Sociology: A Suitable Weapon?

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 7, 2011

The weapons for proletarian revolts have always been taken from the bosses’ arsenals.(Tronti 1971: 18)

If the first great theme which Quademi Rossi appropriated from the dissident Marxism of the 1950s was that of autonomy, the second concerned the possible utility of ‘bourgeois’ sociology as a means to understand the reality of the modern working class. Indeed, what Diane Pinto (1980: 243) has called Quademi Rossi’s ‘’’parallel’’ sociology’ was to be formed precisely at the intersection between the group’s rediscovery of Capital and its examination of certain recent developments in radical social science.

While it is true that Panzieri’s openness to a critical use of sociology, like his critique of technological rationality, reveals a debt to Adorno, its direct inspiration lay much closer to home (Apergi 1978: 113-17; Meriggi 1978a: 91-116). What might loosely be termed an Italian radical sociology had already emerged after the war. This was largely confined to studies of the ‘Southern question’ which, apart from the accounts of peasant life by Ernesto De Martino, tended to present themselves primarily as works of ‘literature’ (Bermani and Bologna 1977: 10-20; Ajello 1979: 333-40). Industrial sociology, on the other hand, was relatively new in Italy. Having been imported from the US only recently in the form of ‘human relations’, the discipline was viewed with justifiable suspicion by many in the Italian labour movement (Lichtner 1975: 185; Massironi 1975: 46-57; Ajello 1979: 321-5). Exposure to the work of French writers such as Alain Touraine and Georges Friedmann helped to break down such hostility. By 1956, then, it was not uncommon for more critically minded left intellectuals to express commitment to the development of a left sociology capable of moving from literature to ‘science’ (Merli 1977: 48). Whilst the young Alessandro Pizzorno argued that too much had changed since the time of Marx and Lenin to privilege their thought within this project, for others, particularly within the PSI, the search for a meeting point between Marxism and sociology would become a serious pursuit. In its most extreme form, expressed by the Socialist Roberto Guiducci, the dissident Marxism of the 1950s went so far as to portray sociological enquiry as the means to establish a new ‘organic’ relation between intellectuals and working people, based upon the jOint production of social knowledge ‘from below’ (Merli 1977: 17-19,48-9; Apergi 1978: 111-12).

Interestingly, one of the earliest Italian instances of what would soon become known as ‘co-research’ had come from outside the labour movement altogether, in the work of the social reformer Danilo Dolci. A young professional who had abandoned his career to work amongst the Southern poor, by the mid-1950s Dolci had begun to make use of questionnaires and life stories as a means for the poverty-stricken to catalogue the wretchedness of their plight. Once a devout Catholic, Dolci’s deep religious sense left him wary of any doctrine of class struggle, even as his propensity for non-violent direct action as a weapon of popular self-emancipation brought him into continual conflict with the powers that be. Long after they themselves had rejected his populism, Dolci’s advocacy of the self-expression of the dispossessed was to remain with the group of Northern youths initially drawn to him, and later help propel a Number of them towards Quademi Rossi (Dolci 1960: 19; McNeish 1965; Negri 1983: IS, 17).

Individual life stories and interviews were also to play a central role in the work of Danilo Montaldi, who argued in 1958 that

the sociological method of interpretation is fundamentally foreign, even opposed, to the culture of reformism and Stalinism, which is based upon a fatalistic conception of progress and on the premise of a revolution from above ...(Montaldi 1944: 281)

Against a Marxism-Leninism ‘of citations’, Montaldi believed that certain sociological techniques could help in the development of revolutionary theory, which ‘must be constructed from below in praxis and social analysis’ (ibid.: 284). Such a view owed much in turn to two groups which had departed the Trotskyist camp at the end of the previous decade: in France, the organisation Socialisme ou Barbarie of Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort; in the US that of Correspondence led by Raya Dunayevskaya and C.L.R. James. Critical of the shibboleths which distinguished the Fourth International, these tiny groups devoted much of their energy in the 1950s to uncovering the authentic ‘proletarian experience’ hitherto passed over by party dogma (Lefort 1978; Binstock 1971: 140-71; Cartosio 1976). Of their many studies of working-class behaviour, the most sustained – the diary of the Renault militant Daniel Mothe, and a pamphlet on the condition of workers in the US – would find their way to an Italian audience chiefly through Montaldi’s efforts. As Maria Grazia Meriggi (1978a: 159) has pointed out, The American Worker (Romano 1972) in particular had touched upon only the outward manifestations of class behaviour. None the less, it authentically documented the deep-rooted antipathy between factory workers and even the most ‘modern’ methods of production. For Montaldi, this Correspondence publication held a special significance because it expressed,

with great force and profundity, the idea – practically forgotten by the Marxist movement after the publication of Capital Volume I – that before being the adherent of a party, a militant of the revolution or the subject of a future socialist power, the worker is a being who lives above all in capitalist production and the factory; and that it is in production that the revolt against exploitation, the capacity to construct a superior type of society, Along with class solidarity with other workers and hatred for exploitation and exploiters – both the classic bosses of yesterday and the impersonal bureaucrats of today and tomorrow – are formed. (Montaldi 1994: 501-2)

The 1960 translation of Mothe’s diary would evoke mixed feelings amongst a number of Panzieri’s group, who found its anti-Leninist bent too ‘anarchoid’ and ‘individualistic’ for their taste (Panzieri 1973: 273-4). Yet none of them could deny that the Frenchman’s reflections, along with the Correspondence studies, provided corroborative evidence of what they took to be the most important of their own discoveries. The first of these was that working-class antagonism to the capitalist organisation of labour, if often contradictory in form, was both permanent and universal. The second was that a profound ‘structural separateness’ (Bermani and Bologna 1977: 31)had come to divide the class from those bodies – parties and unions – that claimed to represent it.

That not all in the circle were enthusiastic about the marriage of sociological technique and Marxism would be evident from Panzieri’s later grumblings about the ‘diffidence’ of those ‘motivated by residues of a false consciousness, namely by residues of a dogmatic vision of Marxism’ (Panzieri 1975: 315). One such sceptic was Alquati who, as one of the few within Quademi Rossi with some professional training in the field, had come to see the use of sociology as at best a stopgap, ‘a first approximation’ to that ‘self-research’ which the autonomous organisation of the working class demanded. If anything, Alquati (1975: 54; 1994) would later charge, it was Panzieri who had transgressed, as evidenced by his predilection ‘to confide more in traditional social “science’” than the project of developing a properly Marxian reconstruction of the critique of political economy’.

Sensitive to the differences that separated him from Panzieri, Alquati none the less conceded that the insights offered by certain sociological techniques could indeed play an important part in the reinvigoration of Marxism. And as Cesare Bermani and Sergio Bologna (1977: 31) have since pointed out, Quademi Rossi’s use of interviews and questionnaires to record working-class subjectivity was, ‘even if it passed for sociology, at bottom oral history’. Of course, the uncritical use of these tools has frequently produced a register of subjective perceptions which do no more than mirror the surface of capitalist social relations (see, for example, Form 1976).

Still, members of the group were usually not so naive as to ignore the relationship between such opinions and the behaviour of those who advanced them. Nor, for that matter, did they all believe, with Lefort (1978: 142-3), that the recounting of a limited number of individual testimonies permitted a concreteness and political clarity no larger survey could hope to match. In their opinion, the registration of working-class behaviours and perceptions had a vital part to play in fostering self-activity. The descent into pure empiricism could be avoided by setting such observations within an overall framework similar to that of Marx’s own ‘Enquete Ouvriere’ of 1880, with its emphasis upon building up a composite picture of the technical and political dynamics of the workplace. Finally, like Marx, most of the journal’s editors believed that if such a project was to succeed, it must be based upon mutual trust between researchers and workers. After all, only the latter, ‘and not any providential saviours, can energetically administer the remedies for the social ills from which they suffer’ (quoted in Bottomore and Rubel 1965: 210). From this point of view, as Dario Lanzardo (1965: 1-2) would then argue, ‘co-research’ was not simply an effective means to achieve results, but the very affirmation ‘of a method of political work implicit in the general formulation of the critique of political economy’.