The cusp of the new century has seen something of an upsurge of the anti-statist left in Western countries and beyond, as part of a broader movement against global capital. If much of this resurgence can rightly be claimed by various anarchist tendencies, autonomist Marxism has also encountered renewed interest of late (DyerWitheford 1999). Given that the core premises of autonomist Marxism were first developed in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s, now is an opportune time to examine their origin and development within the stream of Italian Marxism known popularly as operaismo (literally, 'workerism').
By the late 1970s, operaismo had come to occupy a central place within the intellectual and political life of the Italian left. While its impact was most apparent in the field of labour historiography, discussions concerning the changing nature of the state and class structure, economic restructuring and appropriate responses to it - even philosophical debates on the problem of needs - were all stamped with workerism's characteristic imprint (Pescarolo 1979). Nor was its influence confined simply to circles outside the Italian Communist Party (PCl), as the attention then paid to its development by leading party intellectuals - some of them former adherents - made clear (D'Agostini 1978).
None the less, workerism's weight remained greatest within the tumultuous world of Italian revolutionary politics, above all amongst the groups of Autonomia Operaia (Workers' Autonomy). As the three major political formations to the left of the PCl plunged into crisis after their disappointing performance in the 1976 national elections, Autonomia began to win a growing audience within what was then the largest far left in the West. When a new movement emerged in and around Italian universities the following year, the autonomists were to be the only organised force accepted within it. With their ascent, workerist politics, marginalised nationally for half a decade, would return with a vengeance.
Curiously, these developments then engendered little interest within the English-speaking left. While the rise of Eurocommunism in the 1970s made Italian politics topical, encouraging the translation both of Communist texts and some of their local Marxist critiques, the efforts of the workerist left were passed over in silence. Little, indeed, of workerist material had at that point been translated at all, and what was available - pertaining for the most part to operaismo's 'classical' phase during the 1960s - gave a somewhat outdated view of its development. It is not surprising, therefore, that on the few occasions when reference was made to workerism in the English language, it was often to a caricature of the Italian tendency.
Despite this, workerist perspectives did succeed in touching some sections of the British and North American left. The advocates of 'Wages for Housework', whose controversial views were to spark a lively debate amongst feminists (Malos 1980), drew many of their arguments from the writings of the workerist-feminist Maria Rosa Dalla Costa. In a similarly iconoclastic vein, the male editors of Zerowork set about reinterpreting contemporary working-class struggles in the US and abroad from a viewpoint strikingly different to those of other English-speaking Marxists (Midnight Notes 1990). Yet even these endeavours, while worthy of note in their own right, were to contain nuances quite different to those of their Italian counterparts, and could shed only limited light upon operaismo as it had developed in its place of origin.
Ironically, it would take the dramatic incarceration in 1979 of most of Autonomia's leading intellectuals for workerism to finally attract some attention in the English-speaking left. Once again, unfortunately, the image that emerged was a distorted one, focusing almost exclusively upon the ideas of one individual. Certainly, as the most intellectually distinguished of those arrested, and the leading ideologue of a major wing of Autonomia, Antonio Negri's views were of considerable importance. When operaismo was filtered via French theorists such as Deleuze and Guattari, however, as became the fashion in certain circles, the resulting melange , if not unfaithful to the development of Negri's own thought - served only to obscure the often fundamental disagreements that existed between different tendencies within both workerism and Autonomia. The paucity of translations has been remedied somewhat over the past two decades, with the appearance of anthologies such as Radical Thought in Italy (Virno and Hardt 1996), alongside some useful if brief introductory texts (Moulier 1989; Cleaver 2000). Still, the equation by English-language readers of workerist and autonomist theory with Negri and his closest associates remains a common one.
What then is workerism? Within the Marxist lexicon, it is a label which has invariably borne derogatory connotations evoking those obsessed with industrial workers to the exclusion of all other social forces. Such a broad definition, however, could be applied with equal justification to many others of the political generation of 1968, and does nothing to pinpoint the specific properties of operaismo. The latter's origins lie, rather, at the beginning of the 1960s, when young dissidents in the PCI and Socialist Party first attempted to apply Marx's critique of political economy to an Italy in the midst of a rapid passage to industrial maturity. In this they were motivated not by a philological concern to execute a more correct reading of Marx, but the political desire to unravel the fundamental power relationship of modern class society. In the process, they sought to confront Capital with 'the real study of a real factory', in pursuit of a clearer understanding of the new instances of independent working-class action which the 'Northern Question' of postwar economic development had brought in its wake (De Martinis and Piazzi 1980: v). In the words of Harry Cleaver, such a political reading:
self-consciously and unilaterally structures its approach to determine the meaning and relevance of every concept to the immediate development of working-class struggle ... eschew[ing] all detached interpretation and abstract theorising in favour of grasping concepts only within that concrete totality of struggle whose determinations they designate. (Cleaver 2000: 30)
The most peculiar aspect of Italian workerism in its evolution across the following two decades was to be the importance that it placed upon the relationship between the material structure of the working class, and its behavior as a subject autonmous from the dictates of both the labour movement and capital. This relationship workerism would call the nexus between the technical and political composition of the class. Slowly, with difficulty', Mario Tronti had Proclaimed in 1966,
[i]and in truth without much success, the Marxist camp has acquired the idea of an internal history of capital, entailing the specific '"analysis of the various determinations which capital assumes in the course of its development. This has led justly to the end of historical materialism, with its hackneyed Weltgeschichte, but is still a long way from assuming, as both a programme of work and a methodological principle in research, the idea of an internal history of the working class.(Tronti 1971: 149)
This book traces the development of the central trunk of operaismo, which passed through the experience of the revolutionary group Potere Operaio (Workers' Power). In doing so, it seeks to gauge the analytical efficacy of that tendency's most distinctive category - class composition - by measuring it against the emergence of new forms of political mobilisation during and after Italy's postwar economic 'miracle'. Rightly or wrongly, workerism saw itself engaged in an assault upon the heavens of class rule. To its mind the only valid starting point for any theory that sought to be revolutionary lay in the analysis of working-class behaviour in the most advanced sectors of the economy. More than anything else, it was to be this quest to discover the 'political laws of motion' of the commodity labour-power which came to mark workerism out from the rest of the Italian left of the 1960s and 1970s.
At its best, the discourse on class composition would attempt to explain class behaviour in terms long submerged within Marxism, beginning with that struggle against the twin tyrannies of economic rationality and the division of labour. At its worst, operaismo would substitute its own philosophy of history for that of Marx's epigones, abandoning the confrontation with working-class experience in all its contradictory reality to extol instead a mythical Class in its Autonomy. At first inextricably linked, by the 1970s these rational and irrational moments of its discourse had, under the pressure of practical necessities, separated into quite distinct tendencies. By that decade's end, workerism's project had fallen into disarray, much like those who dared to build the Tower of Babel. And while it did not end well, the grandeur and the misery of its collapse offer important insights to those who continue to seek a world without bosses.
Two decades after 1968, Paul Ginsborg (1990), Robert Lumley (1990) and others would offer fine accounts of the Italian social conflict of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the movements and outlooks bound up with it. To date, however, there has only been one book-length account of workerism as a distinctive stream within postwar Italian radical culture (Berardi 1998). Like its author, I believe that, of all the elements specific to operaismo, those relating to its thematic of class composition remain the most novel and important. Noting that for workerism this concept had come to assume the role played within Italian Communist thought by hegemony, Sergio Bologna (1977d: 61) would none the less caution that it is 'ambiguous. It is a picklock that opens all doors'. To discover how this tool was forged, and to assess the extent to which It might yet be of service, is the purpose of this book.