ri­adis argued, lay in the def­i­n­i­tion of the exchange of labor-power, under­stood as the ten­sion between the “human time” of the laborer and the ratio­nal­iza­tion imposed by man­age­ment. There can only be a tem­po­rary bal­ance of forces between the two, the worker resign­ing to a com­pro­mise estab­lish­ing a cer­tain pace of work, which must be dis­solved and rein­vented when the man­u­fac­tur­ing process is trans­formed by new machin­ery. Taylorism’s func­tion was to reduce the het­ero­gene­ity of human time to the “‘one best way’ to accom­plish each oper­a­tion,” stan­dard­iz­ing the pro­ce­dures of work and deter­min­ing an aver­age out­put against which wages could be deter­mined – management’s attempt to the elim­i­nate the pos­si­bil­ity of wage con­flicts (159-60).

But Taylorism’s “one best way” could not pos­si­bly account for the real­ity of the work process, under­taken by indi­vid­u­als with mul­ti­plic­i­ties of “best ways” – with their own ges­tures and move­ments, their their own forms of adap­ta­tion to their tools, their own rhythms of exe­cu­tion. The col­lec­tiv­ity of indi­vid­u­als on the shop floor would have to under­take its own form of “spon­ta­neous asso­ci­a­tion” against the ratio­nal­iza­tion of man­age­ment, even to ful­fill management’s goals (163).

Here the con­cept of the “ele­men­tary group,” the “liv­ing nuclei of pro­duc­tive activ­ity,” drawn from The Amer­i­can Worker and the jour­nals of Mothé as much as from indus­trial soci­ol­ogy, became deci­sive (170).63 Each enter­prise, Cas­to­ri­adis wrote, had a ” dou­ble struc­ture,” its “for­mal orga­ni­za­tion” rep­re­sented in charts and dia­grams, and the infor­mal orga­ni­za­tion, “whose activ­i­ties are car­ried out and sup­ported by indi­vid­u­als and groups at all lev­els of the hier­ar­chi­cal pyra­mid accord­ing to the require­ments of their work, the imper­a­tives of pro­duc­tive effi­ciency, and the neces­si­ties of their strug­gle against exploita­tion” (170). The dis­tinc­tion between the two was not merely a ques­tion of “the­ory ver­sus prac­tice,” of an illu­sory boss’s ide­ol­ogy against the messy real­ity of the shop floor, as some lib­eral soci­ol­o­gists would have it. It rep­re­sented the real strug­gle by which man­age­ment attempted to encom­pass the entire pro­duc­tion process.

Against the “sep­a­rate man­age­ment [direc­tion]” of the bureau­cracy, the ele­men­tary group con­sti­tuted “the man­age­ment [ges­tion] of their own activ­ity” (169-70, 171). The oppo­si­tion between the two, Cas­to­ri­adis argued, was the real char­ac­ter of class strug­gle, the for­mal orga­ni­za­tion coin­cid­ing with the “man­age­r­ial stra­tum” and the infor­mal orga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing “a dif­fer­ent mode of oper­a­tion of the enter­prise, cen­tered around the real sit­u­a­tion of the exe­cu­tants.” This strug­gle between “direc­tors and exe­cu­tants” char­ac­ter­ized the cap­i­tal­ist work­place, begin­ning at the level of the ele­men­tary group and extend­ing across the whole enter­prise. Since the “posi­tion of each ele­men­tary group is essen­tially iden­ti­cal to that of the oth­ers,” the coop­er­a­tion between the groups leads them “to merge in a class, the class of exe­cu­tants, defined by a com­mu­nity of sit­u­a­tion, func­tion, inter­ests, atti­tude, men­tal­ity” (171).

If indus­trial soci­ol­ogy from management’s per­spec­tive was unable to rec­og­nize this class divi­sion in the work­place, and there­fore got lost in the­o­ret­i­cal abstrac­tion, the same went for Marx­ists whose con­cept of class did not begin with “the basic artic­u­la­tions within the enter­prise and among the human groups within the enter­prise.” Their ide­ol­ogy blocked them from “see­ing the proletariat’s vital process of class for­ma­tion, of self-creation as the out­come of a per­ma­nent strug­gle that begins within pro­duc­tion” (172).

This ide­ol­ogy had direct polit­i­cal con­se­quences. For Cas­to­ri­adis, even wage demands were nascent expres­sions of the strug­gle by which the infor­mal orga­ni­za­tion of the exe­cu­tants tended towards an attack on the cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment of pro­duc­tion. If Marx­ist par­ties and unions attempted to restrict the con­tent of these strug­gles to the bureau­cratic man­age­ment of income redis­tri­b­u­tion, this could only rein­force the directors/executants divi­sion. “To the abstract con­cept of the pro­le­tariat cor­re­sponds the abstract con­cept of social­ism as nation­al­iza­tion and plan­ning,” Cas­to­ri­adis wrote, “whose sole con­crete con­tent ulti­mately is revealed to be the total­i­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ship of the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of this abstrac­tion – of the bureau­cratic party.” For the work­ers’ strug­gle to truly real­ize itself, it would have to go fur­ther towards the work­ers’ self-management of pro­duc­tion (172).

With­out this thor­ough­go­ing trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety, cap­i­tal­ism would con­tinue on its cur­rent course, with the “tremen­dous waste” gen­er­ated by its irra­tional pro­duc­tion process. Each enter­prise unsteadily tried to bal­ance between the decom­po­si­tion of exe­cu­tants into atom­ized indi­vid­u­als, and their rein­te­gra­tion into new uni­fied wholes cor­re­spond­ing to a newly ratio­nal­ized pro­duc­tion process (172-3). But the man­age­r­ial plan is inevitably unable to estab­lish a hier­ar­chy of tasks that reflects the real require­ments of pro­duc­tion – while man­age­ment is unaware of the real­ity of the process on the shop floor, the exe­cu­tant is sep­a­rated from the plan and unin­ter­ested in the results, prone to tak­ing short­cuts (175). Only “the prac­tice, the inven­tion, the cre­ativ­ity of the mass of exe­cu­tants,” the col­lec­tiv­ity of the ele­men­tary group, can fill the gaps in management’s pro­duc­tion direc­tives (176).

But despite Castoriadis’s affir­ma­tion of the cre­ativ­ity of the exe­cu­tants in the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties, their role in the pro­duc­tion of the­ory was pre­cip­i­tously declin­ing. As Simon, Lefort, and oth­ers had feared, the work­ers’ nar­ra­tives increas­ingly became a mere orna­ment in Pou­voir Ouvrier. Con­firm­ing this wor­ri­some trend, in Novem­ber of 1959 the group voted to shift the empha­sis of the jour­nal even more towards the “polit­i­cal” sec­tion. By the spring of 1961 the sep­a­rate sec­tion titled “La parole aux tra­vailleurs” had van­ished com­pletely.64 The paper there­fore ended up only ful­fill­ing the sec­ond func­tion out­lined by Mothé – trans­mit­ting rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory to the work­ing class. But with­out the first func­tion – express­ing pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ences – Pou­voir Ouvrier sim­ply became another van­guardist pub­li­ca­tion, indis­tin­guish­able from the var­i­ous papers Mothé had orig­i­nally criticized.

To be fair, it seems that the dis­ap­pear­ance of “La parole aux tra­vailleurs” was in large part the result of a lack of worker nar­ra­tives. Indeed, this prob­lem cut across the splits in Social­isme ou Bar­barie. What­ever the dif­fer­ences between Lefort’s, Mothé’s, and Pou­voir Ouvrier’s con­cep­tions of inquiry and the rela­tion between work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als, all were depen­dent on a steady stream of worker accounts. But to their cha­grin, they found that work­ers’ sim­ply did not want to write.65

It’s sig­nif­i­cant here that all of these mod­els imag­ined work­ers’ inquiry in the same way: not the ques­tion­naire, as Marx sug­gested, but the writ­ten tes­ti­mony ini­ti­ated by Romano. Lefort had gone as far as to explic­itly crit­i­cize the “statistically-based” strat­egy of work­ers pos­ing “thou­sands of ques­tions” to each other, since these would result in mere numer­i­cal cor­re­la­tions and would be unable to bring out the “sys­tems of liv­ing and think­ing” of “con­crete indi­vid­u­als.” Even worse, a “ques­tion imposed from the out­side might be an irri­tant for the sub­ject being ques­tioned, shap­ing an arti­fi­cial response or, in any case, imprint­ing upon it a char­ac­ter that it would not oth­er­wise have had.”66 But it is hard not to won­der if the dearth of worker responses has to do with this spe­cific form of inquiry. Though worker nar­ra­tives might allow work­ers to express them­selves more organ­i­cally, they are nonethe­less much more dif­fi­cult to com­pose than respond­ing to a questionnaire.

Just as Pou­voir Ouvrier saw itself mov­ing away from its orig­i­nal goals, Infor­ma­tion et Liaisons Ouvrières also ran into some dif­fi­cul­ties. Unlike the major­ity of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, which asserted the neces­sity of a for­mal party, com­plete with a kind of cen­tral com­mit­tee, the ILO minor­ity had advo­cated a more decen­tral­ized struc­ture, based on autonomous worker cells, where every­thing could be openly dis­cussed. The core of the group would be these cells, based in var­i­ous firms, and the role of ILO would not be to dis­sem­i­nate ideas from above, as Pou­voir Ouvrier would soon do, but to cir­cu­late expe­ri­ences, infor­ma­tion, and ideas between these var­i­ous cells. It was to be some­thing of a net­work, pro­vid­ing links between dif­fer­ent work­ers, very much along the lines of Cor­re­spon­dence. Whereas Pou­voir Ouvrier wanted to prop­a­gate the social­ist project among work­ers, ILO, Lefort later recalled, aimed to “dis­trib­ute a bul­letin as unpro­gram­matic as pos­si­ble attempt­ing pri­mar­ily to give work­ers a voice and to aid in coor­di­nat­ing expe­ri­ences in indus­try – that is, those expe­ri­ences result­ing from attempts at autonomous strug­gle.”67

It should be noted that the minor­ity which split off to form ILO was less united by a com­mon per­spec­tive than by its gen­eral oppo­si­tion to the major­ity that pushed for a party. It’s there­fore unsur­pris­ing that this new group of about twenty would soon run into its own inter­nal dif­fer­ences. A fis­sure began to appear between the prin­ci­pal ani­ma­tors of the group: Lefort, who wished to com­bine the authen­tic­ity of the work­ers’ voice with some kind of the­ory, felt that Simon not only wanted to aban­don all signs of direc­tion, ori­en­ta­tion, and party line, but even inter­pre­ta­tion and the­ory as such. He would later reflect:

The essen­tial thing was that these peo­ple speak of their expe­ri­ence in every­day life. In a sense [Simon] was absolutely cor­rect. We all thought that there was an evil spell of The­ory detached from, and designed to mask, expe­ri­ence and every­day­ness. But it was still a mat­ter of expe­ri­ence as actual expe­ri­ence and every­day­ness, not banal­ity. Expe­ri­ence is not raw; it always implies an ele­ment of inter­pre­ta­tion and opens itself to dis­cus­sion. Speech in every­day life tac­itly or explic­itly refuses another speech and solic­its a response. For Simon, the speech of the exploited, who­ever he might be, what­ever he might say, was in essence good. He knew like all of us that the dom­i­nant bour­geois or demo­c­ra­tic dis­course weighs heav­ily on the speech of the exploited. This knowl­edge did not weaken his con­vic­tion. The speech of the exploited was suf­fi­cient unto itself. Essen­tially, he said that a per­son speaks about what he sees and feels; we have only to lis­ten to him, or bet­ter yet record his remarks in our bul­letin, which is our rai­son d’être.68

Lefort, who left the group in 1960 (prompt­ing them to rename them­selves Infor­ma­tions et Cor­re­spon­dance Ouvrières, ICO), argued that no mat­ter what, some kind of inter­pre­ta­tion will always slip into inquiry, even if only in the selec­tion of texts, the order in which they would be pub­lished, and so forth. To deny this was to deceive oneself.

In other words, the orig­i­nal project of work­ers’ inquiry broke down on both sides. Pou­voir Ouvrier became another van­guardist jour­nal, indis­tin­guish­able from a Trot­sky­ist paper, try­ing to edu­cate the work­ing class through sim­pli­fied ren­di­tions of eso­teric the­o­ries devel­oped with­out ref­er­ence to the con­crete expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class. On the other, ICO tricked itself into ignor­ing the role of intel­lec­tu­als, only to find itself immo­bi­lized, chas­ing after some pure pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence untar­nished by the­o­ret­i­cal interpretation.

As for Cas­to­ri­adis, he broke with his own group in 1962. His reflec­tions on these debates had pro­duced an even more dras­tic effect: Cas­to­ri­adis had come to the con­clu­sion that Marx­ism as a the­ory had been defin­i­tively dis­proved. “Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism and Rev­o­lu­tion,” first writ­ten between 1959 and 1961, had been pub­lished before he left with the dis­claimer that its “ideas are not nec­es­sar­ily shared by the entire Social­isme ou Bar­barie group” (226). Draw­ing on his day job as pro­fes­sional econ­o­mist for the OECD, Cas­to­ri­adis drew up a dev­as­tat­ing bal­ance sheet for Marx­ist the­ory. In the con­text of the post­war boom, Marx­ists were con­tin­u­ing to claim that cap­i­tal­ism, through struc­tural unem­ploy­ment and the increase in the rate of exploita­tion, was impov­er­ish­ing and pau­per­iz­ing the worker. But in real­ity, the sys­tem had yielded full employ­ment and wages were grow­ing more rapidly than ever, lead­ing to a mas­sive expan­sion of con­sump­tion which both pro­vided a steady source of effec­tive demand and rep­re­sented a major rise in the stan­dard of liv­ing of the work­ing class. Marx­ist mil­i­tants had exposed them­selves as worse than use­less; unions had become “cogs in the sys­tem” which “nego­ti­ate the work­ers’ docil­ity in return for higher wages,” while pol­i­tics “takes place exclu­sively among spe­cial­ists,” the sup­posed work­ers’ par­ties dom­i­nated by bureau­crats (227).

As Lefort him­self had sug­gested, the pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence that Social­isme ou Barbarie’s inquires had attempted to reach would have to be coun­ter­posed to the rigid deter­mi­na­tion of eco­nomic laws. “For tra­di­tional Marx­ism,” Cas­to­ri­adis wrote, “the ‘objec­tive’ con­tra­dic­tions of cap­i­tal­ism were essen­tially eco­nomic ones, and the system’s rad­i­cal inabil­ity to sat­isfy the work­ing class’s eco­nomic demands made these the motive force of class strug­gle.” But under­ly­ing this premise was an “objec­tivist and mech­a­nis­tic” fal­lacy which rein­forc­ing the notion that spe­cial­ists and bureau­crats who could under­stand history’s “objec­tive laws” would be respon­si­ble for the analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety and the “elim­i­na­tion of pri­vate prop­erty and the mar­ket.” Stuck within this fal­lacy, tra­di­tional Marx­ists could not even explain their own fix­a­tions; they failed to grasp that wages had increased because they were actu­ally deter­mined by class strug­gle, and the demands put forth by wage strug­gles could be met as long as they did not exceed pro­duc­tiv­ity increases (227).

Like the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency, Cas­to­ri­adis argued that the con­tra­dic­tion of cap­i­tal­ism had to be located in “pro­duc­tion and work,” and specif­i­cally in terms of the “alien­ation expe­ri­enced by every worker.” But unlike his stal­wart Marx­ist pre­de­ces­sors, Cas­to­ri­adis rec­og­nized that this the­ory was incom­pat­i­ble with the lan­guage of value, and rejected “eco­nomic” def­i­n­i­tions of class. The oppo­si­tion between direc­tors and exe­cu­tants thor­oughly replaced the one between own­ers of the means of pro­duc­tion to non-owners. This had major impli­ca­tions for the view of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment itself: the “ideal ten­dency” of “bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism” would be “the con­sti­tu­tion of a totally hier­ar­chized soci­ety in con­tin­u­ous expan­sion where people’s increas­ing alien­ation in their work would be com­pen­sated by a ‘ris­ing stan­dard of liv­ing’ and where all ini­tia­tive would be given over to orga­niz­ers” (229). This project, how­ever, was prone to the con­tra­dic­tion of bureau­cratic ratio­nal­ity, “capitalism’s need to reduce work­ers to the role of mere exe­cu­tants and the inabil­ity of this sys­tem to func­tion if it suc­ceeded in achiev­ing this required objec­tive.” The con­tra­dic­tion, then, was that “cap­i­tal­ism needs to real­ize simul­ta­ne­ously the par­tic­i­pa­tion and exclu­sion of the work­ers in the pro­duc­tion process” (228). This inher­ent ten­dency of cap­i­tal­ism could “never com­pletely pre­vail,” since “cap­i­tal­ism can­not exist with­out the pro­le­tariat,” and the proletariat’s con­tin­u­ous strug­gle to change the labor process and the stan­dard of liv­ing played a fun­da­men­tal role in cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment: “The extrac­tion of ‘use value from labor power’ is not a tech­ni­cal oper­a­tion; it is a process of bit­ter strug­gle in which half the time, so to speak, the cap­i­tal­ists turn out to be losers” (248).

The expe­ri­ence of this strug­gle, and the inad­e­quacy of reformism within it, had shorn the exe­cu­tants of any delu­sional faith in “objec­tive” con­tra­dic­tions as the guar­an­tee of bureau­cratic orga­ni­za­tions. Now the pro­le­tariat could finally rec­og­nize that the true rev­o­lu­tion­ary hori­zon was “work­ers’ man­age­ment and the over­com­ing of the cap­i­tal­ist val­ues of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion” (230).

In other words, the demands of this move­ment would not be at the level of wages, which rep­re­sented the alien­ated sub­sti­tute for a moti­va­tion dri­ven by cre­ative work. The source of moti­va­tion required for social cohe­sion no longer lay in “sig­ni­fy­ing” activ­i­ties, but solely in the pur­suit of income. Even the clas­si­cal careerist goal of pro­mo­tion in the hier­ar­chy of the bureau­cracy ulti­mately led to higher income (276). But since per­sonal income can­not lead to accu­mu­la­tion – it can­not make a worker a cap­i­tal­ist – “income there­fore only has mean­ing through the con­sump­tion it allows.” Since con­sump­tion could not rest solely on exist­ing needs, which were “at the point of sat­u­ra­tion, due to con­stant rises in income,” cap­i­tal­ists had to gen­er­ate new needs through the intro­duc­tion of new com­modi­ties, and the alien­ated cul­ture of adver­tis­ing which embed­ded them in every­day life (277).

Yet the increase in out­put which was required for a con­stantly ris­ing level of con­sump­tion could only be ensured through the automa­tion of pro­duc­tion, capitalism’s attempt at “the rad­i­cal abo­li­tion of its labor rela­tion prob­lems by abol­ish­ing the worker” (283). And this is the con­text in which the “wage rela­tion becomes an intrin­si­cally con­tra­dic­tory rela­tion,” since a rapidly devel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy, as opposed to the sta­tic tech­nol­ogy of pre­vi­ous soci­eties, pre­vented man­age­ment from set­tling on any per­ma­nent means for the “sta­bi­liza­tion of class rela­tions in the work­place,” and pre­vented “tech­ni­cal knowl­edge from becom­ing crys­tal­lized for­ever in a spe­cific cat­e­gory of the labor­ing pop­u­la­tion” (260). The whole his­tory of class strug­gle within cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion could be under­stood in these terms. The intro­duc­tion of machin­ery in the early 19th cen­tury was met with the pri­mor­dial acts of indus­trial sab­o­tage. Despite the defeat of its Lud­dite begin­nings, the work­ers’ strug­gle con­tin­ued within the fac­tory, lead­ing to the intro­duc­tion of piece­work, wages based on out­put. Now that “norms” of pro­duc­tion were the pri­mary line of strug­gle, cap­i­tal­ism fought back with the Tay­lorist sci­en­tific man­age­ment of norms. The work­ers’ resis­tance to man­age­ment yielded the ide­o­log­i­cal responses of indus­trial psy­chol­ogy and soci­ol­ogy, with their goals of “inte­grat­ing” work­ers into alien­ated work­places. But it was impos­si­ble, even by these mea­sures, to sup­press the fun­da­men­tal antag­o­nism of work­ers towards the pro­duc­tion process – in fact, in the most advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, with the high­est wages and the most “mod­ern” method of pro­duc­tion and man­age­ment, the “daily con­flict at the point of pro­duc­tion reaches incred­i­ble pro­por­tions” (264).

Accord­ing to Cas­to­ri­adis, the tra­di­tional Marx­ist con­cep­tion was unable to com­pre­hend this his­tor­i­cal process. For Marx­ism, “cap­i­tal­ists them­selves do not act – they are ‘acted upon’ by eco­nomic motives that deter­mine them just as grav­i­ta­tion gov­erns the move­ment of bod­ies” (262). But his­tory proved that the rul­ing class adapted its strate­gies accord­ing to its sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of class strug­gle, learn­ing that wages can buy the work­ers’ docil­ity, that state inter­ven­tion can sta­bi­lize the econ­omy, and that full employ­ment can pre­vent the rev­o­lu­tion­ary upheaval which would result from a rep­e­ti­tion of 1929 (269-70).

So the new rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­tique of soci­ety had to shed the dis­trac­tion of the objec­tivist the­ory and directly denounce the irra­tional and inhu­man results of bureau­cratic man­age­ment and alien­ated work. And cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment had ren­dered the over­com­ing of alien­ation defin­i­tively pos­si­ble, since at the tech­ni­cal level “the entire plan­ning bureau­cracy already can be replaced by elec­tronic cal­cu­la­tors,” and on the social level the irra­tional­ity of the bureau­cratic orga­ni­za­tion of soci­ety had been com­pletely unveiled (299).

Just as Cas­to­ri­adis drew up a bal­ance sheet of “tra­di­tional Marx­ism,” we can now eval­u­ate this par­tic­u­lar moment of rup­ture. The new the­ory of class was expe­di­ent for an analy­sis of the planned econ­omy of the Soviet Union as “bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism,” for­mu­lated in dia­logue with the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency. Cas­to­ri­adis rad­i­cal­ized their claim that cap­i­tal­ism emerged from rela­tions on the shop floor, rather than own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion.69 The ratio­nal ker­nel of this the­ory was clear: the process which began with the Bol­she­vik enthu­si­asm for Taylorism, the adop­tion by the Russ­ian bureau­cracy of forms of orga­ni­za­tion of the labor process pio­neered by cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment and soci­ol­ogy, shat­tered the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional phi­los­o­phy of his­tory. The advance­ment of the pro­duc­tive forces, whether they were pri­vately or pub­licly owned, had become an ele­ment of the ratio­nal­ity which gov­erned ever more com­plex forms of social stratification.

How­ever, Castoriadis’s new the­ory was sub­ject to the same blindspots as his pre­de­ces­sors, unable to explain class rela­tions in their unity with exchange rela­tions. The ques­tion of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment itself poses fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about his analy­sis. While Cas­to­ri­adis cor­rectly crit­i­cized the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the devel­op­ment of the pro­duc­tive forces with the polit­i­cal project of social­ism, he did not explain how this process was sit­u­ated within the social rela­tions of cap­i­tal­ism. Tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment was an expres­sion of the ratio­nal­ity of man­age­ment; while Cas­to­ri­adis bril­liantly out­lined the con­tra­dic­tions of this ratio­nal­ity at the level of the enter­prise, the under­ly­ing system-wide ques­tions of Marx’s analy­sis, to which each vol­ume of Cap­i­tal had been devoted, were now left unan­swered. If tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment is a waste­ful process, why does a profit-seeking enter­prise under­take it? How is it able to make large expen­di­tures in fixed cap­i­tal, in expen­sive machin­ery, and con­tinue to repro­duce its ongo­ing con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion? In Castoriadis’s analy­sis, tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment is prac­ti­cally the result of a lack of moti­va­tion, which can only be over­come through the expan­sion in con­sump­tion that is enabled by tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment and its aug­men­ta­tion of out­put. We now lack the the­o­ret­i­cal resources to under­stand why pro­duc­tion has become the end of human exis­tence, or what “max­i­mum pro­duc­tion” would mean – as though the capitalist’s goal were to own more things rather than to make more profits.

Just as fun­da­men­tal was the ques­tion of this system’s basic pre­con­di­tions. While Cas­to­ri­adis explained cap­i­tal­ism as the fullest expres­sion of alien­ation and reifi­ca­tion, it was by no means clear how these phe­nom­ena were spe­cific to cap­i­tal­ism, and what they had to do with the eco­nomic dynam­ics he was so quick to dis­miss. Under­ly­ing management’s attempt to direct labor-power towards the max­i­mum pos­si­ble out­put was the fact that cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment was com­pelled to exploit labor-power to the most prof­itable extent – and that work­ers were equally com­pelled to sell their labor-power in exchange for a wage. What accounted for this compulsion?

If these ques­tions were some­how incom­pat­i­ble with the analy­sis of the cap­i­tal­ist enter­prise, this would not only inval­i­date Marx­ism – it would make the cap­i­tal­ist nature of the enter­prise inex­plic­a­ble. But by start­ing from inquiries into the trans­for­ma­tion of the labor process, and shift­ing to a his­tor­i­cal account of the logic of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, Social­isme ou Bar­barie had served as an indis­pens­able foundation.

Sci­ence and Strat­egy: Operaismo

The influ­ence of Cas­to­ri­adis, Lefort, Mothé and oth­ers from Social­isme ou Bar­barie was quite appar­ent in the Italy of the early 1960s. Toni Negri, for instance, recalls how Social­isme ou Bar­barie, “the jour­nal that Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis and Claude Lefort pub­lished in Paris,” became “my daily bread in that period.”70

Direct links, in fact, had already been estab­lished. In 1954 Danilo Mon­taldi, who had ear­lier been expelled from the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party (PCI), trans­lated “The Amer­i­can Worker,” not from the orig­i­nal Eng­lish, but from the French trans­la­tions that appeared in Social­isme ou Bar­barie. He trav­eled to Paris that year, meet­ing the mil­i­tants of Social­isme ou Bar­barie and ini­ti­at­ing an exchange with none other than Daniel Mothé, whose diary he would later trans­late into Ital­ian. Mon­taldi would main­tain these con­nec­tions, return­ing to Paris in 1957, and again in 1960, to strengthen ties with Cas­to­ri­adis, Lefort, and Edgar Morin, among oth­ers.71

Mon­taldi not only played an indis­pens­able role in the trans­mis­sion of the ideas of Social­isme ou Bar­barie into the Ital­ian con­text, he put them into prac­tice, con­duct­ing his own brand of work­ers’ inquiry. These prac­ti­cally unprece­dented inves­ti­ga­tions, which relied on a plu­ral­ity of meth­ods, from nar­ra­tive to soci­o­log­i­cal inquiry to oral his­tory, resulted in a series of highly influ­en­tial pub­li­ca­tions: “Milan, Korea,” an inquiry into south­ern immi­grants liv­ing in Milan, Auto­bi­ografie della leg­gera, and finally Mil­i­tanti politici di base.

Mon­taldi pro­posed an entirely dif­fer­ent way of see­ing things. The objec­tive of inquiry was to uncover the every­day strug­gles of the work­ing class, inde­pen­dently of all the offi­cial insti­tu­tions that claimed to rep­re­sent it. Yet as Ser­gio Bologna recalls, Montaldi’s care­ful his­to­ries rejected myth­i­cal trib­utes to spon­tane­ity, opt­ing instead for rich descrip­tions of “microsys­tems of strug­gle,” the polit­i­cal cul­tures of resis­tance that made seem­ingly spon­ta­neous move­ments pos­si­ble.72 This new focus on buried net­works and obscured his­to­ries would have tremen­dous ramifications.

In addi­tion to his own inves­ti­ga­tions, Mon­taldi orga­nized a group in Cre­mona called Gruppo di Unità Pro­le­taria. Last­ing from 1957-1962, it brought together a num­ber of young mil­i­tants, all united by their desire to dis­cover the work­ing class as it really was, beyond the frigid world of party cards. One of these young mil­i­tants was Romano Alquati.

Alquati, trained as a soci­ol­o­gist, would be a piv­otal fig­ure in the for­ma­tion of the jour­nal Quaderni Rossi, the ini­tial encounter of het­ero­dox mil­i­tants from the Ital­ian Social­ist Party and the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party which would found operaismo, or “work­erism.” Quaderni Rossi began with a debate over soci­ol­ogy, whose use by the bosses had yielded new forms of labor man­age­ment and dis­ci­pline, but had also gen­er­ated invalu­able infor­ma­tion about the labor process. While a crit­i­cal Marx­ist appro­pri­a­tion of soci­ol­ogy was on the agenda, its rela­tion to Montaldi’s work­ers’ inquiry was not entirely clear. Some in Quaderni Rossi – the “soci­ol­o­gist” fac­tion sur­round­ing Vit­to­rio Rieser – believed that this new sci­ence, though asso­ci­ated with bour­geois aca­d­e­mics, could be used as a basis for the renewal of the insti­tu­tions of the work­ers’ move­ment. Oth­ers, includ­ing Alquati, felt soci­ol­ogy could only be, at best, an ini­tial step towards a specif­i­cally mil­i­tant col­lab­o­ra­tion between researchers and work­ers, a new form of knowl­edge which would be char­ac­ter­ized as “core­search.”73

Alquati’s inquiries would prove to be fun­da­men­tal in the devel­op­ment of workerism’s eco­nomic analy­sis. Steve Wright has bril­liantly traced the break which can be observed between Alquati’s “Report on the ‘New Forces,’” a study of FIAT pub­lished in the first issue of Quaderni Rossi in 1961, and the 1962 study of Olivetti. In the first text, along with the two oth­ers pub­lished that year on FIAT, Alquati oper­ates, inter­est­ingly enough, within the prob­lem­atic estab­lished in Social­isme ou Bar­barie.74 The “new forces” at FIAT were the younger gen­er­a­tion, brought in to work the recently installed machin­ery that had deskilled more expe­ri­enced pro­fes­sional work­ers. Man­age­ment imposed hier­ar­chies within the work­force – a divi­sion of labor sep­a­rat­ing tech­ni­cians and skilled work­ers from the major­ity, along with divi­sive pay scales. But this process of ratio­nal­iza­tion was sub­ject to the con­tra­dic­tory irra­tional­ity Cas­to­ri­adis had described; and it gave rise to forms of “invis­i­ble orga­ni­za­tion” result­ing from the fact that man­age­ment was con­strained to give exe­cu­tants respon­si­bil­ity while at the same time try­ing to repress their con­trol. Alquati also drew polit­i­cal con­clu­sions rem­i­nis­cent of his French pre­cur­sors: the work­ers were uncon­vinced by the reformism of the offi­cial work­ers’ move­ment, and instead expressed inter­est in work­ers’ man­age­ment, in an end to the alien­at­ing process of work.

Along­side Alquati’s text in the inau­gural issue of Quaderni Rossi, Ranziero Panzieri, the founder of the review, pub­lished a highly influ­en­tial arti­cle called “The Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery: Marx Against the Objec­tivists.” Writ­ten after Alquati’s “Report,” it reflected on the themes raised by Alquati, refer­ring through­out to the work­ers “stud­ied in the present issue of Quaderni Rossi,” while push­ing towards a new frame­work. Panzieri, who had not only writ­ten the intro­duc­tion to the Ital­ian edi­tion of Mothé’s diary, but was also the Ital­ian trans­la­tor of the sec­ond vol­ume of Cap­i­tal, was not pre­pared to drop Marx’s lan­guage in favor of that of direc­tors and executants:

the worker, as owner and seller of his labour-power, enters into rela­tion with cap­i­tal only as an indi­vid­ual; coop­er­a­tion, the mutual rela­tion­ship between work­ers, only begins with the labour process, but by then they have ceased to belong to them­selves. On enter­ing the labour process they are incor­po­rated into cap­i­tal.75

For Panzieri, the means by which this incor­po­ra­tion took place was machin­ery, in the pas­sage from man­u­fac­ture to the devel­oped level of large-scale indus­try. Cit­ing Marx’s remark that in the cap­i­tal­ist fac­tory, “the automa­ton itself is the sub­ject, and the work­ers are merely con­scious organs,” Panzieri’s tar­get was the labor bureaucracy’s enthu­si­asm for tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment.76 Accord­ing to this ortho­dox posi­tion, tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment rep­re­sented a tran­shis­tor­i­cal force, deter­min­ing the pro­gres­sive move­ment through modes of pro­duc­tion. To drive down the Ital­ian road to social­ism, the Ital­ian worker would have to sub­mit to the automa­tons in the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries.77

It is sig­nif­i­cant that while Panzieri made many of the same his­tor­i­cal obser­va­tions as Cas­to­ri­adis, he defended them as dis­cov­er­ies inter­nal to Marx’s the­ory. The same went for the ris­ing stan­dard of liv­ing. Accord­ing to Panzieri, “Marx fore­saw an increase not just of the nom­i­nal but also of the real wage”: “the more the growth of cap­i­tal is rapid, the more the mate­r­ial sit­u­a­tion of the working-class improves. And the more the wage is linked to the growth of cap­i­tal, the more direct becomes labour’s depen­dence upon cap­i­tal.“78 For this rea­son, though now in agree­ment with Cas­to­ri­adis, Panzieri con­sid­ered wage strug­gles a func­tion of the unions’ bureau­cratic incor­po­ra­tion of labor into cap­i­tal; only by directly attack­ing capital’s con­trol and replac­ing it with work­ers’ con­trol could tech­no­log­i­cal ratio­nal­ity be sub­jected to “the social­ist use of machines.” Indeed, for Panzieri, Quaderni Rossi’s inquiries showed that the work­ers were already com­ing to this view. How­ever, he still warned against draw­ing any directly polit­i­cal con­clu­sions: “The ‘new’ working-class demands which char­ac­ter­ize trade-union strug­gles (stud­ied in the present issue of Quaderni Rossi) do not directly fur­nish a rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal con­tent, nor do they imply an auto­matic devel­op­ment in that direction.”

When Alquati’s own inves­ti­ga­tions turned from FIAT to Olivetti – from a fac­tory that made cars to one that made cal­cu­la­tors and type­writ­ers – he was able to draw on and build upon Panzieri’s analy­sis of tech­nol­ogy. In the title “Organic Com­po­si­tion of Cap­i­tal and Labor-Power at Olivetti,” Alquati defin­i­tively brought the dis­course of work­ers’ inquiry back into the lan­guage of Marx­ist eco­nomic analy­sis, and implic­itly sug­gested a new con­cept: class composition.

While the seeds of class com­po­si­tion can be already observed in the “Report on the ‘New Forces,’” inso­far as Alquati attempted to describe the mate­r­ial exis­tence of the work­ing class, its behav­iors and forms of inter­ac­tions and orga­ni­za­tion, the ear­lier inquiry had treated machin­ery purely as a means by which direc­tors reduced work­ers to exe­cu­tants. Deskilling was sim­ply a way to break the will of the exe­cu­tants, and new machin­ery an instru­ment in this process. Now, in the inquiry at Olivetti, the increas­ing organic com­po­si­tion of cap­i­tal was seen from the working-class view­point as the recom­po­si­tion of labor-power, the trans­for­ma­tion of the very forms of worker coop­er­a­tion. Tech­nol­ogy, in this sense, rep­re­sented the field in which the social rela­tions of class were embed­ded, but as part of a dynamic process in which the con­flict between the extrac­tion of sur­plus value and work­ers’ insub­or­di­na­tion shaped the process of pro­duc­tion. Direc­tors were not mere par­a­sites; while it was true that exe­cu­tants infor­mally orga­nized their con­crete labor, the func­tion of man­age­ment was to plan and coor­di­nate this labor within the val­oriza­tion process. Work­ers’ strug­gles would have to artic­u­late forms of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion that responded to this tech­no­log­i­cal recom­po­si­tion, and in this con­text self-management would no longer be ade­quate – except as the work­ers’ self-management of the strug­gle against the cap­i­tal relation.

If these inquiries resulted in the begin­nings of a new sci­en­tific prob­lem­atic, and an enthu­si­as­tic embrace of new forces, then inquiry turned out to be more polit­i­cally divi­sive than the par­tic­i­pants had real­ized. After the riots of Piazza Statuto in 1962, when work­ers attacked the offices of the Unione Ital­iana del Lavoro (UIL) in Turin, Quaderni Rossi would be torn apart by inter­nal dis­agree­ments.79 While Tronti, Alquati, Negri, and oth­ers believed that this rep­re­sented a new phase of the class strug­gle, an oppor­tu­nity to break with the increas­ingly unten­able strat­egy of col­lab­o­ra­tion with the unions, Panzieri saw it as a polit­i­cal impasse. Uncon­vinced that autonomous work­ers’ strug­gles could advance a last­ing orga­ni­za­tional form – even if the form of the unions had been exhausted – Panzieri thought that a renewed empha­sis on inquiry and soci­o­log­i­cal research would be required before any move­ment could emerge.

This polit­i­cal dif­fer­ence was, sig­nif­i­cantly, also a the­o­ret­i­cal one. At an edi­to­r­ial meet­ing at the end of 1963, Panzieri remarked that an essay of Tronti’s was

for me a fas­ci­nat­ing resume of a whole series of errors that the work­ers’ Left can com­mit in this moment. It is fas­ci­nat­ing because it is very Hegelian, in the orig­i­nal sense, as a new way of re-living a phi­los­o­phy of his­tory. It is pre­cisely a phi­los­o­phy of his­tory of the work­ing class. One speaks, for exam­ple, of the party, but in that con­text the con­cept of the party can­not be deduced or forced in; one can only deduce the self-organisation of the class at the level of neo-capitalism.80

In Jan­u­ary of the fol­low­ing year, this essay would launch the new jour­nal Classe Operaia, formed by Tronti’s fac­tion. His con­tro­ver­sial essay would famously announce, in the lines which have now become the inescapable catch­phrase of work­erism: “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, reverse the polar­ity, and start again from the begin­ning: and the begin­ning is the class strug­gle of the work­ing class.”81

In the fall of that year, the last of his life, Panzieri spoke at a Turin sem­i­nar called “Social­ist Uses of Work­ers’ Inquiry,” along­side the “soci­ol­o­gist” fac­tion that had remained with Quaderni Rossi. Here he argued for “the use of soci­o­log­i­cal tools for the polit­i­cal aims of the work­ing class,” and in doing so pre­sented a kind of coun­ter­point to “Lenin in Eng­land.” In his inter­ven­tion, pub­lished the fol­low­ing year in Quaderni Rossi, Panzieri defended the anti-historicist char­ac­ter of inquiry, claim­ing that Marx’s Cap­i­tal itself had the fea­tures of a soci­o­log­i­cal analysis:

In Marx’s Eco­nomic and Philo­soph­i­cal Man­u­scripts and other early writ­ings the point of com­par­i­son is alien­ated being (“the worker suf­fers in his very exis­tence, the cap­i­tal­ist in the profit on his dead mam­mon”) and the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy is linked to a his­tor­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal con­cep­tion of human­ity and his­tory. How­ever, Marx’s Cap­i­tal aban­dons this meta­phys­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal out­look and the later cri­tique is lev­elled exclu­sively at a spe­cific sit­u­a­tion that is cap­i­tal­ism, with­out claim­ing to be a uni­ver­sal anti-critique of the one-sidedness of bour­geois polit­i­cal economy.

Work­ers’ inquiry as a sci­en­tific prac­tice had to be elab­o­rated on this basis – by advanc­ing its own one-sidedness in response. For Panzieri, Marx­ist soci­ol­ogy “refuses to iden­tify the work­ing class with the move­ment of cap­i­tal and claims that it is impos­si­ble to auto­mat­i­cally trace a study of the work­ing class back to the move­ment of cap­i­tal.”82

But what was the mean­ing of this one-sidedness? Panzieri had indi­cated his dis­taste for Tronti’s grandiose inver­sion, and this was indeed a per­ti­nent crit­i­cism, pre­sag­ing the increas­ing dis­tance of work­erist the­ory from the con­crete prac­tice of inquiry over the course of the 1960s and 1970s. How­ever, Panzieri was unable to pro­pose a new polit­i­cal approach; while he had tied the prac­tice of inquiry to a Marx­ist eco­nomic analy­sis, he was unable to bring this the­ory to bear on the real polit­i­cal activ­ity that was begin­ning to emerge, and which would char­ac­ter­ize over a decade of class strug­gle to fol­low. Recently Tronti has reflected on this split:

Panzieri accused me of “Hegelian­ism,” of “phi­los­o­phy of his­tory.” This read­ing, and the accu­sa­tion that under­lies it, will often return; after all, Hegelian­ism was a real fac­tor, it was effec­tively there, always had been; while this idea of a “phi­los­o­phy of his­tory” absolutely did not… Ours was not a the­ory that imposed itself from out­side on real data, but the oppo­site: that is, the attempt to recover those real data, giv­ing them mean­ing within a the­o­ret­i­cal hori­zon.83

Indeed, work­erism would, for its entire his­tory, be tor­tured by the ten­sion between “phi­los­o­phy of his­tory” and “real data”; this lives on in today’s “post-workerism.” But these are the risks taken by those whose eyes are on the “the­o­ret­i­cal hori­zon.” It is impor­tant to note that Alquati, who did not share Panzieri’s views on the incom­pat­i­bil­ity of research and insur­rec­tion, split from Quaderni Rossi and joined Classe Operaia. His con­cep­tion of inquiry was a mil­i­tant and polit­i­cal one.

For this rea­son Tronti’s the­o­ret­i­cal syn­the­sis, in his 1965 essay “Marx, Labor-Power, Work­ing Class,” has to be reex­plored. This essay makes up the bulk of Work­ers and Cap­i­tal (1966), with only a cou­ple con­clud­ing sec­tions trans­lated into Eng­lish. Unlike the rest of the book, which con­sists of arti­cles writ­ten for Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia, this hith­erto unpub­lished essay is a long and con­tin­u­ous argu­ment, devel­oped on the basis of Tronti’s Marx­ol­ogy and his­tor­i­cal analy­sis. While this leads us to a cer­tain digres­sion, we believe it is the indis­pens­able basis for redis­cov­er­ing the the­ory of class com­po­si­tion that Alquati’s prac­tice of inquiry sug­gested, while also devel­op­ing this the­ory in a way that takes Panzieri’s warn­ing seriously.

Though Tronti’s clas­si­cal work­erist inver­sion is widely known and cited, less is known about the process of the­o­ret­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion that led to it. Through­out Work­ers and Cap­i­tal the pri­macy of work­ers’ strug­gle is described as a strate­gic rever­sal which attempts to iden­tify and advance the polit­i­cal char­ac­ter of Marx’s the­o­ret­i­cal devel­op­ment, with the expe­ri­ence of 1848 and the polit­i­cal writ­ings pre­ced­ing the sci­en­tific eco­nomic analy­sis.84 In a sense, this rep­re­sented a new object of inquiry. No longer was the goal, as it was for the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency or Social­isme ou Bar­barie, to dis­cover uni­ver­sal pro­le­tar­ian atti­tudes, or even the con­tent of social­ism, but to access a specif­i­cally polit­i­cal logic which emerged from the working-class view­point – a con­se­quence of the dif­fi­cult rela­tion between strat­egy and sci­ence rep­re­sented by Marx’s the­o­ret­i­cal practice.

Despite what seems to be an affir­ma­tion of some pur­ported working-class iden­tity, Tronti did not seek to defend, in the man­ner of the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency and Social­isme ou Bar­barie, the dig­nity of labor. On the con­trary, the guid­ing prin­ci­ple of the “refusal of work” meant return­ing to Marx’s own cri­tique of the ide­ol­ogy of the work­ers’ move­ment: “When Marx refused the idea of labor as the source of wealth and took up a con­cept of labor as the mea­sure of value, social­ist ide­ol­ogy was beaten for good, and working-class sci­ence was born. It’s no acci­dent that this is still the choice” (222).85

Marx had tire­lessly repeated that “labor is pre­sup­posed by cap­i­tal and at the same time pre­sup­poses it in its turn” – in other words, the owner of cap­i­tal pre­sup­poses labor-power, while labor-power pre­sup­poses the con­di­tions of labor. On its own, Tronti wrote, “labor cre­ates noth­ing, nei­ther value nor cap­i­tal, and con­se­quently it can­not demand from any­one the resti­tu­tion of the full fruit of what ‘it has cre­ated’” (222). But since social­ist ide­ol­ogy had extended to new the­o­ries of labor and class, it would be nec­es­sary to “clear the field of every tech­no­log­i­cal illu­sion” which tried to “reduce the pro­duc­tive process to the labor process, to a rela­tion of the laborer to the instru­ment as such of his labor, as though it were an eter­nal rela­tion of man with an evil gift of nature.” Just as treach­er­ous was “the trap of the processes of reifi­ca­tion,” which started with the “ide­o­log­i­cal lament” of machinery’s mor­ti­fi­ca­tion of the worker and quickly moved to pro­pose “the mys­ti­cal cure for the class con­scious­ness of this worker, as if it were the search for the lost soul of mod­ern man” (203).

Instead, rec­og­niz­ing that the “work­ing class is the point of his­tor­i­cal depar­ture for the birth and growth of cap­i­tal­ism,” Marx’s path was to “start from cap­i­tal to arrive at log­i­cally under­stand­ing the work­ing class” (230). Con­se­quently, it was nec­es­sary to affirm that the cap­i­tal­ist view­point could attain the sta­tus of sci­ence. In fact, cap­i­tal­ist sci­ence would be supe­rior to social­ist ide­olo­gies, which were still trapped in the view that “only the work­ing class, in par­tic­u­lar in the per­sona of its rep­re­sen­ta­tive offi­cials, is the repos­i­tory of real sci­ence (of real his­tory etc.), and that this is the sci­ence of every­thing, the gen­eral social sci­ence also valid for cap­i­tal.” It would be bet­ter to rec­og­nize that “in the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of the pro­duc­tive process of a large fac­tory, there is at least as much sci­en­tific knowl­edge as in the Smithian dis­cov­ery of pro­duc­tive labor that is exchanged for cap­i­tal” (172). To want to know more about cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety from the working-class view­point “than the cap­i­tal­ists them­selves” was a “pious illu­sion,” and “every form of work­ers’ man­age­ment of cap­i­tal proves to be nec­es­sar­ily imper­fect with rela­tion to a directly cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment.” The work­ers’ path was not a per­fected man­age­ment, but destruc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism by rev­o­lu­tion. “So from the view­point of the cap­i­tal­ists,” Tronti argued, “it is com­pletely cor­rect to study the work­ing class; only they are capa­ble of study­ing it cor­rectly. But the ide­o­log­i­cal smog of indus­trial soci­ol­ogy will not suc­ceed in can­celling the death sen­tence that it rep­re­sents for them” (230).

In this regard research from the working-class view­point would be dis­tinct from cap­i­tal­ist soci­ol­ogy, since its find­ings would be ori­ented towards the orga­ni­za­tion of this destruc­tion. This indi­cates the ques­tion of “polit­i­cal com­po­si­tion”; as Tronti wrote, “the the­o­ret­i­cal research we have con­ducted on the con­cepts of labor, labor-power, work­ing class, becomes noth­ing more than an exer­cise on the path to the prac­ti­cal dis­cov­ery of a con­quest of orga­ni­za­tion” (259). This spe­cific line of research, which emerges from work­ers’ inquiry and, in the his­tory of work­erism, some­times strays quite far from it, requires a sep­a­rate inves­ti­ga­tion. For the time being, we will dwell on the con­cepts of labor, labor-power, and work­ing class, inso­far as they com­ple­ment and sys­tem­atize the find­ings of work­ers’ inquiry and the cat­e­gory of class composition.

Before even ask­ing what it means to say that the work­ing class dri­ves cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, we have to ask what it means to say class, and indeed this is the absolutely cen­tral ques­tion of Tronti’s the­o­ret­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion. For Tronti the the­ory of class can­not be restricted to the point of pro­duc­tion, and does not even nec­es­sar­ily begin there. Its expo­si­tion begins with Marx’s point in vol­ume 2 of Cap­i­tal: “The class rela­tion between cap­i­tal­ist and wage-labourer is thus already present, already pre­sup­posed, the moment that the two con­front each other in the act M-L (L-M from the side of the worker).”86 Indeed, Tronti will affirm that “for Marx it is beyond doubt that the class-relation already exists in-itself [an sich] in the act of cir­cu­la­tion. It is pre­cisely this which reveals, which brings out, the cap­i­tal­ist rela­tion dur­ing the production-process” (149).87

His analy­sis pur­sues the lines of Marx which follow:

Money can be spent in this form only because labour-power is found in a state of sep­a­ra­tion from its means of pro­duc­tion (includ­ing the means of sub­sis­tence as means of pro­duc­tion of labour-power itself); and because this sep­a­ra­tion is abol­ished only through the sale of labour-power to the owner of the means of pro­duc­tion, a sale which sig­ni­fies that the buyer is now in con­trol of the con­tin­u­ous flow of labour-power, a flow which by no means has to stop when the amount of labor nec­es­sary to repro­duce the price of labour-power has been per­formed. The cap­i­tal rela­tion arises only in the pro­duc­tion process because it exists implic­itly in the act of cir­cu­la­tion, in the basi­cally dif­fer­ent eco­nomic con­di­tions in which buyer and seller con­front one another, in their class rela­tion.88

What can it mean that a the­o­ret­i­cal tra­di­tion so known for its focus on the point of pro­duc­tion starts with a the­ory not only of value, but of class, that is cen­tered on exchange? Hel­mut Reichelt has com­mented on the choice faced for eco­nomic form-analysis between, on the one hand, labor as a “quasi-ontological cat­e­gory” which presents “sub­stan­tialised abstract human labour as the sub­stance of value”; and on the other hand, an account of the specif­i­cally cap­i­tal­ist social processes which con­sti­tute the “valid­ity [Gel­tung]” of human activ­ity as abstract labor, and the nat­ural form of prod­ucts as val­ues – in other words, the deter­mi­na­tion of what is counted as labor in exchange.89 For Reichelt this is the basis of Marx’s advanced the­ory of value, and we can also observe Tronti fol­low­ing this thread: “Con­crete labor real­izes itself in the infi­nite vari­ety of its use val­ues; abstract labor real­izes itself in the equal­ity of com­modi­ties as gen­eral equiv­a­lents” (124).

In an adven­tur­ous recon­quer­ing of Marx’s 1844 Man­u­scripts, against their human­ist appro­pri­a­tion, Tronti argued that Marx’s early writ­ings on alien­ation rep­re­sented an ini­tial and incom­plete the­ory of abstract labor, aris­ing from the sep­a­ra­tion char­ac­ter­is­tic of pri­vate prop­erty.90 But this account would only be truly devel­oped in Cap­i­tal. While for Cas­to­ri­adis Cap­i­tal amounted to lit­tle more than eco­nomic objec­tivism, it raised the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of the com­men­su­ra­bil­ity assumed in exchange – which, as Reichelt points out, is cen­tral to the “dou­ble char­ac­ter” of “the wealth of bour­geois soci­ety”: “a mass of a mul­ti­tude of use-values that as homoge­nous abstract quan­ti­ties can at the same time be aggre­gated into a social prod­uct.“91 The value rela­tion is meant to explain the form of “equal valid­ity” which allows dif­fer­ent prod­ucts to be ren­dered equiv­a­lent in exchange.92

A the­ory of class rela­tions spe­cific to cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, then, can­not neglect to explain how the abil­ity to work can pos­si­bly be part of a sys­tem of exchange: how labor-power can be exchanged for a wage, inserted into a sys­tem of cir­cu­la­tion in which com­modi­ties are ren­dered equiv­a­lent accord­ing to their val­ues. But this ques­tion can only be answered within the con­text of a his­tor­i­cal analy­sis which opens onto the def­i­n­i­tion of class. Abstract labor is con­sti­tuted in exchange, but the typ­i­cal exchange of cap­i­tal­ism is money/labor-power; so how does this con­sti­tu­tive class rela­tion arise, in which own­ers of money and own­ers of labor-power con­front each other on the mar­ket, and what is its rela­tion to the process of cap­i­tal­ist development?

For both Lefort and Cas­to­ri­adis, rely­ing on the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, capitalism’s pre­con­di­tion was the bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion. For Lefort, the bour­geoisie had to be under­stood as con­sti­tut­ing “a homo­ge­neous group with a fixed struc­ture” which had “com­mon inter­ests and hori­zons”; the pro­le­tariat, on the other hand, reduced to its atom­ized eco­nomic func­tions, would have to unify itself through its strug­gle against the bour­geoisie.93 Cap­i­tal­ism rep­re­sented the reshap­ing of soci­ety accord­ing to the bourgeoisie’s col­lec­tive interest.

For Tronti, start­ing from the forms of gen­er­al­ized exchange­abil­ity char­ac­ter­is­tic of cap­i­tal­ism, such an account of the bour­geoisie was sim­ply impos­si­ble. For a sys­tem in which the typ­i­cal, defin­ing exchange was money/labor-power, the start­ing premise had to be the con­sti­tu­tion of a class with noth­ing to sell but labor-power, the free laborer con­strained eco­nom­i­cally but not legally to sell labor-power in exchange for a wage. This, for Tronti, was the con­sti­tu­tion of the pro­le­tariat: “the prop­erly his­tor­i­cal pas­sage from labor to labor-power, that is from labor as slav­ery and ser­vice to labor-power as the sole com­mod­ity able to sub­mit wealth to value, able to val­orize wealth and thereby pro­duce cap­i­tal” (139). But the pro­le­tariat had to enter into exchange not with a class, but with indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ists, whose only “col­lec­tive” inter­est was their shared drive to com­pete with each other:

The his­tor­i­cal point of depar­ture sees in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety the work­ers on one side and the cap­i­tal­ist on the other. Here again is one of the facts which imposes itself with the vio­lence of its sim­plic­ity. His­tor­i­cally we can speak of an indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ist: this is the socially deter­mined fig­ure which pre­sides over the con­sti­tu­tion of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. As such, at least in the clas­si­cal devel­op­ment of the sys­tem, this his­tor­i­cal fig­ure does not dis­ap­pear, it is not sup­pressed or extin­guished, but only orga­nizes itself col­lec­tively, social­iz­ing itself so to speak in cap­i­tal, pre­cisely as the class rela­tion. On the other hand we can­not speak of the iso­lated worker at any his­tor­i­cal moment. In its mate­r­ial, socially deter­mined fig­ure, the worker is from his birth col­lec­tively orga­nized. From the begin­ning the work­ers, as exchange val­ues of the cap­i­tal­ist, come forth in the plural: the worker in the sin­gu­lar does not exist (232-3).

In this regard the indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ist per­sists, and con­tin­ues to engage in the mar­ket exchange which char­ac­ter­izes cap­i­tal­ism. But the cap­i­tal­ist class is “always some­thing else more or less than a social class. Some­thing less, since direct eco­nomic inter­est has not ceased and per­haps will not cease to present itself as divided on the cap­i­tal­ist side. Some­thing more, because the polit­i­cal power of cap­i­tal now extends its appa­ra­tus of con­trol, dom­i­na­tion, and repres­sion beyond the tra­di­tional forms taken by the State, to invest the whole struc­ture of the new soci­ety” (233).

Once labor-power is exchanged for the wage, Tronti argues, intro­duc­ing a ter­mi­no­log­i­cal dis­tinc­tion into Marx’s cat­e­gories, the pro­le­tariat is recom­posed as work­ing class: as labor-power which is coop­er­a­tive, col­lec­tive within the labor-process. This ongo­ing process of social­iza­tion of labor is the first source of rel­a­tive sur­plus value; it will later require tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment for its fur­ther growth. Here Tronti devel­ops the point implic­itly sug­gested by Panzieri; but while the lat­ter started with the indi­vid­ual worker whose labor-power was inte­grated into the fac­tory plan, Tronti iden­ti­fies a process of class recom­po­si­tion.94 Between the pro­le­tariat and the work­ing class Tronti sees “the same his­tor­i­cal suc­ces­sion and the same log­i­cal dif­fer­ence as that which we have already found between the seller of labor-power and the pro­ducer of sur­plus value” (161).

The strug­gle for a nor­mal work­ing day, for Marx so fun­da­men­tal in the log­i­cal expo­si­tion of rel­a­tive sur­plus value, man­i­fests the class strug­gle in terms which also framed the pro­le­tariat: the strug­gle to reduce a het­ero­ge­neous mass to the com­mod­ity labor-power, and the refusal to be reduced to it. This refusal is what dri­ves cap­i­tal to act in its col­lec­tive inter­est; in this strug­gle cap­i­tal con­sti­tutes itself polit­i­cally as a class, which became an absolute imper­a­tive in the moment of 1848. Marx’s writ­ings on 1848 show “the encounter and the super­im­po­si­tion of the abstract con­cept of labor with the con­crete real­ity of the worker.” At this point, Marx could sup­ple­ment his ear­lier, intu­itive reflec­tions on abstract labor with dis­cov­ery of the pecu­liar char­ac­ter­is­tics of the labor-power com­mod­ity: “the labor-power com­mod­ity as work­ing class” (161).

It was not enough, how­ever, to con­clude that waged work­ers first con­sti­tuted them­selves as a class when they became sell­ers of labor-power and were thus incor­po­rated into cap­i­tal. It was imper­a­tive not to “fix the con­cept of the work­ing class in one unique and defin­i­tive form, with­out devel­op­ment, with­out his­tory.” Just as the “inter­nal his­tory of cap­i­tal” had to include “the spe­cific analy­sis of the var­ied deter­mi­na­tions assumed by cap­i­tal in the course of its devel­op­ment,” against the easy tran­shis­tor­i­cal assump­tions of a “his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist” tele­ol­ogy, an “inter­nal his­tory of the work­ing class” would have to be “recon­struct the moments of its for­ma­tion, the changes in its com­po­si­tion, the devel­op­ment of its orga­ni­za­tion accord­ing to the var­ied deter­mi­na­tions suc­ces­sively assumed by labor-power as pro­duc­tive force of cap­i­tal, and accord­ing to the expe­ri­ences of dif­fer­ent strug­gles, recur­ring and always renewed, with which the mass of work­ers equip them­selves as the sole adver­sary of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety” (149).

And indeed this account of the dynamic his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion and recon­sti­tu­tion of labor-power was required by the social rela­tion of sur­plus value, and the unity of cir­cu­la­tion with the process of pro­duc­tion: “The his­tory of diverse modes in which pro­duc­tive labor is extracted from the worker, that is, the his­tory of dif­fer­ent forms of pro­duc­tion of surplus-value, is the story of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety from the working-class view­point” (170). This is pre­cisely because of the twofold char­ac­ter of labor, Marx’s most trea­sured dis­cov­ery, in which both aspects were deci­sive. While one could not derive the abstract char­ac­ter of labor from the level of use-value and con­crete labor – that is, this was not a mat­ter of abstrac­tion as a psy­cho­log­i­cal effect of fac­tory time-management – the val­oriza­tion of value could not take place with­out the use-value of labor-power:

labor, the uti­liza­tion of labor-power, is work­ers’ labor, a con­crete deploy­ment, a con­cretiza­tion of abstract labor – abstract labor which finds itself already in its turn reduced to the rank of com­mod­ity, and which real­izes its value in the wage. There­fore the step where abstract labor over­turns itself and takes the con­crete form of the worker, is the process of con­sump­tion of labor-power, the moment where it becomes in action what it was only in poten­tial, the step of the real­iza­tion of the use-value of labor-power, if we may. What was already present in the oper­a­tion sale/purchase as a class rela­tion pure and sim­ple, ele­men­tary and gen­eral, has defin­i­tively acquired from this point on its spe­cific, com­plex, and total char­ac­ter (166).

This com­plex and total char­ac­ter is implied by the coop­er­a­tive and col­lec­tive form of the work­ing class. Unless indi­vid­ual labor-powers are brought into asso­ci­a­tion, they can­not “make valid [far valere], on a social scale, the spe­cial char­ac­ter of the labor-power com­mod­ity in gen­eral, that is to say can­not make abstract labor con­crete, can­not real­ize the use-value of labor-power, whose actual con­sump­tion is the secret of the process of val­oriza­tion of value, as a process of pro­duc­tion of surplus-value and there­fore of cap­i­tal” (205).

Within this process we can glimpse the the­o­ret­i­cal loca­tion of the con­cept of class com­po­si­tion: “The sale of labor-power thus pro­vides the first ele­men­tary stage, the sim­plest, of a com­po­si­tion into a class of waged work­ers: it is for this rea­son that a social mass con­strained to sell its labor-power remains the gen­eral form of the work­ing class” (149). But this remains an ele­men­tary stage, since as Marx con­cluded in his chap­ter on the work­ing day, “our worker emerges from the process of pro­duc­tion look­ing dif­fer­ent from when he entered it”; enter­ing as seller of labor power (“one owner against another owner”), the worker leaves know­ing that the pro­duc­tion process is a rela­tion of force, and that for pro­tec­tion “the work­ers have to put their heads together and, as a class, com­pel the pass­ing of a law, an all-powerful social bar­rier by which they can be pre­vented from sell­ing them­selves and their fam­i­lies into slav­ery and death by vol­un­tary con­tract with cap­i­tal.”95 For Tronti this dif­fer­ence is “a polit­i­cal leap”: “It is the leap that the pas­sage through pro­duc­tion pro­vokes in what we can call the com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class or even the com­po­si­tion of the class of work­ers” (202).

We are now in a posi­tion to under­stand why the working-class strug­gle, for Tronti, comes first in the his­tory of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment. Cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment has to be under­stood as a process of exchange in which the val­oriza­tion of value is dri­ven by the sale and pur­chase of labor-power. It is only in the social­iza­tion of labor-power within the labor process that pro­le­tar­i­ans take the asso­ci­ated form of work­ing class, in the real­iza­tion of the use-value of their labor-power by the indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ist. And only the resis­tance of their reduc­tion to the labor-power com­mod­ity can com­pel indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ists, who com­pete on the mar­ket, to form a cohe­sive class:

The par­tic­u­lar­ity of labor-power as a com­mod­ity faced with other com­modi­ties coin­cides there­fore with the specif­i­cally working-class char­ac­ter that the pro­duc­tion process of cap­i­tal takes on; and, inside of this, with the con­cen­tra­tion of a working-class ini­tia­tive in the class rela­tion, that leads to a leap in the devel­op­ment of the work­ing class and to the sub­se­quent birth of a class of cap­i­tal­ists (166).

Within the con­text of this broad eco­nomic and his­tor­i­cal the­ory, we are in a posi­tion to close the lengthy digres­sion and return to work­ers’ inquiry. Workerism’s sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery was to push the prac­tice of inquiry away from the human­ist prob­lem­atic of expe­ri­ence towards a value the­ory which was able to rein­ter­pret Marx’s cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy and put it to use. It implied a polit­i­cal prac­tice which affirmed shop floor pas­siv­ity and wage strug­gles as expres­sions of a nascent power of refusal of work.

We can now under­stand that work­ers’ inquiry was an inves­ti­ga­tion into the com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class, as the his­tor­i­cal body which, sep­a­rated from the means of sub­sis­tence and reduced to the sale of its labor-power, had to be formed into a social­ized pro­duc­tive force within a process of con­stant expan­sion – the expanded repro­duc­tion of the class itself, and its recom­po­si­tion in ever more tech­no­log­i­cally advanced labor processes.

To close this geneal­ogy we described a sig­nif­i­cant moment of rup­ture, the dis­cov­ery of a con­cept which opens new paths of sci­en­tific and polit­i­cal exper­i­men­ta­tion. But it was a the­ory which emerged from a spe­cific his­tor­i­cal moment. “We all have to be born some day, some­where,” Althusser remarked, “and begin think­ing and writ­ing in a given world.”96 Tronti began with the hege­mony of the fac­tory to show how the class antag­o­nism could be thought together with capitalism’s laws of motion, in a way that his pre­de­ces­sors had failed to do.97 Yet despite their the­o­ret­i­cal under­de­vel­op­ment, the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency had under­stood that pro­le­tar­ian life exists beyond the fac­tory, that it encom­passes a child­hood in the cot­ton fields, after­noons in the kitchen. And just as fem­i­nists in Italy would chal­lenge the hege­mony of the fac­tory as a mas­cu­line blindspot, Ital­ian work­erism would also have to respond to changes in cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment which they had not pre­dicted: global eco­nomic cri­sis, the restruc­tur­ing of pro­duc­tion, and the decline of fac­tory hege­mony. Attempts to develop this the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem­atic still have to respond to this his­tor­i­cal chal­lenge, and nav­i­gate around Panzieri’s warn­ing – the risk of laps­ing into a phi­los­o­phy of his­tory sup­ported by the ontol­o­giza­tion of labor.

Although the intro­duc­tion of class com­po­si­tion iden­ti­fied cap­i­tal­ism with indus­trial labor, and the social world cre­ated by the post­war boom, at the same time it pro­vided a method which could today be used to trace the con­sti­tu­tion and trans­for­ma­tion of labor-power in the con­text of uneven devel­op­ment and global cri­sis.98 Tronti con­fesses that his and his com­rades’ fix­a­tion on the indus­trial work­ing class now presents itself as an unre­solved prob­lem: “I have come to the con­vic­tion that the work­ing class was the last great his­tor­i­cal form of social aris­toc­racy. It was a minor­ity in the midst of the peo­ple; its strug­gles changed cap­i­tal­ism but did not change the world, and the rea­son for this is pre­cisely what still needs to be under­stood.”99 We sug­gest that inquiry will be the first step in understanding.

Asad Haider is an editor of Viewpoint and a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.

Salar Mohandesi is an editor of Viewpoint and a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • 1. Karl Marx, “Enquête ouvrière” and “Work­ers’ Ques­tion­naire” in Marx-Engels Col­lected Works vol. 24. (New York: Inter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers, 1880). The Eng­lish ver­sion at has only 100 ques­tions; this is because Marx asks two sep­a­rate ques­tions about the decrease in wages dur­ing peri­ods of stag­na­tion, and their increase in peri­ods of pros­per­ity (ques­tions 73 and 74), and in this Eng­lish ver­sion the for­mer is omit­ted.
  • 2. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin, 1976), 98.
  • 3. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 65.
  • 4.Marx to Domela Nieuwen­huis In The Hague,” avail­able online at
  • 5. Kent Worces­ter, CLR James: A Polit­i­cal Biog­ra­phy (New York: State Uni­ver­sity of New York Press, 1996), 55-81; Paul Buhle, CLR James: The Artist as Rev­o­lu­tion­ary (New York: Verso, 1988), 66-99.
  • 6. For a brief, but excel­lent intro­duc­tion to the his­tory of the news­pa­per, see “Intro­duc­tion to Part 1” in Pages from a Black Radical’s Note­book: A James Boggs Reader, ed. Stephen M. Ward (Detroit: Wayne State Uni­ver­sity Press, 2011), 37-41.
  • 7. “Gripes and Griev­ances,” Cor­re­spon­dence, vol. 2, no. 2 (Jan­u­ary 22, 1955), 4.
  • 8. Grace Lee Boggs, “CLR. James: Orga­niz­ing in the USA, 1938-1953,” in CLR James: His Intel­lec­tual Lega­cies, ed. Sel­wyn Cud­joe and William Cain (Amherst: Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts Press, 1995), 164. Paul Buhle, on the other hand, explictly claims that Grace Lee actu­ally wrote the text, in, Buhle, CLR James, 90.
  • 9. Ph. Guil­laume, “L’Ouvrier amer­i­can par Paul Romano,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 1 (Mars/Avril 1949), 78.
  • 10. It is sig­nif­i­cant that Singer was not address­ing this to phil­an­thropists, bour­geois spe­cial­ists, or even sym­pa­thetic intel­lec­tu­als. This was for work­ers. “I am not writ­ing in order to gain the approval or sym­pa­thy of these intel­lec­tu­als for the work­ers’ actions. I want instead to illus­trate to the work­ers them­selves that some­times when their con­di­tions seem ever­last­ing and hope­less, they are in actu­al­ity reveal­ing by their every-day reac­tions and expres­sions that they are the road to a far-reaching change.” Paul Romano and Ria Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker (New York, 1947), 1.
  • 11. Marx, Cap­i­tal vol. 1, 618; Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 52.
  • 12. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 47-48.
  • 13. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 57.
  • 14. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker.
  • 15. CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs, “World War II and Social Rev­o­lu­tion” in The Invad­ing Social­ist Soci­ety, avail­able online at
  • 16. I.I. Rubin, “Abstract Labour and Value in Marx’s Sys­tem,” Cap­i­tal & Class 2 (1978). See Rubin’s admirably con­cise def­i­n­i­tion: “Abstract labour is the des­ig­na­tion for that part of the total social labour which was equalised in the process of social divi­sion of labour through the equa­tion of the prod­ucts of labour on the mar­ket.”
  • 17. Rubin, “Abstract Labour and Value.”
  • 18. “The rough draft of this pam­phlet was given to work­ers across the coun­try. Their reac­tion was as one. They were sur­prised and grat­i­fied to see in print the expe­ri­ences and thoughts which they have rarely put into words. Work­ers arrive home from the fac­tory too exhausted to read more than the daily comics. Yet most of the work­ers who read the pam­phlet stayed up well into the night to fin­ish the read­ing once they had started.” Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 1.
  • 19. In his intro­duc­tion to the French trans­la­tion of “The Amer­i­can Worker,” Philippe Guil­laume called it “pro­le­tar­ian doc­u­men­tary lit­er­a­ture.” For more on this, see Stephen Hastings-King, “On Claude Lefort’s ‘Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,’” in this issue.
  • 20. “A Worker’s Inquiry” was first pub­lished in the United States by The New Inter­na­tional in Decem­ber 1938.
  • 21. She wrote: “See, ‘A Work­ers’ Inquiry’ by Karl Marx in which one hun­dred and one ques­tions are asked of the work­ers’ them­selves, deal­ing with every­thing from lava­to­ries, soap, wine, strikes and unions to ‘the gen­eral phys­i­cal, intel­lec­tual, and moral con­di­tions of life of the work­ing men and women in your trade.’” Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 59.
  • 22. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 1.
  • 23. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 12.
  • 24. Selma James, “A Woman’s Place” in The Power of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­nity (Lon­don: Falling Wall Press, 1972), 58, 64.
  • 25. It is only Mar­tin Glaberman’s 1972 pref­ace to the pam­phlet which finally reveals that Phil Singer worked at Gen­eral Motors fac­tory in New Jer­sey.
  • 26. Quoted in Rachel Peter­son, “Cor­re­spon­dence: Jour­nal­ism, Anti­com­mu­nism, and Marx­ism in 1950s Detroit,” in Anti­com­mu­nism and the African Amer­i­can Free­dom Move­ment: “Another side of the Story,” ed. Rob­bie Lieber­man and Clarence Lang (New York: Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2009), 146. As if to dra­mat­i­cally con­firm this, Boggs’s own pseu­do­nym, Ria Stone, is often misiden­ti­fied as Raya Dunayevskaya.
  • 27. Peter­son, “Cor­re­spon­dence,” 146.
  • 28. Selma James, Sex, Race, and Class – The Per­spec­tive of Win­ning: A Selec­tion of Writ­ings, 1952-2011 (Oak­land: PM Press, 2012), 13-14; Frank Rosen­garten, Urbane Rev­o­lu­tion­ary: CLR. James and the Strug­gle for a New Soci­ety (Mis­sis­sippi: Uni­ver­sity of Mis­sis­sippi Press, 2008), 89.
  • 29. Charles Denby [Si Owens], Indig­nant Heart: A Black Work­ers’ Jour­nal (Detroit: Wayne State Uni­ver­sity Press, 1978), xi. This edi­tion was attrib­uted to Charles Denby, Owens’s more com­mon pseu­do­nym, and the one he used for most of his arti­cle in Cor­re­spon­dence. It is also sig­nif­i­cant that Owens still wrote under a pseu­do­nym in 1978, even though McCarthy­ism had clearly passed.
  • 30. Denby, Indig­nant Heart, xi.
  • 31. Peter­son, “Cor­re­spon­dence,” 123.
  • 32. Con­stance Webb, Not With­out Love: Mem­oirs (Lebanon, NH: Uni­ver­sity Press of New Eng­land, 2003), 266.
  • 33. Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker.
  • 34. James, “A Woman’s Place,” 79.
  • 35. For an excel­lent intro­duc­tion to the group in Eng­lish, see Mar­cel van der Lin­den, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie: A French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Group (1949-1965),” Left His­tory vol. 5, no. 1, 1997. Repub­lished at” For a gen­eral his­tory, see Philippe Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”: Un engage­ment poli­tique et intel­lectuel dans la France de l’après-guerre (Paris: Edi­tions Payot Lau­sanne, 1997).
  • 36.From Work­ers’ Auton­omy to Social Auton­omy: An inter­view with Daniel Blan­chard by Amador Fernández-Savater,” avail­able online at
  • 37. Philippe Guil­laume, “L’Ouvrier Amer­i­cain par Paul Romano,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 1 (Mars/Avril 1949), 78; trans­lated in this issue of View­point.
  • 38. For more on this fas­ci­nat­ing fig­ure, see Stephen Hastings-King’s forth­com­ing book on Social­isme ou Bar­barie.
  • 39. “Un jour­nal ouvrier aux Etats-unis,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie, no. 13 (jan-mars 1954): 82.
  • 40. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “CLR James and the Fate of Marx­ism,” in CLR James: His Intel­lec­tual Lega­cies, ed. Sel­wyn Cud­joe and William Cain (Amherst: Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts Press, 1995), 287.
  • 41. “Work­ers and Intel­lec­tu­als,” Cor­re­spon­dence, vol. 2, no. 3 (Feb­ru­ary 5, 1955): 4.
  • 42. Grace Lee Boggs, Liv­ing For Change: An Auto­bi­og­ra­phy (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1998), 67.
  • 43. An anony­mous ex-member of Cor­re­spon­dence quoted in Ivar Oxaal, Black Intel­lec­tu­als Come to Power (Cam­bridge: Schenkman Books, 1968), 78.
  • 44. For a detailed dis­cus­sion of Lefort’s take on this prob­lem, see Stephen Hastings-King, in this issue.
  • 45. Claude Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,” trans­lated in this issue.
  • 46. Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”
  • 47. Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”
  • 48. For a fas­ci­nat­ing account of this paper by a mil­i­tant closely involved in its devel­op­ment, see Henri Simon’s con­tri­bu­tion to this issue.
  • 49. “Que voulons-nous?” in Tri­bune Ouvrière no. 1 (mai 1954), reprinted in Social­isme ou Bar­barie nos. 15/16: 74.
  • 50. Mothé was one of the few work­ers in the group, which led many to put him on a kind of pedestal. As Lefort has recalled “Mothé’s pro­pos­als, often very rich but some­times also con­fused, car­ried weight for many because he was sup­posed to ‘rep­re­sent’ Renault. Mothé was con­scious of the role he was led to play and while he took advan­tage of it, he was also exas­per­ated by it. The cli­mate would have been very dif­fer­ent if we had had more work­ers among us.” “An inter­view with Claude Lefort,” Telos 30 (Win­ter 1976-77): 178. This lack of work­ers in the group might have been a rea­son for the short­age of worker nar­ra­tives that con­stantly plagued Social­isme ou Bar­barie. This also marks a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence between Cor­re­spon­dence and Social­isme ou Bar­barie. The first was over­whelm­ingly working-class. In 1954 it boasted a mem­ber­ship of 75 work­ers and only 5 self-described intel­lec­tu­als; see The Cor­re­spon­dence Book­let (Detroit: Cor­re­spon­dence, 1954), 1. In con­trast, Social­isme ou Barbarie’s mem­ber­ship largely con­sisted of intel­lec­tu­als or stu­dents
  • 51. Daniel Mothé, “Le prob­lème d’un jour­nal ouvrier,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 17 (juillet-septembre 1955), 30; trans­lated in this issue of View­point.
  • 52. Mothé often uses the term “rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­ol­ogy” instead of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory.
  • 53. Note how Mothé sub­sti­tutes “rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion” for “rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants.” This seems to sug­gest that, accord­ing to this model, the orga­ni­za­tion can be com­posed only by mil­i­tants. This might be a reflec­tion of the sit­u­a­tion Social­isme ou Bar­barie found itself in: a group that hap­pened to be com­posed almost entirely of intel­lec­tu­als is turned into the­o­ret­i­cal type.
  • 54. Mothé, “Le prob­lème d’un jour­nal ouvrier,” 47.
  • 55. These strin­gent qual­i­fi­ca­tions exac­er­bated the major prob­lem fac­ing this project: the unwill­ing­ness of most work­ers to write. More on this below.
  • 56. The edi­to­r­ial core of Tri­bune Ouvrière was already wracked by inter­nal ide­o­log­i­cal dis­putes. Although he sup­ported a closer rela­tion­ship between the two jour­nals, Mothé did not want to turn Tri­bune Ouvrière into a polit­i­cal jour­nal, in other words, he opposed the idea that the jour­nal should com­mu­ni­cate overtly polit­i­cal ideas to the work­ers, and held that it should pri­mar­ily be a space where work­ers could dis­cuss their expe­ri­ences. Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”, 67
  • 57. For more on Henri Simon’s stance on inquiry, the work­ers’ paper, and this broader expe­ri­ence, see his con­tri­bu­tion to this issue.
  • 58. Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”, 86.
  • 59. For more on this con­junc­ture, see “Inter­view with Cas­to­ri­adis,” Telos 23 (Spring 1975), 135.
  • 60. For more on this split, Mar­cel van der Lin­den, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie: A French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Group (1949-1965).” For a brief analy­sis from the per­spec­tive of a mil­i­tant who was involved, see Henri Simon, “1958-1998: Com­mu­nism in France: Social­isme ou Bar­barie, ICO and Echanges,” avail­able online at
  • 61. Daniel Blan­chard saw a per­fect illus­tra­tion of this in the rela­tion­ship between Mothé and Cas­to­ri­adis: “Whereas the Lenin­ist orga­ni­za­tions kept the man­ual and intel­lec­tual work­ers strictly sep­a­rated in spe­cific roles (the lat­ter edu­cat­ing the for­mer in any case), in SouB we devoted spe­cial efforts—which were often unsuccessful—to abol­ish this sep­a­ra­tion. For exam­ple, the rela­tion­ship between Daniel Mothé and Cas­to­ri­adis was an inter­est­ing exam­ple of the col­lab­o­ra­tion of a very intel­li­gent worker, as Mothé was, and a the­o­reti­cian like Cas­to­ri­adis. The ideas that Cas­to­ri­adis elab­o­rated helped Mothé to under­stand his own real­ity in the fac­tory. And Mothé was then able to ana­lyze his expe­ri­ence in a very con­crete way that in turn nour­ished the the­o­ret­i­cal labors of Cas­to­ri­adis; Blan­chard, “Auton­omy.” Henri Simon has also com­mented on this pair­ing, but from a more crit­i­cal per­spec­tive: “In Social­isme ou Bar­barie, there was a kind of har­mony [osmose], sym­bio­sis Mothé/Castoriadis. There was almost always placed side by side in Social­isme ou Bar­barie a the­o­ret­i­cal arti­cle by Cas­to­ri­adis and a con­crete arti­cle by Mothé. Mothé saw the fac­tory through the the­o­ret­i­cal lenses of Cas­to­ri­adis”; “Entre­tien d’Henri Simon avec l’Anti-mythes (1974),” avail­able online at
  • 62. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings, Vol­ume 2, 1955-1960: From the Work­ers’ Strug­gle Against Bureau­cracy to Rev­o­lu­tion in the Age of Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1988), 213. Fur­ther ref­er­ences to this col­lec­tion are given in the text.
  • 63. For a fas­ci­nat­ing auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal account of the phe­nom­e­non, see Stan Weir, “The Infor­mal Work Group” in Rank and File: Per­sonal His­to­ries by Working-Class Orga­niz­ers, ed. Alice and Staughton Lynd, expanded edi­tion (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket Books, 2011).
  • 64. Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”, 120-121.
  • 65. Indeed, it appears that Pou­voir Ouvrier never really learned the lessons of Tri­bune Ouvrière; Cas­to­ri­adis found him­self writ­ing another arti­cle, this time in Pou­voir Ouvrier, in which he tried, yet again, to the­o­rize why work­ers sim­ply were not writ­ing. See Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “What Really Mat­ters” in PSW 2, 223-5.
  • 66. Claude Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”
  • 67. “Inter­view with Lefort,” 179.
  • 68. “Inter­view with Lefort,” 183.
  • 69. See “The Rela­tions of Pro­duc­tion in Rus­sia” in Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings, Vol­ume 1, 1946-1955: From the Cri­tique of Bureau­cracy to the Pos­i­tive Con­tent of Social­ism, trans. and ed. David Ames Cur­tis (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1988), and our com­men­tary in “Devi­a­tions, Part 1: The Castoriadis-Pannekoek Exchange.”
  • 70. Cesare Casarino and Anto­nio Negri, In Praise of the Com­mon (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota, 2008), 54.
  • 71. Danilo Mon­taldi, Bisogna sognare. Scritti 1952-1975 (Milano: Col­i­brì, 1994).
  • 72. Ser­gio Bologna and Patrick Cun­ing­hame, “For an Analy­sis of Autono­mia – An Inter­view with Ser­gio Bologna,” avail­able online at
  • 73. Mon­taldi him­self had believed that soci­ol­ogy, as Steve Wright recounts, “could help in the devel­op­ment of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory”; see Storm­ing Heaven: Class Com­po­si­tion and Strug­gle in Ital­ian Auton­o­mist Marx­ism (Lon­don: Pluto Press, 2002), 21-25. On the divi­sion within Quaderni Rossi, see Marta Malo de Molina, “Com­mon Notions, part 1: workers-inquiry, co-research, consciousness-raising,” trans. Mari­bel Casas-Cortés and Sebas­t­ian Cobar­ru­bias of the Notas Rojas Col­lec­tive Chapel Hill, eicp (2006). Finally, for more on core­search or con­ricerca, and the influ­ence of both Mon­taldi and another of Alquati’s pre­cur­sors, Alessan­dro Piz­zorno, see Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi, and Gigi Rog­gero, “Con­ricerca as Polit­i­cal Action” in Utopian Ped­a­gogy: Rad­i­cal Exper­i­ments Against Neolib­eral Glob­al­iza­tion, ed. Mark Coté, Richard J.F. Day, and Greig de Peuter (Toronto: Uni­ver­sity of Toronto Press, 2007).
  • 74. See Wright, Storm­ing Heaven, 46-58; the texts them­selves are col­lected in Romano Alquati, Sulla Fiat (Milano: Fel­trinelli, 1975): “Relazione sulle ‘forze nuove.’ Con­vegno del PSI sulla FIAT, gen­naio 1961”; “Doc­u­menti sulla lotta di classe alla FIAT”; “Tradizione e rin­no­va­mento alla FIAT-Ferriere.” A par­tial trans­la­tion of the 1962 text, “Organic Com­po­si­tion of Cap­i­tal and Labor-Power at Olivetti,” is pre­sented in this issue. For a very per­cep­tive analy­sis of Alquati’s Olivetti text, and the tra­jec­tory of inquiry in gen­eral, see Wild­cat, “The Renascence of Operaismo,” avail­able online at
  • 75. Raniero Panzieri, “The Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery,” trans. Quintin Hoare, avail­able online at
  • 76. Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, 544.
  • 77. Since the fur­ther devel­op­ment of the ortho­dox posi­tion was that col­lab­o­ra­tion between the unions, the state, and the employ­ers, rep­re­sented the dis­place­ment of com­pe­ti­tion towards plan­ning, and there­fore a step towards social­ism, Panzieri also made the argu­ment that plan­ning rep­re­sented the nec­es­sary social exten­sion of capital’s despo­tism in the fac­tory. “The basic fac­tor in this process is the con­tin­ual growth of con­stant cap­i­tal with respect to vari­able cap­i­tal”; as machines grew more numer­ous than work­ers, cap­i­tal had to exer­cise an “absolute con­trol,” impos­ing its ratio­nal­ity of pro­duc­tion upons work­ers, and through the growth of monop­o­lies extend­ing its plan “from the fac­tory to the mar­ket, to the exter­nal social sphere” (“Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery.”) This the­sis would be the sub­ject of Panzieri’s last major essay, “Sur­plus Value and Plan­ning,” in issue 4 of Quaderni Rossi (trans­lated by Julian Bees and avail­able online at In this sense, while Panzieri’s argu­ment rep­re­sented a sophis­ti­cated the­o­ret­i­cal advance and had a worth­while polit­i­cal func­tion, it also con­tained a cer­tain reifi­ca­tion of the fea­tures of post­war cap­i­tal­ism, and lost some of its clar­ity on the nature of cap­i­tal­ist exchange rela­tions. Inter­est­ingly, this essay was fol­lowed in Quaderni Rossi with Marx’s so-called “Frag­ment on Machines” from the Grun­drisse.
  • 78. Panzieri, “Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery.”
  • 79. See Wild­cat, “Renascence of Operaismo,” for some inter­est­ing com­ments on Piazza Statuto in the con­text of work­ers’ inquiry.
  • 80. Quoted in Robert Lum­ley, “Review Arti­cle: Work­ing Class Auton­omy and the Cri­sis,” Cap­i­tal and Class 12 (Win­ter 1980): 129; also dis­cussed in Wright, Storm­ing Heaven, 58-62. Lum­ley con­sid­ers Tronti’s inter­ven­tion to be “a the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal regres­sion”; as we will try to demon­strate below, we dis­agree with this assess­ment
  • 81. Mario Tronti, “Lenin in Eng­land,” avail­able online at
  • 82. Raniero Panzieri, “Social­ist Uses of Work­ers’ Inquiry,” trans. Ari­anna Bove, eicp (2006).
  • 83. Tronti, Noi operaisti, quoted in Adelino Zanini, “On the Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Ital­ian Work­erism,” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 18 (2010): 60.
  • 84. Mario Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale (Turin: Ein­audi, 1966), 128, 179, 209-10, 220, 256. Trans­la­tions from this text are ours, with the invalu­able help of Evan Calder Williams, unless oth­er­wise noted. We also prof­itably con­sulted the French trans­la­tion by Yann Moulier-Boutang and Giuseppe Bezza, avail­able online at Fur­ther ref­er­ences to the orig­i­nal Ital­ian are given in the text
  • 85. Here of course Tronti recalls Marx’s Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme.
  • 86. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 2, trans. David Fern­bach (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 1978), 115; Tronti quotes this pas­sage in Operai e cap­i­tale, 144-5.
  • 87. This is also quoted in Zanini, “Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions,” 50. Zanini’s is one of the few texts in Eng­lish which addresses Tronti’s eco­nomic analy­sis.
  • 88. Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 2, 115; sec­ond sen­tence quoted by Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale, 148-9.
  • 89. Hel­mut Reichelt, “Marx’s Cri­tique of Eco­nomic Cat­e­gories,” trans. Werner Strauss and ed. Jim Kin­caid, His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 15 (2007): 11. It is worth not­ing that work­erism was not always able to suc­cess­fully nav­i­gate between the two; while Reichelt’s “quasi-ontological cat­e­gory” refers to the con­cep­tion which under­stands abstract labor as expen­di­ture of phys­i­o­log­i­cal energy, mea­sur­able in calo­ries, work­erism would at times be cap­ti­vated by labor as the “liv­ing, form-giving fire,” which is at times sug­gested in Tronti’s assess­ment of the Grun­drisse as “a more advanced book” than Cap­i­tal. (Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale, 210; trans­lated in Mur­phy 339). The Grun­drisse played an ambigu­ous role in the his­tory of work­erism, pro­vid­ing new the­o­ret­i­cal ener­gies while also obscur­ing the rup­tures in Marx’s eco­nomic thought. Future research will have to draw these dis­tinc­tions clearly, espe­cially to move beyond the Grun­drisse’s prob­lem­atic of “cap­i­tal in gen­eral”; see Michael Hein­rich, “Cap­i­tal in Gen­eral and the Struc­ture of Marx’s Cap­i­tal,” Cap­i­tal and Class 13:63 (1989).
  • 90. This argu­ment is pre­sented through­out the intro­duc­tion to the essay, pages 123-43, with atten­tion to a range of Marx’s other early man­u­scripts.
  • 91. Hel­mut Reichelt, “Social Real­ity as Appear­ance: Some Notes on Marx’s Con­cep­tion of Real­ity,” trans. Werner Bone­feld, Human Dig­nity, eds. Werner Bone­feld and Kos­mas Psy­cho­pe­dis (Alder­shot: Ash­gate, 2005), 40. Reichelt ends this arti­cle (65) with com­ments on the cat­e­gory of class which, in con­trast to Tronti’s, do not man­age to incor­po­rate Marx’s close atten­tion to the his­tor­i­cal con­sti­tu­tion of the pro­le­tariat, and its recom­po­si­tion in the labor process.
  • 92. Reichelt, “Marx’s Cri­tique,” 22.
  • 93. Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence”; see also the some­what dif­fer­ent argu­ment, which refers to waged labor and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment along­side the bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion, in Cas­to­ri­adis, “Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism and Rev­o­lu­tion,” 259-60.
  • 94. Com­pare to Raniero Panzieri, “Sur­plus Value and Plan­ning”: “The rela­tion­ship between the work­ers, their coop­er­a­tion, appears only after the sale of their labour-power, which involves the sim­ple rela­tion­ship of indi­vid­ual work­ers to cap­i­tal.” It is worth not­ing that while Panzieri’s 1964 account was based on the dis­place­ment of com­pe­ti­tion by plan­ning, Tronti’s descrip­tion of “the plan of cap­i­tal” a year ear­lier in Quaderni Rossi had rep­re­sented it as the high­est level of devel­op­ment of the social­iza­tion of cap­i­tal still medi­ated by com­pe­ti­tion, in the indi­vid­ual capitalist’s pur­suit of prof­its higher than the aver­age: “Indi­vid­ual enter­prises, or entire ‘priv­i­leged’ pro­duc­tive activ­i­ties, along with the propul­sive func­tion of the whole sys­tem, con­stantly tend to break from within the total social cap­i­tal in order to sub­se­quently re-compose it at a higher level. The strug­gle among cap­i­tal­ists con­tin­ues, but now it func­tions directly within the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal.” Plan­ning rep­re­sented the exten­sion of capital’s despo­tism to the state, not a new phase dis­plac­ing com­pet­i­tive cap­i­tal­ism: “The anar­chy of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion is not can­celled: it is sim­ply socially orga­nized.” See “Social Cap­i­tal,” avail­able online at, and the orig­i­nal col­lected in Operai e cap­i­tale, 60-85.
  • 95. Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, 415-6.
  • 96. Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: Verso, 1969), 74.
  • 97. Intro­duced in “Fac­tory and Soci­ety” in the sec­ond issue of Quaderni Rossi (1962), col­lected in Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale, 39-59; see also Ser­gio Bologna, “The Factory-Society Rela­tion­ship as an His­tor­i­cal Cat­e­gory,” avail­able online at (trans­la­tion of “Rap­porto società-fabbrica come cat­e­go­ria stor­ica,” Primo Mag­gio 2, 1974).
  • 98. For an account of the work­erist attempt to develop the the­ory of money and class com­po­si­tion in the con­text of the eco­nomic insta­bil­ity of the early 1970s, see Steve Wright, “Rev­o­lu­tion from Above? Money and Class-Composition in Ital­ian Operaismo” in Karl Heinz-Roth and Mar­cel van der Lin­den, ed., Beyond Marx (Lei­den: Brill, forth­com­ing).
  • 99. Mario Tronti, “Towards a Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Democ­racy,” trans. Alberto Toscano, Cos­mos and His­tory, 5:1 (2009): 74.

The American worker and the Forze Nuove: Turin and Detroit at the twilight of Fordism

Nicola Pizzolato on the commonalities between Detroit and Turin, Italy in the 1960s.

In a 1982 paper pre­sented at MIT, Ital­ian urban­ist Paolo Cec­ca­relli char­ac­ter­ized Detroit and Turin as “città frag­ili” – frag­ile cities. His assess­ment con­trasted starkly with the way the two “motor cities” had been rep­re­sented for most of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, but it res­onated with his con­tem­po­rary audi­ence. While they were once seen, at the pin­na­cle of their indus­trial devel­op­ment, as the bench­mark for the mod­ern city, Cec­ca­relli argued that Detroit and Turin, were actu­ally exam­ples of how such cities should not be built. In both places, Fordism had sparked rapid and tumul­tous demo­graphic change, first through mass immi­gra­tion, then through emi­gra­tion. This upheaval had not been matched by ade­quate urban plan­ning and gov­er­nance. The ini­tial inor­di­nate growth had gen­er­ated soci­eties divided along fault lines of race, eth­nic­ity, and class. Indus­trial expan­sion had brought a num­ber of social ills, but decen­tral­iza­tion, a har­bin­ger of dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, made things worse, leav­ing in its wake a des­o­lated urban land­scape of aban­doned plant com­plexes and dilap­i­dated neigh­bor­hoods (in Detroit), or pau­per­ized and mar­ginal periph­eries and slums (in Turin).1

In depict­ing the his­tory of Detroit and Turin as a cau­tion­ary tale of mod­ern­iza­tion gone awry, Cec­ca­relli neglected to note that Fordism had brought not only an urban cat­a­clysm, but also the oppor­tu­nity for a far-reaching working-class recom­po­si­tion within the indus­trial plants, the rise and fall of social move­ments, and the cre­ation of a cor­pus of social the­ory and mil­i­tant prac­tice related to both. All these top­ics would ben­e­fit from the kind of com­par­a­tive per­spec­tive that Cec­ca­relli applied to urban plan­ning. After all, it had been Merid­ion­ali, south­ern Ital­ians, in Turin, and African-Americans in Detroit (two groups heav­ily rep­re­sented in the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries of these cities in the 1960s), who had exposed how ‘frag­ile’ the motor cities were.

A num­ber of transna­tional threads con­nected the two cities dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, in par­tic­u­lar in the 1950s and 1960s, two decades cru­cial for the des­tiny of these cities and for the par­a­digm of pro­duc­tion and social orga­ni­za­tion on which they thrived, Fordism. Dur­ing the 1950s and early 1960s, polit­i­cal mil­i­tants out­side the tra­di­tional left devel­oped a cri­tique of the prac­tice and ide­ol­ogy of trade unions and Soviet-inspired com­mu­nist par­ties, and gen­er­ated a new, empir­i­cal way of doc­u­ment­ing and research­ing the working-class that pop­u­lated Turin and Detroit. Ini­tially inde­pen­dent from each other, these mil­i­tants would even­tu­ally sit­u­ate their work within transna­tional con­nec­tions. In the Amer­i­can Motor City, dis­si­dent Marx­ists C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya exposed Soviet com­mu­nism as “state cap­i­tal­ism” – a sys­tem which, like its market-driven coun­ter­part, rested on the exploita­tion of work­ers – and at the same time issued a scathing attack on Amer­i­can labor unions. By the early 1950s they had gath­ered in Detroit a small but vocal group of activists and intel­lec­tu­als, under the name of Cor­re­spon­dence; this described both a pub­li­ca­tion and its sup­port­ing activist group, focused on polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion in the fac­to­ries. Correspondence’s vision of class strug­gle with the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries of Detroit was grounded in the idea of work­ers’ self-organization out­side the exist­ing labor move­ment. The 1947 pam­phlet The Amer­i­can Worker by Paul Romano (a pseu­do­nym for Phil Singer, a Gen­eral Motors autoworker) and Ria Stone (an alias for Grace Lee, one of the lead­ing mem­bers of Cor­re­spon­dence) was one of the group’s most influ­en­tial early pub­li­ca­tions. Even though the pam­phlet was penned by these two authors, it was born out of the col­lec­tive dis­cus­sion of the group. Writ­ten just after Amer­i­can trade unions had cur­tailed a period of intense strike activ­ity, The Amer­i­can Worker denounced the adverse effect of union bureau­cracy on the every­day life of work­ers, and on the prospect of working-class strug­gle. It decried the union’s fail­ure to address the issues that mat­tered most to work­ers, such as the speed-up. Romano also touched upon two prin­ci­ples that would become fun­da­men­tal to the new transna­tional approach: the exis­tence of a latent and spon­ta­neous work­ers’ resis­tance to the reg­i­mented life of the fac­tory, irre­spec­tive of any actual union orga­ni­za­tion; and their instinc­tive abil­ity to orga­nize their work in a more humane, but equally effec­tive way: “Many work­ers become angry because of the fact that sug­ges­tions which they put in are ignored. These sug­ges­tions would add to effi­ciency and also increase pro­duc­tion as well as save money. There is a gen­eral ten­dency in all strata of the work­ing class to work in as effi­cient a man­ner as pos­si­ble.” How­ever, the pam­phlet argued, the exploita­tion work­ers were sub­jected to forced them to oppose the man­agers’ efforts, resort­ing in their pent-up frus­tra­tion to jus­ti­fied acts of sab­o­tage and van­dal­ism.2The Amer­i­can Worker’s nov­elty con­sisted in pre­sent­ing, in a worker’s own words, a real­is­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of fac­tory work and its reper­cus­sions on the psy­che and polit­i­cal out­look of the worker. The indus­trial worker’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal account became a minor genre dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s, as Cor­re­spon­dence and other groups tried to inquire into the con­di­tion of work­ers on the basis of their actual expe­ri­ence in the fac­tory – rather than on the basis of a dog­matic truth bequeathed by Marx­ist the­ory. The Amer­i­can Worker was seri­al­ized by the homony­mous pub­li­ca­tion of the French group Social­isme ou Bar­barie and found an echo in another influ­en­tial biog­ra­phy, Jour­nal d’un ouvrier by Daniel Mothé, a worker at Renault’s auto­mo­bile plants. Coop­er­a­tion between mem­bers of Cor­re­spon­dence and Social­isme ou Bar­barie in Paris spanned through­out the 1950s, result­ing in the book Fac­ing Real­ity (1958), co-authored by C.L.R. James, Grace Lee Boggs, and Pierre Chaulieu (the cover name for Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, one of the lead­ing mem­bers of Social­isme ou Bar­barie).3 This book built on the com­mon per­spec­tive shared by the groups in Detroit and Paris and char­ac­ter­ized trade unions as the “body­guards of cap­i­tal,’.” Their repres­sive action man­i­fested itself into two ele­ments: the stew­ard sys­tem and the griev­ance pro­ce­dure. Both had orig­i­nally been devised to pro­tect the union and the worker from the whims of man­age­ment, but now they acted as a strait­jacket, restrict­ing work­ers’ capac­ity to orga­nize pro­duc­tion on the shop floor. The stew­ard secured work­ers’ com­pli­ance with the union con­tract, rather than rep­re­sent­ing work­ers in man­age­ment. The griev­ance pro­ce­dure defused con­flict with man­age­ment through an “‘elab­o­rate”’ process that removed con­flict from work­ers’ hands and trans­ferred it to the labor bureau­cracy. Later, observers on the lib­eral Left would uphold the idea that the griev­ance pro­ce­dure was an inef­fec­tive way to solve work­ers’ com­plaints, but the main cri­tique made by James and the other went fur­ther: griev­ance pro­ce­dures gave man­age­ment the power to sched­ule and con­trol the pro­duc­tion flow and the orga­ni­za­tion of work. This crit­i­cism was not totally wholly fair, since the union’s encroach­ment on the shop floor did after all check to some degree the arbi­trary power of man­age­ment, but it also touched a nerve: the UAW had in fact suc­cumbed to the auto man­u­fac­tur­ers’ wish to con­trol and orga­nize the point of pro­duc­tion as they saw fit, even though indi­vid­ual work­ers were now less vul­ner­a­ble to retal­ia­tory lay offs and wage cuts. Fac­ing Real­ity argued that this sys­tem sup­pressed work­ers’ desire for self-organization, which, while not a con­scious pro­gram, but sim­ply some­thing “inher­ent in all their actions and in the dis­cus­sions they hold among them­selves.”’4

In early 1950s Italy, this analy­sis appealed to those left­wing activists who ques­tioned whether the dog­matic Marx­ist nar­ra­tive pro­pounded by the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party really applied to the actual con­di­tions of the Ital­ian work­ing class. By the mid­dle of the decade, the ideas of the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency began to fil­ter through to dis­si­dent Marx­ist cir­cles through the trans­la­tion of Romano’s and Mothé’s work by Danilo Mon­taldi. Mon­taldi was an essay­ist and soci­ol­o­gist who had left the PCI after the war, remain­ing crit­i­cal of the Old Left through­out his life. In his pref­ace to the trans­la­tion of The Amer­i­can Worker, Mon­taldi cel­e­brated the text as a sign that, con­trary to pre­vail­ing assump­tions, the Amer­i­can working-class remained class con­scious and had not fallen for the ide­o­log­i­cal blan­d­ish­ments of cap­i­tal­ism. Mon­taldi described Cor­re­spon­dence as the Amer­i­can “rev­o­lu­tion­ary van­guard”, a group that under­stood that “the worker is first of all some­one who lives at the point of pro­duc­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist fac­tory before being the mem­ber of a party, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant, or the sub­ject of com­ing social­ist power. It is the pro­duc­tive process that shapes his rejec­tion of exploita­tion and his capac­ity to build a supe­rior type of soci­ety, […] and his class sol­i­dar­ity.” The devel­op­ment of this fun­da­men­tal idea, wrote Mon­taldi, was Correspondence’s cru­cial con­tri­bu­tion to the con­tem­po­rary rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment.5

One of Montaldi’s col­lab­o­ra­tors, Romano Alquati, was greatly inspired by both The Amer­i­can Worker and Mothè’s Jour­nal. They both trav­elled to Paris to meet the mem­bers of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, and Alquati orga­nized round­table pre­sen­ta­tions of the Jour­nal in Turin.6 Alquati was in the process of devel­op­ing his own brand of work­ers’ inquiry, close in many ways to that of Cor­re­spon­dence, in which the expe­ri­ence of work­ers con­sti­tuted the basis for the­ory, rather than vice versa.

In 1961, Alquati pio­neered this new kind of work­ers’ research at FIAT.7 Two themes ran through Alquati’s report, later pub­lished in Quaderni Rossi: first, the pre-eminence of a new work­ing class at FIAT, dis­il­lu­sioned with the com­pany, but also indif­fer­ent to left-wing unions and par­ties. Alquati con­tro­ver­sially argued that even a large com­pany such as FIAT failed to “inte­grate” work­ers into cap­i­tal­ism and to neu­tralise their rebel­lious­ness: what­ever faith these youth had before enter­ing the fac­tory in the desir­abil­ity of indus­trial work, this was quickly shed after only a few months’ work at the point of pro­duc­tion. Rel­a­tively high wages (for some) and the con­sumerism they enabled did not lessen the effects of alien­ation. Any resur­gence of class strug­gle within the firm would be based upon these forze nuove, as Alquati called them, which included south­ern Ital­ian migrants. Even though the “new forces” lacked class con­scious­ness in a tra­di­tional sense, they spon­ta­neously under­stood the need for “self-determination,” that is, self-organization within the fac­tory.8

Sec­ond, Alquati empha­sized the inabil­ity of the tra­di­tional left to iden­tify and make use of these new trends. The report accused the union and PCI lead­er­ship of focus­ing on loftier polit­i­cal goals, such as legal reform, which did not directly affect fac­tory con­di­tions. The pol­i­tics of the tra­di­tional Left did not mea­sure up to the pol­i­tics of the new work­ing class. Or, con­versely, the new work­ers did not per­ceive their action to be “polit­i­cal” because they asso­ci­ated pol­i­tics with par­ti­san pol­i­tics in Rome. The solu­tion lay in a new “orga­ni­za­tional praxis” through which the new work­ers would be led to ana­lyze their sit­u­a­tion.9 The wave of work­ers’ strug­gles in the Turi­nese fac­to­ries in 1962, lead­ing to the so called “riot of Piazza Statuto” and the events from 1969 onwards, vin­di­cated Alquati’s insight that the work­ing class orga­nized itself in ways that tran­scended the trade union lead­er­ship.10

By the early 1960s, in both Turin and Detroit, polit­i­cal mil­i­tants and rad­i­cal social the­o­rists ana­lyzed a dras­ti­cally recom­posed working-class, whose sig­nif­i­cance escaped the dom­i­nant orga­ni­za­tions of the labor move­ment. This recom­po­si­tion accounts for the strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties, as well as impor­tant dif­fer­ences, in the way indus­trial rela­tions broke down in the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ries, and social protest flared up in Detroit and Turin after 1968. In both cases, a mas­sive wave of migra­tion had fun­da­men­tally changed the demo­graph­ics of the two cities. Ten­sions over com­pe­ti­tion for hous­ing and resources between new­com­ers and natives were com­pounded by eth­nic (and in Detroit, racial) prej­u­dices. Racial dis­crim­i­na­tion took a heav­ier toll on African-Americans, since they were vic­tims of a racially seg­mented labor and hous­ing mar­ket, police bru­tal­ity, and none-too-subtle forms of social seg­re­ga­tion. In Turin, Ital­ian south­ern migrants like­wise encoun­tered hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion and were con­cen­trated in run-down sec­tions of the city cen­ter, or in build­ing projects in degraded sub­urbs poorly con­nected to the rest of the met­ro­pol­i­tan area. Even though their prob­lems were not exac­er­bated by “race,” south­ern migrants were at the mercy of a dual labor mar­ket, typ­i­cal of Fordism, that allot­ted high-paid steady jobs to natives, and pre­car­i­ous low-wage occu­pa­tions to new­com­ers. Because Turin and Detroit were indus­trial cities, the expe­ri­ence and the stand­ing of south­ern migrants and blacks within the fac­to­ries played a con­sid­er­able role in their over­all posi­tions in the com­mu­nity, in terms of income, polit­i­cal influ­ence, and sym­bolic sta­tus. The par­al­lel tra­jec­to­ries of the two cities were deter­mined by the struc­tural con­fig­u­ra­tion and urban con­cen­tra­tion of the Fordist indus­try par excel­lence: the auto­mo­bile indus­try.

League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Workers.

Working-class unrest in Turin and Detroit shared an impor­tant fea­ture: the activism of social groups occu­py­ing a mar­ginal posi­tion in the polit­i­cal econ­omy of the city. In both cases, the dis­tinct cul­tural back­ground of the “new work­ers” shaped the tac­tics, polit­i­cal lan­guage, and goals of the move­ment. They sub­verted the tra­di­tional class nar­ra­tive of insub­or­di­na­tion against cap­i­tal by ele­vat­ing cul­tural, regional, or racial “dif­fer­ence” to polit­i­cal impor­tance. Amer­i­cans had long asso­ci­ated Euro­pean immi­gra­tion with rad­i­cal­ism, but this argu­ment was not usu­ally applied to inter­nal migra­tion, the kind that brought tens of thou­sands of south­ern blacks to Detroit in the 1940s, 1950s, and also, to a lesser extent, in the 1960s.11 Sim­i­larly, in Italy, after the war few would have imag­ined that south­ern­ers were des­tined to become a major force of polit­i­cal change. On the con­trary, indus­tri­al­ists and union­ists, con­ser­v­a­tives and Com­mu­nists, all expected south­ern migrants to sap working-class consciousness.

My book Chal­leng­ing Global Cap­i­tal­ism puts for­ward the argu­ment that in the case of both Detroit and Turin, the expe­ri­ence of mar­gin­al­iza­tion was a key stim­u­lus to action, even when pro­test­ers inter­preted their resis­tance in terms of inter­est cat­e­gories such as race, class, or eth­nic­ity.12 This char­ac­ter­is­tic had been cap­tured by the dis­sent activists that oper­ated in both cities dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s, but caught the tra­di­tional labor move­ment by surprise.

The analy­sis of this period of intense social mobi­liza­tion, which takes into account par­al­lel devel­op­ments in dif­fer­ent local set­tings – an analy­sis, that is, which pur­sues sim­i­lar­i­ties and con­nec­tions beyond national bor­ders – high­lights three sig­nif­i­cant themes that enhance our under­stand­ing of this phe­nom­e­non. The first is the direct con­se­quence of the mar­gin­al­iza­tion processes described above. In Detroit and Turin, “mar­ginal” work­ers; that is African-Americans and Merid­ion­ali, who, for a num­ber of rea­sons, had ben­e­fited least from the exist­ing sys­tem of indus­trial rela­tions, and whose path to social inte­gra­tion had been steep and strewn with obsta­cles, were promi­nent in the work­ers’ unrest. In a sense, this is hardly unex­pected for the his­to­rian, yet it did take many rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Left by sur­prise. These work­ers were bring­ing into the strug­gle motives, tac­tics, and polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties that clashed with the tra­di­tional approach of orga­nized labor – their emer­gence as a class sub­ject changed the work­ing class forever.

The sec­ond theme that res­onates on both sides of the Atlantic was the chal­lenge that work­ers’ mil­i­tancy posed to exist­ing indus­trial rela­tions, in par­tic­u­lar to the link between wages and pro­duc­tiv­ity – a cen­tral pil­lar of Fordism. This had been the result of hard bar­gain­ing and col­lec­tive action, in the Amer­i­can case, and the out­come of FIAT’s attempt to defuse mass union­iza­tion by means of heavy-handed pater­nal­ism, in the Ital­ian case. Work­ers dis­rupted this nexus by turn­ing the shop floor into the key site of indus­trial con­flict. In the auto­mo­bile plants of the late 1960s, work­ers not only took time off work by strik­ing, but blocked pro­duc­tion in a vari­ety of ways with­out renounc­ing their wages. Because Fordist indus­try relied on a highly inte­grated process, these actions dis­rupted not only the depart­ment directly impli­cated, but also all the other depart­ments and plants con­nected to it. The demands that accom­pa­nied these tac­tics were equally dis­rup­tive of the old order, as they rarely focused solely on wage increases, but also tended to involve changes in the orga­ni­za­tion of work, or the bal­ance of author­ity at the point of pro­duc­tion, and safety issues raised by the pro­duc­tion process. In both Detroit and Turin, when the work­force mobi­lized, decision-making shifted away from union and cor­po­rate board­rooms onto the shop floor.

Finally, the third theme implicit in both cases stud­ied here, and no doubt in many oth­ers, is the link between work­ers’ strug­gles and a wider process of social mobi­liza­tion which had “anti­sys­temic” objec­tives (a term used by Arrighi, Waller­stein, and Hop­kins in the con­text of 1968).13 Work­ers hardly needed to be con­vinced by stu­dents of the desir­abil­ity of resist­ing the exhaust­ing demands of the assem­bly line, but the coali­tion with New Left activists mag­ni­fied the effect of the revolt on the shop floor. This period saw the estab­lish­ment of var­i­ous forms of col­lab­o­ra­tion between stu­dents and indus­trial work­ers. Some­times it was spon­ta­neous or unstruc­tured, but more often it occurred within the rad­i­cal groups that agi­tated against cap­i­tal­ism, dis­crim­i­na­tion, and oppres­sion, both inside and out­side the fac­tory. Men­tion might here be made of groups such as the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers, Lotta Con­tinua, and Potere Operaio. Work­ers and stu­dents (at any rate those on the Left), shared a youth cul­ture that extolled anti-authoritarianism, forms of par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy – such as gen­eral assem­blies where any­one could take the stage and speak – and dis­rup­tive tac­tics such as unan­nounced sit-ins or occu­pa­tions. These actions often riled labor activists from the Old Left.

Rad­i­cals on both sides of the Atlantic found solace in the idea that a trans­for­ma­tion of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion else­where could abet change in their own region. They engaged in dia­logue – some­times in writ­ing, at other times in per­son – in order to share tac­tics of rebel­lion, to elicit sup­port for their par­tic­u­lar groups, or to refine their analy­sis of the work­ings of cap­i­tal­ism. They saw in the autonomously orga­nized work­ing class the engine of rad­i­cal social trans­for­ma­tion. Simul­ta­ne­ous upheaval in Detroit and Turin, and else­where, seemed to sug­gest that at the turn of the 1970s the world was on the point of being fun­da­men­tally trans­formed by social move­ments. Fordism was at the twi­light of its exis­tence, crum­bling under the pres­sure of self-organized protest and with­drawal from work. It was a fun­da­men­tal insight of the social the­ory devel­oped in this period that the protest devel­oped in the fac­to­ries by this new work­ing class ush­ered in an utterly new era of cap­i­tal­ism in the West which could no longer be called Fordist.

Nicola Pizzolato is the author of Challenging Global Capitalism: Labor Migration, Radical Struggle, and Urban Change in Detroit and Turin.

  • 1. Paolo Cec­ca­relli, “Due città frag­ili: Detroit e Torino. Ovvero, come non si dovrebbe costru­ire la città mod­erna” in Il Mulino, 1 (1983).
  • 2. Ibid, 15.
  • 3. Mar­cel van der Lin­den, “Social­ism ou Bar­barie: A French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Group (1949-1965),” Left His­tory, 5:1 (1997).
  • 4. CLR James, Grace Lee, and Pierre Chaulieu, Fac­ing Real­ity (1958; Detroit: Bewick Edi­tions, 1974), 21, 27.
  • 5. Pref­ace to L’operaio amer­i­cano in Danilo Mon­taldi, Bisogna sognare. Scritti 1952-1975 (Milano: Col­i­brì, 1994), 501.
  • 6. Romano Alquati, inter­view in Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi, Gigi Rog­gero, Futuro Ante­ri­ore. Dai ‘Quaderni Rossi’ ai movi­mento glob­ali: ric­chezze e lim­iti dell’operaiosmo ital­iano (Roma: DeriveAp­prodi, 2002), attached CD-ROM.
  • 7. “Relazione sulle ‘forze nuove. Con­vegno del PSI sulla FIAT, gen­naio 1961” and “Doc­u­menti sulla lotta di classe alla FIAT” in Romano Alquati, Sulla Fiat e altri scritti, (Milano, 1975), 314-341.
  • 8. Alquati, “Relazione sulle “Forze nuove,” 35.
  • 9. “Doc­u­menti sulla lotta di classe alla FIAT,” 63.
  • 10. See Dario Lan­zardo, La riv­olta di Piazza Statuto (Milano: Fel­trinelli, 1980); Sante Notar­ni­cola, L’evasione impos­si­bile (Milano: Fel­trinelli, 1978), 79-82.
  • 11. For the immigrants-radicals asso­ci­a­tion see John Higham, Strangers in the Land (New Brunswick, N. J., Rut­gers Uni­ver­sity Press, 1955); see also C. Guerin-Gonzales and C. Strik­w­erda eds., The Pol­i­tics of Immi­grant Work­ers. Labor Activism and Migra­tion in the World Econ­omy Since 1830 (New York, Lon­don: Holmes & Meier, 1993).
  • 12. Nicola Piz­zo­lato, Chal­leng­ing Global Cap­i­tal­ism: Labor Migra­tion, Rad­i­cal Strug­gle and Urban Change in Detroit and Turin (New York: Pal­grave, 2013).
  • 13. Gio­vanni Arrighi, Ter­ence Hop­kins, Immanuel Waller­stein, Anti­sys­temic Move­ments, (Lon­don: Verso, 1989).

Introduction to L’ouvrier américain (1949)

From Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 1 (1949), the introduction to The American Worker.

The Amer­i­can Worker by Paul Romano
Trans­lated from the American

We present here an unprece­dented doc­u­ment of great value about the lives of Amer­i­can work­ers. This appraisal stems not only from the fact that it defin­i­tively puts paid to both the absurd claim that Amer­i­can work­ers don’t have class con­scious­ness, and the myth of the com­fort and lux­ury of the Amer­i­can pro­le­tariat. This would already be amply suf­fi­cient rea­son to make a point of pub­lish­ing the doc­u­ment by the worker and mil­i­tant rev­o­lu­tion­ary Romano. It is indis­pens­able that a cred­i­ble voice is raised to destroy the barefaced pro­pa­ganda of Hol­ly­wood firms which show us work­ers in bath­rooms, or those of Reader’s Digest which depict at every oppor­tu­nity the ben­e­fits of class collaboration.

The mer­its of this small pam­phlet are much more pro­found. Every worker, regard­less of “his nation­al­ity” of exploita­tion, will find in it the image of his own exis­tence as a pro­le­tar­ian. There are, in fact, deep and con­sis­tent char­ac­ter­is­tics of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence that know nei­ther fron­tiers nor regimes. Fur­ther­more every worker, and this is pre­cisely because it’s the reflec­tion of the exploita­tion “with­out for­mal­i­ties” [sans phrase] that is given to us, will be filled with a bound­less con­fi­dence in the his­toric des­tiny [des­tinées his­toriques] of his class, because he will see there, like the author, that even at the moment when the worker is in the deep­est despair, when his sit­u­a­tion appears to him to be insol­u­ble, his own “every­day reac­tions and expres­sions” reveal that he is on “the road to a far-reaching change…”

The trans­la­tor of this small pam­phlet him­self has worked sev­eral years in the fac­tory. We was struck by the accu­racy and the impor­tant impli­ca­tions of every line. It is impos­si­ble for a worker to remain indif­fer­ent to this read­ing. It is even more impos­si­ble to trans­late such a text in an indif­fer­ent, or even rou­tine, man­ner. At sev­eral junc­tures, it was nec­es­sary to take a con­sid­er­able dis­tance from the let­ter of the Eng­lish text to pro­vide a really faith­ful trans­la­tion. Some Amer­i­can pop­u­lar expres­sions have an exact cor­re­spon­dence in French, but embed­ded in dif­fer­ent imagery. Even in his descrip­tive style, Romano uses a pro­le­tar­ian optic. It was nec­es­sary to find a cor­re­spond­ing style in French, even if it meant stray­ing from the text. Admit­tedly, this trans­la­tion is not ele­gant, but it is the most faith­ful we could have given.

Even more in trans­lat­ing than read­ing one is struck by the con­crete uni­ver­sal­ity of the pro­le­tar­ian con­di­tion, and we hope to have respected this expression.

In our eyes, it is not by acci­dent that such a sam­ple of pro­le­tar­ian doc­u­men­tary lit­er­a­ture comes to us from Amer­ica, and it is also not by acci­dent that it is, in some of its deep­est aspects, the first of the genre. One can be cer­tain that the name Romano will stay in the his­tory of pro­le­tar­ian lit­er­a­ture, and that it will even sig­nify a turn­ing point in that his­tory. The most indus­tri­al­ized coun­try in the world, with the most con­cen­trated pro­le­tariat, should give rise to new and orig­i­nal tal­ent. That is a sign of the vigor and the depth of Amer­i­can work­ers’ movement.

—Trans­lated by Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi

Philippe Guillaume was a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie.

Introduction to L’operaio americano (1954)

From Battaglia Comu­nista, a. XV, n. 2 (febbraio-marzo 1954), the introduction to the Italian translation of The American Worker.

The doc­u­ment with which we start off this issue was writ­ten by Paul Romano, an Amer­i­can worker. There exists an Amer­ica that no one talks about, which is to be found beyond the myth of the refrig­er­a­tor, the auto­mo­bile, and the tele­vi­sion, and beyond the myth of afflu­ence for all. It is the Amer­ica of the fac­tory: an unknown Amer­ica whose his­tory is made of strikes, exploita­tion, and pro­le­tar­ian mis­ery. The pro­tag­o­nists of this story are the work­ers, and Paul Romano is a worker who writes about the life of the workers.

It is no coin­ci­dence that such a deeply inter­est­ing doc­u­ment comes from the most highly indus­tri­al­ized coun­try in the world, to counter the lie that the Amer­i­can pro­le­tariat has no class consciousness.

We know the dif­fi­cul­ties through which the rev­o­lu­tion­ary van­guard must move in the United States. The group that Paul Romano belongs to was formed within the Amer­i­can Trot­sky­ist orga­ni­za­tion, but split off fol­low­ing a pro­found dis­agree­ment. At the heart of this dis­agree­ment lay the refusal to adhere to the watch­word of “uncon­di­tional defense of the USSR,” which con­sti­tuted the clas­si­cal plat­form of Trot­sky­ism, rep­re­sented in the United States by the Social­ist Work­ers’ Party; the eval­u­a­tion of the USSR as state cap­i­tal­ist; the same analy­sis of the cap­i­tal­ist sit­u­a­tion as that of the Work­ers’ Party, another wing of Amer­i­can Trot­sky­ism, which did not present any­thing fun­da­men­tally new, while this group stressed the con­cen­tra­tion and sta­ti­za­tion of the econ­omy; and, finally, dif­fer­ences over their polit­i­cal tasks, since the seizure of power by the pro­le­tariat remained fun­da­men­tal to the group that pub­lished “The Amer­i­can Worker” in 1947. Formed in 1950 as an inde­pen­dent orga­ni­za­tion, since Octo­ber 1953 the group has pub­lished a bimonthly news­pa­per, Cor­re­spon­dence, of which ten issues are already out. “The Amer­i­can Worker,” as much as the news­pa­per Cor­re­spon­dence, expresses with great force and pro­fun­dity this idea, prac­ti­cally for­got­ten by the Marx­ist move­ment after the pub­li­ca­tion of the first vol­ume of Cap­i­tal, that the worker is first of all some­one who lives at the point of pro­duc­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist fac­tory before being the mem­ber of a party, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant, or the sub­ject of com­ing social­ist power; and that it is the pro­duc­tive process that shapes his rejec­tion of exploita­tion and his capac­ity to build a supe­rior type of soci­ety, his class sol­i­dar­ity with other work­ers, and his hatred for exploita­tion and the exploiters, the tra­di­tional bosses of yes­ter­day and the imper­sonal bureau­crats of today and tomor­row. The devel­op­ment of this fun­da­men­tal idea is the prin­ci­pal con­tri­bu­tion of this group to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment of today. But the doc­u­men­tary value of Paul Romano’s book resides also in this: that it reveals the con­di­tions of the work­ers to be uni­ver­sal. For this rea­son, we invite the com­rades, the work­ers, the read­ers to write to Battaglia, to com­pare their own sit­u­a­tions to that of the “Amer­i­can worker,” which is to say, with the worker of all coun­tries – the worker with whom they feel some­thing sim­i­lar and yet see some­thing different.

—Trans­lated by Salar Mohandesi

Danilo Montaldi was an Italian historian and militant.

Workers’ Inquiry in Socialisme ou Barbarie

Henri Simon's account of Socialisme ou Barbarie and its 'worker's papers'.

Before tak­ing up the sub­ject, it is nec­es­sary to point out that Social­isme ou Bar­barie, pri­mar­ily at the impe­tus of Cas­to­ri­adis (alias Chaulieu), went through dif­fer­ent peri­ods, largely cor­re­spond­ing to polit­i­cal analy­ses of the prospects of strug­gle which con­di­tioned the devel­op­ment of the group.

If one can schemat­i­cally dis­tin­guish a Marx­ist period from a non-Marxist period, with the new posi­tions of Cas­to­ri­adis and the split of Pou­voir Ouvrier (Marx­ist ten­dency) in 1963, the pre­ced­ing period, begin­ning in 1949, went through dif­fer­ent approaches in the analy­sis of the eco­nomic, social, and polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion not only in France, but also in the entire world. In these dif­fer­ent ori­en­ta­tions, which are easy to detect in the 40 issues of the review, the ques­tion of work­ers’ inquiry was only posed in peri­ods dur­ing which the group affirmed the pri­macy of the class strug­gle. It might be worth recall­ing that the Chaulieu-Montal tendency’s break with the Parti Com­mu­niste Inter­na­tion­al­iste and the Fourth Inter­na­tional hap­pened over the ques­tion of the nature of the USSR; and at the same time, and for sev­eral years, the group essen­tially fixed its atten­tion on the com­ing of the Third World War. But it could show an inter­est in the work­ing class in the form of tes­ti­monies, as is demon­strated by the pub­li­ca­tion, from the first issue of the review, of a trans­la­tion of Paul Romano’s text – The Amer­i­can Worker – and some reports on strikes in both France and abroad. But, then, it was never a ques­tion of work­ers’ inquiry and one can­not say that the class strug­gle and an attempt to under­stand the world of the worker were at that time pri­mary con­cerns of the group.

Per­son­ally, I par­tic­i­pated in Social­isme ou Bar­barie from 1952 to 1958. I left Social­isme ou Bar­barie with Claude Lefort (Mon­tal) after an attempt by the major­ity of the group to cre­ate a polit­i­cal party dur­ing the events bound up with the war in Alge­ria and the Gaullist semi-coup. This rup­ture hap­pened over purely orga­ni­za­tion con­sid­er­a­tions that did not directly put into ques­tion the inter­est in the action of the work­ing class. On the con­trary, the major­ity saw in Gaullism a kind of fas­cism (which was an incor­rect analy­sis), and drew the con­clu­sion that we were going to par­tic­i­pate in a work­ers’ revolt, hence the neces­sity of a struc­tured orga­ni­za­tion. This ori­en­ta­tion was, how­ever, in oppo­si­tion to the con­cept of work­ers’ inquiry because the group saw itself, at that time, as a guide, a coor­di­na­tor, a recruiter aim­ing to impose a line rather than draw­ing this line from an analy­sis of work­ers’ behav­ior. I would not know what to say about what really hap­pened after 1958 – because I was no longer a part of it – except to com­ment on the texts pub­lished by the review, or to trust what my con­tacts in the group could tell me.

If the first issues of the review did not have an essen­tial inter­est in hav­ing a deep under­stand­ing of the work­ing class, of the pro­le­tariat in gen­eral and in par­tic­u­lar, the 11th issue of the review, from November-December 1952, did address the ques­tion of work­ers’ inquiry in a lead­ing arti­cle (not signed, which leads one to sup­pose that there was a con­sen­sus on this point, or a com­pro­mise) enti­tled “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.” But, if this arti­cle spoke about inquiry, it was not to priv­i­lege this method of under­stand­ing what the pro­le­tariat really is, but, on the con­trary, to rule in favor of these “nar­ra­tive accounts.” It is inter­est­ing to copy this pas­sage, which is the con­clu­sion of a long text on the­o­ret­i­cal developments:

Social­isme ou Bar­barie would like to solicit tes­ti­monies from work­ers and pub­lish them at the same time as it accords an impor­tant place to all forms of analy­sis con­cern­ing pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence. In this issue the reader will find the begin­ning of such a tes­ti­mony, one that leaves aside sev­eral of the points we have out­lined.1 Other such texts could broach these points in ways that go beyond those envi­sioned in this issue. In fact, it is impos­si­ble to impose an exact frame­work. If we have seemed to do so in the course of our expla­na­tions, and if we have pro­duced noth­ing but a ques­tion­naire, then this work would not be valu­able: a ques­tion imposed from the out­side might be an irri­tant for the sub­ject being ques­tioned, shap­ing an arti­fi­cial response or, in any case, imprint­ing upon it a char­ac­ter that it would not oth­er­wise have had. Our research direc­tions would be brought to bear even on nar­ra­tives that we pro­voke: we must be atten­tive to all forms of expres­sion that might advance con­crete analy­sis. As for the rest, the prob­lem is not the form taken by a doc­u­ment, but its inter­pre­ta­tion. Who will work out the rela­tion­ships under­stood as sig­nif­i­cant between such and such responses? Who will reveal from beneath the explicit con­tent of a doc­u­ment the inten­tions and atti­tudes that inspired it, and jux­ta­pose the tes­ti­monies? The com­rades of Social­isme ou Bar­barie? But would this not run counter to their inten­tions, given that they pro­pose a kind of research that would enable work­ers to reflect upon their expe­ri­ence? This prob­lem can­not be resolved arti­fi­cially, par­tic­u­larly not at this first step in the work. In any case, the inter­pre­ta­tion, from wher­ever it comes, will remain con­tem­po­rary with the text being inter­preted. It can only impress if it is judged to be accu­rate by the reader, some­one who is able to find another mean­ing in the mate­ri­als we sub­mit to him. We hope it will be pos­si­ble to con­nect the authors with texts in a col­lec­tive cri­tique of the doc­u­ments. For the moment, our goal is to gather these mate­ri­als: in this, we count on the active sup­port of those sym­pa­thetic with this journal.

All of this talk ends in this deci­sion to put aside work­ers’ inquiry in favor of the first-hand nar­ra­tive of a sin­gle per­son, when one knows what Social­isme ou Bar­barie really was at that time: a core of some dozen mil­i­tants with a few con­tacts in the provinces and review that cir­cu­lated barely more than 200 copies. It was out of the ques­tion, for purely prac­ti­cal rea­sons to start any kind of “work­ers’ inquiry,” even less because only three or four of these par­tic­i­pants were pro­le­tar­i­ans. Did this crit­i­cal rejec­tion not express the con­crete impos­si­bil­ity of real­iz­ing this work, given the size of the group? Or rather, was it not the con­se­quence of a polit­i­cal approach to the ques­tion – that the group had noth­ing to learn from the work­ing class but, on the con­trary, had sev­eral things to teach it? (This con­nects to the posi­tions on the role of the orga­ni­za­tion that exploded in 1958 in the polit­i­cal tur­moil of the war in Alge­ria.) In fact, the review would only include, fol­low­ing The Amer­i­can Worker by Paul Romano men­tioned above, nar­ra­tives from the pro­le­tar­ian mem­bers of the group. There is clear evi­dence that these nar­ra­tives were influ­enced by the polit­i­cal vision of the group; this was par­tic­u­larly true, for exam­ple, with the Mothé’s nar­ra­tives on the Renault Bil­lan­court fac­tory, which were strongly influ­enced by the Cas­to­ri­adis’ positions.

The pub­li­ca­tion of this text on “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence” coin­cided with the devel­op­ment of strug­gle in France, notably the large strikes in 1953 and 1955, up until 1958, when the polit­i­cal prob­lems tied to the war in Alge­ria gained the upper hand over the life of the group, the dis­cus­sions in the group, and the arti­cles in the review, priv­i­leged the work­ers’ strug­gles and the nar­ra­tives in ques­tion, but at no moment did the ques­tion of “work­ers’ inquiry” posed in 1952 reap­pear. On the con­trary, innu­mer­able debates unfolded in the weekly meet­ings on the ques­tion of a work­ers paper. Such a paper existed, clan­des­tinely, Tri­bune Ouvrière, oper­ated by group of work­ers at the Renault fac­tory in Bil­lan­court (a sub­urb of Paris), a few of whom were close to Social­isme ou Bar­barie (one was a member).

To recount the his­tory of Tri­bune Ouvrière, work­ers bul­letin of the Renault fac­tory at Bil­lan­court neces­si­tates retrac­ing the sit­u­a­tion in the fac­tory and the rela­tions of labor in the fif­teen years that fol­lowed the Sec­ond World War. To broadly sum­ma­rize, this fac­tory of about 30,000 work­ers, the “work­ers’ fortress,” as we used it call it at the time, was then dom­i­nated by the CGT, tied closely to the Com­mu­nist Party, and which until 1947, imposed the management’s pro­duc­tion imper­a­tives. It was in line with the national polit­i­cal union for the eco­nomic recon­struc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism in France.

The class strug­gle con­tin­ued nonethe­less, and Trot­sky­ist mil­i­tants suc­ceeded in polar­iz­ing oppo­si­tion against this pol­i­tics of class col­lab­o­ra­tion in cer­tain work­shops in the fac­tory, and in unleash­ing in April-May 1947 a wild­cat strike and the cre­ation of a strike com­mit­tee out­side the union. The vio­lent repres­sion of the strike ended with a com­pro­mise (signed by the CGT with­out the pres­ence of the strike com­mit­tee), but had polit­i­cal con­se­quences: the ejec­tion of the Com­mu­nist min­is­ters from the gov­ern­ment (other fac­tors also con­tributed to this ejec­tion: on the one hand, the begin­ning of the cold war and align­ment on the pol­i­tics of the USSR, and on the other hand, the first war in Viet­nam). The end of the strike saw the exclu­sion of the CGT from those sec­tions that had launched the strike, which had to cre­ate a new union, the Renault Demo­c­ra­tic Union (SDR), led by a Trot­sky­ist mil­i­tant, Bois. The exis­tence of this union was very ephemeral because it clashed with both the CGT and the man­age­ment (the legal arrange­ment prac­ti­cally pro­hib­ited it from par­tic­i­pat­ing in any dis­cus­sion in the factory).

A few years later, in 1954, some par­tic­i­pated in the cre­ation of a new oppo­si­tion in the fac­tory, which regrouped, under the impe­tus of a mil­i­tant close to Social­isme ou Bar­barie, Ray­mond (who still refused to par­tic­i­pate in the group), and other mil­i­tants in the fac­tory, an anar­chist, Pier­rot, the Trot­sky­ist Bois, and a mem­ber of Social­isme ou Bar­barie, Mothé. It was in this way that the work­ers bul­letin, Tri­bune Ouvrière, was launched. It was totally clan­des­tine and dis­sem­i­nated secretly in the fac­tory - the CGT’s pres­ence was still so strong that it could oppose any attempt to orga­nize out­side its union con­trol. The true facil­i­ta­tor of this nucleus was Gas­pard, who did not con­tent him­self with ensur­ing the appear­ance and dis­tri­b­u­tion of the bul­letin, but was a true orga­nizer of a real nucleus of nearly 50 work­ers in a col­lec­tive approach that expanded beyond the union into a kind of col­lec­tive life out­side the fac­tory (vaca­tions, cul­tural trips, etc.). I can tes­tify to this since, orga­nizer of an oppo­si­tion core at my com­pany. I occa­sion­ally took part in these “activities.”

There were attempts to turn Tri­bune Ouvrière into the worker bul­letin of Social­isme ou Bar­barie; these dis­cus­sions aimed to define the method of such a bul­letin, which was intended to prop­a­gate the ideas of the group, rather than to pro­mote a deeper under­stand­ing of the pro­le­tariat. After 1958, and the group’s split, such a paper appeared under the title Pou­voir Ouvrier. No longer a mem­ber of Social­isme ou Bar­barie after this date, I can only refer to pub­li­ca­tions in order to main­tain that the ques­tion of Work­ers’ Inquiry was never addressed in the group, and even more so that even the worker nar­ra­tives dis­ap­peared [from the review] com­pletely, the group being in large part com­posed of intel­lec­tu­als and stu­dents, and no proletarians.

The debates that, in 1958, led to Social­isme ou Barbarie’s split, were polar­ized around two texts on the role of the orga­ni­za­tion, one com­ing from Cas­to­ri­adis, the other from Lefort. In this lat­ter text one finds a brief ref­er­ence to work­ers inquiry in the con­clu­sion on “mil­i­tant activ­ity” in these terms: “On the other hand, one can begin sev­eral seri­ous analy­ses con­cern­ing the func­tion­ing of our own soci­ety (on the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, the French bureau­cracy, or the union bureau­cracy). One would in this way estab­lish a col­lab­o­ra­tion with fac­tory mil­i­tants in a way that poses in con­crete terms (through inquiries into their life and work expe­ri­ences) the prob­lem of work­ers’ man­age­ment.”2 But even there this remained a purely the­o­ret­i­cal posi­tion with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of prac­ti­cal real­iza­tion given the reduced size of the group and, in fact, every­thing would unfold differently.

In a cer­tain way, one can say that this approach to under­stand­ing the pro­le­tar­ian milieu was adopted by those who emerged, after the var­i­ous tur­moils that lasted up until 1962, as the minor­ity that was more or less excluded from Social­isme ou Bar­barie in 1958. It would take too long to explain how, from the autumn of 1958, we con­sti­tuted an “inter-firm group” com­posed solely of pro­le­tar­i­ans, and which began to pub­lish a monthly bul­letin essen­tially repro­duc­ing what the par­tic­i­pants could say about what­ever hap­pened in their fac­tory. This bul­letin ended up call­ing itself Infor­ma­tions Cor­re­spon­dance Ouvrières (ICO)3 and con­tin­ued under this form until 1968 where, once again, an influx of stu­dents fun­da­men­tally mod­i­fied the orig­i­nal char­ac­ter of the group and the con­tent of the bul­letin. In a cer­tain way this resem­bles work­ers’ inquiry, but it was in no way a response to pre­cise ques­tion­naire, but a nar­ra­tive, even­tu­ally clar­i­fied by ques­tions to other pro­le­tar­i­ans par­tic­i­pat­ing in the meet­ing. I must add that until 1967-1968, when eco­nomic and social devel­op­ment sparked a revival of inter­est in this expe­ri­ence, the mem­ber­ship of ICO never sur­passed more than 30, the bulletin’s cir­cu­la­tion hav­ing finally attained 1000 copies, and that the influ­ence of the group remained neg­li­gi­ble all the same.

Tri­bune Ouvrière dis­ap­peared around 1962-63 because Ray­mond left – and he took with him a cer­tain num­ber of Renault work­ers – to cre­ate a col­lec­tive vaca­tion cen­ter. In the years before 1958 dis­cus­sions went on in Social­isme ou Bar­barie about a “work­ers’ paper” that would express the group’s posi­tion on work­ers’ strug­gles to the work­ers. For some time some in Social­isme ou Bar­barie had thought that Tri­bune Ouvrière would be this work­ers’ paper express­ing the group. But the oppo­si­tion of Ray­mond and the other mem­bers (except Mothé, who pushed for such an inte­gra­tion), nul­li­fied all these efforts. It was then that the major­ity, tak­ing advan­tage of the 1958 split, launched the work­ers’ paper of the group: Pou­voir Ouvrier. It was nei­ther the con­tin­u­a­tion of Tri­bune Ouvrière, which con­tin­ued for some time in its orig­i­nal form, nor some for­mula that cor­re­sponded to it, but the paper of a polit­i­cal group car­ry­ing, in more acces­si­ble lan­guage, the good word to the work­ers: it did not base itself on any con­crete work­ers expe­ri­ence. This was so true that at the time of Social­isme ou Barbarie’s new split in 1963, “Pou­voir Ouvrier” became the name and the polit­i­cal organ of the new group. After 1958 Mothé founded the paper accord­ing to the for­mula he defended in the review, but he quickly aban­doned it to pur­sue a union career in the CFDT.

With Mothé hav­ing become a syn­di­cal­ist, Ray­mond leav­ing for a com­mer­cial career, and Bois, who was the ani­mat­ing spirit behind Voix Ouvrières, launch­ing fac­tory bul­letins that were closely con­trolled by the Trot­sky­ist appa­ra­tus, Tri­bune Ouvrière could dis­ap­pear because the major­ity of those who had directed it were work­ing else­where. Only one of them was left, Pier­rot, still a worker at Renault Bil­lan­court, who joined ICO and became one of its ani­ma­teurs. But one can­not say there was any fil­i­a­tion with Tri­bune Ouvrière, which dis­ap­peared prac­ti­cally the moment when ICO emerged on com­pletely dif­fer­ent bases than any of the groups of bul­letins cited. Prac­ti­cally, all the par­tic­i­pants in ICO were work­ers who, opposed to unions, shared their expe­ri­ence as work­ers, and their expe­ri­ence of the dif­fi­cult strug­gle between the boss’s exploita­tion and the union bureau­cracy; this made for an orig­i­nal con­cep­tion, very dif­fer­ent from both Tri­bune Ouvrière, lim­ited to a sin­gle fac­tory, and Pou­voir Ouvrier, the expres­sion of a polit­i­cal group. ICO con­tin­ued in this form prac­ti­cally until 1968, then every­thing was over­turned in May 68 with an influx of non-workers, and with this influx a muta­tion towards a polit­i­cal group, which, for its part, led to shat­ter­ing of the group around ide­o­log­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions. Nei­ther one nor the other of these so-called “work­ers’” bul­letins can serve as mod­els for today because they cor­re­sponded to cer­tain struc­tures of cap­i­tal, to ensu­ing rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, and a cer­tain union pres­ence. A half cen­tury later, many things have changed in this area and few today dis­cuss the “work­ers’ paper.”

ICO dis­ap­peared after 1968 in large part because of pro­found diver­gences over the role of the pro­le­tariat, some fore­see­ing a rise in strug­gles, which would jus­tify a rev­o­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive (which led to the reemer­gence of the old debates on the role of orga­ni­za­tions and an irre­ducible cleav­age between the Marx­ist and anar­chist cur­rents); oth­ers think­ing the role of the pro­le­tariat was no longer cen­tral to the prospects of a com­mu­nist trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety. These are the cur­rents that still con­front each other 40 years later, but the least that can be said is that nei­ther one con­cerned itself with really know­ing how pro­le­tar­i­ans live and strug­gle, and their vision of a non-capitalist world. For these cur­rents – even though a whole arse­nal of soci­ol­o­gists and eth­nol­o­gists around the world try to tap into this in order to fur­ther the dom­i­na­tion of the worker how­ever they can, with the sole inter­est of ensur­ing the per­ma­nence of the sys­tem that exploits labor-power – the theme of work­ers’ inquiry is no longer rel­e­vant: for some it is totally use­less, because the work­ers are no longer a deter­min­ing fac­tor; for oth­ers, as in the past, it is a sec­ondary thing, because they still think they have to teach some­thing to work­ers, and not the other way around.

—Trans­lated by Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi

Henri Simon was a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie.

  • 1. G. Vivier, “La vie en usine,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 11.
  • 2. Claude Lefort, Élé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 1979), 112.
  • 3. This is some­times writ­ten as Infor­ma­tions et Cor­re­spon­dance Ouvrières, but we have left Simon’s phras­ing.

Proletarian experience

A 1953 essay by Claude Lefort of Socialisme Ou Barbarie that represents part of the turn to the soci­o­log­i­cally ori­ented approach to the work­ing class fun­da­men­tal for the group’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary project, in par­tic­u­lar from 1953 through 1957.

There is no phrase from Marx more often repeated: “The his­tory of all soci­eties to date has been the his­tory of class strug­gle.”1 These words have lost none of their explo­sive poten­tial. Peo­ple are con­tin­u­ously pro­vid­ing prac­ti­cal com­men­taries, char­la­tans have obscured their mean­ing, replac­ing them with more reas­sur­ing truths. Yet must we still say that his­tory is defined entirely around class strug­gle, that his­tory today is defined entirely by the strug­gles of the pro­le­tariat against the class that exploits it, and that his­tor­i­cal cre­ativ­ity and the cre­ativ­ity of the pro­le­tariat are today one and the same? On these points, there is no ambi­gu­ity in Marx. He wrote: “Of all the instru­ments of pro­duc­tion the great­est pro­duc­tive power is the pro­le­tariat itself.”2 But rather than sub­or­di­nate every­thing to this pro­duc­tive power and inter­pret the devel­op­ment of soci­ety as a whole in terms shaped by that of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary class, pseudo-Marxists of all kinds have tried to base the con­cep­tion of his­tory on less move­able grounds. They have con­verted the the­ory of class strug­gle into a purely eco­nomic sci­ence and claim to have derived its laws in the image of those of clas­si­cal physics, deduc­ing a super­struc­ture and thereby con­flat­ing class com­port­ment3 with ide­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena. Tak­ing an expres­sion from Cap­i­tal, they say that the pro­le­tariat and bour­geoisie are “per­son­i­fi­ca­tions of eco­nomic cat­e­gories,” the for­mer of wage labor and the lat­ter of cap­i­tal. The strug­gle between them is the mere reflec­tion of an objec­tive con­flict, the nature of which is tied to a given period as a func­tion of the devel­op­ment of pro­duc­tive forces and exist­ing rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. Because this con­flict results from the devel­op­ment of pro­duc­tive forces, his­tory is essen­tially reduced to it, and is in the process unwit­tingly trans­formed into a par­tic­u­lar episode in the evo­lu­tion of nature. Simul­ta­ne­ously, the role of class and of human beings is vacated. To be sure, this the­ory does not dis­pense entirely with inter­est in the devel­op­ment of the pro­le­tariat, but restricts it to objec­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics – to exten­sion, den­sity, and con­cen­tra­tion. In the best sce­nario, these char­ac­ter­is­tics are then brought into rela­tion with large-scale pro­le­tar­ian actions. This the­o­ret­i­cal view­point mon­i­tors the nat­ural evo­lu­tion of a pro­le­tariat that it casts as an uncon­scious and undif­fer­en­ti­ated mass. The per­ma­nent strug­gle against exploita­tion, rev­o­lu­tion­ary actions and ide­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena that accom­pany them, are not the real his­tory of the class. They are mere expres­sions of an eco­nomic function.

Not only did Marx dis­tance him­self from this the­ory, there is an explicit cri­tique of it in the philo­soph­i­cal work of his youth. Accord­ing to Marx, attempts to grasp social devel­op­ment in itself, inde­pen­dently of con­crete human beings and the rela­tions they estab­lish amongst them­selves – be they of coop­er­a­tion or of con­flict – are expres­sions of the alien­ation inher­ent in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. Because they are made strangers to their work, because their social sit­u­a­tion is imposed on them inde­pen­dently of their will, peo­ple are inclined to grasp human activ­ity in gen­eral on the model of physics and to grasp soci­ety as a being in-itself.

Marx’s cri­tique did not destroy this ten­dency any more than he elim­i­nated alien­ation by reveal­ing it. On the con­trary, this ten­dency devel­oped out of other aspects of Marx in the form of a so-called eco­nomic mate­ri­al­ism that, with time, came to play a spe­cific role in the mys­ti­fi­ca­tion of the work­ers’ move­ment. Its dupli­ca­tion of the social divi­sion within the pro­le­tariat between the worker elite asso­ci­ated with the intel­li­gentsia and the masses fed into a com­mand ide­ol­ogy the bureau­cratic char­ac­ter of which is fully revealed in Stal­in­ism. By con­vert­ing the pro­le­tariat into a mass gov­erned by laws and its agency into an eco­nomic func­tion, this ten­dency jus­ti­fies the reduc­tion of work­ers to the sta­tus of exe­cu­tants within their own orga­ni­za­tions, which have become instru­ments of worker exploitation.

The pro­le­tariat is the real response to this eco­nomic pseudo-materialism. Its response is elab­o­rated through its prac­ti­cal exis­tence. Any­one who looks at its his­tory can see that the pro­le­tariat has not merely reacted to def­i­nite, exter­nal eco­nomic fac­tors (degree of exploita­tion, stan­dard of liv­ing, mode of con­cen­tra­tion), but that it has really acted. The pro­le­tariat has inter­vened in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary man­ner based not on some schema pro­vided by the objec­tive sit­u­a­tion, but on its total, cumu­la­tive expe­ri­ence. While it would be absurd to inter­pret the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment with­out con­tin­u­ous ref­er­ence to the eco­nomic struc­ture of soci­ety as a whole at the time, to reduce work­ers to that struc­ture is to con­demn one­self to ignore three-quarters of its con­crete class com­port­ment. Who would try to deduce a century’s worth of trans­for­ma­tions in worker men­tal­ités4, meth­ods of strug­gle and forms of orga­ni­za­tion on the basis of purely eco­nomic processes?

Fol­low­ing Marx, it is essen­tial to affirm that the work­ing class is not merely an eco­nomic cat­e­gory, but the “great­est of pro­duc­tive forces.” We must show how this is the case both against crit­ics and mys­ti­fiers and for the devel­op­ment of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory. But we must also rec­og­nize that this topic was only broached in Marx and that its expres­sion through his con­cep­tion of the pro­le­tariat remained con­cep­tu­ally unclear. He was often con­tent with abstract claims about the role of changes of con­scious­ness in class for­ma­tion with­out explain­ing what they meant. At the same time, in the inter­est of show­ing the neces­sity of fun­da­men­tal rev­o­lu­tion, he often depicted the work­ing class in terms so dark that they lead one to won­der how work­ers could pos­si­bly acquire con­scious­ness of their sit­u­a­tion and their role in the man­age­ment of Human­ity. Marx argues that cap­i­tal­ism has trans­formed the worker into a machine and robbed it of “every human phys­i­cal and moral char­ac­ter­is­tic” and that cap­i­tal­ism has removed from work all sem­blance of “indi­vid­ual inter­ac­tion.” The result has been a “loss of human­ity.” How­ever, accord­ing to Marx, because it is sub­hu­man, because it is totally alien­ated and an accu­mu­la­tion of all social dis­tress, the proletariat’s revolt against its fate can eman­ci­pate all of human­ity. (It requires “a class…for which human­ity is entirely lost and which can only recon­quer itself by con­quer­ing all of human­ity” or “the pro­le­tariat of the present day alone, totally excluded from all per­sonal activ­ity, is able to real­ize its total per­sonal activ­ity and no longer rec­og­nize lim­its on the appro­pri­a­tion of the total­ity of col­lec­tive forces.”5 ). At the same time, it is clear that pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion is not a lib­er­a­tory explo­sion fol­lowed by the instant trans­for­ma­tion of all soci­ety (Marx directed much sar­casm at this anar­chist naïveté). Rather, pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion is when the exploited class assumes the man­age­ment of all of soci­ety. But how could the pro­le­tariat suc­cess­fully take on the innu­mer­able social, polit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and cul­tural tasks that a suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tion would bring if the night before it had been rad­i­cally excluded from social life? One response could be: the class under­goes a meta­mor­pho­sis through rev­o­lu­tion. But even as there is an accel­er­a­tion of his­tor­i­cal processes in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary period, one that upsets exist­ing rela­tions amongst men and estab­lishes com­mu­ni­ca­tion that links each to soci­ety as a whole, phe­nom­ena which are required for the extra­or­di­nary mat­u­ra­tion of the class that rev­o­lu­tion brings, nonethe­less it would be absurd, soci­o­log­i­cally speak­ing, to see the class as born of rev­o­lu­tion. Its mat­u­ra­tion is only pos­si­ble due to prior expe­ri­ence that it inter­prets and puts into a pos­i­tive practice.

Marx’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of the total alien­ation of the pro­le­tariat are linked to the idea that the over­throw of the bour­geoisie is the nec­es­sary and suf­fi­cient con­di­tion for the vic­tory of social­ism. In these cases, he is pre­oc­cu­pied with the destruc­tion of the old order and opposes to it com­mu­nist soci­ety, like a pos­i­tive is opposed to a neg­a­tive. These points show that Marx was nec­es­sar­ily depen­dent on a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. The unfold­ing of sub­se­quent decades requires us to think oth­er­wise about the pas­sage from the old order into a post-revolutionary soci­ety. The prob­lem of rev­o­lu­tion has become that of the proletariat’s capac­ity to man­age all of soci­ety. This requires us to think about the devel­op­ment of this capac­ity within cap­i­tal­ist society.

There is no lack of indi­ca­tions in Marx of the mate­r­ial that would be required to out­line another con­cep­tion of the pro­le­tariat. For exam­ple, Marx writes that com­mu­nism is the actual move­ment of over­throw­ing the exist­ing soci­ety that is pre­sup­posed by it. From a cer­tain view­point, this indi­cates con­ti­nu­ities that would link social forces in the exist­ing cap­i­tal­ist stage to the future of human­ity. More explic­itly, Marx high­lights the orig­i­nal­ity of the pro­le­tariat, which already rep­re­sents the “dis­so­lu­tion of all classes,”6 he says, because, it is not linked to any par­tic­u­lar inter­est, because it absorbs aspects of pre­vi­ous social classes and recom­bines them in a unique man­ner, and because it has no nec­es­sary link with the soil or, by exten­sion, with any nation. What is more, while Marx insists – cor­rectly – on the neg­a­tive, alien­ated char­ac­ter of pro­le­tar­ian work, he also shows that this same sit­u­a­tion puts the pro­le­tariat in a uni­ver­sal sit­u­a­tion because of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment which has enabled an inter­change­abil­ity of tasks and a ratio­nal­iza­tion of pro­duc­tion vir­tu­ally with­out lim­its. This enables us to see the cre­ative func­tion of the pro­le­tariat within Indus­try, which he calls the “open book of human forces.”7 In this, the pro­le­tariat appears, not as sub­hu­man, but as the pro­ducer of social life in its entirety. The pro­le­tariat fab­ri­cates the objects thanks to which human life con­tin­ues in all domains because there is no one who does not owe his con­di­tions of exis­tence to indus­trial pro­duc­tion. If the pro­le­tariat is the uni­ver­sal pro­ducer, it must some­how also be a depos­i­tory of social and cul­tural progress.

In other places, Marx describes the devel­op­ment of the bour­geoisie and pro­le­tariat in much the same terms, as if the classes belong together not only because of their places in pro­duc­tion, but also because of their mode of evo­lu­tion and the rela­tions they estab­lish between peo­ple. For exam­ple, he writes: “The diverse indi­vid­u­als only con­sti­tute a class when they sup­port a strug­gle against another class. The rest of the time, they con­front each other in com­pe­ti­tion. At the same time, the class becomes autonomous rel­a­tive to indi­vid­u­als, so that they find their pre­des­tined con­di­tions of exis­tence.”8 How­ever, when he con­cretely describes the evo­lu­tion of the pro­le­tariat and bour­geoisie he dif­fer­en­ti­ates them rad­i­cally. Essen­tially, the bour­geoisie com­pose a class because those who con­sti­tute it have a com­mon eco­nomic func­tion. Com­mon inter­ests and hori­zons describe their com­mon con­di­tions of exis­tence for them. Inde­pen­dently of the pol­i­tics each adopts, the bour­geoisie con­sti­tutes a homo­ge­neous group with a fixed struc­ture. Their com­mon­al­i­ties of inter­est explain the ease with which the class can develop a spe­cial­ized frac­tion to under­take its pol­i­tics. Bour­geois pol­i­tics are expres­sions and inter­pre­ta­tions of these shared dis­po­si­tions. This char­ac­ter­is­tic of the bour­geoisie is equally evi­dent in the process of its his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment: “Because they were in oppo­si­tion to exist­ing con­di­tions and the divi­sion of labor that resulted from them, the con­di­tions of exis­tence for iso­lated bour­geois became the con­di­tions com­mon to all of them.”9 In other words, the iden­tity of their eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion within feu­dal­ism uni­fied them and gave them a class aspect, impos­ing on them from the begin­ning a sim­ple asso­ci­a­tion by resem­blance. This is what Marx means by the expres­sion the run­away serfs were already half-bourgeois. There was no con­ti­nu­ity that linked serf and bour­geois. Rather, the lat­ter sim­ply legal­ized the former’s already-extant mode of life. As a group, the bour­geoisie insin­u­ated itself into feu­dal soci­ety, and its focus was broad­en­ing its own mode of pro­duc­tion. When this mode of pro­duc­tion encoun­tered the lim­its of the exist­ing con­di­tions, there was no con­tra­dic­tion; exist­ing con­di­tions merely impeded its devel­op­ment. Marx does not say, but enables one to say: From the begin­ning the bour­geoisie is what it will become, an exploit­ing class. Of course, it was ini­tially under­priv­i­leged, but it already con­tained within itself all the char­ac­ter­is­tics that its his­tory would sim­ply develop.

The devel­op­ment of the pro­le­tariat is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Reduced solely to its eco­nomic func­tion, it rep­re­sents a deter­mi­nate social cat­e­gory. But this cat­e­gory does not yet posses a class direc­tion. Its direc­tion [sens de classe] is con­sti­tuted by its orig­i­nal com­port­ment: the strug­gle against all forms of class in the soci­ety which it con­fronts as adver­sar­ial strata. This does not mean that the role of class in pro­duc­tion should be neglected; on the con­trary, we will see that the role work­ers play in soci­ety, and those they will be called upon to play in becom­ing its mas­ters, are directly rooted in their roles as pro­duc­ers. But the essen­tial point is that their role does not give them the abil­ity to act, but only an increas­ingly strong capac­ity to man­age. The bour­geoisie is con­tin­u­ally con­fronted with the results of its work: that is what gives it objec­tiv­ity. The pro­le­tariat is raised up through its work with­out ever being con­cerned with its results. Both the objects it pro­duces and the sequence of oper­a­tions required to pro­duce them are taken from it. While there is a progress in tech­ni­cal skill, this progress will only acquire a value in the future. In the present, it is inscribed in the neg­a­tive image of an exploita­tive soci­ety. (The tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ties of the con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can pro­le­tariat have no com­mon mea­sure with that of the French pro­le­tariat of 1848, but both the for­mer and the lat­ter are equally with­out eco­nomic power.) It is true that work­ers, like the bour­geoisie, have sim­i­lar inter­ests imposed on them by their com­mon work­ing con­di­tions – for exam­ple, they have an inter­est in full employ­ment and higher wages. But these inter­ests are of a dif­fer­ent order than their most fun­da­men­tal inter­est, which is to not be work­ers. It appears that work­ers seek higher wages in the same way as bour­geois seek prof­its, just as it appears both offer com­modi­ties on the mar­ket – the lat­ter cap­i­tal, the for­mer labor-power. In fact, the bour­geoisie con­sti­tutes itself through this com­port­ment as author of its class: it builds the sys­tem of pro­duc­tion that is the source of its own social struc­ture. For its part, while the pro­le­tariat seems only to react to con­di­tions that are imposed on it, it is being matured by its exploiters. Even if the work­ers are points of depar­ture for rad­i­cal oppo­si­tion to the sys­tem of exploita­tion itself, they nonethe­less play an inte­gral part in the dialec­tic of cap­i­tal. In con­fronta­tion with the bour­geoisie, the pro­le­tariat only affirms itself as an autonomous class when it con­tests bour­geois power, which is to say its mode of pro­duc­tion, or, more con­cretely, exploita­tion itself. Its rev­o­lu­tion­ary atti­tude con­sti­tutes its class atti­tude. Pro­le­tar­ian class direc­tion is not devel­oped through an accu­mu­la­tion of eco­nomic attrib­utes, but rather through their rad­i­cal denial in order to insti­tute a new social order. From this fol­lows that the pro­le­tariat, unlike the bour­geoisie, can­not cast off their chains as indi­vid­u­als because the ful­fill­ment of their des­tiny can­not be located in what they already vir­tu­ally are, but only through the abo­li­tion of the pro­le­tar­ian con­di­tion itself.10 Marx notes that the bour­geoisie are only of their class as “mem­bers” or as “aver­age” indi­vid­u­als (that is, as pas­sively deter­mined by their eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion) while the work­ers, form­ing a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mu­nity,”11 are prop­erly indi­vid­u­als to the extent they dom­i­nate their sit­u­a­tion and imme­di­ate rela­tions to production.

If it is true that no class can ever be reduced solely to an eco­nomic func­tion and that a descrip­tion of con­crete social rela­tions within the bour­geoisie are a nec­es­sary com­po­nent of a com­pre­hen­sion of that class, then it is even more true that the pro­le­tariat requires a spe­cific approach that would enable access to its sub­jec­tive devel­op­ment. Despite some reser­va­tions con­cern­ing what is entailed by this term, it sum­ma­rizes bet­ter than any other the dom­i­nant trait of the pro­le­tariat. The pro­le­tariat is sub­jec­tive to the extent that its com­port­ments are not the sim­ple result of the con­di­tions of its exis­tence: its con­di­tions of exis­tence require of it a con­tin­u­ous strug­gle for trans­for­ma­tion, thus a con­tin­u­ous dis­tance from its imme­di­ate fate. The progress of this strug­gle, sense of dis­tance and the devel­op­ment of the ide­o­log­i­cal con­tent that enables them com­prise an expe­ri­ence across which the class con­sti­tutes itself.

To para­phrase Marx again, one must avoid above all fix­ing the rela­tion of the pro­le­tariat to the indi­vid­ual as an abstrac­tion. One must search for how its social struc­ture emerges from the sit­u­a­tions of deter­mi­nate indi­vid­u­als because it is true, accord­ing to Marx, that in soci­ety it is the pro­le­tariat which rep­re­sents a for­tiori an emi­nently social force within the present his­tor­i­cal stage as the group which pro­duces col­lec­tive life.

The indi­ca­tions that we find in Marx of an ori­en­ta­tion toward the con­crete analy­sis of the social rela­tions con­sti­tu­tive of the work­ing class have not been devel­oped by the Marx­ist move­ment. The fun­da­men­tal ques­tions for us have not been directly broached – how do men, placed in the con­di­tions of indus­trial work, come to appro­pri­ate that work? how do they build links between spe­cific rela­tions amongst them­selves, and how do they per­ceive and fash­ion rela­tions with the rest of soci­ety? and, in a sin­gu­lar man­ner, how do they com­pose the shared expe­ri­ence which makes of them a his­tor­i­cal force? For the most part they have been left aside in favor of a more abstract con­cep­tion, the object of which is, for exam­ple, cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety (con­sid­ered in its gen­er­al­ity). The forces which com­prise it are placed on the same level. So it was for Lenin, for whom the pro­le­tariat was an entity whose his­tor­i­cal mean­ing had been estab­lished once and for all and which was, with some excep­tions, treated as an adver­sary by virtue of its exter­nal char­ac­ter­is­tics. An exces­sive inter­est was accorded to the study of “forces of pro­duc­tion,” which were con­flated with class strug­gle itself, as if the essen­tial prob­lem were to mea­sure the pres­sure that one mass exerted on an oppos­ing mass. For us, this does not at all mean that we reject the objec­tive analy­sis of the struc­ture and insti­tu­tions of the social total­ity, nor do we imag­ine, for exam­ple, that the only true knowl­edge that can be given has to be elab­o­rated by the pro­le­tar­i­ans them­selves as a func­tion of their root­ed­ness in the class. This “work­erist” the­ory of knowl­edge which, it must be said in pass­ing, reduces the work of Marx to noth­ing, must be rejected for two rea­sons: first, because all knowl­edge claims objec­tiv­ity (even as it may be con­scious of being socially and psy­cho­log­i­cally con­di­tioned); sec­ond, because the aspi­ra­tion to prac­ti­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal uni­ver­sal­ity belongs to the very nature of the pro­le­tariat, which would iden­tify itself with soci­ety as a whole. But the fact remains that objec­tive analy­sis, even car­ried out with the great­est rigor, as it was done in Marx’s Cap­i­tal, remains incom­plete because it is con­strained to be only inter­ested in the results of social life or in the fixed forms into which it is inte­grated (for exam­ple tech­ni­cal devel­op­ment or the con­cen­tra­tion of cap­i­tal) and to ignore the human expe­ri­ence that cor­re­sponds to more or less exter­nal mate­r­ial processes (for exam­ple, the rela­tions of men to their work in the steam age or the age of elec­tric­ity, in the age of com­pet­i­tive cap­i­tal­ism and in that of state monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism). In a sense there is no way to sep­a­rate mate­r­ial forms and human expe­ri­ence because the for­mer is deter­mined by the con­di­tions in which they are made, and these con­di­tions, which are the result of social evo­lu­tion, are the work of human beings. But from a prac­ti­cal view­point, objec­tive analy­sis is sub­or­di­nated to con­crete analy­sis because it is not con­di­tions that are rev­o­lu­tion­ary, but human beings, and the ulti­mate ques­tion is how to know about the ways that human beings appro­pri­ate and trans­form their situation.

The urgency of and inter­est in con­crete analy­sis comes from another direc­tion as well. Hold­ing close to Marx, we have under­lined the role of pro­duc­ers in the social lives of work­ers. It must be said, how­ever, that the same could be said in a gen­eral way of any class that has played any role in the his­tory of work. But the role of the pro­le­tariat in pro­duc­tion is unlike that of any other class from the past. Its role is spe­cific to mod­ern indus­trial soci­ety and can only be indi­rectly com­pared with other social forms which have pre­ceded it. The idea fash­ion­able today amongst many soci­ol­o­gists, for exam­ple, that the most archaic forms of prim­i­tive soci­eties are closer to feu­dal Europe of the Mid­dle Ages than the lat­ter is to the cap­i­tal­ism to which it gave way, does not pay ade­quate atten­tion to the role of classes and their rela­tions. There is a dou­ble rela­tion in any soci­ety, one amongst men and another between men and the objects they trans­form, but with indus­trial soci­ety the sec­ond rela­tion took on a new sig­nif­i­cance. Now there is a sphere of indus­trial pro­duc­tion gov­erned by laws that are to a cer­tain extent autonomous. Of course they are sit­u­ated in a total social sphere because the rela­tions between classes are con­sti­tuted through the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, but not strictly so because the tech­ni­cal devel­op­ments and processes of ratio­nal­iza­tion which have been char­ac­ter­is­tic of cap­i­tal­ism since its ori­gins have had impacts that go beyond class strug­gle. To take a banal exam­ple, the indus­trial usage of steam or elec­tric­ity entail a series of con­se­quences – on the divi­sion of labor, on the dis­tri­b­u­tion of firms – that are rel­a­tively inde­pen­dent of the gen­eral form of social rela­tions. Of course, ratio­nal­iza­tion and tech­ni­cal devel­op­ment are not real­i­ties in them­selves: there is so lit­tle to them that they can be inter­preted as defenses erected by cap­i­tal­ists whose prof­its are con­tin­u­ously threat­ened by pro­le­tar­ian resis­tance of exploita­tion. Nonethe­less, even if the moti­va­tions of Cap­i­tal are suf­fi­cient to explain these ori­gins, they still can­not account for the con­tent of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment. The deeper expla­na­tion for the appar­ent auton­omy in the logic of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment is that it is not the work of cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment alone: it is also an expres­sion of pro­le­tar­ian work. The action of the pro­le­tariat, in fact, does not only take the form of a resis­tance (forc­ing employ­ers to con­stantly improve their meth­ods of oper­a­tion), but also of con­tin­u­ous assim­i­la­tion of progress, and even more, active col­lab­o­ra­tion in it. It is because work­ers are able to adapt to the rhythm and form of con­tin­u­ous evo­lu­tion that this evo­lu­tion has been able to occur. More basi­cally, because work­ers carry within them­selves responses to the myr­iad prob­lems posed within pro­duc­tion in its detail they make pos­si­ble the appear­ance of the sys­tem­atic response that one calls tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion. Explicit ratio­nal­iza­tion is the gath­er­ing, inter­pre­ta­tion, and inte­gra­tion from a class per­spec­tive of the mul­ti­ple, dis­persed, frag­mented, and anony­mous inno­va­tions of men engaged in the con­crete processes of production.

From our view­point, this last remark is fun­da­men­tal because it places the empha­sis on expe­ri­ence that unfolds at the point of pro­duc­tion and on the per­cep­tions of work­ers. This does not entail a sep­a­ra­tion of this par­tic­u­lar social rela­tion from those of the global soci­ety that shape it, but rather recog­ni­tion of its speci­ficity. In other words, if we say that indus­trial struc­ture deter­mines social struc­ture, which is the means by which it acquires per­ma­nence, so that any soci­ety – regard­less of the class char­ac­ter­is­tics – mod­els itself on cer­tain of its char­ac­ter­is­tics, then we must under­stand the sit­u­a­tion into which it places those who are inte­grated out of neces­sity – that is, the sit­u­a­tion of the proletariat.

So what is a con­crete analy­sis of the pro­le­tariat? We will try to define it by enu­mer­at­ing some pos­si­bil­i­ties and deter­min­ing their respec­tive interests.

The first approach would be to describe the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion in which the class finds itself and the influ­ences that sit­u­a­tion has on its struc­ture. At the limit, it would require a total social and eco­nomic analy­sis. In a more restricted sense, we would want to talk about work­ing con­di­tions and those of the lives of work­ers, the mod­i­fi­ca­tions that have accom­pa­nied its con­cen­tra­tion and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, changes in meth­ods of exploita­tion (inten­sity of work, length of the work day, wages and labor mar­kets and so forth). This is the most objec­tive approach in that it is focused on the appar­ent (but nonethe­less essen­tial) class char­ac­ter­is­tics. Any social group can be stud­ied in this way, and any­one can devote a study to it inde­pen­dently of any rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mit­ments what­so­ever.12 There is noth­ing specif­i­cally pro­le­tar­ian about such work, even as one can say that it is or would be inspired by polit­i­cal forms opposed to the inter­ests of the exploit­ing class.

A sec­ond approach, the inverse of the first, would typ­i­cally be labeled more sub­jec­tive. It would focus on all expres­sions of pro­le­tar­ian con­scious­ness, or on what one ordi­nar­ily refers to as ide­ol­ogy. For exam­ple, prim­i­tive Marx­ism, anar­chism, reformism, Bol­she­vism, and Stal­in­ism rep­re­sent stages in the devel­op­ment of pro­le­tar­ian con­scious­ness. It is impor­tant to under­stand the mean­ing of their suc­ces­sion, to under­stand why large num­bers of work­ers have ral­lied around them at dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal stages and why these forms con­tinue to sig­nify in the present con­text. In other words, it is impor­tant to under­stand what the pro­le­tariat is try­ing to say by way of these inter­me­di­aries. While we make no claim for its orig­i­nal­ity – many exam­ples can be found in Marx­ist lit­er­a­ture (in Lenin’s cri­tiques of anar­chism or reformism, for exam­ple) – this type of analy­sis could be taken quite far: the con­tem­po­rary decline enables an appre­ci­a­tion of the trans­for­ma­tions of doc­trines despite the super­fi­cial appear­ances of con­ti­nu­ities (that of Stal­in­ism from 1928-1952 or that of reformism over the past cen­tury). How­ever, what­ever its inter­est, this approach remains abstract and incom­plete. It remains exter­nal, using infor­ma­tion that can be gath­ered through pub­li­ca­tions (the pro­grams and larger state­ments of the move­ment in which one might be inter­ested) that do not nec­es­sar­ily impose a pro­le­tar­ian view­point. And it allows what is arguably most fun­da­men­tal about worker expe­ri­ence to escape. It is only con­cerned with explicit expe­ri­ence, in what is expressed and put into the form of pro­grams or arti­cles with­out being pre­oc­cu­pied with whether or how these ideas reflect the thoughts and inten­tions of the work­ers in whose name they speak. While there is always a gap that sep­a­rates what is expe­ri­enced from what is elab­o­rated, it acquires a par­tic­u­lar ampli­fi­ca­tion in the case of the pro­le­tariat. This ampli­fi­ca­tion fol­lows from the fact that the work­ing class is not only dom­i­nated, but is also alien­ated, totally excluded from eco­nomic power and by virtue of that excluded from being able to rep­re­sent any sta­tus at all. This does not mean that ide­olo­gies have no rela­tion to the class expe­ri­ence of work­ing peo­ple, but the trans­for­ma­tion into a sys­tem of thought pre­sup­poses a break with and antic­i­pa­tion of that expe­ri­ence which allows non-proletarian fac­tors to exer­cise their influ­ence and make the rela­tion indi­rect. Here we encounter once again the basic dif­fer­ence between the pro­le­tariat and bour­geoisie noted ear­lier. For the lat­ter, the the­ory of lib­er­al­ism of a given period is a sim­ple ide­al­iza­tion and/or ratio­nal­iza­tion of its inter­ests: the pro­grams of its polit­i­cal par­ties express the sta­tus of cer­tain strata of their orga­ni­za­tions. For the pro­le­tariat, Bol­she­vism, although to some extent a ratio­nal­iza­tion of the worker’s con­di­tion, was also an inter­pre­ta­tion of it elab­o­rated by a frac­tion of the worker avant-garde13 asso­ci­ated with an intel­li­gentsia that was rel­a­tively sep­a­rated from the class. In other words, there are two rea­sons for the defor­ma­tion of worker expres­sion: that it is the work of a minor­ity exter­nal to the real life of the work­ing class or which is con­strained to adopt a rela­tion of exte­ri­or­ity to it; and that it is utopian, not in a pejo­ra­tive sense, but in the sense that it is a project that would estab­lish a sit­u­a­tion all the premises of which are not given in the present. Of course, the var­i­ous ide­olo­gies of the work­ers’ move­ment rep­re­sent cer­tain kinds of rela­tions to work­ers, which the work­ers rec­og­nize as their own, but only rep­re­sent them in a deriv­a­tive form.

A third approach would be more specif­i­cally his­tor­i­cal. It would con­sist in research into a con­ti­nu­ity link­ing the great man­i­fes­ta­tions of the work­ers’ move­ment since it came into being, to demon­strate that rev­o­lu­tions and, more gen­er­ally, diverse forms of worker resis­tance and orga­ni­za­tion (asso­ci­a­tions, unions, polit­i­cal par­ties, com­mit­tees formed dur­ing strikes or in the con­text of par­tic­u­lar con­flicts) are part of a pro­gres­sive expe­ri­ence and to show how this expe­ri­ence is linked to the evo­lu­tion of eco­nomic and polit­i­cal forms within cap­i­tal­ist society.

Finally there is a fourth approach, one that we see as the most con­crete. Rather than exam­in­ing the sit­u­a­tion of the pro­le­tariat from the out­side, this approach seeks to recon­struct the proletariat’s rela­tions to its work and to soci­ety from the inside and show how its capac­i­ties for inven­tion and power of orga­ni­za­tion man­i­fest in every­day life.

Prior to any explicit reflec­tion, to any inter­pre­ta­tion of their lot or their role, work­ers have spon­ta­neous com­port­ments with respect to indus­trial work, exploita­tion, the orga­ni­za­tion of pro­duc­tion, and social life both inside and out­side the fac­tory. By any account, this is the com­port­ment that most com­pletely man­i­fests in their per­son­al­i­ties. At this level, the dis­tinc­tion between sub­jec­tive and objec­tive loses its mean­ing: this com­port­ment includes ide­olo­gies which it con­sti­tutes with a cer­tain degree of ratio­nal­iza­tion, just as it pre­sup­poses eco­nomic con­di­tions. This com­port­ment per­forms their ongo­ing inte­gra­tion and elaboration.

As we have said, such an approach has yet to be really explored. No doubt there are valu­able lessons in the analy­sis of the 19th cen­tury Eng­lish work­ing class from Cap­i­tal; how­ever, to the extent that Marx’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion was to describe the work­ing con­di­tions and lives of work­ers, he oper­ated within the first approach out­lined ear­lier. Since Marx, there are only “lit­er­ary” doc­u­ments attempt­ing to describe the worker per­son­al­ity. Over the past few years and pri­mar­ily from the United States, a “worker” soci­ol­ogy has appeared that claims to do con­crete analy­ses of social rela­tions within pro­duc­tion and to iso­late their prac­ti­cal inten­tions. This soci­ol­ogy is the work of man­age­ment. “Enlight­ened” cap­i­tal­ists dis­cov­ered that mate­r­ial ratio­nal­iza­tion had its lim­its, that human-objects had spe­cific reac­tions one had to account for if one wanted to get the most out of them – that is, to get them to sub­mit to the most effi­cient forms of exploita­tion. This admirable dis­cov­ery pressed into ser­vice a Tay­lorized form of human­ism and made lots of money both for pseudo-psychoanalysts, who were called upon to lib­er­ate work­ers from their resent­ment as a harm­ful obsta­cle to pro­duc­tiv­ity, and for pseudo-sociologists, who car­ried out stud­ies of worker atti­tudes toward their work and their com­rades in order to help imple­ment the newest notions of social adap­ta­tion. The mis­for­tune of this soci­ol­ogy is that it can­not get to the pro­le­tar­ian per­son­al­ity by def­i­n­i­tion and is con­demned to remain out­side by virtue of its class per­spec­tive, see­ing noth­ing but the per­son­al­ity of the pro­duc­ing worker, a sim­ple exe­cu­tant irre­ducibly linked to the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem of exploita­tion. The con­cepts used in these analy­ses, like social adap­ta­tion, have for work­ers a mean­ing oppo­site to that of the researchers (for the lat­ter, there can only be adap­ta­tion to exist­ing con­di­tions: for work­ers, adap­ta­tion implies a lack of adap­ta­tion for exploita­tion). The results gen­er­ated are worth­less. This fail­ure shows the pre­sup­po­si­tions that would shape a real con­crete analy­sis of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence. It is fun­da­men­tal that the work be rec­og­nized by work­ers as a moment of their own expe­ri­ence, an oppor­tu­nity to for­mal­ize, con­dense and con­front types of knowl­edge usu­ally implicit, more “felt” than thought, and frag­men­tary. The dis­tance that sep­a­rates a soci­ol­ogy shaped by rev­o­lu­tion­ary aspi­ra­tions from the indus­trial soci­ol­ogy we have referred to is that which sep­a­rates the work of time-motion men from the col­lec­tive deter­mi­na­tion of pro­duc­tion norms in the con­text of worker man­age­ment. To the work­ers, an indus­trial soci­ol­o­gist looks like a time-motion man try­ing to mea­sure his “psy­cho­log­i­cal dura­tions” and the coop­er­a­tive dimen­sions of his social adap­ta­tion. In con­trast, what we are propos­ing pre­sup­poses that the work­ers are engaged in a pro­gres­sive expe­ri­ence that would tend to explode the frame­work of exploita­tion itself. The work would only be mean­ing­ful for those who par­tic­i­pate in that expe­ri­ence them­selves. Chief amongst those peo­ple are the workers.

In this respect, the rad­i­cal orig­i­nal­ity of the pro­le­tariat emerges once again. This class can only be known by itself, on the con­di­tion that whomever inquires about it acknowl­edges the value of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence, ori­ents him­self through their sit­u­a­tion and makes his own their social and his­tor­i­cal class hori­zons, and on the con­di­tion that he breaks with the imme­di­ately given, that is, with the frame­work of exploita­tion. This sort of work could go quite oth­er­wise with any other social group. Amer­i­can researchers have stud­ied with con­sid­er­able suc­cess the Mid­west petite bour­geoisie as if they were study­ing the Papou on the island of Alor. What­ever com­plex­i­ties were encoun­tered (we are still dis­cussing the rela­tion of an observer to what is being stud­ied) along with the neces­sity for the ana­lyst to go beyond the sim­ple analy­sis of insti­tu­tions in order to con­sti­tute some­thing of the mean­ings they have for con­crete human beings, it is nonethe­less pos­si­ble to acquire a cer­tain under­stand­ing of the group being stud­ied with­out shar­ing their norms and accept­ing their val­ues. This is because the petit bour­geois, like the Papous, have an objec­tive social exis­tence which, for bet­ter or worse, tends to per­pet­u­ate itself in the same form, one which is solidly linked to con­di­tions in the present. As we have empha­sized through­out, the pro­le­tariat is only defined in appear­ance by its con­di­tion as the col­lec­tiv­ity of exe­cu­tants within cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion. Its actual social life is hid­den: it is at once sym­met­ri­cal with exist­ing con­di­tions and in stark con­tra­dic­tion to the sys­tem that deter­mines those con­di­tions (the sys­tem of cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion itself). This opens onto a role that is dif­fer­ent from that which con­tem­po­rary soci­ety imposes on it at every point.

The con­crete approach that we see as required by the very nature of the pro­le­tariat entails that we col­lect and inter­pret tes­ti­monies writ­ten by work­ers. By tes­ti­monies we mean espe­cially nar­ra­tives that recount indi­vid­ual lives, or, bet­ter, expe­ri­ences in con­tem­po­rary indus­try, made by the inter­ested par­ties that can pro­vide insights into their social lives. Let us indi­cate some of the ques­tions that we think are the most inter­est­ing that can be posed by read­ing these tes­ti­monies, ques­tions which have been shaped in sig­nif­i­cant mea­sure by doc­u­ments that already exist14:

We would like to know about a) the rela­tions of a worker to his work – his func­tion within the fac­tory, level of tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, and under­stand­ing of the pro­duc­tion process. For exam­ple, does he know where the piece comes from that he works on? His pro­fes­sional expe­ri­ence – has he worked in other fac­to­ries, in other branches of indus­trial pro­duc­tion, etc.? His inter­est in pro­duc­tion – what types of ini­tia­tive can he bring to his work, is he curi­ous about tech­ni­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments? Does he have a spon­ta­neous sense of the trans­for­ma­tions that could be brought to the struc­ture of pro­duc­tion and rhythms of work, to the con­text and con­di­tions that shape life in the fac­tory? Does he have in gen­eral a crit­i­cal atti­tude toward man­age­r­ial efforts at ratio­nal­iza­tion? How does he wel­come attempts at modernization?

b) Rela­tions with other work­ers and ele­ments from dif­fer­ent social strata within the enter­prise (dif­fer­ences in atti­tudes toward other work­ers, toward fore­men, man­agers, engi­neers and exec­u­tives), and under­stand­ing of the divi­sion of labor. What do hier­ar­chies of func­tion and wage rep­re­sent? Would he pre­fer to do some of his work at a machine and some in an office? How does he accom­mo­date his role as sim­ple exe­cu­tant? Does he under­stand the social struc­ture in the fac­tory as nec­es­sary or at least as some­thing that “goes with­out say­ing”? Are there ten­den­cies toward co-operation, com­pe­ti­tion or iso­la­tion? Pref­er­ence for work­ing as an indi­vid­ual or in a team? How are rela­tions amongst indi­vid­u­als divided up? Per­sonal rela­tions, the for­ma­tion of small groups and the basis on which they are estab­lished? How impor­tant are these small groups for indi­vid­u­als? If these are dif­fer­ent from social rela­tions that take shape in offices, how are these per­ceived and eval­u­ated? What impor­tance does he attribute to the social phys­iog­nomy of the fac­tory? Does he know about other fac­to­ries and how does he com­pare them? Does he have exact knowl­edge of the wage lev­els attached to other func­tions through­out the enter­prise? Does he com­pare pay stubs with other work­ers? Etc.

c) Life out­side the fac­tory and knowl­edge about what is hap­pen­ing in the wider social world. Impact of life inside the fac­tory on life out­side of it – how his work mate­ri­ally and psy­cho­log­i­cally influ­ences his per­sonal and fam­ily life, for exam­ple? Which milieu does he fre­quent out­side the fac­tory? To what extent are these pat­terns imposed on him by his work, or by the neigh­bor­hood in which he lives? What are the char­ac­ter­is­tics of his fam­ily life, rela­tions with his chil­dren and how he edu­cates them, his extra-professional activ­i­ties? How does he occupy his leisure time? Does he have predilec­tions for par­tic­u­lar types of dis­trac­tion? To what extent does he use mass media: books, news­pa­pers, radio, cin­ema? What are his atti­tudes about them? What are his tastes… not merely what news­pa­per does he read, but what does he read first? What inter­ests him (accounts of polit­i­cal or social events, tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments, bour­geois scan­dals)? Etc.

d) Links to prop­erly pro­le­tar­ian his­tory and tra­di­tions: knowl­edge of the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment and famil­iar­ity with it; par­tic­i­pa­tion in par­tic­u­lar social or polit­i­cal strug­gles and the mem­o­ries they have left with him; knowl­edge of work­ers in other coun­tries; atti­tudes toward the future inde­pen­dently of any par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal esti­ma­tion, etc.

What­ever the inter­est of these ques­tions, it is nonethe­less impor­tant to ask about the weight attrib­uted to indi­vid­ual tes­ti­monies. We know that we will be able to gather a rel­a­tively lim­ited num­ber of texts: on what basis can one gen­er­al­ize from them? A tes­ti­mony is by def­i­n­i­tion par­tic­u­lar: that of a 20- or 50-year-old worker who works in a small plant or large facil­ity, a devel­oped mil­i­tant, some­one with exten­sive trade-union and polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence, one with rigid opin­ions with­out ben­e­fit of any par­tic­u­lar train­ing or expe­ri­ence in par­tic­u­lar… with­out resort­ing to arti­fice, how can one dis­count these dif­fer­ences of sit­u­a­tion and derive from such dif­fer­ently moti­vated nar­ra­tives lessons of uni­ver­sal import? On this point, cri­tique is largely jus­ti­fied, and it seems clear that the results it would be pos­si­ble to obtain would nec­es­sar­ily be lim­ited. At the same time, it would be equally arti­fi­cial to deny all value to these texts. First, no mat­ter how sig­nif­i­cant the dif­fer­ences amongst them, all these texts are sit­u­ated within a sin­gle frame: the sit­u­a­tion of the pro­le­tariat. This allows us to see much more than the speci­ficity of a par­tic­u­lar life in the read­ing of these texts. Two work­ers in very dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions have in com­mon that both have endured one or another form of work and exploita­tion that is essen­tially the same and absorbs three-quarters of their per­sonal exis­tence. Their wages might be very dif­fer­ent, their liv­ing sit­u­a­tions and fam­ily lives may not be com­pa­ra­ble, but it remains the case that they are pro­foundly iden­ti­cal both in their roles as pro­duc­ers or machine oper­a­tors, and in their alien­ation. Every worker knows this: it is what enables that sense of famil­iar­ity and com­plic­ity (even when the indi­vid­u­als do not know each other) which is evi­dent at a glance for a bour­geois who finds him­self in a working-class neigh­bor­hood. It is not absurd to look amongst these par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics for those with a more gen­eral sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, given that they all have resem­blances which are suf­fi­cient to dis­tin­guish them from those of any other social group. To this it must be added that this approach to tes­ti­monies would be sus­cep­ti­ble to cri­tique if we were inter­ested in gath­er­ing and cor­re­lat­ing opin­ions because these would nec­es­sar­ily be of a great diver­sity – but as we have said, we are inter­ested in worker atti­tudes. These atti­tudes are some­times expressed in the form of opin­ions, and are often dis­fig­ured by them, but they are in every case deeper and more sim­ple. This would present a con­sid­er­able obsta­cle were we to try to use a lim­ited num­ber of texts to infer the pro­le­tar­ian view of the USSR or of wage hier­ar­chies in gen­eral. But it is a much sim­pler mat­ter to iso­late worker atti­tudes toward bureau­cracy spon­ta­neously devel­oped from inside the pro­duc­tion process. Finally, we should note that no other mode of knowl­edge would allow us to respond to the prob­lems we have posed. Even if we had avail­able the mate­ri­als required for a vast statistically-based inves­ti­ga­tion (the data for which would be gath­ered by numer­ous com­rades who would pose thou­sands of ques­tions to other work­ers in var­i­ous fac­to­ries, given that we have already excluded any inves­ti­ga­tion car­ried out by researchers from out­side the work­ing class), the results would be use­less, because results based on responses gath­ered from anony­mous respon­dents that could only be cor­re­lated numer­i­cally would be with­out inter­est. Only responses attrib­uted to con­crete indi­vid­u­als can be brought into rela­tion with each other; their con­ver­gences and diver­gences enable the iso­la­tion of mean­ing and invoke sys­tems of liv­ing and think­ing that can be inter­preted. For all these rea­sons, indi­vid­ual nar­ra­tives are invaluable.

This does not mean that we would use this approach to define what the pro­le­tariat is in its real­ity after hav­ing rejected all rep­re­sen­ta­tions that have been made of its sit­u­a­tion as per­ceived through the dis­tort­ing prism of bour­geois soci­ety or the polit­i­cal par­ties that pur­port to speak in its name. A worker tes­ti­mony, no mat­ter how evoca­tive, sym­bolic or spon­ta­neous it may be, remains con­di­tioned by the sit­u­a­tion of its author. We are not refer­ring here to the defor­ma­tions that can arise in the par­tic­u­lar inter­pre­ta­tions given by an author, but rather to those which tes­ti­mony nec­es­sar­ily imposes on the author. To tell a story is not to act within it. Telling a story even entails a break with action in ways that trans­form its mean­ing. For exam­ple, writ­ing an account of a strike is not the same as par­tic­i­pat­ing in that strike sim­ply because as a par­tic­i­pant, one does not yet know the out­come of one’s actions, and the dis­tance entailed by reflec­tion allows for judg­ments about that which, in real time, is not fixed as to mean­ing. In fact, there is in this case some­thing much more than a sep­a­ra­tion of opin­ion: there is a change of atti­tude, that is, a trans­for­ma­tion in the mode of react­ing to sit­u­a­tions in which one finds one­self. In addi­tion, a nar­ra­tive puts the indi­vid­ual in an unnat­u­rally iso­lated posi­tion. Work­ers typ­i­cally act out of sol­i­dar­ity with the other peo­ple who are caught up in the same sit­u­a­tion; with­out even talk­ing about open social strug­gles, there is the ongo­ing every­day strug­gle within the pro­duc­tion process to resist exploita­tion, a strug­gle hid­den but con­tin­u­ous and shared amongst com­rades. The atti­tudes most char­ac­ter­is­tic of a worker toward his work or toward other social strata are not found in him, as would be the case with the bour­geois or the bureau­crat who see their own actions deter­mined by their indi­vid­ual inter­ests. Rather, the worker shares in col­lec­tive responses. The cri­tique of a worker nar­ra­tive must make vis­i­ble within indi­vid­ual responses that aspect which leans on col­lec­tive com­port­ments; how­ever, in the final analy­sis, these reg­is­ters do not entirely over­lap in a nar­ra­tive, with the result that we can only derive an incom­plete knowl­edge from them. To fin­ish – and this cri­tique con­nects back to the first at a deeper level – the his­tor­i­cal con­text in which these nar­ra­tives are pub­lished must be clar­i­fied. There is no eter­nal pro­le­tariat that speaks, but a cer­tain type of worker who occu­pies a def­i­nite his­tor­i­cal posi­tion, sit­u­ated in a time char­ac­ter­ized by a sig­nif­i­cant retreat of worker forces all over the world as the strug­gle between two types of exploita­tive soci­ety lit­tle by lit­tle reduces to silence all other social man­i­fes­ta­tions, as a func­tion of its ten­dency to develop into both an overt con­flict and a bureau­cratic uni­fi­ca­tion of the world. The atti­tude of the pro­le­tariat (even the atti­tude that we are search­ing for which tran­scends to some extent this par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture) is not the same in a period in which the class works with an antic­i­pa­tion of eman­ci­pa­tion in the short term, on the one hand, and one in which it is con­demned to momen­tary con­tem­pla­tion of blocked hori­zons and to main­tain a his­tor­i­cal silence, on the other.

It is enough to say that the approach that we char­ac­ter­ize as con­crete remains abstract in many respects given that the three aspects of the pro­le­tariat (prac­ti­cal, col­lec­tive, his­tor­i­cal) only emerge indi­rectly and are thereby deformed. In fact, the con­crete pro­le­tariat is not an object of knowl­edge: it works, it strug­gles and it trans­forms itself. One can­not catch up with it at the level of the­ory, but only at the level of prac­tice by par­tic­i­pat­ing in its his­tory. But this last remark is abstract because it does not take into account the role of knowl­edge in his­tory itself, as a mode of inte­gra­tion along with work and strug­gle. It is a fact as man­i­fest as oth­ers that work­ers pose ques­tions about their con­di­tion and the pos­si­bil­i­ties for trans­form­ing it. One can only mul­ti­ply the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tives, which are nec­es­sar­ily abstract, even at moments of their con­ver­gence, and pos­tu­late that progress in the clar­i­fi­ca­tion of worker expe­ri­ence will advance that expe­ri­ence. So it is not by way of a stan­dard for­mula that we say that the four approaches we crit­i­cized in suc­ces­sion are in fact com­ple­men­tary. This is not to say that their results can be use­fully added together, but rather that their con­ver­gence across dif­fer­ent paths com­mu­ni­cates, in a more or less com­pre­hen­sive man­ner, the same real­ity that we have called pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence, for lack of a bet­ter term. For exam­ple, we think that the cri­tique of the evo­lu­tion of the work­ers’ move­ment, of its forms of orga­ni­za­tion and strug­gle, the cri­tique of ide­olo­gies, and the descrip­tion of worker atti­tudes nec­es­sar­ily all con­firm one another. Because the posi­tions that expressed them­selves in sys­tem­atic and ratio­nal ways in the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment and the orga­ni­za­tions and move­ments that have fol­lowed one another all coex­ist, in a sense, as the inter­pre­ta­tions and pos­si­ble accom­plish­ments of the pro­le­tariat today. Beneath (so to speak) the reformist, anar­chist, or Stal­in­ist move­ments, there is a pro­jec­tion amongst the work­ers, pro­ceed­ing directly from the rela­tion to pro­duc­tion, a pro­jec­tion con­cern­ing their fate which makes these elab­o­ra­tions pos­si­ble and con­tains them at the same time. There is a sim­i­lar rela­tion to forms of strug­gle that seem to be asso­ci­ated with phases of worker his­tory (1848, 1870 or 1917) but which express types of rela­tions between work­ers that con­tinue to exist and even to man­i­fest them­selves (in the form of a wild­cat strike with­out any orga­ni­za­tion, for exam­ple). This is not to say that the pro­le­tariat con­tains by its nature all the moments of its his­tory and all pos­si­ble ide­o­log­i­cal expres­sions of its con­di­tion. Fol­low­ing on what we have been say­ing, the mate­r­ial and the­o­ret­i­cal evo­lu­tion of the pro­le­tariat has led it to be as it is and the ways in which the past has come to be con­densed in its com­port­ment today have opened whole new fields of pos­si­bil­i­ties and reflec­tions. In ana­lyz­ing worker atti­tudes, what is essen­tial is not to lose sight of the fact that the knowl­edge obtained through it is lim­ited and that, more pro­foundly and com­pre­hen­sively than is the case with other forms of knowl­edge, while this does not under­mine its valid­ity, it must be con­nected back with the work­ers or risk becom­ing unintelligible.

Now that we have enu­mer­ated a series of ques­tions that con­crete analy­sis should enable us to answer or to pose bet­ter, we will turn to how con­crete analy­sis might reor­ga­nize and con­tribute to a deep­en­ing of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory, after first for­mu­lat­ing some reser­va­tions. The fol­low­ing seem to us the main prob­lems: (1) Under what form does the worker appro­pri­ate social life? (2) How does the worker inte­grate him­self into his class? That is, what are the rela­tions that unify peo­ple who share this con­di­tion and to what extent do these rela­tions con­sti­tute a delim­ited and sta­ble com­mu­nity in soci­ety? (3) What are his per­cep­tions of other social strata, his com­mu­ni­ca­tion with soci­ety glob­ally, his sen­si­tiv­ity to insti­tu­tions and to events that do not directly con­cern him or his every­day life? (4) In what ways does he sub­mit mate­ri­ally and ide­o­log­i­cally to the pres­sures brought by the dom­i­nant class and what are his ten­den­cies to escape from his own class? (5) Finally, what is his aware­ness of the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment? To what extent does he feel inte­grated with the past of the class and what are his capac­i­ties to act with a sense of class tradition?

How could these prob­lems be broached and what would be the inter­est in doing so? Take for exam­ple the appro­pri­a­tion of social life. The ini­tial approach would be to detail the skills and tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ties of the worker: there is no doubt about the need for infor­ma­tion that directly con­cerns his pro­fes­sional apti­tudes. But research should also be done into how tech­ni­cal curios­ity appears out­side of the work­place, in leisure activ­i­ties ( in all the forms of brico­lage, or in the inter­est accorded to sci­en­tific and tech­ni­cal pub­li­ca­tions, for exam­ple) and should clar­ify the under­stand­ings of tech­nol­ogy and the indus­trial orga­ni­za­tion of work that the worker has, as well as his aware­ness of every­thing that touches the admin­is­tra­tion of things more gen­er­ally. With­out los­ing inter­est in an eval­u­a­tion of the cul­tural level of the worker (in the nar­row sense that the bour­geoisie typ­i­cally gives the term – extent of lit­er­ary, sci­en­tific and artis­tic knowl­edge), one would describe the field of infor­ma­tion to which he is open: news­pa­pers, radio, cin­ema. At the same time, we would want to know whether the pro­le­tar­ian has a spe­cific way of envi­sion­ing events and out­comes and which inter­est him (whether he hears about them in the course of every­day life or reads about them in a news­pa­per, whether these are of a polit­i­cal order or, as the expres­sion goes, enter­tain­ments). The essen­tial would be to deter­mine whether there is a class men­tal­ité and how it dif­fers from a bour­geois mentalité.

We merely pro­vide some indi­ca­tions on this point: devel­op­ing them here would run us ahead of the tes­ti­monies them­selves, and these texts allow not only for an inter­pre­ta­tion but also the recon­sid­er­a­tion of the extent and order of the ques­tions involved in our approach to research. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary inter­est of such research is evi­dent. In short, this would be a way to know whether the pro­le­tariat has or has not sub­mit­ted to the cul­tural dom­i­na­tion of the bour­geoisie and whether its alien­ation has robbed it of an orig­i­nal per­spec­tive on soci­ety. The answer to this ques­tion could either enable one to con­clude that any rev­o­lu­tion is doomed to fail­ure because the over­throw of the State would only bring back a cul­tural hodge­podge of the pre­vi­ous soci­ety, or it could allow one to per­ceive the direc­tion in which a new cul­ture may develop in the scat­tered and often uncon­scious ele­ments that already exist.

Again, we must empha­size, against the all too pre­dictable accu­sa­tions of bad faith, that this inquiry into the social life of the pro­le­tariat will not study the class from the out­side and will not reveal its nature to those who do not know it. It is a response to a series of ques­tions posed explic­itly by the worker avant-garde and implic­itly by the work­ing class more gen­er­ally in a sit­u­a­tion where a series of rev­o­lu­tion­ary defeats and the dom­i­na­tion of a worker bureau­cracy have under­mined the con­fi­dence of the pro­le­tariat in its capac­i­ties for cre­ativ­ity and in its own eman­ci­pa­tion. Still dom­i­nated by the bour­geoisie on this point, work­ers do not believe that they have any knowl­edge of their own. They see them­selves as the pari­ahs of bour­geois culture.

In fact, their cre­ativ­ity is such that there is no need for it to show itself accord­ing to bour­geois norms; their cul­ture does not exist as an order sep­a­rated from their social lives, it does not take the form of the pro­duc­tion of ideas. Pro­le­tar­ian cul­ture exists as a cer­tain power in the orga­ni­za­tion of things and an adap­ta­tion to progress, as a cer­tain under­stand­ing of human rela­tions, a dis­po­si­tion toward social com­mu­nity. As indi­vid­u­als, work­ers have only a con­fused sense of this: because it is impos­si­ble for them to give their cul­ture objec­tive con­tent in a soci­ety based on exploita­tion, they have come to doubt it and to believe in the real­ity of bour­geois cul­ture alone.

Let’s take a sec­ond exam­ple: how to describe the inte­gra­tion of the pro­le­tar­ian into the class? In this case, the ques­tion is know­ing how, within the fac­tory, the worker per­ceives those who share his work, as well as the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of all other social strata; of know­ing the nature and mean­ing of the rela­tions he has with his cowork­ers; whether he has dif­fer­ent atti­tudes toward work­ers of dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sional grades (Pro­fes­sional, O.S., or semi-skilled, and manoeu­vre, or unskilled); whether these rela­tions of cama­raderie extend beyond the fac­tory; whether he tends to seek out work that require coop­er­a­tion. If he has always worked in a fac­tory, in what sit­u­a­tion he began to do so; whether he has con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity of doing some­thing dif­fer­ent or whether the chance has ever pre­sented itself to change trades? It would be good to know whether he fre­quents milieus that are not working-class and what he thinks of them, in par­tic­u­lar whether he has inter­ac­tions with the peas­ant milieu and how he eval­u­ates it. It would be nec­es­sary to jux­ta­pose this infor­ma­tion with responses con­cern­ing quite dif­fer­ent top­ics. For exam­ple, one might use the famil­iar­ity of the indi­vid­ual with the tra­di­tions of the work­ers’ move­ment, the acu­ity of mem­o­ries asso­ci­ated with episodes of social strug­gle, the inter­est that he takes in this strug­gle inde­pen­dently of the judg­ment he might make of it (a con­dem­na­tion of a strug­gle inspired by rev­o­lu­tion­ary pes­simism and an enthu­si­as­tic nar­ra­tive of the events of 1936 of 1944 can often be found together). Or one might locate a ten­dency to the his­tory and, more par­tic­u­larly, the future of the pro­le­tariat, not­ing his reac­tions to for­eign pro­le­tar­i­ans, par­tic­u­larly to a rel­a­tively well-off pro­le­tariat like that in the United States. In other words, look for every­thing in the worker’s per­sonal life that might show the effects and sense of belong­ing to the work­ing class and also attempts at escape from from the con­di­tion of being a worker (atti­tudes about chil­dren, the edu­ca­tion they receive and projects ori­ented toward the future are par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant in this respect.)

From a rev­o­lu­tion­ary view­point, this kind of infor­ma­tion would have the inter­est of show­ing the man­ner in which a worker is joined with the class and whether his belong­ing to his group is or is not dif­fer­ent from that of a petit-bourgeois or a bour­geois to his group. Does the worker link his fate to all lev­els of his social exis­tence and, con­sciously or not, to that of his class? Can one con­firm con­cretely clas­sic, but too-often abstract, phrases class con­scious­ness or class atti­tude, and the idea from Marx that, unlike the bour­geois, the pro­le­tar­ian is not only a mem­ber of his class, but an indi­vid­ual within a com­mu­nity and con­scious of only being able to go beyond that by act­ing collectively?

Social­isme ou Bar­barie would like to solicit tes­ti­monies from work­ers and pub­lish them at the same time as it accords an impor­tant place to all forms of analy­sis con­cern­ing pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence. In this issue the reader will find the begin­ning of such a tes­ti­mony, one that leaves aside sev­eral of the points we have out­lined.15 Other such texts could broach these points in ways that go beyond those envi­sioned in this issue. In fact, it is impos­si­ble to impose an exact frame­work. If we have seemed to do so in the course of our expla­na­tions, and if we have pro­duced noth­ing but a ques­tion­naire, then this work would not be valu­able: a ques­tion imposed from the out­side might be an irri­tant for the sub­ject being ques­tioned, shap­ing an arti­fi­cial response or, in any case, imprint­ing upon it a char­ac­ter that it would not oth­er­wise have had. Our research direc­tions would be brought to bear even on nar­ra­tives that we pro­voke: we must be atten­tive to all forms of expres­sion that might advance con­crete analy­sis. As for the rest, the prob­lem is not the form taken by a doc­u­ment, but its inter­pre­ta­tion. Who will work out the rela­tion­ships under­stood as sig­nif­i­cant between such and such responses? Who will reveal from beneath the explicit con­tent of a doc­u­ment the inten­tions and atti­tudes that inspired it, and jux­ta­pose the tes­ti­monies? The com­rades of Social­isme ou Bar­barie? But would this not run counter to their inten­tions, given that they pro­pose a kind of research that would enable work­ers to reflect upon their expe­ri­ence? This prob­lem can­not be resolved arti­fi­cially, par­tic­u­larly not at this first step in the work. In any case, the inter­pre­ta­tion, from wher­ever it comes, will remain con­tem­po­rary with the text being inter­preted. It can only impress if it is judged to be accu­rate by the reader, some­one who is able to find another mean­ing in the mate­ri­als we sub­mit to him. We hope it will be pos­si­ble to con­nect the authors with texts in a col­lec­tive cri­tique of the doc­u­ments. For the moment, our goal is to gather these mate­ri­als: in this, we count on the active sup­port of those sym­pa­thetic with this journal.

—Trans­lated by Stephen Hastings-King

  • 1. Translator’s Note: This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 11, dated July, 1952. It was reprinted in the col­lec­tion Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie (Paris: Droz, 1971). A scan of the orig­i­nal can be con­sulted at the Pro­jet de scan­ner­i­sa­tion de la revue Social­isme ou Bar­barie. In com­pos­ing this text, Lefort used L’oeuvre com­pletes de Karl Marx pub­lished in Paris by Alfred Costes between 1948 and 1953. For rea­sons of con­sis­tency in ter­mi­nol­ogy and tone, I have trans­lated quo­ta­tions directly from the French and left the orig­i­nal pag­i­na­tion. Social­isme ou Bar­barie oper­ated in Paris from 1948-1966. This essay is part of the turn to the soci­o­log­i­cally ori­ented approach to the work­ing class fun­da­men­tal for the group’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary project, in par­tic­u­lar from 1953 through 1957. My thanks to Kelly Grotke.
  • 2. Marx, La mis­ère de la philoso­phie, Costes ed, 135.
  • 3. Translator’s Note: I retain the phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal term “com­port­ment” through­out this piece. The term refers to the struc­ture of behav­iors or atti­tudes toward an envi­ron­ment or sit­u­a­tion. It is sym­met­ri­cal with the empha­sis on over­all his­tor­i­cal direc­tion that one encoun­ters in this essay as well.
  • 4. Translator’s Note: I left this in French. It is asso­ci­ated with the Annales School of French his­tory. There is no good Eng­lish equiv­a­lent: I have seen “cog­ni­tive tool­box” used. The term “world­view” used in trans­la­tions of Wil­helm Dilthey’s hermeneu­tics is log­i­cally closer, even as the social-history ori­ented method­olo­gies pio­neered by the Annales School made of men­tal­ité a quite dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory that refers to a more mate­r­ial ori­en­ta­tion toward a historically-specific world.
  • 5. Idéolo­gie alle­mande, 242.
  • 6. Cf. The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo.
  • 7. Economie poli­tique et Philoso­phie, 34.
  • 8. Idéolo­gie alle­mande, 223.
  • 9. Ibid., 229
  • 10. Ibid„ p. 229.
  • 11. Ibid., p. 230.
  • 12. I am think­ing of the work by Georges Duveau, La vie ouvrière sous le Sec­ond Empire (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 1946).
  • 13. Trans­la­tor Note: The worker avant-garde is the cen­ter of Social­isme ou Barbarie’s con­struc­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory. I kept the term “avant-garde” in favor of “van­guard” – an alter­nate pos­si­bil­ity for ren­der­ing the term in Eng­lish – in order to avoid con­fu­sion with Lenin’s Van­guard Party.
  • 14. Paul Romano, “The Amer­i­can Worker,” trans­lated in Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 1, and Eric Albert, “Témoignage” in Les Temps Mod­ernes, juil­let 1952.
  • 15. G. Vivier, “La vie en usine” in Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 11.

On Claude Lefort’s “Proletarian Experience”

An article by Stephen Hastings-King about Social­isme ou Barbarie's worker accounts.

The schema that ordered Social­isme ou Barbarie’s con­cep­tion of rev­o­lu­tion relied upon the close exam­i­na­tion of working-class expe­ri­ence.1 This put the group in little-explored ter­ri­tory. Even though tra­di­tional Marx­ism placed the pro­le­tariat at the con­cep­tual and polit­i­cal cen­ter of its con­cerns, its treat­ment of the work­ing class as the embod­ied expres­sion of abstract eco­nomic forces fore­closed close analy­sis of con­crete rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. It also evac­u­ated ques­tions of how the pro­le­tariat could act as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary agent by con­ceiv­ing of rev­o­lu­tion as a quasi-automatic result of con­tra­dic­tions that played out at the level of “objec­tive forces.”2 French “human sci­ences” had not yet begun pro­duc­ing researchers who took the French work­ing class as a legit­i­mate object of study. Through the 1950s, anthro­pol­ogy was dom­i­nated on the one hand by research on the “exotic,” and on the other by the con­flict between struc­tural anthro­pol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy over which dis­ci­pline “owned” epis­te­mol­ogy.3 Soci­ol­ogy, for the most part, oper­ated in a zone of inquiry that hov­ered between pol­i­tics and the uni­ver­sity. While stu­dents of Georges Fried­man, like Alain Touraine, pro­duced stud­ies of the French work­ing class in modes quite dis­tinct from American-style indus­trial soci­ol­ogy, it was only with the fail­ure of the work­ers to oppose the Gaullist Fifth Repub­lic in 1958 that the aca­d­e­mic discipline—represented notably by Touraine, Serge Mal­let and Michel Crozier—concerned itself with the “fate” of the French work­ing class.4 Only indus­trial rela­tions and indus­trial soci­ol­ogy took the prob­lem of shop-floor expe­ri­ence seri­ously. How­ever, the field was dom­i­nated by Amer­i­can researchers who, in the main, viewed indus­trial con­flict as the social expres­sion of psy­cho­log­i­cal deviance. This epis­te­mo­log­i­cal posi­tion was the direct recod­ing of the polit­i­cal world­view par­tic­u­lar to the Cap­i­tal­ists who employed them.5

Even Marx’s early writ­ings offered lit­tle in the way of a his­tor­i­cally spe­cific approach to working-class expe­ri­ence. Lefort argues that this fol­lows from the dou­ble image of the pro­le­tariat in Marx. The pro­le­tariat is a cre­ation of cap­i­tal­ism, posi­tioned at the lead­ing edge of tech­no­log­i­cal and orga­ni­za­tional devel­op­ment. It oper­ates simul­ta­ne­ously inside the dom­i­nant bour­geois ratio­nal­ity by virtue of its social­iza­tion and out­side by virtue of the expe­ri­ence of the real­ity of exploita­tion that the dom­i­nant ratio­nal­ity legit­i­mates and con­ceals at once. This unique sit­u­a­tion is what enables the pro­le­tariat to develop a ratio­nal­ity that goes beyond that of the bour­geoisie, and to become the his­tor­i­cal agent that brings about social­ism. This posi­tion is jux­ta­posed with another in which ruth­less exploita­tion and whole­sale alien­ation have reduced work­ers to a less-than-human sta­tus. Lefort argues that this sec­ond image is sym­met­ri­cal with a notion of rev­o­lu­tion as explo­sion, and of a social­ism that requires no inter­nal artic­u­la­tions at the level of the­ory because it would sim­ply replace cap­i­tal­ism “as a neg­a­tive to a pos­i­tive.”6 This is the image of the pro­le­tariat that came to be dom­i­nant in Marx.7

Work­ing against this pre­dom­i­nance, Lefort takes up a ver­sion of the first but posi­tions it in the spe­cific con­text of post-1945 cap­i­tal­ism. His approach is con­di­tioned by the assump­tion that alien­ation is a ten­dency rather than an accom­plish­ment. This assump­tion is rooted in Social­isme ou Barbarie’s view of the basic con­tra­dic­tion of bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism, accord­ing to which cap­i­tal­ist man­age­r­ial ide­ol­ogy and prac­tice tends to exclude work­ers from cre­ative inter­ac­tion with their work while, at the same time, that cre­ative inter­ac­tion is con­tin­u­ally required in order to solve the myr­iad prob­lems that arise in the course of pro­duc­tion. If work­ers were com­pletely alien­ated, not only would rev­o­lu­tion­ary action be impos­si­ble, but cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion itself would grind to a halt.8 Implicit in the use of the con­cept of bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism is the more basic claim that modal­i­ties of exploita­tion, con­flict, and cre­ativ­ity are vari­able and his­tor­i­cally spe­cific. The sit­u­a­tion in bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ist enter­prises is dif­fer­ent from that of enter­prises in ear­lier peri­ods and expe­ri­ence at the point of pro­duc­tion is par­tic­u­lar not only to this type of orga­ni­za­tion, but also to the spe­cific sit­u­a­tion of the work­ers’ move­ment.9 Even if there were a fully artic­u­lated approach to this reg­is­ter of working-class expe­ri­ence in the early Marx, it could serve only as a tem­plate. The prob­lems of analy­sis would still have to be posed again.

“Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence” empha­sizes the rad­i­cal cre­ativ­ity of the work­ing class and the his­tor­i­cally con­tin­gent char­ac­ter of that cre­ativ­ity. Fol­low­ing in part from his posi­tion on rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion, Lefort argues that only work­ers can know and write about their expe­ri­ence: rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory must be con­fined to ana­lyz­ing and inter­pret­ing what they write.10 Using Paul Romano’s “The Amer­i­can Worker” and Eric Albert’s “Témoinage: La vie en usine” as points of depar­ture, Lefort out­lines a pro­gram for the inves­ti­ga­tion of “the pro­le­tar­ian stand­point” that would iso­late and describe the sig­ni­fi­ca­tions that struc­ture pro­le­tar­ian com­port­ment. These analy­ses would be sup­ple­mented with crit­i­cal accounts of autonomous worker actions which would func­tion as state­ments of polit­i­cal hori­zon, and as broadly syn­thetic analy­ses of con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism. Lefort also imag­ines the col­lec­tion of these nar­ra­tives as the basis for a wide-ranging working-class soci­ol­ogy “from the inside” that would include all aspects of worker inter­ac­tion with the dom­i­nant cul­ture and be cen­tered on the ques­tion of whether there was a spe­cific “men­tal­ité ouvrier” and what it might look like. Worker nar­ra­tives would be part of an ongo­ing dia­logue between the group and the worker avant-garde that was to be the cen­ter of Social­isme ou Barbarie’s activ­ity as Lefort envi­sioned it. But it never became the model for the group or as the jour­nal because, despite the solic­i­ta­tion for writ­ings which fre­quently appeared in Social­isme ou Bar­barie (as well as in related projects like Tri­bune Ouvrière), work­ers sim­ply did not write.

Lefort’s empha­sis on second-order descrip­tions and inter­pre­ta­tion fol­lows from his posi­tion elab­o­rated in recur­rent debates within Social­isme ou Bar­barie on “the orga­ni­za­tion ques­tion.” A point of con­sen­sus within the group was the vision of rev­o­lu­tion as the cul­mi­na­tion of a process whereby the work­ing class, act­ing autonomously, would con­sciously assume the direc­tion of pro­duc­tion and, by exten­sion, of soci­ety. Posi­tion­ing them­selves broadly within in the tra­di­tion of the gen­eral strike, mem­bers of SB empha­sized the con­tent of social­ism rather than the modal­i­ties of tran­si­tion. With this, the group put aside the more mil­i­ta­rized con­cep­tions of rev­o­lu­tion that emerged within the Marx­ian tra­di­tion in response to the vio­lent sup­pres­sion of the Paris Com­mune, which served as the log­i­cal basis for Lenin­ism. The move was in sig­nif­i­cant mea­sure a result of the group’s shared pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the his­tor­i­cal fate of Lenin­ism. There was lit­tle dis­agree­ment over the basic analy­sis. The Van­guard Party was a mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tion that, in its divi­sion between Party and Masses, reca­pit­u­lated the divi­sion of intel­lec­tual labor char­ac­ter­is­tic of bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism in gen­eral which sep­a­rated dirigeant from exé­cu­tant, think­ing from doing, those who con­cep­tu­al­ize from those who carry out orders. It was this, and not ques­tions of own­er­ship, that shaped the out­comes of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment. The con­se­quences were appar­ent in the tra­jec­tory taken by the USSR.11

While there was agree­ment about the cri­tique of Lenin­ism, Social­isme ou Bar­barie was not of one mind about how best to avoid rep­e­ti­tion of the prob­lem of the Van­guard Party in their own activ­i­ties. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis argued that the group should be an orga­ni­za­tion that gen­er­ates rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory aimed at empow­er­ing the worker avant-garde and not be wor­ried about appear­ing to reca­pit­u­late the Lenin­ist split between the­o­rists (those who think) and masses (those who fol­low instruc­tions). The­ory devel­oped in a dia­logue with the worker avant-garde: it rep­re­sented a com­ple­men­tary, but not sep­a­rate, form of activ­ity. Social rela­tions within the orga­ni­za­tion could be seen as a kind of lab­o­ra­tory for rev­o­lu­tion­ary socia­bil­ity unfold­ing in its own, par­tic­u­lar reg­is­ter. For Lefort, the prob­lem of bureau­cra­ti­za­tion was para­mount. Not only was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion in itself a prob­lem, but the­o­ret­i­cal pro­duc­tion had to avoid falling into the trap of telling the work­ers what they were “really doing.” For Cas­to­ri­adis, this would make polit­i­cal work impos­si­ble because one or another ver­sion of this rela­tion was built into the nature of the­ory itself. “Pro­le­tar­ian Experience“can be read as Lefort’s attempt to address this prac­ti­cal impasse. The project out­lined was rev­o­lu­tion­ary action.12 We will see in the sec­ond part of this arti­cle that this desire to not tell the work­ers what they are really doing had con­se­quences for the selec­tion of texts that would con­sti­tute “pro­le­tar­ian doc­u­men­tary literature.”

As we have seen, fol­low­ing Marx, Lefort (and the group more gen­er­ally) saw the pro­le­tariat as a cre­ation of cap­i­tal­ism posi­tioned at the lead­ing edge of tech­no­log­i­cal and orga­ni­za­tional devel­op­ment. The pro­le­tariat is simul­ta­ne­ously inside the dom­i­nant ratio­nal­ity by virtue of social­iza­tion and out­side it by virtue of the expe­ri­ence at the point of pro­duc­tion of the real­i­ties of exploita­tion and irra­tional­ity that the dom­i­nant ratio­nal­ity legit­i­mates and con­ceals. Con­flicts at the point of pro­duc­tion would, in the­ory, make of work­ers the source of an alter­nate ratio­nal­ity that might inform socialism—but because they are also par­tic­i­pants in the dom­i­nant ratio­nal­ity, the ele­ments of this ratio­nal­ity would be frag­men­tary and work­ers erratic in their abil­i­ties to rec­og­nize them. The same prob­lem repeats in an exac­er­bated form in the the­o­rist, whose capac­ity to gen­er­ate the­ory pre­sup­poses cer­tain train­ing and skills that come tied to pre­cisely the ratio­nal­ity that the­ory works to over­throw. Indi­vid­ual nar­ra­tives writ­ten by work­ers that detail expe­ri­ence at the point of pro­duc­tion pro­vide mil­i­tants access to these con­flicts and the indus­trial real­i­ties that con­di­tion them. A phe­nom­e­nol­ogy of these nar­ra­tives would use a com­par­a­tive approach, based on the idea of the eidetic reduc­tion, to pro­duce second-order descrip­tions of struc­tur­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of worker expe­ri­ence in gen­eral. These second-order descrip­tions would point to the latent con­tent of that expe­ri­ence, dis­en­gag­ing uni­ver­sal sub­struc­tures with rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal poten­tials from the con­tin­gency of the par­tic­u­lar and feed­ing them back to the worker avant-garde through the medium of the journal.

This rela­tion to worker-writers, and, by exten­sion, to the worker avant-garde con­sti­tuted rev­o­lu­tion­ary action in part because, fol­low­ing on the ways in which he was sen­si­tive to the prob­lems of objec­ti­fy­ing the work­ing class, Lefort tended not to dif­fer­en­ti­ate within it. This effec­tively elim­i­nated any space for mil­i­tant action: there were no tasks to be per­formed by mil­i­tants within the work­ing class.13 One had to be either with the work­ers, which was good, or to be out­side, which was bad. One could either be a worker or a mil­i­tant, but not both. The gen­er­ally phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal approach to worker nar­ra­tives was sym­met­ri­cal with this view: rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants could gather worker nar­ra­tives and cre­ate inter­pre­ta­tions of those nar­ra­tives as their part of an ongo­ing dia­logue with the worker avant-garde. But that role, and the dia­logue along with it, would be pro­gres­sively effaced by the unfold­ing of the proletariat’s capac­i­ties to direct, man­i­fested in rev­o­lu­tion­ary action.

Through­out “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,” Lefort argues that the analy­sis of the pro­le­tar­ian stand­point has to be thor­oughly his­tor­i­cal. It can­not gen­er­ate tran­scen­den­tal claims or reify worker expe­ri­ence. The results of analy­sis must account for every­day expe­ri­ence at the point of pro­duc­tion in terms of its spe­cific his­tor­i­cal deter­mi­nants. He out­lines what is at stake by refer­ring to Marx’s the­ory of social change using the well-known schema of the tran­si­tion from feu­dal to bour­geois dom­i­na­tion out­lined in The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, and the more elab­o­rated ver­sion in The Ger­man Ide­ol­ogy, as points of depar­ture. Per­haps one rea­son the rev­o­lu­tion will not be tele­vised is that rev­o­lu­tion can­not be under­stood through the analy­sis of dis­crete events. Rather, rev­o­lu­tion of the sort that replaces one his­tor­i­cal form with another is a result of the pro­gres­sive unfold­ing of poten­tials that are being worked out in the pre­vi­ous social-historical for­ma­tion14:

Marx does not say, but allows to be said, that, from its ori­gin, the bour­geoisie is what it will be, an exploit­ing class, under­priv­i­leged at first to be sure, but pos­sess­ing from the out­set all the traits that its his­tory only devel­oped. The devel­op­ment of the pro­le­tariat is entirely dif­fer­ent; reduced to its eco­nomic func­tion alone, it rep­re­sents a cat­e­gory that does not yet pos­sess its class-meaning/direction [sens], the meaning/direction that con­sti­tutes its orig­i­nal com­port­ment, which is, in its defin­i­tive form, strug­gle in all class-specific forms within soci­ety against adver­sar­ial strata. This is not to say that the role of the class in pro­duc­tion should be neglected—on the con­trary, we will see that the role work­ers play in soci­ety, and that they are called on to play in mak­ing them­selves its mas­ters, is directly based on their role as producers—but the essen­tial thing is that this role does not give them any actual power, but only an increas­ingly strong capac­ity to direct [pro­duc­tion and soci­ety].15

Lefort’s open­ing line repro­duces a prob­lem in Marx­ism that Social­isme ou Bar­barie else­where crit­i­cized at length: the treat­ment of the bour­geoisie as if it were inca­pable of cre­ativ­ity or trans­for­ma­tion.16 Such a view con­structs the bour­geoisie in the image of its ratio­nal­ity and then shifts to the claim that the bour­geoisie was always, in its essence, what it would become once it was dom­i­nant. His­tory changed noth­ing except its posi­tion.17 But Lefort’s point does not cen­ter on this schematic analy­sis of the bour­geoisie and its rise to power; rather, it pro­vides both a back­drop against which he begins to set up the prob­lem of under­stand­ing the nature of the work­ing class, and a short­hand way of stag­ing the present as con­di­tioned by bour­geois domination.

Lefort’s lines make explicit the assump­tions about class for­ma­tion that run through much of Social­isme ou Barbarie’s col­lec­tive eval­u­a­tions of autonomous worker actions. As a class in itself, the pro­le­tariat occu­pies a com­mon posi­tion in the pro­duc­tion process, which sells its labor-power for a wage, engages in cer­tain types of con­flict at the point of pro­duc­tion, and so on. The shift into reflex­iv­ity, into a class for-itself, is pred­i­cated on recog­ni­tion of what links the peo­ple who occupy a com­mon posi­tion in the pro­duc­tion process and the con­flicts that arise there, as well as the inter­ests and polit­i­cal projects that arise from that recog­ni­tion. In a strict sense, both reg­is­ters are his­tor­i­cal so both forms can be under­stood as endowed with cer­tain mean­ings and/or a sense of direc­tion (sens).18 But, fol­low­ing on the logic above, that of the class in-itself is cir­cum­scribed by its imme­di­ate sit­u­a­tion. The pos­si­bil­i­ties for a shift into a class for-itself and would be frag­men­tary and scat­tered. For Lefort, the tran­si­tion of the work­ing class into a class for itself hinges on its assim­i­la­tion of an over­ar­ch­ing telos—its “increas­ing capac­ity to direct pro­duc­tion.” Both the telos and process of assim­i­la­tion are con­di­tioned by the types of con­flict char­ac­ter­is­tic of bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism. So there is a level of direct­ed­ness that may unfold through every­day expe­ri­ence and con­flict and another, linked but not iden­ti­cal, that fol­lows from the same expe­ri­ences reprocessed through dif­fer­ent sig­ni­fi­ca­tions.19 The rela­tion between these reg­is­ters echoes Vico’s con­cep­tion of social devel­op­ment, with his­tory under­stood as a spi­ral, a cir­cu­lar motion spread out tem­po­rally, and in prin­ci­ple pro­gres­sively, that allows for both rep­e­ti­tion and change. Strug­gle acquires its mean­ing rel­a­tive to an over­all (rev­o­lu­tion­ary) project (here, a syn­onym for direc­tion), and the over­all project is, in turn, con­tin­u­ally inflected by par­tic­u­lar strug­gles. The role for rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants in feed­ing back descrip­tions and inter­pre­ta­tions of the com­mon­al­i­ties that link worker expe­ri­ence, based on the close read­ing of worker writ­ings, is to facil­i­tate the shift into this kind of col­lec­tive self-awareness. And in line with his cri­tique of deduc­tivism20, Lefort argues that this pro­pels analy­sis toward close scrutiny of what social-historical con­di­tions shape and inform worker expe­ri­ence, and away from the heady aether of the dialectic.

For rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants to access this expe­ri­ence, they would need to posi­tion them­selves “inside” it, but are pre­vented from doing so by their social posi­tions. From this fol­lows the cen­tral­ity of nar­ra­tives writ­ten by work­ing peo­ple about their expe­ri­ences at the point of pro­duc­tion. As noted before, what mil­i­tants can bring to the dia­logue that links them to the worker avant-garde (for which worker-writers stand in) is the com­par­a­tive analy­ses of the nar­ra­tives that would pro­vide a coher­ent descrip­tion of work­ers’ “spon­ta­neous com­port­ments” in the con­text of indus­trial work, the pre­con­di­tion for appre­hen­sion of the “pro­le­tar­ian stand­point” spe­cific to a par­tic­u­lar period. What this phe­nom­e­nol­ogy con­sists in should by now be clear. It would use com­par­a­tive read­ings, informed by rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory, to iso­late and inter­pret types of con­flicts, prac­tices, or other pat­terns that emerge as uni­ver­sal (and polit­i­cally coher­ent) from within accounts of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence. The usage of meth­ods drawn from tran­scen­den­tal phe­nom­e­nol­ogy would be loose, but the assump­tions are sim­i­lar. The reduc­tions as Husserl devel­oped them were a method for iso­lat­ing uni­ver­sal aspects of mean­ing attached to a con­cept from within the shift­ing ter­rain of usage. The reduc­tions move through a series of steps of com­par­ing exem­plars in order to pro­duce inter­sub­jec­tively ver­i­fi­able sets of nec­es­sary pred­i­cates clus­tered around a “deter­minable x.”21 But there is a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence between objects and social groups or processes as objects of knowl­edge. Phe­nom­e­nol­ogy trans­posed empir­i­cal objects to tran­scen­den­tal objects in a quest for cer­tainty. For Lefort, the goal of com­par­a­tive read­ing is the delin­eation, trans­for­ma­tion, and (rev­o­lu­tion­ary) politi­ciza­tion of what Cas­to­ri­adis would later term the social-imaginary sig­ni­fi­ca­tions that shape worker experience.

These premises come together in the analy­sis of what Lefort called a “recon­sid­er­a­tion of the sub­jec­tive ele­ment of class for­ma­tion.” This issue was cru­cial in the early Marx but remained under­de­vel­oped, because the reduc­tion of his­tory to the play of objec­tive forces ren­dered it epiphe­nom­e­nal.22 For Social­isme ou Bar­barie, it was a basic ana­lytic and polit­i­cal mat­ter. Rev­o­lu­tion does not sim­ply hap­pen. Rev­o­lu­tion is made by peo­ple who con­sciously and col­lec­tively assume con­trol over their lives, their sur­round­ings, and the soci­ety in which they live. They can only do so on the basis of their expe­ri­ence. Here, expe­ri­ence refers to the explicit con­tent of expe­ri­ence processed through a re-imagining of what is, at the level of the worker nar­ra­tives at least, their latent polit­i­cal con­tent. A sub­jec­tively ori­ented restate­ment of the trans­for­ma­tion from a class in itself to a class for itself, the re-imagining of this latent dimen­sion pro­vides work­ers with the forestructure(s) of rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­scious­ness, the condition(s) of pos­si­bil­ity for rev­o­lu­tion­ary agency. The “sub­jec­tive” there­fore had a cen­tral place in rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory.23The term “sub­jec­tive” is used in a spe­cific sense:

If it is true that no class can ever be reduced to its eco­nomic func­tion alone [… ] it is even more so that the pro­le­tariat requires an approach that enables one to attend to its sub­jec­tive devel­op­ment. With some reser­va­tions as to the impli­ca­tions of the term, it nonethe­less sum­ma­rizes bet­ter than any other the dom­i­nant trait of the pro­le­tariat. It is sub­jec­tive in the sense that its com­port­ment is not the sim­ple con­se­quence of the con­di­tions [that objec­tively shape its] exis­tence, or, more pro­foundly, the con­di­tions that require of it a con­stant strug­gle for trans­for­ma­tion. [One can­not define the work­ing class by] con­stantly dis­tin­guish­ing its short-term fate. [Rather, the] strug­gle to elu­ci­date the ide­o­log­i­cal [pre­con­di­tions] that enable this dis­tin­guish­ing con­sti­tutes an expe­ri­ence through which the class con­sti­tutes itself.24

The sub­jec­tive des­ig­nates that which is elim­i­nated by the reduc­tion of the work­ing class to a sim­ple eco­nomic cat­e­gory entirely shaped by the posi­tion it occu­pies within indus­try, the ways in which the work­ers accom­mo­dates their sit­u­a­tion and strug­gle to trans­form it. For Lefort, the sub­jec­tive is the domain within which the bases for a working-class “for itself” are prac­ti­cally elab­o­rated. Again, this class for-itself is the fore­struc­ture of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary “for itself” that would insti­tute social­ism. The analy­sis of this sub­jec­tive domain posed a method­olog­i­cal prob­lem of iso­lat­ing the par­tic­u­lar dimen­sions of every­day expe­ri­ence on the shop floor to be ana­lyzed. It also posed a prob­lem of data.

The every­day expe­ri­ence that con­cerned Social­isme ou Bar­barie took place within infor­mal col­lec­tives that formed by shop and by shift in mod­ern indus­try. The col­lec­tives are the scenes out of which a given “spon­ta­neous com­port­ment in the face of indus­trial work” or hori­zon struc­ture emerges. The analy­sis of these col­lec­tive com­por­ments extends the rethink­ing of inten­tion­al­ity begun by Merleau-Ponty in Phe­nom­e­nol­ogy of Per­cep­tion, par­tic­u­larly in the sec­tion “The Body as Expres­sion and Speech.”25 Merleau-Ponty trans­posed the Husser­lian frame­work directly onto the prob­lem of sub­jec­tive ori­en­ta­tion in the social-historical.26 For Merleau-Ponty, Husserl’s tran­scen­den­tal sub­ject becomes a his­tor­i­cally sit­u­ated, embod­ied sub­ject that moves through and con­sti­tutes a mean­ing­ful world. Inten­tion­al­ity, direct­ed­ness toward/constitution of the world, is mapped onto the body as the source of spa­tial ori­en­ta­tion, and the site upon which cul­tural mean­ings are writ­ten. This places inten­tion­al­ity between the per­sonal and the social. By the sem­i­nars of the mid-1950s, in the con­text of a more gen­eral shift away from subject-centered think­ing, Merleau-Ponty made inten­tion­al­ity explic­itly social by rework­ing it through the notion of insti­tu­tion.27 A sub­ject is insti­tuted in that it artic­u­lates itself and its world by way of spe­cific pre-existing forms of rule-governed activ­ity; a sub­ject is insti­tut­ing in that such an engage­ment is never sim­ply a pas­sive accep­tance but is at once an oper­a­tional­iz­ing of the rules and a cre­ative bringing-into-being of the envi­ron­ment cir­cum­scribed by them.28 The char­ac­ter­is­tics of what came to count as pro­le­tar­ian doc­u­men­tary lit­er­a­ture mir­ror this in the pref­er­ence for a sense of an embod­ied nar­ra­tor who uses a suit­ably working-class lan­guage in the present tense, cap­tur­ing sight­lines and a sense of move­ment through the spaces that are staged.

Lefort regarded the work­ing class “for itself” as a prac­ti­cal cre­ation elab­o­rated on a con­tin­ual basis through the play of gen­eral pat­terns of assim­i­la­tion and con­flict char­ac­ter­is­tic of expe­ri­ence at the point of pro­duc­tion under bureau­cratic cap­i­tal­ism. The notion that the “sens” of working-class expe­ri­ence was its “ever increas­ing capac­ity to direct” served as a premise and a sort of fil­ter that enabled Lefort to order expe­ri­ence as an ana­lytic prob­lem. Lefort argues that the par­tic­u­lar working-class “for itself” man­i­fests itself as a view­point linked directly to par­tic­u­lar prac­tices. The notion of prac­tice can be bro­ken into two com­po­nents: a nar­row or imma­nent level and another, implicit level that uni­fies prac­tices and gives them a direc­tion. At the more imma­nent level, it refers to the actual work­ing at a machine, the reper­toire of motions and deci­sions required to per­form a given task. This imma­nent level is sit­u­ated in a larger ensem­ble of social rela­tions and prac­tices that socially and infor­mally reg­u­late, inform, and orga­nize both rela­tions among work­ers and the per­for­mance of work. These prac­tices shape the deploy­ment of skill as a col­lec­tive attribute, the pace of work and so forth. This same reg­is­ter of prac­tice shapes rela­tions between work­ers and the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of fac­tory man­age­ment: fore­men, time-motion men (chronos), and indus­trial orga­ni­za­tion gen­er­ally.29 Cen­tral to the acqui­si­tion of these prac­tices was the process of social­iza­tion that shaped the rela­tion­ships of work­ers to each other, to pro­duc­tion and to pol­i­tics. Work­ers who oper­ate in envi­ron­ments shaped by these pat­terns of social­iza­tion and cir­cum­scribed by these prac­tices occupy an insti­tuted and insti­tut­ing “pro­le­tar­ian standpoint.”

The other, latent reg­is­ter of worker expe­ri­ence is given its coher­ence in part by the degree of famil­iar­ity on the part of work­ers (or, more pre­cisely, of worker-writers) with the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment, which stands in for famil­iar­ity with the Marx­ist dis­course that ori­ented this his­tory as a polit­i­cal project.30 This broader his­tory stands in con­trast to the insti­tuted man­i­fes­ta­tions of a ver­sion of that his­tory in the (bureau­cratic) trade unions and main polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions that use ver­sions of that same discourse—the PCF and CGT in par­tic­u­lar in the French con­text. Famil­iar­ity with this broader tra­di­tion pro­vides space for alter­nate “acti­va­tions” of a heav­ily sed­i­mented lan­guage that, by its sed­i­men­ta­tion, pro­vides a sense of legit­i­ma­tion. An exam­ple of this is the role played in the 1953 East Berlin June Days by the study cir­cles devoted to read­ing Marx and Lenin directly rather than as medi­ated through offi­cial cat­e­chisms. In the analy­ses pub­lished in Social­isme ou Bar­barie, these col­lec­tive read­ings formed a hori­zon of insti­tuted sig­ni­fiers that enabled the artic­u­la­tion of polit­i­cal posi­tions in rev­o­lu­tion­ary lan­guage out­side the purview of the main bureau­cratic orga­ni­za­tions. Inso­far as Social­isme ou Bar­barie was con­cerned the reap­pro­pri­a­tion of this lan­guage was a con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­ity for autonomous worker action, and an indi­ca­tion of the extent to which at this time the group under­stood it as a nat­ural hori­zon against which these actions could take shape. Autonomous worker actions, then, insti­tuted alter­nate inter­pre­ta­tions of the lan­guage that struc­tured the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment. In this, they were Social­isme ou Barbarie’s pro­le­tar­ian doubles.

Social­isme ou Bar­barie never explic­itly said who these work­ers were: we will return to this point in the sec­ond part of this arti­cle. How­ever, it is clear that when Social­isme ou Bar­barie referred to the work­ing class, they had in mind pri­mar­ily semi-skilled work­ers like machin­ists and lathe oper­a­tors.31In a con­text dom­i­nated by assembly-line pro­duc­tion, these work­ers were under sus­tained attack. Semi-skilled work­ers worked in col­lec­tives, and not in the indi­vid­u­ated image of Fordism. They retained some auton­omy in the con­cep­tion and exe­cu­tion of their work, though the extent of this auton­omy var­ied con­sid­er­ably from fac­tory to fac­tory, and within the same fac­tory as a func­tion of the shop’s place in the fac­tory hier­ar­chy. This auton­omy enabled these shops to develop types of socia­bil­ity that were for the most part tied to the trans­mis­sion of skill. How­ever, as French heavy indus­try, led by Renault, increas­ingly adopted Amer­i­can indus­trial orga­ni­za­tion dur­ing the 1950s, the strug­gles of these work­ers to retain their auton­omy and skill became more acute. The explo­sions engen­dered by this strug­gle were among the most intense and vio­lent of the decade.32

These con­flicts over the auton­omy of semi-skilled work­ers within mass pro­duc­tion were a con­tin­u­a­tion of what Ben­jamin Coriat called Fordism’s war on skill, which he argues was the defin­ing fea­ture of its mode of indus­trial orga­ni­za­tion. The genius of Henry Ford, from a cap­i­tal­ist view­point, was his recon­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of skill as a block on accu­mu­la­tion. Ford’s meth­ods did not develop in iso­la­tion, but rather appear as a con­densed expres­sion of exper­i­ments in orga­ni­za­tion that arose with monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism. Pre­vi­ously, skill had been monop­o­lized by work­ers. This monop­oly lay at the heart of a con­trac­tual rela­tion between them and employ­ers: employ­ers were beholden to work­ers as the actual source of wealth, and work­ers were beholden to employ­ers as providers of the means to exer­cise their skills.33 The auto­mo­bile indus­try, a prod­uct of monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism, played a cru­cial role in devel­op­ing the mech­a­nisms by means of which the assault on skill was car­ried out. Henry Ford led the way in this domain with his aim of pro­duc­ing a low-cost auto­mo­bile. Stan­dard­iza­tion of prod­uct enabled stan­dard­iza­tion of pro­duc­tion process, which in turn made pos­si­ble the assem­bly line. The assem­bly line ini­ti­ated a mas­sive trans­fer of ini­tia­tive away from work­ers into man­age­ment and wiped out pre­vi­ously sacro­sanct lim­its to the ratio­nal­iza­tion of pro­duc­tion.34 Most indica­tive of this pat­tern was the fact that Fordist indus­trial orga­ni­za­tion encour­aged the spa­tial sep­a­ra­tion of research and devel­op­ment from pro­duc­tion, putting them into dif­fer­ent build­ings, and often in dif­fer­ent towns, as a func­tion of the more gen­eral trend of ver­ti­cal inte­gra­tion.35

Tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments closely tracked these orga­ni­za­tional inno­va­tions in delim­it­ing the sit­u­a­tion of semi-skilled work­ers under Fordism. Machine tools were increas­ingly designed as vari­a­tions on the lathe. Hav­ing learned to turn, a worker could with rel­a­tive ease shift to another machine and pick up the nec­es­sary move­ments.36 In hind­sight, it is clear that the stan­dard­iza­tion of tool design was a first step in the both the stan­dard­iza­tion and rou­tiniza­tion of tasks.37 In French heavy indus­try of the mid-1950s, imple­men­ta­tion of indus­trial Fordism rapidly changed over­all pro­duc­tion design; in the intro­duc­tion of man­age­ment; and in the impo­si­tion of a new divi­sion of labor that sep­a­rated intel­lec­tual and man­ual work.Changes in tool design facil­i­tated the atom­iza­tion of the fac­tory itself into iso­lated units con­cerned with max­i­mum ratio­nal­iza­tion of what were ini­tially com­po­nent parts of the larger pro­duc­tion process. The stan­dard­iza­tion of tasks and increased spe­cial­iza­tion of tech­nol­ogy reopened the pol­i­tics of wage rates and pro­duc­tion speed. It also sparked, with more polit­i­cal vari­abil­ity, a move to inte­grate and depoliti­cize trade unions through the mech­a­nism of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. In these larger con­texts, the fate of the machin­ists played a small, but sym­bol­i­cally impor­tant part.

Social­isme ou Bar­barie col­lec­tively believed the rel­a­tive pro­fes­sional auton­omy of semi-skilled work­ers enabled them to develop the type of infor­mal shop-floor cul­ture pre­sup­posed by any rev­o­lu­tion­ary project that did not assume the inter­ven­tion of a Van­guard Party. There­fore, when the group inquired into worker expe­ri­ence, they referred to semi-skilled work­ers in the con­text of Fordist mass pro­duc­tion, the most advanced form of indus­trial orga­ni­za­tion of the period. In this, they con­formed to a gen­eral ten­dency of the French Left. Les métal­los were, for the most part, French, and were highly politi­cized and volatile.38 French heavy indus­try recruited and increas­ingly relied upon an immi­grant work­force on the assembly-line. This pol­icy set up polit­i­cal, cul­tural and pro­fes­sional frac­tures within the fac­tory that Social­isme ou Bar­barie mem­ber Daniel Mothé (Jacques Gau­trat) wrote about can­didly in 1956.39 For Social­isme ou Bar­barie, it was in gen­eral more sig­nif­i­cant that assembly-line work was unskilled. The lack of skill and col­lec­tive life in the con­text of pro­duc­tion as well as the nature of line work itself were more impor­tant than the plu­ral­ity of eth­nic­i­ties, nation­al­i­ties and lan­guages in pre­vent­ing these work­ers from act­ing col­lec­tively. Like most French Left orga­ni­za­tions, Social­isme ou Bar­barie did not focus on the unskilled OS work­ers on the line.40

On Worker Nar­ra­tives and Pro­le­tar­ian Experience

Text means Tis­sue; but whereas hith­erto we have always taken this tis­sue as a prod­uct, a ready-made veil, behind which lies, more or less hid­den, mean­ing (truth), we are now empha­siz­ing, in the tis­sue, the gen­er­a­tive idea that the text is made, is worked out in a per­pet­ual inter­weav­ing; lost in this tissue--this texture--the sub­ject unmakes him­self, like a spi­der dis­solv­ing in the con­struc­tive secre­tions of its web. Were we fond of neol­o­gisms, we might define the the­ory of the text as a hypol­ogy (hyphos is the tis­sue and the spider’s web).41

The worker nar­ra­tives that Social­isme ou Bar­barie envi­sioned col­lect­ing would com­bine first per­son obser­va­tion of shop-floor expe­ri­ence with an anthro­po­log­i­cal per­spec­tive on the processes that shaped that expe­ri­ence and a soci­o­log­i­cal view of indus­trial orga­ni­za­tion. The worker/writer of such nar­ra­tives had to be both involved with, and detached from, the expe­ri­ence described. The nar­ra­tives were to be auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal and descrip­tive of worker expe­ri­ence gen­er­ally. The descrip­tions pro­vided by any one nar­ra­tive would have obvi­ous lim­i­ta­tions with respect to com­plete­ness and uni­ver­sal­ity.42 Many nar­ra­tives gath­ered together might over­come these lim­i­ta­tions. A phe­nom­e­nol­ogy of these texts would pro­vide the gen­eral struc­ture of worker com­port­ments at the point of pro­duc­tion as repro­duced in these nar­ra­tives and shaped by their genre. What Social­isme ou Bar­barie wanted was a win­dow onto fac­tory expe­ri­ence that would enable them to see how work­ers processed struc­tural con­di­tions as hori­zons. Fur­ther, Social­isme ou Bar­barie wanted access to the inter­ac­tion of appro­pri­a­tion and resis­tance con­sti­tu­tive of the pro­le­tar­ian stand­point. The analy­sis would acquire its sig­nif­i­cance from the larger rev­o­lu­tion­ary project.

In “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence”, Lefort argues that a fea­ture of the “rad­i­cal orig­i­nal­ity of the pro­le­tariat” is that it can only be known by itself. Con­se­quently, oth­ers may under­stand the work­ing class only on its terms and in its lan­guage. From this premise fol­lows the neces­sity of inter­pret­ing worker writ­ing. How­ever, these texts were not with­out problems:

This does not mean that we will claim to define what the pro­le­tariat is in its real­ity from this angle, after hav­ing rejected all other rep­re­sen­ta­tions that have been made of its con­di­tion, which view it either through the deform­ing prism of bour­geois soci­ety or that of the Par­ties that claim to rep­re­sent it. A worker tes­ti­mony, no mat­ter how evoca­tive, sym­bolic and spon­ta­neous it might be, remains con­di­tioned by the sit­u­a­tion of its source. We are not allud­ing to the defor­ma­tion that can come from an indi­vid­ual inter­pre­ta­tion, but to that which nar­ra­tion nec­es­sar­ily imposes on its author. Telling is nec­es­sar­ily not act­ing, and even sup­poses a break with action that trans­forms its mean­ing. Mak­ing a nar­ra­tive about a strike is entirely dif­fer­ent from par­tic­i­pat­ing in a strike, if only because one then knows the out­come, and the sim­ple dis­tance of reflec­tion enables one to eval­u­ate what had not, in the moment, yet become fixed in its mean­ing. In fact, this is much more than a sim­ple change of opin­ion: it is a change of atti­tude, that is to say a trans­for­ma­tion in the man­ner of react­ing to sit­u­a­tions in which one finds one­self. To this must be added that nar­ra­tive places the indi­vid­ual in an iso­lated posi­tion which is not nat­ural to him either […] Cri­tique of a tes­ti­mony must pre­cisely enable one to see in the individual’s atti­tudes that which implies the com­port­ment of the group. How­ever, in the last analy­sis, the for­mer does not coin­cide exactly with the lat­ter, and we have access only to incom­plete knowl­edge.43

For Lefort, the basic issue is not defin­ing what the pro­le­tariat is or sub­sti­tut­ing a new, bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion for exist­ing ones, because the class can­not be an object of this type of knowl­edge. He argues that “know­ing” the work­ing class is more “being-with.” It is an imag­i­na­tive trans­for­ma­tion, car­ried out through read­ing and cri­tique. Know­ing the work­ing class trans­forms the reader into a spec­u­lar “par­tic­i­pant observer.”44

A vic­ar­i­ous “acqui­si­tion” of the pro­le­tar­ian stand­point and its con­stituent prac­tices is hin­dered by the nec­es­sary incom­plete­ness of any given nar­ra­tive. Such incom­plete­ness is a result of per­spec­ti­val­ism and of the sus­pen­sion of the “nat­ural atti­tude” implicit in the act of writ­ing. To para­phrase from the quoted pas­sage above: “Writ­ing about an action is not to act within it and pre­sup­poses a break with act­ing that trans­forms its mean­ing.” For a worker to adopt an anthro­po­log­i­cal rela­tion to his own expe­ri­ence as worker places him inside and out­side that expe­ri­ence at the same time. The writer ret­ro­spec­tively orders expe­ri­ence by writ­ing it: expe­ri­ence is no longer an open-ended rela­tion to a con­text on the part of an embed­ded sub­ject who inter­prets and makes judg­ments about it based on incom­plete infor­ma­tion.45 The con­se­quence of this ret­ro­spec­tive char­ac­ter is to ren­der con­tin­gent aspects of human expe­ri­ence as nec­es­sary ele­ments by giv­ing expe­ri­ence a dra­matic or nar­ra­tive form. Doing so elim­i­nates the space for cre­ativ­ity.46 Not only is writ­ing nec­es­sar­ily ret­ro­spec­tive, but it re-orders and spa­tial­izes the envi­ron­ment in par­tic­u­lar ways and re-temporalizes expe­ri­ence accord­ing to cri­te­ria inter­nal to the process of nar­ra­tion and the type of nar­ra­tive being pro­duced. While Lefort acknowl­edges these medi­a­tions, the real ques­tion for him does not con­cern the gap that might be thereby insti­tuted between text and expe­ri­ence. Rather, the main prob­lem fac­ing the critic/reader is in rec­og­niz­ing and bridg­ing the divide that sep­a­rates the “unnat­u­rally iso­lated” writ­ing worker from the nec­es­sar­ily social char­ac­ter of that which is described. The role of phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal analy­sis is to search for traces of the col­lec­tive com­port­ments within indi­vid­ual, frag­men­tary accounts.

For Lefort, the worker-writer is the phenomenologist’s accom­plice who sorts out, com­pares and reduces. He (almost always he) trans­forms expe­ri­ence into data from which a sec­ond order cri­tique can derive frag­ments of “authen­tic” expe­ri­ence. At the same time the worker-writer remains a worker, writ­ing like a worker, describ­ing fac­tory con­di­tions in a rec­og­niz­ably “prolo” man­ner. The worker-writer is the critic’s dou­ble: the critic watches the worker watch­ing; the critic appro­pri­ates what the worker describes.47 The writ­ing worker is a vehi­cle for the militant/critic’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the work­ers, an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion given con­tent through the dis­cov­ery of their prac­tices, the adop­tion of their stand­point and the the­o­riza­tion of their self-production. Haunted by the fear of revert­ing to a form of Lenin­ism, Lefort con­fines the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant to the role of phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal observer. How­ever, this same iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is encour­aged and exac­er­bated by the for­mal char­ac­ter­is­tics of the nar­ra­tives that Lefort treats as pri­mary evi­dence. To show how this part of the cir­cuit oper­ates, we take up the two texts that Lefort con­sid­ered exem­plary: Paul Romano’s 1947 “The Amer­i­can Worker” and Eric Albert’s 1952 “Témoignage: la vie en usine.”

Social­isme ou Bar­barie mem­ber Philippe Guil­laume intro­duced his trans­la­tion of Paul Romano’s “The Amer­i­can Worker” with: “We present here an unprece­dented doc­u­ment of great value about the lives of Amer­i­can work­ers.” The pamphlet’s value, Guil­laume argues, lay first of all in its demo­li­tion of the “Hol­ly­wood and Read­ers’ Digest” illu­sion that the Amer­i­can worker, rich and with­out class con­scious­ness, is a liv­ing exam­ple of the ben­e­fits of class col­lab­o­ra­tion. More than this, Guil­laume argues that Romano has pro­duced the first exam­ple of a new “pro­le­tar­ian doc­u­men­tary lit­er­a­ture.” This doc­u­men­tary lit­er­a­ture holds a mir­ror up to work­ers that reflects (polit­i­cally) sig­nif­i­cant ele­ments within their expe­ri­ence back to them in their own lan­guage. The pam­phlet addresses the reader by solic­it­ing recog­ni­tion. Guil­laume repeats this ges­ture, and it is repeated a num­ber of times there­after, before Romano’s nar­ra­tive actu­ally begins. Guil­laume writes:

Every worker, regard­less of “his nation­al­ity” of exploita­tion, will find in it the image of his own exis­tence as pro­le­tar­ian. There are, in fact, deep and con­sis­tent char­ac­ter­is­tics of pro­le­tar­ian alien­ation that know nei­ther fron­tiers nor regimes… The trans­la­tor of this small pam­phlet him­self has worked sev­eral years in the fac­tory. He was struck by the accu­racy and the impor­tant impli­ca­tions of every line. It is impos­si­ble for a worker to remain indif­fer­ent to this read­ing. In our eyes, it is not by acci­dent that such a sam­ple of pro­le­tar­ian doc­u­men­tary lit­er­a­ture comes to us from Amer­ica, and it is also not by acci­dent that it is, in some of its deep­est aspects, the first of the genre.48

Near the end of this quote, Guil­laume repeats the Marx­ist axiom that the most advanced indus­trial set­ting will pro­duce the most advanced forms of worker resis­tance. These advanced forms of oppo­si­tion, and their poten­tials for new modes of class con­scious­ness, are reflected in the cre­ation of a new form of writ­ten expres­sion.49This new form of expres­sion is itself reflec­tive of the tran­si­tion within the indus­trial work­ing class away from more tra­di­tional types of polit­i­cal (rev­o­lu­tion­ary) action which amounts to pos­tu­lat­ing that a new rev­o­lu­tion­ary avant-garde is devel­op­ing out of worker expe­ri­ence of tech­nol­ogy, con­ven­tional polit­i­cal par­ties, trade unions, and so on, at the point of pro­duc­tion. All this is implicit in Guillaume’s state­ment but it is made explicit in Ria Stone’s “The Recon­struc­tion of Soci­ety,” the extended the­o­ret­i­cal essay that accom­pa­nied Romano’s nar­ra­tive in its orig­i­nal Amer­i­can edi­tion.50

From the out­set, Romano is pre­sented as a part of a new “rev­o­lu­tion­ary tide” ris­ing within the Amer­i­can work­ing class. The eli­sion of the par­tic­u­lar into the gen­eral is made all the more attrac­tive by his use of a pseu­do­nym or “war name.” These names were nor­mal amongst the anti-Stalinist Left in both the U.S. and France. Within Social­isme ou Bar­barie, adop­tion of an alias was sim­ply a mat­ter of tac­ti­cal neces­sity. It should be kept in mind that rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal activ­ity amongst intel­lec­tu­als occurred in a semi-clandestine zone. Groups were sub­ject to sur­veil­lance by the polit­i­cal arm of the Parisian Police, the “Ren­seigne­ments Généraux.” Social­isme ou Bar­barie included a num­ber of for­eign­ers who were actively engaged in a type of polit­i­cal activ­ity that could get them deported, like Cas­to­ri­adis and Alberto Maso (Véga).51 These groups were also sub­ject to sur­veil­lance and repres­sion from the PCF. Anti-Stalinist pol­i­tics in a PCF-dominated envi­ron­ment, like Renault’s Bil­lan­court fac­tory, could pose real phys­i­cal and career dan­gers to those who engaged in it.52These pres­sures affected dif­fer­ent peo­ple in dif­fer­ent ways, and Lefort is inter­est­ing in this regard. A phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor dur­ing the day, he ini­tially pub­lished in Social­isme ou Bar­barie under the name C. Mon­tal. He began to use his real name more fre­quently after leav­ing Les Temps Mod­ernes in 1952, and exclu­sively after 1956.

The names take on another, quite inde­pen­dent func­tion in the read­ing of these nar­ra­tives. Scant infor­ma­tion was pro­vided about Paul Romano, the pamphlet’s author. Even in 1972, in a pref­ace to a new edi­tion of the pam­phlet, Mar­tin Glaber­man would only say that Romano was active in the Johnson-Forest Ten­dency, and worked at a Gen­eral Motors fac­tory in New Jer­sey that employed about 800 pro­duc­tion work­ers.53The Intro­duc­tion to the first edi­tion, signed J.H., describes Romano as:

him­self a fac­tory worker, [who] has con­tributed greatly to such under­stand­ing [of “what the work­ers are think­ing and doing while actu­ally at work on the bench or on the line”] by his descrip­tion, based on years of study and obser­va­tion of the lives of work­ers in modem mass pro­duc­tion. The pro­fun­dity of Romano’s con­tri­bu­tion lies not in mak­ing any new dis­cov­ery but rather in see­ing the obvious-the con­stant and daily rag­ing of the work­ers against the degrad­ing and oppres­sive con­di­tions of their life in the fac­tory; and at the same time, their cre­ative and ele­men­tal drive to recon­struct soci­ety on a new and higher level.54

Romano’s own open­ing para­graphs repeat this oper­a­tion in a some­what more com­plex manner:

I am a young worker in my late 20s. The past sev­eral years have found me in the pro­duc­tive appa­ra­tus of the most highly indus­tri­al­ized coun­try in the world. Most of my work­ing years have been spent in mass pro­duc­tion indus­tries among hun­dreds and thou­sands of other work­ers. Their feel­ings, anx­i­eties, exhil­a­ra­tion, bore­dom, exhaus­tion, anger, have all been mine to one extent or another. By “their feel­ings” I mean those which are the direct reac­tions to mod­ern high-speed pro­duc­tion. The present finds me still in a fac­tory – one of the giant cor­po­ra­tions in the country.

This pam­phlet is addressed to the rank and file worker and its inten­tion is to express those inner­most thoughts which the worker rarely talks about even to his fellow-workers. In keep­ing a diary, so to speak, of the day-to-day fac­tory life I hoped to uncover the rea­sons for the worker’s deep dis­sat­is­fac­tion which has reached its peak in recent years and has expressed itself in the lat­est strikes and spon­ta­neous walkouts.

The rough draft of this pam­phlet was given to work­ers across the coun­try. Their reac­tions were as one. They were sur­prised and grat­i­fied to see in print the expe­ri­ences and thoughts which they have rarely put into words. Work­ers arrive home from the fac­tory too exhausted to read more than the daily comics. Yet most of the work­ers who read the pam­phlet stayed up well into the night to fin­ish the read­ing once they had started.55

The first three sen­tences con­tain all the par­tic­u­lar infor­ma­tion we are given. From this point on, the indi­vid­ual is blurred into the col­lec­tive, and vice-versa. For exam­ple, Romano claims to describe “the inner­most thoughts which the worker rarely talks about even to his fel­low work­ers.” The accu­racy of such descrip­tion is, in Husser­lian lan­guage, inter­sub­jec­tively ver­i­fied, estab­lished quasi-scientifically, by means of a straw-poll of “work­ers around the coun­try” who stayed up late to read it because they (who? where?) rec­og­nized them­selves in the writ­ing. “Paul Romano” itself is a nearly arbi­trary name, a proper name that does not sig­nify, that does not limit, that does not help estab­lish some ref­er­ence point around which to sta­bi­lize the shift­ing bor­der between expe­ri­ence and writ­ing about expe­ri­ence. The author, Paul Romano, is an empty func­tion that gen­er­ates propo­si­tions in the form “the worker feels x…”; “the work­ers see y…every day.” We are pre­sented with a claim to a sort of “lat­eral ver­i­fi­ca­tion.” The work­ers stayed up late to read these propositions.

Romano delim­its his intended audi­ence in another way through the para­graphs on intel­lec­tu­als.56 The pam­phlet is a con­ver­sa­tion between work­ers: intel­lec­tu­als “so removed from the daily expe­ri­ence of the labor­ing masses” could not be sym­pa­thetic to its con­tent. Romano argues that: “They felt cheated” because there was “too much dirt and noise.” This char­ac­ter­i­za­tion places the phenomenologist-cum-revolutionary mil­i­tant, who in all prob­a­bil­ity has a roman­tic attach­ment to the idea of dirt and noise, in an ambigu­ous posi­tion. He seems to approx­i­mate an eaves­drop­per lis­ten­ing in on a tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion between two oth­ers dur­ing which they begin to make dis­parag­ing remarks that could be about the silent third party. There is a cer­tain voyeurism that attends look­ing at the “ele­men­tal drive” of the work­ing class in process through the act of read­ing. At the same time, the reader is encour­aged to side with the work­ers, to embark on a voy­age accom­pa­nied by a trusted native informant.

The war name func­tions to turn the author into a con­tent­less vari­able, an observ­ing machine that gen­er­ates a trail of propo­si­tions about fac­tory life. I have argued above that there is a struc­tural dou­bling of the militant/critic in the writ­ing worker, and pow­er­ful polit­i­cal rea­sons for the for­mer to project him­self into the posi­tion made avail­able within the nar­ra­tives by the lat­ter. The arbi­trari­ness of the proper name in this con­text removes any brake that might oth­er­wise have been set up on this iden­ti­fi­ca­tion by infor­ma­tion on the empir­i­cal life of the author.57 This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, staged at the level of rela­tion between militant/critic as phe­nom­e­nol­o­gist and the worker-writer, is fur­thered by the narrative’s use of “prolo” lan­guage. Philippe Guil­laume touched on this issue again in his brief translator’s pref­ace, and on some of the prob­lems he encoun­tered while trans­lat­ing Romano’s English:

It is impos­si­ble for a worker to remain indif­fer­ent to this read­ing. It is even more impos­si­ble to trans­late such a text in an indif­fer­ent, or even rou­tine, man­ner. At sev­eral junc­tures, it was nec­es­sary to take a con­sid­er­able dis­tance from the let­ter of the Eng­lish text to pro­vide a really faith­ful trans­la­tion. Some Amer­i­can pop­u­lar expres­sions have an exact cor­re­spon­dent in French, but embed­ded in dif­fer­ent imagery. Even in his descrip­tive style, Romano uses a pro­le­tar­ian optic.58

The trans­la­tion prob­lem in mov­ing from pop­u­lar Amer­i­can to a par­al­lel French while not dis­solv­ing Romano’s “pro­le­tar­ian optic” was resolved in such a way as to make the ver­sion pub­lished in Social­isme ou Bar­barie an inter­est­ing primer in “prolo” French for an Amer­i­can reader. It also func­tions as a sec­ond order legit­i­ma­tion of Romano’s sta­tus as worker, some­thing which go with­out say­ing were the pam­phlet were actu­ally being trans­mit­ted worker to worker. For whom need a “pro­le­tar­ian optic” be defined?

The var­i­ous pref­aces and intro­duc­tions to Romano’s pam­phlet are impor­tant because they make explicit what usu­ally left unsaid in these nar­ra­tives and is worked out at the level of style and through the manip­u­la­tion of cer­tain con­ven­tions. Once past these intro­duc­tions, we encounter Romano’s nar­ra­tive proper. Here we shift to a more struc­tural analy­sis, read­ing Romano along with Eric Albert’s “Témoignage: la vie en usine,” pub­lished in the July 1952 issue of Les Temps Mod­ernes, to iso­late sev­eral com­mon fea­tures that oper­ate as genre mark­ers informing/shaping “pro­le­tar­ian doc­u­men­tary lit­er­a­ture” as col­lected or gen­er­ated by Social­isme ou Bar­barie.59

In sev­eral ways, Albert’s nar­ra­tive is quite dif­fer­ent from that of Romano. It was writ­ten for a dif­fer­ent audience—the edu­cated, pro­gres­sive bour­geois read­er­ship of Les Temps Mod­ernes. A jour­nal­is­tic expose of con­di­tions inside the newer types of fac­to­ries, com­bined with ele­ments of a travel nar­ra­tive it doc­u­ments Albert’s expe­ri­ence as an O.S. (an unskilled worker). Albert worked in two dif­fer­ent fac­to­ries owned by the same cable man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany near Paris. The first, in which Albert learns his job, is older, roughly on the order of Bil­lan­court; the sec­ond is a more recent build­ing and an exam­ple of Fordist orga­ni­za­tion on the order of Flins.

The point of Albert’s nar­ra­tive emerges through the con­trast between his expe­ri­ences in the two fac­to­ries, which are staged as emblem­atic of the past and future of fac­tory design. The for­mer allowed a mar­gin for worker auton­omy, and thereby the cre­ation of the types of infor­mal shop and shift-specific col­lec­tiv­i­ties that are the focus of Romano’s writ­ing. The lat­ter offers no such mar­gin. Its lay­out is entirely sub­or­di­nated to what Albert calls the “geo­met­ri­cal require­ments of the machin­ery.”60 Albert uses his expe­ri­ence to reveal the inhu­man­ity, and the polit­i­cal dan­ger for the Left, of Fordist fac­tory design from the van­tage point of an unskilled worker. Romano’s nar­ra­tive, on the other hand, con­sists mostly of detailed descrip­tions of infor­mal shop-floor com­mu­ni­ties from the view­point of a semi-skilled worker (who would be in the range of a P1-P3 accord­ing to the French pro­fes­sional hier­ar­chy). Romano uses these descrip­tions to win­now out the polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of their col­lec­tive life.

There are thus sig­nif­i­cant diver­gences between the two nar­ra­tives that Lefort takes as exem­plary in “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.” There was an enor­mous gulf that sep­a­rated the expe­ri­ence of an O.S. from that of a P1-P3 worker. The accounts were writ­ten for dif­fer­ent assumed audi­ences. There is also a polit­i­cal dif­fer­ence between the two. It is dif­fi­cult to pin­point Albert’s polit­i­cal view­point. He appears at times to be an old-style anarcho-syndicalist whose pol­i­tics come from the pre-World War II period, and who is still attached to the tra­di­tions of the “worker aris­toc­racy.” At other times, he appears to have sim­ply read a lot of mate­r­ial like Michel Collinet’s 1950 Esprit du syn­di­cal­isme.61 Romano’s affil­i­a­tion with “Cor­re­spon­dence” would posi­tion him closer to Social­isme ou Bar­barie.62

That said, the nar­ra­tives nonethe­less share a num­ber of for­mal char­ac­ter­is­tics, though each deploys these fea­tures in a dif­fer­ent order. This vari­a­tion can serve as an index of the writer’s polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tion or aspi­ra­tions. For exam­ple, con­sider the loca­tion of the ini­ti­a­tion scene. Romano’s nar­ra­tive begins:

The fac­tory worker lives and breathes dirt and oil. As machines are speeded up, the noise becomes greater, the strain greater, the labor greater, even though the process is sim­pli­fied. Most steel cut­ting and grind­ing machines of today require a lubri­cant to facil­i­tate machin­ing the mate­r­ial. It is com­mon­place to put on a clean set of clothes in the morn­ing and by noon to be soaked, lit­er­ally, with oil. Most work­ers in my depart­ment have oil pim­ples, rashes and sores on their arms and legs. The shoes become soaked and the result is a steady case of athlete’s foot. Black­heads fill the pores. it is an extremely aggra­vat­ing set of effects. We speak often of sit­ting and soak­ing in a hot tub of water to loosen the dirt and ease the infec­tious blackheads.

In most fac­to­ries the worker freezes in the win­ter, sweats in the sum­mer and often does not have hot water to wash the day’s grime from his body…63

This para­graph intro­duces two fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tics of Romano’s nar­ra­tive, and of these nar­ra­tives in gen­eral. The uni­ver­sal and the par­tic­u­lar are inter­twined in a com­plex man­ner. The uni­ver­sal appears through the propo­si­tional form “the worker lives…”; “most work­ers in my depart­ment have oil pim­ples…”; “we speak often…” The par­tic­u­lar appears through Romano’s evo­ca­tion of pain. This usage of pain is a bit sur­pris­ing, given its extreme par­tic­u­lar­ity, its incom­mu­ni­ca­bil­ity, its ten­dency to “unmake the world” avail­able to the sub­ject by forc­ing the body (roughly fol­low­ing Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the body as social and spa­tial ori­en­ta­tion for a sub­ject) back onto itself. Another’s pain is most dis­tant from one­self.64

The col­lec­tive first-person pro­nouns func­tion in Romano’s text to shift iden­ti­fi­ca­tion onto a very imme­di­ate level. The reader/militant/critic is encour­aged to project him­self into the empty space out­lined by the author as gen­er­a­tor of propo­si­tions, but left empty because of the arbi­trari­ness of the proper name. The tone of the descrip­tions is on the order of: you and I know the extreme noise, the stress induced by machine speed-ups; the rashes and pim­ples caused by inad­e­quate facil­i­ties and poor ven­ti­la­tion. The reader is squarely on the shop floor. Albert’s nar­ra­tive opens with a struc­turally sim­i­lar “reduc­tion of the sub­ject.” Because the piece is not designed as explic­itly to draw the reader into the expe­ri­ence being described, though it is not with­out its vivid moments, the reader’s ini­ti­a­tion into the Tex­tual Fac­tory can be more abstract. Albert’s expe­ri­ence is pre­sented as uni­ver­sal in a rather dif­fer­ent way: I ran out of money. I had to get a job. I got hired at this place. Here is what hap­pened: “When one no longer knows what, to do to make a liv­ing, all that remains is find­ing a job as an O.S.. That is why I found myself one day on a street out­side the large door of a cable-making plant, along with about twenty other men…”65

The inter­twin­ing of the uni­ver­sal and par­tic­u­lar is repeated at the level of fram­ing infor­ma­tion. Romano’s text fea­tures extremely detailed accounts of worker responses to con­crete prob­lems (using steel pipe to smash closed win­dows that should be open to pro­vide ven­ti­la­tion) and resis­tance (the infor­mally orga­nized slow-downs accom­pa­ny­ing the arrival of the time-study men, chronos in French, because every­one knows that work­ing up to or over speed is self- defeat­ing and results only in increased pro­duc­tion quo­tas and cadences). In the sec­tion “Why Such Inef­fi­ciency?” Romano pro­vides descrip­tions of the shop-floor view of over­all indus­trial orga­ni­za­tion. These accounts are sit­u­ated within a “shop floor” that is itself decon­tex­tu­al­ized. The reader is pro­vided with no infor­ma­tion about where these acts occur, either within the geog­ra­phy of the fac­tory (work­ers sim­ply do this) or in the world (not a word).66

How­ever, the shop floor is sit­u­ated rather care­fully with respect to the Abstract Fac­tory that is pro­duced within or by the text. The Abstract Fac­tory is elab­o­rated along one of two gen­eral lines. In the writ­ings of Albert and Vivier, a soci­ol­o­giz­ing gaze sur­veys the entirety of the Fac­tory from top to bot­tom and gen­er­ates a typol­ogy of worker strata and var­i­ous per­son­al­ity types.67 In the other pat­tern, the Abstract Fac­tory is described from the stand­point of a par­tic­u­lar shop. For Romano and Mothé, the Abstract Fac­tory func­tions to legit­i­mate and give con­tent to the “pro­le­tar­ian stand­point,” which is a nar­ra­tive posi­tion. The Fac­tory envi­ron­ment locates the reader on the shop floor. The pre­sen­ta­tion of other work­ers from this nar­ra­tive view­point is also pre­sen­ta­tion of types, but one that serves to fill out the reader’s expe­ri­ence of the tex­tual shop-floor. In his texts pub­lished in Social­isme ou Bar­barie sev­eral years later, Mothé was able to take this much fur­ther than Romano, as will be seen in the next parts of this dis­ser­ta­tion, because the promi­nence of Bil­lan­court for Parisian Left pol­i­tics enabled him to avoid hav­ing to stage the entirety of the Abstract Fac­tory and because his writ­ings appeared as a series of arti­cles that fre­quently involved the same shop and char­ac­ters. Mothe’s read­ers become almost com­fort­able with them: they con­sti­tute some­thing of a reper­toire company.

The point where the worker enters the effec­tive life of the shop floor is also the moment the reader enters the “inte­rior.” The ini­ti­a­tion scene in “The Amer­i­can Worker” is ret­ro­spec­tive, and is staged as an account of rela­tions between a neo­phyte and the polit­i­cal cul­ture of the shop:

The Work­ers’ Organization

I arrived in the plant sev­eral weeks after the “Big Strike” had ended. Things were tense for sev­eral weeks. New­com­ers were eyed with sus­pi­cion by both work­ers and com­pany so soon after the strike. My first day in the plant found me wait­ing in one of the depart­ments for the fore­man. A worker saun­tered over to me. In a very brief dis­cus­sion, he tried to deter­mine my atti­tude toward unions. I shook him off and he walked away. His speech made it clear that he was anti-union. Union men made them­selves con­spic­u­ous by their avoid­ance of new­com­ers.68

Romano only stays on this thresh­old for a para­graph: hav­ing passed an ini­tial test, he is soon inte­grated into the polit­i­cal struc­ture of the shop. This is a cru­cial pas­sage in the pam­phlet, as it marks more than Romano’s pas­sage into the inte­rior of shop-floor life. The sec­tion of which this is the open­ing quickly turns to a detailed dis­cus­sion of the gap that sep­a­rates the union hier­ar­chy from the shop-floor, it is also a demon­stra­tion of, and argu­ment for, the exis­tence of a class per­spec­tive tied to this shop life and inde­pen­dent of union orga­ni­za­tion and ide­ol­ogy. Only after estab­lish­ing this per­spec­tive does Romano under­take his sur­vey of the Abstract Fac­tory: the func­tion of this sur­vey is the legit­i­ma­tion of the view­point from which it is car­ried out. The polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of the posi­tion of the ini­ti­a­tion scene can be seen by coun­ter­pois­ing Romano to Albert. Albert’s nar­ra­tive con­forms much more explic­itly to the con­ven­tions of a travel nar­ra­tive: the encounter, the thresh­old moment, the unan­tic­i­pated test and pas­sage into the inte­rior all hap­pen at the begin­ning. This pas­sage into the inte­rior is explic­itly linked with the acqui­si­tion of skill, where this link remains a per­va­sive assump­tion only made explicit in Romano’s final pages.69

At this point, by way of a con­clu­sion, a reca­pit­u­la­tion. Lefort’s essay is fun­da­men­tal to under­stand­ing Social­isme ou Barbarie’s efforts to gain access to and think about worker expe­ri­ence as the basis for a type of polit­i­cal work that did not sub­or­di­nate this expe­ri­ence to the Higher His­tor­i­cal wis­dom of the Party. Lefort’s approach to worker nar­ra­tives, and his phe­nom­e­nol­ogy of worker expe­ri­ence that frames it, would have com­bined the care­ful gath­er­ing and col­lat­ing of texts with a sophis­ti­cated the­ory of read­ing. His the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work was also shot through with prob­lems of uncon­trolled identification/projection. Efforts to con­trol for this pro­jec­tion were impeded by the nar­row­ness of the sam­ple the group was able to col­lect. This small data set meant that, while the phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus was in place, the reduc­tions them­selves really could not be under­taken. The pos­si­bil­ity remains that a more detailed phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal descrip­tion of the “pro­le­tar­ian stand­point,” based on reduc­tions per­formed with a larger data set, could have sig­nif­i­cantly reduced, or elim­i­nated, the space for pro­jec­tion. Because Social­isme ou Barbarie’s project belongs to the past, we can­not know.

Lefort’s approach to the ques­tion of inter­pret­ing worker nar­ra­tives as win­dows onto shop floor expe­ri­ence took as cen­tral the prob­lem of knowl­edge about social-historical phe­nom­ena, under­stood as spa­tially and tem­po­rally imbri­cated processes that entail or pro­duce meaning-structures or what Cas­to­ri­adis would later call social-imaginary sig­ni­fi­ca­tions. Lefort’s use of phe­nom­e­nol­ogy to ana­lyze these texts cut two ways. By focus­ing on them in terms shaped by the sit­u­a­tion of their pro­duc­tion, it allowed for the devel­op­ment of some inter­est­ing and fruit­ful con­cep­tu­al­iza­tions, par­tic­u­larly in think­ing about prac­tice, which was the domain Social­isme ou Bar­barie wanted to ana­lyze as the every­day “ground” of its rev­o­lu­tion­ary project. The sit­u­at­ing of prac­tice and how it unfolds within both the imma­nent and (poten­tially) rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­texts at once clar­i­fies the ori­en­ta­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory with respect to the present. At the same time, Lefort’s focus on the con­di­tions of their pro­duc­tion and indi­ca­tions of worker cre­ativ­ity, pat­terns of self-organization and ori­en­ta­tions toward the future entailed a curi­ous neglect of these texts as texts, and of the expe­ri­ence of being a reader of them. At the same time as it enabled an iso­la­tion of poten­tials for rev­o­lu­tion­ary cre­ativ­ity, the phe­nom­e­nol­ogy of worker nar­ra­tives for­mal­ized a pro­jec­tive rela­tion between analyst/critic/militant and worker. This pro­jec­tive rela­tion­ship repeated within the texts, in the gaps that sep­a­rated their extreme pre­ci­sion about con­crete shop-floor expe­ri­ence and its pre­sen­ta­tion in a decon­tex­tu­al­ized, abstract man­ner, that is in pre­cisely the way these nar­ra­tives gave Social­isme ou Bar­barie, as a com­mu­nity of read­ers (like our­selves), access to the shop floor, the pro­le­tar­ian stand­point, and the “games” in the con­text of which that stand­point was instituted.

Lefort’s phe­nom­e­nol­ogy of worker nar­ra­tives approach brack­eted from the out­set the pos­si­bil­ity that this type of self-reflexive writ­ing was as much a lit­er­ary con­struc­tion (a set of genre rules and expec­ta­tions) as an account of actual expe­ri­ence. By treat­ing these nar­ra­tives as phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal data for a series of reduc­tions that never get under­way, Lefort’s approach sets Social­isme ou Bar­barie up for a whole­sale con­fu­sion of the sig­ni­fied of the nar­ra­tives’ dis­course with the ref­er­ent, tak­ing for “objec­tive” his­tory that which is highly medi­ated and processed through cer­tain lin­guis­tic and generic con­ven­tions. The sig­ni­fied would be the inter­nal world of the nar­ra­tive, the Abstract Fac­tory, the decon­tex­tu­al­ized shop floor, the Work­ers as types or as indi­vid­ual atoms, the upsurg­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary wave sweep­ing across the Amer­i­can work­ing class, the for­ma­tion of a class con­scious­ness closely linked to the pro­duc­tion of sig­ni­fi­ca­tions on the shop floor out­side of and in direct oppo­si­tion to the exist­ing work­ers’ move­ment. The ref­er­ent would be the actual fac­tory expe­ri­ence of Paul Romano or Eric Albert. The rela­tion between the two would be dif­fi­cult enough to estab­lish even were Romano and Albert present in Social­isme ou Bar­barie, as will be seen by way of Gautrat/Mothé. Here, the rela­tion is unde­cid­able. That Social­isme ou Bar­barie took these nar­ra­tives as direct accounts of expe­ri­ence, whose con­structed char­ac­ter is sim­ply a func­tion of the tem­po­ral gap that sep­a­rated the worker within a spe­cific sit­u­a­tion from that same worker writ­ing about that sit­u­a­tion tes­ti­fies to the power of what Roland Barthes called the “real­ism effect” of these nar­ra­tives.70

Stephen Hastings-King lives by a salt marsh in Essex, Massachusetts where he makes constraints, works with prepared piano and writes entertainments of various kinds. His short fictions have appeared in Sleepingfish, Black Warrior Review and elsewhere. He has a Ph.D in Modern European History from Cornell University. His book, Looking for the Proletariat: Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Question of Worker Writing, will be published in the Spring of 2014 from Brill as part of the Historical Materialism series.

Originally posted: September 27, 2014 at Viewpoint

  • 1. This is a ver­sion of a chap­ter that will appear in my Look­ing for the Work­ing Class: Social­isme ou Bar­barie, Cor­re­spon­dence and the Prob­lem of Worker Writ­ing through the His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism Series at Brill in early 2014. Many thanks are owed to Kelly Grotke and David Ames Cur­tis for their help with prepar­ing this piece.
  • 2. Claude Lefort, “L’experience pro­lé­tari­enne,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie 11 (1952), 1-19. Reprinted as Claude Lefort, “L’experience pro­lé­tari­enne,” in Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 1979). Ref­er­ence here is to Claude Lefort, “L’experience pro­lé­tari­enne,” in Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 1979), 74.
  • 3. See François Dosse, L’Histoire du struc­tural­isme t. 1: le champs du signe (Paris: Le Décou­verte, 1991).
  • 4. See Alain Touraine, L’Evolution du tra­vail ouvrier aux usines Renault (Paris: CNRS, 1955). Argu­ments no. 12/13 is an impor­tant com­pi­la­tion of texts on 1958 and the French work­ing class. I will return to the inter­ac­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics and the nascent “soci­olo­gie du tra­vail” in my Look­ing for the Work­ing Class: Social­isme ou Bar­barie, Cor­re­spon­dence and the Prob­lem of Worker Writ­ing.
  • 5. This is not to say that the work of peo­ple like Elton Mayo was with­out util­ity: see the exten­sive, crit­i­cal use made of Mayo in Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “On the Con­tent of Social­ism III: Worker’s Strug­gles against the Orga­ni­za­tion of Cap­i­tal­ist Enter­prise” in Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings v.2, edited and trans­lated by David Ames Cur­tis (Min­neapo­lis: Min­nesota, 1988). Don­ald Roy’s work, which rep­re­sented a mar­ginal, more explic­itly Left/critical vari­ant of indus­trial soci­ol­ogy, is fun­da­men­tal to Cas­to­ri­adis’ 1958 text. See pp. 184-188, Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings v.2, edited and trans­lated by David Ames Cur­tis (Min­neapo­lis: Min­nesota, 1988).
  • 6. Claude Lefort, “L’experience pro­lé­tari­enne,” in Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie, 74.
  • 7. This mis­er­a­bal­ist con­cep­tion of the work­ing class, which empha­sizes its exploita­tion to the near exclu­sion of other aspect of working-class life, is evi­dent in Engels On the Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land, 1844 and in the (quite remark­able) analy­sis of the Eng­lish work­ing class of 1860 in vol­ume one of Cap­i­tal. By con­trast, see, for exam­ple, E. P. Thomp­son, The Mak­ing of the Eng­lish Work­ing Class (New York: Van­tage, 1966).
  • 8. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie,” in Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings v.1, edited and trans­lated by David Ames Cur­tis (Min­neapo­lis: Min­nesota, 1988).
  • 9. This refers pri­mar­ily to the con­fig­u­ra­tion of trade unions and polit­i­cal par­ties dom­i­nant at a given time and the pos­si­bil­i­ties that may or may not exist for autonomous action. On this, see fur­ther on in this sec­tion.
  • 10. Claude Lefort, “L’experience pro­lé­tari­enne,” in Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie, pas­sim.
  • 11. See Chap­ter 2 in my forth­com­ing Look­ing for the Pro­le­tariat.
  • 12. See the debate on rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion pub­lished in Social­isme ou Bar­barie 10 (July-August, 1952): Chaulieu, Pierre, “La direc­tion pro­lé­tari­enne,” 10-18 and Mon­tal, Claude, “Le pro­lé­tariat et le prob­lème de la direc­tion révo­lu­tion­naire,” 18-27. The ref­er­ence here is to Montal’s (Lefort), 27: There is no need for a rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion at all.
  • 13. This point emerges from a read­ing of the exchange between Lefort and Jean Paul Sartre that resulted in Lefort’s depar­ture from Les Temps Modemes in 1954. Par­tic­u­larly impor­tant is Cas­to­ri­adis’ “con­tri­bu­tion” to the debate which, in the con­text of a gen­eral defense, crit­i­cizes Lefort on pre­cisely this point. See the first two parts of Sartre’s “Com­mu­nists and Peace” orig­i­nally pub­lished in TM no. 81, July 1952 and 84-85, Novem­ber 1952; reprinted in Jean-Paul Sartre, Sit­u­a­tions VI (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 1964). Lefort’s “Le marx­isme et Sartre” orig­i­nally in TM no. 89, April 1953 along with Sartre’s response, “Réponse a Claude Lefort”. Lefort’s arti­cle is reprinted in Claude Lefort, Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie. Sartre’s two essays are trans­lated as Jean-Paul Sartre, The Com­mu­nists and Peace (New York: George Braziller, 1968). Cas­to­ri­adis, “Sartre, le stal­in­isme et les ouvri­ers,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie, 12: 63–88 is a response to Sartre’s attack on Lefort. It was reprinted in Cas­to­ri­adis, L’experience du mou­ve­ment ouvrier 1: Com­ment lut­ter (Paris: 10/18, 1974) and is trans­lated in Cas­to­ri­adis, Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings v.1, edited and trans­lated by David Ames Cur­tis (Min­neapo­lis: Min­nesota, 1988), pp. 207-241. See also Mau­rice Merleau-Ponty, “Sartre and Ultra­bol­she­vism,” in Adven­tures of the Dialec­tic (Evanston: North­west­ern, 1973).
  • 14. This point could be much more fully devel­oped, par­tic­u­larly since it addresses one of the more com­mon charges lev­eled at Marx(ists) con­cern­ing the prob­lem of peri­od­ic­ity and, by exten­sion, of account­ing for changes lead­ing up to cap­i­tal­ism. Lefort’s argu­ments can be found in Claude Lefort, “L’experience pro­lé­tari­enne,” in Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 1979), 4-5. See also Lefort 1978, orig­i­nally pub­lished in Les Temps Mod­ernes no. 78.
  • 15. Claude Lefort, “L’experience pro­lé­tari­enne,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie 11: 4- 5.
  • 16. For the most fully worked out state­ment of this cri­tique of Marx, see “L’expérience de l’histoire du mou­ve­ment ouvrier” in Cas­to­ri­adis, L’experience du mou­ve­ment ouvrier 1: Com­ment lut­ter (Paris: 10/18, 1974), trans­lated as “On the Expe­ri­ence of the His­tory of the Work­ers’ Move­ment” in Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “The Ques­tion of the His­tory of the Work­ers’ Move­ment,” in Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings v.2, edited and trans­lated by David Ames Cur­tis (Min­neapo­lis: Min­nesota, 1993).
  • 17. See Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, L’experience du mou­ve­ment ouvrier 1: Com­ment lut­ter (Paris: 10/18, 1974).
  • 18. A term taken, along with the prob­lems in trans­lat­ing it, from Mau­rice Merleau-Ponty.
  • 19. The lan­guage of social-imaginary sig­ni­fi­ca­tions is taken from the later philo­soph­i­cal work of Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis. While it appears through­out this arti­cle, it oper­ates pri­mar­ily as a heuris­tic rather than as an explicit ana­lytic cat­e­gory. Here refers to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary project and its recon­fig­u­ra­tion of ele­ments of every­day expe­ri­ence in terms shape by an under­stand­ing of social­ism as direct demo­c­ra­tic.
  • 20. The posi­tion that bour­geois thought in gen­eral is char­ac­ter­ized by an effort to derive real­ity from the con­cepts used to think about/order that real­ity, a posi­tion com­mon to Marx, Niet­zsche, and oth­ers.
  • 21. See para­graph 87 of Edmund Husserl, Ideas (New York: Col­lier, 1962), for the dis­tinc­tion between the object in itself and the noe­matic, and on the func­tion of inverted com­mas in restrict­ing mean­ing to the noe­matic.
  • 22. The open­ing pages of Claude Lefort, “L’experience pro­lé­tari­enne,” in Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie, expend con­sid­er­able energy to define and defend this domain from within the Marx­ist tra­di­tion.
  • 23. S ou B used phrases like this in a quite dif­fer­ent sense than is cur­rent largely in inter­est group-based pol­i­tics fash­ion­able on Amer­i­can cam­puses. its usage has noth­ing to do with the “post-modern” notion that sub­ject posi­tions are con­sti­tuted dis­cur­sively to such an extent that one can sim­ply pick one out that best cor­re­sponds to the struc­ture of affect—a vari­ant of shop­ping in a “free mar­ket” where “ratio­nal actors” cal­cu­late their inter­ests and buy (into) a pol­i­tics off the rack. Such shop­ping need never call into ques­tion the sys­tem of dis­tri­b­u­tion that sup­plies par­tic­u­lar options to the exclu­sion of oth­ers, any more than one would be led to think about transna­tional cap­i­tal­ism by roam­ing the Gap. For S ou B, the goal was rather auton­omy: the rev­o­lu­tion­ary project aspired to insti­tute direct democ­racy, the polit­i­cal form within which auton­omy might be oper­a­tionally pos­si­ble.
  • 24. The last sen­tence is quite dif­fi­cult to trans­late. It appears to try replac­ing a more Trot­sky­ist mode of ana­lyz­ing worker strug­gles in terms of short-term prospects with a more abstract form of inter­ro­ga­tion into the polit­i­cal or ide­o­log­i­cal pre­con­di­tions that enabled Trotskyism—and others—to assess the “mean­ing” of worker strug­gle. This reflex­ive, prop­erly philo­soph­i­cal and open-ended mode of inter­ro­ga­tion is posited here as the expe­ri­ence through which the class might develop, Claude Lefort, “L’experience pro­lé­tari­enne,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie 11: 6.
  • 25. Mau­rice Merleau-Ponty, The Phe­nom­e­nol­ogy of Per­cep­tion, trans­lated by Colin Smith (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 1965), Chap­ter 6.
  • 26. From Merleau-Ponty’s view­point, Heidegger’s effort to push the inquiry about the nature of the cop­ula into a sin­gle gen­eral ques­tion of Being could be viewed as itself an effort to insti­tute a tran­scen­den­tal phi­los­o­phy of fini­tude. On how dif­fi­cult it is to sep­a­rate what phi­los­o­phy says from what it does insti­tu­tion­ally, see François Dosse, L’Histoire du struc­tural­isme t. 1: le champs du signe (Paris: Le Décou­verte, 1991) and Vin­cent Descombes, Le même et l’autre (Paris: Minuit, 1979). Both detail the con­se­quences of Merleau-Ponty’s think­ing as open­ing the field for struc­tural­ist anthro­pol­ogy to take over the posi­tion for­merly occu­pied by phi­los­o­phy.
  • 27. The notion of insti­tu­tion as used by Merleau-Ponty derives from a read­ing of Edmund Husserl, “The Ori­gin of Geom­e­try,” in The Cri­sis of Euro­pean Sci­ences and Tran­scen­den­tal Phe­nom­e­nol­ogy trans­lated by David Carr (Evanston: North­west­ern, 1970). See Merleau-Ponty, “Insti­tu­tion in Per­sonal and Pub­lic His­tory,” in Themes from the Lec­tures at the Col­lège de France (Evanston: North­west­ern, 1970). The sem­i­nars on the notion of insti­tu­tion have since been pub­lished as Mau­rice Merleau-Ponty, Notes de cours sur L’origine de la géométrie de Husserl (Paris: Presses uni­ver­si­taires de France, 1998). See also Dick Howard, The Marx­ian Legacy (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1988), 167.
  • 28. The notion of rules in rela­tion to par­tic­u­lar lan­guage games is an impor­tant theme explored in Wittgenstein’s Philo­soph­i­cal Inves­ti­ga­tions, which could be prof­itably cross-voiced with Merleau-Ponty’s think­ing in this regard.
  • 29. This dis­tinc­tion between prac­tices nar­rowly con­strued and that which uni­fies them, gives them a direc­tion (a sens), the domain out of which they emerge and rel­a­tive to which they acquire mean­ing has been elab­o­rated in var­i­ous ways. Merleau-Ponty does so in “Cezanne’s Doubt” in Mau­rice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-sense, trans­lated by Hubert Drey­fus and Patri­cia Allen Drey­fus, (Evanston: North­west­ern, 1964), or on Matisse in Mau­rice Merleau-Ponty, Signs (Evanston: North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity Press, 1964) through his notion of “l’oeuvre.” Lefort later took up the same issue in his work on Machi­avelli (l’oeuvre of Machi­avelli is the cre­ation of the polit­i­cal). Devel­op­ing in a sep­a­rate direc­tion, Cas­to­ri­adis, fol­low­ing Freud, refers to this dimen­sion of social prac­tice as sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, that which brings into rela­tion. The pro­duc­tion and deploy­ment of such sig­ni­fi­ca­tions is what the social-historical does.
  • 30. Claude Lefort, “L’experience pro­lé­tari­enne,” in Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie, 91-92.
  • 31. On the French salary scale, occu­py­ing the rank­ings of P1-P3.
  • 32. The ship­yard strikes in St. Nazaire and Nantes dur­ing the sum­mer of 1955, for exam­ple, were trig­gered by Pen­hoët (and the state’s) efforts to increase cadences by redesign­ing pro­duc­tion in such a way as to tie together the wages and func­tions of work­ers involved with var­i­ous stages of weld­ing despite some oper­a­tions being sim­pler and faster than oth­ers. See Louis Oury, Les Pro­los (Paris: DeNoël, 1973) and the accounts of the strikes pub­lished in Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 18 (Jan-Mar 1956).
  • 33. Ben­jamin Coriat, L’atelier et le chronomètre (Paris: Chris­t­ian Bour­gois, 1979), 16ff.
  • 34. On the role of the auto­mo­bile indus­try as lead­ing edge of tech­no­log­i­cal, orga­ni­za­tional and demand changes in the 20th cen­tury, see Jean-Pierre Bar­dou, The Auto­mo­bile Rev­o­lu­tion (Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina Press, 1982). For a litany of pre­con­di­tions that allowed the Amer­i­can auto­mo­bile indus­try to shape this rev­o­lu­tion in indus­trial orga­ni­za­tion, see Chap­ter 6.
  • 35. On this process at Renault, see Michel Freyssenet, La siderurgie fran­caise, 1945-1979: L’histoire d’une fail­lite: les solu­tions qui s’affrontent (Savelli, 1979).
  • 36. See Paul Romano, The Amer­i­can Worker (Detroit: Bewick, 1972), 40. See also Alain Touraine, L’Evolution du tra­vail ouvrier aux usines Renault for a more detailed ver­sion of the same argu­ment in the con­text of Renault’s Bil­lan­court fac­tory.
  • 37. This was often more true on paper than in actual fac­to­ries. By the time cov­ered in Touraine’s book on work at Bil­lan­court, it had become an awk­ward com­bi­na­tion of advanced design and heav­ily mod­i­fied older machin­ery that required an unusu­ally large sec­tion of machin­ists sim­ply to maintain—rather like the Boston MTA does today. A more thor­ough­go­ing Fordi­s­a­tion of pro­duc­tion could not be adapted to such con­di­tions: it was there­fore cheaper and eas­ier sim­ply to build a new fac­tory at Flins based on newer con­cep­tions and employ­ing more up-to- date equip­ment. When Flins opened in 1952, the writ­ing was in a sense already on the wall for Bil­lan­court. Demon­stra­tion that tran­si­tions take time: Bil­lan­court, the clos­ing of which was announced in 1980, closed in 1992, the same week EuroDis­ney opened.
  • 38. For the French Left, the métallo was the quin­tes­sen­tial rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant.
  • 39. Daniel Mothé, “Les ouvri­ers français et les nord africains,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie 21 (1958): 146ff.
  • 40. These would only later be tar­geted by Maoist “étab­lis” after 1968. Les etab­lis were Maoist stu­dents who got jobs on fac­tory assem­bly lines in order to be with the work­ers in the period fol­low­ing May 1968. See Robert Lin­hardt, L’établi (Paris: Minuit, 1978). Nico­las Dubost, Flins sans fin (Paris: Maspero, 1979) pro­vides an inter­est­ing and oddly mov­ing account of the con­di­tions among immi­grant work­ers on the line at Flins and of the dis­as­trous mis­takes the Maoists made while try­ing to orga­nize them.
  • 41. Roland Barthes, Plea­sure of the Text, edited and trans­lated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975).
  • 42. Claude Lefort, “L’experience pro­lé­tari­enne,” in Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie, 87-88.
  • 43. Claude Lefort, “L’experience pro­lé­tari­enne,” in Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie, 90.
  • 44. The clas­sic state­ment on par­tic­i­pant observer soci­ol­ogy is William Foote Whyte, Street Cor­ner Soci­ety (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1993). More recent exam­ples include David Simons and Edward Burns: The Cor­ner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neigh­bor­hood (New York: Ran­dom House (Broad­way), 1998). Loïc Wac­quant, Body & Soul: Note­books of an Appren­tice Boxer (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 2006) is a lovely demon­stra­tion of what can be done with this form.
  • 45. This is the peril of the insti­tut­ing. On this theme, see Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, “Marx­ism and Rev­o­lu­tion­ary The­ory,” reprinted in The Imag­i­nary Insti­tu­tion of Soci­ety trans­lated by Kath­leen Blamey, Cam­bridge: MIT, 1998), pas­sim.
  • 46. Con­sider the dif­fer­ence between a musi­cal impro­vi­sa­tion and a record­ing of an impro­vi­sa­tion. See also Merleau-Ponty “Indi­rect Lan­guage and the Voices of Silence” in Mau­rice Merleau-Ponty, Signs (Evanston: North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity Press, 1964) on the gap which sep­a­rates Matisse paint­ing from a film of Matisse paint­ing and the whole­sale trans­for­ma­tions of mean­ings that accom­pany the pas­sage from open-ended cre­ative work to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of open-ended cre­ative work.
  • 47. I think the motif of dou­bling was inspired by Jacques Ran­cière, La nuit des pro­lé­taires: Archives du rêve ouvrier (Paris: Fayard, 1981).
  • 48. Philippe Guil­laume, “L’ouvrier améri­cain,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie 1 (1949): 78.
  • 49. Ibid.
  • 50. Orig­i­nally pub­lished along with Paul Romano, The Amer­i­can Worker (Detroit: Bewick, 1972). It was trans­lated by Guil­laume and pub­lished in Socialise ou Bar­barie nos. 7 and 8 (1950-1951). See the pamphlet’s final flour­ishes.
  • 51. Inter­views with most mem­bers of S ou B, Véga in par­tic­u­lar. This theme of the war name recurs in Chap­ter 5 of my forth­com­ing Look­ing for the Pro­le­tariat more exten­sively.
  • 52. Inter­view with Pierre Blachier.
  • 53. Mar­tin Glaber­man, Intro­duc­tion to Paul Romano, The Amer­i­can Worker, v.
  • 54. J.H. Pref­ace to The Amer­i­can Worker, viii.
  • 55. The Amer­i­can Worker, 1. We return to this shortly.
  • 56. Ibid.
  • 57. Roland Barthes, “L’effet du réel,” Com­mu­ni­ca­tions 11 (1968): 11.
  • 58. Philippe Guil­laume, “L’ouvrier améri­cain.”
  • 59. Eric Albert “La vie dans une usine,” Les Temps Mod­ernes 81 (1952): 95–130.
  • 60. Ibid., 98-101. This sec­tion in Albert is an exact mir­ror­ing of a sim­i­lar sec­tion in Georges Navels 1945 auto­bi­og­ra­phy Travaux, which recounts his expe­ri­ences in fac­to­ries on either side of World War I. On Navel, see the sec­tion on pro­le­tar­ian lit­er­a­ture in Chap­ter 5 of my forth­com­ing Look­ing for the Pro­le­tariat.
  • 61. I know noth­ing about Eric Albert. The pos­si­bil­ity of being an anarcho-syndicalist comes from page l25ff: Albert dis­cusses what he con­sid­ers to be the sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal tra­di­tion lost to younger work­ers in anar­chist writ­ers like Proud­hon, Bakunin, Jules Val­lès, Collinet and Fried­mann. He also out­lines an anar­chist take on the Pop­u­lar Front on page 117.
  • 62. See Chap­ter 5 of my forth­com­ing Look­ing for the Pro­le­tariat for an extended dis­cus­sion of Cor­re­spon­dence.
  • 63. Paul Romano, The Amer­i­can Worker, 3.
  • 64. This dis­cus­sion leans heav­ily on Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: Mak­ing and Unmak­ing the World (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press 1985).
  • 65. Eric Albert, “La vie dans une usine,” 98-100.
  • 66. Paul Romano, The Amer­i­can Worker,14-15.
  • 67. Albert’s typo­log­i­cal chap­ters are enti­tled “Les anciens,” “Les jeunes” etc. Vivier fol­lows much the same model. That Viver’s nar­ra­tive is rel­a­tively ignored in sub­se­quent devel­op­ment is indica­tive, I think, of S ou B’s col­lec­tive rela­tion to this type of writ­ing. See Eric Albert, “La vie dans une usine,” 118-126.
  • 68. Paul Romano, The Amer­i­can Worker, 21.
  • 69. Ibid., 34-41.
  • 70. See Roland Barthes, “The Dis­course of His­tory,” trans­lated by Stephen Bann, Com­par­a­tive Crit­i­cism 3: 7–20.

The Problem of the Workers’ Paper (1955)

An article by Daniel Mothé that opened a dis­cus­sion on the prob­lem of the work­ers’ jour­nal, which was car­ried on in issues of Social­isme ou Bar­barie.

This text opens a dis­cus­sion on the prob­lem of the work­ers’ paper, which will be car­ried on in the fol­low­ing issues of Social­isme ou Bar­barie. It draws on the expe­ri­ence of Tri­bune Ouvrière, pub­lished for over a year by a group of work­ers from Regie Renault, from which we have pub­lished extracts in the pre­ced­ing issue of this review, and from which one will find new extracts in the cur­rent one.

The devel­op­ment of cul­ture and the role of polit­i­cal par­ties are at the ori­gin of the enor­mous expan­sion of the press that char­ac­ter­izes our cen­tury. The divi­sion of labor, on the other hand, had turned jour­nal­ism into a dis­tinct indus­trial branch with its own laws. This is par­tic­u­larly the case in “lib­eral” cap­i­tal­ism, where the press must gen­er­ally be a prof­itable industry.

Although total­i­tar­ian regimes sup­press this appar­ent auton­omy, and closely bind the paper to the regime, it is no less true that the paper of a com­mu­nist party in a pop­u­lar democ­racy must obey the same fun­da­men­tal rules of a lib­eral paper in a West­ern democ­racy: to inform, influ­ence the ide­ol­ogy of its read­ers – and above all: to be read. It’s for this rea­son that even in total­i­tar­ian coun­tries, the paper must make con­ces­sions to read­ers; since these can­not be made on the polit­i­cal or ide­o­log­i­cal level, the role of the jour­nal­ist is pre­cisely to find the means of inter­est­ing the reader through the back door. We will not put jour­nal­ism on trial here, or ana­lyze the con­tra­dic­tions in which it develops.

Against the offi­cial press arises the press of rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tions: the lat­ter, and in par­tic­u­lar dur­ing peri­ods of rev­o­lu­tion­ary cri­sis in soci­ety, are blessed by the fact their polit­i­cal con­tent cor­re­sponds to the inter­ests of their working-class read­ers. But, although their polit­i­cal con­tent may be com­pletely dif­fer­ent, rev­o­lu­tion­ary papers always have this in com­mon with bour­geois papers, their sep­a­ra­tion from the work­ing class; the paper is in both cases a sep­a­rate body, with its offi­cial staff, its hier­ar­chy of edi­tors, of which some have pro­pa­ganda as their task, all kinds of papers; con­clude, under the pre­text that both of them pro­duce other infor­ma­tion, etc.

On the one side, there­fore, we have the bour­geois or Stal­in­ist paper, on the other the rev­o­lu­tion­ary paper, each of which spreads its own ide­ol­ogy. Our goal here is not to mix these two kinds of papers; to assume that both make pro­pa­ganda and pol­i­tics, that they have the same ide­ol­ogy, would be a stu­pid­ity that one would only find in syn­di­cal­ist and anar­chist currents.

But if we have spo­ken of these papers and dis­cov­ered a char­ac­ter­is­tic com­mon to them, it’s in fact to set them against another kind of paper, which we call the work­ers’ paper.

This is not about a new idea, pro­duced through intel­lec­tual cre­ation; such papers have already existed in the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment (work­ers’ papers of the 19th cen­tury). And, as we will try to show in the fol­low­ing pages, this idea belongs to the fun­da­men­tal con­cep­tion of social­ism, the capac­ity of the work­ing class to destroy cap­i­tal­ism and man­age a social­ist soci­ety itself.

This work­ers’ paper will be a paper that will not have a sep­a­rate appa­ra­tus; in other words, its edi­tors, its dis­trib­u­tors, its read­ers will be a rea­son­ably large ensem­ble of work­ers. Not only will the paper’s appa­ra­tus not be sep­a­rated from from its read­ers, but its con­tent, too, will be deter­mined by this col­lec­tive of working-class edi­tors, dis­trib­u­tors, and read­ers. The paper will not have as its objec­tive the dif­fu­sion of an estab­lished polit­i­cal con­cep­tion to the work­ing class, but will share the con­crete expe­ri­ences of indi­vid­ual work­ers and groups of work­ers, in order to respond to the prob­lems that con­cern them.

What are these problems?

There are first of all prob­lems of exploita­tion, which impose them­selves every day, at the heart of pro­duc­tion – and we don’t just mean by that the prob­lems of every­day demands [reven­di­ca­tion], but all aspects of the work­ers’ alien­ation within the frame­work [cadre] of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion. There are then all the prob­lems that the social frame­work of cap­i­tal­ism imposes on work­ers. But the class is not only held in its exploited role by the eco­nomic laws of cap­i­tal­ism, but also by the ide­ol­ogy of this soci­ety. The con­cerns of the work­ers are devi­ated from their real goals by the dom­i­nant ide­olo­gies: either bour­geois or Stal­in­ist cur­rents deform the prob­lems that con­cern work­ers (for exam­ple the prob­lem of wages tied to pro­duc­tiv­ity by the bosses, or Ger­man rear­ma­ment by the Stal­in­ists), or they insert into the class con­cerns that are fun­da­men­tally alien (elec­toral law). Finally, the very exis­tence of these ide­olo­gies and their dif­fu­sion in the heart of the work­ing class poses a prob­lem in itself. What are these ide­o­log­i­cal cur­rents, in what way do they influ­ence the work­ers, in what ways do the work­ers react? Respond­ing to these ques­tions is the goal the paper has to set for itself. It is there­fore just as absurd to say from the start that the work­ers’ paper will only talk about the inter­na­tional polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, as to say that the jour­nal will only talk about the rela­tion­ship between work­ers and the man­age­ment. Thus, the paper must be “empir­i­cal” to a cer­tain degree; it must fol­low the every­day con­cerns of the work­ers. Only the bureau­cratic or bour­geois orga­ni­za­tions could fear this; rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies have noth­ing to lose in this dia­logue, they have every­thing to gain because only the work­ing class can pro­vide the means and the forms of strug­gle against cap­i­tal­ist society.

If we are led to talk to talk about this prob­lem today, it’s because there exist two exper­i­ments with a paper of this type, one in the United States with the paper Cor­re­spon­dence, the other in France, with Tri­bune Ouvrière. We will exam­ine the prob­lem in light of the expe­ri­ence of Tri­bune Ouvrière, both at the the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal level, and we will try to draw lessons from this exper­i­ment, how­ever slim they may be.

We will there­fore remain loyal to this fun­da­men­tal con­cern: the rela­tion between the rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion and the work­ing class, between the­ory and the prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence of work­ers. These two ele­ments will have to meet up, and their junc­tion will not only be an absorp­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­ol­ogy by the work­ing class, but also an assim­i­la­tion of working-class expe­ri­ence by rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants. In this arti­cle, we will try to put into dia­logue [met­tre face à face] our fun­da­men­tal the­o­ret­i­cal con­cep­tion and the dynamic of the work­ers’ efforts who par­tic­i­pate in this paper. We will always be led by these two ele­ments, and in the end we will try to bring them together, the most abstract and the most con­crete, to for­mu­late pre­cise con­clu­sions on the devel­op­ment of the work­ers’ paper.

The Two Processes of Politicization

Pol­i­tics, in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, has become a spe­cial­ized pro­fes­sion, a kind of sci­ence requir­ing study; becom­ing ini­ti­ated is ardu­ous and dis­cour­ages many work­ers who often end up clas­si­fy­ing every­thing they don’t under­stand as “pol­i­tics.” There is there­fore a divi­sion within the work­ing class between those who do pol­i­tics and those who don’t.

For social­ist, Stal­in­ist, or Trot­sky­ist mil­i­tants, the objec­tive is to “politi­cize the worker,” which is to say, to ini­ti­ate him, in a vul­gar­ized and sim­pli­fied form, into the mys­ter­ies of this sci­ence. This ini­ti­a­tion aims to con­vince him that the party in ques­tion defends the worker and that, for his part, the worker must defend the party.

For Stal­in­ists, this politi­ciza­tion con­sists in intro­duc­ing the work­ers to the polit­i­cal mech­a­nisms of the bour­geoisie, both on the domes­tic ter­rain (the mean­ing of the bour­geois par­ties), as well as the for­eign (the mean­ing of inter­na­tional rela­tions). For Trot­sky­ists, intro­duc­ing work­ers to pol­i­tics is much more com­plex and dif­fi­cult: it requires an inter­pre­ta­tion of the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment (the degen­er­a­tion of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and of the Third Inter­na­tional), and an equally abridged expla­na­tion of Marx­ist the­o­ries on the econ­omy, pol­i­tics, etc.

Both the attempts to ini­ti­ate work­ers to bour­geois pol­i­tics as well as the attempt to intro­duce them to abstract ques­tions rests on a par­tic­u­lar con­cep­tion of the role of mass orga­ni­za­tions and move­ments. For Stal­in­ism and Trot­sky­ism, the mass orga­ni­za­tions and move­ments are only the reser­voirs from which the party draws its worker mil­i­tants, and onto which the party tries to imprint its unique ori­en­ta­tion, by means of infil­tra­tion and other maneu­vers. They tend to sub­sti­tute the pol­i­tics of mass orga­ni­za­tions with the pol­i­tics of the party, the ini­tia­tive of the work­ers with the ini­tia­tive of the party; it’s all about sub­sti­tut­ing the prob­lems that are born in pro­duc­tion or in the pub­lic lives of work­ers, with the gen­eral polit­i­cal prob­lems that con­cern the party. This is how they end up explain­ing to work­ers that low wages are result of the accords made in Paris, or that they are the prod­uct of the degen­er­a­tion of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion – some­thing that is, in vary­ing degrees, an absur­dity and a mystification.

In the two con­cep­tions, we find the same idea: gen­eral polit­i­cal prob­lems that con­cern the party, no inter­est, the only inter­est resides in the pol­i­tics of the French gov­ern­ment or in the pol­i­tics of the Russ­ian bureaucracy.

Aside from its mys­ti­fy­ing con­tent, this con­cep­tion rests on fun­da­men­tal the­o­ret­i­cal error: it mis­rec­og­nizes the exis­tence of two processes of politi­ciza­tion, one which is par­tic­u­lar to mil­i­tants, another which is par­tic­u­lar to the work­ing class.

If the train­ing [for­ma­tion] of rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant is a for­ma­tion that is almost exclu­sively intel­lec­tual, espe­cially in those peri­ods, like the ones we have lived through, where the absence of work­ers’ move­ments has uprooted the rev­o­lu­tion­ary minori­ties from the class, the polit­i­cal for­ma­tion of work­ers is, on the con­trary, almost exclu­sively prac­ti­cal. It’s in the course of its dif­fer­ent strug­gles that the work­ing class assim­i­lates, in a more or less last­ing way, a cer­tain polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence, and cre­ates its own meth­ods of strug­gle.1

If it’s obvi­ous that these two poles, the imme­di­ate expe­ri­ence of the work­ers and the the­o­ret­i­cal expe­ri­ence of rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants, must come together, the con­tro­ver­sial ques­tion is to deter­mine their meet­ing point. The Stal­in­ist con­cep­tion only con­sid­ers one aspect of the rela­tion­ship between the orga­ni­za­tion and the class, the one in which the party gives its rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­ol­ogy to the work­ing class. The other aspect, passed over in silence, is that the ide­ol­ogy which the van­guard orga­ni­za­tion gives to the work­ing class is itself drawn from this class. Thus, there is not only one cur­rent, going from the orga­ni­za­tion to the class and from the class to the orga­ni­za­tion. In this sense, if the work­ing class needs the rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion to the­o­rize its expe­ri­ence, the orga­ni­za­tion needs the work­ing class in order to draw on this expe­ri­ence. This process of osmo­sis has a deci­sive importance.

When we say that the orga­ni­za­tion draws from the work­ing class, we don’t mean that it only draws from it the method to make itself under­stood, the way of teach­ing its the­o­ries to the pro­le­tariat, but also the essen­tial ele­ments for the very devel­op­ment of this the­ory. To schema­tize, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion has noth­ing to do with the Church, which instills a dogma by using every mode of expres­sion, slang for the work­ers, music for the artists. It’s not a ques­tion of find­ing a lan­guage acces­si­ble to the class, but of extract­ing the ideas that it gen­er­ates within itself.

One is thus led to acknowl­edge the deep link between the basic and spon­ta­neous reac­tions of the masses and the estab­lish­ment of a social­ist soci­ety; but then, the role of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion is noth­ing more than to sup­port these reac­tions through tac­tics and solely to attach itself to the masses, or else, to trans­pose these onto the ter­rain of bour­geois pol­i­tics. These are the fun­da­men­tal aspi­ra­tions that must guide us.

There are not, of course, two sep­a­rate prob­lems, one of which would be the strug­gle against the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem cul­mi­nat­ing in the seizure of power, and the other being the real­iza­tion of social­ism and the man­age­ment of soci­ety by work­ers; and the role of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion is not to “con­quer” mass organ­isms, but to help them to become the struc­ture of society.

Indeed, social­ism is only pos­si­ble if the work­ers are able to man­age this soci­ety. The abil­ity to man­age must be devel­oped to a max­i­mum at the very heart of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. How­ever, this man­age­ment can­not be done within cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, but only in the strug­gle against cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment; put dif­fer­ently, there’s no way that work­ers can man­age any­thing so long as cap­i­tal­ism per­sists, with the only excep­tion of their own polit­i­cal bod­ies designed to strug­gle against cap­i­tal. And the meth­ods of this appren­tice­ship in man­age­ment must be directed from the start towards the goal they set out to real­ize. How can the work­ing class’s abil­ity to man­age be devel­oped? It’s this ques­tion that the work­ers’ paper must answer, not only in its con­tent, but also in its very con­cep­tion, and in its way of oper­at­ing; which is to say it must itself be man­aged by workers.

The Nature of the Work­ers’ Paper

The work­ers’ paper must there­fore be at the same time the expres­sion of work­ers’ expe­ri­ences (and in this sense, we will see, it can only be writ­ten by work­ers them­selves) and the means of aid­ing in the the­o­riza­tion of this expe­ri­ence (and, in this way, con­tribut­ing to the process of politi­ciz­ing the work­ing class). But the paper must not sep­a­rate itself from this expe­ri­ence, for oth­er­wise it will nec­es­sar­ily escape the con­trol of the work­ing class.

In this def­i­n­i­tion, the work­ers’ paper is nei­ther a polit­i­cal paper, nor a trade-union paper, nor doc­u­men­tary literature.

a) This is not a polit­i­cal paper; that means it is not the expres­sion of a polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, that it does not cir­cu­late the ide­ol­ogy of this orga­ni­za­tion within the masses. It does not assume a pre­req­ui­site agree­ment between dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal ten­den­cies under a pro­gram. The prin­ci­ple that it bases itself on, and that suf­fices to dis­tin­guish it from every other under­tak­ing, is that “the work­ing class is itself able to resolve the prob­lems of its emancipation.”

This does not at all mean that the paper will not dis­cuss pol­i­tics. It can deal with polit­i­cal ques­tions. But the polit­i­cal ideas that will come out of this paper will only be the find­ings of actual expe­ri­ences; they will never be posed as thoughts or pos­tu­lates imply­ing the prior accep­tance of what­ever ideology.

b) But nei­ther will it be a trade-union paper con­cern­ing itself with eco­nomic questions.

We have already had the oppor­tu­nity to show how this sep­a­ra­tion between eco­nomic and polit­i­cal ques­tions does not cor­re­spond today to any­thing in real­ity, that every syn­di­cal­ism, how­ever pure it may be, is polit­i­cal. The paper will not be trade-union paper in the sense that the ques­tions treated will go beyond the frame­work of unionism.

c) This will not be doc­u­men­tary lit­er­a­ture. The work­ers’ paper can­not be a mag­a­zine that con­tents itself with recount­ing the life of fac­tory work­ers in an anec­do­tal fash­ion. The worker knows what hap­pens in the fac­tory; the descrip­tion of his place of work and of his rela­tions with man­age­ment only inter­est those who are out­side the fac­tory. And this is not the case of the paper. The descrip­tion of an event in the fac­tory or some­where else is only of inter­est if one can extract from this event some reflec­tions that con­cern working-class expe­ri­ence in general.

The paper will be nei­ther a polit­i­cal paper, nor a trade-union paper, nor a doc­u­men­tary on the life of work­ers, but it will be all of that at once. We are not say­ing that the work­ers’ paper must be a paper of which one part must be reserved for pol­i­tics, another for eco­nom­ics, and another for description.

The paper will have a more uni­ver­sal mean­ing to the extent that it will con­dense the polit­i­cal, the eco­nomic, and the social. It’s in this way that it will attain a deeper mean­ing of politics.

In tra­di­tional papers one part is reserved for polit­i­cal ques­tions that are the polit­i­cal ques­tions of the bour­geoisie of dif­fer­ent coun­tries: the evo­lu­tion of the rela­tions between the dom­i­nant classes of dif­fer­ent coun­tries, the rela­tions between dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal par­ties, etc.

Another part is reserved for eco­nomic ques­tions and con­sists in lay­ing out the demands of this or that pro­fes­sional cat­e­gory or of this or that union.

Fur­ther­more a con­stant effort is made to recon­nect these sec­tors among them­selves. For exam­ple, the cam­paign led by the CGT against Ger­man rear­ma­ment is tied directly to all kinds of min­i­mum demands of work­ers. This prac­ti­cally amounts to: in order to increase your wages, strug­gle against Ger­man rearmament.

There are there­fore two poles, one polit­i­cal, the other eco­nomic, and for the party papers, it’s a ques­tion of draw­ing a path from one pole to the other. It is in this sense that today the union is a polit­i­cal form and that the polit­i­cal party is an eco­nomic union. It’s a ques­tion of going from the uni­fied agree­ment of the work­ers around a demand, under­stood by every­one, towards a gen­eral pol­i­tics which can­not be eas­ily under­stood by any­one.” For exam­ple, the fact that the unions defend a pro­gram of demands such that “40 hours paid 48, 3 weeks of paid vaca­tions” might make it so that the work­ers will accept the pol­i­tics of the unions, not for them­selves but for the demand. The com­mu­nist munic­i­pal­i­ties take care of old work­ers, vic­tims, pub­lic works, etc. in order to legit­i­mate their gen­eral pol­i­tics. The fact that at this level the com­mu­nists are unbeat­able is the result of their posi­tion of oppo­si­tion to the government.

A minor­ity that is even more detached from the appa­ra­tuses of the bour­geois state than the Stal­in­ists are, which there­fore has noth­ing to lose, could at this level rival and sur­pass the com­mu­nist organizations.

This is what Trot­sky­ist and anar­chist orga­ni­za­tions, which out­bid the demands posed by unions as well as their forms of strug­gle, often do.

Thus appears an entire hier­ar­chi­cal lad­der of polit­i­cal and demand-centered strug­gles. The Syn­di­cat Chré­tien or FP ask for a 10 franc raise, in propos­ing one day of strike. The CGT will demand 20 francs and two days of strikes; the Trot­sky­ists and anar­chists demand a 1,000 franc raise and an unlim­ited strike.

The path that leads from a sim­ple eco­nomic demand to a polit­i­cal demand or action is tor­tu­ous. Some will tie the demands to the ques­tion of Ger­man rear­ma­ment; for oth­ers, the demands will be tied to the destruc­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem and the seizure of polit­i­cal power by the work­ing class.

For both, there exist two issues. The first is the imme­di­ate demands of the work­ers, that of the spon­ta­neous action of the work­ers, of the class strug­gle at its most basic state; the other is the seizure of polit­i­cal power. The con­nec­tion between these two con­cerns can be boiled down like this: “if you help us take polit­i­cal power, you will no longer have to strug­gle for your imme­di­ate demands: we will give them to you.”

This pro­pa­ganda tends to pro­pose a sort of deal to the work­ing class to show it that in every sit­u­a­tion it has the most to gain by vot­ing for this party, and to put this party in power or to make a Rev­o­lu­tion that demands a 10-franc hourly raise every six months.

In fact, this pol­icy con­sists either in show­ing that the work­ing class takes the wrong road when it demands or defends itself in this way, or that it does not demand enough and that in ask­ing for more it will be able to suc­ceed lit­tle by lit­tle in pro­vok­ing crises and pre­cip­i­tat­ing the con­tra­dic­tions of the regime and will, in this way, oppose itself more and more to the sys­tem itself.

But for all these orga­ni­za­tions the work­ers’ strug­gle is con­sid­ered an acces­sory, some­thing sec­ondary, a means to real­iz­ing a final end.

The work­ers’ paper belongs to a dif­fer­ent con­cep­tion. This con­cep­tion is that the most ele­men­tary class strug­gle con­tains within itself the fun­da­men­tal ele­ments for the destruc­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem and for the estab­lish­ment of social­ism. And these are the ele­ments that the paper must find and develop. For it, there is a deep con­nec­tion between the rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­cep­tions of social­ism and the every­day class struggle.

We don’t at all want to say that every class strug­gle poses in its entirety the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of the destruc­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem and the estab­lish­ment of social­ism. Every class strug­gle car­ries the trace of bour­geois or Stal­in­ist ide­o­log­i­cal influ­ences. And it’s first of all these influ­ences that the paper must expel from the class strug­gle. But this can­not be done by enlarg­ing the scope of the strug­gle like the Trot­sky­ists or the anar­chists do, but in dis­cov­er­ing the real objec­tives of this strug­gle. Thus, for exam­ple, for the strike of 28 April 1954, the Trot­sky­ists and the anar­chists launched the idea of an unlim­ited strike – with­out con­cern­ing them­selves with the demand itself. In con­trast, we iden­ti­fied the false mean­ing of the demand, which had been hier­ar­chized. This had a deeper polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance than out­do­ing a move­ment that only rested on a tac­ti­cal objec­tive and which had a false base from the start.

How­ever, the paper could nei­ther address all the fun­da­men­tal issues nor pro­vide an auto­matic con­clu­sion to every issue. The expe­ri­ence of the work­ing class is often a par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence; the role of the paper will be to start with these par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ences in order to pull gen­eral con­clu­sions from them - this is not to say that these gen­eral con­clu­sions are always possible.

The paper will also have to com­bat bour­geois or Stal­in­ist con­cep­tions. In order to do this, it will some­times have to dis­cuss in gen­eral and abstract terms, but will try to recon­nect, as much as pos­si­ble, these issues to the liv­ing expe­ri­ence of the workers.

Every­thing we have just said about the con­tent of the paper cor­re­sponds to a cer­tain ide­o­log­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion. This is unde­ni­able and it would be hyp­o­crit­i­cal to want to present the work­ers’ paper as a paper that does not fol­low any course of action, guided sim­ply by “what the work­ers want and think.”

A paper with­out a direct­ing line would auto­mat­i­cally be con­tra­dic­tory paper which, sooner or later, will fall under the influ­ence of the most wiley polit­i­cal ele­ments. The paper has a line. It’s the dis­cus­sion and inter­ac­tion of the work­ers, but it is only the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants who have under­stood the great mean­ing of this dis­cus­sion, and of the par­tic­i­pa­tion of work­ers in polit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and social issues, who can pre­vent the stran­gu­la­tion of this dis­cus­sion by crafty politicians.

The role of rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant in the paper is not lim­ited to that. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant is not a spec­ta­tor who watches the clash­ing of work­ers in a dis­cus­sion, or who gath­ers, like a col­lec­tor, the reflec­tions of the work­ing class. He is a defender of this dis­cus­sion, but also a par­tic­i­pant. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant will aim to deepen and develop the dis­cus­sion, which will become a dia­logue between work­ers and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant will try to make his ide­ol­ogy tri­umph but, in con­trast to bour­geois and Stal­in­ist politi­cians, he will only use the expe­ri­ence of the work­ers, on the ter­rain of con­crete ques­tions. In this sense, his dia­logue with the work­ers will be a gen­uine dia­logue, and not a monologue.

In this way the paper will avoid the dan­ger of being noth­ing but a con­fronta­tion between polit­i­cal par­ties, and can escape the rut of these par­ties. The role of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant is to help the work­ing class get out of this rut at that will be the direct­ing line of the paper.

In this sense, the sep­a­ra­tion between polit­i­cal arti­cles and “arti­cles that inter­est work­ers” must dis­ap­pear. In bour­geois or Stal­in­ist papers, it is cus­tom­ary to make the polit­i­cal arti­cle eas­ier to swal­low by dilut­ing it with faits divers, with things that hap­pen in every­day society.

In this way the two things are sep­a­rated: the con­crete aspects of life and the abstract aspects, the things “of the peo­ple” and the things “of the politi­cians” or the “ini­ti­ated.” The things that hap­pen every day and which the work­ers can appre­ci­ate are con­sid­ered gos­sip, the gos­sip with which the main­stream media guar­an­tees its success.

The crit­i­cism of the main­stream paper is not that it deals with this every­day life but that it deforms it and that it han­dles it ran­domly, in accor­dance with their moral­ity and ide­ol­ogy. But inas­much as these are the ide­o­log­i­cal con­cerns of the exploit­ing lay­ers who give an inter­pre­ta­tion to real facts, it fol­lows that the facts them­selves undergo a distortion.

Real­ity is also, as a result, unreal, above all dur­ing the peri­ods in which the pro­le­tariat tends to free itself from the dom­i­nant ideologies.

In this way one rep­re­sents abstract men with imag­i­nary feel­ings. The ideal pro­le­tariat – such as it would have to be for a com­mu­nist bureau­crat or for a bour­geois. Thus the com­mu­nist Super­man has more in com­mon with Great Man of His­tory than with the worker-reader that it is sup­posed to represent.

The worker paper will not con­tain these two sep­a­rate ele­ments – the­ory on the one hand and real­ity on the other – not to pan­der to or to have a larger fol­low­ing, but because the prob­lems of every­day life are the essen­tial prob­lems that the work­ing class and its van­guard have to resolve, and because want­ing to limit these con­cerns of the work­ers to “polit­i­cal” aspects of the strug­gle is the inher­i­tance of a false con­cep­tion that only sees in the pro­le­tariat a force likely to back the polit­i­cal party.

The final goal, the solu­tion of all these prob­lems is incon­testably the sup­pres­sion of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety and its replace­ment by a social­ist society.

The final goal is an abstract solu­tion in the sense that it cor­re­sponds to a purely intel­lec­tual notion. The final goal is the schema, the frame­work that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant has absorbed. But this notion remains abstract up until the moment when the expe­ri­ence of the work­ing class leads it to con­cretize this schema, to blan­ket this frame­work with an entire net­work of prac­ti­cal actions. But before this period, the gap sep­a­rat­ing the real actions of the work­ers and the final goal can­not be resolved through a leap from the actual sit­u­a­tion to an abstract solu­tion. Thus, we have crit­i­cized this way of arti­fi­cially treat­ing every prob­lem, which ends every arti­cle with the neces­sity of mak­ing the social­ist rev­o­lu­tion. In order to remain on a con­crete plane, the paper can­not there­fore jump over this gap arti­fi­cially. If, how­ever, we want to offer a con­clu­sion, a per­spec­tive that could be absorbed, which appears con­crete, we risk falling into cer­tain traps. Sim­ply observ­ing the pos­i­tive role of the bureau­cracy of the fac­tory or of the State, for exam­ple, might lead to the con­clu­sion that sup­press­ing the par­a­sites in the very frame­work of soci­ety would be enough to resolve these problems.

That is where the essen­tial role of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant emerges; if he can­not pro­vide a con­crete con­clu­sion to a prob­lem, he can show that every solu­tion call­ing for the reform of this soci­ety is impos­si­ble. In this sense, the paper becomes the set­ting of a real dia­logue that can con­tinue through sev­eral issues.

Even if the solu­tion to every prob­lem finds itself joined in the destruc­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, there are actions, pos­si­bil­i­ties for defense, or of strug­gle against cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety; these strug­gles suc­ceed in devel­op­ing the con­scious­ness of the work­ers, advanc­ing their expe­ri­ence. The mil­i­tants will have to enrich all of these strug­gles with their own expe­ri­ence as the­o­rists, with­out, for all that, say­ing that they can nec­es­sar­ily pro­vide a solu­tion to every problem.

The Work­ers’ Paper in the Present Period

If we pose the prob­lem of the work­ers’ paper today, it’s not solely because this work­ers’ paper fol­lows from our fun­da­men­tal the­o­ret­i­cal con­cep­tions, but also, and above all, because this paper seems real­iz­able in a very con­crete way. It cor­re­sponds to the most appro­pri­ate form of activ­ity in our present period, the form of activ­ity that may be the link [trait d’union] between rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants and the worker van­guard. It is nec­es­sary here to pre­cisely define this period.

In the period that fol­lowed the Lib­er­a­tion, the pro­le­tariat adopted the pol­i­tics of the Stal­in­ist par­ties. The prob­lems that the work­ers posed for them­selves were resolved by the par­ties. Inso­far as the solu­tions pro­posed by the par­ties were only false solu­tions, the adhe­sion of the work­ers to these polit­i­cal forces could not last for long. This is prov­ing to be true more and more clearly today. In this way, we can say that a work­ers’ paper in this period was impos­si­ble in the sense that the pro­le­tariat still put its hopes in the polit­i­cal forces that it fol­lowed. If today, the rela­tion between the work­ers and “their” par­ties has changed, it has not changed in the sense that the Trot­sky­ist orga­ni­za­tions had hoped. The work­ers have not changed their pol­i­tics. They have not changed their ideas on Rus­sia in order to pro­gres­sively con­sti­tute them­selves as a frac­tion, or a party, fur­ther left than the Stal­in­ists, in order finally to bring them­selves closer to the Trot­sky­ist posi­tions, and then the Trot­sky­ists of the Left. This is roughly what the left­ist orga­ni­za­tions had expected would hap­pen over the years, and the major­ity of the strug­gles between these group­ings were based on the tac­tics to adopt in order to form a mass party fur­ther to the Left than the Stal­in­ists. If many work­ers have held onto their hopes about Rus­sia, they have detached them­selves lit­tle by lit­tle from Stal­in­ist pol­i­tics. They have refused to fol­low their watch­words, to union­ize, to read their press, etc.

In this devel­op­ment of the work­ing class one can say that the influ­ence of the social­ist par­ties or the FO unions had no heft since all the pro­pa­ganda and every ide­ol­ogy of these orga­ni­za­tions lim­ited them­selves to an anti-Stalinism that sub­se­quently became their very rai­son d’être.

If the work­ers have bro­ken away from Stal­in­ism after break­ing away from the Social­ist Party, it’s not to go to the Trot­sky­ists, it’s to not do “pol­i­tics”; the work­ers are less and less inter­ested in “politics.”

There, we saw a unan­i­mous reac­tion from all the Left­ist par­ties, from the social­ists to the Trot­sky­ists, who were out­raged by such an atti­tude from the pro­le­tariat. Every­one saw in it a reac­tionary devel­op­ment that could have led to fascism.

For all of these par­ties, the pro­le­tariat is a force that has to be dom­i­nated, canal­ized in its own direc­tion. That the work­ers were mys­ti­fied by Stal­in­ism is only a lesser evil. For oth­ers, it is a ques­tion of find­ing the tac­tic or the method for secur­ing the work­ers through com­pro­mises, alliances, etc.

But the work­ers do not want to let them­selves be canal­ized by any exist­ing orga­ni­za­tion – pre­cisely what makes all these politi­cians shud­der with bitterness.

In con­trast to all these par­ties, we thought that the proletariat’s detach­ment from “pol­i­tics” had a pos­i­tive meaning.

Not only has the pro­le­tariat bro­ken away from the pas­times to which the bour­geois or the Stal­in­ist par­ties tried for year to fas­ten it and which is their own pol­i­tics. But this very deep dis­af­fec­tion does not end in blind con­for­mity to other polit­i­cal par­ties, but in a gen­eral distrust.

In this sense, one can say that the indif­fer­ence of the pro­le­tariat to pol­i­tics is a real­iza­tion that has a polit­i­cal value infi­nitely more pro­found than the dis­cov­ery of the degen­er­a­tion of Russia.

These two char­ac­ter­is­tic traits of the work­ing class today (dis­en­gage­ment from the par­ties and pas­siv­ity) are, it is true, applauded by the bour­geoisie which sees on the one hand a weak­en­ing of a rival power – Russ­ian Stal­in­ism – and on the other hand an ide­o­log­i­cal dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion of the work­ing class. In the past, the work­ers who broke with the par­ties, bypassed these par­ties through their direct action. This was the case with com­mu­nist minori­ties within social democ­racy. If the bour­geoisie delights in the pas­siv­ity of the work­ing class, we can see the dif­fi­cul­ties that this very pas­siv­ity brings about for the devel­op­ment of its own pol­i­tics. Because the dis­af­fec­tion of the work­ers from the Stal­in­ist party is at the same time a very pro­found detach­ment of the work­ing class from the dom­i­nant classes. Thus, for exam­ple, the mobi­liza­tion of the work­ers by the Stal­in­ists for a nation­al­ist demon­stra­tion against Ger­man rear­ma­ment does noth­ing, in real­ity, except rein­force nation­al­ist ide­ol­ogy, even if it finds itself led against the bour­geoisie in a cer­tain period. On the other hand, the refusal of the work­ers to mobi­lize them­selves under the watch­word “against the CED” sig­ni­fies a cer­tain rup­ture with the nation­al­ist ide­ol­ogy, which is to say, bour­geois ide­ol­ogy. This rup­ture has con­se­quences on another plane. When the bour­geoisie will try to recruit the work­ing class to its national ide­ol­ogy, for this Euro­pean army or for the main­tain­ing its dom­i­na­tion in the colonies, it will find itself faced with the very refusal of the work­ers who favored it in the pre­ced­ing case. See­ing the proletariat’s action as pos­i­tive ele­ment in itself, even if this action is com­pletely or in part led towards bour­geois objec­tives amounts to con­sid­er­ing the proletariat’s action, and the pro­le­tariat itself, as an instru­ment merely capa­ble of act­ing, with­out itself deter­min­ing its direc­tion. From such a con­cep­tion flows, for exam­ple, all the Trot­sky­ist pro­pa­ganda, which con­sists of lead­ing every work­ers’ action by sup­port­ing these actions and in try­ing to make them go beyond their frame­work, “in push­ing the movement.”

We think that the pas­siv­ity of the pro­le­tariat is pos­i­tive inso­far as it is a form of dis­en­gage­ment from bour­geois ide­ol­ogy. This is not to say that we wel­come such pas­siv­ity; the pro­le­tariat finds itself in a period where it finds its own route by shrug­ging off bour­geois and Stal­in­ist ide­ol­ogy lit­tle by lit­tle. The work­ers’ paper is pos­si­ble only inso­far as this auton­omy emerges.

The out­line of the present sit­u­a­tion in which work­ers expe­ri­ence devel­ops must how­ever be clarified.

If the work­ing class today has accu­mu­lated a cer­tain “polit­i­cal” expe­ri­ence, it is nec­es­sary to imme­di­ately trace the lim­its of this experience.

The role of the Stal­in­ist party in France was not as deeply advanced as in the coun­tries of “pop­u­lar democ­racy,” the role of the reformist union bureau­cracy is not more devel­oped than in coun­tries like Eng­land or Amer­ica. France remained mid­way between the erst­while forms of cap­i­tal­ist dom­i­na­tion and the new bureau­cratic forms. In this sense, work­ers expe­ri­ence finds itself in a very ambigu­ous sit­u­a­tion and it’s from this sit­u­a­tion that comes the dif­fi­culty of cre­at­ing a work­ers’ paper that can dif­fer­en­ti­ate itself from other polit­i­cal ten­den­cies on every plane. The work­ers’ paper will not only have to strug­gle against the new ten­den­cies of exploita­tion, the bureau­cratic ten­den­cies, it will also have to fight the pre­vi­ous forms and there it will find itself next to the Stal­in­ist or reformist forces from which it will be dif­fi­cult to delimit itself.

The work­ers’ paper will have to fight two forces:

-The power of the tra­di­tional bosses;
-The bureau­cratic forces (reformist or Stalinist);

The great major­ity of French cap­i­tal­ists are com­posed of small, pri­vate own­ers who man­age their firms them­selves. In many fac­to­ries, the unions are prac­ti­cally nonex­is­tent. The trade union mil­i­tant risks get­ting fired, there is no union bureau­cracy. The strug­gle against the employ­ers has held onto these older forms and there the work­ers will even have to aid the unions in mak­ing the bosses respect the law. Next to this, there are large fac­to­ries, pri­vate or nation­al­ized, where the union bureau­cracy played a cer­tain role in the pro­duc­tion appa­ra­tus and where the “mod­ern­ized” forms of dom­i­na­tion have sur­passed the tra­di­tional, vio­lent forms.

In par­al­lel with the diver­sity of the forms of dom­i­na­tion in French cap­i­tal­ism, one finds the diver­sity of forms of resis­tance. The fact the union bureau­cracy has not been able to play its role in France, the fact that Stal­in­ism finds itself in the posi­tion of an oppo­si­tion party, has given to these forces a char­ac­ter which is dif­fer­ent from their true role. Thus, the Stal­in­ist or union forces, instead of demand­ing to man­age soci­ety, con­tent them­selves with tak­ing over, more often than not, a pol­i­tics drawn from the tra­di­tional reformist arse­nal: par­lia­men­tarism, munic­i­pal dis­putes, etc.

In this com­plex sit­u­a­tion, the work­ers’ strug­gle against the small cap­i­tal­ist [petit patron] or the work­ers’ strug­gle against the bait­ing of the fac­tory man­age­ment, could be sup­ported by the Stal­in­ist or reformist unions. The work­ers’ strug­gle against the union bureau­cracy could be sup­ported by the fac­tory man­age­ment. The strug­gle against the reformists could be sup­ported by the Stalinists.

Only in par­tic­u­lar and really char­ac­ter­is­tic cases will the work­ers’ strug­gle against their exploita­tion simul­ta­ne­ously be a strug­gle against the employ­ers and the union bureau­cra­cies; it is over the most fun­da­men­tal issues that this strug­gle will there­fore become a real­ity on the three planes.

From this, it appears with evi­dence that the expe­ri­ence of the French work­ing class with Stal­in­ism and union bureau­cracy is a latent and incom­plete expe­ri­ence, and it’s from this that the prin­ci­pal obsta­cles to the real­iza­tion of a work­ers’ paper will arise.

The Obsta­cles

We will now try to describe the prob­lems we have encoun­tered in our prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence with the work­ers’ paper:

La Tri­bune Ouvrière.

I. The dif­fi­culty in demar­cat­ing our­selves from other forces

a) Strug­gle against the bosses

At an ele­men­tary stage, it we found that our strug­gle against cap­i­tal­ist forms of dom­i­na­tion was iden­ti­cal with that waged by Stalinism.

We can cite a few examples:

-Man­age­ment fires a worker.
-A worker is injured by the lack of proper safety measures.
-Man­age­ment sets up a fundraiser for the direc­tor general’s funeral services.

Faced with these events, what is done?

The work­ers dis­cuss; some are enraged; oth­ers are pas­sive; oth­ers finally accept and, even jus­tify, the con­duct of the management.

The reac­tion of the most con­scious work­ers is to protest these kinds of things. They want to talk, to make oth­ers under­stand, and that is jus­ti­fied. But it is impos­si­ble to talk about these things in a way that is dif­fer­ent from the Stal­in­ists, unless they tie these three events to some polit­i­cal ques­tion. The only way to demar­cate our­selves would be to deepen these facts by return­ing them to the course of his­tory. Tak­ing the third case for exam­ple: “you are out­raged by the fundraiser for the direc­tor, yet in a given year you glo­rify him.” But already the dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion seems arti­fi­cial and in bad faith. One can respond that for­merly the com­mu­nist party made mis­takes, etc.

b) The strug­gle against Stalinism

The cap­i­tal­ist in France is anti-Stalinist these days. We have already spo­ken about the anti-Stalinist ten­den­cies rep­re­sented by the FO unions, Chris­t­ian or Gaullist. The neces­sity of dis­tin­guish­ing our­selves is incon­testable, but some­times dif­fi­cult. Examples:

-The CGT demands a moment of silence to com­mem­o­rate the death of Stalin.
-The CGT demands to hold an action to defend a cam­paign against rear­ma­ment or the release of Duclos.
-The CGT calls a warn­ing strike [grève d’avertissement] doomed to fail­ure from the start. The work­ers find them­selves split into two blocs, this split does not often rep­re­sent a delim­i­ta­tion based on posi­tions in the class struggle.

Some work­ers go on strike because, for them, the strike is a way of oppos­ing their exploita­tion: “Every­thing that is against the boss is for the worker.” Oth­ers, on the other hand, don’t go on strike, even if they still share Stal­in­ist ideas about Rus­sia, because the strike requires effort, sac­ri­fice, a risk they are not will­ing take, because they are afraid of the super­vi­sors, because they want to ingra­ti­ate them­selves with the man­age­ment. When a split hap­pens in this way, one is right to affirm that such a split, despite its false polit­i­cal char­ac­ter, cor­re­sponds in real­ity to a split on the level of the class, a split between the brawlers and the cowards.

But in most cases the divi­sion is far more com­pli­cated. Take for exam­ple the strike of April 28, 1954. Many work­ers really saw the mys­ti­fi­ca­tion of the move­ment and the impos­si­bil­ity of its suc­cess. Oth­ers refused to go on strike to show that they no longer wanted to fol­low a union that had betrayed them. The refusal to strike was the refusal to fol­low the union lead­er­ship. Still oth­ers did not want to go on strike in order to get back at the unions that had led them, in cer­tain peri­ods, almost by force, into move­ments which they dis­ap­proved of. What posi­tion to adopt under these cir­cum­stances? Any posi­tion could be ambigu­ous. To go on strike is to leave your­self open to reproach for being a tool of the union; not going on strike is open your­self up to reproach that you defend the boss. How to avoid this ambiva­lence? We solved the ques­tion in the fol­low­ing way. We denounced the strike to all those who asked for our opin­ion, adding, how­ever, that we didn’t want to be scabs, and that we would fol­low the major­ity, while affirm­ing that those who refused to par­tic­i­pate in this strike were not nec­es­sar­ily cow­ards. We adopted a very ambigu­ous posi­tion by par­tic­i­pat­ing in the movement.

c) The strug­gle against the reformist unions

-The reformist unions agree to par­tic­i­pate in the funeral ser­vices of the fac­tory director.
-The reformist unions put together a fundraiser with the man­age­ment to help out victims.

In our crit­i­cism we find our­selves side by side with the Stalinists.

Faced with such prob­lems, the work­ers’ paper find itself before an alternative:

-either to deal with these events and to risk per­haps adding to the confusion.
-or to keep quiet about these events because they do not suf­fi­ciently per­mit us to dis­tin­guish the paper.

To not stand up to a provo­ca­tion by the man­age­ment under the pre­text that it would be impos­si­ble for us to do so with­out being able to dis­tin­guish our­selves from anti-worker forces would be the very nega­tion of a paper that must han­dle the prob­lems that con­cern the work­ers, and which must, on the other hand, cover the prob­lems that appear at the level of work­ers’ experience.

Want­ing to arti­fi­cially down­play cer­tain prob­lems under the pre­text that they are tend­ing to dis­ap­pear – the strug­gle against the pri­vate employer, for exam­ple – would be the proof of an absurd sectarianism.

We must respond to the real prob­lems that the work­ing class con­fronts every day. If his­tory were cut up into dis­tinct slices, if the world evolved accord­ing to the sin­gle rhythm, if the devel­op­ment of soci­ety were every­where uni­form, such prob­lems would not pose them­selves: but the fact that some prob­lems are fated to dis­ap­pear does not at all mean that they have dis­ap­peared, and that is why we must still respond to them.

In cer­tain peri­ods one risks, there­fore, in cre­at­ing a work­ers’ paper that will be orig­i­nal solely because its arti­cles will be finely tuned, and because it will simul­ta­ne­ously crit­i­cize the three ten­den­cies: cap­i­tal­ist, reformist, and Stalinist.

Pre­tend­ing that a work­ers’ paper can only exist when it will be able dis­tin­guish itself on every ques­tion, that one will only be able to pose the prob­lem of the work­ers’ paper in period that will have per­mit­ted the work­ing class to have acquired a far more advanced expe­ri­ence is an absur­dity; because, this period will be the period of the total­i­tar­ian dom­i­na­tion of the bureau­cracy. Then the prob­lem of the work­ers’ paper will have been bypassed, it will be unre­al­iz­able and the work­ing class will have to find other forms expression.

II. Dif­fi­cul­ties due to the pas­siv­ity of the work­ing class

The work­ing class’s rup­ture with the tra­di­tional polit­i­cal forces is not accom­pa­nied by an autonomous activ­ity; it appears that the expe­ri­ence of the work­ers in polit­i­cal par­ties or unions has worn out their desire to revolt, their need for activ­ity. And that is pre­cisely one of the obsta­cles to the appear­ance of an activ­ity as sim­ple as the edit­ing, dif­fu­sion, and financ­ing of a work­ers’ paper.

In a sit­u­a­tion of acute cri­sis between the man­age­ment and the work­ers, or between the union bureau­cracy and the work­ers, the prob­lem of the work­ers’ paper is easy to solve; when some­thing has aroused the anger or indig­na­tion of the work­ers, when the divi­sion of the work­ers expresses itself through dis­cus­sions and show­ing matches, when they form two camps – those who approve, those who crit­i­cize – the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tant only has to gather these polemics, to arrange the argu­ments, and the arti­cle is writ­ten. It will inter­est, it will cor­re­spond to an effort by the van­guard work­ers to resolve the problem.

But it’s not always like this. The antag­o­nism between the work­ers and the machine, between the work­ers and sys­tem of man­age­ment, does not always arouse a vio­lent oppo­si­tion: this antag­o­nism is like a wound that heals itself dur­ing cer­tain peri­ods. The role of the paper is not to arti­fi­cially open these wounds – it more­over does not have the power to do that; the antag­o­nism can only be born from the events them­selves. The paper can, at most, only give an expla­na­tion, try to express, and ori­ent this class antagonism.

In these peri­ods the work­ers will not expe­ri­ence the need to express them­selves and the work­ers’ paper will fall again unto a nucleus of the most con­scious, most politi­cized work­ers, but who will have the ten­dency to express their own polit­i­cal or the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lems. The work­ers’ paper will there­fore have a ten­dency to fall back into the same rut as the other papers. It will lose its inter­est, the prob­lems treated will not cor­re­spond to the con­cerns of the work­ers. The work­ers will place their trust in their com­rades, des­ig­nat­ing them to speak, to write, to think, in their place. One there­fore sees the dan­ger in such an atti­tude, which could lead the work­ers who have the trust of oth­ers to express, in turn, their per­sonal ideas, with­out relat­ing to the prob­lems of workers.

The other dan­ger is of cre­at­ing a lead­er­ship of the paper that is more and more sep­a­rated from the other work­ers; that the pas­siv­ity of some leads to a cer­tain habit by the lead­ers to decide in their place.

III. Dif­fi­cul­ties due to the oppo­si­tion of workers

We started by affirm­ing that the paper will have to reflect the level of expe­ri­ence of the work­ers. But two dif­fi­cul­ties result:

-First is to deter­mine this level;
-The sec­ond is to respond to the prob­lems that the work­ers pose at this level.

We have said that the prob­lems which inter­est the work­ers are essen­tial prob­lems that must be resolved. This is true, but it is nec­es­sary, how­ever, to add a few restric­tions to this idea – two orders of restric­tion. The influ­ence of bour­geois of Stal­in­ist ide­ol­ogy on the work­ing class: the dis­cus­sion around the elec­tion of Mendès-France for exam­ple. When the major­ity of work­ers, at the moment, still end up influ­enced by a wave of chau­vin­ism, it is obvi­ous that if we address these prob­lems, we will be in oppo­si­tion to the major­ity of workers.

At another order of ideas, one finds the prob­lems that divide the work­ers in two; for exam­ple, one worker wants to write an arti­cle that crit­i­cizes the divi­sion of labor and hier­ar­chy, but this cri­tique is solely made against his own com­rades; he shifts the blame for his con­di­tion onto his com­rades. Such a prob­lem is dealt with in a way that agrees with the man­age­ment, and it is impos­si­ble to accept it.

Thus, in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, one finds one­self before the fol­low­ing dilemma: either accept reac­tionary cur­rents in the pages of the paper, or oppose one­self to the major­ity of work­ers. It goes with­out say­ing that on this plane we have always cho­sen the sec­ond solution.

We some­times also find our­selves before the impos­si­bil­ity of respond­ing to cer­tain prob­lems. Faced with this impos­si­bil­ity, the edi­tors will have the ten­dency to replace solu­tions with dem­a­gogic arti­cles that suc­cumb to the crit­i­cism we made above about union or polit­i­cal papers. We will pro­pose a demand that will receive the approval of the work­ers, but will remain a pious vow; or else we will hurl insults towards super­vi­sors, man­age­ment, or the government.

IV. Dif­fi­cul­ties due to the enlarge­ment of the paper

The level of work­ers’ expe­ri­ence is not the same every­where; it dif­fers with pro­fes­sion, indus­trial sec­tor, cor­po­rate tra­di­tion, geo­graphic milieu. It also dif­fers for rea­sons accord­ing to the very nature of the problems.

It suf­fices for all that to refer to the polemics on the union ques­tion in order to to observe the diver­sity of prob­lems. Thus, an arti­cle con­cern­ing the O.S. on the assem­bly line at Renault will not nec­es­sar­ily inter­est, or respond to, the prob­lems of the worker of Toulouse fac­tory. The devel­op­ment of such a paper can there­fore only hap­pen in the oppo­site way of other papers; this devel­op­ment will be con­di­tioned by the growth in the num­ber of its par­tic­i­pants and edi­tors. A dilemma poses itself here, which can be dis­tilled as fol­lows: the paper must inter­est the work­ers so that they will par­tic­i­pate in it and express their own expe­ri­ence, but these work­ers will only be inter­ested in the paper if they find in it the prob­lems that them­selves deal with the expe­ri­ence that they have lived.

V. Dif­fi­cul­ties of form

Pol­i­tics, like jour­nal­ism, tends to breaks itself away from social real­ity, to become a par­tic­u­lar sci­ence. In this way, polit­i­cal and jour­nal­is­tic lan­guage tends to sep­a­rate itself from real language.

One must not think that the work­ers, when they want to express them­selves, draft an arti­cle that is free from these lit­er­ary prej­u­dices. It enters into spo­ken habits in one way and writ­ten ones in another. There­fore the arti­cles writ­ten by the work­ers are quite often stamped by this jour­nal­is­tic form, full of clichés, ready­made and inex­act for­mu­las. The work­ers most fit to write are pre­cisely those who have been most sub­jected to this jour­nal­ist influ­ence and who, ini­ti­ated into these mys­ter­ies, think they must only express them­selves in an equally tor­tu­ous way or with the help of expres­sions that are quite often incom­pre­hen­si­ble to the major­ity of work­ers. The paper’s task is there­fore also to free the work­ers from lit­er­ary prej­u­dices, to encour­age them to express them­selves in a fash­ion as sim­ple as their nat­ural form of spo­ken expres­sion. The allu­sions, images, ref­er­ences, com­par­isons can only be bor­rowed from of daily pro­le­tar­ian life. In this sense the most capa­ble of writ­ing will be both the most con­scious work­ers, the most cul­ti­vated, but also those who will be the most dis­en­cum­bered by bour­geois or Stal­in­ist ide­o­log­i­cal influence.


We have devel­oped sev­eral fun­da­men­tal ideas on the work­ers’ paper, on what it must be. We have exam­ined the prin­ci­ple obsta­cles that a paper of this type encoun­ters. In accor­dance with all of this one ques­tion poses itself:

Is a work­ers’ paper pos­si­ble today?

Pro­duc­ing a work­ers’ paper today entails a series of disadvantages.

In those peri­ods when the paper will not respond to the needs of the work­ers it risks becom­ing a paper with­out inter­est. A paper that will have no echoes among the work­ing class could dis­cour­age the few worker mil­i­tants who devote them­selves to it, los­ing them for good. But can we give up on the paper after hav­ing made it, after hav­ing earned the sup­port of the work­ers, let­ting go of it solely because dur­ing six months or more the work­ers seemed dis­in­ter­ested in it?

Can one think that the com­bat­iv­ity of the work­ers grows in a con­tin­ual way, that there aren’t peri­ods of calm and dis­cour­age­ment, even when the work­ing class pro­gresses in its experience?

In any event, in the peri­ods of work­ing class com­bat­iv­ity, can one think of mak­ing a paper from scratch, with such a for­mula, the day after tomor­row. Can one believe that, because the work­ers will have under­stood the role of Stal­in­ism and unions, they will spon­ta­neously be led to write for a paper that we put at their ser­vice? Will they not be sus­pi­cious of us as well? Would it not be bet­ter that the paper exist dur­ing the peri­ods that fol­low and pre­cede these moments?

Must we not pre­pare the most expe­ri­enced and most con­scious work­ers to become the cadres of this paper?

An inter­mit­tent paper is unthink­able and unrealizable.

What bal­ance sheet can we draw up of this expe­ri­ence that has lasted less than one year?

Despite the errors we have made with the paper, it appears that we have accom­plished our objec­tive on the four most impor­tant points.

1. The work­ers – more than fif­teen – have par­tic­i­pated in and writ­ten for this paper – the major­ity among them hav­ing never writ­ten before.

2. The sub­jects of the paper are the prob­lems of the fac­tory and the prob­lems picked up by the work­ers, and no longer the prob­lems of the bour­geoisie treated by the usual papers.

3. The paper in large part no longer com­prises only insid­ers, but even the least cul­ti­vated and least politi­cized workers.

4. The paper has sparked lively dis­cus­sions in the workshops.

We believe that this bal­ance sheet is pos­i­tive and that it allows us to con­clude that this paper must be con­tin­ued, enriched, devel­oped. But this does not only depend on us; it depends on the work­ers who are inter­ested in it.

Image thanks to Pierre J.

Daniel Mothé was a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie.

Originally posted: September 26, 2014 at Viewpoint

  • 1. It is quite obvi­ous that these two processes have been reduced here to a schema; in real­ity there exists nei­ther one nor the other as pure state. In the for­ma­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants there is always a dimen­sion of prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence, and in the for­ma­tion of van­guard work­ers there exists a dimen­sion of intel­lec­tual for­ma­tion.