The End of Classe Operaia

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 15, 2011

As early as 1965, Tronti (1978a: 29) had argued that the existence of groups such as Classe Operaia was symptomatic of the labour movement’s current weakness, and could only be short-lived. Resuming this theme two years later, he was to deny that the recent round of contractual struggles posed any serious threat to capitalism. The social system based upon the accumulation of value for its own sake was young and vibrant, with most of the Third World’s population yet to be conquered by the wage relation:

The simple growth of this immense mass of individual labourpower, and within it the internal passage from proletarians to workers, will be the true challenge of the final days of the second millennium, and not the technological futurism of those who see in the automated factory all labour being transferred to machines ... (Tronti 1967a: 28)

Not only did capital continue to rely upon workers, Tronti went on, but the latter themselves still needed capital for their own growth and development as a social force. The class was neither strong enough nor mature enough to overthrow the capital relation, although it was now possible to manage the latter through the party. From the earlier strategy of workers within and against capital, and of revolutionaries within and against the party, there now followed ‘the party inside and against the state’. In fact, he believed, even a working-class use of social democracy had become possible:

Power is everything in cases such as these. Only the relations of force are decisive ... There is no solution that can be tactically excluded a priori. Tactically, all solutions are good. (Tronti 1967b: 26, 27)

As Lenin had said: ‘the revolution is a dirty affair ‘” one can’t make it with clean hands’ (ibid.: 27). By any means necessary, then - except outside the institutions of the official labour movement.

While the Northern workerists were more sanguine than Tronti about the prospects of their continued organisational autonomy, they too saw the revolutionary renovation of the historic left as an unavoidable task. As Negri would later remember in his autobiography:

Throughout those years our conviction was that, given a determinate level of consistent crises and the construction of [new] moments of organisation, the official labour movement would line up within the revolutionary process. It would be forced to. What a frightening error! How ingenuous and myopic on our part ... (Negri 1983a: 98)

None the less, the main thrust of the Northerners’ approach to political organisation continued to centre upon the need to maintain and generalise the fight within production. To their minds, the Romans’ emphasis upon entrism – at a time when the level of industrial conflict was again on the rise – was ludicrous. A full twelve months before the last issue of Classe Operaia appeared m 1967, the division into two factions had already effectively taken place, with only a handful of editors, like Alquati, maintaining a certain dIstance from both camps. Whilst this separation did not lead to their immediate rejection of the existing labour movement, nor even end their theoretical collaboration with Tronti’s inner circle, It did mark fundamental prioritising by the more radical workerists of industrial agitation over inner-party politicking. If a working-class ‘use’ of the PCI existed, then it was one that stemmed from miltant organisation in the workplace. As workerism entered a phase of ‘practical enthusiasms and theoretical depressions’ (Metropolzs 1978: 7), the hypotheses of the Classe Operaia years stood ready to be tested in the heat of conflict.