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.