20. An Overview

Submitted by Steven. on August 14, 2009

The following is a further contribution from Sergio Bologna, one of the editors of the journal Primo Maggio. This is a major article, which took up 2 pages of Lotta Continua, September 20th 1977. We do not pretend that this is an easy piece to understand. But its implications are so far-reaching that we have printed it anyway. In our translation we have tried to stay close to the original, while still making the piece intelligible to an English reader. In the article, Bologna is asking whether the recent difficulties of the revolutionary movement in Italy are due to contradictions in the theories, or to a defeat of the practice. The analysis is conducted firmly in Marxist terminology.


My contribution is based on the working class and the Communist Party in Milan - ie the working class and reformism.

I think we must start from the head-on confrontation between the battleground of the working class and the battleground of the capitalists - namely the refusal of work, on the one hand, and the reduction of socially necessary labour on the other.

Comrade Karl-Heinz Roth wrote a letter from prison a year ago, in which he said: "For a long time now capital has not restricted its exploitation of labour-power purely to the immediate process of production: rather (as a response to the struggles in the factory it has extended its command, with ever-higher levels of efficiency, to the entire cycle of reproduction of labour-power. This applies both to capital's specifically technological power, as well as, formally, to the extension of the wage relation." Even the reduction of socially necessary labour (reducing the amount of living labour, replacing it with machinery, automation etc) is a process which capital is enacting without necessarily passing through the immediate process of production.
To explain: If capital had tried to reduce the labour force in recent years purely and simply by using technology, it would have clashed head-on with working-class rigidity in the factories, and therefore would have accomplished very little. Of course, capital has managed to win some important battles on that front…but this has not been its most powerful weapon.
No…it has been using other weapons, more effective ones. In particular the weapon of "monetary chaos". In so doing, it has valorised labour-power to such an extent that we can say that today we have reached that stage of "destruction of the barriers of value" which Marx speaks of, so mysteriously, in some pages of the Grundrisse(t.n. for example pages 443-447 of the Penguin edition of the Grundrisse).

What happens? Well, let's say that the terms of exchange, the prices of commodities, are no longer determined by the relation between fixed capital and variable capital; notions of productivity and profit no longer make economic sense, and therefore are no longer useful for defining, for instance, a power-hierarchy between various capitalist states. Then we might say that the terms of exchange are defined instead by a series of measures that we can call monetary dictatorship - real "acts of illegality" against the law of value. At that point we can say that the process of reducing socially necessary labour is taking place outside the immediate process of production. And the accumulation of capital is happening outside the production of' 'commodities‘, strictly defined. It takes place primarily in the sphere of interest-producing capital ('capitale produttivo d'interesse'), which can operate on a terrain all its own, out of reach of the daily rigours of the battle with working class resistance. On this terrain it can regain some margins of manoeuvre which later, with the completion of the crisis-cycle, can be recycled into direct command over labour inside the factories.

The law of value 'has been systematically broken by capital itself. We find an indication of this in the fact that nowadays it is sufficient for a country to posses monetary power, for it to be classed among the "Great Powers", whereas, in the past, political power was accorded to those states which enjoyed a greater availability of technology, or greater flexibility and discipline of labour. Saudi Arabia, for instance, lacks technology and labour force (the two elements which have traditionally made up the productivity of an economic system), but nevertheless has a vital role in determining the strategic choices of international capital. Some might say that this is because Saudi Arabia has large reserves of a particular commodity - oil. This is not true. Saudi Arabia has entered the Great Power arena by virtue of the specific form which accumulation has adopted in this precise moment of history - ie, interest-producing capital, the new way of producing money as a particular commodity.

Anyway, let's return to the balance of forces that the working class had brought about prior to the onset of "monetary chaos". We are talking of a balance of power that was built around the wage. The refusal of work was organised around the wage; working class autonomy showed itself around the wage; working class organisation in the factory was fundamentally based on the wage. In fact (in the words of the Governor of the Bank of Italy) the working class had become a 'monetary authority' in its own right, because the working class was forcing capital to pay it wages whose magnitude was determined solely by the working class itself. This continued to be the case (and it's vital to understand this) even when the confrontation between labour and capital was transferred outside the immediate process of production - I'm referring to that colossal expansion of public spending, the increase of the social wage and the increase of the indirect wage, all of which enabled the working class to find "new allies" for the first time in its life (ie new political protagonists among whom women were the main - 'and perhaps only - force).

It has been this ability of the working class to extend its own monetary authority outside "the four walls of the factory, that has forced capital to adopt inflation as the means of running the system. At this point, reformism had no choice but to follow where events took it…obliged, by its senile economic formulations, to criticise inflation, and, on the other hand, forced by the working class to accept it in practice.

However, we must stress that while interest-producing capital (ie the new way to produce the money-commodity) and inflation (ie the new way of financing the factors of capital) are two tightly interlinked phenomena, each feeding the other, they are nevertheless very different politically. Their material development is radically different. In fact inflation is the form through which capital must undergo a working class offensive; interest-producing capital, on the other hand, is the form in which the working class must be subjected to accumulation in such a way that it finds it impossible to intervene or exert its power as labour-power.

So, when present-day capitalism wants to deepen the Crisis, what does it do? Mr Modigliani, interviewed in Corriere della Sera (June 10th 1977) gives us the answer: inflation must be attacked. Even if the inflation-potential of interest-producing capital is at least as high as that of wage increases. Inflation must be attacked because it represents the residual power of the working class. Inflation is the terrain on which the working class can unite with other sections of society who are pressing for higher income and better services.

Second Wind for Reformism?
A second introductory element of my analysis is the following:

Capital’s strategy is to reduce socially necessary labour; to reduce the labour force employed in the immediate process of production; and therefore to introduce massive unemployment. Now, the prolongation of workers' “authority" over wages (whether direct or indirect wages) can function as an exchange commodity. In other words, the factory working class (which is well protected and guaranteed) takes back certain amounts of the socially produced surplus value and defends the income of the non-guaranteed strata, in exchange. For a complete standstill as regards defending manning-levels. In other words, it advances on the front of distribution of income, but retreats in the face of the attack on jobs(ie it retreats in the face of the reduction of socially necessary labour which today's crisis is bringing about in the immediate process of production).

This has happened in a number of this exchange, and has been able to impose it on the working class. But this has not been the case in Italy.

This brings us to the situation in Milan. In Italy struggles against Cassa Integrazione (Note ?), against redundancy, have been a constant feature of the crisis of recent years. From a wage point of view, redundancy is not bad (at least, it's not as bad as other things). But more to the point, the redundancy schemes are masking a police operation for systematically purging left-wing cadres out of the factories. And they are also the most concrete form in which we can see the reduction of socially necessary labour taking place. Redundancy acts in the same way as introducing machinery to replace living labour: it takes away from the working class the power to make its presence felt inside the cycle of production, the power to block the cycle of production; it even takes away knowledge of the cycle of production. In the struggle against redundancies, the factory working class has expressed the highest point of a movement of resistance whose demand is to continue to function as labour-power.

So, we have a conclusion: there is a desire to continue to be labour power, to continue to have all the social powers that derive from that condition. There is an intention to prevent the destruction of the working class engaged in the immediate process of production (or rather, its reduction to a minority status in society). This desire has been, and is, part of the programme which the working class has adopted during this period of the Crisis, with all the contradictions that this implies.
It is in this arena that reformism now intervenes (regardless of whether the CP did or did not support this or that specific factory struggle against redundancies). What I want to stress here is the following point: every time the class struggle goes through a phase in which a fundamental point of the working class's programme is the attempt to preserve its own role as labour-power, then reformism represents the most concrete mediation of the interests of the working class (especially if this reformism has Leninist origins and roots). It then becomes extremely difficult to launch a frontal attack on this reformism, because it is fundamentally and integrally rooted in a given political composition of the working class. Of course, if we are only at e start of the real crisis in Italy (as Mr Modigliani maintains), then the Communist Party's reformism will be seriously put to the test. But my assessment of the nature of the Italian labour and trade union movement convinces me that reformism will attempt a new revival in relation to the workforce. Furthermore, it will re-affirm its role not through paralysis of the struggle but through the promotion of struggle.

A few weeks ago Luciano Lama of the CGIL was being heckled and booed in the Cathedral Square in Milan. If the demonstrators had actually stopped to listen to hi m, they would have heard him say that it was vital that the Trade Unions return to the grass roots - the shop stewards and area councils. Is it possible that Lama might succeed in repeating Trentin's brilliant operation in 1969, inside this new situation of a cycle of struggles whose aim is to defend labour power (and, in the last analysis, to re-affirm the validity of the laws of value)? On the other hand, might this attempt be scuttled by the CP's recent positions on trade union unification (Note, p.122), and by their lack of credibility since the Party and the Unions have repressed so many struggles? I don't have the answers to these questions. But I do predict that reformism, as a programme of defending labour power as labour power, and as a means of reaffirming the validity of the laws of value, will have a lot of political space in the coming period, and will in fact continue to represent a sizeable sector of working class interests.

A Fragmentation
Having said all that, I'll come to the heart of what I want to say.

If we agree that a fundamental part of the programme of the working class in this phase is the defence and guarantee of its own existence as labour-power, then we have to admit that this is in contradiction with the refusal of work. But there is more. We have said that capital can attack the composition of the working class, can attack its material strength and its physical numbers, even outside the immediate relations of production (ie capital can choose a terrain of struggle outside of the factory). But the refusal of work cannot organise outside the immediate process of production. Furthermore, even the workers' ability to impose their "monetary authority" both inside and outside the factory can also be interpreted as a weakness - the inability to organise the rejection of work inside the factory at the level required to be able to counter this capitalist offensive based on the reduction of socially necessary labour.

In short, the workers have won, at the level of wages, but have lost, at the level of the working week.

An example from history - not as a model for us, but to show what I mean by a defeat at the level of the working week and consequently a defeat for levels of employment: During the crisis that preceded the Spanish Civil War in the '30s, redundancies were threatened all round. A number of anarchist workers, faced with their mates losing their jobs, put a proposal to their boss, for a different organisation of the shifts, so as to absorb the same amount of workers as previously. Obviously, what was being cut down and shared out was the number of working hours, not the wage. And they could guarantee that the agreement was kept, because they were armed.

Now, if the rejection of work is not to be contradictory with the preservation of labour power in its role as labour power, it is obvious that the struggle for reducing the working week is going to have to go to lengths which are quite Utopian, considering the present state of the mode of production and the balance of power between the classes. I would say that if we want to impose a reduction of the working week such that it forces the bosses to hire new workers and maintain favourable manning levels, then we should give up
the 35 hour week, the 34 hour week etc, and start demanding a 20-hour week with no loss of pay. This is the only way that we can materially stop, from within the direct process of production, this reduction of socially necessary labour.

Here, we have to admit, there has been a defeat of the working class, a defeat which has managed to interrupt the onward march of-the mass worker.

So, we have a defeat, a historic defeat, which brings with it a lot of troubles for theory. In fact, both the crisis of the Party as an organisational form, and the crisis of theories regarding the new protagonists of the struggle, are reflections of this defeat. ( ... ) First problem: the rejection of work can no longer be presented as a form of organisation of the working class (t.n. as it once was). Rather it has become individual subjectivity - everything from absenteeism to the liberation of personal desires, from the worker who comes out as a gay, to the worker who sits and smokes dope. What has happened is that the organised forms of the rejection of work have been fragmented, and that rejection of work has now been taken up at an individual level .... but these individuals no longer have the factory as the organisational base of their political practice and their "cultural" existence: rather, they operate inside a movement (or the sum of movements) of proletarian youth, of women,
of homosexuals etc.

The best analyses of the tertiary and service sectors show this defeat of the industrial workers - a defeat which in Italy, and perhaps in Britain, has admittedly been slowed down by the rigidity of the workforce (everyone knows that in Italy whole sectors of industry are kept alive even if they are totally unprofitable ..... but then again, is profit still an economic notion?!)

Need for a Reassessment
When, in order to "save" a factory and its workforce, it becomes necessary to use the formal political parties and institutions, and when these are the only means available, it becomes even clearer that reformism has a historical role to play. It is in this context that we should discuss the history of the armed struggle in Milan, in recent years. In the early 1970s the political practice of illegality had its baptism in the big factories of Milan. Since that time
The “armed party tendency” has taken a different course, drawing on traditional theories on the building of an external leadership. But we must never forget that, in the beginning, this movement had a clear working class character, which was certainly a minority presence, but nonetheless did exist inside the large industrial estates surrounding Milan. If you want to understand the attitude of the Communist Party in Milan, you have to remember that for a long time the CP has had to confront a series of openly illegal initiatives. In fact, one of the main threads of the CP's reconstruction of its presence among the Milanese working class has been to expel all the worker militants who, even though not directly involved in the armed struggle, might have given it political cover in the factories.

But this in itself is not enough to explain the punitive behaviour of the Communist Party's stewards at Lama's recent appearance in Milan. To fully understand this we would have to take a long look at certain episodes where the revolutionary Left has not had the courage to make a clear analysis. For instance some episodes of "armed spontaneism", like the shoot-out in Via De Amicis, during and after which the Milanese Left retreated into a period of humiliating disorientation. We must say that the critique of the party as an organisational form must not end up in a situation where the individual person becomes the Party, and where juvenile behaviour can create situations that have a disastrous effect on the whole movement (especially in the face of obvious criminalisation of the struggle by the State, as exemplified by the recent arrest of the lawyers in Milan). Here is a debate in which those who have credibility should stand up and make their opinions known. For myself, I will merely say the the "critique of arms" began with working class characteristics, and only in the context can it make sense.

But now, in recent years, we have had the crisis; we have the defeat has been suffered inside the direct process of production; and we have a of the State emerging, with the Historic Compromise. It is now not enough for the "critique of arms" to simply debate the choice of forms of struggle for the future. Rather, the debate must once again start questioning all the elements that are needed for the formation of a programme - and in particular, the role of the factory working class. Do I believe that knowledge can still be of assistance to practice? I think so, at least for a limited period, as long as we start from trying to recover that knowledge which capital (in the process of reducing socially necessary labour) is daily expropriating from the working class.

We’ve had enough of ideology-merchants! Let's set to work again as "technicians", inside the theoretical framework of class composition. This job is not one for
a small group of intellectuals, but for thousands of comrades - the doctors, the technicians, the psychiatrists, the economists, the physicists, the teachers etc etc.

But there is still more to be said. We have pictured capital as tending to eliminate the workforce involved in the direct process of production. Does this mean that it is capital that carries the historic task of liberating us from exploitative wage labour, or perhaps that it is simply a question of technology, automation etc? This could lead us to the illusion that there exist "alternative technologies" capable of liberating us from wage labour, without materially eliminating the working class. This is a false dream. Once again,· we'll quote K-H. Roth:
"It is a big mistake to believe that, with the reduction of socially necessary labour, we will see the actual reduction of the real mass of working time (both waged and unwaged)! On the contrary: in no way does capital liberate labour power in the definitive sense that you imagine. Capital continually increases the ratio between unwaged labour and waged necessary labour, and at the same time it integrates the whole cycle of reproduction of labour power, and increases the amount of unwaged labour in all phase of that cycle (lower expenditure on the formation of labour-power, reduction of family benefits, destruction of the welfare state)."

The destruction of the barriers of value in the form described above is a cyclical process; the reduction of socially necessary labour is a process which is reversible, even within the direct process of production; after the crisis comes the planning of reconstruction; after capitalism comes socialism, if you like. The idea of the material extinction of the working class is an absurdity. New factories are being built; they await new workers. It is in this context that we must talk about the problem of the relationship between the working class and its "new allies". We must tackle the question of the multiplicity of political protagonists, as a political fact, not only as a mere "objective labour force wholly subordinated to the real domination of capital".

The struggle in Italy has thrown up new forms of insubordinate behaviour. On the one hand, the people who practice them must come towards the working class. But also the working class, in the direct process of production, and in the process of reproduction of itself as labour-power both inside and outside the factory, must accept the new trends of opposition and insubordinate behaviour, and make them its own. We must break down this idea. of a "separate" working class culture; we must break: down false ideas of "hegemony"; we must break down the idea of the factory as a separate political institution!

Sergio Bologna 20th Sept, 1977