6. Potere Operaio

The chapter in Steve Wright's "Storming Heaven" on the revolutionary Italian group Potere Operaio. ("Workers' Power"), active between 1967 and 1973.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 16, 2023

For the brief years of its existence, the revolutionary organisation Potere Operaio would represent a unique moment in the development of workerism. At a time when many young people in the West attempted to repeat the success of Bolshevism, the experience of the self-styled Leninists of Potere Operaio was to parallel in certain striking ways that of German ultra-leftism during the early Weimar Republic. Anti-parliamentarian, contemptuous of work within the unions, committed to an insurrectionalist perspective, the line of Potere Operaio was soon to be, as Scalzone (1980: 249) later reflected from prison, 'caught in the eye of the hurricane, like a kind of modern KAPD' [Kommunistiche Arbeiter Partei Deutschlands - the Communist Workers' Party of Germany] . And as with that fardistant organisation, the failure of Potere Operaio to realise its ambitions was to throw many of its members' central tenets into crisis. If Potere Operaio was in a very real sense the word of classical operaismo made flesh, its difficulties would also make plain the flaws in both the theory of the 1960s and the workerists' attempts to implement it.


Crisis of Class Composition

First section of the chapter on Potere Operaio in Steve Wright's "Storming Heaven".

Submitted by Fozzie on August 16, 2023

The energy and creativity of the mass worker of 1969 was to bubble over into the early 1970s as the years of 'permanent conflictuality'. It was a time when tens of thousands of working people engaged in a practical questioning of the existing organisation of labour, in the process radically transforming the form - if not vocation - of the Italian union movement. As for the generation of young workers politicised in those years - or at least the males amongst them - their mood was captured with humour and verve by the comic strip character Gasparazzo, whose adventures briefly graced the pages of Lotta Continua's daily newspaper in 1972. Gasparazzo was an immense success: a Southern migrant who loathed wage labour, militant in his outlook but wary of the official labour movement, his private world was full of uncertainties but also permanent rebellion. As such, he quickly became the emblem of the group which most faithfully embodied the best and the worst of the new politics thrown up in 1968. Like that of his organisation, Gasparazzo's outlook was a fundamentally optimistic one: despite continual setbacks, there was always an unspoken sense that ultimately his class would triumph over adversity (Del Carria 1979: 172-3).

Writing in October 1972, the leadership of Lotta Continua (1974: 2151) would reflect that, notwithstanding 'great differences in content, in style of work, in the conception of organisation', their group shared one important notion with Potere Operaio. This, they continued, was the idea that the construction of a revolutionary party was possible only on the basis of a rupture with the traditions of the Third International. If this was so in part, it was equally true that the two groups had long been divided in their respective assessments of the mass worker's prospects. For Potere Operaio, in contrast to Gasparazzo, these prospects had seemed far from bright in the immediate aftermath of the Hot Autumn. Disappointed that the combativity then expressed in the factory had not led to an explicit political challenge to capital's rule, Potere Operaio would begin not only to re-examine the relation between class composition and organisation, but to reconsider the very meaning of its central category. That sections of the Italian state were prepared to respond to class struggle with terrorist tactics, such as the December 1969 bombing of a Milan bank which left 16 people dead (Ginsborg 1990: 333-4), lent a further urgency to the project.

As with all theoretical shifts within operaismo, such a reassessment would be prompted primarily by developments in social conflict. The earliest, if faintest, of these was the political upsurge of 'Black Power' in the
American ghettoes, which the journal of POv-e had interpreted in unambiguous class terms:

American Blacks do not simply represent, but rather are, the proletariat of the Third World within the very heart of the capitalist system ... The Blacks have learned from the Vietnam War - to which they have been sent as cannon fodder - that the proletariat cannot wait indefinitely for a (white) working class like the American one, dominated as it is by reactionary (union) organisations ... Black Power means therefore the autonomous revolutionary organisation of Blacks. (POv-e 1967c: 3)

In the late 1960s, this goal was to be pursued most successfully by a Detroit-based circle of African-American activists influenced both by mavericks like James Boggs and more conventional Marxist-Leninists. During its short life their League of Revolutionary Black Workers, with which the Italian organisation established links, was to play a significant role within the local auto industry, organising 'revolutionary union movements' outside and against the traditional union structure (Gambino 1986; Georgakas and Surkin 1998). Because the Detroit experience affected Potere Operaio while the latter was still in its early factory-orientated stage, however, the problem of racism remained important for it only in so far as Black workers represented a specific stratum of the workforce. As a consequence, the workerists' defence of autonomous workplace organisations for African-Americans was to follow pragmatic lines quite alien to the nationalism that inspired many League members. Not surprisingly, Potere Operaio failed to draw any positive lessons from the work of Black militants beyond the shopfloor, arguing that the level of class struggle was superior in Europe, since on that continent migrant workers had brought the rage of the ghetto into the factory (Potere Operaio n.d.: 23). By the time that the Italian group had moved on from conceiving workplace struggles as necessarily more advanced than those in the streets, the radical wing of the Black movement in the US had largely been beaten into the ground. As a consequence, Potere Operaio was to seek the reference point for its theoretical revision in the new 'wind from the South'.

Another factor that contributed to the workerist reassessment of its class analysis was the emergence of women as collective subjects of social change. While the second wave of feminism would become a mass phenomenon rather later in Italy than in the Englishspeaking world, the 'germ of women's rebellion' (Ciuffreda and Frabotta 1975: 7) had already been present within the student movement of the late 1960s. At that time, however, neither the MS nor the extra-parliamentary left that succeeded it were to pay anything but lip service to the struggle against the oppression of women. For its part, Potere Operaio's initial approach to the problem of sexual domination emerges clearly in its February 1970 appraisal of women workers recently hired by FIAT:

Ten thousand underpaid workers make it possible for the owner to realise an enormous profit and in this way to break up the struggle for the abolition of categories ... Women are being hired by FIAT Mirafiori somehow like Blacks were hired by the Detroit auto industry in the 1930s. It is about time to stop shedding tears about women's 'equality', [which] like every lecture about civil rights is fucked up. Capital has already 'equalised' women at Mirafiori, assigning them to the assembly lines. (Potere Operaio n.d.: 53)

Betraying a certain ill grace, the article's conclusion was to accept the arrival of this new levy as a fait accompli; the real problem was how women workers might be organised in an anti-capitalist manner.

Such attitudes within the far left were to prompt small groups of female militants to establish their own circles, organising a variety of activities from discussion groups to campaigns over abortion and childcare. The most ambitious of these early attempts at womenonly organisation was Lotta Femminista, a group centred - like Potere Operaio, from which its central figures had departed by 1972 - upon the Veneta region. For Lotta Femminista, Potere Operaio's acceptance of the viewpoint of the male workforce evaded the deepseated contradictions existing within the class in favour of the male workers' hegemony:

In seeing women as the instruments of capitalist attack upon the wage, PO navigates in dangerous waters. The traditional motive for attacking the migrant worker, especially if he or she is Black (or an Italian Southerner), is that their presence threatens the conquest of the indigenous working class. It is exactly the same thing that is said of women in relation to men. The anti-racist (and thus anti-nationalist and anti-sexist) point of view, the point of view of struggle, is to discover the organisational weakness that permits the more powerful sections to be divided from those with less power. In other words, to discover the organisational weakness which, by permitting capital to plan this division, defeats us. Today this question is one of the fundamental questions that the class must confront. (Lotta Femminista 1972: 18-19)

Already on record as supporting the independent organisation of African-American workers in the US, it was a rebuke for which Potere Operaio had no answer. Lotta Femminista's most famous contribution to workerist debate, however, was Mariarosa Dalla Costa's small pamphlet The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, soon to become well-known in international feminist circles (Malos 1980). In it Dalla Costa set out to demonstrate that in performing domestic labour, women not only reduced the costs of necessary labour, but themselves produced surplus value. In doing so, she would be the first of the workerists to advance a coherent case for the claim that the extraction of surplus value could occur outside the sphere Marx had designated as the direct process of production. While glossing over the strategic implications of her argument, Potere Operaio showed itself happy to accept Lotta Femminista's demand of 'Wages For Housework' as further support for its own calls for a social wage. Even here, however, the condition of women was seen only as an addendum to the group's understanding of class composition, at best stimulating a greater interest in the problem of the reproduction of labour-power without addressing specific issues of either gender or sexuality (Potere Operaio 1971b).

Undoubtedly the greatest factor in broadening Potere Operaio's perceptions of working-class life would be the increasing restlessness of Italy's Southern population. Once again, however, the group's initial outlook was to be firmly cast in a 'factoryist' mould. The very first issue of the new Potere Operaio presented migrant workers as a vanguard force in the mass struggles,

the starting point for political work at a European level, provided you don't make the mistake of approaching them in their condition as 'immigrants', but - as was the case in Turin - within the struggle of the factory, and within the content that the struggle there proposes. (Potere Operaio n.d.: 12)

In other words, the group dismissed outright the need to confront any of the peculiar social problems facing those who had come to the city for work. Similarly, Potere Operaio's early discussion of the Mezzogiorno set out to establish agricultural labour as productive in Marx's sense of the word. Attacking what it saw as the Communist myth of a separate Southern society, a 'pre-capitalist production formation' still awaiting the promise of the Risorgimento, Potere Operaio indicated that Italian agriculture had been tied to industry for close to a century. Today the social labour involved in agriculture was identical to that at FIAT, since the factory was not simply 'a construction housing men [sic] and machines'. More daringly, the group acknowledged that capitalist relations of production could partake of a wide variety of forms in time and space. In the Italian rural sector, it believed, they had assumed forms 'of political control which utilise feudal rights: the wage as price of labour-power is paid in an underhand manner through the concession of use and the juridicial ownership of small tracts of land'. In addition to the extraction of surplus value, the key factor binding agricultural labourers to factory workers was their mobility, which for Potere Operaio was 'the novelty with the most significance and duration in the "internal history" of Southern labour-power'. Tens of thousands from the Mezzogiorno, it pointed out, had refused the misery of village life over the past 15 years; if many had later returned home, they had brought back with them new experiences and demands. As a consequence, Southerners were now increasingly inclined to demands wages rather than land as the solution to their problems, while for their part Northern workers were learning to embrace the explosiveness of proletarian violence as their own (Potere Operaio 1969a: 4, 5). In a similar fashion, migrant workers were circulating struggles within Europe and beyond, as part of an international cycle of struggle not seen since the years immediately following 1917 (Gambino 1969).

Potere Operaio's approach to the 'Southern question' demonstrated workerism's growing preparedness to make good its notion of social factory and stretch the capital relation beyond the wage. All the same, its framework was still one of a society polarised between lavoro operaio and the bourgeoisie. In their midst, there vacillated 'a congerie of social figures with indeterminate social connotations - students, white-collar workers, professionals'. Once again, the hegemony of industrial workers was not questioned. If the thread binding together the new political composition was presented as a 'minimum guaranteed wage for all labour-power', it was also held that the revolt and spontaneity of the countryside could only develop under the guidance of the class struggle and organisation of factory workers (Potere Operaio 1969a: 5).

When in the second half of 1970, part of the population of Reggio Calabria rose in revolt over proposed government changes to that city's regional status, the majority of the far left condemned the disturbances as the work of fascists. The PCI agreed with their judgement, adding its general disapproval of politically motivated violence (Bobbio 1979: 90-3). For Potere Operaio, which like Lotta Continua supported the uprising, the events possessed on the contrary 'the characteristics of a mass insurrection'. If it was true that the far right had succeeded in instrumentalising discontent there, this was because in the South 'the traditional left is defunct, the revolutionary left still absent'. Above all, the group insisted, the revolt had 'opened eyes to a mass push - widespread amongst proletarians- which presses violently against the institutions' (Potere Operaio 1972g: 2).

With the Reggio disturbances, Potere Operaio's belief that the struggles of workers engaged in the direct production of surplus value were necessarily more advanced than those of proletarians outside it collapsed completely. Much to the amusement of more orthodox leftists, Potere Operaio began to apply Lenin's distinction between political and economic struggles to its analysis of the industrial front. With the Hot Autumn, it argued, class struggle had broken free from the bounds of accumulation, snapping the link between class domination and development. By refusing to function as a mere economic factor, the mass worker had disrupted the functioning of the law of value, forcing capital to rely more and more upon the direct intervention of the state to hold the class relation together. Stopping short of the final confrontation, however, workers had become isolated in the factories, their gains whittled away by inflation and layoffs. If the militants formed in 1968-69 continued on their current path they faced a massive defeat, for the crisis was 'inevitably the crisis of the factory struggle' (Potere Operaio 197lg: 38). In such circumstances, Lenin's categories again became relevant. Economic struggles, the group explained, were defensive, tied to labour-power's efforts to improve its lot within capital, while political struggles were those which attacked the relations of production. In the prevailing conditions of crisis, the factory had become a hostile terrain for workers, and there could be no direct continuity between the two levels. Only with the conscious intervention of a party constituted 'externally but not extraneously' to the class could this qualitative leap be effected (Potere Operaio 197le: 35).

Returning in this manner to its arguments of mid-1969, Potere Operaio threw over its earlier exclusive identification of the category mass worker with the workers of the large factories. In dismissing as opportunist Manifesto's emphasis upon factory struggles, the workerist group rejected what it called 'the conception of the working class tied to the structure of production - by necessity therefore tied statistically to employment' (Potere Operaio 197lf: 38). The present crisis both proletarianised and 'de-workerised' labour-power, and whilst this process apparently confirmed the PCl's calls for a class alliance between workers and the so-called 'middle classes', in reality it pointed to an 'objective recomposition' of the class which extended far beyond the minority of productive workers:

The new political composition of the class, the connotation of the majority of employed labour as proletariat, is not given in the objectivity of the production processes, nor can it be grasped and represented in an institution, in an ideology, in the formation of a homogeneous consensus or opinion. On this terrain the stratification, the differences multiply and exercise their weight ... No, the political figure of the reunified proletariat is given only as estrangement, as antagonism, as struggle against the capitalist system, as will of destruction and as Communist programme. (Potere Operaio 1972e: 1)

Here, for the first time in operaismo's history, any necessary relationship between the labour process and class behaviour was to be denied. Revolutionary subjectivity now posed itself outside and against capital, so that the central problem of recomposition became the relation between factory workers and the growing numbers of the unemployed. The biggest danger, according to Potere Operaio, was 'factoryism', the term by which it characterised productive workers' defence of their positions at the expense of the jobless. As long as its actions remained confined to the workplace, the Italian class risked repeating the American experience of the late 1940s, when the strongly organised workers in Northen industry had been unable to prevent capital's use of unemployed Southern labourpower against them (Potere Operaio 197 lc). The solution, on the other hand, did not lie in the widespread leftist demand of jobs for the unemployed, since that would play into the hands of a class enemy only too ready to link income to employment (Potere Operaio 1972c). What was needed instead was a guaranteed or political wage for all. During the 1960s factory workers had struggled to separate wages from productivity: now the slogan of the guaranteed wage summed up a strategy to separate wages from labour, asserting the reproduction of proletarian needs over and against the requirements of capital (Potere Operaio 197la).

The most theoretically sophisticated version of Potere Operaio's new championing of the broad proletariat over factory workers was that advanced by Negri in his Crisi dello Stato-piano, the main preparatory document of the group's 3rd Conference of September 1971. Its chief source of inspiration was Marx's original 'Rough Draft of the Critique of Political Economy', written in the late 1850s as its author sought frantically to commit 'at least the fundamentals of his economic theory to paper "before the deluge"' (Rosdolsky 1977: 7).

Then only recently translated into Italian by the wotkerist Enzo Grillo, the Grundrisse (Marx 1973) already appears in Negri's reading as a pre-eminently modern text capable of anticipating the capital relation's development well beyond the era in which it was written. Not that Negri (1971: 127) believed that the 'Rough Draft' could be utilised uncritically; if Marx had displayed enormous percipience, he reasoned, it was also true that the subsequent course of capitalism demanded that certain of his categories be modified. Central to
Negri's reading of the Grundrisse was his appropriation of the category tendency, by which he understood the historical unfolding of capital's immanent contradictions as social antagonisms. The tendency was 'in no sense a necessary and ineluctable law governing reality', but rather 'a general schema' that 'defines a method, an orientation, a direction for mass political action' (ibid. : 125). In the 'Rough Draft', Marx (1973: 693) saw this passage reach fruition with the real subsumption of labour to capital, as the latter pursued 'The increase of the productive forces of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour', realised in 'The transformation of the means of labour into machinery'. For Negri, it was within this process that an understanding of the passage from a mass of individual labour-powers to a class subject in the form of a 'social individual' became possible (ibid.: 115-1 7). If capital's use of mass production had led it to empty labour of all its particularity, this measure, far from reducing workers to simple economic factors, had cut them free from all ties to their work, laying the basis for their broader, more potent unification. Hence Marx's category of abstract labour had itself become a revolutionary subject, for whom the constriction of commodity relations appeared both petty and irrational (ibid.: 1 18). Today, as a special supplement to Potere Operaio proclaimed in May 1971, the mass terrain of class conflict was nothing less than a 'proletarian assault upon social wealth' accumulated by capital (Potere Operaio 1971a).

Exactly what positive goals proletarians were pursuing in their struggle against capital had never been clear in Classe Operaia. Potere Operaio, by contrast, explicitly rejected the normative value that Marxists had traditionally assigned to the goal of labour freed from the domination of capital, replacing it with an ethic of consumption unfettered by the dictates of accumulation. Yet if such an approach stemmed from a refusal of that asceticism which many on the left hoped to impose upon working people, it also drastically simplified the problems involved in reappropriating the wealth produced under the logic of capital. At its worst, the conception of Communism and revolutionary struggle which some workerists were to develop during the 1970s can be characterised as a sort of 'capitalism without labour' (Preve 1984: 71-3). In the process they were to forget, as Lotta Continua would point out in early 1971, that 'what this society produces is not social wealth but commodities, that is wealth for the bosses and poverty for the proletarians'. In order to build a new society, Potere Operaio's critics argued, rather more was required than the simple seizure of the existing pool of commodities (quoted in Bobbio 1979: 78).

Developing its own innovative approach to the world outside the factory in its campaign to 'Take Over the City', Lotta Continua was also critical of Potere Operaio's abandonment of the central category once shared by the two groups. Writing in early 1972, Adriano Sofri accused the members of Potere Operaio of substituting the Southern unemployed for the protagonists of the Hot Autumn, by dint of a logical rigour that 'bordered on madness':

That the working class of the large factories is not only an occupational datum, but the most conscious and organised sector of the proletariat, and that it verifies this fact in struggle, no longer seems to count. That the Southern unemployed are something quite different to FIAT workers, both in terms of awareness of the social and political mechanisms of exploitation, and class unity and organisation, no longer counts either, given that both are identified with that dilated definition of the working class. Not only is the struggle of the unemployed bestowed with a positive class significance identical to that of spontaneous struggle in the factory. More than this, the struggle of the Southern proletariat or unemployed is deprived both of that formidable and decisive support which is working class organisation, and the overall strategy against the division of labour which the latter incarnates. (quoted in Della Mea 1972: 88-9)

In its reply, Potere Operaio insisted that Sofri had misunderstood the group's position: the polemic against 'factoryism' did not in any way deny 'the hegemonic function which the workers of the large factories must have - as guide, as point of reference and direction - over the entire movement' (Potere Operaio 1972b: 6). None the less, Sofri's criticisms fed upon the growing doubts which certain members of Potere Operaio - such as those, like Negri (1983: 124), sympathetic to the theme of 'Take Over the City' -were again expressing as to the relation between class composition and political project. With the resurgence in 1972 of factory-based conflict over industry contracts, which in Milan saw regular confrontations between mass pickets and carabinieri, Negri's wing of the group would return the workers of the large firms to their former privileged position within the workerist credo. In the process, such members of Potere Operaio began to question the very meaning of a revolutionary organisation that was not rooted first and foremost in the workplace.

Internal polemics were to cripple Potere Operaio as a political force in the year that preceded its dissolution in mid-1973. When the debate came to revisit the political significance of the mass worker, a handful within the group continued to push on towards abandoning all reference to the category. Writing a little before the controversy began, one such anonymous contributor to the February 1972 issue of Potere Operaio insisted that workerism had reached a theoretical dead end. In order to break free, the tendency would be forced to refuse 'blind voluntarism' and confront 'the sour taste of crisis'. Now that the traditional articulation posited by workerism between technical and political composition had assumed a 'much larger and more pregnant' form with the expansion of the capital relation beyond the factory, the old conceptual apparatus had become less and less useful (Potere Operaio 1972a: 22). In particular, they went on,

a series of simplifications once useful for us, like the 'mass worker', no longer serve. We need something that is both more and less than this. We need a figure of a proletariat which experiences the crisis, the repressive cyclical nature of production as much as prices and inflation, and on the other hand we need the figure of a proletariat which suffers exploitation throughout the entire day ... ยท(ibid.: 23)

Just what such a figure would be was not explained. Instead, the problem would have to wait until the middle of the decade and Negri's theory of the operaio sociale, the arrival of which would finally call the whole meaning of workerism into question.


Building the Armed Party?

Second part of the chapter on Potero Operaio in Steve Wright's "Storming Heaven".

Submitted by Fozzie on August 16, 2023

The mass worker believes only in real parties, credible ones ...

(Alquati 1980: 30)

Insurrection, militarisation of the movement and armed party - phrases inseparable from the ideology of Potere Operaio - would continue to haunt the workerists long after the group's demise. Having failed to link Autonomia with the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), some of the magistrates directing the '7 April 1979' case centred their investigation instead upon the common past of those detained in Potere Operaio. In doing so, their chief charge was to be that the organisation had planned an insurrection in 1971 (Ferrajoli 1981 : 54). If on closer examination this grand design would prove to be nothing more than the preparation of petrol bombs for a Milan demonstration, the new tack of the prosecution, as two of the accused were to indicate, revealed a wilful ignorance of the workerist group's whole project:

In the first place, is working-class autonomy or has it ever been in fact, an insurrectional phenomenon? The very first thing we need to do here is to clear up a misunderstanding - the one pursued by the Roman judge - that is, the resurrection of an insurrectionalist thematic that was the historical property of the 1968 group Potere Operaio. Agitation for an insurrectional perspective (which never even began to become a theory, far less an insurrectionary practice) constituted a last resort to articulate leninist goals (vieuxleninist?) on a theoretical and 'workerist' corpus, and above all, on a transformation of its referent, of the social subject of the struggles which '68 had begun to reveal in all their breadth. Potere Operaio said insurrection for the same reasons Lotta Continua said 'Take over the city' and Il Manifesto (Yes, Magri himself) put forward guerrilla warfare in the factories. The judges obviously forget, or better still, they are obliged to conceal by whatever means possible, the small detail that P.O. was the very first group to take note historically of the impractibility and inadequacy of that attempt at articulation, and to dissolve. (Negri and Ferrari-Bravo 1981: 24)

Yet in defending Potere Operaio so, Negri and Ferrari-Bravo were themselves guilty of smudging over the profound disagreements which had separated it from the other major far left organisations in Italy. In a mundane sense, what they said was perfectly true: the workerists' actual practice of violence was little different to that of thousands of other leftists. As for the dabblings of some of Potere Operaio's leadership with their own clandestine structures, these too were modest by the standards of the time (Palombarini 1982: 81-6).
Indeed, if members of Potere Operaio had not shown themselves backward in the manufacture of molotov cocktails for use against the carabinieri, neither did they possess the reputation of certain more doctrinally moderate groups for settling political differences with monkey wrenches. Ideologically too, the thematic of an unavoidable armed struggle against the state, as exemplified by the efforts of the Vietcong, was an important part of the extra-parliamentary groups' common patrimony, and one which marked them off from a PCI leadership deemed revisionist. Whilst differences within the far left as to the meaning of armed struggle then ran deep, 'on the "if'", as Scalzone (Tracee 1983: 26) would later point out, 'there were no doubts'. What did distinguish Potere Operaio, however, was its conception of insurrection as a pressing, imminent necessity. Crash or crash through was the message Potere Operaio broadcast to other revolutionaries after 1970; if 'the party of the insurrection' was not built, it argued, the only possible outcome would be 'the general defeat of the movement' (Potere Operaio 1971d: 5).

The roots of such a discourse lay in the group's pessimistic assessment of the Hot Autumn's outcome. Yet, to begin with at least, the answer to the insufficiency of 'continuous struggle' in the factory was seen to lie in the greater centralisation of existing radical working-class forces, rather than the constitution of an organisation separate from them. This task was to be entrusted to new factorybased 'political committees', through which Potere Operaio hoped to lay the basis for 'general scadenze of struggle and the class party' by channelling discontent into 'precise moments of struggle and obtainable objectives' (Finzi 1971: 37). Spurned by its half-sister Lotta Continua, Potere Operaio launched the committees in the early months of 1971 together with Manifesto, a group with which it had little in common, if not a mutual isolation from the rest of the far left (Bocca 1980: 54; Berardi 1998: 132-4). Not surprisingly, as the progeny of such mismatched parents, most of the political committees soon proved practical failures.

For the rest of the group's short existence, the majority within Potere Operaio was to reiterate again and again its diagnosis of an impotent far left, and a working class trapped in a dead end. From its beginnings with Classe Operaia, workerism's political point of reference had oscillated constantly - and not always with coherence - between the two poles of 'mass work' and the 'vanguard party'. In other words, between what it saw as the dictates of contemporary class composition, and the strictures imposed by the manoeuvring of the class enemy. By privileging the latter from the late 1960s onwards, Tronti and his associates had begun to abandon operaismo. Now, little more than a year after its formation, the group showed itself to be equally 'obsessed by the reality of the adversary' (Negri 1979a: 111), leaving those who found the solution inadequate - like Sergio Bologna (1980b: 180) and Franco Berardi (1998: 116) - little option but to depart.

The precise contours of the vanguard party visualised by Potere Operaio were to be spelt out by Negri in Crisi dello Stato-piano. Before a state 'casual and arbitrary' in its behaviour, its efforts to hold the capital relation sustained only by hatred and 'the desperate will of class survival', nothing less than a return to the Leninist problematic of insurrection could direct mass struggle towards a satisfactory conclusion. While the raw material of this process was the whole layer of militants formed within the last cycle of conflicts, the danger
existed that, in the absence of a further leap forward, this vanguard would risk 'suffocation' at the hands of 'pre-constituted levels of autonomy and class spontaneity'. If the formal structure of the party would not necessarily follow the Bolshevik model, its function as the privileged subject of recomposition was not in doubt:

The vanguard has to prove capable of interpreting the mass tendency to appropriation and channelling it against the enterprise, against the factory-command that is imposed on the class ... Action by the vanguard alone is empty; action by the mass organisms alone is blind. But it is equally dangerous to attempt to merge the two moments into unified mass vanguards. (Negri 1971: 132, 133)

Despite Negri's denials (1971: 132), Potere Operaio's conception of the revolutionary party would owe more to the 'theory of the offensive' which had flourished briefly within the Communist movement of the early 1920s than to any notion held by Lenin (Cacciari 1978: 58). Embraced by both left Communists and the extremist wing of Bolshevism, condemned by Lenin himself as 'insane and harmful' (Harman 1982: 214), the strategy of forcing the pace of class struggle through the exemplary actions of the party found its most intelligent advocate in Georg Lukacs. For the latter, it represented the means to shake off 'the Menshevistic lethargy of the proletariat' (quoted in Lowy 1979: 161). Admittedly, the only significant attempt to apply it in practice - an uprising in Central Germany during March 1921 - had proved disastrous. All the same, the only thing available to those determined to ground a militant approach to class unity within the theoretical baggage of the Communist movement, whilst avoiding some variant of a United Front between existing labour organisations, was precisely the theory of the offensive. Having spurned as futile any such alliance with the historic left, it is perhaps not surprising that Potere Operaio would turn instead to such a spectacular notion of vanguard organisation. In doing so, it also rejected a third path, that of seeking the meaning of its political project within the behaviours of the class, so turning its back upon what was precisely 'the theoretical novelty of Italian
workerism' (Berardi 1998: 130).

Workerism's interest in the theory of the offensive had first been roused during Italy's creeping May, in an essay penned by Giario Daghini (1971) for the September 1968 issue of Aut Aut. While this initial discussion of the question failed to separate the elements specific to the theory from a more general discourse upon the necessity of revolutionary violence, this was no longer so in 1971, when Potere Operaio stated explicitly:

If the crisis of autonomy before the bosses' attack prevents us from assuming the permanency of significant levels of attack on the part of the autonomous behaviours of the workers' struggle, then
the problem of shifting the relations of force in favour of the working class can only be resolved, from the beginning, by the hypothesis and realisation of instruments adequate to an offensive strategy. (Potere Operai 1971d: 4)

Yet, for all the group's talk of 'acting as a party' - a slogan then shared with Lotta Continua - it would be mistaken to think that Potere Operaio genuinely believed that it could undertake such a project alone. For one thing, the group, with perhaps three or four thousand militants to its name, continued to lag behind the other nationally based organisations in both size and influence. Most of its members, furthermore, were still concentrated in the traditional strongholds of Rome and the Veneta, outside which, as Scalzone was to report from Milan in December 1970, the climate was all too frequently 'hostile, inhospitable, icy, lukewarm? Certainly little enthusiasm (for us)' (quoted in Bacca 1980: SS). Conscious of such limitations, Negri's intervention at the 1971 conference was to demonstrate a realism singularly lacking in his preparatory document:

When we say that we are not a party, we are saying that we are not a weapon adequate to the conquest of power, that we are not capable, today, of this ... Comrades, saying this raises all the difficulties of the things to be done ... the difficulties that derive from the discrepancy between the tempo of organisation and that of the clash ... (quoted in Scarpari 1979: 269)

Looking back in 1979, Bologna would argue that 'for the intermediary and rank-and-file cadre in Potere Operaio, the primary reference always remained the armed party rather than the composition of the class' (quoted in Galante 1981: 482). While this insight does much to explain the group's growing loss of contact with political reality, it is not the whole picture. At least until the middle of 1972, when the activity of undergound formations began to proliferate, Potere Operaio envisioned the construction of the armed party as a project
embracing the 'overall movement' or the 'class left', rather than any one specific sector within it, clandestine or otherwise (Scarpari 1979: 268). Such hopes would go unrealised, however. Certainly, the early 1970s were a period of heightened class antagonism in Italy, characterised both by the open mobilisation of the forces of fascism and a growing sympathy in some government circles for an authoritarian resolution ofthe 'social question' (Ginsborg 1990: 335-7). Still, neither the rest of the left, nor any significant section of the working class itself, showed signs of taking up Potere Operaio's call. If the project of an armed party found a certain resonance within some of Milan's factories (Silj 1979; Alfieri et al. 1984), it fell largely on deaf ears elsewhere. True, the leadership of Lotta Continua responded to the changing political climate by replacing its programme to 'Take Over the City' with talk of an imminent 'general clash'. Then again, they intended by this less a convergence with Potere Operaio's catastrophist perspective, than an accentuation of those elements of physical force already present within the culture of the far left. In particular, the line of a 'general clash' meant the greater formalisation and centralisation of the stewards' organisations which all the groups had formed to protect their members from police and fascists (Cazzullo 1998: 183-97).

Polemicising later with a different 'armed party', Mario Dalmaviva would hold that

the politically motivated subjective exercise of violence, if it is not to be a simple reflection of class behaviour already present in the social confrontation, needs legitimation. Not the formal legitimation of the state, or of legislation, which is 'legitimated' by the ferocity of its adversary, but a class legitimation. Such a class legitimation comes about when a credible political project of 'changing the status quo' meets with, roots itself in, and is recognised by, a significant element of the class. (Dalmaviva 1981: 37)

Potere Operaio's failure to win any such sanction in 1972 was to prove the greatest blow to its goal of militarising the class struggle, sending the group into a turmoil from which it would never recover. In the ensuing debate, however, the perplexities which some within Potere Operaio had earlier admitted privately now came into the open, helping to clarify those differences concerning class and politics which all the talk of insurrection had swept under the carpet. At first the nuances were subtle, but over time two distinct positions were to evolve: the first advanced by Negri's wing of the organisation, intent upon reviewing the meaning of working-class autonomy and the insurrectional model; the other that of the 'partybuilders' around Piperno and Scalzone. 1972 would see Negri (1976a: 59) begin a re-reading of Lenin and the party-form adapted to the
circumstances of labour's real subsumption:

I believe that the most important thing we need to learn from Lenin is not so much abstract models or phrases, as his way of relating to the revolutionary process and to the subjectivity of the working class. We need to ask how the working class is composed today, and what need for organisation follows from its given determinate composition, a composition that is undoubtedly different from that which Lenin described. (ibid.: 31-2)

What was now needed, wrote one member of Negri's faction in June of 1972, were 'new experiences of struggle' richer than those of the far left groups. 'Only in this sense - of working-class direction of the organisation - can the problem of the unity of revolutionary forces be posed concretely' (Potere Operaio 1972h: 3). In this respect, it was suggested, a lot could be learned from the linking of factory vanguards in Lombardy by rank-and-file committees at Alfa, Pirelli and Sit Siemens (Cantarow 1972; 1973). The response to such arguments from those in the group most committed to the Leninism of What Is To Be Done? was predictable, ridiculing their opponents for ignoring the necessary mediating function of the vanguard party. Left to its own devices, these workerists claimed, working-class autonomy 'lives for and in the capitalist relations of production': only a political-military organisation committed to the destruction of the state was capable of breaking such stagnation (Potere Operaio 1973a: 3). 'The practical inefficiencies of a workers' assembly' were simply not up to such a task; in any case, the form and function of the revolutionary organisation could not be dictated by the nature of struggles, but only by the task of wresting political power from the class enemy. It was thus misleading to talk of a 'working-class leadership' as the Negri wing did, since the party was a voluntary organisation whose members entered it on the basis not of social background but commitment to Communism. Only those, in sum, who turned their back upon Leninism in favour of a view in which 'party, workers' struggles and mass movement are all fused into one sublime identity' could fail to see that 'the construction of the party is a party affair' (Potere Operaio 1973c: 3, 4).

With some justification, Piperno and Scalzone could claim that their position was consistent with the doctrine handed down from Classe Operaia, and that it was Negri who had broken with the premises upon which Potere Operaio had been founded. Such criticisms Negri accepted with aplomb, countering that the whole strategy of the extra-parliamentary groups - Potere Operaio included - had been on the wrong track since at least 1971, when

[t]he real task - of rearticulating from within itself the compactness of the newly unified strength of the working class - was transformed into an external undertaking of guidance and abstract leadership ... In the same span of time that the working-class struggle was advancing, extending and consolidating its destruction of the factory hierarchy, launching the slogan of the guaranteed wage, and beginning the first struggles on that front, the groups were mustering their attacking capacity (which was now becoming impotent and abstract because it had no bite on the mass level) into what was claimed to be an attack 'directed against the state' ... They were to be heavily defeated; the repression would find them isolated, and was able to savage them. In addition, their detachment from the class was now total: the groups were completely absent from the contract negotiations at the end of 1972. (Negri 1973c: 57)

If the two factions were to share one thing in common, it was a continuing championing of the project of armed struggle as a necessary and imminent moment in the transition to Communism. According to Negri, for example, it was not the strategy of armed struggle that should be abandoned; rather, the likes of Scalzone and Piperno were too blinkered to see that any vanguard organisation had to be 'rooted immediately within the composition of the class', since

autonomy has represented a terrain of constant innovation of political initiative, and above all it has opened up the horizon of armed struggle. (Negri 1973c: 59)

But to what exactly did such a statement refer in the Italy of the early 1970s? For Negri, two incidents sprang immediately to mind. The first had taken place in Porto Marghera where, after the failure of police attempts to break up mass pickets, a general strike had been proclaimed which saw three days of street battles before the forces of law and order finally regained control of the situation (Mariani and Ruffato 1979: 33-4). Just as Potere Operaio had dubbed Corso Traiano an 'insurrection', in Negri's hands (1973c: 57) the dramatic events of August 1970 were transformed into 'a possible model of urban guerrilla [warfare]'. Even more outlandish was his interpretation of the workers' blockade of FIAT Mirafiori in early 1973 where, following six months of struggles over the new contract, the complex had been sealed off for three days by mass pickets. The struggles of that March, in their ferocity, had brought temporary relief to those on the far left most closely bound up with the experience of Mirafiori. For one worker militant in Lotta Continua, the blockade signified 'the fulfilment of four years of struggle at FIAT'; while for Potere Operaio,

' [t]aking power' at FIAT, and in all of Turin, contains an explicit allusion to the seizure of political power and to the revolutionary programme of the abolition of wage labour. (Potere Operaio 1973d)

In Negri's opinion, the FIAT action represented nothing less than the 'general arming of the factory' which hailed the birth of the 'Mirafiori party', a party-form inseparable from the vanguards immersed in mass struggle (Negri 1973a). Once again, however, such triumphalism bore little semblance to reality. Indeed, soon it would be clear that the combativeness of the FIAT pickets stood more as a final gesture of open defiance by the protagonists of 1969 than the portent of a new wave of militancy in the large factories (Portelli 1985: 12).

If the more recent instances of unofficial factory committees quickly became the chief point of reference for Negri's faction, the other wing of Potere Operaio (1973a) looked increasingly to what it called the 'area of the party'. While it was not always clear just what forces the latter embraced, amongst them were included a number of those groups committed to the clandestine organisation of a proletarian military apparatus: above all the Brigate Rosse; to a much lesser extent, the Gruppi Armati Partigiani led by the publisher Feltrinelli. It is easy, with hindsight, to become emotive about Potere Operaio's interest in the former, but it must be remembered that in the spring of 1972 the Brigate Rosse's activities bore rather different connotations to those which they would assume after 1975. Led by militants once noted for their violent verbal attacks upon workerism, the core of the Brigate Rosse had participated in the Hot Autumn as part of a Milan-based Marxist-Leninist group well-grounded in local workplace committees, and in good standing with Potere Operaio (Balestrini and Moroni 1988: 222). Choosing to go underground in anticipation of a fascist coup, their earliest actions were largely symbolic and didactic, ranging from the incineration of cars owned by strike-breakers and fascists to the kidnapping and public humiliation of unpopular magistrates and factory managers (Silj 1979: 96-116). In turn such practices found, if not endorsement, then certainly indulgence within those sections of the Italian working class where the flame of the Resistance and present-day Third World struggles burned strong. Through such actions, which emphasised the armed group's orientation to the workplace, the Brigate Rosse were initially to strike both factions of Potere Operaio as an important anticipation of the tasks ahead. None the less, there was also a certain coolness towards them from many in Potere Operaio, suspicious that the Brigate held pretensions to monopolise the political-military functions which were by rights the property of the revolutionary movement as a whole. 'The working class is the only subject which interests us', declared an article in Potere Operaio from June 1972.

Every other form of subjectivism is only an attempt to supplant the working class ... the problem of militarisation therefore is completely subordinate to the development of mass struggle and must be directed, even in its technical aspects, by the current form of the party (the mass organisms under working-class direction) ... The military 'specific' is such only if it refers to mass struggle. To think of the militarisation of the mass movement in terms of von Clausewitz is worthy of fascists. (Potere Operaio 1972f: 3)

Deeply divided as to the significance of class behaviour and the function of political organisation, Potere Operaio collapsed in all but name by the middle of 1973. While Negri's compatriots moved off to embrace the nascent 'Area of Autonomy', their opponents attempted for a while to keep the organisation alive. Before long they too were to be drawn into Autonomia, albeit as a current with little initial sympathy for either Negri's circle or their schemas. Others still were to follow the road already taken by Tronti, Asor Rosa and Cacciari, which ultimately led to militancy within the Communist Party (Paolozzi 1980). In their own way, each of these divergent paths offered different solutions to the problems that workerism continued to ponder. In each case, however, the most valuable lesson of the 1960s - the attentive study of working-class behaviour - was to be sacrificed in a greater or lesser degree to political impatience and an increasingly rigid conceptual apparatus. As the middle of the decade approached, fewer and fewer within the political tendency which had first introduced the debate on class composition into the Italian left were to take as their starting point the vicissitudes of broad sectors of the working population itself.