A New Use For Old Institutions

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 13, 2011

During the latter days of his involvement in Quaderni Rossi, Tronti had believed that ‘the true organic integration of the labor unions within the programmed development of capitalist society’ represented the most important threat to the struggle against capital (Tronti 1973: 109). With the decline of industrial struggle during 1964, however, he had been forced to reconsider such a view. Classe Operaia would subsequently insist that there were two sides to the union struggle,

the working-class one, namely the incessant conflict around the division between necessary labour and surplus value; and the union one, namely the constant rationalisation of capital, stimulated by labour. (Classe Operaia 1964a: 22)

Gramsci, the group claimed, had offered ‘perhaps the best definition of the permanent contractual and legislative character of the union’ in the period before the Second World War. With the emergence of social capital, however, the union’s function necessarily changed, becoming the ‘occasional opponent and permanent collaborator of the democratic structure of society’. As a consequence, any strategy of union ‘autonomy’ from the party, such as sections of the CGIL had recently proposed, could only hasten the process by which the union became ‘an increasingly organic function of capital’s plan’ (Classe Operaia 1964d: 26). If workers had consciously chosen to use the unions in their struggles of the past decade, this owed more to the PCI’s absence from the factory than any intrinsic merits possessed by the CGIL itself. Indeed, the contempt of workers for union officials was now almost as great as their ‘class hatred’ for foremen, guards and technical staff - ‘and so it will become, increasingly, in the future. But how to organise this, today, against the social boss?’ (Tronti 1971: 100). Thus, while any ‘union road to the working class’ had to be ruled out, there did exist ‘an undeniable union life to the working class’ which made its continued use a tactical necessity (Classe Operaia 1964a: 22). In such circumstances, Tronti would argue, the best approach to unions was that taken by Lenin:

[I]n certain instances, some of which are very much present, tying the union to the party via a transmission belt still seems the most practicable path for the class struggle. (Tronti 1971: 115)

The key problem was to restore political organisation to the workers. ‘There are moments’, Tronti would soon proclaim, ‘when all problems can and must be reduced to this one problem: organising the party’ (Tronti 1971: 20). At first, however, the question of the party remained an open one. Indeed, until December 1964 the need for a ‘political organisation’ was spoken of in only the vaguest of terms within the pages of Classe Operaia. According to the editorial of the June 1964 issue, both the traditional parties as well as new forms – even, in contradiction with its other pronouncements on the matter, the unions themselves – were possible organs of struggle. The primary objective of organisation, it was argued, was ‘to maintain the continuity of the open struggle’ (Classe Operaia 1964e: 1). Spontaneity, then, continued to be seen as a positive indication of the irreducible nature of the antagonism of labour to capital, of the ‘inexhaustible combativity of the working class’ (Classe Operaia 1964a: 5). All the same, there was general agreement within Classe Operaia that unless such struggles attained an explicitly political form, they would to the union level and become coherent with capital’s development.

In pondering whether their goal could be achieved outside the historic left, the group was also acutely conscious of the historic failure of earlier revolutionary Marxists to make any significant impact upon the Italian working class after the Second World War. The followers of Amadeo Bordiga had had the most success, but after a brief upsurge in the late 1940s their small party had dissolved into a number of warring factions that either returned to the political wilderness or else buried themselves away in the unions. The plight of Trotskyism had been even more bleak, reduced to eking out a semi-clandestine existence within the PCI. Neither of these fates particularly appealed to the editors of Classe Operaia; nor, for that matter, did they show any great interest in the first murmurings of Italian Maoism. Their reasons for such diffidence, beyond the vagaries of sectarian politics, were rational enough, being based on the realisation that a new organisation unable to command the support of a large slice of the working class was doomed to failure. This lesson, moreover, had been reinforced for the Venetians by their unsuccessful attempts to build workplace committees outside the official labour movement, a failure that led them temporarily to advance a more cautious approach to autonomous organisation.

Both the Northerners and Romans, then, were initially united in rejecting what they called ‘Trotskyist tactics’ and ‘Chinese dances’ (Tronti 1966: 32), even if their motives for doing so were rather different. For Tronti in particular, whose opinions had led to suspension from his local PCI section (Rossini 1980: 65), the search for a solution to the problem of political organisation had become a pressing need. Already in ‘Lenin in England’ it had been clear that, for him at least, the distance between the class and the official labour movement was no cause for celebration: the argument that the working class determined capitalist development, as radical as it seemed, only went so far. For Tronti (1971: 236), working-class struggle was like a great wave that tossed capitalist society and the class party on to the shore of a new conjuncture, spending itself in the process. From there, the initiative shifted to capital and/or the party, ‘two opposing forms with the same content’ -labour.

While such a conviction was understandable given the changed climate of the mid-1960s, it also revealed that Tronti could not conceive of the unification of the working class as a force against capital- what the workerists now began to call political recomposition -outside of a party-form. A number of other utterances appeared to belie this – for example, his argument later in ‘Marx, labour-power, working class’ that working-class power, unlike that of the capitalists, was by nature non-institutionalised, since it could exist separately from the official form of its representation (Tronti 1971: 240). At bottom, however, the thrust of his thinking presupposed avanguard party. In the essay ‘Classe e partito’, published in Classe Operaia’s issue of December 1964, Tronti’s starting point was the distance between the Communist Party and a working class which risked defeat if it confined its actions to the bounds set by capitalist accumulation. The crucial missing element, he believed, was ‘the intervention of revolutionary will’, inseparable from the ‘irreplaceable function’ of the party:

Only through a subjective, conscious intervention from above, through a material force which allows the possession and command of the system’s functioning mechanism to be destroyed; only through the social use of this force is it possible not only to foresee and anticipate the turning points in capital’s cycle of development, but also to measure, control, manage and therefore to organise the political growth of the working class, forcing it to pass via a chain of conflicts at various levels and on various occasions ... [so as ultimately] to overturn the relation between the classes, to smash the state machine. (ibid.: 112)

Perhaps Trotsky had put it more eloquently with his analogy of the party as piston and the class as steam, but the sentiment expressed here was no different. Tronti’s was a bluntly instrumentalist notion of organisation: that the PCI had tended so far to adapt itself to capitalist development did not, in his opinion, mean that it could not be used against capital in the future. With this he combined another sensibility common to orthodox Trotskyism, locating the crucial site for such a transformation within the party’s leadership. This ‘collective brain’ could re-establish a correct relationship with the class through its control of the scientific tools, the tactics and strategies necessary to manoeuvre capital into a vulnerable Situation. The slogan to be worked around, he declared, was ‘Give us the party in Italy and we will take Europe’ (ibid.: 25).

Since the revolutionary party could not reasonably expect to encompass all the experiences of the class, it would have to maintain a certain autonomy, a tension, towards the workers as towards capital. This tension, Tronti held, was embodied in the figure of the revolutionary leader, no doubt as Napoleon had embodied the world-historical idea in Hegel’s time. In ‘Marx, labour-power, working class’, Tronti was to indicate just how crucial he believed this figure to be:

Lenin practised materially that overthrow of the relation between working class and capital which in Marx was only a methodological discovery, the partisan scientific foundation of a working-class point of view on capital. After Lenin, the working class can impose practically everything on capital. With one formidable condition: if it is armed from the outside with the intervention of tactics, with the direct leadership of the party ... by itself the working class can never arrive at this, and the party arrives there only when it contains a Lenin. (Tronti 1971: 254)

Thus, despite his fierce criticisms of traditional Communist intellectuals and their disdain for the reality of the factory, Tronti’s main contribution to the struggle to overthrow the division between manual and intellectual labour was to propose instead that the intellectually trained become professional revolutionaries (Tronti 1971: 246). Not surprisingly, such an analysis attracted considerable criticism from others within the Italian new left. For Gianmario Cazzaniga, writing in the journal Giovane Critica, Tronti’s arguments recalled in their idealism ‘the positions of the young Hegelians’. Further, by locating the central contradiction in the head of the revolutionary leader, they showed themselves to be completely foreign to current debates ‘in the international Communist movement’ (Cazzaniga 1967: 33). Even Asor Rosa, one of Tronti’s closest associates in the Roman group, was to baulk at this aspect of his analysis. Instead, he told a public meeting on Operai e capitale that Tronti needed to clarify this ‘rather inexplicable or insufficient’ point which seemed to present the tactical moment as ‘the rule of the empirical, of the empiricism of the leader, whereas, vice versa, science would seem to be the total preserve of strategy’ (Asor Rosa 1967: 46).

In this manner Asor Rosa touched upon another fundamental aspect of Tronti’s discourse on politics: the relation between strategy - already embryonic within the class – and tactics, the property of the party. Such a notion remained dear to later workerists as well, with Negri citing it years later as ‘one of the most precious legacies’ of Classe Operaia. Through such a relation could be grasped not only the richness of daily struggles, but also the party’s task of drawing out, like a modern day Socrates, their revolutionary significance. According to Negri, one of the main problems with Classe Operaia had been the presence within the group of many who overvalued the tactical moment whilst simultaneously undervaluing ‘the institutional role of the Communist Party’ (Negri 1979a: 84). In Tronti’s work, however, the problem is different: there the party came to dominate both strategy and tactics as the privileged bearer of working-class science:

[A] correct relation between class and party presupposes ... this practical capacity of anticipation and of direction of the class’ movements in determinate historical situations: not only knowledge of the laws of action, but the concrete possibility of acting, in total possession of what could be called the theory and practice of the laws of tactics. In this sense the party is not only the scientific bearer of strategy, but also the practical organisation of its tactical application. The working class possesses a spontaneous strategy of its own motions and development: the party must observe it, express it and organise it. (Tronti 1971: 113)

Tronti was pessimistic as to the possibilities both of an autonomous working-class activity that could break the rhythm set by contractual struggles, and the political space available to construct a new organisation, as the continuing stagnation of the PSIUP demonstrated. It was not surprising, therefore, that Tronti’s focus shifted to the PCI’s redemption from a reformist leadership. The party function, he argued, could be performed ‘only by an already existing political organisation, and only by a party cemented to the class as such’ (Tronti 1978a: 24). The Communist Party thus had to be rebuilt as a party in the factory, so as to organise a blockage of production and therefore of profit, since ‘Whoever controls and dominates [production] controls and dominates everything’ (Tronti 1971: 235).

In light of this orientation, one of the most striking aspects of the whole Roman position within Classe Operaia would be its failure to provide any coherent structural analysis of Communist reformism. True, many pages of the journal after late 1964 were taken up with examinations of the PCI’s evolution since the 1940s. But this material was largely descriptive in its account of party policy and ideology, focusing above all upon the gradual but apparently irreversible decline of the Communist Party’s presence in the factory, and the corresponding drop in working-class membership. On occasion such dissatisfaction even filtered into PCI forums: for example, the 5th National Conference of Communist Workers of 1964, where one functionary relayed the common query of young workers: ‘What does the party do? ... The unions organise struggles and strikes – what does the party organise? Only elections?’ (quoted in Classe Operaia 1965b: 30). For Classe Operaia, the major blame for this state of affairs lay squarely with the choices made by the party leadership during the forties. At that time, when many Northern workers were still armed and in control of their factories, Togliatti had refused to work to consolidate the working class as an autonomous political force, tying it instead to the fate of a generic ‘people’. From the ‘new party’ of the early 1940s, Classe Operaia argued – indeed, right back to Dimitrov’s unveiling of the Popular Front at the Comintern 7th World Congress – a continuous thread could be traced to Amendola’s proposal for a ‘single party’ of the left. But as to the reasons which had led the leadership of the major working-class party to choose this course over a revolutionary one, Classe Operaia had nothing to say (Classe Operaia 1964f; 1964h).

Tronti and his closest associates were quite adamant that the entrism they now proposed would be profoundly different to that of previous dissident Communist groups. These, they argued, had failed because they were lacking in ‘a general perspective truly alternative to the official one’ (Tronti 1971: 25). Nor did the Romans have any sympathy for Togliatti’s successor Longo, who had publicly criticised many of Amendola’s proposals. Longo too, in his time, had called for a ‘single party’ of the left, had sanctioned the right to a ‘fair’ profit, and had toyed with dropping the PCI’s Communist label. Nor, finally, did they have much time for the party’s ‘official’ left wing around Pietro Ingrao, which they condemned for its lack of a ‘scientific vision’ of the working class and its privileging of civil society as the crucial site of struggle (Classe Operaia 1965c: 9). Indeed, the Romans were not at first even prepared to concede that the Communist Party’s reformist line might be tied either to its internal structure or to the Stalinist traditions of its past:

It is clear that we are not interested in the theme of the relations between Togliatti and Stalin, of the leading role of the USSR, of the originality or otherwise of the PCI’s line. We gladly leave it to the Trotskyists: this is not the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem lies in the relation between the PCI and the working class. (Classe Operaia 1964h: 13)

Later Tronti’s faction would be more reasonable, admitting that the question of the party’s line could not be separated from that of its structure (Artioli 1967: 4). Still, from now on the fate of the class was inseparable from that of the party, in a struggle that moved both against capital and towards the party. If Amendola’s efforts to recast the PCI as an all-embracing social democratic party proved successful, capital would finally be able to gain control of the class. While the ruling class was still not sophisticated enough to bring the PCI into the state, a ‘single party’ would be a different matter. If, on the contrary, the left of the labour movement could be regrouped so as to leave the social democrats in a minority – something never seen before in the transition to social capital – then the balance of forces would shift towards the workers (Tronti 1966: 32).

Beyond any political objections that might be raised to such a position, its most distinctive attribute was to be its patent impracticability. By 1966 the Romans were prepared to gamble everything on halting the ‘social democratisation’ of the PCI, including the existence of the journal and national group. ‘We think that in great part we have exhausted the reasons for our direct political presence’, they were to write in May of that year (Tronti 1966: 32). Yet within a party where the major left current commanded the support of perhaps 20 per cent of active members (Amyot 1981: 157), Classe Operaia’s own forces could only be considered minuscule. In addition, they were to find themselves the object of an aggressive public campaign by sections of the party leadership, which did not shy away from slander plain and Simple. ‘Who pays them?’, the Turin page of the party daily L’Unita had asked rhetorically in early 1964, while leaving its readers in no doubt that Classe Operaia’s voluminous output of publications depended upon the purse strings of big business (Minucci 1964). In the face of such vehemence, the group had been able to do little more than seek consolation in the unrest which the incident provoked within the local party (Quaderni Piacentini 1964). By 1966 Classe Operaia would be reduced to celebrating the reunification of the Socialist Party with Saragat’s PSDI (Partito Social Democratico Italiano – the Italian Social Democratic Party) as a signal both of social democracy’s marginalisation, and the temporary reprieve of the PCI and PSIUP (Classe Operaia 1966). Of all of Tronti’s closest associates, only Asor Rosa maintained – for the moment – a ruthlessly pragmatic approach to the historic parties, which he characterised as ‘now nothing more than transitory meeting places for revolutionary militants’ (As or Rosa 1966: 23).