The conclusion of "Storming Heaven" by Steve Wright.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 30, 2023

In defeat, workerism would endure a savage beating from its critics. Its precepts, Giorgio Bocca admonished, were more 'an intellectual drug than a serious analysis' (quoted in Scandaletti 1979: 1 70); operaismo's proponents, proclaimed another, were 'wicked teachers' who had led an entire generation astray (quoted in Nicotri 1980). Perhaps the lowest blow, because unexpected, was to come from one of the tendency's former adherents. In October 1981, Valerio Marchetti dismissed the efforts of Primo Maggio with the glib advice that henceforth those concerned with a 'dead' past should restrict themselves 'to the only trade worthy of the historian: pure and simple necrophilia':

[W]hat can we make ... of this defeated working-class ceto, which seeks here to speak of its own defeat, of its own end, of its own past, of its shattered dreams? This is a political ceto whose own relation with the present has closed definitively. For this they call themselves -militant historians. (quoted in Bermani and Coggiola 1986: 351, 353)

In assessing the often tortuous path of operaismo's efforts to understand working-class behaviour, many of its weaknesses have come to the surface. The first of these consists in its penchant for all-embracing categories that, in seeking to explain everything, too often would clarify very little. Amongst them, that of the social factory always alluded to a significant rethinking of the process of class composition, yet rarely seemed to deliver on its promises. Another is passivity, too easily conjured forth as a means to avoid facing the problem of class decomposition, a process every bit as real as that of recomposition. Most damaging of all, however, would be operaio sociale, a category that, like Negri’s use of the phrase self-valorisation,

was a very elegant instrument for synthesising a plurality of social behaviours, but which, precisely for its excessive synthetic aspect, flattened them, negating their specificity. (Battaggia 1981: 76)

Each such category had this in common: it was an ideal construct into which certain members of the tendency attempted, with considerable obstinacy and ingenuity, to force the reality of working-class composition. ln doing so, however, they were to forget one of Marx's (1913: 9) most fundamental lessons: namely, the refusal to anticipate 'results that are still to be proven'.

In many cases, such failings within workerism had been prompted by another flaw common within the tendency: political impatience. Indeed, at each crucial stage of its development - from the break with Panzieri, or the unexpected outcome of the Hot Autumn, to the rise of the Movement of '77 - many of operaismo's exponents seemed prepared to sacrifice their previous commitment to the study of the problem of class composition for a chance 'to seize the moment'. And if every such display of impetuousness was to reap no more than paltry rewards, only a minority of workerists seemed able each time to draw the appropriate conclusions.

Another of the more obvious weaknesses of Italian workerism but one which it could hardly be said to have monopolised - would be a too-narrow focus upon what Marx termed the immediate process of production as the essential source of working-class experience and struggle. On this score, at least, the majority of workerists would show themselves after 1970 as more prepared than most Italian Marxists to examine the world beyond the factory wall. Where their focus often remained restricted, none the less, was in their choice of working-class behaviours to privilege, frequently confusing those minority practices deemed most 'advanced' for the activity of the class as a whole. Such a syndrome was to be clearly identified by Marco Gazzano at the 1979 FIAT conference:

it entailed inferring our ideas on the actual composition of the class from enquiries concerning a single working-class stratum. That is, the stratum which interests us the most, the one closest to our culture and to external influences, such as from France for example. (Gazzano 1980: 15)

Similarly, Lapo Berti (1980: 32) would reflect that workerism had too often offered a 'symptomatic' reading of class composition. In other words, it tended to latch onto a particular stratum - the mass worker of mass production, for example - to the detriment of 'a more articulate, and even perhaps more contradictory, analysis of the class dynamic as a whole'.

Is it reasonable, then, to depict the records of Italian workerism, as Tronti (1978b: 16) has done, as one of 'Many flowers, little fruit'? A number of considerations would seem to mark such a judgement as unnecessarily harsh. To begin with, the tendency produced a whole series of studies that have contributed to an enhanced understanding of working-class politics: amongst others, these include Alquati's interviews at Olivetti and Mantelli and Revelli's at FIAT; Back's narrative of the IWW; Bologna's topography of the 'Tribes'. Beyond this, operaismo, and its rational component in particular, had the merit of probing issues too long ignored by the majority of its contemporaries within the Italian left. In the process, it helped to undermine 'the use of all-inclusive categories such as the working class' (Ruggiero 1987: 26). Instead, it would force attention towards an exploration of the inherently contradictory experiences of workers, whether waged or otherwise, and from this to the terms upon which their struggle to turn such contradictions against the capital relation become feasible.

As to workerism's unrelenting preoccupation with the technical composition of labour-power as a key element in the explanation of behaviour, such a standpoint can be characterised more as partial than mistaken outright. Polemicising with Bologna in 1977, Berti had presented the tendency's traditional supposition as follows:

To a determinate technical composition of labour-power, conditioned by the concrete configuration that the labour process assumes, there necessarily corresponds a system of social behaviours that, allowing for secondary socio-political factors, can be considered typical, in the sense that they tend to reproduce themselves in all the situations in which the fundamental determinants are contemporaneously given. (Berti 1978: 127-8)

As has been seen, even the homogeneity of the mass worker during the Hot Autumn could not be attributed exclusively to the question of its technical composition. By the end of the following decade, the editors of Primo Maggio had begun to probe those other determinants - gender, age, race, language, schooling, past struggles or defeats - which played their part in distinguishing the history of one ensemble of labour-powers from the next. Indeed, it might even be the case, as Francesco Ciafaloni (1980: 72) would argue, that in its efforts to comprehend FIAT's 'new starters', Primo Maggio had bent the stick too far in the opposite direction, downplaying the stamp which their encounter with the factory had left upon Gasparazzo's family.

'To know more about the workers of Turin, to know more in general about the oppressed classes, is not a small problem. It is the cultural and political problem of any left worthy of the name' (Ciafaloni 1980: 70). While such sentiments would hold decreasing appeal in the years after 1980 for Italy's notoriously 'mercurial intellectuals' (Sergio Bologna, quoted in Preve 1981: 53), they have lost none of their force in this new millennium. And if operaismo's enquiry into the FIAT workforce of the late 1970s can be seen to have brought the tendency full circle, the questions that it posed then, as two decades before, stubbornly refuse to go away (Emery 1995). Here, as Roberto Battaggia (1981: 77) has rightly argued, 'The best way to defend workerism today is to go beyond it.' Having helped to force the lock (Bologna 1979: 36) obstructing the understanding of working-class behaviour in and against capital, only to disintegrate in the process, the workerist tradition has bequeathed to others the task of making sense of those treasures which lie within.