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.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 30, 2013

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.19 But 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.

  • 1Karl 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.
  • 2Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin, 1976), 98.
  • 3Louis Althusser, Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 65.
  • 4Marx to Domela Nieuwen­huis In The Hague,” avail­able online at
  • 5Kent 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.
  • 6For 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.
  • 8Grace 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.
  • 9Ph. Guil­laume, “L’Ouvrier amer­i­can par Paul Romano,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 1 (Mars/Avril 1949), 78.
  • 10It 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.
  • 11Marx, Cap­i­tal vol. 1, 618; Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 52.
  • 12Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 47-48.
  • 13Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 57.
  • 14Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker.
  • 15CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs, “World War II and Social Rev­o­lu­tion” in The Invad­ing Social­ist Soci­ety, avail­able online at
  • 16I.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.”
  • 17Rubin, “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.
  • 19In 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.
  • 21She 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.
  • 22Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 1.
  • 23Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker, 12.
  • 24Selma James, “A Woman’s Place” in The Power of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­nity (Lon­don: Falling Wall Press, 1972), 58, 64.
  • 25It is only Mar­tin Glaberman’s 1972 pref­ace to the pam­phlet which finally reveals that Phil Singer worked at Gen­eral Motors fac­tory in New Jer­sey.
  • 26Quoted 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.
  • 27Peter­son, “Cor­re­spon­dence,” 146.
  • 28Selma 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.
  • 29Charles 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.
  • 30Denby, Indig­nant Heart, xi.
  • 31Peter­son, “Cor­re­spon­dence,” 123.
  • 32Con­stance Webb, Not With­out Love: Mem­oirs (Lebanon, NH: Uni­ver­sity Press of New Eng­land, 2003), 266.
  • 33Romano and Stone, The Amer­i­can Worker.
  • 34James, “A Woman’s Place,” 79.
  • 35For 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).
  • 36From Work­ers’ Auton­omy to Social Auton­omy: An inter­view with Daniel Blan­chard by Amador Fernández-Savater,” avail­able online at
  • 37Philippe Guil­laume, “L’Ouvrier Amer­i­cain par Paul Romano,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 1 (Mars/Avril 1949), 78; trans­lated in this issue of View­point.
  • 38For 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.
  • 40Cor­nelius 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.
  • 42Grace Lee Boggs, Liv­ing For Change: An Auto­bi­og­ra­phy (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1998), 67.
  • 43An anony­mous ex-member of Cor­re­spon­dence quoted in Ivar Oxaal, Black Intel­lec­tu­als Come to Power (Cam­bridge: Schenkman Books, 1968), 78.
  • 44For a detailed dis­cus­sion of Lefort’s take on this prob­lem, see Stephen Hastings-King, in this issue.
  • 45Claude Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,” trans­lated in this issue.
  • 46Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”
  • 47Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”
  • 48For 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.
  • 50Mothé 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
  • 51Daniel Mothé, “Le prob­lème d’un jour­nal ouvrier,” Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 17 (juillet-septembre 1955), 30; trans­lated in this issue of View­point.
  • 52Mothé often uses the term “rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­ol­ogy” instead of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory.
  • 53Note 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.
  • 54Mothé, “Le prob­lème d’un jour­nal ouvrier,” 47.
  • 55These strin­gent qual­i­fi­ca­tions exac­er­bated the major prob­lem fac­ing this project: the unwill­ing­ness of most work­ers to write. More on this below.
  • 56The 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
  • 57For more on Henri Simon’s stance on inquiry, the work­ers’ paper, and this broader expe­ri­ence, see his con­tri­bu­tion to this issue.
  • 58Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”, 86.
  • 59For more on this con­junc­ture, see “Inter­view with Cas­to­ri­adis,” Telos 23 (Spring 1975), 135.
  • 60For 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
  • 61Daniel 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
  • 62Cor­nelius 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.
  • 63For 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).
  • 64Got­traux, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie”, 120-121.
  • 65Indeed, 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.
  • 66Claude Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.”
  • 67“Inter­view with Lefort,” 179.
  • 68“Inter­view with Lefort,” 183.
  • 69See “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.”
  • 70Cesare Casarino and Anto­nio Negri, In Praise of the Com­mon (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota, 2008), 54.
  • 71Danilo Mon­taldi, Bisogna sognare. Scritti 1952-1975 (Milano: Col­i­brì, 1994).
  • 72Ser­gio Bologna and Patrick Cun­ing­hame, “For an Analy­sis of Autono­mia – An Inter­view with Ser­gio Bologna,” avail­able online at
  • 73Mon­taldi 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).
  • 74See 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
  • 75Raniero Panzieri, “The Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery,” trans. Quintin Hoare, avail­able online at
  • 76Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, 544.
  • 77Since 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.
  • 78Panzieri, “Cap­i­tal­ist Use of Machin­ery.”
  • 79See Wild­cat, “Renascence of Operaismo,” for some inter­est­ing com­ments on Piazza Statuto in the con­text of work­ers’ inquiry.
  • 80Quoted 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
  • 81Mario Tronti, “Lenin in Eng­land,” avail­able online at
  • 82Raniero Panzieri, “Social­ist Uses of Work­ers’ Inquiry,” trans. Ari­anna Bove, eicp (2006).
  • 83Tronti, Noi operaisti, quoted in Adelino Zanini, “On the Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Ital­ian Work­erism,” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 18 (2010): 60.
  • 84Mario 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
  • 85Here of course Tronti recalls Marx’s Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme.
  • 86Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 2, trans. David Fern­bach (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 1978), 115; Tronti quotes this pas­sage in Operai e cap­i­tale, 144-5.
  • 87This is also quoted in Zanini, “Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions,” 50. Zanini’s is one of the few texts in Eng­lish which addresses Tronti’s eco­nomic analy­sis.
  • 88Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 2, 115; sec­ond sen­tence quoted by Tronti, Operai e cap­i­tale, 148-9.
  • 89Hel­mut 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).
  • 90This argu­ment is pre­sented through­out the intro­duc­tion to the essay, pages 123-43, with atten­tion to a range of Marx’s other early man­u­scripts.
  • 91Hel­mut 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.
  • 92Reichelt, “Marx’s Cri­tique,” 22.
  • 93Lefort, “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.
  • 94Com­pare 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.
  • 95Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, 415-6.
  • 96Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brew­ster (Lon­don: Verso, 1969), 74.
  • 97Intro­duced 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).
  • 98For 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).
  • 99Mario Tronti, “Towards a Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Democ­racy,” trans. Alberto Toscano, Cos­mos and His­tory, 5:1 (2009): 74.


Juan Conatz

10 years 8 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 30, 2013

Work in progress (100 footnotes!)


10 years 8 months ago

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Submitted by Spikymike on November 4, 2013

Probably common knowledge amongst some in our milieu but the specific connections between 'Socialisme ou Barbarie' and various influential figures of Italian autonomist marxism underlined some theoretical connections that I had observed in relation to the 'Worker's Inquiry' theme elsewhere. So thanks for this.

Juan Conatz

10 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Juan Conatz on January 20, 2014

Finally, after almost 3 months, finished the footnotes and reformatting on this 20,000 word monster.


9 years 8 months ago

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Submitted by kurekmurek on November 11, 2014

Juan Conatz, I really appreciate your efforts to put texts related to worker's inquiry. And you even still continue to do so, that is superb.